Rachel’s recommended reading

I love reading. Also making lists of books to read, reviewing books, talking about books … Well, you get the idea.

best booksRecently, a few friends have asked me for book recommendations, which inspired me to make up a list of the best books I’ve read during the past few years. These aren’t necessarily new books, though many of them are. Most of them are works of fiction, though some of the absolute best ones are novels that will challenge you to consider deeper truths about yourself and about the world.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately? I’d love to hear about it!

Click on a title in this list to see my review of the book on Goodreads.




Ann Patchett is a national treasure. I revere Toni Morrison as well, so I’m not sure I can say for sure that Patchett is my favorite living author. Anyway, though, there are more of her books on this list than any other writer:




  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (No review posted; I read this every other year or so. Best book of all time, as far as I’m concerned.)
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

An op-ed by Charlotte

By Charlotte Coker, age 9, third grade

Kids should be able to vote. Kids should be able to vote because kids are mad about the people who are running for president. Kids are also mad about the decisions that our leaders make. I’m mad about building a wall between Mexico and U.S.A. I think kids should vote at age 13. Age 13 is a reasonable age to vote. 13-year-olds should have the privilege to vote because it is their first time being a teen and they are responsible enough. Some people may be frustrated to wait for the original age limit. I think there should be a poster that says “ages 13 and up.” It will help people know their time to vote is soon. I think this is a good idea and it will be good for the public. Do you want to vote?


This is 2016 in the United States of America

Recently, a friend of mine told me that she’s hesitant to reconnect with friends from high school on Facebook. She never accepts friend requests from co-workers, either. Huge swaths of her life are held in reserve, at least until she knows she can trust someone.

She’s a lesbian, and she lives in fear of being hated because of whom she loves. This is 2016 in the United States of America.

Flags, combined

American pride

Because I’m straight, I was clueless enough to express surprise at her fear. This is 2016 in the United States of America, too.

Last summer, I attended a mehndi party in celebration of a Turkish colleague’s marriage to a man from Bosnia. Friends and relatives from all over the world came to upstate New York for the party, toasting the immigrant grooms in their backyard as tiny lights twinkled in the trees. I cannot recall a night with more joyous dancing.

After the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, my colleague posted a passage from his holy book, the Quran: “Whoever kills one person, merits punishment as if he had slain all the men in the world.” This is 2016 in the United States of America.

Because I’m Jewish, I was struck by the similarity to this quote from the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” This is 2016 in the United States of America, too.

One of my aunts is a pastor with a Metropolitan Community Church congregation in Florida; the other is the church administrator. They work ridiculously long hours (and, of course, every Sunday) and yet they make time to answer questions from sometimes-clueless straight people, journalists included. Their lives are driven by a desire to bring God’s love to LGBTQIA folks, so many of whom have had that love withheld from them.

My aunts spent Sunday and Monday at vigils honoring 49 people gunned down because they dared to go to a gay nightclub. This is 2016 in the United States of America.

While some of us are mourning the victims of that massacre in Orlando, there are others who continue to preach hatred. There are people who don’t see a connection between this country’s constant barrage of anti-gay legislation, our inability to do anything serious about gun control and what happened last weekend. This is 2016 in the United States of America, too.

If you think “tolerance” is enough, you’re wrong. If you think this situation is going to improve without political compromise and cooperation, you’re wrong. And if you think this is the best we can do in 2016 in the United States of America, I sure hope you’re wrong, too.

Disney (at the holidays) for first-timers!

We recently took our first family trip to Walt Disney World. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s. When Florida was experiencing record-breaking hot weather. blogpost

And we loved it!

We first considered a trip to Orlando during the seemingly endless winter of 2014-15. In fall 2015, we finally decided to go for it and began making plans in earnest. As we started doing some research, we came across many websites and books that basically said 1) You need at least six months, and preferably a year, to plan a Disney trip and 2) You shouldn’t go during school vacations, especially not right after Christmas.


In spite of these intimidating warnings, we decided to go and make the best of it. The grownups were mentally prepared for the possibility that every day would be spent shoulder to shoulder with cranky fellow tourists and whiny kids. Instead, we found that each day (and all three parks we visited) exceeded our expectations, with lots of magical moments not only for the kids, but also for the adults.

