Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Nook - Little House in the Big Woods

Little House in the Big Woods written by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

The story, which takes place in the early 1870s, recounts the events of young Laura Ingalls Wilder's life.  Her family - her Ma, her Pa, her big sister Mary and her baby sister Carrie, live in a tiny log cabin in the big woods of Wisconsin.  Reading this book is a bit like traveling back in time, to a place and time where life demanded hard physical work, but also offered many joys.

Each chapter is a different story about life in the Ingalls family.  One chapter  tells about the hunting and harvest season, and how Pa smoked all the meat he had hunted in a hickory stump.  Laura (who writes the story in the 3rd person narrative) also tells of the family storing pumpkins in the attic, or how Ma made head cheese (don't ask, you don't want to know).  Some of the earlier chapters in the book were a little much for the younger and more sensitive of the Bachsters - there is a lot of talk about killing animals (or the ones that want to kill us) to prepare for the upcoming winter.  But it is just this reason that this book is such a treasure: it gives us a chance to talk to our kids about life in those days and the hardships and realities of that life.

And it's not just the bigger-picture items that make good conversation starters.  I loved reading about the means of transportation for the family, special occasions like the dance at Grandma & Grandpa's house (the jig dance-off was especially fun) & how the family spent quiet times together, like the evenings when Pa would tell the girls stories and play his fiddle, while Ma did her mending or rocked baby Carrie.  There are also lots of stories about bear encounters, like the bear that Laura and Ma mistook for their cow, or the stump that Pa thought was a bear, or the story about Pa finding the bee tree - and the bear that was there enjoying the honey.

One thing I really appreciated about the book is that it is written for children, and focuses a great deal on Laura (therefore, we hear stories about games she and her sister played, or about her favorite doll, or about a time she got into big trouble for hitting Mary), but Laura (the author) effortlessly weaves in information about the grown-ups' lives too.  She gives great detail about Pa and the threshing event, or about specific foods that Ma prepares for them, for instance.  It adds a lot of fullness, I guess you could say, to the story that so much of everyone's activities and responsibilities are given so much detail.

On a bit of a side note, several years ago PBS did a show called Frontier House, in which three families were put under the same circumstances as the Ingalls family (although I think the setting was a little different - Montana instead of Wisconsin).  Anyway, this was also a really fascinating look at life in the 1870s, and I remember that when the families returned to the modern world, many of them couldn't believe how big their houses were, or how much space those big houses put between family members.  Also, some of the people on the show lost a lot of weight because of all the hard labor they were doing (the men in particular)!

And another side note worthy of mentioning: there is also a series of picture books available, with many of the stories that are in the novel (for instance, there is a picture book about the dance at Grandpa's).  These picture books would be a perfect choice for little ones not yet ready to tackle a book of the size and scope of this one.  I've read the Bachsters all the available Little House picture books from our local library over the years.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Nook - One Day

One Day written by David Nicholls:

This book falls right on the border of whether I liked it enough to recommend it, but my feelings about it sway just enough on the "like it" side that it is "Book Nook worthy."  Keep this in mind as you read on, because it may seem like lots of criticism, but it's really tough love!

The book begins with Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, two just-graduated college students who find themselves spending the night together.  They don't actually, um, "spend the night together," rather they talk and "cuddle" (Emma's word, which she instantly regrets using).  But these two are very attracted to one another, so they make a plan, sleepily, to spend the next day together in celebration of their new lives.

This is the first nit-pick I have.  First of all, if these two just-graduated-and-in-celebration-mode young adults find themselves in this situation, it just seems like the night would end up differently (at least that's what we're led to believe in just about every other movie or book).  So, if they are so attracted to one another, why don't they?  And, if they are so attracted to one another, why does Emma keep criticizing Dexter (when they wonder aloud where they will both be at age 40, Emma is quick to tell him that he'll be on his third trophy wife).  And if they are so attracted to one another, why does Dexter keep plotting a way to leave?  So are they really attracted to one another, or aren't they? 

From here, the story progresses with each of them leading their separate lives, but coming together through letters or meeting one another at times throughout the years.  And, in one of my biggest complaints, it is always mid-July that they meet, somehow.  Hence the title, One Day.  It is always July 15 that these two individuals come together, the same date as their night together in Emma's room.  I found this to be highly improbable - Emma and Dexter don't see each other or talk to one another for months, or even years, but they just happen to meet up that day, by chance, time and time again?  Come on!

