Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Poland in Pictures #2: Czestochowa

A portion of the Jasna Gora Monestary, located in Czestochowa, which houses the religious icon The Black Madonna painting.  Thousands of Catholics walk on foot across Poland as a pilgrimage to this location to pay homage (In 2012, 103,000 made this pilgrimage).

Inside the monestary cathedral

The Black Madonna icon, credited with various miracles ranging from the winning of battles to the crippled being able to walk.  Although it's origins are shrouded in mystery and legend, it has been associated with Poland for over 600 years.

Evidence of The Black Madonna's miracles

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Looking For Me - Beth Hoffman (Audio)

For the record, there is just no nicer person out there in this world than Beth Hoffman.  For most of us, she became a part of our lives when she published her first book "Saving Cee Cee Honeycut".  She charmed us with her words, then with her presence on and off-line.  You see her around the blogs, leaving positive comments and raving about various books, and seems like someone who would be a friend if they lived next door.

I think ALL of us held our breath when she came out with her second book.  You want nothing but the best for this woman, but what if it was just OK?  How on earth would we handle such a thing?  Luckily, none of us (and I am comfortable speaking for y'all) had to deal with that problem.  This book is ridiculously wonderful.

Synopsis:  Teddi Overman has always had a special gift, and that is seeing the beauty in all things old.  From a young age, she delighted in finding an old piece of furniture and transforming it to its former glory.  She wasn't the only gifted person in her family...her little brother Josh was nothing short of an animal whisperer, spending most of his time in the woods observing nature and rehabilitating injured animals.  But when Josh mysteriously disappears soon after Teddi moves to Charleston to start her career in antiques, an emotional blight settles over Teddi and her parents that never quite recedes.  While her parents seem to have given up on ever seeing Josh again, Teddi always has hoped for a miracle.  The trouble is, it is hard to move on with your life when you are stuck in the past.

While Teddi's missing brother is the central thread that runs through this charming story, in which we bounce back and forth in time understanding Teddi and Josh's childhood, there is an abundance of riches beyond this plot point.  Teddi's awkward relationship with her mother and discovering her mother's secrets.  Teddi's friendships with the cast of characters that are vital part of her daily life in Charleston.  Teddi's passion for her antique store, finding diamonds in the rough at estate sales, and finding the perfect person for them after restoration.  And Teddi's quest for love.  This isn't just a story of loss and grief, but one of self-discovery, closure and joy.

My thoughts:  This is one of those books you just don't want to end.  You want to sink down into it, or better yet, LIVE it.  Beth Hoffman accomplishes this by making her characters likable and real, by nestling them in a seductive little town like Charleston, and enveloping it in a warm blanket of hope and love.  She does it so well.  The closest comparison I can make would be to Marisa de los Santos's books.  You want to eat them for dessert.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't all rainbows and puppies.  There is loss and heartache in the story, but Teddi and her friends are survivors...they fight against the odds, and they have each other's backs, they have inner strength.  I also found it almost intoxicating to read about how Teddi found her calling and pursued it like a dog with a bone and made it successful.  I loved the descriptions of the nature that was Josh's passion.  His love for God's creatures touched a special place in my heart.

I also appreciated how Hoffman ends the story.  It isn't a Disney ending, but was extremely satisfying and gave my heart peace.  This is definitely one book you won't want to miss.

A few words about the audio:  Our narrator for this book was Jenna Lamia, who is a presence in the industry.  She has narrated dozens of amazing books, including Hoffman's "Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt".  She sounded a bit young for the character of Teddi, but I soon became used to her in this role and thoroughly enjoyed her interpretation of these characters.

Listening length:  12 hours and 14 minutes (368 pages)

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Conjuring (2013)

 I was particularly interested in seeing this movie (as were my kids) ever since I saw an article in EW about it's "based on a true story" origins.  Usually these types of movies are total hoaxes, made to freak out 14 year-olds.  This one, however, was given some credence based on the experiences of a real life husband and wife team of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren.  In an interview with Lorraine (Ed passed away in 2006), this was a particularly disturbing case that they encountered in the '70's that stayed with them through the decades.

