Monday, December 31, 2007

#31 Reading

My trip to Half Price Books on 12/29 to catch their 20% off sale was somewhat fruitful--I found 3 of the books I needed for my book club, and was able to start reading one of them right away. (Good thing, since the meeting is coming up on Saturday.)

The book chosen for this meeting was "Triangle" by Katharine Weber. I would give it 2.5 out of 5 stars. I thought the topics the book focused on (specifically, a survivor's story about factory fire in 1911 and music) didn't really go together. The musician in the story creates songs based on genetic codes or chemistry or biology, and a lot of the explanations of how he did that lost me. I can see where DNA/genetic code fits into the story, but it seemed like a stretch. I got to the point where I'd have to force myself not to skim those parts of the book--and it was a short book! I did like finding out more information on a part of history I had no idea about, but I would rather have read more about the historical part that present-day composers.

The review from Publisher's Weekly:
"The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers, most of them women, and galvanized efforts to reform working conditions in sweatshops. In Esther Gottesfeld, the last remaining survivor of the Triangle fire, Weber creates a believable and memorable witness to the horrors of that day. Esther managed to escape, but her fiance, Sam, and her sister, Pauline, both perished in the blaze. In 2001, Esther is living in a New York Jewish retirement home, visited often by her beloved granddaughter Rebecca and Rebecca's longtime partner, George Botkin. Rebecca and George's story and quirky rapport take up half of the book, and descriptions of George's music provide a needed counterpoint to the harrowing accounts of the fire and its aftermath. But Ruth Zion, a humorless but perceptive feminist scholar, sees inconsistencies in Esther's story and determines to ferret them out through repeated interviews with Esther and, after her death, with Rebecca. The novel carefully, and wrenchingly, allows both the reader and Rebecca to discover the secret truth about Esther and the Triangle without spelling it out; it is a truth that brings home the real sufferings of factory life as well as the human capacity to tell the stories we want to hear."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

#31: Reading

For Christmas, Santa brought me a few books on my Amazon wish list, including Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from the Atlantic Paranormal Society. Apparently, the authors have a show on the SciFi Channel--Ghost Hunting. I've never seen the show, but I love a good ghost story. Even though I'm a huge chicken! I definitely let my imagination run away with me, so when I was reading this book, I found myself hurrying up with the laundry when I was alone in the garage or making sure I turned on lights before I entered a room. But even though I was freaking myself out, this book wasn't really scary. It was more like a summary of some of the duo's jobs, and many of them were cases that they disproved. Not exactly what I was hoping for. I was expecting mysteries and spookiness, and instead got mostly clinical descriptions. I was surprised that the most emotional parts of the books were descriptions of the author's relationships with people on their team--in particular, one guy who was off and back on the team several times. I was least interested in that dynamic of their work, yet it was in the forefront of several stories.

At least the book was a quick & easy read. I was hoping for something like the spooky stories I'd read on the blog Somewhere on the Masthead, whose author lists "October Moments" among his greatest hits. All of his stories give me goosebumps. I've always been fascinated with the idea of the supernatural, and may have even seen a ghost or two in my life.

The book description from Amazon:

The Atlantic Paranormal Society, also known as T.A.P.S., is the brainchild of two plumbers by day, paranormal investigators by night: Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. Their hair-raising investigations, fueled by their unique abilities and a healthy dose of scientific method, have made them the subject of a hit TV show: the SCI FI Channel's Ghost Hunters.
Now their experiences are in print for the first time, as Jason and Grant recount for us, with the help of veteran author Michael Jan Friedman, the stories of some of their most memorable investigations. The men and women of T.A.P.S. pursue ghosts and other supernatural phenomena with the most sophisticated scientific equipment available -- from thermal-imaging cameras to electromagnetic-field recorders to digital thermometers -- and the results may surprise you. Featuring both cases depicted on Ghost Hunters and earlier T.A.P.S. adventures never told before now, this funny, fascinating, frightening collection will challenge everything you thought you knew about the spirit world.

#61: Extra Mortgage Payment

I read an old article a couple of years ago about how making an extra mortgage payment each year will significantly reduce the amount of interest paid, and also decrease the time spent paying off the home loan. Like last year, in 2007 I've made an effort to follow this plan, even though we're planning to sell our house in 2008. At least we'll see some benefit from having more of our house paid off, so that will hopefully translate into more $$ from the sale to put towards whatever new home we find. Actually, I say that we followed the plan in that article--we didn't make two mortgage payments a month. Instead, we took the amount of one mortgage payment and divided by 12, then put that amount into savings each month. Thanks to ING, we were able to earn pretty good interest on that money while we saved throughout the year, and were still able to benefit from putting the amount of one mortgage payment towards our principal.

