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April 29, 2015

Waiting on Wednesday - Our Souls at Night



Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly event that highlights a book that we can't wait to be published.  It's hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.

I have read all of Kent Haruf's novels and was so saddened to learn of his death last November. While I didn't love Benediction (his most recent book), I have always held out hope for another brilliant novel like Plainsong and Eventide. The characters from those two poignant books have remained with me since the day I finished the last page of each story. Now I have another chance to re-visit Holt County, Colorado.

From The Atlantic:
Kent Haruf died last fall, at the age of 71, shortly after finishing a novel in which he slyly, and triumphantly, succeeds in having the last word. Our Souls at Night gives Haruf fans a lovely dose of his signature spare style and plainspoken characters. At the same time, it delivers a retort to critics who yawned that Haruf was stuck in his homespun ways. The 70-something protagonists of his sixth novel—set, like its predecessors, in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado—hook up more boldly than most online daters would dare to.

“And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” With that old-fashioned first sentence, a match is in the making. The lonely widow has arrived with a startling proposal for the widower down the street, whom she barely knows: Will he come to her house sometimes and sleep with her? Addie has in mind companionable talk, she explains, rather than sex. Help “getting through the night” is her hope. The visits start, and their lives become intimately enmeshed. Their fretful children and the townsfolk quickly let them know they disapprove: news, and unease, spreads more efficiently in Holt than on Facebook.

If the premise sounds improbable—two oldsters jumping into bed like that—so did the plot pivot in Haruf’s breakout best seller, Plainsong: two aging bachelor farmers deciding to take in a pregnant teenager. But Haruf once again banishes doubts. Our souls, as Addie and Louis know, can surprise us. Beneath the surface of reticent lives—and of Haruf’s calm prose—they prove unexpectedly brave.


Publication Date: May 26, 2015
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


About Kent Haruf (from Wikipedia):

Haruf was born in Pueblo, Colorado, the son of a Methodist minister. He graduated with a BA from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1965, where he would later teach, and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1973.

Before becoming a writer, Haruf worked in a variety of places, including a chicken farm in Colorado, a construction site in Wyoming, a rehabilitation hospital in Denver, a hospital in Phoenix, a presidential library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Turkey, and colleges in Nebraska and Illinois. He lived with his wife, Kathy, in Salida, Colorado until his death in 2014. He had three daughters from his first marriage.

All of Haruf's novels take place in the fictional town of Holt, in eastern Colorado. Holt is based on Yuma, Colorado, one of Haruf's residences in the early 1980s. His first novel, The Tie That Binds (1984), received a Whiting Foundation Award and a special Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation. Where You Once Belonged followed in 1990. A number of his short stories have appeared in literary magazines.

Plainsong was published in 1999 and became a U.S. bestseller. Verlyn Klinkenborg called it "a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader." Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

Eventide, a sequel to Plainsong, was published in 2004. Library Journal described the writing as "honest storytelling that is compelling and rings true." Jonathan Miles saw it as a "repeat performance" and "too goodhearted."

On November 30, 2014, Kent Haruf died at his home in Salida, Colorado at the age of 71. He died of interstitial lung disease.

April 27, 2015

Tiny Beautiful Things



Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Nonfiction
2012 Vintage Books
Finished on March 26, 2015
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)




Publisher’s Blurb:

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills. And it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.

Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar together in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

From the introduction by Steve Almond:

Tiny Beautiful Things can be read as a kind of ad hoc memoir. But it’s a memoir with an agenda. With great patience, and eloquence, she assures her readers that within the chaos of our shame and disappointment and rage there is meaning, and within that meaning is the possibility of rescue.

I bought Dear Sugar a couple of years ago after reading Cheryl Strayed’s novel Torch and memoir Wild. Strayed is an amazing writer, so I’m not sure why I let this book languish on my nightstand for so long. It’s a winner, folks, and I have all the colorful Post-It flags to prove it! 18, if you’re counting. There could have easily been twice that many, but I decided there’s no way I can quote every favorite passage or letter. I will share a few, but I’m only scratching the surface.


On Love:

Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.
On the Loss of a Child:
Though we live in a time and place and culture that tries to tell us otherwise, suffering is what happens when truly horrible things happen to us.

Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over anything. Or at least not anything that was genuinely, mind-fuckingly, soul-crushingly life altering. Some of those people believe they’re being helpful by minimizing your pain. Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.

They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died.

It seems to me that you feel like you’re all alone there. You aren’t. There are women reading this right now who have tears in their eyes. There are women who have spent their days chanting daughter, daughter, or son, son silently to themselves. Women who have been privately tormented about the things they did or didn’t do that they fear caused the deaths of their babies. You need to find those women. They are your tribe.

