Monday, June 29, 2009

Book Review -- The Johnstown Flood

The Johnstown Flood The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Flooding, mass destruction, dislocated families, thousands of lives lost, whom to blame for inadequate construction? It could be a story of Katrina 2005, instead, it’s 1889 and the Johnstown flood (Johnstown, PA), where nearly 2500 people lost their lives after an earthen dam failed up stream at the South Fork Fishing and Hunt Club.

David McCollough, the Pulitzer prize winning author, describes in extraordinary, but plain-spoken prose, the events leading up to the dam’s failure, the massive devastation and death that results, and the attempt to rescue and recover in the days and months to follow.

This event wasn’t just a flood – for it was more an amalgamation of water, waste and debris – for it carried with it homes, farms, animals, humans, massive trees, railroad cars, train tracks, factories, and barbed wire, as the water carried everything in its path on its way to the valley of Johnstown. There the mass of rubbish was dumped on the town and log-jammed against on old stone bridge that miraculously held its footing (or the devastation would have continued down stream and been more tragic).

The organization implemented within hours of the tragedy to help identify the victims, missing, and dead, was nothing short of heroic and miraculous. The recovery effort started almost immediately and was done during a time without chain saws or dump trucks or cranes (or FEMA!)– any of those modern day conveniences we deem necessary for clean up work. It was all done by hand labor, mule trains and fires (to burn dead animals and other refuse) to rid the town of massive amounts of wreckage.

Following the flood, the outpouring of monetary relief was unprecedented (without the help of Sheryl Crow or Bono-related fundraisers!). Over $3.5million dollars was donated to help survivors, victims and work crews. Including donations from Salt Lake City where, “thousands turned out for a concert given in the huge Mormon Tabernacle, the proceeds of which were sent to Johnstown.”

This was a gripping book, and makes me want to make a trip to Johnstown to see what remains of the dam, visit the Grand View cemetery where the majority of the victims are buried and to view what Johnstown has become in the 100+ years since the flood.

View all my reviews.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Welcome to the Jane Austen Challenge

I’m a self confessed bibliophile and book blog stalker. I enter to win free books (I’ve won two already!) and I leave comments all the time about my favorite reads. One I follow is Stephanie’s Written Word. Stephanie has issued a challenge – a Jane Austen challenge – that is. Over the next 6 months (July 1, 2009 – Jan 1, 2010) you Jane Austen addicts are to imbibe yourself on SIX Jane Austen themed items – her original novels, movies, biographies, Austen-knock off lit – it’s up to you. You can read her original post for all the details and ideas.

I have many challenges going on this summer – Artist’s Challenge, Knitting Challenge – why not add a Jane Austen challenge to the mix.

My 6 challenge items are:

Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Austenland by Shannon Hale
Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Jane Austen: A Life
P&P with Colin Firth
S&S with Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet
Emma w/Gwyneth Paltrow

Happy Austen-induced romance everyone!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

And then there were two…

My oldest is staying with my parents this week. It’s her first solo trip and she was THRILLED to have all the attention of her grandparents. The glee that emanated from her face as we backed out of their drive way was unmistakable. What know one noticed was the glee that was visible on my face. Yes, I am acknowledging that I was happy she was staying with my parents for a week. She is my darling daughter, but she is a difficult child, and from the moment she wakes up in the morning, to the moment she goes to bed it is nothing but drama. Drama. And more drama. And it’s shrieks and shrills and whines and tears. And then it starts all over again. She exhausts me. I don’t know how to handle it. And then there is the constant battle between her and her brothers. It never seems to end.

I was looking forward to having two children this week. The boys are easy. They fight, but within seconds it’s over. Is it a Mars vs. Venus thing? I miss her. But I don’t miss the baggage that comes with her. Am I admitting the unadmittable? Ayelet Waldman created a brouhaha by acknowledging she loved her husband more than her children. Are mothers allowed to NOT miss their children when they are apart? If not, I’m in big trouble.

When she returns on Saturday, I will be waiting with open arms and a joyous heart, but I will also be wishing for her to stay one more day with her grandparents.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Book Review -- Not Becoming My Mother

Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

My most vivid memory of Ruth Reichl’s Comfort Me with Apples, is when her mother poisoned of nearly all of the guests at her brother's wedding reception. It was black comedy at it’s finest. Stories like these permeate Reichl’s books and have become known as “Mim Tales.”

Her latest book (or extended essay in hardback) is devoted to her mother’s memory. Miriam Brudno was born before her time – a woman who dreamed of becoming a doctor, but was confined to society’s restrictions on what a woman could achieve. It was decided by her parents that an education in music was more appropriate and a job operating a book store more proper, oh, and by the way, she really, really, needed to get married. Thus her life becomes an internal battle and the casualties a long the way include herself and her own children.

