Water for Elephants written by Sara Gruen. I really enjoyed this novel, with one big fat caveat, which I'll explain in a moment.
First, let me give you a brief summary: Jacob Jankowski is a 23 year old student at Cornell University, getting ready to graduate and join his father in his veterinary practice. Tragedy strikes and Jacob's parents are killed in a car crash. With nowhere to go and no family to turn to, Jacob finds himself wandering aimlessly and jumping a train. He soon learns that this train holds the traveling Benzini Brothers Circus and Jacob soon becomes a member of the crew.
Part of the novel is told by Jacob as our narrator; the other part is told by a much older Jacob, at age 90 (or 93, he can't remember). I really enjoyed this dichotomy. The older Jacob gives a very real portrayal of life in a nursing home, sharing many touching insights with the reader. It's a really intriguing look at mind that can't help but remembering, stuck in a body that can't help not functioning as it once did. The younger Jacob's narration spares no expense in detail, and the reader is right along with him for some embarrassing episodes as he tries to find a new home among the myriad of characters and creatures of the show.
A great part of the book is dedicated to the love triangle between Jacob (the young one!), August, the Director of Equestrian Affairs (who is also the circus owner, Uncle Al's, right hand man), and August's wife Marlena, the star of the equestrian act. August is portrayed as a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character: one minute he's smooth & charming & benevolent towards Jacob, the next he's violent and brutal and manipulative. While Marlena and Jacob steal many quick glances at one another, things don't start to heat up between the two until Jacob gives her an unexpected kiss (unexpected to both of them) when they find a moment alone.
Also in the mix is Rosie, an elephant that Uncle Al bought from an ailing show, who is expected to be the #1 attraction. However, she won't do as she is told and pays for her bad behavior dearly at the hands of the maniacal August. These are scenes that are very hard to read.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but I would like to mention that it is one that is well-thought-out and everything that happens seems to be a natural progression to the story. And just when you think things might slow down for Jacob or fall into place nicely, something happens to shake things up yet again. The minor characters all play a nice supportive role here and add to the ambiance of the setting and the storyline. I really hate it when an author throws in a bunch of throwaway characters just to make a busy plot, but that's not the case here at all. Things that happen to our minor characters have consequences on our major characters.
Now for that caveat I mentioned: the ending. Not young Jacob's ending, but old Jacob's. Of course, I won't tell you what happens, but I must say that it is totally unrealistic, unbelievable and improbable and not at all in line with what we've read up to that point. The ending completely ruined the story for me and I really wish the author had not gone there. It's just awful.
I originally read this novel three, maybe four, years ago, to see what all the fuss was about. And then I decided to re-read it recently because I heard that the movie based on the novel was coming out. First time, I read the paper version of the novel, this time I read it on book-on-CD. I prefer the paper version in this case, for a couple of reasons. First, I really disliked the voice that the younger narrator gave August: it's whiny and snivel-y and really goes against his character. Second, there are many, many adult scenes & language in the novel & I don't know why, but I'd rather read it on paper. Perhaps it's the fear that an innocent Bachster will stir awake and hear something they shouldn't when I'm listening to the story after their bedtime. However, I liked the old Jacob's voice and felt it gave lots of authenticity to the old Jacob portions of the book.
I'm not certain now that I want to see the movie. I'm not sure I want to see the cruelty to the animals on the screen - reading about it was hard enough. Other than that aspect, the novel is not afraid to show the gritty setting and tell the story without backing out of some of the shocking details. I've heard that the movie is a bit watered down for the general public - I certainly hope that's not what they mean by waterfor elephants.
Part of the reason I came up with this list was because I see so many "how-to-be-Earth-friendly" lists that are totally unrealistic. Bike or walk to work or errands? Get a vehicle with better gas mileage? Replace your old appliances with newer, energy-saving versions? For many people, these are impossible, unrealistic & unaffordable suggestions.
So, here's my list - easy, fun things you can do to become more environmentally friendly:
1. Go to school. Or the library. Or the park. Or the fire station.
In our community, there are recycling bins at all these locations. At a nearby fire station and our closest metro park, there are full-recycling bins that take everything from plastic to cardboard to glass, etc. So, if you don't have curbside recycling (and we unfortunately do not) you can still easily recycle.
