The Month in Books: February

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Well, it’s March 12 and I’m finally posting this. Oops? February was a good month, full of theater (Bring It On: The Musical), concerts (I went to a Vanilla Ice concert, because why not?), and a fantastic library book sale. Here’s what I read last month.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism (Grady Hendrix)
This was so much fun, and Hendrix is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. It was genuinely creepy AND the ending made me cry. I don’t read a lot of horror, becasuse i feel like a lot of horror authors take themselves (or their stories?) too seriously, but this is the opposite of that. So good.

Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich)
This should be required reading. I would love to read an updated version. I’d like to think our systems have gotten a little better in the 17 years since Ehrenreich did her experiment, but maybe not. I’d also like to see a version where this experiment was done in rural or suburban areas.

On Beauty (Zadie Smith)
What can I say about Zadie Smith that hasn’t already been said? I didn’t like this as much as White Teeth, but it was still superb.

The Next Always (Nora Roberts)
Well, it happened. I cried at a Nora Roberts book. I’m not ashamed.She’s just SO GOOD at what she does–good enough that I can look past the fact that she really needs a copy editor and a thesaurus. It doesn’t matter. This book had romance, a casual ghost, and PUPPIES. This is a recipe for success.

Dietland (Sarai Walker)
Don’t let the cover and title fool you–this one is dark and I loved it. It made me wish I was part of a book club, because this book needs to be discussed.

Talking As Fast As I Can (Lauren Graham)
I put off reading this for a long time, because I knew I would love it and I wanted to save it. (Also, the waiting list at the library was a mile long.) This did not disappoint. Celebrity memoirs forever!

What are you reading lately?

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The Month in Books: January

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January! Things sure were crazy this month. I had two back to back work trips to Orlando and Las Vegas (oh, the glamour), which meant I had lots of airplane reading time. Here’s what I read this month.

Hag-Seed (Margaret Atwood)
A modern retelling of The Tempest set in a prison literacy program and written by Margaret Atwood? Yes, please. There was a character named Krampus the Mennonite–I think that’s worth mentioning. This was a story within a story within a story. I loved everything about this. Also, the cover was gorgeous.

Sprinkle Glitter on My Grave (Jill Kargman)
I listened to a radio interview with her, and she was funny. This book, for the most part was not. It was mean-spirited. I don’t have time for humor based solely on making fun of other people.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
Quick airplane book. This is only my second Neil Gaiman book, and it felt more like an interlude than anything else. It was fine. At times it felt a bit too precocious, a bit too much like what I would expect from a Neil Gaiman novel. At 176 pages, though, who can complain?

The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Sarah Vowell)
I read this right before the Inauguration, which felt appropriate. I want to see what she’s writing now, how she’s processing our current situation. I think what brought me the most comfort from this book was the fact that she is so unabashedly patriotic, even while being upset about where we’re going. America is bigger than the POTUS, bigger than the policies in place. This was a really good reminder of that.

Royal Wedding (Meg Cabot)
Is there anything more delightful than finding a new book in a series you loved as an 8th grader?  When I saw this, I had to grab it for my four hour plane ride to Las Vegas. Meg Cabot has such a fun writing style, and this didn’t disappoint.

The Actor and the Housewife (Shannon Hale)
Did you know it was possible to love a book where the word “icky” is used more than once? It’s true! Oh, but I loved this one. I picked it up because I loved Midnight in Austenland, and kept it on my library pile because the protagonist was Mormon, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a Mormon protagonist. Things I loved about this book: the fast-moving, unpredictable plot. The dialogue. The fact that Becky Jack isn’t afraid of standing up for what she believes in, but she never seems preachy or fake. The family and other background characters. And of course, the romance (even though it wasn’t really a romance). We need more books like this.

Packing for Mars (Mary Roach)
Well, this successfully annihilated any conception that being an astronaut was a glamorous job. Wow. The thing I love about Mary Roach is that she takes such obvious delight in what she’s writing about. She throws herself into whatever it is she is studying, and man but this woman does her homework. I also love the way she weaves in humor and sarcasm, even in the middle of a dense sentence; even in a footnote. Proof that smart is funny and you should never let anyone tamp down your excitement and joy, no matter how strange the subject of it is.

