Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Read-athon!

Oh boy - am I excited!

Kristen at Bookworming in the 21st Century is hosting a read-athon to celebrate the New Year. This is a very low key, non-stressful event that is just perfect for this English teacher who is dreading the return to school (not the return to the classroom as much as the return to grading papers -- but I digress).

This event will run from 5:00pm Thursday, December 31 to 10:00pm Sunday, January 3rd. We can read as little or as much as we want, and I hoping to read quite a bit as it will be a while before I can devote this kind of time to personal interests.

Now for those of you who are free on New Year's Eve (I will be going out with a dear friend and her husband - so reading will be out of the question, but I am sure we will be talking about books) --- Kristen is also offering the Reading in the New Year event. If you are looking for something fun to do with other literary minded people, this might be a viable for you.

Anyway, I will probably not do much reading on New Year's Eve, but I plan to do a chunk of reading on New Year's Day - and over the course of the weekend. I have several library books that I need to skim before their deadline, and I am hoping to read an Agatha Christie novel to perhaps teach at the end of the year in my Brit Lit class. There are many other options that I have at my disposal, but since this is a weekend to do as I please --- I refuse to plan too much. I will just read what suits my fancy and enjoy every single minute!!

Thanks so much, Kristen, for starting me out on the right literary foot in 2010!

Review: Book by Book

by Michael Dirda
Henry Holt and Company
copyright 2005
rating: 3 out of 5

I was first attracted to this book while surfing Amazon for books about books. This was listed as a book for "others who bought (insert book) also bought these books." I have not read any of Dirda's works before, but the title definitely caught my eye. I immediately placed a hold for it at my local library.

A partial summary from the front book flap reads:
Organized by significant life events and brimming with quotations from great writers and thinkers, Book by Book showcases Dirda's capacious love for and understanding of books. Through his suggested readings and brief essays he draws us deeper into the classics, as well as lesser-known works of literature, history, and philosophy, with an eye to how we might better understand our lives.
His love and knowledge of literature is quite evident between these pages, but I don't think this was exactly the kind of book that I was looking for (although I truly have no idea what sort of book I had in mind). I also think that I picked this book up after just completing Jeremy Mercer's memoir of Shakespeare and Co., and I probably need more of a break between similar non-fiction style books. While this book did not immediately grab my attention like I had hoped, there were some literary works listed that I definitely have added to my TBR list, and he does give some very practical advice for developing reading habits, both in ourselves as well as in our children.

He also wrote a bit on book reviewers, that truly resonated with this novice blogger - which I would like to share:
It does seem to me that critics and reviewers can be loosely divided into two camps: Those who never let you forget that they are judge, jury, and, if need be, executioner; and those who humble themselves before a poem or novel, waiting for it to reveal its secrets to them. The first kind of critic aims to absorb the book; the second hopes to be absorbed by it.

In general the macho critic is more fun to read. He (or she) is opinionated, controversial, argumentative, funny. Behind the showmanship, however, often lurks an ideologue's desire to persuade: this novelist is too self absorbed; that biography is pedestrian; those reviews are wrongheaded; these stories are wonderful. For such a self-confident intellect the measure of all books becomes ultimately the critic's own taste, imagination, and convictions.

The receptive critic, by contrast, presumes that the work under review is the measure. He tries to avoide preconceptions and instead make himself open to the book's argument or its particular magic. If such a critic finds a novel boring or strange or mystifying, he more often than not assumes that he has failed to understand it. Rather than pass summary judgment, this unassertive but sensitive reader prefers to present an author's work accurately and sympathetically, employing his own artistry, sometimes considerable, in the service of the book.

Of course, most practicing critics mix these two approaches, sometimes uneasily, hoping to balance argument with information, razzle-dazzle with reverence, all the while trying to avoid the pitfalls of both.......(page 129-130)
I wonder which camp you fall into? As for me, I am definitely the second type of reviewer, always assuming that it is my fault for not "getting" the book, rather than the author's writing quality.

The other aspect of the book that I feel is worth a mention is his list of books suitable for the Guest Room Library. He defines "the essential quality of a guest-room book is that it must avoid all the normal requirements of a 'good read.' Nothing too demanding or white-knuckled suspenseful. Ideally, items should be familiar, cozy, browsable, above all soothing" (page 40).

He goes on to say that while all guest rooms should at least have the Bible, works of Shakespeare, and at least one Jane Austen novel, there are several major light-reading genres which are essential: mystery (at the top of the list is Sherlock Holmes); horror and fantasy (mostly short ghost stories that can be read in a single sitting); Humor; Biography; Poetry; Children's Classics; Deep - but not Too Deep - Thoughts; Reference; Journals and Diaries, Odds and Ends (personal favorites of the homeowner; and....just in case....Leonard Maltin's annual guide to movies.

Now I personally do not have a room of the house that is devoted to just guests, but if I were to eventually have such a room, I think I would like to create a library much like the one described above.

All in all this book was definitely worth the brief skimming, and I may perhaps pick it up again some day and read it in more detail.

Review: Time was Soft There

Time was Soft There
by Jeremy Mercer
St. Martin's Press
copyright 2005
rating: 4 out of 5

It is such a tangled web to discover how I come to find certain books to add to my TBR pile. The web for this delightful little memoir began last week when I read Fleur Fisher's list of books she read to complete the In Their Shoes Challenge. Out of the 18 books read, I was immediately drawn to the one entitled, Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co. Fortunately she provided the link to her review and even though she gave it a mediocre rating, I was still intrigued. I have been to Paris twice, but have never had the opportunity to visit the famous landmark, and the title of book was simply irresistible. However, when I tried to check it out from my own local library, I discovered the American title for this book is, Time was Soft There. I came home, opened the book to the first page, and was immediately drawn into the author's story.
It was a gray winter Sunday when I came into the bookstore.

As had been my habit during that troubled time, I was out walking. There was never a specific destination, merely an accumulation of random turns and city blocks to numb the hours and distract from the problems at hand. It was surprisingly easy to forget oneself among the bustling markets and grand boulevards, the manicured parks and marble monuments. (first paragraph).
Immediately I was transported to the cobblestone walkways of Paris, imagining the Eiffel Tower in the distance, the Seine flowing down the center of the city, and the outdoor cafes calling my name to sit down, order a coffee, and watch the time pass slowly by. While this book does not focus on the typical tourist spots of gay Paris (Notre Dame is mentioned occasionally, but only because it is located directly across the street from the bookstore), it does focus on the eclectic group of people living in this cramped, disorganized, antiquated bookstore who have such a passion for writing and books that it appears to transcend all other problems in life.

