Category Archives: reading

Free Reading Friday: The Upside of Unrequited

upside of unrequitedI really enjoyed The Upside of Unrequited. Considering how much I loved Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, it’s no real surprise that I found Becky Albertalli’s “companion novel,” very enjoyable.

As much as I really liked Simon, I think this book spoke to me more. Probably because like Molly, the main character, when I was in high school, I too was a fat girl who had a darn lot of crushes and no actual boyfriends to speak of. Sure, I may not have had two moms or a twin sister who seemed to be developing a romantic life well before me, but I had a plethora of very good friends, none of whom seemed to be struggling romantically the way I was. And I attributed quite a bit of that to the fact that most of my friends didn’t have the same sort of waistline I did.

I actually saw myself quite a bit in Molly’s character. Granted, I would have never sworn around my folks the way she swears around hers, but I did have a pretty good relationship with my folks. But, like Molly, I kept a LOT of things to myself. Like Molly, I spent a lot of time throwing myself into projects to keep busy and keep my mind off all the ways I was unhappy. Like Molly, I think I was suffering from depression (only mine were not diagnosed). Like Molly, I never really felt comfy in my own skin and could not see myself the way others saw me. Like Molly, I had a big heart and was a great friend. But also like Molly, at times I was a rather “shitty” friend–because I wanted to be happy for them, but I was so jealous of them that it was hard at times.

And like Molly, I pretty much never acted on my crushes. I was far too afraid of being rejected. I had crush after crush after crush. I admired from afar. Even when I thought a guy liked me (which I actually thought a few times), I was too scared to act on it. And, as a result, I ended up losing out on what I later found might have been actual relationships, or at least dates.

It took me a long time to find my confidence and be ok with who I am. I’m glad Molly was able to do it (to a large degree) over the course of a summer. I wish my journey had been that short!

This book is great for just about any teenager who has ever struggled with his/her self image. It’s great for anyone who has ever had unrequited crushes. It’s wonderful for anyone who is LGBTQ+. It’s just a wonderful book.

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Munchie Monday: Rococo Bee Bar

Rococo Bee BarI know I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I am willing to spend rather ridiculous amounts of money on chocolate. Some people go on shoe shopping sprees. Some have an affinity for purses or tools, or for people like my husband, Magic the Gathering cards. I always tease him about the thousands he has spent on cards over the years. He fires right back at me about chocolate. I can honestly say I spend way less on chocolate each year than he spends on his Magic addiction, but that is not to say the chocolate bills don’t rack up.

On my recent trip to the UK, my students joined in on mocking my spending habits. While many of them thought nothing of dropping 30 pounds on clothing from Oxford, 50 pounds on jewelry in London or in one case, over 100 pounds for a cashmere sweater in Edinburgh, when I spent 47 pounds at a chocolate shop in York, it was days before I heard the end of it.

Not that I cared much. I don’t like clothing with logos or names on it, I hardly ever wear jewelry and don’t even want to think about caring for a cashmere sweater! Yes, I’ll take my edible spending habit any day.

When I went into York Chocolate Story, I really, really wanted to take the chocolate tour. York is, after all, a chocolate city. Yes, that’s right. While other cities in the UK earned their wealth from wool or cotton or steel or coal, York has pretty much always been known for its sweet treats. They have a chocolate trail where visitors can follow in the footsteps of chocolate development. This was my kind of city. On our initial walking tour we passed about a dozen sweet shops and I made sure to memorize where the ones that specifically dealt in chocolate were.

Despite my complete love for chocolate, I’ve only ever been on two chocolate tours before, once in Hershey, Pennsylvania and once when my husband and I went on a bourbon themed trip in Kentucky. We found a small family owned chocolate shop that did tours and then tastings of bourbon balls and it was great. I’ve wanted to go on several other tours, but I’m always on vacation when I find them and inevitably no one else wants to go with me. Since I was chaperoning a student group on this trip and they wanted to shop for souvenirs, this tour was another pipe dream for me. Instead, I had to settle for a visit to their cafe and shop.

