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Free Reading Friday: Secretariat

SecretariantSecretariat by William Nack was an obligation book for me. I read it because one of my students asked me to so that she could use it for her non-fiction book project. Since I’d read Seabiscuit the year before for a similar reason, I figured this would be similar. I’d already exposed myself to the world of racing, so this book would be easy to get through, right?

WRONG! At least not for me. Now, I am not a racing fan of any sort, so I’m sure that was part of my problem with the book. Actually, it was like 90% of my problem with the book. Since I am not a fan of horse racing and do not follow it in any way, my only real knowledge of racing comes from Seabiscuit and the one time I went to the race track with my family because my aunt had won some sort competition which entitled her to a party at the racetrack. I was 15 and wasn’t even allowed to bet, so my memories of it are hazy at best.

I was prepared for an underdog race horse story with lots of descriptions of the people surrounding the horses and the races themselves. And I got that. What I was not prepared for was page upon page upon page (seriously, like 1/4 of this book) devoted to begets. It was like reading Genesis in the Bible, only for horses. This horse beget this horse beget this horse ad nauseum. I was also not expecting very detailed descriptions of horse insemination. Seabiscuit was all about one horse and his racing career. Secretariat is all about those thoroughbreds that came before him, his amazing performance and those who trained him. It made the book awfully long.

I was also not a huge fan of Nack’s storytelling. I think part of the reason I enjoyed Seabiscuit so much was because of Hillenbrand’s storytelling. I actually liked her narrative so much that I went on to read Unbroken, which was a book that appealed to me even more and I found myself engrossed in. Nack’s narrative seemed broken up by all the begets and race times. It felt more like a list than a story at times.

I was also not a huge fan of Penny Tweedy. I thought her behavior spoiled and superior throughout most of the book. If Nack was trying to paint her as a heroine in the world of racing, it is not how she came across to me. She threw too many tantrums and was far too nasty to too many people for me to like her or even sympathize with her.

For true horse racing fans I’m sure this is an interesting read. It was just not the book for me. I felt each one of the 455 pages I read and I hate when that happens.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Blaze Pizza

Blaze PizzaI’ve been pretty diligent about this whole diet and exercise thing. I actually started it in August. Between August and October I managed to lose about 10 pounds, which while far from my goal, was a nice start. Then, I went on vacation to see my best friend, which meant a lot of eating out at our favorite places. Then I got back to work and had a lot of work to day and got myself stressed, which meant a bit more eating and less working out. While I only gained two pounds back, I was not keeping track of my calories and was hardly making it to the gym.

When my husband got a new job and a free membership to Life Time Fitness, I decided to check it out. I really liked it, especially since it has two amazing pools and childcare included in the membership cost. So, by mid-December, I was back in the gym. Of the 24 days of December that I was trying out/a member of the gym, I made it in 12 times, which I thought was pretty good.

About a week before the end of the year, I decided that exercise alone was not going to cut it, so I also cut back on calories. I logged back into My Fitness Pal and started tracking. I was giving this thing my all.

So far in the 17 days of January, I’ve been to the gym 13 times and I’ve yet to go over my 1400 calorie limit. I’m down four pounds and feeling pretty good about life.

As part of this new routine, I’ve been cooking a lot more, which is really important since I have total control over ingredients and therefore calories. However, every now and then I need a break from the kitchen.

This past weekend we were out running a bunch of errands and found ourselves a bit far from our house at lunch time. Looking around, I noticed a Blaze Pizza and decided it would be a great option for lunch. We’ve been to Blaze several times and really like it. If you’ve never been, it’s sort of the Subway of pizza joints. My kids love being able to custom build their own pizzas, even if it sometimes means some questionable combinations. When given the chance at unlimited toppings, my son goes a bit mad with power. My daughter sticks more to the basics: cheese pizza.

