Friday, May 31, 2013

Armchair BEA - Nonfiction

Today's topic at Armchair BEA is nonfiction. Ten years ago, I probably would have just said that I rarely read nonfiction (because I did), but joining book groups changed all that. Through the varied selections of my multiple book groups, I discovered that nonfiction does not equal boring, dry facts. I also discovered that I absolutely love memoirs.

So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite nonfiction titles:
And some of my favorite memoirs - do I have to choose? I love them all!
See? I told you I couldn't pick. I could go on and on.

What are your favorite nonfiction books and memoirs?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Armchair BEA - Genre Fiction

Today's topic for Armchair BEA is genre fiction. My book tastes and reading habits have changed dramatically in this regard over the past 30 years. When I was younger, I read ONLY genre fiction - mostly suspense, thrillers, horror, and some mysteries. In high school, I got hooked on Stephen King and read everything he wrote, along with my mom and dad. The latest Stephen King novel would be released, and we'd pass it from one of us to the next. I got married at 24, and my husband liked all these same types of novels, so we carried on my family tradition of trading books. He also re-introduced me to science fiction. In high school, I'd read every single Ray Bradbury book on the shelves at my public library but had forgotten how much I enjoyed some of that genre. My husband introduced me to The Hobbit and Ender's Game (and the rest of Orson Scott Card's series).

Fast-forward to about 10 years ago, when I joined my first book group. Suddenly, my reading horizons were broadened! That first group dissolved after a few years, but then I discovered my neighborhood book group and another book group hosted by the local Unitarian church. I still belong to both of those, plus try to go to the monthly book discussion at my public library when I can fit it in and just recently started an online family book group! All these book groups did amazing things for my reading habits. I read historical fiction for the first time ever and loved it. I read nonfiction for the first time ever and also discovered that I loved reading memoirs. I now read a very wide variety of books, still mostly fiction. These days, the genre doesn't matter so much as the quality of the writing. As I was thinking about today's topic, I first thought that I no longer read genre fiction, but I do read some thrillers/suspense/mystery and some science fiction...but only if it is really good (which I judge mainly by what reviewers, fellow bloggers, and friends recommend).

So, here are some of my favorite thrillers and mysteries read recently:
  • Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian - perfect for Halloween last year!
  • Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson, a creepy and very suspenseful novel.
  • Blind Descent by Nevada Barr - though I don't read many classic mysteries anymore, I love Barr's Anna Pigeon series because they take place in National Parks.
  • Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich - her Stephanie Plum novels are my guilty pleasures!
And I was surprised to look back and realize that I do still read some science fiction. You can see from this list of favorites that I particularly love time travel plots! I find them very thought-provoking:
  • Time and Again by Jack Finney - a classic time travel novel that is more historical fiction than science fiction.
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - one of my favorite books from last year that I passed onto my husband and son - we all loved it!
  • Breathless by Dean Koontz - I used to read all of Koontz's horror novels, but my husband told me I'd love this unique sci fi, and I did - it fills you with a sense of wonder.
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin - reminded me of my old love for Stephen King - fabulous suspense, horror, and science fiction all rolled into one - I can't wait to read the sequel this summer.
  • Replay by Ken Grimwood - my favorite book of all time. While often categorized as science fiction because it's about a man who keeps replaying a portion of his life, it's just about life and how the decisions we make affect our lives - fascinating and thought-provoking.
Huh. So, I guess I do read genre fiction after all!

What are your favorite genres?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Armchair BEA - Introductions

The Book Expo of America (BEA) kicks off today in NYC. It is the ultimate conference for book lovers. Even more enticing, they now offer an entire program at BEA just for Book Bloggers. I would love to be there in person to meet my fellow bloggers, listen to favorite authors, and talk books non-stop for days. Since I can't do that, I thought that this year I would try participating in Armchair BEA, where book bloggers can network in the virtual world while our lucky colleagues get to network in person.

The first topic is simply an introduction, so here we go:

Who Am I?
I am 47 years old, married to another book lover, and mother of two sons, ages 18 and 15 (one who is another rabid book fan and the other who is not). I have always been a book lover, from my earliest days flipping pages of Go, Dog, Go! while sitting on my potty seat (seriously, we have photos) to the present where I write two book blogs and belong to four book groups. I began this book blog over seven years ago in 2006 and within a couple of weeks added a second one, Great Books for Kids and Teens. Outside of blogging, I am also a freelance writer; my reviews of books and other media for kids have been published for the past 8 years in Family Fun magazine. I also write about food, health, travel, and family topics.

