Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

Take This Man: A Memoir
I think I've said this before, but I'm really only interested in memoirs if the writer's life has something that is unequivocally unique from mine. If you're a normal person who went on a journey or something, I'm not super interested because let's be real. I could go on a journey if I felt so inclined to put down my book and get off the couch. At any rate, Brando Skyhorse definitely had a story to tell, one that is thankfully unique from my life. When he was three years old, his father abandoned him and his mother. His mother seized the opportunity to reinvent their lives and told Brando he was son of Paul Skyhorse Johnson, an American Indian activist. However, Paul is in prison, so Brando lives his life with a rotating cast of fathers and his acerbic, verbally abusive mom and sometimes overbearing grandma. It takes thirty years for Brando to untangle the web of lies his mom wove and attempt to find his father, whether biological or the man who was willing to fill that role.
What was really gripping about this story was the extent of Brando's mom deception and the long-lasting effect it had on his life. I was definitely pulled in to his story and his pain.

The Book of Unknown Americans: A novel
Arturo, Alma and their daughter Maribel come from Mexico to America, after Maribel suffers a tragic accident and is left with brain damage. They believe that in the land of opportunity, Maribel can get what she needs. They move into the same apartment complex as the Toro family, a family from Panama. Mayor Toro, the son of the family, falls in love with Maribel at first sight, despite her limitations. Interwoven amongst both families are stories of others who have come to America, seeking prosperity and opportunity. This was a beautiful, rich story that reached in depth to humanize those that we may sometimes overlook.

Natchez Burning: A Novel (Penn Cage)
At almost 800 pages, this book consumed most of my reading time this week. This is the first installment of a trilogy and was definitely captivating. Set in Mississippi and told from the perspective of Penn Cage, a mayor whose father was just accused of murder, the book chronicles race relations and decades old murders in this southern town. Penn's point-of-view is balanced with that of Henry, a journalist set on exposing the horrific crimes of the Golden Eagles, a KKK splinter group who claimed to be behind the assassination of MLK Jr and RFK. With the length of this book, this is not one you sit down and breeze through. There was a lot going on and a lot of plot shifts and points to remember, so it definitely took me awhile to make my way through it, but it was an enjoyable, interesting read.

What are you reading?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel
This is a book that reaches into your heart… and then tears it out. Set during WWII, the book is split between the story of Marie-Laure, who has been blind since age six, and Werner, an orphan drafted by the Hitler youth. Marie-Laure ends up working for the French resistance, while Werner is working his way through Europe, destroying the resistance. As you can probably guess, their paths eventually intertwine. Aside from one key point at the end that left me a little disappointed at the lack of follow through, this book was both tragic and hopeful. I loved it.

Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three
I've been fascinated by the West Memphis Three ever since I saw Paradise Lost in high school. That said, I truly don't know which side I stand on… I know that the three recently accepted the Alford Plea and were released from prison, but I don't know what I believe. From a layman's standpoint, I do think it was a stretch to find them guilty and sentence one to death based on the little evidence they had, but I also understand that there were quite a few things pointing toward the three as the perpetrators (and no, I'm not talking about wearing black or reading Stephen King or listening to heavy metal--or truly even Damien Echols' mental issues… I have students with mental issues. I can't fathom them doing this). What does bother me about this case is that it was bungled from the start, with evidence being lost and destroyed, a search party not being organized until the next day and so on. What bothers me is that, in the end, whether these three are innocent or guilty, we seem to have forgotten about the three 8 year old boys who tragically, horrifically lost their lives that day, and I guess that's why I keep reading whatever I can about it.

The Farm
Daniel receives a call from his dad, telling him his mom has been institutionalized. Then he receives a call from his mom, telling him not believe his dad. And so begins a story in which we don't know who to believe--Daniel's mom, Tilde, or Daniel's dad, Chris. Tilde claims of a conspiracy, a plot to make her look insane. Chris claims she's broken down and is insane. Daniel is in the middle and must decide which parent to believe. This book was slightly reminiscent of Shutter Island, except that the bombshell twist at Shutter Island was more concealed. Still, I couldn't wait to read on and find out if Daniel would believe his mom or side with his dad.

Bankson is an anthropologist alone in the field, until he meets up with Nell and her sometimes angry husband Fen, who are escaping the volatile Mumbanyo. Bankson finds them a new tribe nearby, the mostly matriarchal, gentle Tam, but in the midst of this, he cannot stop thinking about Nell. This book grabbed me. Quickly. The storyline was fascinated but also the relationship between Nell, Fen and Bankson. This was a book that reminded me somewhat of The Poisonwood Bible but on a very different level. What does it take to live amongst native peoples? And what does one sacrifice or give up for the sake of science?

