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March 5, 2015

Everything I Never Told You



Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Fiction
2014 Penguin Press
Finished on February 14, 2015
Rating: 3/5 (Good)




 Publisher’s Blurb:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . 

So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

{spoiler removed}… the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

I first heard about Everything I Never Told You early in the holiday season last year when it was named Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014. It was also named a best book of the year by NPR, Huffington Post, Shelf Awareness and many others. This debut novel quickly became a popular pick in our store, not to mention with a lot of my blogging friends, so I was intrigued. I had hoped to read it before Christmas, in order to recommend it to shoppers, but I didn’t get to it until after the holidays. That turned out not to be a problem since word of mouth recommendations made it easy to convince readers to get a copy, which was probably a good thing in this case, since I didn’t love it. I read the book over the course of a week and while I certainly don’t have any complaints about the author’s writing ability, I simply didn’t care for the story. It’s a terribly sad story, but not because of the loss of a child (which we all know is the worst loss anyone should ever have to endure), but because of the underlying dysfunction within the Lee family. Marilyn and James’ disappointments in their individual lives become their children’s burdens to bear. The entire novel is filled with such loneliness and misunderstandings, that had it not been such a compelling story, I probably wouldn’t have finished. The mystery of Lydia’s death played a huge role in sustaining my interest, as did all the glowing reviews I read prior to picking up the book.

Final Thoughts:

Ng’s debut novel is well-written and completely absorbing, and yet I found it too sad to enjoy. Loneliness permeates the entire Lee family; each member a loner or virtually invisible to those around them. These misunderstood people, who really just might have felt loved if only they could communicate and share their true feelings, were lost in their own sad worlds. Good, but not great.

March 1, 2015

Slow Dancing with a Stranger



Slow Dancing with a Stranger by Meryl Comer
Nonfiction – Memoir
2014 HarperOne
Finished on February 13, 2015
Rating: 3/5 (Good)




The man I live with is not the man I fell in love with and married.

He has slowly been robbed of something we all take for granted: the ability to navigate the mundane activities of living—bathing, shaving, dressing, feeding, and using the bathroom. His inner clock is confused and can’t be reset. His eyes are vacant and unaware—as if an internal window shade veils our access.

Before I grasped what was happening, I was hurt and annoyed by my husband’s behavior. Those feelings dissolved into unconditional empathy once I understood the cruelty of his diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was fifty-eight.

Publisher’s Blurb:

From Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist and leading Alzheimer’s advocate Meryl Comer comes a profoundly intimate and unflinching account of her husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, one of today’s most pressing—and least-understood—health epidemics.

When Meryl Comer’s husband, Dr. Harvey Gralnick, chief of hematology and oncology at the National Institutes of Health, began forgetting routine things and demonstrating abrupt changes in behavior, doctors were confounded as to what was wrong. Diagnoses ranged from stress and depression to Lyme disease, from pernicious anemia to mad cow’s disease supposedly acquired from a trip to London. Finally, after years of inconclusive tests, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a seemingly impossible disease for a man in his prime.

Comer gave up her television career and for the next two decades cared for Harvey in their home, tending to his every need while watching him regress into an emotionally distant and sometimes violent stranger. “The man I live with is not the man I fell in love with and married,” she writes. “He has slowly been robbed of what we all take for granted—the ability to navigate the mundane activities of daily living: bathing, shaving, dressing, feeding, and using the bathroom. His inner clock is confused and can’t be reset. His eyes are vacant and unaware.”

In Slow Dancing with a Stranger, Comer brings readers face-to-face with Alzheimer’s, detailing the realities, its stressful emotional and financial hardships for families, as well as the limitations of doctors and assisted living and long term care facilities to manage difficult patient behaviors. With candor and grace, Comer chronicles her personal experiences—her mistakes, her heartbreaks, her minor victories—to paint an intimate and moving portrait of Alzheimer’s and, in the process, she reveals the truth about the disease and everyone it affects.

Six years ago I read Lisa Genova’s amazing debut novel, Still Alice. I couldn’t put the book down, reading it in less than two days, and I gave it a perfect 5/5 rating. Genova's story put a face on Alzheimer’s, reading more like a memoir than a novel. When I came across Meryl Comer’s memoir, Slow Dancing with a Stranger, I was immediately intrigued, eager to read another account of one couple’s experience with this awful disease. I was also curious to see how a real account compares to Genova’s work of fiction.

