The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan

I must admit, it took me forever to get around to starting this book.  I am not sure why I kept putting it off, either.  I have been in a general reading slump for the last few weeks, which is particularly distressing because I've read some great things this summer.  Lately, when everything is finally done for the evening and I can sit down to read for awhile, I just feel so completely wiped out that I can't even face concentrating on any book, no matter how good it might be.  Thankfully, I feel like the slump is lifting and I have a few things I'm excited to get started on.  Plus, we have a week at the beach quickly approaching, where I am hoping for plenty of quality reading time in the sun!

When I did finally get started on The Panopticon, I was surprised at how quickly I became interested in the story.  I had heard it was dark and gritty, and somewhat violent, and I think I was sort of prepared to not like it so much. It didn't take long to become invested in the story, however, and I found myself quite attached to Anais by the end of the second chapter.  I was so consumed by the story that I even quickly began to read over the Scottish dialect without having to think about it for too long.  (Unfamiliar dialect can really detract from a story sometimes, when I am constantly having to stop and figure out what's really being said.  That was not so much the case here, after a few pages.)

Anais Hendricks, nearly sixteen, has been in the foster care system for her entire life.  When we meet her in this story, she is on her way to the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders, after being accused of assaulting a policewoman.  We are quickly given a brief insight into the difficult life Anais has lived, being shuffled around in the system, with very few people who ever looked out for her best interests.

Anais is as tough as she is pitiable, and she quickly forms a bond with some of the other kids at her latest "home".  The other kids come from a variety of backgrounds, many as harsh and depressing as Anais's.  They all have their own stories, each as compelling as the next.  (Okay, I'll admit it, Isla's was the one that got to me the most; oh, how I just want to love that girl!)  At its heart, The Panopticon is the story of these children of the system, most particularly Anais, but the others as well, and how they keep fighting in a world that just wants to discard them. 

There was a surprisingly happy twist at the end of this book, one I'm not sure I can completely trust.  (After all, much of the story is told from Anais's drug-addled point of view and we know she makes up elaborate stories about her past.)  But you know what?  I'm going with it--I am choosing to believe she got that happy ending and that Anais is living just as simply and happily as she always dreamed she might. (I loved the ending, honestly.)

I should note, as have many others, that this book is not for the faint of heart.  There is no shortage of violence, terrible language, drug use, and sex...but it's all part of the institutional setting of the story.  Even though it was distressing and a bit hard to read at times, I am grateful to this book for putting me back in the mood to curl up and read at the end of the day!

I received a copy of this book for review via TLC Book Tours and the publisher.  All opinions expressed are entirely my own.  For more reviews, check out the full tour post.


Lucky Seven

Last week, Jeremy and I celebrated seven years of marriage.  I can't help but think how very young we were seven years ago, and even more so eleven years ago when we started dating.  We have been through so much together--though, thankfully not nearly as much as some people we know--and we have done a lot of growing up together.

Just look at us!  We were babies.  This picture was taken on our first Christmas together, in 2002.
When we married, neither of us knew much about keeping a house, beyond the very basics, and the meals cooked in our kitchen were few and far between.  We managed to keep ourselves clothed, clean, and fed, but it felt like a struggle at times.  I contrast that to now, when we work as a decent team to keep our household going.  We manage to get dinner on the table every night, and not only take care of ourselves, but of two little people as well.  (We still have some things to work on in the housekeeping department...it seems this may very well be a lifelong struggle of ours!)  When I have to be away from home, I have absolutely no doubt that Jeremy will keep things running and take excellent care of the girls without batting an eye (and vice versa, of course).  That fact alone tells me how far we have come. 

And one from this year, for comparison.
Seven years feels like a long time...you know, "seven-year itch" and all that jazz.  But really, I feel more settled, more complete, more satisfied than ever.  I think J and I consistently act more and more like a team, a united front, and I love that I have such a fantastic partner to experience this life with me.

I love that instead of a fancy vacation and expensive gifts, we took a short anniversary trip to Atlanta and took in two Braves games.  We keep it simple around here, and that's the way we are both happiest.  I love the life, the family, and the home that we have built, that we continue to build, and I look forward to so many more good things to come in our future.