At least it was a really cool shop with tons of candies to choose from. It was really hard to limit myself. I wanted so many of the delicious looking treats, but I limited myself to a box of filled chocolates from York Chocolate Story, a tin with some sort of amazing looking chocolate bark, three large chocolate bars from various localish confectioneries, a box of six truffles from the chocolate case and one tiny bar from a company called Rococo Chocolates.

Until I grabbed this bar, I had no idea it was “London’s Best Luxury Online Chocolate Shop.” Turns out I managed to miss their actual shop when I was in London. Despite being in Covent Garden twice during my three day stay, I didn’t find them–in all fairness, one of the times I was tied up with a student who was having a panic attack and didn’t get to see anything there. I really wish I’d have gotten to visit the star. While York Chocolate Story did have a decent selection of Rococo’s chocolate bars, they didn’t have any of the specialty Roald Dahl ones and I would have bought at least three of those: one for myself and one for each of my kids who love Dahl’s books.

Basil and limeI grabbed the miniature Basil & Persian Lime dark chocolate bar. I wanted to try this one since it was a flavor combination I’ve never had before. Whenever I am somewhere new, I often try to find truly unique chocolates. Anyone can make a regular old milk or dark chocolate bar (granted with varying degrees of success), but I like to try the more exotic. I’ve had spiced chocolate before, but usually it’s cardamom or ginger or chili. I’ve never had, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, chocolate infused with basil. I was also hoping the tartness of the lime might offset the bitterness of the dark chocolate. Although I have gotten much better at appreciating and even enjoying dark chocolate, I still like it best when it is paired with something tart like raspberry, lemon or lime.

The bar itself is very cute to look at. I love the detail of the bee on each section of chocolate. I was wondering why it was called a “bee bar” and while I’m still not sure if there is a connection other than the design, I liked the connection I could verify.

My first taste of the bar was a bit off putting. The basil was VERY strong and the lime marginal. However, as it slowly melted on my tongue, the basil died away and the lime became the lingering note. The dark chocolate was definitely bitter and not that offset by the basil or the lime. It was not an extremely bitter dark chocolate though, so I found it tolerable. On one of my bites I did sort of feel like I was actually crunching on dried herbs–not so much in taste as in texture. I found it slightly unnerving, but not so much that I stopped eating it.

The bar did leave a slightly odd aftertaste in my mouth. It was slightly herby and slightly sour. I definitely wanted a big drink of water after I’d finished with two squares of the chocolate. After that, I still had a lingering taste of chocolate in the back of my throat, but it was just barely there and sort of nice.

I split the other two squares between my kids and they both really liked it. Of course, they are far less picky about sweets than I am. Probably because they are not allowed to blow their allowances on chocolate bars.

Overall:

Taste: 7/10
Appearance: 9/10
Value: 6/10 (at $2.45 this bar is a bit small for the price)

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Free Reading Friday: We Are Never Meeting in Real Life

We are never meeting in real lifeI’m torn about We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby. On the one hand, Irby is pretty darn funny. I really enjoyed her very first essay “My Bachelorette Application.” It set what I felt was a very realistic and funny tone for the book. I also enjoyed all of her essays about her cat Helen, except maybe the last one. I know Irby worked in a vet’s office for 14 years (in fact, I LOVED her essay looking for a new job due to moving in with her wife) and she understood that what the vet was telling her about Helen was pretty hopeless, but having just put my beloved cat of 20 years to sleep, it just seemed a bit harsh at the end.

Then again, that’s the reason I am torn about this book. Irby is, without a doubt, honest in her essays. She is often brutally, in your face honest and sometimes it’s a bit hard to take. There were a couple of essays that I had trouble reading in one sitting just because they were so blunt that I felt I needed a break part way through. “Mavis” is a good example. Actually, a few of the essays talking about her relationship with Mavis were hard to read because it was hard to see why they were actually a couple and why they were getting married. I also am still not sure Irby is happy with it all and I like her, so I want her to be, especially considering her really rotten childhood.