In this case, the Perron family with five daughters moves into a secluded farm house, and almost immediately strange things begin happening.  Pictures fall off the wall, there is a smell of rotten meat in various rooms at night, and all the clocks stop at 3:07 in the morning, every morning.  The occurrences escalate to the children having visions of a leering woman in a nightdress, being pulled off the bed by their feet, and sounds of whispering.  Then there is that creepy, boarded up basement...

The Warrens have a reputation on the East Coast of successfully detecting paranormal infestations, so the mother of the Perron family, Carolyn, begs them to help.  They know immediately there is a serious problem in this house, and go about trying to document it so that they can get permission from the Vatican for an official exorcism.  But things take a turn for the worse before they can get a priest's help.

I thought the acting was solid...that is, for a horror flick.  Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren, has been in many great movies and received critical acclaim in "Up in the Air".  Patrick Wilson, who plays Ed Warren, is a fairly busy guy who I remember for "Little Children", "Hard Candy" and "Insidious".  There was very little character development, which is typical for this type of movie, but the actors made the best of it.

The first 3/4 of the movie was very compelling and kept things moving.  Lots of jumps and screams.  But towards the grand finale, things get manic but then are wrapped up quite a bit easier than you would expect if someone were trying to defeat a powerful demon.  Just sayin'.  I would have expected some body count, ala "The Exorcist".  Also, because this IS based on real people and a (relatively) true story, I think a couple follow-up paragraphs at the end would have been a nice touch.  Where did the Perrons go and how did they fare?  Were they in counseling forever like I would have been?

I can't leave without mentioning this damned doll "Annabelle", which I thought was terrifying.  The Warrens solved a case before meeting the Perrons where a Raggedy Ann doll was possessed.  It was promptly stashed away in a room in Warren's house where they keep all of their dangerous occult items (see the picture on the left of the real thing).  In the movie, the doll was much more sinister and was written into the movie to scare the hell out of us (the picture on the right).

By the way, it is also interesting to note that another movie called "A Haunting in Connecticut" was also based on a Warren case.

This is far from a horror classic, but it is better than most of the trash that is cranked out these days for teenage entertainment.

The Conjuring 2 is already in production.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Salon: Lazy Sunday Sandy

Hi, I'm here, I'm here!  Better late than never right?  These are the results of being on vacation.  The weather in Indiana has been SO NICE...I woke up this morning (with my windows open) to 48 degrees.  This is mind-blowing to a Floridian.  I am not going to want to hop on a plane and return to the soupy muck and reality on Tuesday.  Blah.

Throughout the week, we have been diligently working on projects for decorating for my mom and dad's 50th wedding anniversary party, which happens tonight.  I finally broke down and signed up for Pinterest, and I tentatively browsed around and found some cool ideas (I'm scared to death this website is going to suck out my soul and all my free time!).  The kids and I did take a day and visit my old haunt, Indiana Beach, which is kind of a throw-back to amusements parks in the olden days...wooden coasters, coney dogs, and fair-type rides.  And as the week progressed, my sister drove down from Minneapolis and my husband arrived for the festivities.

This week I started posting pictures from Poland, and I'll keep doing that for a few weeks until I've at least shared the highlights.  I got a lot of comments on my Zurek soup picture, so in a couple weeks I will post a recipe to make it (even though I haven't actually done it myself).  I do intend to try it as soon as I get home and get my life in order.

My reading has about gone into hibernation.  The only time I listen to audios is when I'm putting on my makeup.  (I've been running, but I'm always running with someone, so no listening time there.)  I did finally finish Lauren Oliver's "Requiem" in print, and thanks to the forever-life-saving Jill, who sent me a express package to my parent's house, I am now reading "Night Film" by Marisha Pessl.  Funny side story:  When my sister showed up Thursday, she was ALSO reading "Night Film".  This is so ironic since the book isn't even out yet!  Great minds and all that.

Even though I haven't been on the blogs all that much lately, it does seem like it is so slow out there.  Everyone must be taking breaks and having their vacations.  I do look forward to getting back into a routine, but if I were going to be brutally honest with you, I dread this back-to-school time of year.  Dread like the plague.  I just want to go to sleep and wake up about November.  Go ahead and tell me that I only have five more of these years, so I'd better appreciate it, but I will only ignore you.

