I suppose I expected a book about books when I chose Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore for the Book Challenge by Erin bonus round, but beyond that I didn’t have much background. Everyone else who’d previously read it for the challenge had nothing but good things to say, so if nothing else, I had high hopes. Matthew J. Sullivan’s novel is a low-key thriller — and yes, a book about books — but it’s also about choosing your family and finding out where you belong.
Lydia, who has my dream job as a bookstore clerk, works at Bright Ideas, where she does her best to blend into the background. For the most part, she’s successful, but to the lonely regulars known as the BookFrogs, she’s special. When Joey, one of the BookFrogs, commits suicide in the store just before Lydia’s closing shift ends, her life takes a series of unexpected turns. He’s left her all of his possessions — mostly books full of coded messages — and she begins to unravel the mystery around his death. Lydia is alarmed to discover that it’s mystery that entwines with her own childhood trauma.
An American Marriage, the poignant novel by Tayari Jones, received a boost of popularity when Oprah selected it as her book club pick earlier this year. I bought it before reading it — something I don’t typically do — but all of the buzz about it made it feel like a sure bet. I finally picked it up as part of my two reading challenges, and while it wasn’t “unputdownable,” it was captivating all the same. Jones is brutally honest in a narrative about a broken America.
Celestial and Roy are a young married couple with their whole lives ahead of them. She is a promising artist, and he’s an ambitious executive. They are also black in America, which ultimately has a greater effect on their lives than anything else about them. As their lives together are just beginning, Roy is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and their lives and marriage are never the same.
I read Koren Zailckas’ memoir Smashed about her “drunken girlhood” over a decade ago, and I absolutely loved it. It was a sober (and sobering) look at her past that also touched on the societal and social pressures that cause many young women to drink so heavily in the first place. Not only was her story powerful, her writing was as well. So, when I came across her novel Mother, Mother at a used book sale a little while back, I didn’t hesitate to scoop it up.
In the Hurst family, no one is perfect. The oldest daughter, Rose, has seemingly had enough and run off with her mysterious boyfriend, leaving her sister Violet struggling to cope with an ever-changing home life. Will, the youngest, clings most closely to his mom who has been homeschooling him since his recent diagnoses with Asperger’s and epilepsy. Meanwhile, their father, Douglas, is mostly absent and, when he is home, distracted and taking phone calls in whispers. In the center of it all is Josephine, the Hurst matriarch, a narcissist and master manipulator. Hiding behind her facade of caring homemaker, she may just be the worst mother ever.
Joyce Carol Oates’ novel We Were the Mulvaneys has been on my shelf forever. I picked it up at a used book sale years ago because I had heard Oates speak at a bookstore once in NYC and had yet to read her books, and it sounded interesting. Still, whenever I was looking for a book to read next, I didn’t gravitate towards this one. That is, until the recent Book Challenge by Erin, where one of the categories requires you to read the book that you’ve owned the longest. Welp, this was it. And, I have to say, I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.
This a family saga that builds. That is to say, the first quarter is so involves a lot of scene-setting and character-building, and it wasn’t exactly easy to get into. I’m not sure if this is Oates’ typical storytelling, since I haven’t read anything else by her yet, but it definitely worked for this novel. As she settled into the story, the background that she created was almost second nature, as if you were a part of this family, this town.
It centers around the Mulvaneys, a large family that is both beautiful and charismatic, wealthy and generous. They live in upstate New York on their property, High Point Farm, and are well-respected in the town. That is, until Valentine’s Day in 1976, when an unfortunate event takes place that changes the family and their position in the community.
I won’t give anything away, but what happens divides the Mulvaneys. Each member is affected differently, but each of their life paths are drastically altered. Oates weaves a complex, messy, truthful family saga. I appreciated that their lives weren’t perfect, nor were they a disaster — they felt like real people. I look forward to reading some more of her novels when I get a chance.
I decided to make a casserole, only loosely based on one mentioned in the novel, described as “a Mexican chicken-shrimp-sausage casserole.” The “super-casserole” was served with a robust menu of “grilled Parmesan-dill bread, baked butternut squash sprinkled with brown sugar, a giant tossed salad with Mom’s special oil-and-vinegar dressing, homemade apple-cinnamon cobbler with vanilla ice cream.” The reason this meal stood out to me most is that it took place just before the Mulvaneys’ lives changed forever; it was a meal that took place while they were still the Mulvaneys, so to speak.
