Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Fiction Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I was excited when my neighborhood book group chose the modern classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera because I vaguely remembered seeing the movie in the 80’s and had never read the famous novel. I am glad to have read it, but it turned out to be a somewhat difficult novel to read, a unique mixture of philosophy, politics, relationships, and love.

Summarizing the plot succinctly is a challenge because it’s a bit convoluted. The story of several interrelated characters is set in Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s. Tomas is a divorced man and a serial womanizer who suddenly falls in love with Tereza, a woman who visits him in the Prague shortly after they meet for the first time. Tereza becomes ill, and Tomas nurses her back to health and develops the kind of connection with her that he normally avoids with his frequent female conquests. Their relationship is rocky, mainly due to Tomas’ continued casual dalliances with a lot of other women.

One of those women is Sabina, who serves as the sole connection between one set of characters and the other. Sabina is an artist who, in addition to her trysts with Tomas, is also having an affair with Franz, a married man living in Geneva, where Sabina moves when Russia takes over Czechoslovakia in order to preserve her artistic freedom. Franz is in love with Sabina and is even willing to leave his wife for her, but Sabina prefers to remain a free spirit.

Confused yet? This story of interconnected relationships takes place against a fascinating historical backdrop as Russia invades Czechoslovakia, and its residents try to find a way to live their lives amidst drastic changes in politics, work, and culture. The action moves from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland to France and back again. And against all of those political and personal goings-on, the author muses on deep philosophical issues, like the meaning of life, the effects of choices and fortuitous events, and what love really means.

My book group had some very mixed reactions to the novel. Some really hated it and didn’t finish it, many found it confusing, and a few of us stuck with it and enjoyed it, despite its difficulties. We wondered whether the translation affected the clarity of the writing or whether it was entirely the consequence of the author’s philosophical musings. Sometimes, the author even departs from the story-telling to talk directly to the reader. To give you an example of the author’s style, this is the opening sentence/paragraph of the novel:

“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?”

I read that passage aloud to my husband, as I was starting the book on the first day of a family vacation and said, “uh-oh.” It’s not exactly beach reading.

But if you like thoughtful and thought-provoking novels, then there is some pay-off here if you stick with it. I ended up tagging many pages with quotes that I wanted to write down. For instance, in one passage toward the end, Tereza is musing about the nature of love and how the completely selfless love for a pet differs from love between two humans:

“…Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to him demand-free and asking for nothing but his company.”

That passage really made me think about all the expectations and demands I place on those I care for most deeply.

I wasn’t thrilled with all of the cheating male characters in the novel and struggled a bit to wade through some of the complicated prose (sometimes you just read a sentence and think, “huh?”), but ultimately, I am glad I stuck with it and read it. We certainly had a lot to talk about (for those who had finished the book anyway!) Now, I am curious to watch the movie again because I don’t remember it very well. I am interested to hear what others thought about this highly regarded modern classic.

314 pages, Perennial Library

Monday, April 28, 2014

It's Monday 4/28! What Are You Reading?

Ah, the quiet solitude of a Monday morning! I really need this today, after a hectic weekend. My husband is visiting his dad in Oklahoma, so it was just me and my sons this weekend, doing all the running around, errands, cooking, cleaning, etc. I am feeling exhausted and also overwhelmed by all I need to do so am hoping to have some quiet catch-up time this week.

I didn't write any reviews at all last week because we took a mini-vacation since it was my son's spring break. We went camping for a couple of days near the gorgeous Chesapeake Bay. It was wonderful to be outdoors and surrounded by so much natural beauty for a couple of days, even if all the usual mess and to-do lists were still waiting when we got back home! I posted a few pictures of the trip on Snapshot Saturday.

