Saturday, December 31, 2011

11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944, by Stanley Weintraub

Book 64 of 50 Book Challenge and Book 9 of Holiday Reading Challenges

Closing out the year with a quick audio book.  Weintraub wrote another Christmas book that I read awhile ago, about George Washington.  So when I saw this at the library's holiday display I picked it up.  

I thought I was done with the holiday thing.

The jacket description lays this out with the old story of General Patton trying to get off an air campaign, being held off by weather and asking God whose side he was on.  The book spends almost no time on that subject.

There was a lot of politicking among the generals in December 1944.  Normally, I like to read about the politicking.  But this was more about who was endorsing whom for more stars and who thought whom wasn't agressive enough in the campaigns.  I didn't need to hear about how Churchill didn't like Ike.  I was really hoping for a book about the guys in the field that Christmas - like that part of Band of Brothers (who made an appearance in this book).

There were a couple of very worthy anecdotes.  American soldiers end up at a lady's farmhouse on Christmas and she is sharing the little she has when the German soldiers show up and they all manage a peaceful holiday together.  The one where the mail had been held up, but Christmas arrives and Dick Byers receives two boxes of treats from his fiancee in the States.  I wish there had been more of those.

And that just about does it for the year.  I will work on a 2011 book recap soon.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Autobiography of Santa Claus, as told to Jeff Guinn

Book 63 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 8 of the Holiday Reading Challenges

I am pretty sure I found this at the Library's Used Book Store, and it received an enthusiastic thumbs up from one of the Holiday Challenge Readers.

Loved it.  In fact, I daresay this was the best of all the holiday books I read this year.

This book is Santa Claus explaining himself.  Laying out the historical truth and the evolution of the myth, beginning with his childhood in modern day Turkey.  Nicholas was an orphan with a trust fund who was uncomfortable with his wealth in the face of so many in need.  As an adult, he became a priest. His good works continued and he became a bishop.  As rumors of "miracles" spread, so did his fame and he felt the need to abandon his life to continue his mission of giving gifts to those in need.

The book goes on to explain the sainthood of St. Nicholas (which embarrasses him) and frequently returns to a theme of Magic vs. Illusion.  Travels begin (dude was on the damn Mayflower) and assistants are recruited - many historical figures - and they are all unnaturally long-lived.

My suspension of disbelief held pretty well.  Although Santa kinda skipped over the part wherein he broke his eternal vow of celibacy in order to marry Mrs. Claus.  (Even if you are a couple hundred years old, an eternal vow is an eternal vow.)  I even got a little misty hearing Santa describe his reading of the "Yes, Virginia" column - reprinted in its entirety.

I can't say this is an Every Year classic.  But I am pretty certain it will be a repeater in my house.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How the Target Pharmacy Lost my Business

or Today's Rant of My First World Problems.

The stupidest use of legislation ever was the State of Illinois deciding that it would combat the evil meth labs by making it painfully inconvenient for the Good People to obtain pseudoephedrine.  Without which I cannot breathe.

Until recently my drug of choice, Allegra D, was only available by prescription.   So I ordered it in 90 day supplies from the mail order pharmacy preferred by my health insurance.  When I went to reorder this month, the mail order pharmacy said they are no longer distributing Allegra D because it is an over-the-counter drug.

Knowing about the Stupidest Use of Legislation Ever, I asked what my options were.  Going to the pharmacy every 10 days to buy a new box is unacceptable.  Mail order pharmacy suggested that I call my doctor for a new script and take it to my local pharmacy.  They would probably give me 90 days if those were my doctors orders.

I called the local pharmacy and my doctor's office and confirmed that I could do this.  I picked up the script the next day and figured I would pick it up the next time I ran by the pharmacy.

Then I went goofy.

I happened to be in Target for last minute Christmas stuff.  They have a pharmacy.  I haven't been entirely happy with my regular pharmacy, so I took my script to the Target pharmacist.  He told me the state law said that he couldn't give me more than a ten day supply.  It didn't matter that I had a prescription.  He had to take my driver's license, put it into a national database and confirm that I was allowed to have it before he could give me a ten day supply.  When I told him that my local pharmacy said they could do it, he said, "Their systems must not be as good as ours."

I took the ten day supply.

Fast forward to today.  My mother saw our doctor, and having heard the first part of my story, got him to write a script for Claritin D, which has the same regulatory issues.  She took hers to a third pharmacy and it was filled with no problem.  I went back to my regular pharmacy tonight and got my 90 day supply.

Perhaps because I work in HR, there are few things that irritate me more than people telling me what "the law says" when they have no idea what they are talking about.  I understand the rules with this drug are crazy, but if I can't count on the pharmacist to know them better than I do, I will be taking my business elsewhere.

Sorry, Target.  That was your shot.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Everything Old is Still Old

The Christmas Conversation at my House

Ainslie (age 3):  Alex! Alex!  Sing "Jingle Bells Batman Smells!"
Alex (Age 6 1/2): (complies)
Mom (to my brother, Scott):  Wonder where he got that?
Scott: I didn't do it!
Mom:  Oh, yeah?  It was your favorite..
Scott:  School kids, kids in the neighborhood...
Me: (completely believing him) Seriously.  An entire generation later and the kids can't come up with anything better than "Jingle Bells Batman Smells?"
Scott:  Guess not.

This reminded me of a day my freshman year of high school.  I had been passing notes in Geometry with my friend, Todd.  He wrote out an entire dirty joke on a piece of notebook paper that (of course) fell out of my back pack when I got home.  I don't remember what the joke was.

My mother grabbed it, read it and handed it to my father.  As I thought I was about to be scolded, I prepared for battle.  But my father said, "I've got news for you, kid.  I heard that joke when I was in high school."  My mother said, "I didn't hear it until college.  When your father told it to me."