Slow Dancing with a Stranger is sad, sad, sad. Some reviews say that the book provides inspiration and hope, but I found it bleak and depressing. Told from Comer’s point of view (as opposed to that of the afflicted, as in Still Alice), we see what an exhausting and depressing role the caretaker is thrown into. I don’t remember a lot of violence on the part of Alice in Genova’s book, but Comer’s husband becomes very angry and, quite often, extremely violent. I can understand the incredible financial burden for the care of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, especially for two decades, but I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to take on the physical and emotional burden to care for that person in one’s own home with the assistance of just a couple of nurses and aides.

On the unfairness of the disease:
Neither a scientist nor a neurologist, I have spent close to two decades trying to decipher what’s going on in my husband’s head. How hard and unfair it is for such a smart man to lose pieces of his intellect and independence as the circuitry of his brain misfires and corrodes. No new short-term memories stick: his internal navigational compass has shut down. His disease is my crossword puzzle.
On the loss of friendships:
It was too disconcerting to walk through our door and see someone who was once just like them being destroyed in slow motion by an insidious disease for which there is no cure. I understand how they feel, even though I was left behind too and I’m not sick. How do I write about a twenty-year gaping hole in our lives—an intimate part of our history—when it’s still not over?
On the violence:
The nurses and I worked together, always aware that Harvey could strike out without any warning. I brought in an instructor for a session in self-defense and to demonstrate how to unlock Harvey’s vice-like grip. My personal survival regimen—a weekly weight-training session with a former pro athlete nicknamed Huggy, who pushed me to my physical max and pumped up my courage.
On the emptiness and loneliness:
Winter approached, and soon the holidays were upon us…. As his brain shut down, so did his vision. He lost much of his ability to speak. One of the only words he could still say was his name. Our twenty-third wedding anniversary and my birthday went by as forgotten, irrelevant dates.

There was a deep emptiness in my life; sometimes I felt as if I didn’t exist.

Final Thoughts:

Good, but not great. Like Genova’s novel Still Alice, Slow Dancing with a Stranger is a very readable (yet brutally honest) account of a couple dealing with a spouse’s decline from Alzheimer’s. However, I never felt an emotional pull while reading Comer’s memoir, in spite of all the passages I marked with Post-It notes. Perhaps that’s the difference, at least in this case, between fact and fiction. Both books are medically and practically informative (I really need to look into long-term health care insurance!), and yet Lisa’s book tugged at my heartstrings, while Comer’s held me at an arm’s length. If you haven’t read either of these two books, I strongly recommend Still Alice. And yes, the book is better than the movie, in spite of Julianne Moore’s amazing performance as Alice.

Click here to read my review (and lovely comment from the author) of Still Alice.

Click here to listen to Meryl Comer's interview with Diane Rehm on NPR.

February 28, 2015

February Reading



I read a little bit more this month than I did in January, but one book (Chast's) was a graphic memoir, and I was able to read it on my lunch breaks in just a couple of days. All three nonfiction titles focus on disease and dying; probably not the most uplifting type of books to read in such a sort span of time, but for comparison sake, it makes it easier to decide which I liked better and which I would recommend.

My favorite of the month? I'm going to pick two since they were both very good. The Various Haunts of Men is my fiction choice and Being Mortal is my pick for nonfiction. Reviews to follow, but you can click on the books in my sidebar to read more about them on B&N.

Slow Dancing with a Stranger by Meryl Comer

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast


Stats:

5 books
1 novel
1 mystery
3 nonfiction
2 memoirs
1 graphic book
4 new-to-me authors
4 print books
1 audio book
4 female authors
1 male author
5 borrowed
0 from my stacks

More 2015 Monthly Summaries:

January

February 24, 2015

The Girl on the Train



The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Fiction
2015 Riverhead Books
Finished on January 24, 2015
Rating: 4.5 (Terrific!)





The train crawls along; it judders past warehouses and water towers, bridges and sheds, past modest Victorian houses, their backs turned squarely to the track.

My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film. I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective. Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.

Someone’s phone is ringing, an incongruously joyful and upbeat song. They’re slow to answer, it jingles on and on around me. I can feel my fellow commuters shift in their seats, rustle their newspapers, tap at their computers. The train lurches and sways around the bend, slowing as it approaches a red signal. I try not to look up, I try to read the free newspaper I was handed on my way into the station, but the words blur in front of my eyes, nothing holds my interest. In my head I can still see that little pile of clothing lying at the edge of the track, abandoned.

Publisher’s Blurb:

There she sits, the girl on the train. What she sees, gazing out the window, will change everything.

Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She looks forward to it. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

Compulsively readable, The Girl on the Train is an emotionally immersive, Hitchcockian thriller and an electrifying debut.


