Author Archive: Jess Witkins

A Year of Reading: Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

“We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion.”

— Max de Pree

I’ve been selecting a book to read each month from A Year of Reading, a nifty little guide that provides five options every month based on a theme. The books included are diverse in author and in genre, so I’m challenging myself to read more out of the box. Now, I’m a fairly eclectic reader anyway, but this challenge helps me to read more books by authors of color, and in different formats than I would normally pick up. January’s The Principles of Uncertainty for example, is mostly artwork, such as paintings and photography, with written musings along the way.

February featured comedian, Aziz Ansari, and his take on Modern Romance

March was a particular favorite read of mine on the topic of justice with Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy

Playing catch up, this month’s review features the theme from April: Creative Spirit.

Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

I am at my core, a lover of memoir. I am in awe of fiction writers as I personally find it difficult to write fiction. I often think the truth is stranger than fiction and many of the craziest scenes or details in fiction books come from truth. For example, in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, there’s a bit about a dead hippo the ringmaster keeps parading about during the circus, pretending the hippo is swimming in its tank. The hippo was in formaldehyde, and Gruen learned about the trick from a past employee of a real, traveling circus.

What Harjo has done with her memoir, Crazy Brave, is phenomenal, and as A Year of Reading suggests, it should be read aloud.

A well recognized poet, Harjo’s memoir encompasses story, lyric, and poem.

Overview from Goodreads:

In this transcendent memoir, grounded in tribal myth and ancestry, music and poetry, Joy Harjo, one of our leading Native American voices, details her journey to becoming a poet. Born in Oklahoma, the end place of the Trail of Tears, Harjo grew up learning to dodge an abusive stepfather by finding shelter in her imagination, a deep spiritual life, and connection with the natural world. She attended an Indian arts boarding school, where she nourished an appreciation for painting, music, and poetry; gave birth while still a teenager; and struggled on her own as a single mother, eventually finding her poetic voice. Narrating the complexities of betrayal and love, Crazy Brave is a memoir about family and the breaking apart necessary in finding a voice. Harjo’s tale of a hardscrabble youth, young adulthood, and transformation into an award-winning poet and musician is haunting, unique, and visionary. 

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IMG_2217I’m discovering more and more lyric novels lately. Books that tell a story, but do so partially, or completely, in poetry format. Rising authors like Jason Reynolds are doing so, using spoken word to communicate his tale. And in my own neck of the woods, artist and author Mai Chao shared the story of her Hmoob parents fleeing the Secret War, living in a refugee camp, and immigrating to America, in her beautiful lyric novel, Gathering Fireflies. 

Harjo’s work is partially written in verse, and part traditional storytelling. It is beautifully oriented around directions (north, south, east, west), and place (her home of Oklahoma).

This book was a decadent treat for the wordsmith in me. Harjo’s writing comes from a place of loss, misdirection, and unknowing followed by the grace of time, perspective, and truth. In her own words:

A story matrix connects all of us.
There are rules, processes, and circles of responsibility in this world. And the story begins exactly where it is supposed to begin. We cannot skip any part.
― Joy HarjoCrazy Brave

I recommend Crazy Brave for any artists out there. Harjo’s story, and her work, is utmost about resilience, and it inspired me. And for bookworms, if you haven’t yet checked out a lyric novel or memoir, consider this a jewel of an introduction to the craft.

It really should be read aloud.

Have you ever checked out a lyric piece of work?
What did you think of the genre? 

What other books for artists, or on creativity, do you recommend? 

 

 

 

 

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Read, Revise, Adapt: Why Writing Across Genres Can Benefit Your Writing

read revise adaptHey Friends,

I just got back from a fabulous week at the Write by the Lake writers retreat in Madison, Wisconsin. If you’re searching for conferences to attend next year, I highly recommend this program. I’ve gone the last three years. They offer a dozen different course options that provide intense study into a specific genre or practice for the week. Courses are for all levels from introductory to those with a full manuscript looking for a masterclass.

This year, I swayed from my usual path of nonfiction and opted for the course on picture book writing.