I grabbed my stuff and went to my room, totally disgusted.

Santa Clawed, by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown

Book 62 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 7 of Holiday Reading Challenges

"Sneaky Pie Brown" being the author's cat.  My mother used to read these novels - small town Virginia farm lady solves mysteries with the help of her dog and two cats.  The animals can talk to each other but not to the humans, similar to Bunnicula.  So this was the holiday-themed one.

The novel did start with the heart-warming country Christmas stuff, but it didn't last very long.  The ladies decorating the church for the Christmas social or whatever.  Gossiping about a guy with whom they attended high school who grew up to be convicted of securities fraud and joined the local monastery upon being released from prison.  Our heroine meets him again at the monks' Christmas tree farm,  Later that night, when she brings her husband and the pets (really?!) to pick up the tree, the dog finds the monk with his throat slit.

I found it very interesting that such a cutsie concept could be wrapped around what came to be a rather sordid tale.  I'm not sure it was necessary.  The mystery was doing just fine without the dog and cat quibbling over...whatever.  When I asked my mother about it, she said that she liked when the horses got to talking, but that didn't happen very often.

Having said that, this was a lot of fun.  I liked the main character and I liked the small town cops.  I'm not planning to seek out more of these books, but it is nice to know they are readable in a pinch.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Three Trees

The first thing is that we really like Christmas ornaments.  Factor in that we combined two households.  That has lead to not even unpacking a whole bunch of ornaments for years.   We thought about getting a second tree, but it seemed like to much work.  Enter pre-lit trees.  And dropping prices.  So this year, I bought the second tree.  A small, four foot pre-lighted that we put on a kitchen cart in our family room:

About a day later, I made my one trip of the season to Crate and Barrel and found this "ornament tree":

This is a terrible picture, as the angle I had to take in the hallway doesn't do it justice, but I also think that next year I will focus on spherical ornaments here, rather than just "small" ones.  I think it'll fill out nicely that way.  Finally, the main event:

In the front window of my living room.  Sorry about the glare.  There are an awful lot of gifts here, but that is because my brother sent his over already.  So my house is officially ready for guests and I am watching the Bulls game.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Best Christmas Video Ever

A Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks

Book 62 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 6 of the Holiday Reading Challenges

I found this at the library in a display of holiday-themed audio books.  It sounded really good, so I picked it up.

It is not a holiday book.

It is one of those books about various different strangers with nothing in common whose lives intersect over a big event.  As I read through the book..and it is a very slow burn..I came to understand the event was going to be a terrorist bombing.  And I hung around trying to figure out who would live and who would die.

The other thing this novel has is the point of view of one of the big shot hedge fund guys right before the financial collapse.  The setting is London, but the feel of the super-wealthy getting super-wealthier and the impending doom for everyone else is there.

There is also some commentary of what I think of as evidence that we are descending into the next Dark Age.  In fact, one of the characters lays it out that there was a "Golden Age" of education from about 1925 to 1975 when education was relatively universal and teachers would teach.  After that, we as a society decided that we didn't want to leave anyone behind so we taught less to everyone.   The theory posited is that the coming generation (I couldn't quite pinpoint which that was) would know less than the one before it and that is when society is officially backsliding.

(Side Note to my 8th grade civ teacher, Mr Pielin:  It is absolutely your fault that I obsess over this concept.)

Faulks also takes a shot at Reality TV by having a character rant that it is the product of bad people taking advantage of stupid people.  So true.

So.  There was no warm and fuzzy holiday anything, and I think I will have to have a talk with the librarian.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In the Dark Streets Shineth, by David McCullough

It seems like cheating to count this for any reading challenges, as it was so short.  I picked it up at the clearance sales last year, so I knew it was a slim volume.  I didn't realize that it was mostly pictures.

However, it is a nice little story about Winston Chruchill secretly heading to the U.S. to see President Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor was attacked.  He spent the holiday in Washington, attended the tree lighting and church service with the Roosevelts and then spoke at the President's holiday radio address.

So, this is a nice book to have in my library, but it didn't run as deep as I'd hoped.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blankets 64 - 68

It is Starbucks night for Project Linus and I finished this month's stash.  I am now officially recording these out of order, as when I loaded my last two pics from the camera, I found three blankets that I'd finished earlier and not posted.

You can't tell from this pic, but that yarn matches the blue-green in blanket exactly.  Loops & Threads Impeccable in Sea Green.

This was one of the Red Heart variegated yarns.  Monet, I think it was.

I started using the Caron One Pound white yarn.  I can't say I like it any better than Lion Brand Pound of Love yarn, except that it doesn't tangle as much.

Same yarn.

Caron Simply Soft yarn in Soft Blue.

I expect to be picking up a new stash of fleece tonight!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir, by Ken Harmon

Book 61 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 5 of the Holiday Book Challenges

I found piles of this one at Half Price Books, all with remainder marks as thought it was the title that didn't fly last season.

It was awesome.

Gumdrop the Elf leads the Coal Brigade until Santa fires him.  Then a guy is murdered using Ralphie's Red Ryder BB gun and Gumdrop is the prime suspect.

You don't get to be the leader of the Coal Brigade by being the shiny happy elf, so you can guess how this goes.

Pretty much every pop-culture Christmas reference is made at some point in this one, and it is kinda dark for awhile.  For example, Kringle Town has a shadow land called Pottersville.  Tiny Tim drives the ferry between the two.  The Misfit Toys live on their island and there are rumors that a Misfit Mafia is stealing the "good" toys.

Not to go all SPOILER but the end is rather warm and fuzzy and true-meaning-of-Christmas-y.

