Shelf Life: Fall 2015

One of my favorite things to do this time of year is leaf spotting. It’s the early equivalent of driving around to look at Christmas lights. I want to get out, crunch through the fallen leaves and inspect those still hanging on in all their vibrant glory. Like this:

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It’s been such a weird Fall for us. It stayed warm much longer than normal, resulting in these summer-esque blooms still popping up around town. (Enjoy it now before next week’s snows show ’em who’s boss.)

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I like this one. It’s all “STOP! Look around! It’s GORGEOUS!”

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Even the campus is looking very Fall Fabulous these days.

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Okay, time to take this post by the horns and get down to business. On to the books!

1. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

I have to check, but this might have been on my to-read list longer than Anna Karenina. An impressive feat of dragging feet. I’m so used to reading library books on a deadline, that when a 770-page novel sits on my actual bookshelf it gets constantly overshadowed by looming due dates. Despite its early success and Pultizer-Prize win, this book has started (at least in my reader circles) to cause a lot of “meh”s. The beginning is fabulous and whirlwind and intense and poignant, but the middle and, especially, the end? It was like nails on a chalkboard for me. Surely the editor could have done a better job paring this thing down to a more manageable 400-ish pages?

The story–about a young boy thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous waters after a life-altering tragedy–spans many years, but keeps its core characters close — maybe its only saving grace. I did like seeing them grow (or not grow). The characters are strong and believable and captivating, but the plot is so ridiculous it was hard to absorb much else.

I’m not sure I would recommend this, but if you’re the sort to read books before their movie versions come out–now’s your chance.

2. Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal

My mom first told me about this book after hearing about it on NPR. I got it the next week at the library and dug right in. I am walking proof of the comfort found around Midwest kitchens and tables, and I found the book’s settings familiar (Chicago, Northwestern University, the Midwest in general…) I’ll be honest…the beginning of the book had me muscling through page by page. It’s an interesting premise, this book. It’s like a collection of short stories told about people *around* one character throughout her life. I didn’t think it was going to work, but the later chapters really knocked it out of the park. I won’t spoil it for you, but I was really touched by the end. It grew on me way more than I thought possible, especially in those early chapters. I’m amazed at how well developed the main character is based on stories about other people. Truly a triumph.

3. Mrs. Hemingway, Naomi Wood

When it comes to famous people from history, there are two stories I’ll never get enough of: Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Ernest Hemingway. I’ve been drawn to each of their strength, beauty, tragedy, perseverance and talent since I was in middle and high school. Some might call me obsessed. I just call it heavily invested. Hemingway, one of my favorite authors, led a tumultuous private life. I read and loved The Paris Wife, which depicts his first marriage to Hadley and their time in Paris with Scott & Zelda, Sara & Gerald, and other {famous} friends. But this book captures the voices of all four Mrs. Hemingways, each in the final months of her marriage to Ernest. It’s heart wrenching and, by the time you get to the third section (or wife), it all starts to sound like a sad, lost, broken record that you can’t turn off, and don’t want to. I knew I’d love this book, but if you aren’t as “heavily invested” as I am, it’s still a great read.

4. The Death Cure, James Dashner

The final piece of the Maze Runner puzzle. Thomas, much like Katniss and Tris, faces his toughest fight yet. Is WICKED good or bad? (It’s like a poor-man’s version of the Snape theory.) I have to be honest and say that I’m glad this series is over for me. I grew tired of the cliffhangers every other page. A smooth pace is just non-existent when reading these books, which, over time, gets frustrating and seems childish…even for a YA book. I am interested in seeing how it translates to the big screen, but I won’t be revisiting this series anytime soon ever.

5. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, David Lagercrantz

To say I was skeptical of a Millennium Series reboot…by a different author…years after the other books were published posthumously by Stieg Larsson…would be a massive understatement. I loved the originals, especially the first, and I was willing to gamble with this new title just to reacquaint myself with these amazing characters, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (and many others you’ll remember well). It was a gamble worth taking. I applaud Lagercrantz’s ability to pick up characters and intricate story lines that were not his own and create something that feels so organic to the original series. It picks up years after the last book takes place, but like with any good friends, it’s like you never left. Definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of the original series.

