Monday, March 31, 2014

It's Monday 3/31! What Are You Reading?

Wow, how can it possibly be the last day of March already? I am more than ready for April, since we've had such a long and hard winter, but the month just went by very quickly. This past weekend was our only 48 hours alone together as a family until summer, so we drove about two hours away, to a St. Michael's, a lovely town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and stayed at a beautiful inn out on a point surrounded by water. Unfortunately, it was dark, cold, windy, and pouring rain all weekend....AND my youngest son had bronchitis and a sinus infection and felt awful on Saturday! Not quite the getaway we'd pictured, but we still had a nice weekend and spent some time together as a family - we had some delicious meals, watched a movie in our room, and played cards (with lots of laughs!).

And, as always, we read a lot:
  • I finished Gap Creek by Robert Morgan for my online family book group. It's a bit depressing at times, but overall, I enjoyed this novel about a hard life on an isolated farm in the Carolina mountains at the turn of the century.
  • Next, I started another book group selection, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, a modern classic novel that was made into a popular 1988 movie. It's an unusual novel - very philosophical so far, about life and love.
  • I have also been (slowly) making my way through another nonfiction book, Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule -and Your Life by Julie Morganstern. Yes, I am still on a quest to get better at time management!
  • I started a new audio book, The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett. Its history is interesting - the famous author (who has now written over 40 books) wrote this novel when he was only 17 years old! He revised it recently so that it could be re-released.
  • My husband, Ken, finished Unsouled by Neal Schusterman, the book that was supposed to be the final one in the Unwind trilogy, but is now book 3 of 4. Apparently, Schusterman just can't let go of this story - and neither can his fans. My son and I can't wait to read this one.
  • Ken is now traveling for the week and reading Brilliance, a suspense novel, by Marcus Sakey on his Kindle.
  • Jamie, 19, has been on a reading streak lately! He is now on spring break for a week and has been reading like crazy. He told us he downloaded 26 free books to his Kindle last week! He already read two of them last week: The Last King's Amulet by Chris Northern (book one in The Price of Freedom series) and The Choosing by Jeremy Laszlo, book one of The Blood and Brotherhood Saga (Jamie has figured out that publishers often offer the first book in a series free as e-books!). He said both books were good.
  • Now, he's gone back to an old favorite series, Beyonders by Brandon Mull. Book three was just released, so he is re-reading book two, Seeds of Rebellion, before moving onto the new book.
I didn't have much time for blogging last week, so I just posted two reviews:

Review of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

Review of The Last Present, a middle-grade novel by Wendy Mass

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 Unleashing Readers

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nonfiction Review: 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

At the beginning of January, I picked up two time management books at the library that I had heard good things about. One of those was 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam. Ironically, it took me two months to finish reading the book, so apparently, I really needed it! That’s no reflection on the book, only my inability to read two books at once. I enjoyed the book and learned some useful tips on making better use of my time.

Vanderkam’s main premise is that everyone has 168 hours in each week, and that the current belief that everyone is too busy and no one has any free time is a myth. She says that we all have plenty of time…if we use it wisely and according to our own priorities. She advocates starting with an analysis of how you currently spend your time by keeping a detailed time log for a week or two. I really liked this idea and downloaded the time log forms from her website.  She then details how to analyze that data, looking for wasted time or excessive time spent on trivial things. She also suggests identifying your core competencies, those things that only you can do and that support your highest priorities.

She next discusses goals and suggests starting with a brainstorming session to make your own list of 100 Goals/Dreams, just a free association kind of list of everything – big and little – you would like to do with your life. From that long list of goals, she says to take a few and develop smaller steps that need to be taken to move closer to the goals. This is something I started doing several years ago that has worked very well for me. I used to teach and consult with companies on how to reach their goals, and I taught them to break each goal down into specific objectives and then break those into individual steps to take. I realized that the same things I had taught to corporations would work for my own personal goals. I also made sure that all of my smaller objectives were measurable, and I find that that helps me to stay on track.

In 168 Hours, Vanderkam addresses both work and home time, with lots of suggestions for choosing priorities, finding work you love, meeting longer-term career goals, and having plenty of time in your life for the things that are really important to you, whether that’s family, work, exercise, volunteering, or some combination of those. Her tips range from making breakthroughs in your career to streamlining your wardrobe and serving simple meals and everything in between. Her main focus is on using the time you have more effectively, according to what’s important to you.

