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The No Time to Read with Your Kids Reading PlanIn my quest to bring back the Family Book, I’m testing out ways to make time to read books together with my kids. I’m open to any plan that has us reading the same section of the book on roughly the same day. Here are four ways I’ve brainstormed so far:

Eat an Elephant. Remember that very old and very bad joke – How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I just timed it, and it took one minute and one second to read one page of The Magician’s Elephant aloud. If we get in five pages a day during the week, and slightly more on the weekends, we could read at least a few books a year together.

Book Club Style. If everyone reads (or listens to) a prearranged section of the book separately, we can discuss it over dinner.  One big advantage to this plan is that my husband, who frequently listens to audiobooks during his commute, can join in. Last year he listened to the first six Harry Potter books and the kids really enjoyed discussing them with him. He is waiting to listen to the last one when Gray, our youngest, gets to read it. We allow one new Harry Potter on each birthday once they reach book five. That allows a little time for maturing, since the books certainly mature as they go.

The Commute Plan. Audiobooks are another great way to get in reading time. We used to listen to a lot of books while driving to and from activities, and it makes the time pass so quickly. Between free audiobook download sites, audible.com, and the public library, there’s always something good to listen to out there.

The No Television Plan. I wish this plan would be more helpful, but we’re not big TV watchers. We record several shows to watch together as a family (Dancing with the Stars, The Voice, stuff like that) and rarely end up watching them because we’re all so busy.

Do you fit in books with your older kids? How do you choose which books to read together? Have you tried any of these strategies?

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Family Storytelling: Defrost the Chicken

Family Storytelling DFCFamily Storytelling is part of the fabric of nearly every family. We all have stories that we tell over and over. These stories may come from our family history, from books or movies or television, or even from the time in our lives before we were a family.

We drive into Chicago to visit my husband’s family a few times a year, and every time, as we drive up Lakeshore Boulevard, he tells the same stories of family happenings or things that impressed him as a kid/young adult.”I’ll stop telling the stories once you can tell them to me first,” he says.

So last year, they did.

“That’s where Bubbe had her prom,” says Sky. “That’s the building where they filmed While You Were Sleeping,” says Scarlet.

It’s fabulous. Little pieces of who we are, and who we were, are part of the fabric of our children’s lives – though I suppose what they’ll remember most is that they learned the stories so Dad would stop telling them!

Here is a story that is a part of our family culture now. It doesn’t have the same weight or history as the stories Alan tells as we drive through Chicago, but it’s meaningful to our family. I have absolutely no idea where I found it, and it’s not true according to snopes.com, but it’s still a great analogy. When someone in our house isn’t thinking through a problem, one of us always says this tagline. I’m paraphrasing here.

When NASA was tasked with developing new technology for high-speed trains in the U.S., one of the issues they had to address was the fact that birds kept hitting and cracking the windshields. They tried everything and finally came up with a material that they were sure would work. The problem was that they had no good way to test it. They contacted Eurail, who had been running high-speed trains for decades. Eurail sent them the following instructions:

Take an averaged-sized chicken carcass and fire it out of this cannon (design enclosed). It will approximate the speed at which a bird hits the windshield.

So NASA built a chicken-sized cannon and proceeded to test their windshields. Epic fail – the windshield shattered. They built another prototype. Again, it shattered. After a third fail, the engineers contacted Eurail, explained what they were doing, and asked for their input. They received the following reply:

Defrost the chicken.

I know, it’s a groaner. Thanks for staying with me. Here are some delicious-looking recipes from Pinterest to make up for your pain. I’d give you some of my own chicken recipes, but I’m probably the most boring cook on the planet.

Crockpot Chicken Corn Chowder from A Kitchen Addiction. This looks sooo good.

One Pot Paprika Chicken Thighs from Reluctant Entertainer. One pot – need I say more?

Quick and Easy Chicken Gyros from Brunch Time Baker. I’d have to quadruple the recipe…

 

Does your family have any shorthand sayings like defrost the chicken? We have several – I’ll torture you with them share them with you soon.

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Twitterature

Twitterature October 2014

I’m joining up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for Twitterature - short (ish) reviews of recently read books. This month has been a reading and writing doozy. I’ve abandoned more books than I’ve read, mixed up my genres more than ever, and generally had a great time. Here are three of my favorite titles this month:

The Golem and the Jinni - Helene Wecker’s debut novel is a lyrical and moving story, set in turn-of-the-century New York, of love and what it means to be human. It’s a slow read, but well worth the wait.