I know because I’ve lived on a few planets that aren’t Planet Earth myself.

The healing power of even the most microscopic exchange with someone who knows in a flash precisely what you’re talking about because she experienced that thing too cannot be overestimated. Call your local hospitals and birth centers and inquire about support groups for people who’ve lost babies at or before or shortly after birth… Find online communities where you can have conversations with people during which you don’t have to pretend a thing…

This is how you get unstuck, Stuck. You reach. Not so you can walk away from the daughter you loved, but so you can live the life that is yours—the one that includes the sad loss of your daughter, but is not arrested by it. The one that eventually leads you to a place in which you not only grieve her, but also feel lucky to have had the privilege of loving her. That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work, really, really, really hard to get there, but you can do it. You’re a woman who can travel that far. I know it. Your ability to get there is evident to me in every word of your bright shining grief star of a letter.
And finally, when asked, “You give a lot of great advice about what to do. Do you have any advice of what not to do?” Strayed responds with:
Don’t do what you know on a gut level to be the wrong thing to do. Don’t stay when you know you should go or go when you know you should stay. Don’t fight when you should hold steady or hold steady when you should fight. Don’t focus on the short-term fun instead of the long-term fall out. Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore. Don’t seek joy at all costs. I know it’s hard to know what to do when you have a conflicting set of emotions and desires, but it’s not as hard as we pretend it is. Saying it’s hard is ultimately a justification to do whatever seems like the easiest thing to do—have the affair, stay at that horrible job, end a friendship over a slight, keep loving someone who treats you terribly. I don’t think there’s a single dumbass thing I’ve done in my adult life that I didn’t know was a dumbass thing to do while I was doing it. Even when I justified it to myself—as I did every damn time—the truest part of me knew I was doing the wrong thing. Always. As the years pass, I’m learning how to better trust my gut and not do the wrong thing, but every so often I get a harsh reminder that I’ve still got work to do.”
Final Thoughts:

I read Tiny Beautiful Things over the course of two months, not because it was plodding or dull (this gal can write!), but simply because it’s not the sort of book one reads from cover to cover. It’s the type of book you want to savor, absorbing Strayed’s excellent advice, enjoying a few letters at a time, rather than zipping through in a few days (which is certainly doable), which would make all the letters blur into one big, depressing pile of sadness.

Cheryl Strayed is well-spoken and articulate, offering clear advice that actually seems obvious once she’s explained her reasoning. She provides anecdotes to substantiate her opinions, which are delivered with kindness and love. My only complaint? There are enough f-bombs and references to sex to make even the most libertine among us blush. This is not the sort of book you want to listen to on audio with your mother. Or your daughter. ;)

Dear Abby meets Dr. Laura? This is a keeper and one I’ll most certainly read again!

April 26, 2015

Baja Grilled Flank Steak Salad



We use our grill all year long (yes, even when it's below freezing and snow is on the ground!), but as the days get longer and the weather gets nicer, I add more and more grilled meals to our weekly dinner menu. It's so nice to throw something on the grill then sit and relax with a glass of wine and catch up with my husband after a long day at work. The added bonus? Fewer dishes to clean-up!

I love a good salad for dinner and I'm perfectly content to go completely meat-free, as long as I have enough chopped up veggies to satisfy my appetite. My husband, on the other hand, doesn't mind having salads for a main course, as long as I include some sort of protein. Grilled steak, chicken, salmon or shrimp are quick and easy and make for excellent toppings to a fresh green salad. When I saw this recipe for a flank steak salad, combined with my favorite ingredients (tomato, avocado and cheese), I knew it would be a winner. And, the lemon-lime dressing is super easy and just the perfect flavor for this Southwest meal.


Baja Grilled Flank Steak Salad
SkinnyTaste Cookbook


SPICE RUB

1 tsp. garlic powder
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1/4 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. chipotle chile powder or cayenne pepper

1 lb. flank steak, trimmed of all external fat

LEMON-LIME DRESSING

2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. minced scallions
1 Tbsp. minced fresh cilantro
1/8 tsp. kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper

SALAD

2 medium ears fresh corn or 1 cup thawed frozen corn kernels
1 large head romaine lettuce cut lengthwise into 4 wedges
1 medium Hass avocado, thinly sliced
1 cup heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup crumbled queso fresco or cotija cheese


For the Spice Rub: In a small bowl, combine the garlic powder, salt, cumin, paprika, oregano, and chipotle powder.

Generously season each side of the steak with the dry rub and, using your hands, rub it into the meat. Let it sit for about 10 minutes.

For the Lemon-Lime Dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together the lime juice, lemon juice, olive oil, scallions, cilantro, salt, and a pinch of black pepper. Set aside.