Here’s what I learned: 

My instructor, Georgia Beaverson, had us do a writing prompt on the first day. We had to write down our first memory. The second day we rewrote that memory from another person’s point of view. She then made us edit our wordcount down by HALF (oh, the agony). 

She said we could also try reworking the piece into different tenses, illustrating that a story can be told in many different ways, by different people, and sometimes reworking it can lead to great discoveries.

I’ve been working on my memoir for the last several years, and I’ve reworked some of my essays to be performed for adult storytelling. (I highly recommend taking a storytelling class if you have one in your area. I took one two years ago and it was wonderful!) What I learned by doing so was that moving around and utilizing the space I could tell in, I imagined new ways of describing the action or character emotions in my writing. Performing the scene helped me write a stronger scene.

In the picture book writing class, I adapted one of my essays to be told as a children’s picture book. The audience was entirely different, since I’d previously written and performed for adults. In this instance, I played up sounds, using onomatopoeia, stronger verbs, and I limited description where illustrations could play a role.

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Creating my thumbnail mockup of the picture book.

Using the same plotline, I now had three different ways of telling/performing the story. 

Ohmygawd! Justin Timberlake was right all along! 

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The more you write, the better writer you become, and practicing different kinds of writing tools, genres, and craft elements are key. I was amazed at how each exercise in storytelling, whether on paper or a stage, shaped me as a writer. It was fun, challenging for sure, but rewarding across the board.

Sometimes when we’re stuck, we aren’t sure how to gain that forward momentum again. Whether or not you choose to pursue a different genre or space for your story, trying out different exercises can offer up different questions to make you think, explore, and get that creative blood pumping again.

Things You Can Try:

  • Work with a critique group that has multiple genres – How will their feedback strengthen your writing? (Ex. Will listening to poetry help you improve your word choice and descriptions? Will the romance author help you write funnier characters or scenes?)
  • Adapt your story into different formats (written, spoken, illustrated) – You may discover something new, or gain confidence in an area you previously felt uncomfortable in.
  • Just play – Are you stuck on a scene? Is the writing starting to bore even you? Move around, make yourself do the actions! Try drawing it, what’s the action you want to portray? You don’t have to show this to anyone else, but practicing in new ways can help get you past writer’s block.
  • Change the POV.
  • Change the tense of the story.
  • Change the audience you’re writing for.
  • Read different genres. Listen to people tell stories. Note what draws you in.

How can you rewrite and/or adapt your stories
to learn something new about them?

Got an example?
Share your favorite way to practice writing.

Who’s Your Dream Author Panel?

James Rollins

Lunch with James Rollins at the Dallas / Fort Worth Writers Conference in 2012.

I’ve had the pleasure of attending several writers conferences around the country and met many great authors who I consider role models. I’m so honored to chat with folks such as James Rollins and Larry Brooks, to interview writing idols like Danielle Trussoni and Karen Abbott. I dressed alike with Jenny Lawson (AKA The Bloggess) and spoke Greek with Arianna Huffington. And I am beyond thrilled to welcome Nickolas Butler and Blair Braverman to La Crosse later this year!

Eventbrite, a company that hosts and assists with lots of great conferences and events – I’m attending several coming up including a travel writing course and a gallery reading with a medium! – asked the question “Who’s on your dream author panel?” 

I suppose it’s not practical to say ALL OF THEM!

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There’s little that fills me with as much energy as chatting with other authors. When you’re in a room surrounded by “your people,” it’s pretty awesome. And I’m grateful for every opportunity.

So honestly, many authors are on my dream panel. Those I’ve had the pleasure of meeting before and new faces as well. But if I had to narrow it down, then I’d pick from my favorite genre, memoir, and specifically those authors with the ability to infuse humor into the hardships they face.

So Universe, if you can somehow swing these folks to gather AND put me in the same room with them, I’ll keep my fangirl under control (or try to). 

David Sedaris – Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Naked
Mindy Kaling – Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
Mishna Wolff – I’m Down
Elaine Lui – Listen to the Squawking Chicken
Caitlyn Moran – Moranifesto
Haven Kimmel – A Girl Named Zippy
Kristin Newman – What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding
Kevin Kling – The Dog Says How
Roz Chast – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Laurie Notaro – The Idiot Girl’s Action-Adventure Club

Ten is kind of a lot on a panel isn’t it? I don’t care. I like to dream big.

