Monthly Archives: January 2011

Four Easy, Speedy Spaghetti Dishes

January 19, 2011

I love making spaghetti dishes because oftentimes you have all the ingredients you need even when your kitchen seems bare (spaghetti, olive oil, salt, canned tomatoes, dried herbs, garlic, parmesan cheese!).  I’m calling these recipes Sunday Afternoon dishes because that always seems to be the time of the week when David and I are in no mood to cook but need a good meal.

Here are 4 recipes that are quick, delicious, and easy to change up based on what’s in your kitchen:

#1. Spaghetti with Speedy Cherry Tomato Sauce

This one is spectacular. It comes from my Nonno’s (Italian for “grandpa”) personal recipe collection…

  • 2-3 TBSP sea salt
  • ½ lb spaghetti
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/8 tsp. Dried red pepper flakes (I never measure, a quick shake does the trick)
  • 2-3 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
  • ½ lb cherry tomatoes, cut in half or quarters (I usually just buy a small container of them at the grocery store. Grape tomatoes or even regular tomatoes would also work)
  • 1 cup reserved pasta cooking water
  • 1-2 TBSP of your favorite dried or fresh herb – like basil, parsley, or oregano. (Choose ONE)

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil, then add the salt and spaghetti. Cook until spaghetti is quite al dente (still hard) and about ¾ of the way done. (If you’re confused about how long to cook, check the box, if your spaghetti says it takes 9-10 minutes to cook, cook for about 7 minutes, etc.)

While pasta is cooking, place garlic and chili pepper in a large skillet and drizzle with the oil. Place over medium heat and cook until the garlic barely begins to brown. Then add the cherry tomatoes, raise the heat to high, and cook until the tomatoes are wilted, about 4-5 minutes.

When the pasta is cooked to quite al dente, drain, reserving 1 cup of the starchy pasta water. Add the drained pasta to the sauce in the skillet. Pour in ¼ cup of the reserved pasta water and cook over the highest heat, stirring with a wooden fork to mix the pasta and sauce very well. Add more pasta cooking water if the sauce dries out and the pasta still isn’t cooked all the way.

Before serving sprinkle pasta with herbs and freshly grated parmesan cheese.

This dish would also be good with a handful of crumbled feta cheese or sliced kalamata olives.

(I made this dish this afternoon! Mmmm.)

#2. Quicky Marinara Sauce

This recipe can be played around with like crazy and still always be good. I’m going to give you the basic ingredients and ballpark measurements then let you experiment from that point.

I created this recipe with the help of my Nonno and a fabulous Food Network cookbook called How to Boil Water.

  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 can of whole, peeled tomatoes in juice (28 oz can.) or equivalent amount of crushed tomatoes in juice
  • 1 TBSP dried basil
  • Milled Black Pepper – the kind you grind (my grandpa claimed that Black Indian Tellicherry Peppercorn is the world’s best pepper)
  • Spaghetti or Pasta, any shape

Optional Add-Ins:

  • Grated Carrot
  • Diced Onion – any kind, about ½ of one
  • Other herbs besides basil, like thyme or oregano

Chop your vegetables (garlic, carrots, onion, etc.) and heat oil in saucepan over medium-high, adding the vegetables along with 1 tsp of salt. Cook for several minutes until lightly browned (4-5 minutes). Then, add canned tomatoes to the pan, squeezing the whole tomatoes through your hands to crush them (or use crushed tomatoes, but I think whole tomatoes taste best). Sprinkle in herbs then cover pan and simmer over low heat for 12-15 minutes. Season with remaining salt and some pepper. Serve over any type of pasta or spaghetti.

#3. Heavenly Browned Sage Butter

Another of Nonno’s classics. He recommended serving this over ravioli (you could pick up a frozen package from the grocery store), but I also like it over spaghetti.

  • 8 oz. butter
  • 24 fresh sage leaves
  • 1 tsp salt

Place all ingredients in a skillet and heat until the butter is golden in color and nutty in flavor, and the sage leaves are slightly crispy. The butter is done when frothy.

#4. Pasta with Garlic & Olive Oil

I love this recipe because I love olive oil. Give it a try, I have a feeling you will too. This recipe is also adapted from Food Network’s How to Boil Water and is the perfect “we have no food in the house” meal. I made this recently when I needed an impromptu dinner for some friends and they loved it.

  • Salt & ground pepper
  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Dried parsley (could also add some basil or oregano)
  • Grated parmesan cheese

Cook the spaghetti in a large pot of salted water (a few quick dashes of salt should be enough).

