Friday, July 9, 2010

Summer Montage

Since I haven't blogged since the end of April, I thought I'd just post a little summary of what I've been up to the last few months. ( let you know I'm still alive.)

We've taken two family vacations since April. The first was to San Diego over Spring Break. Some highlights of our trip include Solana Beach, Seals at La Jolla, LegoLand USA, and Disneyland. Here are a few pictures:

The next trip we took was in June to Colorado. Highlights include Garden of the Gods, Flying W Ranch Chuck Wagon Show, Alpine Slide in Golden, and of course Rocky Mountain National Park.

I also started graduate school in May. Trying to divide my time between taking care of the boys and doing schoolwork is challenging. I'm hoping to settle into a routine eventually.

Even with school, I've managed to fit in a few good books and one really amazing one.

The Amazing One:

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the Wind

A Few Good Ones:

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith
Eden Close by Anita Shreve
Out Stealing Horses by Per Peterson
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (Regret not posting for the All About the Brontes Challenge)
The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman
Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer

A Few Just Okay ones:

Flight Lessons by Patricia Gaffney
Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner
Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah

Hope everyone is having a great summer!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Outlander by Gil Adamson

The Outlander
I don't know how many times I picked up The Outlander at Barnes and Noble last year, drawn to its stark but gorgeous cover art. Then I'd read the back of it, thinking that it sounded pretty good, but ultimately I'd put it back down with a sigh being distracted by the twenty some odd books waiting to be read on my bookshelf (ummm piled high on the floor beside my bookshelf). When I came across this novel in the stacks at my local library, I decided to give it a try. I'm so glad that I did.

This is a fantastic debut novel by Gil Adamson. I had trouble putting it down and read it in two days, which is no small feat considering I have two small children.

Here are the first few lines:
It was night, and the dogs came through the trees, unleashed and howling. They burst from the cover of the woods and their shadows swam across a moonlit field. For a moment, it was as if her scent had torn like a cobweb and blown on the wind, shreds of it here and there, useless. The dogs faltered and broke apart, yearning (3).
And then a couple of paragraphs later we learn who the dogs are after:
Nineteen years old and already widowed. Mary Boulton. Widowed by her own hand (4).
This novel takes place near and in the Canadian Rockies at the turn of the century. The recently widowed, Mary Boulton, is being pursued or rather hunted relentlessly by her large red-headed brother-in-laws who want to bring her to justice.

I think I'll just leave it at that and not tell anymore details, except just to urge you to go out and get this novel!


Adamson, Gil. The Outlander. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Happy Very Belated Earth Day! Vinegar Tips and Easy Green Living

For the past year or so, I've tried to stop purchasing and using cleaning products with harsh chemicals. In the process, I discovered the many uses of vinegar. I clean practically everything in my house with it as it cleans just as well as those commercial products. It's cheaper, safer, and I don't have to worry about my small children being poisoned by ingesting it. I also use it in substitution for fabric softener. It really works well and no, your clothes do not smell like vinegar. You can find more ways to use vinegar here.

Easy Green Living: The Ultimate Guide to Simple, Eco-Friendly Choices for You and Your Home

I was recently introduced to Renee Loux's book, Easy Green Living by my close friend, Allison, who had checked it out from the local library. We spent an afternoon in a mixture of excitement over Loux's ideas and anger over the amount of chemicals in our everyday products: soap, shampoo, conditioner, etc. The beauty of this book is that Loux doesn't leave the reader upset without a remedy. For each section of the book, she provides a list of recommended products or recipes. For example, I'm now using her Cutting Board Sanitizer Recipe. It works really well.

The book is divided into 9 sections:
Green Living is Easy
Green Cleaning Basics
5 Steps to a Green Kitchen
4 Steps to a Spic and Span Green Bathroom
Natural Beauty: The Simple 7
6 Steps to Eco-Fresh Laundry
4 Corners of a Green Bedroom
Energy Efficient Lightbulbs: Save Energy and Money
Sustainable, Ecological Home Furnishings and Materials

I highly recommend this book if you are interested in getting started with a greener healthier lifestyle.

This process has been a bit overwhelming to me, partly because there is so much to change and partly because it challenges the good mother/beautiful woman images I've learned all these years from advertisements. I'm thinking here of the smiling mother in the commercial who sprays cleaner all over her child's high chair while the baby sits there. Translation: Good, caring, loving mothers use this product. Now I'm becoming the good, caring, mother who doesn't want to spray chemicals in my children's faces or rub it into their skin or feed it to their bodies. I also care about the impact our actions have on our environment.

Soooo...Here are some of the changes I've made in my life ($$ indicates a money saver):

1. Vinegar as a cleaner and fabric softener $$

2. Line dry my clothes to reduce energy costs (I fluff them about 5-10 min in the dryer) $$

3. Use reusable shopping bags

4. Buy products made from recycled materials (Loux recommends CVS toilet paper, which is made of 70% recycled materials)

5. Buy organic whenever possible. I just made the switch to organic milk at over $6 a gallon. Ouch! But I'm saving money in other ways, so I figure it evens out. I am looking into a local farm that sells organic milk and eggs, but don't know their prices yet.

