Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Salon: December 21, 2014

The Sunday

The Scene: 9:45 am  - sitting on couch, coffee in hand, surveying the apartment and trying to remember what I have forgotten to pack. Prince is lounging next to me - he is down for the count after getting vaccinations on Friday.  The pics below sum up the before and after pretty accurately.

 Reading: I have a few books in progress right now (which is rare for me but it has to do with all the formats). In print, I am reading The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline - I am really enjoying it.  I never read her most famous novel - The Orphan Train - but likely will after this one.  On my reader, I am reading a Christmas book - Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan.  It is set in London, light and fluffy and perfect for this time of year! Finally, on audio, I am also transported to England by Jo Jo Moyes's One Plus One. I read The Girl You Left Behind (my review) by the author and loved it.  This book is also shaping up to be quite good!

Listening: See above for current audiobook. Need to queue up some others with a long flight coming up next week - any recommendations? I have been hearing a lot about Serial and will try that podcast while traveling too.

 Blogging: This week I posted my review of We Are Not Ourselves - this is easily my favorite read this year and based on feedback, it seems very popular with many of you too!  I also want to feature a post I did at last year at this time as part of the Virtual Advent series - review of Christmas on Jane Street.  I think about this story each time I walk past the tree vendors in the city.  If you are looking for a good read this time of year, I definitely recommend this! It reminds me a bit of a modern day Gift of the Magi.  And today, the ebook is only $1.99!

Watching : With holiday parties, year-end stuff at work and holiday prep miscellany, I haven't been watching much TV (which is really just fine).  But I have become fascinated by the holiday decorations on the buildings and townhouses throughout the city. I have been following a hashtag called #festivefacades on Instagram (follow me) which got me looking at all the #festivefacades in Manhattan!  Here is a sample from my wanderings while running errands yesterday.

Looking Forward To: So much to look forward to - heading to Texas to visit with family over Christmas and then on to Cape Town for New Year's (hence the packing stress right now - I am sure something will be forgotten).

Hope everyone has a relaxing Sunday!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Audiobook Review: We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (narrated by Mare Winningham; 20 hours 51 minutes) opens in Woodside, Queens in the home of young Eileen Tumulty. The daughter of Irish immigrants, Eileen is an old soul who faces adult issues at a young age as she watches her mother struggle with alcohol. She is also acutely aware of the fact that her family has not "arrived" and is striving to have enough and to better themselves. Eileen takes this struggle very much to heart and begins an upward climb to acceptance and respectability which she believes comes with financial security. As the book continues, she marries Ed Leary and gives birth to a son, Connell. Together they face the changing face of their neighborhood in Jackson Heights, a health crisis and the realization that, despite hard work and tenacity, the American Dream may remain that little bit out of reach. Beyond just Eileen's story, this novel is the story of mid century American life through to present.

Eileen's story begins as the daughter of Irish immigrants in Queens, NY. Her father, Big Mike, is well known in the neighborhood and the life of the party which is contrasted by her mother who is fragile and turns to alcohol to cope. Eileen identifies more with her father and aims to please him by being a good student and wanting to better herself. When her father tells her he dreams that she will one day own a home as opposed to renting as he and her mother have done, Eileen puts that goal in her sights and goes about achieving it. When she meets Ed Leary, she sees a man who can provide stability but also work with her towards her goals. They do ultimately buy a multi-family home in Jackson Heights but it is Eileen that is the driving force behind making that happen and she is dismayed at Ed's lack of drive towards the goal.

The theme of moving up continues as Jackson Heights begins to change - it becomes more urban and multi-cultural. Eileen sets her sights on Bronxville - an upscale bedroom community with stately homes.  Despite it being quite a stretch financially, the Leary's move to the new neighborhood but Eileen still doesn't feel comfortable - that reaching instilled in her at a young age is nearly impossible to satisfy. In this quote, Eileen considers her inability to find satisfaction:

 “The fact that they were there, that everything they owned wasn’t enough somehow, disturbed her, suggesting a bottomlessness to certain kinds of unhappiness."
 Shortly after their move to Bronxville, however, Ed Leary receives a devastating diagnosis which changes the family's trajectory and pushes the concerns about fitting in to the backseat.

