Category: 5 Stars

Book Club: The Hot Zone

The Hot Zone
By Richard Preston

What an incredibly gross, terrifying and amazingly interesting book we read this month!  It was made even better by a super-fun, show-n-tell book club filled with expert knowledge and hands-on experiences (and gourmet food and wine, of course!)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is an engrossing book that traces the roots of Ebola from Africa through an outbreak outside of Washington, DC.

First published in 1994, it’s over 20 years old but it is still relevant in describing Ebola and the history of various strains and virology in general.  There are more recent events and new procedures in safety that made for very interesting discussion. Not every book club is fortunate enough to have a member and hostess who is a biosafety laboratory professional and has been the president of the international association for her industry.

But more about that later.  First, the food!

Book Club Food Ideas and Recipes for The Hot Zone

We had a lot of fun with the theme this month!  Our ladies are up for any challenge when it comes to cooking! So much deliciousness!

Our amazing hostess created an African couscous paella.  Here is the recipe from Food.com.

African couscous paella

She also made wonderful yummy monkey bread, which lead to an interesting discussion about how it got the name monkey bread.  Which led to asking the source of all knowledge …Google…

Monkey bread, also called monkey puzzle bread, sticky bread, African coffee cake, golden crown, pinch-me cake, and pluck-it cake is a soft, sweet, sticky pastry served in the United States for breakfast or as a treat. It consists of pieces of soft baked dough sprinkled with cinnamon.”

Wikipedia says, “The origin of the term “monkey bread” comes from the pastry being a finger food, the consumer would pick apart the bread as a monkey would.”  But we also heard it was because the dough looked like monkey toes.

All I know is that it is incredibly delicious!  Here’s the doughy, buttery, yummy recipe!

We had a Lentil and Fennel Dish with Ricotta and Anchovies.  The recipe is detailed at the end of the post.  It was surprisingly delicious and fresh tasting with the lemon.  I had an anchovy and I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it either. They’re so salty! But I hear they’re good for you. Isn’t it a fascinating shape?  Like a turtle or skeleton or some creature.

Here’s a gross looking but delicious dish.  Ebola is a string virus, shaped like a tube or noodle, so red beet noodles were perfect!  Someone said she didn’t like beets but enjoyed this.  Roasting them makes them taste less like dirt!  Here’s the recipe for Spiralized Mediterranean Beet and Feta Skillet Bake.

Other wonderful savory dishes included cheese balls with salami and a white pizza with spinach and artichoke hearts.

 

 The sweets were also wonderful. Homemade banana cream pie and monkey balls,

 

and coconut macaroons (sooo delicious) and hemorrhagic cupcakes…I’m so sorry I didn’t get a picture of the bloody, oozing cherry filling!!  Love the warning sign she put on them!

Decor for The Hot Zone Book Club

We were warned as we entered…

 

Our hostess, Melissa, created an awesome table setting that included safety suits for biological and chemical situations, Ebola and Black Plague stuffed “animals” (You can buy them at giantmicrobes.com! who knew!), Moroccan spices, blood sample shooters, “bacteria” Good n Plenties in Petri dishes and all kinds of information about biosafety.

 

 

Melissa and her lovely assistant, Mindy, gave a demonstration of how to put on a biosafety suit with HEPA filter and mask.

 

 

 

The Hot Zone: Book Club Discussion

Melissa’s father was an army veterinarian with U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and was a colleague and personal friends with Drs. Jerry and Nancy Jaax, the army veterinarian and pathologist who were key contributors to the Ebola removal operation in Reston, Virginia in 1989 and featured in The Hot Zone.  He shared some background with us and as a special treat, we connected with the Jaaxes, recently retired from working at the Biosecurity Research Institute at Kansas State University, over FaceTime from Maryland to Kansas!  

They were awesome!  They said that, though Richard Preston put a few words in people’s mouths, the details and events of the book were accurate.  The book is accessible to everyone from 4th or 5th graders to microbiologists.