Overall, I found the book useful. I did the time tracking and didn’t see anything earth-shattering, but it confirmed what I already suspected – mainly that much of my time was being sucked up by e-mail and responses to Facebook groups. Seeing that in black and white and reading Vanderkam’s advice helped me to come up with some strategies. Now I just need to make those into habits! Not everything in the book was applicable to me – I have a chronic illness, so I actually DO have less time than most people because I have to spend so much time sleeping and resting. But, I can apply her concepts within the time that I do have, and I liked her focus on defining what is important to you. Besides its usefulness, 168 Hours was interesting and well written, backed up by fascinating research, interviews, and lots of inspiring examples.

238 pages, Portfolio (Penguin group)


Monday, March 24, 2014

It's Monday 3/24! What Are You Reading?

So glad it is Monday - the weekend really wiped me out! Pretty sad when you need to recover from your weekend, huh? And not because I had a wild fun time - just because I did too much around the house, with cooking, dishes, laundry, etc. I really need to fix that and add a little fun into my Sundays!

I did manage a 2-day "me retreat" last week at the beach, with plenty of reading and some writing catch-up, too. We all enjoyed our books last week:
  • I finally finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and loved every one of its 600+ pages! The characters and the time and place really pulled me in, and I was sad to say good-bye to Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay.
  • Next, while I was away, I squeezed in a quick middle-grade novel, The Last Present by Wendy Mass. It turned out to be the last book in a 4-book series, and I only read the first one. So, I obviously missed some of the references to earlier events, but I knew enough to enjoy the book - Mass is an excellent writer for middle-grade readers, and it's a time travel story (my favorite kind!).
  • I recently started Gap Creek by Robert Morgan, the next selection for my online family book group. It's set in the rural Appalachians around the turn of the century, about a young girl who gets married and struggles to set up her own household in an isolated place.
  • On the way home from the beach, I finished listening to Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the final book in the Divergent trilogy. I reviewed it (and the second book, Insurgent) when I got home. The third book was my favorite - now I have to go see the new movie!
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Unsouled, the third book in the teen/YA Unwind series by Neal Schusterman, which he, our college son, and I all love. He's enjoying it so far - I can't wait to read it next!
  • Jamie, 19, finished the Medieval fantasy series he was reading, The Staff and the Sword, by Patrick W. Carr. He finished reading book two, The Hero's Lot, and book 3, A Draw of Kings.
  • Craig, 15, is reading MacBeth by Shakespeare for his Brit Lit class and said he did really well on last week's quiz!
I wrote a couple of reviews last week, plus other posts:

Review of The Good Sister by Wendy Corsi Staub, a thriller I listened to on audio.

Review of Insurgent and Allegiant by Veronica Roth, also listened to on audio.

Saturday Snapshot, with photos of my (cold) beach visit last week.

Weekend Cooking post, with several very tasty recipes, adaptable for a Paleo diet (or not)

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 Unleashing Readers

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Weekend Cooking 3/23

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!

As I explained last month, we recently started eating a Paleo diet for health reasons. It is going well so far - my son and I are both feeling better, and my husband (who has no health problems!) has more energy and drive than he's had in decades. I am still learning and trying to understand more about why this type of diet is good for us.

Most important to me is that we don't sacrifice flavor or feel deprived. I have been mostly using regular recipes so far and making minor adjustments where needed to fit the Paleo diet. I was away on a mini retreat by myself for a couple of days this week, but we enjoyed some tasty dinners when I returned.

As I've mentioned before, many of our meals now fit into a meat or fish plus two veggie sides model - this is really not all that different from a traditional dinner of meat or fish with one veggie and a starch. So, one night, I made Roasted Pacific Cod with Lemons and Olives, a recipe I cut out of Real Simple magazine a while back. We had roasted asparagus and steamed broccoli with it. Very tasty!

We had a busy afternoon on Friday, with an appointment at 4 pm, so I needed a good crockpot recipe. I turned to my favorite crockpot cookbook, Cooking Light Slow Cooker Tonight, and looked for something that could easily be adjusted for Paleo. I settled on a dish we tried last year and loved, Chinese Pork Tenderloin with Garlic Sauced Noodles (sorry this one isn't online - you'll have to buy the cookbook to get it!) Yes, a noodle dish without the noodles might sound a bit strange, but the flavors in this meal are vibrant and full, so I knew it could stand on its own without the pasta. I added extra veggies (as is my habit!) to give it more volume about an hour before it was finished - I doubled the carrots and added a head of napa cabbage, thinly sliced (the recipe calls for raw carrots but my son is allergic to those and can only eat them cooked). I did cook up a small serving of whole wheat spaghetti for my younger son (who has no dietary restrictions) and mixed his with the noodles, as directed, but my husband and I just ate ours as is, and it was delicious. Though the sauce and mix of pork and veggies in this dish is good, the real stars are the fresh ingredients added at the end - cilantro, lime juice, and chopped peanuts (or cashews or sunflower seeds for Paleo). Delicious!

