Recent Reads

The Gal is STILL Out!

I might be the new “Jess Gal on the Block” (if you didn’t read that last statement to the tune of Jenny from the Block, please go back and do it again. No worries. I’ll wait. Ok, thanks…wasn’t that fun?)  here on my shiny new website but I’m still not quite ready to dive back into full time blogging.

Yes, I know. I was on Spring Break last week and out of internet range.

I’m on Hunger Break this week. No, not a hunger strike. (as if this gal could give up food for even a day. ha.) A Hunger Games break.

Yes. I know. Not a good choice. Now don’t misunderstand me. I adore the books. In fact I’m obsessed by the books. Therein lies the problem: I can’t seem to do anything this week but read. I even took my Kindle to work today and finished the end of The Hunger Games during my planning period. (PS. I’ve NEVER done that before in my teaching career. PPS. I really kind of liked it. PPPS. Amber C. if you are reading this, I never said that!)

And now, my Hunger Games hunger is gnawing at me to get back into the reading game.

Love to all,
~the, I can’t blog when my brain is on the Games gal, Jess

Categories: Hey Teacher (Wo)Man, Recent Reads | Leave a comment

Advent Books and Baking

Advent is one of my favorite times of the year, and as Christmas is a scant 3 days away, that also means the season of advent is drawing to a close.

As child nothing was more exciting that than the weekend I walked in to the church to see the advent wreath hanging from the wooden rafters, gently rotating in the air, made deliciously fragrant with a mixture of evergreen and incense. (I’m a Catholic gal, in case you aren’t familiar with the tradition of an Advent Wreath)

The four week “season” of Advent is meant as a time to prepare for Christmas and reflect on scripture in the Catholic faith. Usually though I end up spending Advent like many other Americans: rushing to the mall, holiday parties, baking extra goodies for family and friends, you know the drill.

And while this year I still have the baking down pat, as I spent the entire day working on these beauties.

What you see above is my annual advent labor of love in honor to my fraternal grandmother (and to my tastebuds, of course-this bread is SO incredible), the baking of Cardamom Bread. I chronicled this day long process back in 2009, so everyone could make this wonderful homemade bread.

One thing I have done more of this Advent however is reflection on my relationship with my faith. I’ve always been proud to be Catholic (although I haven’t talked much about it on the blog) and take comfort in the tradition and ritual of attending weekly mass. However, I’ve always felt like I’m not a very “spiritual” person, in spite of my deep love for my religion. As I’ve gotten older, that lack of a personal connection with God, or any higher power, has led me to some deep thought, prayer and intense  conversation with many friends who are the opposite of me as they label themselves as “spiritual not religious.”

Imagine my surprise then when my most recent read, A Voice in the Wind by Francine Rivers, had a very strong spiritual theme. While reading this beautiful novel set in Rome after the fall of Jerusalem I was so inspired by the quiet strength the heroine Hadassah took in her relationship with the Lord. Hiding her Christianity in a wild, hedonistic city took a deep inner strength that I admired in this fictional character. While I don’t know if reading this book will have any long term effects on my personal spirituality, I found it to be the perfect “accidental Advent” read, because it did provide me plenty of opportunity to reflect on religion and it’s role in society.

I would recommend this novel to anyone, regardless of your take on religion, as it was full of beautify imagery, action, drama, betrayal and of course, love.

Love to all,
~the gal who is very appreciative of Advent, Jess

Categories: Baker's Dozen, Recent Reads | Leave a comment

Close of Summer 2011: Bookworm Style

Technically “fall” started 10 days ago, on the 23rd, but it didn’t feel real to me until this weekend for two reasons. 
The first, we finally had a touch of cool, open your windows and snuggle under the covers, weather this weekend in the typically hot and sticky NorCenFLA.
Secondly, I had a long hard chat with myself about the fact that my body cannot keep up with teaching, while acting like it’s still summer. That means staying up until midnight reading, blogs, books and watching trashy tv like I’m still on summer vacation, only to get up at 4am and do school work, isn’t going to fly. I was sick, tired, frustrated and may or may not have broken down in tears of exhaustion on Friday after the last bell of the day rang.
But did I ever have a good summer of reading. Here are the highlights. 