Hope you all are having a great Sunday.  I look forward to catching up with you soon!    

Friday, July 26, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Creamy Ricotta

Last week I posted the recipe for Mini Calzones, which included ricotta.  And that gave me the idea...why not share my ricotta recipe?  (Well, it isn't MINE but I ripped it out of Food and Wine in November 2008 and it resides in my kitchen folder!)  Of course, it is convenient to buy your ricotta at the grocery store.  It tastes fine.  But sometimes it is fun to make your own and impress your friends and family.  It makes you seem so Martha Stewart.

And the funny thing is insanely easy to do, and tastes so much better than store-bought.  So here you go.


2 quarts whole milk, preferably organic
1 cup heavy cream, preferably organic
3 TBL white vinegar
1/2 tsp kosher salt


1.  In a medium pot, warm the milk and cream over moderately high heat until the surface becomes foamy and steamy and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the milk registers 185 degrees.  Don't let the milk boil.  Remove the pot from the heat.  Add the vinegar and stir gently for 30 seconds; the mixture will curdle almost immediately.  Add the salt and stir for 30 seconds longer.  Cover the pot with a clean towel and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours.

2.  Line a large colander with several layers of cheesecloth, allowing several inches of overhang.  Set the colander in a large bowl.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the colander.  Carefully gather the corners of the cheesecloth and close with a rubber band.  Let the ricotta stand for 30 minutes, gently pressing and squeezing the cheesecloth occasionally to drain off the whey.  Transfer the ricotta to a bowl and use at once, or cover and refrigerate.  Ricotta can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.


Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post at Beth Fish Reads.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Fifth Wave - Rick Yancey (Audio)

In my mind, the book world has an over-saturation of post-apocalyptic/dystopian YA trilogies.  I don't even read all of them because I get irritated that they all sound the same.  NOT reading them is a matter of principle at this point.  But this one came along, and it did a little seductive dance for me.  EW went nuts over it, saying that it would kick Hunger Games to the curb.  It has already been optioned for a movie.  And it involved a nasty group of aliens (versus zombies or vampires or whatever).  Then Penguin audio gave me the opportunity to upload the digital version, and I finally gave in.  I had to be in on the action.

Synopsis:  Humans never had a chance.  The first wave cut off all the lights and power.  The second wave brought a massive flood.  The third wave came in the form of a pestilence.  In the fourth wave, the survivors are picked off by Silencers.  If you have survived all that, you have every reason to be scared because the fifth wave is the worst to come.

The attack was planned long ago.  It was calculated down to the last detail, with the end goal being total annihilation of the human race.

Cassie Sullivan hasn't always been a badass.  She has transformed herself into a steely gun-toting survivalist in order to find her little brother, who was whisked off with all the other children to a "safe haven".  Who knows if he is even alive, but she has to keep her promise to him and try to locate him.  Her biggest challenge, however, is knowing who to trust.   Because The Others look just like us.

My thoughts: It seems like many people totally lost their minds over this book, based on Amazon reviews.  I would agree that it is a compelling read, but I wasn't blown away.  But I was entertained enough to continue reading the series.

The premise is strangely plausible, and therefore terrifying (Yancey DID work for the IRS at one point, so the man knows something about inspiring terror).  It isn't that hard to imagine that there is life out there that is much more advanced than us, and might view our planet as desirable to control.  Hey, if Germany can waltz into Poland because they want to, and slaughter everyone that gets in their way, why not aliens?  The world building is complex and thorough, as well as the character development.  There is action.  There is love, and the potential for a love triangle in the future books.  There is loyalty and deception and bravery and fears.  Yancey doesn't skip a beat.

So why do I not have a ticker marking down the days until the release of the second installment? It is hard to put my finger on the reason why.  It certainly isn't dumbed down for teens.  It is well-written.  Perhaps it is just that while I was entertained, nothing surprised me.  We have seen versions of this before (albeit without cold-blooded murderous aliens).  I am willing to give the series a go, though, which is a complement coming from me!