I love all of Ruth Reichl’s books. This is no exception. It is a testament to what we take for granted, what we can achieve, and that dreams should never be sacrificed.

View all my reviews.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Book Review -- Back When We Were Grownups

Back When We Were Grownups Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars

What if? We’ve all had “what if” moments – what if we had taken the other job? Dated the other person? Moved to that different city? Gone to a different college? I’d like to think most of us are happy with the decisions we’ve made and the road we have traveled because of them. However, there are those who look back with regret.

Rebecca Davitch is asking “what if?” and has the unique position of finding out. After being a widow for over 25 years, Rebecca asks herself, “who am I” and “how did I get here?” After successfully operating the family reception business that she inherited after the death of her husband Joe, she wonders if there is anything else in life. This internal question leads her to reacquaint herself with an old boyfriend, Will, who has become the local community college’s Dean of Physics. Rebecca soon learns that Will is not whom she remembers and that “you can’t go home again.”

During this internal struggle, Rebecca is also dealing with a menagerie of family – stepdaughters, daughter, grandchildren, sons-in-law, brother-in-law and great uncle-in-law (all with names that drove me bonkers). They inhabit her space and occupy most of her time. Rebecca’s family is disrespectful and profoundly ungrateful for all that she does. Why do family members treat those they love with the most contempt? They would never treat strangers the way they treat Rebecca.

Ultimately, I found this book annoying. The character’s names are distracting. Until the very last page I had to remind myself, “who is NoNo, Patch, Jeep, Biddy, Poppy, Min Foo – and to whom do they belong and, more importantly, why do I care?”

Back When We Were Grownups was about a restless matriarch in a dysfunctional family and ultimately, a dysfunctional book.

View all my reviews.

Week 1 Art Project

It make not look like much, but this makes me enormously proud! I love my daisy plate! (not quite sure it is a daisy – but it’s a flower nonetheless!)

Two girlfriends and I went to a “paint your own pottery” store last week and this is what I created. Does it look like a grade school project – possibly – but I had SO MUCH fun doing it I don’t really care! It’s mine and I made it and I can’t say that for most things.

My kitchen is accented with bright colors – I collect vintage ‘50s Pyrex bowls – so my wall color and wall paper could be described as “retro.” I have a bright green accent wall covered with plates I’ve collected at antique stores – this will now find a permanent place among my collection.

Painting pottery is now a monthly date.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Contests and Knitting

Today I won this:
The Fixer Upper: A Novel
from The Book Case, a literary blog I follow. It is described as, "...a hilarious novel about one woman's quest to redo an old house . . . and her life." This is the second book I’ve won this year! Now, if my luck would extend to Powerball.

I also started my knitting class last night. Who knew casting on stitches was much like neurosurgery. Domestic arts may not be my thing. But I have two more classes. I’m determined to make something like this

for our local children’s hospital Knitting for Noggins campaign. It is a wonderful service project that enlists knitters from all over the state (and country if you are a knitter!) to craft knit hats for discharged children during the winter months. I have a hospital kid, so it’s a project I want to complete. I have ALL summer. Surely I can do it!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Creativity Boot Camp Week 1

My creativity boot camp got a late start, so I’m just now finishing my 1st week of “training.” I had an artist’s date with myself last Thursday at a “paint your own pottery” studio and had a great time! My plate that I painted looked much like what a third grader’s, but since my creativity level is that of a third grader, I’m stoked about it. I pick up my fired plate on Friday and will post pictures of my creation. It’s a gerbera daisy – my talisman – I thought it would be appropriate for my first project. I start my knitting class tonight. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been crafty, but knitting is something I did in a previous life. My mother taught me how to cast on and off when I was but a wee thing. I just haven’t done it since then. I also crocheted at one point too. I made a beautiful afghan for my grandmother one year when I was in High School. When she died, and they were auctioning the items out of her home, I found the afghan stacked in a pile of blankets and linens to be sold. I nearly died! My one creation sold to the highest bidder! I rescued it and it now resides in my cedar chest.

My thoughts on my daily tasks and exercises after week 1:

1. I love writing my morning pages. At first it was painful – literally, painful. I haven’t written anything long hand since college (I’m not a regular journal keeper). My hand was cramping after the 1st paragraph. But there is something magical about seeing one’s handwriting at length on a page. My handwriting is almost creative itself, if I could read it! I also like the format – it’s completely stream of consciousness. I don’t have to have any agenda when writing in the morning. I could write, “I have nothing to write about” for three pages, if that’s all I had to say. But I’m surprised at how easily ideas come. And how random they are. Anything from “I love watching the bees in my lavender bushes” too “I can’t forget to get milk at the grocery store.”

