Saturday, January 13, 2018

Newbery Award Challenge - 1950s

I found the winners from the 1950's to be the best crop thus far in my chronological study of Newbery Award books.  Easily.  As a result I got rather detailed in my reviews below, perhaps excessively so!  I expect I'll find the stories increasingly enthralling as they start to approach an era I can related to more fully.  That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how much enjoyment I got out of a book about sailing, say, or fighting in the Civil War.  Those wouldn't be subjects I'd usually choose to read, but perhaps I pigeonhole myself.  I liked the sailing stories a lot, actually.
There was some interesting overlaps between these '50's books.  Husking Bees (in which young people gather and shuck corn as a festive group activity) were a serious force in the dating world of both Rifles for Watie and The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  If an ear of corn was shucked revealing red kernels it earned that person a kiss!  Birds were described as singing so loudly that they just about split their throats in Blackbird Pond while Nat, from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, splits his own throat cheering for President Washington as his procession passes through town.  Three of the books had "weekend" written as two words, as in "week end."  Pokeberry juice was used as ink in both Rifles for Watie and Miracles on Maple Hill.
1950 - The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
I rather like the metaphor that runs through this story and which gives the book its title--if one runs into a wall they must find a door to get through it.  Sometimes this was quite literal as when Robin sneaks out of the north door to summon help for the castle under siege.  More often it was metaphorical--a personal obstacle to be overcome.  Robin is a young boy of a noble family about to be trained into knighthood.  His father has gone off to fight for the King during conflict between the English and the Scottish while his mother has gone to be a Lady-in-Waiting for the Queen.  Then Robin is afflicted with illness that leaves him crippled and unable to fulfill this destiny of knighthood.  This is one of the many walls Robin must find a door through--finding his new destiny.  Robin learns to adapt to his limitations--crutches serving as one door through the wall--and in the end he saves the day and is greatly honored by his family, friends, and the royal family.  It was a good story and a quick read.
1951 - Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
This is a story based on true events.  Of course, they're embellished and fictionalized and all that, but the story is rooted in history.  Amos Fortune was an African prince who was captured along with many others and shipped to America.  Slavery is horrible--the capture and boat trip were just terrible to envision.  In America, Amos is "lucky" enough to end up with masters who mostly treat him with decency.  He is still owned as their property though so I can't say it is actually decent, but it could have been worse.  At about 60 years old he is freed and he spends the rest of his life saving up money to improve the lives of others.  He eventually frees several other people from slavery.  He was a leather tanner well-known for the skill and quality of his work.  He seemed to be held in fairly high regard in his community, though he certainly still ran into folks that ripped him off and treated him poorly just because he wasn't white and they could.  It was an okay book, but not tremendously outstanding or anything.  Amos certainly had a remarkable life though.  No doubt about that.
1952 - Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
Ginger Pye is a pet story so that appealed to me right off.  While my Ginger is kitty-cat the Ginger in this story is a little terrier pup.  Jerry and Rachel dust the pews in church in exchange for $1.  They take this dollar and buy Ginger from a neighbor.  I love that before they decide to get Ginger Jerry and Rachel spend time discussing whether it will make Gracie-the-cat (and that's how she's referred, hyphens and all) jealous.  After they decide Gracie-the-Cat wouldn't mind they're both super excited to have a dog.  Ginger is a smart dog--he makes the front page of the town paper by climbing up the fire escape outside Jerry's classroom with a pencil Jerry'd dropped on the way to school-- and life is going on well until he is stolen from the yard on Thanksgiving Day.  The kids are beside themselves with worry and sorrow and spend pretty much the rest of the book searching all over for Ginger.  This leads to interesting settings and interactions along the way--scaling the face of East Rock, sneaking past sleeping "tramps" in the woods, and so on.  Ginger is eventually reunited with the family for a happy ending--though the bad guys still got away.  (They ran off to join the circus, no less!)