My Thoughts
This powerful novel moved me and is one I won't soon forget. There is so much familiar to me in this book - from the locations throughout Queens (I also grew up in the borough) to Eileen's struggle to make her father proud by doing better than he did thereby making his sacrifices and hard work worthwhile. But as much as this book reflected my own personal experience, it is so powerful because it reflects the quiet drama of every family's lives throughout the years. There is beauty in the capture of everyday celebrations and losses (most especially the losses) and the words the author chooses to describe these moments provide insight you don't understand until you read it.

I listened to this book on audio - the fact that it is over 20 hours long but I found myself looking for more opportunities to listen is a testament to the powerful story told by the author. The narrator, Mare Winningham, is new to me but her voice was perfect for this story largely told from Eileen's point of view.  I do, however, think this would also be a good book to read in print - the sentences are so well crafted, it would be nice to re-read and savor them.  Whether in print or audio, this is definitely the best book I have read in 2014.

Note: Special thanks to Diane of Book Chick Di and Joanne of Lakeside Musing - they both recommended this book and I am glad they led me to it!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Weekend Cooking: Coconut 24/7 by Pat Crocker

It seems that everywhere I look these days, I see coconut - coconut water, coconut milk, coconut oil and even coconut flavored teas! In addition to it's delicious taste, coconut has a lot of health benefits and it is this feature which is contributing to its current surge in popularity. In Coconut 24/7, Pat Crocker, discusses the various benefits of coconut and then provides recipes featuring coconut from shakes and apps to entrees. In an age where recipes abound on Pinterest and elsewhere, I appreciate that this book added a lot of discussion about the health benefits of coconut and how to store and cook with it to maintain all those benefits.

 The book opens with a primer on the coconut and the various forms in which you can cook with it - the author even covers how to extract milk and water from a fresh coconut. Realistically, that is not going to happen in my life so I was glad she then moved on to discussing the coconut products you get off the shelf. I began using coconut milk in a mango protein smoothie this summer (tastes like the tropics!) so I was particularly interested in her discussion of coconut milk. In general, the author advocates limiting the processing of the coconut (hence the detail on how to extract milk from the raw coconut) so she recommends looking at coconut milk packages for unwanted ingredients like cane sugar, carrageenan and inulin. She also recommends selecting milk in the tetra packages rather than cans which can be tainted with BPA. Based on a review of the carton currently in my refrigerator, I am going to need to look a little harder for a less processed version. This was definitely eye-opening for me since I thought I was being "healthy" as I enjoyed my tropical smoothie.

 After the coconut primer, the book is separated into meal categories - breakfast, lunch, dinner, appetizers and snacks, spice blends, sauces and dressings, beverages, and desserts. The final chapter is "spa recipes" and covers how to make your own body products, like hand cream, using coconut products. Probably a little ambitious for me so I focused on the recipes. I wanted to expand beyond my smoothies and the entrees chapter offered a lot that appealed to me. I especially liked this Coconut Curry Chicken - it reminded me of many of the great dishes I had while in Thailand:

Coconut Curry Chicken

2 tbsp coconut flour
1 tsp sea salt
8 chicken thighs
2 tbsp melted coconut oil
2 onions, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp grated ginger
3 tbsp Madras Curry Spice Blend
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup coconut milk
1 banana, coarsely chopped
1 sweet potato, coarsely chopped
1 bay leaf

1. In a flat bowl or pie plate, combine flour and salt, Dredge chicken thighs to coat. Reserve extra flour mixture

2. In a dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat.  Add chicken thighs and cook for 10 minutes or until browned well on all sides. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

3. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of oil in the pot. Add onions and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger and curry spice blend and cook stirring constantly, for 2 minutes or until onions are soft. Return reserved chicken to the pot along with any reserved flour mixture. Add broth and milk. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and add banana, sweet potato and bay leaf. Cover and simmer for 25 minutes or until potato is fork-tender and chicken is cooked through and reaches 160 degrees on a meat thermometer.

This dish is delicious! If you are interested in how to incorporate coconut into your diet in a healthy but delicious way, I recommend trying this cookbook.