There is something rather romantic in the notion of fleeing the rat-race of America and escaping to Europe to follow the passion of one's heart. The willingness to leave all material possessions behind for the pursuit of an artistic lifestyle seems to tug at my heartstrings. Yet as I read the details of this kind of existence --- living with other strangers on a lumpy mattress on a dirty hardwood floor with the only communal bathroom caked with urine on the walls, I am quickly brought back to the reality that this would not be the life for me.

This is a true story of how a Canadian newspaper reporter, receiving death threats from a former informant, flees his country and winds up in Paris with little money and no emotional resources. The walk along the streets at the beginning of the book leads him to the famous, Shakespeare and Company bookstore where he learns that the owner, George Whitman, often provides housing for struggling writers in exchange for help around the store and the promise to read one book a day. While this arrangement is only supposed to last a week, most of those in residence stay for several months, sometimes dragging on for a year or more. I believe the author, Jeremy Mercer, stayed about 4 or 5 months.

While the author gives a personal account of his stay and the characters, or rather, people with whom he comes in contact, the true focus of the story is George Whitman -- a gruff, communist octogenarian who will publicly berate anyone - but always offer the shirt off his back.
George could stretch a franc to unimaginable lengths. No piece of bread was too stale or rind of cheese too dry. Once, I was soundly berated for pouring the leftover pickle juice down the sink while washing the jar. "That's a delicacy! I can make soup with that. I used to drink pickle juice," George roared. "What are you? A Rockefeller?"

....The practice of such discipline is how Shakespeare and Company survived, and how he was able to spend half a century feeding and housing people for free. George had discovered money to be the greatest slave master, and by reducing your dependence on it, he believed, you could loosen the grip of a suffocating world." (page 112)
I enjoyed reading the stories of George and his tough exterior but generous interior. I enjoyed listening to the dreams and aspirations of some of the writers in residence -- all passionate about the written word. There was something which captivated me as I read about the seedier side of the city -- perhaps it made Paris more approachable, more real. I find the author's writing style to be fluid, detailed, and easy to read. He has definitely instilled a desire in me to return to Paris and search out this literary landmark.

As a final note, I was curious as to how the U.S. title came to be. I mean, I totally understand the title used in Europe -- Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs. Not only does it make sense, but the alliteration is memorable. It wasn't until I was half-way with the book that the American title was explained:
In the criminal world, there is a term, hard time, which refers to difficult prison sentences in maximum-security facilities or under some form of protective custody. This is for dangerous convicts, the murderers, the sex offenders. Hard time goes slowly and painfully and leaves a man bitter when eventually he does get released into the world.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were the medium-and minimum-security facilities, which were designed to rehabilitate offenders. Here there were libraries and weight-training rooms, high school equivalency classes and floor-hockey tournaments. One institution I visited had a farm inside the barbed wire where the inmates worked in the fields and provided fruit, vegetables, and eggs for the prison. Another prison had a baseball team that toured the region - playing in a community beer league. This was known as soft time, time that went easily, time that was a pleasure to do.

Time at Shakespeare and Company was as soft as anything I'd ever felt (pages 171-172).
I could say the same for the reading of this book. It was soft time --- time went easily, slowly, and it was quite enjoyable. And when I finished the book, I had indeed learned something about myself and humanity as a whole.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reading Statistics for 2009

Well, it seems to be the thing to the statistics for a year's worth of reading. This is the first year that I have even attempted to keep any records of my reading, and I must say that I rather enjoy looking at my progress. I think it is wonderful that I now have a record of not only the books I have read, but my initial reactions. This will be invaluable as I attempt to look back at my literary life (my memory is already starting to fade --- I simply cannot imagine what it will be like in 20 years).

While my stats are not at all impressive - especially compared to several veteran book bloggers - I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have greatly improved over previous years due to this marvelous book blog community. Not only did I come in contact with more titles and authors that I knew I "had" to read, but I was actually motivated to go out and read them --- with the help of the 24 hour Read-athon, book challenges, and encouraging readers. Starting this blog was definitely a highlight of the year.

I obviously need to do a better job of keeping statistical records. I was lucky to remember to write down the title and the author, but at least I have a start, and I know how to improve in 2010.

Number of books read: 72 + 3 audio
Number of pages read: approx. 21,300 (+ 25 audio CDs)
This does not include books read and re-read for the classes that I teach.

Number of book reviews written: 51

Number of library books read: 42
Number of personal books read: 33
Number of books read from those purchased prior to 2009: 6
This number is bound to improve in 2010 since I purchased many more books this year than I ever have in the past. I will make it a priority to read some of those that have been patiently waiting on the shelves.

Number of fictional titles read: 57
Number of non-fiction titles read: 17 (mostly books on writing or memoirs)
Number of audio books: 3
Number of manga: 1

Number of books purchased: 149 (thanks to all of your tempting suggestions!!!)
Total money spent on purchased books: $360
However, if you "dollar cost average" --- that is only $2.41 per book. The vast majority of my books are purchased in the clearance section of the used bookstore, and I have also taken books in to recycle -- which gave me store credit.

Number of books won through blogger contests: 18
I hesitated to enter contests when I first started blogging, but then I realized I had nothing to lose. I am so excited to have added these wonderful books to my shelves because of your generosity. THANK YOU!

Number of books received from author: 4

Number of ARCs received: 8
I have learned that I just do not have the time to really review ARCs as I had hoped. Perhaps when I retire this will be a viable option for me.

Number of challenges joined: 12
Number of challenges completed: 5
Number of challenges failed completely (did not read a single book): 3
I have tried to do a better job of signing up for challenges that I truly think I can complete in 2010. The ones that I totally failed, I WILL complete at some point (Everything Jane Austen, Harry Potter, and Women Writers of 18th and 19th Century), but this phase of my life is just not the right time.

Value of first blogging year: Priceless!!

I'm a Ding Dong!

Well, now I've gone and done it. I have not only made a private resolution to live a more healthy lifestyle, I have actually joined an "accountability" group to help me achieve it. And this is no ordinary accountability group. Oh no --- when I do it, I do it up big. I am now an official member of the Ding Dongs in the Game On Diet challenge! What this means is that I not only have a group of fellow dieters to help encourage and motivate me to success --- but there are also two other teams --- the Ho Ho's and the Twinkies --- against whom we will be competing for prizes!! Talk about pressure!

I remember catching the last few days of the first Game On diet challenge last summer and wishing that I could be a part. Well, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for :)

In all honesty, I am thrilled to have this opportunity. I have wanted to begin living a more healthy lifestyle for several years now and just have not had the self-discipline to do so. I do not really aspire to lose weight, but I do want to begin a regular exercise routine that will last the rest of my life --- and I know I need to start eating more healthy (I think I drink on average 4 ounces of water a day -- so that is the first habit that will need to change). I think this fun, competitive atmosphere is just the push I need to force me to do the right thing. And...what better time to start than at the start of a new decade in my life.

