Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beastly by Alex Flinn

Alex Flinn is one of those rare gems that can take a classic story like Beauty and the Beast and find a way to make it relevant today. The metaphor of outer beauty matching what's on the inside is extremely important for kids to make connections to in their own lives. Forget about teaching old, withered classics to high school students. What many of them need are books like this to come along and shake them up. Not only does it teach them the same literary elements as those dusty classics, but it's also a great talking point for high school kids who think that books aren't written for them. With this book, Flinn practically shouts, "I HEARD YOUR CLASSROOM COMPLAINTS ABOUT LITERATURE AND I DID SOMETHING ABOUT IT!"

Not only that, but this is one of those rare books that can be enjoyed by both genders without issue. Girls like it because it's the re-telling of a fairy-tale, but boys can enjoy it because it's being narrated by a high school boy who doesn't sugar-coat or make the language overly-sappy.

As I listened to the audiobook, I thought about what a great movie this would make. Apparently, someone agreed with me because the movie is coming out next year. Though after watching the trailer, I can tell that the movie is a very loose adaptation of the book.

Beastly by Alex Flinn
Published: October 2007
Number of Pages: 304
Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Young Adult

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (No Spoilers!)

Well here we are. The end of the Hunger Games trilogy. And no matter how it ended, it was going to be disappointing. So many people have been building up for this moment that people were going to mourn the loss of this horrible, yet beautifully vivid world that Collins created.

Which is to say that I, too, was disappointed in this final installment. While reading the first two books, all I could think about was how much I felt like I was inside Katniss's world. I followed along with her plight against the Capitol and took every step with her.

But Mockingjay felt different. Instead of being inside Katniss's world, I felt like I was floating foggily above it. Instead of feeling part of the action, I felt like I was watching from far away.

I rushed through the entire book because all I wanted to do was get to the end. Whereas with the other two books, I had to savor every moment. While I enjoyed the ending, I felt it was not fully developed. Though to quote Donalyn Miller, "I liked that the book didn't end neatly. While I was unsatisfied with the ending, it felt true somehow." Miller is absolutely spot on. Life often doesn't end neatly either. In fact, it's usually quite messy. Mockingjay imitating real life. Who knew?

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
First published: August 2010
Number of pages: 390
Genre: Dystopian
Audience: Young Adult

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is Something Important Happening Today...

... I can't remember.

So today's the day the whole book-reading world gets to stay up late and finish the last installment of The Hunger Games trilogy.

I could have sworn I pre-ordered a copy from Amazon, but I can't find a record of purchase anywhere in my order history. Methinks a trip to Borders is in order today.

If you've been following along with the 13 district blog tour, then yesterday you discovered that Lenore over at Presenting Lenore had the coolest prize of all the districts so far, giving away an 8 GB iTouch with Mockingjay logo etched on the back. To celebrate this awesome prize, she came up with playlists for all the important characters in the series and invites you to play along.

I said that I thought a perfect song for Katniss would be Regina Spektor's "Apres Moi"

I must go on standing
You can't break that
which isn't yours
I must go on standing
I'm not my own
It's not my choice

Be afraid of the lame
They'll inherit your legs
Be afraid of the old
They'll inherit your souls
Be afraid of the cold
They'll inherit your blood
Apres Moi le deluge
After me comes the flood

But then of course, you can't have a great rebellion story without Muse in your corner. I think the theme song for Mockingjay should be "Uprising"

Paranoia is in bloom,
the PR transmissions will resume
they'll try to push the drugs
to keep us all dumbed down
and hope that
we will never see the truth around

Another promise, another scene
another packaged lie to keep us trapped in greed
green belts wrapped around our minds
and endless red tape to keep the truth confined

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious

Interchanging mind control
come let the revolution take its toll
if you could flick a switch and open your third eye
you'd see that
we should never be afraid to die

Rise up and take the power back
it's time the fat cats had a heart attack
you know that
their time is coming to an end
we have to unify and watch our flag ascend

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious

What are some other good songs that fit the characters or theme of the book? (I love that Lenore picked a Tori Amos song for every character. She won lots of coolness points for that one!)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Book vs. Movie: Eat, Pray, Love