Song Yet Sung

This amazing story set on the Underground Railroad, aka gospel train, tells the story of Liz, a stolen slave who ties the 1860s on the Chesapeake Bay to the civil rights movement, as she has “dreams of the future” foreshadowing the work of Martin Luther King. This cross centennial story is most definitely a tragic novel, but I loved the message, and the overall concept of hope in the face adversity. I listened to this as an audio book and the reader Leslie Uggams was incredible, singing the title song throughout and giving each character their own voice. 

Farewell to Arms

This is a classic that I’ve been meaning to read for several years now. (Somehow I made it though high school and college without reading any of the “modern classics” so I’m catching up as an adult.) Overall, I enjoyed the story but I will admit that at times I was a bit bored with all the “you are such a lovely girl” blah, blah, “have another drink” blah, blah. I saw the ending coming from a mile away, but I did giggle quite a bit and that is a successful story in my book, errrr, opinion.
Cathedral of the Sea

This book may have changed my life. I’m serious. I read this about a month before going on my summer trip to Europe and while I already knew I was going to Barcelona to visit my friend Sam, I didn’t really have anything else planned. Thank you Falcones, for giving my trip a purpose, other than to drink copious volumes of cava with my childhood friend. (No worries, friends, I polished off plenty of cava for the cause!) 
This novel follows the life of one man, Arnau Estanyol, in tandem with the construction of Santa Maria del Mar or the Cathedral of the Sea, in the 14th century.  This style of novel has always been my favorite, an epic historical fiction, with connections to real historical figures and moments. The day I realized that that I was going to get to visit this beautiful Gothic church, build stone by stone on the laboring backs of the common men of Barcelona I nearly cried. The day I visited the cathedral, I just couldn’t stop smiling, and got goosebumps as I touched the 700 year old stones. 

Read this book. Visit Barcelona. Feel the ghosts of bastaixos who labored with love for their Lady of the Sea.
Fall of Giants

This was another perfectly timed read, right before my trip abroad. Fall of Giants is the first of a trilogy that will follow three generations of British, German, American, Russian and Irish families through WWI, WWII and the Cold War. Of course I love Ken Follett, and epic novels (see above!), but it was so fitting I was hearing about all these European cities, many of which I was about to visit in the coming weeks. My history in WWI and WWII has apparently been lacking, and I really enjoyed seeing how the World Wars have effected so many parts of Europe. I cannot wait for the second book, which is scheduled to be released Spring 2012, because the first book leaves you hanging, with all the main characters having survived the war, and each of them recently having given birth to a young child.
Beatrice and Virgil

I read this book two days after visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany. 
I knew this book was by Yann Martel. I knew it was about animals, as was Life of Pi. I knew that it had some twists. I did not realized that I would be quietly sobbing on a plane to Scotland, because of the strong Holocaust themes. Should you read this book? Absolutely. Will you like it? Well, you decide. It made my stomach hurt, my eyes burn and my temper flare. But that is just me.

Little Bee

Little Bee is not a light read. Are parts of it funny? Yes. But just as many moments are raw, literally graphic and down right painful. This story of a Nigerian refugee in England is set against the backdrop of a British woman and her 4 year old boy Charlie, who will only answer to Batman, recovering from the suicide of Andrew, her husband. This novel explores the place of refugees in “civilized” nations, and the “fairness” of their treatment.

The Glass Castle
This autobiographical story of Jannette Walls growing up with vagabond parents, whom didn’t seem to notice if their four children had food, shelter or clean clothing was actually a fascinating read. This story didn’t tear at my heart strings as much as enrage me to know that this story is happening in every town around our country. I teach students who remind me of Jeannette. No clean clothes, but so very bright. No friends, but desperate for a positive social outlet. Hungry bodies and even hungrier minds.