Now, this just happens to correspond with another healthy challenge in which I have wanted to participate -- the 100 Mile Fitness Challenge. I vacillated back and forth this fall whether to join or not - and Trish was so kind and encouraging, but the bottom line was... I just wasn't mentally ready. Well, I am now. My goal is walk 30 minutes a day for a minimum of 5 days out of 7 and I plan to listen to the Harry Potter series while I do it (hmmm...wonder if I should join the audio book challenge while I'm at it?!). Talk about multi-task. I figure by the end of March I should be more than half way through the series, and I should have walked about 125 miles. Boy -- I feel better already.

So there you have it -- my normally very private goals for the new year out in the open for all to see. I figure I will either have one awesome post come April 1 -- or I will have to admit a very public defeat.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

In a Quandary.....

As many of you know, I am currently working on my Master's Degree. I am working through the Bread Loaf School of English (affiliated with Middlebury College) and it is definitely geared towards teachers. In essence the program requires students to take two classes each summer for 5 summers in order to earn a Master of Arts degree. The vast majority of these classes are literature based, with a requirement that 2 of the classes be British Literature prior to 1700; 2 classes be British Literature post 1700; 1 American Literature; and 1 World Literature course. The remaining 4 courses can be electives.

I have currently completed 2 summers -- one in Santa Fe, NM where I took a course on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and a course on Victorian Narratives; and last summer I attended the campus in Asheville, NC where I took a course called Rewriting Your Life and one on Teaching Shakespeare.

There are two other campuses that I can attend, or I can go back to either of the above locations. My quandary is that I really...REALLY...REALLY want to go to Oxford. They have a class entitled, Atlantic Crossings: Anglo-American Literary Relations from 1798-1900 ---and it will fulfill two of my remaining American Lit and Brit Lit post 1700 requirements. The problem is....of I am just not sure that I swing the cost and even if I can - there will be the added airfare expense and the inevitable sight-seeing excursions that I know I will want to take. Somehow it just does not seem fair to my family if I do this. YET....this is truly a chance of a lifetime and a window of opportunity. I am clueless how to proceed. Any wisdom or advice from you literary experts out there would be greatly appreciated.

NOW...this does have a direct impact on blogging. See, if I take this course then I think I can safely join some other reading challenges that have tempted me for weeks, namely the Typically British reading challenge and the Chunkster challenge. The required reading for this susmmer course includes Moby Dick and The Mill on the Floss (definitely chunkster material), as well as Walden, Scarlet Letter, selections from Edgar Allan Poe, Frankenstein, and The House of Mirth.

On the other hand, if I do not go to Oxford, then I will probably return to Asheville, where I will take another writing course (this time focusing on Writing about Place) and a course solely devoted to Faulkner (whom I have never read, but the professor is amazing and I have been told that I simply must take him before I graduate). I guess if Oxford does not pan out, I can offer my own reading challenge on Faulkner material (just trying to look on the bright side of things). AND...if I do not go to England then there is the very good chance that I can attend the Book Expo of America 2010 in New York City - which was quite the blast year.

Anyway, there is my dilemma. I do not have to decide on a campus until mid-February, but for those of you who know me, I do like to have all my ducks in a row as soon as possible. If you have any opinion whatsoever regarding this "momentous" decision :) ---- I would greatly appreciate hearing from you.

final TSS of 2009

As I sit here typing, looking out the living room window at the snow that continues to flurry since Christmas Eve, I am filled with a thankful heart. It is hard to believe that this year is nearly over and we are about to embark on a new decade in the 21st Century --- when did time start zooming past me?

The year began rather bleak, with the economy uncertain and my husband just recently unemployed, but somehow, some way we have made it through. There may be nothing left in the savings account, but we are now both gainfully employed in jobs that, for the most part we enjoy, and we are living in a house that keeps us safe and warm. Christmas Day was celebrated with all the kids + my mom spending the night in various sections of the house - and everyone actually getting along! It was such fun to watch the kids play the various games that Santa brought (who would have though that the $3.00 gift of Dominoes would be the hit of the day?!) and the holiday traditions seemed to be more meaningful this year. I am truly blessed.

While we do not officially celebrate Boxing Day in this part of the world, I took it upon myself to embrace this English holiday by relaxing all day Saturday, eating only fun, leftover holiday food, and reading on the couch in front of the well-lighted Christmas tree. It was truly relaxing! I was thrilled to pick up my copy of The Children's Book from the local library earlier in the week, and I have been snuggled up with it for most of the weekend. I know that it has received mixed reviews around the blogosphere, and while it is most definitely not a fast-paced, plot driven book, there is something very comforting about reading a book about an author of children's books and discovering how real-life events are transferred into fantasy stories.
Each child had a book, and each child had his or her own story. It had begun, of course, with Tom, whose story was the longest. Each story was written in its own book, hand-decorated with stuck-on scraps and coloured patterns. Tom's was inky-blue-black, covered with ferns and brackens, some real, dried and pressed, some cut out of gold and silver paper. Dorothy's was forest-green, covered with nursery scraps of small creatures, hedgehogs, rabbits, mice, blue-tits and frogs. Phyllis's was rose-pink and lacy, with scraps of gauzy-winged fairies in florid dresses, sweet-peas and bluebells, daisies and pansies. Hedda's was striped in purple, green and white, with silhouettes of witches and dragons. Florian's book was only little, a nice warm red, with Father Christmas and a yule log. (page 88)
I have always enjoyed scrapbooking and have tried to make one album for each of the children when they graduate from high school. The above passage reminds me of what I might do if I were a storyteller - and rather than make a scrapbook of memories, I would instead write each child their own fantasy story. There is something rather romantic in that daydream.

Since this book is over 650 pages long, I do not anticipate reading much else over my Christmas break. I do, however, plan to finalize my reading challenges for 2010 --- there are still a few that I am considering --- and I will make that one of my final posts of 2009. I will also need to review all the books that I have read this year and attempt to post the Cozy Book Nook's list of Best Books Read in 2009. There will be lots of literary activity over the next few days -- not the least of which will involve trips to Borders and Half Priced Books, as I received gift cards to both of these great stores. I plan to go by myself so that I may spend as much time as I want browsing up and down the aisles, reading book jacket flaps and introductory chapters, and carefully deciding which books to purchase now --- and which to add to the TBR list.

