Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review:: House Rules

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

This one reined me in immediately and held my attention the entire time.  The story revolves around a teenaged boy, Jacob, who has Asperger's Syndrome.  His single mother and younger brother have adjusted their entire lives to accommodate his eccentricities and sensitivities, and as a result, their lives are very tense and strained.  Jacob is wildly obsessed with forensic science, and often recreates famous crime scenes in order that his mother can attempt to solve them.  Jacob monitors his police scanner, and occasionally sneaks onto crime scenes to offer his interpretation of the evidence.  All of these nuances are simply annoying at best until the day that Jacob's social skills tutor, Jess, turns up missing.  A police investigation of her home finds evidence of foul play, and Jacob knows too many details that only the killer would know.  The police arrest Jacob, and he goes on trial for Jess' murder once her body is discovered not too far from her home.  But could this boy, who is a genius with a tender heart, really have committed such a horrendous act?  Right up until the very end of this novel, your stomach will be in knots and you'll be wringing your hands!  A great read!

Book Review:: Blindness

Blindness by Jose Saramago

I had no idea what I was getting into with this one.  Imagine a pandemic that begins with one person going blind, randomly, while waiting at a stop light.  A strange, white blindness.  Systematically, each person that the man encounters thereafter also goes blind within hours, and everyone they've contacted does as well, and so on.  In the beginning of the epidemic, the newly blind are quarantined in high security facilities, guarded by the military.  New internees begin to trickle in, slowly at first, then in droves, and the victims soon resort to animalistic behaviors for survival.  As the mysterious pathogen infects more and more people, the infrastructure of the country begins to shut down as there are not enough seeing people to maintain the working order of things.  Driving and all major utilities completely shut down.  Eventually, every single soul is blind, save one.  The wife of one of the first men to go blind, the optometrist who treated the first blind man, never lost her vision.  In order to stay with her husband, she feigned blindness and was quarantined with him.  During the span of this mysterious nation-wide affliction, she remained the only sighted person, and through her leadership, the original group of people with which she and her husband were quarantined managed to eek out a meager survival.  Once it became clear that the entire population was blind and that the military sentries were no longer guarding their facility, the group escaped into the city, only to find that complete pandemonium now ruled.  Months passed, and people were starving and dying, filth and petulance were rampant, and animals had gone feral, traveling in vicious packs.  Stores and homes had been ransacked for any scrap of food that was to be found, and dead bodies and cars were abandoned everywhere. 

As I read, I kept trying to imagine the horrors of what was being described.  I was haunted by the fact that, were something similar to happen in real life, the atrocities listed would certainly come to pass, and would quite possibly be much more horrific.  Throughout the entire novel, no one was given a name, and no specifics are given as to a time and location of these events.  Meaning you're left to fill in all of the blanks from your own personal experiences.  Which is that much more terrifying.  I found this book, while hard to read at points, to be an incredible description of human nature...both the good elements and the bad.  I definitely recommend it, if for nothing other than the thoughts it will provoke in you about humanity, hope, and the will to live against all odds.

Book Reviews:: A Girl Named Zippy & She Got Up Off the Couch

A Girl Named Zippy & She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel

Have you ever felt like you were destined to read a particular book?  Well, I can assure you, I was meant to read this pair of lovelies.  I found the first of the set, A Girl Named Zippy, on a cart at the library for sale for fifty cents.  As usual, I chose the book primarily for the cover...I mean, look at that silly little face!..and once I read the synopsis, I was sold. 

Zippy is a beautiful memoir written in the voice of the author's childhood self, recounting hilarious happenings in her home, town, and church in the teeny town of Mooreland, Indiana.  Zippy was raised by a Quaker mother, who unbeknownst to her, was rendered helpless, and motionless, by depression, and a mountain man father who was always tinkering, yet never really doing much of anything.  Zippy had two siblings with whom she only shared her home briefly before they began their adult, separate lives.  Mooreland was a town of only three hundred, and Zippy knew every soul that lived therein.  She was a wild child with a penchant for mischief and an aversion to hygiene and order, and she openly shares her struggles with her parents' different versions of faith, as well as her own.  In essence, her recollections and retellings had me guffawing until my sides hurt.  Just ask Jason:  I read in bed for about thirty minutes every night before I hit the hay, and more than once while reading Zippy, I laughed so hard that I shook the bed, waking him.  Zippy's country life reminds me so very much of my own childhood, and the "hillbilly" characters are all too familiar to me, too.  Maybe that's why I found this book to be so endearing, and knowing that Zippy is a real-life human being that is still out there in this world makes me love her that much more.  You can't make up what this girl went through!

After I'd gotten a chapter or two into Zippy, I stopped at a random garage sale one afternoon, and as I usually do, I began digging through the treasure trove of books being discarded.  While I flipped through the stack, a particular cover jumped out at me, and lo and behold, it was Zippy!  I'd recognize those eyeballs anywhere!  I practically stole the book...the lady only wanted a quarter for it...but I knew that I was in for a treat if this sequel was anywhere near as entertaining as the first.

In She Got Up Off the Couch, Zippy picks up where she left off, continuing the hilarity and introducing me to a whole new slew of characters.  Only something has changed in Zippy's tone...she begins to reveal nuances that perhaps she only saw with hindsight as she matured.  The mystery of her mother's permanence on their couch began to become clear, and her father's discontent with her mother's determination to better herself changes the entire family dynamic.  Zippy was no longer oblivious to the unhappiness in her home, and the story being told, while still riddled with humor and precious sweetness, begins to break your heart a tiny chip at a time.  But in a hopeful way.  Because obviously Zippy makes it out alive, or else she wouldn't have given us these two absolute treasures of literary wonder! 