The Help

I laughed, I cried. I laughed so hard I cried. And then I just cried. 
You is smart. You is kind. You is important. 
I cannot wait to hang that on a nursery wall one day, if not mine, then of my “niece or nephew.” If you haven’t read this yet, please do. And then go do the laugh, cry, laugh, cry some more routine during the movie, too.

Skinny Dip
Least you think my entire summer was filled with war, disadvantaged members of society and tragedy, I had my fair share of “beach reads” too. My favorite author of said summer category is Carl Hiaasen. I’ve read quite the laundry list of his novels: Nature Girl, Star Island, Sick Puppy, Double Whammy….well, you get the point! My first and favorite remains Skinny Dip, the hysterical story of a husband who attempts to murder his wife by tossing her overboard from a cruise liner. Poor schmuck forgot that she is a champion swimmer, and after she survives, takes revenge on her looser hubby, with the help of a reclusive retired police officer.

Well, there you have it. A summer well spent between the pages of books and lands both near and far.

Have any of your recent reads overlapped with mine? Do share! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an early bedtime tonight.

Love to all,
~the “I might just read under the covers with a flashlight anyways” gal, Jess

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Top 10 of 2010: Bookworm Edition

10. Denial- A totally bizarre and unrealistic (I hope!) story of a coked out detective and his stripper girlfriend, but it really made me think, and that is the sign of a good book.

9. The Fountainhead- A classic. This novel took me three months to read (and some crazy late fees at the library!) but this is a beautiful novel, and even if I couldn’t really connect with the self destructiveness of the characters, I still have a crush on Roarke.

8. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel- A modern retelling of Hamlet. A must read for any one who is had a loyal dog or is a dog lover. This book was painful to read at times, not because of the language by any means, but because of the sheer raw emotion. A glorious tragedy.

 7. Strawberry Fields- A “wtf” book, in the best way possible. A crazy ride along with a group of seasonal field workers in Europe. One of the narrators is a dog, and he really makes the book. Read this for a laugh out loud time and a half!

 6. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest- This is the third novel in the Millenium Trilogy, and it took the reading of all three books before I fell in love. Now I know why everyone has been raving about this series and I’m pretty much in love with Lisbeth Salander.

 5. Shadow of the Wind- A dark and creepy novel that is beautifully written (this was my year of beautifully written books and I drank it up) and leaves you on the edge of your seat from the first page until the last. A book about a book, and so much more. 

 4. Agnes and the Hitman- You’ve already heard me rave about this novel. It’s not the most sophisticated writing style, but it cracked me up, made me smile and made me fall in love.

3. Life of Pi- Apparently I’m a late bloomer reading this one, as it is classic summer reading material in high school? I don’t know…my country school didn’t give out a summer reading list. Anyways, this story of survival is woven with religion, philosophy, and mystery. A twisted story that leaves you with more questions than answers is is worth every “woah, what just happened” moment. 

 2. Water for Elephants- I bought this book on a whim in the Atlanta airport, after I finished the book I had in my carry-on. A lovely story of love and adventure on a circus train. And apparently they are making this into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Patterson. Pretty exciting.

1. With- Ok, Confession time. I read this book for the first time in the spring of 2009. I couldn’t stop talking about it, thinking about it, wishing it never ended. So, I bought it for my personal library this year. And read it three more times. And forced encouraged all my friends and families to read it. I love it. It’s on my reading list again. I think I have a problem. A wonderful problem.

 Happy New (Reading) Year! 
Love to all,
~the little booknerd, Jess
PS. I also read Lightening Bug by Donald Harrington this year and while it was pretty damn racy, I still loved it and can’t get over the unique writing style of this author.
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Lessons from Cranky Agnes #92

Eating for Your Beating Heart

There are very few recipes that couldn’t be improved by the addition  of three-quarters of a pound of butter and a cup of heavy cream, but this is cold comfort when you’re laid out like a slab of beef in intensive care, listening to the blood pound in your ears as you seriously consider going toward the light. Think before you eat, people: Food should be the life of you, not the death of you.

from Agnes and the Hitman, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

Amen, Agnes. And bravo.

