Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost - Highly Recommend

The list my book club came up with for consideration for our 2015 reading was amazing. There were so many wonderful, interesting titles that it was hard to narrow it down to only 11 books. I made note of the ones I would read regardless of the final selections and Jamie Ford's Songs of Willow Frost was among the ten or so I intended to read despite its failure to be a group selection. It was an extraordinary experience, full of cultural exposure, historical significance, and enchanting characters. I highly recommend this book and have heard numerous accolades for Ford's other popular title, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (which will probably make my personal 2015 list as well).

The writing in this book is lyrical and sonorous. It sweeps you into the trials and triumphs of Willow Frost's life. I listened to the audio version of this book and hung on every word pronounced by the excellent narrator, Ryan Gesell. It was a world foreign to me, yet I could relate to the longing and hopes and dreams expressed.

When twelve-year-old William Eng goes on a field trip with his orphanage to the movie theater, he is entranced by the photo of a singer due to grace the stage soon. He clearly recognizes her as his mother, whom he hasn't seen since he was seven-years-old. After running away from the orphanage with his best friend, Charlotte, to find her, he is heartbroken when the authorities seize him and return him to the orphanage. The orphanage director provides him with limited information about his mother's relinquishment of parental authority. That information is just too insufficient. He is determined to find her again and learn the whole truth of his past and confront whatever future might lie before him, with or without his mother.

The setting shifts back and forth in Seattle, Washington, between the 1920s and the 1930s, but is never hard to follow in terms of the time line presented. Willow's story is full of relational difficulties, financial woes, and moral dilemmas, but at its heart it is a story of the longing for family and the power of the gift of love. It is a tale of the advancements of the big screen and the trials of life in the cultural constrictions of Chinatown. Although, several people have given this only a one star review, because it is so sad, I thought the tale of abandonment was worth exploring despite the sadness the book evokes. There is just so much emotional pull to this story that you would be hard pressed to come away unaffected.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Recipe Fiasco Friday - Baked Caulitots

This recipe is courtesy of the Cupcakes and Kale Chips blog.  I wasn't sure I should call it a fiasco or not because I only managed to screw up one part of the recipe. Thus, I would say that it actually IS a very easy recipe. But, I couldn't call it a find either, because we all pretty much agreed that I wouldn't make it again. The boys said they prefer store bought tater tots and John said while it was okay, it wouldn't be something he'd want to eat again. I guess the taste was just sort of bland, even with the cheese included in the recipe.

Baked Caulitots

3 cups (1/2 head) cauliflower, shredded
4 oz. (1 C.) shredded cheddar cheese
1 egg
1/4 C. cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground mustard

Spray mini muffin tins. Place cauliflower in towel and squeeze out moisture (I skipped this step with no real problems). Combine ingredients in large bowl with fork. Press down firmly into muffin cups. Bake in 400 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes.

So, what did I screw up? Well the blog post doesn't specify the cauliflower state and I assumed that it would be steamed cauliflower. So, I began steaming 1/2 a head of cauliflower. Then, in the middle of the steaming process, I thought ... "I should check the comments and see if it specifies how the cauliflower starts." Sure enough, down in the comments another reader asked and the blogger responded that the cauliflower is RAW. Thus, I ate a half portion of steamed cauliflower for dinner in addition to the caulitots.

The shredding of the raw cauliflower was messy, but would have been a cinch if I had a food processor with a shredding setting as mentioned on the Cupcakes and Kale Chips blog. Adding the other ingredients was a breeze. I only have one mini muffin tin, so I used the rest of the batch in a regular cupcake tin and believe those came out of the tin much easier than the smaller ones. While they didn't look as much like tots, they tasted the same and were less hassle to extract from the pan.

When it all comes down to it, though, hubby and I both preferred the steamed cauliflower dipped in ranch dressing. Cauliflower is pretty bland on its own. Still, if you are crazy about cauliflower or all about slipping nutritious vegetables into your child's diet, you might want to try this recipe out (easy enough for a kitchen klutz like me)!

