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.