 A woman after my own heart, and a book that flew by way too quickly. Make this your quick Christmas read, it’s set in sweltering South Carolina in the summertime…so it will help ease the onslaught of freezing temperatures (if you are in NorCenFla) and blizzards (if you are anywhere else, it seems!).

Love to all,
~the “who doesn’t love a funny book about food, murder and love?” gal, Jess

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Lessons from Cranky Agnes, #1

Pan Hunting

Do not be seduced by those big-box come-ons, full of “complete sets” of extraneous cookware. A complete set is whatever you need, and maybe all you need is a wok and hat place to grill your bacon. In a pinch, I can do it all with my good heavy nonstick frying pan. Besides the obvious braising, browning and frying, I can make sauces and stir-fries in it, toast cheese sandwiches and slivered almonds, use the underside to pound cutlets, and in a pinch probably swing ti to defend my honor. If I could find a man that versatile and dependable I’d marry him.

from Agnes and the Hitman, by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

Love to all,
~the little bookworm gal, Jess

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So this is where I rank in the world, eh?

It’s the first day of pre-planning and I thought it only fitting to share this quote from a book I finished just last week.

Regarding fundraising in order to run for political office:

“On the political right, there is the establishment, the money, and big business, and the myriad groups it finances. ON the left, there are the minorities, labor unions, schoolteachers, and the trial lawyers. Only the trail lawyers have money, and it’s pocket change compared with big business.” ~The Appeal by John Grisham

(I took the liberty of bolding schoolteachers.)
Love to all,
~the “yes I’m a busy schoolteacher, but it’s election time, so my eye is on you politicians!” gal, Jess
Categories: Hey Teacher (Wo)Man, Recent Reads | Leave a comment

Bookworms UNITE!

Hello loves,

I had planned on doing a butt-load of reviews for you today of the fab books I’ve had my nose stuck in recently, but as I was perusing the 3 week stack of local newspapers that had accumulated under my nightstand I ran across an article that made my blood turn cold and then rocket sky high (pressure wise, that is)

“Library in Jeopardy of Closing”

Um, WHAT? Who on earth would close a library? Especially in this crazy American world where we are obsessed with literacy and yet I have 11th graders who cannot read. Oh, don’t get me wrong….they can say words…in fact they love to “read” aloud to me from the text, but they don’t get a single blimey word they so proudly spit out (ignoring all the punctual pauses too, ack!). So again I ask WHY would anyone close our beloved libraries? The place where this rural gal made her first friends because I was “too smart” for pre-k! The place where I discovered a love for adventure, food and fiction? A place filled with smart, kind librarians who always smile and give you those yummy soft peppermints. A place that smells amazing (come on, you know books smell sooooo good, don’t be shy). Oh and if we are going to get all 21st century, the place where underprivileged individuals can log onto the internet in this increasingly virtual world.

Why? Well, money of course. Apparently the brilliant and so “with it” people running our state up in Tally had a meeting: (from the article: GCJ 03/18/10)

“…appropriation committees in the Florida House and Senate are now trying to eliminate all funding for Florida’s State Aid to Public Libraries program. Not only would this loss of funding severely weaken libraries ability to serve citizens but it would also mean the closing of library branches throughout the state.”

Ya think? The library this article was focused on is the one right across from the high school I teach at. And until about 3 years ago it was the only public library in our whole county. Not only did I grow up there, as my Mom was a chair person on the Friends of the Library program for years, I see my students flood over to it each day after the bell rings. Libraries are essential to all neighborhoods and I am incensed that our political leaders could so carelessly purpose such a removal of funding.

If the United States of American wants to be one of the world’s leaders we need SMART LEADERS, and since our current ones are not doing the best job we need the tools to produce new leaders, aka our students. So please, keep cutting the funding to libraries, remove the arts from schools, just go right ahead and sabotage the future of our country, you will be dead in 15 years anyways, Mr. Careless Congressman.

If you are concerned about this issue please write (or email) to your congressmen, house reps or even the Governor himself: Charlie Crist. Links here.