Where Am I?
We currently live in Delaware, the second-smallest state in the U.S.   We moved here about 20 years ago when my husband and I were transferred (we both used to work for DuPont; now only he does). I am originally from Rochester, NY, and my husband is from Oklahoma. We met when we were both living and working in New Orleans, and that city holds a special place in our hearts.

One Non-Book Related Thing About Me
I have a chronic illness, an immune system disorder known in the U.S. by the silly term Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), though it is a very debilitating illness. I write another blog about living with chronic illness, Learning to Live with CFS, that has a very positive focus (writing this post, I am beginning to see why I never have enough time for everything I want to do...).  Check it out if you or someone you care about has a chronic illness...or just stop by on Mondays for my movie reviews!

Previous Armchair BEA?
This is my first time participating in Armchair BEA, though I have wanted to do it in past years and just didn't have time - we'll see if I can make the time this week! I would love to visit BEA in person and only live 2 hours from NYC, but right now, that would be a bit too much for my limited stamina. Armchair BEA is perfect for me - I like things I can do from the comfort of my couch.

Favorite Posts
Oooh,,,,that's a tough one because there are 520 of them (plus another 400 on Great Books for Kids and Teens). Let's see, here are some favorites:
 So, that's me - now I need to visit some other Armchair BEA posts and meet YOU.

Monday, May 27, 2013

It's Monday 5/27! What Are You Reading?

Happy Memorial Day to those of you in the U.S.! My grandfather was a proud Marine who served in World War II and was at Iwo Jima, so he is on my mind today. He died a few years ago.

My big news today is the kick-off of my annual Big Book Summer Challenge!  I love using the long days of summer (and the break from my book groups) to tackle some of the bigger books I never seem to have time for. You only need to read a minimum of 1 book over 400 pages long between now and September to participate, so check it out and join in the fun!

I hope you've all enjoyed the Memorial Day weekend - we've had a very leisurely weekend. Our younger son has been visiting his grandparents, helping them get their sailboat ready for the season, and our older son is home from college but has been out with friends much of the time, so Ken and I have enjoyed lots of quiet time together, a nice dinner out with friends last night...and lots of reading!
  • I finally finished American Pastoral by Philip Roth. It is a long novel with very dense prose, but I found it very thought-provoking and interesting and am glad I read it. Reviews from my book group were widely varied - some really disliked it; others loved it. I will post a review this week.
  • I am also still reading (a bit at a time) The Art of Nonconformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World by Chris Guillebeau, which was recommended by a friend of mine.
  • I have just started The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (my second time) for my online family book group this week. It is just as good as I remembered...and also counts as my first Big Book of the summer!
  • In some spare minutes, I read a middle-grade graphic novel, Tommysaurus Rex by Doug Tennepel. It is a fun, imaginative story sure to appeal especially to middle-grade boys.
  • And, finally, I am listening to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne on audio. It is just as good as I'd heard from everyone.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, book 3 in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. At over 1200 pages, this novel definitely meets the criteria of a Big Book! He is almost finished with it now.
  • Jamie, 18, is thrilled to be done with his first year of college and taking full advantage of finally having some reading time! He finished The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan, Book 1 in the Heroes of Olympus series, moved onto Book 2, The Son of Neptune, and is now reading Book 3, The Mark of Athena. A new friend from college loves reading as much as Jamie does, so they are both reading this series right now. He told me he is planning to start a book club with his friends in the fall - I'm so proud!
  • Craig, 15, is very busy trying to finish up all his work for the school year, including some make-up work still left from his last surgery in February. He is reading Romeo and Juliet for his Freshman Lit class this week.
I posted one review last week:

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, an amazing novel that just won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction - highly recommended.

And I launched my Big Book Summer Challenge this weekend. Like summer itself, it is a low-key, easy-going challenge, so check it out. I also posted my own list of books to read for the challenge.

What are you and your family reading this week?

(What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.)    