6. Sick in the Head: Conversations about Life and Comedy, Judd Apatow

Good, successful comedians must be observant. Finding life’s oddities and bringing them to light is what makes people buy tickets and watch shows. So, hearing the greats–both old and new–talk about their lives, what they find funny and their advice for someone following a dream was a real treat. Frequently touching, mostly brutally honest and always funny, these interviews collected over 30+ years are a treasure trove of greatness. I will admit I didn’t read every single one, opting to stick with my favorites like Adam Sandler, Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Key and Peele, Leslie Mann, etc. The best, though, was Harold Ramis. What a wise man…taken way too soon. Definitely worth the read if you feel like laughing, contemplating, or appreciating the depth behind your favorite jokers.

7. The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

I gave you a little spoiler when I finished this book and announced it had joined my top five WWII stories. This was truly powerful. A story about two French sisters during the war, each with her own moral compass and urge to resist the invading evil. I will remember this story for a long time; it made me angry, it made me cry heavy tears, it made me wonder how the world ever repaired itself after so much atrocity and destruction. And loss. While not as eloquently written as All the Light We Cannot See, it remains just as haunting, hopeful and beautiful. Definitely my favorite of this quarter.

8. Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling

I read Mindy Kaling’s first book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) before I had this blog, before I really knew anything about The Office (still know very little), and absolutely devoured her witty, vibrant and extremely smart and insightful musings. Cue up the Alicia: This girl is/was on fire! As soon as her second book was available to pre-order, I was #1 on the library wait list and, again, devoured its 200+ pages as quickly as possible. (It was a bit refreshing after WWII-ravaged Europe!) Her essays are just as delightful as before–so funny, like actual LOL-can’t-stop funny. But, she is also pointedly poignant when she needs to be and it’s these messages that hit home the most. Whether describing the “enormous and profound gulf between a friend and a best friend” (YES!) or how to build confidence (WORK HARD!), I’m convinced she’d be one helluva mom or mentor. So many passages that radiated and, if I had been reading my own copy, would require a plethora of underlines, asterisks and “YES!”es in the margins:

* How “workaholics” in movies and TV shows are teaching kids that hard work is wrong and letting loose is the answer.

* How entitlement is okay, if you’re working hard enough to back it up. That’s confidence.

* “Some people really feel uncomfortable around women who don’t hate themselves.” Be brave.

Of course there are more takeaways and too many hilarious quips to list, but I have to save something for you to discover when you read this after ordering from the above link right now.

9. Luckiest Girl Alive, Jessica Knoll

There was a time when all mysteries were compared to The Firm and all history change-ups compared to The Da Vinci Code. They were groundbreaking for good reason and completely altered the game. So did Gone Girl–our modern equivalent. Everyone is latching on to its coat tails and over the last few years I’ve read a handful of books lauded as “the next Gone Girl.” This is one of them.

Knoll’s sarcastic title is a play on the Facebook Age of making your life look perfect to others, but if it’s compared to Gone Girl, we can assume that veneer cracks to reveal a broken heroine with juicy secrets. While dark and deception-riddled, I found her story to be more like Carrie Bradshaw and Cady Heron than Amy Dunne. Its twists are defined and searing, but I was missing the deep, gritty trenches of Gone Girl that wouldn’t let you escape. Still a very haunting read that’s worth your time.

10. The Queen of the Tearling, Erika Johansen

Much like all of the Gone Girl comparisons, a lot of new YA or anything with a strong heroine in a futuristic America is now “the next Hunger Games.” I’m okay with this, since I loved Katniss. Erika Johansen’s world of the Tearling is both set in the future, yet feels like it’s straight out of Tudor-ruled England. It’s a fascinating world and her characters are complex, adding to its authentic, yet fantastical vibes. This is the first book in a trilogy that ends when the third book is released this summer. I’m looking forward to continuing this story, but it already ranks high on my {internal} list of YA favorites. (Disclaimer: This reads definitely more for adults than young adults. Its themes are troubling and raw.)

