Saturday, October 29, 2011

Book Review: Eleven

Patricia Reilly Giff is an author recommended to me by my mother. Ever since she read Pictures of Hollis Woods, she has been on the look-out for other Giff books. Thus, when I happened upon this book, Eleven, at the library book sale, I had to add it to my bulging bag of books for a dollar.

Eleven tells the story of Sam MacKenzie, a boy turning the magical age of eleven. When Sam sneaks up to the attic to look for his birthday presents he stumbles onto a locked metal box. A newspaper clipping is peaking out from the box and even though Sam struggles with reading, he is able to make out a picture of himself at the age of three and the words "Sam Bell" and "missing." Sam approaches the new girl, Caroline, to ask for help in reading the strange documents in his attic. Together they forge a fast friendship and uncover further clues to Sam's past and the mystery of the newspaper clipping.

This was a quick, easy read, sure to appeal to boys and girls in the 8 to 12 age range. However, even as a grown-up, it tugged at my heart strings. It is no wonder why Giff is a two-time Newbery Honor-winning author.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: Runaway Twin

I can't remember when I first encountered the writings of Peg Kehret, but I know that I have come to associate that name with good writing. Runaway Twin was no exception to that rule. It was a delightful little book and an easy, engrossing read.

Sunny Skyland has been in more than her share of foster homes. At age three, when her mother died, she and her twin sister, Starr, were separated. Sunny clings to an old photograph of their home in Enumclaw, Washington, and hopes it will lead her to finding her lost twin. When she happens upon enough money to make the trip possible, she takes off on her own, determined to reach Enumclaw and find her twin. Along the way, she befriends a stray dog, battles bullies and a tornado. When she finally reaches her destination, she finds something different than what she expected and discovers quite a bit about what she already has.

This would be a great book to recommend to readers between the ages of 10 and 14. Moreover, anyone can benefit from the theme of reconsidering the blessings one already has.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: Are You in the House Alone?

Ever since falling in love with the audio books for A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder (Grandma Dowdel is such a treat!), I have been a big fan of Richard Peck's books. I recently passed along Here Lies the Librarian to my mother-in-law to read. I knew she would enjoy both the tale and the fact that it takes place in this area where she grew up.

This time, I wasn't necessarily looking for a Richard Peck book, but snatched this one up in a dollar bag of books from our library's book shop (oh, how I love that little nook and their fabulous sales). I was expecting another wholesome tale (albeit the title, Are You in the House Alone? should have clued me in that this was a teen horror novel). Thus, I was shocked to discover a reference to the main character's sexual exploits right at the beginning.

Thankfully, I stuck with it long enough to discover that the previous sexual involvement was, in a way, necessary for the story-line's climax. Despite this initial hesitation, the book was a quick, easy, engaging read. I'm sure that it would, indeed, appeal to a teen or young adult reader.

I still prefer Peck's more wholesome tales. I love the humor and sense of location he creates in those other books. So, I'll keep my eye honed for more of that kind.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sweets from my Sweetest

In addition to a trip to Nashville, Indiana, which included a beautiful drive down viewing the absolutely gorgeous fall colors, my husband also bought me two special treats for Sweetest Day. He bought me a pound of yummy dark chocolate mint cookies from Fannie May. Then, in one of the little shops, I spotted this cute sculpture of a boy with his puppy:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review: Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

With a title like Don't Say I Didn't Warn You: Kids, Carbs, and the Coming Hormonal Apocalypse, Anita Renfroe sucked me in. Who is Anita Renfroe, you ask? She is the woman who is the author of the viral sensation, "The Mom Song." What mother can watch that routine and not end up with a giant belly laugh and a burst of applause?

I was looking for a light-hearted, humorous book to take along on a mini-getaway when my husband and I went to Nashville, Indiana, to celebrate "Sweetest Day" this past Saturday. Although it wasn't quite as funny as I had hoped, it still offered up a few genuine laughs and a great deal of internal resonance. Renfroe writes about having babies, weddings, mammograms, purses and holiday stress. Whatever the topic, she has a humorous anecdote or angle. This is a quick, funny read, sure to appeal to mothers in the thick of their harried role.

I also discovered a kid's response to The Mom Song. But even funnier is Tim Hawkins' "The Wife Song."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Review: Till Death Do Us Bark

This is the third book in Kate Klise's 43 Old Cemetery Road series. It is typical of Kate Klise's "punny" writing (presented in letters and newspaper clippings) and her sister Sarah's fabulous, endearing illustrations. The book was delightful.