So, with our camping trip, we had plenty of reading time last week:
  • I finished The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy for one of my book groups. It was well-written though a bit confusing at times and quite depressing. You know from the beginning that it ends in tragedy, so it was a bit heavy for my tastes, though I look forward to discussing it.
  • I needed something light, fun, and easy after that, so I am reading The Dream Thieves, Book 2 of The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater. I loved the first book, The Raven Boys, and my son recently enjoyed this one, so I am glad to get to it before I forget everything that happened in the first book!
  • I just realized I haven't started a new audiobook yet since I didn't really have any time alone last week - I'll have to pick one out today. I did enjoy some of my favorite book podcasts this weekend.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Faithful Place by Tana French and may have finished it by now. He loves her books and was enjoying the Irish slang in this one! When he finishes it, he'll be reading something on his Kindle during the rest of his trip.
  • Jamie, 19, is still reading The White Tree by Edward W. Robertson on his Kindle. This is book one of the Cycle of Arawn series. He said it's very long, and he had a lot of quizzes and tests last week in college so not much reading time. He recently cashed in a $75 gift card, so packages from Amazon have been arriving at the house daily - he is so happy to have so many great books lined up!
  • I think that Craig, 15, must be finished or close to finishing MacBeth by now for his Brit Lit class. This week is state testing.
Like I said, no time for writing reviews last week, so my only post was:

Snapshot Saturday, with photos from our camping trip near the Chesapeake Bay.

I hope to catch up on reviews this week.

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.     

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 4/26

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

My younger son was on spring break this week, so we took a couple of days off to go camping - finally! We usually try to go for the first time in late March, but the weather hasn't cooperated this year. It was actually still not cooperating this week - some rain and one night it got down to 39 F! - but we still had a wonderful time. It is so incredible to leave behind all the electronics and responsibilities and just enjoy the sunshine and fresh air! Here are a few photos of the beautiful Elk Neck State Park in Maryland - we were camped right along the shore of the Elk River, just before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Waiting for sunset our first evening.

Instead of a beautiful sunset, we got dark clouds and a storm!

My son (#22) and his friends building a raft on the beach.

Mini Beach Still Life

It was cold and cloudy our first full day, but the clouds were beautiful!

The sky cleared! Gorgeous blue sky above the water.

We finally got our sunset.

The view from our campsite - cozy by the fire with our books.

My son and his friends launched their raft (it was just a two-person raft!).

A Great Blue Heron who wasn't at all bothered by our presence.

Another beach along the Elk River - beautiful day!

Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend!

Monday, April 21, 2014

It's Monday 4/21! What Are You Reading?

Whew, I'm a bit late posting today - it's going to be a super-busy week! My younger son is home on spring break, so we went shopping this morning and will be heading out for a couple of days of camping later this week (unfortunately, it's supposed to get colder and wetter again). Not my usual quiet Monday morning routine!

Anyway, here's what we read last week:
  • I finished Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, a wonderful YA novel set in New Orleans's French Quarter in 1950. I loved it and read it very quickly.
  • Now I am reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy for one of my book groups. This one I'm not loving so far, though it has its moments. It's set in India and is the story of two fraternal twins whose lives are forever changed by the events that occur in one day when they are children.
  • I finished listening to Loud Awake and Lost by Adele Griffin, another YA novel, on audio in record time. I really enjoyed the compelling story about a teen girl trying to piece together her missing memory after a horrible accident.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading Faithful Place by Tana French. I got him started on this series last year and gave him this third novel as a gift for Christmas. He really enjoys both the mysteries and the writing style.
  • Jamie, 19, finished The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemison, a book I gave him as a gift last year, and loved it.
  • He is now reading The White Tree by Edward W. Robertson on his Kindle. This is book one of the Cycle of Arawn series. It was one of 26 free books that he recently downloaded! He is both an avid reader and a bargain hunter.
Despite a very busy week last week, I managed a few blog posts:

Review of Gap Creek by Robert Morgan, a historical novel.

Weekend Cooking/Review of Against All Grain Cookbook

Summary of Books Read in March

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, April 20, 2014

Weekend Cooking 4/20: Review - Against All Grain

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!

I usually use this weekly post to link to recipes I used that week or post my own recipes. As I explained in an earlier post, we recently started eating a Paleo diet for medical reasons. Basically, Paleo means eating lots of fruits and veggies, lean meats and fish, eggs, nuts and seeds...but no grains, dairy, legumes, or processed foods and only small amounts of natural sugars. This week, I am reviewing a Paleo cookbook, Against All Grain: Delectable Paleo Recipes To Eat Well and Feel Great by Danielle Walker.

I ordered this cookbook because several friends had recommended it, though the title seemed a bit militant to me at first. As it turns out, the author also has an immune disorder similar in some ways to ours (Ulcerative Colitis in her case), and she has improved her health and quality of life tremendously by eating a Paleo diet. I was intrigued right from the introduction!