Thinking of my Grandpa today who served as a Marine in World War II.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

My 2013 Big Book Summer!


I have just announced the second year of my challenge, Big Book Summer Challenge, so I guess I should be the first to sign up!

I really enjoyed tackling some big books the last few summers, and I'm looking forward to doing it again and finally reading some of these bricks that have been collecting dust on my shelf (NOTE: for this challenge, a Big Book is defined as anything with more than 400 pages).

I don't know if I will get to all of these, but I like to have some options to choose from.  These are all currently on my shelves, waiting patiently to be read:
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, 552 pages
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, 479 pages
  • Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon, 743 pages
  • Defending Jacob by William Landay, 421 pages
  • The Twelve by Justin Cronin, 564 pages
    The first two are YA novels - I like to alternate between grown-up books and kids/teen books. I've actually read The Book Thief before, but my online family book group is discussing it soon, so I thought I'd re-read it. The rest are all books I've been meaning to read for a while. It was so hard to choose! I have many more big books on my shelves, but I also have 3 more book group reads coming up in June before my book groups take a break for the summer. We'll see how many of these I get to!

    How about you?  Are you up for tackling a Big Book (or two) this summer?  Join me and sign up for the Big Book Summer Challenge!

    2013 Big Book Summer Challenge


    A few years ago, I came up with the idea to use the relaxed freedom of summer to tackle some of the biggest books on my TBR shelf that I'd been wanting to read but never seemed to have the time for.  Both of my book groups take time off during the summer, so with no interfering commitments, I declared it The Summer of the Big Book and really enjoyed delving into some hefty tomes, like The Passage and Pillars of the Earth.

    It was so much fun that last year, I created this challenge so that YOU can join me! And here it is Memorial Day weekend again and the official start of summer 2013. So join in on the fun!

    The Details:
    Hey, it's summer, so we'll keep this low-key and easy!
    • Anything over 400 pages qualifies as a big book.
    • The challenge will run from Memorial Day weekend (last weekend in May) through Labor Day weekend (first weekend in September).
    • Choose one or two or however many big books you want as your goal.  Wait, did you get that?  You only need to read 1 book with over 400 pages this summer to participate! (though you are welcome to read more, if you want).
    • Choose from what's on your shelves already or a big book you've been meaning to read for ages or anything that catches your eye in the library - whatever peaks your interest!
    • Sign up on the links list below or on the Big Book Summer Challenge page.
    • Write a post to kick things off - you can list the exact big books you plan to read or just publish your intent to participate, but be sure to include the Big Book Summer Challenge pic above, with a link back to this blog.
    • Write a post to wrap up at the end, listing the big books you read during the summer.
    • You can write progress posts if you want to and/or reviews of the big books you've read...but you don't have to!  There is a separate links list for big book review posts.
    That's it!  Go check out your shelves and your TBR list and sign up below!

    (Don't have a blog?  No problem!  You can still participate in the challenge - just leave a comment in the Comment section, stating your goals for the Big Book Summer Challenge.)

    Check out my own list of books to read for the challenge.

    Be sure to include a link to your kick off blog post (not your homepage):

    Come back to this page during the summer to add a link whenever you review a Big Book or post a progress report:

    Friday, May 24, 2013

    Fiction Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

    The 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was recently awarded to The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Normally, I wouldn’t run right out to read the latest winner, but this one was familiar to me. Ann and Michael, the hosts of my favorite book podcast, Books on the Nightstand, had loved this novel, and I remembered hearing them both praise it in a podcast earlier this year. So, I requested it from the library and must have been ahead of the crowd because there was no wait list. I am so glad that I read it right away because this novel blew me away.

    First a word of warning: if all I’d heard of this book was a plot summary, I probably never would have read it. In fact, I was only a few pages into the novel and had learned that it was about a young boy in North Korea who is forced to join the army, and I wondered whether I was going to like it or if this would be one of those literary novels that are just plain boring. I needn’t have worried. Adam Johnson has created a fascinating world and an intriguing main character, and his writing just pulls the reader into the middle of the story. I never wanted it to end.