I’d love to hear the perspectives from this mix of essayists, memoirists, and graphic novelist. This panel would hold stories of coming out, cultural identity, race relations, immigration, surviving abusive relationships, feminism, dysfunctional family, living with a disability, caring for aging parents, and living paycheck to paycheck. Topics to make us feel less alone, walk in someone else’s shoes, and find the laughter in the end. Definitely my favorite genre to dive into.

Dream big! Who would be on YOUR author panel if you could choose? 

A Year of Reading: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

51j4xd2ntcl-_sx355_bo1204203200_I’m behind on blogging about my reading challenge.

Ok, let’s be honest, I’m behind on blogging in general. Transitions, yo. I’m taking it easy. 

Something I’ve enjoyed so far this year has been picking a title each month from the book A Year of Reading, a nifty little guide that provides five options every month based on a theme. The books included are diverse in author and in genre, so I’m challenging myself to read more out of the box. Now, I’m a fairly eclectic reader anyway, but this challenge helps me to read more books by authors of color, and in different formats than I would normally pick up. January’s The Principles of Uncertainty for example, is mostly artwork, such as paintings and photography, with written musings along the way.

Playing catch up, this month’s review features the theme from March: Justice.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

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Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

***

I listened to this while traveling to the Writers Institute.

I’m a big nonfiction reading fan. I love memoirs and biographies, so I was gripped right away by Stevenson’s writing. Threaded throughout the book is Stevenson’s involvement with the Walter McMillian case, meetings they had, court appearances and processes, interviews with family and witnesses, and police involvement. Intertwined amongst this case are stories of many cases Stevenson worked on that portray how he got his start into the battle of death row cases, and how his work would shape his path from then on. The writing kept my attention because you learn more about Stevenson and his work in chunks of casework, but there’s also this ongoing saga of what’s happening with Walter.

Stevenson began his own nonprofit practice that focuses on helping minorities and underage victims of the criminal justice system, specifically those placed on death row. His book is an intimate look at capital punishment law and how many people, guilty or not, end up on death row. He uncovers all kinds of issues within the system, such as tampering with evidence, tampering with jury selection, and larger social issues of racism and economic status.

I was first made aware of racism in the justice system after attending a local talk led by my city’s League of Women Voters chapter. In the talk, we looked at racial disparities in our court system in my own city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, as well as nationally and internationally. Once you see those numbers, it’s kind of hard to ‘unsee’ them. You’ve got to know there’s a problem.

I witnessed it myself during my months working as a public health educator and teaching at the juvenile detention center. For the percentage of minority populations in my city, there’s a disproportionate amount of teens of color (mainly black and biracial teens) being sent to juvie.

As a country, we are largely punishing people of color in more violent manners than we are their white counterparts. Since that eye opening talk several years ago, I’ve been active in starting up a local chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), where white folks put in the time and work and energy of educating themselves on the issues, partnering and learning from people of color led organizations, and working to create change.

It’s upsetting to me that so many people are still (color) blind to the issue, or simply unwilling to discuss it. Today, for example, a (white) friend of mine is in court contesting a fine she and her daughter each received for writing messages of inclusivity and peace in SIDEWALK CHALK outside a public space. The city fined her almost $1000 between the original fine and restitution saying they spent seven hours washing off SIDEWALK CHALK that took her less than an hour to write. ???

You can read about her case here, but it’s clear from the way the city alderman addressed the issue, that the problem wasn’t really with the chalk (though that is what they fined her for, however there are chalk messages all around the city now that have not been washed away). The problem was with her messages.

Messages that were written were, “Black Lives Matter,” “You Are Standing On Ho-Chunk Land,” “I Stand For Love,” “Peace Be Unto You: As-Salaam-Alaikum,” “You Are Welcome Here,” “The Time For Racial Justice is Now” and “There is Enough For Everyone.”

I stand with my friend and her messages of inclusivity and diversity as strength. I highly encourage everyone to read more about systemic racism, as we all play a role in it when we don’t actively unlearn and fight against it.