And tonight, with my college son home for his weekly Sunday dinner, we will have his favorite, Americana Pot Roast. The only adjustment I need to make for him is to leave out the potatoes - I am substituting some turnips instead. This is a really flavorful version of pot roast that we all love, a family favorite.

I hope you have also enjoyed some fun cooking and delicious foods this week!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 3/22

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

This week, I took a little break and drove down to the beach for a mini getaway/writing retreat for myself at a friend's condo. It was quiet and peaceful, with no responsibilities or obligations to distract me! I did lots of reading and some much-neglected writing and also took some short walks on the beach, in spite of lingering winter weather!

Cold temps, dark skies, and lingering snow kept the boardwalk pretty empty!

I still love the ocean, even with those dark skies - the smell, the sound, and the sight.

The weather didn't bother the locals!

Hard to believe the next day was the first day of spring!

On my last day, the sun came out!

Hope you are having a wonderful weekend and enjoying the start of spring!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Fiction Review: The Good Sister

I rarely read thrillers anymore. I still enjoy them, but I used to read mystery/suspense novels almost exclusively, so I guess I kind of overdosed on them! So, when I recently listened to The Good Sister by Wendy Corsi Staub on audio, it was definitely something different from what I usually read now, but I enjoyed it. I remembered why I used to enjoy suspense novels so much, as I had trouble setting my iPod down!

The first chapters focus on a man who has returned to his childhood home in Buffalo, NY, to sell the house after his mother dies. It is obvious right from the first paragraph that some strange things went on in that house and that there was some sort of abuse present in his family, and by the end of the first chapter, the reader also knows that this man is a killer. The story than switches to the point of view of Carley, a teen girl attending the same Catholic high school, Sacred Sisters, that her mother, Jen, attended in the same Buffalo neighborhood. Carley is being bullied by her classmates, but she keeps that a secret from her mother. Soon, Jen and Carley and the rest of the community are shook up as a series of mysterious deaths occur among the local teen girls.

At first, I wondered where the suspense was in this novel, since you know right from the first chapter who the killer is. It turns out that this is one of those thrillers more concerned with why than with whodunit. It’s a convoluted plot, with many twists and turns. I did guess at some of the why midway through the book, but the author still had plenty of surprises in store for me – all the more surprising because I thought I had things all figured out!

Like most thrillers, there is quite a bit of violence in this novel, as well as some very disturbing incidents. The story focuses heavily on social media’s role among today’s teens, with its ripped-from-the-headlines elements of online bullying and kids seeking online support from strangers whom they trust too quickly (again, no spoilers here that the author herself doesn’t reveal early on). It’s a scary story for parents of modern teens. But it is also a creative and suspenseful story that kept me in earbuds almost constantly for a few weeks!



Monday, March 17, 2014

It's Monday 3/17! What Are You Reading?

Happy St. Patrick's Day!!

When I was in college, St. Patrick's Day was pretty much the biggest holiday of the year (with a big emphasis on green beer, of course), so it is still near and dear to my heart, even though I can no longer drink...or stay up late! I am wearing green, though, plus a lovely green nail polish (Minty Sprint!), and we had our big corned beef dinner last night when my college son was home, with plenty of leftovers for today. If you are looking for a really great corned beef recipe for today (or some other easy and tasty meal ideas), check out my Weekend Cooking post from yesterday.

And now, it is snowing again here today...sigh...yet another day with school cancelled! On the positive side, I have planned a little writing retreat for myself this week and am headed to the beach for a couple of quiet days to myself at a friend's condo. I am very much looking forward to the writing time and plenty of reading time, too!