2. Feed the birds
We love feeding the blue jays and cardinals peanuts. I just set them out by our back door and soon after, the jays are calling to each other to share the good news. The Bachsters love to watch them come close to the house. This has led to many conversations about different birds, their diet, their calls, etc. By doing this, we've hopefully cultivated a love of nature & appreciation for our little backyard visitors.
Planting a garden with kids is a great way to get them outside and also helps them learn where food comes from (not the grocery store). If you plant veggies, then they will want to eat them. Experts always recommend to buy organic & local when possible - it doesn't get any more organic or local than that!
4. Don't garden
My mother-in-law planted a very invasive flowering plant of some type right at our front porch area a few years ago. The invasive plant (I completely forget what it's called) has overtaken a few hostas, and is always overgrown and bushy. I've considered ripping it all out, but then I remembered that the bees and bugs really love this unkempt area of our yard. It's very dense so it provides them with all sorts of cover and the flowers are lovely in the summer, and long-blooming. Insects and little animals need that sort of shelter, which is disappearing rapidly due to sprawl. I say let Nature reclaim a patch of your yard - it'll probably be wild & unruly, but truly wonderful.
5. Get a hobby
Make it an outdoor hobby! Wildlife photography, bird watching & star gazing are a few examples of outdoor activities in which the purpose is an appreciation of nature. Since I started photography, I take the Bachsters out to parks, arboretums, ponds, fields, etc. that I might never have visited otherwise. I really love that it changes your perspective on nature. For example, on a really icy day, I don't bemoan the road conditions or the temperature, but thrill to the idea of getting some gorgeous shots of nature under ice. Even a physical activity like jogging or biking that gets you outside will go a long way to get you environmental-y.
6. Go to the park, skip the playground
I feel like a bad Mama for admitting this, but I rarely take the Bachsters to a playground. However, I am always taking them for hikes in the woods. They are still getting exercise & fresh air (and I get more photo ops), but just as important, they are getting out in nature, not just a concrete slab or mulch with play equipment. I hope by making that choice, I am helping to nurture their love for nature.
7. Eat less beef
When I was in college, I took an Environmental Ethics class, where I learned that part of the reason for deforestation is to provide pasture areas for cattle. I haven't eaten beef since. Here is a linkon an article about the issue. Not only is deforestation a concern with beef production, but beef also has negative affects on global warming. Here's a linkto some information about it. I just did a quickie search, but I'm sure there's a lot of information you could gather through google. If you really want to make a difference, go vegetarian. Or even vegan!
8. Read a book
There are a couple of environmentally-related books that I'd recommend. The first is A Tree is Nice by Janice May Udry. This is a children's book that very simply gives some reasons why trees are so awesome.
The other book I'd recommend is The Legacy of Luna, which is the story of Julia Butterfly Hill, who lived in an ancient California redwood tree to protest a logging company's plan to cut it down. What an amazing act of courage and determination!
9. Make good consumer choices
I know it's hard to pay extra for something when you don't have to. Sometimes, the products at the supermarket that are the best for the environment are also the costlier ones. But if everyone purchased these products, then more companies would start providing them and prices would become more competitive. Supply and demand!
10. Knit a hat
Make sure it's a wool hat. Then knit a wool sweater. Or go buy one (if you want to be uber-environmental, you can buy one used at a garage sale or a vintage clothing store). Wool is the key word here, because in colder weather, you can just put on your hat or sweater to keep you warm, instead of turning up your heat. That's the power of knitting!
11. Homemade cooking is good
I make almost everything homemade, and there are some great environmental benefits to it. There's less packaging & less transportation. From a health perspective, there are no chemicals or preservatives or hidden dangers like loads of salt. And homemade always tastes better and is more economical.The only downside I can see to homemade is that it takes a bit longer to make. But that's a small price to pay for all the benefits.