Just Mercy is a phenomenal book that tackles racism in the judicial system. And the most powerful part of the whole read are Stevenson’s thoughts on mercy. Given the many examples of hate we can see every day on the news, or right in our own hometowns, it’s more important than ever to question our own biases. I hope you’ll grab a copy of Stevenson’s work as I found it incredibly thought provoking, emotional, and timely.

A few of my favorite quotes: 

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

“I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”

Have you read Just Mercy yet? Or perhaps another title about racial justice?
What are your thoughts?

My Friend Made Me Watch Twin Peaks and Now All I Have are Questions 

My friend Heather is a smart, lovable lady who doesn’t watch a lot of movies. Ask her if she’s seen something and the answer is probably no.

A month ago, however, she messages me and tells me I need to watch the show Twin Peaks, a cult drama I had never seen. She described it as a small town murder mystery. Ok, sure, I wanna know what happened to Laura Palmer, the dead girl. I’ll watch.

So I reserve what ends up being a season one and two box set from the library, and I message Heather when it comes in so we can have a social media shared viewing party.

Only I never hear back from her.

I message her via text, I try Facebook messenger, and I tweet at her. But if Heather is bad at having seen movies everyone else on the planet has seen, she is terrible at checking social media. Like working for the CDC is so hard, Heather? Check your messages! I have questions about this melodramatic tv show you made me watch! 

So I watched all of season one and over half of season two without her. In a state of growing irritation.

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I hate this show. Now all I have are questions.

I finally heard back from Heather. Her phone died and it took days to get a new one. This loss would unhinge a social media person like myself, but Heather just went on living her life, working by day, eating pizza rolls like a boss at night, probably sketching something amazing because she is a talented artist too.

So by the time I heard back from her, I had my own melodramatic show to air. I wanted to know why she made me watch this ridiculous show.

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Here are the screenshots of our text conversation in which I tell Heather she is a terrible human being for making me watch Twin Peaks.

*Warning: if you haven’t seen the show, there are spoilers ahead.



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This song is three minutes of teenage torture. Get your shit together, Donna! This is not a healthy relationship! 


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I have questions, people! And clearly a lot of disdain and anger.

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And now I find out the show is being revived and airing on Showtime! People are eating pie and dream dancing all about it on Twitter.

Also Heather has stopped replying to my texts once again. I think the owls got her.

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Your turn. What do YOU think of Twin Peaks? 

A Year of Reading: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

It seems love is in the air, as the theme of February’s A Year of Reading book challenge was romance. I am not normally a reader of romance books, so I went with the nonfiction recommendation, Modern Romance, by comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg.

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Ansari was curious about the dynamics of falling in love and relationships in the modern age. Were things easier before so much technology? How have dating websites changed the name of the game?

Whether you’re single, dating, or married, this book has plenty of interesting viewpoints on love. The authors (Ansari and Klinenberg) conducted focus groups around the world and spoke to leading sociologists, anthropologists, and economists.

Even with all that research, it’s a fast read. It’s not as in depth as you might want it to be or think it would be from its premise, but it does touch on multiple reasons why we date the way we do.

One thing I found interesting was the impact geography had on love. I’m a bridge Gen X/Gen Y baby, so for my peers, we’re on the cuff of cyber-dating’s rise. I have lots of friends who married someone they met online. For our grandparents, that didn’t exist. Most couples met and married someone that grew up in their neighborhood, many times in the same apartment building! The notion of e-meeting someone across the country and long distance dating, or the willingness to relocate based on a connection with someone they met online, is pretty new.

Texting is big in this book. The art of the text, and even the sext, is well examined by Ansari, who in his stand up, shared examples of text conversations he had with women he liked. They’re often nerdy and humorous. He would also call others up on stage to share confusing text messages they’d received from potential partners. If you’re fascinated by reading the meaning between the lines, dissecting the denotation between phonetic spelling and emojis, and just plain curious about some of the texts you’ve received, you will laugh your butt off in these chapters. But probably learn something too.