This chilling psychological tale has everything: Obsession, jealousy, scorned lovers and canned gin & tonics. Definitely not a good mix. With alternating points-of-view and multiple flashbacks, Paula Hawkins has herself a best-selling thriller that never loosens its grip. From cover to cover, this debut is one intense read!

As usual, I went into this book completely blind, which is exactly how everyone should approach The Girl on the Train. Spoiler-free. Remember when everyone was reading Gone Girl, but couldn’t talk about it? Or looking further back, there was all the hush-hush about The Sixth Sense and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. Even the season finale to The Sopranos had everyone tightlipped. Well, I can’t talk about this book. The most I can do is give you the publisher’s blurb and a few quotes from those who have read and loved the book, just as I have. You’ll just have to read it for yourself. Then let’s talk!

What really makes The Girl on the Train such a gripping novel is Hawkins' remarkable understanding of the limits of human knowledge, and the degree to which memory and imagination can become confused. (NPR.org)
Psychologically astute debut . . . The surprise-packed narratives hurtle toward a stunning climax, horrifying as a train wreck and just as riveting. (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
Ok. I'll tell you a little more. 

I finished The Girl on the Train almost a month ago and I still think it’s outstanding read, one I know I’d like to eventually listen to on audio. It’s not great literature, but it’s without doubt a breathtaking thriller, which pulled me in from the opening lines and didn't let me go until I finished the very last paragraph. Yes, all of the characters are unlikeable and I especially had a tough time with Rachel's constant drinking problem, but Hawkins does such a great job making the reader care just enough to want to continue and find out how it all ends. I knocked it down from a perfect 5/5, as there weren’t any lyrical passages to mark and the ending felt a little anticlimactic, although I usually feel that way about most mysteries/thrillers. It's the getting there that's all the fun.

Final Thoughts:

If this is Hawkins’ debut thriller, I can’t imagine how amazing her second endeavor is going to be. Someone buy that woman a cabin on a lake and let her write another book! Until then, I’ll be first in line to see this on the big screen. Move over, Gone Girl! This one’s got you beat. I think Patricia Highsmith and Hitchcock would approve.

February 22, 2015

Slow Cooker Mexican Pork Carnitas


Carnitas, literally "little meats," is a dish of Mexican cuisine originating from the state of Michoacán. Carnitas are made by braising or simmering pork in oil or preferably lard until tender. The process takes three or four hours and the result is very tender and juicy meat, which is then typically served with chopped coriander leaves (cilantro) and diced onion, salsa, guacamole, tortillas, and refried beans (frijoles refritos). (Wikipedia)

My love for great Mexican food dates back to the late 1960s. As I've mentioned in previous posts, my grandparents had a beautiful beach house in Leucadia, California and every summer my family would make the long drive down I-5 from Central California to visit for several blissful weeks. Highlights of those memorable vacations are forever engrained in my mind. We enjoyed long days at the beach, playing in the chilly water, building sandcastles, and hunting for sand dollars. There were day trips to Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo, and Balboa Park, where I remember savoring a warm homemade corn tortilla from a historical exhibition at the Museum of Man.

The Beach House (on the right),
 which has been remodeled. 


We gazed out the large picture windows that spanned the full length of the house, watching for whales, and occasionally spotting a pod of dolphin riding the waves with the surfers. And of course, there were always the breathtaking sunsets. We dug for sand crabs to use as bait when we fished from the shore and jigged for bait when we went to the pier up in Oceanside. We sneaked jelly beans and gumdrops from my grandfather's candy jars and learned how to play Mah Jong with our North Carolina cousins. The one thing I don't remember is eating out anywhere other than Tony's Jacal in Solana Beach. I think it was at Tony's that I tasted my very first taco, enchilada and guacamole dip. I've been in love with Mexican food ever since.


Oh, my. This picture. So many, many memories of sitting in this back room... my grandmother's memorial lunch was held here. I ate here with my parents, my grandparents, my first husband... my baby girl.

Best rice, beans and enchilada sauce ever.

This past month, my daughter's Instagram feed (yes, you really should follow her!) has been full of tantalizing meals at Mexican restaurants in the Dallas area, making me drool with envy and hit the cookbooks in search of more recipes to add to my repertoire. I have an old recipe for carnitas, which requires simmering a pork roast on the stove top for several hours. In an effort to use my slow cooker as often as possible, I was excited to find this recipe in, yes, you guessed it, The Skinnytaste Cookbook. I made the carnitas a couple of weeks ago and dinner turned out great! Of course, a taco is merely a vehicle for the transfer of guacamole, but these tacos were seriously good. I used the leftover meat for quesadillas later in the week and they were just as amazing. 