Actually, despite the dissatisfaction with this recipe, I might try another one Cupcakes and Kale Chips tweaked from a recipe on Momma's Meals for Zucchini Tater Tots. I even have some shredded zucchini in the freezer right now. (Cupcakes and Kale Chips made it gluten-free, but since I don't really need to do that I jotted down Momma's Meals' recipe, which seems simpler since it calls for Simply Potatoes hash browns instead of shredding the potato yourself. I'm all about making things simpler!)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

I am filled with a predominant feeling of gratitude for the blessings of health and safety and peace in my little corner of the world after reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. This was a book I wouldn't have chosen to read unless prompted by my book club. The story takes place in a country I am unfamiliar with, Chechnya, but the author did his research well and wrote a beautiful tale set in this war-torn environment. The hook on the inside cover didn't really pull me in either. However, I am thrilled that our book club chose this as our February selection. It was a powerful book and an amazing read (even more amazing given it was a debut novel) and was rightfully named a Top Ten Book of the Year by the Washington Post. (Side note: I love this cover of the book far more than the cover on my library version. This one pops out with the blue suitcase against the background of the dazzling forest behind.)

How to entice you with a simple explanation of the plot, when the professionals didn't hook me with their blurbs? When eight-year-old Havaa's father is taken by the Feds and her home is torched, she flees to the woods. Her neighbor Ahkmed finds her there and brings her in for the night. He is unsure why the Feds are so interested in pursuing a young child, but knows he must get her to safety. The only place he can think to take her is to the hospital in a nearby town. He appeals to the sole doctor on staff at the hospital, Sonja Rabina, begging her to take Havaa in, in exchange for his work in the hospital (he is a very poorly trained doctor himself). Although she balks at this idea, since she is short-handed, she feels she cannot refuse.

As a few days slip by, we learn more and more about the connections between these three individuals. The story bounces back and forth through the years, but is never difficult to follow. We learn of the disappearance of Sonja's sister, Natasha, whose sale into the sex slave trade has left with post traumatic stress disorder. We learn of Ahkmed's incapacitated wife, left at home alone in bed while he works in the hospital. We learn of another neighbor, Khassan, an author, and his informant son, Ramzan. As the characters weave together, the story reveals the travesties of war, the tenuous hold of love, and the strength of the human spirit.

Although the book didn't make me want to read more about the war-torn Chechnya (its descriptions were vivid and devastating enough to be believable and disturbing), it did fill me with sympathy for the tragedies which are no doubt unfolding in other countries where power has corrupted enough to place even a child's life in danger. It sucked me into the story and made me care deeply about the characters presented. It took me to a world I am unfamiliar with and allowed me to peek inside without having to endure the difficulties myself. It reminded me that each of our lives intersect with many other lives and leave ripples of valuable connection, even when we are not aware. It was a beautiful, haunting tale and even managed to sprinkle humor among the devastation (I laughed especially hard at one conversation about American presidents).

The title perplexed me until I got further into the story, where Natasha circles a definition in a medical dictionary which says: "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena - organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." The author, in an excellent interview posted on the Amazon website for the book, explains that "As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters." The book is, indeed, about life, all of life ... the ability to change and grow and adapt to unspeakable things, the impact of love on life, and the impact of one life on many others. I imagine if I read it again someday, I will glean ever more from its pages.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Her

Somewhere when I read a review of The Girl on the Train, it included information about this book, Her, by Harriet Lane. When I saw it at the library, I felt compelled to pick it up. If you listen to the numerous accolades written about this novel you will be expecting something monumental and frankly, a whole lot better than what it turned out to be. The critics have called it "compelling," "gripping," "chilling," "captivating," "spellbinding," "mesmerizing," "nail-biting," and "haunting." It is true, I am haunted by the ending.

The teaser declares "You don't remember her - but she remembers you." It is billed as a story about a woman who recognizes someone who has done her wrong in the past, but the woman from the past no longer recognizes her. This woman goes on to stalk the dreaded person from the past, with the goal of revenging the long-festering ill done to her. Okay, I admit, I was pulled in. I was captivated. I felt compelled to discover what that horrible wrongdoing was and how it would be revenged. It seemed to take forever to get to the moment of reveal and revenge.