The book gave the public relations and advertising the army couldn’t buy and the Jaaxes were able to give talks while they were still on active duty.  They are still “trotted out as talking heads” any time Ebola experts are needed, like the 2014 doctor and healthcare workers who returned to the U.S. from Africa with Ebola. They said there were so many people who told them they became virologists or veterinarians or biologists because of reading The Hot Zone.

They also talked about the biowarfare and weaponization of viruses and diseases programs in the U.S. and Soviet Union. President Nixon halted the very robust U.S. offensive operations but defensive programs continue.

I asked if they were scared during the operation in Reston and he said, no, “It was cool”  He really enjoyed being a part of things during that time, exploring, learning about uncharted territory!  They were discovering new things. They trusted the protocols and equipment. They said the equipment that was state of the art then is now in high schools. They took their kids to see the monkeys at their offices at USAMRIID.  Now they would be locked up for that!

Jerry Jaax received over 50 vaccinations.  Nancy joked the worst one she got was botulism because not only was the “bot shot” very painful, it made her immune to botox.

We toasted them with test tube blood sample shooters made with cranberry juice, Tito’s vodka, and Malibu rum!

 

Melissa led a continuation of the discussion. Our group has 4 lab scientists and several nurses so we had a lot of scientific knowledge in the room. Melissa told us about her career and the path that led to it. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry with a premed focus, a master’s degree in Environmental Management and an MBA, but there is no degree for what she currently does. ABSA International is creating programs.

She is in charge of the division of research safety and serves as the institutional biosafety officer for a major university medical health system. She tries to make sure everyone goes home healthy and doesn’t bring home anything that could harm their family.

Her focus is in biosafety and biosecurity. There’s a lot to that-conducting biorisk assessments; establishing written biological safety policies and procedures; developing exposure control; emergency response planning; participating on engineering project teams to build or renovate biological laboratories, high containment facilities, and animal facilities; partnering with occupational health professionals to develop and implement medical surveillance programs for personnel working with infectious agents; providing technical advice on shipping, importing and exporting biological materials; auditing biosafety and biosecurity programs; and managing regulated agents and materials. She has other staff that focuses more on the chemical and radiological hazards in the research lab.

Here’s our girl on the job!

She showed us pictures from the lab where she works and the latest in safety equipment and procedures. We talked about recent situations in the news including bird flu, MERS, and smallpox. We also talked about movies like Outbreak and Contagion.  Jerry Jaax had contrasted Hollywood’s version of how things work versus real life.  Melissa and the Jaaxes agreed that Contagion was the real experience.

This may have been the best book club ever! The book was a unanimous thumbs up for everyone. It was awesome!  It was fun and we learned a lot.  Here’s another recipe!  Happy reading!!!

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Lentil and Fennel Dish with Ricotta and Anchovies

Ingredients

4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to drizzle
Pinch of red chili flakes
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
2 cups green or black lentils
1 head garlic, halved crosswise
2 sprigs fresh sage
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium heads fennel, halved lengthwise
2 cups fresh ricotta
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Anchovies, if desired.

Directions

Place lentils in a heavy, medium pot with both garlic-head halves and sage. Cover lentils with 2 inches water and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Set pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer lentils until tender but still whole, about 20 minutes. If necessary, add extra water to keep lentils submerged throughout cooking. Strain lentils and season with salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Slice fennel into very thin slivers. If fennel is woody, sprinkle with lemon juice to soften. Season with 2 tablespoons olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Place ½ cup ricotta on each plate. Season cheese with salt and arrange dressed fennel on top. Spoon lentils generously over fennel. Top with a drizzle of olive oil and chopped parsley and anchovies, if desired.

Book Club Ideas: These Is My Words

Book Club Ideas for These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901 from www.sweettnbooks.com

These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901

by Nancy Turner

Goodreads

Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Sweet T Book Club Selection for September 2016

This is s a love story with a strong female protagonist set in the wild west. Our book club loved this book (most of us). It was a great book to discuss and I highly recommend it for book clubs.

