Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Break From Regularly Scheduled Programming, or A Tirade, or I Have To Get This Off My Chest. Or Mind. Or Whatever.

So today was going to be one of those days, you know the sort. Lots to do, errands to run, cooking to do, a blog post to write about a pretty terrific book. And then. Your car doesn't start. Luckily, I can walk the girl to school. Done. Next three hours are spent getting the car towed less than half a mile from my house. Watched my poor car get dragged out of the garage since it won't go into neutral. Can't be good for the tires. And the garage is on an alley. A narrow alley. Finally, finally, we get to the car place and they're going to replace my battery. Great. I'll go home and take a shower while you do that. And then. Pick up car, things are going to be great, gonna get something done. And then. AND THEN.

So I am one of those 'rah rah I love Honda!' people, one of those 'I'll never buy anything but a Honda!' people. Well. Hrmph. I don't know if they still do this, but Honda, Honda has this really GREAT anti-theft device on their radios, it works so well that I need a code to get the radio to work after the battery has been disconnected, a code they supposedly gave me MORE THAN NINE YEARS AGO WHEN I BOUGHT THE CAR AND IT'S ON SOME LITTLE WHITE CARD. Right. But, call the dealer and give then your vehicle number and they'll get it for you. Great, I'll do that. But no. They don't do that. They need a serial number from your radio, it's on the back of your radio and yes, you'll need to come in for a service appointment and your dashboard will have to be DISMANTLED to find said serial number, AND Honda would like to CHARGE me to perform this service. WHAT???!!!!!!?????

This may be one of the stupidest things I've ever heard of. I mean, lets think about the number of people who get their radio stolen vs. the number of people who need to get a new battery. It's hard to imagine the number of people this has 'INCONVENIENCED' - I found one blog post about this with 348 comments. So after I looked thought the glove box twice, the file with all the car information twice, I realized one place I hadn't looked for the SECRET CODE. And I found it. After I had a huge temper tantrum (I was alone in case you're concerned) and got in a tiff with the people at Honda demanding to 'speak to your manager!!!!'

So I am one of the lucky ones. I didn't have to pay $125 to get my radio back that I already paid for once. Take home message - make sure you find that code before you change the battery in your Honda.

I thought this might make me feel better, and it has.

The End.

Friday, February 20, 2009

In the Mood for India

I went to see Slumdog Millionare a couple weeks ago, and that put me in the mood for reading something set in India. Last year around this time, I had a personal 'read India' thing going on, so I had quite a few things to choose from, but I decided I wanted some Rohinton Mistry, author of A Fine Balance, one of my favorite books of 2008, and actually one of my favorite books ever. I decided to go with Family Matters, Mistry's most recent novel.

The novel opens with elderly Nariman, a retired professor, who lives with his stepchildren Coomy and Jal in a fairly roomy apartment and still enjoys his daily walks despite his advancing age and Parkinson's Disease. Nariman has in many ways become the child in his household as Coomy and Jal try to dicate what he does. Perhaps they should have gone walking with Nariman, because eventually he falls and breaks his ankle. The break is particularly bad and when he comes home to the apartment all his physical needs fall on Coomy and Jal, who are quite disgusted by it all. They decide that Nariman would be better off with his daughter Roxana, their half-sister who lives in a very small apartment with her husband and two children. They show up unannounced with Nariman and leave him at the apartment. Roxana is a dutiful daughter with helpful and kind sons and despite the lack of space Nariman thrives in the more positive atmosphere. The story shifts at this point to be told more from the perspective of Roxana's husband Yezad. Yezad was a very complex character. I went from thinking he was a nice fellow, to being annoyed with him but understanding why, to thinking he was an idiot with his business dealings, to thinking he really had a good heart, to finally thinking that he turned into the exact person he didn't want to be. There are a lot of different storylines in this novel, but the heart of the book is domesticity and family, as the title suggests. I actually thought for a moment that Mistry was going to give me a happy ending, but then I read the epilogue where everything you thought was going to happen with these people turned upside down.

I really enjoyed reading this book. Mistry is so very good at understanding the inner workings of people and creates such real and flawed characters that I can imagine going to visit them in India. I think Mistry is one of those writers whose work is very, very good, whose novels are going to be, for me, better than most other things I read. My expectations for his writing are so high, after reading A Fine Balance, that I don't know if anything could live up to it. Can you think of any books/authors that you feel that way about?

Winners - The Laws of Harmony

First of all, I just loved reading everyone's answers to the question:

If you could pick up your entire life and move to a new city, would you? Where would you go?