Overall, this book is filled with more gems than it is hard to read portions (at least for me). One of my favorite parts was when she and her friend witnessed a Civil War reenactment while killing time between a wedding and the reception. It cracked me up when the re-enactor told her that her necklace was intense. I love her reply, “Honey, you are wearing a hoop skirt in 2013.” Even though Irby acknowledges her necklace was a bit intense and there’s a good chance the girl didn’t even mean it as an insult, Irby’s quick wit and defense mechanisms kicked in.

It took me a bit longer to read this book than I expected, but I’m glad it did.

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Wildcard Wednesday: travel souvenirs

souvenirsAny time I travel anywhere without my kids, their inevitable first question upon my return is not: How are you? What did you see? Did you miss us? No, their first question is the same universal one uttered by kids all around the globe: What did you bring us?

On my most recent trip to the UK, this particular question was a bit more specific, although just as insistent as usual: Did you bring me my wand?

Much to my delight (and my instigation), both of my kids LOVE the Harry Potter series. My son, who is 11, and I have read the first 5 books together. We started this tradition when he was 7 with the first book. My son is a very advanced reader. He was no doubt capable of reading and mostly understanding all seven of the books back in first grade when we started the first book. However, I knew he wasn’t even remotely emotionally ready for the series and so we took our time, each reading a page for 15-20 minutes at bedtime. It took us quite awhile to get through that first book, but it was perfect. He never lost interested, in fact, he was enthralled until the end. When we finished it, I let him reread the first book as many times as he wanted to. We repeated this when he was 8 with the Chamber of Secrets. At 9 we moved on to the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I’ll admit I was quite worried about what the Goblet of Fire would bring when he hit 10. He was stunned at the death scene, but since we read it together, we were able to talk through it. We did the same with The Order of the Phoenix, although the talk took a bit longer as I spent quite a bit more time crying than he did.

As he gets older and is more emotionally ready to deal with the content of the books, I have decided to step up our reading of the books. I’m going to hand over The Half Blood Prince this fall when he starts sixth grade instead of making him wait until February.

My daughter, who is 8, however, is still only on the second book. Unlike my son, she still truly believes in the magical world and is very concerned with the prospect of being a muggle. Although I have tried to tell her they are just books, I don’t think she believes me. She refuses to believe that Hogwarts is not a real place, so I finally had to tell her that she won’t get her letter because she is not British. For now it seems to have done the trick. She no longer asks why her brother hasn’t gotten his letter AND she has stopped asking when exactly she’ll get hers.

It was no surprise to me that when she realized I was actually going to the UK that she’d ask me to bring her back something Harry Potter related. After all, she knew I’d already visited Platform 9 3/4 once and when she asked if I’d be going back, I wasn’t going to lie to her.

Knowing where I was going, she made her request: a wand. And a spell book. After all, what good is a wand if there are no spells to go with it?

My son was less sure of what he wanted until he looked at the Platform 9 3/4 shop website and saw a copy of the Marauder’s Map. That was what he wanted.

I’d visited the shop at Platform 9 3/4 three years ago and knew wands were not cheap. I just happened to be looking around on the WISH app and found Harry Potter’s wand for under $10, so I bought it. Sure, it took several weeks for it to arrive, but I ordered it in plenty of time. I also ordered her a spell book off of Amazon. For less than the cost of one wand in the UK, which I would have to pack in my luggage and bring back home, I got her a wand and a spell book. I hid them away, told my husband where to find them and had him bring them to the airport when he picked me up. As I was loading my bag into the back of his vehicle, I slipped the wand and book into my suitcase so that I could open it later and surprise my daughter.

And she was ecstatic!