Casseroles are also indicative of homestyle, comforting family dinners. It seemed like the perfect choice for a family saga such as this. I found a recipe for something a busy parent might make on a weeknight, an easy but flavorful-sounding Shrimp and Sausage Skillet Pasta Bake and made some slight alterations to make it a casserole.
First, I brought a large pot of water to boil and added the pasta, cooking it according to package directions.
Meanwhile, I browned the sausage in a large skillet, breaking it with a spoon as it cooked. When the sausage was done, I used a slotted spoon to remove it and placed it in a bowl lined with paper towel. In the same skillet, I added the shrimp, cooking each side for about 2 minutes, until the shrimp were pink and cooked through.
When the pasta was done, I drained it, adding the vodka sauce and sausage and tossing until evenly coated. I poured it into a 9×13 casserole dish, covering the bottom.
On top of the pasta, I placed the cooked shrimp.
I covered the entire dish with a combination of parmesan, mozzarella and cheddar cheeses before placing it in the oven to finish.
Once the cheese was melted, I removed the casserole from the oven to serve. It smelled amazing and was delicious.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain and set aside.
To a small saucepan, add the vodka sauce. Heat over low heat. Keep warm on the stove until you are ready to use.
To a large oven-safe skillet, cook the sausage over medium heat until brown and cooked through. Remove the sausage with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Keep the stove on.
To the skillet, add the shrimp. There should be enough fat left in the skillet from the sausage. If you find that there isn't enough to cook the shrimp, add a tablespoon of olive oil. Season the shrimp generously with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes or until pink and cooked through. Remove the shrimp from the pan and transfer to another plate. Turn off the heat.
To a large bowl, combine the vodka sauce, pasta and sausage. Toss until evenly coated.
Pour the mixture back into the skillet (or into a 9x13 baking dish). Top with shrimp and then top with parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, and cheddar cheese.
Place the skillet/baking dish into the preheated oven and broil until cheese is melty, about 2 minutes. Keep a close eye as the cheese can quickly go from melted to burnt.
Remove from heat and garnish with fresh parsley. Serve immediately and enjoy!
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When I’m not reading, cooking or writing about it, I’m often at work. And, for those of you who don’t know, I work at an advertising agency. I’m an account person, which in a nutshell, means that most of my job is in service to our clients, doing whatever it is I need to do to make them happy. Like any job, there are a lot of things to like about advertising and there are a lot of things to dislike about it. Luckily, for me, the good far outweighs the bad.
I recently picked up Joshua Ferris’ novel Then We Came to the End as part of the Book Challenge by Erin, for the category requiring you to read a book featuring a character who shares your profession. I don’t know why, but I expected to have a hard time finding a piece of fiction about advertising. I couldn’t have been more wrong; I found this one with a simple search. Obviously, the characters in Then We Came to the End work in an ad agency – in fact, almost all of them do.
I have never before had to request that my library purchase I book I wanted to read, but for Dane Huckelbridge’s Castle of Water, I’m SO glad I took the extra step to do so. I had selected this novel as part of the Book Challenge by Erin not only because it fit perfectly into the category “book with a water-related word in the title” but because I had heard amazing things about it. Its impressive 4.24 rating on Goodreads also promised an amazing read.
The majority of the story takes place on an island in the middle of the South Pacific, near where a small plane was was downed in the ocean, leaving two passengers stranded. Sophie is a newlywed French architect, and Barry is a former investment banker from New York who has decided to turn his attention to painting. They must learn to survive together with the limited resources they have on the island — for food, they have some fish, coconuts and an abundance of bananas. It’s a castaway story, yes. But it’s also much more than that. It’s about what it means to truly need someone else. Ultimately, they find that a home is what you make it.
