Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Wanderlust Wednesday: Library of Congress

Where: Washington, DC (Capitol Hill)
When: Various visits

Washington, DC is home to so many marvelous things. If you like history, museums, the government or education, this is the city you want to visit. With the National Mall lined with Smithsonian museums that are all free to enter, multiple theme-specific museums through the region that are greatly appreciated, the historic land markers and memorials, and, you know, the President of the United States--you can spend a couple days covering it all.

I moved to DC with a couple hundred dollars in my purse and no job, no car, no idea how I was going to make it work. A friend was nice enough to let me crash in his spare room where I slept on a blow up mattress he was so nice to provide for me (because I also had no furniture). It was quite possibly the most rebellious, terrifying thing I've ever done in my life. I left the safety of my parents home for a large question mark in a literal city where I knew no one and had no experience.

But it worked out for me with time and here I am, still kicking it a couple years later. Good thing too, because I get to fan girl about some of my favorite travel spots to you, my readers.

The first week that I was in the area all those years ago I went into DC equipped with my phone, a charger, a brand new Metro card, and a tourist guide. I had visited DC before but never had the full ability to tourist the hell out of it. One of my first stops on that particular trip was none other than the Library of Congress.

I have wanted to visit this place for ages but never had the opportunity but I snatched it up on that sunny April day. Years later, during August of 2015, I went back there for the first time with a friend who is also a book lover. I wanted to show her the building because, really, it's so beautiful it's best to see it in person.

So really, you should see this place in person. Nothing I say will adequately describe the beauty of it and no pictures I provide will accurately depict how lovely it is. But, I'm going to share some photos and information anyway, if only to give you a taste.

Upon climbing the large stairs to the entrance of the library, you'll immediately need to go through security. This is a everything out of your pockets, belt off, walk through a scanner type of security check so try and prep beforehand so it's a quicker process. Once you're through, you can stop by the visitor center or just continue forward to wander the halls.

The library offers guided tours which I've never taken but I'm sure would prove useful. The building open Monday-Saturday so there are plenty of opportunities to go and wander around alone or with a tour. Wandering alone is a preference for me because, particularly, I am cheap but also because I enjoy being able to linger in particular places while I wait to take the perfect picture.

When the original library (housed elsewhere at the time) was pillaged by the British during the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson offered up his own literary collection to help refill the contents. His books were still on display the last time I visited and were marvelous to see. The man was quite the reader. After all, he is our founding father who is quoted to have said, "I cannot live without books."

There's so much about the structure of this building though, right down to the tiniest details on the walls or floors. Also? The bathrooms are the cleanest, fanciest bathrooms I've ever used.

The shop is a bit expensive but has a lot of fun odds and ends that you can purchase. There's also a food court, although I've never eaten there.

All in all, just go. Visit this location. Make it the starting place of your tour of the National Mall. It's right by the Capitol building which is the eastern end of the National Mall. The National Mall is lined by free museums as you walk west and the western half has all the major monuments so many are familiar with -- the Washington Monument, Vietnam and WWII memorials, the Lincoln memorial, oh, and the White House.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Wanderlust Wednesday: Minnewaska State Park

What: Minnewaska State Park Preserve
Where: Kerhonkson, NY
When: September 2015

For the first 18 years of my life I lived in the Catskill Mountains. I was born in southern New York--closer to New York City--but at the ripe age of three months my parents settled in our little house in a tiny town on the foothills of the Catskills. Growing up there, I had a great appreciation for nature. I also feel it provided me ample opportunities to become a stronger, more well rounded person. We had New York City close enough for day trips but I lived in, literally, the woods. Often enough we would lose power or water during the course of winter and would have to rely on melted snow to get the toilets to flush and wood stove-cooked meals. At an early age I knew how to find kindling and decent trees that could be used for firewood. I could start a fire and chop up wood. I had my own garden and I could tell you where the local pack of coyotes ran. The woods was my home and when my parents moved to Pennsylvania, I had a dull ache that existed for the loss of my familiar woods.

Time has calmed that ache but it's still there, now replaced with the sense of nostalgia biting at me. My fiance (then boyfriend) has had very little experience with New York and even then, it was strictly with the city. I wanted, more than anything, to introduce him to where I grew up before we got engaged. This seemed extraordinarily important to me. It was essential he understood where I came from because I felt if he could just see the land he would have a deeper understanding of me as a person.

So, during Labor Day weekend, we drove to the Catskill Mountains. Beside visiting all of my old stomping grounds, there was one location I was determined we had to go and see: Minnewaska State Park. 

