Monthly Archives: October 2013

Against All Grain, by Danielle Walker

ImageAs you can tell by my reviews, I am thrilled by all of the new grain-free cookbooks out there that are using natural, whole foods instead of the lab-created concoctions of the early Atkins phase of the low-carb revolution. This week, the library received a brand-new Paleo-related cookbook that is both gorgeous and inspiring!

Danielle Walker, blogger extraordinaire (http://www.againstallgrain.com/) has assembled 150 or so of her favorite recipes, some from her blog, but most revealed for the first time. Do visit the lovely blog; it makes me long for a webmaster. Danielle has quite a story. She was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis in her early twenties, and there are some pictures that illustrate just how ill she really was. Obviously, from her blooming health here on the cover of her book, you can see that she overcame her disease and has learned a great deal about food and nutrition since then.

Now to the recipes—yum! One of my cookbook requirements is a picture for every recipe, and this book has such fabulous pictures that I had to eat my lunch half an hour early when I was perusing it at work! My tummy started rumbling, so I had to start stuffing in romaine leaves and pretending they were Seafood, Chorizo, and Chicken Paella. Danielle includes everything from breakfast to cocktails— Blueberry Waffles to Mango Mule— with an entire chapter devoted to kid-pleasing dishes that will help your little ones to develop a love of wholesome ingredients. I think the Toddler-Approved Vegetable Curry would please me, too!

As a diabetic, I will warn you that Ms. Walker does not have blood sugar problems, so in some of her recipes she uses honey, maple syrup, bananas, dates, orange juice, and other no-nos for those of us whose pancreases will not cooperate. If it won’t change the texture of the recipe (i.e., reducing the amount of liquid), you may be able to substitute stevia or the sweetener of your choice. I have gotten pretty adept at this sort of thing, and even though it may take some experimentation, I can usually adjust the recipe appropriately.

An unforeseen by-product of reading this and Melissa McGee’s book (see review on Satisfying Eats in this blog) is that I have put another item in my Amazon shopping cart, one of my favorite pastimes that I told you about a couple of weeks ago. Ms. Walker shows pictures of what looks amazingly like pasta in these pictures, but what is actually zucchini noodles, created by the Paderno World Cuisine A4982799 Tri-Blade Plastic Spiral Vegetable Slicer, more conveniently known as a Zoodle. Or maybe it’s a Zoodler and the noodles are Zoodles. Anyhow, it can make noodles out of any vegetable and nearly any fruit. If you take a notion, you may buy it for me for Christmas.

ImageI have only had this book for a couple of days, but so far I have tried two recipes. The first one was N’Oatmeal Cookies. With the sort of sweetener substitution for diabetics described above, they were delicious. Spicy and munchy. We sampled them during a South Carolina Gamecocks football game and we won, so they must also be lucky cookies.

ImageSecondly, I made the Currant Scones. Now, I have enjoyed scone recipes in other grain-free cookbooks, most notably the Cranberry Scones in The Joy of Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking, which I have reviewed here, but they are fun, fancy scones. I am actually a bit of a scone snob. I grew up next to an Irish family—by which I do not mean of Irish descent, like my family, but the parents were actually from Ireland—and they had tea every afternoon. Somehow, I managed to show up on time quite often. I learned to make scones from my friend, Eithne, and I still have her handwritten recipe. Unfortunately, I can’t eat regular scones anymore, so I’ve been on the hunt for an authentic-tasting recipe for some time. These did the trick! You may notice that there are no currants. I was fresh out and too lazy to go to the store, and I’d used all of my dried cranberries on the N’Oatmeal Cookies. In any case, this is the taste I was looking for: mildly sweet and a perfect vehicle for apricot jam. Ms. Walker has a recipe for Lemon Curd, too, so I will give that a shot in the future.

One positive result of the Paleo movement and the recent scientific research on wheat and other grains is that people are beginning to understand that this way of eating is not a short-term diet, but rather a complete way of life. Ms. Walker emphasizes this in her book, and even tailors the recipes to fit the diets of people with various chronic conditions, such as ulcerative colitis and other gastrointestinal diseases. Most of the recipes are dairy-free or have alternative ingredients for dairy-free results, and she has symbols on each recipe to denote whether it is egg-free, nut-free, Specific Carbohydrate-compatible, or vegan. But don’t worry: this is not a medical journal. It is a very beautiful and useful cookbook that just happens to make people well while they feast.