    So, I’ll tell you about the plot, but there is so much more to this story than meets the eye. Pak Jun Do has been brought up in an orphanage (aka children’s labor camp) in North Korea by his father who runs the orphanage. He spends his whole life explaining to people that no, he is not an orphan, but no one believes him because he has an orphan’s name and grew up in an orphanage. His mother, a singer, was taken away – as are most beautiful women in North Korea – to the capital city of Pyongyang when he was very young, and his father was physically present but emotionally absent, wracked with despair over his wife’s absence.

    At fourteen, Pak Jun Do and the orphans are conscripted into the army to save them all from starvation during a terrible famine in North Korea. From there, his life continues through many different stages, from a tunnel fighter as a teen to a kidnapper to eventually, through an amazing twist of fate, working alongside Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader himself. The details of Pak Jun Do’s various horrible jobs and of daily life in North Korea are both captivating and terrible.

    The entire novel is absolutely gripping. It probably sounds depressing from this plot description – and parts of it are sad – but its overall tone is optimistic because Pak Jun Do is a wonderful man who never loses hope of a better life. In fact, at one point, his wildest dreams come true. Certainly parts of his story are horrifying and violent, but one part of the novel – when a group of North Koreans visit Texas – had me laughing out loud.

    This is an emotionally moving story, and you soon find yourself rooting for Pak Jun Do and hoping he can somehow escape to a better life. I was even talking out loud to the book (always a good sign!), alternating “Nooo!” with “Oh, good.” The ending is both happy and sad at the same time. Johnson is a masterful writer who pulls the reader into the center of the story and never lets go, until the final word. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Pak Jun Do and also never wanted his story to end. A novel this good is a rare find.

    443 pages, Random House

    Listen to a funny, fascinating presentation by Johnson at Booktopia Santa Cruz.

    Here is a list of all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction since 1948 - I've read 9 of the 59 novels - I better get busy! 

    Monday, May 20, 2013

    It's Monday 5/20! What Are You Reading?

    Ahhh...the quiet solitude of a Monday morning after a busy weekend. But this is the end of the peace and tranquility for me for a while! My oldest son comes home from college this week, my youngest son has two weeks of school left, then finals, and then another knee surgery. So, I am trying to make the most of this last bit of quiet, productive time!

    Good reading this week:
    • I finished The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson and was blown away by this recent Pulitzer Prize winner! The story completely pulled me in, and I never wanted it to end. I'll try to review it this week (before things get hectic!).
    • I am now reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth for my neighborhood book group, but I waited too long to start it because I was so engrossed in the Orphan Master's Son! There is no way I can finish it before Wednesday - it is over 400 pages of very dense prose - but I am giving it my best try. It's a strange story with a strange format, but I am enjoying it so far.
    • I am also still reading (a bit at a time) The Art of Nonconformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World by Chris Guillebeau, which was recommended by a friend of mine.
    • I finished listening to an amazing middle-grade audio book, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Its Newberry Medal was well-deserved. I posted a review last week.
    • And I started a new audio book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. I know, I am way behind on this one! I can see why it got such great reviews when it first came out.
    • My husband, Ken, is still reading A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, book 3 in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. At over 1200 pages, this novel definitely meets the criteria of a Big Book. It's almost time for my annual Big Book Summer Challenge! Look for details this weekend.
    • Jamie, 18, is still reading The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan, though I suspect he had little reading time this week, in the midst of final exams.
    Not only did I not have time to post much on my blogs this week, but I just realized this weekend that I never even posted my Monday update to my Great Books for Kids and Teens blog - oops!

    I did write two reviews:

    A Short Guide to a Happy Life and Being Perfect, two slim nonfiction books by Anna Quindlen, perfect for graduation season.

    The One and Only Ivan, an award-winning middle-grade novel by Katherine Applegate that I listened to on audio.

    What are you and your family reading this week?

    (What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.)    

    Saturday, May 18, 2013

    Snapshot Saturday 5/18

    At Home with Books hosts Saturday Snapshot.

    Crazy, stressful week this week (with pockets of joy!), so I didn't take any new photos. I thought I'd share a few from last weekend, when we spent Mother's Day in Connecticut  with my mom and her husband and my sister and her family to celebrate both Mother's Day and my mom's birthday (an annual tradition). Don't worry - I won't bore you with family photos (well, maybe one). On Sunday, we went to the beach, along the Long Island Sound, and enjoyed the beautiful day, as well as a fun scavenger hunt!