What are you reading?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

I only read one book this week. It was 600 pages long and I followed it up with a 300+ page. Also, 8th graders don't want to read in the last week of school (shocking), so I lost my silent reading time. Which I guess is a nice transition to next year when I lost it all together (no, I don't want to discuss this).

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair: A Novel
I am torn on this book. It started off strong and I was sucked in. Marcus Goldman is a writer who trained under Harry Quebert, his professor and a famous author. After Marcus' first book is a huge success, he encounters serious writer's block and escapes to Harry's house to try and shake it. In the midst of this, a body is found on Harry Quebert's property and Harry is arrested for a decades old murder. As the story unravels, it seems the dead girl, Nola, disappeared at 15 and was involved with Harry. The story and the mystery itself was interesting… but this is where I get hung up on it. It could've been about 200 pages less. And the dialogue was absolutely appalling. To the point where I almost had to set the book down a few times. I want to chalk it up to the book being translated to English, but it was bad. Cringeworthy. It is not a great story, but it was a good story. It could've been better, much better, but I will say that the story drew me in the first few hundred pages, so that's a bonus.

What are you reading?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What I Read Wednesday

So last week, I kind of forgot about Wednesday, until all of a sudden it was Thursday night. Short weeks always mess with me.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel
Paul O'Rourke is a successful Park Ave dentist who loves the Red Sox, hates technology (except for message boards about the Red Sox) and is not a fan of organized religion. Then somebody fakes his identity online, creating a website for his dental business, a Facebook account, a twitter account, commenting on message boards and even emailing with him. This puts him into a tailspin, as he tries desperately to prove that he's not the Paul O'Rourke online--yet, he stops to listen to what this other person has to say about him and the way he's lived his life, too. I loved the voice in this novel, as well as the premise. It was not a read that I fell right in to, but it was a read that made me laugh out loud on occasion and one that made me think a little, too.

We Were Liars
Cadence, Johnny and Mirren are cousins who spend every summer at a private island owned by their grandfather, joined by Johnny's friend Gat--who comes from a decidedly less wealthy background. Together, they form the Liars and the bond they share is one that rekindles each summer. The fifteenth summer on the island is a little different, though. Cadence spends most of it trying to piece together her memory of what happened in a previous summer, knowing only that she was injured and now goes through horrific periods of migraines and other after effects.
I went in to this book having read only the synopsis on Amazon and was definitely the better for it. I didn't read any spoilers (seriously, stay away from Amazon) and just fell into the spell of the book and watching Cadence desperately try to repair herself and the Liars that I enjoyed the story and the turns it took. It kept me reading past bedtime because I wanted to know how it ended.

The Pigman
I sat in on an interview where I got to ask candidates what would be their ideal book to teach to middle schoolers. One candidate mentioned this book. I'd never read it and it sounded interesting. Written from the perspective of John and Lorraine, two teenagers, Pigman tells the tale of how a dare ends up with an unlikely friendship with Mr. Pignati. Except that by the time of writing, Mr. Pignati is dead and John and Lorraine say that it wasn't murder, not really. This book was not the most uplifting, but it had surprising humor in amongst the sadness and a really good lesson.

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage
I don't read a lot of memoirs because I often think things like, "Why do I want to read about your boring life? I have my own." This one was good, though, and told the story of the opening of Delancey, the trials and tribulations of getting a restaurant off the ground and what it does to a marriage. I also loved that the author included recipes after each chapter. This led to Shane making a delicious fried rice with kale. Aside from that, it was really fascinating to read about how they took a dream and made it a success.

Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel
Once there was a girl named Boy who ran away from her abusive rat catcher of a father, to fall in love with a man and become loving stepmother to a girl named Snow, until she has a daughter of her own, named Bird. Boy never dreamed she'd become a wicked stepmother, but when Bird is born with skin darker than her mother or father, it becomes evident that her husband's family are light-skinned African-Americans "passing" as white. Instead of sending away Bird, Boy sends away Snow so to avoid everyone comparing Snow and Bird forever. I loved the prose in this book, as well as the literary allusions. The point-of-view shift at the end lost me a little, but I still overall enjoyed this novel and the message it sends about the choices we make.

What are you reading?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Cedar Point: Roller Coasters, Dinosaurs and Family Fun

Luke has recently been asking if we could go to an amusement park this summer. Aside from the fair, we have never taken our kids anywhere with rides (I know, we're horrible parents), so I told him that would definitely be on our summer list. Imagine my joy when I received an offer to visit Cedar Point--it was only slightly below Luke's unbridled joy!