There were a number of quaint little things that caught my attention in the story.  After the chief of police suggests it might have been an "unsavory character," who took their dog they call the dognapper Unsavory, like it was his first name, throughout the book.  They're convinced it had to be a man because, well, I guess children and women didn't commit crime back in the 1950's.  Or something.  Jerry even admits that he didn't know an unsavory character could be "just a boy...thought it had to be a man."   It also comes up that the town jail hasn't been used in ten years.  Inexplicably the crows is "disappointed it was not a murder," when the cops say it was just a dog that was taken.  I'm not sure what to make of this.  That we all want a little excitement?  That even in a quiet, crime-free town we're prepared to expect the worst?  I'm not sure.  (It made me think about an exhibit I attended of Pulitzer winning photos.  What a depressing lot that was!)  When Jerry and Rachel dust the church pews Rachel realizes she doesn't have a hat and so holds her handkerchief on her head while dusting.  My mom grew up in the cover-your-head-in-church-era, but I certainly didn't.  I do have an interest in headcovering as a religious practice though.  The kids also collect scrap wood for the fire at construction sites.  They play on the second floors of the "skeleton houses" and they were such "good climbers they never fell down and broke a leg or anything."  Though their mom made them promise not to play in the houses that had been plastered since they got plaster on their new coats.  This cracked me up.  I cannot imagine parents letting kids play on a construction site like that today.  Nor can I imagine a contractor being cool with it in this litigious age.  Linguistically I noted "pickaback" ride instead of "piggyback," as I grew up calling it.  Matt and I decided that arguments could be made in favor of each.   I spotted one typo, too.  On page 70 the word "and," is used, but it doesn't have an A at the front.  Ooops!  Someone messed up their typesetting!  I also learned that German Measles is what we call the Mumps today.  Lots of fun outdated tidbits in this one.
1953 - Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark
Secret of the Andes was a sweet little story.  I'd say the main premise is that oftentimes we when want "more" and then finally get it we realize we really had everything we needed all along.  The story is that of a young llama shepherd named Cusi who has grown up (with a herd of llamas) in an utterly isolated mountain valley under the guidance of an older shepherd named Chuto.  They're both descendants of the Incas, but the Spanish conquest has basically eliminated their way of life.  Cusi knows nothing about this.  He's never even met another human besides Chuto, let alone a Spaniard.  Cusi realizes he wants a family and after finding a pair of golden sandals, which he takes as a sign, Cusi leaves Chuto, the llamas, and his valley behind to seek a family for himself.  He unknowingly meets his mother, visits a secret Incan community, trades at the market of Cuzco, the holy city, and more.  He eventually is welcome into a family after getting caught up in their mob of children.  However, on a sleepless night without stars or llamas he realizes that he still doesn't belong and that he already had a family.  Chuto and the llamas were all the family he needed.  It was a story about traditions, faith, family, and finding yourself.   There was a lot of coca chewing and chichia drinking, even among the children, but I suppose that is a very socially acceptable cultural norm down there.  I grew up in the D.A.R.E. era though so it strikes me as out of place in a kid's book.
 1954 - ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold
I didn't really enjoy this book very much.  The writing style struck me as fairly immature.  This may make it more realistic since the narrator is a 12 year old boy, but I didn't care for it.  It was often written in fragments.  Miguel is also incredible self-centered, again perhaps accurate, but unpleasant.  For example, when he gets a compliment he always pretends he didn't hear it well so that he can ask for it to be repeated and thus hear it said twice.  Miguel hates feeling like just another cog in the machine of life.  He wants to be acknowledged, to have his worth validated.  He wants his family to consider him a man and allow him to go up into the mountains on the annual summer sheep drive.  And he tries too hard.  Eventually he makes a wish on the feast day for the family's patron saint.  He gets his wish--to go on the drive with the men--but learns that sometimes even when you get what you want you might still not be happy.  Miguel is allowed to go with the men only when his brother gets drafted and must leave to serve in the military.  Miguel immediately wishes he could do anything--even not going on the summer drive for five years!--if only his brother could stay with the family.   So, I guess the moral of the story was okay, even if the story itself was only so-so.  I did jot down one new expression that I liked.  Miguel tells his brother not to ask for his opinion since he has only been "grown up" for a couple hours.  His brother replies that is exactly why he wanted to ask, because Miguel hasn't been grown long enough to have gone "stale."  I thought that was good stuff.
1955 - The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
This one was my second favorite of the 1950's books.  It centers around a school in a Dutch village called Shora.  Storks, legend to bring good luck, nest on the rooftops in all the villages around them, but not in Shora.  The children, at the suggestion of the teacher, spend most of the story seeking an old wagon wheel to put on the roof of the school as a nesting platform.  Wheels seemed to be THE platform of choice in Holland.  The quest for a wheel was adventure enough, but that is just the start.  There is Janus the legless outcast who finds new life through the stork-wheel project, a couple lost children, a huge storm that threatens the storks, and a harrowing ocean rescue.  I just couldn't wait to find out if Shora would get her storks or not!  It was full of charming tidbits, too.  There is a celebration where the children get both chocolate milk and fatballs on the same day!  The children usually receive these treats  only on the Queen's birthday and "Santa Claus Day," respectively.  There were a few dated terms and expressions, "I've got it all doped out," meaning it is all planned and arranged, a female custodian being called the "janitress," the word "lunkhead," being used as an insult (I quite like this one and might adopt it).  There were also closet beds which I had to Google to see if it was really as straightforward as it sounded.  My favorite old-time bit though was the community newspaper.  Shora gets one copy of the paper  and it is shared by the whole town.  The dad's read it aloud to their family for one hour and then pass it along to the next family.  The act of reading the paper is described as "all-important, almost sacred."  There is also a tremendous deal of importance to the paper since " was in the paper so it was to be believed.  It was news, it was a fact."  In this era of alternative facts and fake news this was all the more noteworthy to me.  I am still puzzled by one line though:  "Linda, being a little girl, knew ten times more words than Jan.  Linda could express herself."  Why would a little girl know more words that a little boy?  Both genders go to school in the book....  Is this a jab at women being chatterboxes?  Or men being dense?  I just can't quite puzzle it out.
1956 - Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