Meanwhile, we have all enjoyed our books this week:
  • I am still reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, even though we had our book discussion on it last week. I am down to the last 50 pages or so (it's over 600 pages!). I was surprised to find that some people didn't like it because I love it more the more I read. These two characters and their story really pulled me in and grabbed me. I can't wait to find out what happens next but also don't want it to end!
  • I am also still listening to Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the third and final book in the Divergent trilogy. I like this one better than I liked the first two because it is delving into why this post-apocalyptic world is the way it is, so I am finding the story much more interesting and thought-provoking, more along the lines of Hunger Games or the Unwind series.
  • My husband, Ken, read The Drop by Michael Connelly this week and enjoyed it - he and I have always liked Connelly's novels.
  • Now Ken is reading Unsouled, the third book in the teen/YA Unwind trilogy by Neal Schusterman, which he, our college son, and I all love. This dystopian series is absolutely chilling because it is based on elements of our own current society taken to an extreme.
  • Jamie, 19, started a new Medieval fantasy series (his favorite kind of book), The Staff and the Sword by Patrick W. Carr. Last week, he read book one, A Cast of Stones, on his Kindle, and he is now reading book two, The Hero's Lot. He mentioned to me yesterday that getting sick the previous week (bronchitis) reminded him of how much he enjoys reading, so he's trying to read more, even while he's at school. That's my boy.
I tried to catch up a bit last week on my book blogs, so I posted:
Review of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier, a wonderful novel.

 Review of Thin Space by Jody Casella, a teen/YA realistic novel with a supernatural twist.

 Summary of Books Read in February and Challenge Progress.

Weekend Cooking, including easy and tasty weeknight dinners plus my favorite Corned Beef recipe.
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 Unleashing Readers

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Weekend Cooking 3/16

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!

We are continuing on our new eating adventures with a mostly Paleo diet, due to medical problems. Everyone felt pretty good this week, so I do think it's helping. My son felt very good this week (he's on a diet that even more restrictive than Paleo, until he maintains this level of improvement for a while), I felt good and had plenty of energy, and even my husband (who has no major health problems) has been feeling full of energy and in great spirits on this diet. Also, I lost 5 pounds which makes me very happy because one of the medications I started a few years ago made me gain 5 pounds, so at least I am back where I was before! I've had to start wearing belts again because my jeans keep slipping down! My husband has also lost about 5 pounds.

Whether you are eating Paleo or not, we had some delicious dinners this week that are great for anyone who enjoys flavor! So far, I've just been using regular recipes (mostly from Cooking Light, as usual!) and making slight modifications for us, if necessary.

I try to make traditional favorites when my college-aged son (the one with the worst medical problems and the most restrictive diet) comes home on Sundays - for him, that usually means beef! Last Sunday, I made him a classic roast beef (eye of round roast) and served it with pureed cauliflower and sauteed zucchini. Tonight, of course, we'll have our annual Corned Beef Dinner for St. Patty's Day, just with far fewer potatoes than usual! This is my favorite recipe for New England Boiled Dinner, though I will have to leave out the maple syrup today and go easy on the potatoes. There are plenty of other good veggies in this dish to make up for that.

I've been trying to make sure we have fish at least once a week since it is so healthy and to prevent us from relying too much on red meat (we normally eat a lot of beans and other legumes which are out on this diet). So, one night, I made Pan-Seared Tilapia with Citrus Vinaigrette - it was sooo tasty! With it, we ate roasted asparagus (a household favorite) and delicious Bacon-Maple Brussels Sprouts. I just cooked two pieces of uncured, thick-cut bacon in a skillet, removed them and sauteed the halved Brussels sprouts in the bacon grease until cooked through, then glazed them with a tablespoon or so of real maple syrup, and finished them with a sprinkle of freshly ground salt and pepper and added the crumbled bacon back in. They were delicious and a great accompaniment to the fish. They were both just as good the next day for lunch!

I tried a new crockpot recipe later in the week, Mediterranean Chicken, from the Cooking Light Slow Cooker Tonight! cookbook (sorry this particular recipe isn't available online). This dish was filled with flavor, and the three of us gobbled up all of it! It is basically chick thighs that have been browned on the stovetop, added to the crockpot with onion, tomatoes, seasonings, lemon, capers, and kalamata olives. I added some red bell pepper to up the veggie count. That combination of zesty flavors was fabulous. The only change I had to make was that the recipe recommended serving it over rice. We just ate it without the rice and I added some roasted baby bok choy on the side. Delicious! We will definitely make that one again.

Friday night, my younger son begged for plain old spaghetti! He's been a good sport as the rest of us do this restricted diet (he has medical problems, too, but his are well-controlled with medication and he doesn't need any special diet). Since he was having a friend over, we went with classic spaghetti with meat sauce, with steamed green beans on the side. My husband and I did have a bit of the whole wheat spaghetti - since we don't have gluten issues, we've agreed to stick to Paleo most of the time but indulge in some whole grains or beans or corn once in a while.