I highly recommend these two books.  You must read both.  And then, if you're like me, you'll wish there were more to come. 

Book Review:: Drowning Ruth

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

This complex novel begins in the early 1920s, and centers around an oddly blended family, living on a small farm near the great lakes, and their secrets.  Amanda, a nursing student who becomes pregnant after being wooed by a married man, returns home to live with her sister, Mathilda.  Mathilda's husband, Carl, has volunteered to serve in the army during the war, leaving Mathilda to raise their small daughter, Ruth, alone.  At first, the reunion is a happy one,and the sisters hide the shameful pregnancy, planning an elaborate scheme to explain away the sudden appearance of a newborn on their farm.  In a cruel twist of fate, Mathilda drowns after falling through the ice on the frozen lake, and Amanda is left to raise Ruth as her own until Carl returns home from the war.  She uses the story that she and her sister concocted and gives the baby to a wonderful, childless couple in town.  When Carl finally returns injured and distant, this unlikely trio lives together throughout the years, tip-toeing around the traumas of one another, and manage to be a family, albeit a strained one. Throughout the story, Amanda conceals the truth of what happened to Mathilda, and even goes so far as to try to mold Ruth's memories of the event she witnessed as a toddler.  Her motives are always unclear, and the relationships between Amanda, Carl, and Ruth are dysfunctional and constantly in question.  As expected, eventually Ruth befriends Amanda's daughter, and certain events force Amanda come out with the truth about everything. 

The overall tone of this novel was just pure sadness and tragedy.  It perfectly illustrates the division and heartbreak caused by secrecy and lies.  The motives behind those secrets and lies may have been noble, but in the end, unnecessarily complicated relationships and changed the paths of the lives of everyone involved.  

Savory Chicken and Rice

This savory, crunchy chicken and rice has long been a favorite lunch of mine.  It's full of protein and healthy fats, too!  And the cinnamon assists with maintaining blood glucose levels when processing the carbs (rice).

I usually make a batch just big enough for one bowl now, and one for the next day.  It's really one of those little-of-this-little-of-that recipes, so you could easily change the quantities of the ingredients to make a bigger or smaller amount.

Two make two generous bowls:

2 tbsp olive oil
3 boneless, skinless frozen chicken breast strips (or 5-6 thighs)
1 small onion, chopped
1/2-3/4 cup coarsely chopped almonds (I use roasted, salted almonds for the flavor)
1-2 tbsp minced garlic
1-2 tsp real butter
2 tsp cinnamon
Salt to taste
1 bag boil-in-bag rice, prepared separately with one chicken bullion cube in water

In a large skillet, add olive oil, chicken, onion, garlic, and almonds.  Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through.  Remove chicken and shred, then add back to skillet.  Add butter and cinnamon.  Stir in cooked rice, and continue simmering for a few more minutes until heated through again.  Add salt if needed.  Serve.

This is also very delicious as the main filling of a tortilla wrap, with tomatoes and lettuce.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Vegetable Beef Stew

This recipe has been a long-time winter favorite, and since it's colder than a reindeer's butt outside, I am making it for dinner.  I'm so not a winter person, but I can do stew.

This recipe makes a ton.  I really haven't figured out how to make less than enough for a crowd.  Anyhoo, I cook one night and have lunch and dinner done for the next several days, so, yeah.

Start with one can of each of these in a BIG pot on low/medium heat:
beef broth, chicken broth, lima beans, tomato sauce, rotel 
(I'm super thrifty, so I always buy store brand, and when I pay attention, I buy the low-sodium versions)

 Next, add a couple of pounds of lean stew meat.  I personally like the tenderized stuff, but they didn't have any this time.  If the chunks are too big, chop them before adding them to the pot.

Next, add chopped carrots, celery, onion, potatoes, and bell pepper.  About this much.  I don't measure anything other than the carrots and potatoes for carb reasons (about a cup of carrots, and one medium potato)

 Now, dump in a couple of cups of plain ol' water.

Next, stir in some frozen corn, peas, and cut green beans.  I only use 1/2 cup of corn, and about 1 cup each of peas and green beans.  I gotta count carbs.  :)

Stir all of that up.  Okay, now for my favorite part.  A big, heaping, gigantic spoonful of minced garlic.  Confession: I did this step twice.

Last, but not least, sprinkle in a packet of beef stew seasoning.  This one packet does a really great job of flavoring everything, so you don't even need salt or pepper.

Bring to a boil on medium heat, stirring occasionally, and then reduce heat a little (on my dial, I simmer at about 4).  Continue to simmer for about 30-45 minutes at least.  I let it go for about an hour because the flavors really blend well the longer it simmers, and the meat gets more tender.

Once it's done, scoop it up into some bowls and enjoy!  I personally enjoy about 2 tbsp of real butter melted in mine.  Trust me, it's delicious.

The entire stock pot full of stew is about 225 carbs.  For us, it makes just about 8 big bowls of stew, divided evenly, making each bowl only around 28 carbs!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sharing Kindness

Over the past several months, I've done quite a bit of introspective thinking.  As some of you know, I've struggled with depression in very recent years.  It is a deep, cavernous black hole that fully envelops your entire being and chokes the life out of you...literally.  I'm not sure why some people fall victim and others don't...from what I can tell, depression is very indiscriminate in choosing its prey.  Unfortunately, it seems like one of the enemy's favorite methods of attack in my life; even when I'm doing well, I must be mindful not to allow negativity and bitterness to wrap their wicked fists around my heart and drag me back into the abyss. I suppose that my weakness is an eagerness to please.  I want to be liked.  I need to feel needed.  I like to have purpose.  I crave acceptance and approval.  I fear failure and rejection.  I am terrified of disorder and loss of control.  Sometimes I forget Whose I am and who He says I am, and I let those fears and the aching of my heart overwhelm me.

