Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie

I happened upon this book in the library. The author name sounded familiar ... Jordan Sonnenblick (he wrote a book I reviewed three years ago called Notes from the Midnight Driver). This is the cover of the book I checked out:

Looks like a light-hearted boy-oriented funny book, no? When I opened the cover and read that it would be about a 13 year old boy whose world has been turned upside down by his younger brother and about drums and girls, well it seemed like a perfect fit to suggest to my oldest son (that is, if my oldest son were a reader... cough, cough). The age difference even matched that of my own oldest son and middle son.

Here is my favorite cover, although even this one doesn't alert you to pull out your tissue box:

This book was far deeper than I expected. It was most definitely boy-oriented. It was certainly funny. I cannot, however, say that it was light-hearted. Well, actually, that's not true. It was written in a light-hearted, whimsical way ... a way that sucks you into the story pleasantly before you realize that you have been sucker-punched by the reality of life. As Frank McCourt (the author's once high school English teacher and mentor) put it: "A brave book ... Jordan Sonnenblick carries it off with such charm and elan, you forget for a moment your heart is breaking."

So, why did I find myself weeping as I frantically turned page after page? The younger brother, with all his annoying innocent ways, is diagnosed with leukemia. This would be heart-wrenching to anyone, but then you add in my own experience with a sweet, spunky niece who battled the same disease and you can see why this book had me both lured and squirming to somehow get off the hook.

It was a wonderful book and a great resource to suggest to middle school students who might be dealing with the cancer journey of a sibling. It was interesting to learn that this book arose out of a need. The author, a middle school teacher, had a student who was quietly dealing with the intensity of life in a cancer devastated family. After searching for an appropriate book to recommend, he ended up writing one himself.

The book is clean, wholesome and full of emotional depth. I plan to recommend it to my 11 year old niece, Abby, who watched a similar journey with Amelia and may have felt the same emotions the main character expresses.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Book Review: The Help

What a fabulous book! I have been interested in finding a book club, but wanted to be sure to join one that will read books I would actually be interested in. The timing couldn't have been more perfect when my blogging friend, Catherine, who lives on the north side of Indianapolis, made a general invitation to a new fiction book club. Their first book on the agenda was Kathryn Stockett's The Help.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi (a town where my sister once lived) in the early 1960s, this book presents a delightful historical view of the delineations between blacks and whites in the time of the civil rights movement. Skeeter has just returned from college to discover that her mother has dismissed her beloved maid Constantine. Constantine, like many black maids in that time, had basically raised Skeeter. Sadly, Skeeter cannot find anyone willing to tell her what happened. In addition, her mother is eager to get her married off, when all Skeeter wants to do is find some kind of work that will launch her in the direction of a writing career.

With a bit of encouragement from an editor in New York, Skeeter is encouraged to write about something she feels strongly about. She takes a job at the local paper writing a column about housekeeping (something she knows nothing of). In an effort to present reasonable answers to the questions presented, Skeeter enlists the help of a friend's maid, Aibileen. But the housekeeping column isn't her passion. She decides that her keenest interest lies in the life of the black maids who care for white families in her town.

Kathryn Stockett presents the good and the bad in this tale. There was a special bond of love between a black maid and the white children in her care. But there was also the condescension of white society women who were in their twenties, treating their elder help as shifty, unreliable grunts. How ironic that these women who trusted their help to raise and care for their children (while they often ignored them) often distrusted their help to clean the silver without stealing it.

The story Stockett weaves is full of genuine relationships, mounting tension, and charming resolution. The end feels like a victory of sorts. Certainly the three main characters will never be the same and the reader cannot help but grow as well.

I am eager to join in the discussion this coming Wednesday. It won't surprise me if the other women in attendance will agree that this was a book that was hard to put down, complete with a good story, engaging and believable characters, and intellectual value.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Most Expensive Meal Ever

I'm cheap. I'll admit it. I'm not ashamed of it. I try to find food to serve my family in the most economical way possible.