What great responses! One kind person asked me the question. First of all the answer is absolutely, yes! I did it when I moved to MN in 1999 and when I moved to Chicago in 1994. But where would I go now? Unrealistically, my ideal spot would be Paris. I love everying about it. Realistically, I would really like to live in the Pacific Northwest - Portland in particular, or on the East Coast. And my husband and I talk about retiring in Chicago, so who knows, that may be a reality.

And now for the 5 winners:

Melanie (the first one on the list)
Renee G

Congratulations to you all! I'm be contacting you for your addresses. I hope you enjoy the book.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cooking Beans - Part 2

So, I borrowed this book from the library and was inspired to make some pinto beans. I'm tempted to buy this book but I'm not sure I really need it.

First I soaked the beans overnight, then covered them with fresh water and added an onion, some garlic and bay leaves and cooked them for around 1 1/2 hours. Here are my pintos after that.

I made a ton of beans, so I packed up two big containers of these beans and froze them. I'm thinking refried beans/nachos. Yum! I turned the rest of the beans into Druken Beans using a recipe from Heirloom Beans. I sauteed bacon, onions, jalapenos, garlic and mushrooms, and added them to the beans which I'd simmered with a beer, Drunken, right? Here are my Drunken Beans.

Don't they look great? I served them with cheese on top and cornbread and salad on the side. I really like Deborah Madison's basic cornbread recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Her method creates a really nice crust. I add-in grated cheese, diced jalapenos, and frozen corn.

My daughter said she was 100 thumbs up on the corn bread, but likes my black beans better. She was a little confused about the mushrooms.

Edited to add: Here is the direct link to the cornbread recipe, look at the bottom of the newsletter. I added one cup of grated cheese and a couple of diced jalapenos to the batter. I remove the pepper seeds, since I am feeding a little one.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Books and Cooks gets political. Sort of.

When Rose Aguilar contacted me about the possibility of reviewing her book Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland I was intrigued and hesitant at the same time. Hesitant because I don't usually touch on politics here and Aguilar, a journalist and political blogger out of San Francisco, has written a decidedly political book. Intrigued because Aguilar promised to travel to the South and find out who lives in the so-called 'Red States' and why they vote the way they do. And then my husband saw the press release and told me 'you have to read that book!' So it was done.

Aguilar's plan was to travel by van with her boyfriend Ryan and interview people everywhere along the way. They travel to Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Montana. I thought Aguilar was a very effective interviewer. She manages to make people feel comfortable with her and she seemed not only non-threatening in her questioning, but also was not threatened by the answers she received. I found her descriptions of churches and life in the south endlessly interesting. I found some of the attitudes she came across frightening, as well as the number of people who take Fox News at face value. It was an interesting contrast to my life, here in a so called 'Blue State' where I think sometimes conservatives, feeling outnumbered, keep their comments to themselves; Aguilar finds just the opposite in the South, liberals often keep their thoughts to themselves.

Aguilar's boyfriend Ryan was an interesting contrast to her throughout the book. He seemed to take things more personally and at times gets upset or angry when the views he encounters contrast so deeply with his own. I could relate to Ryan - I also take things personally, so I definitely empathized with him.

The only weakness I found in Red Highways was that I felt there wasn't enough commentary from the author. I was hoping to perhaps learn more about voting records, income levels, statistics - I'm not even sure what else, but generally a way to put into context all the people I was meeting within the pages of her book. So did Aguilar achieve what she set out to? I think so, I certainly have a better understanding of ideas and belief systems that others hold and why they hold them. An education for me, for sure.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Happy Days Are Here Again

My favorite candy, well worth waiting for. How many bags do you think I'll buy before Easter arrives? This seem to be the one thing that the stores run out of...

Friday, February 13, 2009

I bought some books!

I never thought that would be news, but I realized the other day when my husband asked me if I was ordering anything soon from Amazon that I hadn't book shopped in a while, almost not at all in 2009. I needed to rectify that quickly (not really, but you know what I mean) I stopped into Half Price Books for an hour the other day. Check out my great finds!

I found Salem Chapel, a Virago that I didn't have, and a couple of P.D. James books. I'm not sure when or where I heard about P.D. James - definitely from the book blog world. I found exactly what I was looking for - An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and think Innocent Blood looks really good as well. My big score of the day was 1939: The Last Season by Anne De Courcy. I've had my eye out for this for years and have considered ordering it from the UK. That's the best thing about shopping at Half Price - those surprising finds that make me catch my breath.