I hope that all of you had a wonderful, relaxing, blessed holiday spent with family and loved ones, and that you too are able to take some time for yourself in these last few days of the year.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review: The Christmas Dog

The Christmas Dog
by Melody Carlson
Revell - a division of Baker Publishing Group
copyright 2009
rating: 3 out of 5

Shortly after Thanksgiving I saw several reviews of this book around the blogosphere: Julie of Booking Mama, Amy of My Friend Amy, Lesa of Lesa's Book Critiques, and Deborah of Books, Movies and Chinese Food. Not only did I decide to read this read holiday book because I implicitly trust the opinions of these experienced bloggers, but how could I possibly resist that "cute little doggie in the window" on the front cover. I ordered the book from my local library, and surprisingly I was able to read it prior to Christmas day.

If I were to sum this book up in one word it would be - Sweet. I realize that is not a high-level literary term, but this is really a sweet book and no other description will do.

The summary from the back cover reads:
Christmas miracles can come from unlikely sources.

Betty Kowalski isn't looking forward to the holidays. She just can't seem to find Christmas in her heart. Maybe it's because her husband is gone. Maybe it's because she's missing her children. Or maybe it has something to do with her obnoxious new neighbor, who seems to be tearing his house apart and rearranging it on the lawn.

But when a mangy dog appears at her doorstep, the stage is set for Betty to learn what Christmas is really all about.
Betty is definitely experiencing the holiday blues, and even contemplates selling the house she has lived in for decades to move closer to her daughter. While Betty tries to be the polite Christian neighbor and show kindness to those who are most difficult to love, she just doesn't seem to be getting through and is about ready to give up.

The unexpected surprise for Betty is not only the arrival of the mangy mutt - Ralph, but also her granddaughter Avery who has run away from home at the age of 23 and in search of acceptance. The story is the development of relationships in Betty's life: her relationship with Avery; her relationship with Jack, the back door neighbor; Jack's relationship with Avery; and everyone's relationship with Ralph.

Now, I am not only a sucker for any story that centers around our canine relations, but I also have a dog named Ralf whom I know could charm the socks off any Christmas scrooge. I must admit that at times I thought this story was more than a little predictable, but I think that is allowable for a holiday read. And while I tend to steer away from Christian fiction because of its tendency to be sappy and preachy, I did not find this message to be too pedantic for my taste.

There are two passages that I think adequately summarizes the message - and flavor - of this book:
Pastor Gordon leaned over the pulpit and paused, looking across the congregation as if he were about to disclose a great secret. "God's ways are higher than our ways, my friends." He held up a fist and raised his voice. "And God's love can come unexpectedly. It can rock your life and rattle your heart! Just like the world wasn't ready to receive God's love in the form of a child that was hurled from heaven to earth, we're not always ready to receive God's love. And we're not prepared to accept that it comes in a variety of ways. Often when we least expect it, God's love can show up in the form of something or someone we aren't happy to see - something or someone we want to push way or even run from. And, let me tell you, God's love can make us downright uncomfortable at times. Just like that newborn baby wailing in the night made some people in Bethlehem uncomfortable. and yet they needed him - desperately. And we need him. Desperately. Embrace God's love, my friends. Receive it. And then share it." (page 150)
and then.....
" Betty followed him, she couldn't help but wonder how a little stray dog like that had wandered into their lives, or how he had attached himself to not just one person in need, but two. Make that three. And she considered how this little dog had brought them all together. Really, in some ways, it seemed nothing short of a miracle." (page 170)
I think if we are receptive to God's ways, he can always provide miracles in the most unexpected places --- but I personally would not be at all surprised to find that miracle living in the body of a friendly canine companion.
I have never read any of Melody Carlson's works before, but I understand that her book, The Christmas Bus, is definitely worth a read. I think I will check that one out next holiday season.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas.....

Well, they have been predicting snow for Christmas Eve all week, but I know better than to believe them. Weather in the Midwest is extremely unpredictable and each year we are told there is a chance of a white Christmas, only to be told on the 23rd that the storm will pass us by. I refused to get my hopes up this year. Well, it is now Christmas Eve and we are still in a Winter Storm Warning until tomorrow night --- so it looks like Christmas 2009 will indeed be a dream come true for me! I think we are supposed to have about 3-4 inches of snow in my local area, which is enough to cover the ground, but not too much to cause major problems. (the picture to the left was actually taken last year -- but I am hopeful that the backyard will look like this in a few hours).

My back is still causing me problems, but that has not kept me from doing all the food preparations. I have solicited the help of family members in ironing the holiday linens and bringing up the Christmas platters, but other than that, I have paced myself to do what needs to be done without overdoing it. Truth be told - this was probably a blessing in disguise. I rarely take time to sit down and relax during this hectic season -- always rationalizing that there is something else that needs to be done. The pain in my backside has forced me to take frequent breaks - and what better way to take a break than to read a good book.

I have read - and became completely engrossed in Time was Soft There: a Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare an Co. by Jeremy Mercer (my review will be posted soon); I skimmed Book by Book by Michael Dirda (a mini review will also be posted); and I have just started reading The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt, which I am thoroughly enjoying (yes -- my copy arrived at the local library two days ago and I am thrilled. It was like an early Christmas present).

I need to assemble the spinach bread, make the aioli sauce, set the table, and wrap a few more presents. Otherwise I plan to sit in front of the tree, patiently waiting for the soft snowflakes to blanket the ground, and read a good book.

I hope you are having a memorable Christmas Eve as well, filled with the joy and happiness of this special holiday season.

Merry Christmas to all of you --- my most precious cyber friends!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gingerbread Houses

About a week ago I posted some of our family traditions, which include making gingerbread houses. Several of you requested that I post the finished products, and I am happy to comply.

On Monday night we had my daughter and her husband, my son and his girlfriend, along with her stepfather, mother, and brother, and my youngest daughter participate in the annual decorating of the GB --- as they have dubbed the event on twitter. My husband and I tried to ensure that everyone had enough frosting and goodies to complete their project.

The ante has now officially been "upped" in the Gingerbread House event. While the "typical" house would include two pentagons for the front and back, two squares for the sides, and two rectangles for the roof --- many participants this year decided to cut their own shapes for a different gingerbread look. But I am getting ahead of myself. On Sunday afternoon I rolled, cut, and baked 8 different houses. I usually do this at least 24 hours in advance so that the gingerbread has a chance to set and somewhat harden.

On Monday afternoon I went shopping for all the decorating goodies. These tend to vary slightly from year to year, but typically include:
  • Frosted Mini Wheat cereal -- makes a great thatched roof; or hay
  • Tootsie Rolls - makes great logs stacked on the side of the house
  • Green Gumdrops - makes perfect bushes to decorate with snow along the perimeter of the house
  • Necco wafers --- good for a roof
  • Red Licorice bites - also good for a red tile roof effect - or a chimney
  • M&Ms --- all around good decorating
  • Jelly Belly (ice cream assortment) - these particular colors make great sidewalks or stone effects for the side of a house
  • Stick Pretzels -- make a great fence or just good all-around building material (I forgot to buy these this year and was made aware of my faux pas. It will not happen again)
  • Nerds - or other small candies - make good Christmas Light decorations
Of course the sky is the limit with candy decorations - but these tend to be our favorites.