A few words about the audio production:  There were two narrators at work here...Phoebe Strole and Brandon Espinoza.  Phoebe narrated "The Time Traveler's Wife" which I loved on audio.  This narration definitely had a different feel to it - she sounded much younger.  She also appears to have some minor TV and movie experience.  This looks like Brandon's first experience with narration, but has been on TV a few times.  Both did an excellent job at portraying their characters and were enjoyable to listen to.  I hope they come back for round 2.

Listening length:  12 hours and 41 minutes (480 pages)

4 out of 5 stars


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Poland in Pictures #1: Warsaw

King Zigmund's Column, located in Castle Square, erected in 1644

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, since 1925 has contained the body of a young unidentified soldier that died in battle in 1918.

The best soup on earth that I could eat every day...Zurek.  To my knowledge, we have nothing in the US that compares.

Pillar in the Holy Cross Church...within it is the urn containing Frederic Chopin's heart.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Right Side of Wrong - Reavis Wortham

About a year and a half ago, I happened to meet Mr. Reavis Wortham at Sleuthfest here in Orlando.  He introduced himself to me and told me he would love for me to read his debut of a mystery series set in 1964 Texas.  I was totally game...I love a good mystery series and I love a great setting.  Since then, I've not only read his first novel "The Rock Hole", but his second installment called "Burrows" last summer, and now his latest "The Right Side of Wrong".

I'm not ashamed to admit, I'm hooked.  Each novel focuses on Center Springs, a small town in Texas, and on the town constable Ned and his entourage...his nephew Cody, who is next in line for his job, his wife Miss Becky, his BFF Judge O.C. Rains, and the two young-uns, Top his grandson, and Pepper his grand niece.  They are a wonderful group of characters I've come to love.  But each novel is a little different in terms of the mystery.     I was pretty excited to discover what the gang was up to this time.

Synopsis:  On a late night run to investigate a domestic disturbance, Cody is ambushed...he is shot at, wrecks his car and is left for dead.  His life is saved by an elusive stranger that has just moved into town.  Ned makes it his personal business to figure out who would want Cody dead, and it doesn't take much nosing around to flush out the culprit.  The bigger question is WHY.

The world seems to be going crazy.  Everyone is afraid of Russia and nuclear war.  Marijuana has made its appearance in their little corner of the world.  There are suicides and accidents that smell more like murder to Ned.  Is there any connection?  The answer ultimately is found in a rotten crevice of a town in Mexico, where the townsfolk are crooked and the law is even worse.  This time, Ned's going to have to put aside his respect for the law, and he's not sure if he and all those he loves will make it out alive.

My thoughts:  I may be repeating myself, but while the author spins a good story, the real attraction of this series to me are the bones within.  The mid-sixties truly come alive for me, which is fun because that is when I was born.  The party lines, the rock salt ice cream, the sense of community!  The characters are full of piss and vinegar, and have an endearing Southern way about them...the slang, the fishing, the guns.   I particularly adore Top and Pepper.  If those two aren't the spitting image of Scout and Jem!

It also seems to me that Reavis understands that there is only so much a little town like Center Springs can handle.  I am reminded of my frustration with the mystery series that takes place in Amish many cold-blooded serial murderers are running around in a place like that?  Reavis acknowledges this by throwing out a grab bag of malfeasance, but still inspires enough fear to make your heart race.  There was a scene late in this story, taking place in a Mexican prison, that got my blood pumping!

The ending lays the foundation that will transition right into the next book, and that excites me.  Keep 'em coming!

4 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 22, 2013

Monday Matinee: The Heat (2013)

Honestly when I saw the trailer for this movie, I knew I had to see it.  Yes, I could probably have given you a full blown synopsis even without knowing anything...two unlikely partners who hate each other at first but have a bonding moment and end up doing good work together, killing bad guys.  I generally like my movies a little less predictable.  But really?  What is not to like about this pair-up?  Bullock is good at ANYTHING she does.  I still, at a moment's notice, will sit and watch "While You Were Sleeping".  I love that movie.  And I fell in love with McCarthy in "Bridesmaids".  She stole that show.  Paired up, these two had some crazy good chemistry.

