Sunday, September 03, 2017

August Retrospective

1) The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene - My brother-in-law is a big fan of Graham Greene. I read Brighton Rock a few years ago because of the many references to the characters in the book in the Morrissey song "Now My Heart is Full." I didn't particularly like Brighton Rock, but I have since seen Greene's work pop up in the Rabbit Room Store and I generally admire the selections curated by the folks at Rabbit Room. So because my brother-in-law knows I read Brighton Rock, he keeps asking me what other Greene I have read. I decided I'd better get on the stick! The Power and the Glory is the selection I am most certain Rabbit Room has given their stamp of approval to, so that's the one I chose. It's the kind of book I would like to discuss with other people. There's definitely something there, I would just be interested in hashing through what that is.



2) Beartown by Fredrik Backman - This is another selection from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. I read A Man Called Ove and liked it okay so I figured it couldn't hurt to give the author another try. But I don't recommend this one. While it is very well written, and one feels the author has tremendous empathy and insight with all of his characters, it's such a downer. It's dark and heavy and tragic in a frighteningly realistic way. I couldn't wait for it to be over. But again, Backman struck me many times as being a very gifted writer- I will look forward to reading something else of his again.



3) The Greenglass House by Kate Milford- This selection is another from Modern Mrs. Darcy's list that came out in May: 15 Books About Endearingly Quirky Families. So far the list has mostly been a fail for me. And I'm feeling very similarly about her summer reading guides. Basically, we're about to break up with Modern Mrs. Darcy unless something changes drastically over the next month while I finish her recommendations from my list. Look at the cover of this book. What a fantastic cover! My husband and children all remarked on how much they loved the cover. And the idea for the book is also one that draws you in right away: The Greenglass House is an inn owned and occupied by the Pine family. Milo Pine is an only child and is very much looking forward to a nice relaxing Christmas break at home when an unexpected guest arrives at the inn. Within the space of an afternoon, four more guests arrive at the inn! Why are they all here? None of them will say. And mysterious things start happening... So, you can see this should be a great book. But it's not. It felt slow and uneventful, even though things were moving along. Was it a problem with the writing or what? I just didn't care about the characters or the mystery.  I kept looking ahead to see how many more pages were left.



4) The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn - This selection is from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide in the History section. She called it "a Jane Austen time travel novel that's actually good." I had no idea Jane Austen time travel novels were even a thing! But naturally, I was intrigued! Well, let me stop you right there. It's not good. It's actually pretty awful. The writing is embarrassingly bad and crass in multiple places. It goes from mediocre Austen fan fiction to grocery store rack romance novel on quite a few occasions. And if one can get past this and go along with the story anyway (heck, we already went along with the whole time travel premise and overlooked the ridiculous portrait of Austen as some sort of modern, only nominally religious figure trapped in a time she has no real connection to- though both of these things could have been done and have been done much worse), the ending is unsatisfying to say the least. As the Roots would say, "Do not read, do not read, do not read this book, this book."



5) The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson - This one is also from the Modern Mrs. Darcy Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. By the time I got to this book, I was good and ready to break up with Modern Mrs. Darcy once and for all. But I was unaware that I was going to be treated to a story set in the South. I am so homesick at this point that the cliche descriptions of sweet tea, cornbread, and biscuits completely won me over. Reading the way the townspeople and church community interacted with one another was like listening to an old song I hadn't heard in years. It wasn't the best book I have ever read or anything, but it was refreshing and most certainly the best book I read this month. I will look forward to picking up more of Jackson's work to read in the future.





Monday, July 31, 2017

May, June, and July Retrospective

So, none of these were a home run for me. They were all somewhere in the "no thanks" to "yeah, I guess I kinda liked that" range. I really need a home run! But plenty of these made it to the bases! I just want to love a book soon. Three months is a long time to report on all at once so I really felt the tension building of "maybe the next one... maybe the next one." I will go back to monthly reporting after this, and maybe it won't seem so much like the pressure to find a winner is building.


1) The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood - I struggled to enjoy this one because not a lot happened and I found the main character, who I am pretty sure I was supposed to like, not very likable. And not that much happens. However, I find that when I tell people about it, they want to read it! So, I guess it's just me.