As I mentioned before, this year we got into the sculpting of gingerbread as well as the simple candy decorations. One made a rather clever in-ground house sculpture; my son-in-law made a pick up truck, my daughters made an adobe style house, and my son and his girlfriend put their houses together and made a "ranch" house (hmmm....I wonder if this was a subtle hint that they plan to eventually live together?? -- eg --- an engagement is in the near future?)

Ultimately I think fun was had by all. Decorating lasted nearly two full hours, and many laughs were shared. It is always a great time - and I am so glad that this tradition has continued after the kids have grown. Although I do wonder how many houses I will have to make once grandchildren are on the scene?!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Just who is My Cozy Book Nook??

Well, as a result of too much cookie baking and leaning over the table to roll out the dough for several hours, I now have severe lower back pain and will be unable to do much of anything all day (personally, I see this as a sign that I am supposed to take it easy and read a good book all day, but I am afraid that all those Christmas gifts won't wrap themselves). I was precariously sitting in the chair trying to read a few blogs, I came across Cathy's post today that directs us to the blogthink link, What Color is Your Name. Periodically Cathy posts these fun quizzes, and I am always amazed how accurate the results can be. Two quizzes that I have taken recently, with spot-on analysis of yours truly, are included here. I thought you might appreciate some insight into the mind of My Cozy Book Nook.

Enjoy --- and perhaps take a quiz or two yourself.

Your Name is Blue

Your name tells people that you are friendly and caring. You have a strong sense of empathy, and you aren't afraid to wear your heart for all to see.You can often be found in quiet reflection. You rather think about something than act on it.People see you as insightful and intuitive. You usually have a wise take on what's going on.You try to rise above your instincts. You believe that it's important to live as good of a life as possible.

Disliking Gym Says You Are Thoughtful

You are thoughtful, philosophical, and downright cerebral.For you, gym is too intense and competitive. You aren't always in the mood for playing hard.You may or may not be into exercise - but any physical movement you do is under your own terms.You don't get your happiness through thrills or adrenalin rushes. Your bliss comes from quiet reflection.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Musing Monday - 12.21.09

While Rebecca of Just One More Page is on holiday, MizB has posted the question of the week:

When you buy books, do they immediately go onto your bookshelf to wait until you’re ready to read them (even if that means months/years from then!), or do you read them right away? What makes you do this? If you’re a ’shelver’, why do you think you don’t read the books right away? Do you ever feel guilty for letting the books sit there, unread? If you’re a ‘read-em-now’ person, why do you feel they have to be read right away? Do you give away the books when you’re done, too?
I must admit that I am a shelver -- although at times I wish I were a "read-em-now" person.
I rarely buy on impulse. In fact I often drive my family and close friends crazy with all my deliberation. So when I do make a book purchase it is because I know it is one that I will enjoy and wish to add to my own personal library.

Now I must admit that my book buying sprees have grown exponentially since I started reading book blogs a little over a year ago. You all have such a way of reviewing your latest read that I feel I absolutely cannot wait another moment to read it for myself. This has a compound effect: I purchase the book that I know I want because I read a review; the next day I read more blogs, find more books that I cannot resist, purchase those books, etc. The next thing I know I have purchased several books and I can only read one book at a time (and unfortunately I tend to be a slow reader - due to other obligations as well as reading speed) and I simply cannot keep up.

Do I feel guilty? Sometimes. I look at the ever growing TBR mountain of books and think that I simply must catch up before I purchase another. But then I stop and realize that most of these books were purchased for a fraction of their original cost (I frequent the clearance section of second hand shops on a weekly basis) and I KNOW that someday I will indeed read them (I know that this hectic pace of life will someday quiet down, and I am ready with plenty of reading material to prevent me from becoming bored).

I like that I now have a personal library where I have "choice" in what to read --- and I can match the book to my mood. I like that I can talk with family and friends about books, recommend books that I think they might enjoy, and then be loan them the book to see if indeed it is something they might like to purchase themselves. I like that my bookshelves are full (and I am truly in need of more) and I can hibernate in "my cozy book nook" surrounded by literary friends to keep me company. There is something very soothing about being in a library, and now have somewhat replicated that environment in my own home.

I do harbor visions of my retirement years being filled with reading and re-reading. Those books that I think I might enjoy reading again, I keep. Those books that I think I might enjoy passing along to others, I keep. I do, however, believe in recycling and about twice a year cull through my collection and give a few to the library book sale, or take them to the second hand bookstore for store credit. I have not yet joined Bookmooch or Paperback Swap, although I can see myself doing this within the next few years. Cathy of Kittling: Books is always giving an update on the number of books that have left her house vs the number of books that arrived via this method and I think it is a great way to keep a personal library constantly updated with worthwhile reading material.

So how about you? Are you also a shelver??

Cookie Craft Christmas - Post 2

I reviewed this book a couple of days ago for the Weekend Cooking meme and I had several people request that I post my results of the sugar cookie recipe after I had tried it. I am here to say, after cutting out, baking, and decorating 3.5 dozen cookies -- that the cookie recipe is truly wonderful and foolproof!

The cookie recipe is VERY basic: flour, salt, butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla. That is it. There is no leaving agent in the batter at all. The true secret -- the idea that makes this recipe foolproof - is the fact that you roll the dough out between sheets of wax paper immediately after mixing the ingredients together. THEN you refrigerate the rolled out dough approximately 20 minutes - just long enough to clean up the mixing bowl and wipe down the counter tops. After the dough is stiff, you cut out the shapes and bake. It really is foolproof, and personally I like the flavor of the cookie as it is not too sweet, which compliments the royal icing decorations.

The instructions for decorating the cookies are quite detailed and if you follow them to the T - they work rather well. First, you pipe an outline on all cookies using a standard royal icing recipe. Next, you flood the cookie with a very thin layer of royal icing. My "flooding" technique leaves a lot to be desired, but for a first time effort, I think it worked ok. I ended up spooning the mixture on the cookie (the piping bag was just too much of a mess) and then used a toothpick to spread the icing into the various nooks and crannies. It took me approximately 2 hours to decorate the 3.5 dozen cookies and I am exhausted. BUT...I am thrilled to have traditional holiday cookies to place on my Christmas Eve buffet.

