Saturday, January 15, 2022

Best of YA and elementary fiction

It’s a very snowy day here and I’m sorting boxes and putting my holiday decorations away. We walked in the snow with the dogs, one of my favorite winter activities. Dogs are like small children; the snow brings out their pure JOY! 

I’ve had an amazing amount of work to do for school recently and just haven’t had a spare moment to write. I am participating with Adriene Mishler’s January 30-day yoga journey which has gently pushed me back into daily practice, something I’ve missed through November & December. She has a way of pulling you in and making it personal. 

Completing my best of list for last year’s reading I was lucky to read or finish quite a few great young adult books. 

Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland -The sequel to Dread Nation where Jane McKeene travels to the Wild West and connects with some old friends. This two-part series is so much fun with underlying serious truth telling.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi - the second in the Legend of Orisha series that brings the magic back but Zelie and Amari have also unleashed other unknown powers in this fantastical world of legends and fairy tale. The author offers writing classes on her website.

Shadow and Bone- series by Leigh Bardugo - Reading friends that are former students brought this author to my attention and I spent a good portion of quarantine reading through this amazingly fun series. I am slowly watching the Netflix series but it is always difficult to pair up what was in my head with what is now on screen. (2) Siege and Storm (3) Ruin and Rising And this year I'm launching into the King of Scars series. Wow, she is a prolific and creative writer!

Six of Crows series - This is a different cast of characters with a little intermingling. This is probably my favorite book out of the whole series just because I find Kaz Brekker such an original character. (2) Crooked Kingdom


Neither Wolf nor Dog by Kent Nerburn - My friend Sue loaned me this one, asking me to be careful because it is a signed copy! I was careful as I turned the pages, never read it in the bathtub, and got it back to her in one piece. I felt such a connection to his writing and how he shared his time with Dan. This won the MN Book Award for 1996. 

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson-I liked her writing style which made this book read faster than expected for a long nonfiction book. Her shared stories made it personal and within reach. Yes, I did the book club rounds on this one during the pandemic. 

Elementary Fiction:

Becoming Muhammad Ali by Kwame Alexander and James Patterson - told through alternating chapters of prose and poetry we learn about the early life of Cassius Clay and how he began his boxing career. 

The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm - Bell lives on a Mars space station, that's all his ever known and he enjoys all of it until some odd things begin to happen and the adults get sick. 

A Whale of the Wild by Rosanne Parry- This was a surprise win for me, told through a young Orca whale in a very emotional way of their family pod traveling together and how our world affects their underwater lives. 

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson - ZJ's relationship with his star football father has always been good but suddenly his dad is different and no one knows why yet...

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley -realistic fiction about two young sisters fending for themselves after their mother's arrest.  They find themselves adopted by a woman who lives by her own set of rules. Tough love mixed with tears.

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller - magical realism mixed with Korean Grandmother lore mixed in with a really good family story.

Ground Zero by Alan Gratz - 9-11 story, well told from two different perspectives. The end will amaze you

Our Friend Hedghog by Lauren Castillo - a new Winnie-the-Pooh style story, perfect to read with little ones.

Honorable Mentions:

Sweetest sexy book: Dear Pink by Michelle Angelle

Sad (yet profound) story: Okay, Mr. Field by Katherine Kilalea

Scariest story: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Best of the Best Fiction 2021

It's been a year, pretty similar to last year. Weird, crazy, shaking my head that this is the world we are living in right now. The pandemic is one thing but we have book bans and so much negative energy floating around out there. It takes all our effort to keep it cool, keep moving forward, making the meals, reading the books, and taking care of our people. 

I've read an amazing amount of good books this year. Here are my five star books according to my Goodreads page:

Adult Fiction: 

Firekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley - technically under the young adult category I don't want that to steer people away. I loved this story of Daunis Fontaine as she works to solve a mystery on the nearby Ojibwa Reservation. 

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich- Based on Erdrich's grandfather as he worked as a night watchman and fought for Native rights in a letter writing campaign that takes him and other Elders all the way to Washington DC.  *Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2021 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett- Tells the history of the Vignes sisters as they venture outside their all-black community and how their decisions influence their families to come. 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid- Debut author struts a fabulous story about family and racism embedded into everyday lives when Emira, the young Black babysitter for a somewhat famous white family is accosted at a nearby grocery store. 