One thing that I really enjoyed about the book was how true the ups and downs of life were presented.  When Dexter's life is going well, Emma is stuck in a job she hates, as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant.  When Emma finds herself in a long-term relationship with Ian, Dexter finds himself in a downward spiral due to his drinking.  Sometimes they long for one another's company, and sometimes they begrudgingly meet each other, hoping to end the occasion as soon as possible. 

I also liked the characters of Emma and Dexter.  Emma's struggles for success seemed very real (I especially liked the part in which she meets an old college acquaintance when she is having a meeting with a publisher - her old friend is at the top of her game, while Emma is still trying to find her way in the world).  And there's her relationship with Ian, a comfortable relationship, but ultimately unsatisfying to Emma.  Dexter is a well-drawn character as well.  He lives the high life, with his family's money, his good looks and his job as a TV presenter.  His answering machine tells the caller: talk to me!  But his insecurities lead to drinking, and he soon finds himself at rock bottom.  I couldn't relate to Dexter as I had with Emma, but thanks to Nicholl's fine writing, I could empathize with him.

There are a couple of great supporting characters, as well.  I loved the character Sookie, Dexter's co-host and eventually, his girlfriend.  She has the same pressures as Dexter, but unlike Dexter, she has her head on her shoulders.  Her outspoken character is a lot of fun to be around.  Ian, a struggling comedian who is actually not at all funny, was also a good addition to the characters.  And I loved Dexter's mother, confiding in her son and asking him to do the same.

Nicholls also adds touches of humor here and there, which I always appreciate in a book.  Sookie drinks from Dexter's bottled water in an unfortunate on-the-air mix up: Dexter's bottle isn't filled with water, but straight vodka.  When Dexter and Emma are at a mutual friend's wedding, the theme is Marie Antoinette ("at least we know there'll be cake" Dexter jokes).  I loved some of the touches of humor found throughout the book.

Now, back to a couple of gripes: Emma writes a book for children, about a school play.  She is lauded as the next Roald Dahl (she downplays the praise by saying it was just a quote from the publisher's daughter).  In Roald Dahl's defense, I'd like to say that Emma's book (eventually a series, ending in her character's teenage pregnancy) is absolutely nothing like Roald Dahl's books!  I wonder if Nicholls has ever read a book by Roald Dahl?  As a big fan of Roald Dahl, I'm indignant that Emma's fictional books could even be compared to the great works of Roald Dahl.  Another quibble: throughout the book, this duo is often referred to as Dex and Em, Em and Dex.  Sometimes it's supposed to be cutesy, other times it's used in sarcasm.  Well, every time it's used, I can't help but think about Chester and Wilson, Wilson and Chester from Chester's Way by Kevin Henkes.  Perhaps Nicholls needs to brush up on his children's literature a bit? 

And finally, the ending.  Oh, the ending!  I will not spoil it for you, but let's just say that the author made something happen, and it was so heavy-handed.  I couldn't read it without thinking to myself, the author has done this to his characters.  Not immersed in the story, as a reader should be, but pointing my finger at Nicholls and asking why he went and did that to Emma and Dexter.  If you are going to shake things up in the story, your presence, as the writer, needs to be well obscured from your reader so that the events of the story progress naturally.  Up to this point, I really liked the writer's style, but it all went downhill from there.  Nicholls makes up for it a bit by giving us, in the last chapter, a look at what Emma and Dexter did that day after graduation.  And after all the characters (and the reader) have been through, it's bittersweet.

My reading experience with this book mirrored Emma and Dexter's ups and downs - one minute, it's all good, the next minute, you're scheming of a way to get out.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Christmas knitting - better late than never (part 2)

I've recently learned a very valuable lesson about giving hand-knitted gifts, which is this: if you are giving hand-knitted gifts to anyone under, say, the age of 10, let them know upfront that the gift that they are about to open is hand-knitted.  Warn them that it is not the Lego Millenium Falcon...just as a very-random example.  I know this from experience, sadly, because when you sit your recipient(s) down, have your camera in hand & tell them that you have an extra-special gift for them, their imaginations might work a little differently than their hard-knitting mama's.  Just saying.

Anyway, all this is to say that I finally gave the Bachsters their hand-knitted Christmas gifts.  On Valentine's Day.  But gifted all the same!  I have been working on our oldest DD's gift, and it is still not finished (can you tell that my ability for approximating project timelines is sorely lacking).  But I decided that I wanted to give the knitted gifts, even if one of them is still in the works.  At least that way, they can start getting some use out of their cold-weather goodies, before Spring gets here.

