Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Easy Packing

I'm in the middle of packing for a quick little vacation we're about to take. It's more of a really long weekend than anything else, but it's the best kind. We've got very few plans other than to hang out with friends and relatives by the water. It's the kind of trip for which I've packed my junkiest clothes (yoga pants with shot elastic and holes in the knees even though I don't do yoga) and my best books. It's so much better than going somewhere that you have to put on lipstick and impress people. The juicy plum I've been saving for this getaway is Stieg Larson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo My nine year old daughter has packed L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Avonlea and what she calls "cozy clothes." That apple didn't fall very far from this old tree.

Here's One for the Baby Books (Or King Solomon)

Okay, so when I was pregnant with my second child, one of my major preoccupations was what I would do if both babies cried at once. Not many baby books covered that topic but probably because you figure it out quickly. Who needs you most. (Interestingly, when I was pregnant with my third child, the biggest concern to my then three year old son was how we would all fit into a bathroom. By all of us, he meant me, his potty training sister and the new baby. That all worked out too.) Yesterday I had one of those child rearing moments no book prepares you for. What do you do when two of your children come crashing into your house waving their arms and screaming like they are being chased by an axe murder? by a bear? by a flaming avalanche of shrapnel? Oh, and they are screaming, "We've been stung by bees! We've been stung!" And one of them has a stinger sticking out of his ear and the other one's back is swelling up before your eyes turning her into a slender nine year old female Quasimodo who is still screaming! Who to help first? There was no time for triage. I just picked a kid and started pulling out stingers and dispensing Benadryl.
So you would think our house was done with tears for the day after that. But no, a few more quiet ones trickled down the cheek of my ten year old son as he closed the last page on Where The Red Fern Grows. His brother and sister were fast asleep from the trauma of their day (and the Benadryl), but he lay up in bed reading until about 10:30. He couldn't believe that the dogs, Little Ann and Old Dan died.He didn't see it coming and it hit him hard. While I was sad for him, I was happy for him too. He will remember that book always and he's the kind of boy who can be moved by a powerful story. That makes for a wonderful life.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I'm A Sucker for a School Bus

I saw the cover of Gordon Korman's Schooled and knew I had to pick it up. I'm a sucker for a yellow school bus. I've always been that way; it's not just these last weeks of kids home on summer vacation talking. I've bought yellow school bus shaped cookies, PostIt notes, pencil boxes, and rulers in my day. This past weekend while my kids were oohing and ahhing over funky Habitrail type cages for their pet gerbil, I was trying to convince them that a little yellow school bus shaped one with a handle would be perfect for Mario, our family pet. They nixed my suggestion, but I bought the Korman book. I'm glad I did. It's a funny and satisfying read for tweens, telling the story of Capricorn (Cap) Anderson who was raised on a farm commune and home schooled by his grandmother named Rain. When Rain has to stay in a hospital after falling out of a tree picking plums, Cap ends up living with a social worker and her teenage daughter and attending a public middle school. There is a great deal of fish out of water humor. Can you imagine a teenaged, sandal wearing, tye died hippie who's never watched television in your local eighth grade? It's not just outsider gags though. There is a lot for young readers to think about in terms of what makes someone popular and how they respond to teasing and unkindness. I'm glad the cover sucked me in. It worked its charm on my nine year old daughter too. She saw the book on my night table and uttered "Ooooh. Can I read this after you?" However, she might also have been attracted by the author's name. She's a big Gordon Korman fan.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ethan Allen, Eat Your Heart Out

Earlier this summer my husband built bookshelves for my daughter's bedroom. She had fun planning them and helping him build and paint them. I'm having fun watching her organize her books and treasures on them. It reminds me of that wonderful quote by Anna Quindlen: "I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Foodie Friday: Soup Kitchen Chicken