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig- This story hung with me for months as I thought about the choices we make that lead our lives down different paths just as Nora Seed is plummeted back and forth between alternative endings that ultimately lead her back to where she started. 

When All is Said by Anne Griffin- Simple yet profound story of Maurice Hannigan as he sits in a pub reflecting on his life and the five people that made a difference to him.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak- I just finished this book and loved it very much. It could have had the top spot but I wanted to honor the books I'd loved earlier in the year as well. Ada and her father navigate life after her mother's death, alternatingly we learn their love story of a Turkish man and a Greek woman who save a fig tree. Another new author for me.

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet- This was such a mind-blowing short read that runs parallel stories about a vacation gone awry, teenagers in charge, and adults letting the world go to hell. Hmmm.

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz- Jacob Finch Bonner wrote one sort of good book years ago and now he teaches at a sub par school and at local writer's workshops when one of his students leaves him with a book idea that later in life sends him on a life-altering journey. Korelitz is a new author for me and one I will read again. 

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave- Mystery that kept me reading as Hannah Hall and her stepdaughter try to figure out what happened to Hannah's husband and why it is so important to keep Bailey safe. 

The Heart Principal by Helen Hoang-I've read all three of her sexy romance books and love them! All three have an interesting perspective from characters with autism, Asperger's, grief, burn-out and other life variances. She writes from her heart. 

Anxious People by Fredrik Bachman-This is an author I love and this book, while confusing at first, did not disappoint. Life is hard but also lovely. 

I have so many favorite reads this post will have to be continued...

Young Adult, Elementary Fiction, and Nonfiction to follow.

Keep reading!

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Feeling the blues, finding the joy

I know I’m not the only one but it still feels uncomfortable. I went to bed on Christmas night fighting all manner of demons. Did everyone get something they were excited about? Was there enough food? Was there enough joy and laughter? Our time together is very limited as a family and we had a new boyfriend in the mix. Did he enjoy his time with us? Was it all stimulating enough? Did we take them to cool places in town? Were we Covid-cautious enough for the New Yorkers? And the tree-oh, the tree was a whole thing! 

It’s hard to answer all these questions as you head off to sleep and truthfully you never know but here is what I do know: our bellies were full with good food, we laughed and played together and there was not one fight! People seemed happy with gifts they received and most importantly they seemed to enjoy the gift giving process as well. Even the son got on board with gift giving in real time. Last year he ordered everyone’s gifts Christmas Day and while that had its own thrill, this year he said it was important to see everyone’s faces as they opened gifts! There in is the gift worth opening-the spirit of simple giving.

I've worked to let my anxious feelings go over the last few days. It is what it is and I can see us laughing together especially over our online Jeopardy, the raucous sounds of lively foosball games rising from the basement, and the joy of sitting around the table together. One of my highlights was listening to Kaylee explain just how Christmas morning would go because we have a pattern, a flow to how our traditions unfold and that description was priceless. 

The new year is approaching and the children are once again scattered back to their homes but we will hold the Christmas of 2021 especially dear because we could be all together and we were happy for those days, sharing our memories and our lives. We say "cheers" for a healthy and hope-filled 2022. Find what makes you stay sane...

Friday, December 24, 2021

Amazing Days up ahead

Usually the holidays are a pretty low-key event at our house. We stay in our pajamas from Christmas Eve through Christmas night. I'm happy all three children will be home for those two days and I plan to enjoy every moment they are here.

Leading up to that though I have family coming to town. My brother and his family are here right now to see my mom before heading to Chicago. My brother's partner, Jen, is also my longtime friend and soul sister. Her family is in Chicago but she and Chris, her kids and his kid all live in Denver, CO. I'm thankful they made the long drive to be here. My brother Jason and his family will be here on the 23rd/24th and I'm hosting and cooking up a storm. 

Here are the recipes I'm making over the next few days for all of these events. I love to make and share food so I hope it all goes as planned and the food provides everyone with that home-for-the-holidays comfort but with a modern twist.

Last night I made this pasta and chickpea stew for the Colorado family as they pulled into town. It was delicious and so easy to make. I served it with fresh slices of bread. I made my favorite breakfast bread pudding from my The Cottage cookbook. Some day I'm going to make it to LaJolla to eat at this sweet place. Tonight I'm making my chicken enchiladas plus a pan of vegetarian sweet potato enchiladas for us non-meat eaters. I am so happy to make food for this family because I've not been around them for years. 