    Hope you are having a good weekend!

    Norwalk Beach on Long Island Sound - lovely day!

    One of the locals

    My family after our scavenger hunt!

    Wednesday, May 15, 2013

    Nonfiction Review: A Short Guide to a Happy Life

    I was browsing the nonfiction shelves in the library when I came across two very slim volumes, both written by Anna Quindlen: A Short Guide to Happy Life and Being Perfect. Since I enjoy Quindlen’s novels and her essays, I checked them out. They are both brief philosophical musings about the meaning of life and how to be happy.
    I am guessing that both of these were adapted from commencement speeches that Quindlen gave, probably at her alma mater, Barnard College, since she mentions it in both books. Both are illustrated with black and white photographs of a wide variety of people, young and old, all engaged in happy activities or thoughtful pursuits. 
    Here is an excerpt from Quindlen’s A Short Guide to Happy Life:
    “So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast in the shower?
    Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.
    Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.”
    So you can see here that she not only offers good advice but that it is illustrated with her lovely writing that brings such beautiful images to life. I found many passages that I liked and copied into my Favorite Quotes Journal.
    Likewise, Being Perfect offers advice and insights into life but with a focus on the trap of perfectionism, a character flaw near and dear to my heart! She recounts her own struggles with trying to be perfect and advises the reader to focus more on being yourself and less on your image and how others see you.
    Quindlen offers some excellent advice for life in these two books in a pleasant package, illustrated by inspiring photographs. I really enjoyed both books, and they echoed much of my own thinking and values about life. Either one (or both) would make a lovely gift for someone you love, especially for a graduation or other significant life event.

    50 pages, Random House

    Monday, May 13, 2013

    It's Monday 5/13! What Are You Reading?

    Happy Mother's Day! I hope all you moms had a lovely day yesterday with your child(ren). We spent the weekend in Connecticut visiting my mom and her husband (it was also my mom's birthday), along with my sister and her family. It was great to see everyone, and I especially love spending time with my niece and nephew - they are both fabulous! (and I'm not at all biased). Last week was a whirlwind of buying and wrapping gifts, doing laundry, packing for the trip, plus all the usual weekly tasks. I had very little time for blogging, but I always find time for reading:

    • I am still reading The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This book is so amazing! It is engrossing and compelling and wholly unique, set in North Korea. I've laughed out loud, cried, and yelled at the book. My only problem is that it is fairly long, and I have another 400-some page book to read by next Wednesday for my book group! I hope to finish by tomorrow.
    • I am also still reading bits and pieces of The Art of Nonconformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World by Chris Guillebeau, which was recommended by a friend of mine. It is interesting so far, and I'm looking forward to the part on how to prioritize your daily work life since that is a big challenge for me.
    • With my son back in school last week, I was able to continue with my audio book, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, an award-winning middle-grade book that has really grabbed me.
    • My husband, Ken, is still reading A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, book 3 in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. This brick of a book is a full-time project!
    • Jamie, 18, took advantage of being away from college for the weekend to read for fun (lucky boy can read on the car without getting sick!). He's reading The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan and says it is wonderful! Now he's back on campus, studying for finals, but this is his last week, so he'll have lots of reading time this summer.
     Like I said, very little writing time last week, but I did squeeze in two posts at Great Books for Kids and Teens:

    Ender's Game Movie Trailer

    Review of The Game of Sunken Places by M.T. Anderson, a middle-grade fantasy/adventure novel.

    What are you and your family reading this week?

    (What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.)    

    Monday, May 06, 2013

    It's Monday 5/6! What Are You Reading?

    Ah, lovely weather here last week, but a rough week in our house. My son had a killer sinus infection that triggered a nasty flare-up of his chronic immune disorder, so he was home from school all week and totally wiped out...and that means I got very little done! He's 15, so I know he doesn't need constant supervision (and I did make runs to the grocery store and drugstore), but he does like company when he feels that bad.  Also, his appetite doesn't suffer when he's sick, so I spent a LOT of time cooking, doing dishes, and going out for take-out requests!