I don't think you need to install solar panels and a backyard wind turbine to do something positive for the environment. Smaller, every day things really add up in the big picture. And in addition to those little things, doing activities that will foster a respect and appreciation for our environment will hopefully grow into even more fervent action towards preserving the environment.
It's been really rainy around here lately, so when we had a nice sunny day a few days ago, I jumped at the chance to get outdoors with my camera. I headed to Greenlawn Cemetery in Columbus (link here) with 2 out of 3 Bachsters. Greenlawn is a really old & beautiful cemetery with tons of trees - I was hoping to find lots of flowering trees, and Greenlawn didn't disappoint. We came across a gorgeous, mature Magnolia tree. Its branches hung low to the ground and it was in full bloom - it was like being inside a giant flower.
I've always wanted to learn how to do a diptych. This one's not too bad for a first attempt....but there's still a lot I need to learn.
Being at the cemetery & seeing all the beautiful trees reminds me that I've always said I'd like a tree instead of a traditional tombstone one day when my time is up! Now, I'm starting to think that tree should be a lovely Magnolia tree.
1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up, edited by Julia Eccleshare is a real exercise in post-it-note allocation. I would challenge anyone reading through this behemoth of a book to not be tempted to post-it-note, earmark, bookmark or jot down a list of great books you'd love to read (for yourself or to your kids).
The book is organized by age group: 0-3 years old, 3+, 5+, 8+ and 12+. Each age group contains a list of books, starting with oldest to most recent (2008). Some are classics, some are foreign titles, some are not as well known as others - but each suggested book features a nice description. The cover art of many of the books is also pictured. The many contributors/reviewers range from authors and illustrators to professors to librarians.
I have really devoured this book. I've found books from my childhood that I forgot I read (Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears). I've enjoyed reading the reviews on some of my favorite children's books and wondered why some were omitted (more Arnold Lobel, please). I've read the reviews on classic stories that I've always been interested in, but have never read. Having all these little snippets right in from of you makes it so easy to find books that you want to read. This book is wonderful! I keep thinking that this book would make the perfect gift for parents-to-be......maybe alongside one of your personal favorite books?
It might seem like a small thing, but I also wanted to mention how great the index is! You can search by author/illustrator or title of the book, and you can also easily find the featured reviewers write ups (like Lauren Child? Check out one of her favorite books on page 586). As you can see, I'm going to be very busy:
I've always felt it was a little daunting going to the library and seeing shelf upon shelf of books. Where to begin? Where are the good ones? In fact, that's one of the reasons I started Book Nook - to share with others the books that I've enjoyed, and maybe get some good recommendations in return. This book is like having your best friend, who happens to be a children's librarian, along with you on your day at the library. I guarantee you won't be going home empty handed!
I love homemade soup. It's so yummy and wholesome and much better than canned soup. And it's really not difficult to make either. Lately, I've been making a few different kinds of soup because the weather around here has been kind of cold & rainy....perfect for soup!
The first soup I've made recently is one of my favorite recipes, lentil soup from Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys. When I first spotted this recipe, I thought it sounded good but sort of boring. I was so wrong. This recipe adds just the right amount of salt to make it tasty, but not at all salty. It's even better as leftovers! This is one of the best soups I've ever had!
Next up is a mushroom soup. This recipe can be found on the back of Wolfgang Puck's boxed vegetable broth, found at grocery stores. There is a similar recipe on his website (found here) but it's not vegetarian like the one I use.....but it is a very similar recipe. Easy to make, healthy, yummy. My family doesn't like this one as much, but I love it, so that's more for me!
And finally, my vegetarian chili. I have a friend whose Mom calls chili "chili soup" so because of that, I think I can include it in the soup category! This is a recipe that I've tweaked from the one that came with our crock-pot. I used to make it with ground turkey breast in my pre-vegetarian days & it's good that way too.
