Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Children's Book Reveiw - Balloons over Broadway, Melissa Sweet

In honor of Thanksgiving...

Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade


Melissa Sweet

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: The story of the man who made the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade what it is with his giant balloon puppets.

Rating: *** (3-star scale)

We take the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloons for granted now. In the age of computer-generated everything, they’re no big deal. We’ve taken the “awe” out of “awesome,” and that’s a shame. But way back when, a puppet maker named Tony Sarg was asked to make puppets for a Macy’s store window. When that proved a huge hit with customers, he was asked to go even grander and create parade-size puppets for the store’s immigrant workers who suffered from homesickness. How ingenious to have the parade on Thanksgiving Day, thus bringing these immigrants from all backgrounds into the great American holiday, making it theirs.

This was a nice book. There was a lot going on, and I like that in a kids’ nonfiction book.

Would you recommend this to a friend?


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday (What I'm thankful for...)

This week’s Topic: Top Ten Things I Am Thankful For:

The usual:
my husband
my grandson
my home
supply (money, car, food, clothes)
my job in a library
conveniences (electricity, laptop, DVR, etc.)
comfortable bed

The unusual:
Christian Science
good books
my Adjective Chicken recipe
Christmas ornaments
the color green
The Duggars
Chinese delivery

Monday, November 25, 2013

Children's Book Review - The Scrambled States of America, Laurie Keller


The Scrambled States of America


Laurie Keller

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: The states are restless and ready for a little adventure, so they decide to switch places.

Rating: *** (3-star scale)

I’d seen this book on Amazon, and I thought it might be fun. When I was little, my older brother had a book called Fabulous Facts about the 50 States memorized. He’d go around the house saying, “Quick quiz…,” and then ask you an obscure question about a state. The summer before fourth grade, he drilled me on states and capitals. His obsession became something I’ve always been interested in, too. (Our algebra study the summer before high school didn’t go nearly as well.)

Walking through the IMC a couple weeks ago, I recognized this book out the corner of my eye, so I checked it out. I had it on my table in the living room when my grandson came over that night. At seven, he’s a good reader, but he nonetheless fancies himself a sophisticated teenager, so I wasn’t sure he’d be interested in a picture book anymore. But when he said, “What’s that book?” I grabbed for it, and he curled up next to me and let me read to him (please God, don’t let this be the last picture book we read together).

All in all, we both had a blast with this, and learned something we didn’t know (or were reminded of things we did). It didn’t hurt that Nebraska has a feature role—our family has strong ties to Nebraska. The story was good, and the illustrations were a lot of fun—there are several pictures per page and delightful side conversations everywhere. We spent many minutes just reading the stuff that wasn’t part of the story.

I see there is a Scrambled States of America game, too. We may have to check that out.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes. There’s enough to keep “children” of all ages interested.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Book Review - Elizabeth the Queen, Sally Bedell Smith

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch


Sally Bedell Smith

Category: Biography

Synopsis: Smith recounts Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-plus year reign as the Queen of England.

Date finished: 23 October 2013

Rating: ****½

Words cannot describe how much I enjoyed this read. Which makes writing a critique very difficult. This could have been a lot of things: boring, overly-dishy, snooty. It was none of those things. Instead, it was a flawlessly-told, exhaustive account of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign as the Queen of England and the Commonwealth.

Queen Elizabeth (adoringly called Lilibet by her family) took the throne in 1952 when her father, King George VI, died of coronary thrombosis. She was 25. She was married to Prince Philip and had two small children, Charles and Anne. She had been groomed from a very young age to be ready to reign, and she did (is doing) so impartially and prudently for six decades. Through the years she led her nation through several wars; worked with 12 Prime Ministers, including Winston Churchill; faced critics, the less-than-generous press, and adoring commoners; tirelessly “spread the carpet of happiness” to all of her realms; and dealt with numerous family scandals and tragedies. She did it all with a steely strength. Sensitive to the fact that being married to the sovereign could be emasculating, she led the nation while she made it clear that Philip led at home. She was often criticized for being old-fashioned, unsympathetic, and out-of-touch, and in her later years, for the good of the nation, she modernized her image and the image of the monarchy. She was passionate about horses, loved her incorrigible Corgis, and delighted in spending time in her Scottish estate, Balmoral, and her English estate, Sandringham.

