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.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Review: Bittersweet

Whatever it is you wish to write, whether it be young adult novels or women's fiction or historical fiction, the general advice is to read as extensively as possible in that particular genre so that you can discern whether your writing is up to snuff. Thus, in the interest of working on a memoir, I am on a campaign to read more memoirs. Shauna Niequist is enjoying quite a buzz of publicity these days in the circles of Christian women. Many of my Facebook friends mention her as a favorite author.

I don't usually like to read books out of order and I probably should have picked up her first memoir before attempting the second, but I didn't have access to the first, so I plunged ahead with her second memoir, Bittersweet. At the very outset, I noticed the endorsement inside the front cover and was shocked to learn that she is the daughter of the prominent pastor of the Willow Creek Church, Bill Hybels. This made me skeptical, at first, because there's this tendency to question whether an author was published by association or by merit. After reading her writing, I would fall on the side of merit (although it couldn't have hurt to have the connections - wink).

While this didn't exactly feel like a memoir (it felt more like a package of personal essays tied together with a bow of grace), it certainly bore out the wisdom of taking personal experiences and providing the reader with the answer to that age old question of "so what?" I think Niequist does an excellent job of tying all the parts (which sometimes feel disjointed) together for the wider picture and the spiritual take-away. Her words are rich and full of flavor. She paints scenes well. Moreover, even though this was a second memoir, it easily stands alone on its own feet.

If I had to sum up the book, I would say that this book tells of a difficult season in Niequist's life and the lesson she learned. That lesson is that God allows us to experience both the bitter and the sweet of things. And we need both the bitter and the sweet. I'm guessing this book appeals most to young women in their twenties and thirties who are struggling with young families and job changes and fitting into their communities. There was a very strong emphasis on food and dinner parties (something I couldn't relate to) and the importance of friendship (which instead of encouraging me, merely seemed to depress me as I read of all her opportunities for community). I could fully relate to her experience with miscarriage (having been there myself before), and was happy to discover that she has since had another son to round out their family and ease some of the emptiness left by the lost babies. It was a blessing to get inside her heart and mind and view her life experiences through the lens of grace and faith. As Lorilee Craker's endorsement of the book proclaims, "In every page, the bitter and the sweet converge, carrying truth, hope, and redemption." God will, indeed, redeem our days (the good and the bad).

Friday, February 13, 2015

Recipe Fiasco and Recipe Find Friday: Strawberry Desserts

Nothing says Happy Valentine's Day like a yummy strawberry dessert. Especially if it is an easy one to whip together. Easy enough for a kitchen klutz like me.

The first recipe I tried came from the Pillsbury website and promised "easy treats to say I love you." Not! Not so easy, that is. They still express love, but didn't quite turn out as the recipe photo promised.

These cookies look deceptively easy. The recipe recommends ready bake cookies and the cream mixture is simply a matter of stirring strawberry gelatin into whipped cream. They also suggested you could substitute sugar cookie dough for the chocolate chip cookies pictured above. Alas, this is where it turned into a fiasco. I had a roll of sugar cookie dough in the fridge which needed to be used, so I sliced the dough and pressed the slices into the mini cupcake pan. Yet, when I went to extract them, they crumbled and fell to pieces. I only managed to salvage a dozen. Here is the photographic evidence of my recipe's demise:

Still, they ended up looking okay. Only Trevor tried one and he decided he'd rather have the plain sugar cookies (which I had made up with the remaining dough after the first two batches flopped):

A far cry from the beautiful photo Pillsbury offers up. I doubt I'll try that again - easy or not!

The second recipe I tried this week came from a Facebook post by Courtney Luper, although I found countless other versions of this recipe on the computer. Apparently it is nothing new, but it might be new to you, so here you go:

Strawberry Cream Cheese Cobbler

1 stick butter (I think you could use less of this - at least I will next time)
1 egg, beaten
1 C. milk
1 C. flour
1 C. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt (In my klutziness, I forgot this)
2 quarts strawberries, hulled and sliced (I used 2-1/2 pound containers)
4 oz. cream cheese, cut into small pieces

Melt the butter and pour into a 13x9 inch pan. Mix egg, milk, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt and pour over butter, without stirring. Add strawberries in a single layer.