We were a bit less ecstatic when all through dinner she tried to cast spells on us. She couldn’t understand why her new wand was not working quite the way she hoped it would. I was VERY sleep deprived after being up for 20 hours straight, but managed to remind her that she was only 8, and hadn’t actually been taught how to do the spells yet. I reminded her that even Hermoine needed a little help. She was pretty ok with that, especially when I jumped in my seat a bit when she tried to levitate me. Yes, I know, that will probably come back to bite me in the end, but I’m not quite ready to destroy her sense of wonder yet.

My kids loved their souvenirs and I loved not having to pay full price for them, especially since hers were available in the states. I did get my kids some inexpensive UK specific items. I got them some fun candies we don’t have in the US. I got them really need multi-colored pencils from a Scottish art museum. I got them buttons from a castle, a bookmark from Oxford and cool scene changing postcards from a Harry Potter store I found in York. All told, those souvenirs rang up to less than 10 pounds.

It’s not that I’m cheap, but my kids already have so much. I like to see their faces when I bring them something from my travels, but I also hate spending hours and hours searching for the one thing they really want when I can just order it ahead of time and have it waiting. I learned that lesson four years ago when I went to Vegas with my best friend and my son wanted a scorpion encased in plastic/glass for his bug collection. He figured Vegas was in the dessert, so this would be an easy find. I agreed. Turns out I spent a good portion of the trip trying to find it and finally, in one of the last stores we visited, which was completely off the strip, I found one. Too much work for something that sits on his shelf. So now, if I can order ahead, I do.

 

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Teaching Tuesday: Audiobook Sync

Two years ago, our school librarian, who happens to be one of the best people I know (and my school BFF), introduced me to Audiobook Sync. It is a free summer audiobook program for teens. Although I only found out about it in 2016, it has actually been around since 2010.

The purpose of the program is to offer a variety of books to teens to expose them to a world of both fiction and nonfiction as well as give them the opportunity to enjoy books in audio form, something many of them are probably not familiar with. The program has offered classics like Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Macbeth as well as modern books by popular YA authors such as David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, Ruta Septys Between Shades of Grey and I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, three of my personal favorites. Audiobook Sync also offers some pretty amazing non-fiction like this year’s The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea, and last year’s The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff and The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor by Mark Schatzker.

The program is pretty simple. Each Thursday, two books are offered for download. Students have one week to download the books to their devices before they disappear forever and two new books show up. Once downloaded, the books themselves never vanish. No matter if it takes students two days, two weeks, two months or two years to finish the books, as long as students don’t delete the books, they are theirs to keep and listen to as many times as they’d like.

When I first heard about the program, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I LOVE books. I love actual paper books that I can hold in my hands. I love the smell of them. I love the fell of them. I love their decorative covers. I love the satisfaction of seeing my progress every time I turn a page. I was a reluctant to convert any of my books to digital format and held out against a Kindle for way too long. However, once I got used to digital books, I realized how amazing they are when traveling. Instead of filling my beach suitcase with four or five books, which take up valuable packing real estate, I can load up my tiny Kindle and read those same books on a device that fist in my coat pocket. It took me awhile to convince myself that if I could convert to digital books, I should give audiobooks a chance.

I won’t lie, one of my biggest reasons for holding out was that I was worried I wouldn’t really be “reading” the books. I had many conversations with my fellow bibliophiles about whether or not listing to books was cheating. They all assured me that it wasn’t and that being a lover of theater, I might actually appreciate the theatrics that go into many audiobooks. I sighed and downloaded my first audiobook, 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith.

I WAS HOOKED!

After listening to some pretty amazing books, including I’ll Give You the Sun, which became one of my all-time favorite YA books, I rushed back into school in July and raved about the program to my students. Since we are on the balanced calendar, there were still four more weeks of the program, which meant 8 more books that my students could download.

While not every book is amazing (some due to content and some due to mediocre performances), I have found some truly amazing books using this program. I have even gotten our school librarian to buy paper copies of many of the books so that I can book talk them and get them in the hands of my students.