"Liz Gilbert (Roberts) had everything a modern woman is supposed to dream of having - a husband, a house, a successful career - yet like so many others, she found herself lost, confused, and searching for what she really wanted in life. Newly divorced and at a crossroads, Gilbert steps out of her comfort zone, risking everything to change her life, embarking on a journey around the world that becomes a quest for self-discovery. In her travels, she discovers the true pleasure of nourishment by eating in Italy; the power of prayer in India, and, finally and unexpectedly, the inner peace and balance of true love in." - from IMDB

I really wanted to like this movie because the book resonated so much with me, but the whole thing was incredibly disconcerting. The screenplay was completely disconnected, disjointed, and rushed. As far as the casting goes, it just felt off to me. Julia Roberts' stardom overwhelmed the story and Javier Bardem as Fillipe was not convincing to me at all (and hello? what on earth was up with the mix tapes???) The most convincing role was Richard Jenkins as Richard from Texas, but even his portrayal of that role was way more serious and aloof than I expected.

The movie took the story way too seriously than the lightheartedness with which the book was told. In the book, Liz Gilbert knows how to make fun of herself and to use humor when the situation called for it. But on screen everything felt so stoic and serious.

The only saving grace of this movie was the stellar beauty of the cinematography. The food porn in Italy alone was enough to make me want to hop a plane to Rome and stuff my face full of pasta and gelato.

Even with what I have already said about my dislike for this movie, I'm still having a difficult
time putting my finger on what exactly bothered me so much about it. Yes, it felt rushed and chopped up, but that's often what happens when books are turned into movies. Not really sure why this particular one didn't sit so well with me. I highly suggest you skip the movie and just read the book. If you really want to see it, save your money and wait till it comes out on DVD and check it out at the library.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Zingerman's Roadhouse: Quality ingredients meets comfort food

Zingerman's is a well-established haven of quality foods in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their empire includes a delicatessen, creamery, bakehouse, coffee company, and now, a restaurant: Zingerman's Roadhouse.

I've recently read quite a few negative reviews of Zingerman's Roadhouse, saying that the prices are too high for the type of food that you're getting. I wholeheartedly disagree. The food at Zingerman's Roadhouse might be typical American fare: fried chicken, BBQ, mac and cheese, etc. but the difference between it and the Applebee's down the street is that Zingerman's actually takes great care in choosing their ingredients. You know exactly where the chicken is coming from. You know, not only what type of cheese is in the mac and cheese, but where they got it. To some people this might be pretentious, but to me, it's how we SHOULD be eating.

I'd rather pay a little extra to know I'm getting quality ingredients than rock bottom prices and lack of concern for quality. Americans have an extremely unhealthy relationship with food: choosing to eat the worst things for us because they're the cheapest. I commend Zingerman's for providing people with a different option: those who actually care what's going into their bodies. That's not to say that the food here is health food, not by any means. But at least you know that it's minimally processed.

My husband and I ate there on a Friday evening and it was busy, but not busting at the gills. We ordered way more food than we thought we could finish because we planned on taking some of it home. The food was so good though, that we only took home part of a fried chicken breast.

I ordered the BBQ pork entree that came with mashed potatoes and southern-style braised greens, and your choice of Eastern North Carolina vinegar sauce, South Carolina mustard sauce, or Memphis tomato sauce (I got them all). I am not normally the type of person to finish everything on my plate at a restaurant, but I can say that there was nothing left to put in a box to take home when I was done with it. I was actually not a fan of the mustard and tomato sauce, but the rest of the dish was fantastic.

My husband ordered the buttermilk fried chicken which I highly recommend if you ever go there. It was crunchy and peppery, and juicy and all the things you want in a fried chicken. If you order it though, get the four piece instead of the two piece because, like all fried chicken, it's even better the second day, cold out of the refrigerator.

In addition to the aforementioned mound of food, we also shared a side of mac and cheese with raw-milk Vermont cheddar. Ummm... hello? Do you see this picture? Do I even need to describe how delicious it was? And, they gave us some of the very best part of the mac and cheese: the brown crispy bits from the corner.