We liked this book because it made us wonder what we would do in the same situation, in such a different surrounding than our own. We thought about whether we would want to be pioneer women, leading a life of adventure and terror! We loved it because it was a funny, sweet, heartbreaking and heartwarming story about love and family.

Told from the point of view of Sarah Agnes Prine over twenty years of her life from a girlhood traveling with her family on covered wagons through working a ranch in the Arizona Territories to forming her own family, it is a story of physical and emotional hardships. Life in that time was rough and short for many, especially children.

But it’s also a story of family, friendships, and love filled with humor and sweetness.

The beginning was CRAZY and confusing. You were hit with the chaos of traveling in wagons and Indian attacks and people moving around and dying before you really got to know any of the characters. I think that was a taste of what life was like as a settler in the territories back then. It certainly wasn’t quiet and routine. They were trying to survive and create a new home.

Sarah is everything. We were impressed by her general badassedness. She did everything the boys could do – and she did it better. She saved her friends from a terrible assault. She won a shootout with a bunch of grown men. She shot a rattlesnake that was inches from her tiny daughter. And the only thing that made all of this even better was that she was so modest, even a little embarrassed about all of these things. She was strong and fierce and skilled and tough and smart and resilient and sensitive and hopeful and scared and vain and real.

Sarah began unschooled and rough but she really wanted an education.  When she found an abandoned cart of books, it was a great treasure. Throughout the book strove to learn through reading. She built a shed to house and protect her treasured books. Her personal learning is reflected by the building of a school then university in town, the community’s learning institutions mirror her progression. Her language and writing improved and became more mature and educated

We set the scene with delicious settler themed victuals – chicken white chili and vegetarian chili,  jalapeno cornbread, a beautiful salad with make-your-own add-ins, trail mix, flaky apple pie, homemade apple berry cobbler, and banana bread. It was delish!

Cobbler and photo credit Sherry LaRose-Cooke.

We loved the Jack. He had a perfect blend of cockiness and gentleness. Sarah and Jack had such a strong relationship, but it didn’t change who they were as individuals. They needed each other, but they also still needed to be the people they were before they met each other. I love that Sarah took care of the ranch and her soap business by herself while Jack did his thing with the army. I appreciated that they weren’t willing to sacrifice the things that were important to them. They were fiercely in love but their relationship had its difficulties and trying circumstances.

This book made me feel the power of women. A member of an online book club I admire, The Life of Bon, said this.

“Feminism is multi-faceted. Sarah is tough and skilled like a man, and most of the men in her life treat her much like an equal. Savannah embodies more of your generally “feminine” characteristics with her mild temperament, “genteel” behavior, naturally nurturing inclinations and even dignified submissiveness. I loved both of these women. They were both strong, humble, good people, not to mention excellent mothers. Sarah wanted to emulate Savannah, thinking that she was somehow lacking what she needed to be a “real” woman and Savannah looks the same way at Sarah. She admires her strength and resiliency. She loves her so dearly, and she needs her.

There’s no “right” way to woman. Woman how you wanna woman, women! Sarah is amazing. Savannah is amazing. Even Mama with her mental illness is still pretty amazing. Women are amazing and when you see all they’ve gone through (which we usually don’t have the benefit of knowing) they are even MORE amazing.”

Now that’s a quote for you!

The author, Nancy Turner started this book as a community college fiction assignment when she was in her 40s. She decided to keep going, and These Is My Words was published in 1998.

It’s a fictional account of the life of her great-grandmother Sarah Agnes Prine, who died in Texas in the 1960s. The series was inspired by a handwritten 1920s memoir of Sarah’s brother, Henry Prine, who came to Arizona in the 1870s as a teen. I have also read the sequels, Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden and enjoyed them. When Nancy was asked if she would write more, she declined saying, once the story gets into the 1920s it would reference people who are still alive or whose children are still alive.