A lovable, lumbering dog shows up at the old Spence Mansion. Seymour Hope wants to be the perfect son for his new adoptive parents, I.B. Grumply and Olive C. Spence, but he also wants to keep the dog. He discovers the dog's name, Secret, and his owner, the recently deceased, Noah Breth, but he keeps it a secret, in the interest of keeping the dog. Meanwhile, Mr. Breth's children, Kitty and Kanine, a couple of bad Breths, are fighting over Mr. Breth's hidden inheritance. Tucked inside are great lessons of the value of friendship, letter-writing, and the chance to change your mind or your life.

This was a marvelous light-hearted romp of a story. As far as I'm concerned, Kate and Sarah Klise can just keep on churning out these punny little tales! Bravo for books that are sure to appeal to kids and tickle their funny bones at the same time! Can't wait for the next installment: Phantom of the Post Office.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: A Soft Place to Land

Sadly, this was another book that really irked me. I had noticed it in Target one day and was impressed that it held an endorsement by Kathryn Stockett (author of The Help) on the enticing front cover. She called it "a beautiful story of the complicated love between two sisters," and declared it to be the next pick for book clubs.

I, for one, am glad I didn't suggest it for my own book club. I have two primary complaints. The first is that the book practically beat me over the head with its disdain for Christianity and those who call themselves "Christians." Of course, what is presented as "Christian" is the demonized, ultra-conservative, self-righteous, harmful individual who stifles all the good in others by attacking them with legalese and condemnation.

I cannot abide Christian fiction that spends too much time proselytizing and not enough time focusing on the story behind the message. This book, took the opposite extreme. Page after page was dedicated (interrupting the story, in my opinion) to blasting Christianity. The author must have had some kind of horrible experience at the hands of a self-professed Christian to have built up the kind of rage that comes out in this book.

My second complaint is that the story held great promise, but didn't deliver all that it could have. The premise itself was truly thought-provoking: what if a set of parents died, leaving behind two half-sisters who are shipped to two different locations and lives? Perhaps, the focus on making those lives as opposite and extreme as possible sidetracked the author from the true wealth available for exploration in the relationship between the two siblings. It seemed like far more time was spent on explaining the diverse lifestyles of their separate guardians than on exploring the internal conflict each sister must have experienced.

Naomi and Phil Harrison perish in an airplane accident. Their will stipulates that the older daughter, Julia, go to live with her biological father (the ultra-fundamentalist Christian environment), while the younger daughter, Ruthie, is sent to live with her father's sister and husband (an enlightened, easy-going couple who provide a wealth of opportunities and healthy stimulation for Ruthie). The two sisters must struggle through the arrangement (Ruthie with guilt over receiving the "better" deal and Julia with anger over receiving the "worst-possible" deal).

The mother, Naomi, is lauded over and over again for her strength and bravery in leaving her first husband (whose great transgression was that he never said "no" to Naomi, but, in his goodness, would allow her to do anything she wanted). Her action of divorcing her first husband and returning to her first love (who also ended up divorcing his spouse in order to join with Naomi) is viewed as heroic. In my opinion, it is far more heroic, and demands greater strength and bravery, to stand by a marriage commitment and work through, tooth and nail, differences and difficulties than it is to follow the whims of the heart.

While the writing itself was very good and kept me reading clear to the end, I cannot say that the telling of this particular story provided "a soft place (for me) to land." Come to think of it, neither character in the story ended up with a soft place to land either. Sad, really. Even the most difficult of situations can provide a glimmer of redemption, but I didn't find much redemption in this story.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Review: The Mind's Eye

I discovered the excellent writing of neurologist Oliver Sacks, when I happened upon his book, Musicophilia, a fascinating discourse on the brain's interaction with music. With an Oliver Sacks book, you get both intellectual stimulation, as well as wonderfully interesting case histories. The Mind's Eye was every bit as engaging as Musicophilia.

In The Mind's Eye, Dr. Sacks looks at the brain's connection to the use of our various senses. The book is chock full of interesting case studies of individuals who lose various assumed abilities: the ability to speak, read, recognize faces, see three-dimensionally, or just see at all. You will come away with a renewed respect for the many things your brain enables you to do.

The stories were my favorite part of this discourse (although the nitty-gritty descriptions of how the brain works were excellent, just a bit harder to follow when listening in audio form). He tells the story of a concert pianist who one day lost the ability to read words or music, a neurologist who suddenly acquires stereoscopic vision after five decades of an inability to see three-dimensionally, a novelist who loses the ability to read after experiencing a stroke, and Oliver Sacks' own story of dealing with vision loss after ocular cancer.