The book evolved from her popular blog of the same name. The design and organization seemed a little odd to me at first, with separate chapters for breakfast and for things that kids like and a picture-based recipe index that is not alphabetical, but I'm getting used to it. I have been doing pretty well on my own with dinner ideas that are Paleo, with a focus on our usual meat or fish plus two veggie sides instead of some sort of grain or potato. If you read this blog regularly, you also know that I've done well with using my favorite Cooking Light recipes, with some slight modifications.

So, one of the things I was most looking for in a Paleo cookbook was plenty of treats, desserts, and baked goods. Our college-aged son--who has the most health problems and is on the most restricted diet of all of us--was yearning for things like this. Against All Grain has lots of recipes for sweets, treats, and baked goods, and we have already tried quite a few of them! Here's a list of what we've tried, along with how we liked it, and any modifications we made (we need to eat lower sugar than typical Paleo so many of my changes have to do with that):
  • Cinnamon-Raisin Coffee Cake (I added chopped apples to the batter.) Delicious! Even my son who doesn't like cinnamon and my other son who is decidedly NOT eating Paleo both enjoyed this.
  • Currant Scones (I substituted blueberries for the currants since blueberry scones are one of my son's favorite foods; I subbed ghee for palm shortening; I also cut the amount of honey in half and added a bit of stevia.) Wonderful! A lovely treat after not having any bread-like food for months. Our non-Paleo son admitted they were pretty good, and our restricted son was thrilled to have one of his favorite foods.
  • Sun-Dried Tomato Rosemary Scones (We left out the sun-dried tomatoes because we didn't have any on hand.) We made these on a whim one night just before dinner. I had made homemade soup, and my husband really missed having biscuits or crackers or bread with his soup. He and I both loved these! They were wonderful with soup. Non-Paleo son was NOT impressed - ha ha.
  • "Peanut Butter" Cookies - (We used butter instead of palm shortening because it doesn't seem to bother us and again cut the honey in half and added 1 teaspoon stevia; also, I omitted the lemon juice and baking soda and used baking powder--I know it's not strictly Paleo). Two of the things our college son is missing most are peanut butter and cookies. Poor kid sees tables full of cookies and other sweets every day in the dining hall and can't touch them. We'd already discovered sunflower butter as a sub for peanut butter, and he loves that (is currently going through a jar a week and keeping me running to Trader Joe's!). These cookies were very good. They are a bit drier than cookies made with regular flour and not quite as crisp on the outside, but they are chewy and tasty and definitely fill that cookie-sized hole in his diet! My son liked them so much that he drove home from campus in the middle of the week and said, "Teach me how to make those sunflower butter cookies so I can take some back with me."
  • Ganache Tart with Toasted Hazelnuts - (Again, halved the sugar--maple syrup in this case--and added some stevia to replace it.) I made this to take to a potluck dinner for a group of families who all have sick kids. Lots of food intolerances in the group, so the ganache was a big hit! Kind of like fancy fudge - very rich and chocolatey.
  • Chocolate Fudge Sauce - I made this when my son was home for spring break and served it with sugar-free ice cream from our local dairy (he's not supposed to have dairy but this was a special treat!) and Avocado Paleo Brownies (again using half the syrup and subbing in some stevia)--yum! His favorite dessert is a brownie sundae, so this satisfied his craving. I had mine with vanilla coconut ice cream.
  • Waffles - (I left out the honey or syrup and subbed a teaspoon of stevia; I divided the eggs into whites and yolks, mixed the yolks in with the rest of the batter, beat the egg whites until soft peaks formed, and then gently folded the egg whites into the rest of the batter--this is a classic waffle approach that makes the waffles lighter and more tender.) We just tried these this morning for our special Easter Sunday breakfast, and everyone loved them! Even my younger son who is somewhat anti-Paleo and won't touch the Paleo pancakes I usually make on Sundays, enjoyed these waffles, so that is high praise indeed. We topped them with chopped bananas or pears, chopped walnuts, maple syrup (sugar-free syrup for the restricted son and whipped cream for the non-Paleo son!). Definitely a keeper.
  • Roasted Garlic Mashed Fauz-Tatoes - This has been our only dud so far from this cookbook! We have tried subbing pureed cauliflower for mashed potatoes, and the three of us on a restricted diet like that. This pretend potato approach uses celeriac which I finally found at Whole Foods after searching 3 other stores for it. Admittedly, I didn't follow the recipe exactly because we really hate fennel, so I left that out. In any case, none of us liked this. I might try celeriac root in other recipes, for instance cubed in soups or stews instead of potatoes, but I think we're done with the mashed variety.
  • Garlic-Olive Oil Breadsticks - A favorite at our house! These Paleo breadsticks (made with almond flour) are wonderful with soup or stew and made even better with the addition of rosemary and a sprinkle of Kosher salt on top.
So, you can see, we have mostly tried sweets, treats, and baked goods and enjoyed just about everything! I am looking forward to trying the Paleo bread recipe and some of the entrees, but so far, this cookbook has been well worth the price. You can check out the Against All Grains website for some sample recipes.