Over the past year, my husband has been my rock.  Whether he knows it or not, I have appreciated and loved him so much during all of my trials because he has never faltered in his love and endurance.  I've taken him through pain he didn't deserve, and yet he loves me.  I am so grateful.  One thing in particular that he has reiterated over and over in his words and actions in my life has been God's command to love one another.  Without conditions.  Without any expectation of praise or return on our investment.  Just love one another, period.

At the beginning of the summer, I committed to turning around my relationship with my little boy.  He is quite like me, yet totally himself.  His extremely strong will promises to serve him well as an adult someday, but it is not my favorite quality in any child, especially one for whom I'm responsible.  He is brilliant, and therefore never accepts any simple answer; he will inundate me with deep, complicated questions until he is satisfied that he fully understands a matter.  He marches to the beat of his own drummer, and I am sometimes mortified by his unique ways of expressing himself...why can't he just blend in sometimes?!  But God has been teaching me to slow down and appreciate Wyatt for who he truly is and to stop expecting him to be anything other than that.  To lower my expectations of his behavior to the 7-year-old-boy level instead of the highest forms of behavior I've seen in him periodically.  To recognize in him what frustrations and fears are causing him anxiety and help him to overcome those feelings rather than suppress them.

One of the ways God has shown me to help Wyatt has been to do some little kind something for him every day.  Some little gesture that shows him I love him.  It could be as simple as reaching back to squeeze his leg while we're driving.  Snuggling up on the couch and laughing at his favorite cartoons together.  Sitting down to make a mess with our art supplies at the kitchen table.  Letting him help prepare a meal.  Little things that, at the end of the day, add up to big feelings.  Feelings of love and appreciation and acceptance and approval.

Not to say I haven't had my missteps along the way, but overall, I've begun to reshape my attitude towards this beautiful, perfect little gift from God.  Instead of feeling forever inconvenienced and burdened, I feel blessed.  Blessed to see how incredibly wonderful this child is, and how insanely trusting God is of me to raise him.  Now, instead of seeing a behavior I don't like, I'm beginning to recognize a fear or insecurity or anxiety that is calling out for help in him.  Just like me.  Just. Like. Me.

As a result of changing my mindset and softening my heart, I've started to realize how broken so many of us are in our own small, private ways.  Perhaps our hurts seem too insignificant to share, so we just keep them inside, filing them away in the "put on your big girl panties" drawer.  We just keep cramming and shoving our brokenness into every nook and cranny until there's no more room, and the pieces begin to seep out into our lives.  We withdraw, we lash out, we harshly judge.  We forget to love one another.  And we forget how to be loved.

I've resolved to make every single day that God has given me breath into an opportunity to love.  To love every single human being I see.  Every day.  Every one of them.  This isn't complicated.  Lift someone up in prayer.  Smile a genuine, friendly smile at a passerby.  Sincerely compliment someone.  Let someone else go first.  Help someone with a tedious task.  Pay for someone's lunch.  Hold a door for someone.  Put quarters into the toy machines at the store.  Just listen to someone who needs to talk. Tip your server a little more generously than necessary.  Take someone a meal.  Write a sweet little note and slip it into the mail. The possibilities are endless, and if you keep your eyes open, they're obvious.  You just have to be looking.  And you have to be willing to follow through.

I invite you all to join me in this endeavor.  Together, we can all make a big difference with small gestures.  We'll remind one another that we're not alone on this journey called life.  Let's all be looking for ways to love one another.  I know that by doing so, we'll all be blessed.  And you truly never know who needs those random acts of kindness.  What seems like a small, unimportant thing to you might be the only bright light in someone else's darkness, and that one tiny thing could save a life.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I Heart Faces Photo Challenge:: Beautiful Eyes

Anyone who knows my Wyatt knows how wonderfully expressive he can be!  His gorgeous eyes, along with that ruby red hair, have always enchanted me.  The light outside was so warm and delicious last night that we went out for some pre-bath fun on his new fort.  I caught this silly boy trying to scare me through one of the footholds.  He's a goober, and I love him!

Photo Challenge Submission

Monday, September 1, 2014

Weeding the Garden of Your Heart

In only a few short days, these weeds have overtaken my dianthus flowers so that you can't even see their foliage!
For the first time in what seems like forever, the temperature outside this morning was almost chilly.  I decided to take advantage of this blessing and spend some time pulling weeds from my poor, neglected garden.  As I'm sure is the case for many an avid gardener, I often have the best conversations with God in the peace and quiet among my flower beds.  And because I love tangible results in anything I'm doing, pulling weeds is an extremely satisfying task.

Since it's been a few weeks since I've set foot in my garden for anything other than watering, I had quite the mess on my hands.  The only thing to do was to start on the far end and work my way to the other, one green invader at a time.  As I started making progress, I started realizing the parallels between weeds among our flowers and the weeds of sin on our hearts.

What are weeds, really?  When I was a kid, I always heard the old-timers refer to weeds as something growing where you didn't want it to.  But they're more than that.  True weeds choke out beneficial plants, robbing them of the nutrients they need to bear mature fruit.  Weeds grow much more aggressively, entangling themselves around other plants until it becomes difficult or impossible to separate the two.  Weeds aren't picky; they'll grow rampantly in the poorest or richest of soils, and make do with whatever water and nutrients they can steal from their surroundings.  In our hearts, weeds are not so obvious and easy to identify.  They spring up from burying ourselves in the cares of this world, getting trapped up in the allure of material things, or placing the pleasures of the world above God's will for our lives.   