2. I’m surprised that I like getting up at 6am to get my writing tasks done. It’s not easy – the snooze button gets hit several times before I am out of bed -- but once I’m up, I’m glad I have time to myself. It’s oxymoronic to think I’m getting up in the SUMMER at 6am. Normally, my alarm goes off at 7am – and during the summer – it’s a crap shoot. The house is so peaceful before my crew awakens. I have a special bag where I keep my writing notebooks, my pens and workbook in the kitchen. I grab it, fix my lemon water tonic, and spread out on the kitchen table. This morning I had a tougher time, but there is something to be said for D&C 88:124 (I went to bed WAY TOO late last night).

3. My writing has made me very conscious of all the negative things I have to say about myself during the course of a day. Part of the routine of morning pages is turning those negative “blurts” into positive affirmations. Trust me, it’s so much easier to say, “you stink at _____” than it is to say, “you are really AWESOME at ________.” But I’ve made a concerted effort to stop the negative talk. I’m not always successful, but I’m trying.

4. After I finish my writing exercises, I put on my walking shoes and head out the door for a long walk. I try to go 3.5 miles, but this morning, because I took longer to write, I only did 30 minutes. My mental writing exercises have had a profound effect on my physical exercise – I now walk with much more energy and authority than before. And my mind is significantly more lucid. They truly have been “power walks.”

It’s been a great week. I’m looking forward to the rest of my week – I have Enrichment tomorrow night, where I might actually dress up (we are supposed to come in costume as if we were attending an awards show). Normally, I would reject the idea as childish -- but I’m feeding my inner creative child, so what the heck. I also have book group, which is the beacon of not only my week, but my month.

Week 1 down, 11 more to go. I’m not Van Gogh – but I’m getting closer to being Van G-ette!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

House cleaning vs. swimming pool

I spent most my Saturday cleaning house. Why spend a glorious Saturday cleaning, you might ask? Well, during the summer while the kids are home, I find I have a hard to keeping up with house work. So, my beloved took the kids to the pool (which I loath) while I mopped the kitchen floor and did laundry. Yes, I must be a tad bonkers to choose laundry over the pool, but that is how much I hate going to the pool (it’s not the pool per se, it’s the bathing suit and all the woman-scaping I must do to prepare myself for the pool – I long for the return of a bloomer bathing suit of the 19th century!)

While I waited on my last load to dry of the day, I thought I would add to my favorite things list.

I blogged on another site about my OCD obsession with laundry…but I didn’t specify what tonics and tools I can’t live without to make my laundry AWESOME!

We live in the South – and the humidity here is overwhelming. Over the past several years, I’ve noticed that I can’t keep my towels fresh. They always smell musty and mildewy. I searched endlessly for a product that would rid my towels of their stench. I tried every product on the shelves, but nothing worked. Or so I thought. Until, I made a trip to Sam’s and discovered this:

What caught my eye was the tag line – “laundry refresher.” Had I stumbled across my towel-stench solution? In addition to laundry refresher, it was also marketed as a disinfectant and air freshener. Who knew? I had to find out so I bought it

I took all my towels out of the linen closet and started in. Three loads later I was convinced: Odo Ban DID IT! For the first time in many years, my towels smelled like towels! Not nasty, old, musty rags. They true test was letting them dry on the rack after a shower. Eureka! My towels dried fresh!

I now use Odo Ban everywhere. It can be used on counter-tops, floors, curtains, rugs and upholstery. I had a sippy cup with milk “disappear” in my car. I found it several days later once my car started reeking. I cleaned the contaminated area with Odo Ban, sprayed the car’s interior, and the sour smell was completely gone. It truly is a miracle product. Hey Odo Ban are you out there? I love your product! Do you need a spokesperson? You’ve found her!

My other “can’t live without” items are dryer balls.

I discovered these quite by accident as well. My father in law gave me a gift certificate to an on-line “green” catalog and this was the only item listed that I either wanted, or I could afford. So I bought them on a whim.

I can honestly say that I love them! My clothes come out of the dryer static free and I do think they have cut down on my drying time. My mother was visiting me last weekend and didn’t have a clue why I had blue rubber, knobby balls in my dryer. But they work, and I will never go back to dryer sheets. I have since found out they have "updated" their dryer balls to include special recipticals where you can insert fragrance sticks. Hmmm...I may have to get the upgrades!