My most favorite A-Ha! moment from the book was this: The idea of the soulmate is a relatively newer trending ideal. For our grandparents, they selected individuals who would be good partners. And that partnership was most commonly about work duties. For example, if you were a farmer, you needed a partner who could weather long days, hard work, planning ahead for the seasons, money pinching, etc. Among all the elderly couples Ansari and Klinenberg interviewed, this was a reoccurring statement. Courtships were shorter, both people knew their roles, and love came later, over time. (Note* I’m simplifying this a bit, as the book does cover an example of discriminatory gender roles and an abusive marriage. I think that bears mentioning as it’s still an all too real issue today.)

Couples today are much more likely to say they’re looking for their “soulmate”. We want a partner that “completes us,” we want them to understand, know, and accept us like no one else on earth can, we want intimacy, AND we also want a partner to work with – they need to pay their share of the bills, keep the house clean, raise the kids, fix dinner, etc.

We’re asking a lot.

That hit me. Maybe because I’m a language nerd and the emotions and needs tied to the language we use for our partners is powerful. We want them to be EVERYTHING for us. Of course I think all unions should have partnership and love to be happy. But now, I understand why that feels so stressful to maintain.

We want our partner to be the person we tell our secrets to and we want them to take the damn trash out already! It is really, truly, and undeniably hard for one person to fill every single role all the time. They are bound to fail. We fail. We’re all only human.

That’s one idea why relationships today appear to struggle more than the “good old days” when “things were simpler.” And it did make me more appreciative of my partner and all that we do provide for each other.

Don’t take my word for it! Listen to Ansari himself, in this fabulous mockumentary dating vid about the book!

Aside – I need to watch the movie Singles like right now thanks to this clip. Seriously, remember that movie? When Sheila Kelley makes her singles dating video that looks like she’s flying over the city and invites guys to “Come to Debbie Country.” 

Anyway…

What are your thoughts?
What do you think of modern romance?

Ever watched Singles? It’s so good. 

 

 

And Now For Something Different: Adventures in the Kitchen

I am not a cook. I’m the daughter of a cook. And a baker. I grew up in a restaurant. But I’ve not inherited the genes that make one skillful at knowing what spices to combine with what bases.

I’m the one who tried to make her own coconut rice and had it described as “palatable.”

I tried to make a chocolate strawberry tart and the hubs needed a butcher knife to cut it.

Recently, I set a potholder on FIRE! 😀

And so, in our household, it is my partner, Joe, who does the cooking. And I remain ever grateful. But we’ve challenged ourselves to do things a little differently in our partnership and I’ve started making one meal a week with the goals of being health conscious and tasty.

Like a good little wi-fi (my husband’s nickname for me given my love of social media), I trolled pinterest for some recipes that looked good, easy to make, and were healthy. That means I was steering clear of recipes with a lot of dairy, red meat, or carbs. Here’s what the past 2 months have brought about.

*Note: All photographs are my own. I thought you should see what the food looked like when an amateur attempts to pinterest at home. Bon appetit! 

The Contenders

Buddha Bowls

Featuring the 30 Best Buddha Bowls, Yummy Mummy Kitchen included a winter bowl with curried chickpeas that I adapted at the end (scroll to the bottom of her post). I made the chickpeas as she described, then played around with my own vegetable options. I sautéed rainbow carrots and brussel sprouts in olive oil, ginger, and cumin until tender. And I added marinated beets and a thai cocount curry hummus which I purchased from my co-op to the top of the bowl. Everything was dumped on a bed of spinach. It’s a nice mix of sweet, spicy, creamy and tangy.

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White Bean and Avocado Burritos

I am not the best burrito roller, but halfway through I got the hang of it! This dish was really filling and nice for leftovers. Our favorite part was the cilantro lime sauce. Bonus, the recipe from Ceara’s Kitchen is also vegan, so if you’re looking for some meat-free meal options, this one’s good.

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Lemon Poppyseed Pancakes

Alright, so pancakes aren’t exactly at the top of the health food menu, but it was the weekend and I wanted to do something special. Plus we’d received super yummy Canadian maple syrup from my brother’s family as a thank you for dog sitting so pancakes were really the only option.

This recipe from The View From Great Island is a very delicious lemony treat and goes great with fresh blueberries and turkey bacon on the side.