As you may recall, I kicked off the year by participating in the Book Challenge by Erin, version 8.0, which lasted from January 1 until April 30. And now, I’m excited to be participating in version 9.0 of the same challenge because I really love reading challenges. Here are the details:
Duration: July through October 2018
Challenge: Choose 10 books across specific categories and read as many of them as you can over the four month challenge period
In May, the task for The Literary Feast Reading Challenge was to read a book you’ve seen someone reading in public. Now, this may be an easy task for people living in large cities, where public transportation is rampant, or even people who frequent coffee shops. I neither live in a large city nor do I visit many coffee shops, so I counted myself lucky when, in March, I finally stumbled upon my first person reading “in the wild.” Or, more accurately, she was walking in the hallway between my office and the parking garage. She is still the only person I’ve seen reading this year, and she was reading The Power of Habit.
Charles Duhigg’s nonfiction book explores the science behind why we do what we do, or how we create and form habits. I’ll admit, I thought the title sounded interesting, but I was not expecting to love it as much as I did. It probably helped that at the same time, I was attempting to undergo a personal transformation – and still am – to become healthier. So, much of what Duhigg covered about how we can change bad habits and create new, good habits really resonated with what I was focused on anyway.
With a third of 2018 already behind us – how did that happen so fast, by the way?! – I wanted to do a quick wrap-up of my first reading challenge of the year, the Book Challenge by Erin 8.0. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, you can read more about it in my announcement post from January.
I’m excited that I was able to finish reading all of my selected books by the end of March, leaving my April pretty commitment-free (as far as books go). Below, I’ve included short overviews of each, with a link to my posts with full-length reviews and recipes.
The first week of 2018 is almost over, and I hope everyone’s year is off to a great start! I’m coming at this year with a positive outlook, and while I’m not a huge fan of New Year’s resolutions, I do have some personal, professional and blogging goals in mind. To have a successful book-related blog, of course, it requires lots of reading.
As such, I’ve committed to two reading challenges this year – because what better way to read more than to be (somewhat) competitive about it? Now, both of these challenges are intended to be low-key, low stress and not really all that competitive. But, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to do my best to succeed at the challenges I set for myself. So, I wanted to share a bit about them with you (accountability and all that). And, if you’re interested, there’s still time to join both of them, so you too can enjoy the benefits of reading more in 2018. 🙂
Book Challenge by Erin (8.0)
Duration: January through April 2018
Challenge: Choose 10 books across specific categories and read as many of them as you can during the first 4 months of the year
All books must be 200 pages or more and you each book can only be used for 1 category. If you’d like to include a book you’ve already read, you can only do so once but you must actually re-read it for it to count.
You’re supposed to pick your 10 books up front, but it’s no big deal if you change your mind and want to read something else for that category instead! Most of all, this challenge is supposed to be fun – I personally am using it as a motivator to read a bunch of books on my TBR list, and I pulled the titles using as many books as I could from those I already own.
5 points (Freebie): Read a book that is at least 200 pages – The Secret Life of Bees
This was the third book I read this year (after MAUS I & II, more on that below), and I loved it. Great way to start the challenge!
10 points: Read a book that starts with the letter “L” – Love & Gelato
This has been on my TBR for a bit now, and while I don’t own it, the library has it readily available. I picked it before I joined the challenge from A Literary Feast, but it fits for the February pick, so it’s conveniently going to do double-duty for me.
10 points: Read a book that has a (mostly) red cover – Red Clocks
This is one of the books I’m most looking forward to this year, and I was so excited to see that BOTM had it as one of their January selections! You can bet I scooped it up, so there will be no library waitlists for me this time. I can’t wait to get started on it.
15 points: Read a book with a character’s name in the title – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
This was a BOTM sometime in the middle last year, and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I’ve heard amazing things about it, though, which is why I’ve kept it, and now I have a great excuse to pick it up and experience it for myself.
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this book through my office’s Diversity Book Club, but was unfortunately not able to attend when the time came (due to meetings and all that). I was surprised to see it on this list – not exactly a book I was expecting to have a big plot twist. Now I’m all the more excited to finally be able to check it out.
20 points: Read a book with the words “house” or “home” in the title – The Two-Family House
Another book from my TBR, but not one I owned until this past week – thanks to a very fortunate book swap! I had a few books I could’ve chosen for this category, but this one has intrigued me from a distance for long enough.
25 points: Read a book by an author whose first and last name begins with the same letter – The Mothers by Brit Bennett
When I was perusing my shelves for alliterative authors this is the first one that caught my eye. I got it in a book swap last year (seriously, where would I be without book swaps?) and don’t know a ton about it, but I’m sure it’ll be worth the read.