As we read in Matthew 13:25-28, the seeds of the worldly weeds in our hearts are sown by the enemy.  As these seeds germinate and grow, they distract us from our relationship with God and take up the space in our hearts for godly thoughts.  If allowed to take root, they can slow our spiritual growth, sometimes even stop it altogether, and prevent us from producing mature spiritual fruit. 

The top photo is a weed.  The bottom is one of my favorite plants, purslane.  Aside from the flowers, they're nearly identical! 
Some weeds look just like the plants I've purposefully planted in my garden, and I sometimes question whether they're truly weeds or just a friendly little volunteer seedling.  The weeds in our heart are just as sneaky.  Satan doesn't come to us looking like himself.  He disguises himself in light, looking very much like everything we've ever wanted.  And that's how he gets his foot in the door.  Remember, he is a thief.  He wants to distract you from God and His will for your life.  He wants you to dwell on things that are no good for you.  He wants to steal the nutrients of your heart meant for bearing good fruit.

The good news is that God has lovingly provided us with His own special blend of weed killer.  In Philippians 4:8, His word tells us, "finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."  When you nourish those thoughts, they will grow and flourish.

A pretty little periwinkle trying to make its home in the rocks of my patio.  If I leave it there, it will grow for awhile, but it will soon need more space and the heat will be too intense, and it will die.

It's very important to tend to the garden of your heart (hopefully more frequently than I do my actual flower garden, by the way).  Carving out time each day to spend in God's word is the most important maintenance your heart requires.  God craves you.  He rewards those who diligently seek Him.  His deepest desire is to be in relationship with you.  Matthew 13 presents the parable of the sower. If your heart is not properly tilled, the seeds that God sows there through His word will at first be joyfully received, but without the proper soil, the roots won't be able to take hold, and those sprouts will never fully develop.  You hear the word, and while you believe it, when troubles and hardships come your way, the soil of your heart isn't fortified with the nutrients it needs, so you quickly abandon the hope that is yours for the taking. Don't just be hearers of the word, be doers.  Believe and trust in Him who is able, the Great I Am.

This sweet little celosia apparently overwintered in my flower bed!  I haven't planted any celosia this year, and this plant is an annual, so it shouldn't have survived.  I love it when I find these little gems every year!

In Proverbs 3:3, we're reminded to "let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart."  When you spend time in God's word every day, impressing His truths upon your heart, those seeds of love and hope will settle themselves in the soil of your heart.  During the trials of life, you'll be amazed to find that those seeds have germinated into full-grown vines of hope and truth.  What you may have forgotten you'd tucked away will now sustain you.  All of God's seeds grow into perennials!  They just keep coming back, time after time, to remind you of His love and faithfulness! 

This purple basil started out as a tiny little sprout this spring.  I found it inside of the pot of another plant I'd purchased at a nursery, and transplanted it to this spot.  Not kidding, it was two inches tall at the time.  Within a few weeks, it grew to a 5-ft tall shrub!
Another amazing thing about God's word...it fills up the space in your heart until it overflows!  The more time and energy you spend filling your heart with God and His truth, the richer the soil of your heart becomes.  Luke 6:45 teaches us that "a good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart."  

Friends, our God in Heaven loves us so much.  So much that He sent His only begotten Son to take our place on the cross.  To pay the wages of our sin.  To tear the veil that separates us from Himself.  All He wants from us is that we seek a relationship with Him.  And as we seek Him and grow in Him, He will sanctify us, bringing us closer and closer to His side, and refining us until we are more and more like Jesus.  And one day, we will walk together with Him in His perfect garden.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mexican Sausage Cheesy Noodle Casserole

I know my food photos are ironically unappetizing.  I'm a children and family photographer...food isn't my forte.

Oh my word, this is delicious.  Like, my husband declared its supreme deliciousness, and proclaimed that it shall be in the regular rotation.  Yup, you want to make this.

I have been getting sick of ground beef.  I make so much Mexican food, and I'm starting to feel like it's all the exact same ingredients just arranged in a different order.  So, I decided to see how sausage would taste instead.  Um, wonderful, that's how.  Thanks to the seasoning in the sausage and salsa, this dish ends up being really spicy and flavorful without having to add any spices or seasoning powders!

1 lb ground sausage (I used regular, but this dinner is SPICY, so go with mild if you want to tame it a bit)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1tbsp minced garlic
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 16-oz jar green salsa (I love the Herdez brand)
2 cups penne pasta, cooked and drained
4 cups shredded cheese, divided (I like colby jack)

optional toppings: tomatoes, sour cream, black olives, jalepenos

1.  Preheat oven to 350. 
2.  In large skillet, brown sausage with garlic and onion until cooked through and onions are tender.  Drain any grease, then stir in cilantro.
3.  Once cilantro is wilted, add entire bottle of green salsa, stirring to coat sausage.
4.  Stir in cooked pasta until well mixed, then add two cups of the cheese, stirring until cheese is melted and mixed in well.
5.  Add mixture to lightly greased 3-qt casserole dish.  Spread remaining 2 cups of cheese evenly over top.
6.  Bake for 20-25 minutes until bubbly.
7.  Garnish with optional toppings, if desired, then serve!