*Notice my absolute lack of skill in pancake flipping. I made Lemon Poppyseed Pan-shmooshes. 

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Chicken Tikka Masala

When the chef preparing this dish says she eats chicken tikka masala multiple times a week, you know you can trust the recipe to be pretty good. Found on Savory Tooth, this chicken tikka masala recipe was indeed, tasty.

This recipe requires an Indian spice blend called garam masala, which for those of you who live in a smaller city, could be hard to find. You can buy it online, but I was lucky enough to find it in the bulk aisle of my co-op and prepare my own baggie full of the spice. Buy extra, cause the next recipe calls for it too!

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Slow Cooker Butter Chicken

I have absolutely no idea why this recipe is called Butter Chicken when there is, in fact, no butter in it. But for folks who like spice, then this dinner from Damn Delicious is the ticket. It’s extra spicy if you pair it, as I did, with Fooduzzi’s recipe for Sriracha Almond Butter Roasted Brussel SproutsZing! 

If you’re trying to cut out excess carbs too, you can put the chicken over a bed of chopped spinach instead of rice like we did, and sprinkle with cilantro.

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The Winning Favorites

The two best recipes, as favored by the hubs and I, were…

Crock Pot Thai Chicken Soup

From The Endless Meal, this recipe for thai chicken soup, which simmers in a crockpot for eight hours was DELECTABLE! Red curry paste mixed with chicken stock and coconut milk makes up the broth. Add chicken, plus whatever vegetables you want, and rice vermicelli noodles – which cook in 2 minutes! For veggies this time, I used red pepper, onion, mushrooms, and tomatoes. So savory and even the leftovers are delicious.

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Roasted Chicken With Vegetables

And the other hit was Roasted Chicken with Vegetables from The Cookie Writer. Another easy one pan meal – hooray! The cook behind this recipe saved time by buying chopped veggies from the grocery store, but I did my own chopping with what we had on hand already. I substituted chicken breasts for the bone in chicken, since we had 3 frozen chicken breasts to use up. And the veggies I cut up were cauliflower, green pepper, and baby carrots. My hubs loved the paprika and basil spice blend.

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There you have my adventures in the kitchen. It’s not going too bad!
Minus, you know, that ONE potholder. 😛

What are the recipes you love and return to?
See any on this list you might try? 

What I’m Reading for #BlackHistoryMonth

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Here’s the deal, folks. It’s hard to be excited about being an American right now. Our country is in turmoil. Step into the world of Facebook for a minute and you’ll feel it. Our people are torn. We’re hungry for change, but it’s clear that these changes aren’t in the best interest of us all. Instead of breaking barriers, we’re building walls, literally and figuratively.

It’s heartbreaking.

But you know what does make me feel good about being an American? (Besides our freedom of speech, right to protest, freedom of press, local and national chapters of SURJ, the ACLU, and feminists everywhere…)

Reading.

I’m serious. It is a gift to live in a country where access to books from places like libraries, schools, independent book stores, chain bookstores with coffeeshops inside them, second hand stores, little free libraries, and websites with 2 day shipping are all willing to put BOOKS in your HANDS!

Have I mentioned I love reading? Because I DO.

It is a gift to have a book in your hand. Books make us think. Books make us learn. Books teach us empathy. Books allow us to walk in the shoes of a character who is different than us. Stories – whether told in person, on paper, with numbers, on TV, over the radio, by a child, or by an adult – help us make sense of our world. It is how we learn to care about one another. How we relate to the people around us.

Here is something I learned and can’t remember where. I probably read it somewhere. 😉

It takes several generations of a family to unlearn a prejudice.

Think about that. That’s multiple LIFETIMES to actively unlearn bias.

So if we don’t have a lot of interaction with folks who are different than us, we maintain the same biased views about them – their race, their culture, their religion, their way of dress, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, etc.

If we want to, we can change that. And one easy way is to pick up a book.

READ about characters who are different than you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book and had it CHANGE MY MIND about a topic.

The Cider House Rules changed my mind about abortion.

Bamboo Among the Oaks made me cry learning about Hmoob history.

The Mayflower taught me about my own ancestors’ struggles and prejudices coming to a new world while trying to pave THEIR OWN WAY.