I will definitely be buying this one.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Open Wide So I Can Extract Your Savings Account

ImageNow that we’ve solved the problems with America’s medical care so beautifully, it’s time to turn our attention to the biggest health care circus in town, dental insurance and dentistry in general. David and I were setting up appointments for spending out the last of this year’s benefits and calculating how much to put aside in my flex spending plan for next year, when I thought that it might be a good idea to see exactly how much I was paying in premiums in order to get a paltry $1,000 each in benefits each year. It turns out that I am paying $540.00 annually for both of us. That’s more than a quarter of the benefit! I swear, I spent more out-of-pocket on my last crown ($1200) than I did when I gave birth and stayed in the hospital for five days ($36). Gone are the good old days when you could walk down to the corner dentist and pay him with a chicken.

When I was a child, I had a long-term illness that wreaked havoc on my permanent teeth, so I spent most of my childhood in a dentist’s chair. It’s not my favorite place to be, so I spend lots of time brushing and even flossing, since my hygienist sister shamed me into it almost 30 years ago. No one could tell that by looking in my mouth, of course, and I’m sure most dentists think of me as a slacker. I comfort myself that dentists all over the world are not so judgmental. David Sedaris relates in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls that his French dentist laughingly asked him why in the world a man his age would be considering braces, and he replied that perhaps it was because he could floss his teeth with his bathrobe belt. She scoffed that surely he could find better things to do with his time than flossing.*

This past year of “care” at my dentist’s office has been less than stellar. I think the average age of the staff is about 16, and, no doubt, they all go to the gym and spa together after work. At my last complete exam, the tiny little blond hygienist had the personality of a cardboard cutout and could not seem to make any conversation that did not come directly from the manual of How to Talk to Your Patients. Although I told her exactly what I wanted, she silently went about her work and, at the end, presented me with a $4,000 treatment plan that I was supposed to sign. “But,” I protested, “I really do want to replace that filling that fell out!” She looked offended at my dismissal of her masterpiece, but agreed to set up an appointment.

Earlier in the year, I had a new crown put in to replace a temporary crown that I’d had for… um, ever. I mentioned that I had been having trouble with the last crown that I’d received there, and the new dentist, who resembles a tall version of Joey on Friends—which does not inspire confidence— looked at the computer screen and told me that I did not have a crown on that tooth. I had to convince him to turn around and look into my mouth, at which he nearly jumped and exclaimed, “Oh, you do have a crown there!” He then proceeded to cheerfully take $1,200 for putting in the next one. At least I didn’t need a root canal this time, for another $1,000.

ImageWhy does dental care cost so much? I admit that I yell at the television when those ads come on celebrating the fact that a local group of dentists spends one day a year fixing the teeth of homeless people for free. Sure, that’s great, and I am all for it. But, I yell, “That’s because you spend 364 days a year robbing the rest of us blind!” We use one third of our annual benefit on a normal cleaning and exam. We’re supposed to go twice, but then we can’t get anything actually fixed. It’s not that I don’t think American dentistry is the best in the world. It is. After all, we could have the British system, with results shown here.

What to do? Surely we can hire some crackerjack programmers to set up a great system to keep track of every molar in the nation. If it got too complicated, the entire flowchart could point to dentures if the patient is above 60. Citizens might not be too thrilled with that, but then the denture lobby would get involved, and it would all go smoothly from there.  Even white teeth and healthy pink gums for all. In the meantime, I think I’ll have to set my flex spending plan to max and just assume that we won’t pay the electric bills next year.

_________________

*Very loosely paraphrased with apologies to Mr. Sedaris.

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The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, by Kathi Appelt

ImageChaparral Brayburn and his mom own a sugar pie shop in the Sugar Man Swamp in Texas. Chap’s grandpa, Audie Brayburn, moved down to the swamp in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker, also known as the Lord God Bird, decades ago. He swore that he saw it and even took a picture of it once when he first arrived. Unfortunately, he left the picture in his De Soto, abandoned in the swamp when he became ill and had to hike to the highway. When he got out of the hospital, he could never find the car again. Two raccoon brothers, Bingo and J’miah, did find it and made it their home and the headquarters of the True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. J’miah found a box wedged underneath, and pulled out three snapshots that he set up as artwork on the dashboard: one is an armadillo, one an ivory-billed woodpecker, and one is the Sugar Man.