    Anyway, he is feeling better now and back at school, and we had a very nice weekend. No matter what our week is like, we always enjoy our books:
    • I finished The Game of Sunken Places, a middle-grade novel by M.T. Anderson (and the first I've read of this award-winning author). It was a cross between a mystery and a fantasy, fast-paced and unique.
    • I am now reading The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and many other accolades and awards). I requested it at the library as soon as I heard about the Pulitzer because I've been wanting to read it ever since the two hosts on my favorite podcast, Books on the Nightstand, raved about it. It is set in North Korea and is excellent so far and completely engrossing.
    • I am also making my way through a nonfiction book, The Art of Nonconformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World by Chris Guillebeau. A good friend of mine from high school recently recommended this book, so I requested it at the library, too (I need to get back to my TBR shelf). I decided I couldn't read a book about setting goals and changing the world before bed or I'd never get any sleep! So, I'm reading the novel at bedtime and squeezing in bits of the nonfiction during the day.
    • My husband, Ken, is still reading A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin, book 3 in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. This hefty book is a long-term project. He was laughing that he'd read 200 pages and his bookmark still looked like it was at the beginning of the book!
    • Neither of our sons has had time (or energy) for reading. At 18 and 15, they are busy with school work at this time of year.
    I did manage to write some reviews and blog posts last week:

     A review of The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, a historical novel about a young girl who is an indentured servant in 1790's Virginia.

    A review of Turnabout by Margaret Peterson Haddix, a fascinating teen/YA novel about a secret project that "unages" a group of elderly people.

    I also posted my April Reading Summary.

    And a Weekend Cooking post about clay pot cooking and crockpot cooking.

    What are you and your family reading this week?

    (What are you reading Monday is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, with a kid/teen version hosted by Teach Mentor Texts.)    
    My sons and I at my book signing this weekend - two of my essays were published in a Chicken Soup anthology.

    Sunday, May 05, 2013

    Weekend Cooking 5/5

    Each weekend, Beth Fish Reads hosts Weekend Cooking.  This is perfect for me since I love food and cooking almost as much as I love books!

    Happy Cinco de Mayo!

    Tonight, in honor of the holiday, I am making my Chicken and Bean Enchiladas with Mexican Rice and Orange-Mango Fizzy Drinks. This is one of my family's favorite meals, so we are all looking forward to it.

    I didn't write a Weekend Cooking post last week because we were camping (see photos in yesterday's Snapshot Saturday post), so I'll cover two weeks today. I did a lot of quick and easy meals recently because we have been very busy.

    I did have the opportunity to try two more recipes from my new Cooking Light's Slow Cooker Tonight! cookbook, and they were both amazing! I am loving this cookbook and using my crockpot much more. One night, I made Chinese Pork Tenderloin with Noodles, a sort-of lo-mein type dish with both Thai and Chinese flavors. This is not at all your typical crockpot meal, and would work well at any time of the year. You cook the pork in the slow cooker first, then remove it and add veggies and finish the sauce, then toss is all together with the shredded pork and noodles. It was easy and full of flavor! We had two dinners from it, plus I had two lunches as well (sorry the recipe is not online).

    This week, I made Beef Brisket with Beer, another recipe from the slow cooker cookbook and another hit! I added sliced carrots along with the parsnips and took their advice to serve it with mashed potatoes. It was absolutely delicious - we all loved it! I had never cooked brisket before but have eaten it and found it often to be tough. Cooked this way in the crockpot, it was tender and tasty, and I loved the flavor of the parsnips with it. Again, we got two dinners and a couple of lunches from about 20 minutes of cooking.

    This weekend, my mother and her husband came to visit, so I used something my mother bought me for my birthday last year: a clay pot. She introduced me to this wonderful style of cooking, but I have just begun to learn how to use the pot. Since my mom is a partial vegetarian, I made Clay Pot Baked Fish for dinner on Friday. You'll never guess where I found the recipe...yes, Cooking Light!  I know, I am predictable, but I just love their recipes. The baked fish recipe is not online, but here is a listing of some of their other clay pot recipes that are available online. The fish (cooked with sliced potatoes, zucchini, tomatoes, fresh herbs, and white wine) was wonderful - we all enjoyed it.

    Well, it's time to go make our traditional Sunday morning pancakes for my family - everyone is getting up now. I'm thinking banana chocolate chip today.

    Hope you enjoyed your food and cooking this week!