Perhaps I’m rambling. My point is, books have power. Books teach us. And February is Black History Month, so it’s a great time to read books about Black people and by Black people. And you know, learn a thing or two.

Here’s What I’ve Been Reading: 

51avppq060lCurrently, I’m working on this audiobook I picked up from my local library. It’s called The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott. It’s a new in-depth look at the relationship between writer, activist, and priest, Pauli Murray, and First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. The author, Bell-Scott, diligently researched archives of Murray’s and Roosevelt’s, including letters they sent back and forth for years. She studies how this unique friendship shaped many of the political projects the First Lady advocated for.

You might recall the name Pauli Murray on this blog before when I featured her in 9 Women Who Made History You Probably Didn’t Know About.

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a_lesson_before_dying_novelI recently finished reading A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines as part of a Big City Read initiative my town hosted (and still is) after a City Hall presentation regarding La Crosse, WI’s history as a “Sundown Town.”

A Lesson Before Dying is the fictional story of a 1940s court case where a Black man is convicted of a crime he did not commit and sentenced to death by an all white jury. While on death row, he is visited by a Black school teacher who has been asked by the man’s family to educate him so he can “die like a man.”

There are still several community book discussions on this title for my local friends, as well as several guest speakers talking about racism, the justice system, and inequality. View all the events at La Crosse Reads.

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luvvie-ajayi-book-1-copy-768x975A book I read in 2 days time last year was I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi. A “Do Better Manual” for the masses, phenomenal blogger, Awesomely Luvvie, shared stories on everything from feminism, racism, social media etiquette, dating, and more. It’s your all in one, be a better person guide, as told to you by a sassy, pop culture loving, side-eye queen.

This book is a compilation of essays, making it easy for anyone to pick it up and read a few pages at a time. You don’t have to read it chronologically if you don’t want to. Every chapter has a healthy dose of love and petty judgment.

If you want a teaser, I shared an excerpt from a hilarious chapter called When Baehood Goes Bad in a challenge Luvvie gave to bloggers to share their favorite parts.

just_mercy_stevenson_bryan_002What’s next on my to read list? Part of my 2017 Reading Challenge is one book per month from A Year of Reading and March’s pick (the theme is justice) is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. “Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.”

I’m a fan of nonfiction books, so my recommendations tend to lean that way. But there are plenty of other great book lists for Black History Month. Just google suggestions. Or see what’s shelved on Goodreads.

I hope you pick up one of these titles. Or find another interesting book about Black America that catches your eye. Maybe you already have a few you love. Tell me what they are in the comments! I’m always looking for new books to read.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Reading Challenges: A Year of Reading, and more!

books-552572_1280How many of you have a stack of books you’re planning to read? Someday, right? And how many of you add to that list every year? I’m with you! I needed to know what happened in the Lunar Chronicles too!

books-1841116_1280That’s why I love the reading challenge created by Estella’s Revenge called #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks. I joined up last year and read 38 out of 131 books. I think I started with double that amount on the shelves (and floor), but one of the books I read was The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and I sold/gave away 125 books.

I’ve created my current bookshelf list for 2017, should you wish to peruse my shelves.

(And it’s safe to say I’ll be doing this reading challenge for years to come, because let’s face it, I will keep buying books. But now, I do read more that I currently own versus buying QUITE so many.)

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51j4xd2ntcl-_sx355_bo1204203200_I’m also using the book A Year of Reading to diversify what I read this year. This guidebook separates each month with a theme and gives six different book ideas for that theme. I love its diversity in authors and in genre.

It’s inclusive of authors of color, something I was looking to include more of this year in my reading, and the genre options include fiction and nonfiction, but also more marginalized categories like graphic novels, poetry, and short story anthologies.

The themes range from serious to fun, with a mix of genre styles within them. January was all about happiness, so very timely for that new year, new you vibe.

This month, I completed The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman. 

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Kalman’s book is different than most books I’ve read because it is also an art book. The pages are her colorful paintings and photography of people, places, and things that catch her eye – whether passing by on the street or musing over a historical figure.

This is a book you could read in a day. But I chose not to. I wanted to savor it.

