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Book Review: The Magnolia Story{Book Review}

The Magnolia Story

By Chip & Joanna Gaines
with Mark Dagostino

In this short little book, we readers get a peak into the lives of the stars of HGTV’s hit show Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna Gaines. The Magnolia Story tells of how the two met, got their start in business, and their struggles to make a career for themselves.

Review: I’m a pretty big HGTV fan, but I’m very picky about the shows that I watch. Part of drew me to Fixer Upper isn’t just the design style that I love, but the sweet, natural costars, Chip and Joanna Gaines. On the show, the two have an easy-going banter. They portray a strong love of life, family, and their work. I found the couple immediately likable.

Everything that drew me to the pair on television was just as apparent in The Magnolia Story. The short book (under 200-pages) is set up to show the dialog between the two (each has a different font that carries through the book). The book is really Chip and Joanna telling the story of their lives, interjecting to add commentary, a forgotten thought, or their own perspective. As I read it, I could hear the two speaking in my head, in that very natural way you see on television.

The book focuses not on the Fixer Upper show so much as the pair’s beginnings – how they met, their courtship, and their start in the house-buying/house-flipping/restoration/home design/home decor businesses. Yes, multiple businesses. So many that I didn’t bother to count. The pair encountered countless challenges but persevered through hard work, commitment to each other, their work and their community, and their faith.

And those are really the 3 themes that carry through the book that are perhaps underplayed on the show. The pair have a strong commitment to family and community. They work incredibly hard in what they love, to be successful and so that they don’t let others down. And finally, they have an unshakable Christian faith, a belief that they’re following God’s plan, and that God is taking care of them.

For fans of Fixer Upper, The Magnolia Story is a must-read. It’s the story of Chip and Jo, in their own words. It shows two people who stay true to themselves and their beliefs. I walked away from the book, with a new appreciation for Chip and Jo and the work they’ve done. They are genuinely good people who work hard, which makes me like them and their hit show all the more.

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Why Not MeThis one is going to be a short summary and a short review!

{Book Review}

Why Not Me?

By Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling, executive producer, writer and star of The Mindy Project as well as writer, executive producer and actress on The Office, shares tales of her professional and personal life – from receiving feedback on her writing and on-scene kissing etiquette to dating, love and weight loss – in this collection of essays.

Review/Recommendation: This light, funny book was a great read, or in my case, listen. I was constantly chuckling, if not wholeheartedly laughing at Mindy’s stories. Mindy mixes lightweight stories with more serious stories (i.e. her thoughts on body image and her own struggles with self-confidence) that are full of wit and sometimes dry humor. With every chapter I listened to, I felt like I was listening to the real, genuine Mindy – not a character in a book.

The book was entertaining, well-told (because, of course, Mindy read it to me and she’s awesome), and gave me a glimpse into the actress herself. Even if you don’t know who Mindy is or aren’t familiar with her work, I think you’ll enjoy this collection of light, humorous essays on one woman’s life.

Grade: A

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In the Kingdom of Ice{Book Review}

In the Kingdom of Ice:

The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

By Hampton Sides

Emerging from the Civil War in the late 1800s, the new United States was eager to prove itself on the international stage. In an effort to show its military might, its power as a player on the international stage, but in a peaceful way – supported by citizens in both the north and the south – the U.S. entered the quest to discover the North Pole and the “open polar sea.”

In 1879, Captain George Washington De Long and a crew of roughly 30 men set sail from California for the Arctic. A Navy expedition funded by The New York Herald newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett, the crew expected to reach the North Pole and return within 3 years, perhaps discovering (and claiming for the U.S.) a new island or two along the way. De Long did discover a few islands on the expedition, but he never made it to the North Pole. Instead, after being ice-locked for what felt like an eternity, he and the crew were forced to abandon the sinking Jeannette and make their way through ice and water – on whaling boats they had to carry over the ice – south to Siberia, and then on to a Siberian village where they could finally seek help. This book is the story of all of this, and more.