This book is the most fun I have had in this challenge.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Quick Road Trip with Alex

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened in 2002 and I hadn't been down to see it yet.  My nephew Alex, age 6, digs the presidents so I asked if he wanted to go to Springfield with me to see the museum.  He was in.

We decided that we would leave after the Bears' game.  After the first series, I told Alex that if we decided the game was going to be bad, we could leave early.  Two series later, Johnny Knox was down and we were out the door.

We stayed at the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel in downtown Springfield.  One must pay $7.00 a day to park there, if you can believe it.  There were exactly two cars in my level of the lot at 4:30 p.m. yesterday.  We checked in and the first thing Alex did was look out the window, point to the Hilton towering over us and say, "I'm glad we aren't staying there."  The second thing he did was unpack.  He started with his mouthwash:

He was all pleased that he packed his own bag and remembered his mouthwash.  (I had flopped on the bed to see if the Broncos were losing.)

Then we went to dinner.  I asked Alex if he wanted to eat in the hotel or go out and find something else.  He opted for the hotel so that he didn't have to put his coat back on.  I didn't offer up room service.  And I am glad I didn't because this was the Christmas Tree in the hotel restaurant:

I wouldn't have wanted to miss it.  And we both ate for less than 20 bucks which made up for having to pay for parking.

The next morning we had breakfast and set out.  We checked the walking map and found that the "Lincoln Library" was two blocks from the hotel.  But when we got there, we found that it was actually the public library of the city of Springfield.  Alex was cool with it, because he liked this mural that we saw there:

He actually read the plaque, but I wasn't listening because I was staring holes into the city map.  Six or seven blocks in the other direction and we found it:

There were several exhibits and movies and artifacts, but the boy is only six so we didn't get the full effect.  Also, there is a lot about death and dying - between the war and the sons and the assassination itself.  There was even a replica of the coffin lying in state in the capitol rotunda that Alex said "creeped (him) out".  But the White House portico was very nice:

The gift shop rocked.  And do you know what that boy picked out for a souvenir?  An Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum pocket watch.  A pocket watch!  If he were older, I'd have to called poseur on that.  But for a six year old?  Plus 1 to coolness.

Then he was done and we made tracks home.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Winter Rant

My office building has revolving doors on each side.  There are, of course, handicapped accessible doors with the automatic opening button next to them.  These double as emergency exits.

Some people like to use this door, because it is faster than using the revolving doors.  They seem to have forgotten the purpose of revolving doors:

To keep the cold air out and the warm air in the building.  (Or the reverse, in the summer.)

People seriously continue to do this in the winter.  I stopped eating in the glass ceilinged atrium because of the general chill and frequent gusts of cold air. 

So.  I went to Noodles tonight before heading to the library.  Noodles has a set of double doors for people to enter and exit..and a side door that leads to the patio-area in the summer.  For some reason - I presume it is the fire code - this thing is unlocked in the winter.

Two jerks used it while I was eating.  Apparently, they think that because they have  their coats on, it is ok to blast the cold air in on the rest of us.  Because I am cheeky, and a seriously regular customer, I stopped by the register and found the manager on my way out.  I said:

"For  the suggestion box:  I wonder if you wouldn't mind putting a 'Use other door' sign on the side entrance.."

I hadn't gotten all of the words out when she said, "I had one on there for five days.  You have no idea how many people ignored it.  I saw people read it and then go out the door anyway.  I tried locking it.  Someone broke the lock on the door..."

Broke.  The.  Lock.

(It's fixed now, so don't get any funny ideas.)

People.  It is winter now.  Winter is long.  Winter is cold.  Please show some consideration for the people around you.  Use the proper doors.  And close them behind you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Blanket 63

I had to look up my blanket count, it has been so long since I have posted - meaning so long since I have finished a blanket.  Two reasons: this is a fully crocheted blanket, as is the other I started on the road.  And I have been working on the scarves for my grandfather's church.  But Starbuck's night is next week and I have a couple more pieces of fleece to finish, so I'd better get moving.

This was Loops & Threads Impeccable yarn in Navy and Aran.  Doesn't really stand out, but it meets the qualifications of gender neutral colors and large enough for an older kid.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, by Lisa Kleypas

Book 60 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 4 of the Holiday Book Challenges

I accidentally read a romance novel.  I don't know how it happened.  I thought it was about a little girl that lost her mother and found her voice and her joy again at Christmas.  It was really about an uncle/guardian and the new lady in town who happens to be a young widow that has opened a new toy shop on one of those islands off the coast of Seattle.  Next time, I must really read more  than two lines of the jacket summary.

It wasn't a bodice ripper by any stretch, and for most of the novel it was pristine near to Jane Austen.  And then it wasn't.  And I found myself thinking, "Really?  You knew that dude was a player and didn't even consider the birth control?"

It has been a really long time since I read a romance novel.

All of the characters were perfectly pleasant - even the girlfriend that was ditched.  There wasn't very much conflict, which was fine, too.  The "Christmas" connection was pretty weak, but that was ok.  But I think I gotta go back to the Christmas murder mysteries now.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci

Book 59 of 50 Book Challenge, Book 3 of the Holiday Reading Challenges 

I had never read Baldacci before, but understand he writes crime/thriller type books.  So I was interested to see what he did with a Christmas theme.

Not a thriller.

The concept is interesting of a certain age takes a cross-country train to meet his girlfriend for a holiday in Lake Tahoe.  He meets all sorts of people going to meet family, or not.  The Amtrak staff made for awesome characters, and if someone will tell me right now that the cross country trains really have staff like that I will book my ticket right now.  Then things start to disappear and the weather turns.  All good stuff.

Except that I didn't find our hero to be all that likable and the plot really seemed to be about The One That Got Away.