We divided this dish into four equal servings, which ended up being right about 30 carbs each.  Not too shabby for a pasta dinner! 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Book Review:: The Whispering Road

The Whispering Road by Livi Michael

I'm not even sure where this book came from...does that happen to anyone else?  I am one of those people that hoards books, but as a rule, I typically buy books based upon their cleverly written synopses or their visually appealing cover art.  I'm guessing I just liked the title of this one. 

This ended up being a really great, unique read.  It's set in 19th century England, and follows a young boy, Joe, and his kid sister, Annie, who escape from a workhouse in search of their mother.  Several years before, their mother had given them over to the workhouse out of desperation, having just been widowed and unable to provide for them.  She had intended to come back for them as soon as she got back on her feet, but after years of suffering abuse at the hands of their masters, the kids bolted in hopes of reuniting with her on their own.  The book follows their journey, which is riddled with danger and disappointment.  Annie has strange supernatural abilities that strike either fear or awe into the strangers they meet along the way, and Joe grows weary of her bizarre behavior, which hinders them greatly along the way.  When the opportunity to abandon her presents itself, he takes it, joining a child gang in a large city.  His new life is a treacherous one, and he must literally fight for survival on a daily basis.  When circumstances leave him all alone again, he begins to regret leaving Annie behind, and determines to find her again. 

I loved that this entire novel was written from a child's perspective.  How different a story it would've been if written any other way!  So many times throughout the book, I found myself questioning what was real, what was the imagination of a kid, and what was pure superstition or fabrication.  And it was brilliant.  In general, the story was heart-wrenching, and the human condition described among the poorest of England's citizens left little to the imagination.  The atrocities committed against the children in the book are unthinkable, yet true to life.  Aside from the superstitious aspects of the story, I almost believed I was reading a diary.  There were even great philosophical talking points woven throughout speaking to a plethora of moral and political issues.

I loved it.  I think you would, too!

Book Review:: The Reader

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

This was a random purchase on a recent trip to Gardner's Book Store a few months ago.  The synopsis on the back captured my attention, painting it as somewhat of a mystery novel. Well, if I'm honest, I found it to be a little strange and not at all mysterious. 

The novel is set during WWII in Germany, although the main content of the book completely ignores the war as it is happening...the book is more about the relationship developing between the two main characters, Michael and Hanna.  Michael is a 15-year-old boy, who after getting sick on his walk home from school one day, is tended to by Hanna, a woman in her early thirties.  Hanna cleans him up and walks him home.  It ends up Michael's sickness was caused by hepatitis, therefore causing him to miss nearly an entire school year to recover.  During that time, while taking doctor-prescribed walks, he made daily visits to Hanna at her apartment, where they began a very bizarre romance.  Hanna is secretive about her life, only telling Michael tiny bits here and there, which include the fact that she works as a trolley ticket taker.  Say that three times fast.  Their lusty affair begins to wane as times passes, partly because Hanna is too busy being an adult with a job, and partly because Michael regains his health and rejoins his friends and their high school existence.  Then one day, Hanna just disappears leaving no explanation or any way to contact her.

Years pass, then the war trials begin.  Michael, now in college, is assigned with his class to attend these trials by one of his professors.  Lo and behold, one of the women on trial for her crimes committed at a concentration camp is Hanna.  While every other former guard on trial defends herself vehemently, Hanna seems to refuse to do so, even implicating herself on occasion or accepting responsibility that apparently wasn't hers.  Her motive for acting thus was supposed to be the big mystery of the novel.  I figured it out in the beginning chapters of the book, and was a little amazed at how long it took Michael to come to the same conclusion. 

I know I've more or less just beat down the whole book, and I'm still not sure how I feel about it really.  There were some aspects of the book I found interesting.  The psychology presented, for example.  Michael's narrative was always very pensive, and he raised very interesting questions about morality, loyalty, honesty, and love.  His obsession with Hanna throughout his entire life, and the dysfunction that resulted, seemed very real-to-life.  Reading the viewpoint of a child (albeit a fictitious child) of German parents who looked the other way while a genocide was taking place was another illuminating high point of the book.  While it wasn't my favorite summer read, I can honestly say it was intriguing.  I'd be interested to hear what you think about it if you give it a go!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book Review:: The Memory Keeper's Daughter

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

This is one of those books that will forever change me.  I'm really not sure why it had such a deep impact on me, but it ached my heart to read every page. 

On a cold winter night in 1964, Dr. David Henry's wife, Norah, goes into labor during a terrible blizzard.  Once they've started toward the hospital, they realize their car will never make it, so they decide to stop at his office, where he is an orthopedic surgeon.  Along with the assistance of his trusted nurse, Caroline, he delivers his own perfect, healthy son.  And then, to their surprise, his little daughter, who very obviously has Down's Syndrome.  While Norah was sedated, Dr. Henry makes a fateful decision to send this imperfect child away, telling his wife upon her awakening that the child was stillborn.  He hands the baby to Caroline and instructs her to take the infant to an institution just out of town.

That one decision, hastily made in an effort to spare his wife the potential pain and struggle of raising a child with a disability...a disability that may lead to an early death...cost everyone involved, including both children, something precious.  Norah falls into a deep, inconsolable depression that haunts her for the rest of her life.  David's shame and guilt force him to overcompensate in some areas, and fall so short in others that a great divide is created between him, his wife, and his son.  Caroline, who once setting foot through the doors of the mental institution, decided to keep this sweet child for herself, uprooted her entire life, running away to another city to raise her new daughter.