 

If you are a teacher with reluctant readers, a parent looking for a way to get your kids interested in books or a teen who wants something fun to do this summer, check it out. There are still five more weeks in the program for this year (it is ending a bit earlier than usual this year) and still some amazing sounding books to download.

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Free Reading Friday: The Pornographer’s Daughter

the pornographer's daughterI picked up The Pornographer’s Daughter by Kristin Battista-Frazee as part of my on going search to find interesting non-fiction that might engage my students. Granted, I was pretty sure that a memoir with a title like: The Pornographer’s Daughter, was probably not one I was going to be able to take into my classroom, but it definitely had a catching title that I know my students would think twice about reading.

Although I was not alive when Deep Throat was released, I have seen Lovelace and have done a bit of reading about the original movie. It peaked my interest when I learned about the Watergate connection while studying journalism in college. I have never actually seen the movie itself, not because I have objections to pornography, but more because it was so before my time and no one I know has ever had a copy of it. I’m not opposed to pornography on any moral level, but I’m also not much of a consumer of it either. I know a bit about the adult entertainment business, and I thought this book might give me a bit more insight into it.

What I didn’t realize when I picked up this book was that Battista-Frazee’s father was not directly involved with the making of the movie. When she called herself the pornographer’s daughter, I thought her father might have been one of the director’s or producers of the movie. I thought her dad was going to be a big name in the industry. I had no idea he was simply a stockbroker who wanted to make a bit of extra money by distributing the movie to theaters around the country. I also had no idea the scandal that distribution caused.

Battista-Frazee’s book is an interesting look at the obscenity case that surrounded the movie. While I know a variety of pornography has come under fire over the years for being obscene (as have a variety of art forms that are not categorized as porn), I did not realize that for merely getting a copy of a movie to a theater that wanted to show it, anyone would be followed by the FBI, arrested and indicted. I guess I understand how taking illegal materials over state lines is an issue for the FBI, it just seems so strange to me that taking a pornographic movie to a theater where consenting adults viewed it quite publicly would be viewed as illegal.

Battista-Frazee does a good job of recreating her family’s struggle as her father got entwined not only in the Deep Throat court cases, but through the loss of his stockbroker’s license and his acquisition of further porn businesses. She gives a pretty straightforward account of the pain it caused her mother when her father opened strip clubs and then later pornography shops. She also details some of the additional legal battles he had as a result of becoming a full-time club, video store and sex toy warehouse owner.

Although she had very limited exposure to any of his legal battles or his actual business dealings until after completing her masters’ degree, it is interesting to see how she pieced together information from family interviews and old newspaper and magazine articles about the case. She makes it very clear that she was never in one of his clubs and never even visited one of his adult stores until she was well into her 20’s. Never once does she stray from painting the relationship she had with her dad as perfectly loving and healthy. Her parental relationship issues came from her mother, who was struggling with depression.

This was an interesting read. It’s not a book I will end up taking into my classroom, more to avoid any potential parental complaints than because of any actual lewd or obscene content. I would have no problem telling my students I read the book, but don’t think I need to actually promote it to them. They can discover books like this one when they go to college.

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Travel Thursday: UK Day 1-Edinburgh

Edinburgh long.jpgThree years ago, I led a student trip with EF Tours that went through England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. While I loved each country, since it was an 11 day tour, we didn’t get much time to spend in each country. We spent the most time, four days, in Ireland. From there we took a ferry over to Wales where we spent less than 24 hours, most of which was either on a bus or in a town well after everything had shut up for the evening. The next morning we were on the road heading to Edinburgh. We got to spend a day and a half there, but it was not nearly enough time. I fell in LOVE with Edinburgh.