The climax of the tale is our hero lying in the blizzard with his love waiting to die.  Seriously.  And I wouldn't want to spoil the punchline for you.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

At Eight Months

At eight months, Gibbs is a teenage boy that is always hungry.  He is either running around like a crazy dog or asleep.  Or scavenging for snacks.  In fact, yesterday he made his first snack swipe.  My mother left spinach dip on the coffee table while we were in the other room.

Thus we are reminded that there is a difference between puppy-proofing a house and dog-proofing a house.  He hasn't discovered the wonder of garbage cans yet, but that can't be far behind.

Gibbs was most confused by the loss of Spooky the Cat.  But he is having a good time with Kiwi the Grey:

She is teasing him.  About ten seconds after I snapped this, he jumped to the floor and she flew to her perch.  And he came back and lay down for a Bears Game Nap:

He knows several commands:  Sit, Wait, Off, Come, Go to Your Place..and his Leave It isn't half bad.  We are working on Lie Down and have just started on Paw.

We haven't been to the dog park lately, but Gibbs continues to go to Doggie Do Rite three days a week.  He has gotten better at meeting people, but still doesn't like strangers in the house.  Christmas ought to be fun.

The more time I spend with dogs, the more I think that a having a well socialized pet is at least as important as having an obedient one.   I am optimistic that Gibbs will be both.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wrapping for a Good Cause

Last year was the first time I sponsored holiday gifts for a child.  There are lots of non-profits out there that collect wish lists from families that don't have extra cash for holiday gifts and hook them up with people that have some to spare.  I took two lists and went shopping and it was lots of fun.

I like shopping.

I didn't realize that Glenview Youth Services had such a program until I read about it in  But I clicked over, sent an e-mail and received the information.   Again, I sponsored two kids and dropped off the loot last weekend when they were sorting through the gifts.  This week is the wrapping and I volunteered this morning.

I headed over to the NIPSTA building, where they are staging the gift program.  They have plenty of tables set up with wrapping paper and boxes and other supplies.  The staff and regular volunteers (as opposed to my one-day "event" volunteering) bring over the gifts that were selected for children in a particular family and then we wrap.

GYS is very careful to label every item so that the right gift goes to the right child, so we completed the gift tag before wrapping the gift.  Once while working on a big family, my table found a couple of gifts with lost labels and the staff went back to the database printouts to confirm the match.  "No guessing" was the motto, which I appreciated.  And I particularly enjoyed the gift tags that were handmade by other kids.

I learned that reversible wrapping paper is cool.  It has patterns on either side that are thematically similar, but not exactly the same.  Particularly if you are pressed for space, that is good stuff.  When I made that comment onsite, another volunteer said, "They have been doing this for years and have it down to a science."

Hm.  So does Santa Claus.

Wrapping is scheduled to continue through December 14.  If you are interested in helping out, here is a link to the program page.  If I were going to name one supply that they could really use, it would be gift boxes.  We were going through those quickly today - particularly the ones for the winter coats.  And they can always use more wrapping paper!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Book Thief, by Mark Zusak

Book 58

This has been on my shelf for awhile.  I think my book club read it back when I was in school and I interrupted the Holiday Reading challenges for it because I spotted an audio version at the library that I know had never been there before.

For a YA novel, this was intense.  And long, now that I'm thinking about it.  Illiterate German girl is sent by her mother to live with a foster family in 1939.  Younger brother dies on the journey.  Gravedigger drops his handbook or something on the ground and the girl picks it up and puts it in her pocket.  And so we have a Book Thief.

Oh, and the novel is narrated by Death.  How could this not be awesome?

Well, for one thing, it is Germany in 1939.  If the author can't make us sympathize with our core family right away, the game is over.  So we discover that the girl was sent away because her parents were arrested by the Nazis for being Communists.  Then, we learn that in the last war, the foster-father's life is saved by a Jewish friend who didn't make it home.  Son of rescuer/friend needs a place to hide, so now our German family is hiding a Jew in the basement.

The friendship that develops between the young girl and the young Jewish man - two rather broken people -  illustrates the power of stories.  Books and music and the outside world and living in your own head.

As you can imagine, a whole lot of bad stuff happens.  Even with my prejudice against "you know this is going to end badly", I loved every minute of it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Posts I Owe My Blog

Update on the puppy.  A thing on my Christmas tree solution.  This book I am so close to finishing.  Sigmund the Grey.  Plumbing Emergency 2011 - Part 2.

I seem to be the only person in Cook County not watching the Blago sentencing today.  There was so much live tweeting that it led to a question as to whether "live tweeting" was really "live tweeting" when everyone is watching the exact same thing at the exact same time.

Yes.  It is called Sunday afternoon during football season.

I am, however, back in town now.  And hope to begin feeling human again soon.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Worst Airplane Seatmate

First, he sat in the wrong place.  It could happen to anyone, but it causes confusion among the other passengers and slows the boarding process.  It is inconsiderate.

Then, he placed his briefcase in the overhead compartment.  You know, when the airline is green-tagging people and passengers are climbing over each other to find an empty space.  But, you say, maybe he was tall?  Maybe he really needed the legroom?   He wasn't that tall.  And we were sitting in the exit row.

Then.  He took off his shoes.

He bogarted the armrest.

He snored.

Glad it was a short flight.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Home for Christmas, by Andrew M. Greeley

Book 57 of 50 Book Challenge and Book 2 of the Holiday Reading Challenges  

Greeley is a famous novelist/priest that I thought I might try to read someday.  Then I saw he had a Christmas book and it wasn't too long and it fit nicely in my carry on..