While spaghetti is cooking, peel and chop the garlic. Then combine the garlic, olive oil and some salt and pepper in a large skillet, cooking over low heat until garlic is golden. (Garlic is so easy to burn and so yucky when you do, so watch it closely, it will probably brown faster than you think.) Remove from heat.

When the pasta is done, remove it from the pot with tongs (rather than draining it) and add to skillet with garlic and oil. Stir the mixture until pasta is coated with oil then allow to cook for a few more minutes until pasta reaches al dente. If your pasta looks dry, add a little of the starchy pasta water to moisten it.

Sprinkle some dried parsley and fresh parmesan over the pasta before serving.

Buon Appetito! You’re going to be something of a super hero when you create an impromptu feast with one of these dishes.

How to Succeed as a Gold Digger

January 19, 2011

The term Gold Digger once conjured up the image of old prospectors, toting pick axes and dreams of finding precious metals in the Old West. I’m assuming you know I’m not talking about this type of gold digger. But as the future wife of an incredibly wealthy man, you really are not much different. You too have aspirations. You too have skills. And you too are willing to work for your money. I’ll open this article with a description of my favorite historic gold digger,

Peggy Hopkins Joyce: A Gold Digger’s Inspiration

Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the most inspiring gold diggers of the 19th century.  Born Marguerite Upton, Peggy ran away at the age of 16 to travel with a vaudeville troupe, later becoming a showgirl and actress.

Before the age of twenty she had scandalously married and divorced twice—and as her millionaire ex-husband began to stack up (6 husband + numerous high-profile lovers) she began to earn something of a reputation, particularly when she started doing things like spending over $1 million in a single week on pearls and fur coats.

Many have remarked that while charming, Peggy was not talented as an actress or dancer. Clearly her talent lay elsewhere. In one of her many interviews with the press (which she usually showed up to wearing something scandalous) she explained her secret:  “I may be expensive, but I deliver the goods.”

And therein lies the secret to success.

Preparing to Meet Your Millionaire

As Henry Hartman said, “Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity.”  And if you’re going to have any hope at securing a long term position as a gold digger, you’d better prepare. Don’t think the opportunity will just be handed to you—along with hanging out in millionaire breeding grounds (casinos, high-end parties, clubs, charity events, etc.) you have got to be 110% prepared at all times to meet your Money Man. The following components are completely essential to your success, but whether these are natural or acquired through artificial means is entirely up to you:

DD’s + . This is crucial. Forget about the initial costs, think what an investment they are. And if you are ever involved in some type of flood think what an asset chest-level floaties will be.

Long blond hair. I don’t care what you have to do to get it. Check out my hair growth post, or invest in good extensions and a lot of peroxide. A few women manage to pull off the sexy brunette look, but don’t take chances—blond is tried and proven.

A Jamaican tan. In the past creamy skin was all the rage, but in the year 2011, it’s all about the tan. Forget about the health of your skin, all you need are a few good years to get you the riches you deserve. Consider nude tanning at least a part-time gig.

Big lips. Victoria’s Secret offers a great lip gloss that does wonders. Do not feel you need to invest in cosmetic surgery. There will be plenty of time for you to inject fat from your butt into your lips when you are a billionaire.

Consider a temporary career as a sex worker. This includes stripping (think Anna Nicole Smith), posing nude (Holly Madison), or being a show girl (Peggy Hopkins Joyce). Many Money Men are looking for a way to piss off their ex wives or inheriting children, so the trashier you are the better.

Act the part. In your role as an aspiring gold digger, remember, you are:  1) arm candy. 2) crazy about old, oftentimes decrepit men. Make it believable.

Facing Down Hurdles

Your biggest road blocks will be:

1.       Adult children. These are your intended’s children and your Money Man may have pesky attachments to them and what they think. Don’t let them get in the way. Any time a conflict arises over their father dating you, act as sweet as possible and then dissolve into tears the second you and Money Man are alone. Say things like, “Why do they hate me? I just want to make you happy.”  Or, “They may be older than me, but couldn’t they consider me more of a friend? How can they blame me for loving you?” NOTE: It is important to become a pretty crier. No floating makeup, blotchy skin or runny noses. I suggest waterproof makeup and artificial tears.

2.       Your conscience (Maybe.) Remember, you are NOT taking advantage of Money Man. This is strictly a business transaction.  Your company, beauty and dedication for his millions.

Good Luck! And if all else fails, marry the love of your life and hope for the best.

Outsmart ‘The Voices’ and Grow Out Your Hair

January 17, 2011

I am something of a schizophrenic when it comes to my hair.

The second my hairdresser ties the cape around my neck I start to hear the voices. “Chop it off” they say, or “How about Katie Holmes new haircut? How sexy would that look on you?” The answer of course, is not very, but the voices are very persuasive and they’ve had their way many times.  In a burst of energy I tell my stylist what I want, which is always: something different.