Sprinkle cream cheese over the strawberries (this was my least favorite step - the cream cheese was impossible to cut into small pieces, so I ended up tearing off little bits and my fingers were covered in cream cheese residue - I think if I did it over, I would use a knife and smear a bit of cream cheese on the backside of each strawberry as I lay it down in the layers).

Bake for 45 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven.
I think my final verdict is that I would rather eat a dessert with the strawberries fresh, rather than cooked into a cake-like background. While it was good, it wasn't as good as a different pudding/strawberry dessert recipe I have and used to make back in the day. Still, it received a thumbs up from my hubby and he was the critical reviewer in my book (neither of the boys wanted to try it, even though they like strawberries).

Happy Valentine's Day! Happy eating! May the kitchen odds be ever in your favor!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book Review: Four

I thoroughly enjoyed the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. When I saw another book labelled "A Divergent Collection," I was game. After having read it, however, I'd say this book is not necessary at all. The series stands alone without any assistance from this fourth volume. As another reviewer put it, "This simply feels like author notes from Divergent."

The whole point of this book, Four, is to provide a series of perspective pieces written from the voice of Tobias Eaton, otherwise known as "Four." They cover moments in his life like his transfer, his initiation, and his attempt to warn his father.  Most of these things are already alluded to in the actual series and nothing new is really gained by hearing these events from Four's perspective.

Although I didn't mind immersing myself back into the world of the Divergent series again, it still felt like a book I could have just as easily ignored. If you are a die-hard Divergent fan and can't get enough of the writing, then by all means, pick up this fourth installment. Otherwise, know that you won't really miss anything much if you ignore this book.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: Ghost Boy

As soon as I read a brief article on-line about this young man's story, I wanted to read his book, Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body. As an early teen, Martin Pistorius suffered an undiagnosed neurological disease which took from him both his voice and the control of his body. For an entire decade he remained lucid, yet unable to let anyone know.

His first few paragraphs suck you into the story and tug at heart strings because even parents who must endure endless hours of Barney can at least get up and turn off the television. He writes: "I hate Barney - and his theme tune.... The children here lie motionless on the floor or slumped in seats. A strap holds me upright in my wheelchair. My body, like theirs, is a prison that I can't escape: when I try to speak, I'm silent; when I will my arm to move, it stays still. There is just one difference between me and these children: my mind leaps and swoops, turns cartwheels, and somersaults as it tries to break free of its confines, conjuring a lightning flash of glorious color in a world of gray. But no one knows because I can't tell them. They think I'm an empty shell, which is why I've been sitting here listening to Barney or The Lion King day in, day out for the past nine years, and just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, Teletubbies came along."

Martin's life is a testament to the power of endurance, faith, and love. I read as any parent would read, horrified at the thought of losing my child to a lifeless body, unresponsive and passive. Who would dare hope for the miracle of his return? It was miracle enough that he survived (although at times that miracle seemed like a cruel hand). Through it all, his father cared for him and continued to maintain a battle to keep him in their home and a part of their family.

Then, one day, a caregiver became convinced that Martin was in there somewhere and that he could regain his voice. Slowly his world began to open up for him again. He went on to hold jobs and even develop a love relationship. Now married, he writes of his experiences and both the terrors and graces he encountered along the way.

Although it is an incredibly sad story and hard to read at times (the abuse he endured was maddening and the loss his family experienced was heartrending), it does inspire hope in the reader. Every life has value and should be treated with respect. One small gesture could mean the world to someone who seems to be lost in a world of silence. Martin was one of the lucky ones, able to shake off the bondage and taste freedom once again.

For a brief article on his story and a beautiful photo of Martin and his wife today, click here. Or to watch a six minute video interview with Anderson Cooper of CNN, click here.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

One of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies is "Rear Window" and this book certainly promised to flow in a similar vein. The inside front cover even proclaims "Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut." I would agree on all counts, but still prefer "Rear Window" to this alternative tale.

What is different about this novel (as compared to "Rear Window") is that it is told from the perspectives of three different unreliable narrators. The story begins in Rachel's voice as she tells of her daily trek on the trains to and from work, where she looks out at the houses along the track and imagines a background story for the lives of one particular couple whom she has dubbed "Jason" and "Jess." In her eyes, this couple lives the idyllic life she used to live on that very street when she was still married to her ex-husband, Tom. Then, one day she sees something disturbing and feels she must go to the police with the evidence of wrongdoing. She is sucked further and further into the story as the pieces are slowly revealed.