Next up in the queue:

Rising Strong – Brené Brown (currently reading)
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Orphan Train – Christina Baker Klein
After Alice – Gregory Maguire
The Invasion of the Tearling – Erika Johansen
Daring Greatly – Brené Brown
The Lady in Gold – Anne-Marie O’Connor
The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Bread and Wine – Shauna Niequist

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# pumpkin cranberry muffins

Ina Garten (of Barefoot Contessa fame) says it’s important to have a basic muffin recipe in your back pocket. One you can whip up any day that is adaptable for what’s in season.

Well…

…this is not that recipe.

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This is not my basic muffin recipe I switched up to be pumpkin-themed. No, this is just a great basic Pumpkin Muffin recipe. (NOT to be confused with my FAVORITE PUMPKIN MUFFIN RECIPE.) You can use this as your base and add more spices, or maybe some orange zest or marshmallows, but don’t be trying to adapt this for blueberries. That’s another post.

But this is like my last food post, because Pumpkin + Cranberry = Duh!

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The scones I made a few weeks ago proved that this was a winning combination and I started making these muffins last year, so they were a natural choice as a follow-up.

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I love these muffins because they scream pumpkin, are easy to make and, as much as I love my stand mixer, sometimes it’s nice to just stand in a quiet kitchen with a whisk and a bowl and make some magic.

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Unlike my pumpkin chocolate chip muffins which are so dense and rich, these are incredibly light and fluffy, but still m-word and a little chewy. For that I thank the two leaveners, buttermilk and the double sugars. It’s a perfect combo.

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Pumpkin Cranberry Muffins

Source: The Ultimate Muffin Book

2 ½ c. all-purpose flour
¼ c. granulated sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. salt
2 large eggs, at room temperature
¾ c. dark brown sugar
1 15-oz. can of pumpkin puree (about 1 ½ c.)
½ c. dried cranberries
¾ c. buttermilk
6 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp. vanilla

Position the rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400-degrees. Prepare muffin tins with cooking spray or paper cups.

Whisk the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a medium bowl until well combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until lightly beaten, then whisk in the brown sugar. Continue whisking until the mixture is thick and pale brown, about two minutes. Whisk in the pumpkin, cranberries, buttermilk, melted butter and vanilla. Once the mixture is smooth, stir in the dry ingredients until just incorporated. Do not overmix.

Fill the muffin tins three-quarters full. Bake for 22 minutes, or until muffins are dark brown with rounded, cracked tops. A toothpick inserted in the middle should come out with a few moist crumbs attached.

Set the pan on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then remove muffins and allow to cool an additional 5 minutes before serving.

Friday Five: Lily’s Utah Recap

Every Friday I’ll indulge my order-crazed brain in a list of randomness. Welcome to my Friday Fives.

Pictures are all good and everything, but I wanted you to hear it from the source. Please welcome back everyone’s favorite guest blogger, Lily.

M: Hey, Lil.

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L: Helllll-oooo! Want to see my map? I thought I’d mark it so I remember where you live.

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M: Perfect! I thought maybe I could ask you a few questions about your trip.

L: Sure.

5. What did you think of Utah?

L: I loved it! I loved that NoNo and Mineco (Linc’s version of Mikey Joe) were very nice. Oh, andguesswhat? Guess what I’m wearing for socks.

M: No clue.

L: Daddy’s stinky socks!

M: Nice! Hey, how do you spell “Mineco?”

L: Okay, spell MINE, but take off the E and then add C-O.

M: But, wouldn’t that spell MIN-co?