I also like to try new recipes. Lately our local paper has been running a feature with five recipes called "Five in a Fix." I'm pretty sure the idea is that these are all new ideas that can be made fairly quickly. I have amassed a stack of clipped recipes to try at some point.

Last night, I finally tackled a recipe I have been eager to make. It is called "Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken." Since I'm still on my spinach kick, it won't surprise you that it contained spinach. The spinach was the easy part of the recipe. I always have that on hand. Even the cheeses weren't too unusual. I guess what blew me away were the prices of the incidental ingredients (i.e. the pine nuts and the prosciutto).

It was great fun to make and not all that difficult to whip together. Here are the chicken breasts prior to baking:

And here is the final product on my plate:

It met with great approval. Even Trevor begged to try it and ate part of my husband's second piece.

I'm not sure I'll make it again, however, because of the exorbitant price. I paid $1 for the bag of frozen spinach, $5 for the packet of pine nuts, $1 for the ricotta cheese, 25 cents for the Parmigiana cheese, and $5 for the prosciutto. I purchased all these ingredients over four weeks ago, including a $5 package of 3 chicken breasts.

Sadly, when I thawed the chicken and told hubby I planned to make it for dinner, he declared that he didn't want it for dinner that night because he was going to exercise heavily. He suggested I make it on the weekend. I didn't think I should refreeze it, so I left it in the fridge.

You will be able to tell how seldom I prepare chicken when I say that I thought there would be no problem taking the chicken out four days later to prepare. Again, hubby intervened and said that the chicken would have to be thrown out. I was incensed, but after checking the Internet, believed him and chucked the first package of meat. Thus, I paid another $5 for 3 more chicken breasts.

Here is the recipe (I knew it called for six breasts, but didn't want to pay for more and didn't think we'd be able to consume all that. As it was, the three breasts had extra meat and I ended up scrapping together a fourth serving):

Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken

1 (10 oz. package of frozen spinach, defrosted)
2 Tbsp. pine nuts
1/2 C. ricotta cheese
1/4 C. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 garlic cloves, grated and chopped (I never buy garlic - so I used garlic powder instead)
Salt and pepper
Fresh ground nutmeg (mine wasn't freshly ground ;)
6 chicken breasts
6 slices (1/3 pound) prosciutto de Parma
3 Tbsp olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wring out defrosted spinach in a clean kitchen towel. Lightly toast pine nuts in a small dry skillet over medium heat. Combine nuts with spinach in a bowl. Mix in cheeses, garlic, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cut into and across - but not all the way through - the chicken breasts, opening them like a book. Season with salt and pepper. Fill with small mound of spinach stuffing. Fold breasts over, wrap with prosciutto to seal, being careful to cover the whole breast. Brush chicken with olive oil (I forgot this step) and roast 18-20 minutes.

It was, indeed, good. But, if I'm going to spend $22.50 for four servings of a meat entree ... I'd rather purchase it in a restaurant where someone else is slaving to make it and clean everything up afterwards!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: One Thousand Gifts

I think this book came along for me at just the right ripe moment, for it opened my eyes to things I could not see. I found myself taking frantic notes ... copying down numerous quotes that rang true for me and met me in my darkness.

This book is life changing! If you are in the same spot Ann began at - with fists clenched, dreading the start of each repetitive day of challenge, crying from a pit of despair, trapped in a life that only seems to hurt - then you will marvel at her transformation and wish to be transformed as well.

Ann Voskamp opens her tale with the raw wound she has carried since the age of four, when her two year old sister wandered after a cat and was run over by a delivery truck in their farmhouse driveway. That was the beginning of her clenched fists.

But as she observes, "the first sin of all humanity, [is] the sin of ingratitude ... we aren't satisfied in God and what He gives.... If I'm ruthlessly honest, I may have said yes to God, yes to Christianity, but really I have lived the no. I have. Infected by that Eden mouthful, the retina of my soul develops macular holes of blackness."

And then she dares to ask "How do we choose to allow the holes to become seeing-through-to-God places? To more-God places? How do I give up resentment for gratitude, gnawing anger for spilling joy, self-focus for God communion?"