You're welcome!



Slow-Cooker Mexican Pork Carnitas

2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder roast, trimmed
6 garlic cloves, crushed with a garlic press
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves
2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, minced (or more if you like it spicy)
1  1/4 tsp. ground cumin, divided
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, divided
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper

Season the pork all over with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Set in a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat, add the pork, and brown on all sides for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

For the dry adobo rub:

In a small bowl, combine 1 teaspoon of the cumin, the garlic powder, oregano, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and the black pepper.

Using a sharp knife, insert the knife into the pork about 1 inch deep and insert the crushed garlic, rubbing any excess over the pork. Rub the pork all over with the dry adobo rub.

Pour the chicken broth into the slow cooker and add the bay leaves, chipotle peppers, and the pork. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. After 8 hours, transfer the pork to a large dish. Discard the bay leaves. Shred the pork using two forks and return it to the slow cooker with the juices. Add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon cumin and the 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Serves 10

My Notes:

This recipe made enough for 6 tacos and 2 large quesadillas. If I'm going to make this for a group, I'll definitely want to use 4-5 pounds of pork. The roast I bought was 4 pounds, so I cut it in half and put it in the freezer for future use. I was worried that 2 pounds wasn't going to be enough for a couple of meals, but there was plenty. However, I think next time, I'll just double the recipe and freeze the cooked meat for tacos, quesadillas and burritos. 

I didn't use the garlic and the meat still tasted flavorful.

I've never cooked with chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, and I wasn't sure how spicy they would make the meat, so I decided to just use one pepper. I didn't dice it up, either; just set it in the broth and stirred it around. I'm not sure if I'd bother with it next time around. Maybe some cayenne added to the rub would be sufficient for a little kick.

After shredding the pork, I decided to throw it in a hot skillet to make the meat a bit more crispy. I didn't have to add any oil or fat since the pork is already a little fatty. 

Serve with warm tortillas, shredded jack & cheddar cheese, diced tomatoes, chopped cilantro, guacamole and sour cream. Don't forget the Negra Modelo!

Mmmmmmm!


Please visit Beth Fish Reads for Weekend Cooking.
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

I'm also participating in Trish's Cook it Up! Cookbook Challenge. Click on over to see what she has going on!
Welcome to the Seventh Edition of Cook It Up! Feel free to join in the challenge at any time, any month. The idea is to pull those cookbooks off your shelves and use them. These can be cookbooks that you already own or cookbooks that you’d like to check out from the library (or borrow from a friend?). You can cook from one cookbook over the course of the month or pick and choose recipes from different cookbooks. And feel free to make a dozen recipes or just one. You make the rules!



February 20, 2015

The Silkworm


The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)
Cormoran Strike Series #2
Mystery
2014 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Reader: Robert Glenister
Finished on January 24, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Really liked it)



Publisher’s Blurb:

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine's disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poison-pen portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer—a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before.

A compulsively readable crime novel with twists at every turn, The Silkworm is the second in the highly acclaimed series featuring Cormoran Strike and his determined young assistant, Robin Ellacott.

This is a wonderful series, especially on audio. The pacing is taut, the plot full of twists & turns, and Robert Glenister proves, once again, to be an excellent reader. Unlike other male readers, I’m never annoyed with his female characterizations. As with The Cuckoo’s Calling (the first in this series), I was more interested in the character development and not quite as engrossed in the actual mystery. I’m eager to see what’s in store for Cormoran and Robin and hope I don’t have to wait too long!

Final Thoughts:

No sophomoric slump for Robert Galbraith! The Silkworm is another entertaining installment to the Cormoran Strike series. If you haven’t read either of these mysteries, you’re missing out.


February 17, 2015

The Long Winter


The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Fiction – Children’s
Original Copyright 1940
1971 Harper Trophy Book
Finished on January 14, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Really liked it)




Publisher’s Blurb:

On the empty winter prairie, gray clouds to the northwest meant only one thing: a blizzard was seconds away. The first blizzard came in October. It snowed almost without stopping until April. The temperature dropped to forty below. Snow reached to rooftops. An no trains could get through with food and coal. The townspeople began to starve. The Ingalls family barely lived through that winter. And Almanzo Wilder knew he would have to risk his life to save the town.

The “Little House” books tell the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life. She was born in 1867 in the little log cabin on the edge of the Big Woods of Wisconsin, and through the years she traveled with her family by covered wagon through Kansas, Minnesota, and finally the Dakota Territory, where she met and married Almanzo Wilder.

