Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Happiness Project

The Happiness ProjectThe Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book expecting entertainment, not self-help, so it was hard to change my mindset while reading this book. There were some things that I really enjoyed about this author - that she was very black and white, she needed some way to track her progress and she was honest about her flaws. I liked that she told stories that were relevant to what was going on her life, although sometimes I felt she went on and on (beating a dead horse) about something that was "Okay, yeah, I got it the first time you said it" material. Overall, this book didn't do much for me.

Synopsis: Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. "The days are long, but the years are short," she realized. "Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter." In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.

In this lively and compelling account of that year, Rubin carves out her place alongside the authors of bestselling memoirs such as Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, and Eat, Pray, Love. With humor and insight, she chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.

Rubin didn't have the option to uproot herself, nor did she really want to; instead she focused on improving her life as it was. Each month she tackled a new set of resolutions: give proofs of love, ask for help, find more fun, keep a gratitude notebook, forget about results. She immersed herself in principles set forth by all manner of experts, from Epicurus to Thoreau to Oprah to Martin Seligman to the Dalai Lama to see what worked for her—and what didn't.

Her conclusions are sometimes surprising—she finds that money can buy happiness, when spent wisely; that novelty and challenge are powerful sources of happiness; that "treating" yourself can make you feel worse; that venting bad feelings doesn't relieve them; that the very smallest of changes can make the biggest difference—and they range from the practical to the profound.

Recommended Reading:
The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha
Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
Life is a Verb by Patti Digh
The Immortal Life of Henrietta... by Rebecca Skloot
Learning to Breathe by Priscilla Warner

Monday, October 24, 2011

Juice Box Robots

So... I thought I was being completely original. Actually, my intention was to make juice box and a candy grab bag for The Diva's birthday party at daycare... but then I wondered if I could make Tinkerbell juice boxes... and then my experimenting led to me thinking "these look more like robots" so then I talked to my best friend Google... and yeah. Not so original idea. But I did find a lot of ideas to make my not-so-original idea better. My favorite was found at My Insanity - I really liked the combination of chocolate and chewy candies, and the dots for eyes really made them cute. I left mine with their original packaging showing because 1) I'm lazy and b) it reminds me of the Lifesaver trains my mom used to make at Christmas (which reminds me, I should figure out how to do those...) These were a super-quick twenty minute project and the daycare kids loved them!

Here's what I used:
12 mini juice boxes (4oz. size) I bought these in packs of 4 at the dollar store in apple and fruit punch flavors
24 Hershey's milk chocolate nuggets
24 Laffy Taffys
24 Starbursts
24 mini dot labels I found these in the office supply aisle at Wal-Mart.

You'll also need a hot glue gun! I have a low temp one so the kids can help me when I tackle projects like this.

Glue two Starbursts to the bottom of the juice box for feet. I didn't worry too much about matching these, but next time I will take the time to match the feet and the arms. There were a few boxes that I had to play with to get to balance just right so they would still stand (there was one that I actually had to glue a third foot onto) but for the most part they all balanced perfectly after the feet were added.

Glue two Laffy Taffy on each side of juice box for arms. I did take the time to match these on each robot.

Glue two Nuggets with flat sides together. Glue to top of juice box to make the head.

Attach two mini dot labels to head for eyes (remember that the straw is the back of the robot body so you want the eyes to be facing the front).

Voila! I really like the varieties that Kendra came up with - different shapes for heads, Rolos for feet - but I think I'll stay away from the Pez arms. (Not because I don't like Pez, I just like Pez when it comes out of the Pez dispenser :) It's fun!)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tinkerbell Cupcakes

While I was planning The Spawn's birthday cake, The Diva looked at me and said: I want Tinkerbell for my birthday. Seven months later, I managed to deliver Tinkerbell.

What you need:
12 cupcakes (I made mine from a white cake mix)
1 can vanilla frosting
1 small tube black decorating icing
1 small tube red decorating icing
yellow food coloring (I recommend AmeriColor made especially for baking)
36 sticks Juicy Fruit gum
12 vanilla wafers
12 green fruit chews (I used Jolly Ranchers)
You'll also need a rolling pin (or a smooth glass works too), a sharp knife for cutting the wings and dress fringe as well as a piping bag and writing tip for adding the hair.

Cut 24 small wings from 12 pieces of the gum. I did this by folding each piece in half and cutting two at a time. If I did this again I would do them individually for a smoother cut. I discovered when I did the larger wings that single sticks of gum cut much smoother.

Cut 24 larger wings from the remaining 24 pieces of gum.

Microwave the green Jolly Rancher fruit chews for no more than 3 seconds each to soften. Flatten each fruit chew and roll out on a clean work surface. Cut little notches in the bottom of each fruit chew to make the dress fringe.