But times have changed. After being challenged to a hair-growing contest 15 months ago by my beautiful friend Chrystal, I have exerted admirable amounts of restraint and have successfully managed to stifle The Voices in order to grow my hair out.

Besides the contest, the grow-out is for several reasons: 1, I’m sick of short haircuts that I don’t really like. 2, My hair is almost always in a ponytail, and although I always hope that cutting it short will force me to style it, it usually just means uglier, squatty ponytails. And 3, it means I will one day have babies. (I have decided that I will only be a mother with long luxurious hair for said babies to pull on, so until my hair reaches an adequate length there will be no more talk of babies. And by the way, judging by how unready I feel to be a mother we may be looking at knee-length hair as the ultimate goal.)

Here is my best hair-growing survival tip: KEEP IT SEXY.  Or if you prefer the full equation:

SEXY=HEALTHY=LONG.

Ever seen a girl or guy with long thin, scraggly hair that tapers to a ratty tail as it gets to the ends? This is a disgusting practice that should be abolished. Perhaps some type of social shunning would be in order. Keep yourself socially acceptable and maximize your hair growth by:

1.       Using a good shampoo. Herbal Essence, nice try on the product placement, but you’re out. Redken, Biolage, Bumble & Bumble, you’re in. In my experience, you get what you pay for when it comes to shampoo. Cheap stuff leaves my hair tangled and dull, nice stuff leaves it soft and happy. However, I’m more than happy to stay in the mid-range. No need to blow your budget on a $60 bottle of shampoo. Also, massage your scalp really well when you wash—feels good and stimulates scalp and hair growth.

My absolute preference is Redken All Soft.

2.       Washing Less. I have embraced this one fully. I now wash my hair every third day. This actually works really well and saves you money on step 1.

BONUS WASHING TIPS: Do not pile hair on top of head—work the shampoo through your scalp then gently down to the ends of your hair. The ends don’t need all that much washing so don’t spend too much time there. Also, finish your shower with a cold blast of water to your hair. This makes the hair cuticle lie flat and makes it less likely to get damaged.

Comb wet hair very carefully. Use a wide-toothed comb to comb through the ends then work your way up slowly, being careful not to rip through hair.

If you are getting product build-up in your hair try adding a teaspoon of baking soda to your shampoo once a week or so. This will make the hair much cleaner and shinier.

3.       Deep Conditioning. There are about a kajillion expensive options available, but after trying at least half of them I found something that really works—eggs. Whisk one egg with a little bit of lemon juice then pour over dry hair, working into the ends. Put on a shower cap and leave on for 10-15 minutes then wash with cool water and shampoo like normal. Using hot water will result in scrambled or poached eggs (depending on your preference).

Other benefits to the egg are how sexy you will look and smell with poultry and a giant shower cap on your head. I actually used plastic grocery bags instead of a cap my first few times and Husband really could not get enough of me. He kept poking his head into the bathroom and saying things like “No wonder you’re not single.”

If eggs make you squeamish, I’m also a huge fan of Redkin’s All Soft Heavy Cream Super Treatment. After shampooing my hair I blot it dry with a towel then work the conditioner through my hair, sometimes combing through hair with a wide-toothed comb. Let it sit 5-15 minutes then rinse.

4.       Protect hair. Use heat as little as possible. And if you are a swimmer, wear a cap and get hair wet in shower before entering the pool. This way your hair soaks up non-chlorinated water first so less damage is done—wash with a gentle shampoo afterwards.

5.       Changing it up. I can only silence The Voices to a point, so growing out or not I need plenty of change to keep me happy, meaning lots of color changes, layers, etc. In the past year and a half I have had red, black, brown, blonde hair and my current magenta. Just make sure you like your hair, even in the growing out phases, so you don’t go crazy in the middle of the night and chop it off with a pair of kitchen shears.

BONUS TIP: Luckily I have an exquisite eyebrow pencil so I don’t have to dye my brows with every color change (yuck).  It is called the Brenda Christian Universal Brow Definer. http://brendachristian.com/proddetail.php?prod=11000

It works with any skin/hair/eye color to make your brows look natural. I suspect black magic.

6.       Taking vitamins. I can’t guarantee this one, but it seems to me the healthier you are, the healthier your hair will be. Some people claim that prenatal vitamins (and the gobs of folic acid in them) do wonders for hair and nails but when I tried the vitamins they just made me a little sick so I am not sure. I’ve also seen lots of supplements made especially for hair growth, see what works for you.