I would definitely recommend this little book to anyone who enjoys holiday baking and aspires to creating wonderfully decorated cookies. The recipes are good, the instructions are invaluable, and the ideas are inspiring.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

TSS 12.20.09

Many book bloggers are starting to post end-of-the-year summaries and I am truly enjoying the annual reviews. I am not quite prepared to do that yet (perhaps next Sunday), but I am starting to think about my reading goals for next year. While I love a good reading challenge - and I plan to join more and more as my life becomes less hectic (if there is such a time), I did learn this year that I am driven by the moment in my personal reading selections, not by previous commitments. I am trying to be quite selective in the challenges that I do join so that I do not have these feelings of failure at the end of 2010 that I feel now.

I have also been thinking about reading goals for a lifetime -- that is, books that I would like to read at some point, but fully realize that I will probably not have the time to read in 2010. One personal challenge that I have is to read the original Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, Dan Simmons' novel Drood, and Matthew Pearl's The Last Dickens all in succession. I am fascinated by this unfinished novel by Britain's most famous author, and I think this will be a great way to appease that curiosity.

Another reading goal that I have is to read all 6 of Jane Austen's original novels (plus some of her juvenilia), as well as several of the modern day spin-offs of those novels. I teach Pride and Prejudice, and each year I find something notable that I had missed in previous readings. I have heard great reviews of Pam Aidan's Darcy Trilogy - which retells the P&P story from Darcy's point of view. Personally, I have always thought that Darcy is too harshly criticized in the beginning, and I would love to hear his side of the story. I have also heard wonderful acclaim for Rebecca Ann Collins' Pemberley Chronicles series (I think there are now a total of 7 books) that picks up the P&P story where Jane Austen left off. This would require a block of concentrated time to read all these in succession -but I think it would be such fun!

I would also like to start to solidify my personal taste in mysteries - and then focus on those subgenres - rather than hit or miss as I have done lately. I only just discovered that I truly love this style of writing, but I had no idea there were SO many different authors and subjects available. I have purchased several different ones at local second hand thrift stores in an effort to give me a wide overview. I am quickly learning, however, that not all mysteries are created equal. I think if I can learn to pare down my interests, I will enjoy a focused study. Some authors that I know I really want to experience are Laurie R. King, Louise Penney, P. D. James, and Elizabeth George.

Finally, I want to read a complete series - from start to finish - sometime soon. Isn't sad that I have NEVER done that?! I have never really been interested in series before, except when I was younger and read Nancy Drew. But even though, I never read all the books in the series. I do not have a particular series selected. I have given some thought to reading Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings (although I must admit that Tolkien's Middle Earth I find more than a little bit intimidating - especially since I am not well-versed in fantasy fiction). OR I might prefer to start with a mystery and read the entire collection (some that come to mind are P. D. James' Adam Dalgliesh, Louise Penney's Armand Gamache, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, or Victoria Thompson's the Gaslight series which take place in 19th century New York City)

While my bookshelves are filled with many other TBR novels patiently waiting to be read, these goals I know I will eventually complete at some point in the future. I need to learn to balance my reading to include the "just released" novels that are a constant source of temptation - especially after reading such wonderful book blog reviews - with the known classics that I wish to experience for myself. If you have any words of wisdom to help me achieve this balance, I would greatly appreciate it!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Weekend Cooking: Cookie Craft Christmas

Weekend Cooking is a weekly meme hosted by Beth F. Reads. It is open to anyone who has a food related post that they would like to share. Today I want to share a review of a fabulous holiday cookie book.

I first saw A Cookie Craft Christmas in the store a little before Thanksgiving. I am such a sucker for books and magazines that feature Christmas cookies, and in an effort to be frugal this holiday season, I decided that I really didn't need it (although I desperately wanted it). Well, as luck would have it --- I received an email coupon from Borders PLUS a certificate for Borders bucks that I had earned this quarter. It was obviously meant to be that I add this fine little cookbook to my collection. And I do not regret the purchase one bit!

The authors, Valerie Peterson and Janice Fryer, give very useful decorating tips, such as how to properly use the color flow technique - how to add shimmer to cookies - and how to tint cookie dough for an even easier method of decorating. They include a recipe for sugar cookies that my daughter claims is foolproof! She absolutely loved the way the dough was so easy to roll out and bake. There are MANY cookie decorating ideas in this little book, complete with explicit directions of how to achieve the proper look.

It is a dream of mine to someday have the time to bake and decorate beautiful cookies. I now have the guide that will help me achieve that dream.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Review: Crossing Washington Square

Crossing Washington Square
by Joanne Rendell
New American Library
copyright 2009
Rating: 3 out of 5

Summary from the back of the book:
Professor Diana Monroe is a highly respected scholar of Sylvia Plath. Serious and aloof, she steadfastly keeps her mind on track. Professor Rachel Grey is young and impulsive, with a penchant for teaching popular women's stories like Bridget Jones's Diary and The Devil Wears Prada, and for wearing her heart on her sleeve.

The two conflicting personalities meet head to heart when Carson McEvoy, a handsome and brilliant professor visiting from Harvard, sets his eyes on both women and creates even more tension between them. Now Diana and Rachel are slated to accompany an undergraduate trip to London, where an almost life-threatening experience with a student celebrity will force them to change their minds and heal their hearts....together.

My review:
I read two glowing reviews of this book within one week's time: S. Krishna gave it 4.5 stars out of 5 and stated that "it is a book not to be missed" (this coming from someone who reads approximately 500 books a year!!) and Bonnie from Redlady's Reading Room said that it "truly exemplifies women's fiction." I immediately put the book on my TBR list.

When I read the summary in the bookstore a few days later, I knew that this would be a book for me. I used to live two blocks from Washington Square and would take my daughter on daily walks through the park. If I could live my life over again - knowing what I know now - I think I would like to pursue the academic lifestyle. The main characters were living the life that I find attractive and their personality differences would make for a interesting story line. I have taken two groups of students to London in the past, and I was anxious to read about the characters' adventures in my most favorite city "across the pond." I immediately placed a hold on the book at my local library and waited patiently for about 6 weeks until it became available. I rushed home and immediately began reading. I wanted to be transported into another time and place, but alas, the book just didn't grab me the way I had hoped.

Now, I do not believe this failure to meet my expectations is the fault of Joanne Rendell's writing ability. Actually, I found her writing quite fluid, her character descriptions (especially internal monologue) fully developed, and her ability to weave a multi-faceted tale engaging. I think the failure lies in my expectations. I think Bonnie was right in saying that this book "exemplifies women's fiction" and I am obviously not the target audience for women's fiction. I think I was looking for more academic discussions of the "classics" vs "pop fiction" and perhaps more conflict within the academic arena; what this book delivers is more personal relationships -- not just between these two female characters, but within each of their personal lives as well. I know that many, many of you enjoy these kinds of novels - and I am sure that this will suit your needs to a T. For me, however, I found that I would skim through these parts, hoping to come across more literary conversations in which I could stop and savor the morsels intellectual discussions.