Oh my goodness! When I finally discovered just what this young woman unconsciously did (nothing to justify the revenge sought), and then when it ended the way it ended, I was beyond miffed. I was outraged. How horrible! How tragic! How unjust! I hated the main character. I cannot abide the idea of the numerous ways she sucked this unsuspecting woman into her present life and tortured her without any hint of what she was actually doing.

I cannot recommend this book. It does indeed haunt me. I cannot wait to read something positive and uplifting. I want to fill my brain with good vibes. This book was disturbing, to say the least. Yes, I turned pages fairly quickly, but if I could I would unread it!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: It Starts With Food

I don't know why I keep picking up this type of book. I know in my heart that it will do little to make a dent in my daily eating habits, despite a deep desire to improve our diets. At least this book tried to assuage my feelings, saying that it wasn't due to a lack of willpower, but rather due to the addictive agents in the food we generally consume these days. Still, it was more of the same arguments I've read before but cannot seem to act upon on a regular basis. I don't know how I could imagine that I could even tackle 30 days of this suggested program. I know people do it all the time, just not me.

It Starts With Food: Discover the Whole30 and Change Your Life in Unexpected Ways by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig is yet another program offering better health if you ditch unhealthy food and focus entirely on changing your eating habits. They suggest vowing to do the program for 30 days and then gradually reintroducing those unhealthy things to see if they have been triggering ill health in ways in unsuspecting ways. I guess the biggest problem I had was with what constitutes unhealthy food in their opinion.

They begin by discussing the usual fare: immunological systems, hormonal balance, and what is necessary for a healthy gut. Then they offer up the foods they view to be "less healthy." These are the things they wish you to eliminate entirely from your diet for 30 days: sugar, sweeteners, alcohol, seed oils, grains and legumes (even whole grains, even black beans), and all forms of dairy but butter and ghee, Some of these I have no problem with. I can get behind sugar, sweeteners, alcohol, and seed oils. It is the last part of the list which troubles me the most. No toast with peanut butter. No rice, pasta, bread ... nothin! And dairy? How could I give up my almost daily consumption of cottage cheese? I just cannot see me following through on this strict diet in order to get to the nirvana they claim will follow at the end of the difficult trip over the rainbow.

Their suggested diet consists entirely of meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables and fruit. I applaud those individuals who follow through with this limited diet and find all kinds of health benefits (as in the many testimonials offered at the start of each chapter). I really do. I just don't think I have it in me. Moreover, it seems like moderation is always lacking in these kinds of books. It's that all or nothing mentality that I find myself resisting against.

I'm still struggling with leaving behind the processed foods, let alone giving up things like peanut butter and whole wheat bread and cottage cheese (and don't even tell me I can't have an occasional ice cream). I have relatives who have been forced to alter their diets (one due to severe Crohn's disease and one due to an overwhelming number of food allergies). I just don't know how I would ever achieve that goal of restricting my food intake merely to meats, eggs, vegetables and fruit. Even though I know they are the building blocks of good nutrition, I still fail to alter my diet effectively enough. Perhaps I should just stop reading all these books since I have no intention to follow through on what I read. I will just admit defeat and say that I'm too much of a wuss to incorporate what my head knows would be the best path to follow.

I loved this bit of review from Elizabeth Foss on the Amazon site for the book. She writes: "One quote that keeps popping up is 'this is not hard compared to birthing a baby, quitting heroin, or beating cancer.' Actually, it is. I haven't got any experience with heroin, but I had 7 unmedicated births, 2 c-sections, and I beat cancer. Those things are hard, too but that doesn't make this easy. This is hard. It's hard to eat this way in a world that doesn't. It's hard to cook for a big family -- either all eating this way, or them eating this way and me not eating what they're eating. It's hard to stick with it day in and day out. It's not too terribly hard for a few weeks, but it is hard as a lifestyle. I feel anti-social. I know my eating habits put a damper on others' enjoyment when our eating out choices are dictated by my "can'ts." I know I've offended more than one gracious hostess with my polite, "No thank you." And I do miss crafting a perfect loaf of artisan bread or making my grandmother's homemade pasta. I miss tomatoes fresh from the garden with olive oil and fresh mozzarella. I miss handing on food traditions of generations to my own children. I couldn't care less about sugar and I'm not lamenting processed foods at all. They were never in my diet. I'm struggling with the limited choices of real food left for me."