Happy anniversary, my love!  You're my best good buddy, and I'm still thankful you're mine. 


Hungry, by Darlene Barnes

I don't read a lot of memoirs, but if more were written like this book, I would gladly become a devoted fan of the genre.  I loved Hungry because I loved Darlene Barnes's writing.  Her voice made the book for me.  She is funny, straightforward, and very relatable.  She's someone I would totally want for a friend, but I'd be careful to stay on her good side!

Hungry: What Eighty Ravenous Guys Taught Me About Life, Love and the Power of Good Food is the story of the author's experiences as a cook for the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity at the University of Washington in Seattle.  After relocating to Seattle with her husband, Barnes is eager for a career of her own in the food industry, and she takes on a job that most "serious food professionals" would never consider.  The job with Alpha Sigma Phi brings unexpected challenges, as well as unexpected rewards.

Having been in a sorority in college, and having married a fraternity boy, I could relate to many of Darlene's struggles, as well as her stories.  One of the things I appreciated most about this book is that she presented a fair picture of Greek life as I experienced it.  Yes, there are parties and pranks, and there is privilege and competition, both in and among organizations.  But there are also real, true relationships being forged, friendships and connections that can last a lifetime.  Darlene did a great job of portraying all that here, even if it wasn't the focus of the book.  Her "guys" were familiar to me--they were just like many of my own college friends--and Alpha Sig reminded me a lot of my husband's fraternity. 

As for the food part of the book, I found it fascinating as well.  Barnes was a believer in "real food" from local sources, long before such things were trendy.  Naturally, she faced an uphill battle, both from fraternity boys happy to live on Easy Mac and from her traditional food distributors who couldn't seem to understand why she cared so much about where the chicken originated.  I loved Darlene's no-bull attitude and admired the way she took charge of the fraternity kitchen as well as the boys who sought her out for guidance.  The humorous and poignant stories are the heart of Hungry, but the discussion of food is woven seamlessly throughout the narrative, along with recipes at the end of each chapter.

I enjoyed every bit of this book, from cover to cover.  Whether you're interested in the foodie aspect or the behind-the-scenes look at life in a fraternity (from a female point of view, nonetheless!), there's a lot to love about Hungry

Want to read Hungry: What Eighty Ravenous Guys Taught Me About Life, Love, and the Power of Good Food?  

Leave a comment on this post to be entered to win a copy for yourself!  If you want, tell me if you were a part of the Greek system in college.
(Giveaway is open to U.S./Canada residents only.  The giveaway will close on Monday, August 12, at 10:00 p.m.  Please leave a contact email if I don't already have yours.)

I received a copy of this book for review via TLC Book Tours and the publisher.  All opinions expressed are entirely my own.  For more reviews, check out the full tour post.


The State of Affairs: June & July 2013

A double recap, thanks to my blogging slump...let's see if I can remember what happened all the way back in June.

---I had a birthday; I'm not too old to have forgotten that!  I turned 31 and celebrated with a dinner at one of my favorite restaurants (Bonefish Grill) with family and friends.  As an added bonus, my actual birthday fell on a state holiday, so I got the day off.  The girls spent the night with our cousin Lindsey again (and stayed up waaaayyyy past their bedtime!) so that I could have a day to sleep in.  Addison helped Jeremy pick out my present, including a coffee mug that says "My Mom is My BFF".  It's pretty much my new favorite thing.  (On second thought, I think the mug was from Mother's Day, but I'm leaving it in here because it really is one of my favorite things.  I don't want to forget that she picked it out for me.)

---Jeremy officially moved to a new division in June, meaning he works normal daytime hours (for the most part)!  This is literally the first time in more than six years that we have been on the same schedule.  It is SO nice having him home in the evenings, to play with the girls while I cook supper, to trade off baths, etc., and just to be here and be able to enjoy the evening with us.  I hope I don't ever take it for granted.  Yes, we both mourn the loss of our 'alone time' occasionally, but we are adjusting well, I think. 