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On a surface level, it’s an easy book to read for reading’s sake. But I wanted to muse along with her. Sometimes I learned about a historical figure, or a family member of hers, or even the intricacy of a tassel on a chair. So what you really get out of Kalman’s book is that happiness is found in the little things. The day to day moments where we stop. And just look. Just listen.

What reading challenges are you doing this year, formal or otherwise?
What books have you read recently that made you think? 

The Phenomenal Mix Playlist Winners Revealed

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Between blog comments, facebook and Twitter, I received 70 song and musician suggestions for the 2016 Phenomenal Women and Cafe Mix playlists – my annual gift of new music for my mom and sister.

Thank you to everyone who shared suggestions and music videos for my search. Several of your recommendations made the final list and I’m excited to share them with you in the new year. Here’s what I’m currently dancing to!

The 2016 Phenomenal Women Playlist

  1. Stranger to My Happiness by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings

In honor of this phenomenal woman who passed in 2016. She is one of my favorite live performers to have seen. So much soul. Felt the need to kick off the playlist with a song from her album “Give the People What They Want”. 

2. Best Kept Secret by case/lang/veirs

3. Into the Wild by LP

4. Wild Things by Alessia Cara

5. No Diggity by Postmodern Jukebox featuring Ariana Savalas

6. Million Reasons by Lady Gaga

7. We Break the Dawn by Michelle Williams

8. The Greatest by Sia

I’m a Sia fan. I love her music videos and the unusual ways the dancers move. I think it’s beautiful. 

9. Heaven Knows by First Aid Kit

10. I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Postmodern Jukebox featuring Maiya Sykes

Shoutout to Amber West for recommending some Postmodern Jukebox tunes for the mix, which have not been included before and leant a variety of sounds and styles. I loved this cover of a song by The Killers. 

11. Heart of My Own by Basia Bulat

12. Wildewoman by Lucius

13. Tokyo Sunrise by LP

Hands down, my favorite musician this year has been LP. I discovered her last year and included “Night Like This” on the 2015 mix, but since then, she’s released another album and I’ve been playing her nonstop, so two songs made the list this year. 

14. Wildest Moments by Jessie Ware

15. Scars to Your Beautiful by Postmodern Jukebox featuring Sara Niemietz

16. Beautiful Life by Judith Hill

Judith Hill is a musician I have tried to include for the last several years and could never quite fit in. Came across this song off the 2015 album, Back in Time, and fell in love. This music video is a paired down version of the song, but it’s gorgeous either way. 

17. Runaway by Aurora

18. Got Your Number by Serena Ryder

19. Road Less Traveled by Lauren Alaina

20. In the Morrow by Brandi Carlile

The 2016 Cafe Mix

  1. Happiness by NEEDTOBREATHE

The hubs and I are both fans of NEEDTOBREATHE and this is off their new album, Hard Love. 

2. Alaska by Maggie Rogers

3. Red Hands by Walk Off The Earth

4. Trying So Hard Not to Know by Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

5. The Walker by Fitz & the Tantrums

6. White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes

7. Unsteady by X Ambassadors

8. Hold Back the River by James Bay

James Bay was a discovery the hubs and I found through an indie artist bio-vid we came across and we loved his sound. 

9. Lost Stars by Adam Levine

10. Growing Things by Shook Twins

11. Dreams by Fleetwood Mac

12. Out of My League by Fitz & the Tantrums

13. I Found by Amber Run

14. Snow by Lisa Hannigan

15. Wicked Game by Chris Isaak

16. House of Mercy by Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz has been another musician I’ve had in my collection and tried to include for several years, but hadn’t. This year her 2016 album, Undercurrent, was added to my iTunes and I loved this song. 

17. Home Nights by Sugarcane Jane

18. Woodwork by Sleeping at Last

19. Morning Noon & Night by Ryan Shaw

20. Thank You by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

Here’s another group I can’t help but groove to when I listen. 

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And now, the winners of the mix giveaways! Thank you all again so much for the song recommendations, I love listening to all your favorite tunes and they are a huge help in making these playlists.

The winners are Serena Dracis and Amber West!!!

 

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