Not that you really need a synopsis, but here is the gist.  FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is not well-liked by her fellow agents.  She is uptight, antagonistic and competitive, but she does get the job done.  In order to receive a big promotion, she is told she must travel to Boston to solve a series of gruesome murders that are most likely drug-related.  Ashburn immediately butts heads with Boston police officer Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), who is crass and loud and unorthodox but effective at her job.  As luck would have it, the two must work together to solve Ashburn's case.  
Hilarity ensues.  We meet the family Mullins, who are very Boston, very loud and very dysfunctional.  All of them hate Shannon because she put one of her brothers in jail to save him from himself.  There is a bug-planting mission in a nightclub where Ashburn has to hoochy her straight-laced skinny butt up to get the job done.  There is a night of heavy drinking that bonds the two women.  There are loads of foul language (and some new words added to my vocabulary).  There are a couple of scenes involving knives that made me squirm.

I saw this movie with my high school girlfriends and it set the mood for our weekend.  We laughed ourselves sick, it was so funny!  In essence this is could be deemed as a raunchy chick-flick (this was directed by the same person that directed "Bridesmaids" so if you have seen that, you know what I mean).    But one of our male high school friends joined us and he loved it too.  I guess guys can tolerate chick-flicks if there are enough f-bombs!!!  If you need a fun night out, this is the movie to see.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Salon: Back in action

Hey you!  Long time no see!  It's been awhile since I've caught up with all of you.  I returned back from Poland last Sunday night, had three days to do laundry and get over the time change (still not sure if I'm there yet!), then the kids and I flew up to Indiana to see my parents.  We will be up here for a couple of weeks before we go back home, start football and prepare for the beginning of school.  So while I'm back from the land of no Internet and no clothes dryers, I'm still officially on vacation so I'm going to ease back into things.

Lack of Internet and clothes dryers aside, we did have a good time in Poland.  We spent lots of time with my husband's family, allowed his mother to stuff us with wonderful food, and caught up with their lives.  As we always do, we also try to hit a few sights while we are over there.  This time we spent a few days in Warsaw, and saw the castle and the new Warsaw Uprising Museum.  That place deserves its own was amazing.  We also went to the Jasna Gora Monastery in  Czestochowa to see one of the most famous religious icons in the world, the Black Madonna.  Thousands of people have a pilgrimage each year to see the painting.  We visited Auschwitz, which was my second time, but I really wanted my kids to see it.  And we spent a few days in Prague as well.  I have a bunch of pictures, I just have to figure out how and when to share them with you.

Up here in Indiana, we are a little more relaxed.  We visit county fairs, we see movies, eat sweet corn, and catch up with friends.  Every year I have a weekend with two other girlfriends from high school, and we do a download of the year and sometimes will get together with other classmates (this actually was the weekend of the event, and I'm sitting here in our hotel room typing this post!).  Next weekend we will be having a party to celebrate my parents 50th wedding anniversary, so that is going to be fun.

I've been busy with my reading, at least while I was in Poland.  I've read Kate Atkinson's "Life After Life", Mo Hayder's "Poppet", Lionel Shriver's "Big Brother", Marybeth Whalen's "The Wishing Tree", and "How to Break a Terrorist".  All excellent books!  I'm now in the middle of "Requiem" by Lauren Oliver.  On audio, things have been slow since I'm basically always around people.  But I did finish "The Good House" by Ann Leary and "Panorama City" by Antoine Wilson.  Right now I have just started the new IT book that everyone has been talking about called "This Town" by Mark Leibovich, the New York Times national political correspondent.  The real challenge will be getting all these reviews written!

So I will be lingering around, trying to catch up with posts for the next couple of weeks, but it will be hit or miss.  It does seem that things have been slow while I've been gone.  What have you all been up to?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Weekend Cooking: Mini Calzones Stuffed with Pepperoni, Pesto and Ricotta

 Back in April, Food and Wine featured a section on a Mario Batali Bootcamp, where Jimmy Fallon tried his hand at cooking with the big guy.  I love Batali but I can't spend too much time with him because his recipes are pretty decadent.  But a little pasta and dough is good for the soul now and again.  The one recipe in this section that made my eyes light up was the Mini Calzones.  I planned to make them a couple of times, but time got away from me, and that is one thing you need to make calzones...time.  I waited for a day when I stayed home to clean house, and just tended my dough as needed.