Here are some suggestions for first-timers based on our experiences:

  1. Consider staying off-site. 
    We booked a three-bedroom condo at Caribe Cove Resort, a Wyndham property in Kissimmee, for our six-person group. The kids (ages 8 and 11) had a room, we had a room and Rachel’s aunts had a room. Perfect. Privacy when we wanted it, plenty of shared space in the kitchen and living room when we wanted to have dinner or hang out. We had a washer and dryer in the unit, and the resort has a nice pool and hot tub, too.
  2. Give up a bit of spontaneity in exchange for the delights of Fastpass+. 
    We didn’t love the idea of planning which ride we’d be on weeks before we had even arrived in Florida, but the Fastpass+ system was fantastic. The joy of skipping a 90-minute (or, in one case, a 150-minute!) line makes a bit of planning worthwhile. We decided to think of Fastpass+ as Disney’s way of guaranteeing that, at least a few times each day, we would get to enjoy a ride or meet a character with almost no waiting. It’s true that you’ll have the best selection of Fastpass+ options 30 days ahead (or 60 days if you’re staying at a Disney resort), but even two or three days ahead of time you can snap up some good passes. Trust us; we switched plans and went to a different park with less than two days’ notice. It’s also worth noting that Fastpass+ is free (vs. about $50 per person per day for the comparable line-skipping privilege at Universal).
  3. Buy some of what you’ll want ahead of time. 
    We ordered matching tie-dyed shirts for the family, found Minnie Mouse ears and Disney lanyards for the kids and stocked up on snacks before we left home. The kids also made their own Disney autograph books. They had Disney gift cards for souvenirs, which meant they were responsible for their own budgeting and we weren’t negotiating over every pin and stuffed animal we saw. We bought food in the parks, but generally not full meals. Expect to spend $5-7 per person for snacks and $10-15 per person for a fast food-style lunch. Ice water is free anywhere that fountain drinks are for sale.
  4. Get to the parks before they’re scheduled to open. 
    We left our condo by 7 a.m. each day, arriving 15 or so minutes later. This ensured a negligible wait at the parking gate and a good spot at the entrance as the parks opened. Generally, we walked right to the attraction (ride, character meet-and-greet, whatever) that we most wanted to do. In many cases, we walked right in with no wait (for rides such as Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom and for the character spot at Epcot).
  5. Use the Disney app. 
    The app is one of the easiest and most effective I’ve used. We could review our Fastpass+ plans, switch them if necessary, see our dining reservations, locate characters, sort a list of attractions by wait time, view the day’s scheduled shows and more.
  6. Don’t follow the crowd.
    This goes for whole parks and for specific attractions. When we heard several Disney cast members say that Dec. 31 is the busiest day of the year at Magic Kingdom, we made plans to go somewhere else that day. When we saw a 60-minute wait for a ride, we did something else instead. Use Fastpasses for your must-see/must-ride activities, and choose attractions with shorter wait times the rest of the day. You’ll experience more of the park and avoid the sensation that you’ve done nothing but stand around waiting.
  7. Leave before your crew gets cranky. 
    Take an afternoon break and go swimming. Grab a nap. Go out for a late lunch or early dinner. But don’t force yourself (or your kids) to keep moving, even if it’s out of a desire to get the most bang for your buck. You’ll all have a better trip if you get some rest when you need it. Then, if everyone’s had a chance to recharge, you can go back and enjoy the evening. It’s likely to be less crowded and cooler, too.

What would we do differently? 

  1. Build in more downtime. 
    Given the length of our drive (18 or so hours each way) and of our kids’ school vacation, we had five days in Orlando. We were determined to make the most of our time, and booked four days of Disney and a day at Universal Studios. In retrospect, a down day would have been great. We could’ve relaxed at the pool, gotten some extra sleep and let our feet take a break after days when we walked eight or 10 miles.
  2. Consider leaving the camera at home in favor of Disney PhotoPass. 
    There were Disney photographers at almost every key scenic spot, attraction and character greeting location. If you don’t own a DSLR, it’s a no-brainer to buy the Memory Maker package for $149 before you go to Disney World. The package includes all those portraits plus photos from the roller coasters. Even if you do own a fancy camera, it’s worth considering just skipping the hassle and letting Disney do the work. If you do haul the DSLR along, as we did, you definitely should jump into the photos and have the Disney pro take a picture with your camera. They were gracious about it and captured some great shots.

Our itinerary:
We had a few books and spent time consulting several websites before we went, but ultimately we did wing it for much of the time. Our week ended up like this:

Monday after Christmas: Magic Kingdom
Highlights included our first glimpse of Cinderella’s castle, meeting Mickey Mouse and Cinderella, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, our older daughter’s first ride on Space Mountain and visiting the Hall of Presidents with our younger daughter (a history buff). We returned to the park at night for fireworks, and we were still on the ferry boat when they began. Seeing them across the water over the castle was probably the best moment of our trip.

Tuesday: Universal Studios
Worth going for Diagon Alley, but we would say the hospitality experience here did not come close to matching the Disney experience.

Wednesday: Epcot and breakfast with Minnie and Friends at the Cape May Cafe
Highlights included Soarin’ (our most valuable Fastpass+ of the week, hands down), walking through the World Showcase and the yummy buffet brunch.   