I am not exaggerating when I say that every single page of this book broke my heart.  While there were joyous triumphs enjoyed by each of the characters, present for all of them was an overwhelming sadness for what could have been.  Human character is revealed in how each person's decisions are motivated out of a love for the others involved, whether those decisions were the right ones to make or not.  And that complicates things exponentially.  You want to despise the doctor for what he did, yet when you discover what in his life led him to want to protect his wife, you can understand why he did it.  You want to love Norah, but her bitterness and inability to move forward wear thin on you, causing you to lose patience with her.  Caroline's seemingly heroic act, in the long run, was also a tragic mistake, costing another mother a lifetime of opportunities with her own daughter, and a boy with his twin.  There is some redemption at the end of the novel, which ends on a hopeful note, yet the theme is the utter heartbreak of the human condition.
This novel is beautifully written, and compels you to love these make-believe people, flaws and all.  Reading this book has given me a fresh perspective on the motives of others who are in pain, and has strengthened my appreciation for the blessings I have been given in life.  I highly recommend this book.

Book Review:: Remember Me?

Remember Me?  by Sophie Kinsella

Early this summer, I was invited to a girls' night in to celebrate the birthday of my friend, Brooke.  Everyone invited brought a book, wrapped to conceal its identity, and each party-goer left with a mystery book!  We had a brilliant time playing charades and the like, and I walked away with this hilarious book.

I've loved the Confessions of a Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella, so I already knew this was going to be a fun read.  I was not disappointed.  Ms. Kinsella has a wonderful voice in her heroines, and manages to make you feel like you yourself are the narrator.

In this witty book, Lexi Smart, a 25-year-old carpet salesperson with little money, a dumpy apartment, and a loser boyfriend.  After a hard week of work, on the eve of her father's funeral, she and her girlfriends go out to drown their sorrows, and while hailing a cab, Lexi trips and falls, hitting her head.  Next thing she knows, she's waking up in a hospital....three years later.  Only, she wasn't comatose for all of that time.  No, she was just in a minor car accident a few days before, and the knock to her noggin erased three years of memories.  What's even more disconcerting is that she doesn't even recognize her life.  All of the sudden, she's in perfect shape, her teeth and hair look amazing, she apparently crashed her Mercedes (WHAT? She didn't even own a car!), and she was, gulp, married. 

At first, this new life is everything she's ever dreamed of having...perfect husband, huge hilltop mansion, closet the size of a normal person's house, high profile job, live-in housekeeper.  But as time passes with no sign of her memory ever returning, she begins to miss her former life.  And she discovers that the new her missed the old her, too. 

I seriously laughed out loud throughout this book because of the clever narrative and witty banter.  There were a few curse words I could've lived without, and an extramarital affair that is somewhat glorified and excused.  The underlying message, though, was solid:  be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it."  And what it costs to get what you desire may just be your true self.

Book Review:: One Lane Bridge

One Lane Bridge by Don Reid

This beautiful book's cover caught my eye.  Yes, that's right, I totally judged it by the cover.  I've just love a little country house plopped out in the middle of nowhere, what can I say?  Thankfully, all of those words between the covers kept me thoroughly entertained, reinforcing my track record for loving books with pretty artwork adorning them.

This story follows a fellow named J.D., who is heavily burdened with the stresses of life.  One evening, in an effort to relax his mind and calm his spirit, he takes a drive out in the country in his old convertible car.  Well, as old cars do, it overheated, stranding him on an unfamiliar country back road with no hope of any cell phone signal or passerby.  He hikes up a long driveway to the only house he can see to ask for help.  The family he meets there is destitute, with barely enough food, and an ailing mother.  The man of the house fetches some water from the well, helps J.D. get the car started back up, and sends J.D. on his way.  The plight of the family weighs heavily on J.D.'s heart, so the next day, he and his wife decide to revisit them with a carload of groceries.  Here's where the plot twists:  once they reached the spot where the driveway had been, there now stood a gas station.  J.D.'s wife is convinced that they've taken a wrong turn, but J.D. knows for certain that something far more supernatural was happening. 

Over the following hours, J.D. obsesses over this bizarre mental glitch, and manages to find the house once more on another solo drive, only to discover years have passed for the family, while only a day has passed for him.  J.D.'s wife and best friend are starting to worry that he's losing his mind, and he isn't too far from joining their sentiment.  The encounters he has with this family lead him to a strange woman in town, who helps him to locate relatives of the poor family.  What he discovers reveal to him the great providence of God, and His mercies and protection.  He begins to see how we're all connected, and how God always has His hand on our lives. 

Book Review:: Eli

Eli by Bill Myers

About a month ago, my little family of three set out on a week-long beach vacation on Galveston Island.  Unlike every other vacation we've ever taken as a family unit, we decided this one would be totally laid back with zero scheduled outings.  We slept in every day, watched a little television (which was met with quite a lot of excitement by the Pooh Bear, since we cancelled our cable subscription at the beginning of the year...he'd missed Sponge Bob), dropped more than a few quarters at the hotel's arcade, splashed in the hotel pool, ordered room service, waded in the waves on the beach...you get the idea.  Basically, if we couldn't walk there from our hotel room, we didn't go.  And it was divine.

In that week, I managed to read a book a day.  I'm already jealous of my vacation self.  The first book I read was this very thought-provoking novel, Eli.  The premise is honestly quite simple, and because I know my bible, the story was fairly predictable, yet I must say that its effect on my heart was quite profound.  The story follows a man named Conrad Davis, who is critically injured within the opening pages of the novel.  As his body lay in a coma, his soul is transported into a parallel realm in which every single detail of his life is the same as it had been before his accident.  With one major difference:  Jesus Christ had only been born about thirty years prior, rather than over two-thousand years ago.  There is no New Testament in any bible that exists.  Believers in God still seek salvation in works and travel to temples for redemption and blessing.  The world is awaiting its Savior. 