This was a book that made me a little dubious as I first picked it up.  I don't know much about the days of sailing ships.  Or boating in general, really.  I've read a few other sailing stories that I enjoyed, but even the title didn't inspire a lot of enthusiasm in me.  But, I was not to be disappointed by the tale which is the fictionalized biography of Nathaniel Bowditch.  Nat is a smart young man--sometimes too smart for his own good.  In his younger years he is often short with people when they're not as quick as he is.  Nat dreams of being a "Harvard man," but with hard times he is pulled from school to help his father, the cooper.  They are so poor that Nat doesn't even have proper clothing, but denies any discomfort saying "boys don't blubber" and "only sissies need winter coats." Despite the fact Nat works from "can-see to can't-see" making barrels his parents eventually realize they have no choice and Nat is apprenticed for nine years to keep books for the ship chandlery.  This would be the first of many shipping terms that I had to look up, followed by yardarm, becalmed, and a idioms such as "lost his anchor to windward" or "sail by ash breeze."  At one point the ate some cookies and spelled the singular as "cooky."  That was new to me, too.  While indentured Nat continues his own education--reading anything he can lay hands on, learning Latin because it was the "language of scholars and scientists," and eventually becoming quite proficient in a multitude of languages.  At one point he complains about the difficulty of learning French only to have a Frenchman tell him that English is no cake walk.  He uses three words that are spelled the same save for the very first letter and yet which are pronounced in three very different ways--rough, cough, and dough.  It was a good point.  All languages are difficult in their own way, I think.  Once free of his servitude Nat goes to sea.  He becomes increasingly disappointed in the accuracy of sailing books and charts as well as the short comings of the current methods of navigation.  He invents a new way to take lunar readings which eventually becomes the new standard.  The coolest part though is that on every voyage Nat teaches all the sailors how to navigate themselves.  These are men that were never expected to do anything greater than act as manual labor for other captains.  Under Nat's guidance though many go on to captain their own ships.  They all find a new sense of self-worth.  The importance of education and life-long learning was a major theme throughout the book.  One bit I really enjoyed was when Nat was learning all about the ship and ship-building.  Each person thought the segment they were working on was the single most important.  It was a tremendous illustration of interconnection.  Each piece is important, but without the rest it wouldn't be worth much.  The life of a sailor's wife seemed a hard lot and there are many tragedies along the way, both on shore and on land.  All in all, I liked it quite a bit.
1957 - Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen
Miracles on Maple Hill is a tale about transformation, family, the powerfully harmonious and inspiring rhythms of nature, and reconnecting with an estranged world.  Marly's dad, Dale, has returned from a POW camp a changed man.  He is distant, short tempered, and tired.  In an act of desperation Marly's mom, Lee,  orchestrates a winter trip to the Pennsylvania countryside of her youth in an attempt to help Dale reconnect with himself and his family in a tranquil setting.  Her plan works as one small miracle after another reveal themselves--in the form of friendships, family, weather patterns, trees, maple syrup, critters, and more.   The family grows together and as individuals as they discover how much they're capable of and how many "miracles" fill their days.  Much of the story centers around the maple grove owned by the neighbor couple--tapping trees, boiling down sap, bottling the syrup for sale.  This was particularly interesting to me as Matt's aunt Verna tends maple trees at her place in Minnesota.  She gifts us a pint or two of syrup every year and I guard and savor it jealously--mine, all mine!  (I do share with Matt, of course.)  It was a pleasant story, quint without being old-fashioned, and a very easy read.
1958 - Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
This would be another Newbery book which was a nice surprise in that I didn't expect to like it all that much.  Rifles for Watie is the story of a Kansas farmboy named Jeff who dreams of becoming a soldier during the Civil War.  I have great respect for veterans, but as someone with tendencies that border on pacifism it is hard for me to wrap my mind around a burning desire like that.  Jeff can't wait for battle.  He misses the first couple his unit is involved in and is just beside himself about it.  Of course, he eventually does experience combat first hand and realizes that it is a lot more complicated than he'd thought.  Jeff does well as a solider.  He is kind--even to rebels--and his kindness is always rewarded.  He falls in love with a rebel girl who initially hates his guts, acts as a Union spy only to become so entangled in the Confederate army that he considered abandoning his duties for the north and fully joining in with the rebel soldiers, and thwarts a conspiracy to bring repeating rifles to the Confederate troops, repeating rifles being a serious advantage over the common single shot models used.  The conflicts of interest, the variety of motivating reasons that encouraged both Confederate and Union men and boys to enlist, and the humanity of both sides of the conflict was tremendously well illustrated, at least for a YA novel.  Jeff ultimately decides to go back to the Union army when the rebels intend to raid Kansas, where his family lives.  This hits too close to home.  I thought that is so often true.  We are mostly highly motivated by the things that affect us personally, not unknown other people in abstraction.  It is noted though that Jeff is "disturbed by all their kindness," and that he "felt mean about being against them in the war."  I received an unintentional entomology lesson from this book.  Jeff and the soldiers were plagued by "gallinippers."   This caught my attention because I thought that gallinippers were harmless, albeit freakishly large, relatives of the mosquito.  Turns out that the bug I grew up calling a gallinipper is actually a crane fly and not a mosquito at all.  I've also heard them called "mosquito hawks."  After reading up about them I am glad to have never encountered a true gallinipper.  They sound like mosquitoes on steroids.
1959 - The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
The last book of the decade lays claim to being my favorite of the decade.  I can easily discern that my childhood-self would have absolutely adored The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  It would have been one to read over and over like The Island of the Blue Dolphins or Little House of the Prairie.  Its a shame I never knew about it before now.  Kit, the lead female character, is an educated, independent woman raised on the lush, sunny island of Barbados.  Her relatively progressive upbringing  puts her at odds with the conservative residents of the Puritan village she moves to following the death of her grandfather and parents.  She is particularly at odd with the uncle who takes her in, though she gets on well with her cousins and aunt.  She mystifies them sometimes, but they know she is good at heart.  Kit is very likable, albeit very pampered.  She is generous in part because she has always lived in comfort.  She has a very kind heart and goes out of her way to help people.  This lands her in hot water when she starts associating with the poor old Quaker woman who lives by Blackbird Pond--a woman commonly regarded as a witch for not following the ways of the Puritans.  Kit develops a friendship with a small girl named Prudence and a young seaman named Nat, both of which further complicate things.  When an unexplained illness breaks out among the children Kit and the old woman are accused of being witches.  While Hannah escapes trial and is whisked away to safety by Nat, Kit is not so lucky.  I was quite eager to learn her fate as the trial unfolded.  This story check several boxes of interest for me--female protagonists, rebellion against excessively strict social mores, early American history, and religious folks.  It ends well and had enough drama as to be a page turner.
I tried really, really hard to finish the 50's by years end, but did not quite make it, finishing  The Witch of Blackbird Pond on January 2nd.  Now, I'm off and running with the 1960's winners.  There are a couple titles I am especially looking forward to in this decade--The Island of the Blue Dolphins and A Wrinkle in Time, the latter of which I've been meaning to read for sometime now.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Books Read (and Listened to) in 2017