L: Oh, yeah. Okay, put the E back in there. (Mineco = pronounced “MY-nuh-co”)

4. How is Utah different than Oklahoma?

L: You have a lot more mountains, and I would say it’s probably a lot colder, and, hmmmm, I also say it’s easier to catch a cold there.

M: Did you say that last one because your mom just coughed?

L: … Yeah.

3. Were you surprised when you finally saw the mountains?

L: Yes, I liked ‘em. I was like, “whoa! I wish Oklahoma had mountains as high as yours.” We have hills, but not as high as Utah’s.

2. What was your favorite thing to do here?

L: I liked spending time with NoNo and Mikey Joe and I liked playing Bean Boozled. It was fun to throw a tomahawk with Mikey Joe.

1. If you came back, what would you want to do that we didn’t get to do this time?

L: I want to go to the museum next time. I want to see the penguins again, but maybe not feed them. If it was winter, I’d want to go skiing. I’m not sure what else.

M: Any last thoughts?

L: I wish there was snow when we came, but other than that? It was good.

M: Good is good. Love you.

L: Love you, NoNo. *muah*

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Today’s blog post comes from Lily

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Lily is a sassy seven-year-old, an amazing big sister, smarter than most and loved by all. She likes to swim, read, play with her baby brother and she still shoots guns like a boss.

Above sentiments also shared by her brother with the killer blues, Linc.

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# utah littles, part 3

Our last full day started with a kind invitation from our friends to let Lily meet their new endangered desert tortoise, Rose.

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Rose likes to eat dandelions and strawberries.

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I like to eat at Herm’s, so that’s where we took them next!

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With pumpkin pancakes and sandwiches around the table, there were a lot of smiles, but I especially love these smiles.

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We rested a bit at home with some books before our next excursion: hiking.

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Insert all of the heart-eyed emojis here.

Since Wind Caves were a little out of Lily and Linc’s league, we opted for the pretty Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

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We had the place to ourselves, which was great for Linc who wanted to run and run and run and run and run.

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Always making sure his Mikey Joe was right with him.

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Seriously, it was the cutest.

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This sign is about where I decided we should head back. *ah, look at the time..*

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And poor Linc ran until he couldn’t…so he ran into Mikey Joe’s arms.

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Oh, my heart!

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Before our last bed time together, I had one last surprise. If you have kids in your life or are a kid yourself, you might want to check out Bean Boozled. It’s a jelly bean game that Sean told us about where you have to eat a certain color at the same time as everyone else, not knowing if it’s a real flavor or a disgusting one.

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It. Was. Hilarious. In the online album, there’s a video of us eating Skunk Spray v. Licorice. It’s worth a watch.

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The next day we said some tearful goodbyes. Namely Linc when Joe left for work. (I get it. I, too, look like this when Joe leaves.)

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Group hug!

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Having them here was definitely one of the highlights of our entire year. It’s a rare treat to have them all to ourselves and we loved every single action-packed minute. Stay tuned tomorrow for a special Friday Five recap of the trip by Lily.

# utah littles, part 2

Before they got to Utah I had asked Lily if she wanted to bake with me while she was here. She said yes and we decided on Judy Doughnuts—a family favorite.

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All. The. Sprinkles.

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I love being in the kitchen with her. It reminds me of SO MANY wonderful times I spent with my Aunt Pam in the kitchen.

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Especially when we get to lick the bowl or try the treats first. (If ever there was a time to have matching jammies, it’s now. I want them.)

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Linc dubbed them a total success, and so did Bella, who kept a vigilant watch over him.

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Our big Saturday adventure was a fall festival just south of town.

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There were lots of attractions to check out, but Joe quickly solidified himself as the Cool Uncle by showing Lily how to throw a Tomahawk and shoot a gun. *shake my head*

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The real reason I wanted to visit was to do their huge Corn Maze with the group.

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Linc was lovin’ it. This is his best Nell impression. “Tweeees in the wind…”

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Childress of the Corn.

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Turns out, a corn maze with a stroller isn’t too fun, so Joe and I took Lily on our own.