30 points: Read a book that was originally published in a different language than your own – Britt-Marie Was Here
Britt-Marie was originally published in Swedish by the wonderful Fredrik Backman, who has written a couple of my favorites (such as My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry), so naturally I was excited to dive into his charming writing again. It’s the second book I decided to tackle from the challenge and I’m about a third of the way through. So far, so good!
30 points: Read a book where most of the action takes place on a form of transportation (i.e. bus, boat, car, plane) – Life of Pi
Such an interesting category! My first thought was of the movie Speed, but that wasn’t a book and so obviously I couldn’t pick that. I remember loving Life of Pi when I read it before, but it’s been so long now, that I don’t recall much of the specifics – except that it takes place mostly on a raft. Perfect for this challenge! And another book already on the shelf 🙂
35 points: Read a book with a character that suffers from a debilitating physical illness – Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Full disclosure: I don’t know much about this book, except that when I was googling around trying to find a book for this category that I hadn’t already read (since I used my re-read for the previous category), it popped up. It was on my TBR and the library had some copies, so here we are. I’m looking forward to it, and also a grateful that I don’t have any high expectations to hamper my reaction.
Have you read any of the books above? What would you recommend picking up next?
If you’re interested in joining Erin’s challenge, stop by her Facebook page here. There are typically three challenges per year, each lasting four months.
2018 Reading Challenge from A Literary Feast
Duration: Entire year
Challenge: Read a book in each appointed category, which changes each month
My kindred spirit in the book blogging community, the lovely Grace of A Literary Feast, started this challenge and I’m excited to be able to support her and participate. I only chose the first few months, since even summer seems so far away in these frigid temperatures! I’ve outlined all the categories below though, so you can get a feel for what the rest of the year will bring.
January: A book that was published in your birth year – MAUS I (and MAUS II)
MAUS I has been on my TBR list for several years now, and conveniently it was also published in 1986! The second one was published a few years later, but together they’re still pretty short – and as graphic novels, quick to get through. These were the first books I picked up in 2018 because the library was super quick on their interlibrary loans, and I finished both on January 1.
February: A book that has a food in the title – Love & Gelato
I already mentioned the double-duty this book is doing, which is awesome in and of itself. I’m also excited about the prospect of making gelato. (Ice cream has no season, so I don’t care that it will still be unbearably cold outside when I do it.)
March: A book that was made into a movie you’ve already seen
I haven’t chosen a book for March yet, and I’m all over the map for this category. Initially, after a quick search, I was leaning towards The Green Mile because I enjoyed the movie… but I’m super terrified the book will be scary where the movie wasn’t really. Then, while watching Funny Farm over the holidays, I discovered it was actually based on a book and thought maybe I’d pick that because it’s more light-hearted. I don’t know, guys… I’ve seen a lot of movies but I’ve also read a lot of books-turned-movies, so I’m trying to find one I’ve seen but not read yet. Looking for suggestions!
April: A book set in a country that intimidates you
May: A book that you saw a stranger reading in a public place
This would’ve been amazing when I lived in NYC and rode the subway all the time. I think I’m going to have to start hanging out in some coffee shops or airports between now and then.
June: A book about a mid-life crisis or finding your true self
July: A childhood classic that you’ve never read – The Little Prince
This is the lone book I chose past February, mostly because as soon as I saw this category, I knew what it had to be. The Little Prince is one of my coworker’s favorite books, and after hearing all of her praise about it, I’m looking forward to finally reading it too. That being said, I’ll probably have to get it out of the library since her copy is in French.
August: A book that you’ve loved and read before
I don’t usually re-read so this will be a welcome change of pace.
September: A book that was published in 2018
October: A blind date book (someone else chooses for you)
I’m going to let Deanna pick this one for me, since I am constantly forcing her to read books I recommend, and I know I can trust her to pick a good one.
November: A book with an ugly cover
Because you should never judge a book by its cover.
December: A book set in a cold climate
Obviously looking for recommendations for the book/movie category, but if you have suggestions for the others I haven’t chosen yet, please comment below! I’d love to hear from you. 🙂 If you’re interested in joining the 2018 challenge from A Literary Feast, there may still be time – check out the original post here.