So, all in all, it was a very tasty week! I hope you have enjoyed some good food and cooking this week as well!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 3/15

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

After the longest, coldest winter in memory here, I finally saw some signs this week that spring might be emerging soon - the temperatures hit the 60's one day, the snow in our neighborhood is almost melted, and I saw the very first spring flower shoots. Too bad there is another snow storm forecast for Monday! Ah, well, I am going to enjoy these signs of spring while I can...

The snow is almost melted in our yard!

My first afternoon spent on the deck.

As the snow recedes, the first snowdrops are peeking out!

These snowdrops are in bloom....more to come!

Hope you are having a lovely weekend!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Books Read in February

Yet another snow storm...will this winter ever end?
Yes, yes, I am late again with my monthly summary. This year got off to a rough start, so I seem to be constantly playing catch-up. But here it is, finally - my February summary! It was actually an excellent reading month, both in quantity and quality, in spite of being such a short month. Here's all that I finished last month:
  • Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, historical fiction (Hawaii)
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, literary fiction (Rhode Island)
  • Thin Space by Jody Casella, a teen/YA novel (Massachusetts)

  • The Good Sister by Wendy Corsi Staub, a thriller on audio (New York)
  • The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier, fiction (Massachusetts)
  • 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam, nonfiction

  • Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, middle-grade audio
  • Insurgent by Veronica Roth, teen/YA audio (Illinois)
  • Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick, middle-grade fiction (Louisiana)

Can you believe it? I finished 9 books in February! To be fair,  I started a couple of them in January - in fact, ironically, the time management book took me a full two months to finish (I guess I really don't have more time than I think!). I liked every single book on this list, so it's hard to pick a favorite...I guess that would be a tie between Moloka'i and The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D. - both were excellent, engaging novels. I read a nice mix - 4 adult novels, 1 nonfiction book, 2 teen/YA novels, 2 middle-grade novels, and three of the books were audios.

Update on 2014 Reading Challenges:
I added six states to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 (it's easy at the beginning of the year!).  I read just one from my TBR shelves, Insurgent, for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge. At this rate, my TBR bookcase will burst! I need to stop going to the library for a while.  I listened to three audio book for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge, so that one's going well so far. I finally read one nonfiction book!  But no classics yet.

What was your favorite book read in February?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fiction Review: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

I had been suggesting The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier to my neighborhood book group for several months, so I was thrilled when the group finally chose it for our February selection. Everyone in the group enjoyed this insightful book about women, friendships, secrets, relationships, motherhood – there is just so much packed into this engaging novel that we had plenty to talk about!

As the novel opens, Kate, a mother of two young children, is still trying to adjust after the startling death of her closest friend a year before in a plane crash. The September 11th attacks occurred just a few months after her friend Elizabeth’s death, and both events have left Kate feeling rattled. On their way to their annual family beach vacation, Kate and her husband and kids stop at Elizabeth’s house to pick up a small trunk that was left to Kate in the will. Elizabeth’s husband, Dave, is not too pleased that his wife mysteriously chose to leave this trunk, filled with journals that Elizabeth wrote, to Kate. She wanted Kate to be the one to read the journals and decide what to do with them.

On their vacation, Kate begins to make her way through the journals, starting at the beginning when Elizabeth was only a young teen, as her friend had requested. Before long, the journals have become something of an obsession for Kate, much to the irritation of her husband, Chris. It turns out that sweet, placid Elizabeth had a number of secrets – things she’d been through and hadn’t ever shared – as well as secret insecurities and anxieties that Kate never even suspected. Kate begins to wonder whether she really knew her old friend, and as she reads about some problems and secrets in her marriage to Dave, she also begins to question the stability of her own marriage to Chris.

This story is engaging and compelling with a bit of a mystery at its core – everyone in the group said they read it quickly and had trouble putting it down – but it is also thought provoking and insightful. Our group talked about it easily for a couple of hours, jumping from topics of women’s friendships to marriage to motherhood to journal-keeping to post 9/11 anxieties and secrets….and then after I got home, my mind was still spinning, thinking, “Oh, we didn’t talk about that” and “I should have asked what everyone thought of this!” In short, this novel really got under my skin and made me think.

I also loved Bernier’s writing. I turned down many corners of the book to mark quotes I wanted to write down later – just so many times when she perfectly expressed some truth about motherhood or being a woman or friendship or some other topic. One example is this musing from Kate on traveling with kids:

“For years, traveling as a family had been something undertaken with determination, their agility weighed by bulky gear and days defined by naps, meals, moods. It had seemed as if those years would last forever, though a small part of her wished they would. Memories of even the difficult times – children crying themselves to exhaustion in cars, planes, hotels – were beginning to take on the cast of nostalgia. She had watched them fall asleep at last, puffy mouths gone slack, with equal parts relief and heartbreak. They would never, she’d thought, be as fully hers as they were at that moment of surrender. The dawn of traveling freedom shimmered ahead. But Kate suspected this, like other things that surprised her, would come with a wistfulness for what had passed too quickly.”