When a friend challenged her to make a list of one thousand things she loves, she began to see. At first it was difficult. As she puts it so eloquently, "Long I am woman who speaks but one language, the language of the fall - discontentment and self-condemnation, the critical eye and the never satisfied."

Indeed, when I myself began to attempt to make a list, I noticed a clear shift within. It was not just that I was seeing small gifts (like the call and response of birds in our trees, the joy of a boy finding a four leaf clover, the sway of the swing under the tree and the shimmering light of the sun on the top of a body of water) but more importantly, that I was SEEKING them out constantly.

Other people have encouraged me to see the blessings in my life, but so often they spoke to me from full, mountain-top lives. It is hard to hear someone when they are on the mountain and you are in the valley. Ann Voskamp's words did not attempt to minimize what I felt (a tactic my husband often employs, pointing out how we have it so much better than many others) because she had already acknowledged how painful it is to be in that clenched position, barely able to breathe, the weight of the world pressing down heavily.

I love her explanations because they illustrate exactly where I'm at. She writes: "I know how monstrous inhumane I can be. Raging at the children for minor wrongdoings while I'm the one defiling the moment with sinful anger.... I forget everything [learned] and these six kids lean hard into me all day to teach and raise and lead and I fail hard and there are real souls that are at stake and how long do I really have to figure out how to live full of grace, full of joy - before these six, beautiful children fly the coop and my mothering days fold up quiet? How do you open the eyes to see how to take the daily, domestic, workday vortex and invert it into the dome of an everyday cathedral?"

Voskamp argues that thanksgiving (eucharisto) builds trust in God. She urges the reader to live a James 1:2 life ["When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy."]. She asserts that gratitude for blessings causes us to become a blessing.

I strongly recommend this book for the first nine chapters. It was only in the final two chapters that I found myself talking back to the book and writing questions. Voskamp begins the tenth chapter with the assertion, "I can bless, pour out, be broken and given in our home and the larger world and never fear that there won't be enough to give." The chapter becomes a long list of ways that she is blessing the larger world and I no longer found myself identifying with her quite so strongly. She is no longer a peer, but someone lofty ... above. Yet, it is clear that she obviously has numerous OTHERS pouring into her.

I found myself asking, "What of the woman, like me, who is daily giving out, without community to pour back in?" I am literally starving for community, companionship. Thus, even the listing of God's graces, while it does help me breathe, step away from the frustrations that build with boys who create messes faster than I can clean and who drain me dry, even still I am skeptical that the listing alone, the recognition of these tiny blessings sprinkled through my day could actually be enough to fill me enough to give where I am called to serve. She has listed numerous names of women and family members who pour into her. Family steps in so she can take a week to find rest and wonder in Paris. What if you have no such support? What if you feel alone at the table of communion?

Her final chapter becomes almost too mystical for me - taking one small principle and making it the entire key to close communion with God. Her sexual imagery of "making love to God" trips me up. I'm not sure I believe that such a level of fullness and unity with God is possible until we reach heaven.

Then my mind wanders to other issues. What of those whose troubles land them in institutions, like her own mother? What of those who daily struggle with living their spirituality to that level. I don't believe we can fault those who have not discovered this one key of eucharisto. Each of us do the best we can at whatever point of the journey we are on. That is enough, I believe.

Listing one thousand ways that God steps into our lives with blessing cannot hurt us. It can only bring a greater vision for ways that God is reaching down and into the mess of our lives. It has allowed me to finally hear the gentlest whisper from my Maker. And if it has caused my eyes to shift more in His direction, then this book has been valuable indeed!

Even if you don't take time to read Ann Voskamp's book, you might take a moment to watch this beautiful promotional video for her book.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Trouble with Boys

So many of the difficulties that we face with Trevor and Sean were not issues when it was just Bryce. I guess there is less trouble when the male child population in your home is one. When you shift from "boy" to "boys," somehow the trouble quotient escalates.

Here are some recent troubles:

Boys are destructive. Bryce wasn't destructive. My two little guys together are like a tornado of destruction. It may not be equal to the force that just ripped through the southern states, but it is still DESTRUCTION.