When my babies were first born, I assumed that they were Americans, two boys and one girl of mixed Irish, Scottish, English, German, and a little Lithuanian descent. The ensuing years have proven me wrong. I gave birth to three Italian grandmothers who want to feed the world. "Mangia!" they practically shout at their friends who come over to play as they push snack options at them. While they may not always share their toys, books, and patience, they always want to share food with others. When we go to a party or potluck, they urge me to make my best recipes. When their aunt was undergoing chemotherapy last summer and we were on a dinner cooking rotation for her and her husband, they threw themselves into the project with gusto, thinking about the recipes, writing up hand lettered menus, and helping deliver the food to her home. One time, my then five year old son insisted on wearing a sombrero as we delivered a meal of Mexican lasagna and tortilla chips. My sister-in-law wasn't home so we left the food in a cooler by her front door, but at least we gave the neighbors an eyeful. When my children's religious education classes were collecting canned goods for food baskets last Thanksgiving, my daughter was horrified that she was assigned to donate yams. Her heart broke for the poor children that would get her class basket. She's not a fan of yams you see. She convinced me to donate a few boxes of instant hot chocolate as well. Given their desire to feed others, it is not surprising that we spent a wonderful afternoon last week purchasing ingredients for and cooking a chicken casserole to be served at a local soup kitchen. Of all of our projects this summer, that was my favorite. At church one recent Sunday, we received an empty aluminum casserole pan, a recipe, and directions for delivering the frozen casserole to the church parking lot the next Saturday morning where the meals would then be delivered to a soup kitchen near us that serves a hot lunch to over 200 people 365 days a year. First we had to shop for the ingredients. The children located everything on the store shelves. It was a great lesson in comparison shopping, reading, and nutrition. If I thought it was hard for me to eat nothing from a box, check out the recipe below to see how impossible it is for the poor and homeless. We brought our purchases home and prepared the casserole together. Lessons were learned there in patience, food handling, and more math. I'm always going on about nonfiction reading, and this was an ideal nonfiction reading experience. All three of my little Italian grandmothers obsessed over the meal being cooked just right and made to look appetizing. They talked about how sad it would be to have to patronize a soup kitchen and things they hope the people who run it do to make the experience as nice as possible for the diners. All three asked if we can do it again next month. Talk about a win-win situation! Here's the recipe in case you are curious:

Eva's Kitchen Chicken Casserole

6 Large Boneless Chicken Breasts (cooked and cut into bite-sized pieces)
2 Boxes Rice-A-Roni (Chicken Flavor)
1 Package Frozen Peas
1 Can Cream of Celery Soup
1 Can Cream of Chicken Soup
1 1/2 Cups Water

Prepare rice according to directions on box. Mix rice, peas, chicken, soups, and water together. Spread into greased pan. Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees or until heated through. Serves 10.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Okay, eating no packaged foods is HARD! I don't mean hard like when I beg my husband and kids to help me fold a load of laundry because it's HARD (and it is). No, this is really hard. We can't seem to get more than two consecutive meals before breaking out a boxed, bagged, tubed, or shrink wrapped item. I have noticed how very much pasta I serve my family as well as prepackaged snack foods like crackers and cookies. Even if I fail to get 48 straight hours with nothing from a box, I am becoming much more aware of what we put in our mouths. So that's something. And, since it's not just about our health, but the health of the planet, we finally bought a Sig water bottle for our youngest son so we now each have one and we have been great about using them in place of plastic water bottles for the last six months or so.
On the reading front, I found out I'll be teaching The Red Badge of Courage this year. I haven't read it in 15 to 20 years. Does anyone out there remember it? Any thoughts? Memories? Ideas? Warnings? I guess we know what I'll be getting from the library when I go back to look for more healthy cook books.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nothing From A Box?!

While on vacation last month, my husband, kids, and I played many rounds of a game we'll call "Don't Say A Particular Word." For instance, one evening during dinner the challenge was to avoid saying the word "and." My sons and I were out in less than two minutes. My husband lasted until we were washing up the dishes. My nine year old daughter held out the longest. With a few exceptions, that's pretty much how all of the rounds went all week. My sons and I talk a lot and often without thinking. My husband is less loquacious than us and our daughter always thinks carefully before she opens her mouth, game or not. Despite the fact that those two kept winning, it was a great game because it got us thinking about how frequently we use certain words in conversation. Try an afternoon without "it," "the," or "to." It was also good because whoever got "out" first usually laughed about it and didn't pout or stomp off- a major step in our family's game playing evolution.
I am currently considering a different, much more challenging, game of avoidance for the family. Instead of "Don't Say a Particular Word," it's "Don't Eat Anything From A Box." If you know me, you know that's going to be more difficult than having a conversation without using any word with letters in it. We like our cornflakes, cookies, and Saltine crackers over here at the Book Bench. On the other hand, with books like The Omnivore's Dilemma (and everything by Suzanne Sommers) and films like The Future of Food out there, there is a high level of discourse in America right now not just about the health implications of our food choices, but the environmental, economic, and ethical implications as well.
These conversations about responsible eating are not just being held on CSPAN and liberal arts college campuses. I've been talking about it with the other moms at the lake while our kids have been splashing around this summer. So you know it's reached the people. I've always tried to feed me family healthy foods, but I'm far from perfect and could really up my game. Recently, a friend told me about a woman she met recently, "a health food nut," who doesn't feed her family anything from a box. Nothing from a box? Reactions were swift and strong. I think I was loudest. Crazy! Impossible! Expensive! But I've been sitting with the idea and have decided to give it a try for 48 hours. I'm a little pissed that I didn't start yesterday because the kids and I made our own bread, but now it's gone. And of course I'm looking for loopholes- perhaps the girls at the Dunkin' Donuts drive through window could throw our munchkins in a bag instead of a box? If it used to be packaged in a box but now comes in a "new, resealable pouch!" does that count?
As with all my projects, I picked up a few books at the library to get me started. I have to admit that I haven't yet cooked anything in Mariel's Kitchen: Simple Ingredients for a Delicious and Satisfying Life by Mariel Hemingway, but to be honest, not much in it appeals to me and I don't know where I would find many of the ingredients such as Xylosweet, whey protein, and hemp protein powder.
On the other hand, I cannot wait to start making some of the recipes in Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet by Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond. The authors are sensible rather than militant in their philosophy and present recipes with ingredients I recognize. The photos delicious. Some recipes call for meat, but in smaller quantities than traditional recipes. Moreover, an explanation is given for using grass feed beef and more expensive "certified humane" organic chicken. This book might really help me with the nothing out of a box challenge.