For the 23rd dinner party I'm preparing Wild Rice Soup, Pumpkin Soup, Butternut and Spinach Lasagna.  I've made this once already and I'm excited to try it again. 

Christmas Eve I'm going to have this Thai Vegan Soup with fresh bread and a big salad. In the morning we will have waffles and a savory sweet potato hash with protein crumbles. And in the evening Shepherd's Pie, Cauliflower Au Gratin, roasted Brussels sprouts, and steamed broccoli. We have so many treats around the house from friends and co-workers I don't need to worry about making any desserts. We are not going to starve!

May your holiday be filled with the magic of Christmas and the joy of togetherness without the rapid spread of germs!  

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Poetry of all kinds

I'm reading The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart to 4th grade students in the library. This is an amazing story about a young person with cancer and his quest to hike a mountain on his last days. The book is beautifully written and the author intersperses bits of haiku poetry throughout the story. Mark and his best friend Jesse have a shared love of the poetry form and communicate notes of haiku back and forth. As I was reading I thought what a great gift for students to hear or read poetry within the book. Kids do love poetry. I did a whole poetry experience last April and they really enjoyed it. It can be light-hearted or serious and is an easy way for students to experiment with word play. 

My stepmother sends poems in her birthday cards. Most often it is Mary Oliver but not always. I appreciate very much how her poetry is focused on the natural world because I can imagine myself taking a long walk with the author.  I don't have any Mary Oliver books but I can turn to the pages sent to me and read and reread when I want.  Diane, my stepmother, adds these poetry pieces in as a gift to the receiver and what she picks always makes me feel emotional just as Dan Gemeinhart's book does by weaving haiku into his story about Mark.  

Here is Wild Geese, one of my favorites I found on YouTube:

And here is another favorite When I'm Among the Trees:

Share some poetry with a friend, reading it can be a form of meditation and we all need more calm at this time of year.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Friendship and family

Friendship is a gift. Sometimes you meet people in your life that become family. So it was when I met my friend Jennifer in Colorado. We connected over drinks and had much to talk about. We shared stories especially about our mothers, their odd habits and antiquated ideas,  and we’ve remained friends for 30 years. We’ve had one major squabble and it took us awhile to come back to each other but we did because we still saw value in our connection. I think of her as one of my sisters. 

With friends and family there is a certain amount of grace you have to hold in your heart to move on and realize how important someone is in your life. I wished I could have remained in Denver so we could raise our children together.  I was called back to the Midwest for family matters and never found my way back to the mountains. Thankfully we both stayed in touch over the years through long phone calls. 

Sometimes family members become friends and that is an amazing bond. Even though I'm still the mama I see the relationship with my children take on a very different role that is both family and friendship. They don't want my help as much as a parent but more as a listener or occasional adviser. I've learned to let them come to me through phone calls and to take a step back. I want to have a lifelong relationship with them, where we are able to be there for each other. It takes work as all good partnerships do. Part of that is seeing them as fully capable adults knowing you had a small hand in that.  

We should try and treat all the people we care deeply about with a sense of family, bonded through mutual respect. Even if we don’t always agree with them. Be as kind as you can. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Lovely bread


I love how my kitchen smells when the dough is rising and baking. It’s a very earthy smell and one that takes me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. My brother and I were recently talking about how her home was such a respite when we were there because of how she made you feel. She pulled you in, made you laugh, and fed you delicious homemade food. This bread is my gift.

Simple Pot Bread

Makes 1 loaf suitable for 4-6 people
5-6 quart Dutch oven or other pot with lid

3 cups all-purpose (unbleached) flour
3/4 tsp regular yeast or 1/2 tsp instant yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt 
1 1/2 cups (warm) water

1. Make the dough in the morning, before you eat breakfast or go to work. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. The dough will be wet and slightly goopy. Spray the dough with nonstick cooking spray or drizzle olive oil over the top. Cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap (I drape it with a flour sack towel) and leave it in the warmest spot in your kitchen. Let it rise for at least 6 hours, although up to 12 will be fine. 

2. About 3 hours before dinner, lightly spray a work surface, such as a countertop, with spray. By now the dough will have expanded into a wet, dimpled mass. Dump the whole thing out onto the oiled surface. Push it roughly into the shape of a ball and cover again with your towel. Let it sit for 1-2 hours. If you have to skip this step it will be fine. 

