Friday, January 30, 2015

A Month in Reviews -- January

Cheers to 2015!

January 2015! I still can't believe that we're already in 2015. I'm usually stunned and confused about the year for the first few months or so, until I grow used to it and comfortable with the number. But this particular January has certainly been a whirlwind of activity. It seems that the older I get, the busier I get. I think back to high school and college when I thought I was busy, or craved adulthood and all that went with it, and I want to shake my younger self by the shoulders and say "Enjoy the quiet, enjoy your time off; life is going to get so crazy!" But I mean that in the best of ways.

This month added a lot to my day-to-day schedule. I began following the FODMAP diet, which is more like dietary restrictions than a diet. It's hard, an epic pain in the butt, but it helps my IBS. Aside from the challenge of just sticking to it, it also means being more picky with what foods I buy and making most of my meals from scratch at home -- which sucks up a lot of time. Still, it's great for my body and I'm glad I've stuck with it.

I also began going to Lifetime Fitness regularly. Let me tell you right now, it's great. If you're looking for a gym and a Lifetime is near you, I say check it out! I've experienced my share of gyms in my life and this is, by far, the most supportive (and clean) gym I've ever attended. I feel like I'm on an epic retreat when I go to the gym and I haven't even used all the facilities available to me yet! 

I'm also working on my final course for a copyediting certification. This is rather new, as it only started two weeks ago, but it'll be adding onto my workload for the next three months and boy am I ready! I've been working toward this certification for nearly two years with many, many breaks between classes, but it's all been for the best and I'm eager to conquer the final class.

Of course, one of the biggest events of January was the reopening of this blog! It's been wonderful and I'm so glad I'm here with such wonderful readers. You've all been so supportive and I appreciate all your views. But, if you're busy like I've been, I'm sure you've missed a couple things.

Book Reviews:

This month has provided new reviews on a handful of books. Some were positive, some weren't so much, and some were ill received by the book's authors. It's part of running this blog, to be honest with my opinion of books, and I intend to stick with that. I've also opened up to personal hardships and how books have helped me overcome them, as well as a book that gave me a very nostalgic reaction.

My Reading Nook

January also meant the introduction of My Reading Nook. My Reading Nook is a submission-based post where you, my reader, submit photos of the area you like to read and share with everyone some information on it. Aside from this, it's a chance to share our diversity in reading, but also show how we're all related. Some people like to read on buses while others can only read in quiet locations, it's all different and yet the same. We're all joined together by reading and that's just awesome.

If you want more details, please follow this link or, in the future, you can just click on the My Reading Nook at the top of my blog's page!

Other Posts

What's January without some kind of a yearly wrap up? I shared with you the books I read during the year I was away from the blog and it was a nice little trip down memory lane for me. I hope to bring in some reviews from those books during the next few months so bear with me.

Another post that I threw on the blog is the start of my Wanderlust Wednesday series. I've been so lucky to travel in the past few years and I hope to keep doing it. On any given day I'll count how many weeks or months it has been since I last flew somewhere and immediately get the itch to do it again. With so many expenses this year (gym, healthy foods, class) I'm not sure how much traveling I'll be doing, but I hope to keep up with it. This month I talked about Cajun Encounters, a tour group that I really loved that's based in New Orleans. Take a look at my Wanderlust Wednesday post to learn more about the tours they offer and my experience with them!

Must Reads from the Web

There is so much material out there pertaining to writing and reading. On any day I can find a ton of articles -- posting them is a different story as I often forget by the time I get home or lose the link. However, these are the articles I've read from around the web in the past month that actually made it to my Facebook page.

So long, January! Take your cold weather with you (or maybe just give me snow so I can work from home all of February). 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Taking Woodstock

Having grown up in Sullivan County in the 90's and early 2000's, Woodstock was always an undercurrent of the history of my land. My parents, having been alive during Woodstock but not living in the area, could still recall the news of the traffic heading to Bethel and how many people had experienced it. My father was of the Vietnam generation and Vietnam vets that were not-so-former hippies were the watchful eyes of my childhood. This was the culture I grew up in; something that I found quite normal then realized wasn’t so common once I left the area.

As a teen, however, I was fascinated by the Woodstock and flower child era, I appreciated all details given to me. The music was great, the videos shown on VH1 around the time of the Woodstock anniversaries were captivating, and I found myself proud to be from there.