Aside from liking the actual taste of Blaze Pizza, I really like that I can control what goes on it and make sensible choices. As much as I like ooey-gooey, super fatty cheesy pepperoni pizza, I can also appreciate a healthier option. I also really love that Blaze has a great nutrition calculator so I can see what my toppings will cost me.

For my most recent Blaze creation, I started with the standard, fairly thin crust, which has 420 calories for the entire pizza. I added the red sauce, which is another 30 calories for the entire pizza. I topped it with goat cheese instead of the standard mozzarella. This adds only 100 calories instead of 220. I skipped meat to avoid extra fat and calories and instead loaded it with veggies. I stacked on spinach, onions, garlic, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, artichokes and roasted squash. All together, each piece had about 95 calories, so 3 pieces was not only filling, but also under 300 calories (and only 6 grams of fat). Not at all bad for lunch, right?

Most importantly, it tasted fantastic and since each pizza has 6 slices, I have another healthy lunch for tomorrow. Everyone in the family was satisfied and I didn’t have to spend any extra time on the Arc trainer (although I did).

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Chocolate Monday: Vanilla Rooibos Tea

I first found Vosges while exploring Armitage Street in Chicago. I wasn’t looking for a chocolate shop. My mission was to visit the local LUSH store to stock up on much needed hair and skin care products. However, as my best friend and I strolled down the street, we found not one, but two fantastic chocolate shops. Sadly the first one, Ethel M’s closed down only a few years after we found it. The company itself is still in business, but the Chicago store closed and they also stopped selling the majority of the truffles and filled treats I love. When I found them again in Vegas years later, they had less than half the stock of the Chicago store.

Luckily Vosges not only stayed on Armitage for our yearly visit, but they spread their stocks wider and wider so that even my local Kroger now sells a variety of their chocolate bars. My only real issue with Vosges is that their stock tends to be overwhelmingly dark chocolate and try as I might, I just don’t like dark chocolate as much as its lovely milk cousin. However, I have found that their 45% dark milk chocolate is very tasty.

I especially enjoy it in their Vanilla Rooibos Tea bar. This bar is a wonderful combination of dark milk chocolate, rooibos tea and tart cherries. Just about anything with cherries, especially with dried tart cherries, has my heart. I love cherries in just about any form they take. I especially love them in this bar.

The chocolate definitely has a dark hint to it. It is not smooth and creamy exactly. It has a tiny bit of bitterness to it that could be off putting if not for the the lovely tartness of the cherries. The cherries not only add a bright burst of sweet to help temper the bitterness of the chocolate, but they also add a great texture to the bar. That texture is enhanced by the slightly crunchy bits of tea. Although tea can add bitterness to some candies, either the chocolate masks it in this case or it simply isn’t here. The only bitterness I find is in the actual chocolate.

This is a delightful bit of dark chocolate and I not only like it, but seek it out.

Overall:

Taste: 9/10
Appearance: 6/10
Value: 7/10 (at $8 a bar, it is pricey, so it’s definitely a treat)

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Free Reading Friday: Unbound

I pickedUnbound up Unbound by Ann E. Burg in part because I liked the cover and in part because it is a novel in verse. I’ve read several novels in verse over the last few months and I have really developed an appreciation for them. I love the fact that authors are able to not only articulate brilliant plots, but also create characters with amazing depth without the long rambling sentences and paragraphs of most novels.

Books like Unbound remind me that Shakespeare was right, “brevity is the soul of wit.”

The journey that Grace goes on to obtain her freedom is one of bravery and inspiration. Although fictional, Burg does a great job of making the reader feel the true peril of the lives of runaway slaves.

Although I have read several fictional and true slave narratives, Burg still managed to introduce me to new information. I knew about slaves escaping North with and without the help of the Underground Railroad, but I’d never heard about people escaping by going even deeper into the South. I had no idea there were runaway slaves who escaped by living in the Dismal Swamp. This is a fascinating bit of history I now want to know more about.