7.    Eat a good diet. (Wait, is that correct? I just had a sudden image of a giant woman eating a Weight Watchers clinic.) Plenty of protein (that’s what hair is made of!) and good fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts, fish, etc.). Also, drink a lot of water and sleep lots. No arguments there, right? If anyone questions you explain that it’s for your hair—and what the hair wants, the hair gets. I’ve also heard a silk pillowcase is good for keeping hair from snagging while you sleep. No word yet on whether or not silk pajamas do the same but I sure love them.

8.       Staying motivated. I have a picture of a long-haired Eva Longoria that represents my final goal. Every time I want to chop off my hair I pull out the picture and imagine how spectacular I will look with hair at that length.

9.       Watching your progress. I am measuring my hair by my bra strap. Every few weeks I pull out a hand mirror and check out my hair’s length in the bathroom mirror. I am almost to bra strap and this is very exciting.

10.   Trimming. Get rid of dead ends and discourage the formation of rat-tail ends. I go every 10-12 weeks and that seems to be plenty. I ask for them to just barely take off the ends. Please refer to step #11.

11.   Develop the steely-eyed stare. This is crucial.

Whenever I get my hair done it is at the height of crisis, as in, if I do not get my hair done immediately I will have a complete melt down. This is generally bad for appointments as most people require you to schedule ahead, something I have really not grasped (to be addressed in a future post). Therefore, I am always going to someone new, and some stylists are more generous with the scissors, if you know what I mean.

You can tell your beautician that you are growing your hair out and ask them to trim as little as possible, but this is not guaranteed unless you take matters into your own hands. Practice the following in the mirror before attempting:

First, scoot to the edge of your chair, leaning forward slightly, and stare deeply into the mirror. Then, catching your stylist’s eye say very slowly: I. Am. Growing. Out. My. Hair. When you have their full attention (and sense fear) continue with the following line: If you cut off more than 1/8 inch I will tie you to your spinning chair and pluck out each of your eyelashes one by one. Then pause for dramatic effect. Stylists tend to be very vain about their eyelashes so I find this phrase to be particularly effective.  Now sit back and smile serenely as though the conversation never happened. You will leave with your long hair intact.

And don’t feel guilty about the intimidation. Hair only grows ½ inch per month and you are entitled to every bit of it. Once you reach your desired length be sure to toss hair regularly in public—time to show off your hard work!

Decluttering & 30 Things I Got Rid of This Week

January 14, 2011

I once watched a PBS Special called Affluenza: The Epidemic of Overconsumption. I was about 17 and making bare minimum at Jamba Juice, so I wasn’t much in danger of falling into this category, but this was a very eye-opening show for me. It basically talks about America’s obsession with stuff—how hard we work to keep up with the Jones’es, how we keep filling up our cars, garages and storage sheds with more and more stuff, and what the price of all that stuff is—beyond the price tag. Ever thought about how much time you spend at work to make money to pay for the storage and upkeep of more and more stuff?   And what is all that actually worth to you? The program showed typical Americans in a life-sucking cycle of stuff, credit card debt, and endless work, masquerading under the title of the “American dream.”

Ever walked into a cluttered house? How does that make you feel? And I’m not talking about TLC’s Hoarders, or anything like that, just a general house packed full of the regulars—sneakers, junk mail, books, magazines, etc. on every free surface.  I usually feel the urge to pull at my neckline (although I’m generally in a scoop or V-neck) to get a little more air. And the other day something terrifying happened—I walked into a house, had that feeling, and realized I was on Racquet Club Drive. Home.

So I began my research. And came up with a few tips and thoughts for clearing out some junk from your homes. One of my favorite food for thought moments comes from Julie Morgenstern’s book When Organizing Isn’t Enough: “(Decluttering)….is a transformative process for letting go of things that reprenstent the past so you can grow and move forward.

 

Ideas For Keeping Your Home Free From Junk

1.       Look at clutter for what it really is. Too much stuff is bad for your body, mind and spirit as well as your home and bank account. Letting go of things lets you move forward and gives you more time to live!

2.       Start with the easy stuff. If it is garbage, no longer relevant, or you don’t like it, get rid of it. I like to get a big garbage bag and then pick a number and get rid of that many items as quickly as possible.

3.       Use a criteria list. This is mine:  Have I used this item within the last 12 months? Is this item worth the space it is taking up in my home and life?  If I get rid of this item will I seek a replacement for it?

4.       Hide “maybe’s” in a box. When there is an item I am torn on I put it in a box in a closet. If I don’t go looking for it within the next few weeks I know I’ve officially moved on from the item and can get rid of it.

5.       Get rid of clothes that you don’t wear. It may be the cutest thing in the world, but if you’re not using it then it is just a waste of space. And don’t waste time worrying about why you don’t wear it, some things just aren’t meant to be.