1/4 cup dry white wine
3/4 cup warm water
1 TBL honey
1 envelope active dry yeast
1 tsp kosher salt
1 TBL olive oil, plus more for brushing
3 cups all-purpose flour


1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
4 to 6 ounces thinly sliced pepperoni
1/4 cup prepared basil pesto
1 large egg lightly beaten with 1 tsp water
Olive oil for frying

1.  Make the dough:  In a large bowl, stir the wine, water, honey and yeast until the yeast is dissolved.  Let stand until foamy, 5 minutes.  Stir in the salt and the 1 TBL olive oil.  Add 1 cup flour and stir until a loose batter forms.  Stir in remaining 2 cups of flour until almost completely incorporated and the dough is smooth and silky, 7 minutes.  Transfer dough to a lightly oiled large bowl and brush all over with olive oil.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1 hour and 30 minutes.

2.  Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and cut into 16 equal pieces.  Roll the pieces into balls and transfer to a baking sheet.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let stand for 15 minutes.

3.  Fill the calzones:  Working with 1 ball of dough at a time, roll it out on a lightly floured work surface to a 4-inch round, a scant 1/8 inch thick.  Spoon 1 TBL of ricotta on one half of the round, then top with 2 to 4 pepperoni slices and a heaping 1/2 tsp of the pesto.  Fold the dough over to form a half moon and press the edge to seal tightly.  Crimp the edge with a fork and pinch at intervals to make pleats.  Transfer the calzone to a baking sheet and brush with egg wash.  Repeat with the remaining dough and filling to make the remaining calzones.

4.  Preheat over to 325 degrees.  In a large saucepan, heat 1 1/2 inches of oil to 350 degrees.  Fry 4 calzones at a time, turning once, until browned and crispy, 3 to 4 minutes.  Drain the calzones on paper towels and keep warm in over while you fry the rest.  Serve hot.

You can make these ahead of time through Step 3 and freeze for up to 1 month.  Let the calzones return to room temperature before frying.

A few comments:  I didn't have any pepperoni, so I sliced up some salami instead, and it worked fine.  I also used Canola Oil for frying instead of Olive Oil.  I just like the taste better.  As we were eating these, we agreed they would be extra awesome if we had some marinara to dip them in!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post at Beth Fish Reads.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fire in the Ashes - Jonathan Kozol (Audio)

One can never have enough audios, you know, so I'm always excited when I get a package 'o love from Kathy at Bermudaonion.  (Her packages are always full of audios and signed books for my Adult Literacy League auction.)  This book was in my last shipment, but I have to admit I wasn't sure if reading about poor children was going to do anything to lift my mood.  

But Kathy was passionate about this book, and assured me there was hope to be found here.  Now let's see if I can do any justice to it...

Synopsis:  Jonathan Kozol is the true definition of one person making a huge difference in the lives of those otherwise forgotten.  For his entire life, with the help of a charismatic female minister at St. Ann's Church, he has spent his time reaching out to some of the poorest families in the Bronx, listening to them and becoming their confidantes, friends, tutors and advocates.  

Over the years, he has written about these children and their circumstances...the drug and crime-ridden shelters they are forced to live in, the incompetently-staffed schools, the single parents who are busy working multiple jobs to put food on the table and can't supervise their wayward teens, the lack of resources available to these families.  Now he circles back around, sharing their fates over the last 25 years.  The ones that struggled to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles and succeeded, and the others that succumbed to constant pressure to turn to drugs and illegal activities.

Through an intimate testimony of Kozol and his downtrodden beneficiaries, it is no surprise that the author has been deemed "today's most eloquent spokesman for America's disenfranchised".    

My thoughts:  What a touching, scary, horrifying read this was.  Kozol starts off with the stories of the children who just couldn't claw their way out of ruin, no matter how much help they had.  In these stories, it was almost always the oldest child who had the biggest problems, and the problems always started in middle school.  My heart broke for their situation, for their mother or father who was raising them, and for Kozol and the other adults that gave of themselves to try to help them.  In one situation, a mother and her two children were moved to Montana, to a supportive community, and given every opportunity...good schools, a job, positive mentors.  But their past still caught up with them.  My stomach was in a perpetual cramp.