The Bookman’s Tale – Charlie Lovett’s debut novel about a grieving antique book collector follows a trail to the Holy Grail of book collecting: proof that Shakespeare wrote, well, Shakespeare. Murder and mayhem quietly ensue. I will never look at an old book the same way again. (Austen fans, don’t miss Lovett’s First Impressions, out tomorrow!)

The Information – Take the history of language and communication, mix with riveting biographies and an absolutely perfect non-linear chronology, and stir. The result is nothing short of amazing. James Gleick’s tome is by far the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read. Once again, it’s a slow read: you can’t absorb it all quickly.

Now that we’re entering the holiday season, I’ll be spending more time on crafts and making homemade gifts. Thank heavens for audiobooks!

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Dystopian Fairy Tales: the Lunar Chronicles

Dystopian futures and paranormal romance are my two most universally disliked genres, so it stands to reason that a book series that combines the two should be on my absolutely not list. However, this YA series came so highly recommended – first by my 13 year old daughter, then by a book blogger whose opinion I respect – that I decided to give it a try. Also, they’re based on fairy tales, which buys a lot of leeway from me.

Cinder is a cyborg Cinderella. Earth is on the brink of war with Luna, a moon race, and is fighting a deadly epidemic. The traditional Cinderella themes are incorporated – the prince, the ball, the evil family members – but in this incarnation, Cinder is no shrinking violet, crying on the hearth and waiting to be rescued. And her fairy “godmother” is, well, not so sweet, and pretty much makes her life more difficult.

Scarlet is a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale as well as a continuation of the war/epidemic story in Cinder, but the plot twists (away from the original) in this one are huge. Scarlet’s grandmother, who is missing, is a former spaceship pilot, and Scarlet is fearlessly, and recklessly, searching for her. The wolf (or Wolf in this case)has a very unexpected role to play.

Cress is actually Rapunzel. Hair: check. Trapped in a tower (of sorts)by an evil witch: check. Rescued (sort of) by a rake: check. After that, all bets are off. Being physically trapped has not stopped Cress from making waves out in the world.

The series will have two more books: a prequel, called Fairest, about the evil queen Levana, and Winter, a Snow White tale due out in Fall 2015.

These books are wonderful, fresh stories that hold their own even without the occasional glimpse of the original fairy tales. The female characters are out there making things happen. The male characters aren’t cardboard cutouts, either – most have major flaws. I devoured all three books in less than a week. My only complaint is that the final book is not out for a year!

I would almost recommend these as Family Books, but there is a fair amount of ick in the books. They would definitely be appropriate for older teens, but for younger ones and preteens, I would advise previewing the books first.

Fun side note: I have a daughter named Scarlet. My husband contacted Marissa Meyer, and she very kindly mailed my Scarlet some swag (bookmarks and the like). When you have an unusual name, seeing it in print is really spectacular.

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Abandoning Good Books

One of my current book stacks.

One of my current book stacks.

You’re several chapters into a really great book, and the pace is really picking up. Great characters. Great story. Great setting. Just your type of book. You put it down for a few days. When you pick it up again, you look at it, put it back in the stack, and never touch it again.

Or you’re galloping along, halfway through, when all of a sudden it is just… overwhelming. Or uncomfortable. Or something.

Or you read the first chapter and are completely fascinated – and hate a character so much that the rest of the story can’t pull you through. It doesn’t matter that this character isn’t the lead. It doesn’t matter that you love the lead. You are just. Done.

Has this ever happened to you?

Recently I’ve edited my reading list to make room for more substance and less junk food reads. I’ve also started picking up more books based on recommendations and less on my Book Psychic superpower. One of the strange and wondrous things I’ve noticed is that I walk away from better books than I used to slog through! It’s as though the higher level of engagement I have with these books has made me less tolerant of not getting what I want. I kind of liken it to going on a diet. If you can only have so much food, you want what you eat to taste the way you want! Put another way, a perfect steak does not suffice when you crave chocolate cake.

I’m trying now to work out my own personal criteria for abandoning a book, but there’s a good chance I’ll just keep walking away when a book no longer appeals to me. Life is too short to waste time on books that don’t call to you.

Some really good books I’ve walked away from recently:

Eleanor & ParkI was halfway through this one and just couldn’t read any more. It’s a beautiful YA love story. The characters are very real and very compelling. Many, many people have raved about it. I may end up picking it up again later, but for now it’s just not for me.