Add enough yellow food coloring to 1/4 cup of the vanilla frosting to tint it yellow. Spoon the yellow frosting into a resealable bag.

Add food coloring to the remaining vanilla frosting to tint it your color of choice. I baked my cupcakes in these super cute (and expensive!) flower shaped cupcake papers. Because the papers were purple, I choose to do the background frosting in purple but you can do it in any color you want (or no color at all).

Spread each cupcake with background frosting and make smooth.

Arrange the green fruit chew dress on the lower half of a cupcake.

Place 2 large wings and 2 small wings on the top third of cupcake.

Pipe a line of frosting on the bottom half of the BACK of the vanilla wafer. Attach the whole vanilla wafer on top for the fairy's head.

 Using the yellow frosting, pipe some hair and a bun with the yellow frosting as pictured. Because I am not very good with frosting, I kept it simple by drawing a semi-circle partway down the wafer (leaving just enough room to make the swirly dot for a bun at the top) and filled in with three or four lines for bangs. A few of the cupcakes actually wound up looking like they had mini suns perched on their head, but for the most part this technique worked.

Pipe the eyes with the black decorating icing.

Pipe a smile with red decorating icing. I actually had a vision of using some little cake decorating doo-dad for a mouth, but couldn't find anything that worked.

I had also thought to cut wafers for arms and legs, but really, the winds, head and dress were enough. The Diva knew instantly that mom had made her Tinkerbell cupcakes. She absolutely loved them!

Another note about these cupcakes, they do not store well so I wouldn't make them any longer than one day in advance. And really, it only took me about an hour to frost, shape and assemble the cupcakes, so it's very easy to do the day of the party - unless you're also in the middle of painting your kitchen, making a taco bar for 25 people, making a second cake and trying to clean your house. Then by all means, make them the day before. (By day three, the wafers had turned mushy, the gum was wilted and the fruit chew had melted. You've been warned.)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chocolate Mint Cake

First of all, let me apologize. I am not a baker. I try, really, I do. I just lack the patience to go slowly and attend the details, but really I just want it done so I can eat it. Now, you may laugh at my pathetic attemp at 1) a level cake b) smooth frosting without crumbs and pi) purple daisies.

I found this cake at I am Baker (who makes lots of amazing things that I will never attempt, see above) and knew it would be perfect for The Diva's birthday. I patiently waited for four months to make this cake. It was worth it! Oh man, was it worth it. I made a few variations from the recipe, okay, ONE variation. I used a whole banana. I like bananas. I thought I could taste it slightly but it was hard to tell because this cake was SO MINTY. Too minty, actually. The next time I make it I will be reducing the amount of extract to let more of the chocolate flavor come through. Anyways, I even copied attempted I am Baker's idea of green frosting and daisies (on a miniature scale). So, yeah. Here's the recipe...

1 box chocolate cake mix (I used Duncan Hines Chocolate Fudge)
1 cup water
2 sticks butter (softened)
4 eggs
1 ripe banana
1 tbsp. cinnamon
1 tbsp. + 1/4 tsp peppermint extract [next time I'm decreasing to 3/4 Tbsp]
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Heat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine all ingredients in a mixer on low for thirty seconds, then increase speed to medium and mix until just combined.

Pour into prepared pans (I used two 9 inch pans) and bake for 30-40 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

 Buttercream Frosting:
I used this recipe (also from I am Baker). I used the shortening called out for in this recipe. I should have mixed it a little better, it was a little grainy from the powder sugar, or maybe used a tadbit more milk or shortening, or maybe even a little more vanilla extract as I thought it was rather flavorless. (Or maybe I was just overwhelmed by the cake?) Anyways, I really liked this frosting for decorating. It was easier to use than the canned frosting that I've tried before. I'll be using it again.

4 cups powder sugar
1/2 cup shortening
5 tbsp milk
1 tsp vanilla

Combine all ingredients in mixer on lowest setting for 30 seconds. Switch to medium high and mix for 2-5 minutes.

Back in the Game

I'm sure you've noticed that I've been posting actual book reviews lately. You know, instead of endless whining about not being able to read. Yay me! I'm not quite holding up to my resolution to read for half an hour a day. Sometimes it's more, sometimes it's not at all. It has helped me carve out time to read though. Now if I could just do the same for everything else (like house cleaning, German lessons and house cleaning)...

No one pays attention to my lists the way that I do, I get a little obsessive about my lists, so it's okay if you didn't notice that my TBR list hasn't moved in the last month. This is because I've been utilizing the eBook loan program at the library. Have I mentioned how much I adore my Nook? I love it. It fits in my purse. It's cute and easy to use. sigh. I love that thing. Ahem, so ... All this eBook reading is great, but it isn't helping my physical TBR shelf or the eBooks that I purchased when I first got my Nook. So, I'm finishing up the two books that I have on loan and then I'm going to work on the four books sitting on my nightstand.