Once I got home I realized I hadn't been as pure in the book buying department as I thought.

I've also picked up The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel, one I'd been waiting for in paperback; Climbing the Mango Trees by Madhur Jeffrey, and The Beekeeper's Apprentice. The two books on the bottom are advance copies.

It looks like I am going to be a delinquent book club member this month. Our February book is The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich's latest novel. I'm not sure why, but 30 pages in I feel completely flummoxed by it and I dread picking it up again. In fact, I think I won't. I know another member who said this is the first novel she's ever put down 80 pages in and said enough, and my mother-in-law couldn't finish it either which is saying something. I had high hopes for it, since I enjoyed her novel The Master Butcher's Singing Club so very much.

I don't think Bloglines is updating me properly, so if you missed my last post(s) do look below as I am having a giveaway.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Great News! A Giveaway for The Laws of Harmony!

I am pleased to host this giveaway on behalf of Nicole from Harper Collins. I can give away copies of The Laws of Harmony to five lucky readers from the US. See just below for my review and a link to preview the book.

The rules are simple. Just leave a comment on this post (not my review post, please)and tell me if you could pick up your entire life and move to a new city, would you? Where would you go? There is one entry per person. You do not have to have a blog to enter, but you must make sure I have a way to contact you via email if you've won. This giveaway is open to US addresses only, sorry to those outside the US. I will close the comments and draw the 5 winners on February 20. Good luck!

The Laws of Harmony

I was particularly pleased to be offered a copy of Judith Ryan Hendrick's latest novel from Harper Collins. I'd read all three of Hendrick's previous books, and have a special fondness for one of them, her first novel Bread Alone. Bread Alone is the story of a woman in an unhappy marriage who moves away and makes a new life for herself. The thing I remember most about this book is the fact that the main character bakes bread, oh does she bake bread! By the end of the book, I was so seduced by Hendrick's descriptions of yeast and kneading and rising, that I baked my own bread.

Hendrick's latest novel, The Laws of Harmony, is similar to Bread Alone in some ways: the main character also leaves her life to begin again and she is also a cook.

Sunny Cooper grew up on a commune in New Mexico and as soon as she is an adult she does everything in her power to leave her past behind. She attends college, supports herself, and eventually moves in with her boyfriend Michael. She is looking for a 'normal' life, but events will dictate otherwise. Sunny receives news that Michael has died in a car accident; soon after her home is broken into. Sunny's life is shattered, she realizes that Michael's job was not what it seemed and she is in danger. Sunny sells everything and moves to San Miguel Island, one of the Channel Islands. There she begins again, finding a home, job and new friendships. Several surprise discoveries turn Sunny's life upside down yet again, and she struggles to maintain equilibrium and mend the troubled relationship with her mother whom she left on the commune.

I enjoyed reading The Laws of Harmony, it's an easy read and I found that the 478 pages flew by. There's a lot going on in this book and Hendrick's does a good job of pulling it all together. As I was nearing the end of this book, I suddenly realized there was no way Hendrick's was going to tie up all the loose ends in this novel. On the one hand, this leaves things open for a sequel, which I would probably read, on the other hand, after 478 pages, I would have liked a little bit more closure - it's the sort of thing where you sort of know what is going to happen and I would have liked to read about it, rather than imagine it. That just might be my own preference.

If you think you might be interested in this book Harper Collins has a browse inside function found here where you can read part of the book and see what you think.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What's Up With Me

So I'm sick. I have to say, I've had a pretty good season this year with fewer illnesses than usual but my luck has run out. I just hate being ill and it ticks me off! The only silver lining is that I'm not working tonight so that is a blessing.

My other news is that I'm almost caught up with watching Lost, and by caught up, I mean I have only two episodes left to watch. This is good and bad. Bad because I'm going to suffer serious withdrawal. But good because I'll have more time to read and catch up on blogs. Also good, because my husband was wondering if I'll perhaps do some cleaning around the house when I'm caught up. He's got a point.

Thanks everyone for your comments on my last post. I've been fairly picky with ARC's but I'm going to be even more so in the future. I want people to feel that they can trust my recommendations and not worry that I'm saying nice things because I got a free book.