With the dawn of real traveling freedom just ahead for us, with one son in college now and one in high school, I identified with every tired, yearning, nostalgic word of that passage. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of Bernier’s first novel and can’t wait to read her next one, which she describes in this video.

305 pages, Crown Publishers

NOTE: Nichole Bernier made a series of videos for our book group, answering questions we’d submitted ahead of time. In this video, she explains what was behind her novel and how she came up with the idea (don't worry - no spoilers in this one!)

Monday, March 10, 2014

It's Monday 3/10! What Are You Reading?

Busy Monday! I usually try to post my Monday update first thing in the morning, but here it is 4 pm already. I hope this isn't a harbinger of the coming week!

Here's what we read last week, in the midst of our busy lives:
  • I am still reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - it is over 600 pages! - for my book group this week. There is no way I will finish it in time since I am still not even halfway through it, but I am really enjoying it. I've heard great things about this novel for years, so I'm glad to finally have a chance to read it.
  • I am now listening to the audio book Allegiant by Veronica Roth, having just finished book 2 in the series a week ago. This is good preparation for the Divergent movie that is being released this week! And, I've inspired my husband to re-listen to the entire series (he's heard book 1 and just the beginning of book 2).
  • My husband, Ken, finished John Grisham's latest, Sycamore Row, a follow-up to his famous A Time to Kill and a Christmas gift from our son. He enjoyed it, and I've moved it into my own TBR pile now!
  • Jamie, 19, did some comfort reading this week because he got a bad cold and bronchitis and spent most of the week in his dorm room, resting. For him, comfort reading means re-reading old favorites. He re-read The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima, and now he is re-reading Merlin by Stephen R. Lawhead.
I didn't have a lot of writing time last week (again!), but I managed one review and another post:

Review of Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina by Rodman Philbrick, an outstanding and emotionally powerful middle-grade novel.

Weekend Cooking 3/9, with several dinner recipes appropriate for either Paleo dieters or anyone else.

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 Unleashing Readers

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Weekend Cooking 3/9

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!

As I explained two weeks ago, we've been eating according to the Paleo Diet here for almost a month now (plus some extra restrictions for my son and I due to health issues). It's been challenging at times, but everyone is feeling better, even my husband who has no medical issues - he's got a lot more energy and has been very cheery (our younger son says excessively cheery in the early mornings - lol).

Finding flavorful recipes that meet the Paleo criteria (no grains, no potatoes, no legumes) is challenging. I keep a database of recipes in an Excel spreadsheet - those I want to try, those we like, etc. My "Tried and True" page had almost 300 recipes on it; the new Paleo subset I created this week has only about 90 recipes (and most of those will require extra adjustments, like leaving out rice or potatoes). Our family likes to eat a very wide variety of meals with varied flavors. So, here's what I came up with last week - these recipes are all great for Paleo and regular diets alike and very flavorful.

One night, I made one of our favorite dishes, chicken piccata, with a small Paleo adjustment: swapped out the regular flour for almond flour. It has a coarser texture but it still provided a nice coating, and our son didn't notice any difference. I served it with roasted asparagus, and then had the brilliant idea to make zucchini ribbons to take the place of the whole wheat egg noodles we usually eat with it. I brought out the mandolin I've hardly ever used and sliced the zucchini lengthwise, super-thin. My husband watched me and said, "Why aren't you using the hand guard thingy?" I said it was easier this way...and then promptly sliced a nice, thin slice off the pad of my finger! I ended up in Urgent Care to get it repaired with surgical glue...oh, and by the way, dinner was delicious!

Another night, in need of a quick and simple dinner, I sliced up some chicken Italian sausage (we like Trader Joe's brand) and sauteed it with onions, bell peppers, and zucchini, then added a bit of chopped tomatoes and oregano. I cooked up some whole wheat pasta for my son ("Thank God!" he said), but my husband and I just ate it straight - very tasty!

We had another old favorite Cooking Light recipe later in the week, Maple-Glazed Roasted Salmon, which is my family's favorite way to eat salmon. The recipe's got a bit too much sugar for my own dietary restrictions, but it's maple syrup so it's good for Paleo....and very tasty whether you are eating Paleo or not! Like many of our Paleo dinners, I served it with 2 vegetable sides, broccoli and snow peas this time.