This was the book club where Sweet T was born! I told the group about a project for my graduate class in emerging media applications where I had to create a web site and social media about me as a brand and as a lifestyle. EEK! I want to make it about my love of reading and sharing books with others and book club. We brainstormed together and Angie burst out, “Sweet T!! You’re sweet, you’re southern, that’s it.”  And it is!  So, that’s me! My Granmama always told me to be sweet!

 

P.S. Here’s a fun Pinterest Board on the Arizona Territory from 1863 to 1912.

 

Book Review: The Goldfinch

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch

by Donna Tartt

This book, the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner, has been on my To Read List for a while and I kept putting it off because it’s so long, plus, if you’ve read my blog, you know about previous Pulitzer experiences with Pulitzers and a bad taste they’ve left in my mouth (See A Visit From the Goon Squad and Angela’s Ashes).  I should keep a score somewhere of the Pulitzer likes and dislikes that are kindof becoming a thing for me.

I listened to The Goldfinch as an audiobook. It was wonderfully narrated by actor and director, David Pittu, who won an Audie award for his voice talent on this book. He voiced foreign accents and different characters so wonderfully.  You could easily tell one from the other and weren’t distracted by the changes. It was 32 hours but I listened to it at 1.8 times the normal speed and finished it in a week. It had some really dark parts and the characters, especially the main character, struggles with heavy issues, drug addiction, and devastating loss.

It was 32 hours long (that’s over 800 pages), but I listened to it at 1.8 times the normal speed and finished it in a week. I started it at 1.2, then ramped it up slowly to 1.5, then 1.8.  After listening to it for a while, it seemed like normal speed to me and normal seemed like molasses dripping on a turtle in a rush hour traffic jam.

It had some really dark parts and the characters, especially the main character, struggles with heavy issues, drug addiction, and devastating loss. Theo Decker loses his mother in a museum bombing in New York when he is thirteen years old. During the bombing, he meets a man and a girl and steals a painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.  This brief encounter has resounding repercussions. It’s a terrible age to lose a parent, especially when his father is a jerk and is nowhere to be found. The story travels through Theo’s adolescence spent struggling with this loss and loneliness, self-identity and choices. Fascinating people enter his life during this time and are with him for the rest of his life, for good and bad. Andy is his childhood friend, wealthy, nerdy and knowing.  Boris is a charming, reckless nomad.  These two vastly different boys have a powerful

The story travels through Theo’s adolescence, spent struggling with this loss and loneliness, self-identity and choices. Fascinating people enter his life during this time and are with him for the rest of his life, for good and bad. Andy is his childhood friend, wealthy, nerdy and knowing.  Boris is a charming, reckless nomad.  These two vastly different boys have a powerful effect on Theo.

Through the worlds of New York socialites, art dealers, and international criminals, from New York, so important, it’s a character in itself, to Las Vegas, to Amsterdam. The painting really exists.  In fact, many works of art are mentioned in this book.  Here is a wonderful article about the works mentioned in the novel.  There’s also a Pinterest board.

I loved the characters.  Boris is fascinating, the bad boy, bad influence that you love anyway and trust, though you don’t want to. And Hobie, so dear and wise. The story made me cry. It held me in suspense.  I couldn’t stop listening. I was fully immersed.

I think it would make a GREAT movie, which is already in the works from Warner Brothers. It will be directed by John Crowley, the director of  Academy Award nominee Brooklyn, also a great book. It needs the right script, of course.  Someone suggested Nicholas Hoult should play Theo, and, wow, that seems exactly right.  He’s got a good mix of vulnerable, attractive, young yet worldly, naive but addicted.

I don’t know why I think if someone is an addict, they have more world experience… more grittiness. This is a flawed view.  Addicts can be naive emotionally. Addicts can even be wholesome as Theo sometimes seems. In essence, addicts are no different than anyone else except they are controlled by a terrible need. And sometimes that need makes them do terrible things.

So anyway…Nicholas Hoult??