It wouldn't be possible to go into the woods surrounding my old home in my old neighborhood--the area had changed just enough that I wasn't sure if it would be frowned upon nor if anyone would recognize me--but Minnewaska was the perfect example of the wild beauty that is that area of New York. Plus, it was a place I had visited as a teen and had always wanted to return to.

Minnewaska is based on the Shawangunk Ridge (also called the Shawangunk Mountains or the Gunks). It's an interesting mountain with pine trees that you often fine in sandy areas along the coast--not inland--and large rock structures along the edges of the mountain trails that are both great for rock climbing (I'll pass) and photo opportunities.

My fiance and I are very elementary leveled hikers. We really enjoy exploring the outdoors but we haven't any gear nor really know what we're doing other than not to prompt bears and stay on the path. Still, we were excited and prepared as best as we could with some trail mix and lots of waters stuffed into our backpacks and layers of clothing to fight off the early autumn chill that the area can get at the beginning of September. 

We had a great breakfast before heading off and arrived early on in the day. This was quite lucky and should be a note of caution for those interested in visiting the area. Minnewaska State Park has multiple locations where visitors can swim in the beautiful "sky lakes." Due to this, if the day is predicted to be warm expect a lot of traffic congestion and a struggle to get decent parking if you go later in the day.

When we arrived at about 10 in the morning, we were still able to park close to the main entrance of the park, but by the time we were leaving at about 4, the parking was out to the street and the park authorities were turning people away while the swimming areas were overwhelmed with visitors. 

Basically: go early if you want to enjoy the area, whether it be for hiking or swimming.

There are multiple paths you can take through out the mountain area that all lead to glorious views. There are views of the sky lakes--lakes that are claimed to be water fed solely by rain and no ground source--views of waterfalls and views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. We spent a few hours hiking before we settled for lunch then turned to make our way back. Along the way, there are multiple locations to pause and enjoy the view--something that was needed as, like I said, we are inexperienced hikers and grew hot and tired, plus the heat of the day came striking down and chasing away any semblance of fall.

There are so many interesting points along the trail. While you are walking along the edge of the mountain, it's worth pausing at each overlook because even though you're on the same side of the mountain (generally) the look is always different. It's also worth checking the overlooks out on the way back (if you're following the same path) as the sunlight's different position provides an entirely different look to the land.

You can also bring your dog or bike ride through the area, but be careful as there are often sharp curves on the hiking paths and little to prevent people from falling off the side of the mountain. This is a place where common sense is preferred.

By the end of the day, we were pooped. We were also desperate to take a dip in the sky lakes but didn't have any bathing suits packed. The area is beautiful and truly a touch with nature. The only noises you can hear so far up the mountain are the occasional passing planes. The trip was a moment to feel more in touch with nature, more attached to it, after so long of being away from it all.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Reading Slumps and Busy Schedules

When I graduated college, the economy was beginning to crash. It wasn't a good time for any graduate looking for a job. There were hiring freezes and people were hopeless--including me. I had no sense of direction and I didn't know what to do. Up until my last semester in college I hadn't really thought of what came after. I had grown up being told, "if you get a bachelor's, you'll be set" and I foolishly expected as much. What I didn't expect was a lack of jobs or did I consider my lack of job experience.

Adding to that, my parents moved out of New York during my senior year of college. In New York I had an established relationship with the libraries in the area, people knew me, and that could have provided the little hook I needed to land a job post-school. But now that we were in Pennsylvania, I knew no one. Worse, we were living in the coal mining region where the biggest employer was Walmart. I hadn't the faintest idea what I would do.

Here's the deal with getting your undergraduate degree: half of your time will be spent taking classes that are general requirements and have nothing to do with your major. I hated it. I hadn't gone to college to waste my time learning about fractions or learning a foreign language at a speed I could not handle. And yet, that was part of the deal. So I stuck it out, did my general requirements, then spent the later years of my college career focusing on English (which was my concentration). I loved it, I loved the focus on books and essay writing. Finally, I had gotten to a place where I was studying what I had set out to study.

When I was faced with unemployment and a questionable future, I considered graduate school. I would be able to avoid my loans for awhile, study English more intensely, and hopefully come out of it both more desirable to employers but also with the economy back on track. I researched and researched and realized that graduate school wasn't quite in the cards for me just yet. Financially, mentally, it wasn't a right fit.

Skip forward six years and I was feeling quite good about myself. Despite working full time, I had completed a copyediting certification course without shedding too many tears. The dream of going to graduate school and focusing on English was still there and finally, after a lot of deep thoughts and soul searching, I felt I was in the right place in my life to do it. Mentally, financially, I was ready.