To this day, you can visit the town of Woodstock or the Woodstock Festival site (they’re two different places, mind you!) and find hippies who never really left. They'll show photos they took or tell you of their experiences. After moving away from the area and going to DC where people are the furthest thing from the hippies I grew up around, I found myself missing it all in a nostalgic way.

Reading this book reminded me of my childhood home. I found the humor in what I often times disliked about the Sullivan County region. Elliot, our narrator, describes the area clearly and accurately. It hasn’t changed all that much. From the strong opinions to the farming community, he provides honest detail. I can understand Elliot's desperation to escape that area, I had felt the same way as a teen, and I find it amusing now that so much of what Sullivan County was described as in this book is still the same during the present day.

Elliot babbles on a great deal about his personal life – specifically about prior adventures into the gay community of New York City and his art history. He gives a good substantial backstory that provides the information needed to better understand why his parents behave the way they do and what brought them to upstate New York. Still, I sometimes felt that Elliot went a little too far off course.

We don’t dive too deeply into the festival itself but see what happened behind the scenes. How the festival was brought together, the driving force that brought it to Bethel, and the insanity that descended upon the town are described in detail. I wanted that, I appreciate it, and wow – the film that’s based on this book is pretty spot on as well!

The book was great, although at times some of the details were repetitive. But my favorite thing? I realized, midway through the book, that a favorite Italian restaurant my family and I used to go to was El Monaco's in White Lake (the very location of Elliot’s family hotel!) and I never even realized the significance of that location until this book. Funny.

This will definitely be something I'll return to whenever I'm a bit homesick for my hometown.

Last Week's Review: True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart by Tara Barch
Next Week's Review: Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart

I have always suffered from mild anxiety difficulties. I'm a type A personality that strives to get stuff done, do it well, and beats herself up if it's not done with utter perfection. I'm quick to feel devastated by the smallest corrections and worry endlessly about, often enough, things I have no control over. This has been something I've dealt with nearly my entire life but it increased over the past two years. I began having panic and anxiety attacks. They were world-stopping. I would feel that I couldn't breathe properly, my heart would race, I couldn't move, and everything was closing in on me.

Two years ago, they came occasionally and while I thought "I need to seek help about this," I didn't. I was "too busy" and I didn't have the money to pay for therapy. I left that job and the poor health insurance I had there and started a new job with better insurance. The attacks began to pick up. The pressure at my new job, being something entirely new and finding that I had more control over my own destiny at work than I had ever been given before, doubled by full control and expected knowledge of the position I had, heightened my anxiety. My own book blog, even, was triggering panic. Class work, friendship drama, deaths in the family all contributed to this. By this past summer, I was suffering from multiple anxiety to panic attacks multiple times a week.

My work was suffering -- I often had to leave my office, slipping away so no one noticed, so that I could panic in the privacy of a bathroom stall or at the nearby park. My relationships were strained -- every Sunday as I would say goodbye to my beau and head home, I would be reduced to an anxiety-ridden mess. I knew what occurrences and general thoughts brought on the attacks and I knew they were ridiculous and not worth the upset. But knowing that and getting your body to react appropriately are two different things. It's like a possession -- you know your normal thoughts, the expected way to react, and that the events you are panicking over aren't worth panicking over... but your body is possessed. The "demon" has control over it. It makes your body break out into a cold sweat, your heart rate go faster and faster, tears leak from your eyes, and your emotions take complete control.

By the end of July I had enough. I began searching for psychologists in the area because I simply did not want to live that way anymore. I have many friends and family members who have sought therapy for depression and anxiety and had good results. I had faith that this could help me. Beside that, I was going to many other doctor appointments to check my levels and was diagnosed with IBS, which can throw you all out of whack. But changing my lifestyle, changing my diet, wasn't working fast enough and I was determined to get control over the demon that is anxiety.

Right away, my doctor latched onto my love for books and suggested some reading to do outside of the office. Her first suggestion was True Refuge by Tara Brach, a local (for me) psychologist and Buddhist. She follows the idea of mindfulness and has penned many a self help book.