Sonny Boy Beaucoup’s great-great-greater-greatest grandfather had owned all of Sugar Man Swamp since before the Louisiana Purchase. Now Sonny Boy has teamed up with Jaeger Stitch, female alligator wrestler, to pave over acres and acres of swampland and create a theme park based on alligator wrestling. Chap’s mom is late on the rent, and since she can’t get the money together quickly, Sonny Boy is ready to throw them out and make the café part of the park. As a joke, he promises Chap that if he can present evidence of the Lord God Bird or the legendary Sugar Man, he will let them stay in the restaurant.

In the meantime, a sounder (that’s the group name) of feral hogs is headed to Sugar Man Swamp because they’ve heard about the delicious sugar cane. Along the way, they destroy everything in their path. So, with destruction closing in on two sides, someone needs to wake up the Sugar Man! But first, they have to get past his guardian rattlesnake, Gertrude. Unbeknownst to one another, Chap and the True Blue Scouts are all working on ways to find and wake the Sugar Man.

Kathi Appelt is an accomplished and prolific author who won a Newbery Honor for The Underneath in 2010. True Blue Scouts is also at the top of many prognosticators’ lists for this year’s Newbery and is a National Book Award finalist. Readers, I have to tell you, I don’t see it. The story itself is appealing: boy and animals try to save their homeland from destruction. However, I really did not have an emotional connection with Chap or the raccoons, much as I liked them both. Furthermore, Appelt has chosen to use a storyteller’s voice for this novel, and the voice doesn’t always sound like the same person. Most of the time, it is a down-homey, older voice, but occasionally it breaks into popular culture, such as on page 231, when she says, “That’s a lot of car, my homies.” Or on page 286, where she says “As soon as he returned home, he would burn that freaking document….” Freaking? It was just too inconsistent, and I think that is what forced me to keep all of the characters at arm’s length and never to be completely immersed in the story. I was always aware of the narrator.

You may be thinking that I am breaking my own promise never to review a book that I don’t like, but I did like it, actually. It was a very fun read blending realistic fiction with cryptids— always a kid-pleaser. I think it will be very popular, but I don’t think it deserves a Newbery medal. I’m sure I missed something, since everyone else thinks it’s great, but I just never felt the love.

Recommended for ages 9 and up.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Rapture Practice, by Aaron Hartzler (A Memoir)

ImageAaron Hartzler grew up in an evangelical Christian home where they were so eager for Jesus to return that they would practice jumping up to the ceiling to get a head start. When Aaron was little, he helped his mother to run the Good News Club from their living room, and his father helped him to get started in acting by participating in church plays. He was an exemplary young man. He and his siblings went to Christian school and his father taught in the local Bible college. They had no TV and could only listen to an approved Christian radio station. His parents opined that the term “Christian rock music” was an oxymoron.

As Aaron grew older, tiny bits of the world leaked in through the cracks in his parents’ carefully constructed fortress. At night, he would turn his clock radio to the local “adult contemporary” station and listen to it ever so softly. One day, he forgot to turn it back, and he was discovered. His parents cried. As a matter of fact, they cried about everything: Aaron not wanting to wear socks with his Docksider shoes, Aaron listening to Sandi Patti (too contemporary), Aaron reading GQ magazine, even though he truly read it for the fashion tips. As one might expect, Aaron began to think that his parents might not be right about everything. When his parents found out that Aaron had bought his (approved) girlfriend a CD of the soundtrack to Pretty Woman, they forced him to drop out of the school play two weeks before the first performance, because they knew that acting was the most important thing to him. Something broke in Aaron at that point. Afterwards, his parents moved him to a much more conservative Christian school, which did not have the effect his parents had hoped.

Until this book started hitting the “Best of 2013” lists, I had no interest in reading it. Although I was not brought up in an evangelical Christian home, my son was. I ran a few of these things past him, and we’ve had some good discussions. I held my breath while I was reading Rapture Practice, expecting to side with the parents and hoping that I would not be hurt or angry. I wasn’t. What made all the difference was Mr. Hartzler’s attitude toward his parents and even religion in general. This is not one of those pathetic exposés of “all the terrible things my parents did to me.” Aaron loves his parents—always did, still does. His parents are not portrayed as stupid or hateful; they are really sincere, and Aaron gets that. With the very best of intentions, his parents worked really hard to make Aaron just like them, but as all parents learn eventually, God made every single one of us an individual. Aaron does not believe everything his parents taught him, and he struggled mightily to help them to see that and to help himself to accept that.