After listening, I decided to check out the hard-cover form of the book, so that I could glean some titles for further reading. He mentioned Susan Barry's Fixing my Gaze: A Scientist's Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions, Frank Brady's A Singular View: The Art of Seeing with One Eye, Howard Engel's The Man Who Forgot How to Read, John Hull's Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, Heather Sellers' You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, Sabriye Tenberken's My Path Leads to Tibet, and Zoltan Torey's Out of Darkness. Each of these books sounded interesting in their own right.

My final impression is, again, of endless gratitude to God for the incredible precision in his creation of our human body in the way our brain works with our senses to allow us to enjoy things like three dimensional vision, reading, recognizing our loved ones, and even overcoming the losses of certain senses with the increase of others. Every journey might be different, but every journey is of great value.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Simple and Delish - Cheeseburger Pie

Last night, I made this dish for the second time. I'm pretty sure it will be a staple before long. This was another recipe gleaned from the "Five in a Fix" section of our local paper. It was super quick and easy to prepare and tasted fantastic. The first time, I didn't know if the boys would eat it (given the large tomato slices on top), but the second time around I made them to try a bite. It was a hit!

This first picture is of the second time around, when I took time to flute the edges. The first time (next two photos), I was in a hurry and merely folded the crust over the filling. I was hoping to get better photos of the more attractive pie, but it was gone before I could snap shots of the finished pie or a slice of the pie.

I fudged on the recipe a bit, but it turned out fine.

Cheeseburger Pie

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 lb. ground beef (I used turkey)
1/2 C. finely diced yellow onion (I used frozen diced onion)
2 Tbsp. flour
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire Sauce (I was out, so I substituted A-1 sauce)
salt and pepper
1 unbaked deep-dish pie shell
2 large eggs
1 C. small-curd cottage cheese
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced (I only used one)
1 C. shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 395 degrees. Heat beef and onion in oil in skillet until cooked through. Drain fat. In a large bowl, stir meat, onions, flour and Worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon into the pie crust. In a small bowl, stir together eggs and cottage cheese. Spoon evenly over meat. Arrange tomato slices on top and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake until set and the cheese has melted, about 30 minutes.

It is not low-fat (although you can take steps to pare it down), but it is sure to be a people-pleaser! For me, the fact that it only took ten minutes to whip up, coupled with the taste, makes it a winner.

It was definitely a winner with my kids. Bryce kept asking Trevor (the only one who had risked a bite) if it was really good or not. I think he suspected I might be trying to hoodwink him into eating something he wouldn't like. Trevor told him it was good. After Bryce's first bite, he grabbed the rest of the pie. He ended up eating half the pie all by himself (leaving none for dad, who settled for just salad). I have a feeling he'll be requesting this again!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: I'd Know You Anywhere

Several years ago, my cyber friend and fellow blogger, Cardiogirl, expressed a desire to find a new (to her) mystery author to read. She was looking for an author who had written more than just one book and she expressed an interest in crime fiction. Not long after that, I stumbled upon a novel in our library's Christmas shop by Laura Lippman. I don't remember the title, but it looked so interesting that I purchased it and sent it on to Cardiogirl. I explained to her that I couldn't vouch for my opinion about the author, since I had never read anything by Laura Lippman, but if it sounded intriguing to me, perhaps it would also be intriguing to her.

Thus, after reading the endorsements for I'd Know You Anywhere, I decided to give a Lippman book a try. This novel is about Eliza Benedict, a woman who has shortened her name in an attempt to distance herself from a frightening episode in the past when she was kidnapped and held hostage by a serial killer. After seeing her photo in a magazine, the killer, Walter Bowman, contacts Eliza with a desire to express his remorse.

An endorsement on the inside cover proclaims the novel to be "a powerful and utterly riveting tale that skillfully moves between past and present to explore the lasting effects of crime on a victim's life."

I anticipated the process of getting inside the head of a victim of crime. However, I cannot say that I enjoyed this book. The writing itself was very well done. The characters were drawn with depth. The plot did keep me reading. But the more I read, the more angry and irritated I felt.

Another blogger friend of mine, Lucy, once wrote that she doesn't like to read fiction when she feels that the author has "an agenda." This is entirely how I feel about this book. There was an agenda here and it got in the way of the story for me.

The author alienated me on two counts within two pages. Walter (the kidnapper/murderer of teen girls) is in Sussex (death row) and is thinking about the deaths of his parents from lung cancer and diabetes. He states:

"The men on Sussex had nothing on God when it came to killing people in painful, prolonged ways. The hardest case here hadn't taken more than a few hours to kill anyone. God took months, years."