Preheat a grill to medium-high (or preheat a grill pan over medium-high heat).

For the Salad: If using fresh corn, grill the corn, turning often, until the corn is charred on all sides, 20 to 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Increase the heat of the grill or grill pan to high. Grill the steak for 5 to 7 minutes on each side for medium-rare, or longer to your taste. Remove the steak from the grill, cover, and let rest for 5 minutes. Cut the corn kernels off the cob and set aside.

Thinly slice the steak 1/4 inch thick, across the grain and at an angle to the cutting board, then cut it crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces.

Put a romaine wedge on each of the serving plates, top each with one-fourth of the grilled steak. Dividing evenly, top with the avocado, corn, tomatoes, and cheese. Drizzle the dressing over the salads.

Serves: 4

My Notes:

Flank steak has a tendency to get tough very quickly, so most recipes call for some sort of a marinade to help break down the connective tissues. This recipe could benefit from some sort of a lime-based marinade (perhaps substituting the Asian seasonings with a little bit of cumin and cayenne pepper), as it was a little tough, in spite of my usual cooking methods for this particular cut of beef. I never cook it for more than 10 minutes total (5 minutes on each side). Also, prior to grilling the steak, I allow it to sit out on the kitchen counter for 20 minutes, and I also let it rest for 10 minutes after grilling. If you decide to use a marinade, I recommend that you dry the steak with paper towels before applying the rub.

With this salad, I chopped the romaine into bite-sized pieces rather than four individual wedges. I used regular tomatoes, cut into wedges.

The cotija cheese and lemon-lime dressing create a wonderful flavor with the other ingredients. I recommend doubling the dressing. You'll want to have more for your leftovers.

We ate less than half of the steak with our two salads, so I saved the rest and used some for steak & cheese quesadillas, later in the week. 

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April 23, 2015

The Next Time You See Me



The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones
Fiction
2013 Touchstone
Finished on March 23, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good!)




Publisher’s Blurb:

In The Next Time You See Me, the disappearance of one woman, the hard-drinking and unpredictable Ronnie Eastman, reveals the ambitions, prejudices, and anxieties of a small southern town and its residents. There’s Ronnie’s sister Susanna, a dutiful but dissatisfied schoolteacher, mother, and wife; Tony, a failed baseball star turned detective; Emily, a socially awkward thirteen-year-old with a dark secret; and Wyatt, a factory worker tormented by a past he can’t change and by a love he doesn’t think he deserves. Connected in ways they cannot begin to imagine, their stories converge in a violent climax that reveals not just the mystery of what happened to Ronnie but all of their secret selves.

Wow. This was a very good novel! I don’t recall reading any reviews for it within my blogging circle, but I’m glad I decided to give it a try. I’ve had the ARC on my shelf for a couple of years and finally decided to it was time to either read it or give it away. I’m glad I chose the former. Part mystery, part character study, The Next Time You See Me pulled me in from the opening chapter and didn’t let up until the very last page. I almost didn’t read it after perusing the comments on Goodreads, but I decided to go ahead since something must have piqued my interest when I got the ARC. I’m so glad I followed my gut and continued reading. It turned out to be a solid mystery.

See what some of Goddards’ contemporaries have to say about her book:

"The lonely cast of outcasts in The Next Time You See Me has enough heartache for a whole jukebox full of country songs. Holly Goddard Jones spins a tight if heartbreaking tale, always keeping the reader leaning forward."--Stewart O'Nan, author of Songs for the Missing

"The Next Time You See Me gives readers all the pleasures of the best mystery novels as well as the finest literary fiction. No matter gender, age, or social class, Jones’s boundless empathy renders characters who are vivid, complex, utterly realized. She is an exceptionally talented writer."--Ron Rash, author of The Cove and Serena

The Next Time You See Me is an astoundingly good novel. Holly Goddard Jones writes with authority and a deep generosity about a large swath of humanity within a small town: Outsiders and insiders, middle-schoolers and the middle-aged, the violent and the violated, the lost and the found—and all those in between. The result is simply mesmerizing.”--Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl

Final Thoughts:

I really enjoyed this debut novel! Told in alternating points-of-view, I was able to really feel each character's sense of desperation in their individual predicaments, coming to care about all of them, including the killer! Not as twisty as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but if you enjoy those types of thrillers, I recommend giving this book a try. It’s more mystery than thriller and really, more literary fiction than mystery. I’m looking forward to more in the future by this talented author!

April 22, 2015

Wordless Wednesday




I think I have a thing for stairs... and dogs.

For more Wordless Wednesday, click here.

April 20, 2015

The Janus Stone


The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths
Ruth Galloway Series #2
Mystery
2010 AudioGO Ltd.
Reader: Jane McDowell
Finished on March 21, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good!)