So that’s that! Let’s see what February has in store.

 

Why “Rise of the Rocket Girls” Was The Perfect First Book for 2017

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Let me start off by saying that this was not a perfect book. It over generalizes and glosses over big historical moments and gets a little too flowery at times. But honestly? I didn’t care. This book made me feel so hopeful and energized—and that’s exactly what I needed right now.

In Rise of the Rocket Girls, Nathalia Holt chronicles the history of the “human computers” that worked at the Jet Propulsion Labaratory (later a part of NASA). Most of them were women, and they worked behind the scenes doing the calculations necessary to lay the groundwork for space exploration. Her research consisted mainly of interviews with these women, so the book reads more like an oral history/creative nonfiction than a comprehensive history. It works.

One of the things that really stood out for me about this book was the way Holt describes the power structure in the computer department at JPL. Women were put in charge almost from the start, setting a precedence of mentorship and opening doors for opportunity. In short: women were in charge and they got stuff done.

Why do I think this was the perfect book to start 2017? Well, here’s a list.

  1. It shows that there’s always more to the story. When we think of the role of women in the 1950s workplace, we think of teachers, nurses, and secretaries. Even in that oppressive climate, there was room for women to do more—and they did. That seems like such an important thing to remember right now.
  2. It made me feel small. The universe is so BIG. It’s easy to forget that. We should spend more time in awe of the universe. (I know how cheesy that sounds. But seriously.)
  3. It shows the power of showing up and doing the work. I got the biggest smile on my face so many times while reading this. These women had such a specific, intricate job, and the results were rarely immediate. They could have gotten discouraged, but this book is really good at showing how the work paid off.

Does the first book you read in January set the tone for the rest of the year? Not unless you want it to. In this case, I definitely want it to. So here we go.

New Year’s Resolution: Read Lots of Books.

It’s 2017 and you know what I’m going to do this year? I’m going to read some books.

These are uncertain times. I have so many things I want to do this year, and I’m going to try my hardest to get them done. Maybe I’ll write about them. But in the meantime, I’m going to write about books. Here are my reading goals for the year.

  1. Read more nonfiction. There are just SO MANY THINGS to learn about. Now is the time. Some topics I want to explore more this year: history, space, gender, race, religion.
  2. Read lots of romances and celebrity memoirs. Why? Because I love them, and it’s important to make time for things you love.
  3. Don’t finish books that aren’t good. I have slogged through so many novels, both classic and contemporary, just for the sake of finishing them. Life’s too short to waste time on things you hate, no matter how important or buzzworthy that thing is.

Okay, 2017. Let’s do this.

A Fan-tastic Time

It was the first weekend in May, and I was going to a fan convention.

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I’d been planning it for a year and had convinced two friends to go with me. We had originally planned to attend one in October, but the tickets sold out way faster than we had expected. Tickets had almost sold out for this one too, but I had pounced on them at the last minute, desperate to make sure this was really going to happen.

Going to a fan convention has been high on my bucket list since watching the documentary Trekkies in a college class. After that, I became, in many ways, a fan of fans. I loved the fact that people were willing to go against societal norms and boldly profess their love for some fictional thing. I loved the creativity that so many fans had, and the sense of belonging people seemed to find from being part of a fandom. Whenever I met someone who had attended a convention, I would quiz them extensively about it. What was it like? Was it fun? Did you dress up? Did a lot of people dress up? Was it crazy? I had this notion that attending a fan convention would be like entering a different world. It seemed a little weird, but in a good way.

When I found out there were conventions for the television series Supernatural, I was thrilled. After reading some blogs and watching some videos, I knew I had to go to one. Supernatural is my favorite show—it’s about two (incredibly, ridiculously handsome) brothers who fight evil. There are demons and angels and a whole mess of monsters, along with a gorgeous car and a classic rock soundtrack. It plays with American and religious mythology in a way I think is completely unique and compelling, and is also willing to break the fourth wall and make fun of itself.