I wish Burg would have given the reader a bit more of a look into Grace’s life of freedom in the swamp, but the narrative is still complete without it. The point is that Grace and her family will still have to endure hardships, but at least they will be able to get through them together and on their own terms. Though they may not follow that famous North Star, they still find their freedom and their home.

Great read for young adults. I actually plan to recommend it to my students, but only after my son, who is 10, finishes it.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Cycling classes

As part of my newish gym membership, I have not only been going fairly religiously, but I’ve branched out from my usual treadmill, elliptical, and Arc trainer routines. I’ve even added more than just my occasional weight machines. Unlike Planet Fitness, Life Time Fitness has lots of classes.

Last week, I decided to try my hand at my first class: EDG cycling. I’ve never been to any sort of cycling or spin class before. Aside from the Zumba class I go to once a week, which is taught by one of my co-workers in the foods lab at our school, I haven’t attended any type of exercise class since I was in my mid-20’s and I went to Curves gym.

When my husband and I first started dating, we spent a lot of time riding our bikes down the local bike trail. Sometimes we would ride for hours. It was a lot of fun and after I got a super comfy gel seat, it didn’t even hurt much. But that bike has gotten little use over the last few years. In fact it’s actually gotten more than a bit rusted and bent out of shape over the years. And it’s been almost three decades since I’ve ridden a stationary bike of any kind. And back then, the bike didn’t have fancy digital equipment.

This new fangled bike was fancy and a bit confusing. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find the studio at first so I came to the class right as it was starting. Luckily one of the class regulars was kind enough to help me set up my bike and get me started. Granted, I had no idea what the instructor was talking about when she said to turn the dial to take the resistance up. I still don’t quite get what she meant by working out in zones 1, 2, 3 or 4, but I rode that bike. I even added tons of resistance by actually hitting the lever that knocks the resistance up by rather large leaps rather than gradually dialing it up. Oops!

I was definitely sweating by the end of those 45 minutes. I was also exhausted. And man oh man, did my rear end hurt. Those seats are not even remotely padded or comfortable.

But, despite my cluelessness and my sore derriere, I went back for another cycling class a few days later. This time I figured out the knob to slowly add resistance. I was also able to make it through all the “out of the saddle” portions of the class, which I’ll admit I could not do the first go around.

By my third class, I felt a bit like an old pro. I could add more resistance, even using that little power lever when I didn’t have to. And not only did I make it through all the stand up parts, during the last song when we had the choice to focus on speed, strength or stamina, I took a turn at all three, spending about a third of the song off my rear and standing as I peddled when I didn’t even have to.

And yes, my butt is still a bit sore from those horrid seats, but I’m already looking at the schedule for my next cycling class.

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Chocolate Monday: Halo Top Light Ice Cream

halo openOk, let’s be honest, it’s not exactly ice cream. Not in a traditional, super creamy, super indulgent, super delicious sort of way. Then again, anyone who expects to get all that creamy, fatty goodness for only 250 calories per pint is obviously living in an alternate universe.

Although Halo Top has been out for a lot longer than I realized (2012), it’s only been in the last year or so that it has skyrocketed to popularity. According to Wikipedia, in July of 2016, it became the best selling ice cream in supermarkets, even beating out Ben & Jerry’s, which I’ll admit I found hard to believe. While I like Halo Top, if given the choice, I would reach for Ben & Jerry’s over it every single time.