To begin with, Cedar Point has a beautiful setting. I am used to parks that can be seen from the highway, so I loved that you had to drive down the frontage road and take in the view of Cedar Point along with the stunning backdrop of Lake Erie. The boys noticed as we entered the front gate that the hedges were cut in the shape of various Peanuts characters. They had a blast pointing out which ones and choosing their favorites. I like that their excitement was triggered before we even entered the park.

When we walked in to the park (after a very quick wait in line--despite arriving right when the park opened, along with everyone else, it seemed), we spotted several Peanuts characters. The boys made a beeline for Snoopy to show him their shirts.

As you can see from their squints, we had the benefit to visit on a beautiful sunny day. Thank you, weather!

After this, we headed to Camp Snoopy. I want to add that I found it amazing how big Cedar Point is. It is a very spread out park, and they've done an excellent job of keeping a lot of shade trees and beautiful landscaping within the park. We definitely got an idea of size as we walked to Camp Snoopy, but it was a good way to plan out our rides for later in the day. Tommy and Luke rode a few of the smaller rides, then Tommy wanted to ride the Woodstock Express, which is a roller coaster with train cars. Now, I've been on kiddie roller coasters before. I never expect them to move or have much of a drop, but the Woodstock Express was pretty fast for a kid coaster. We loved it! Tommy screamed his head off, then immediately asked to go again. I like that there is this option for kids who are too little for the other roller coasters (Woodstock Express requires riders to be 36" and accompanied by an adult), but they still get the feel of a roller coaster. I want to say that Tommy rode this one at least five times.

Since Dinosaurs Alive is right next to Camp Snoopy, we headed here after a few more kid rides. Dinosaurs Alive does require a fee on top of the Cedar Point admission; however, it is very minimal (a family of 4 would have to pay $10 total). We went to the animatronic dinosaurs exhibit at Brookfield Zoo a few years ago, and this far surpassed it. As a teacher, I enjoyed that each dinosaur (there are over 40 dinosaurs) area comes with a sign and educational information about the different types of dinosaurs, where they were discovered, interesting related facts. We loved reading them and learning something new. There are also dinosaur related jokes scattered throughout, which Luke enjoyed reading. What I liked is that as you're viewing the dinosaurs, you wind back amongst the trees. Although you can see some roller coasters, the rest of the park blends into the background and it truly is like you're on a Jurassic island.

All told, it took us about thirty minutes to view the entire exhibit. We definitely could have spent longer, but Tommy didn't want to stop and fully read the signs like the rest of us. We all thoroughly enjoyed everything that we learned about the different types of dinosaurs. Because the additional cost is so reasonable for what you get, I would absolutely recommend tacking this on to a Cedar Point visit.

We did head to lunch next because the boys were starting to get a little punchy. Cedar Point graciously provided us with a delicious lunch that included fruit and chicken with artichokes and sun dried tomatoes (YUM), but there are so many options for dining within the park. You can pretty much find anything from hot dogs to diner style to casual fine dining and everything in between, either inside or directly adjacent to the park. I loved that they have such a wide variety of food choices. The boys also got Snoopy stuffed animals, which basically made their day, as you can see.

(Note the gorgeous backdrop.)

Luke was chomping at the bit to ride some bigger rides, but I told him he needed to let lunch settle first (okay, maybe *I* needed to let lunch settle first). We rode the ferris wheel, which is an excellent way to get a bird's eye view of the park at 136 feet in the air. What I loved about the ferris wheel is that you didn't just go around once. We went around five times total, which made it a really enjoyable ride. We also got stuck at the top, which Luke loved.

The view from either side was absolutely stunning.

Tommy opted out of the Giant Wheel, so Shane took him to the kids' area while we were riding. Cedar Point offers a lot of rides just for kids, where you have to be between two certain heights to ride. While we were in line for the Krazy Kars (kiddie bumper cars), I watched the attendant measure and turn away two boys who were two big. As a parent, I really appreciate this because there are bigger bumper cars and many of the kids on Krazy Kars (my own included) were still figuring out the mechanics of operating the cars, so it's nice for them to be able to do this without bigger kids smashing into them. Tommy declared Krazy Kars to be his favorite ride in the park.