2) Peace Like a River by Leif Enger - I liked this one. It also lacks action except at the beginning and the end. Or at least it feels kind of quiet and slow somehow. Most of the story is snowy, rural days in North Dakota. It felt more like a boy book and I am pretty sure George would like it even more than I did. I was going to keep it out from the library for him to read after me, but his book stack is so tall right now, I decided he might enjoy it more in the winter anyway.



3) I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith - This was from Modern Mrs. Darcy's list of endearingly quirky families. I didn't find them as endearing as I wanted to though. Most of the characters seemed extremely selfish to me. Reading something like this that people generally think is wonderful and feeling more or less meh about it makes me feel like something is wrong with me. What am I missing here?



4) Every Wild Heart by Meg Donohue - This was from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide from the "Beachy Reads" section. It was a quick, cheesy read. But it was also a bit disturbing. Also, and I have said this before, I really hate when the cover of a book makes no sense with the book. The cover of this book has a little girl who looks to be about five or six on a step ladder kissing her mom. The book is about a fourteen year old girl and her horse and her creepy friend and her mom. So why the cover? Anyway, it seemed like maybe the book was supposed to be for teens except that it follows the mom quite a bit. Basically, it was a bad Hallmark movie. It bugs me that Modern Mrs. Darcy is not more discriminating with this category. She has another on that list this year by Jenny Colgan who wrote the dumbest book I have ever read. And I have read a lot of dumb books. And the reason I read it was because Modern Mrs. Darcy recommend it! I was trying to read two from each category this year, so I do have one more from the list, but if it turns out to be just as bad, I may have to discount her completely when it comes to what is fun to read.



5) Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham - This was also from Modern Mrs. Darcy's Summer Reading Guide, and a selection from her Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. It was good. Reading about racism and cruelty is always hard, but this one managed to do it in a way that had you want to keep reading. Instead of detailed portraits of villains (which it is not without), there were more portraits of people we could love and cheer for.



6) Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle - This one is also from the endearingly quirky families list. Originally published in 1960, it had the feel of a book written in 1960 and I really liked that about it. The Austins are a sweet family and it made me a little sad to think that so few families are anything like them anymore. I loved their picnic packing, stargazing, record listening, deep thinking ways.
And I just realized, upon looking for the picture for this post, that there are more books about them! Hurray!



7) A Room With a View by E.M. Forster - This one was from the endearingly quirky families list as well. And not a lot happens here either. That seems to be a theme for me lately. But it doesn't always bother me. I enjoyed this book in spite of it being a very short and simple story. There was a lot of big thinking going on that I'm sure I missed because I didn't take the time to think too much about the ins and outs of what was going on in turn of the century England- how the culture was shifting and what Forster thought of religious and political climate himself. I am sure that one of my English professors could have droned on for hours about all of that, but I didn't miss the extra insights or commentaries.



8) The Dry by Jane Harper - This one was from the Minimalist Summer Reading Guide. I drank up the first 200 pages in less than 24 hours. And then I hit page 220 or thereabouts and had the mystery solved and still had 120 pages to go. The "unraveling" of the mystery turns out to be stuff one could never have figured out on one's own. We end up with information that the characters in the book could never obtain because we get flashbacks, written in italics as all of the flashbacks in the book, of private moments from the lives of people who have died- so the living characters in the book who are trying to unravel the mysteries will never have the information we do as the reader. It's very unsatisfying. And more than that, it feels like cheating on the part of the author. Furthermore, the explanations for what actually happened are pretty unbelievable. I started out liking this a lot, but the ending (or last third of the book) ruined it.



9) My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout - I read this one because it involves "the world" in which a book on the Minimalist Summer Reading Guide is written. It was a quick read for sure. It was a little sad though. Or really, a lot sad. I liked Lucy's tone though- she wasn't out of touch with her pain, but she also wasn't stuck in it. Overall, I guess it's not one I'd recommend, just because it's got some super sad things in it and is not redemptive, but it's not one I am annoyed about being recommended to me, because it had a real feeling to it and I think it was just well done for what it was.



10) Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead - This is a kids' book, but I really enjoyed it. I read it cover to cover in the car on the way to Atlanta and, as soon as I was done, passed it back to the back seat for August to read. It was a good story with an interesting twist at the end. I have only read one other of Stead's but it had a twist at the end as well. This is the one I've liked best on the list thus far.