Publisher’s Blurb:

It’s been only a few months since archaeologist Ruth Galloway found herself entangled in a missing persons case, barely escaping with her life. But when construction workers demolishing a large old house in Norwich uncover the bones of a child beneath a doorway—minus its skull—Ruth is once again called upon to investigate. Is it a Roman-era ritual sacrifice, or is the killer closer at hand?

Ruth and Detective Harry Nelson would like to find out—and fast. When they realize the house was once a children’s home, they track down the Catholic priest who served as its operator. Father Hennessey reports that two children did go missing from the home forty years before—a boy and a girl. They were never found. When carbon dating proves that the child’s bones predate the home and relate to a time when the house was privately owned, Ruth is drawn ever more deeply into the case. But as spring turns into summer it becomes clear that someone is trying very hard to put her off the trail by frightening her, and her unborn child, half to death.

I read The Crossing Places (Elly Griffiths’ first installment in the Ruth Galloway series) in early March and couldn’t wait to move on to the second in the series (The Janus Stone), as soon as I finished. Once again, I listened to the audiobook and found myself completely absorbed in the mystery, enjoying Jane McDowell’s excellent delivery of the story. I didn’t mark any passages to share, but since the third book isn’t available on audio from my library, I’ll probably wind up reading the print copy of that installment in the series. Perhaps I’ll find more inspiration to include quotable passages with that book. And, as with most series of this genre, I care more about the characters than the actual mystery. As my friend Kay says, “If you like books about bones and digs and interesting settings, legends and the sea, a protagonist that is not a size 0 and a regular person that you could share a coffee with, this is the one.”

Final Thoughts:

I enjoyed this second installment in the Ruth Galloway series even more than the first. The mystery was suspenseful and kept me guessing up until the very end. I’m anxious to see what’s in store next for Ruth. She has quite a lot going on in her personal life and it will be interesting to see how things play out with her and her ongoing (and complicated) friendship with DCI Harry Nelson.

April 19, 2015

Heads in Beds


Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky
Nonfiction – Travel
2012 Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Read by the author
Finished on March 12, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)


Publisher’s Blurb:

In the tradition of Kitchen Confidential and Waiter Rant, a rollicking, eye-opening, fantastically indiscreet memoir of a life spent (and misspent) in the hotel industry.

Jacob Tomsky never intended to go into the hotel business. As a new college graduate, armed only with a philosophy degree and a singular lack of career direction, he became a valet parker for a large luxury hotel in New Orleans. Yet, rising fast through the ranks, he ended up working in "hospitality" for more than a decade, doing everything from supervising the housekeeping department to manning the front desk at an upscale Manhattan hotel... In Heads in Beds he pulls back the curtain to expose the crazy and compelling reality of a multi-billion-dollar industry we think we know.

Heads in Beds is a funny, authentic, and irreverent chronicle of the highs and lows of hotel life, told by a keenly observant insider who's seen it all. Prepare to be amused, shocked, and amazed as he spills the unwritten code of the bellhops, the antics that go on in the valet parking garage, the housekeeping department's dirty little secrets—not to mention the shameless activities of the guests, who are rarely on their best behavior. Prepare to be moved, too, by his candor about what it's like to toil in a highly demanding service industry at the luxury level, where people expect to get what they pay for (and often a whole lot more). Employees are poorly paid and frequently abused by coworkers and guests alike, and maintaining a semblance of sanity is a daily challenge.

Along his journey Tomsky also reveals the secrets of the industry, offering easy ways to get what you need from your hotel without any hassle. This book (and a timely proffered twenty-dollar bill) will help you score late checkouts and upgrades, get free stuff galore, and make that pay-per-view charge magically disappear. Thanks to him you'll know how to get the very best service from any business that makes its money from putting heads in beds. Or, at the very least, you will keep the bellmen from taking your luggage into the camera-free back office and bashing it against the wall repeatedly.

I’ve worked in hotels for more than a decade. I’ve checked you in, checked you out, oriented you to the property, served you a beverage, separated your white panties from the white bedsheets, parked your car, tasted your room service (before and, sadly, after), cleaned your toilet, denied you a late checkout, given you a wake-up call, eaten M&M’s out of your minibar, laughed at your jokes, and taken your money. I have been on the front lines, and by that I mean the front desk, of upscale hotels for years, and I’ve seen it all firsthand.