Despite all the food we consumed during dinner, we still ordered dessert. We chose their homemade gelato. It was nothing earth-shattering, nor could it ever be compared to real Italian gelato, but it was a lovely light closing to the meal. We chose mint chip, vanilla, and lemon as our three flavors and it was the perfect end to our meal.

So if you're in the area and you're looking for quality regional American fare, look no further than Zingerman's Roadhouse in Ann Arbor. I'm already counting the hours until the next time we get to go.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Poetry Friday

I haven't done a poetry Friday in a while, but I came across this poem while I was reading the poetry anthology by Naomi Shihab Nye What Have You Lost?

I loved the theme of this anthology, as poetry is a great vehicle for expressing grief. I do, however, think that most of the poems in this collection are way above the heads of juveniles. Oftentimes deeper layers of poems in children's anthologies can get missed by young readers, but the overall theme of the poem is easily understood, or the rhythm and cadence of the poem is pleasing to the ear so even though they might not understand the entire poem, it still holds their interest.

This anthology comes in at a whopping 204 pages and while many of the poems are beautiful, I think they're better suited to an adult audience.

This was one of the more easily understood (though still difficult) poems:

Years of Solitude

To the one who sets a second place at the table anyway.

To the one at the back of the empty bus.

To the ones who name each piece of stained glass projected on a white wall.

To anyone convinced that a monologue is a conversation with the past.

To the one who loses with the deck he marked.

To those who are destined to inherit the meek.

To us.

- Dionisio D. Marinez

Why you should always have baking chocolate on hand

I'm a terrible baker. I hate measuring stuff, and I usually make a huge mess in the kitchen.

But Nigella Lawson's Gooey Chocolate Puddings are so easy to make that even someone with minimal baking skills could make them come out perfectly - the key is to serve them piping hot when they're still warm and gooey out of the oven. So when your sweet tooth comes calling, this is one of those dishes that will help satisfy it in less than a half hour.

Melt 4.5 oz bittersweet chocolate along with 1 stick of butter on top of a pot of simmering water

In a separate bowl, mix 3 eggs, 3/4 C sugar, and 1/4 C flour until well blended.

Gradually whisk in melted chocolate mixture.

Don't forget to shamelessly lick chocolate clean from all utensils before putting them in the sink.

Grease 4 (1-cup) ramekins with butter and dust with flour. Place puddings in a 400 degree oven and bake 10-12 minutes. Do not bake until you are ready to serve as they should be served piping hot and gooey from the oven. The edges should be set like a brownie and the middle should be liquid like pudding:


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It's a Book by Lane Smith

In this world of blogs, wi-fi, texting, Kindles, e-books, etc, etc, we sometimes forget the geography of a real book has lasted hundreds of years, and when you take a hammer to a book, unlike a kindle or computer, it won't break.

Lane Smith reminds us of the importance of simplicity in this short, clever book about, well, a book.

I guarantee some people will be horrified by the last line of this picture book for children, as it can be misconstrued as cursing, but you've gotta give Smith props for his cleverness and his ability to make you laugh out loud. I know the line cracked me up, and despite its crassness, has the perfect cadence. It's probably my favorite ending line of a book EVER.

Check out the trailer for It's a Book here:

It's a Book by Lane Smith
First Published: August 2010
Number of pages: 32
Genre: Picture book
Audience: Children or anyone with a technology addiction

Try Something New

My husband and I recently visited North Carolina for the first time a few weeks ago (yes, I admit, I'm well-traveled in Europe, but not inside my own country) and one of the things I wanted to do while there was experience some authentic, North Carolina barbecue.

My cousin just happens to live in Greenville, which is a stop on the Barbecue Trail.

B's Barbecue is the very definition of "hole in the wall." It's a shack, really. But don't let the dilapidated appearance fool you into thinking that the food is poor quality. People line up outside this place for sometimes over an hour to get some of their tasty vittles, and if you hope to order what you want, then you better get there early, because they serve until they run out of food - which is usually 2:00 in the afternoon.