But offsetting all of this misery were the stories of hope.  The children that, once they were placed in a better school, persisted with their studies despite the fact that they were years behind their class.  Persisted through college.  The children that conquered their drug addictions.  The adults that were like a ray of sunshine everywhere they went, despite sickness, joblessness, and death in the family.  In each and every one of these success stories, however, someone took an interest to help...Kozol, the pastor, a teacher, or another caring adult.  

One thing was for certain, and that was they couldn't have done it on their own.  Our government IS FAILING THESE CHILDREN.  I don't really care who wants to blame who for not passing bills or wanting to spend the money.  If the administration cannot muster the leadership to help humanity (not just the Republicans or Democrats) understand what needs to be done, they should be shamed.  It makes me very mad.  Not one child in this country deserves this pitiful excuse for education, or lack thereof.  Anyway.   

I finished this audio with a level of respect for the author that I can barely communicate.  Loving and helping these people were his life.  He went to their parties, wrote them letters, found them sponsors for better schooling, loaned them money, and even became Godfather to one young boy.  This guy is the real deal.  

A few words about the audio production:  The narrator for this book was Keythe Farley, someone with very little experience in the audio world but appears to have made his rounds as a voice actor.  (I'm sure my son would recognize his voice from various video games.)  He did an excellent job of navigating an entire range of accents and was a pleasure to listen to.

Audiobook length:  10 hours and 56 minutes (368 pages)

5 out of 5 stars


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Carrie - Stephen King (Audio)

I've been reading Stephen King since I was in middle school, and continued right on through my adult years.  As recently as last year, I was completely blown away by 11/22/63!  The guy just keeps improving with age!  This year I jumped on board with Fizzy Jill's "The Shining" read along which was a real blast from the past, and I reread his very earliest work of short stories "Night Shift".  I'm really getting into this! So why stop?  

Ti recently listened to "Carrie" on audio, and I was compelled to do it too.  In fact, did you know this was his very first book, published in 1974?  And who doesn't love that movie with Sissy Spacek?  It sounded like good fun to me.

Synopsis:  Carrie White has always been the butt of the joke, the misfit of the class, for as long as she can remember.  Her single mother is fanatically religious and extremely protective of Carrie, which doesn't help matters.  Throughout Carrie's childhood, she has shown occasional signs of a special power...the power to move inanimate objects...particularly when she is under stress.  Then Carrie gets her first period, at the age of 17, in the showers after gym class, and panics because she thinks she is dying (her mother never explained these things to her).  The other girls humiliate and ridicule her, and this triggers a change in Carrie that takes this power to a whole new level.

One of the offending girls, Sue Snell, feels bad about her behavior in the showers that day, so she pleads with her boyfriend, the very popular Tommy Ross, to take Carrie to the prom.  Despite the violent protest from her mother, Carrie accepts, innocently assuming things are looking up.  Unfortunately, the other kids in the high school cannot let Carrie enjoy her night, and plan the ultimate prank that will result in a prom that will change everyone's lives forever.

My thoughts:  I read this book so long ago, and I am glad I experienced it again...this time with I will be fully prepared to see the new remake this October.  It is another perfect example of how King can create suspense in subtle ways (similar to "The Shining"), not by just outright scaring the bejesus out of you.  I know many people hesitate to read any of his work because they are afraid they will never sleep again, but often he is so much more craftier and more literary than that.

I think the beauty of this book is how he slowly builds up to the climax of prom night.  Throughout the story, he reveals reports, interviews and book excerpts from "after" that analyze what exactly happened and why, and only slowly and vaguely building up to the ultimate horror of the night in question.  If, as a reader, I knew nothing about the plot, this technique would have driven me mad with anticipation!  As it is though, who DOESN'T know how it ends?  The scenes from the 1976 movie starring Sissy Spacek are iconic.  

