Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: "Fives and Twenty-Fives" by Michael Pitre

"Fives and Twenty-Fives" by Michael Pitre
First published in 2014
377 pages
My rating: 5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads

Powerful and hard-hitting, "Fives and Twenty-Fives" follows a platoon of Marines at the start of the Iraq War. Their job is to repair potholes in the Iraqi roads. And those potholes always -- always -- contain bombs.

"Every inch of that place, every grain of sand, wanted desperately to kill us," one of our storytellers narrates.

This is a fantastic, gripping and raw look at what it was like to be among the first troops on the ground in Iraq, and it was penned by someone who was actually there himself.

The characters -- including a Mark Twain-obsessed Iraqi interpreter, a medic who later gets kicked out of the military, and a 2nd lieutenant who's in charge of a bunch of people but is only in his early 20s himself -- are dynamic and real. The author alternates perspectives, and the story switches between the soldiers' time in Iraq in 2006 and 2011 when we see how they've moved on with their lives and as well as the lasting toll the war has had on them.

I was especially taken with Dodge, an Iraqi university student forced by horrific circumstances to become an interpreter for the U.S. military. He carries around a battered copy of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" everywhere he goes and is crazy about American music. His story was the most interesting, the most tragic, and the most educational. You'll be rooting for Dodge (a.k.a. Kateb) and your heart will ache when you catch up with him in Tunisia during the Arab Spring, when he's desperately hoping to come to America but denied because of insufficient proof of his services to the military.

I picked up "Fives and Twenty-Fives" mainly because I'm an Air Force spouse and one of my goals this year is to read more military books. But I'm so, so glad I read this war novel. It was engrossing, disturbing, funny and heartbreaking, and -- even if you don't know much about the military -- you should read it!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Style Challenge: Copy an Outfit from Pinterest

It's Thursday, and that means it's time for the Style Challenge at Putting Me Together. This week's challenge was to replicate an outfit from Pinterest. I don't have a zillion things pinned on Pinterest, but I do have a few cute outfits saved and it was fun to look through them and decide which one I wanted to draw from for inspiration.

Here's my outfit, which was warm, comfy and had the advantage of getting me to wear one of my hand-knit shawls that seem to languish in the dark depths of my closet. It's not an exact match for the Pinterest outfit, but it's got lots of similar elements. And it pushed me a bit out of my comfort zone; I normally wouldn't wear a button-down shirt completely unbuttoned like that, which is weird because I wear most of my cardigans open. I was worried it would take away some of my shape, but the stripes underneath helped.

This is the look I was going for. Here's the Pinterest link.

Striped shirt: check.
Chambray button-down: check.
Knit neckwear: check.
Dark pants: check.
Brown boots: check.

How'd I do? Check back next week to see me attempt to try a new hairstyle (yikes -- not my forte!).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Etsy Wish List: January

Between looking for Christmas gifts and finding a wedding present for some friends, I've spent plenty of time on Etsy in the past two months and have found plenty of awesome handmade products to share with you!

Etsy shop: winemakerssister
Harry Potter stitch markers: $10.95 for five
Owl stitch markers: $11.95 for four
I am definitely going to buy some stitch markers from this shop; I just have to decide which set I want! I love these two, but there are a few others I'm considering too. I like that you can choose between three sizes of markers and one in each set has a different color bead to denote the start of the round. So handy! I've always used the cheap-o plain red and blue plastic stitch markers and I'm ready to prettify my knitting up a bit!

Etsy shop: noblegnome
Price: $32
I loooove this beautiful hammered copper arrow necklace! I'd probably go with the 30- or 32-inch chain so it'd hang low. I think this is one Etsy jewelry find that will be enhancing my wardrobe soon!

Etsy shop: BackBayPottery
Price: $38
These dainty little ceramic bird earrings are so pretty! I've already bought a couple things from this shop and they've been awesome. I also like that you can choose between three different types of ear wires for these earrings.

Etsy shop: stampcouture
Price: $8
This simple leafy stamp would be great for decorating envelopes and packages. I love how the seller stamped the brown gift bag in the above picture.

Etsy shop: CSSDesign
Price: $40
I love a good pun! Wouldn't this be so cute to hang in the kitchen?

Etsy shop: katrinkles
Price: $20
What fun earrings for the knitter in your life! Many people would probably just glance at them and see an interesting pattern, but the fiber artist would immediately notice the knit and purl stitches!