And so begins Jacob Tomsky’s humorous and, at times, irreverent memoir, Heads in Beds.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Tomsky narrate his tell-all book about the hotel industry, and I’ve made a mental note of some of his secrets for making my next hotel stay more enjoyable. My husband and I rarely stay in 5-star luxury hotels, opting for the predictability and comfort of the Hilton chain, specifically Hampton Inn. We have, however, both stayed in some very posh hotels over the years and one of my all-time favorites is The Peninsula in New York City. My daughter and I spent a full week there in 1996 and we were treated extremely well, thanks to a friend who was good friends with one of the sales associates. It definitely paid to know someone behind the front desk!




Tomsky’s book is highly entertaining and the appendices (Things a Guest Should Never Do) share some customer tips that are not exclusive to the hotel industry. I found myself nodding my head in agreement, recognizing similar situations as an employee of a major bookstore.
Do not snap the credit card down on my desk.

You know this one, where you press the card down with your thumb and use your index finger to bend the front corner of the card up and then release it so it snaps authoritatively and loudly on my desk? You just made me hate you!

and
Do not continue your phone conversation during the entire check-in.

Can you imagine how it feels, as a human, to be part of someone else’s effort to multitask? While you say to the phone, “uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah, well, I told her they wouldn’t go for it. I know these people,” I get the lift of an eyebrow, side-glances, brief and uninterested head nods thrown in my direction indicating your main focus remains on your call, perhaps a moment where you held the phone slightly away from your ear to benevolently allow me 5 percent of your attention. That call will end in five minutes. But because you treated me like an automatic check-in machine, this room I’m giving you will plague your whole stay. And also I key bombed you.

and 
“My credit card declined? That’s impossible. Run it again.”

Man, don’t make me run it again. If your CC declines once, it will, without question, decline again. Your card is not a crumpled old dollar, and the banking system is not a stubborn vending machine. That’s not how the banking system works. You need to call your bank.

And, no, you can’t use my phone.
 and
“They told me I should ask for an upgrade.”

Who the f*** is they? Oh, they. Well, they told me to remind you to tip the doorman.


Final Thoughts:

This is a great audiobook! I listened to it over the course of three days, often times bursting out laughing, other times fumbling for a pen & paper in order to take notes. However, like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, this audiobook is not for young ears or for those who are easily offended. Tomsky is a bit crass at times and drops more F-bombs than the saltiest of sailors.

April 13, 2015

The Bear



The Bear by Claire Cameron
Fiction
Hachette Audio
Read by Cassandra Morris
Finished on March 8, 2015
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)



Publisher’s Blurb:

This is the story of a small narrator with a very big heart.

While camping with her family on a remote island, five-year-old Anna wakes in the night to the sound of screaming. A wild black bear is attacking the family’s campsite—and pouncing on her parents as prey.

Anna’s wounded mother pleads for the children to get into the family’s canoe and paddle away. But once they escape, the sister and brother end up lost and alone in the woods, battling hunger, the elements, and a wilderness alive with danger. Their only hope resides in Anna’s heartbreaking love for her family, as she struggles to be brave when nothing in her world seems safe anymore.

Told in the innocent voice of a child, The Bear is a transporting tale—one of love, loss, and the raw instincts that enable us to survive.

The Bear is based on the author’s memories of, and research into, a true story. She added the kids. From the Author’s Note:
In October of 1991, Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe pitched their tent on Bates Island on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, nearly three thousand square miles of wilderness situated two hundred miles northeast of Toronto. The couple had planned to camp for a three-day weekend. When they failed to return on Monday, friends contacted the police. The partially eaten remains of Jakubauskas and Frehe were found on Wednesday. A large male black bear was standing guard over the prey.
Not since Emma Donoghue’s Room (click on the link for my review) has a child’s voice been captured so beautifully. This is a heartbreaking story, but I was able to listen to the audio production since I knew the actual events did not include any children. The book opens with the attack, told from Anna’s point of view, and it is so incredibly suspenseful! I think I might have held my breath during the entire opening chapter. Cassandra Morris is an excellent reader and I quickly forgot that she was an adult reading a book and not a child recounting a real event. Anna’s innocent point-of-view, as well as that of her younger brother, is so convincing and consistent. From the Reading Group Guide:
The syntax of some of your sentences are so great. “I open my mouth and she turns the spoon and it goes plop and there is a bit of Tang but then it goes wiggle wiggle and oh yuck that’s weird and my tongue says no thanks and tssssuffff I spit.” Are sentences like these based on real five-year-olds’ dialogue?

Yes. My son was five when I started writing. We had many conversations, and I taped a few of his rants to get the rhythm. But it didn’t take all that much research. He was going through a very chatty stage, so I had his speech patterns pretty much seared into my brain. As I wrote, Anna separated from him and became her own character, but quite a few of the funnier lines are directly from his mouth.

Yes, there is humor in this book. I seriously doubt anyone could read such a tragic novel without a few chuckles added here and there.