What Alice ForgotI think everyone on the planet loves this book and this author. I picked it up and put it down repeatedly before giving up, and I don’t think I’ll try this one again. I know I’m in the minority here, and I’ll probably try her new one, Dirty Little Lies, to see if it’s story- and not author-related. Who knows.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel. This one is still staring at me from my stack. I know it’s a good book because I keep thinking about it, but something happened in it that hit my personal ick button and I can’t even touch it.

Don’t let my abandonment cause you to miss out on what the rest of the world says are amazing books, though. I truly believe that books are subjective; one woman’s trash is another’s treasure.

Do you ever abandon books, and if so, how do you decide when to stay and when to go?

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Letting Go of Junk Food Reads

Junk food reads

For a long time, a fair amount of my personal reading has consisted of light and fluffy romance novels. They required little in the way of attention, were emotionally satisfying thanks to the required Happily Ever After (or as my favorite non-fluffy romance author says, Happy Right Now), and stayed with me for about the same amount of time it takes to digest a slice of white bread.

Then a funny thing happened. I read, over the course of maybe six months, a romance series. We’re talking better than twenty books. When the newest one came out, I realized I couldn’t remember one complete storyline or the name of a single character. On the other hand, I still tear up every time I look at the cover of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and it’s been years since I read it.

That’s when I decided that life is just too short to live on a steady diet of junk food reads.

Will I still read one occasionally? Sure. There are times when I want to lose myself in a story that I don’t mind coming back out of at a moment’s notice. Will I still read romance? Absolutely. There are a lot of romance writers who don’t fall into the light and fluffy category. Jenny Crusie writes romance with humor and great characters and great sex and frequently bad sex, which is humorous in its own right. I could read Agnes and the Hitman over and over again. Ditto for Susan Elizabeth Phillips (except the bad sex. That seems to be Jenny’s forte.). My favorite of hers is Breathing Room. Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells (Bantam Discovery) is lyrical and magical and on my regular re-read list.

In general, though, I’m going to look for my romance elsewhere. I recently read/listened to The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel (P.S.) by Helene Wecker. It was historical fiction and fantasy and romance all rolled up into one incredible package. I’m currently trying The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel by Alice Hoffman, and I’m on the lookout for other epic non-fluffy romances to add to my TBR list.

What’s your preferred junk food read, and how often do you indulge? Do you have any epic romances to recommend? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Geeking Out Right Now: Duolingo

Duolingo quote

I’m kind of a language junkie. I’ve studied (but not mastered) French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, and Ancient Greek at one time or another in my life. As a matter of fact, I was planning to be an interpreter at one point. That was over twenty years ago, and it’s amazing how much I’ve lost in that time. Over the years I’ve tried a variety of tools to revive my language skills with little to moderate luck, but I’m finally getting somewhere! Thank heavens for the internet. I’ve been using a great free website called Duolingo.

Duolingo has a great interface that feeds you information in very short, very straightforward lessons. I spend about five minutes per lesson. There’s lots of repetition and reinforcement, which is useful, and most of the languages use native speakers, so you can get a good handle on accents. The one exception to the native speaker rule that I’ve found so far is Irish Gaelic. There is a lot of talk on the discussion boards about how bad her accent is. I’ve always wanted to learn Irish, though, so I’m plugging away at it- with a plan to look up some YouTube videos to get a better handle on the accent.

There’s also phone/tablet app that works really well. Only French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese are available on the app, though, so if you want to try out any of the other nine languages that are in beta (like Irish) or being developed, you’ll have to go to the website.

Like all apps these days, there’s a social media component. You can share your progress and compete with friends. I’m not a big social media user, other than Pinterest, but it would be fun to learn a language as a family, and this feature would certainly make it easier to compare progress.

Duolingo is well worth checking out if you want to play around with languages. It’s fun and effective, and free!

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Broadway on a Budget

We’re currently planning a trip to the Big Apple! We’re headed there for three reasons: one, Sky wants to be an actress on Broadway and Scarlet wants to be a costume designer; two, I’ve always wanted to see the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular; and three, I have a birthday coming up.

We’re only going for a short trip because of the kids’ schooling, but we’re trying to pack in as much fun as possible. My mother-in-law very generously used her timeshare points to get us rooms right in the heart of Broadway, which we’ve been swooning about ever since. That freed me up to concentrate on the entertainment. We planned the trip around the Rockettes, but we are also planning to attend some Broadway/off-Broadway shows. Although tickets are expensive, there are ways to save quite a bit. Here are some tricks I used to find great deals:

1. Look up the standard ticket prices so you have a basis for comparison. Every show has their own website, so you can just do a search, or you can pull up the list at nytix.com*. Tickets for the Rockettes, for example, cost anywhere from $45 to $209, depending on where you sit and when you go. I just used the nytix.com list to get an idea of regular ticket pricing and what was available. They offer a list of discount codes, but they charge $4/month for the list. I was able to find good codes elsewhere, so I didn’t try it out.