Besides searching through my own recipe database this week, I also went through every page of my Cooking Light Slow Cooker Tonight! book, one of my favorite cookbooks (actually, one of the only cookbooks I use). I found only a half dozen recipes that didn't include potatoes, rice or some other Paleo no-no! I tried one of them Friday - Old-Fashioned Chicken Fricassee (this recipe was adapted for the Slow Cooker book - after pan-frying the chicken for a few minutes, put all ingredients into the slow cooker and cook on Low for 4-5 hours). Actually, this one does use 3 tablespoons of flour, and I didn't think almond flour would be a good swap in this case, so I used a bit of white whole wheat flour. It was delicious - my husband and I ate it as is, like a stew, and I made my son some reduced-fat Pillsbury biscuits for his serving.

If you are interested in some Paleo-approved treats, check out this post from my chronic illness blog which includes some Paleo brownie recipes plus other chocolate treats. I'm ready for another week of experiments!

If anyone knows of a good Paleo cookbook with a focus on flavor, I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 3/8

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

The Never-Ending Winter:

I took these first two photos about two weeks ago, when it had finally warmed up above freezing and some of the snow in our neighborhood was beginning to melt, but even on a sunny day in the 40's, we still had plenty of snow in our yard, as you see here:

Snow still lingers in our yard, as the sunnier areas melt.

Still plenty of snow in the back!

Then, we got another big snowstorm this past Monday and were back to where we started from. It is supposed to go up above 50 today, which sounds like a miracle! Maybe some of this snow will melt again and this never-ending winter will finally come to a close.

As a parting shot, here is a pretty winter sunset, taken about a month ago, in between snowstorms:

Winter Sunset from our back deck

Hopefully, this will be the last of the snow photos for this year!

Hope you are having a wonderful - and warm - weekend!

Monday, March 03, 2014

It's Monday 3/3! What Are You Reading?

Here we are on another Monday, with snow falling steadily outside and yet another snow day with school cancelled! This winter feels like it will never end...

Inside, it is cozy and warm, and we had a fun (though exhausting!) weekend, with our annual Mardi Gras party plus my mom and her husband here for the weekend. So, you would think we had no time for reading...but we always make time to read, no matter what else is going on! It looks like I read a LOT last week, but mostly, I finished up a lot of books I'd been working on for a while:
  • I finished The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier in time for my neighborhood book group on Wednesday. It was an excellent novel, and we had so much to discuss! In addition, the author very kindly made some personalized videos for our group, answering our questions about the book and telling us what was behind its writing. I hope to write a review this week and tell you more.
  • My next book group book wasn't in at the library yet, so I squeezed in a short middle-grade novel, Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick. It's about a young boy who is visiting his great-grandmother in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hits and how he survives both the storm and its aftermath. It's an emotionally powerful story that made me want to read more about Katrina. The timing was just right for me, as we used to live in New Orleans and were celebrating Mardi Gras this weekend. I hope to post a review tomorrow, Mardi Gras day.
  • On Friday, I finally started my next book group pick, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. I've been meaning to read this award-winning novel for years, so I was glad when my other book group picked it; however, it's over 600 pages of very dense text, so it will be a challenge to finish it in time for next week's meeting!
  • I finally finished 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam! Woo Hoo!! It took me 2 months to read it, so I think I really needed it. The author had some interesting insights into time management, achieving your goals, and living a more deliberate life. I want to take some notes and try implementing some of her advice before I return it to the library.
  • And I finished my audio book, Insurgent by Veronica Roth. I started it with my family last summer, but they lost interest, so I am glad that I finally found time to finish it. I'm not quite as big a fan of the series as some people are (for me, it's certainly not as thought-provoking or well-written as The Hunger Games trilogy, which I often hear it compared to), but it is an engaging story, and the audio was well done. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to the third and final book, Allegiant.
  • My husband, Ken, is still reading John Grisham's latest, Sycamore Row, a follow-up to his famous A Time to Kill and a Christmas gift from our son. He was laughing last night at all the books I finished last week, but this is a hefty one he's working on.
  • Jamie, 19, finished reading The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater and brought it back home so I can read it next. I'm not sure what he's reading now - with all the activity this weekend, I forgot to ask him!
I had very little time last week for writing, with all the party and house guest preparation. I managed just two posts:

Review of Flora & Ulysses, a middle-grade novel by Kate DiCamillo

Weekend Cooking post, all about how to celebrate Mardi Gras - there's still time - 2 more days to go!

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 Unleashing Readers.  