I’ve written about camping (here and here) with my family, both as a child and as a parent, and my fear of bears is very strong. My husband and I are planning to buy a small trailer in a few years and we’ve been doing some research on bear prevention. After reading this book, I may opt for parking at Walmart! ;)

Do you know the difference between a grizzly bear and an American black bear? Take a look at this informative video about bear safety.





Final Thoughts:

While The Bear tugged heavily at my heartstrings, bringing tears to my eyes, it also made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. I loved listening to this audio (Cassandra Morris is superb!) and I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t have appreciated the book half as much had I read the print version. Just hearing the youthful voice of Morris, with her interpretation of the intense emotion of both children, put me right along beside them in the canoe and woods. Highly recommend!

April 11, 2015

Pork Chops with Sage Butter - Weekend Cooking

Today is Julia Child's birthday!

Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it. ~ Julia Child

April 11, 1954: She eventually mastered the art of French cooking, but at 41, Julia Child was still figuring it all out. An attempt to make a beurre blanc for sea bass failed, much to her “quite hurt surprise.” (From Goodreads)






Well, one thing I've learned in the past 30+ years of cooking is that, like Julia Child, I'm still figuring it all out and that it takes a lot of practice. After trying America's Taste Kitchen recipe for Smothered Pork Chops with Onions and Bacon, I was on a mission to find the perfect recipe for pork chops. Each week, I try to have a wide variety of protein choices on our dinner menu. Chicken, shrimp, salmon, steak and ground beef always get top billing, but pork never seems to make the list unless I fix ribs. I think that's about to change. I came across a simple recipe for Your New Favorite Pork Chops in the March 2015 issue of Bon Appetit. It looked wonderful and I was pleased to see that it only requires seven ingredients. Perfect for a weeknight meal after a long day at work, followed by a pre-dinner walk or bike ride. 

Your New Favorite Pork Chops
Bon Appetit
(photo from magazine)

Doesn't that look delicious? Let me tell you, this is a winner! It was so good, I made it a second time later that week. But be forewarned. It's all about getting the right cut of pork and watching your time. I can't state strongly enough the importance of a good meat thermometer and timer. You don't want to guess with this recipe!


Bon Appetit's Pork Chops with Sage Butter
(aka Your New Favorite Pork Chop)

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2  1 1/2"-thick bone-in pork rib chops (8-10 oz. each)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
8 sprigs sage (fresh)
2 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Season pork chops all over (including the fat cap) with salt and pepper. Cook pork chops until bottom side is golden brown, about 1 minute. Turn and cook on other side about 1 minute before turning again. Repeat this process, turning about every minute, until chops are deep golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 135 degrees, 8-10 minutes (cooking time will depend on thickness of chops). Do Not Overcook!

Remove pan from heat and add sage, garlic, and butter, smashing garlic into butter. Tilt skillet and spoon foaming butter and drippings over pork chops, making sure to baste the fat cap as well as the rib. Transfer pork chops to a cutting board and let rest at least 5 minutes (pork will come to 145 degrees as it sits).

Cut away bone and slice pork about 1/4" thick. Serve with any juices from the cutting board spooned over top.

Bon Appetit's Note:

Though it may seem like a counter-intuitive practice, extra flipping is the secret to the golden-brown crust on these chops.

Why we flip the chops: Frequent flipping produces a deep-brown crust and an evenly cooked rosy interior—plus, the meat cooks in less time since both sides are in near-constant contact with the pan. For best results, try this technique with the thickest, fattiest chops you can find.

My Notes:

The first night I made these, I used a pork rib chop that was not bone-in. I couldn't find one with the bone in at my grocery store. Nonetheless, the meat was tender and delicious! I probably cooked it for 8 minutes. After letting it rest for 5 minutes, it was at the desired temp of 145.

The second night I tried this recipe, I used a bone-in loin chop (pictured above). I should have used the meat thermometer as I was cooking the chops, rather than when I thought they were finished because I cooked them a little bit too long. Very disappointing! With the exception of the meat next to the bone, these chops were dry and tough. However, the flavor was outstanding!

This recipe will become one of my go-to dinners, but only as long as I take the time to get the right cut of meat from the butcher counter. It simply must be a pork rib chop (with or without the bone).

I served the chops with Martha Stewart's Macaroni & Cheese and sautéed zucchini & onions.

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April 4, 2015

The Crossing Places


The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
Ruth Galloway Series #1
Mystery
2009 AudioGO Ltd.
Reader: Jane McDowell
Finished on March 5, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

 

 Publisher’s Blurb:

When a child’s bones are found on a desolate Norfolk beach, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls in forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway. Nelson thinks he has found the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing ten years ago. Since her disappearance he has been receiving bizarre letters about her, letters with references to witchcraft, ritual and sacrifice.