There was deprivation and hard work. Crops were ruined by storms and grasshopper plagues. But there were also the happy times of love and laughter; sleigh rides, holiday celebrations, and socials. These eight titles now in paperback bring the Ingalls family vividly alive and capture the best of the American pioneer spirit.

The illustrations by Garth Williams are the results of 10 years of research. Mr. Williams actually followed the path of the Ingalls family during the period 1870-1889. No wonder, then, that the pictures have a special quality for the children who have loved these stories through the years.

It is currently overcast and 11 degrees outside. While we have had some unseasonably warm days this winter, we have also had some extremely cold (subzero) temps, lasting for days on end. And we’ve had quite a bit of snow, but nothing like what the Northeast has experienced. As I sit in my cozy room, sipping my hot cup of tea, I hear the furnace kick on once again and I feel especially thankful that it is 2015 and not the late 1800s! As I read The Long Winter, I was constantly reminded of how lucky we are to have heat, hot water, a refrigerator full of food, and a car to take us to the store should we need anything else. I would not have been a very good pioneer!

I first read The Long Winter in 1972, after receiving it for my 11th birthday from my best friend. I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read this entire series, but decided to skip ahead to The Long Winter after reading Bellezza’s comments about this favorite book of hers. As far as I can remember, I’ve only read the book once, maybe two times, and I was so surprised that it has a more mature feel to it than most young reader books I’ve read as an adult. The dialogue and detailed narrative doesn’t sound light or childish, and I found myself commenting to my husband about the excellent writing on more than one occasion.

On the arrival of yet another blizzard:
The cold and the dark had come again. The nails in the roof were white with frost, the windowpanes were gray. Scraping a peephole only showed the blank, whirling whiteness against the other side of the glass. The stout house quivered and shook; the wind roared and howled. Ma kept the rag rugs tightly against the bottom of the doors, and the cold came crawling in.

It was hard to be cheerful. Morning and afternoon, holding the clothesline, Pa went to the stable to feed the horses, the cow, and the heifer. He had to be sparing of the hay. He came in so cold that he could hardly get warm. Sitting before the oven, he took Grace on his knee and hugged Carrie close to him, and he told them the stories of bears and panthers that he used to tell Mary and Laura. Then in the evening he took his fiddle and played the merry tunes.
and
It helped some. Laura hoped that she seemed cheerful enough to encourage the others. But all the time she knew that this storm had blocked the train again. She knew that almost all the coal was gone from the pile in the lean-to. There was no more coal in town. The kerosene was low in the lamp though Ma lighted it only while they ate supper. There would be no meat until the train came. There was no butter and only a little fat-meat dripping was left to spread on bread. There was still potatoes, but no more than flour enough for one more bread baking.

When Laura had thought of all this, she thought that surely a train must come before the last bread was gone. Then she began to think about the coal, the kerosene, the little bit of dripping left, and the flour in the bottom of the flour sack. But surely, surely, the train must come.

All day and all night, the house trembled, the winds roared and screamed, the snow scoured against the walls of over the roof where the frosty nails came through. In the other houses there were people, there must be lights, but they were too far away to seem real.
On pancakes and the generosity of neighbors:
Almanzo waved that away, “What’s a little wheat between neighbors? You’re welcome to it, Mr. Ingalls. Draw up a chair and sample these pancakes before they get cold.”

But Pa insisted on paying for the wheat. After some talk about it, Almanzo charged a quarter and Pa paid it. Then he did sit down, as they urged him, and lifting the blanket cake on the untouched pile, he slipped from under it a section of the stack of hot, syrupy pancakes. Royal forked a brown slice of ham from the frying pan onto Pa’s plate and Almanzo filled his coffee cup.

“You boys certainly live in the lap of luxury,” Pa remarked. The pancakes were no ordinary buckwheat pancakes. Almanzo followed his mother’s pancake rule and the cakes were light as foam, soaked through with melted brown sugar. The ham was sugar-cured and hickory-smoked, from the Wilder farm in Minnesota. “I don’t know when I’ve eaten a tastier meal,” said Pa.
Random thoughts:

Did Pa mention this meal to his family? If this book is part of Laura’s biography, he must have or how else would she have known? And how could he enjoy such delicious food while his wife and children were practically starving to death? Of course, he was doing most of the physical labor to take care of his family and livestock, but still!