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Annnnd we used a map this time so we weren’t aimlessly wandering around the same section.

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It didn’t take us too long to find the middle.

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We did it!

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Wouldn’t be a proper farm visit without saying hello to my other favorite littles…the goats!

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Later that day we took them up to USU to see where Joe works. They were pretty excited! I especially love the Star Wars outfits.

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Lincoln and Lincoln. So meta.

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We explained the importance of the A…

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…mainly so Linc could be a True Aggie with me.

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That night was Lily’s slumber party, so we did nails…

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…she did my hair…

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…she and Mikey Joe read about Star Wars…

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…and Joe got bumped so she could sleep in our room, where we stayed up and giggled about boys read.

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The perfect ending to a perfect day!

# utah littles, part 1

I’m catching up this week by blogging about some of my very favorite visitors yet. Joe and I had some serious quality family time when my sister brought her family out to visit last month. We were busy while they were here, so I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking.

For the full album of our adventures, click here.

Upon their arrival, we celebrated my birthday with dinner at Olive Garden (where I had lettuce in my hair) and a homemade skillet cookie cake that Lily helped me make. Baking with her is all the thumbs up.

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It turned out perfectly—chewy on the outside, and warm and gooey on the inside.

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Lily and Linc helped me with gifts.

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And “Mikey Joe” helped with homework before they called it a night. Quite a long day for them!

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The next day was our Explore Salt Lake City day! First up: the aquarium.

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This is where Linc’s infatuation with his Mikey Joe burst onto the scene. Lily’s always loved him and I was loving him even more watching him with these precious babes.

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Booh surprised us all with tickets to the Penguin Encounter! We were pretty excited.

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We got to put on heavy coats, crocs and gloves so we wouldn’t spend the rest of our day smelling of fish.

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Lots of penguin pictures in the online album. Most were molting, so they weren’t very hungry, but they sure were cute.

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They really gravitated to Tim.

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Molting does not look like fun.

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But being around those penguins was the most fun.

Other aquarium highlights included the shark tunnel…

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…and watching the otters swim and play.

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My highlight was when Linc wanted to hold my hand from the stroller. There was a lot of heart melting going on during this trip.

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That night we stayed in Salt Lake City for the Young House Love—my favorite former bloggers—Book Signing.

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Booh had the great idea to do our family’s “intentionally-closed-eye pic” and it snagged us a spot on their site and Facebook page. We’re basically famous.

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The only thing that could make the day better was snuggling with Bella when we got home. Mission accomplished.

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Parts 2 and 3 coming right up!

Friday Five: Tales from WWII

Every Friday I’ll indulge my order-crazed brain in a list of randomness. Welcome to my Friday Fives.

The older I become, the more I want to learn about World War II. I wouldn’t call it an infatuation—that would make something so dreadful sound like a high school crush. But I am absolutely riveted by this unique time in history that simultaneously so publicly displayed humanity’s horrors and triumphs. From the awful wickedness, persecution and death tolls emerges the most beautiful tales of hope, strength and selflessness. I think this severe duality is where I find myself needing to stay, to stare it down and imagine those times as much as possible. How did we ever survive it?

I recently had a WWII-packed week after finishing a phenomenal piece of fiction set in France during the war and watching Woman in Gold, which I cannot recommend enough. They both made me think of all the WWII-set books and movies that have brought that world to life again, and—voilà!—this list was born. And since I’ve missed a few Friday Fives in the last weeks, I’m giving you a two-for-one special today.

As always, I start with the books…compiling which was almost as difficult as my Top Ten Books. I had to leave off sure stand-outs like UnbrokenLife After Life and The Monuments Men (which is SO. MUCH. BETTER. and more moving than its movie). Alas. Here are {today’s} winners:

5. Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay

Like many of the books and movies listed here, this is fiction peppered with many of the time’s real events, like Paris’ Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, brutal work camps and more. If you’ve seen the movie, you know just how intense this story is, but if you HAVEN’T seen the movie, please read the book first. I’m a stickler for these things, but especially with this. Book > Movie. You’ll never forget it.