Because Conrad works for the media, he is catapulted into circumstances that allow him to closely a man named Eli, who's words of truth and hope are attracting quite a following.  While all of the logistics and minute details are substantially changed in a more modern setting, Eli's words, mission, and miracless coincide exactly with that of the Christ of the bible that Conrad had heard of from his pre-crash existence.  Conrad recognizes Whom he is following, and over time, walks away from the life he knows to follow Eli.

Like me, if you know the gospel, you'll feel the stories of Eli's ministry unfolding with a comfortable familiarity, and get a giggle at some of the modern day tweaks.  I especially loved the miracle of loaves and fishes, which ended up being Big Macs and french fries.  But like me, you might also feel a pang of shame when you read of the state of the souls of this world, especially when you get to the chapter which describes the mega-church temple where believers gather to worship.   

The most poignant thing I took from this book was a keen realization that the people whose stories we've read over and over in the bible were just like us.  They were real people.  They desperately needed a savior.  And they got so caught up in man-made religion that the majority of them completely missed Him when He stood right in front of them.  His ways and His words were radical.  He spoke the truth, He loved unconditionally, and He expected His followers to lay down their lives to follow Him. 

With two thousand years of hindsight, it's easy to question how the people were able to just hand Him over to be crucified.  It's easy to misunderstand how they didn't recognize Him for who He was.  But, what if, as in this book, He were walking among us now?  And His words went directly against everything you've been taught your entire life?  And if He were labeled as a lunatic cult leader?  And following Him may cost you everything you hold dear on this earth?  Would you believe Him?    Would you admit to loving Him?  Would you risk it all to follow Him?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Slow Cooker Beef and Barley Soup

Slow cooker beef and barley soup

Don't forget your slow-cooker liner!  You're welcome. ;)

1. Start with a 2-lb chuck roast.  For flavor, I bought a fatty one...I trim that off later after it's cooked.

2.Add four 5.5-oz cans of tomato juice.

3.  Add one can of beef broth.

4.  Add 3 tbsp soy sauce.

In case you're like my husband, YES, I've washed my hands.
 5.  Salt and pepper.  To taste.  Sorry I didn't show you the pepper...I just shook it directly into the pot.

I normally would have a yellow or white onion, but I made kabobs the other night and had purple onion left over.
 6.  One small onion, chopped. 

7.  3-4 ribs of celery, chopped.


8.  About a cup of chopped carrots.


9.  Three cups of water.
10.  Set to low and cook for 8 hours.  I'm not going to lie...I set mine to high and cooked for about 6 hours...that meat was ridiculously tender for having done so.  I'm crazy like that.

11.  Once cooked through, remove roast, trim fat, and shred.  Add shredded beef back to pot.
12.  About an hour before you're ready to eat, add 1 cup of quick barley.

13.  Season with some dried parsley and thyme.  You know, to taste.  

This makes a pretty generous heap of soup...about six healthy bowl fulls.  If you divide it six ways, each bowl should be just about 25 carbs each!

Friday, July 11, 2014

I Heart Faces Photo Challenge:: Make a Splash

After almost a year of little to no rain, we were pummeled with over five inches of the wet stuff yesterday.  As the sun was slowly dissolving along the horizon, the boy and I set out for our evening walk.  Glassy puddles beckoned to be tread upon, and Wyatt did not leave one unrippled.  This was his first pass of many through the one at the end of our cul-de-sac.  By the time our walk was over, he had a stripe of mud and water all of the way up his back and into his hair.  He couldn't have been happier.

Want to follow me on instagram?  My user name is cktogger.

Photo Challenge Submission

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Creamy Potato Soup

Last week, we had a few relatively cool days, and I was really craving potato soup.  It's been ages since I've made this staple of my youth, so I played around a bit with my mom's recipe and I really loved the way it turned out!  I don't really measure anything, and I'm pretty heavy handed with seasoning, so for this recipe, I've given a range of certain ingredients.  You really can't mess this recipe up, so season to taste!

4-5 cups of water
1 chicken bullion cube
4-5 small potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 onion, chopped
2-3 tbsp butter
1-2 tsp celery salt
1-2 tbsp parsley (I use dried)
1-2 tbsp chives
1 cup milk
1/2-1 cup instant potato flakes
salt & pepper to taste
optional garnishes:
shredded cheese
bacon bits
sour cream

In a large pot, bring water with bullion cube to boil.  Add chopped potatoes, onion, butter, and celery salt.  Reduce heat to simmer.  Add parsley and chives, and continue cooking until potatoes and onions are tender.  Add milk and allow to return to simmer.  Slowly stir in potato flakes, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until desired thickness is obtained.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Add desired garnishes, then serve.

This makes four heaping bowls of soup, which I estimated to be around 40 carbs each.  Being almost purely potatoes, though, this has a pretty high glycemic index, so not necessarily the best dish for diabetics, but it's delicious nonetheless.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Book Review:: Gone Girl

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a sweet friend Brooke's birthday girls'-night-in.  It was a blind book date!  Everyone who came brought a book to swap, which was to be wrapped with only a couple of words to describe the book on the cover...no authors or titles disclosed.  So much fun!

The book I chose is a Sophie Kinsella novel, which I'm very much looking forward to reading on our upcoming beach vacation!  My friend, Kendall, and I carpooled, and on the way home, after happily ripping open our books, she discovered she'd gotten Gone Girl.  She's read it once before, so we continued the swapping, and I took home Gone Girl, which she highly recommended!