Not being religious, but open to spirituality and different religious ideas, I was down to learn about mindfulness and give Tara's book a try. So, let that be the precursor: I went into this knowing very little about Buddhism, psychology, mindfulness, and anxiety. I went into this not knowing how to care for my own anxiety nor how much it really affected myself and those around me.

There is a lot of story telling in this book. I feel, with self help and teaching ways to handle emotional situations and health, this is a great way to provide the lesson. I'm a person that learns through visuals and reading the different struggles that Tara wrote about -- patients and friends who suffered, her own health experiences, and so on, allowed me to not only see how becoming mindful helped to benefit these people, but it served a greater purpose: it made me realize that the problems I had with anxiety were not problems of a sole individual. I was by no means alone and the thoughts, the feelings, and the seemingly lack of control did not in any way make me "broken" or "different."

I also learned it's something that I can gain control over.

While Tara referenced a lot of Buddhist ideas, none of which I fully understand, follow, or believe in, I feel someone who is familiar with Buddha's teachings would find these references beneficial. Still, I came out of the book feeling a little more sure of myself and with a better understanding of what anxiety is and that you are by no means broken for having anxiety.

There are also practices which Tara details in the book, often at the end of chapters, which can help curb your anxiety or other emotional struggles you may have. Tara has other works, a website, and seminars. I have not read her other work nor attended anything sponsored by her and I likely won't, as this book (and her beliefs) are more religious than I intend to dive into. But that doesn't mean the book is unhelpful, as it certainly made me feel better about my situation and gain hope of getting better. It, at the very least, gave me a greater understanding of all that had happened and could happen and for that, I'm so grateful to have been urged to pick this book up.

Last Week's Review: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Next Week's Review: Taking Woodstock by Elliot Tiber

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wanderlust Wednesday: Cajun Encounters -- Swamp and Plantation Tours of Louisiana

What: Cajun Encounters Tours -- Combination Tour
Where: New Orleans, LA
When: May 2013

There were two things that I wanted to do in New Orleans no matter what: see some plantations and go on a swamp tour. I poked around the internet, trying to figure out what tour group we should go through, and found quite a selection of options with varying reviews. Still, I settled on Cajun Encounters as it offered a dual trip for a swamp tour and a plantation tour. It looks a little pricey but please don't get scared away from the cost: it's well worth it.

Jackson Square

Booking: If there was anything that I disliked about the trip, it would be the booking process. My friend made the booking arrangements and it seemed much more confusing than necessary. We had reservations for the trip, but didn't pay on the spot; this could be good if you had transportation issues but it left us with a little less security that we were guaranteed a seat (which ended up being something not worth worrying about). The women that my friend dealt with for booking were giving differing instructions over the phone and made our pick up location a thirty minute walk away from our hotel, while we later found out the company had pick-ups much closer to where we stayed. While waiting for our pick up the first morning, there was confusion of when the bus would arrive and those we called weren't helpful.

The General Tour Idea: You are picked up by a van that displays Cajun Encounters on the side (if you're meandering around New Orleans you may spot these vans here and there) it’s air-conditioned and rather comfy. This is fantastic, as my friend and I went to New Orleans without any mode of transportation.

I suffer from having long legs that usually are squished into seats on buses, trains, and planes, but I certainly had enough legroom in their vans. The bus driver takes you to your destination, and both there and back he tells stories of the area, or points out different sites to give insight into how much you're actually seeing. Once at your destination, you're handed off to either plantation tour guides or swamp tour guides and your driver is there to pick you up when you're finished and is even accommodating enough to drop you off wherever you need to be, even if it's not at your original pick up location.

The Plantation Tour: This was the longest trip of the two. We had quite a hike up the Mississippi River but it was great to get away from the city. We saw some of the countryside that makes up Louisiana, something we wouldn't have experienced had we not gone on the tour. The first stop was the Laura Plantation -- a beautiful home with a rich history. The house still has slave quarters, which was fascinating for me. After having learned so much of American history, but growing up in New York where America's history with plantations that were run by slaves were not quite as prominent, I had never seen such areas of living. It put it into perspective and I felt I had a better understanding.

Laura Plantation
Part of the remaining slave quarters.
Much of the plantation is still the original building and wood. The owner of the plantation gave us a tour and he was so filled with knowledge, I felt that nothing was left out. You could see he was passionate about the plantation and preserving its history.