11) The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson - This one was from the endearingly quirky families list but I would take issue with the the word "endearing" here, and even "quirky" is a bit of an understatement. Buster Fang was endearing. Buster's parents were not. Buster's parents were off the charts awful- though I was on the fence about this at first. And Buster's parents lack of being endearing meant that his sister Annie was pretty messed up to the point where she really couldn't be characterized as endearing either. Modern Mrs. Darcy says readers either love this one or hate this one, but I neither loved it nor hated it. It was very interesting and very original, I thought. And it was somewhat redemptive. So I did like it. It was just also heavy and sad. And I guess I just don't really love heavy, sad stories.



12) The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett - This one took a while to get into, but I enjoyed it. It was from the Modern Mrs. Darcy Summer Reading Guide. The female lead, Bethany, was not very likable for me. She wasn't awful, she just wasn't someone I could be friends with- very snarky and opinionated and proud. Ugh, I kind of hated her. I was supposed to like her though. The author liked her. The other characters adored her. But she ruined it for me. The male lead, Arthur, was endearing to me, and she was always finding fault with him. He wasn't perfect by any means, but he was our hero, and he was easy to root for. The story was a historic British religious mystery involving antique books, liturgical worship services, and a group of friends who gathered to read and drink wine, and that was a really fun combination for me- lots of elements I can appreciate.



13) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - This is one that George loves and has had all of our kids read. It's okay. It's a cool idea, but it's kinda creepy. It's a good story though. It's about a little boy who is orphaned on the night his parents are both murdered.  His ghost parents ask the (no longer living) inhabitants of the graveyard down the street to care of and protect him, and so he grows up alone in a graveyard. So it's just also kind of sad. So I tend to understand more why August doesn't like it than why George does like it so much. However, I have a friend who loves Halloween who also loves to read with her grandkids and I am definitely going to recommend it to her- though it has nothing to do with Halloween, it has much to do with the stuff of Halloween.



14) Hourglass by Dani Shapiro - This is just a memoir about marriage. It had some big picture thoughts but it didn't bowl me over. It came to me highly recommended, and I liked it just fine, but I wouldn't really pass on the recommendation. I finished it about a week ago and I already remember very very little about it. I will say that the world needs more honest, redemptive, positive looks at marriage, so it may be a good thing that this is out there.



15) The Door Before by N.D. Wilson - This was Wilson's newest book that united the worlds of Ashtown Burials and 100 Cupboards. It would've been really fun to see the worlds collide if I remembered anything about the other books. Unfortunately, I have a terrible memory for details from what I've read. But this felt like it belonged and I am glad he wrote a prequel- I just feel like I need to go back and reread the others now!



16) When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon- Again with a distracting cover! This one actually comes very close except for the frequent mention of the main character's very curly, even unruly curly, hair. And the girl in the picture has straight hair. Come on, people! Still, this one was a fun read. It was a modern day teen rom com about Indian Americans. It was a little familiar with the whole "my first generation immigrant parents want me to do things the way they did in the culture from which they came, but I am a modern American and want to do things the modern American way but I don't want to disrespect my parents" thing. So, it's definitely a story we already know, but it was fun to read it in this particular setting with these particular characters. And maybe I should leave it at that. But I have to say, this strong female lead who is all about sass and career and ambition and opinions is kind of heavy handed for me. It feels like criticism. What is wrong with being traditionally feminine?  What is wrong being sensitive and wanting to get married and not having an interest in a high powered career? Is that character boring to people? Or maybe people don't think she exists anymore? Because I'm kind of sick of this other character I keep seeing everywhere. Cranking out the same career driven, doesn't need a man, awesome at everything and beautiful too, if only she could just make time for love leading lady is what every Hallmark movie and every YA romance and every Disney Princess retelling is about. Granted, I could've used a little more of that growing up, but I'm begging now for a whole lot less!



Sunday, June 11, 2017

May Retrospective

I only read one book during the entire month of May. It seems that up until May I had been reading between four to six books a month. So I have been hoping to publish a May/June retrospective that would have about ten books to report. I am not thinking that will happen at this point, but I guess we'll see. I have been saying that May is, second only to December, the busiest month of the year. But I almost wonder if it isn't second to December. Or maybe it's just because December has a happy ending. There's Christmas, there's New Year's Eve, there's rest, and the hope of a happy new year. May arguably also has a happy ending. I am just not a fan of summer. But for those who are, May ends in Memorial Day cookouts and the hope of many more summer gatherings for the coming months. 