And get rid of things that don’t fit you! Who wants a too-tight pair of jeans making them feel crummy, or a “fall-back” pair of sweats in case you gain weight? Embrace where you are right at this moment and give the rest away.

6.       Remember that things come in and out of your life. Life is transitive and progressive. Let your stuff be that way. When something is no longer useful to you donate it somewhere that it can be of use to someone else.

7.       Just because something is “still good” or “was expensive” doesn’t mean it is of value to you. If it is not blessing you or your home in some way, get rid of it. Someone else will find it very valuable.

8.       You don’t have to keep all sentimental items. When I was little I would cry hysterically every time my mom threw away my old school papers or made me give away old toys I hadn’t played with in years. I distinctly remembering using a line I’d read in an American Girl Doll book, saying something along the lines of: “But Mom! Things remind me of people!” I don’t think that line got me very far then, and it doesn’t now. Keep a few things that really matter to you, special notes, pictures, etc. but remind your emotional self that getting rid of things from a person or a time period does not wipe them from your memory or life. They’re still there. And keeping or getting rid of stuff won’t change that.

9.       Declutter first, then organize. There are a million books out there about organization—you can cleverly turn the space under your bed into an old clothes storage, or buy cool baskets to store magazines or old towels, but do you really want to spend a bunch of time and space organizing things you don’t actually want? Be honest with yourself.

10.   Don’t give away anything that isn’t yours. So, David had a pair of jeans that he loved. However, they had a hole in the butt which I kept pointing out to him and he kept ignoring. One day I decided to simply remove a few of his old pairs of clothing and do the box trick to see if he’d even notice they were gone. One day, satisfied after a few weeks that he hadn’t even missed his old things, I told him what I’d done. His reaction was priceless. He said something along the lines of “That’s where my jeans went?? I’ve been racking my brain for weeks trying to remember where I left them.” Oops. And this is now one of his favorite stories to tell. Hang out with us and you will probably hear it.

11.   Don’t feel obligated to keep every gift you get. Remember the saying “It’s the thought that counts”? Well it really is the thought that counts. Don’t force yourself to keep mountains of things you don’t like because you don’t want to offend someone. Remember, you are reclaiming your home and your space—not theirs. And it is very unlikely it will ever come up with that person.

12.   Watch what you bring into the house. When you’re purchasing an item ask yourself where it will go in your house, whether it will be replacing something, and if it is worth the space it will take.

 

Thirty Things I Got Rid of This Week

And so you know I’m walking the walk, rather than just talking the walk, here is a list of things I got rid of this week, complete with a brief explanation:

1.       White pants—purchased from Thrift Town for Orbit Gum Girl Halloween costume

2.       Cookie Monster Socks—blue, fuzzy, may or may not have gum stuck to the bottom of the right one

3.       Too Low Jeans (am constantly hitching them up. Not attractive.)

4.       Cute teal sweater (that I have never worn)

5.       Mom’s track suit

6.       Blue V-Neck Shirt

7.       Black Wedgie Sweat pants

8.       Gray Useless Sports Bra (zero support)

9.       White Useless Sports Bra (ditto)

10.   Blue fuzzy sweater (that is not supposed to be fuzzy)

11.   Pig Calendar (pictures of pigs in wigs getting their hair and nails done—if anyone is dying to get their hands on this, let me know)

12.   Dangly Silver Earrings I never wear

13.   Glasses (had Lasik!)

14.   Post Lasik Sunglasses

15.   Offensive Sticker Set (“Ritalin! So much easier than parenting!” and “Ran into my ex… put it in reverse and hit him again”

16.   Marilyn Monroe shoes (purchased when I was 16. Haven’t worn since I was 19)

17.   Nine packs of Christmas cards that David purchased from Cabella’s at $0.99 a box. Very beautiful images of majestic bucks gazing out over snowy landscapes, but not quite my style.

18.   Old Vaseline.

19.   Ancient hairspray. Still a liquid?

20.   Ancient Sunscreen. No comment.

21.   The glue and applicator for a set of false eyelashes. No eyelashes to be found.

22.   Three copies of Dad’s book “Grace”… in German.

23.   Sexy Cop Costume complete with badge and hat that doesn’t fit me (giant head)

24.   Sexy Gangster Costume

25.   Sexy Pirate Costume. (Yes, I have a lot of sexy Halloween costumes. And I hate them all.)

26.   Bad Nail polish

27.   Swearing Makeup Remover (called this because few things have made me swear  like this horrible stinging liquid)

28.   3 Eye shadows

29.   A Terrible Cookbook

30.   Assorted combs I bought for less than a dollar.

Great Books on the Subject

It’s All Too Much, by Peter Walsh

When Organizing Isn’t Enough, by Julie Morgenstern

Sink Reflections, by Marla Cilley

 

How to Survive a Trip to Blue Boutique’s Adult Room

January 7, 2011

This is a subject dear to my heart.