This book, although not authorized (no biography will be authorized until the Queen’s death), is a generous view of the Queen. However, it does not back away from presenting unpopular press (especially when it comes to family scandals) and other criticisms such as how absent she was from her young children’s lives.

The book was written in a breezy, comprehensive style. It never spent too long on any one topic, making the 550 pages fly by. Smith never gets tabloid-y nor gushes too much. It’s a rather even-handed account of the Queen’s reign.

The only thing keeping this book from being a five-star is Smith’s obvious bias against Princess Diana. After three hundred pages of impartial and tidy prose about the Queen, you can feel a black curtain falling as she cues the Princess. The tone in every sentence covering Diana’s life in the Royal family is dripping with condescension, even hatred. It was so blatant it was almost comical. I’ve long believed that Diana played the press to her advantage leaving Buckingham Palace to quietly deal with the aftermath. I’ve never doubted that Diana was complicit in the demise of her marriage to Prince Charles. I never doubted that they both cheated and that she was perhaps emotionally unbalanced. But the vitriol with which Smith tears apart Diana was breathtaking. I was advised of anti-Di sentiment before reading the book, but I had no idea. This treatment made me a touch leery of what else she might be skewing due to personal prejudice.

I’ve been a fan of the film The Queen since its 2006 release. In the movie, the Queen is torn between the crown’s tradition and her citizenry’s cries for modernization. It’s a touching and thought-provoking portrayal of the Queen and the decisions that will carry the monarchy forward into the 21st Century. This book is similar in tone, but the movie was a nice setup for the book.

Whatever your view of the sovereign, the monarchy, and its future, this book will give you a comprehensive view of the past sixty years and will endure you to the Queen. It’s full of odd facts (I took 23 pages of notes) that will delight those with a historian bent. The writing skips along, and is never uninteresting. I can’t recommend it enough.

Now excuse me while I research Corgi rescues that I can name “Lilibet.”

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Without hesitation.

Check out Sophisticated Dorkiness's review here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday (recommendations for Mom)
This week’s Topic: Top Ten books I’d recommend to…

my mother.
Mom is not a reader. I don't think I've ever seen her read a book, but she does enjoy cookbooks. Lately, she's been dealing with a lot of stress at home tending to my ailing father, and she's asked for book recommendations. The following is what I plan to pick up for her.
The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, Gretchen Craft Rubin

Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life , Gretchen Rubin

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks, Kathleen Flinn

Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life, Shauna Niequist

Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way, Shauna Niequist

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Vicki Myron, Bret Witter

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl, Ree Drummond

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier, Ree Drummond

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays: 140 Step-by-Step Recipes for Simple, Scrumptious Celebrations, Ree Drummond

Carry On, Warrior: Thoughts of Life Unarmed, Glennon Melton                   

Gettysburg Address is 150 years old today

Happy 150th birthday, Gettysburg Address!

Read President Lincoln's beautiful speech, delivered November 19, 1863, here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Children's Book Review - Flora and the Flamingo, Molly Idle

Flora and the Flamingo


Molly Idle

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: Flora dances with the flamingo.

Rating: *** (3-star scale)

In this wordless book, the charming pink illustrations do all the work. That is, until your little one takes over and tells the story.

I tend to like books with words—I am a word girl, after all—so a book with no words has to have really good illustrations, and this one does. They’re simple, but they show the right amount of drama and spirit.

Each move that the flamingo does, chubby little Flora imitates. I love the sense of serious play captured here. 

I bought this book for the library, and when it came in, I immediately ordered one for myself. My boss looked through it with me, and since she was never a girly-girl, she didn’t relate. (This one is definitely “all girl.”)

Some reviewers on Amazon complained of the flimsy paper used in the fold-outs. Before I read that, I’d thought to myself how sturdy they were! I know little fingers will rip any book to shreds, though, if not taught to be careful. The paper quality didn’t bother me.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes. Though not all would appreciate it, I suppose.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Review - Kate Gosselin's Love Is in the Mix, Kate Gosselin

Kate Gosselin’s Love Is in the Mix: Making Meals into Memories with Family-Friendly Recipes, Tips and Traditions


Kate Gosselin

Category: Cookbook: Celebrity

Synopsis: Kate Gosselin, of the “Jon and Kate Plus 8” reality television show, shares family recipes and traditions.