Here's the recipe:
3 cans of diced tomatoes, chili style
3 cans of beans - (1 each: dark kidney beans, light kidney beans, black beans)
2 6-oz. cans of tomato paste
1 green pepper
Ground spices - chili powder, ancho chile powder (mild), New Mexico chile pepper (mild), guajill chile pepper (medium) & chipotle chile pepper (hot)
Cheddar or cheddar-jack cheese & Saltine crackers, for serving
To make: Drain the beans & add them and the diced tomatoes to crock pot. Chop green pepper into a thick dice and onion into a slightly finer dice and add them to crock pot. Stir in one can of tomato paste. If chili isn't thick enough, add more of the 2nd can, a little at a time until it's reaches the thickness you want. Add spices - more of the mild, & just a little bit of the medium/hot spices. Stir it all up. Cover crock pot & let cook on high heat for a couple of hours. Reduce heat to low & let cook for an additional 3 hours. Don't open the lid while it's cooking! After the 3 hours on low heat, open lid, stir & taste. Add more spices or salt if needed. If peppers & onions are still too crunchy, cook chili longer. If it's to your liking, turn off heat & let sit for about 15 minutes before serving. To serve, put chili in bowl & top with cheese - let sit until cheese is melted.
When I used to make the turkey chili version, I would thoroughly cook ground turkey breast in a skillet & then add it to the chili mixture, instead of black beans.
It's a really basic recipe that you can tweak to your liking. DH added wasabi last time I made it & he said it was great. If you make it, let me know how it turned out!
When I was a kid, I loved Roald Dahl's books, particularly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Recently, I've been wanting to read longer stories to the Bachsters (instead of just picture books) so naturally, I've looked to some of Dahl's books because I know how magical they are for kids.
The first Roald Dahl selection I read to the Bachsters was my favorite, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the story, a young boy named Charlie Bucket dreams of winning one of 5 golden tickets to gain admission into the town's mysterious chocolate factory owned by the equally mysterious Willy Wonka. Charlie's family is incredibly poor, so Charlie won't have many chances to try to win. By a wonderful coincidence, or luck or magic or maybe even fate, Charlie finds a dollar bill beneath the snow. He buys a chocolate bar at a nearby store and gobbles it down, as he is so starved. And good thing his stomach is making the decisions right then, because after he buys a second chocolate bar, on a whim, things start to look up for Charlie.
The tour of the factory with Willy Wonka has many surprises in store for Charlie and the 4 other golden ticket winners (who are all spoiled and selfish - except for Charlie, of course). One by one, the other children are kicked off the tour and then it's just Charlie (accompanied by his Grandpa) left. Even more incredible surprises are yet in store for our hero.
This book was an absolute pleasure to read to the Bachsters, and they just loved it! At one point in time, my oldest actually got up & started to dance a little jig, she was so excited by the story. Every night, they beseeched, "one more chapter, please, pleeeaaase." And the best part? As soon as we finished the book, they wanted to start reading it again!
And of course, they read it themselves between our nightly readings:
Since Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was such a success, I thought we'd try another Dahl favorite, James and the Giant Peach.
In the story, James Henry Trotter loses his parents in an unfortunate accident involving a rhinoceros. He goes to live with his Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. These two women are terrible to James - "they were selfish and lazy and cruel, and right from the beginning they started beating poor James for almost no reason at all." Despite his horrible circumstances, James manages to stay upbeat and hopeful, his only desire to go to the beach and play with other children. One day, a mysterious man approaches James and gives him a bag of magical squiggly things (yeah, I had to have a conversation with the kids to never trust mysterious men, even though it works out ok in this story). Anyway, James accidentally drops the bag under the peach tree, and magical things start to happen. James finds himself on a wild adventure with a huge Ladybug, Old Green Grasshopper, Earthworm, Centipede, Spider, Glow Worm & Silk Worm, all on top of a ginormous peach.
The Bachsters loved this story as well. Every night, I was bombarded with the request for one more chapter. They were fascinated by the story of James and all his new, quirky friends and their adventures with the sharks and the Cloud Men and the new, foreign city. The pace of the story was just right and Dahl's witty writing made us all want to stay up a little late, reading more. The other day, my 5-year-old said, out of the blue, "I love James and the Giant Peach." We all agree!
If your kids are at the stage where they are ready for something lengthier than picture books, I recommend these stories by Roald Dahl. They are beloved classics.