We are veering slightly from the strict diet today for Easter. We each had 1 Peep with breakfast (a family tradition!) and will include a few pierogies (another family tradition because my family is Ukrainian) with Easter dinner tonight...along with lean, natural meats and lots of veggies, of course!

Happy Easter and enjoy some good food today!

P.S. This cookbook is actually available in a spiral-bound edition! Why aren't all cookbooks published this way?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Books Read in March

I thought I was late with my monthly summary last month! ha ha Here it is, April 19 already. Where did the last 3 weeks go?? Then again, spring itself has been late this month, so my blog fits right in.

March was a light reading month for me, with only four books completed, though one of those was 650 pages. Here's what I read in March:

Only four books, all fiction, but a nice range of age groups, and I enjoyed them all.  I think my favorite of the month was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I ended up liking much more than I expected to.

Update on 2014 Reading Challenges:
I added just one state to my Where Are You Reading Challenge 2014 this month.  For the third month in a row, I read just ONE book from my TBR shelves for my 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge. I really need to stop getting books out of the library and get cracking on all the books I already have!  I listened to one more audio book for my 2014 Audio Book Challenge, so that one's going well so far. I finally read one nonfiction book!  Still not a single classic, though.

What was your favorite book read in March?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fiction Review: Gap Creek

Last year, after seeing book recommendations fly back and forth between my far-flung cousins and aunts on Facebook, I started an online family book group. It’s been such fun to share great books with my family whom I don’t get to see very often, and there have been some excellent selections (we take turns choosing). My cousin’s latest pick, Gap Creek by Robert Morgan, was no exception – we all enjoyed it.

This historical novel is set at the turn of the century in the rural Appalachian Mountains. The Harmons are a loving, close family who eke out a living with their small farm; the story is narrated by Julie who is 17 and has 3 sisters and a younger brother. Life is hard, but they are happy. Then tragedy hits. The young boy, Masenier, dies of some sort of untreated infection with high fever. Julie and the rest of her family are devastated by his death. Meanwhile, her father’s “coughing sickness”(probably TB) gets worse and worse, and things look grim for the Harmons.

Julie is hard-working, and with her brother gone and her father sick, she has to take on much of the work normally done by males on their farm. Soon, though, a young man named Hank comes to the area and “courts” Julie in a whirlwind romance. Within a week of meeting for the first time, they are married, and Julie heads across the border to South Carolina with Hank to a small cabin in an isolated valley. They live with a cranky old man who owns the cabin, in exchange for cooking and taking care of the house. This farm is even smaller than the one Julie grew up on, with poor soil and a short growing season. Their life is incredibly difficult, and tragedies occur often in this time before there was any real medical care.  Much of the novel focuses on Julie and Hank’s new relationship and whether or not it can withstand the hardships and tragedies they encounter.

If you are thinking that this all sounds a bit depressing, that’s what my cousins and I all thought at first, too! The novel is well-written, though, and Julie is an engaging and likable narrator whose story pulled me right in. She works so hard for so little, with few comforts in her life. Julie’s spirit is what keeps this story from getting too depressing. Although she is na├»ve and young, she is determined to work hard, be a good person, and make her new marriage work. Here are her thoughts as she works hard to celebrate Christmas when things are looking grim for she and Hank, and they are almost out of food:
“If you waited till everything was perfect to celebrate, you might never celebrate anything. I would try to act like things was going to turn out all right, and it just might happen.”