Luke graciously rode a few more rides with this brother, then I told him we would ride a few of his rides. At seven, Luke is not quite tall enough for all of the roller coasters, but he is tall enough for some, which was very cool and exciting for him.
We rode Corkscrew first, a roller coaster that twists and turns right over the midway, so we'd already walked beneath it a few times. What I enjoyed about this was that the ride operators gave a brief history of the ride as you were waiting to ride it. It was neat to learn how high up it went, how much of a descent, when the ride was built and so on. Luke was mostly just thrilled at the prospect of going upside down not once but three times. He absolutely loved it, and I absolutely loved seeing his pure joy when the ride halted to a stop. At this point, I started having so much fun that I absolutely forgot to take any more pictures. Rest assured there were many smiles and much joy.

His next goal was to ride Pipe Scream, which is a new ride for 2014 (along with Lake Erie Eagles). Pipe Scream spins and coasts up and down the track. I am not a spinning person. Even merry-go-rounds make me motion sick, so this was a tough one for me. I ended up focusing on the center of the ride, so I missed a lot of the views. Luke, however, loved it and told me that being at the top of the track was amazing. Luke also wanted to ride Iron Dragon, which is a suspended coaster. This was fun because it takes you over the lagoon and through the woods, so you get a lot of different views during the ride.

When we got our map at the hotel the day before, Tommy noticed a train and was obsessed all day with the train. So of course, we had to seek out the Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad. I absolutely loved this. It was laid back and it covers about two miles of track, so you get a view of the park from a different perspective. We spotted rides that we hadn't yet seen! You also get the option of riding a full loop or getting off at a half-way point, so this may be a good way to get around the park without walking. The boys' favorite part is when the train goes through Frontiertown and you go through a whole area of a wild west type town populated by skeletons, some of which move and make noise. Tommy is still talking about the skeleton fireman spraying a house fire.

We rode a few more rides, then it became apparent that it was dinnertime and my kids were starting to feel our full day at the park, so we made a fairly quick exit (with a stop for Dippin' Dots). Unfortunately, we were unable to stay another night because Shane had a funeral to go to on Sunday. I will say this: when we return, we will absolutely spend two days in the park. There were quite a few more roller coasters that Luke wanted to ride but we didn't have the time to do so in finding the balance between he and his brother riding rides. There were areas of the park that we couldn't check out as much as we wanted or that we wanted to visit again. We spent eight hours in the park, but there is so much to do that we definitely needed another day!

Some tips on how to make the most of a visit to Cedar Point:

  • Stay at a hotel connected with the park. We stayed at Breakers Express. It was relatively inexpensive and just a few blocks from the park. Unlike some of the hotels, it doesn't offer a shuttle, but we were given a parking pass at the front desk, so a shuttle seemed unnecessary to us. The rooms are just the right size for when you aren't planning to spend much time in a hotel room, and it was clean and quiet. There is also a pretty big outdoor pool area, which would have been great to run the kids around in if we'd stayed another night. Most importantly, the hotels connected with the park offer a discounted rate on tickets and you can also gain early entry to the park for select rides. You could also consider Lighthouse Point if camping is more your style or Sandcastle Suites if you were looking for a bigger room with amenities like a microwave or refrigerator. There is definitely a wide range of options to choose from, which I really like.
  • Think about Fast Lane if you don't like waiting in lines or can't spend two days at the park. We never waited in a line for more than 30-40 minutes, which really isn't bad. However, I watched several people move right to the front with a Fast Lane pass and I kept thinking, "Why didn't I do that?" In our family, I can see how we would buy one for one of us and just Luke because it isn't really applicable for kids' rides (or necessary, they never had much of a line). Luke was pretty patient about waiting in lines once I explained that it's all part of the experience, but I can see the benefit in jumping to the front on some of the rides with longer lines--especially if you might want to ride them over and over. 
  • Look into the All Day Dining Plan. My kids get HUNGRY when we're at parks and walking around all the time, so they want to eat constantly. The all day dining plan has an option where for $29.99, you can enjoy an entree and a side every 90 minutes at participating locations. I am pretty sure my kids would actually eat every 90 minutes. 

Finally, I know I have quite a few runners reading my blog, and I wanted to share that Cedar Point is this year hosting the inaugural Run & Ride Weekend, with a half marathon, 5k and a 1-mile fun run for kids. I am disappointed that I didn't know about this sooner because I definitely won't be half marathon ready by then, and it's absolutely something I would love to do. I am putting it on my to-do list for next year, though! Entrance to the race includes a long-sleeved tech tee, reduced parking, free entry to the park Friday after 5PM, all day Saturday and Sunday, plus discounted ticket prices for friends and family who may be coming with you. Like I said, I will definitely be planning on this half marathon next year.

I can't say enough good things about Cedar Point, obviously. We will be back sooner than later. Do you have any exciting summer plans?

Disclaimer: I was given passes to Cedar Point and Dinosaurs Alive, as well as provided lunch. All opinions are my own.