Love to all,
~the book-lover herself, Jess

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Overdue Reviews!

Hi Kids!
So, I’ve been teasing you guys for weeks about doing a couple reviews: one on “Pilate’s Wife” and another on some of the LUSH products I got samples of. Sorry that I ended up putting these reviews on the shelf, but in case you haven’t notice I’ve been a little busy dumping my life upside down…..which seems to have become a yearly ritual come July, hoping that stops this year! haha. We will leave the real world outside tonight and jump in with a review of a wonderful book by Antoinette May.This is the second book I’ve read in the past year that tells the story of Jesus from a female’s point of view and while it was very different from “The Secret Magdalene” by Li Longfellow, they did have quite a few overlapping concepts. Both have young, strong willed women as the narrator which is always a hit in my book, since I feel that girls (and women!) can always use a positive, strong female influence in their lives, even if it’s a fictional character. What I loved even more about both of these books was they portrayed Jesus as a light hearted, attractive but determined young man. I have often felt that other portrayals, including those in the Gospels have shown him to be reserved and aloof, so both of these books have a wonderful image of a lovable, jovial man, which is the kind of lord I would want, right? Anyways, back to the book review: “Pilate’s Wife” skillful weaves the world of Egyptian gods with a world of Roman tyranny and how Pontious Pilate came to be the man to hand down the death sentence to the Son of God. I don’t want to give the story away, but trust me it is a wonderful mix of adventure, romance, heartbreak and the fight to do what is right. I’m not a lit major, so I have a hard time really giving a good review, but trust me I know a good book, and this one is superb. Please go read it.

Now on the the skin care. I was recently in the International Plaza, killing time before dinner with some friends when I wandered into a little shop called LUSH. To my delight I discovered that I had just walked into a earth friendly skin Nirvana. Or so I thought. All of LUSH’s products are handmade and most are vegan friendly. I had been looking for some skin care products that are more natural and another source of handmade soap, since the goat’s milk soap I currently have leaves you smelling-well like a goat. 😦 Lush has pretty much every thing a earth friendly gal would need-bar soaps by weight, butter bars, solid shampoos, bath frizzy things (I’m not a bath girl…but for those of you that are, you might enjoy their “bath bombs”) lotions, potions, etc. The clerk spent a long time with me explaining products, looking at my combo face, and then sent me home with 2 samples of face cleanser– both Angels on Bare Skin and the Dark Angels, which is better for oil skin (oh, oh…pick me!) and the Imperials Facial Moisturizer. I also purchased a 1/4lb of their MudFlats soap, because it has real mud in it and reminded me initially of when I used to play in the riverbank clay and how good that made my skin feel.
So, you may have noticed how I’ve said “initially” a few times in this review. Let’s just say, while I’ve not given up on LUSH yet, I’m not a convert yet either. I’ve actually thrown the soap away. Once wet it had a very strong sent that reminded me of the boy’s dorm bathrooms…not the fragrance I want lingering on any part of my body. I wish I had gotten the Porridge Soap but that is another con about LUSH, their products are a bit pricey, so I didn’t get to go crazy in the shop and was SO thankful that the clerk gave some the face care samples. But I’m not a convert on them either. The facial cleansers are in a grit form (sorry, I don’t know how else to describe it) so you wet your face and then get a pinch of the solid and then make a paste out of them and the finally wash your face. Also, the main ingredient of Dark Angels is charcoal, which makes a mess in the sink. They made my skin feel very soft and exfoliated, but again had a very strong, lingering smell. I haven’t even been able to put the moisturizer on, because it smells so strong. So, overall I would say Lush is a great idea, and I might order a few more of their soaps, but I guess I’m still a drugstore products kind of girl!

Phew! Hope you guys enjoyed those reviews. I can get them off my “to do” list…which is pretty packed-with laundry, packing, a weekend jaunt to Orlando! (Yay, for blogger lunches!) and figuring out my housing situation come August. Big changes, big changes.