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell: The Bird family lives in a lovely home in the Cotswolds in England. The four Bird children live what appears to be a charmed childhood being doted on by their mother, Lorelei,  who is a free spirit and delights in celebrating traditions with her family and creating memories. As is often the case, however, all is not as perfect as it appears. Behind the beautifully choreographed Easter egg hunts in the garden and the lovely dinners, is an inability to face anything uncomfortable. Lorelei copes by collecting things and this collecting soon turns to hoarding which slowly smothers this family. With this dysfunction as its backdrop, the family faces a tragedy and the trajectory of each member's life is changed.

Free-spirited Lorelei embraces being a mother and creates a lovely home for her family. She wants them all around her and enjoy nothing more than being home. She fills the walls in their home with the children's art and collects every memento of the passing years for each child. As the children get a little older, however, they want to spread their wings to a live outside the home; in response, Lorelei clings all the harder to them and adds more things to her "collection" - of course, all this stuff becomes a wedge between her and the family and only drives them further away.

My Thoughts
Hoarding is an uncomfortable topic - it is hard to imagine how someone could let things get so out of control.  Of course, it is not unlike many other addictions and beneath the compulsion is a person who is hurting and trying to fill a void. With this in mind, I felt much sympathy for Lorelei and even found her progression  from collecting to hoarding fascinating.  Thankfully, however, this book was not only about Lorelei and her hoarding.

The real story of the book is the ripple effect of dysfunction through this family. Chapter by chapter, the author reveals a little more about each of the children through the years into adulthood and about each of the parents. Between the impact of growing up in this home that slowly closed in on them and the horrible tragedy they all face one Easter, each family member had their fair share of issues to deal with and you see the effects of all that play out in their adult lives.

This book is compelling and I found myself hungrily reading to see what happens with each character.  Although not everyone has grown up with a hoarder, most face their own versions of family dysfunction in whatever degree. The family drama makes this book relatable while the degree and eccentricity this family faces makes it fascinating.  Highly recommend.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sunday Salon: December 7, 2014

The Sunday

The Scene: 10:45 am  - back home in my warm apartment after taking Prince out for a blustery Sunday morning walk.  Despite being out for 90 minutes including a romp in the dog park, he is still running around me now with a squeak toy demanding attention.

 Reading: I was on vacation (I know, again, but all my vacation somehow got put off until year end) with the family for Thanksgiving week and I got some welcome reading time.  I polished off Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty - I couldn't put it down.  I enjoyed her last novel, The Husband' Secret, so was relieved that I also liked this one. I have decided to get back to some books that I put down over the course of the year but want to finish so right now I am reading The Wife, The Maid and The Mistress. 

Tortola, B.V.I

 Listening: While away,  I finished We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas and cannot say enough good things about it (review coming soon!) but I found myself looking for excuses to walk so I could get some listening in.  My cab fares are down and my Fitbit is very happy - thank you Matthew Thomas! On a serious note, I found this novel very affecting and know it will stay with me for a long time.

 Blogging: Thank you all for your comments on my last Sunday Salon post when I acknowledged that I am struggling with the blog and trying to decide whether to keep going with it.  I have recently had a writing streak and have a bunch of posts in the can ready to go so I am feeling more optimistic.  It's been fun revisiting the books I have read this year now that I am finally writing posts about them.  Last week, I posted a review of Americanah (audiobook).

Watching : Finally saw the Radio City Christmas Spectacular - I have lived in NYC practically my entire life but had never seen the iconic show with the Rockettes.  It was a wonderful 90 minutes and really put me in the Christmas spirit.  We started the evening with dinner at the Sea Grill which is on the ice at Rock Center and witnessed three proposals on ice during dinner.  The concierge told us during the season, there are up to 5 proposals each night and that there is an entire package offered by the rink that allows the proposal to take place on the ice.

 Looking Forward To: Another trip! I recently decided to go to Cape Town over New Year's - I have a friend working in South Africa right now and it just came together. I am looking forward to seeing her and seeing Cape Town again - I was there once before for work but it was a quick trip.  This time I am going to add a few days at Victoria Falls.  I love planning a trip!