Etsy shop: SmirkingGoddess
Price: $3
Unfortunately, we have a stainless steel dishwasher so this wouldn't stick, but it was just too cute (and true!) not to share! Conan always loved "helping" with the dishes! :)

Etsy shop: LisaBarbero
Price: $12+
I wish this didn't clash horribly with the bathroom decor we have going on, because it just cracks me up!

Etsy shop: stratussilver
Price: $109+
I really like nature-themed stuff and this branch bracelet is just gorgeous. I don't wear bracelets very often, but I'd wear this one!

Etsy shop: thewheatfield
Price: $18+
I already own two prints from this shop and I love them! This one is not only gorgeous but has a sentiment I totally agree with!

Etsy shop: laalee
Price: $24+
These druzy necklaces are so sparkly and eye-catching! I especially like the teal one, but they're all pretty.

Etsy shop: Cyberoptix 
Price: $44
Well, I'll be the first to admit that I don't need any more scarves! But I do work at a library, and this old-fashioned library due date card print caught my eye!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Knitting Update: Follow Your Arrow 2 MKAL

I anxiously logged onto Ravelry this morning to get the second clue to the Ysolda Teague mystery knit-along I'm doing, Follow Your Arrow 2. There are definitely lots of benefits to having Mondays off work, and one of them is getting to work on the MKAL clue right after it's released! It snowed a few inches last night and Jarrod got to stay home from work today, and it just turned into an all-around lazy day, so I spent a glorious amount of time knitting and got the entire clue done! That frees up the rest of the week for me to work on my mom's scarf and my Gryffindor scarf, but that means I have to wait a whole week to get the next piece of the puzzle! And, honestly, I'm a little sad that we're already down to only three clues left. The mystery aspect is always exciting, but Ysolda's MKALs are extra-fun because there are two options for each clue. So much anticipation! And it's such a blast to watch all the other shawls take shape and see how other knitters pair the clues.

Clue 1 (I did option B) was the bigger arrow in the center, and clue 2 (option B again) is the two sets of smaller sideways arrows. I absolutely LOVE clue 2, although I kind of wish I had done clue 1A, which seemed to create more of a long and narrow crescent-shaped shawl. But I'm sure it will all fit together flawlessly at the end.

I'm loving all the texture to this shawl. I know the design elements are supposed to be arrows, but to me the bigger arrow from clue 1 looks like a pine tree and the smaller arrows from clue 2 look like branches or laurel. So pretty! I'm very excited to see what comes next!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Style Challenge: Wear a Bright Color

It's week 2 of the Style Challenge created by Audrey, awesome fashion blogger from Putting Me Together. Last week's prompt was to wear a dress, and that was definitely a challenge for me. This week, it's wear a bright color.

Not hard at all, since my closet is full of them! I do think I could've put a little more effort and creativity into my look, though, since this outfit is pretty run-of-the-mill for me. The Style Challenges should help me push my boundaries or experiment with new looks, not just pick any ol' thing that I'd normally wear. But, alas, this outfit does feature my favorite bright color combo -- coral and turquoise.
This is the world's worst picture of my outfit (well, it did beat out the other four I took!), but I had just gotten home from work and it was about to rain, so I had to hustle!

What's your favorite bright, happy color to wear? Stop by next week to see how I pull off the Challenge for week 3: copy a look from Pinterest!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Book Review: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by Caitlin Doughty

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory" by Caitlin Doughty
First published in 2014
254 pages (including bibliography)
My rating: 4 out of 5
Image from Goodreads

I love educational page-turners -- non-fiction books that read like novels. I'm much more likely to remember a historical tidbit I learned in a funny (or horrifying) anecdote than a dry, boring text. For instance, did you know that embalming didn't become de rigueur until the Civil War -- and that was only by necessity, as the fallen soldiers' bodies became too putrid on the journey home for the train conductors to handle?

This memoir answers all your morbid-curiosity questions: what would move a twenty-something college graduate to get a job as a crematory operator? How do morticians keep corpses' eyelids shut? What does a dead body that's been floating in the water for a few days really look like? What exactly does embalming entail?

But Doughty -- who's become something of an advocate for alternative funeral practices -- also has a lot to teach readers about the history of the mortuary profession, death rituals in different cultures and times, and how contemporary society's denial of and distance from death shapes our attitudes toward dealing with our deceased.