Little Dude opened his gift first, and hated it.  (Please see earlier note about prepping the recipient.)  However, after he saw his older sister's (the 6-year-old) response to her gift, he decided that his knitted vest is pretty cool after all and has been wearing it since that time yesterday (to bed, even).

I'm so pleased with how the vest fits him.  This is only my second garment that I've knit (the other was also a vest for Little Dude, interestingly), first time doing one on circular needles - and I used a different weight yarn than the pattern called for.  I was a little worried about the fit.

I'm also pleased that I had enough yarn to finish the project - I only had inches left of the navy blue!  If you're a Ravelry member, here are my project notes.

When our 6-year old opened her gift, she had the reaction that I had been imagining and hoping for:  I love it, she kept saying, and immediately put on her hat & scarf.  She wore her scarf all day at school today.  Here are a few pics from our little photoshoot yesterday:

She kept telling me how warm her new scarf & hat were keeping her noggin' and neck.  I'm pretty thrilled that she loves her knitted goodies so much!

In hindsight, I might have made the scarf a little shorter - the weight of the silk has made it stretch out a bit.  But, at least she will never outgrow it!  Here are the Ravelry notes on the hat, and here are the notes on the scarf.

As for our oldest DD's knitted gift, since it is still in progress I will just have to keep that under wraps for now.  But I can tell you this: it is not the Lego Millenium Falcon (see.....I'm learning).


Monday, February 13, 2012

Book Nook - Howl's Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle, written by Diana Wynne Jones:

Thank you, thank you shannonb for recommending this book to me.....I loved it!  In fact, I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I finished it, I started reading it again immediately.  I just wasn't ready to leave Howl's world and all the characters that inhabit it.

This is the story of Sophie, a young girl of around age 18 or 19 who finds herself an apprentice in her family's hat shop after the death of her father.  Sophie lives in a magical world, where there are witches and wizards and in this world, at least according to Sophie, no good can come of being the eldest of three sisters (here, the author is having some fun at some well known tales, in which the youngest is always the one who gets the "happily ever after").  Sophie talks to herself a lot, as her step-mother is out most of the time and she finds herself alone often.  She tells certain hats what fate they will have and what kind of owner they require.  Sophie doesn't think much about her talking to inanimate objects, but after an unfortunate run-in with the notorious Witch of the Waste, in which Sophie is turned into a 90-year old woman, she learns that things in her world are not always what they seem.

From here, Sophie wanders about until she comes across Howl's moving castle, which hovers and moves around the land.  The people in town have been talking about the mysterious Howl, and it is rumored that he eats the hearts of young girls.  Sophie figures since she is no longer a young girl, and that she needs a place to sleep for the night, she has nothing to lose by trying to enter the castle.  Here is where her adventure begins, among the wizard Howl, his eager-to-please apprentice Michael, and the fire-demon Calcifer.

What I most enjoyed about the book were the characters.  They were all so real, practically jumping off the page.  Howl spends two hours in the bathroom every day to work his magical charms to perfect his hair and to get perfumed up for the ladies.  Michael is willing to run up and down the castle steps throughout the day to get Howl whatever he demands when he's sick.  Calcifer leaves Sophie clues about his contract with Howl, which he can't tell her outright, and tells her through gritted teeth that he did leave her a clue when she tells him he needs to give her some clues!  (Incidentally, I never found any of Calcifer's clues until I read the book a second time, and then I couldn't help but laugh each time I found one.)  But the best is Sophie, who changes from a shy, timid, mouse-like girl to a self-assured, snooping (Howl calls her "Mrs. Nose" at one point) , who-cares-what-anyone-thinks kind of old lady.  Her transformation is such fun to read and her attitude towards everything just adds to the richness of her character.

Diana Wynne Jones injects a great amount of subtle humor into her characters and writing.  I loved her chapter titles, things like "Chapter 5, which is far too full of washing" or Chapter # (I forget which #), in which Howl expresses his emotions with green slime.  When the Witch of the Waste asks Sophie if she knows about Wales, Sophie asks if it's under the sea.  When Sophie talks to the skull on Howl's workbench, she tells him he's got it worse than she does.  There are lots and lots of little jokes and humorous moments in the book - Jones and her characters do not take themselves too seriously.