4. The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

This is the book I read last week, so you’ll see it again on my Shelf Life post in a few weeks. Some stories (like #2 on this list) paint such a beautiful world amongst the madness of war that you almost forget the unrelenting fear and panic, but this is not one of those stories. You will feel every tinge of dread and anxiety as you follow two sisters during the war. It’s gritty and real and doesn’t shy away from heavy topics, but that’s what makes it just as beautiful.

3. The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank

The clear non-fiction winner. (Though I’ve never read Elie Wiesel’s Night.) For many, this is their first dive into the war and the innocence lost in its wake. I’ve been long meaning to reread this since first doing so in early high school. Joe and I visited her house and Secret Annex in Amsterdam and it was one of the most powerful moments of my life. Everyone was crying silently together as we climbed past the tipped bookshelf, up the steep stairs and paced its confined quarters that still show signs of so much life—like her magazine cut-outs on the walls and the pencil markings for each child’s height. But you don’t need to visit to appreciate the world and life of Anne Frank. This book says it all.

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2. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Hands down, one of the best books I’ve read this year. Here’s what I wrote in its Shelf Life post:

As much as I dislike reading books set in the Civil War, I love reading about World War II twice as much. This book–the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction–is absolutely a work of art. Doerr’s ten-year endeavor is worth the wait in every vibrant metaphor. I actually had a hard time making any head way on this book in the beginning because I found the writing so comforting and, ironically, his war-torn world so warm and inviting. It would literally lull me to sleep. But as its ending looms and his characters–a curious French blind girl and a brave white-haired boy reluctantly born from the Nazi Youth–careen towards an inevitable junction, you cannot put it down, you don’t want to blink. It is an incredible tour de force and the closest thing to The Book Thief that I’ve ever read. Do not miss this stunning story with its timeless moral: “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

1. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

The only book that also resides on my Top Ten List. This is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word. Its beginnings hint at the war—its foreboding evil churning under the surface of sweet Liesel’s story, until it can’t stay hidden any longer and suddenly her world is absorbed by it. To me, that’s probably how the war was for so many. An inconvenience, simple struggles here and there, until it was all consuming. If you are human, this book will make you cry and ache and feel the power of hope. The movie’s not bad either, but, again….please read it first!

And here are my movie choices, where I prefer “based on a true story”…

5. The Sound of Music

No, the war isn’t at the forefront of the entire movie, but it definitely is a motivating factor as it propels to its end. I know I didn’t understand this part of it when I watched as a child, but it was a defining time for the Von Trapp family, both on and off the screen. Joe and I played the musical for a high school while living in Dallas and I remember when they draped huge Nazi flags all over the balcony for the final act and my skin crawled as we played German hymns and marches. I, like the Von Trapps, just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.

4. Valkyrie

I’m going to go ahead and claim this is probably a placeholder for Saving Private Ryan, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen. Don’t worry – requesting it from the library now. But, I did absolutely love Valkyrie and learning about the real assassination attempt against Hitler. It was fascinating and I thought Tom Cruise nailed it.

3. Woman in Gold

Helen Mirren, I love you.  This is such a stand-out movie, I can’t believe it didn’t get more hype when it was in the theaters. I’ve heard nothing but praise since it came out on disc. And, another true story. Just incredible, and with lots of musical connections. I could watch this again and again, and most likely will.

2. Life is Beautiful

Easily one of my very favorite movies, this is so often tied to the memory of Roberto Benigni’s silly, over-the-top Oscar win, but my god is this movie amazing. Your heart will soar and the subtitles will grow more and more blurry as you’re overcome with endless tears of sorrow and joy. It’s the best thing ever.

1. Schindler’s List

How can this not be number one? I can think of no one I would trust more with this story than Steven Spielberg, Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes and, of course, John Williams. “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” That’s all I can say.

Okay, please pass me all the tissues.