So we arrived at B's a little after 11:00 and waited in line for about twenty minutes. When we got to the window, we placed our order, and a few minutes later, dove into some of the most delicious pulled pork I have ever eaten. In Eastern North Carolina, their barbecue has a vinegar base to it rather than a tomato-based sauce, and even though I still love tomato-based barbecue, I was excited to have my mind opened to something new and different.

I felt a bit like Anthony Bourdain: eating food out of a building with a less-than-appealing appearance, only to find that its authenticity and tastiness make it way better than anything you could ever order at the chain restaurant down the road.

So take a chance. Go try that hole-in-the-wall place you pass by everyday that you turn your nose up at due to its sketchy appearance. Maybe you'll be pleasantly surprised.

ETA: What are the odds that National Geographic's Intelligent Travel Blog would write a post about the exact same topic on the exact same day?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Customer Service: It's more than just making a sale, it's creating an impression

Yesterday afternoon my husband and I drove to Ann Arbor for a used piano sale. The School of Music, Dance, and Theater at the University of Michigan was selling some of their older pianos and even though we're not in the market for a piano at the present time, I was just curious what a used Steinway would go for. I have coveted a black, shiny baby grand ever since I was old enough to say, "I want to take piano lessons."

When we entered the building that was hosting the sale, we were asked to fill out a form that asked for our name, address, phone #, etc. along with what type of piano we're looking for. Once we had the form filled out, a man came out from the back and escorted us into the showroom. He explained that U of M is one of Steinway's largest customers and that they only purchase Steinway or a subsidiary of it for the pianos in their arts programs.

The man gave us some time to wander the rooms, and as I perused the price tags, all I could think about is, "These prices are for USED pianos?!" The price tags were way higher than I thought they'd be, but at least it gave me a baseline for how much Steinways are worth.

What I wasn't expecting was how quickly the salesman dismissed us when we told him we don't have the money or the room at the present time, but we wanted to get an idea of what the cost would be for the future when we do have the money. I barely got that sentence out of my mouth when he so very brashly said, "OK, well thank you," and made a beeline for the door before we could even say, "Thanks for your 'help'."

I think the reason I was so bothered by this encounter is because now I'm going to associate Steinway with uppity snobbishness when it comes to dealing with its customers. You don't have the money now? Well then, we're just going to disregard you. (And the guy was a representative from Steinway, he wasn't just some random person from the music department who was hired to run the sale).

This was so completely different from the experience my husband and I had at Bösendorfer in Vienna back in 2003. Ever since I knew that Tori Amos played one and talks about her piano like it's a person (referring to it as "she"), I was curious to see what it was like to play one of these pianos. Every single one is handmade and it takes a year to complete the process. These are very expensive instruments, but the cost is justified due to not only the quality of the workmanship, but also the magic of the sound.

So while we were in Vienna, we arranged to visit not only the factory to see how they're made, but also the showroom where people go to pick out the model they want to purchase. When we arrived at the showroom, we were greeted by a very formal Austrian man in a business suit. I still remember his name: Christian Höferl. The reason I remember him is because he gladly showed us around the showroom even though he probably had better things to do with his time as he knew there were no plans in our near future to buy a Bösendorfer.

But he spent probably 15 minutes talking with us, letting me walk around and play different models while my husband took pictures.

I will never forget how generous he was with his time despite knowing he wouldn't make a sale that day. But I'll tell you what, after these drastically different experiences, if I ever have the funds to blow $50,000 on a piano, my first choice would be a Bösendorfer over a Steinway ANY day!

So let me leave you with this: if you work in high-end customer service, don't blow someone off just becasue they don't have the money now. If you're nice and generous with your time, they will remember that and will be more likely to come back if and when they do have the money. To this day I have maintained a venerable impression of the Bösendorfer brand, not only because they are the most magical pianos I have ever played, but because they dealt with me like I was a future customer rather than some random twentysomething out of college with no money and no prospects of ever affording their product. If the man at Bösendorfer had treated me like the Steinway guy, I would have left that building saying, "Nice pianos, but terrible customer service. I don't think I want a Bösendorfer."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Have You Heard...

... About the most awesomest blog tour ever created?