So, remember that Potato Peel book that everyone was talking about last year? The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows to be exact. I decided to let all the hubbub die down before I read it and now that I have I've formed my own opinion. It's really quite a good book. It reminded me in the beginning of 84, Charing Cross Road because of the format - letters, and of the letter writer's love affair with books. I thought it was sweet and touching, but also sad and moving. The ending was perhaps a bit too sugary, but overall I enjoyed it very much and could see myself reading it again. If you know anyone who hasn't read it, I think this would make a great gift. I'm going to gift it to a few people I know next Christmas. Back when everyone was reviewing this I know a few people posted links to sites about the island of Guernsey. I've been meaning to see if I can locate some of those sites, but if you know of any I'd love to have the links.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What is So Great About Book Blogs

About a month ago I read this post at Books on the Brain. Lisa was so genuinely taken in by this book, Life As We Knew It that I knew I wanted to read it; I hadn't even read her review - just the fact that she was completely enthralled by it.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer is a novel meant for a teen audience about the end of civilization as we know it, from the point of view of Miranda, a teenage girl. Something goes awry with the moon which disturbs the equilibrium of the earth and chaos ensues. When presented with a story like this, I choose to go along with it - that is to say, I didn't really question the science behind the story - could this really happen? I couldn't say. What this story is really about though, is how Miranda and her family and her town deal with what could be the end of civilization. Miranda comes to learn how strong she really is and how important her family is to her. I think I didn't like it quite as much as Lisa, but it's a terribly compelling story and I recommend it.

Well, What is so Great About Book Blogs? If it weren't for Lisa and her blog, I never would have picked up this book. It would really never have occurred to me to read from the teen section. Most of the books at the bookstore in this section are about vampires or girls in short skirts. So I have broadened my horizons. And hopefully, sometimes, I get the chance to broaden the horizons of others. It's a great feeling to have comments like I did on my last post about Keeping the House - so many had never heard of it, or weren't sure about it since maybe it didn't get a lot of press.

And there is the struggle. I go back and forth about how I feel about reading review copies. In most ways, it's great. I get free books, feel flattered that someone might value my opinion, and because I'm picky about what I accept or request, most times I enjoy the books. But there is down side. I become one of many who are reading the same book. Sometimes it is hard to get to 'my own' books because of these commitments. And finally, sometimes I feel like a bit of an advertisement. I want to share more here than just new releases that I've liked, because there are a lot of books that were published last year or five years ago that are terrific too. When I think about what sort of posts I like to read, I certainly do like reading about the new great title out there, but I feel most blessed by learning about books that I've never heard of or never thought to read. Just think - when I go to bookstores, particularly in big ones where I don't usually shop, isn't my goal to find something that I haven't seen a million times already? Who knows. We all know times are tough and publishers are struggling. Perhaps the review copies will dry up. But perhaps, since our opinions are free, they will not. Time will tell.

Do you struggle with this? How do you reconcile your feelings on this?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Keeping the House

Oh, Ellen Baker. I do hope you write some more books. I finished Baker's debut novel, Keeping the House a few weeks ago and I liked it. I really, really, liked it. It's long (528 pages) and compelling, full of family secrets and interesting characters.

Dolly Magnuson has just moved to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin with her husband Byron. Sometimes it seems Dolly was more in love with the idea of marriage than she is with the actuality of married life. She knows the expectations: keep your husband happy, your home clean, and raise children. But between Byron not being thrilled with her salmon puff (yuck!) and going out with his friends all the time, Dolly is lonely and looks outside her marriage for contentment. She finds it not with the snippy ladies at the quilting circle she attends, but at the old Mickelson house up on the hill. The beautiful old house has not been cared for and Dolly has the idea that if she fixes it up, perhaps she and Byron could live there and all would be well.

Dolly's story alternates with that of the Mickelson family, from matriarch Wilma, who gave up the piano and moved to Pine Rapids in 1896 to become a wife and mother, to Wilma's children and grandchildren.

Dolly finally comes in contact with a member of the Mickelson family, from whom she learns much of their history. This relationship threatens her standing in Pine Rapids, both with society and with her husband and ultimately Dolly must make a choice.

Keeping the House is a sweeping saga, domestic at its core, but also dealing with both world wars and their consequences on this small town. It's romantic and devastating at the same time. One of the highlights of this book are the quotes that begin so many of the chapters, and come from marriage manuals and magazines from the 1950s. A taste:

'Take an interest in his appearance. Keeping his clothes in order is our job; encouraging him to look his best, and admiring him when he does, should be your pleasure.'

Or how about this:

'During courtship, your husband thought you a desirable companion. Do you give him reason to think so still?'

There are so many more just like that! Ellen Baker really did her homework, and created a wonderful atmosphere of domestic small town life that had me enthralled for days.