Basically, it’s the perfect show.

After lots and lots of planning and a five hour drive from Ohio to Arlington, Virginia, my friends and I arrived at the convention hotel. As we searched for a parking spot in the underground lot (noticing several show-themed license plates in the process) and gathered our things (including a pan of show-themed baked goods), I was filled with a happy kind of panic. This is so freaking exciting. I might lose my mind. “I don’t know if I can be cool about this,” I told my friends.

The first thing we saw as we entered the hotel lobby was someone dressed as Castiel, Supernatural’s trench coat wearing angel. He reached behind his back and a pair of handmade wings sprung from his jacket impressively. We turned the corner and the actress who plays Sheriff Jody Mills was sitting at a table, chatting with fans. The room was packed with people in costumes and so much plaid, all laughing, talking, waiting for the next panel or photo-op to begin.

By the time we reached the check-in counter, my face hurt from smiling.

Initially, I had hoped to go through this experience with an air of “otherness,” observing and analyzing and trying to figure out what was at the core of fan culture. One thing I was cynical about was the price of everything. We went the cheapest route (still over $100 for 2 days), which gave us paper wristbands and unreserved seats in the very back of a huge hotel ballroom. Silver and gold tickets were much more expensive (almost a grand for a gold weekend package), and gave you access to autographs, special cocktail parties, and a laminated pass on a lanyard. Then there were photo-ops and meet and greets with key cast members, all of which sold out in a snap. Why would someone pay so much for this? I wondered. How do you justify that kind of expense? Like I said, I wanted to be cynical.

But then I got there. Almost immediately, I morphed into the overly-excitable fangirl I am at heart.

If I could describe my convention experience in three words, they would be “silly, weird, fun.” Maybe also “magical,” although that might be pushing it a bit. What can I say? There’s something truly special about attending an 80’s themed karaoke party where fans and cast get onstage together to belt out the best of Journey. It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of a cheering crowd, or gasp when the actors give hints as to what’s coming next on your favorite show. It’s weird to see an elevator full of your favorite actors or stand in line next to someone you’ve seen on tv. It’s enough to make anyone a little starstruck, I think.

But I think my favorite thing about the convention (and I guess this shouldn’t surprise me) was the fans. I was pleasantly surprised with how kind and open everyone was. Every long line (and there were many) was an opportunity to strike up a conversation, even if it was just to gush about how handsome Dean Winchester is in person. I met a mother and daughter who signed up for photo ops to help the daughter get over her shyness. I met a middle-aged lady who was attending the convention alone and having a blast. I met a couple who had splurged on gold passes and assured me they were worth every penny. One girl was sharing a hotel room with friends she made at the previous convention. I ended up sitting next to two Star Trek fans and having a fun discussion about the differences between fan-run conventions and corporate ones. Everyone was so different, but we were all there for the same reason. It was fantastic and very comforting.

One night after the day’s activities were over, my friends and I decided to visit the hotel’s revolving rooftop restaurant for a mint julep (it was also Kentucky Derby Day). On the elevator, we met a pilot who was staying in the hotel and was baffled by all the plaid-wearing people in the lobby.

“What on earth is going on down there?” he asked us.
“Oh, it’s a convention for Supernatural!” I told him.
“What is that?”
“It’s this great show about two hot guys who fight evil. You should definitely watch it!”
“Oh…okay, then.”

The elevator doors opened and we filed out, leaving him behind. He was grinning and doing some sort of karate-chop motion when the doors closed. I don’t think he understood my description of the show, but that’s okay.

So was attending a fan convention everything I’d hoped it would be? Pretty much. It reinforced my thoughts on fan culture (basically just that it is important and lovely and helpful to a lot of people). It reinforced my love for Supernatural. Will I go to another one? I’m not sure.

But if I do, I might spring for a weekend gold pass. I’ve heard they’re worth every penny.