The bones actually turn out to be two thousand years old but Ruth is soon drawn into the Lucy Downey case and into the mind of the letter writer, who seems to have both archaeological knowledge and eerie psychic powers. Then another child goes missing and the hunt is on to find her. As the letter writer moves closer and the windswept Norfolk landscape exerts its power, Ruth finds herself in completely new territory – and in serious danger.

My friend Kay (of Kay’s Reading Life) is a voracious reader of mysteries. She has recommended many, many titles on her blog and I find that I am constantly jotting down authors and lists of series to explore, thanks to her. Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler series is one of those recommendations which I have enjoyed immensely. I have also started the Deborah Crombie series (many of which Kay sent to me), but I need to get back to it, as it’s been a year or so since I last read one of the Gemma James books. The latest addition to my mystery reading is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, which I began listening to late last month. The Crossing Places introduces us to Ruth Galloway and Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, as well as several supporting characters, many of whom I’ve since seen in the second book, The Janus Stone. In addition to a wonderful cast of characters, Griffiths’ mysteries have a great sense of place. I could practically smell the Saltmarsh.
They get out of the car and walk across the rain-sodden grass towards the marsh. The wind is whispering through the reeds, and here and there they see glimpses of still, sullen water reflecting the grey sky. At the edge of the marshland Ruth stops, looking for the first sunken post, the twisting shingle path that leads through the treacherous water and out to the mudflats. When she finds it, half-submerged by brackish water, she sets out without looking back.

Silently, they cross the marshes. As they get nearer the sea, the mist disperses and the sun starts to filter through the clouds. At the henge circle, the tide is out and the sand glitters in the early morning light.

I can also picture the view of the marshland from Ruth’s kitchen:
The kitchen barely has room for a fridge and a cooker but Ruth, despite the books, rarely cooks. Now she switches on the kettle and puts bread into the toaster, clicking on Radio 4 with a practiced hand. Then she collects her lecture notes and sits at the table by the front window. Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, spotted with stunted gorse bushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams. Sometimes, at this time of year, you can see great flocks of wild geese wheeling across the sky, their feathers turning pink in the rays of the rising sun. But today, on this grey winter morning, there is not a living creature as far as the eye can see. Everything is pale and washed out, grey-green merging to grey-white as the marsh meets the sky. Far off is the sea, a line of darker grey, seagulls riding in on the waves. It is utterly desolate and Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.

Care to learn more about Ruth Galloway? (From the author’s website):
Ruth is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. How she came to be interested in archaeology, much less forensic archaeology is a bit of a mystery. She was born and brought up in Eltham, South London, and the nearest she ever came to pre-history was listening to her father’s endless stories of his childhood in Margate.

Then, when Ruth was ten, her parents found God. They became Born Again (their capitals) and embarked on an enthusiastic career of Going to Church and Praying for People (especially for Ruth for whom God remained resolutely hidden).

Ruth took refuge in her books and, after excellent A Levels, went to University College London to study archaeology. She graduated with a first and went on to do an MA at UCL and a PhD at Southampton University. It was at Southampton that she first met Erik Anderssen, the charismatic Norwegian academic who became a great influence in her life. On Erik’s recommendation, Ruth got a job teaching at the new University of North Norfolk and was present at the scene of Erik’s greatest triumph – the discovery of a Bronze Age wooden henge on a Norfolk beach.


The Henge Dig, as it became known, changed Ruth’s life forever. Not only did she meet Peter, the man who was to be her partner for ten years, but she uncovered secrets which were eventually to lead to murder.

Ruth lives alone on an isolated stretch of coastland called the Saltmarsh. She has two cats.

Final Thoughts:

I was able to figure out who was responsible for the crimes fairly early, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this audio production. I enjoyed getting to know Ruth and Nelson, both of whom are very likeable characters, as well as learning a little bit about archaeology and Norfolk, England. I’ve now read the second book in the series and am anxious to continue with The House at Sea’s End (#3).

Note:

If you opt for the audiobook, be sure to take a glance at a copy of the print edition. The author has included a drawing of a map of the Saltmarsh and the surrounding area. I wish I had found it prior to listening to the book.

April 1, 2015

March Reading



I had an excellent month of reading, both with regard to quantity and quality. I read four books and listened to four others and each and every one was exceptionally good. I discovered a new mystery series, which I am eager to continue reading, and I also read my first 5 star book for the year. Can you guess which one it is? (No fair looking at Goodreads!) I'm terribly behind with my reviews, so bear with me. I'm going to try to get all of these posted before the end of the month. 

Have you read any of these gems? 