We had two gatherings in our home over Memorial Day Weekend. I was super excited for the break from school, from work, from baseball, and from George's preaching engagements. He is back at the preaching and I am grateful, but it was nice to have a Sunday off. We used the extra time to have company! 

The first night we had a crowd of eleven. We had burgers with Mexican sides, which I always think is sort of a fun combo. First off, we had chips and salsa and homemade guacamole. We also had Annie's sangria. I have been loving her recipe for years, but realized when I made it this last time that I have never posted it myself. I am remedying that today. I also made a couple of Mexican-like sides. For the first time in a while, I made corn and black bean salad, which some people enjoy scooping up with chips and others eating with a fork as a side. The other side I made was a new favorite of mine. I have been making it since last year and it's high time I posted it as well. I first had it at my friend Heather's house late last spring. I don't really think of watermelon with fondness- I could just kind of take it or leave it, and would usually leave it. But this salad is a dynamite way to use watermelon. It makes me a watermelon lover!


Annie's Sangria

1 bottle of red wine (Annie notes that she uses cheap cabernet so I always get Two Buck Chuck)
2 oranges; one slices, one juiced
1 lemon, sliced
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. triple sec (Annie says she originally made this was Grand Marnier, but triple sec is more economical and just as tasty)

- Muddle sugar and citrus slices in pitcher for 30 seconds
- Stir in juice, triple sec, and wine
- Refrigerate for at least two hours- ideally six to eight


Iowa Girl Eats' Mojito Fruit Salad

4 c. chopped watermelon
1 lb. strawberries, chopped 
6 oz. raspberries
6 oz. blueberries 
1/4 c. packed mint, chopped
1/4 c. fresh lime juice (about 3 limes)
3T powdered sugar 

- Combine fruit and mint
- In a separate bowl, combine lime juice and sugar
- Drizzle juice mixture over fruit and mix
- Let sit at least 15 minutes before serving


The next group we had was a group of ten. I made a pork butt in the crock pot and sliced the rest of my watermelon, opened a bag of chips and a carton of dip from our local dairy and called it good! I spent a little time on a dessert though. It was worth it! One of the girls from the first group brought me a big freezer bag full of rhubarb harvested from her garden. I had never cooked with rhubarb before and had only even eaten it a couple of different times with mixed feelings. Rhubarb plants need an extended period of temperatures below 40 to produce stems, so it is not typically grown in the South so I never had it growing up. The first time I had it was after we moved to St. Louis. It is very tart and can be a little whoa. But I decided that Ina lives up North and usually knows what's up so I looked for one of her recipes using rhubarb. As usual, she did not disappoint me. Her recipe has enough sweetness to keep the rhubarb from overwhelming the dish, and the oat topping adds a pleasant texture that stands up well to the tanginess of the rhubarb and is preferable to a pastry that tends to get lost in the soupy sweetness of baked fruits. Strawberry rhubarb pies are popular up here, but for me, the crisp is definitely the way to go with this particular... I want to say fruit, but I'm pretty sure it's a vegetable! 

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp

4 c. chopped fresh rhubarb
4 c. chopped fresh strawberries
1 1/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. grated orange zest
1 T cornstarch
1/2 c. freshly squeezed orange juice
1 c. all purpose flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 c. quick cooking (not instant) oats
12T cold unsalted butter, diced
Vanilla ice cream, for serving

- toss rhubarb, strawberries, and 3/4c. sugar in a large bowl
- in a measuring cup, dissolve cornstarch into orange juice and mix into fruit
- pour mixture into a lightly greased casserole dish
- mix remaining 3/4c. sugar, flour, brown sugar, salt, and oats and cut butter into mixture to make crumbles
- sprinkle crumbles over top of fruit and bake for 1 hour at 350
- serve with vanilla ice cream