And it was very good.  Three-tour Iraq war veteran has a near death experience in which God tells him to go home and fix things, particularly with the childhood sweetheart.  His first communion priest is also back in town, now the monsignor of the parish.  Redemption, forgiveness and the true meaning of Christmas.  Fa la la la la.

The cheese factor was tolerable, as was the politics.  The preaching was surprisingly low, considering it is the life's work of the author.

I liked it.  I could read this guy again.

Week on the Road

I flew to Fargo Monday morning.  Because Joy was there and it was not 20-below, we took a walk downtown for dinner.  We were told the best restaurant in downtown Fargo is Juano's.  We saw a sign that said "Monday - $1.99 Margaritas"  so I was in.  It was good, but hard-core Mexican food people might find it bland.

The next morning I thought I might walk the couple of blocks to the coffee shop.  But it was 12 degrees.  Then the flights were delayed and I spent six hours in the Fargo airport.  This wouldn't have been so bad except that the guy that ran Barnstormer - the airport restaurant - retired and took with him the recipe for his famous beer cheese soup.

That should be illegal.

Wednesday, I flew to Washington, still feeling the motion sickness from the day before.  I met Holly for dinner Thursday and found this at Pentagon Row:

Dear Chicago:  It seems that 52 degrees is not "too warm" to open an outdoor rink.

I managed to forget my phone at the hotel, which I discovered while waiting for the Metro to go to the airport three hours after checking out.  Because I am the luckiest freaking person alive, housekeeping hadn't gotten to the room yet and I was able to retrieve it without even making myself late.

Now I am home, exhausted but happy.  I also finished trimming the Christmas trees.  I am at least half ready for the holiday.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Christmas Secret, by Anne Perry

Book 56 of 50 Book Challenge; Book 1 of 2011 Holiday Challenges

I've never read Anne Perry before, but it looked like a perfectly reasonable holiday murder mystery to me.

New pastor and wife go to small town to sub for the local vicar over the holidays.  They settle in with your usual small town quirky characters when one day the wife goes to the cellar for some coal and finds the dead vicar. 

I am happy to say that I found the characters to be very pleasant on the whole.  This is important because there is not one single surprising detail in the whole of the novel.  Except, perhaps, how quickly our heroes solve the mystery. 

I did enjoy the pastor and wife telling each other, "We won't trust anyone while we do our investigating" and they both go out and spill their guts to different people.  That was fun.

Also, there were a dog and cat that were very important to the discovery of the body that barely set foot on the canvas again for the rest of the story.  Even during the high tension of unveiling the killer, they are nowhere to be found.  That's just not fair.

I have long said that I am not a big mystery reader.  So if I can guess the killer, something is wrong.  I totally guessed the killer.  And I guessed it early.  So I guess this was my warm-up book.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cyber Giving Monday

My online friend Carlo Garcia launched a short campaign to encourage people to donate to our favorite causes on Cyber Monday.  He called it Cyber Giving Monday. 
I was on the road Monday, and I don't like to offer up my credit card on strange Wi-fi, but when I got home last night I made two donations:

This time of year, I always make a contribution to Best Friends Animal Society.  They have been a pioneer in taking the no-kill movement national and building a network of local shelters and rescue groups. 

Second, I made a donation to Trio Animal Foundation - a group in Chicago I mentioned not long ago - that pays the medical bills of homeless animals until they can find permanent homes.  Trio herself passed away not long ago, so to honor her and my cat Spooky I thought this was fitting.

I continue to do much of my microphilanthropy on Crowdrise, so if you'd like to join in, you can find me here.

And if you are interested in Carlo's wrap up post, it can be found here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Travels with My Aunt, by Graham Greene

Book 55

Last year, Writers' Theatre did a play based on Travels with My Aunt.  It was awesome, so I kept an eye out for the book.

Also awesome.  The premise is a retired bank manager - dullest man ever - meets his aunt for the first time and she pulls him into her crazy, crazy world.  It is one of those stories where the straight man is dragged into some goofy action and only realizes later that he had a really good time.

The play does a good job of keeping the action lively, but what the novel brings out is how quickly our hero, Henry, realizes that he hasn't really lived.  It comes out subtly, a line or two at a time.  One example is when Aunt Augusta has gone abroad without him and he says:

"Perhaps it was to prove the reality of my existence that I began a letter to Miss Keane."

The lady that he has tiptoed around for years.

Sometimes the plot gets a bit contrived, but it is a whole lot of fun.  I want to be Aunt Augusta when I grow up.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Everyman, by Philip Roth

Book 54

I read about one Philip Roth novel a year.  Unfortunately, two years in a row I have picked the ones about men whose lives are entirely defined by sexual relationships.

That isn't entirely fair.  But dude was married three times and cheated on each wife.  So the novel starts with his funeral, then tells the short story of his long life and the meditations that he did on death and dying and dying alone.

There were a couple of pretty poignant things:  one was that our Everyman (I don't recall whether he had a name) had given up having a relationship with his two grown sons.  They never forgave him for leaving their mother when they were children.  He says something like: I am not able to apologize and explain myself any more.  There is truth in that.  When you have wronged someone, you apologize and attempt to make up for the wrong (assuming you want to continue the relationship).  If they won't let it happen, if they just keep hammering at you, it isn't healthy for anyone.

Because of a couple of childhood illnesses, our hero had a long-standing relationship with Death.  It isn't exactly "another character", but it is sort of the cloud that hangs over the novel.  I am glad it was a quick read, because however profound, this isn't a place one wants to dwell.

Going to read some Christmas books now.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Holiday Reading Challenges

I trust Miss Busy to find the good Holiday Reading Challenges and these are the two she picked:

Christmas in July in December doesn't officially start until December 1, but since I am still finishing up Travels with My Aunt, I think I will be ok.

Then there is The Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge.  Technically, this has already started, but I am pretty sure I can catch up.