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

The Bear by Claire Cameron

Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths

The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Live From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Stats:

8 books 
3 novels
2 mystery
2 nonfiction
1 memoirs
1 childrens
5 new-to-me authors
4 print books
4 audio book
4 female authors
2 male author
6 borrowed
2 from my stacks

More 2015 Monthly Summaries:

January
February 

March 28, 2015

The Rosie Project



The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Fiction
2013 Simon & Schuster
Finished on March 1, 2015
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)






Publisher’s Blurb:

Professor of genetics Don Tillman’s life is turned upside down when he embarks upon the Wife Project in order to find a suitable mate despite his quirky habits and demanding personality. When a psychology PhD student named Rosie walks into his office, she’s all wrong—her hair is dyed, her clothes are sloppy, she smokes and she is habitually late. But then again, something is right about her… Don just can’t recognize it at first. As the Wife Project takes a back burner to Rosie’s project of identifying her biological father, Don finds himself breaking all kinds of rules and breaking out of his routines in ways that are both uncomfortable and exciting. When a research trip takes them from Australia to New York City, and Don’s career is threatened by his allegiance to Rosie, Don must face the toughest puzzle of all—himself. In the end, Don must confront his long-held notions of what it means to love and connect with people and what it truly means to open up and trust someone.

The Rosie Project is a highly entertaining novel that made me laugh out loud on several occasions. The appealing character of Don Tillman reminded me of Patricia Wood’s Perry, the eccentric main character in her equaling charming novel, Lottery. Neither character is stupid, but rather both demonstrate a naïve innocence about the ways of the world, combined with a complete lack of understanding of the nuances of social etiquette. Tillman also reminds me a bit of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, with his logical approach to even the most mundane chores. For instance, Don has implemented a “Standardized Meal System,” which allows him to prepare his weekly meals with as little fuss as possible. And the advantages of such a system?
1. No need to accumulate recipe books.
2. Standard shopping list – hence very efficient shopping.
3. Almost zero waste – nothing in the refrigerator or pantry unless required for one of the recipes.
4. Diet planned and nutritionally balanced in advance.
5. No time wasted wondering what to cook.
6. No mistakes, no unpleasant surprises.
7. Excellent food, superior to most restaurants at a much lower price (see point 3).
8. Minimal cognitive load required.

Sounds a bit dull, no? Well, one of Don’s weekly recipes includes a lobster, mango, and avocado salad with wasabi-coating flying fish rose and crispy seaweed and deep-fried leek garnish. Perhaps he’s on to something! While I love to peruse my favorite cookbooks and enjoy cooking for the most part, it would be nice to not have to think of what to fix for dinner, night after night, week after week.

On the discovery of a new found joy:
Hurtling back to town, in a red Porsche driven by a beautiful woman, with the song playing, I had the sense of standing on the brink of another world. I recognized the feeling, which, if anything, became stronger as the rain started falling and the convertible roof malfunctioned so we were unable to raise it. It was the same feeling that I had experienced looking over the city after the Balcony Meal, and again after Rosie had written down her phone number. Another world, another life, proximate but inaccessible.

The elusive… Sat-is-fac-tion.
Favorite Quotes:

Research consistently shows that the risks to health outweigh the benefits of drinking alcohol. My argument is that the benefits to my mental health justify the risks. ~ Don

I need not be visibly odd. I could engage in the protocols that others followed and move undetected among them. And how could I be sure that other people were not doing the same - playing the game to be accepted but suspecting all the time that they were different? ~ Don


Final Thoughts:

The ending of The Rosie Project was a bit rushed and unclear, so I decided to check Google to see if I understood the final outcome and, as it turns out, I wasn't the only one who was confused. Nonetheless, I highly recommend Simsion’s clever and witty debut novel! I was sorry to say goodbye to these delightful characters, but as luck would have it, there is already a sequel (The Rosie Effect), which I plan to read later this spring.

From NPR:
He's a socially inept scientist who's tone deaf to irony. She's an edgy young woman whose fallback mode is sarcasm. Put them together, and hilarity ensues in Australian IT consultant Graeme Simsion's first novel, The Rosie Project. It's an utterly winning screwball comedy about a brilliant, emotionally challenged geneticist who's determined to find a suitable wife with the help of a carefully designed questionnaire, and the patently unsuitable woman who keeps distracting him from his search. If you're looking for sparkling entertainment along the lines of Where'd You Go Bernadette and When Harry Met Sally, The Rosie Project is this season's fix. (Heller McAlpin, a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.)
About the Author:

Graeme Simsion is a former IT consultant and the author of two nonfiction books on database design who decided at the age of fifty to turn his hand to fiction. The Rosie Project is his first novel, and his screen adaption has been optioned by Sony Pictures. Graeme lives in Australia with his wife, Anne, and their two children.