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

April Retrospective

1) My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella


I'm pretty sure I love everything Sophie Kinsella has written. More and more, I feel like an outdated old lady. I realize this is ridiculous to feel at age 39, but I truly have no desire to see 99% of what comes out at the movie theater or what comes on TV, and probably even less of what comes out on the radio. I hate most of what is in clothing stores (has anyone ever looked good in a trapeze dress? No. It's not even up for discussion. No. No one looks good in them, not even the models. But there they are in every store this spring.) But sometimes I feel like there are special people out there who somehow, while still being modern and trendy and relevant, can manage to also get me. I feel like Kate Spade designs for me and Sophie Kinsella writes for me. Is there anything more perfect than a pink Kate Spade handbag? Nope. Well, unless it's a pink Kate Spade handbag with a new Sophie Kinsella book tucked inside! This newest book of Sophie's (because we're friends, she just doesn't know it- and also, Sophie isn't her real name, but that's okay) harkened back to my old thoughts on blogging at the dawn of social media- basically, giving the impression of a perfect and pretty life through social media in spite of reality. I have heard one blogger give a good defense for this- basically, she has dirty dishes and bad days too, but who wants to read about that. Fair enough. But there's a difference between focusing on the positive and creating a false online persona, which is what Katie Brenner has been doing. She is convinced that other people in her life have a perfect life and desperate to conceal the imperfections in her own life from her friends, her coworkers, and even her parents. So when everything falls apart for her, the reader is kind of relieved! Now she can be authentic about what her life is really like! But this is a Sophie Kinsella book, so no. Just as Becky Bloomwood hides from Derek Smeath and leaves Luke in the dark about certain details, Katie, with the same optimism and dumb luck, bumbles her way through until, of course, the truth comes out. Oh Sophie Kinsella characters, when will you learn?! I hope you never do! 


2) The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos



I had de los Santos' children's books on hold and this one on my "later" list when I noticed Modern Mrs. Darcy had actually included the on her "books that are better in the spring" list. She also mentioned that it had Middlemarch references! And since I had just finished Middlemarch, I put it on hold at the library as well. But oh, this one was rough! Excruciating might even be the word. But I love how she writes characters! All of her characters (or all of the healthy ones) seem to really see people and really cherish them. They are so kind and caring and understanding and thoughtful and well spoken- not like real people at all, but it makes me think she must know people that are this way. I don't think she could write such mature and intelligent people so well without having known people like them. I can't help but think she is this way. And I want to know her!


3) Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan


I technically haven't completely finished this one, but I'll count it for April anyway since I'm mostly finished. What can I say? Jim Gaffigan is hilarious.


4) Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague


I am sorry to say that I didn't really like this one. I love that de los Santos and her husband wrote it together though. And I do realize I'm not the target audience. First off, it is a time travel story involving a mining community in New Mexico- that's three strikes right there for me. I don't generally enjoy time travel, though I will say that the explanation of how it worked in this book was the least mind boggling explanation I've encountered so that was cool. I also don't like the Southwest. Or, I've never actually been to the Southwest, but not only do I have no desire to go, I generally feel hot and dirty and thirsty and depressed just thinking about it. And I am not sure anyone gets excited about mining, but as far as I'm concerned, that's another dirty and depressing thought right there. Anyway, I guess the biggest thing was that I just didn't care about the story, and particularly about Lucas Biggs- it would be like if Mary Poppins was geared at "saving" the old banker guy played by Dick Van Dyke, as if that was the point of that story and that's what we were told to care about as an audience. For most of the book I just kept looking to see how many more pages I had to go.


5) Connect the Stars by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague


This is the other book Marisa de los Santos has written with her husband. I liked this one a little better, but still not very much. Again though, I am not the target audience. And again, we had a Southwest setting- and this one was in desert wilderness complete with serious sunburns, stinging cactus, dehydration, and sand in the food. I did like the characters though. However, they were harder to know and understand and realize than most of de los Santos' characters.


6) Outlaws of Time #2- The Song of Glory and Ghost by N.D. Wilson


I finished this one today and spent much of the read thinking about and praying for the author who had brain surgery today! Fortunately, I was able to find his wife's Twitter feed and she says he has indeed come out of surgery okay. It is kind of overwhelming to think of the brain that came up with this tale, who also came up with Notes from the Tilt-a-whirl, being opened up and operated on! But it is worse to think of the tumor that was on it, threatening it. So what a wonderful answer to prayer that Nate made it through surgery and the tumor is gone! Now if I could just make sense of this book! Ha! As with the first one, I just found my brain stretched trying to wrap itself around time travel. And I still don't know why Sam's friends are named for the twelve disciples. But  I liked it. And I look forward to a recovered Wilson writing new books for me to muse over for years to come.

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