Date finished: 19 October 2013      

Rating: ****

I didn’t expect anything fantastic here, and I pretty much got what I expected. The recipes were straightforward fare—the kind of food I grew up on and tend to still cook. Other than calling for organic ingredients, the recipes don’t pay special attention to the current food fads—gluten-free, vegan, paleo, low fat, low sodium, low carb, etc.—and for that I say, God bless Kate! I’m so sick of those trendy specialty cookbooks that treat diet as a disease to be cured.

There was much criticism on Amazon for this book being full of recipes where you “open a can and dump stuff in.” I don’t think these folks are being fair. Sure, there are some canned tomatoes and beans, but unless you’re canning your own garden tomatoes or have all day to cook a pot of beans to use in another recipe, this seems perfectly legitimate to me.

The recipes use a lot of pork, a lot of eggs, not much spice, and emphasize vegetables. She includes recipes for snacks like guacamole and hummus; lots of main dishes, side dishes, and soups; and plenty of sweets. The recipes are easy to follow, if a touch over-explained. There is also a portion of the book (probably about one-third) devoted to family traditions and tips for feeding a large family. While I didn’t find this part as much fun as the recipes, it wasn’t as inane as I’d feared it would be.

My main complaint is that the photography isn’t necessarily professional. But, in the acknowledgments in the back I found out that one of her twins took the photos, so I softened on my critique. (Not that I’m entirely sure I’d let my thirteen-year-old [or thereabouts] be in charge of photography for my book…)

I was also bothered by the fact that the photographs of the dishes don’t reflect the ingredients or preparation instructions in a large number of the recipes. So, beware!

Also beware that the recipes are scaled toward the large family and will need to be scaled back for a smaller one. (Or, I’m sure Kate would tell you, freeze the excess for a busy day when you don’t have much time to get supper on the table.)

All-in-all, I enjoyed this cookbook, and I will try a few of the recipes. I think this would be a good book for kids learning to cook. The recipes are quite simple and easy to execute.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Book Review - Visiting Tom, Michael Perry

Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace


Michael Perry

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Farming & Rural Life

Synopsis: Perry discusses his friend Tom, his rural life, and parenting daughters.

Date finished: 9 October 2013

Rating: *****

Whenever I want a can’t-fail read, I pick up a Mike Perry book. His last, Coop, was my absolute favorite, but I’ve enjoyed them all. This one, though, I put off reading (even buying!) for a while, because the subject matter didn’t interest me. I knew I’d read it someday, but I didn’t feel in a big hurry. But then I read several bloggers’ reviews and decided it was high time.

Well, it was a “guy book,” but his writing is so flawless that didn’t even matter. He’s one of those grocery-list writers (you’d read anything they write, including their grocery list).

And here’s the thing. I know Mike Perry. Though we were a good ten years apart, we attended the same university (he in nursing, me in English) and ended up running in the same literary circle for a number of years. We used to be on reading lineups together. I was always fearful that I’d have to read my work after Mike read his. And now he’s a well-respected writer with books on the best seller lists. So, I feel a kind of little sister mixture of awe and pride.

I heard him read from Visiting Tom a few months ago at a university conference. As always, he brought the house down. He wore black jeans and an open plaid flannel shirt over a T-shirt—standard rural uniform in these parts. He kept his head down in a bashful sort of way. He’s a genuine guy. What you see is what you get. And he’s funny as heck. If you ever get a chance to attend his readings, please do.

Innywho. The book.

What I love about Mike’s books is the setting. I grew up not far from where he did, and I still live in that area. The Interstate he talks about in the book (I-94) is one I’ve traveled my whole life—one way out of Eau Claire takes me to the Twin Cities and the other way takes me “home.” (The Interstate ran close to my grandmother’s home, and I remember falling asleep to the whoosh of cars when I stayed at her house. The Interstate also ran not far from the Drive-Inn where I worked as a carhop for four summers. Our boss made us were blaze orange polyester aprons so we’d be seen by travelers on the Interstate.) The attitudes, the people, and especially, the speech, in his books are all the comforts of my childhood. People accuse him of being too Garrison Keillor, and say his down home ah-shucks mannerisms are put on. He might exaggerate a little bit, embellish for effect. For instance, I’ve never met anyone around these parts who actually said, “I reckon.” But for the most part, what you read in his books is pretty much how farming folks up here live. He chooses his details beautifully. When Perry uses words like “hunnerd bucks,” “some’a them,” “n’that,” “blankety-blank,” and “as the crow flies,” I can do nothing but nod my head in recognition of my people. God bless Perry for putting it on paper.