While Rachel is an alcoholic and, therefore, cannot remember every detail with accuracy, Megan is the bored wife, whom Rachel has named "Jess." Her tale slowly evolves with unexpected twists and turns along the way. The final narrator is Anna, Tom's new wife, who views both Megan and Rachel with suspicion and distrust. All three women unravel the story until the truth is finally discovered.

Despite the countless accolades the book received, I didn't exactly enjoy it. I guess my lack of enthusiasm partly stems from the unsavory characters presented. Both husbands are somewhat intimidating and scary. The wives are each broken in their own various ways - one, a miserable alcoholic, one, a mistress-turned-spouse, and one, an adulteress. Thus, I cannot say I really came to like any of the characters involved. Moreover, there is no hint of redemption in the story at all. The characters are just as reprehensible at the end as they were in the beginning and the tragic circumstance led to no greater good.

Still, the book did indeed suck me in and I turned pages as quickly as I could to get to the heart of the story. The writing was clear and flowed well. The characters were distinct enough to tell the difference between them. It was a little bit hard to follow the time line (each chapter started with a date and then a "morning" and "evening" designation), but not enough to detract from following the plot. It won't be billed as one of my favorite reads for 2015, but I'm glad I read it to learn what all the hub-bub was about. People are saying if you liked Gone Girl, you'll like The Girl on the Train. Since I haven't read that story, with an unreliable narrator, I cannot compare the two. It does make me a little less interested in picking up Gone Girl now.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Review: Both of Me

Jonathan Friesen's YA book, Both of Me, was just plain weird. I couldn't get behind the writing style (which felt somewhat stilted) and was annoyed by crazy little things that pop up out of nowhere, yet are not elaborated upon at all (i.e, the time the main character shakes a woman's hand and the woman's finger falls to the ground because she has leprosy). It is just a crazy tale and I'm somewhat surprised that I stuck with it.

I know what held me. I was waiting for the big reveal of the main character's "Great Undoing." It is alluded to throughout the book as the impetus for driving the plot line and the quest. While I do think the reveal was worthwhile, the rest of the book just didn't appeal to me all that much. I can appreciate the main character's psychological angst and the supporting character's mental illness, I just can't appreciate the writing style.

Clara is travelling the world (running from her father who was just released from prison and can finally take over the care of her younger siblings), following her father's old journals from his own travels, when she comes upon an unusual seatmate on a plane to Minneapolis. He is sketching frantically and babbling incoherently. When he falls asleep, she views his sketchpad and is shocked to see images of her own life. How does this individual know so much about her? Then, she realizes that he has accidentally taken off with her backpack and she must track him down to retrieve it.

The more she learns of Elias Phinn, the boy, the more perplexed she is. He suffers from something called dissociative identity disorder. When he is in his normal mind, he is charming and endearing. When he is the Other One, he lives in a bizarre world called "Salem" and is driven by a quest to find the Lightkeeper. Clara is drawn to normal Elias, but is also sucked in with a desire to help the Other One. He leads her on a quest to find the Lightkeeper and right a wrong from his past, which somehow allows him to see into her hidden past. The quest is a hodgepodge of disjointed experiences where they purchase a small airplane, take on a drifter to serve as guard, lie their way into temporary possession of a house, and spend time in an art commune while Elias repairs the airplane. It is full of wacky characters and bizarre experiences.

Moreover, the main character pontificates repeatedly about her agnosticism. She explains, "My early years were filled with simple prayers and church steeples and real belief. Dad said God was real, so it had to be so. Mum tried to keep up the act after Dad was gone, but I was a good guesser and she was rotten at charades. Besides, a fiction only willing to bring his own son back to life did little good for me, little good for Little T." (Little T. is her youngest brother who is mysteriously missing and connected somehow to the Great Undoing).

Thus, the combination of references to a non-God, bizarre characters and plot developments, and unusual writing style all sunk this book for me. I don't regret reading it, but will not hold it up as something to emulate. Moreover, I doubt I would recommend it for good YA reading. But if you're looking for a strange, disjointed experience, or interested in dissociative identity disorder, plunge away and read this book. You will get the strange you are looking for.

The author does have a noble purpose behind writing the book. He writes: "My hope is Both of Me will challenge readers’ ideas about labeling people as abnormal. After all, we all fall into fictional worlds, choosing to spend time there when the “real” one overwhelms. Spend some time with Elias in Salem, and discover that sometimes the labels that call us different or broken are simply another way of seeing and approaching life." (quoted on in his explanation of the story behind the story)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

T-Shirt Quilts Rock!