We were all fascinated by the details of life in the late 1800’s and especially by how difficult it was to do the simplest things. We will never take a pork roast or a trip to the grocery store for granted again! Most of all, we were all inspired by Julie’s strength and her optimism. Although there is a lot of misfortune and heartbreak in this novel, ultimately, it is an uplifting story of overcoming adversity and not giving up when life gets hard.

326 pages, Alqonquin Books of Chapel Hill

NOTE: The Road From Gap Creek is a sequel novel, narrated by Julie's child, extending through the Depression and World War II.


Monday, April 14, 2014

It's Monday 4/14! What Are You Reading?

Wow, 80 degrees here yesterday and today - we seemed to have gone from snow and winter right to summer and skipped the nice part where it's in the 50's and 60's entirely!

I had another very busy week (are there any other kinds?) but managed to do quite a bit of writing...but not book reviews. So, I hope to catch up on those this week.

We enjoyed our books last week:
  • I finished Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick and loved it! The movie was great, but the book is even better, with more emotional depth. It is filled with both joy and heartbreak. Not everyone in my library's book discussion agreed - some didn't like the book. Unfortunately, I used up all of my limited energy going to book groups on Wednesday (that one and my neighborhood one in the evening), so I didn't feel well enough to go and hear Quick speak Thursday evening. I was sorry to miss that, but I watched a few videos of him on Youtube - it's hard to find interviews and videos specifically about the book - most are about the movie!
  • After plowing through three book group books in a row, I was ready to enjoy a teen/YA novel, so I picked up Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys, a Christmas gift from my husband. I was blown away by her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, and this one is set in New Orleans, where we used to live, so I am loving it so far.
  • I also started a new teen/YA novel on audio, Loud Awake and Lost by Adele Griffin. It's excellent so far, about a teen girl recovering from an accident and slowly regaining her memory of what happened in the six weeks before. I'm hooked!
  • I am still reading a nonfiction book, Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule - and Your Life by Julie Morganstern. I had to return the library's copy, but I ordered my own (updated version) with an amazon gift card from Christmas. I am currently following its advice, trying to get better at estimating how long tasks will take me (something I am finding I'm not very good at!).
  • My husband, Ken, has been reading Brilliance, a suspense novel, by Marcus Sakey on his Kindle.
  • My son, Jamie, 19, returned to school from spring break, so his reading slowed down a little bit, but now that he has the reading bug again,  he's trying to keep it up! He read book 2, The Lost Heiress, of Catherine Fisher's The Relic Master series.
  • Now he is reading The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemison, a book I gave him as a gift last year, recommended by a fellow book blogger!
  • Craig, 15, is still reading MacBeth for Brit Lit.
No blog posts at all last week, other than the Monday posts - I really wasn't exaggerating about having no time for book reviews! Look for some reviews this week, plus other goodies.

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.   

Monday, April 07, 2014

It's Monday 4/7! What Are You Reading?

Ah, Monday morning...quiet house and no one to take care of but myself for a few hours. I started the day off kind of oddly...I cleaned out my sock drawer! Maybe an unusual way to start the day, but it gave me a big motivational boost. I have been feeling pretty overwhelmed lately, and I know that the clutter in the house is part of the problem. My college son went back to school yesterday after a week at home for spring break, and the sudden disappearance of all his stuff all over the first floor (he never really unpacked - just sort of dumped everything on the floor!) inspired me to take a tiny step in the huge job of decluttering. So, I am feeling pretty proud of myself, with a big bag of stuff to throw away, a smaller bag to donate, and a sock drawer that now closes without excess effort. My life is better already!