Review/Recommendation: I picked up this book on a whim, after seeing it while standing in line at the grocery store. I had read Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides years ago, and still remember what a wonderful book it was. That memory set the bar pretty high for In the Kingdom of Ice, and the book did not disappoint.

The story behind this book was fascinating. Unlike the description on the back of the book – which would have you believe the book was almost exclusively about De Long’s journey from shipwreck to Siberia – the book detailed De Long’s entire expedition, beginning long before he stepped foot on the Jeannette. It begins with the origins of De Long’s obsession with Arctic exploration and the myth of the ice-locked open Arctic sea, and then details his research into the Arctic, his efforts to get the journey approved and funded, the search for a suitable ship and crew, and the journey the Jeannette took from the East coast to the West, where it would finally begin its voyage to the Arctic. It concludes with the crew’s slow retreat from it’s northern most position, back down to Siberia, after abandoning ship.

Despite the huge amount of research Sides undoubtedly conducted in the writing of the book, In the Kingdom of Ice is both engaging and interesting. Sides does a wonderful job weaving the facts into the personal stories of De Long and the other crew members, showing their humanity and their bravery in the process. While the focus was De Long, the reader was treated to a snapshot of almost everyone one of the crew members, each one a hero of the expedition in their own way.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

Grade: A

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License to Pawn{Book Review}

License to Pawn:

Deals, Steals, and My Life at the Gold & Silver

By Rick Harrison with Tim Keown

License to Pawn details the story of the Harrison family and the creation of the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas.

The reader is given a glimpse into Rick Harrison’s upbringing, tenacity and life behind the scenes of the show. There is a chapter by each of other three main characters – Old Man (Rick’s father), Big Hoss (Rick’s son), and (family friend) Chum. The reader learns about Old Man’s work ethic, Big Hoss’s troubled youth, and Chum’s real personality, not the goofy guy we see on Pawn Stars.

Recommendation/Review: If you’re a fan of the hit reality show Pawn Stars, then I think you’ll find License to Pawn a fascinating read.

For me, the book made the characters on the show more relate-able and likable. It’s not that they weren’t relate-able before I read the book, but I have a newer appreciation for the men who faced some intense challenges to get to where they are today – a childhood filled of epileptic seizures, financial hardships, drugs… but the men persevered through stubbornness, determination, and ingenuity. I particularly enjoyed the stories Rick told of scouring shops and markets for decent knockoff purses and jeans with his parents – capitalizing on whatever fad was going on at the moment, in order to make a little extra money.

I’ll admit it – I’ve never actually stepped into a pawn shop. I have no idea what one is like, apart from the show, so I found Rick Harrison’s insight into the pawn industry incredibly interesting. It never occurred to me that all transactions that take place are downloaded to Homeland Security or that a pawn transaction is actually confidential. It’s crazy to hear about the contradictory or slightly bizzare laws. For instance, pawn shops can buy and sell pre-1898 guns that can shoot bullets produced today, but they can’t sell more modern guns. Both can kill, but age classifies one as an antique, and therefore acceptable to sell at a pawn shop (and no need to file all of the paperwork that would be required for a modern gun).

This book is worth a read for anyone who enjoys the show or history. I’ve got my husband to thank for my enjoyment of this book (as well as of the television show). I definitely have a new respect for the Harrison family after reading their story.

Grade: A-

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MWF.Seeking.BFFBook Review:

MWF Seeking BFF: My Year Long Search For A New Best Friend

By Rachel Bertsche

After finishing school, Rachel Bertsche moves to Chicago with her new husband to start a life together. She has friends, many through her husband, but she can’t call any of them her best friend.That is, there isn’t one woman that she would ask to go out at a moment’s notice. None of them are confidants, with whom she can vent about her husband, talk about her family, etc. Only her childhood BFFs fit those roles, and they live a plane ride away.

In this situation, Bertsche decides to embark on a year-long quest to find a best friend in Chicago. She goes on 52 girl-dates with women she meets – some acquaintances, some blind girl-dates set up by friends, and some complete strangers met through social networking sites, classes, and an essay she publishes. MWF Seeking BFF chronicles her journey to finding close friendships in Chicago, and during this quest, her realization that the meaning of a “best friend” is no longer the same as when she was a child.