Unfortunately, I still have not made a lot of progress on the other items on my list that are financial goals: invest for retirement beyond 401Ks and review personal budget to increase savings. I know a lot of people recommend Dave Ramsey's books and I've also heard good things about a couple of other books (Smart Couples Finish Rich and The Millionaire Next Door, in particular). I think I may know and follow some of the key strategies in these books already, I just need to actually DO them. But, this is a good reminder to be proactive. I'll have to add those to my list of books to look for during my trip to Half Price Books this week--I heard this morning on the radio that they're having a 20% off sale through Saturday!

Friday, December 21, 2007

I'm Grinchy

I have been having a hard time feeling the Christmas spirit this week. This is the second week in a row that I haven't cooked dinner at home, the second week in a row that I've been too busy to even get home before 8pm. K has been working on a huge project for the last 6 or 7 weeks in the evenings and most weekends that's been stressing him (and therefore me) out, and I have been dreading our holiday travel to SE TX. I feel like I'm on the verge of an all-out Grinch Fest, and every little thing lately is setting me on edge.

So, what better time than to give to others? Finding a favorite charity is easy for me: Memaw's House. After my Memaw died in 2004, her house sat empty. Mom's two sisters and one brother all live near the house, but none could decide on a good plan of action. Their family had lived in that house since my mom was in high school, so the idea of selling it was difficult. Aunt B heard about a program a church in the area had started that operated homes for women who had just been released from jail--a place for them to live while they looked for jobs and got back on their feet, while also giving them a safe environment from their pre-inprisonment lifestyles. So Aunt B consulted with the rest of the family, and all were in agreement that they should explore the idea of turning Memaw's home into one of these houses. This idea was a huge step for Aunt B. She's always been a generous, loving person who attends church faithfully, but I've always known her to be racist. I know she grew up in a different time and place than I did, and that rural Alabama isn't exactly progressive on that front, but that doesn't excuse her use of derogatory terms. Because of this, I felt proud that she'd be leading a project that helped (mainly) minority women. I know she struggled with the idea because of that, and I am glad she made the decision to go ahead with the project. They began work on the house in 2005, working to make it liveable to as many ladies as possible. That meant clearing out furniture from bedrooms and adding bunk beds or twin beds where possible. There were repairs that needed to be done to old plumbing, etc., and several kind members of the family donated their time to the project. My uncle and one of my cousin's husbands shouldered a lot of the responsibility, and I'm so grateful for their time and energy. A housemother needed to be hired to act as a live-in contact for the ladies, and Aunt B found a wonderful woman who has been incredibly helpful. Finally, in 2007, the home had its grand opening celebration. Ten woman now live can now live in the home, and it is always full to capacity. Even though there have been some disappointments along the way, the successes of the ladies who live there and have been able to already move on are truly inspirational. My mom and her siblings provided the original funding for the home, and I know they still all make significant contributions. So each year at Christmas, it is my pleasure to send whatever I can to help support the home. I'm sending this year's check this weekend, and thinking about Memaw's House has really lifted my spirit.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

#26: New Underwear

I'm on a quest to find comfortable, cute new underwear to replace underwear that I've had. . .wow, since I started college? It's hard to remember when I started buying my own undies. Most of the oldest ones are from Victoria's Secret, but they're so comfortable. I think that I just go there out of habit, find something similar to what I have and buy them at the annual sales. It's time to break out of my VS rut!

Incidentally, why do I feel like a total pervert searching for underwear online?

I don't really want to discuss my panties in a very detailed manner online, but if others can benefit from my trials, I think the basic info I can provide might be helpful. My first test underwear have been Calvin Klein, from the Round Rock outlet. The pair I selected are supposed to eliminate a visible panty line, but the seam around the edges can get uncomfortable. I like the shape, and the fit s pretty good, but I'm not wowed.

So far my only other trial pair has been Maidenform Women's One Fabulous Fit. Part of my perfect underwear search led me to Sundry Buzz, a blog with product reviews & recommendations, and a panty rave about these. I found a pair at Kohl's for about $4-bargain! I'm really liking these, though the waistband seems like it gets a little loose by the end of the day. They aren't rolling down or anything, though. I like to think I'm just a slightly smaller size than the size I purchased. That must be it!