6. Stop using chemicals in my far I've used straight up vinegar as a herbicide and am trying out this homemade recipe as an insecticide: 1 gallon hot water mixed with 2 TBSP Castille Soap in a sprayer. Then add 1 cup isopropyl alcohol. I've used this mixture on my roses. $$

7. Buy bamboo products instead of wood and cotton. Bamboo can be harvested and used every five years! It is also very resistant to disease and insects, which means it doesn't need chemicals to grow making it very safe. I bought a new bamboo cutting board and plan to buy bamboo bath towels. Matt and I are also planning to eventually replace our carpeting with bamboo flooring.

8. Replace my non-stick cookware with enameled cast iron

9. Grow houseplants to improve indoor air quality

10. Replace beauty products with all natural ones. I've already started doing Burt's Bees

11. Recycle everything possible

12. Avoid plastics for food storage and staying away from #3, 6, and 7 plastics

13. Using a rain barrel to water plants $$

14. Shopping at our local farmer's market

15. Turning the lights off and unplugging when possible $$

I've also been using the lot next door to do my yard composting. However, once someone builds there, I'll have to compost in my own yard.

What green tips can you share?

Loux, Renee. Easy Green Living. New York: Rodale Inc, 2008.

Friday, April 16, 2010

My New Favorite Old Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo
Much like my Jane Eyre review, this one will also be a bit of a mess because I just loved this novel! My first experience with The Count of Monte Cristo was through the 2002 movie starring Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dante (The Count of Monte Cristo). I thought this film was really good, but to my surprise it wasn't quite like the actual novel. The basic plot of being wrongfully imprisoned and then seeking revenge is present in both, but so much more complex in the novel. My image of the Count though while reading was Jim Caviezel.

The book opens in the port city of Marceilles, France with the homecoming of the Pharaon, a merchant ship owned by a man named Morrel. The ship has lost its captain to disease and Edmond Dantes has taken control of the ship in his place. The captain's final wish to Edmond is to deliver a letter to the inmate of the Isle of Elba, who is Napolean Bonaparte. Edmond honors this wish and is given another letter to deliver to Paris. Edmond feels obligated to do this in honor of his dead captain's dying wish. Danglars, the ship's clerk, overhears this transaction and makes plans to use this information against Edmond as he is jealous of him. Upon arriving at Marceilles, Morrel suggests that Edmond take over as captain of the Pharaon permanently, which is a great honor for a nineteen year old man. However, this promotion only makes Danglars more jealous, and he puts his plan in to action.

Edmond meantime visits his father and his true love Mercedes. Everything seems to be going right for him, and this blinds him to people who seek his downfall. Danglars conspires with Fernand, who is in love with Mercedes, to have Dantes arrested for treason. They manage to do this during Edmond's wedding breakfast.

Edmond tells his story to the young deputy magistrate, Villefort, who feels pity for him and believes in his innocence. However, upon looking at the letter Dantes is supposed to deliver to Paris, he discovers that it is addressed to his father, Nortier, a fact that could ruin him politically. Villefort burns the letter and sends Edmond to the notorious prison, The Chateau D'If where Edmond spends the next fourteen years. He manages to escape and to seek his revenge as The Count of Monte Cristo.

This novel is definitely a page turner. His revenge while just, at times goes too far and has some unintended consequences, which he regrets. I think this is part of the reason why I loved this book because Edmond/ The Count maintained a sense of morality in his revenge. He plans his revenge with tunnel vision thinking himself an agent of God. Yet in the reality of pulling it off, he gets sidetracked by other characters who he comes to love, and he must adapt his plans. Awesome, awesome novel!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Microwave Mushroom Risotto

This recipe comes from the April 2009 issue of Everyday Food. I don't know that Chef Ramsey would approve of microwaving Risotto, but it actually turns out very tasty. Plus, I don't seem to be doing as much work as those donkeys on Hell's Kitchen when I make it. I'm pairing it with wilted spinach and strawberries.

2 TBSP butter
1/2 tsp dried thyme
10 oz button mushrooms, trimmed and quartered. (I use pre-sliced mushrooms, breaking up the big ones)
coarse salt and ground pepper
1 cup Arborio or long-grain rice
1 can (14.5 oz) reduced sodium chicken broth (or substitute vegetable)
3 garlic cloves, sliced (I just use the bottled minced garlic 1.5 tsp)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan

You must have a deep dish casserole with a lid. I use my largest Corning Ware.