After a quick lunch break, we drove down the road to Oak Alley Plantation. This is more famous, as the alley of oaks is often captured in movies or imagery of the south. Personally, I was most excited because this was the location used for the film Interview with the Vampire as Louis' home.

Oak Alley Plantation
The grounds are huge but, unfortunately, we weren't given much time to investigate. We were shuffled off to a tour of the household which was quick from point to point and we were given very little time to really linger in each room, then the tour was done and we were given very few precious minutes to see the rest of the area, use the bathroom, or grab more food before we were expected back on the bus. My friend and I rushed down the oak alley so we could get proper photos of the long walk with the oak trees hanging overhead (as seen in the above photo) but had no time to do anything else. I feel Cajun Encounters could work to make the plantation tour a lengthier experience -- if only by a half hour! -- so that guests can visit Oak Alley longer, but comparing our experience at Laura Plantation to Oak Alley, it seems a lot of the fault falls onto Oak Alley. It's quite the business and that's clear in how orderly everything is. I hope I can go back one day to both plantations and schedule my own tours so that I may have more time to visit the locations. But really, Cajun Encounters is wonderful by providing this opportunity and I feel I had a fasntastic, memorable experience.

The Swamp Tour: The van trip to the swamp was incredibly informative as we passed the different wards of New Orleans and our driver pointed out the very wide area that was under water after Hurricane Katrina. It was kind of mind-blowing. You remember the news coverage of it all and how devastating it was, but to see the area and judge the distance that was under water in real life is quite overwhelming. Some buildings were still a mess and others still had the watermarks.

Cajun Encounters boat and a little gator swimming over!
As we left the city and crossed Lake Pontchartrain, towards New Orleans East, we began to see bayous, which our guide pointed out. I would have thought it a creek but lucky for us the tour guide was informed (as I am sure they all are). He dropped us off at the Cajun Encounters swamp tour location and we joined the line to get our tickets. They had bathrooms on site, which look like a close cousin to a port-a-potty but they're actually quite clean and air-conditioned. There's pre-packaged food as well, plus snacks, but if you want something bigger you'll have to wait or pack your own. There are a couple of picnic tables outside that you can sit down and eat at. However, if you think you are going to eat prior to your tour, you might not have enough time so plan accordingly.

Tourists are given a rubber bracelet that's of a specific color and you're split into groups through that. My friend and I joined up with others in our group before we met our tour guide, Bishop.

An alligator waiting for a marshmallow treat!
This guy was exactly how I imagined someone from a swampy area to be. Funny, full of jokes, and with that Southern twang, I felt like I had truly come to the swamp. Bishop had us laughing but also informed us to no end. If we had a question, he answered it, and he tried his best to give us the best tour possible.

In the shallow swamp waters.
After loading the boat we headed out onto the water and I have to say: I was greatly surprised that there weren't any bugs. Typically I am like a juicy hamburger in the eyes of mosquitos and I thought I was surely going to be chewed alive at a swamp. Maybe it was the time of year (late May) or maybe it's a misconception on my part, but I wasn't bothered by bugs at all. In fact, I was more so bothered by bugs in New Orleans proper than at the swamp.

A baby swamp pig named Breakfast.
Bishop introduced us to various wildlife in the swamp, explained the type of trees we saw (that certainly do not exist around Washington, DC), and pointed out locations that were hard-hit by Hurricane Katrina.

It was fascinating, funny, and informative, and when my friend and I both got on the bus to head back to the Crescent City we agreed: not only was it money well spent but we would take another tour through this company again.

View other Wanderlust Wednesday posts

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Opposite of Loneliness

It is hard, actually damn near impossible, to read this collection of work without feeling a sense of loss, or for your mind to bring up ghosts of your own past. Ghosts of classmates, friends, and acquaintances who you not only recall for their smiling faces or quiet personalities, but because they died long ago when they were just as young as Marina Keegan (if not younger), without the opportunity to really display their talents to the world. While they did not have the opportunity, Ms. Keegan did (after death) have her talent displayed; how lucky are we, those who continue on, that we get to carry with us the impressions the young-who-have-been-lost and in that way, their talents live on.