Lost and Found

On the first day of 2014, I drove to the grocery store and back without getting lost. It was the first time I had done so since moving to this new town in October—usually a trip there and back had resulted in at least one wrong turn, one moment of reaching for the OnStar button in my car, one moment of I have no memory of this place. Am I still on Earth? I had kind of accepted it.

When I posted about this spectacular feat on Facebook, several family members responded with congratulatory messages: “We’re so proud of you!” “Good job, Amy!” “We knew you could do it!”

We celebrate small victories.

I can do a lot of things, but going somewhere without getting lost at least once is apparently not one of them.

I don’t know what’s to blame for this character trait, but it probably has something to do with the fact that as a kid, I spent every car ride in the backseat with my face in a book, oblivious to the world around me. When I got my driver’s license, I could barely get out of my hometown. I’ve gotten better since then, but barely. I get in the car to go somewhere I’ve been a thousand times before, and then somehow I end up in the wrong neighborhood, on a winding country road, or just generally in the middle of nowhere. I try to embrace it. Like they say on the bumper sticker: Sometimes the journey is the reward.

Sometimes getting lost helps you remember the beauty of the where you live. Once I found three old cemeteries and an abundance of quaint country churches on a beautiful fall day after taking a wrong turn in the middle of Ohio. Another time I ended up taking an accidental tour of Pittsburgh at two in the morning, cruising through Lawrenceville and Bloomfield and then somehow ending up downtown, where the bright lights from theater marquees made it look like midday as their reflections glittered on the snowy sidewalks. I had to see the city while everyone was sleeping to understand its inherent charm.

For a while I worked in southern Kentucky, and there were many spring and summer mornings when I unintentionally discovered rolling hillsides, dilapidated farm houses, a fish hatchery, so many river lakes, and once, a small-town library book sale. During one trip I cruised past a trailer with a big-screen television parked on the front porch and the door wide open. Some horses grazed nearby.

I eventually got where I was supposed to be going.

Even when the road seems too winding and you can’t see the end goal, if you take your time and pray for the best, thing usually work out.

I am always getting lost.

But that’s okay, because there’s a lot to be found.

Let Them Eat Cake.

When I sat down to make my Project 26 “bucket list” a few months ago, I tried to include a decent mix of things that would be easy to accomplish and some that would take a little more planning.  The first thing to get crossed off was something that could have fallen into either category.

Make an elaborate dessert.

I actually don’t know what I had in mind when I decided that this was something I wanted to tackle this year–probably something made completely from scratch, with a lot of ingredients and a recipe that included a stressful amount of steps (more than 3).

What I did instead was make a TARDIS cake.

The weekend before Thanksgiving marked the 50th anniversary of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who.  My friends and I are fans, so we did what I imagine most fans with access to cable did–we had a party to watch The Day of the Doctor on BBC America.  To help celebrate, I made a TARDIS cake.

I used the world’s simplest cake recipe in the universe (1 box spice cake mix plus 1 can pumpkin-= best pumpkin spice cake ever), so technically this beast was not all that elaborate.  I’m still claiming it.  Image

I really recommend making this cake at 7 a.m. while frantically marathoning the second half of Season 7 of Doctor Who and putting the finishing touches on your Harriet Jones Prime Minister costume.  It would probably also help if you looked at a picture of the real TARDIS and made sure you had enough chocolate chips to make the doors…which I did not do.  My bad.

Also, let’s not discuss how much blue food coloring it takes to create TARDIS blue.  (SO MUCH.  Eek.)

I decorated using a butter knife and some cheap toothpicks.  Fancy cake decorating tools and icing that didn’t come from a can probably would have led to a more polished finished product, but I was still excited about how this turned out.  Image

Unlike the real TARDIS, this cake did not transport us through all of space and time.  It also didn’t make a cool whooshing sound as it baked.  However, it was festive and blue and shared with good friends and maybe that’s all that matters in the end.

How about you, dear readers?  Have you ever made an elaborate dessert?  Did you like The Day of the Doctor?  Are you ready for Matt Smith’s final episode?  (I am not.)