I should say my sister-in-law rocks! She does! She offered to make this t-shirt quilt for me and shipped it to me in the mail last week. It is awesome! I'm so in love with how it turned out.

The upper left hand shirt is a staff shirt from when I worked at Littlejohn Elementary back in DeKalb, Illinois (so many happy memories but no real place to wear the shirt anymore). The middle top shirt is from the camp where we attend CBLI every summer. The shirt to the right of that was from a year when the CBLI kids' track focused on a construction theme and so the front of the shirt said "God at Work" and the back said "Person in Progress" (seen in the second half of the quilt). The grey shirt from the middle left is another CBLI kids' track t-shirt, followed by two more from Littlejohn (they used to have each class make a shirt and the kids would draw their self-portraits - I always loved those shirts). Finally, on the bottom right, is a shirt from my husbands's days as 1st chair cornet in Illinois Summer Youth Music. Then, another CBLI t-shirt followed by John's HS pep band shirt.
The second half of the quilt has the survivor shirt we received when we went to the celebration for my niece Amelia's completion of treatment for and defeat of cancer. This shirt belonged to the little boys but they have since outgrown it. The second half of the shirt, bearing the message "Our Family Soared on His Wings" is on the other side of a Littlejohn Harambe group shirt. Plus, you can just make out another Camp Wonderland logo underneath that message. In the second row, Bryce's fourth grade t-shirt is followed by another CBLI shirt (framing a Northern Illinois Music Camp t-shirt from way back in 1982), and the back side of hubby's ISYM t-shirt. On the bottom row, we have the back of the CBLI Basic Training shirt, the CBLI construction shirt, and Bryce's first grade Littlejohn shirt, with another self-portrait.
Moreover, I loved the background fabric she chose for the back side of the quilt. The middle has a section of musical notes flanked by two sides of a blue plaid pattern.

I am in love with this quilt. Now I need to think of some way to repay her kindness, since she will not let me pay her even for the time and materials required (no doubt this took a hefty amount of time to pull together and skills I couldn't even dream of possessing).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Book Review: Shopaholic to the Stars

Am I tiring of the character of Rebecca Bloomwood Brandon? Please, say it isn't so. I've loved her for so long, but this book just didn't thrill me. As with the short story I reviewed last month, Becky's character merely comes off as shallow and childish. I'd say this was my least favorite installment of the Shopaholic series (and apparently I'm not alone, as many of the reviews on Amazon show).

Becky has moved temporarily to Hollywood so her husband can represent a famous actress, Sage Seymour. Becky has stars in her eyes as she imagines her own career as a personal stylist taking off. The only problem is that it isn't exactly taking off. Even though she's offered a spot with Sage's rival, things seem to spiral out of control and she is caught up in the whirlwind of the Hollywood gossip trail.

I kept hoping for some classic Kinsella humor to shine through. I kept turning pages, waiting for things to pick up, but somehow I never felt any more connected to the events or conundrums Becky finds herself in.  I kept hoping to catch glimpses of the Becky I adore (the ditsy, sweet-hearted girl who somehow gets herself into scrapes and manages to work her way out with greater understanding and growth), but instead kept seeing a totally self-absorbed, irresponsible Becky.

Perhaps it was just because the focus was Hollywood. I'm not exactly a fan. The scenes at the rehabilitation center were so contrived and the scenes on the red carpet equally disappointing. I tried and tried to get into it, but it all fell flat. The children, both Becky's daughter and her best friend's kids, felt like an addendum as the adults go about their business free of the concerns of caring for them. Somehow they finagled a spot in a day care facility thanks to the intervention of a dreaded previous enemy.

Kinsella ends the book with a teaser for the next installment, leaving it hanging where Becky's father and her best friend's husband have disappeared off to Las Vegas for some unknown reason and Becky and Suze are headed off to find out why and where the men have gone. To be honest, I don't know if I'm all that excited about this aspect of the story development. It doesn't suck me in. Perhaps, it is best when she sticks with Becky in her native environment of Britain. I don't know. All I can say is that this American installment of Becky's adventures turned out to be a real let-down. I don't even know if I'd grant it three stars. Perhaps Becky's moment in the spotlight has really and truly come and gone.