Enjoy your weekend, my beauts.
Love to all,
~A slightly freaked out, but still upbeat Jess

Categories: Recent Reads | 2 Comments

Working at the CarWash…oheoheOH!

Hi loves,
Hope everyone has been having a great weekend thus far. Mine would seem boring to most, but I’ve gotten a lot of things done this weekend already:

Wash Car [check]
Wash dog [check]
Wash Clothes [check]
Wash Hair [check]

To explain that last one: I’m a compulsive shower-er. I often times take two (and a few times-three) showers a day. I guess I’m like my college friend Austin, who recently discussed this in his blog, that while I don’t mind being flat out filthy-which often happens when I’m at the barn or working on the cars with Dad- but I don’t like being slightly dirty. I’m a compulsive hand washer too, but not a germ-a-phob interestingly enough. But I digress about the dirty hair…while I have showered this week (haha) I hadn’t washed my hair in a few days, because it’s much easier to get dirty hair up…and trust me it’s been so bloody humid here that wearing my hair on my neck and my charming bangs on my forehead ain’t gonna be pretty!

Other things accomplished not related to water: throwing out the rest of my nasty over a year old nutrasystem food (it’s a long story, but don’t let other people’s success influence how you should fuel yourself for healthy eating) and organize the cart that is my pantry…that project has been on my list for MONTHS and it only took about 5 mins but felts sooooo good to get it off the to do board! Also, I got my couch today! Whoot. A friend of mine is moving into a smaller space so she needed to get rid of the larger sofa of her living room set. It just happens to go with my color scheme (which has all be wonderfully karmatic!) and was a really great price too. Yeah, it’s not my dream couch and it’s had some wear, but I’m psyched. Once I get my living room rearranged the way I like it, I will post pictures!

And now, the review of Hollywood Car Wash by Lori Culwell that I’ve been teasing about. This book is a straight up harlaious tale of a midwest girl who becomes one of the Hollywood Starlets in about 3seconds. I was cracking up from about page two, and while the surface of this book seems to be just “beach read” the more I thought about the body image issues that stem from the “starlet images” fed to our society by the Hollywood scene it got me thinking. This book does address that body image issues, but the lead character gives into them (for a while-I don’t want to do any spoilers, so please read the book to get the full message) and even has a stylist offer her a bag of coke to stay slim- luckily she turns down that offer! The book also jokes about airbrushing of photoshoots for magazines, etc. While I was drooling over the salary and swag bags I am relieved to live in “my world” filled with supportive people, like my family and friends, and the blog world who have the right positive images of what makes a sexy, healthy woman. I think if more people realized how not only Hollywood influences us, but in return we hold this stigma on how all the stars should be crazy slim and then the rags call them “fat slobs” when a candid picture is taken at the beach-it’s a crazy catch 22 that has been created. I’m just glad to not be caught up in the skinny rat race. I know that was a little rambly at the end, but please read the book-for fun and for a good perspective on the craziness of being the “it” girl in H-wood!

In food news, well I dont’ have any exciting to share other than this:
I present to you….JustJess’ first nut butter! Dark Chocolate Cashew. Thanks to the fact that my grandparents have spoiled me with a few top of the line kitchen items, including my blender I decided to make a batch of nut butter and choose cashew because they are softer than almonds and just wanted to make sure that my Breville could really handle it. It wasn’t as easy as the grinders that I got my Cashew Butter from at the Decatur Farmers Market that spoiled me so, when I lived in the ATL but it worked….1lb dry roasted cashews (would have been better with fresh I’m sure, but I couldn’t find them) and about 1.5oz dark chocolate. I added a teaspoon or so of veggie oil, but didn’t want to weight it down with oil, so then subbed the rest of the oil with just water…it worked! Yum. Thick and creamy, with an amazing mouth feel. Can’t wait to mix it in oatmeal or just have as a snack on some pretzels.

Now my dears I have just enough time to get ready for mass!
Enjoy your Sunday!
Love to all,
A busy bee Jess

Categories: Recent Reads | 1 Comment

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