Once you get passed the fact that Halo Top is not going to taste like its full fat cousins, it’s actually pretty good. Especially considering that an entire pint ranges from about 240-360 calories. Considering that the same calorie content for Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen-Daz or most other ice creams is only about 1/4 of a pint, it suddenly explains the appeal.

halo 3I’ve only tried five flavors of Halo Top so far and just like with real ice cream, I’ve had varying degrees of happiness with them. My absolute favorite flavor so far has been the oatmeal cookie one. It legitimately tastes like a frozen oatmeal cookie. It reminds me a bit of the now defunct Dreamery Ice Cream flavor I used to love called Grandma’s Cookie Jar. It had several different bits of cookie dough in it, but my favorite were the bits of oatmeal raisin cookie dough. This particular pint of Halo Top has only 280 calories. I love the sweet oatiness of it, however, I will admit that while the bits of oats mixed in the ice cream definitely give it an authenticity, I’m not a fan of the texture of them. They taste like uncooked oats. There may not be enough of them to make the ice cream chewy, but they do give it a fibrous texture that I wish it didn’t have. Still the taste and low calorie count are enough for me to overlook it.

The chocolate almond ice cream reminds me of a Wendy’s Frosty, especially if you let it get just a tad bit melty. It’s not as rich and creamy as a Frosty. The texture is also not quite right for one, but it has that same chocolatey flavor of one. Plus, only 320 calories for the entire pint, which is less than one large Frosty.

Birthday cake is good, but really, really sweet. It reminds me a bit more of birthday cake frosting than of the actual cake. When I first tried it, I only ate a few bites and thought I might give it to my kids to finish off. They are far less picky about anything sweet and are always just as happy with a Hershey bar as they are gourmet truffles, so whenever I come across a type of chocolate (or ice cream) I don’t like, I pawn it off on them and they are thrilled. Before I got to give it to them, I found myself craving something sweet, so I tried it again. This time I found it more palatable. Still, there is no way I could eat an entire pint of it the way I could the oatmeal cookie version. I ended up breaking this one (and chocolate almond) into thirds. If you are a fan of the overly sweet vanilla cake frosting grocery store bakeries put on top of their cakes (the type that is slightly grainy), this is probably a flavor that you’ll love.

Chocolate chip cookie dough had a lot more vanilla and a lot less bits of actual cookie dough in it, which was a bit of a let down. But again, considering the entire pint only has 360 calories in it, there would have to be less cookie dough. It actually tastes fairly similar to it’s fattier cousins, but it’s not as creamy and the sweetness it has tastes just a bit more artificial.

The only flavor I absolutely despised, and this is not a term I use lightly, was the mint chocolate chip. This was such a HUGE upset to me as mint chocolate chip ice cream is one of my absolute joys in life. I even love mint chocolate chip frozen yogurt. From my earliest experiences of York Peppermint patties, to my absolute adoration of Andes mints to my local Baskin Robbins, mint chocolate chip is always a go to for me. This one though…I got through three bites and had to stop. I put it away and hoped against hope that I would grow to like it as I had birthday cake. But alas, it was not to be. The mint in his was so overpowering that it felt like I was drinking straight peppermint oil. It actually reminded me of the peppermint oil one of my students used to use every day in class to help calm her down and keep her from having panic attacks. It did not seem like a mint that was meant to be eaten, but rather one that should be used as part of a soothing massage. I didn’t even give it to my kids because it was so artificial tasting and so gross.

Despite that bad experience, I know that since I have rededicated myself to eating healthier and exercising more, I will be back to grabbing pints of Halo Top to help satisfy my sweet tooth. There are still several varieties I’d like to try. My hope is that mint chocolate chip will be a fluke.

Overall:

Taste: 6/10
Value: 6/10
Appearance: 7/10

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Free Reading Friday: All the Crooked Saints

All the Crooked SaintsI am a big Maggie Stiefvater fan. I was really excited about the release of this book in part because it is the first book she’s written since finishing up the Raven Boys series, which I adored, and in part because this book helped me cross one more book off of my Pop Sugar reading list: a book recommended by an author you like. It just so happens that when I saw John Green speak on his Turtles All the Way Down tour, he mentioned Stiefvater’s book and suggested we all go out and read it. Since I’d pre-ordered an autographed copy of All the Crooked Saints with a nifty bookplate designed by the author, as I heard Green make the suggestion, I knew I’d be easily able to check that book off my list.