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" was a really fast, interesting read and I learned a lot about what happens to our bodies from the time we draw our last breath to the moment we're put in the ground or our ashes placed in an urn. Some of it was pretty disturbing. Some of it was pretty damn macabre. Some of it was funny. I enjoyed the author's wry and honest voice and appreciated her unflinching depictions of what goes on behind the curtains of the funeral home. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Knitting Update: Mom's Scarf and Follow Your Arrow 2 MKAL

Happy Monday! It's happy for us, anyway, since it's a holiday and we both have the day off, and the sun is actually shining and the temperature is in the 40s. I spent the morning working on some knitting. My mom asked me to make her a scarf to go with her new eggplant-colored fleece jacket, and she selected the Kernel pattern from Knitty. I'm knitting it up in some delicious Malabrigo Finito in a medium gray shade. (Oh, Malabrigo, how soft and delightful you are!)


The pattern has a pretty scalloped edging (the other end of which is knit separately and Kitchener stitched on), followed by a beaded purl band, and then the main pattern. I absolutely love how the scarf is progressing after 3 repeats of the body pattern, and I keep pausing after every right-side row to admire my handiwork. The lacework looks so intricate, but it's really not that hard; I'm hoping after a few more repeats I'll be able to knit while listening to my latest Harry Potter audiobook.

FullSizeRender (1)

It's hard to see because of the light reflection, but there are several shiny charcoal-colored seed beads knit into the purl band. I just happened to have some dark gray beads left over from a past project and they match perfectly! The beading was optional, but I really like the little bit of pizazz and sparkle they lend.

Today is the start of the second Ysolda Teague mystery shawl knit-along, Follow Your Arrow 2. I had a blast knitting the original Follow Your Arrow last year (here's my finished product) -- it's like a regular MKAL, but there are two options for each clue, meaning there are 32 possible shawls you could end up with. And this year features more freedom with colors, so I'm really looking forward to watching all the other participants' unique shawls progress each week.

I decided to use the same yarn I'm using for my mom's scarf to knit the shawl, Malabrigo Finito in Plomo. I mainly chose to do that because I already have some on hand and can go ahead and get started instead of waiting for yarn to come in the mail. I did order some darker gray in the Pearl Ten colorway for my contrast color.

It's always so exciting to get the first peek at the clues every Monday morning and I anxiously checked my e-mail as soon as I got up this morning. The first set of clues is very intriguing -- though the second option (which I think I'm more drawn to) involves learning a new cast-on technique and the first requires short rows, which I'd need to brush up on. Oh, decisions, decisions!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book Review: "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins

"The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins
First published in 2015
323 pages
My rating: 4.5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads

If Gillian Flynn were British, this is the book she'd write. The debut thriller by Paula Hawkins features deeply flawed characters, crazy plot twists to keep you guessing, and an ending that'll make you say, "WTF?!"

This whodunit features triple narratives. Rachel comes to us in present day and is sucked into the disappearance of a girl whose trackside house she passes every day on her morning train commute to London. Megan is the missing girl, and her tale begins one year before she vanishes. Anna is connected to both Rachel and Megan. The three stories converge at the same time, revealing a turn of events you probably won't see coming -- and that will remind you that we have no idea what secrets other people are hiding and what goes on behind the closed doors of our neighbors' houses.

I liked the book's format -- the chapters are short and broken up not only by days but into "morning" and "evening," making this novel highly readable. It's so nice when books have ample stopping points (though you won't want to stop reading this one!). The writing is awesome and the story is a total page-turner that'll have you on the edge of your seat.

That said, something kept me from giving "The Girl on the Train" a full 5 stars. Maybe it's because the twisted plot and multiple perspectives were so reminiscent of "Gone Girl," and "Gone Girl" was just a little bit better, a little bit fresher, a little bit more innovative, and a little bit more fucked up. Still, this was a fantastic, unputdownable, highly suspenseful mystery and I fully recommend it!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Style Challenge: Wear a Dress

I was really excited to see a new feature and link-up on my favorite style blog, Putting Me Together. Audrey has come up with a series of weekly fashion challenges -- anything from trying a new hairstyle to copying an outfit from Pinterest. The challenge for week 1 is to WEAR A DRESS.

This may not sound very hard, but for one thing it's winter in Ohio. For another, I'm a tried-and-true jeans girl and I hardly own any dresses. But one of my goals is to add more skirts and dresses to my wardrobe -- they always make such put-together outfits.