Aaron grew up in an incredibly legalistic household. The number of rules that his parents had for daily life was impossible to remember, let alone obey. The problem with legalism is that if your parents burst into tears over a CD, why not just sleep with your girlfriend? What more could they do? If everything in the world is a sin, then nothing is really a sin. Furthermore, his parents felt that it was their right to control every single part of his life, down to the most excruciating detail. It was absolutely suffocating. At a certain point, you have to allow your child to think his own thoughts and have some privacy. Ironically, his parents’ exhausting attempts to make sure that he did not have sex with a girl drove him to do just that, knowing that even having sex before marriage would be more acceptable to his parents than his growing realization that he was gay. He knew what his church thought about homosexuality, and he was torn up about it.

Even though we did not bring our child up like Aaron, this honest memoir of an evangelical childhood caused me to reflect on what we did right and where we may have gone wrong. All parents rear their children in their beliefs, even if they believe nothing at all. Values are passed down, either actively or passively, from one generation to another. If mothers and fathers have beliefs or traditions that bring them joy or peace, they would naturally be eager to pass those beliefs on to their children because they love them and want them to be happy. We Christians really do believe that Jesus is coming back—although perhaps not in a pre-trib rapture—and we really do believe in a heaven and a hell, and we want to make sure our children land in the former. Some things really are sins, but going sockless is not one of them. Christian rock music is not an oxymoron; it is sometimes fantastic (and sometimes unfortunate). Although our children may not believe all of the details of our own faith, we shouldn’t confuse them so much with Pharisaical rules that they can’t find the simple Gospel in our lives.

Mr. Hartzler ends his story on a beautiful note. He realizes that he’s been hiding his true self all of his life, because he is afraid that his parents won’t be able to love him as he really is. He then comes to understand that he also needs to love his parents as they really are. He knows that his parents are truly sincere in their faith and that they are living out their beliefs with complete integrity. We can all respect that, even if we don’t agree. Aaron is probably pushing forty at this point, and I don’t know if he has any faith in God, but I hope he will be able to sift through all of the dross and find the truth shining in there somewhere.

Recommended for older teens and adults who want to think through these issues. There is some sexuality and profanity. Get ready for lots of reflection and discussion.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else—including my church, which is, I am happy to say, not at all legalistic. Thanks, guys.

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Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang

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Printz Award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang has written a two-volume work to explain the Boxer Rebellion to American teens. Well, and adults, apparently. I don’t know about you, but my education did not cover this Chinese revolution against foreign invaders and Christian missionaries that took place from 1899-1901. Yang concentrates on the religious elements of the rebellion, portraying two young people as representatives of the opposing sides: Little Bao, who followed traditional Chinese religion and founded the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (this would never work today, as your Tweet would be done already) and Vibiana, a somewhat accidental convert to Christianity.

Wars are more complex than the textbooks would lead us to believe, and Yang brings out this ambiguity well, as Little Bao and Vibiana charge forward for the sake of their righteous causes, only to be brought up short when the issues blur and they find that people they respected turn out to be flawed or people they hated display compassion and integrity. The conflation of religion and ethnicity has resulted in misery for so many millennia, and the Boxer Rebellion is no exception. We watched Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Metaxas’ biography as he was stunned by the universality of the church when he went to Rome and saw people from all over the globe worshipping God. This phenomenon went against everything he had known as a German Lutheran whose church was wrapped up in his fatherland. Similarly, the Boxers confront the presumed paradox of Chinese Christians. How could this be? Christians were supposed to be foreigners, and their compatriots were supposed to practice “Chinese religion.”

I was privileged to be present when Gene Luen Yang accepted the Printz Award for American-Born Chinese in 2006. He is a devout Catholic and teaches computer science in a Catholic high school. He is an unassuming, really nice guy who used the speaking opportunity to demonstrate the history of American prejudice against Chinese and other Asian immigrants through the decades. It was truly enlightening. In Boxers & Saints, Yang writes with a remarkably even hand and leaves some issues ambiguous. In a civil war, there are never any true winners, just tragedy all around as brothers and friends are pitted against one another and forced to participate in a dehumanizing slaughter that changes their nation forever.

Yang’s artwork is as crisp and appealing as ever, and the story is easy to follow, even if you know nothing whatsoever about Chinese history. No one can argue that he hasn’t chosen a unique topic in young adult literature, and he is probably the only person who could have carried it off. There is even some humor and a bit of romance! Parents and teachers will be able to find many topics for discussion, and reluctant readers will learn some serious history. Boxers & Saints are on the National Book Award  shortlist, and rumor has it that the Printz Committee is treating this as one work, and it is definitely in contention for the prize.