3. When you're ready to bake the bread, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Put the Dutch oven into the oven to get hot as the oven heats up. ( I splash olive oil in so that heats up as well.)

4. Pour or roll the dough into the hot pot. You may have to pry it or peel it off the countertop. The dough will be very wet. Don't worry if it looks a mess as it's rolled into the pot. This is a rustic loaf! Cover the pot with the lid and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 15 minutes to let brown. 

5. Remove the bread from the oven and immediately take it out of the pot and roll the bread right out. If you have the time let it sit for another 30 minutes before slicing so that it can set. This is plenty of time to put a casserole into the oven and make a salad, so by the time the bread has cooled and is ready to eat, you should be able to have a complete meal on the table. 

Slightly adapted from Not Your Mother's Casseroles by Faith Durand. 

I've made a few changes after making this bread hundreds of times. I start the yeast with warm water and stir it up with a fork to build a little heat. That's a Jaime Oliver trick. I end up adding about 1/2 cup more flour as I shape the loaf; it's not as sticky then and it doesn't hurt the final outcome at all. I've also been able to speed up the rising process by leaving it in my oven on the proof setting.  I shape my dough on this Pampered Chef pastry mat which is an amazing tool for bread and pie dough and it is very easy to clean up. 

Enjoy this easy gift for friends and family or make it for yourself! I generally make two loaves at a time; one to keep and one to give away. That isn't my photo {see source} above because I suck at food photography but the bread does look a lot like that. 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Thanks and Giving

Gratitude is everything. I don't feel great about the whole holiday experience surrounding conquerors and Indigenous people. In my vivid imagination I can see what a different world we might be in if only the “pilgrims” had learned from the people already living here on this land.

Greta Thunberg would be living a different reality. We might have created a much simpler life and people wouldn't be thinking past gratitude to Black Friday. Or planning and prepping the copious amounts of food on this holiday and others as well. We’d eat what we needed and share easily with others.

I  feel passionately for the underdog and celebrating a holiday that represents a misguided look at history and what came after is wrong to me. I understand why Abraham Lincoln made it an official holiday (to bring unity to the nation during the Civil War)  but when we know better we should do better. 

Find ways to connect to the Wampanoag people because they welcomed and helped the first immigrants to survive. Make a donation this year to American Indian College Fund or the First Nations Development Institute. Read a book about Native life such as Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer or books by Joseph Bruchac,  Kent Nerburn or Louise Erdrich.  Seek out Native authors and Native films. Think about what foods the real Thanksgiving might have had and give that a try. Branch out. Make fry bread or wild rice soup. Check out The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman and Beth Dooley, the book or the restaurant in Minneapolis.   

This PBS article and video are worth exploring. I would love to go one day to Cole's Hill to be part of this National Day of Mourning. Why can't we give more land back because in the long run this land will help to save the earth. Returning Native forest land to it's original intent over commercial property is a win for nature. Native Americans are a thriving community and once again we could learn from them. 

I've worked on this post on and off during November. Just having a hard time getting all the words out. I feel a turning in as the winter weather marches out and as my thoughts focus on Mother Earth it coincides with my mother's health issues. I feel a snapping inside myself as time becomes stretched too thin. 

My hope is that everyone had a lovely time with family, connecting in a positive spirit and that gratitude was a guest at your table. 

We took a quick trip to Chicago to see the oldest daughter Kaylee and ate the most amazing vegan food at The Chicago Diner. Usually vegan and vegetarian people have a small selection (sometimes one choice)  on a average menu but here at the diner it was almost overwhelming as Kaylee put it because everything was an option and it all sounded delicious. Even our one meat-loving papa enjoyed his vegan Radical Reuben sandwich. 

What I've cooked: This amazing pumpkin soup from Cookie and Kate. I made it with canned pumpkin and it still tasted like all the goodness of the earth.

What I've read: I just finished The Children's Bible by Lydia Millet and I highly recommend. It coincides so well with how I'm feeling right now. We, the children, are the caretakers and our children will be the radical change-makers.

What I've watched: Fell in love with Ted Lasso (totally late to the game here), trying to finish up Outlander because the book arrived on my doorstep the other day, and began watching the Shadow and Bone series with Groovy Girl because the Leigh Bardugo books were thrilling! 

I am grateful to each and everyone of my readers. I appreciate the comments, texts, and connections I've made through my posts. Peace be with you this month and into the next as we avoid more over abundance. Be well in spirit and mind.