One weekend, not long ago, I managed to snag some moments alone and visited a garage sale. I was thrilled to locate four adorable Christmas ornaments in a box marked "50 cents each." I give each boy a special ornament which reflects something particular to them for that year. This coming year, Bryce has decided to go out for football. I purchased two nice football themed ornaments.

Then I spied a fabulous fishing ornament. It was one of those moments where you see an object and think, "Oh, I've got to buy that ... it is just too cool to pass up!" It is a sign saying "The Perfect Catch - Pull for Photo" and below the sign hangs the head of a fish connected to a spring connected to the tail of the fish.

I showed the boys the clever ornament. I emphasized, "YOU ARE NOT TO PULL ON IT OR IT WILL BREAK !"

I'm sure you can guess. The following morning I woke to hear the sound of my husband in the shower. There were the two boys pulling the spring beyond all restoration. They have ruined my clever ornament. I am really hoping that I can find a comparable spring and fix the thing, but we shall see. Little boy heads are on platters!

Boys fight. When I just had Bryce, I didn't have to deal with this element of the male persuasion. He had no one else to fight with. If a friend came over and a fight broke out, it was usually verbal and minor.

Enter the plural - BOYS. These two boys are starting to come to blows far more often than I can take. It arises out of the most ridiculous moments. Fists are flung. Often Sleepy Bear is wielded as a weapon. They cannot both sit on the couch without kicking each other in a constant battle to sit with their legs fully stretched out.

One day, I left them playing a game of "Don't Break the Ice" and went to the bathroom. When I returned, the little mallets meant for poking the ice were being used to beat each other. Groan.

Thankfully, there are equal amounts of true companionship between them. They may duke it out, but they usually let the fights go and move on fairly quickly (pretty sure this is a blessing of boys).

Finally, boys are highly impressionable. They recently watched a television show where an addicted gamer refuses to leave his gaming console and rigs up a device to handle restroom duties. Bryce has been using protein shakes after his workouts and the container is so large that it doesn't fit in the kitchen trash can. Instead, I placed it next to the trash. Next thing I know, Trevor walks off with the large container. I am expecting him to think up some form of art. Alas, I was wrong. He turned on the PlayStation, popped in a game and began playing, with the container near his feet. A few moments later, he declared, "I'm in obsessive gaming mode." I watched in horror as he peed into the container and went back to gaming.

We also have had some bathroom issues when it comes to baths. Usually, if they have to go during a bath, I hand them a small bathtub cup and then transfer what they produce to the toilet. However, now that Trevor takes a shower, I have told him that it is perfectly fine to urinate in the shower, since it will just go down the drain.

Sadly, I failed to specify that when you urinate in the shower, you should do so near the drain, not at the other end of the bathtub, say against the opposite wall. Hmph! My irritation was so great that I declared Trevor would clean the mess up. But somehow he was called away to some other thing (probably a disaster that Dad discovered) and I failed to remember to have him clean it.

So, the next night, I send Sean down to the bathtub, telling him I'll be there in a moment to begin running the water. When I enter the bathroom, I realize that son number two (hmm - not a good choice of words for this discussion) has inspired son number three. Instead of just peeing at the back of the shower, Sean decided to see how high against the back wall he could aim the flow. Let me tell you, it was pretty high and a gigantic mess because he also nailed the bag of tub letters they use to create words on the wall.

Boys! If one thinks of something, the other is sure to carry it just a bit further. Not that my boys really seem to need any inspiration. They come up with crazy antics just fine on their own. That's just life with boys for you!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Gift of Fear

Several weeks ago, I attended a free seminar on protecting children from child abuse. In the novel I began writing for the 2009 Nanowrimo, I have a character that is a victim of child abuse. Thus, I thought it would be beneficial to glean some insights into the statistics and the common characteristics of this situation.

The speaker of the day mentioned this book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, by Gavin deBecker. It turned out to be a fascinating read. Plus, when a Bible study member requested prayer for her daughter who was being harassed by an ex-boyfriend, I was able to suggest the book for wisdom on how to handle the persistence of this individual.