Over the course of the past year I have read 119 books.  Well, technically 118 books, since I read Holy Cow twice in a row.
As always it was a bit of a challenge to narrow that list down for my top ten favorites for the year.  I took a bit of liberty with the list though and included a few multi-book series as single entries.  It is a case where I found the whole darn set so captivating that there was nothing else to do, but just include them all.  My top ten picks are listed below in no particular order.
Top Ten of 2017
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr
Holy Cow by David Duchovny
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Wool series by Hugh Howey
Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut
The Freakonomics series by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
My least favorite book read this year was Go Set a Watchman.  In my opinion this book should never have been published and is basically a money-making racket.  It isn't a long lost sequel of To Kill A Mockingbird, as it was presented to the reading public.  It would be more apt to call it a rough draft of Mockingbird.  Harper Lee wrote Watchman first.  When the manuscript was submitted her publisher saw real promise in the story, especially the flashback scenes to Scout’s childhood in Maycomb, but overall the whole thing needed a lot of work.  Lee went back to the writing desk and, using many of the same characters and setting, came up with To Kill a Mockingbird.  There was a lot of hubbub when Go Set a Watchman was released because Atticus, a noble, respectable, utterly humane character in Mockingbird, is considerably less so in Watchman.  There were a lot of people devastated by this, by how his gleaming and admirable character was rather tarnished.  For me, it is a non-issue.  The Atticus in Watchman is NOT the same Atticus as in Mockingbird.  Harper Lee just hadn’t fully developed his character yet.  This is true of the story overall.  I am of the mind that this book was only published to capitalize on the fame and selling power of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I’m not familiar enough to say whether Harper Lee was taken advantage of, but the fact the book was published just two months after her sister (and caretaker) died leaving her care in the hands of Lee’s lawyer is noteworthy to me.  I’m not upset by the content of the book, though I would say it was rather boring and didn’t have much in the way of plot, especially those first 100 pages.  It didn’t ruin Mockingbird or Atticus for me.  It would have to be an actual sequel for that to be the case, not this rough draft business.  The scenes from Scout's childhood are certainly the best part and that is precisely why her publisher encouraged her to go back to the drawing board and refocus her story there.
Annual Stats
Number of young adult or children's books:   35
Number of adult books:  31
Number of audiobooks (both adult and YA/children):  53
119 Total Books (compared with 100 total books for 2016)
I’ve come up with a few reading objectives for the 2018.  I want to spend more time re-reading books that I previously enjoyed.  As a younger person I would fall in love with a book and read it over and over and over again.  There are some I could still tell you all about even at this far remove.  I’d estimate that I read The Giver, oh, twenty times.  Same for the Little House in the Big Woods.  I loved these and other stories so much that I read and absorbed them into my being.  As an adult I realized there are too many books out there and that I’d never possibly be able to read all the ones on my perpetually growing wish list.  This meant that I basically never allowed myself to re-read anything, even if I did really enjoy the tale.  It seemed like not making the most of my time.  This year I realized that I want to flip that back around.  I want to immerse myself in my favorites more than once.  Re-reading Harry Potter helped drive this home, as did a couple other re-reads—Holy Cow, To Kill a Mockingbird,  I’ll never read all the good books in the world either way so there is no reason to preclude myself from re-reading.  I want to relive some stories that sent me soaring—My Antonia, Ishmael, a boatload of Kurt Vonnegut, and so on.
I’ll power on with the Newbery Award books.  I am truly surprised at how long this endeavor has taken me…and I’ve barely even started, really.  I'm currently on 1958's A Rifle for Watie.  I have read 36 and still have 61 more to go meaning I'm only a third of the way there.  I keep getting distracted.  Spending much of my summer re-reading Harry Potter with my friend Hannah, for example.  That was a good time though and I'm glad for the distraction.  It was her first time reading and only my second and we both enjoyed it tremendously.
Hannah and I have started a private book club of sorts, actually.  She moved off the grid a couple years ago and her passion for reading really took off.  We read books simultaneously and have literary chats on Facebook about them.  (Hooray for using FB for good!)  It is beyond pleasing to me.  I’ve certainly always loved reading, but talking books with Hannah, sharing the reading experience with someone so close to me, is a real cherry on top.  It does distract me from my self-directed reading, particularly the Newberys, but oh well.   Hannah and I read the entire Harry Potter series together this summer (her first reading and my second) which was a particularly delightful shared experience.  In January 2017 Hannah found a reading challenge online and asked if I wanted to join her.  I just barely finished in time, too.  She already found our book club challenge for this year, too--a geographically based one in which the goal is to read a book set in or associate with each of the 50 states.
I’ll also undoubtedly participate in the summer reading programs at both the public library and my alma mater, MSUB, as I have for the past few years.
Below is the full record of the books that I read in 2017, listed in reverse order with the most recent at the top of the list.
Books Read (and Listened To) in 2017
                   * indicates an audiobook