By the way, here is the link for my post on Fantastic Mr. Fox, also by Roald Dahl.
I haven't posted much about my knitting lately & one of the reasons for that is I've been in a knitting rut. But in the last couple of days, I've been motivated to pick up the needles again & plow through some of my projects.
First, I wanted to share a project from the past. I've been working on updating my Ravelry project page. There are a bunch of finished projects that I want to post on my project page, but I just haven't put them on yet. One of the reasons for this is that, for some crazy reason, I never photographed my Finished Objects in my early days of knitting. I used to think that there was no reason to photograph them, they would always be hanging around the house, right? Well, I've since come to my senses and now I photograph everything, usually over the course of 2 or 3 photoshoots! I've gone from one extreme to the other! But I now know that FOs get lost, or they are gifted to someone, or they look ragged over time. So, now I'm prone to over-photographing them.
Anyway, I've been meaning to add this little ladybug hat to my Ravelry page & I finally did so today. I made the hat in 2008 (I think.....I'm having a hard time remembering that exactly - nowadays, I take better project notes, too) for my daughter's birthday. I've always loved the look of it & my DD loves it, too! Here's the link to my project page if you're a Ravelry member, for more pics & notes.
Recently, I've had a project on the needles that has been there for a couple of months, just stagnating. I realized that I would need to frog (knit speak for rip out) a great deal of work. I was really procrastinating on frogging it, just to rebel against something that I really didn't want to do. Finally I mustered up the courage and....made the Bach Girls rip it out for me! Actually, they had a lot of fun doing it & it made the frogging less painful for me.
I'm happy to say that, despite the setback of the frogging, I'm back on track & making good progress!
Finally, my future knitting project. The yarn has been chosen (Cascade 220 - I love that yarn) and I've got it in balls, ready to go. I've plotted my course of action. I think the only thing that has been holding me back on this project is uncertainty about the colors (I couldn't figure out if those were just the right browns) but I think I've chosen the colors well & plan to cast on in the next couple of days. I'm going to keep this one secret for a while, so I can't tell you any details, other than it's going to be so amazingly cool! I can't wait to show you - and I will!!! But for now, just a peek at the yarn:
I promise to keep you posted on all my knitting endeavors!
Can't-Put-It-Down books are both a blessing and a curse. Laundry sulks. Tumbleweeds blow across a sink full of dirty dishes. Toy Story 3 plays a great deal of the day. And yet, there is an upside: a great book that you can devour in a short period of time. Your household will thank you for that last detail.
First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones is such a book. A quick & fun read that will have you skirting all your responsibilities. In the story, Private Investigator Charley Davidson is the actual grim reaper. Newly departed souls need to go through her (she's beaming & sparkly in their eyes) in order to get through her portal to that great big party in the sky. Actually, most dead people just go straight to the party; those that are murdered are especially in need of Charley's services. This helps her Uncle Bob, detective for the Albuquerque Police Department, a great deal since she can actually talk to the murdered person and get all the details. Charley and Uncle Bob are drawn into a case involving 3 murdered lawyers, a murdered informant, an innocent man in prison, his missing nephew & a slew of bad guys. In the mix are some humans like Charley's maternal, caring assistant Cookie, who has the incredible talent of suspending disbelief; there are the dead, like Aunt Lillian who thinks she is making a mean cup of coffee; and then there's Reyes, a supernatural being who wisps in and out of Charley's life.
Reading this book, I couldn't help but think of the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlene Harris. Let's look at some of the similarities, shall we?
-Both Charley and Sookie are real lookers, bosomy & have every non-related male wanting her
-Both are sassy, call-it-like-it-is, fearless to the point of stupidity, & compassionate
-Both Charley and Sookie have a supernatural talent (the former is able to see and talk to dead people and has the ability to take a beating better than the average human; the latter is telepathic and can heal faster than the average human - with some help from her vampire friends)
-Both endure repetitive butt-kickings that would send any other mortal to the hospital - or the morgue. But they both wake up the next day, ready for more!