So, when we were planning our next trip, I knew Scotland had to be more of a destination. In fact, I wanted it to be one of our primary destinations, so I picked the England and Scotland tour. I was so excited to be going back to one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

We landed in Edinburgh, after some rather hellacious turbulence, a little before 10 in the morning (UK time). I’d been up since just before 9 am EST, which meant by the time we touched down, I’d been awake for 20 hours. Since the best way to avoid major jetlag is to stay awake and keep on trucking, that is exactly what we did. We boarded a bus, amidst some truly terrifying wind and headed first on a bus tour of the city and then on a walking tour of it. Despite being on a plane and a bus for many hours, I still managed to get over 14K steps in on that first day during our walking tour.

Scotland Writer's MuseumSince I was sleep deprived, I don’t remember every single place we walked by on that first day. However, one of the first places we passed was the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum. On my first trip no one had alerted me to its existence, but it was in a simply amazing building. Since we were walking and only stopping for pictures and a brief explanation of what the place was, I didn’t get a chance to actually visit, which was probably for the best since it is dedicated to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Although I have read some of Burns’ and Scott’s poetry, Stevenson is the only one I feel really acquainted with and even then, I’ve only read two of his books, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so a visit to the museum might not have been the most interesting to me. Still, the building was the perfect example of why I fell in love with Edinburgh on my first visit. The buildings are breathtaking. Even the “new” portion of the city looks completely historic.

We passed by the museum on our way from the new section of town to the old. Although, like I said, it’s hard to separate the two since pretty much every building in the city looks like it is at least 200 years old. One think the Scots definitely have on us is a sense of true history. America is such a baby country in comparison!

Since our tour guide found out early on that many of us were Harry Potter fans, she made sure to point out some historic Potter sights. The first of which was the Balmoral hotel, the place where JK Rowling wrote several of the Harry Potter books. She also took us past the Elephant House cafe, where Rowling also worked on her books, making sure to mention the cemetery the cafe looks out over where many of the names of her characters came from. In fact, not long after we stopped outside the famous eatery, which was jammed packed with other tourists waiting to pay homage, we headed to that very cemetery.

Edinburgh cemetaryWhile my group was quite hungry and wanted to find lunch rather than explore the grounds of Greyfriar’s Kirkyard looking for their favorite character’s names, we did get an initial look around, which included some really cool stories about hauntings that supposedly have taken place in the graveyard. In addition to some rather terrifying looking mausoleums, when we met back up with the rest of our group, we found out that some of them had a sort of spooky encounter while they looked at the graves. One of my students went to pick up what she thought was a piece of trash on the ground, near one of the mausoleums. Despite being gated, as soon as she got close to it, she heard strange noises coming from inside. At first she thought they might have been animal noises, but then realized it was some sort of metalic clinking. Only one other person was near her, a fellow classmate, and he heard it to, but moments later, it went silent. They said they didn’t stay to find out what had made that noise, but bolted pretty quickly.

gothic rocketThe Kirkyard was the last official stop on our walking tour. After that we had plenty of time to explore on our own before we had to meet back at the Walter Scott memorial, which our tour guide lovingly referred to as the Gothic Rocket. Apparently it is open to climb up for a small fee. A few of my students contemplated it, but realizing how exhausted they were decided that since they’d been up for about 28 hours, they shook the idea pretty quickly. Instead they spent their time doing a little shopping among some of the “posher” stores on the main drag. I’ve been to the UK five or six times now and I’m not really that interested in shopping, especially not for clothes, but I went in and stood in the front of stores while they had looks around I did find a Whittard’s tea shop, which I know from previous trips that I love, so I did get my group to head in and to my delight, many of my students also fell in love with their tea. I think everyone walked out with a Whittard’s bag.

Despite being so tired that some of my group actually fell asleep in The Jolly Ristorante while waiting for their food, we had a great first day in Edinburgh. By the time we got to our hotel, Edinburgh First Pollock Halls, which was actually dorms for the University of Edinburgh, we were very ready to go to sleep. We’d been up for about 32 hours and wiped out doesn’t even begin to describe how we felt. Still, we were all excited about our next day, when we’d get a chance to explore even more of this amazing city.

Edinburgh city

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