My goodness, I loved it!  I'm beginning to notice a pattern in the books I prefer: they all switch between the first-person narratives of the primary protagonists (although, after reading Gone Girl, I'm thinking that antagonist would be the better descriptive for everyone in the book).  I honestly cannot tell you much about the plot of the book without giving too much away, but the gist is that it's a whodunit with devious, sinister twists and turns which always keep you guessing.  Nick Dunne's famous wife, Amy, disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, apparently murdered, and all fingers point to him, but the evidence is contradictory and open to interpretation at best. And once the truth is revealed, it somehow gets even darker and scarier.  Not like boogey man in the woods scary.  Try psychotic scary.  Like, you end up having no idea whether you like a character at all, but you want to take their side anyway because the alternative is terrifying.

For those of you who like a warning, there is a fair amount of cursing sprinkled throughout, along with some pretty sadistic thoughts and actions.  But it IS a crime novel, revolving around scumbag people...sooo, that's to be expected.  If you love mysteries and thrillers, you'll love this book.  Just prepare to think, "WHAT?!" often.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

We live here

When I first became a mother a little over seven years ago, I was confounded by how much stuff comes with such a tiny little baby.  My once pinterest-worthy house was now cluttered with gigantic contraptions that were designed to stimulate, entertain, or corral my squishy little kid.  As he's grown, his belongings have both multiplied and shrunk in size.  Now, instead of one huge teddy bear, there are forty million tiny legos and hotwheels.

Parking lots for the OCD-inclined can be found tucked into random corners of my entire home.
The battle to contain the mess used to really stress me out to no end.  I have always had this vision of what my home would be like:  uncluttered, organized, welcoming, warm, cozy, well decorated and coordinating in every sense.  For the first few years, I was able to maintain a pretty convincing facade.  The dishes were always done and put away...as was the laundry.  All of Wyatt's toys were separated into awesome little bins, and we'd always put away one mess before creating another.  I always rushed to tidy up as soon as anything else caught his interest.  I obsessively vacuumed and mopped and dusted and polished.  My house was perfect.  But my son was bored, and I was depressed.  The depression lasted a couple of years, ebbing and flowing, until I finally started getting to the root of its cause:  the constant struggle for unattainable perfection.

Evidence of my kid everywhere.  It's inescapable.

So I decided to just see what would happen if I relaxed a bit.  I saw how much more Wyatt's creativity and imagination blossomed when he was allowed to have completely unstructured play, making giant messes in the process.  I realized how he would come back to something he'd walked away from a few hours before, and find an entirely new way to play with what he'd left behind.  He began making collage art from scraps of previous art projects that I didn't maniacally throw away as soon as they left the scissors' blade.  My boy was set free...and so was I.

So that's where those are...nothing ever in its place.
Believe me, this has been a long mental process with plenty of bumps along the way.  I've fought the urge to literally throw everything laying on the floor into a garbage bag and be rid of it.  I have to internally chant the mantra, "he's just being a kid" over and over and over in my head to keep from getting annoyed at the messes.  I still insist that my house be clean, even if there are the scattered messes everywhere.  I do still require responsibility of Wyatt when it comes to tidying up periodically when it is obvious he's truly done with any particular bit of chaos.  This new attitude of "let him be little" does not mean that I've thrown up my hands and decided to live like pigs.  It means that rather than having a total freak out session when every Lincoln Log is strewn about on the floor, I give him time to be an engineer of fun....and sometimes, I join him.  I let him build blanket forts.  I let him fill up the sink with water and splash.  I let him tape twenty pieces of copy paper together to make a life-sized canvas for his art.
An every day occurrence.
He said this is going to be a "real size picture of me."  We go through so much tape and paper in this house, it isn't even funny.

Another thing I've had to embrace:  not constantly apologizing for living in the home that we live in.  I mean, come on.  My house will probably never again consistently look like company is about to come over.  About once a month, during the school year, every single thing is in its place.  Every dish is washed and put away....laundry, too.  Every bed is made.  The dust has been conquered.  Horizontal surfaces are visible.  Then, my guys come home and we live here.  Dishes get dirty, clothes get worn, things get put down where they didn't start.  It's okay.  Why I felt the need to explain away these very normal happenings of life, I'll never know.  

Wyatt lives here.

And here.  He takes great pride in his collections of stuff.
Instead of seeing every mess as something undesirable, I've started viewing them through another lens:  this is where my little boy pretended to be a Kratt brother for an hour.  This is where my little Picasso created the most incredible collage I've ever seen.  This is where he built a restaurant out of legos, then spent time using his imagination, pretending his army men were having a meal together there with the lego men.  This is where he sat for two hours researching bugs and snakes and sharks, learning enough to recite endless interesting facts to me while I prepared dinner. 

A Kratt brother has been here...

And let's be real:  not every mess can be blamed on Wyatt.  I get lazy about putting things away, too.   Sometimes I'd rather read a few chapters of a good book than unload/load the dishwasher.  I've been known to totally skip folding and putting away a load of laundry until the next time around.  I don't make my bed every single day anymore.  I have often waited until the number of roly poly corpses is beyond ridiculous before I haul out the vacuum.  I'm human.  And I live here.  And I'm not sorry.

My bathroom after the Sunday morning rush.

There's still space on the counter...not an emergency yet. 
So, let's all give each other a break.  None of us live in the perfect world that the magazines and pinterest put on display.  Relax.  Support one another.  Love one another.  Be real with each other.  You really never know how badly someone else needs to see your sink full of dishes and toys all over your floor.  I needed that desperately at one point.  I truly pray and hope that for someone out there, this has been somewhat liberating and encouraging!