-Both have many steamy scenes with their supernatural paramours
-Both are involved in overly complicated plots
-Both tend bar (although in Charley's case, it's a mere mention in the story)
-In both stories, knitting proves to be a deadly hobby (although this happens later in the Sookie series)
I'll stop there. You get the point how closely related these characters and books are. Which, if you liked the Sookie Stackhouse series, you will probably really like this one, too. However, these similarities drove me a little crazy after a while. I really hope if Darynda Jones has a second book about Charley Davidson, it's not set in Dallas with Sookie (I mean Charley) and Bill (I mean Reyes) battling an anti-vampire cult (I mean an anti-grim reaper cult). Just sayin'.
Anyway, I will say there were a couple more tiny things that bugged me about the book. One, Jones' descriptions of heaven & hell are incredibly stereotypical. I would have loved if the inventive idea of the female grim reaper had translated to the afterlife as well. I would have loved to see something like "Beetlejuice" for instance. But no, heaven in this book is a bright place above where you get to hang out with all your friends. Hell is not as well defined, but there are gates, it's dark, down a tunnel and bad.
My second little nitpick is that Charley's character is bestowed with a lot of sass, but it ends up being too much of a good thing. I found several instances where I was quickly trying to read through all the snide comments just to get back into the dialogue. It was laid on a little too thick, especially in the first half of the book.
But I'm making it sound like I don't like the book & that's not true. I really enjoyed it - it's a fast paced, funny, can't-put-it-down chick-lit read. But now that I'm finished with the book & writing about it, I guess its flaws (and those neglected dishes) have come to my attention.
One of my photography goals this year is to get a good shot of a salamander. This will be easier said than done, as they are shy, elusive, nocturnal amphibians. Some kinds burrow deep in the ground for most of the year. A few weeks ago, I attended a program about vernal pools (see the post here) and learned all about salamanders - and how difficult they can be to find! But, I'm not ready to throw in the towel quite yet, so I attended a program yesterday at one of Columbus' Metro Parks in hopes of finding salamanders.
The Bachsters came with me & unfortunately, I forgot to bring them hats and gloves! I was so concerned about the looming rain clouds that I didn't think about the temperature. It was supposed to be in the 50s, but when we got to the park it was only in the low 40s. The kids ended up taking turns wearing the only hat I brought....mine! To make matters worse, my oldest daughter was complaining about her boots before we left, so I let her wear her school shoes. Did I mention that this program took us off-trail to the park's vernal pool? Cold and wet. Yeah, I really earned the Mom Of The Year Award on this excursion!
The only salamander we saw all day was the captive one the park naturalist showed us before we left for the vernal pool:
Here's Little Dude, ready to embark on our adventure, not knowing the off-trail dangers that lie ahead (but looking a little apprehensive all the same):
I learned three important lesson from the program: first, off-trail + Bachsters just do not mix. There were tons of logs, sticks, twig bushes & pools of water we had to cross. But the most challenging part was the sticker-bushes - they were everywhere, blocking our path like a bouncer at an exclusive club. Navigating through them at kid level took real maneuvering - the kids would often have to back up, and go around the sticky situation they walked into. The other important lesson I learned is that my Bachsters are real troopers. They complained a little when we were off-trail, but mostly they were just focused on the task at hand: navigating to the vernal pool, then finding our way back out to the trail. And no one asked me to carry them, which was shocking! The third lesson learned: the promise of hot chocolate upon our safe return home was very motivating, indeed.
Because of the cold temperatures, our guide gave us the gloomy prediction of few amphibian sightings. And she was right: no one in the group found a salamander and only one little wood frog was found hanging out under a log:
My 5-year old found a little snail on a log as we were leaving the vernal pool. She was so thrilled to have found something, even though it wasn't the salamander that she was hoping for:
In all, it was cold. It was wet. It rained on us a little bit. Little feet got water in their boots & shoes. Little pants were poked by sticker bushes. But my kids got to see a vernal pool and poke around in it. They got to experience working their way though dense bushes and twigs, just like forests are in their natural state. And making this Mama very proud, they revealed that they are open to new challenges that arise.
And the hot chocolate that I promised them? A very warm & satisfying end to our adventure.