Review & Recommendation: When this book was chosen for my book club, I was looking forward to reading it. It sounded like something light but interesting. However, I was disappointed in the book. Interspersed with Bertsche’s story of her 52 dates are antidotes from her research on friendship. Not only did it make it difficult to become engaged in her story, but it made her sound a bit desperate and pitiful. I think many of us, myself included, who moved to a new place after graduating college can relate to Bertsche’s situation – it’s hard to meet new people and develop those friendships into relationships that would qualify as BFFs. I can relate. I can. Following college, I moved to a new state where I knew nobody. It took me  well over a year to get to know the people that are now some of my best friends. But for me, Bertsche’s research – which was brought up multiple times throughout the book – seemed to be used to justify her search and to remind the reader that she was in fact doing something that would make her happier and healthier. Every time this research was mentioned, I felt like Bertsche’s insecurities were shining through and that she was justifying and rejustifying her quest to the reader. For me, it significantly detracked from her story.

That being said, it was interesting of how her Bertsche’s ideas of a best friend evolved over the course of her year long quest. She came to realize that a new BFF wouldn’t be the same ones she’s had since grade school. This new friend could be a little older or younger than her, or at a different point in their life (single or married, with kids or not). It’s definitely a change from what one might feel if they were still in school.

I don’t think MWF Seeking BFF is for everyone, but I think that woman in Bertsche’s situation, or who have ever been in her situation, would enjoy the book and relate well to Bertsche’s search. However, I do think it could have been better written and better organized so as not to detrack from the story and to display Bertsche in a better light.

Grade: B-

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Since I attended Mixed last year, I’ve been considering refocusing this blog a bit. Since it’s inception,I have blogged about two of my interests – books and food. But attending the conference made me think about that. The two topics, while I love them both, are a bit disconnected in the current blog format.

Over the past year, I’ve been thinking about how to change this. I’d like to move in a direction where I directly tie in books with menus or recipes inspired by the books. I’ve already done that a few times, when blogging about book clubs that I’ve hosted, but not with the vast majority book reviews (or recipes and menus) published. My intent would be to blog about a book and include at least one menu or recipe inspired by the book.

Consider this post a test drive. I’ve reviewed a book and included a couple different menu options at the end of it. (In the future, I’d post recipes either with the book review or later in the week). What do you think? Would you like to see Books n’ Cooks post more like this? Or are you happy with whatever book reviews and recipes that I share? Please, take a minute and complete the poll at the bottom of this post or leave me a comment with your opinion (or suggestions!)

Apron.Anxiety

Book Review:

Apron Anxiety: My Messy Affairs In and Out Of the Kitchen

By Alyssa Shelasky

Celebrity journalist Alyssa Shelasky  moves from New York to Washington DC to be with her boyfriend, Top Chef contestant only identified as Chef. In a new, unfamiliar city and knowing nobody other than Chef, Shelasky feels lost and uninspired. She has no friends to pass time with and no work to lose herself in. She can’t even connect with Chef’s peers and coworkers because she can’t relate – she can’t even boil water! She continues on this path until her attitude starts to negatively impact her relationship with Chef. In an attempt to fill her time, do something positive, and reconnect with Chef, Shelasky takes up cooking. In the end, cooking not only helps repair her relationship with Chef but also helps Shelasky rediscover herself and her own happiness. 

Review/Recommendation: Apron Anxiety was a quick read but I wouldn’t say that it was anything extraordinary. It followed a format that is becoming increasingly common nowadays: storytelling + recipe. I admit that this is a format I enjoy when I feel like the recipes are unique or add something to the book. In this case, I didn’t feel like the most of the recipes were all that original or added any value to the story.

Shelasky was funny and sarcastic, I’ll give her that. But sometimes she seemed to take the self-pity a bit far. I enjoyed reading about Shelasky learning to cook – reading about her mistakes, her excitement when a meal turned out well, and her discovering the joys of grocery shopping. But I’m not going to lie, my interest in the story might have been heightened by my obsession with Top Chef. I really wanted to figure out Chef’s real identity. (I googled it after finishing the book – Spike Mendelsohn!).