It’s now Sunday, and I am again staring at several more loads of laundry – why does it seem to multiply like rabbits? So, tomorrow, when I start in again, I will be so thankful for two of my favorite products, and even more thankful that the pool is closed on Mondays!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Book Review -- Ella Minnow Pea

Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn

My review

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ella Minnow Pea
(get it LMNOP?) is an homage to all things alphabetic and lexiconic. Nollop, a small fictional island town, (home to Nevin Nollop, the author of the pangram, The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog), becomes a police state when the town “High Council” starts outlawing the use of letters as they fall off the town square statue. What follows is a clever and ingenious use of language between the residents as they try to circumvent the newly adopted ordinances.

Books of this nature generally go over my head. And, I must say, I’m sure there was tons of symbolism in this novel that did just that (why did I have visions of Nazi Germany floating thru my head?). Towards the end of the novel when they were speaking phonetically, I had a tough time following the story -- it took my brain too long to decipher what they were saying. But it was cute, and occasionally, I did find I was chuckling to myself. And if you are an etymologist – this is totally a book for you.

View all my reviews.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Soap to the Rescue!

As a Mom, I’m always trying to find a cheap way to pamper myself. I’ve never been a big fan of manicures or pedicures (hey, if someone else is paying, I’m all in). It’s a luxury that does nothing for me. I don’t like people messing with my feet. Probably because my feet are so dry and cracked you could find Paleozoic fossils buried in my heels. Not to mention, whenever I go to get a pedicure (like, in 1998), as soon as I roll up my pants I realize, “Ugh! I forgot to shave my legs!” Having women massage your legs with several weeks worth of hair growth -- that, my friends, is so gross. And when you are one genetic link away from being a cousin of Sasquatch, it’s even worse. And why spend $25 on a manicure when the first time you wash dishes and clean the kitchen after dinner they are chipped and mangled.

My private time seems to be limited to the 10 minutes or so I get when I use the shower during the morning. The most effective and cost efficient form of pampering for me is a new bar of soap. So simple. I love unwrapping (or un boxing, as the case may be) a new bar of soap. I love their perfect, unused, smooth shape. I love breathing in the enriching aroma. My soap is sacred. Kids and hubbie are forbidden to use it. They can wash themselves with the multi-pack bars of Ivory.

My go to brand of soap is Dove Go Fresh. Their Grapefruit and Lemongrass line is my favorite, but a close second is Cucumber and Green Tea. They’ve recently introduced a “peach” scent, but I opened a new box this morning and hate it. It smells like really cheap peach jam. The other two scents are refreshing and, as the marketing slogan implies, Energizing! I think you can get a three pack for roughly $3. And they always have coupons in the newspaper for a $1 off. Makes for a fairly inexpensive spa treatment.

My higher end favorites are Kiss My Face Olive and Lavender bar soap and Mrs. Meyer’s All Purpose bar soap. I have lavender growing in my garden, so it’s a favorite perennial scent. Kiss My Face soap works up a glorious lather. And if you get the 8oz bar, it lasts forever. Kiss My Face is available at most high end grocery stores (Whole Foods) and retailers (I think you can get it at Target?). Mrs. Meyers is a recent addition to my collection of spa soaps. I use the home cleaning products regularly, but have never tried their personal products, because they are not carried at my retailer. On Earth Day, they offered free shipping via the Internet, so I placed an order for items I either can’t find or don’t normally use. I ordered two bars of soap (lavender and geranium) – and they are both heavenly. Again, the lather is splendid – like bathing with marshmallow cream (without being sticky!). I opened the lavender bar the day it arrived (in May) and I’m still using it. Kiss My Face and Mrs. Meyers both cost about $4.99 a bar. But they last forever and are far cheaper than a manicure!

My final indulgence isn’t soap, but equally important to my pampering repertoire. Burt’s Bees makes a fantastic French clay mask that I use weekly. It makes me look like a character out of Land of the Lost – but it’s well worth the temporary ugliness.

So, my spa regiment is cheap and satisfying and I don’t have to have a strange women looking at my legs and feet to enjoy it!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rotten Bananas

I had lots of over ripe bananas this morning, so the only thing to do is make banana bread!