On the howl of the wind:
The constant beating of the winds against the house, the roaring, shrieking, howling of the storm, made it hard even to think. It was possible only to wait for the storm to stop. All the time, while they ground wheat, twisted hay, kept the fire burning in the stove, and huddled over it to thaw their chapped, numb hands and their itching, burning, chilblained feet, and while they chewed and swallowed the coarse bread, they were all waiting until the storm stopped.
Final Thoughts:

Reading about blizzards as the wind howled outside our bedroom window in early January, with the temperature plummeting once again, made me so thankful I wasn’t a pioneer girl! I love my creature comforts and can’t imagine living in such harsh conditions during a long winter. Running out of coal, having to burn twisted hay, eating a single piece of brown bread with some tea for an evening meal once the food has run out, the isolation, the constant noise of the wind and the fear of dying are almost impossible to imagine. Now that I’ve read The Long Winter, I’m eager to re-read O.E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. Maybe next winter, though. Right now, I’m ready for something a little more uplifting.

February 16, 2015

Mailbox Monday


Only one new book this week and I'm not sure if I should read it now or wait for Carl's R.I.P. Challenge later this year. It certainly sounds creepy!

Neil Gaiman meets Joe Hill in this astonishingly original, terrifying, and darkly funny contemporary fantasy. ~ Amazon 

From the publisher:

A library with the secrets to the universe, a woman with the power to claim it—and a struggle that may cost her everything.

Carolyn's not so different from the other people around her. She's sure of it. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. She even remembers what clothes are for. 

After all, she was a normal American herself once.

But she and the others aren't really normal. Not anymore. Not since their parents were murdered. Not since Father took them in.

Father was not like them. He could call light from darkness. Once he crumbled a mountain with just a glance. Sometimes he raised the dead. And when he was disobeyed, the consequences were terrible.

Now, Father is missing—maybe even dead—and the Library that holds his secrets stands unguarded.

The battle for this prize will be fierce, but Carolyn can win. She's sure of it. What she doesn't know is that victory may come at an unacceptable price--because she's already sacrificed far more about being human than she realizes.

Scott Hawkins lives in Atlanta with his wife and large pack of foster dogs. The Library at Mount Char is his first novel. 

Publication date: June 2015

What arrived in your mailbox this past week?

February 15, 2015

Nutty Granola


My husband and I eat A LOT of granola. We usually toss some on top of our morning yogurt, but we also enjoy it for breakfast or a snack with some milk and fruit.


We've grown quite addicted to Trader Joe's Just the Clusters Vanilla Almond Granola Cereal, but I wanted to see if I could make something similar at home. I don't know if this recipe is healthier (somehow I doubt it, since it includes an entire stick of butter!), but it was pretty easy to throw together. I found this particular recipe in the July 2014 issue of Food & Wine.






Nutty Granola by Zoe Nathan
Food & Wine Magazine


1 lb. old-fashioned rolled oats (4 cups)
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup honey
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup raw almonds
1/2 cup raw walnuts
1/3 cup raw pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)
1/4 cup flaxseeds
1 cup dried cherries (4 oz.)
1 cup dried apricots, chopped (5 oz.)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

In a bowl, toss the oats, melted butter, honey, salt and cinnamon until evenly coated. Spread the oats on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring once or twice, until just starting to brown. Add the coconut, almonds, walnuts, pepitas and flaxseeds and mix well. Bake for 25 minutes longer, stirring, until the granola is golden brown and nearly dry.

Remove from the oven and toss in the dried cherries and apricots.

Let the granola cool completely on the baking sheet, stirring occasionally.

The granola can be stored in an airtight container and will keep for 1 week. 

Yield: 10 cups

My Notes:

I lined my sheet pan with parchment paper.

I used pecans and sunflowers seeds, instead of pepitas and flaxseeds.

I omitted the cherries and accidentally added the apricots when I added the nuts and coconut. This was a mistake, as they wound up very tough and chewy.

Adding the sunflower seeds was fine, but they were salted, so this entire batch of granola tasted too salty for my liking. Next time, I will get raw, unsalted sunflower seeds and I might even reduce the kosher salt amount to just 1/2 teaspoon instead of 1 1/2 teaspoons.

Next time add some vanilla extract. Maybe 1 teaspoon.

This makes a lot of granola. I filled 2 large (quart-size) Mason jars and still had some left over.

I'm not sure why this wouldn't keep longer than just 1 week.



Looks pretty tasty, doesn't it? We liked it, but neither of us loved it. We'll see what happens when I try my modifications.

Please visit Beth Fish Reads for Weekend Cooking.
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.

February 10, 2015

Looking for Me



Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman
Fiction
2013 Pamela Dorman Books/Viking
Finished on January 13, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)




Publisher’s Blurb:

Beth Hoffman’s bestselling debut, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, won admirers and acclaim with its heartwarming story and cast of unforgettable characters. Now her flair for evocative settings and richly drawn Southern personalities shines in her compelling new novel, Looking for Me.