I dug around in my closet and came up with this pretty cream lace dress that I wore to my brother's high school graduation back in 2012 and -- woo hoo! -- it still fit! I paired it with a dark pink sweater, a leopard-print belt, leggings, brown boots and blue-green earrings for a pop of color.

 I was pretty pleased with the look I put together and I even got a few compliments on my dress at work! It was a super comfy outfit and I'm going to make it a point to add this dress into my regular wardrobe rotation. I'm sure I can come up with a few more fun ways to wear it!

Check back next week for style challenge 2: wear a bright color!


Monday, January 12, 2015

Top Ten 2014 Releases I Didn't Get To

Hello, book friends! This week for Top Ten Tuesday (over at The Broke and the Bookish), we're talking about the 2014 releases we had the best intentions to read... and then just didn't get to. The first four books on this list are titles I know I'll make an absolute point to read soon. I actually had "All the Light We Cannot See" and "In the Kingdom of Ice" (both fabulously-reviewed books on many best-of-2014 lists) checked out from the library but had return them before I had a chance to read them. Everyone and their brother has read "The Rosie Project" and now the sequel is out, and I keep seeing "Red Rising" everywhere all of a sudden. I expect to love a good majority of these books and I see lots of fantastic reading in my future!

Have you read any of these 2014 releases? What should I move to the top of my to-read list? Were there any books you really hoped to read last year and didn't?

Ten 2014 Releases I Meant to Read:
(and hope to enjoy soon!)

A Simple Winter Wreath

There's a weird decorating gap between Christmas and Valentine's Day. It's too late for red and green stuff, too early for hearts and Cupids. I never know what too put on the front door for those few weeks, so this year I decided to craft a winter wreath for January.

I started with a plain grapevine wreath, added some greenery, some whitery, and a few pinecones -- and there you have the world's easiest winter wreath! I also bought some purple and blue flowers in the same style as the white ones, as well as a wooden letter S, but in the end I liked the simple look.

And the color scheme is perfect for winter -- right now when I look out my window, I see green shrubs, brown tree branches and white snow. I almost bought a little cardinal to perch on my wreath, but all the faux birds Michael's had to offer were in pretty sad shape (poor things!).


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel

"Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel
First published in 2014
333 pages
My rating: 5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads

What better way start off a new year than devouring a superb 5-star novel? "Station Eleven" was the best book I've read in months, a fantastic tale that depicts the end of life as we know it due to a flu pandemic that rapidly wipes out most of earth's human population.

St. John Mandel has crafted a handful of wonderful characters whom we meet either before or after the collapse -- or both, in the case of the survivors -- and whose stories all intersect to form the beautifully complex plot. Our main guide between past and present is Kirsten, a young child acting in a production of "King Lear" when the deadly Georgia Flu hits. Twenty years later, she's part of the Traveling Symphony, a group of artistically-minded survivors who caravan from settlement to settlement playing music and performing Shakespeare -- because, as they proclaim in a line from Star Trek, "survival is not enough."

The novelty of a post-apocalyptic symphony and troupe of actors should be enough to make you pick up "Station Eleven." But if it's not, consider the existence of a dangerous religious prophet, some hand-drawn comic books with a story all their own, a famous Hollywood actor and his three ex-wives, a Museum of Civilization, a world where your tattoos show how many people you've killed. Every part of St. John Mandel's novel is a gripping, haunting, true portrait of humanity, and somehow it also manages to be a hell of a fun read.

If you think post-apocalyptic fiction isn't your thing, don't worry -- "Station Eleven" has enough literary merit and fresh material, not to mention fantastic writing, to keep any reader interested. And don't even bother reading the book jacket; you don't want to spoil any of the amazing plot. Just jump right in!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

...And Hopes For A Fabulous 2015

Hi, friends! Yesterday I posted pictures from 2014 and today I'm sharing what's on the horizon for 2015. What fun/exciting/scary/crazy things do you have planned for the new year?
What's ahead in 2015:

*Lots of travel! Hawaii, New York City, northern Ohio and maybe a jaunt over to Niagara Falls, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, back to the Smokies. Maybe Chicago? And Dallas to visit the bestie? Ohio's Cuyahoga National Park? And I really wanted to get to the Outer Banks in North Carolina before we leave Ohio but I'm not sure that'll happen. Too many trips, not enough vacation time at work!