Linda's House (Linda Welk)
Miracles on Maple Hill (Virginia Sorensen)
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (Jean Lee Latham)
Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain (Steven D. Levitt & Steven J. Dubner)*
The Wheel on the School (Meindert DeJong)
The Wild Christmas Reindeer (Jan Brett)
The Church Mice at Christmas (Graham Oakley)
SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance (Steven D. Levitt & Steven J. Dubner)
Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee)
Freakonomics: A Rouge Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Steven D. Levitt & Steven J. Dubner)
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)*
...And Now Miguel (Joseph Krumgold )
House of Earth (Woody Guthrie)*
Secret of the Andes (Ann Nolan Clark)
We Live in Water (Jess Walter)
Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier (Tom Kizzia)*
Ginger Pye (Eleanor Estes)
The Cat's Table (Michael Ondaatje)*
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home (Rhoda Janzen)*
Insatiable: A Young Mother's Struggle with Anorexia (Erica Rivera)
Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness (Scott Jurek & Steve Friedman)*
The Incredible Journey (Sheila Burnford)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories (F. Scott Fitzgerald)*
Hate That Cat (Sharon Creech)
Dust (Hugh Howey)*
Cats Are Weird and More Observations (Jeffrey Brown)
The Cat Who Came in from the Cold (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson)*
Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt)*
Shift (Hugh Howey)
A Man Without a Country (Kurt Vonnegut)
The Sleeper and the Spindle (Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)*
The Day Boy and the Night Girl (George MacDonald)
Millions of Cats (Wanda Gag)
Bucky F***ing Dent (David Duchovny)*
Wool (Hugh Howey)
The Bernenstain Bears Get in a Fight (Stan Bernenstain)
Airframe (Michael Crichton)*
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling)*
Prayer for a Child (Rachel Field)
Once a Mouse... (Marcia Brown)
The Little Island (Margaret Wise Brown)
Wild Child and Other Stories (T.C. Boyle)*
The Electric Pencil: Drawing from Inside State Hospital No. 3 (James Edward Deeds, jr.)
Saga, Book 2 (Brian Vaughan)
Saga, Book 1 (Brian Vaughan)
Holy Cow (David Duchovny)*
The Girls of No Return (Erin Saldin)
Holy Cow (David Duchovny)*
Touching Spirit Bear (Ben Mikaelsen)*
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) J.K. Rowling
One Fine Day (Nonny Hogrogian)
Kitten's First Full Moon (Kevin Henkes)
Skellig (David Almond)*
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)
Everyone is Beautiful (Katherine Center)*
Agnes of God (John Pielmeier)*
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Erik Larson)*
The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)*
Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings: Poems (Joy Harjo)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K. Rowling)*
The Little House (Virginia Lee Burton)
The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (Mathias Malzieu)*
Congo (Michael Crichton)
Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board (Bethany Hamilton and Rick Bundschuh)*
Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life (The Dalai Lama XIV)*
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling)*
Amos Fortune, Free Man (Elizabeth Yates)*
Life-Sized (Jenefer Shute)
Saga: Book One (Brian Vaughan)
Blueprints for Building Better Girls (Elissa Schappell)*
The Door in the Wall (Marguerite De Angeli)*
The King of the Wind (Marguerite Henry)*
The 21 Balloons (William Pene Du Bois)
The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story (Richard Preston)*
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative (Austin Kleon)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling)
Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery": The Authorized Graphic Adaptation (Miles Hyman)
Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle)
Miss Hickory (Carolyn Sherwin Bailey)
Eggs (Jerry Spinelli)*
The Kill Order (James Dashner)*
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling)
Testimony: A Novel (Anita Shreve)*
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J.K. Rowling)
Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence (Nick Bantock)
The Death Cure (James Dashner)*
Strawberry Girl (Lois Lenski)
Cosmic (Frank Cottrell-Boyce)*
Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)*
The Scorch Trials (James Dashner)*
Habibi (Craig Thompson)
The Maze Runner (James Dashner)*
I Could Pee On That: And Other Poems by Cats (Francesco Marciuliano)
The Great Fire (Jim Murphy)*
A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life (James Bowen)
A Break With Charity: A Story About the Salem Witch Trials (Ann Rinaldi)*
How Do You Kill 11 Million People: Why The Truth Matters More Than You Think (Andy Andrews)*
Blankets (Craig Thompson)
Agent 6 (Tom Rob Smith)*
My Teacher Flunked the Planet (Bruce Coville)
Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes)*
My Teacher Glows in the Dark (Bruce Coville)
My Teacher Fried My Brains (Bruce Coville)
My Teacher is an Alien (Bruce Coville)
My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (Scott Stossel)*
How to Talk To Your Cat About Gun Safety And... (Zachary Auburn)
Fish for Supper (M.B. Goffstein)
The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to our Brains (Nicholas Carr)*
Adam of the Road (Elizabeth Janet Gray)
Reality Boy (A.S. King)*
The Matchlock Gun (Walter D. Edmonds)
Call It Courage (Armstrong Sperry)
Daniel Boone (James Daughtery)
The Secret Speech (Tom Rob Smith)*
The Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith)*
Christmas Trolls by Jan Brett
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod
Lastly, since I love personal statistics and people are perpetually surprised by how many "great" movies I've never seen, I decided to keep track of the films I watched this year, too.  The grand total is 19 movies....though I watched Spaceballs twice, so technically 18 different titles.