2. Audience Rewards: Sign up for this points program. It works like any other rewards program: you buy things or do things (like fill out a profile) and get points. Most of the ticket purchase places have a place for you to enter your number. You get two points per dollar spent on tickets, and it works with discounted tickets. You can use the points to purchase tickets, but it takes a lot of points. I’m planning to transfer mine to another rewards program.

Speaking of rewards, don’t forget to check your current rewards memberships for discounts. Chase, for example, seems to offer quite a few.

3. Find a coupon code for the show you’re interested in. Here are some of the sites I  checked and/or used:

BroadwayBox.com: This site has discount codes for most of the major productions. I found a discount here that wasn’t available on any other site.

Playbill.com: Sign up for a free membership to access a huge list of discounts. This is also the place to look for a job on Broadway, by the way. :)

TKTS.com: TKTS is traditionally known for its discount ticket booths in New York City, but they also sell discounted tickets online.

4. Take the code to the actual show web site and find seats. This is actually the hardest part. Make sure you enter the code before you look at seats so that the correct seats will be color-coded for that discount. For the Rockettes, I actually put in four different codes and compared the available seats to find the ones I wanted. Tickpick.com blogs about which seats are good in different venues. They also have tickets available for resale, and they rate the tickets based on price and quality. A+ tickets are a great deal, D-, not so much.

While we’re in New York, we’ll also be looking at last-minute deals for a matinee. We found two possibilities:

TKTS.com: TKTS offers tickets for up to 50% off. They have three ticket booth locations. The Brooklyn location has matinee tickets the day before the show. The others have them the day of. Download the free app to see what’s available before you get in line. We bought tickets at a TKTS booth when we were on our honeymoon and saw two fun productions.

Rush tickets: Rush tickets are last-minute tickets that you get at the theater. It is usually one to a customer. They are offered either by lottery or to students only. Nytix.com has a list of days and times that rush tickets can be picked up.

So, that’s what we’re doing to make Broadway a little more affordable. Now I’m looking for tips on how to eat inexpensively in New York. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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Halloween books don't have to be gross or scary to be enjoyed. Here are 8 books the whole family can enjoy in autumn and at Halloween, plus 1 movie.

 

Type in Halloween books into any search engine and you’ll get a lovely list of picture books, but if you’re looking for a book the whole family can enjoy, you are rather limited. There are a few obvious choices, like the Harry Potter series, of course. But if you’re looking for something different, here are a few lesser known Halloween/Autumn books that can fill the need for fun without fright:

 

A Wrinkle in Time- This classic tale by Madeleine L’Engle begins “It was a dark and stormy night.” Although the setting is not Halloween related, the story feels most appropriate for windy autumn days and nights. And of course, there are (almost) witches.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street – The second story in the series, set in fall (Halloween plays a prominent part), continues the story of four girls and their widowed father. There are no ghosts, no witches, just a wonderful family negotiating the real world. (The first book in the series won the National Book Award.)

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – This is the story of a girl named September who goes to Fairyland, signs on for a quest, and has many adventures. Another non-Halloween related book that just feels like Halloween.

Dying to Meet You – A grumpy old writer moves into a haunted mansion – that’s already occupied by a neglected boy and his cat. He quickly finds that co-parenting with a ghost can get a little complicated. This very quick read is packed with puns and lighthearted humor. We laughed out loud, a lot.

Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (by E.L. Konigsburg) – A little Halloween, a little pretend witchcraft, and a lot of learning to be friends. A funny, charming look at two lonely girls who bond over raw eggs and frogs. The Newbery Award was well deserved.
The Moffats(by Eleanor Estes) – Originally written in 1941, this sweet, gentle book about four children and their widowed mother can be enjoyed by young and old alike. The Halloween scene makes me laugh out loud every time.

The Boggart(by Susan Cooper) – A mischievous boggart living in an ancient Scottish castle accidentally gets transported to 1990s Canada. The story is adorable and funny and not remotely scary. As an added bonus, you’ll get to explain to your children what a floppy disc is and why a computer screen would be black and white only!

Newbery Halloween – This collection of short, Halloween-related stories by Newbery award winners is sadly out of print. Look for it used, or pick it up from the library.