Teddi Overman found her life’s passion for furniture in a broken-down chair left on the side of the road in rural Kentucky. She learns to turn other people’s castoffs into beautifully restored antiques, and eventually finds a way to open her own shop in Charleston. There, Teddi builds a life for herself as unexpected and quirky as the customers who visit her store. Though Teddi is surrounded by remarkable friends and finds love in the most surprising way, nothing can alleviate the haunting uncertainty she’s felt in the years since her brother Josh’s mysterious disappearance. When signs emerge that Josh might still be alive, Teddi is drawn home to Kentucky. It’s a journey that could help her come to terms with her shattered family—and to find herself at last. But first she must decide what to let go of and what to keep.

Looking for Me brilliantly melds themes of family, hope, loss, and a mature, once-in-a-lifetime kind of love. The result is a tremendously moving story that will confirm Beth Hoffman as an author to whom readers will want to return again and again.

I read Beth Hoffman’s debut novel Saving Ceecee Honeycut almost exactly five years ago to the day and, while I was in the minority with my less-than-glowing review for that particular book, I was pleasantly surprised with this second novel. Part mystery, part southern fiction, I was easily drawn into Teddie’s story, enjoying all the references to antiques and the charm of the location and quirky characters. The romantic element was a nice touch and not at all sappy or unrealistic, but the mystery of Josh’s disappearance never really rang true. All in all, a good read and one that held my interest from cover to cover.

Final Thoughts:

Everyone deserves a second a chance. I’m glad I gave Beth Hoffman another try and now look forward to reading her next release. I’ve also added Charleston to my list of places to visit someday.

February 9, 2015

Mailbox Monday


It's been a long time since I've read anything by Dennis Lehane. I loved his Kenzie-Gennaro series, although I wasn't too fond of the final installment (Moonlight Mile), which I read in 2010. I haven't tried any of his newer stand-alones and I still have Live by Night buried somewhere in a box of ARCs. Nonetheless, the ARC of World Gone By caught my eye when it came in the mail at work, so I decided to bring it home and add it to my hope-to-read-before-it-comes-out-in-paperback stack. Of course, having just now read the blurb, I realize that it's the third in the Coughlin series! I guess I need to decide if I should read this series out of order or start at the beginning with The Given Day. Any thoughts?

I loved Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants (also read five years ago) and, after reading the publisher's blurb on the back of the ARC, I knew it was something I'd enjoy. 

I hope to get At the Water's Edge read before it hits the shelves in June. We'll see about the Lehane book. It comes out in March.

Here are the publishers' blurbs for each novel:

World Gone By by Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane, the New York Times bestselling author of The Given Day and Live by Night, returns with a psychologically and morally complex novel of blood, crime, passion, and vengeance, set in Cuba and Ybor City, Florida, during World War II, in which Joe Coughlin must confront the cost of his criminal past and present.

Ten years have passed since Joe Coughlin’s enemies killed his wife and destroyed his empire, and much has changed. Prohibition is dead, the world is at war again, and Joe’s son, Tomás, is growing up. Now, the former crime kingpin works as a consigliore to the Bartolo crime family, traveling between Tampa and Cuba, his wife’s homeland.

A master who moves in and out of the black, white, and Cuban underworlds, Joe effortlessly mixes with Tampa’s social elite, U.S. Naval intelligence, the Lansky-Luciano mob, and the mob-financed government of Fulgencio Batista. He has everything—money, power, a beautiful mistress, and anonymity.

But success cannot protect him from the dark truth of his past—and ultimately, the wages of a lifetime of sin will finally be paid in full.

Dennis Lehane vividly recreates the rise of the mob during a world at war, from a masterfully choreographed Ash Wednesday gun battle in the streets of Ybor City to a chilling, heartbreaking climax in a Cuban sugar cane field. Told with verve and skill, World Gone By is a superb work of historical fiction from one of “the most interesting and accomplished American novelists” (Washington Post) writing today.

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen
In this new novel from the author of the #1 New York Times best seller Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen again demonstrates her talent for creating spellbinding period pieces. In At the Water’s Edgeshe tells the gripping and poignant story of a privileged young woman’s moral and sexual awakening as she experiences the devastations of World War II in the Scottish Highlands.
Madeline Hyde, a young socialite from Philadelphia, reluctantly follows her husband and their best friend to the tiny village of Drumnadrochit in search of the Loch Ness monster—at the same time that a very real monster, Hitler, wages war against the Allied Forces. Despite German warplanes flying overhead and scarce food rations (and even scarcer stockings), what Maddie discovers—about the larger world and about herself—through the unlikely friendships she develops with the villagers, opens her eyes not only to the dark forces that exist around her but to the beauty and surprising possibilities as well.