Recommended for 12 and up.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these two books. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Not a Book Review

ImageA few days have gone by without a Newbery or Printz contender review because, quite frankly, the last book I read was just not worthy. Watch it win now. Somehow I find it difficult to review books that I really didn’t like. Since I’ve met a bunch of authors at one point or another, I realize that they are real people with feelings, and I know I wouldn’t want some ignorant critic to stab me in the heart by trashing my cherished creation, especially if the critic had never written a book and therefore had no room to talk. Most writers are much more artistic and poetic than I am, so I always assume that I just don’t understand some earth-shattering insight that they have. On the other hand, it may just be a dreadful book, and in that case, why should I make you think you should read it? So, if you read a review on my blog, you can be assured that I believe that at least some of my readers would enjoy it. Otherwise, you’ll never hear about it from me. I am still reading madly, of course, and I plan to do another round-up article after just a few more reviews. My list has gotten longer, and I’ll share my updated predictions.

Shopping the Amazon Carts

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My sister and I discovered recently that we both have a hobby that helps us to deal with being broke. We shop the Amazon carts. This is how it goes: You think of something you need or would like to have, and then log onto Amazon, which sells everything. You spend hours researching the very best product or deal, and then you put that item into your cart. Sometimes, I put my three favorite pairs of shoes into the cart, and then come back days later to compare them and look for more. We can move items into the “save for later” cart and rejoice that we’ve saved some money! Other needs come up, and we research those, sometimes putting them ahead of the items currently in the cart. We realize that our cart is too expensive, so we make choices about what to put in the current cart, what to put in the later cart, and even (ouch!) what to delete. Sometimes, in an extreme fit of hopefulness, we put things on our wish list so that other people can buy them for us. My sister confessed that she keeps a copy of her wish list on her hard drive, as well, just in case she forgets anything. Unbeknownst to one another, we found that we both do this at least once a week. This way, we can have all the satisfaction of shopping—finding nice things, comparing items, making choices—without ever spending a dime!

Wilbur, RIP; Long Live Wilbur II

ImageOur robot died. This is not as life-changing as having the rabbit die, but it does mean that our floors are not getting cleaned. When our Neato robot vacuum started making pitiful chirping sounds and telling us “My vision is blocked,” we tried all kinds of things to help. David cleaned every crevice he could, and we ordered new filters, but he remained helpless. Wilbur was blind. The good news is that when David called the Neato company and told them about it, they sent us a new one. Free. Postage paid. Good thing, because I had forgotten how to sweep with a broom, and David never even considered vacuuming by hand. We’ve decided to call the new robot Wilbur II, even though we felt downright heartless about it, as if you could just get rid of the robot you’ve known and loved and just get a new one. As if they were interchangeable. Actually, they are. We really need a dog.

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More Than This, by Patrick Ness

ImageIt is difficult to review a novel in which the main character dies in the preface without giving it all away. I can tell you, though, that for quite a long time you’ll be thinking “?” and “??,” followed by “Oh! But ?,” until the end, when you’ll be thinking, “Turn the pages faster!!”

Seth does truly drown in the very beginning of the novel, and I can assure you that he does not move toward the gentle light where he sees all of his beloved departed waiting for him. Nor is the book one big flashback. The reader works to discover the truth along with Seth in this sci-fi thriller, and events unfold ever more quickly, running toward a breathless conclusion. Along the way, Seth grapples with the nature of reality, wondering if his present circumstances justify the feeling he has always had, that there must be more than this. If this is the “more,” is it what he expected? Or perhaps the “more” was always in front of him before, but he didn’t see it.

I have had several workshops with one of our human resources counselor types, and she often mentioned that humans tend to “self-medicate” in order to cope with life, whether they actually use drugs or alcohol, or whether it’s food, shopping, Facebook, online games, or any number of activities. The alternative, of course, is to face your pain head-on and deal with it. If you have real pain in your life, do you really want to be fully conscious? There’s a line in a Switchfoot song that goes, “I’m awake in the infinite cold….” Most of us would do anything to avoid being awake in the infinite cold. Seth has to decide if he wants to wake up.

Patrick Ness was born in the United States, but now lives in England. He has won the Carnegie Medal and other prizes in the past, and his writing is always top-notch. I have not read the buzz in Printz Award-watch circles yet, but I do have one misgiving concerning this novel. At one point in the book, I thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this movie.” At another point, it was a different movie. Will More Than This be considered derivative? That will be the question, in my opinion.

For those who are just looking for a great read, this is a fun, wild ride. There is sexuality and some profanity, so be forewarned. Recommended for teen and adult sci-fi fans who like to think.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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