I managed to highlight quite a few pages, however, that I would definitely like to read and re-read. Most focused on Diane's character, the classic literature professor. She and I are simply two peas in a pod, as evidenced by this passage:
....Diane raised her head from her hands and felt the sadness beginning to subside. She looked around her book-lined office. These books, these thousands of books, all of which she had read, protected her now, and it felt good to be cocooned by them. She twirled a little in her seat and ran her finger over the books on the closest shelf. They felt cool under her touch and, as her fingertips traced their embossed, familiar titles - Ariel, The Bell Jar, The Colossus and Other Poems - she smiled. This was a good way to live, she thought, safe amongst her books. (page 27)
Another passage that summarized Diane's initial thoughts of "romance" literature, I am afraid, echo my uninformed opinion as well. Perhaps some day I will learn to open my mind and appreciate it as Diane does towards the end of the book:
Up until now, romance novels for Diana were merely soft porn for desperate housewives. Moreover, such books were poorly written, littered with adverbs, and recycled trite stories about heroines swooning over devilishly handsome men. Portrayals of women within their pages were problematic, and the books themselves were bad for women readers - at least according to the Diana of old.

But now, as she found herself looking down at the book in front of her, Diana realized she'd been hasty in these assumptions. ....

The more Diana thought about this, the more she realized that Love Everlasting's plucky heroine was the perfect antidote to such tragic women in literature, as well as to those tragic female writers like Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf whom Diana always revered so much. No wonder women across the world loved romance novels and bought them by the droves. In these books they read stories about strong women, good women, smart women who weren't relegated to the sidelines of the story or killed off at the novel's end. (page 255)
On another note, I also think that my overall opinion of the novel was somewhat jaded (is that the right word?) by the addition of the celebrity student plot line. The fact that these girls were twins - from Hollywood - attending "Manhattan U" was just too similar to the Olsen Twins attending NYU a few years back. I could not shake the image of Mary Kate and Ashley from my mind each time these characters entered the scene. Again, I would have preferred more intellectual depth of character between the two professors, but I know that is my own personal quirk.

All in all this book was not a bad read, and I know for some of you, this would be a GREAT read. But for someone who is not a fan of romance or apparently "women's fiction", this book was a little too much fluff for my personal taste.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Library Loot: 12.16.09

Library Loot is a wonderful meme hosted by Eva and Marg which allows us to share all our lovely library finds with one another. This week's haul of books is no less daunting as the last few weeks, but as you know, I do not have intentions of reading all books in the three weeks alloted time. I will read some - skim some - and return some unread, deciding that it is just not a book for me at this point and time. The vast majority of these books have been acquired because of your hearty recommendations!

The Mousetrap and Other Plays by Agatha Christie. I am still trying to find a suitable 20th Century book to teach my Brit Lit class. I have considered Agatha Christie for a long time (I love introducing the mystery genre and having students try to write their own short mystery at the end of novel unit), and since the students had such fun with the dramatic study of Macbeth, I thought perhaps this Christie play might be a fun way to end the academic year.

Death of an Expert Witness by P. D. James I have not read an Adam Dalgliesh novel before, but after doing some research I came to the conclusion that my normal mode of serial reading (that is, start with the first book in the series), would not be the best choice. Many reviewers said they thought this was one of the author's best endeavors, so I decided to break protocol, live dangerously, and start with the 6th novel in the series.

Ringing in Murder by Katherine Kingsbury. I was in Barnes and Noble on Sunday (a dangerous place for me to be allowed to roam free) and I saw this author's newest work, Decked with Folly on display. I need one more book to complete the Christmas Reading Challenge, and I thought a holiday mystery set in the Pennyfoot Hotel (what a cozy name!) might be the perfect answer. Unfortunately my local library did not have that title available, so I decided to try this one instead.

Eye of the Crow by Shane Peacock. Belle of Ms. Bookish mentioned this in her blog the other day and I thought this would be a great book to read in anticipation of my end-of-the-year study with 7th graders when we read several of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle short stories. This book follows the young, 13 year old Sherlock Holmes as he tries to solve his first case.

Something Mis ing by Matthew Dicks. Ok - on said Barnes and Noble I found this book in the new paperback release section. The initial summary on the back immediately attracted my attention and fortunately my library had a copy available:
A career criminal with OCD tendencies and a savant-like genius for bringing order to his crime scenes, Martin considers himself one of the best in the biz. After all, he’s been able to steal from the same people for years on end—virtually undetected. Of course, this could also be attributed to his unique business model—he takes only items that will go unnoticed by the homeowner. After all, who in their right mind would miss a roll of toilet paper here, a half-used bottle of maple syrup there, or even a rarely used piece of china buried deep within a dusty cabinet?
Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick. Same BN trip.....this book is inspired by Vincent van Gogh's famous painting and tells a fictional story of the artist and a refugee prostitute. I am in awe of those who can look at one art form and be inspired to create something completely different. This book may not be my kind of book at all, but my curiosity was peaked.

Cather: Later Novels Well, for the life of me I do not remember who recently posted about a short story of Willa Cather, but I was so taken with the review that I immediately ordered this from the library. There are several short stories in this collection and I am hoping to at least skim several of them to gain an appreciation for this fine American author.

The Pemberley Chronicles by Rebecca Ann Collins. To date I have not read a single modern day companion story to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, although I do own Pam Aidan's trilogy. I have heard some lovely reviews about Ms Collins multi-book series and thought it might be nice to read the first one over Christmas break since I will start January teaching Pride and Prejudice in my British Literature course.

Now, all I have to do is get through the last day of finals on Friday.....grade all tests and update final grades on Saturday......wrap all the presents......bake and cook for the Christmas Eve and Christmas day feasts.......and then I will have about 2 weeks of freedom to read to my heart's content.


Well, my contest for an autographed copy of A Dog Named Christmas by Greg Kincaid is officially over. I had hoped that more people would have had a chance to enter, but perhaps since the giveaway was only open for a little over week, others did not have the opportunity to sign up. At any rate, there were 11 who expressed interest, and with the help of the winning number was comment #8 which was ........JOANN of Lakeside Musing!!!

I have contacted JoAnn via email, but wanted to publicly acknowledge her holiday gift.

Thanks to all who entered and I wish each and every one of you a very Merry Christmas with your pet and human family members :)

Quick Quote

On my google homepage I subscribe to the quote of the day. Here is the one for today that I thought you might like:

Books to the ceiling
Books to the sky
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.
- Arnold Lobel

Review: Christ, the Light of the World

by Thomas Kinkade
Thomas Nelson Publishers
copyright 1999
rating: 5 out of 5

I purchased this little Christmas devotional book in December, 2001 as a special Christmas gift to me. At the time there were two Thomas Kinkade galleries within a 20 minute drive from my house and I would often take a half hour and just go visit. There is just something so serene and soothing about his paintings. When I visited in November, 2001, I noticed this little book and immediately purchased it. This still remains one of my all-time favorite holiday reads.