In case you do not live in Utah, I will give you an idea of what The Blue Boutique entails. Think naughty nurse costumes, meets body chocolate, meets stripper heels, meets candy thong. And this is just the front store.

In case these first items just aren’t what your depraved adult mind is looking for, then your next move is to walk discreetly to the back of the store, through a set of western-style swinging doors framed with suggestive neon lighting, partially hidden by a wall. Welcome to the Adult Room. It is a 12×12 room full of dildos, condoms, porn, vibrators, and some other things that to be honest I have no idea what they could be used for. Many things are battery operated. Many have photos of Jenna Jameson (whom I’ve always felt a connection with since when introducing myself in Europe many people would say “Jenna… Like the porn star?” But this is another story). And the room is always, always crowded with sheepish looking adults who are all trying not to look at each other.

My first 5 minutes in said room I always have a minor panic attack positive that I’ve just seen one of my church leaders, but at the point of me writing this, this has never been the case. Mostly they are people of all ages who to be honest, I’d probably rather not picture having sex so I follow in suite, looking closely at items, making sure my eyes are averted from others at all times.  If someone gets too close to me, risking eye contact or an acknowledgement that yes, we both  have sex, although of course, not with each other, then I become deeply immersed in the literature of whatever product I’ve picked up. I may be the only person to have read the ingredients of strawberry flavored lube, or the many features of a spiked vibrator. When I finally find the item I’m looking for (and by the way, why are condoms confined to the back room? It seems we should be handing them out like candy), I casually let the hand holding the item drop to my side and saunter to the counter as though I am at the grocery store purchasing a pack of gum, or a carton of milk.  (Ever notice how awkwardly you walk when you are trying to look natural?)

The sales people make the purchase the easiest part. They check my I.D., ring up my purchase, and suddenly I am on my way. I exit the store holding my opaque black plastic sack (that is always enormous by the way) and suddenly feel as though I have a great secret. Everyone in the store knows what that black sack means, but only I know what is inside. I feel a great swelling of pride and joy.

I have survived yet another trip to Blue Boutique’s Adult Room.

How to Start a Succesful Book Club + 11 Good Reads

January 6, 2011

In January 2010 I started a book club with a group of friends who had been meaning to get around to it for months. It combines two of my favorite things (Oprah, you’re not the only one who gets to have these)—girls’ night out, and reading, and it is really one of the best nights of the month.  In 2010 we met 11 times at 11 different houses and read some fascinating books. So I’m going to give you a rundown on organizing a book club, and then also some good book club picks.

How to Start a Book Club

1.       Find some people that are really interested.

You could have as few as three or four, or as many as twelve to fifteen. Just make sure there will be a good, strong core of people who will read and show up every month. There are about a dozen girls who consistently show up to ours with another dozen who showed up every once in a while the first few times but never really took.

2.       Communicate well, by Facebook or email.

All of our book club members are on Facebook, so I just send out a mass message to everyone, reminding everyone where and when our next meeting will be and our month’s selection. It’s also nice to have a little pre-meeting discussion about the book.

3.       Set a regular, monthly date.

We meet every second Wednesday of the month at 7:00 PM, although occasionally we have switched to Thursday nights. If you have a regular night then you know to never schedule anything then. If you meet less than once a month your club might lose momentum.

4.       Pick a President to lead your book discussion.

Because I organized the first meeting I was elected President. President doesn’t really mean much, but it’s just good to have someone who directs the discussion and checks in with everyone during the month to make sure they know where the meeting will be.

Our book discussions are pretty loose—if a discussion guide is not included at the end of the book (it oftentimes is) then I look up the Readers Guide or Book Club Guide online. Sometimes they are located on the publisher’s website, but oftentimes they have been reprinted by book club websites or individuals who have read the book. A simple Google search should find it for you.  Especially popular books may have amateur discussion guides circulating the Internet, so make sure you get the real one, which is put together by the book’s publisher and reviewed by the book’s author. They generally have more interesting questions.

Sometimes the discussion points or questions are very long and complicated, so if there is an awkward pause after I get through reading one of them, I like to rephrase it, or pick out a point or two that was interesting and let the conversation flow.

5.      Switch off hosting.

Every month our meeting is held at a different member’s house. This is fun because we get to see everyone’s homes and get to know each other better. The host also provides some kind of refreshments. At my first meeting I made crepes (this was really something of a bribe to get everyone there), and at my second hosting I made a giant lemon cake. Other favorite treats of mine have been cupcakes, cranberry coffee cake, and ice cream sundaes.