    

PopSugar has some fun suggestions for casting, too. Jeff Bridges as Hobie? I don’t know about that.  I was picturing more tall and skinny but Bridges is a master.  There are some actors who can be anyone. The most interesting suggestion is Ezra Miller as Boris.  While, I’m not sure about that…  He’s definitely got the not dirty/dirty hair thing going on.

Ezra-Miller

This book really made me think. I’m still thinking.  I probably will for a long time. The ending was cathartic in that it wrapped up well for Theo but it wasn’t all roses and puppies.  It was a dark view of life, that we’re just here to suffer through it.  I don’t believe that at all but I respect that someone who has had a different experience than me, someone like Theo, feels that way. It makes me wonder what happened to Donna Tartt.  I will definitely read some of her other books.  Have you read any of them?

A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

This really struck me.  The whole book culminates to this point. We can choose how we act, how we respond, what we show the world, but we can’t choose what we love, what drives us deep down or what we desire. Sometimes those things are not the best thing for us, or the good thing or the right thing.

I’m so lucky and blessed that I’ve had the life I have and, more than anything, have the outlook I have – to always choose to be happy and make the best of everything.  I’m so lucky I never became addicted to anything worse than chocolate and cycling (that should have been the name of my blog).  I have friends and family members who are alcoholics and addicts who make terrible decisions. It’s so frustrating to watch, yet it’s so human of them.  I’m not saying I’m perfect, I’m certainly not, but I’ve made a lot of safe choices, taken another path when friends jumped off the cliff. This book made me appreciate those choices for myself and also understand the choices they made.

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Book Review: Daring Greatly

Daring Greatly book cover

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

by Brené Brown.

Daring Greatly is our book club selection for February.  I read this book a few months ago and was so inspired.

I am generally an extrovert and don’t have problems with vulnerability and sharing but this book spoke to me on so many levels.Ours is a world filled with situations and messages that make us ashamed of our bodies, our imperfections and of not living up to the expectations of others and of ourselves.

Quite simply this book helps give reasons to believe we are enough. It’s a guide for overcoming fear and living whole-heartedly. It is based on a solid foundation of research by Brown because of her own personal struggles with shame and vulnerability.

For the first few chapters, I was a little skeptictical, as I usually am of self-help books like this. I thought I had read something by Brene Brown years ago – around the same time Oprah was recommending books and world views from authors like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Sarah Ban Breathnach (Simple Abundance). I soon realized I had not read her work.

At first, I argued that some shame is necessary to know we’re doing something that is at odds with our moral or ethical beliefs. She quickly defined that feeling as guilt, which can be good, and is different from shame.

I recommend this book to everyone. I think there is some nugget that will speak to every point of view. Her early research only involved women because she thought shame was more of a female issue, then she realized the differences between male and female shame. Women’s is multifaceted, shame over weight and appearance and not being a good mother. Men’s shame tends to come down to one thing – not being a p#ssy.

I thought about skipping the chapter on parenting because I have no children, then found myself weeping as I realized what a wonderful job my mother did – even in the things she did wrong. She had me at 17, how did she know how to do it all so right when she was so young? She gave so much love and support and allowed me room to fail and take risks and be creative. Things Brown says are key.

I will definitely reread this. If you haven’t already, at the very least, watch this Ted Talk she did in 2010 about vulnerability.

Our book club has never read nonfiction, other than biographies, as a group. It can touch on deeply personal issues, something some will be uncomfortable with but as Brown says,

Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.”

Read more on her web site brenebrown.com. I can’t wait to read this book with my book club and discuss it with my friends.  Join us virtually on social media and share your thoughts!

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

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December Book Club: The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

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Our December book club was wonderful!  The book was great!  We didn’t really do any recipes or menu based on the book this month but everyone brought cookies to share in addition to the deliciousness of minestrone soup, butternut squash with cranberries, artichoke dip, meat and cheese antipasti, cream cheese pinwheels, cheese and crackers and, wine, of course.