I have scrounged a bit and come up with a list:

  1. A Christmas Secret, by Anne Perry
  2. In the Dark Streets Shineth, by David McCullough
  3. Christmas in Plains, by Jimmy Carter
  4. The Fat Man: A Tale of North Pole Noir, by Ken Harmon
  5. The Autobiography of Santa Claus, as told to Jeff Guinn
And if I finish these in time, I shall be reading A Christmas Carol again.

Small Business Saturday on Sunday

Yesterday was Ainslie's birthday party, and while I got some shopping done, I neglected Small Business Saturday:

The 2nd annual Small Business Saturday® is
a day dedicated to supporting small businesses
on one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year.

So today, I went to Wishes Toy Wonderland, an independent toy store in Glenview.

The great thing about this store is that it carries products that you just can't find at the big box stores.  The downside, of course, is that it is rather pricey.

I didn't find anything for Alex, (because I refuse to spend money on Angry Birds stuff) but there was plenty for Ainslie and Ashlyn.

Now to start thinking about Cyber Giving Monday.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

Book 53

Dr. Zhivago had been sitting on my shelf for about ever until..I..cheated on my library.  I went to Northbrook to look at the audiobooks and there it was.

People.  Audio is totally the way to go with the Russian epics.

This was like War and Peace, set during a century later.  One of the reviews on LibraryThing said that the film was actually better, because the screenwriters were forced to condense the points of view to Zhivago's and Lara's which made it easier to follow.  I haven't seen the film, but I can see the point.  It is easy to lose focus.

As great love stories go, I wasn't terribly impressed.  As a narrative of the Russian Revolution, it was fabulous.  Zhivago is an educated working man with affluent roots, so either side could potentially make a friend or enemy of him.  And this was this first story I have read - fiction or non - of the Revolution that was not focused (in fact, it didn't go near) the center of power.  Parts were set in Moscow, but we never see the leaders of the nation and the name Rasputin is never spoken.

I might have to read this again sometime, because I know there are things that I missed.  And I suppose I will have to see the film.  This was worth the time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

He Was Positively Considerate

You may recall that six months ago, we lost a dog.  Shadow had a rough final year and it was hard to watch his decline.  Of course when it was over, we had another cloud hanging over our heads in that Spooky the Cat was 20 years old.

You may also recall that Spooky was the first cat we'd ever had.  Mostly because we are dog people, but also because my mother is allergic.  He was 8 1/2 when he came to live with us.

Because we are very dutiful about veterinary care, we knew that if nothing else got him, his kidneys would fail.  And I gotta tellya, I have heard terrible stuff about that.  But the older he got, the more we heard that he was in great shape for his age.  The joke was that this one would go when he decided to go and it would be damn quick.

So.  Yeah.

Wednesday he was fine.  Yesterday, we came home from my brother's house and found he'd been throwing up.  Spent the better part of the day at two different vet's offices and finally got the verdict:  abdominal mass; it was big and it was malignant.

He was already in pain; which we didn't know.  So that was it.  We had one horrible, godawful day and it was over.

So without any violin music, this is how I will remember Spooky.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Officially Part of the Problem

I’ve been doing my holiday shopping all sneaky-like for the past couple of weeks – trying to beat the crowds without owning the fact that I am now officially a part of the problem with the ever-expanding holiday season.   

I have done a fabulous job of buying myself new clothes.

I went in to Toys R Us for the kids and came out with something for my brother.

I have done extremely well in shopping for my dog.
At lunch today, I went to Ikea.  Because everyone knows that mid-week during the lunch hour is the only safe time to go to Ikea.  I was positively tripping over children.  Shouldn’t they be in school?  Apparently not.  It seems that some districts have Teacher’s Institute and some have Parent/Teacher conferences.   I have a friend in Des Plaines that said yesterday afternoon, her kid’s class had a field trip.  They went bowling.
I have already said, “Shut up” out loud to the voice in my head that is caroling.  All of the decorations are up in my office.    I have eight gifts wrapped.  People, I just bought a second tree because we have that many ornaments.  
I think I’d better stay home on Friday.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Pictures Are Back!

I was telling you all about the Adopt-a-Pet pictures with Santa.  Here they are:

All Portrait-y and Stoic

Looking Good, but Not Looking at the Camera
Smiley, or Scared?

So Gibbs wasn't entirely game, but the photo quality was great and Santa was pretty smooth.  If you are interested in your own pet portraits for a good cause, I'll repeat the details:

 When:   Saturday, Dec. 3, 10:00-2:00
Where:  Wiggly Tails Doggie Daycare
Address:  1915 Holste Rd, Northbrook
Photographer:   Kelly Fitzgerald
Reservations:   847-272-4141 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Trying the New Burger Place that I Didn't Know Existed

I was over at Old Orchard, heading in to Crate and Barrel when I noticed a new burger joint right next door.  I had never heard of Epic Burger before, but by the time I was done shopping, I was ready for red meat.  Also, my friends, family and colleagues expect me to know everything about every place to have lunch in Cook County - I am still in trouble for not trying Smashburger yet.

So.  The motto is "a more mindful burger" and while I was standing in line, I noticed the ketchup bottles on the table were Heinz Organic.  I knew not to bother asking for fries with cheese sauce.  When I reached the front of the line, I asked how big the burgers were.  I may have mentioned that since I gave up the giving up of junk food, I have gotten serious about kid-sizing.

The regular burger is 1/3 pound (there is an option for a double) and a junior is 1/4 pound.  I ordered a junior cheeseburger.  The cheese options were "blue, cheddar and havarti".  I went with havarti.  They also have a fried egg option (which seems to be getting more popular these days) and nitrate-free bacon.  And plenty of other stuff, although now that I think about it, I don't remember seeing avocado.