Movies Watched in 2017
Bah, Humduck!
Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer
Mickey's Christmas Carol
Demolition Man
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Red Turtle
The Little Mermaid
The Lives of Others
The Big Lebowski
The Lego Movie
Groundhog's Day
Horton Hears a Who
The Brand New Testament
The Princess Bride

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: Diagnosis--bipolar

I told someone, "This has been a trying year."

But, that wasn't quite right and I quickly amended my statement.
"This has been a bipolar year.  It held some of my most incredibly high heights and the lowest lows and greatest uncertainty I've ever known."

That's better.  That's more accurate.
Even as my paternal grandmother lay dying and my brother-in-law (the brother I never had!) was down the street in the ICU slowly and uncertainly coming back to us I knew I had a lot to be grateful for, that my life is a good one, that I am blessed.

Even when the Good Earth Market was closing shop for the last time, I knew Matt and I have a good thing going for us.

I can feel the strain, stress, and trauma of this year resonating inside me to this day.  It changed me.  I'm still coming to terms with that, too.  I just kept waiting to feel "back to normal."  But I'm starting to wonder if I ever will.  If life experiences shape and mold us I'm trying to make peace with how I've been altered.  And not just me, either.
A couple months back Matt told me that my maternal grandma had called and wanted me to call my uncle.  Immediately my brain started putting together alarming worse-case style scenarios--is Patrick okay?  Or is it about Grandpa?  Turns out, they were calling about a tie-dye order.  Be still my is all okay.   It is all okay.  It is all okay.  It is all okay.

That is what leads me to say it has been a trying year.  I'm ready for a New Year.  For a reboot.
However, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the joy, the delight, the beauty that was bestowed upon me this year as well.  A cross-country road trip involving three women who've loved me just about the longest out of all the people I know.  A mystical overnight with Matt in the sand dunes.  A weekend musical adventure with my most favorite dancing companions at Silvercloud.  Reconnecting with Marj in LA after 15 years apart.  Digging dinosaur bones.  Sharing in love and friendship at wedding after wedding after wedding all summer long.  Jetting off for a getaway in the desert one cold February weekend.  Bicycle rides.  Sunsets.  Ginger and Johnny.  Game nights.  Family visits.  Concerts.  Teddy Roosevelt NP.  Dinner parties.  Meteor showers.  Sewing retreats.  A total eclipse.  Hot springs.
Life is good.  Even when it isn't.