We generally just pick a host for the next meeting at the end of every book club discussion, but occasionally we’ll plan ahead a few months.

6.       Choose good books—knowing that some are better than others for discussing.

This is kind of a “duh” point, but of course is very important as it’s the main reason for the club! And remember to choose books that will be good for discussion—just because a book is good doesn’t mean it is going to be interesting to talk about! Because every group is different, notice which types of books are received well by the group.

So how do you choose good books? Here are a few ideas:

A. Watch for “buzz books”. There are always books circulating out there that everyone is talking about. Keep an ear out and write down titles you come across during the month.

B. Have everyone come up with a few books they’re interested in then bring the books or titles to a meeting and make a list of the ones the group is interested in.

C. Branch out with your selections—while fiction is a general favorite, try non-fiction and memoirs. You may be surprised how much you like these other types of books.

D. Peruse Book Club Websites. Here are a few of my favorites:

Complete List of Oprah’s Book Club Selections

Book Movement—I like the “Book Club favorites” list. These are rated by book clubs and can give you a feel for their general appeal and discuss-ability.

Litlovers.com

Amazon Listmania! These are lists of books put together by Amazon reviewers. If you type book club lists into Amazon’s search you should end up with a bunch of lists people have put together and then see how these books were rated by other readers. Amazon is just amazing. If I could have unlimited money anywhere I think it would be there. Or Costco.

I also found this little gem—a great list on a public library’s website.

What We Read in 2010—as best as I can remember, which is not very well

JanuaryThe Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

This was an excellent first choice. Everyone loved it and it made for great discussion.

FebruaryThe Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine.

This one was tougher to get through,  but was very interesting and again made for interesting discussion. I don’t think I would have ever read a book like this if not for the club and I was glad to read it.

MarchThe Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent.

This is a historical novel about the Salem Witch Trials. This book was well received but unfortunately I was not at the discussion!

April–Between Friends, by Kristy Kiernan.

This looked like a lighter, chick-lit ‘ish book,  but turned out to provide some of the best discussion we’ve had to date.

MayThe Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

This is such a hugely successful book, and it did not disappoint. This provided some passionate conversation something along the lines of Jacob vs. Edward, and almost everyone loved it.

JuneThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson.

I’m not sure what to say about this one. Again, it is a huge book, and the back story about its author is interesting, and it has quite the plot, but no one tells you it is going to be extremely disturbing. So, for fear of ruining the book—there are many disturbing scenes about murder and rape.

This made for a just an okay discussion, half the group had stopped reading it at the first scary scene, so it ended up that the rest of the club just retold the story for them. Definitely mixed reviews, although the plot is captivating.

JulyA Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, by Haven Kimmel.

This was our first memoir and probably my favorite selection so far. The writer is hysterical and somehow manages to give both a wildly exaggerated and wildly accurate look at Small town, America. I listened to this one on disc while exercising and basically spent the whole month laughing as I jogged through my neighborhood.

However, this was not the general consensus.  Many of the club members did not like that the book did not have an overall plot, like fiction novels do. It is more a series of amusing stories, and I’ve found our club does not love short stories or memoirs like it likes a good fiction novel. I guess we’re excitement junkies.

AugustThe Imperfectionists: A Novel, by Tom Rachman.

This is an interesting book that is more character than plot driven. It tells the story of an English newspaper in Rome and the many people who are involved in it. As a whole the club didn’t love it, but it was much better received than I thought it would be. Probably not the best book for discussion.

September—I think we skipped a month.

OctoberSecond Glance: A Novel, by Jodi Picoult.

This was a great choice. Picoult’s writing and stories are excellent and the group loved this one. This was a good Halloween ghost story.

NovemberHolidays on Ice, by David Sedaris.

We chose something fun and funny for the holidays. If you haven’t read David Sedaris please read him now. He writes humorous personal essays. Our favorite story was “SantaLand,” and “Dinah, the Christmas Whore.” I brought audio of Sedaris reading his essay and we played a couple of them.

DecemberYear of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks.

We’ll be discussing this next week, but so far so good. This is historical fiction at its most entertaining! We chose this one because of its awesome recommendations and because we hear it’s a bit sexy—and there’s nothing our book club loves more than a few sexy twists!

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How to Make Homemade Cleaning Supplies

January 6, 2011

There are several things I hate buying, including paper towels (I managed to not buy a single roll for the first 1.2 years of marriage until Husband rebelled), white bras (new ones are great, but I hate spending so much on something no one sees unless you accidentally wear it under a see-through black shirt), and cleaning supplies. Let’s tackle the third.

