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1/4 c. triple sec (Annie says she originally made this was Grand Marnier, but triple sec is more economical and just as tasty)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.

Monday, April 03, 2017

March Retrospective

1) A Note Yet Unsung by Tamera Alexander

I have read all of Alexander's books about Nashville, truthfully just because Middle Tennessee has been home to my family for hundreds of years, since before the time in which the books were set. And since I don't live there any longer, I like to try to hold on to the connection any way I can. My parents moved from Nashville this month and I feel like I want to grab hold of my heritage more than ever. These books don't really need to be set in Nashville though- they just have a couple of landmarks and historical figures thrown into a story that could've taken place anywhere in the South. And they're cheesy. Alexander is a flowery writer and has some favorite turns of phrase that are a bit cringeworthy. Her characters are always somehow heroically progressive, men and women well ahead of their time. Then again, I have an idea that probably a lot of people were of a different mind than the people of their time then just as many are today. Still, I think this is the last in the Belmont Mansion series and I'm glad for it to be over. It took me a while, a few days really, to get through the first chapter- just to gear up for reading a sort of Hallmark movie-like period piece. But once I did gear up, it was a quick and pleasant read. So while there are lots of reasons not to like these books, I still find myself enjoying them and coming back for more.

2) The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

This book is about two teens, Daniel and Natasha, who meet one day in New York City and are forever changed by the events of that one day. And it depressed me the way Oprah depresses me. I wrote a couple of paragraphs about why and I deleted them. Then I wrote more and deleted that. I think it can best be summed up as a book written from a tragic moral perspective- one that is not glaringly problematic at first glance, but one that offers peace and understanding without really understanding the true Source of peace. I guess I should be glad to think that even people who don't seek Christ can find a way to live their lives with purpose, to forgive, to love, to grow, etc. I just can't imagine being able to do any of that apart from hope in Christ. I can't imagine that there really are these healthy, mature people out there making their way through life any more than I can imagine that people's houses really look like they do in magazines. Maybe I am just exposing my own brokeness (and messiness), but I don't buy it. I call bullshit.

3) The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

All of the characters in this book seemed creepy to me. And this is another book that felt very religious, very "spiritual" - I mean, it is chock-a-block full of magic and witches and allusions to Scripture- but not based on truth. It was more of this idea that I keep encountering- that we're all connected and all part of God somehow. I feel like I can't really even write that because it seems so obviously wrong and surely no one is saying that. But Daniel did say that in The Sun is Also a Star. And at the end of this book, the Beast, the Bog, the Poem, and the world are said to all be the same thing- and the Witch will become one of those things. Do you see what I mean? Not exactly, I'm sure, if you haven't read the book. But anyway, I am just weary of wading through all of this "spirituality."

4) Middlemarch by George Eliot

What a treat! After two books that really brought me down, it only took about fifty pages or so for me to really enjoy Middlemarch. For a book that is over eight hundred pages, fifty pages is nothing! And the only reason it took as long as it did was because the beginning of the book was a lot of introduction to characters and situations and that just took a little bit of concentration on my part to get to know everyone. Love! Love! Love! Will be reading more Eliot soon!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Retrospective

1) Ember Falls by S.D. Smith

I read The Green Ember aloud to the kids this summer and they loved it. I got Elspeth the next in the series for Christmas and as soon as she finished reading it,  she couldn't wait for me to read it. I wish we had read it aloud together because these are fun to share. One of the endorsements on the back says that this book does for The Green Ember what The Empire Strikes Back did for Star Wars. I thought that was a great way to put it! I can't wait for the one that acts like Return of the Jedi!

2) If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

This is a book about a transgender teen living in the Deep South. Fortunately, the author is a transgender Southerner and treated the South fairly- as a Southerner outside of the South, I get frustrated with the South being villainized. I chose this book because it was another on Amazon's list of the top young adult books from 2016. The author's point of view, and therefore the book's point of view, is that people deserve happiness. This is not my point of view, not my worldview so to speak, and that was helpful to identify as a fundamental difference between the way I think the world should work and the way our culture thinks the world should work. I wish we could remember this in our conversations with people who believe differently than us- we are not on the same wavelength and so no wonder things get mixed up and people get hurt.

3) After You by Julie Buxbaum

I chose this book because I had liked Buxbaum's YA book Tell Me Three Things. I liked this book for the most part. It is about a woman named Ellie whose best friend dies and leaves an eight-year-old daughter named Sophie behind. Ellie is Sophie's godmother and moves to London from Boston to be with Sophie but leaves her husband behind in Boston. As time passes, some things become easier and some things become harder.

4) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I had never actually read this book before. Amabel loaned me her copy and actually teared up telling me what a good book it was when she brought it to me. I knew it was her favorite but I actually chose it because Ellie reads it to Sophie in After You to help her process her grief. It is a delightful book. There is a reason it is such popular children's classic. But reading it as an adult raises questions about the worldview presented that a child wouldn't likely ask. Once again, I found myself disagreeing with the perspective presented. Even if one replaces "God" for "Magic," it still doesn't work with the idea that it doesn't matter what you call "The Big Good Thing." If belief in Jesus' death and resurrection and a life committed to following him is necessary, then it certainly does matter. I am guessing that Amabel likely brought her own understanding into the book when she read it as a child, but Amabel's understanding of the Gospel is not represented in this book at all- which is totally fine, many many good books have no representation of the Gospel-- it's just that this book is extremely religious in nature and the religion represented is not Christianity.

5) The Sea Keeper's Daughters by Lisa Wingate

I was a little discouraged after reading so much that was not in line with my worldview, so I went to The Christy Awards website to find a good Christian fiction book. I chose the 2016 winner for contemporary fiction. But sadly, as is often the case with Christian music, the standard for excellence seemed to be a little off. From the beginning, it was clear the book was over written. There were way too many descriptions, way too many lists of things- the book just needed a good editor. I believe it was Faulkner who first said "kill your darlings." And Stephen King humorously added "...even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart , kill your darlings." I can only guess that neither Wingate nor her editor got the memo. Whew! Then there are the hackneyed plot devices. There are old letters that have been hidden for years. There are villainous property developers who care nothing for people or history. There is a lot of sudden bursts of emotion that induce running away and crying. And the use of dreams as messages is also a serious problem for me. I wasted a whole lot of time reading this so I don't really want to waste even more writing about it. It was really really bad. We'll leave it at that.

6) Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

This is another gem by de los Santos and I think I am officially a fan. This was my favorite of hers yet. What a treat to in the last two days of a month of generally disappointing reading to find such a genuinely warm and hopeful story that actually has a moral compass. De Los Santos generally seems to have a measure of morality that is so refreshing in today's cultural climate. Today's cultural climate. Gag. On both the phrase but also the thing it represents. Our culture is bumming me out big time lately. But Marisa de los Santos makes me smile. Highly recommended.

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