With the pile of books I had waiting for me to read, it actually took me quite awhile to get to this book. So long that instead of being the last book I finished in 2017, it was the the first one I finished in 2018. Yes, it meant I fell a little shy of my Pop Sugar goal, but since it wasn’t the only book keeping me from finishing the reading list, I accepted my defeat gracefully.

I did, however, stay up until 1 am on New Year’s Day finishing All the Crooked Saints. I had to know how it ended before I could allow myself to drift off to sleep.
Crooked Saints owlI was especially excited to read this particular book because I had not one, but two copies of it. The first was my pre-order, which came with a cool owl postcard signed by Stiefvater and the super cute owl bookplate. When I got my copy in the mail, I thought it was pretty nifty looking.
Unbeknownst to me, one of my best friends went to a library conference where Stiefvater was a keynote speaker and not only did she get to meet her and take pictures with her–which she sent me–but when I begged her to get me a signed copy of The Raven Boys, she did. However, she didn’t know I’d pre-ordered All the Crooked Saints, so she also got me a personalized signed copy of it. So now instead of one autographed copy, I have two. One personalized to me and one that isn’t personalized but has a cool bookplate. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do with the “extra” copy. My guess is I’ll hold on to it and give it to one of my kids. They are both huge readers and really it’ll only be another few years before my son is ready for this book. He’ll love that it is signed and has the bookplate.

book plateAlthough this book is in many ways very different than the Raven series or her Shiver series, it still shares that wonderful sense of magical realism so prominent in all of her books. In fact, I think she may be at her best as far as magical realism goes in this book. Unlike the Shiver series or The Scorpio Races, she’s not depending on already established mythos to center this book around. Also, unlike the Raven series, she manages to keep this book a bit more in the realm of reality, which I think enhances the magical realism in it. This book is the one that reminds me most of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, although it is definitely not quite in that league.

But I don’t mean that as an insult to Stiefvater. Her book isn’t truly comparable to Marquez because she has a very different intended audience and she is very in touch with that audience. She writes for YA readers and those who love YA fiction and she brings magical realism to them in a way that I think is more accessible. And, in a way that I feel might lead them to Marquez.

Her prose in this this book is warm and rich. I love the way she introduces characters by telling the reader one thing they wanted and one thing they feared. For example, on page 4, she introduces Joaquin Soria by saying, “here was a thing Joaquin Soria wanted: to be famous. Here was a thing he feared: dying alone in the parched dust outside Bicho Raro.” She does this again on page 8 as a way to further introduce Beatriz Soria. “Here was a thing Beatriz wanted: to devote time to understanding how a butterfly was similar to a galaxy. Here was a thing she feared: being asked to do anything else.” These small moments of brilliance add great depths to the characters and allow the reader insights into them that they might not otherwise get.

I thoroughly enjoyed the miracles performed in this book. They were, of course, not at all what I thought of as miracles. How anyone could imagine someone who just wants to escape his life of fame and recognition receiving a miracle that turns him into a giant, is beyond me. And yet, it makes perfect sense. Tony’s fame made him a giant in his world and in order to truly find peace and happiness, he had to learn to deal with his problem in full force. The miracles themselves add those moments of magic–twins who want to be separate people but are too afraid to be are twined together by a snake that threatens to devour them if they get too far apart–a woman who cannot find a way to speak for herself who can only echo everyone else’s words–these are the perfect miracles for them because those miracles teach them to finally face their problems and overcome them.

The book has wonderful message that there are no miracles that can just fix lives. Problems need to be worked at and struggled through. And most importantly, they need the help of others. There are problems that we cannot fix on our own. It’s not only ok to ask for help, it is important to. We must reach out and try to solve our problems, but we must ask for and accept help from those who want to help us. Our problems are not insurmountable, but there are no real miraculous cures for them. We have to work through them, with those who love us to find solutions and a sense of peace.

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