Happy Mardi Gras! My sons and I, about 5 years ago

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Weekend Cooking 3/2

Lots of great food to help celebrate Mardi Gras!
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!


This weekend marks the end of the Mardi Gras season, which begins on January 6 and culminates in Mardi Gras Day (aka Fat Tuesday), on March 4 this year. We used to live in New Orleans, so our annual Mardi Gras party has become a tradition among our friends here in Delaware, many of them whom also lived in New Orleans when we did (we all met working at a DuPont plant in Louisiana, and DuPont's headquarters is here in Delaware, so many of us ended up back together!). I cooked all last week, our house is all decorated, we had our party last night, and on Tuesday we will go to another friend's house for another gathering of old Louisiana friends and our traditional Popeyes chicken dinner (yes, Popeyes is absolutely authentic!).

If you'd like to celebrate Mardi Gras this week, it's not too late. Here are some great foods you can cook yourself, as well as items you can order or purchase:

Just a few of Zapp's fabulous flavors!
First, we always order a carton of Zapp's Potato Chips from Louisiana a couple of weeks before the party. Zapp's are the most amazing chips you've ever tasted, with unique flavors you can't get anywhere else, like Cajun Crawtator, Cajun Dill (my personal favorite), VooDoo (my son's fave), and many more. They are made in a little Louisiana town called Gramercy, just north of New Orleans, and you can order them any time of year by clicking that link above or calling 1-800-HOT-CHIP. You won't regret it!
Red Beans & Rice

For dinner, you might want to try one of these classic New Orleans' dishes. These are my own recipes, all easy and healthy (they were published in Family Fun magazine February 2012). Red Beans and Rice is a favorite at our house that we eat all year-round. It is tradition in Louisiana to eat it on Mondays, so if you get the ingredients today, you can have a pot on your stove for tomorrow night. My version is super-simple, quick, and so tasty, your family will be begging you to make it again next week!

Everyone looks forward to Jambalaya at our party each year, and it is a favorite among my family, too. This one takes a little more work, but it is well worth it. The recipe makes a big pot of jambalaya, so invite some friends over to share it! We usually make it with chicken and low-fat Andouille sausage, but you can make use any combination of chicken, sausage, and/or shrimp.

Another classic New Orleans dish is Shrimp Etouffee. We don't usually make this one for Mardi Gras (it's harder to make a big batch for a large group), but we have it for dinner throughout the year. If you live somewhere where you can get fresh crawfish or even frozen crawfish tails, then you can substitute those for the shrimp. Either way, this is a delicious, simple dinner perfect for the cold weather we are still enduring! 

And, if you don't feel like cooking, go to your nearest Popeyes and pick up some delicious, authentic (though not very healthy!) treats. Popeyes really was started as a local business in New Orleans by a local businessman there, and the food is actually pretty good for fast food and quite authentic - we usually get the spicy chicken, red beans & rice, dirty rice, and of course, their delicious biscuits.

Bread Pudding in front and a King Cake
Last, but not least, you must have King Cake to properly celebrate Mardi Gras! Family Fun included a recipe (not mine) in my article for baking King Cake from scratch, but we usually get ours from a bakery. In Louisiana, King Cakes are everywhere for the entire Mardi Gras season - at the plant where we worked, there was a King Cake every single day from January 6 until the Friday before Mardi Gras (no one worked on Monday or Tuesday of Mardi Gras week!), and whoever found the little baby baked inside had to bring the cake the next day. You can order directly from bakeries in New Orleans - two of the top ones known for their king cakes are McKenzie's and Gambino's - but we were happy to discover that most towns and cities have a local bakery or two that make King Cakes this time of year. Just check your local listings for bakeries and make some phone calls. We found two here in our area that make King Cakes, plus a grocery chain (Giant) that also bakes them this time of year.

Finally, to put you in the Mardi Gras mood and give you an idea of what you're missing in New Orleans, sponsors a number of live web cams. This is the paradecam, which gives you a great view of St. Charles Street (where the classic street cars usually run), along one of the major parade routes. They used to have it on round-the-clock. This year, it seems they are only turning it on during certain times of day to catch certain parades, but the page I linked to includes a timetable. There will be parades every day right through Tuesday. In a sidebar on the right side of that same page are links to other live webcams in the New Orleans area. And this page on the site is a starting point for lots more content related to Mardi Gras, including fantastic photos and videos of parades and more.

There's still time! Make or buy some Louisiana food and join in the celebration. Laissez les bon temps roullez!

My sons and I, about 5 years ago, celebrating Mardi Gras