So I applied and I got in. I was thrilled. I had gone with my heart and applied to study both English and Creative Writing -- my two loves. In the summer of 2015, I began class and that's when thing became a little sticky.

Work had become a monster. While I was working 40 hours a week--a very normal amount of work--I was extremely busy at work. Every day I was swamped in documents to review and edit. The number kept increasing and my energy was simultaneously decreasing. All the while, I was taking one class at a time. After work, I'd drive home and begin my schoolwork. When I was done with classwork, I often didn't have a lot of free time and when I did, I barely had enough brain cells to rub together to concentrate on a book.

Throw in family emergencies and the likes, and I was falling apart. Mentally, physically, I was exhausted. I've always been a perfectionist and after having a less than stellar GPA during my undergraduate years (I might have enjoyed the college lifestyle a little too much), I was determined to prove myself with graduate school. I would get A's if it killed me. But you can only do so much before it becomes a complete drain and you're left feeling like a zombie.

Through all of this, the number of books I read began to steadily drop. Quickly, I was reading less and less. Every few weeks, I would finally finish a book and realize my blog was sitting dormant. The reviews I had were beginning to publish and no new posts were being developed. I knew I'd run out of material but I couldn't bring myself to sit down and write reviews. I was exhausted. I was desperate for sleep. I needed a break.

Skip to March. I completed my third graduate school class with flying colors and I took a mental health break. For one term -- a total of 12 weeks -- I was free of school work. The first week, I slept. The second week, I still slept, but when I managed to wake up I began to read. By the third week, I was starting to read more regularly and feel a little more like myself.

I've discovered that reading is often a form of therapy for me. When I read, I mentally check out. Suddenly I'm not stressed about work anymore, I'm not worrying about finances, commuting, or school. If I can't read, it will often reflect my mental state. Not reading = anxious and too busy. I can only be "too busy" for so long before I begin to mentally and physically shut down.

Now that I've gotten the majority of my very sleepy days out of the way, I've begun to rediscover my love for books and really get back in tune with everything. Reading is my way of knitting myself back together. I didn't realize how exhausted I was by the overload of work, family medical issues, and school until I began reading each evening. I began having a clearer thought process and dreams -- I started to write again.

It's pretty bad when you're so overwhelmed that you can't write creatively while you're going to school for Creative Writing. But I'm coming to have a better appreciation for a lazy evening and the power of breaks.

My next graduate school class doesn't begin until mid-May, but I'm clearing out the cobwebs in my head as we move in that direction of the beginning class date. I'm also reasoning with myself that not reading during school is okay and not to stress so badly if I make barely any progress in books. I've also come to realize that I can only take three classes back to back before requiring a break. It's just needed and it's okay to step back for a bit.

So this blog may be a little less frequent in terms of publications and that's ok. Better to have material I've enjoyed writing than to force out dry content.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


As winter begins to come closer to its final curtain call, this may be the perfect book to read, or you may hate it for the simple fact that you're reading about more snow. I tend to adore books out of season--winter readings in warm weather and summer stories during the coldest days--but that's just me. I read this at the very start of winter, October into November to be specific, and I desired to wrap myself in warm blankets and watch snow fly. It's that type of book, so be prepared, your head will be full of snowflakes.

Breadcrumbs is geared toward independent readers who may just be getting comfortable with longer chapter books; however, it can be enjoyed by people of any age. I certainly enjoyed it and long have passed the days of my first chapter books. When I was little, my mother often read Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales to me. All of theses stories hold a very special place in my heart. The Snow Queen, what Breadcrumbs is based on, was a winter's tale made all the more special when I began reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Snow Queens were extremely interesting and this was all before Frozen made them cool (ha!).

Nonetheless, we're given a beautiful chapter book for kids and pre-teens which takes the story of The Snow Queen and makes it a present day tale. I really enjoyed this book, particularly because it deals with a lot of heavier topics, yet gently so that it's not overdoing it or appearing preachy.

Hazel, our friendly main character, is dealing with a slew of issues at home. Her father has left and is set to marry someone else and Hazel is struggling to understand the change. She's introverted and prefers her own little world. Having few friends, she keeps Jack--her neighbor and best friend--close to her. Hazel also is a breath of fresh air in the literary world. She's adopted from India and doesn't quite fit into the Scandinavian-looking population of Minnesota. So here we have a girl who is a little awkward, a little out of place, a child that was adopted and doesn't quite visibly fit in with her surroundings, but she has the love of her best friend and mother which matters so, so much.

I love Hazel, I fell for her completely. She's a fantastic character and I feel that I would love to have a child with her personality.