 

And as a bonus, here is a nontraditional Halloween movie, rated PG (see parental guidelines here):

Penelope - Due to an ancestor’s transgression, Penelope has been cursed to wear the nose and ears of a pig until she finds love. This fairy tale romance is actually a message about loving ourselves as we are.

And here are two of the most adorable Halloween songs ever (YouTube links):

Punky Pumpkin

Wobblin’ Gobblin

Plus an album that can be found on Amazon or Spotify:

30s and 40s Era Halloween

*I only recommend books that I or my children have read and media that we’ve enjoyed. I’m always looking for more Family Books to add to our collection. Suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

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500 x 20: Building the Walking Habit

Building the Walking Habit: How I walk five miles a day, 500 steps at a time.

Today seemed like the perfect day to talk about walking, since it’s perfect walking weather here in Ohio. When I first went out this morning, it was still dark. The wind was lovely and brisk – not quite a Mary Poppins carry-you-away-on-an-umbrella wind, but nearly a Winnie the Pooh blustery day. The wind has now been joined by a perfect autumn rain: not too warm, not too cold, not too heavy, just enough to bring up the smell of the falling, damp leaves from the massive oak tree next door.

 

Over the past ten years or so, I’ve included exercise in my regular activities. This hasn’t come easily to me – my favorite position is curled up under a blanket with a good book, not sweating to the oldies! Through trial and error I found cardio and weight training programs I could maintain in spite of myself, and I usually get in five days a week. I’m pretty proud of myself for that, and frequently a little surprised.

So when studies showed that exercising is great, but won’t make up for sitting all day at a desk, I was a little cranky. Apparently, lack of “nonexercise” activity is a separate risk factor for heart disease, as well as being really bad for the back and legs.* My goal is to be a full-time writer, and writers sit. When this information came out, there was a lot of talk about standing desks and standing while doing everything. From what I’ve read, it seems to work well for a lot of people. I have congenital lymphedema (swelling) in my legs, so static standing was not a potential solution for me.

I decided to walk.

I started trying to incorporate 10,000 steps a day into my fitness routine. This is harder than it sounds. Two problems cropped up: how to track my steps, and how to make the time.

For devices, I started with a simple pedometer. A decent one costs less than twenty dollars and will calculate steps, distance, and even calories burned. As long as I remembered to put it on, I got all the information I needed.

Then I migrated to a free smartphone app. The app runs in the background, works like a pedometer, and keeps track of all data, allowing you to see trends and patterns in your activity. Most pedometer apps turned off when my phone screen turned off. Walklogger was one app that did not. The biggest drawback to this app is that you have to remember to keep your phone on you at all times, and you have to be careful where you put it. If I put it in a shirt pocket it recorded steps inconsistently.

The data from this was fascinating. I work part time as a nurse, and I work twelve hour shifts. I found that even on my busiest days, the days where getting a bathroom break was difficult and a lunch break impossible, I didn’t reach 10,000 steps. I stood a lot, but I didn’t walk. And when I spent a day at home I was lucky to reach 5,000 steps. I needed a way to increase my steps throughout the day.

Enter the magic bracelet.

I now have a Jawbone Up24, which is basically a computerized pedometer on steroids. It’s a small bracelet that you wear 24/7, except when bathing or swimming. It records everything and syncs with your smartphone. It’s small and compact, and I don’t even notice I’m wearing it anymore.

The UP24 measures  steps, distance, and calories burned. It tells  what percentage of my goal I’m at. It records sleep and tells me how much deep and light sleep I get and how often I’m awake. It wakes me up in the morning with a silent alarm customized to my sleep pattern.

But here’s the kicker: it buzzes at me.

There is a feature called Idle Alert. It tells the bracelet to buzz whenever I sit for longer than I should. It can be set for anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours. I have mine set to alert me from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. when I sit for more than 15 minutes.

When the bracelet buzzes, I get up and take a walk around the block. My block is roughly 500 steps, so I do this about 3 times an hour for 7 hours. Each walk takes about 4 minutes, so I’m not losing big chunks of time. My total time expenditure is about an hour and a half, but it seems like less when it’s 4 minutes at a time.

The UP24 has been well worth the investment. It’s helped me find a nearly painless way to get in my nonexercise activity. I’ll be working on my sleep next!

I’m always looking for ways to improve my processes. Any suggestions for more efficient exercise, and “nonexercise,” would be greatly appreciated!

*Reference: Why Your Desk Job is Slowly Killing You

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