We did a lot of reading last week, especially my son who celebrated his break with books:
  • I finished The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I'm still not sure how I feel about this modern classic novel - it was strange. It's a mixture of philosophy, politics, literature, and sex, all rolled into a rambling narrative that often left me saying, "Wait...what??" It will definitely be an interesting book group discussion on Wednesday!
  • Yesterday, I moved onto Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, a novel I have really been looking forward to reading. I doubt I will finish it in time for the discussion at the library Wednesday, but I do hope to go listen to the author on Thursday evening. This is our all-county read book for this spring.
  • I finished listening to The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett, a clever fantasy novel written by the famous, knighted author when he was only 17 years old! It was a lot of fun.
  • I have also been (slowly) making my way through a nonfiction book, Time Management from the Inside Out: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule - and Your Life by Julie Morganstern. I had to return my copy to the library, but I was getting enough out of it that I ordered my own, updated copy last week. The sock drawer is just the beginning!
  • My husband, Ken, was away last week and reading Brilliance, a suspense novel, by Marcus Sakey on his Kindle.
  • Jamie, 19, went on a reading binge for his spring break! He read five books since last Monday (plus another few last weekend). First, he tackled one of his favorite series, Beyonders by Brandon  Mull. He quickly re-read book 2, Seeds of Rebellion, and then read the latest release (and the last book of the trilogy), Chasing the Prophecy. He reaffirmed that it remains an all-time favorite!
  • Next, he re-read a favorite on his Kindle, The Sorcerer's Ascension by Brock E. Deskin, Book 1 in The Sorcerer's Path series.
  • Mid-week, he hit Barnes & Noble with some friends, armed with several gift cards. One of the books he bought - and immediately read - was Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes. He enjoyed it and is looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
  • Finally, he re-read The Dark City, Book 1 in Catherine Fisher's Relic Master series. Next he plans to re-read Book 2, The Lost Heiress, and then turn in some Amazon or Target gift cards for book 3. I love that he ditched plans to buy a video game with the gift card and now wants to spend it all on books!
  • Craig, 15, is still reading MacBeth for his Brit Lit class. He got 95% on his first quiz, so I think it's going pretty well.
 Despite having a very busy week, I managed a few blog posts:

Review of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, a novel about friendship.

Review of Monsters of Men, Book 3 in Patrick Ness' incredible teen/YA Chaos Walking trilogy.

Saturday Snapshot, with photos of last week's trip to St. Michaels, MD

Weekend Cooking post, with some tasty dinner ideas.

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, April 06, 2014

Weekend Cooking 4/6

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 in an earlier post, we recently started eating a Paleo diet for medical 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. Basically, Paleo means eating lots of fruits & veggies, lean meats and fish, eggs, nuts and seeds...but no grains, dairy, or processed foods and only small amounts of natural sugars.

The transition hasn't been too difficult for us. So far, I have mostly been using regular recipes - both old favorites and new ones - with some minor adjustments. We eat a lot of meals with fish or meat and two veggie sides. My younger son (who doesn't need this diet for medical reasons) occasionally begs for pasta - in fact, we'll have a dish made with whole wheat penne after my older son returns to college today - but otherwise, no one feels too deprived. It's been hardest on my college son, who is the sickest and on the strictest diet. He misses all his old favorites, but is glad to be feeling so much better!

So, here are some of our more successful, popular dishes from the past two weeks, appropriate for those eating Paleo and those eating a normal diet, too:

Since our weather has still been mostly cold and wet, I made a nice soup last week, Sausage Soup with Spinach and Wild Rice. We'd had it once before, many years ago, and I remembered it when I was looking for recipes with wild rice. Wild rice isn't actually rice - it's a grass - so it affects the body differently than grains do. My son's dietician gave it the OK for him, and I thought it might help fill a void for any of us missing our grains. The soup was delicious, just the thing for a cold spring day. I didn't need to make any changes other than to make the Parmesan cheese at the end optional for those of us who can't eat dairy.

My son was home from college this week for spring break, so I tried to make a wide variety of foods with great flavor to counteract the blandness of his special meals in the dining hall. He had a friend over for dinner one night, and (with my husband out of town) I served the three teen boys grilled pork chops, roasted cauliflower, and another wild rice dish, Minnesota Wild Rice Pilaf. The whole meal was a big hit! Our guest told me he normally doesn't like cauliflower then ate three servings of it! His mom sent me a message later asking for the recipe (it was just a simple roasted cauliflower with butter, salt and pepper). The wild rice side dish was delicious. I reduced the amount of mushrooms because my oldest son doesn't like them much but otherwise followed the recipe.

One night, I made Roast Chicken with Balsamic Peppers, a dish we'd had one time before, maybe a year ago. I served it alongside roasted asparagus, and my college son raved about the meal! It is a fairly simple preparation but full of flavor, and we all enjoyed it.

Another night, I made an old favorite of ours, Cornmeal-Crusted Tilapia. Of course, I couldn't use cornmeal or flour, so I substituted almond flour which makes a nice crunchy coating.