I was flabbergasted at how much I enjoyed a book essentially about highways, farming, cannons, lathes, sawmills, and snowplows. Often when he’d explain how a certain piece of equipment was constructed or ran, I was unable to follow, but that didn’t really bother me. I was never bored, and I knew the payoff for the more man-ish parts was just around the corner. I laughed out loud several times reading this, and my husband can attest how rarely that happens in my reading.

I’d rank this as my second favorite of his books. I’m not sure he’ll ever top Coop for the way it brought me back to my childhood, but it takes a fine book to come in second to Coop. You know I don’t rank books 5 out 5 stars every day.

I can’t recommend Mike’s books enough to someone looking for an outstanding memoir and unparalleled writing, wit, and warmth.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
You betcha!

You might also enjoy:
Population 485

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Children's Book Review - Exclamation Mark, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Tom Lichtenheld (Ill.)

Exclamation Mark


Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Tom Lichtenheld (Ill.)

Category: Children’s Picture Book

Synopsis: Exclamation Mark doesn’t seem to fit in—until he finds out what he’s capable of.

Rating: *** (3-star scale)

If they had books like this when I was a child, I sure didn’t know it. I can’t get enough of them now.

Did you ever feel like you didn’t fit in? Like you had nothing to offer because you weren’t like everyone else? That’s how little Exclamation Mark felt. In a world full of Periods, Exclamation Mark was too tall, too different. But then one day Question Mark shows up doing what he does best (asks incessant questions, of course) and Exclamation Mark stumbles upon what he was born to do—exclaim!

I love this book. I love its message to young readers and old readers alike. Everyone needs to be reminded from time to time that if they keep looking, they’ll find what they’re meant to do. And they’ll be good at it. 

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes. Little and big, alike.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review - Imperfect Harmony, Stacy Horn

Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others


Stacy Horn

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir

Synopsis: Horn discusses her 30 years spent as a choral participant.

Date finished: 4 October 2013

Rating: ***

Preconceived notions about a book can be bad news—especially if you can’t get over them. I expected this book to be different, to feel different. I expected to feel uplifted after reading it. Instead, I didn’t really feel anything. It was like clipping my fingernails—good to have it done, but it didn’t change me.

And that’s a shame, because I really wanted to like this one. It was a gift and it came highly recommended, and I just hate not liking those books.

So, what was the issue? I’m unsure. Horn obviously loves doing research, and I normally get a kick out of that. I mean, I could watch Gretchen Rubin do research all day. But Horn’s research fell flat for me. Also, her email interviews of her singing friends were uninspiring.

I’m not a singer myself, so all the unexplained musical terms and all the foreign music titles just meant nothing to me. I kept thinking how hard writing about music must be. Most people are much more able to summon up a visual image, or even a taste, than a sound. And to put a book about music in front of a nonmusical reader—no matter how interested she is—is just too big of a task. Still, I did enjoy the explanations of the different composers and their work. I learned something here, and that’s a big plus for any book.

I was irritated by several typos and other errors. A poorly edited book makes me care just a little bit less. And I also thought Horn “doth protest too much” when she talks about how happily non-Christian she is. Little things, but they both brought me down.

But I think the main thing is that I expected more emotion. Horn took a scientific-y, scholarly approach, and it didn’t resonate, especially since I’m not musical myself. It just seemed too clinical. She talked about how uplifting playing and hearing music is, but she didn’t prove it with her own experience. She did address her personal experience to a given piece, and those were the best moments for me. Her story of being demoted from Soprano 1 to Soprano 2, the disappointment she felt, and then the pleasure she experienced when she realized Soprano 2 has its own joys, if not the highest notes, was my favorite part of the book. That’s an experience that translates to my own life, and I think I’ll remember it long after I’ve forgotten the book.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
A singer, yes. Others, probably not.