If you enjoy audio books, you'll love listening to this story.  The version I listened to was read by Jenny Sterlin, who did little voices for each of the characters.  I was reminded of listening to the Harry Potter series, read by Jim Dale, who also made up voices for each character.  It's a hard task to elevate an already wonderful book to the next level, but in both cases, these readers achieved that task.

I read in one review that the plot is dizzying, and that's a good way to describe it.  There's so much going on, and so many elements to the storyline that things can get confusing.  I must admit, I'm still not 100% certain why the Witch of the Waste put the spell on Sophie in the first place (something about her sister Lettie and the Prince, but none of it made sense to me).  The second reading clarified some of my questions about the plot, but it picks up a lot of speed towards the end and might leave readers scratching their heads.  If that's the case, no matter, just read it again - once, twice or more, this book is pure magic.

ETA: corrected the title of Chapter 5 (I finally found the post-it-note that I had scribbled it on)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Little Dude and the Chocolate Factory

"Walking to school in the mornings, Charlie could see great slabs of chocolate piled up high in the shop windows, and he would stop and stare and press his nose against the glass, his mouth watering like mad."
-from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, written by Roald Dahl

Earlier this week, Little Dude and I went on a behind-the-scenes tour of a local ice cream shop/chocolate shop.  I know what you're thinking - "whole foods for a whole week" and all.  I can only blame our local parks & recreation for luring me and my preschooler with the promise of chocolate!

This tour was for preschoolers only (and their favorite grown ups) and the kids had a chance to not only see the kitchen, storage area & all parts of the shop, but also got to put on their own little gloves and make some of their own confections.  Yummy treats like pretzels dipped in chocolate and then rolled around in sprinkles...

Also, gigantic marshmallows dipped in chocolate and again, rolled in sprinkles (the sprinkles were a must):

There were also Oreos dipped and rolled in, you guessed it.....sprinkles!  And also a little treat for all the grown ups on the tour.  It was a very yummy excursion!

And unlike Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who only takes a tiny nibble out of his special birthday chocolate bar each day, Little Dude and I took our yummy treats home and absolutely devoured them on the spot.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Book Nook - The Gentle Art of Knitting

The Gentle Art of Knitting: 40 Projects Inspired by Everyday Beauty by Jane Brocket:

Oh, how I love Jane Brocket!  I was so thrilled with her book, The Gentle Art of Domesticity (see Book Nook post here) & I figured I'd love her book about knitting as well - I was right!  She has written this book with her usual charm and humor.

The projects are mostly accessories - there is one sweater.  As she explains, she prefers to knit accessories because you don't have to mess around with fit at all - I wholeheartedly agree!  Some of her accessories are a bit eccentric - egg cosies and tea cosies, for instance.  But many of them are true classics with the Jane Brocket twist (mostly her fabulous eye for color): round cushions (which I would love to knit up), a gorgeous afghan that starts off as as individual scarves ("which kept everyone wrapped up until they were called back to be sewn together") and a beautiful open weave scarf, to name a few.  I might queue up one of her slouchy hats & she's given me inspiration to knit a hot water bottle cover.

What I really love about this book is the author's absolutely laid back approach to design (and knitting in general).  On the slouchy hats, for example, she admits that she designed it flat because she couldn't find the right size of circular needle.  On the mustardseed scarf, she admits to choosing the yarn for the project because it was one that she had just sitting in her stash (she also gives a really funny account of how she came about naming this scarf - after one of the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream).  I think that most designers would be scouring the internet for the right needle, or calling up yarn companies for yarn support.  I love Brocket's approach to it all, and how she encourages her readers to do the same ("if you do have some yarn in your cupboard that would look good on the edge then use it, but if you don't then there is no need to spend more money just for a thin line of colour.").

And just like The Gentle Art of Domesticity, the author has taken many of the photographs herself.  I love how she pairs up a photo of the inspiration for the project with the finished object.  There's a picture of challah bread beside her cabled rug; there's a photo of flowers beside her crocheted starburst flower afghan (there are a couple of crochet projects in the book, both of them afghans I think) & pictures of sea glass and a beach to show her inspiration for the sea glass chevron scarf.  I love that she shares her inspirational insights with the reader!

If you're a quilter, Brocket has also written a book about the subject.  I don't quilt, but I might just check out the book anyway - I can't get enough of Jane Brocket's style!


Friday, February 3, 2012

Whole foods for a whole week - dinner & dessert

Eating whole-foods-only for our supper every night has been pretty easy, thanks to my arsenal of favorite recipes.  After a disastrous try at a homemade baked bean recipe earlier this week, I realized that having a recipe that you have already made over & over, with excellent results, is a must.  Because otherwise, after all your prep and cooking, you'll have a meal that you don't want to eat and you'll be tempted to eat something quick & processed or something that comes out of a drive-through window.