Finally, for my son's last dinner at home this week, I made Beef Bourguignonne, another family favorite. I just subbed coconut flour for the wheat flour which worked fine. We normally serve this over whole wheat egg noodles (which I did make for my younger son and his friend). For the rest of us, we tried pureed celeriac which I'd read made a nice substitute for mashed potatoes. Um...no. None of us liked it! So, we ate the meal more as a stew, and it was delicious, as always!

I've also been experimenting with baking Paleo, but I'll tell you all about that next week. Now it's time to go make coconut flour/almond flour pancakes. I hope you are all enjoying good food and fun cooking this week!

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Snapshot Saturday 4/5

Snapshot Saturday is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads.

Last weekend, we took a mini 48-hour vacation to St. Michael's on the eastern shore of Maryland. That was the only two days we had with all four of us alone together until late summer, so we tried to squeeze in a little getaway at a lovely inn on the water.  Best laid plains... It ended up dark and rainy the entire weekend, and my youngest son had a sinus infection and bronchitis! We still tried to make the best of things and enjoyed a couple of days in each other's company.

View to the south from our porch when we first arrived - before the rains came!

And the view to the north - we were surrounded by water.

Enjoying crabs (and laughs!) in town at St. Michael's harbor

Playing cards with my sons in our room.

The beautiful views from the breakfast room at the inn - too bad it was still raining!

Now, the sun is shining and the temperature is finally creeping up here in Delaware! Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend wherever you are.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Fiction Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

For years, I have been hearing rave reviews of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a novel for which Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. I’ve only read one other Chabon novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which I liked OK but didn’t love, and all I knew about Kavalier & Clay was that it won the Pulitzer, was very long, and had something to do with comic books…so I kept putting off reading it. Finally, one of my book groups chose it last month, and I am so glad I finally found the time to read this epic novel about a lifelong friendship, set against the turbulent 1930’s and 1940’s.

Sammy Clay is a young Jewish man in Brooklyn, living with his mother and grandmother and working for a novelty company. He loves America’s latest invention, comic books, and dreams of being an author or comic book writer someday. From the other side of the world, Sammy’s cousin Joe travels from Prague all the way to Brooklyn; his family used every resource they had to get him out ahead of the Nazis, in a covert escape to rival those of Houdini, whom both Joe and Sammy admire.

The two cousins meet when Joe arrives in the middle of the night and are soon fast friends. Within days, Sammy’s dreams suddenly seem to be within reach, when he sees what an amazing artist his newfound cousin is. Together, the two of them create a their own superhero, The Escapist, in the new tradition of the already-popular Superman, and convince Sammy’s boss and some colleagues to take a chance with them. Their success tracks along in time with Hitler’s rise and leads them into a lifetime of adventure, love, and sometimes painful sorrow.

I said this was an epic novel, and it is in several different ways. It follows the young men’s friendship for 20 years, with flashbacks to their childhoods, as it follows world events from the late 1930’s and Hitler’s rise to the post-war world of the1950’s. The readers go along for the ride as Sammy and Joe’s characters rise to fame along with their creators. There are plenty of surprises along the way for both young men and for readers.

Chabon is a talented writer, weaving a tale that is part historical fiction and part literary fiction, telling the story of the boys’ friendship as well as the story of comic books themselves. At over 650 pages, this is a hefty novel, and Chabon tends to be a verbose writer, sometimes including lengthy descriptions, as well as employing long sentences and paragraphs. Normally, this would bother me, but in this case, I was pulled in by both the engaging story and characters and his way of sometimes saying something so perfectly that I felt compelled to re-read it and even write it down, like this sentence:
“In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, they decided to lie down for a while and waste time.”

As the mother of two young men, I can attest to the truth of this statement!

Interestingly, of the six people who came to our book group discussion for this book, three of us loved the book, and the other three strongly disliked it. Of those three who did not enjoy it, two were elderly women, one didn’t finish it, and all three said they had no interest in comic books. What surprised me was how much I DID like it, since I also had no interest in comic books (probably part of the reason why I didn’t read the novel earlier). I experienced it more as a book about friendship, love, and life, with a backdrop of history and comic books. All in all, I am glad to have finally read this remarkable novel, and I still find myself thinking about the characters a month after finishing the book – for me, that is always a sign of a good book.

656 pages, Random House