Beside the dealings of adoption and divorce we have Jack who, while having both parents at home, has a mother who is suffering from depression. Depression is often something you'll see in YA novels but it affects adults and thereby children as well. My father went through a bout of depression when I was a little younger than Jack and I understand how that can affect a child. It's pleasing to see it presented in an independent reader book.

So we have these two kids who are dealing with a lot of shit that's going on in their lives. They easily depend on each other and with the main focus being on Hazel, we know how much she depends on her friendship with Jack. However, there's magic afoot and when Jack has a piece of glass lodged into his eye from a magic, broken mirror, things start to grow strange.

Jack has a new attitude, one that completely ignores Hazel, and soon after he's drawn away from the comforts of home and into the cold world of the Snow Queen. Hazel, confused by Jack's change of heart and concerned for him, begins to follow his trail and enters another world that's hidden in a nearby wood.

In this world, she is introduced to multiple creatures and people who have small references to various children's fairy tales. She's left uncertain of who she should trust. People who appear willing to help and with decent soles end up being as much of monsters as the actual monsters. Hazel travels alone but bravely continues to make her way to the Snow Queen's kingdom.

This story is one that so focuses on the mind and emotions. I really enjoyed that aspect and feel it's so worthwhile to discuss the heart and mind of children who are approaching puberty. There is such a wild amount of emotions, feelings, and thoughts during those charged years and this novel handles them all with such grace. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

During one of my grad school classes we were required to read St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. The short story, mind you, not this book. I've read this particular author before, specifically Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which I really enjoyed and Swamplandia, which I had some issues with.

So I was a little mixed going into the short story. I loved her short stories before, so I was assuming I would like this as well, but what if it ended up leaving a sour note in my mouth? But I loved it, truly. The short story (St. Lucy's) is so wonderfully odd and interesting as we focus on girls who behave like dogs but are slowly, awkwardly, trained to be the humans they are. The awkward language and phrases the characters use as they try to verbalize thoughts and feelings were so perfect--executed with the odd phrasing of a person learning English--and it was entirely unique.

After reading the short story I considered what else I could do. One thing came to mind: buy the book. It took quite a bit for me to get through the short stories. I would work on each story then take a few days break while dealing with other work. They were all unique and different from one another, but I feel that, while Vampires in the Lemon Grove dealt with a lot more adults and end-of-life ideas, this was much more focused on youth. 

I think St. Lucy's is still my favorite, but I really enjoyed the other short stories.

This made me consider the other books I've read by the author and why Swamplandia sat so poorly with me. Swamplandia was a great book and wonderfully odd, it sucked you into this world that you found yourself hard to leave, but I feel there was useless violence that wasn't necessary and that really perturbed me. When it comes to her short stories, they're still portraying those wonderfully odd, quirky ideas but with the lack of pointless violence. Still creepy at times, maybe a little uncomfortable, but nothing is dragged out.

Needless to say, I think I enjoyed St. Lucy's more than even Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I also enjoy that all of her book covers really seem to reflect one another with the same style.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Rainbow Rowell has become quite popular since her publication of Eleanor & Park (which I really enjoyed). While I haven't read any of her other publications, Fangirl kept popping up in that way some books do that seem to shout "Read me! You'll enjoy this!" but I held off for a really long while until I finally gave in. And, of course, I really enjoyed it.

I think what will cause people to love this book is that many readers can identify with the main characters--whether you are college-aged or not. If you take Cath and Wren, Cath being our main character and Wren being her twin sister, and mold them into each other--you have my entire college experience in a nutshell. Awkward, introverted, a fangirl who wrote fanfiction and yet went out to parties and tried to be someone else, tried to escape from something, all of that was be. This book hit me hard and fast because I could identify so easily with the twins. I really feel Rowell hit the nail on the head with the power fanfiction can have--whether reading it or writing it.

The book did have some proofreading errors that really irritated me; simple things that I think anyone could catch. Also, there's so damn much that happens in this book I kept pausing, thinking "surely we've covered everything" and when I saw how much of the book was left I was surprised, "What else do they have to talk about?" It's such a long book and it could've been shorter, but I'm not totally against the length. I still really enjoyed it and the book was entirely escapism for me.

The characters were great and all very solid. They have wonderful development and character growth. Wren and Cath irritated me a lot--but I think that's more because they reminded me so much of my younger self and the mistakes I made. I wish I could have an update from the author on how the girls are doing.

I was particularly happy that fanfiction takes such a predominantly powerful seat in this story. There are so many people who write fanfiction and often it's looked down upon as if it's not "real writing." I think that's bull, honestly. Neil Gaiman always tells aspiring authors to write, just keep writing, always write because the practice helps and wouldn't you say fanfiction does the same? It helps you to view a world that is already created and build upon it. It gives you an opportunity to have a more intimate look at a bunch of characters or a fictional world than a reader would. It's often urged for writers to, when they are reading for pleasure, continue "reading like a writer." You want to see how something is created and all the little things a writer does if you're working toward being a great writer yourself and I feel, deeply, that writing fanfics is such a great way to handle that.