Three cheers to another New Year and all the highs and lows it will bring.  Hip, hip--Hooray!  Hip, hip--Hooray!  Hip, hip--Hooray!
(But maybe a little more mellow this year, eh, Universe?)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Tip for Better Rice

I love rice--brown, white, basmati, jasmine, short grain, long grain.  You name it.  I make a pot every weekend to keep on hand in the fridge, always at the ready for lunch or dinner throughout the week.  I couldn't begin to tell you how many times I've been told to get a rice cooker over the years.  I resist not because I think my rice is always cooked to perfection, but because I am opposed to having one more large gadget in my small kitchen.  So, I persist in cooking our rice in a small pot on the stove top. 

I recently discovered an astonishingly easy tip for consistently better stove top rice though and thought I should share.  Or two related tips, really.
First off, I've stopped doubling the water when I make a double batch of rice.

For years I've used a 2:1 ratio of water to (dry) rice, for brown rice and 1 1/2:1 for white rice.  I used this ratio regardless of whether I was making one cup or four cups.  This year I changed my technique and I am very pleased about it.  Using those ratios  to make double or triple batches I'd sometimes end up with a portion of rice that was a little gummy or overcooked, especially at the bottom of the pan.  Turns out this is because I'd been using too much water.

See, most of the water is absorbed by the rice, sure, but some just gets lost through cooking/evaporation.  Making larger quantities does require more water so that the rice can be fully cooked and hydrated.  Cooking additional quantities does not make the pot lose more water through that evaporative process however.  As such, there is no need to fully double the water for any additional volume.   For example, if I'm making two cups of white rice I just use 2 1/2 cups water now, not three cups.

Second, I use a kitchen towel to absorb additional moisture.

I learned about this tip in regards to making pilaf rice, but I see no reason to limit it to that use.  I cook the rice as normal, but when the time is up I remove the pot from the heat and put a towel over the top.  I then replace the lid and allow the pot of rice to sit for 5 minutes before fluffing and serving it, as I always did.  The towel is a swell addition though as it absorbs excess moisture resulting in fluffier, separate grains of rice that don't stick together. 
I was never unhappy with the rice I was making before, but both these bits have noticeably improved my rice dishes this year, that's for sure.

Friday, December 8, 2017

It's Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Christmas

Growing up we always had an Advent calendar.  It was Christmas tree shaped with an ornament to snap on for the each day leading up to Christmas.  I can vividly remember the excitement, between my sisters and me, about whose turn it was to put on the ornament at dinner time.   Each ornament had a symbolic meaning or related to a bible story and we read about them--aloud--as a family.  It is a very fond recollection for me.
Once I took to running my own home though the Advent calendar became a thing of the past.  A few years back Matt's mom gave me a beautiful Advent calendar which she'd made for her mom, Matt's grandma.  I've never put anything in the little pockets though.  The candy-a-day thing is just not part of my Advent heritage, I guess, and I was never sure what else to sub in for treats.  I just use it as lovely seasonal wall decor.  It serves that purpose very well.
This year I am really feeling the holiday spirit.  I more excited about Christmas than I can remember in a long time.  I'm not even totally sure why.
The tree is up.  Most of the packages are wrapped.  The house is lit--inside AND outside.  We've never had outdoor lights before, but Matt's folks gave us a big box of them this year.  I'm getting ready for two weeks off work--and my annual hiatus from the internet.  I've been mentally composing our annual holiday letter.  I'm excited for singing carols and playing them on the flute.  I'm stoked that Christmas music is on the radio already.  I've been dreaming about certain holiday treats and Matt's even made some already.  I'm looking forward to making more lefse with Sharon.  I'm pumped to ring in the new year.  I've never looked forward to the fresh start of a new year so much before either.
So, riding this wave of excitement I came up with a tandem Advent-sort-of-tradition of my own.  I developed (with help from Matt) a list of activities that are linked with Christmas in my mind.  There is one activity per day leading up to Christmas.
Because we appreciate flexibility I opted to make it pretty freeform.  Rather than assign an activity to a specific day we just look at the list together and choose which activity we'll do that day based on our moods and time constraints.  It has been super fun so far.  We're checking Go To A Christmas Party off the list today.
I also made a Santa Advent calendar out of construction paper after stumbling across this blog.  Santa's beard will get shorter and shorter all month long.  We've got him posted up on the fridge.  He is a pretty jolly looking Santa, even if it isn't "the real deal" as my dad would say (by which he means classic Santa...not some modern, cartoonish rendering).
Johnny MUST be involved in all paper crafts, all crafts in general, actually.
He's hung on the refrigerator with care, right along with our stockings.  ;)
It is beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.  Now here is hoping it is a white Christmas, too.  Christmas just isn't the same without that beautiful blanket of white.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Next Year People: Reflections on No-Shop November 2017

A week in to December already!  Where does the time go?
A happy snowman with brocolini hair. 11/3
This was a weird year for our No Shop November.  Of course, that's how I've felt about much of this year, so I suppose that is in keeping.