With that in mind, I have a few great recipes that I wanted to share.  Most of them are vegetarian - even before this push for whole foods, we almost always had a "veggie night" at least once a week, which consisted of just a bunch of great side dishes.  I think that makes a great meal!  Here are a few of my favorites:

Roasted red potatoes from Martha Stewart.  I've been making these ever since I saw them in the Oct. 2004 edition of her magazine - they are so yummy.  Don't pass on the fresh rosemary - that's what makes this recipe so great:

Another great side dish I just tried this week for the first time was sesame broccoli.  It was much more flavorful than my ordinary boring steamed broccoli.

A few great main dishes we've enjoyed this week are:
-brown rice and black beans - this recipe is so awesome....thanks Martha!
-black bean burgers from Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right - the best black bean burger ever.
-salmon cakes - my family loves this recipe & I loved it in my pre-veggie days.

I knew it would be difficult to find desserts that didn't have any refined sugar or flour in the recipe......those ingredients are in almost every dessert that I can think of!  Raw food cookbooks offer lots of great dessert ideas, however, with this criteria - many are sweetened with maple syrup or dates or agave nectar.  One of my favorite raw food desserts are coconut snowballs from Living Raw Food.  They're basically just Brazil nuts, coconut & agave nectar.  If you don't want to roll them into balls, you can just spread the mixture into a pan, like fudge.  And, as the author of the book points out, eating Brazil nuts helps the rainforest because it encourages people to keep the trees for the nuts instead of cutting them down.....dessert for a good cause!

I also tried a new recipe that I'm really excited to share - it's sort of a pseudo-ice cream.  Frozen banana chocolate chip "ice cream" from The Best Life Diet Cookbook has a grand total of two ingredients in it: frozen bananas and dark chocolate.  I never realized that putting frozen bananas in the food processor would churn out something that so closely resembled ice cream.  I'm definitely going to be making this recipe again!

Another thing I've tried to do with dessert is actually eat it after supper (what a novel idea, huh).  I have a very bad habit of "treating" myself to dessert after the Bachsters have gone to bed.  I found that if you eat dessert right after your meal, you eat less because there's just not as much room for dessert.  So, on the special occasions that we enjoy dessert (not every day, I keep reminding myself), I'll make sure that we all share it together.

Have you been trying to eat better in 2012?  Do you have any favorite healthy share!


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Whole foods for a whole week - breakfast & lunch

I've been focusing this week on eating only whole foods & just saying "no" to the Western Diet.  I knew this would be difficult to do for breakfast.  I admit, I love pancakes and waffles and French toast!  But I also love oatmeal, so I've been eating lots of that instead.  One of my favorite oatmeal recipes comes from a book called The Kind Diet (see original Book Nook post here ).  It's basically rolled oats, walnuts, dates & apples, sweetened with maple syrup - it's so delicious!

DD & I always eat this oatmeal, but the rest of the Bach family prefers a more traditional oatmeal.  No problem, I say!  I use a great recipe from The New Best Recipe, a really great cookbook.  The recipe calls for steel-cut oats, a little butter, milk & water.  Simple, delicious & healthy.

Another favorite morning meal of mine is homemade granola - here is the original post with a link to the recipe.  When it's baking, your kitchen will smell wonderful!  I substitute the vegetable oil with olive oil and cut down the amount slightly - it makes it a little healthier and I can't tell the difference at all.  I love to eat mine with wild blueberries - yum.

You could enjoy the granola with milk, but I always thought it was better with almond milk.  Since store-bought almond milk has lots of ingredients that I can't pronounce, I'm going to try my granola with homemade almond milk this week.  There's a great, easy recipe that I've made before in Raw Food Made Easy.  If you're like me and feel guilty for throwing away all the almond pulp, you can just add some to your granola.

So, that brings us to lunch.  Lunch around here is not a very exciting meal, I'm afraid.  I usually don't cook anything (I need a break after cooking breakfast and dinner daily, right?).  So, it's been either leftovers or a salad for lunch all week.  But I do have a good salad recipe to share - it uses Boston lettuce, which is not a type that I normally buy.  But it's an easy salad to make and the vinaigrette dressing in the recipe is sooo good.  Here's the link.

So far, whole foods week has been very good.