Anyway, I'm going to continue my experiment into the Hanes brand, and maybe do an informal underwear poll of my girlfriends to see if there's something I'm missing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

#9 Dinner: Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

This weekend at the grocery store, I did my best to plan ahead for (I hope) cooking two dinners this week. We'll see how that goes, but I can already cross one dinner for the week off the list! Tonight I made Parmesan-Crusted Chicken, from my friend Melissa's recipe. No clue where she found the recipe, my best guess would be Cooking Light. She actually makes the recipe a little differently--she combines plain breadcrumbs with the parmesan (equal parts) and coats the chicken with that. She cooks on 450 for 20 - 25 minutes, which I did (on the middle rack). She said that 475 tends to make the cheese coating crispier than she usually likes.

Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp chopped thyme
4 six ounce skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 475. In a small bowl, combine the mustard, olive oil, and thyme. Season the chicken breasts with salt & pepper, then brush them all over with the mustard mixture. Pat 2 tablespoons of the parmesan all over each breast. Transfer the chicken breasts to a rimmed baking sheet. (I used a pyrex baking dish.) Bake the chicken on the top shelf of the oven for about 15 minutes, or until just cooked through and nicely browned.

Oh, I didn't use dijon mustard. We have some delicious herb balsamic mustard that we bought a few weeks ago at Oakville Grocery, and have been enjoying on sandwiches. Since I knew we had that, I didn't bother with thyme, either. And I just plain forgot the salt & pepper step! But, it was still delicious and super easy.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

#31 Reading: Thieves of Baghdad

My book club's selection for this month was Thieves of Baghdad, by Matthew Bogdanos. I thought it was an interesting story, one that I was largely unaware of--the plundering of Iraqi artifacts before and after the current war. And the author (Bogdanos) is a really fascinating character, but the way the book is written was of-putting to me. Parts of it are very stream of consciousness, with Bodganos throwing in a lot of quotes and literary references from his extensive knowledge of a wide variety of topics. But, I think the book was worth reading, just to get an insider's perspective on a country and regime I know mainly through the media.

From Publisher's Weekly:

In April 2003, Matthew Bogdanos was a long way from the courtrooms of New York City where, as an assistant D.A., he prosecuted hundreds of cases. After September 11, 2001, this Marine Corps Reserve colonel, lawyer and student of ancient civilizations, returned to uniform full-time to head counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, where Bogdanos gave himself the mission of finding antiquities that had been stolen from the Iraq National Museum during the American invasion. Beginning with an Indiana Jones-like opening that finds him in the museum's bowels, Bogdanos chronicles a journey fueled by his passion for history and frustrated by erratic record-keeping and factionalism among Iraqis, not to mention the hazards of warfare. The son of Greek immigrants who went on to achieve advanced degrees in law and classical studies, Bogdanos weaves together a detective story, adventure yarn and history lesson, committing himself to the investigation of stolen artifacts and reflecting what he deems rumor and exaggeration among the media coverage and academics who claimed irrevocable archeological tragedy. Indeed, some pieces, he discovers, were moved and protected prior to the U.S. invasion, while others were housed by Iraqis for safekeeping until after the war. Bogdanos is a remarkable blend of warrior, academic and communicator, and he cuts through politics and hyperbole to tell an engrossing story abundant with history, colored by stories of brave Iraqis and Americans, and shaded with hope for the future.

We choose books 6 months at a time, and tonight was our night to pick books for January through June. Some of them I'm really looking forward to reading, others, not so much. But, that's one of the things I like about my book club--I would usually not pick any of the books we read on my own, but I've learned a lot and enjoyed books I wouldn't otherwise. For January, we're reading Triangle: The Novel, which is historical fiction about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire which apparently killed 146 workers (most of them women) and galvanized efforts to reform working conditions in sweatshops. Should be interesting!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

#9 Dinner: Calzones

This week I think I was still recovering from the long Thanksgiving break, so I wanted to make something really quick and easy for dinner. I went with one of my old easy stand-by options, calzones.

I buy two cans of low-fat Pillsbury crescent rolls, and open one can. I spread 4 rectangles (which is actually 2 crescent roll triangles) on a cookie sheet with a silpat pad on it, and add the fixin's. This time, I spread a thin layer of basil pesto, a layer of sauce (from a jar), a layer of shredded cheese, and then the meats. This time, I had peppered salami (thin sliced) and genoa. I open the other can of crescent rolls and added a rectangle of dough to each one. I seal around the edges (pressing them together) and pop it in the oven for 13 - 15 minutes. K and I can each eat one for dinner & have one for lunch the next day. (Or, he can eat two for dinner, whatever.) Easy, but good.

I want to start working on menu planning on the weekend, and going to the grocery store once, instead of every couple of days during the week. With all the busy-ness of December (holiday parties, shopping, etc.) I am hoping this plan will be more of a help and free up time rather than a hassle of having more "to do"s on the weekends.