A fantastic friend and blogger Kate Ryan (see her hilarious and useful blog, Memoirs of a Cheapskate) gave me an idea a few years ago that I’ve been putting to use. Lately I’ve wanted to get better at this, so I’ve been doing my Google magic to figure out how to come up with basic cleaning products around the house.

There are about a thousand articles online about the benefits of making your own products so I won’t get into that except to say that homemade products are cheaper, less toxic, and more effective. And it sort of makes you sound like a domestic goddess when you casually mention the homemade lemon, tee-tree multipurpose cleaner you’ve been using around the house.

Here are a few basic recipes:

BASIC INGREDIENTS

Baking Soda – Deodorizes and provides great scrubbing powder.

White Vinegar—Disinfects, cleans and shines! And the vinegar smell goes away once it dries.

Spray Bottles—Helpful for storing and using your concoctions. I like to buy the 32 oz ones.

It is very likely you have all these items in your kitchen already. From now on buy them in bulk! I buy large boxes of baking soda and gallons of white vinegar from Wal-Mart and my cleaning bill has gone waaay down.

TOILET BOWL CLEANER

Ingredients: Baking Soda, White Vinegar, Toilet Brush

Directions: Sprinkle a little baking soda into the toilet bowl then pour a small amount of vinegar around it. The mixture will fizz. Scrub with toilet brush then let sit for a few minutes to deodorize. Flush.

(Thanks Kate, I’ve been using this one since you first posted it.) When my kitchen’s baking soda starts to get questionable (lumpy) I move it upstairs to the bathroom where I use it for cleaning.

GLASS CLEANER

Ingredients: white vinegar, rubbing alcohol, water

Directions: Mix together the following in a spray bottle:

1/3 cup white vinegar

¼ cup rubbing alcohol (prevents streaking)

3 ½ cups water

I found one blog that even suggested adding blue food coloring to your mirror cleaner to make it feel like you are using a store bought product, say Windex. I have no idea why you’d want to do this, other than a severe issue with change, so I’m on team No-Blue.

BATHTUB CLEANER

Ingredients: baking soda, liquid detergent, water, sponge

Directions: Pour ½ cup baking soda into a bowl then add enough of the detergent to make it look like some sort of sadistic frosting. Scoop onto wet sponge and scrub down your tub.

I’m thinking this also would work well for sinks.

*Note from a hypocrite: I can’t believe I am including a bath tub recipe here. I am officially the world’s worst bath tub cleaner. I quake with fear when I think of people looking at mine. I would include a picture but I may lose followers. SO, If things get really desperate I’d suggest Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser, which really is magic. But again, so expensive, and extremely noxious (my hands and fingernails get dry and irritated every time I use one), so if you can avoid procrastinating the great and fearful day of your cleaning, use the above recipe.

MULTIPURPOSE CLEANER

This is great for kitchen or bathroom.  This is safe on most surfaces but avoid using vinegar on marble surfaces!

Ingredients: White Vinegar, Water

Directions: Mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle and shake.

AUTOMATIC DISHWASHER DETERGENT

I found this recipe in several places but I’ll credit Reader’s Digest book Homemade: 702 ways to save money and the earth.

Ingredients: 2 cups Borax, 2 Cups Washing Soda

Directions: Combine the dry ingredients and store in a tightly sealed plastic container. Use 2 TBSP of the mixture for each load of dishes.

BONUS TIP: Instead of using a commercial rinsing agent, pour distilled white vinegar into the rinse compartment of your dishwasher (do not overfill).

MICROWAVE OVEN

Two good ideas for this one, both utilizing our best friend The Microwave to do the hard work for us. Your microwave thinks it’s so smart, why don’t you let it do the hard cleaning work for you?

Option A:

Ingredients: Lemon, Paper towel

Directions: Cut a lemon in half and put the 2 pieces on a paper towel, cut side up. Zap them for 2 minutes then (very) carefully remove the hot lemons. Wipe down the lemon juice from the microwave. This smells fantastic and is a great way to put an old, sad-looking lemon to use.

Option B:

Ingredients: 1 ½ cups water, 3 TBSP lemon juice, 3 TBSP baking soda

Directions: Combine ingredients in a microwave safe bowl, then nuke 3-5 minutes. Remove bowl (carefully!) and wipe down interior. (Thanks Readers Digest. You’re an all star.)

WOODEN CUTTING BOARDS

We have a gorgeous wood cutting board that manages to hang on to the smell of every piece of food it touches. The only thing that works for me and that I feel safe with is lemon juice. I just pour some on, spread it around with my hands, and let it sit for a few minutes. Then I wipe it down with a warm, wet cloth. Voila. Spotless and smells good.