Gavin deBecker is the nation's leading expert on predicting violent behavior. Responding to a childhood rife with violence, deBecker became an astute student of the clues that lead up to moments of violence and criminal behavior. He argues that "true fear is a gift." Our intuition is meant to alert us with signals of impending danger. Listening to our intuition is key.

Far too often, we tend to refute our own intuitive feelings about something. When something seems unusual, instead of looking at it more closely, we discount our concerns as being ridiculous.

Because violence and assaults are scary and intense, oftentimes people will distance themselves from the violence another family has endured. They do this to make themselves feel immune to the dangers with an attitude of "this would never happen to my family because we ..."

As Gavin deBecker put it:

"Even having learned these facts of life and death, some readers will still compartmentalize the hazards in order to exclude themselves 'Sure there's a lot of violence, but that's in the inner city'; 'Yeah, a lot of women are battered, but I'm not in a relationship now'; 'Violence is a problem for younger people, or older people'; 'You're only at risk if you're out late at night'; 'People bring it on themselves,' and on and on."

Plus, we often respond to threats (such as the threat of a harassing ex-boyfriend) in ways that further engage the violent individual. The author clearly outlines tactics used to bait you into their devious schemes and escalating intentions. He outlines how to make accurate predictions about another person's behavior.

In addition to the wealth of stories he presents as he outlines the clues for survival, Gavin deBecker also provides resources for those observing signals of danger. He provides a list of questions to present to your school to assess their diligence in providing safety for students.

This was a captivating and informative book. I would recommend it for individuals who have been through an assault and wish to review their moments of denial of intuition and for those who are involved in manipulative relationships (especially those who remain entrenched in the dialogue when they should cease all interaction). But, really, anyone interested in observing human nature and how we respond to intuition and danger would gain something from this book.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review: The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Once again, I've allowed too much time to get between my reading and the writing of a review. This was a fantastic installment in the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series. In fact, when I finished listening to it (was amazed to find our library had it already), I couldn't go on to another audio book because I was still so caught up in the story.

In this episode, we watch Mma Ramotswe take on the case of a suspicious individual wanting to get to the bottom of the killings of two of his cattle. In this perplexing case, the client himself may be a suspect. It is obvious that a timid child knows more than he is saying, but can Mma Ramotswe get the boy to speak honestly and openly?

In the meantime, back at the office, Mma Makutsi is preparing to wed Phuti Rhudiphuti and is searching for the perfect pair of shoes. She is also eager to confront Charlie, the apprentice who has often sparred with Mma Makutsi (calling her a "warthog") and who is rumored to have gotten a girl pregnant.

The only thing that felt out of place in this novel was the inclusion of Mma Makutsi's arch-enemy, Violet Sopotho. She is running for a government seat and the whole thing seems unlikely and unnecessary to the progression of the story. The topic is introduced at the beginning and then left cold until the very end, when it is summarily tidied up.

Still, I fully enjoyed this book and cannot recommend the audio version of this series enough. Lisette Lecat does a fantastic job of bringing the various characters to life and carrying the tone of the novels, with their rich descriptions of Botswana and the rambling considerations of "Botswana morality." Once again, I will eagerly await another installment to see more of the lives of these characters unfold.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Fantastic Drumming at Butler Recital

This past week, Bryce, my oldest son, turned 15. Like everyone, I'm saying "where has the time gone?"

When I posted a photo of the three boys as my Facebook profile, someone commented, "Since when is Bryce practically a grown-up?" In a blink.

We headed to Butler University this morning for Bryce's final recital after a year of study with his graduate student instructor. He had to be there early, so I walked around the building with the little boys, trying to wear them out so they would sit quietly during the recital.

I think I was expecting 7 to 10 individuals to perform. When we returned to the room and took our seats, I glanced at a program that listed TWENTY FIVE names of participants. I will admit, I thought there was no way in the world Trevor and Sean would manage to sit quietly. They surprised me and did tremendously well. I think their favorite participant, apart from their brother, was a sweet little four year old who played the violin with his father.

But the loudest, longest and (biased opinion) most fantastic was big brother, Bryce: