Happy Fourth of July

July 5, 2013 at 7:05 pm (Education, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

fireworks

The Half Price Books Humble book club read John Adams by David McCullough this month.  We discussed it together Monday night, even though I had only read the first 400 pages.  The best thing about holidays, for me, though is their ability to mandate what gets read off the TBR pile next.  So this week, as I researched for book club, lounged with family, watched fireworks, and read to the kiddo… this is what freedom looked like:

John AdamsTitle: John Adams

Author: David McCullough

Genre: History

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length: 751 pages

1001 and one things to discuss about this book, and we mostly got caught up in the assessment of the character of John Adams.  Was he an ambitious man willing to run off from the family and farm at a moments notice to pursue more exciting ventures of fame? Or, was he a great man of virtue who was gifted with the sight of the big picture, willing to sacrifice personal happiness for the greater good of the establishment of our country?  Before reading the book, considering my skepticism regarding ALL politicians, I probably would have said the former.  But McCullough has me convinced it was the latter that held true.

Of course, I am biased, mostly by the sheer fact that Adams was a great reader.  Nothing romanticizes a person more to me than their love for a good book, for the art of research, and for a passion for knowledge and action.  Several times throughout the biography, Adams is quoted saying such excellent things as,

“I must judge for myself, but how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened by reading.”

Where others in the group found him willing to cast aside his wife and children for politics, I found him endearing.  He wrote to his wife avidly.  He and Abigail would often refer to each other as ‘dearest friend,’ and their relationship seemed to be what kept him grounded and successful.  In addition to that, it also seemed that any chance he had to take his children with him, he did.  Off sailing across the pond to Europe, the boys equipped with an educated father and a personal tutor, they got first hand experience seeing how nations make peace and build relationships.  Sure, Adams renounced his son Charles later in life and that relationship was never rebuilt before Charles’ death, but in my opinion Charles did not deserve anymore second chances.  Charles, the favorite as a child, turned out to be the bad seed in the bunch – possibly spoiled by being the favorite to so many – as he turned to alcoholism and abandoned his family.  It was John and Abigail who raised his children and looked after his wife, leaving their own son to his own devices as they tried to do right by all his mistakes.

John Adams was quite the fascinating man, one I have, until now, always overlooked in history.  Having shared a birthday with George Washington my whole life, he always got my ‘favorite’ vote as a child.  As an adult, the Alexander Hamilton vs. Aaoron Burr phenomena fascinated me – mostly driven by that infamous ‘Got Milk’ ad as well as Joseph Ellis’ riveting storytelling in Founding Brothers.  It wasn’t until reading McCullough’s version of Adams life that I really began to understand what a crucial role Adams played in the timing of the Declaration of Independence and all the aftermath of our fight for freedom.  And of course, timing is everything.

With all this important political talk, I found it necessary to re-read the Declaration.  With toddler in tow for nearly all my reading ventures, it’s important to find kid friendly things to read alongside all my own reading.  That’s where Sam Fink comes in handy…

Sam FinkTitle: The Declaration of Independence

Illustrated & Inscribed: Sam Fink

Publisher: Scholastic Nonfiction

Length: 160 pages (but only takes about 15 minutes to read aloud)

I absolutely adore this copy of the Declaration of Independence.  As a homeschool mom, I love creating my own curriculum and finding unique ways to share information with my kid.  Kiddos everywhere, whether homeschooled or public schooled, should find this a fun way to absorb the meaning behind the declaration and be introduced to the ideas of why it was so important for it to be made and signed.

With large print, clear illustrations, and political cartoons to accompany nearly every sentence – if not sentence fragment – Fink helps walk a kid (and even some adults) through every nuance of our founding fathers’ meaning and intention.  If read often enough, you may find you have a kid who has memorized the declaration long before they are ever asked to do so for school purposes.  This is just a good old fashioned fun picture book that just so happens to also be an important document to our country’s history.  Sam Fink is pretty awesome and I am so glad he tackled this project.

In addition to all that,

George IIITitle: George III

Author: Christopher Hibbert

I’ve been plucking through a biography of King George III for awhile now.  It’s been loitering on my TBR pile and periodically I get the bug to read a chapter or two.

I am no where near finished reading this book, Hibbert is very detailed but also very dry as a biographer, but I find it a handy reference and do look forward to the times that I decide to sit down with it.

I like having large sweeping views of history as well as the tiny details.  Reading through John Adams and peeking here and there at George III this week, I was grateful to have already tackled Napoleon’s Wars recently. It helped me keep straight in my mind what was happening with the French while a few of the Adamses friends were busy getting beheaded. Another handy tool for both children and adults while reading through history is The Time Chart of History of the World. I don’t take a step into non-fiction without it.

TimeChart

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The Best of Foodie Memoirs

April 3, 2013 at 10:00 pm (Recipes, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

Title: Lunch in Paris

Lunch-in-ParisAuthor: Elizabeth Bard

Publisher: Back Bay Books

Genre: Travel/Memoir/Cooking

If you are looking for Eat, Pray, Love or Julie & Julia at the bookstore – STOP.  Pick this up instead.  It’s friendlier, wittier, and far more relaxing.

It was the water color that got me first.  That and the fact that I love memoirs with recipes, they pretty much dominate my source of kitchen plans.  Then, that first page of that first chapter: Coffee, Tea, or Me and her description of herself – I felt so at home, so in league with a kindred spirit.

She says things like “I stood pressed against the wall, like a field anthropologist caught in the middle of a buffalo exorcism,” when describing a French dance party.  How can you not fall in love with a writer that expresses herself like that?  I literally started laughing out loud, and I hate using that phrase since all the texters in society have begun speaking how they type, so when I use it I really mean it.

Bard is pleasant and loveable.  She has dilemmas that I can sympathize with, as opposed to Gilbert’s laments in Eat, Pray, Love which seemed all a little over the top and self inflicted.  I did laugh a few times when she chalked something her husband did up to his being French, a lot of times it just seemed very husbandy to me.  But for the most part, I think I was only laughing when I was truly meant to, when she utilized some turn of phrase or told a story that should make the corners of your mouth twitch while you read.

My favorite moment was when a friend tells her she can’t just go to the market for the rest of her life.  Before Bard got a chance to say it herself, I inwardly pleaded… why not? It doesn’t matter whether you loathe or love the grocery stores here in the states, Bard will make you fall in love with European markets and long desperately to go make purchases at a butcher shop in Paris and linger over vegetables in the streets.

Go. Buy. Enjoy.  I know you’ll love it.

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An Exact Replica…

December 23, 2012 at 5:01 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

exact140Title:An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

Author: Elizabeth McCracken

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Genre: Memoir/Autobiography

Length: 184 pages

I have never felt so awful as a human being as when I sat reading An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination knowing I’d be ‘reviewing’ it for a blog shortly after I finished.  How do you justify that in your mind? ‘Reviewing’ something so personal, so devastating, so beautiful, so intense.  As an avid reader, a constant reviewer, and one those people who presume to call themselves a writer though I’ve yet to have anything published, I felt like an inconsiderate intruder reading such an intimate account of a loss so great.  It’s rare to read something so personal.

As a mother, on the other hand, I wept.  I wept, and wept, and wept, for little Pudding.  I wept for Elizabeth.  I wept for a friend who lost a baby not long after I had my own.  I wept for all the things I may have said wrong, all the things I may have not said, and I wept for the selfish joy that my own sweet, precious child was snuggled next to me as I read.  I wept for Pudding, I wept for another friend who died, I wept for his mother because even though she had 29 years with him he was still her child, and I wept for the baby cemetery that I pass every time I visit his grave.

I’ve had a writer’s crush on Elizabeth McCracken for sometime.  I have an extremely vivid memory of reading A Giant’s House while having lunch with the same friend whose grave I now visit.  We devoured deli food, iced tea, and discussed the oddity of a romance between a librarian and child giant.  I remember telling him what a strange tale it was, but if I could ever manage to write anything half so interesting I would pee myself with happiness.  He promised to read it too, though I’m quite certain he never did because he was in the habit of reading the first thirty or so pages of something and then proclaiming himself an expert on a topic, starting novels and not finishing them, and making half-hearted promises… little things that I tend to hate in people, but for whatever reason found endearing in him.  I loved him dearly, and for that reason, I’ve never been quite certain whether my Elizabeth McCracken crush was because Elizabeth McCracken was all that amazing, or if it was because thinking of her always reminds me of him.  I cannot think of one without thinking of the other.

Reading An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, I’m now quite certain that Elizabeth McCracken is that amazing, and deserves adoration outside the realm of  Matty memories.  She’s a wonderful writer, a fascinating person, has a rockin’ last name, and by sharing this book with the world has proved to me (without ever having met her) that she has a very giving soul.

Elizabeth McCracken, thank you for sharing Pudding’s story.  And from the bottom of my heart: I am sorry for your loss.

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A Homemade Christmas

December 20, 2012 at 12:30 am (Recipes, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Homemade LifeTitle: A Homemade Life

Author: Molly Wizenberg

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length: 313 pages

It was the cover that got me first.  I saw a stack of these books and thought, those little white mugs look so lovely against that sage green.  Those crystal glasses look so clean.  I want my life to look like that; I need my life to look like that.

Of course, my kitchen life looks a little more like someone’s rummage sale: hodge-podge glasses; mugs of all shapes, sizes, and colors; I never have any idea what kind of utensils are in the kitchen as they have all been gifts, hand-me-downs, or left behind by various room mates.  (I couldn’t possibly imagine where my waffle iron came from, but it’s ancient, difficult to clean, and I love it.)  I say my ‘kitchen life’ as though it is only my kitchen that suffers from this unfashionably eclectic manner of acquiring my belongings, the truth is my whole life is this way.  The library is not the gorgeous leather bound, gold embossed on mahogany shelves thing of Beauty and the Beast or the Bodleian… instead it’s got some of those and a lot more ratty hard backs and tired old paperbacks, stacks, piles, a thousand different wood grains and colors, and pretty much a hot mess forgiven merely because it is a hot mess of books.  Even my cozy blankets have no continuity: quilts, afghans, fuzzy God-knows what kind; some made by old ladies, some by family, some just picked up at a thrift store, some from my childhood.

But it’s ok.  The cover is lovely and it gives us something to aspire to.  Even better than that, it isn’t fancy, it’s simple.  Molly Wizenberg may have a neat and organized life of homemade goodness, but it’s simple and easily attainable.  Her book isn’t about being the next Martha Stewart, and it isn’t about being a project obsessed Julie Powell, it’s just a cozy little recipe driven memoir – more than a memoir, actually.  Her book reads like little life essays, not life lessons, just life in the ‘and then I fell in love with coconut’ sort of way.  I like knowing these kinds of things about people… I don’t care about your degrees, your successes, your battle for this or for that, tell me how it was you fell in love with coconut.  Tell me your thoughts on white chocolate and all the memories those thoughts unleash.  Talk to me about rotten bananas and french toast, and what your parents were like in the kitchen.  Molly does.  And I love her for it.

Of course, if you bother to tell someone how you fell in love with coconut, your memories of the 80’s and white chocolate, your dad’s insights to making the best french toast on the planet, the moment you decided raw cabbage wasn’t half bad if prepared by the love of your life… you end up telling them about more than your food experiences, you basically tell them all the high and low points of your life, the parts that are way more personal than what degree you got in college.

Molly grew up in Oklahoma, being from Houston, TX, I don’t exactly consider that the south, but if you were from Montana I guess you probably would.  Nevertheless, reading something written by an Oklahoman during an 80 degree December feels a little more weather-mood appropriate than reading something written by, let’s say, a Canadian.  For a warm, southern winter, A Homemade Life perfectly fits the bill as it is all about the warmth of family in the kitchen, making a cozy way for yourself, and fabulous but mostly simple recipes… great for the holidays.  But only if those holidays are warmish, because there are several summer and spring recipes that would totally throw me off my game if it was snowing outside.  I’m a mood reader.  For me to enjoy a book to the max, the weather, the house, the book, and the stars all have to align.  Not entirely, I’m pretty good at getting completely lost in a book with absolutely no awareness of what is going on around me, but let’s face it, not everyone can write a 5 star book that doesn’t need ambiance guidance, and not every book is supposed to be read void of ambiance.

A Homemade Life is well-written, and thoroughly enjoyable, but it was written with the kitchen in mind.  I’ve read much of it at the kitchen table over coffee or soup.  Not every book is a coffee and soup at the kitchen table kind of book, but this one is.  This book has made me greatly long for a window seat in my kitchen.  The window seat would have a little garden box attached on the outside for all my kitchen herbs, I could open the pane and inhale the glorious scents of rosemary and green onions.  I don’t have that.  Instead, I read this sitting on a 30 year old, uneven chair with a rip in the leather, looking out the nearby window to my deck and tree.  It’s a great view, but when I open the pane I get a strong whiff of dog, ancient wood, moss, and whatever smell is coming from the water treatment plant in the back of my neighborhood that day.  My good days are in April when my jasmine masks all of that with vengeance.

But in my kitchen, I’m not just in my kitchen, I’m in Molly’s kitchen too.  I’m falling in love with her character of a father, lovingly referred to as Burg.  I’m living his grand moments, his love for breakfast and dinner, his love for his daughter, and his legacy after death.  In Molly’s kitchen I am introduced to her husband, their friends, and their exciting life together.  She shares all of this simply, eloquently, and with recipes.

In the spirit of recipe sharing, which in addition to being a lovely writer, is Molly’s forte, I will share a recent one of my own.  I used to do this more often, but lately I’ve been hoarding my recipes to myself and a few friends, not intentionally, my blog is just book driven and my facebook page is picture driven.  This recipe was birthed from a strong desire for Greek Chicken Orzo Soup and a simultaneous urge to hop in the car and get some Potato Soup from Panera Bread.  I can see your eyebrows raised in suspicion as I type, but I assure you, it came out pretty fabulously and I’ve since made about four variations of it.  I’m pretty lazy in the kitchen and this was all dumped in a crock pot…

Andi’s Greek/Potato Soup-ness:

1 can of cream style corn

1 can of whole kernal corn (optional, depending on the size of your pot)

1 can of water (I use the corn can and fill it with water)

1 chicken bullion cube

(in a vegetarian version we skipped the can of water and the chicken b. cube and used one can’s worth of vegetable broth)

a bit of milk (anywhere from a quarter cup to a whole can, depending on you and your pot)

mushrooms if you like, I’ve done it with and without

lots of chopped potato, just fill that pot up with as much as you can fit

celery, chopped… include the leafy bits, this is a must

and the part that makes it what it is… wait for it… ALL PURPOSE GREEK SEASONING, just shower it in over all those potatoes floating to the top, stir it up and shower some more.  Greek Seasoning is absolutely the most awesome ‘secret’ ingredient to a soup ever.  If you have an aversion to peppery flavors hold back, there’s a lot of black pepper in the flavor, but I have  a black pepper allergy and it didn’t cause me problems so that made me happy

Because I’m from Texas, I put Tobasco in everything

The first time I made this was shortly after Thanksgiving and I added left over chunks of Thanksgiving ham to it, it was heavenly.

After a few years of sitting on my shelf (this is pretty typical unless the book is sent to me by an author or publisher to review), I picked the book up for the HPB Humble Book Club, we will be discussing it in January.  I’m hoping the other members of the group enjoyed it as much as I have and maybe even tried out some of the recipes.  I still can’t decide which concoction to bring on the first Monday in January, but I plan to make something of Molly’s to celebrate the joy of a life homemade.

Don’t forget to check out Molly’s blog, the Orangette.

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