That brings me to the biggest beef I have, and that is with the movies.  Overall, I think the 1976 version is a pretty good representative of the book, with one major exception.  In the book, Carrie is described as being overweight and homely with an acne problem.  But here is how they cast the part in 1976 with Sissy Spacek and again in 2013 with Chloe Moretz (Hugo, Dark Shadows, Let Me In).   
Sissy Spacek
Chloe Moretz

Maybe it's me, but it seems like something got lost in the translation.  It is the same frustration I have when you read a book about a woman who is struggling with a weight problem, and the cover shows skinny model legs.  Do they think we won't go see a movie unless the ugly duckling is actually pretty hot?  If I were King, I wouldn't have been too happy.  That aside, Spacek took weird and made it her own, and I'm sure Moretz will do her thing as well.

A few words about the audio production:  The cherry on top of all of this is that Sissy Spacek narrates the audio.  The person who knows the material inside and out, and brings a certain nostalgia to the experience.  By the way, she narrated "To Kill a Mockingbird" and knocked it WAY the hell out of park on that one.

Audiobook length:  7 hours and 24 minutes (304 pages)

4.5 out of 5 stars     

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday Matinee: My month in Twin Peaks

 One Sunday evening in the spring of 1990, my boyfriend (now husband) and I welcomed cousin Kevin over for dinner...under one condition.  I'd have to halt all eating and chatting at 9:00pm because I had to watch Twin Peaks.  Kevin's face lit up.  He too, was in the grip of this bizarre and strangely non-commercial TV series and wouldn't think of missing it.  Back then everyone I knew was obsessed.  WHO KILLED LAURA PALMER?  It was a question on everyone's lips, just like WHO KILLED J.R.?  We stuck with the series until we were able to answer that question (about halfway through the second season), then we drifted away.  Apparently so did everyone else, because the series was cancelled after 30 episodes.  (It had to compete with the Gulf War, which didn't help.)  But sources told me I jumped ship too early.

In late May, my son told me that he'd started watching the series on Netflix, because it had been the basis upon which one of his video games was made.  My hubby and I perked up!  We'd watch it with him!  OMG, what a trip down memory lane this would be!

The show starts out with the discovery of a dead girl, wrapped in plastic, on the shores of a lake in the town of Twin Peaks.  The girl is identified as Laura Palmer...mentor of mentally disabled children, homecoming queen, meals on wheels worker, and cherished only daughter of a middle class family.   The sleepy Pacific Northwest town, known for its lumber industry, is rocked to its core.  Laura was the town's darling.

Laura Palmer's senior photo

Enter Dale Cooper, FBI.  He is quirky, highly intelligent and takes great joy in the little things in life...the smell of the Douglas Fir trees, a piece of cherry pie and a good cup of coffee.  He also is a student of Tibetan mythology, and holds dreams and questionable deductive techniques in high esteem.  He discovers that while on the surface, Laura was an upstanding high school senior, she had a very dark side.  In fact, the whole TOWN has a dark side.  Every time Dale turns over a rock, he finds affairs, lies, drugs, prostitution, and even evil spirits.  That being said, he falls in love with the town and bonds with their tight-knit community.

Agent Cooper with is trusty tape recorder

Up until we discover who DID kill Laura Palmer, the show is a character study of a strange little town's inhabitants and a twisty murder investigation.  The story reaches a crescendo, then for the last half of the episodes, wades out into stranger waters.  If you are familiar with David Lynch's work (Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive) you know that he always injects his signature dreamy, surreal drug-trip sequences.  At the same time, he is campy and humorous.  The industry has even coined the term "Lynchian" for this cinematic style.  I for one love this style...just a few steps off the path of normal.  

"Bob", a threatening but elusive presence

Because the series was cancelled after 30 episodes, the plot is basically unfinished, and leaves you with a MASSIVE CLIFFHANGER.  Boy was I bent out of shape.  I was ready to go all Annie Wilkes on Lynch's ass, kidnap him and force him at gunpoint to finish his business.  But as my husband, son and I have had a chance to digest this injustice, we've come to appreciate that some things are better left unresolved.  Like Gone With the Wind.  Having a tied-up ending might ruin the fantasy.  And none of us can imagine how on earth this cliffhanger could have been resolved to our satisfaction anyway.

Probably one of the most enduring parts of the series is the music.  Even after listening to the opening theme 30 times in a month, I never tired of it.  It is haunting and sets the mood.  In fact, I think that is how I will finish this post.  Listen and enjoy!

Twin Peaks is available on Netflix streaming.

5 out of 5 stars