    Saturday, May 04, 2013

    Snapshot Saturday 5/4

    At Home with Books hosts Saturday Snapshot.

    Here are a few of my favorite photos from our brief camping trip last weekend to Elk Neck State Park in Maryland:
    The beach along the Elk River - so peaceful!

    A blue heron in the water.

    Gorgeous butterflies - I had never seen these before!

    My two sons and I on the beach.

    I have a book signing today at our local used bookstore, for the Chicken Soup: Parenthood book that includes two of my essays.  Looking forward to it!

    Hope you have a lovely weekend!

    Thursday, May 02, 2013

    Books Read in April

    With April, spring finally arrived here, much to our collective relief! The weather was lovely, and I was able to do more reading outside on the deck. Although I started the month with a novel I didn't finish, the rest of my reading month went well, as I read and enjoyed some excellent books:

    • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a compelling, suspenseful novel (Missouri)
    • A Short Guide to a Happy Life by Anna Quindlen, a brief nonfiction book
    • Being Perfect by Anna Quindlen, another brief book with advice from the esteemed writer

    So, in all, I read 6 books last month (plus 130 pages of We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver), though the last two were very short! Almost all of the books I read in April were fiction, except for the two Quindlen books, and most of them were adult books - just 1 YA book this time. My favorites were The Yokota Officer's Club and The Kitchen House, both read for my book groups, showing once again that participating in book groups can introduce you to some wonderful books you'd never have read on your own!

    I added 4 new states and 1 new country to my 2013 Where Are You Reading Challenge, bringing my 4-month total up to 16 U.S states and 4 other countries. I didn't add a single book this month to my 2013 TBR Pile Reading Challenge - almost all of the books I read came from the library! I actually listened to the first half of The Kitchen House on audio, so I'm counting that toward my 2013 Audio Book Challenge.

    What was your favorite book read in April?

    Wednesday, May 01, 2013

    Fiction Review: The Kitchen House

    I recently read The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom for one of my book clubs. I started listening to it on audio and finished reading the paper book, and I thoroughly enjoyed both formats. This engaging novel presents a wide variety of characters in a part of history that I knew little about.

    Lavinia is a 6-year old girl who has just arrived in the United States in 1791, seriously ill and with no memory of who she is. Her parents brought her and her brother from Ireland, hoping to make a better life for all of them, but both her mother and father died during the journey. Captain James Pyke, who paid for their voyage and planned to employ her parents as indentured servants on his Virginia plantation, decides that Lavinia will have to pay off her parents’ debt (her brother, who is older and has more value, is sold). When they arrive on the plantation, the Captain sends Lavinia to the kitchen house, to work with the slaves.

    So, pale-faced, red-haired Lavinia is brought up by the extended family of slaves who work on the plantation. She grows close to them and comes to think of them as her real family. She works in the kitchen house and also in the “big house,” where she gets to know Miss Martha, the mistress of the house, and Sally and Marshall, the two children who live there. Lavinia is often reminded of her place as a servant, but when she hits her mid-teens, she is suddenly introduced to white society and expected to treat her family as her slaves. This is all very confusing to Lavinia, as she tries to figure out what her place is in the world.

    This novel is bursting with a wide variety of characters, both white and black, and a whole lot of tragedy, as Lavinia comes of age torn between two very different worlds. Before reading this book, I knew very little about the role of indentured servants in our history; their status was really no different than that of slaves, except that their servitude had a finite term. The narrative shifts between Lavinia’s perspective and that of Belle, the slave who runs the kitchen house and is the illegitimate daughter of the Captain. The audio book was very well done, with two different readers for the two narrators.

    Although everyone in my book group enjoyed the book and was glad to have read it, there were a few minor complaints. Some felt there were just too many bad things that happened in the story, but I thought that was fairly realistic, not only for the times but also for real life – some lives really are filled with tragedy. A few people thought the novel relied too much on stereotypes, which is probably true: most of the black slaves were good people at heart, and many of the white men were horrible and mistreated the slaves (though there were exceptions). All in all, I was captivated by the story and pulled right into its world. I found the historical backdrop fascinating, but I was also drawn into the fictional world of these characters and came to care about them (except the ones I hated!).

    384 pages, Touchstone (audio by Blackstone Audio Books)

    You can listen to a sample of the audio book at this link.