This collection is of Keegan's work, which ranges from fiction to non-fiction. If I have come to understand Marina Keegan, based on the articles I've read and the well written introduction of this book, it's that she had a lot more written material that didn't even appear in this publication. Still, her talent shows through these pages like a beacon. I found myself going, "Yes, yes, yes!" as I read her words, "I understand that! I've experienced that! I want an endless parade of gluten-filled foods before I die as well!" but just as quickly it was followed by, "No, no, no" and "How can writing that seems so alive be written by a girl who is no longer here?"

And that's the thing – her writing is alive and in that she lives. For someone so young, she had an enormous amount of talent and amongst all the other feelings I felt, I often was startled by how clearly she could describe all emotions and senses. She understood life in ways many people twice her age are still striving to handle.

When I approached this book, I was interested in her story – a girl who was published after she died – and I was determined to not allow that fact to sway my opinion. It hasn't swayed my opinion, not entirely, because I know some of my swaying emotions were caused because I kept thinking, "She was so young, she was so talented," but that's the fact: she was so talented.

So much of her work seemed to whisper of death, whisper of hopes to live on and it is a coincidence now that she is no longer here. But she did live on, she was young and she had so much to do with this thing called life, but in a way she's doing it all.

Above all, I'm thankful that her parents printed these pieces of work. I can't imagine how painful it is to lose a child and I'm sure that pain continued while going through her hard work. Thanks to their decision, I've had a chance to remind myself of my younger self who wanted to be the best writer I could be, and of friends who have passed on when they were so young. It reminded me of life, in general, and how easily it leaves you, but above all, you can continue existing in one way or another.

Last Week's Review: Prince Lestat by Anne Rice
Next Week's Review: True Refuge by Tara Brach

Thursday, January 8, 2015

My Reading Nook -- Erica

My Reading Nook, a feature from Soon Remembered Tales, gives readers a chance to show off their favorite place to read.

What's your reading nook?

In the corner of our study, with a large window on one side and my bookshelf on the other, is my reading chair. I get plenty of natural daylight and keep a blanket handy for ultimate cozy book reading.

Why is the nook special?

My nook is special to me because I earned it! My chair, purchased at Pier 1, was my first expensive piece of "adult" furniture. I had looked all over for The Perfect Reading Chair when I moved to Virginia and after nearly two years, I saved enough money for the purchase. I've had it in three different homes since I purchased the chair but it's always been located in a special place. More important furniture has been added -- a new bookshelf and a cute side table (purchased at Pier 1 as well) -- and I hope to get a foot rest someday in the future. I particularly love placing my reading nook near a window because I can enjoy the view when I take breaks as I read. I'm a daydreamer and I've noticed that often when I read, I'll pause and stare at the window as I think about the book. Sitting by the window, I get to see the little woods outside -- one of my favorite scenes. I'm often joined by cats while sitting in this chair reading away or watching movies and that only makes the experience more enjoyable!

Where else do you read?

I also read in bed or on our living room couch. The break room at work or the train are other locations. I have trouble reading in public because I'm often distracted, so long as I can tune out what's going on around me, I can read just about anywhere.

About you:

I'm your neighborhood writer for this blog and creator of My Reading Nook. I feel that where you choose to read says a lot about you and the life you live. It's interesting, special, and I love getting a peek into the lives of readers in this way. Everyone lives differently, everyone reads differently, and that's what makes it special.

Check out Erica's sites!

Interested in sharing your own reading nook? Take a look at the My Reading Nook tab for more information!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Books of 2014

While away, readers will read.

I've spoken about what kept me busy during the past year but I've managed, luckily enough, to spend a good chunk of time reading. With traveling and time spent commuting, it was perfecting reading time, and now that I'm settled into my new home I've found I can read more often. 

Last year I was able to read a lot of great books though, many of which will be written about and posted on this blog in the coming weeks and months. I felt somewhat guilty writing reviews for books to be posted at such a later date than when I had originally read the book, but if the book stuck with me and I want to share my find, then it'll be appearing on this blog. 

Not all books will be reviewed, of course, but definitely a good handful of them will grace this blog's pages. None the less, take a peek at some of the books I've read in the past year!

Books Read in 2014

What books did you read during 2014? Did you have a reading goal and, if so, did you achieve it? My goal was to read a book a week and I managed to squeak by with one book past my goal. I know for a fact that wouldn't have been achieved had I not read a few children's books along the way.