You might also enjoy:
Coming to My Senses, Alyssa Harad – similar in that she describes a passion that not all partake in or understand, but her research is in balance with her pleasure. A much better execution. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Book Review - Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well, Sam Sifton

Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well


Sam Sifton, Sarah Rutherford (Ill)

Category: Food & Cooking

Synopsis: Sifton, former restaurant critic for The New York Times, explains how to cook Thanksgiving dinner—the right way.

Date finished: 30 September 2013

Rating: ****½


“You can go your whole life and then wake up one morning and look in the refrigerator at this animal carcass the size of a toddler and think: I have to cook that today.”

You say you’ve always wanted to read a book about creating the perfect Thanksgiving meal written by a cranky, boozy, sarcastic know-it-all? Well, have I got the book for you!

I bought this book after I read about it on so many cooking blogs last year about this time. I saved it all year until the first chilly autumn nip. You see, in my family, I’m the Thanksgiving hostess. This started the Thanksgiving after I was married and has been in place the 11 years since. Mom takes Christmas, and we all go out for Easter, but Thanksgiving is all mine. And with family traditions and an opinionated—not to mention, picky-eating—husband, the menu does not change. So, I thought, if I can’t make it different, at least I can make it better. Thus, the book.

What a hoot this book is. Sifton is a man who takes his Thanksgiving meal seriously. He’s a man with Opinions. He’s a man who will tell you the Right Way to do things.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that anchors itself in tradition. Which means: You will make a turkey. Turkey is why you are here. (page 8)

Thanksgiving is likewise not a book for those interested in cutting corners….Put plainly, we are going to cook Thanksgiving correctly….There are going to be candles. There will be dessert. (page 8)

It means there will not be a salad course at meal’s end, or appetizers at its beginning. (page 9)

Let us speak frankly: you are going to need a lot of butter. (page 16)

You will not need garlic. (page 18)

Do not trust those plastic pop-up thermometers that are inserted in some turkeys, even free-range organic ones with college diplomas. (page 31)

I’ll risk starting a brushfire by saying with great confidence that the two most important factors in any credible Thanksgiving feast are the cranberry sauce and the gravy. Debate that all you like. But they tie every element on the plate together. They act as frame and foundation alike. (page 68)

 See? And I’ll spare you his directions on how to set a proper table.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot of practical information in this small book. For instance, I learned how they make high-fructose corn syrup. I learned why cranberry sauce gels. I learned what giblets are (now if someone would just tell me if it’s pronounced with a G-sound or J-sound…). I learned how to time the dreaded turkey thaw.

Also, there’s this:
Confidence is everything. Those who believe their gravy will turn out well will turn out good gravy….Work slowly, with deliberation, as if raking the lawn for a good neighbor, tasting all the way. (page 69)

 This makes me want to take over the making of the gravy—a task always pawned to my mother, since she has roughly 40 years more experience with it than I do.

But anyone who posits there’s only one right way to cook Thanksgiving dinner is going to stir up resentments in his reader, and here are mine:
  • He doesn’t account for personal taste. Not all people like butternut squash or Brussels sprouts just because they’re in season at Thanksgiving time.
  • He doesn’t say how many his recipes will feed, which is rather important in my humble opinion.
  • He bans garlic but then calls for it in at least three of his recipes. Just saying.
  • Green beans are not in season in November (as he insists all Thanksgiving food should be).
  • He doesn’t allow for (or understand) folks who don’t drink, although he does mention options for children and “those who no longer drink.” He suggests that a bottle of wine per guest is not too much. (page 89)
  • Oysters aren’t available (or appreciated) in all parts of the country. I dare you to eat an oyster bought in November in west-central Wisconsin.

Will my family allow me to change things up? No. Not ever. To the guys, homemade stuffing is just plain pretentious, so bring out the microwaved Stove Top, please. There will always be Norwegian lefse (think “potato tortilla”) on the table. Our beloved cranberry sauce straight from the can will not be removed from the table this side of eternity. And I can assure you that a butternut squash will never find its way into my kitchen. Amen. But is there room for improvement? Sure. And this book helps.

All in all, this was an enlightening and entertaining treatise on Thanksgiving. There are several blank pages in the back for notes or family recipes, and the sketches throughout are gorgeous.

Would you recommend this to a friend?