So, if you have the willpower to change your life... if you want a plan for changing your diet in substantial ways ... if you can not only read about what is best, but also follow-through ... then this is the book for you. It will give you food for thought and a motivational pep talk for getting where you want to go. It won't offer up any recipes for incorporating those few foods you are allowed to eat, but it will provide plenty of resources for finding recipes to follow the Whole30 plan. But, like Elizabeth Foss, I think this would be a very hard plan to follow religiously (they tolerate no slips and say so). Good on you, if you can.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Miles to Go

Miles to Go is the second installment of The Walk series by Richard Paul Evans. I seem to enjoy listening to walking books while I walk on the treadmill. Somehow someone else's walk provides imaginary scenery for me without having to get out into the chill temperatures and barren terrain these days. Although I have two other audio books ahead of me, I will probably pick this series up again after listening to those.

Following the death of his beloved wife and the loss of his home and business, Alan Christoffersen is on a walk from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida. As this book opens, Alan is accosted by a gang of thugs and stabbed on the side of the road. His recovery will take some time, but thankfully, God has provided a guardian angel to care for him in his time of need. As Alan relies on Angel's kindness, he discovers his own ability to help heal her wounds as well.

Although I enjoyed the characters of Angel and Kailamai, I grew a little tired of hearing each day's food fare. I read that in order to write these books, the author went with his daughter on his own motoring journey across the nation. He certainly picked up the flavor of the landscape, but could have possibly left off all the descriptions of burgers and sloppy joes.

Still, I took several good messages from this book. The first is obviously the benefit we gain when we focus on healing another's pain instead of focusing on our own pain. We can all do a world of good to others if we only look for opportunities to assist and befriend. The second message came from the end of the book, when Alan is ruminating on the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota. As he says, we can view our mountains as an obstacle or a canvas. We must choose. Moreover, the tasks we have been given in life may never come to completion, but the important thing is the change it brings in us as we pursue those tasks to the best of our ability.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: Learning to Love Myself

Once again, I plunged into memoir in order to gain an understanding of the writing process. This time, I found access to a memoir through Story Cartel (where you are offered a free read in exchange for an honest review - this one is only available for free through 2/19). Viga Boland's book Learning to Love Myself, is a second memoir and a follow-up to her previous book, No Tears for My Father, where she tells the story of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Her tale is a sad one and the descriptions of her father make it clear that he was a despicable, self-centered man.

My understanding is that readers begged the author to write this follow-up book in order to explain how she survived and thrived despite the horrors she experienced in her youth. The title sums up her philosophy entirely. She survived because, through the love of a good husband and the love of her two daughters, she learned to love herself and to come out victorious despite being beaten down and abused for so long.

Although it was easy to lose oneself in the story of her life, I did find myself wondering about the response of women in her position who don't have the blessing of a fine husband and loving children. I wondered if there would be enough valuable take-away from the cataloging of events in the author's life to render a strong enough lesson on how to weather a similar storm. The author certainly bled her story onto the page and revealed the most intimate parts of her life. However, at the end of the tale, I am still scratching my head, trying to figure out why she never told her family about her abuse before she was well into her sixties. Moreover, I was a bit disappointed that the actual telling isn't included in this memoir. Thus, we never really get to see whether or not the fears about the reactions of her husband and children were valid or not. I'm assuming the fallout was far less than she had built it up to be in her mind. Kudos to her for telling such an intimate tale and attempting to offer hope to women in a similar situation.