Avocado makes everything better.

 The bun appeared to be fresh made and was grilled with butter.  The havarti involved horseradish, which I would absolutely not have done if I had known, but it was only one slice so it didn't overwhelm the meat.  Overall, it was very tasty.  The fries were crispy, which isn't always the case when they are fresh cut.  Along with the organic Heinz on the table was a bottle of Grey Poupon, but they make you walk over to the condiment display to get a shaker of salt.  That's just not normal.  I'd call it hardcore, but they aren't really hardcore because they do have a soda fountain that includes phosphoric acid (even if it is Pepsi products).

I paid what I would normally pay for lunch out..$8 or $10.  The seating area was clean, but I could see it being very cramped during the lunch rush.  The staff was pleasant.  My table was bussed before I had my coat on, which turns some people off.  But again - lunch rush.

Then I came home and checked out the website.  It includes nutritional information, so I plugged in my meal.  1279 calories, minus whatever the difference between a regular and a junior burger and the fact that I didn't eat all of the fries.  Not tragic for a burger and fries, and I was hella full.

I think I can recommend it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley

Book 52

I haven't read any of Christopher Buckley's fiction, but I read great things about this memoir when it was released.  His story is that of a middle aged only child who lost both parents in the span of a year.  Add on that his parents were William F. and Patricia Buckley and there was no way this book wouldn't be good.

I was right.  It was great.

He won me over right away by saying that he never meant to write a book about his parents, but that "when the universe hands you material like this, not writing about it seems either a waste or a conscious act of evasion".  He apologizes nearly every time he name drops.

But here is an example:

St. Patrick's Cathedral limits each funeral to two eulogies.  For his father's funeral, he was doing one and Henry Kissinger was doing the other.  Then the White House called.  Dick Cheney would like to attend, and to speak.  So Christopher had to decide - drop his own eulogy, boot Kissinger (a great friend of his father) or decline Cheney. 'Cause there is no arguing with St. Pat's.

Cheney was out.

I particular liked the stories of Patricia Buckley.  Apparently, she was a storyteller in the sense that you could never quite tell if her stories were true.  Put that on top of the ability to throw a helluva party and I would've loved to be her friend.  Seriously, look at that cover photo.  She was clearly fabulous.

Finally, I listened to the audiobook, which Buckley narrated himself.  Listening to a guy quote his own parents is pretty cool.

I am not rushing out to pick up any Buckley fiction - Boomsday just sounded morbid - but I will probably stop and look the next time I see his name.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Adopt-a-Pet, Inc.

On Sunday, Morton Grove Animal Hospital hosted an event for Adopt-a-Pet: Holiday Pet Photos.  The office isn't terribly far from my house, and Dr. B is a Crowdrise buddy, so I took Gibbs over for a portrait with Santa Claus.

Hi, my name is Anne and I just paid $10 for my dog to have his picture taken with Santa Claus.

For charity, people.

I actually took Gibbs to the dog park before heading over.  I somehow thought that if he was tired, he would cooperate better.  Ha.

They had two options - snapshot that you could take with you or digital to be e-mailed at a later date and you better believe I took the digital.  They also had a "paw print painting" holiday card thing, but that might have been more than Gibbs could stand.

I am happy to report that Gibbs was perfectly pleasant to everyone that he saw - except perhaps that one lady that eyed him suspiciously as her 10 pound darling walked by us.  He might have barked.  Then it was over.  I am thinking he just didn't understand the concept of a dog wearing a sweater.

He was less than pleased with the photo session and barely stopped squirming long enough to snap the shots.  Luckily, the photographer had an awesome camera and is certain that he got what he needed.  Santa was very patient (there were Hanukkah options also) and the other volunteer had squeaky props to get the dog's attention.  I don't have the pictures back yet, but it felt pretty professional to me.

Adopt-a-Pet also had fresh baked dog biscuits for sale and we went home with a small bag of those.  Gibbs likes pumpkin cookies.

So why am I posting about this when I don't even have a picture?  Because Adopt-a-Pet has one more such event scheduled:

When:   Saturday, Dec. 3, 10:00-2:00
Where:  Wiggly Tails Doggie Daycare
Address:  1915 Holste Rd, Northbrook
Photographer:   Kelly Fitzgerald
Reservations:   847-272-4141 

Morton Grove Animal Hospital also has a Crowdrise project to support Adopt-a-Pet.  The group's next volunteer orientation happens to be at Glenview's library on December 3 at 1pm.  And oh, do they have the cutest black cocker spaniel available for adoption.

Monday, November 14, 2011

November Blanket Day and Blanket 62

Saturday was Blanket Day for our chapter of Project Linus.  I am sorry to say that I totally forgot to take pictures.  But the final product looks pretty much the same every time:

This day's take resembled 560 blankets bagged, tagged and ready to deliver.

I was working on this:

It had been awhile since I'd done a fully crocheted blanket.  This was Bernat's Waverly yarn in Greek Sea and Aqua Frost.  It really irritates me that the one skein was clearly shorter than the others.  But it is a thing that I doubt the kids will judge.  Otherwise, I really liked that yarn and I finished the blanket that night over an audio book.

Judy and Linda, the chapter coordinators, mentioned that they were looking for volunteers to help with some other chapter stuff: delivering blankets, newsletter, tagging blankets, etc.  I said that I'd do anything that could be done online - so we'll see where that goes.  And we have Starbucks night on Wednesday, which means I am sure to come home with a big pile of prepared fleece.