---J had a class in Nashville in late June.  It's rare that he gets to attend one by himself (i.e. without sharing a hotel room with a coworker), so I tagged along and we made a trip of it.  We shopped and ate and binge-watched episodes of Revenge in the hotel room.  While J was in class, I ran on the hotel's treadmill (I RAN ON VACATION!  That should equal an extra five lbs. lost right there.) and lounged by the pool with a book.  On Wednesday, my mom and aunt brought A & M up to stay the rest of the week with us.  The girls were pumped about staying in a hotel, which they have only done a few times.  We swam, ate, walked around, and visited the Frist Center for Visual Arts.  (I highly recommend that place if you find yourself in downtown Nashville--it's free for kids and has a great hands-on art section on the top floor.)  It was a fun, fun week, and a nice getaway in the middle of summer.

Art museum fun with my little painters

Legends' Corner #Nashville

---We had a very low-key 4th of July.  It rained steadily for most of that long weekend, but we made the most of it.  The girls spent two nights with Jeremy's parents, so he and I enjoyed a couple of date nights.  (It seems like A & M spent a lot of nights away from us, but it wasn't all that much.  It does tend to happen a little more often when they aren't in school!)

---A & M attended Vacation Bible School at our church, and loved it, of course.  

---We went to a wedding, and everyone bragged on how well-behaved the girls were (I will never get tired of hearing that!).  They were so interested in every detail of the ceremony.  

---J and I went whitewater rafting with a group of friends from church.  I'll admit, I was not too excited during the week leading up to the trip, but I ended up having a blast.  I haven't been rafting in about 15 years, but I might be willing to repeat it again next year.  

---J and I rounded out July with a Braves game with two of our good friends.  They are Cardinals fans, but the Braves pulled it out to win the series, so Jeremy and I were the happy fans on the drive home!  : )

Books Read in June:  4
The Perks of Being a Wallflower--I have heard so much about this book over the years, and then....it sucked.  Maybe I missed something; maybe it was just me, but I really did not like it at all.  (Am I alone?)

Will Grayson, Will Grayson--This was the perfect book to read after Perks.  It restored my faith in smart, unpretentious YA.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks--More smart YA.  I have heard a lot about this one, too, and I was a little afraid I wouldn't like it (there is a lot about prank wars, etc. that are not always my cup of tea).  I was greatly relieved to find that I liked it a lot, actually.   

The Exiles--Not a bad book; especially since I read most of it by the pool in Nashville.  Reviewed here.  

Books Read in July:  5
A Little Salty to Cut the Sweet--This is Sophie Hudson's debut book, full of stories about faith, family, and life in the South.  Sophie writes her book like she writes her blog, with much humor and heart, and I enjoyed her book quite a bit.

The Last Winter of Dani Lancing--Well, there had to be a dud in here somewhere, and this one was it.  Intriguing premise, but the author just didn't quite pull it off.  I kept reading to find out the solution to the mystery, which was rather disappointing as well.

Looking for Me--A little slow, but a nice, enjoyable story.  I'm a sucker for a Charleston setting.  I was afraid the ending was going to be unresolved (which I HATE), but it was done in a way that I thought worked out nicely.

Hungry--I have a review of this one coming early next week, but this was by far my favorite nonfiction read of the year (admittedly, I haven't read many, but still....).  Very good!

Me Before You--It seems like everyone is reading this lately, and for good reason.  I stayed up until 4 a.m. to finish it, then went to bed with swollen eyes and a stuffy nose from all the tears.  (Despite the tears, I do recommend it!)

I'm down about 9 lbs. since beginning Weight Watchers in early June.  I am exercising regularly, thanks in large part to J being home at night.  I try to run at least three times a week and do yoga or some other type of light workout at least twice a week.  I need to get another link removed from my watch because it's now big enough to twist around my wrist...so things are going pretty well!

J and I saw The Heat on one of our date nights, and oh my goodness, I have not laughed that hard in a long time.  Lots of language, but so hilarious.

I have been painting a dresser for the girls' room for about three weeks now.  It is the largest piece of furniture I've painted so far, and I'm rather pleased at how it has turned out. I still have to put a clear coat on top and get some new knobs, but the end is near.  I'll share a picture when I'm finished.