 

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and we had a Wilson’s Farm Market Fruits of the Forest Pie.  (Do you think we could get them to sponsor book club?  Maybe throw in a pie each month! Haha)

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Most of us finished the book or at least watched the movie though it was agreed that, “THE MOVIE DOES NOT COUNT!” The movie was good and it was a good representation, it just left out a whole whole lot.

Almost all of us gave it a big thumbs up.  There were two almost up and one sideways.  I still don’t quite understand why they didn’t like it.  Something about it starting slowly, dragging and lacking an actual story.  I’ll let them explain because…

I loved this book.  I listened to the audiobook and just loved Allan Corduner’s rich voice. I thought it was perfect for the sarcasm and dry humor, it reminded me of Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Severus Snape. I think I need to watch all the Harry Potter movies over Christmas break.  2017 may be the year I reread all the books.

I got lost in it. I loved the story and the characters and, oh, I loved the words, the beautiful lilting words, the richness of them, the imagery, the loudness of them and the quiet.

Unfortunately, one of the girls found the audiobook too much like the Frankenstein narrator and that ruined it for her! Dangit!  She watched the movie, though, and liked that.  Her other excuse is that she just finished reading The Help so no matter what she read afterward, it was bound to be a disappointment.  I call that #nextbookdepression.  I’m currently going through that a little myself.

We loved Hans Hubermann.  We adored him because he is the kindest papa. And in a different way, we loved Rosa Hubermann for her gusto and perseverance. We all know someone like Rosa. Someone who is gruff and curses and calls her loved ones terrible names. We really liked the character, Ilsa Herman, too.

Some didn’t like that death was personified.  I think it was a wonderful way to narrate this story and spread a bleak tone to the whole period of time. Death, whether a person or not, hung over the people of Europe during WWII.  It was a constant fear, making it the one who told the whole tale from the first death to the last wrapped it all in a darkness that allowed Liesel’s hope to shine through more brilliantly.

There are many stories that personify death.  Meet Joe Black, the movie with Brad Pitt that was based on an earlier movie, Death Takes a Holiday.

meetjoeblack deathtakesaholidayposter

I’ve read a few books with Death as a character.  A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore is a hilarious piece of satire.  Years ago, in college I read a whole series by Piers Anthony where Death, Time, Fate and Nature were characters.  The first was On a Pale Horse where the main character accidentally kills death and has to take over his job of measuring souls for good and evil and sending them to heaven or hell.  He rides a pale horse that can take on the forms of a car, plane or boat. I don’t remember much but I remember really enjoying it.

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Here’s a list of other books on Goodreads with Death as a character

It is ironic and interesting that Death, exhausted and overworked, is “haunted” by humans.  That he can’t reconcile humanity’s capacity for evil with its capacity for good.

Marcus Zusak was born in Sydney, Australia to an Austrian father and a German mother, both of whom experienced World War II firsthand in their native countries. Zusak has said that The Book Thief was unlike anything he had written before and largely inspired by stories his parents told him as a child about wartime Munich and Vienna. He singled out two stories his mother told him, one of the bombing of Munich, and one of Jews being marched through his mother’s town on their way to the Dachau concentration camp.

His mother told of “Jewish people were being marched to Dachau, the concentration camp. At the back of the line, there was an old man, totally emaciated, who couldn’t keep up. When a teenage boy saw this, he ran inside and brought the man a piece of bread. The man fell to his knees and kissed the boy’s ankles and thanked him . . . Soon, a soldier noticed and walked over. He tore the bread from the man’s hands and whipped him for taking it. Then he chased the boy and whipped him for giving him the bread in the first place. In one moment, there was great kindness and great cruelty, and I saw it as the perfect story of how humans are.”

As Death said, “I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”

Or

“So much good, so much evil. Just add water. “

I loved this book.

“I have to say that although it broke my heart, I was, and still am, glad I was there.”

My rating 5 out of 5 stars (and introducing the *new* *pink star* ratings!)

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Coming soon!  All about our annual Dirty Santa Book Exchange!