Now, the book is supposed to be read a little every day -- starting around Thanksgiving and progressing until New Years (there are a total of 35 daily readings), however I rarely have the foresight or discipline to read it in that way. It is usually in mid-December when I remember this book --- when I am totally stressed out and desperately trying to remember the true reason for this joyous season. Once I start to read these pages, however, I am immediately transported to another place in time --- when life is dictated by the tyranny of the urgent.

I like the book because for me it is just the right amount of modern day reality --- the hustle and bustle of the crowds --- the entertaining and baking and decorations in which we all partake -- but somehow the author is able to help me put all those issues in proper perspective. And, as would be expected of a devotional book, he offers in the end a meditative prayer for the day that is worth pondering over a 24 hour period.

The other feature of this book that is truly unique is that it offers some of this artist's most beautiful Christmas paintings. Now, I am not an artist, and know precious little about art appreciation, but I can tell you that it was through this book that I learned how to look closely at a work of art. The painting associated with the beginning of each devotion appears in its entirety -- but at the end of the day's reading there is a smaller image which focuses on only one tiny aspect of that painting. Oftentimes I have spent several minutes viewing both images side by side -- the original and the focus -- and it is a wonderful exercise to help bring me into balance. It has also helped me to focus on the other details in the painting that I have overlooked in my haste to get on with the day's reading.

I am an impatient person to begin with --- always trying to be most efficient with my time. This devotional helps me to realize that taking time to smell the flowers --- or look at the artwork --- is well worth the small investment.

Unfortunately I do not think the book is currently sold in bookstores, although I have noticed that a number of online second hand stores have it available. I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2009 Virtual Advent Calendar Tour

Today marks the beginning of my 5th decade on this earth and I thought what better way to celebrate than to recall fond memories and traditions of the past 50 Christmases in this blog entry.

When I was growing up, Christmas was always celebrated on Christmas Day. As much as my brother and I would beg my father to let us open "just one gift" on Christmas Eve, the answer was always no. While we feigned disappointment, I think the prolonged suspense helped make Christmas morning all that more special. My fondest Christmas memory of this time in my life was the year I turned 16. I had looked forward to my 16th birthday since I was 8 --- no joke. And while the Sweet Sixteen birthday was not all that I hoped it would be, that Christmas more than made up for it. I had decided that I wanted an old-fashioned Christmas that year and my family was kind enough to indulge my wish. We went to a Christmas Tree farm and cut our own tree (typically we decorate with artificial trees), and my grandmother hand-crocheted several ornaments to help decorate it. That evening we went to the midnight Christmas Eve service and when we exited the church it was snowing!! It was going to be a White Christmas - a real dream come true.

I will never forget the first Christmas that I spent with my husband's family. We were not yet engaged, but I was treated as a part of the family from almost the beginning. His family is 100% Italian --- something that I have always highly valued as my ancestry is a mish-mash of ethnicities. His grandmother always prepared her celebration on Christmas Eve and she would spend hours in the kitchen preparing the Vigil. Being devout Catholics (at least at some point in their lives), the vigil included only pasta and fish -- no meat. While this was an unusual feast, I cherished the tradition and have incorporated it as a part of our family Christmas celebration ever since.

The first course is Aioli --- angel hair pasta served with an anchovy sauce. I know it doesn't sound very appealing, but it is absolutely delicious. Geoff's grandmother always made Bacala -- fish fritters made of salted cod. While this was easily found in the Italian section of Bridgeport, CT, her hometown, bacala is not readily available here in the beef-eating midwest. For a number of years Cora would actually mail us the bacala about two weeks before Christmas. I would carefully soak the fish in water for the
required 3 to 4 days, frequently replacing the old water with fresh. About 5 years ago we decided to forego the bacala fritters and replace them with fresh boiled shrimp and crab legs. This is a true delicacy for the family, and a dish that all look forward to eating. I also make Spinach Bread from Cora's old recipe collection that is simple, yet festive. Dessert includes not only holiday cookies, but an Italian specialty called Strufoli --- or honey balls. They are not difficult to make, but very time consuming. My husband absolutely loves them however, and I don't think he would consider it Christmas without them. So, as a labor of love, I make them every year just for him.

Over the years it has gradually become tradition for my kids to sleep together in the basement on Christmas Eve. They ARE allowed to open one gift on this night before Christmas -- typically the one that includes a new pair of Christmas PJs and a new DVD to watch during the night. They are "banished" to the basement around 10:00 so that Geoff and I can wrap all the stocking gifts while we watch A Preacher's Wife, It's a Wonderful Life, and/or A Christmas Story. We usually finish around 12:30 or 1:00 --- set out Santa --- and go to bed.

While I expected this latter tradition to slowly fade as the children got older, I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised two years ago when my eldest daughter, who is now married, planned the overnight stay -- her husband included -- because she did not want to miss the silly sibling early morning antics, nor did she want to miss the opening of Santa. At our house, Santa leaves a stocking for everyone: grandma --- dogs ---- parents --- and kids of all ages. Apparently this is something that Megan has enjoyed and she has vowed to keep the tradition going long after Geoff and I have faded away. Who would have known that such a simple routine would have developed into such a symbolic tradition over time.

Another whimsical idea that has evolved into a Totoro tradition is the making of gingerbread houses. What began as a fun activity to distract the children from the endless wait to Christmas, has gradually become a ministry activity to meet people who are new to our lives, and now to grow closer to families who have become a significant part of our lives. Every year since 1991, I have made a minimum of one gingerbread house per child, with the maximum number of houses being 12 when my daughter invited several friends from school to take part in our annual tradition. The house just doesn't smell like Christmas until I bake the gingerbread, and we would not recognize the season if the table weren't covered with symmetrical stacks of gingerbread pieces ready for assembly. Each child (well now, each grown up who is a child at heart) receives a cardboard base, 6 pieces of gingerbread, and a pastry bag filled with royal icing. Newcomers are given a quick lesson on proper pastry bag etiquette, and then everyone quickly assembles their house. The dining table is laden with the necessary candies, cereal, and metallic dragees to decorate an entire gingerbread village. The festivities usually last about 2 hours, and the culinary creations are always unique. Our tradition is to leave the Gingerbread House up for the holidays, and then eat it on New Year's Day.

So on this special day --- 10 days before Christmas and the advent of a new decade of my life --- I look back in awesome wonder at all the warm holidays of the past, while I look forward to many more familial gatherings in the future. I thank you for stopping by and sharing in this celebration with me.
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