1. Combine butter and thyme. Microwave covered on high 1 minute or until butter is melted.
2. Add mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Microwave covered 8 minutes, until mushrooms release their water.
3. Put mushrooms aside on another plate and try not to snack on them.
4. Combine 1 cup rice, broth, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Microwave on high 9 minutes.
5. Add 2 cups of water and microwave 9 more minutes.
6. Stir in the mushrooms and microwave until heated through, about 2 minutes. Stir in Parmesan. (If risotto is too thick, add a little water.)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Before Women Had Wings, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and Second Nature

Last week I read three books. I'm not sure how I accomplished this considering the weather was gorgeous here, and the boys and I played outside on most days.
Before Women Had Wings
Before Women Had Wings by Connie May Fowler is one of those books that I appreciated for its good writing, but wouldn't necessarily recommend it to anyone because of its gloomy subject matter. Therefore, this review is going to be short. The story centers around a young girl, Bird, and her effort to survive in a home of violence. The husband beats the wife. The wife beats the kids. The voltures kill the kittens. (Sounds like a really bad round of The Farmer in the Dell.) The one shining character in the book is Miss Zora, the loving grandmotherly figure who befriends Bird. I kept hoping something good would happen to Bird to make up for all the awful things in her life. While the ending was hopeful, I was left unsatisfied.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon
The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen, on the other hand, is very enjoyable. I picked this book up right after I finished Before Women Had Wings, and I'm glad I did. This book just made me smile. I've read Allen's other two novels, Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen. Out of the three, Garden Spells is still the best.

Allen uses magical realism in her novels: apple trees with attitudes, books that follow people around, and in this latest novel ever changing wallpaper. This technique makes the books whimsical and charming.

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the first time I encountered magical realism, and I loved it. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez is considered the masterpiece of magical realism and is an amazing family saga if you can keep all the Jose Arcadio's and Aureliano's straight. Of course Allen's books are much easier to read and lighter than Marquez. If you enjoy his novels, you might consider Sarah Addison Allen.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon opens with Emily, an orphaned teenager who goes to live with the grandfather she's never met in Mullaby, NC. This grandfather happens to be an eight foot giant. As her mother has never spoken of her childhood, Emily doesn't know that the people of Mullaby are not happy with her arrival, especially the Coffey's. Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, Emily falls for Win Coffey. Together they try to heal what has happened in the past. This is a ridiculously simple synopsis of the story, but I'm scared of giving too much of the mystery away.

The only issue I have with this book is that there is a scene that reminded me of Twilight.

Second Nature
Second Nature by Alice Hoffman was another gloomy read though I did find it very interesting. Robin, who is separated from her no good cheating husband, goes to visit her brother at a mental hospital where he is a doctor. In the waiting room, she sees the infamous Wolf Man, a wild man who was raised by wolves. Handcuffed and awaiting transportation to a permanent institution, the Wolf Man asks Robin to help him. She ends up creating a story to get his handcuffs taken off and then smuggles him home where she and her teenage son work to socialize him. Most of the middle of the story is a trio of love stories between Robin and Stephen, the Wolf Man, and Conner, the teenage son, and Lydia, his girlfriend, and Stuart, Robin's brother, and his ex-wife, Kay. When first animals and then a person are murdered in the town, Stephen becomes the prime suspect.

Overall, I liked this book. The parts where Stephen struggles with identifying himself as a wolf or as a human are really interesting. The ending was a let down. I've not read too many books by Alice Hoffman, and I've yet to find one that I just love though I think there might be one out there. If anyone has any Alice Hoffman book recommendations, please let me know.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier

Although I haven't read all of Du Maurier's novels, I've read enough of them to officially acknowledge that she is one of my favorite authors. The first person narration of The Scapegoat reminded me a lot of Rebecca in that the reader is privy to the psychological state of mind of the narrator. Maybe adding the word "super" would better explain the intensity of this POV...super first person narration...yes, much better. I felt that I had truly stepped into the mind of the narrator, John/Jean de Gue'.

At the beginning of the novel, John is an English professor of French language and culture on holiday in France for research. He is dissatisfied with his life, commenting that he is simply an observer and not an active participant. John wishes he could belong to a French family and feel the sense of kinship and community instead of always feeling on the outside of life.

The phrase "Be careful what you wish for" applies here as John meets Jean de Gue', a French aristocrat who shockingly enough looks exactly like him. After a few drinks and some intimate conversation, John discovers that de Gue' has the opposite problem; he is overburdened by his family. They drink quite a bit. The next day John discovers that de Gue' has drugged him and absconded with his identity, clothes, and car. De Gue's family driver does not believe John when he denies he is Jean de Gue' and takes him to the family chateau. John's first puzzle is figuring out which woman in the sitting room is his "wife."

This book was hard to put down as it was utterly fascinating how John handles his mistaken identity not only in dealing with the family members, but how he becomes so involved with this new identity that he begins to think of himself as Jean de Gue' and not as John. There is a lot of intrigue and family trouble that he is forced to handle. Ultimately, he comes to love the family. The ending is a bit of a shock, but of course I won't share it here. I will end with my two favorite passages from the novel.

One had no right to play about with people's lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other (74-75).

Sometimes it's a sort of indulgence to think the worst of ourselves. We say, 'Now I have reached the bottom of the pit, now I can fall no further,' and it is almost a pleasure to wallow in the darkness. The trouble is, it's not true. There is no end to the evil in ourselves, just as there is no end to the good. It's a matter of choice. We struggle to climb, or we struggle to fall. The thing is to discover which way we're going (200).
Du Maurier, Daphne. The Scapegoat. New York: Doubleday, 1957.