Until then, I am working on scarves and..scarves.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pumpkin Cupcakes

After my last visit to the cupcake truck in Washington, I told several colleagues that they were insane.  The lemon cupcake was clearly superior to the red velvet.  A non-zero number didn't even want to talk about Curbside Cupcakes, because just that week a colleague in PR had brought pumpin cupcakes to the office and they were the best thing ever.

So the next time I happened to be passing by the lady's office, I told her that the building had judged her cupcakes better than Curbside's.  She laughed and said it was a recipe from Emeril.

I told my mother this story when I came home and she went online to find these mythical cupcakes.  Before tracking it down, she found one from Betty Crocker that involved using a dry yellow cake mix, a can of pumpkin and some other stuff.  She ran with it:

She actually roasted pecans.  A woman that wouldn't make the cake from scratch roasted pecans for the icing.

They were good.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Lake of Dreams, by Kim Edwards

Book 51

I have said before that nothing is more boring than listening to people talk about their dreams.  I have found one.  It is listening to fictional characters talk about their dreams.

This is a chick book.  And I had just about given up on it by the third CD, but there was one plot thread that kept me interested.  Mostly, I found the main character boring.

Prodigal daughter comes home during a crossroads in her life and confronts family drama centering on her father's death 10 years before.  Insert 100-year old family letters illuminating a mysterious aunt no one had ever heard of before whose life must have something to teach our lost little heroine.


The supporting characters are, thankfully, more interesting.  But the thing is, the twists and turns weren't terribly surprising.  The only really shocking moment was when Lucy went "nightswimming" by herself and.....didn't get caught.  I guess I have seen too many soap operas.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A few months ago, Chicago lost its alternative radio station.  There aren't very many rock stations left, and Q101 was a Gen X staple.  If I remember correctly, it launched the summer that I left for college.  I had two clues that it was fading:

  1. Each December, they would run the top 100 songs of each year they had been on the air, and listeners could vote on their favorite year.  Those 100 songs would be played again on New Years Eve.  The same year's songs won every single time.  That would be 1994.  The #1 song was "Closer" - Nine Inch Nails.  They stopped that particular holiday event.
  2. Joy and I were talking about Q101 and she commented, "All their songs are old."  I immediately denied it, but then I started noticing.  
Well.  Music was just better in the 90's.  Or something.  Damn, we are old.

So.  Some conglomerate decided to kill Q101 and start an FM news radio station.  But in its final week, all the old DJs started calling in and they would talk about music and antics and I remembered how many of them I liked.  

I remembered hearing that Q101 would live on, but I hadn't actually gone online and played the live stream.  Someone mentioned it on my twitter feed, and I clicked over.

It is Q101 music. With no DJs.  And no commercials!  Some people are trying to build its online presence and perhaps get it back on the air.  (You know what's playing right now?  Limp Bizkit covering George Michael!  Ha!) So.  Facebook.  Twitter. Check it out.

I swear, I am listening more now than when they were on the air.  Apparently, I am not the only one:

"96,000+ listeners in September....GREW to 156,000+ in October! Thank you for listening to!!!!"

I could do without the multiple exclamation points.  

So, now I listen to whenever I am at home, online and not otherwise audio-occupied.  I listened to it when I was at the library.  I listened when I was in Washington!


I love the Internet.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Genetic Testing - The Results

I had my follow up appointment last Friday with the MD and genetic counselor.  It was not too terrible a preamble before the verdict: the test came back Normal, meaning that no genetic mutations were found in my BRCA gene.  The doctor said the degree of accuracy is around 93%.

They explained that in light of this result, they reviewed a whole bunch of models and determined that my probability of having a breast cancer diagnosis in my lifetime is about 17.5% - slightly elevated due to the family history but factoring in the Normal BRCA gene.  The protocol in my case is to continue annual clinical exams and monthly self exams, plus step up the mammogram schedule so that I have them annually beginning now, rather than after age 40.
My statistical probability of having ovarian cancer is that of the average woman – about 1.5% - or perhaps a bit lower since I have been using birth control pills for many years.
And that was it.

Following is the cost breakdown.  Please note that this coverage may vary from plan to plan, and may be subject to proof of medical necessity.  You should do your own homework with your provider before pursuing these tests.
Initial appointment:
Retail cost was $278, BCBS negotiated down to $212.  Because I have met my out-of-pocket limit this year, it was 100% covered.
Lab #1:

Retail cost was $700.  BCBS negotiated to 639.57 and covered 100%.  Again, there is a protocol to determine “medical necessity” for my insurance plan and the doctor confirmed that I met the terms before we ran the test.  This lab picks up 90% of the mutations of the BRCA gene.  If this comes back Abnormal, they would not have run the second, more expensive, lab.
Lab #2:

Picks up much fewer mutations, but covers some territory that the first lab doesn’t.  It is also far more expensive: $3,340.00 retail.  BCBS negotiated it to $3,044.03 and covered at 100%.
I presume the cost of the follow up appointment will be no more than the cost of the initial appointment, but I don’t have the report back from my insurance company.  Which leads me to say something you don’t hear very often:

Thank you, to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois and my awesome employer for providing this coverage.  This issue has been a cloud hanging over my head for as long as I can remember and while this test is no guarantee of anything, I am controlling what I can control. And I feel much, much better now. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Blankets 59 - 61

The lighting here is so messed up that you can't even tell that the fleece is pink.  The yarn was Red Heart's Monet.  Four rows, single crochet.

This was Red Heart's Lemon.  Three rows single crochet.

This actually is a yellow fleece.  Four rows single crochet in Red Heart's Watercolor.

I have also been making loads of scarves - around 20 by now.  My mother has made three.  When I called her out, she said, "You haven't done anything else!"

Really?  Because it looks like I have made sixty-one blankets for Project Linus!  And counting.

The next Blanket Day for the North and Central Chicagoland is next Saturday.  Details here.