Mockingjay 13 District Blog Tour!

13 blogs will tour each of the 13 districts in the Hunger Games trilogy and give away fabulous prizes along the way. Go over to Facebook and "like" The Hunger Games Official Page to stay up to date on the blog tour and all the latest Mockingjay news.

Mockingjay hits bookstores August 24th and the blog tour ends August 30th.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I just got the September issue of Food Network magazine yesterday and as I'm perusing the pages, I come across this.

Slim chips.

They're made of zero calorie edible paper. The makers of this "food" feel that much of snacking is social and cultural rather than to satiate, so this is a snack that will help you to fulfill that desire without adding calories to your diet.

Is this what we've come to? Eating paper to stay thin?

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Life You've Imagined by Kristina Riggle

Kristina Riggle's second novel, set to come out in September is a character study of four women:

Anna, a hotshot lawyer in Chicago who returns home after the loss of a friend and colleague. Upon her return, she discovers her mother is struggling to make ends meet and is corresponding with the husband who abandoned her twenty years ago.

Maeve, Anna's mother, who will inevitably lose her business to development and thus become homeless, is counting on her estranged husband to come save her from her circumstance after receiving letters from him declaring his love and devotion to her once more.

Cami, who returns home to live with her alcoholic father out of necessity, but must conquer some demons she's had to deal with as a result of his drinking and her mother's death.

Amy is proud of all the weight she has lost from her intense diet and exercise, and looks forward to her dream wedding that she's planning with her fiance Paul. When her insecurities affect her relationship, suddenly it begins to look like she may never get her dream wedding.

This book was a page turner, you couldn't help but care about the characters, and the ending line was fabulous.

However, there were a few places in the story that I felt needed some further development:
1) I would have liked to have been brought more into Anna's life before she returns home. We don't really get to know the character for whom Anna returns home to grieve. If she's returning home to grieve someone, then I'd kind of like to get to know that person through her grief.
2) One of the characters in the story is dealing with some sort of addiction (I'll try not to give too much away here) but there is little of resolution or road to recovery by the end.
3) Amy, while a great and empathetic character, did not feel as connected to the story as the other three narrators.

These are, however, minor criticisms as the majority of the story was full of layers and textures. All in all, this was a great read and would recommend it if you're a fan of first person/multi-narrator novels.

The Life You've Imagined by Kristina Riggle
Publish date: September 1, 2010
Number of pages: 334
Genre: Realistic fiction/chick lit
Audience: Adult women

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the world of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is one of those people who elicits strong reactions of zealous admiration or vile disgust in people, sometimes at the same time. He is no doubt the bad boy of food and travel. He is never afraid to tell you what's on his mind, and even less concerned what people think of him. That is, after all, how he became so popular.

Medium Raw is more a series of essays than a continuous narrative. Bourdain pontificates about everything from the history of his contempt for the Food Network to the softening of his heart proceeding the birth of his daughter. Many chapters in this book are page-turning, but others felt conceited and indulgent - written only for the benefit of his audience to see how important and knowledgeable he is. I skimmed through about seven chapters in this book because I just didn't find the subject matter all that interesting.

What I did find captivating and/or endearing:
1) Bourdain writes a couple chapters in this book about his daughter and what it's like being a dad
2) After many years of ripping on Jamie Oliver, Tony concedes in Medium Raw that Oliver is a hero of the food world in his chapter titled "Heroes and Villains".
3) Tony has always been vague and elusive about his disdain for the Food Network. He'll give a sound bite here and there, and then talk around his feelings. In this book, he finally gives the background behind those bitter feelings.

Passage that pulled me into the book:
Ms. Johnson was clearly not delighted to meet me or my partners. You could feel the air go out of the room the moment she entered. It became instantly a place without hope or humor. There was a limp handshake as cabin pressure changed, a black hole of fun - all light, all possibility of joy was sucked into the vortex of this hunched and scowling apparition. The indifference bordering on naked hostility was palpable. My partners and I left knowing that it was the end of us at Food Network. - p. 8

Medium Raw: a Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain
First published: June 2010
Number of pages: 304
Genre: Nonfiction
Audience: Foodies