I enjoyed how Rowell handled many of those freshman year events. Cath is a little more introverted than I think is healthy, but she still deals with a lot of the struggles that freshman deal with, even if she's sort of a shut in. I can't say I know what it's like to have a sister, let alone a twin, but I feel that Rowell made Cath and Wren's relationship seem very natural and real, very easy for me to believe and imagine. I really loved the relationships that Cath creates with other people, whether they are good or bad, and that the story touches on people stealing your creative work. Then again, isn't that almost what this entire thing is about?

Cath is a fanfiction writer, she writes for a large number of fans who read her material, but she also writes with a classmate who then tries to claim the work as his own. Where is the line drawn to making something copyright infringement or creative thievery? 

This book has a lot of real-life issues that the characters deal with and with that, it's something you find your emotions completely wrapped up in, but all in all it's a feel good book. You're left feeling satisfied and happy for the characters although I still wonder how they are all doing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha

I discussed awhile ago that I suffer from anxiety. It's something that has always been an issue until suddenly, it was an issue that was standing between me and living my life. I began meeting with a psychologist until we were able to overcome the most basic, day-to-day anxiety that I deal with and grab it by the horns. Readers, it had gotten that bad. Simple things like driving to work, going to a meeting, making a phone call, or speaking to someone I didn't know had me overcome with anxiety. Forget bigger things that can get anyone a little nervous like job evaluations or a fight with roommates, I was reduced to having anxiety and panic attacks for those events. 

I felt like my anxiety was some monster, a fat thing with wings that just slowly followed me wherever I went, biting down on my shoulder to remind me it was there just when I found I had to do something that was ever so slightly out of my comfort zone. It was very hard to admit that I had an issue, harder still to take the step to find a doctor to help me. It's one thing to tell yourself you have anxiety but another thing to have a professional agree with you. 

But bit by bit, I worked with my doctor and felt more in control. Instead of the anxiety monster latching on, I could fight him off. It took nearly a year, but I was finally given the ok to not return to my appointments unless I found it necessary. There isn't a cure all for anxiety, it's something that you learn how to manage and for me, reading Tara Brach's book True Refuge during my therapy sessions was a great help. 

Toward the end of my first graduate school class, I found I was beginning to have strong anxiety issues again. I was handling them, but I felt I could be handling them better. I remembered reading Brach's other book and how comforting it was to see that others dealt with an assortment of mental health issues just like me. Radical Acceptance, I knew, was another book by Brach and one that came highly recommended by my psychologist. With my first graduate class winding down and exhaustion taking over my body, I felt it was a good a time as any to buy this book and give it a whirl.

I can't begin to express how helpful it was.

The week after I read this, I began my second graduate school class as well as the biggest conference season my job had ever taken part of. Beside this, I found out my mother was due to have open heart surgery to have a valve replaced and two days later we were evacuated from our home in the wee hours of the morning, the day after that, we had to take one of our cats to an emergency veterinarian--had we not he would have died painfully a day or two later. It was an overwhelmingly stressful week. So overwhelming that my entire body responded to the stress and exhibited obvious signs that I was too overwhelmed. 

But this book was still there, festering in my brain, and slowly I regained my composure. 

While True Refuge had a broader range of issues that people dealt with, I feel that Radical Acceptance is much more suited for those with anxiety or panic disorders. If you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed with life, I urge you to give the book a try.

The number one thing I really enjoyed about both of Brach's books is that she takes real life examples of people dealing with real life issues. She speaks of their lows and discusses how they found their way out of the woods. Seeing all of these examples of people who have various experiences and emotional reactions was such a comfort. I'm not alone, I kept thinking while reading, This person is just like me.

Since this book focuses on anxiety much more, there are a lot of end-of-chapter practices through forms of meditation that are helpful for people with anxiety. I am not religious and while I used to meditate in my youth, I no longer do. I think it would be beneficial for me to do it again as I found it beneficial when it was a stable in my life 15 years ago, but that's another thing to conquer another day. However, the practices Brach lists, many of them at least, are practices anyone can do--whether or not you are a whiz at meditation. 

I feel this book will be something I return to in the future. Things get crazy and overwhelming. Even if I have "conquered" the anxiety monster, he can still grow powerful and take over here and there, especially when I'm overwhelmed. I feel that this book will be something worth returning to in those moments.