Recently, the popular thing to do is make recipes “sneaky” – adding whole grains and vegetables to normal recipes in a sneaky way so the kiddos don’t realize they are eating healthy. I’ve created a sneaky recipe for banana bread that my kids love. Thought I would share:

Sneaky Banana Bread

Mix together dry ingredients:
¾ c. whole wheat flour
¾ c. all purpose flour
1½ tsps baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. nutmeg
dash salt

Mix together wet ingredients:
2 or 3 ripe bananas
1 jar carrot or squash baby food (4oz)
¾ c. brown sugar
¼ c canola oil
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

Stir wet ingredients into dry ingredients just until moist (do not over stir). Pour into 9x4 loaf pan; bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes. Let cool 10-15 minutes then take out of loaf pan to cool completely.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Book Review -- The Moonflower Vine

Moonflower Vine Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

After 20 years of obscurity, The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carelton, was re-issued recently after author Jane Smiley cited it as one of 100 great novels in her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel.

Why this book ceased to hold the interest of readers is a mystery. I loved this book. It was reminiscent of Cold Sassy Tree or To Kill a Mockingbird, with its rural setting and cast of familial characters. The tale of the Soames family spans 60 years beginning at the turn of the 20th century. They suffer thru trials, the Depression, death, lies and secrets. They also celebrate life, forgiveness and their love for one another.

Matthew Soames, an educator in small town Missouri, his wife Callie, daughters Jessica, Leonie, Mathy and Mary Jo, live a bucolic life divided between their home “in-town” and their summer farm. Each section of the book is narrated by a different member of the family. They all have their secrets to hide. Carleton describes Matthew’s struggle with two of the seven deadly sins with Shakespearian emotion.

My one critique was Callie’s narration was almost an afterthought and given far too few pages of exploration. Her secrets seemed forced and manipulated and not in harmony with the woman described throughout the book. (Is the roll of mother always marginalized?)

This book was a joy to read. Have you ever felt like you have closed the cover on the best book you’ve ever read? That's how I felt when I finished. “The Moonflower Vine" is not just a rediscovered classic -- but truly a classic.

View all my reviews.

Friday, June 5, 2009


In honor of National Donut Day!

Donuts, how do I love thee, let me count the ways…

I love you airy, yeasty, iced and fresh, hot-off-the-line.

I love how your sugary glaze cascades down my shirt when I bite into you.

I love how I can eat an entire dozen without hesitation or guilt.

I love your endless varieties – chocolate covered, creams, jelly-filled, sprinkles, cake, old-fashioned, powdered, crullers, sugared, twists, fritters, bear claws.

I love your holes – especially when they are in a bag making my 3 yr old very, very, happy.

I love you especially today, on National Donut Day when my local donut shop is giving you away free!

I’m on my way my love, please wait for me!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Take Yourself on a Date List

My life seems to be guided by lists: to-do lists, to-be-read lists, goal lists, kid lists, calendar lists, blog-idea lists, grocery lists, lists of lists!

The to-do list today was a variation of the following:

Laundry (mostly, putting it away)
Unload/load dishwasher
Call dermatologist to reschedule appointment
Water vegetables so they don’t die (thank goodness it rained!)
Fax real estate documents to the bank
And this:

My kids unceremoniously dumped all of their school supplies on the dining room table yesterday when they returned home from school after cleaning out their desks. I am my own worst enemy because I think what proceeded this deposit of rubbish was my statement “please don’t dump it on the floor!” I didn’t realize the dining room table was the next best alternative. In addition to my above “to-do list,” I planned on tossing, sorting, recycling, through their school things so I could reclaim my dining room. But when my morning started I realized this was my last day sans children for three consecutive hours for the remainder of the summer. I’m really looking forward to my kids being home, but I wasn’t going to squander my last three hours of freedom on their superfluous junk.

Instead, I made a date with myself. My date coincides with my creativity boot camp. “An Artist’s Date” (as it is called in my training manual) is a block of time, an excursion all by yourself at least once a week, to “nurture” your inner artist (sounds silly, doesn't it?). It can be anything you want to do…from bowling to sitting at Starbucks with the newspaper. I decided to treat myself to my favorite activity…browsing the shelves of my favorite used books store. My used book store is a fundraising branch of our local library system. They have used books, gifts and a gourmet lunch counter. I prepared in advance by studying my Goodreads list to see if there were any titles that I was in desperate need of adding to my “to be read” stack. I came up with at least 20 selections.

I could spend hours staring at book shelves. I become transfixed by all the spines. I came away from my hour retreat with three $3 paperbacks – Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky, Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson, and A Woman of Independent Means, by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. My original plan included lunch too, but the business crowd descended on the boutique restaurant, and I wasn’t willing to stand in line.

My to-do list reads much like it did this morning. Hopefully, I can knock a few things off the list tonight after the kids go to bed (or recycle a few hundred pieces of old homework!). Or I can postpone the to-do list one more day and extend my date with myself as I break open one of my newly purchased books! Which one do I start?? Hmmmm...