Overall, Apron Anxiety wasn’t bad. As I said, it was a quick read but certainly nothing extraordinary.

Grade: B-

Plan A Meal Around It: From Apron Anxiety

  • “The Pasta” (pasta with olive oil, fresh tomatoes, basil & Parmesan)
  • Neiman Marcus Cookies (my recipe, using espresso powder instead of shredded chocolate, is actually pretty similar to the one in the book)

Plan A Meal Around It: Inspired by Apron Anxiety

  • Your favorite burger + milkshakes (inspiration: Chef’s restaurant, Good Stuff Eatery)
  • Cheese toasts + pastitsio (Greek lasagna)  + baklava or fresh fruit (inspiration: Chef takes Shelasky to Greece)

[poll id=”2″]

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LetsPretendThisNeverHappenedBook Review:

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir

By Jenny Lawson

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is more like a series of short stories rather than a traditional novel. Blogger Jenny Lawson tells story after story of her life, from her childhood through adulthood. There’s no plot – just a bunch of random stories and a lot of humor.

Review/Recommendation: When a friend recommended this book to me, I thought I’d love it. I thought it would be similar to Bossypants, which my husband and I both enjoyed. I later read that this book would also appeal to fans of David Sedaris, who I’ve also read and enjoyed.

Unfortunately, I found Let’s Pretend This Never Happened to be very different than Bossypants and a Sedaris book. The best way I can describe the writing and style of the book is raw… it’s pretty much 300 pages of unfiltered stream of consciousness. It was filled with cursing, misspellings, and bizarre tangents…. it very much felt like a personal journal or diary, or the blog entries I imagine Lawson writes (I’ve never read her blog). While the stories were funny, this style made it difficult to become and stay engaged in the book. Instead of devouring chapter after chapter, I read only a chapter at a time, with another book or two finished before I returned to this one.

That being said, this book was very funny – I laughed out loud several times. In fact, I’ve told my science fiction-loving husband that he had to read it – I was truly amazed at the amount of mentions of a zombie apocalypse, considering the book was a memoir. I actually had a hard time believing that most of the stories were real. I kept thinking hoping that there was far more exaggeration in the stories Lawson described than she actually owned up to, because she frequently came across as a complete lunatic (at least to someone who had never heard of her or followed her writings).

Would I recommend this book? Perhaps. It definitely has a certain appeal, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

Grade: C+/B-

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In honor of National Ice Cream Month last month (July), I decided to read The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City written by the author of the proclaimed ice cream cookbook, The Perfect Scoop, David Lebovitz. I was going to make Levovitz’s Chocolate Ice Cream too. Well, I finished the book but never got around to posting or making the ice cream. I know, shame on me. But, it does mean that National Ice Cream Month lasts just a little bit longer for you. If you missed out on some ice cream, Lebovitz’s vanilla ice cream recipes posted on Annie’s Eats are fantastic (my favorite is the French-style while my hubby loves the Philadelphia-style). I also really enjoy this Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream from Cooking Light.

Book Review:

The Sweet Life in Paris:

Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City

By David Lebovitz

Following the unexpected loss of his partner and months of mourning, Lebovitz needed to rejoin life. He needed a change of scenery, a change of pace from his life in San Francisco. Thus, to Paris he went.

The Sweet Life in Paris is one story after another, chronicling Lebovitz’s everyday life. Every little thing is an adventure – learning to live and cook in a tiny apartment, going to the market or the hospital. He gets to know local shop owners (bribing them with brownies certainly helped) and works in local industry. And one day, he isn’t so much of an outside, but more of a Parisian.

Review & Recommendation: The Sweet Life in Paris feels like a mix of short stories, travel advice, and a cooking show. Stories about living in Paris are peppered with humor and are interspersed with recipes. Lebovitz makes a trip to the grocery store seem like an adventure.