Other news on the home front: The house is still awesome. I've been working on repainting the kitchen. I would have finished but I came down with a nasty cold. The Diva turned four last weekend. We had a lot of fun with food for her party. (Stop on over to my cooking blog Cooking With Sherry to check out what we were doing. The posts should be popping up over the next few days.) I've been working out the schedules - my PTO/paid holidays, daycare paid/unpaid days, and where The Spawn needs to be - to use up my PTO and unpaid daycare by the end of the year. So far it's looking like I'll have a few extra days around Thanksgiving and Dec. 22nd to Jan. 3rd off. This opens up a lot of time for projects! And boy, do I have projects...

Hope everyone is having a great time out there!

ETA: Oh! And we have two new additions in our house :) We have kittens (Snickers and Kitten) now. It's been a fun adventure for the kids as they've never had pets.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenMiss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was surprised when I started reading this to find that it was a YA book. Or maybe I knew it and forgot. I really enjoyed this book, even more than I expected to. It even had pictures! The characters were fun and the storyline was "I've heard this before" but with a twist (or several) that made it fun. There was some language and subject matter that made it more for older kids so it will be awhile before I let The Spawn read it. It ended with the feel of a series, so I hope there's more to come as the author left a few strings hanging.

Synopsis: A mysterious island.

An abandoned orphanage.

A strange collection of very curious photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

Recommended Reading:
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Forgotten by Cat Patrick
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Things They Carried

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure where I found out about this book so it took me by surprise. I've read a lot of war stories, but nothing about Vietnam before. This was an interesting perspective to a piece of history that I know very little about. This is a collection of short stories about the author's time in 'Nam. Some it becomes repetitive, but in a way that adds to the darkness of the subject. Some things you can't let go, they continuously loop through your head and you keep living it over and over. There were especially touching moments when he talked about his past, how he felt about being drafted, and a haunting story about a friend who went home and didn't know how to deal with no longer being in the war. This is a good piece for anyone who wants to read from the perspective of someone who was there.

Synopsis: A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Taught everywhere—from high school classrooms to graduate seminars in creative writing—it has become required reading for any American and continues to challenge readers in their perceptions of fact and fiction, war and peace, courage and fear and longing.

Recommended Reading:
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Thursday, October 6, 2011

North of Beautiful

North of BeautifulNorth of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't expect to like this book. In the first few chapters we're introduced to the main character who seems shallow, self-absorbed, over-achiever, I want to hate this girl. This girl is the surface. Then we meet the girl underneath all of the surface. The girl with the father who is always right, always bigger, always better and will cut down anyone who dares to be his equal. The girl who worries about an elderly friend falling and slipping. The girl who makes art but won't show anyone because it says too much about who she really is. The girl who has a boyfriend she doesn't particularly like because she's afraid no one else will love her.

This book really took me on a voyage about what beauty means, what it is to love and accept someone and that sometimes you have to dig through the past to find your future. Life changes, people change, nothing is constant.

The only thing that I didn't like was the ending. This book was a gentle peeling away of layers right up until the end, and then suddenly there was big dramatic "this is how you get your happy" ending. It was too much and I put the book down slightly dissatisfied.

Synopsis: It's hard not to notice Terra Cooper.

She's tall, blond, and has an enviable body. But with one turn of her cheek, all people notice is her unmistakably "flawed" face. Terra secretly plans to leave her stifling small town in the Northwest and escape to an East Coast college, but gets pushed off-course by her controlling father. When an unexpected collision puts Terra directly in Jacob's path, the handsome but quirky Goth boy immediately challenges her assumptions about herself and her life, and she is forced in yet another direction. With her carefully laid plans disrupted, will Terra be able to find her true path?

Recommended Reading:
The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander
Everything is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis
Willow by Julia Hoban

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Who Wants To Marry a Heartthrob?

Who Wants to Marry a Heartthrob? (Harlequin Flipside, #23)Who Wants to Marry a Heartthrob? by Stephanie Doyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a fast and light read. I thought the characters were well-written and better fleshed out than what they usually are in a book of this short length. This book made me giggle a lot.

Series: Harlequin Flipside #23

Synopsis: The Cast
1) One buff, self-centered former soap star
2) Fifteen excessively ambitious beauties
3) One mouthwash sponsor (fresh breath is important)
4) One very driven advertising executive (Richard Wells) and his pert assistant (Bridget Connor -- as un-Beauty Queen as they come)

The Show
One man, a bevy of beauties and cameras everywhere to record the catfights.

The Really Big Problem
When a bad boob job forces a contestant to bail, Richard begs Bridget to fill in -- never expecting she'll make it past the first cut. But to Bridget's glee and Richard's dismay, it seems that the hunky star of the show is very interested in Bridget.... plenty of action!