*The big 3-0! It's pretty mindblowing to think about reaching this milestone in less than 11 months. I don't feel 30 and I sure don't feel like I've accomplished everything I thought I would by now. Where does time go!? But that's a conversation for another blog post. I spent my last birthday in the beautiful Smoky Mountains and I'd like to equal or top that experience this year! Any ideas?

*Concerts! We have Florida Georgia Line in a couple weeks and hopefully a few more concerts throughout the year. In 2014 we saw George Strait, Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean, plus 17 shows at Lollapalooza. (Eminem and Broken Bells were my favorites.) I love live music! :)

*Books, books, books! I read 61 books in 2014 and my goal for this year is 65. My first read of the new year was fabulous ("Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel) and I hope a streak of great books is to follow!

*Sporting events! While I'm hardly the world's biggest sportsfan, I feel like I've been to woefully few sporting events. In 2014 we went to two -- the Indy 500 and a NASCAR truck race. In 2015, we will absolutely, positively attend either (or both!) an Ohio State football game or a Bengals or Colts NFL game. And I'd love to go to a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game as well.

*Finding out where we'll be moving next! We should be setting out for parts currently unknown around this time next year. Oh, the anticipation! Please, please, please let it be someplace warm or interesting or both!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014: My Year in Pictures...

It's hard to believe 2014 has come and gone! It's bittersweet -- it wasn't a bad year overall, but we lost our sweet boxer boy Conan to cancer in March and no matter what other awesome adventures we had that'll be what we remember most about 2014. And it means we only have one year left here in Ohio before our next military move, which is exciting and sad at the same time. I have high hopes for the year ahead and I wish you a wonderful 2015 too! Tomorrow I'll share what's on the agenda for the next 12 months.

Here's a look back at 2014:
January: Polar vortex. Brr! On the coldest day, I was bundled up under a blanket by the fireplace in a few layers of clothes along with a hat, scarf and mittens! Our furnace wouldn't get over 64 degrees, but I was grateful it didn't die like some people's!

February: The Broncos humiliate themselves in the Super Bowl. :(
March 2: Goodbye, Conan. I still miss you every single day.
conan collage 1

March: A soggy, cold weekend in Philadelphia. (More pictures here.)

May: A fantastic trip to Smoky Mountain National Park! (More pictures here.)

May: The Indy 500!

June: Jarrod does the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience I bought him as a gift. Not surprisingly, he had the fastest lap time of the day. I was a proud wife! :)

June: A weekend getaway to Hocking Hills in southern Ohio to celebrate our six-year anniversary. Here we are on our hike to Rock House.

July: We meet up with Mom in Indiana to visit relatives! I was thrilled to show Jarrod around northern Indiana Amish country where my parents grew up and where I spent so many summers as a kid visiting my grandmas.

July: The NASCAR truck race at Eldora Speedway in western Ohio.

August: The Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago with Jarrod and my brother, Andy. A fabulous three days of concert craziness, plus deep-dish pizza, the art museum, the Hancock Building and an architecture tour. (Tons more pictures from our awesome trip here and here.)

August: My best friend Katie visits and we go to the Mansfield Reformatory where "The Shawshank Redemption" was filmed. (More pictures here.) (As my feet are crammed into slippers and I'm snuggled under a heated throw, I can't help but stare enviously at our flip-flopped feet!)

August: Red hair, with help from Katie.

October: Mom and Dad visit and get to experience the mouthwatering fare at Schmidt's Sausage Haus in Columbus.

Back to the Smoky Mountains for a long weekend to celebrate my 29th birthday! Horseback riding in the mountains the day of. Best birthday yet!
Halloween: I wear my Hermione costume to work at the library. Approximately 50% of patrons (and some co-workers!!!!) think I'm wearing a graduation gown and my costume is "graduate." WTF, people?!

November: Thanksgiving with Grandma in Indiana and my first time having fried turkey, expertly prepared by my Southern-boy husband. Nom nom nom!

December: Best. Christmas. Tree. Ever. This baby is 9 1/2 feet of pure splendor. We haven't been able to bring ourselves to dismantle it yet.

December: The not-so-ugly ugly sweater. (I thought it was pretty tacky... nobody else did! Sigh. Sometimes I feel like I can't do anything right!)

And those are some of the highlights of my year! What memories will you hold onto from 2014?
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