Whether you’re going to Paris soon or not, this is a great book to read. It’s quick; it’s funny. For travel lovers, it’s an unusually honest insight into Parisian culture and attitudes. For food lovers, it’s a glimpse into the life of a cookbook author as he adjust to new ways of shopping, cooking, and living. For everyone else, this is simply a light, witty book worth reading.

Grade: A-

About the Author: Professional cook and baker David Lebovitz is the author of The Perfect Scoop, Paris Pastry Guide, Ready for Dessert, The Great Book of Chocolate, Room for Dessert, Ripe for Dessert, and The Baker’s Dozen Cookbook. He can be found at his website, www.davidlebovitz.com.

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Book Review:

The Vow: The Kim & Krickitt Carpenter Story

By Kim Carpenter, Krickitt Carpenter, & Dana Wilkerson

Just a few months after their wedding, Kim and Krickitt Carpenter were in a near fatal car accident. Kim, a college baseball coach, would suffer sever back pain for most of his life. Krickitt, a former gymnast, survived when everyone was sure she would not.

Following the accident, Krickitt went through months of therapy to recover. She had to learn basic functions such as feeding herself and walking all over again. She also had to struggle with memory loss. There were large periods of time, including her courtship, wedding, and life with Kim, that she would never remember.

The Vow chronicles Kim and Krickitt’s physical and mental struggles to overcome the accident and save their marriage. The two started their relationship over again from the very beginning – first, second, and third dates… they created a new set of memories for Krickitt to remember and fell in love all over again.

Recommendation: While a very short book, The Vow is one of those books that really made me think and reflect. After finishing the book, I immediately started thinking about Kim and Krickitt’s marriage – their strength and perseverance. No marriage is easy, but the challenges they faced are hard to imagine. I found it inspiring, and hope that I have the same strength when I face challenges, no matter how big or small, in my own marriage.

Even more than thinking about marriage, The Vow had me thinking about faith, because ultimately, The Vow is a powerful story about faith and the importance of it in two people’s lives. One of the strengths of this book, in my opinion, is that although the Carpenters wrote this book to share the story of their faith, I didn’t find this book preachy, which would have been a turn off for me. Instead, they wrote about their faith and the strong role it played in overcoming their struggles in a very matter-of-fact way (at least up until the last chapter or two of the book, when they talk about sharing their story in the media).

The one downfall with the book was that parts, particularly Kim and Krickitt’s second courtship, felt rush. It would have been nice if the book was a little longer and spent more time on Krickitt’s recovery and rebuilding her relationship with Kim. Perhaps even a couple chapters from Krickitt’s perspective.

Read The Vow. Even if you aren’t married or very religious, read it. It will only take you an afternoon or so. It will make you think and reflect on your own life. Any book that can do that is worth reading.

Grade: B+

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Book Review:

Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women

By Alexa Albert

In the early 1990s, after three years of letters, medical student Alexa Albert gains access to Mustang Ranch, one of Nevada’s legal brothels. Spurred by allegations that no woman working at the brothels had tested positive for HIV since testing became mandatory in 1986 (and the number that had tested positive for a STD was next to nothing), Albert’s goal was to examine condom use in the brothels.

Albert flew to Nevada and moved into Mustang Ranch for a month to conduct her research. Before long, she was hooked, and her public health study transformed into a long-term study of the brothels – not just the health aspects but the economic and social aspects. What motivated these women to turn to prostitution? How did the women feel about their job? How did the people of Nevada feel about legalized prostitution?

Recommendation: I really enjoyed Brothel. It was well-researched and well-written. It had the perfect balance of personal stories and facts about Nevada’s legal brothels. And while the above questions are very interesting, I was most intrigued with Albert’s personal reflections about prostitution. Her views changed as she got to know the women at the brothel and learned more about the issues. While she remained fundamentally opposed to prostitution throughout her research, she realized that the legal brothels are not a black and white issue. There is merit to prostitution in a legal setting – from the health and safety aspects to the sense of community and family that many of the women gain.

Brothel was a short, quick read but packed with information. I would definitely recommend it!

Grade: A-

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