I cannot help but think this view comes through from the author and not just a perspective of the criminal she is painting.

Then, in thinking of his victim, now a stay-at-home mother:

"He had no doubt that Elizabeth was a good mother. But he was still disappointed that this was all Elizabeth's life had amounted to, that this was what she had chosen to do with the great gift he had conferred on her."

Between the assault on Almighty God (implying that man doesn't hold a candle to God when it comes to causing suffering) and the assault on the valuable role of a mother, I was seething.

From that point on, things deteriorated further as it became clear that this was a novel with an agenda to denounce capital punishment. Walter isn't looking to merely apologize for wrongs he has committed. He is looking to escape the penalty of his actions. I want a good story, not a noble agenda.

Two further passages also rankled:

Barbara (Walter's support person) addresses Elizabeth (the only living victim):
"A man's going to die because of your testimony. But he's not the same man who committed the crimes .... How do you sleep at night? How can you live with yourself?..."

She goes on to declare that if Elizabeth "let Walter die ... then she was a killer, more cold-blooded than any death row inmate." (Somehow both victims and God are more responsible than an individual who chose to violate societal and religious standards.)

Later, an adult explains to a child that "religion and magic are pretty much the same thing." That about sums up the perspective this was written from.

So, although this book was riveting, although I read clear through to the end, I cannot bring myself to recommend it. There are certainly books I have enjoyed despite being written from a different political and religious perspective than my own, but this was not one of them. Story must trump agenda and, for me, this book didn't deliver.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: The Pull of the Moon

Lately I have been checking my blog statistics and reviewing the kinds of google entries that lead to my blog. While many of them are searching for reviews of books, I have been surprised by the number of women who have stumbled upon my menopausal mania post. Apparently, there are a large number of women out there who are in the throes of these disconcerting emotional and hormonal changes. They seem to just want to know that someone else is out there experiencing similar difficulties with hating their lives, feeling alienated from their husbands and generally losing it over things that never used to bother them. I know I have found great comfort in knowing that other women are encouraged by my simple words about my experience with menopause.

Elizabeth Berg's book, The Pull of the Moon, with it's obvious reference to a woman's monthly cycle, presents a character who is definitely reeling from the unsettling emotions and re-assessment of life that comes with menopause. Nan feels like she is drowning in the shallows of her present, empty life. She reflects back on a time when she felt she knew exactly where she was headed. With her daughter grown and her life droning on in an endless pace of nothingness, Nan takes a remarkable step and ... runs away from home.

I could fully relate to the main character in this book. Indeed, I ran away from home at a time when I felt like I was drowning a few years back. After a few days away, I was able to return and refocus on the demands of my life. Nan, however, takes her time, following no particular course, but relishing the opportunities afforded her in this freedom of escape. She is finally able to reflect upon her life and attempt to make some sense of where she is. She stops to talk with other women and learn how they are managing.

Her words, when writing about a young, exhausted mother she encountered, clearly resonated with me:

"I think we are most of us ready to explode, especially when our children are small and we are so weary with the demands for love and attention and the kind of service that makes you feel you should be wearing a uniform with 'Mommy' embroidered over the left breast, over the heart.... If a stranger had come up to me and said, 'Do you want to talk about it? I have time to listen,' I think I might have burst into tears at the relief of it. It wasn't that I was really unhappy. It was the constancy of my load and the awesome importance of it; and it was my isolation. I made no friends out of the few people I saw in the park - frazzled mothers too busy for real conversation..."

At one point, Nan goes into a grocery store, determined to buy all the ingredients to make a meal she really wants. Sadly, she realizes that everything she picks up is connected to another person's wants. She tells her husband that he wouldn't have had this problem, of not even knowing what it was she wanted to eat. She says,

"There would be nothing tangled up inside you, no guilt and despair trying to work their way into the lettuce and baguette and breast of chicken. It is a case of feeling that you deserve things, that they are there for you; and it is something women seem to struggle with, almost without exception, and I don't know why."

This rang so true for me. It seems we women focus our lives and efforts so thoroughly on meeting the needs of others, that we often forget what needs we ourselves have and, even worse, forget how to meet those needs. We lose touch with who we are and where we want to go.

Although this book wasn't really very plot-driven, (like Nan, it ambles) it does provide solidarity for women who are experiencing these perplexing new questions about life and what they want from it. I could have done without some of the sexual exploit discussions, but apart from that, I enjoyed the book. I'm guessing that other women confronting menopause would also find comfort in this tale of a woman in search of herself.