What arrived in your mailbox this past week?

February 8, 2015

Crockpot Carne Asada Nachos




A couple of years ago, I discovered a new (to me) food blog to which I quickly became addicted. Jessica Merchant's hilarious blog, How Sweet It Is, is not only full of hilariously snappy posts, but it's also filled with photos that are more than just enticing, they're seductive. It didn't take long for me to add dozens of recipes to Evernote, which of course I've completely ignored and forgotten. Somewhere along the line, I decided to cut back on my blog-hopping and stopped following HSII. Apparently I've missed a lot. Merchant now has a cookbook (Seriously Delish) AND a new baby. If only I had more hours in my day to read all the blogs I so enjoy.




I eventually did try one of the recipes I saved from How Sweet It Is and it's now a family favorite. I try to make it at least once a month, since we really love it for the leftovers. More about that in my notes.




Crockpot Carne Asada Nachos
(or in this case, tacos)


1.5 lb. flank steak
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. chili powder
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
2 Tbsp. olive oil
8 oz. of your favorite beer 

1 ripe avocado
1 lime, juiced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, torn
1 bag of tortilla chips
8 oz. of monterey jack cheese, freshly grated
1/2 cup sweet corn (cooked or fresh)
1/2 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup sour cream or greek yogurt

In a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, chili powder and cumin. Whisk it together to create a rub, then evenly pat it all over both sides of the flank steak. Heat a large skillet over high heat and add olive oil. Add the flank steak and sear it on both sides until it is golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Remove the steak and place it in the crock pot. Cover it with beer, then cover the pot and cook the steak on low for 6 hours.

After 6 hours, remove the steak from the liquid and place it on a cutting board to rest for 15 minutes. Slice against the grain, cutting it into thin strips--it may be tender from the crock pot and fall apart, and that is fine.

In a small bowl, mash the avocado with the lime juice, half of the cilantro and a pinch of salt. Set it aside. 

Layer the chips on a baking sheet or dish. Cover them with half of the cheese, then add the corn and the steak. Add the res of the cheese. Turn the broiler in your oven to high, and place the nachos underneath, cooking only until the cheese is golden and bubbly, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the nachos and immediately cover them with the tomatoes, guac, sour cream and remaining cilantro. Serve!

Yield: Serves 4 appropriately, 2 obnoxiously [Jessica's note, not mine.]

My Notes:

I've made the meat portion of this recipe a few times, but have only made the nachos once. We prefer ground beef and pinto beans for our nachos and this seemed a little too dry. However, this recipe makes the most flavorful meat for machaca, so I continue to use it, especially since it's super easy in my slow cooker. However, flank steak is very fickle, and even in a slow cooker, it tends to dry out. From now on, I'll use the rub and beer, but I plan to buy a chuck roast instead of a flank steak. I want this meat to be super tender!

My slow cooker has a browning feature, so I skipped the step with the skillet and did it directly in the pot. 

I used a full bottle of Shiner Bock rather than just the 8 oz. the recipe calls for. It seemed silly to throw out the extra 4 ounces and since it was a workday (and quite early in the morning), I couldn't bring myself to drink the leftovers.

Check out Jessica's complete post for this recipe. She's a hoot!

And now for the leftovers:

Cut the cooked beef into bite-size chunks. 

Saute mushrooms, bell peppers and onions (however much you like and all diced) in a large skillet with either butter (approximately 1-2 tablespoons) or olive oil. Add beef and cook until sizzling hot.

Beat 4-6 eggs in a medium-size bowl, add to skillet and scramble until just cooked through.

Enjoy with steamed tortillas, avocado slices, shredded cheese, diced tomatoes and salsa.


Even the leftovers of the leftovers are great! If we have anything left, I usually put some in a flour tortilla and make a breakfast burrito to take to work the following day.






Please visit Beth Fish Reads for Weekend Cooking.
Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend.
I'm also participating in Trish's Cook it Up! Cookbook Challenge. Click on over to see what she has going on!

Welcome to the Seventh Edition of Cook It Up! Feel free to join in the challenge at any time, any month. The idea is to pull those cookbooks off your shelves and use them. These can be cookbooks that you already own or cookbooks that you’d like to check out from the library (or borrow from a friend?). You can cook from one cookbook over the course of the month or pick and choose recipes from different cookbooks. And feel free to make a dozen recipes or just one. You make the rules!