Thursday (aka New Year’s Eve): Animal Kingdom
We didn’t have big expectations of this park, but it ended up being our older daughter’s favorite of the week. Highlights included the roller coaster Expedition Everest and the Kali River Rapids water ride. The Broadway-style Festival of the Lion King show was spectacular.

Friday (aka New Year’s Day): Magic Kingdom
We returned for a second day at Magic Kingdom, reasoning that we’d enjoy more time to explore the largest of the parks. It didn’t disappoint! We enjoyed the Barnstomer roller coaster (perfect for younger kids), meeting Anna and Elsa and Mickey’s PhilharMagic. We wrapped up the week with classics including It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean.


15 years!

Today, Eric and I are celebrating 5,479 days of marriage.

This is an interesting moment in time. We can vividly remember our dating days, but we’ve also begun to picture what our lives will be like when our kids are grown. We hear songs we listened to as teens on the “oldies” station, but not all of our concert outings are for nostalgia acts. We definitely know more than we used to about home improvement projects, but we also know when it’s time to hire a pro to get something done.

For me, the most amazing thing about marriage has been waking up each day knowing that I have someone on my team, someone who encourages me to do better at work and in life. When we do something, we bring out the best in each other. We’ve had such fun teaching together, reading books together, traveling to new places together, even just copy editing each other’s writing. Heck, we have built so much IKEA furniture over the years with so few tears that I know it was meant to be!

I knew Eric was patient and kind when I married him; I didn’t know how important his generosity of spirit would be as the years went on. Because he’s able and willing to keep things going at home on his own from time to time, I have been able to travel for work, volunteer my time in the community and sustain friendships. Maybe women can’t have it all, but we can have so much more when our husbands are true partners in life.

Ogden Nash had it right when he wrote: “To keep your marriage brimming, With love in the loving cup, Whenever you’re wrong, admit it; Whenever you’re right, shut up.”

Mother’s Day survey 2015

mother-daughter dance

Rachel and the girls on their way to the mother-daughter dance

Answers by Sophie, age 10, and Charlotte, age 8

What is something Mommy always says to you?
Sophie: Before you leave, give me some kisses.
Charlotte: You’re cute.

What makes Mommy happy?
Sophie: When the coffee table is clean. Or when she’s drinking coffee.
Charlotte: Snuggles and kisses.

What makes Mommy sad?
Sophie: When she burns the garlic bread.
Charlotte: When I cry.

How does your mommy make you laugh?
Sophie: Seeing her react to some of the TV shows we watch.
Charlotte: Telling funny baby stories.

What was your mommy like as a child?
Sophie: Adventurous and epic.
Charlotte: She lived close to the woods.

How old is your mom?
Sophie: 40
Charlotte: 40

How tall is your mom?
Sophie: 6 feet 3 inches
Charlotte: 5 feet 2 inches

What is her favorite thing to do?
Sophie: Play with us.
Charlotte: Drink coffee.

What does your mom do when you’re not around?
Sophie: Talk to Daddy.
Charlotte: Watch TV.

If your mommy becomes famous, what will it be for?
Sophie: Being the president.
Charlotte: Being a writer.

What is your mom really good at?
Sophie: Writing.
Charlotte: Cooking.
What is your mommy not very good at?
Sophie: Knitting.
Charlotte: Sewing.

What does your mommy do for a job?
Sophie: She works with people from other countries.
Charlotte: She’s a writer at Binghamton University.

What is your mom’s favorite food?
Sophie: Fudgsicle.
Charlotte: Red velvet cupcakes.

What makes you proud of your mom?
Sophie: She’s nice to people even if we don’t know them.
Charlotte: She’s very nice and loving and amazing. Cooler than Rainbow Dash!

If your mom were a cartoon character, who would she be?
Sophie: Not SpongeBob. Jimmy Neutron, because he’s really smart.
Charlotte: Princess Luna.

What do you and Mommy do together?
Sophie: Arts and crafts.
Charlotte: Watch “Goosebumps.”

How are you and your mommy the same?
Sophie: We have the same laugh.
Charlotte: We are funny.

How are you and your mommy different?
Sophie: She goes to work and I go to school.
Charlotte: I have no clue how to cook.

How do you know your mommy loves you?
Sophie: She says it so much.
Charlotte: She gave birth to us.

Where is your mom’s favorite place to go?
Sophie: Paris.
Charlotte: China.

Where does your mom hate to go?
Sophie: IHOP.
Charlotte: IHOP.

What will you remember about your mom?
Sophie: She loves to read a lot like I do.
Charlotte: She’s awesome and amazing and funny and she loves us.