The short assessment is:  We didn't buy any food and still ate really, really, really well.  But we totally bought some other stuff.
Johnny helping out with a knitting project. 11/4
Read on if you're interested in a more detailed meander through the month's spending.
Seasoned baked potato coins. 11/1
First off I should mention that I have evidently overcome my extreme resistance to spending money.  The first two weeks I was the one who repeatedly suggested things that involved spending money, at which point Matt would have to remind me that it was No Shop November.

That was highly irregular for me.  As child, playing Hide-and-Go-Seek, I would always develop the strongest urge to go to the bathroom as soon as I got into hiding.  It was like my bladder knew that I couldn't go, that I couldn't move or I'd give myself away.  So that was when the urge struck with a vengeance.  No Shop November felt like that.  I knew I wasn't going to spend money so my brain kept sabotaging me with urges to do so.  Only little things, of course, but still....little things add up.   That is at least partially the point of this endeavor.  So, yeah...that was weird and has never happened in past years.
Getting musical saw lessons from Jess. 11/11
Almost every time I just suggested spending money, but checked myself (or Matt did) before the transaction actually took place.  But, I totally bought a $.75 soda from the machine in the library on autopilot though, forgetting it was November 2nd.

Soda was a No-Shop oversight, actually.  I've gone back and forth in my relationship to soda for decades.  I am, in the end, a soda junkie--though I try to moderate my indulgence.  These days I am in a place where I usually buy one can a week from the machine in the library.  I don't keep it around the house because it is a temptation for me, but I don't beat myself up about this weekly treat anymore either.   Balance and moderation in all things, I figure.  I didn't think about this when planning for NSN though.  It never occurred to me to buy a few and dole them out over the month.  My mom is a kind, generous person though and fixed me up with soda for the remainder of the month.  I was telling her about this oversight at a sewing retreat the first weekend of November and so, as the retreat concluded, she sent me home with a partial box she'd purchased for the weekend.  I even still have one!  And it is December!  Having soda around wasn't necessary, of course, but it was sure nice.
Creamy coconut vegetable soup. 11/7
I spent $105 on said sewing weekend with my mom.   Sure, I could have sent my mom the money in October, like she asked, but oh, no....I am a procrastinator and didn't plan that far ahead.  Oops.
Sunbeam nappytime for Ginger. 11/13
We bought a bottle of champagne for a friend in exchange for a trio of free concert tickets.  This was a barter and concerts are already excepted so this one gets a pass.  We hardly even used the concert-and-drinks exemption this year--just twice.  We drove up to Bozeman for one if those concerts though so the gas exemption got used more than normal.  The universe balances out.
Hot Buttered Rum at the Filling Station in Bozeman. 11/11
Matt got some belated birthday money from both my mom and his mom which he promptly spent, justifying it as presents-not-being-shopping.  I'm not sure I agree with this logic, but he did make a pretty strong case so off to the store he went.  He bought some ingredients for a beer he wanted to brew and a couple cords for our Wii (which were missing when we were gifted the unit from a friend months ago...during a period when life was far too busy to play video games.)  I guess, we'll give this one a pass, too.
Better Burgers with sauted mushrooms and onions on a Dutch Crunch roll, Matt's newest favorite bread baking endeavor. 11/1
As the temperature dropped and the first snow started to fall we realized we still had two windows (three panes) which we'd never gotten around to replacing after they were broken by a storm last year.  We decided to just take care of it right then, while it was in our minds, since we're prone to putting off home improvement projects.  Obviously.  So $150 later our house is warmer and snugger.  We should have done it a long time ago.  Matt also went to replace the furnace filter only to discover we were out so he bought a three pack of filters for $10.
Making lefse for Thanksgiving with Matt's mom. 11/19
At the start of the month my brother-and-sister-in-law, Ryan and Bek, decided to start a tradition of bowling every Tuesday and invited us to join them.  The first week of November I agreed, again on autopilot, but since we'd forgotten that Bek owed us money for a tie-dye it all worked out and we went bowling without spending any money.  We subsequently went twice more during the month, spending $27 total.  I love spending time with Ryan and Bek and wasn't about to let NSN interfere with my family time.  Family is more important to me than my personal challenges.  I've realized that all the more this year.  I bowled the best game of my life (144) this month, too.  I even rolled a Turkey (on the day after Thanksgiving, no less).
The headless snowman.  11/13
After taking stock in the cupboards and pantry, Matt and I figure that with just a handful of exceptions (brown rice, lentils, mushrooms, carrots) we won't have to buy food again this month either.  That part was easy.  We've still got a couple cases of homebrew in the basement.  We're still munching on homegrown vegetables (onions, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes, etc) and have a stockpile of flour, oil, honey, spices, and other such staples.
My Thanksgiving plate...the first go round anyways. 11/23
So, that's that.  A imperfect showing to my self-imposed shopping moratorium, but, perfection is a unreasonable goal in most things.  I'll take it.  There is always next year.  Matt and I are "next year" people.  Happy with the now, hopeful that the future will be even better.
Tart gooseberry pie. 11/23