I have yet to spring the idea on my family. Wish me luck with that and with avoiding convenience foods. If you're headed my way with a Nutter Butter in your hands in the next week or so, kindly keep it out of sight. My dignity will thank you. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I'm All About Anecdotal Evidence and Unscientific Research

If the movers and shakers of marketing and publicity in the publishing world want to know what people are reading at swim meets in New Jersey this summer, I'm their girl. I worked the admissions table (charging an entrance fee and stamping hands) for a good six hours on Saturday. It's remarkable that I could even perform my duties as I had been chased by a bear on the walk to the meet (see yesterday's post), but as I told my brother, it was "for the kids," so I persevered. Sitting at that table for six hours, I saw a lot of swimmers and parents walk in for a long day of sitting around. I couldn't help but peek into their beach bags. Let me just say that about half the women who had books had Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love. I don't even know if they plan to read it, I just think American women feel they must own a copy of it. I was happy to see two women come in with Stieg Larson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as it is my book club's book for this month. Unfortunately, when questioned about it, one woman said she hadn't yet begun reading it and the the other just made a little face (a moue, I believe it's called) and said "Eh." A number of men carried in folded newspapers. Three kids had copies of Zilpha Ketley Snyder's 1966 Newberry Medal winning book The Egypt Game. This piqued my curiosity as my daughter recently checked it out of the library. It turns out those three kids are all in the same grade in a nearby elementary school and that book is their assigned summer reading. One kid walked in with The Name of this Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch and was really excited to discuss it. Many little girls who would be stuck waiting around for their older siblings to swim had fairy books packed along with their beach toys and towels, but my absolute favorite was a girl with a copy of Tomie de Paola's fantastic classic Strega Nona. That's my kind of girl - one who chooses a lovable Italian witch with a magical pasta pot over a glittery Disney fairy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Print Equivalent of Cheese Fries

I wish I could report on some smartypants book I read this weekend. I wish I was walking around smugly having finished the books about educational philosophies and new fangled lesson planning sitting by my bed. I would give fifty bucks to be able to say I've read what I need to for my next book club meeting. Instead, I'm caught up on People and Entertainment Weekly. It was a busy weekend which included my computer crashing after having an explicitly obscene picture pop up and stay fixed on the screen. It was so dirty at first I didn't know what it was, but once I puzzled it out, I felt nauseous for several hours. I was chased by a bear. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but just a tiny bit. At six a.m. on Saturday, as I walked to our local lake to volunteer at a swim meet, I was alone on the shoulder and a smallish black bear was on the other side of the road. We glanced at each other and I ran. I did not see another human being or car until I arrived at the lake parking lot a half mile away. In my book that's as good as being chased by a bear. And finally, on Sunday afternoon, my minivan refused to start while parked in my neighbor's driveway. My husband had to come with his pickup truck and jumper cables to get me out of there. Luckily, they are very nice neighbors who were able to suppress wincing as my husband had to drive a little on their grass and staring in disgust at the mess of sand, gum wrappers, and books on my car's floor. Needless to say, the most challenging thing my mind could handle last night was reading about how J.Lo did actually lose all the baby weight and who the real Farrah Fawcett was.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Foodie Friday Tidbits

A number of blogs I read run a Random Thoughts Tuesday feature. Today's post here could be called Random Friday Foodie Book Stuff. First, we got a hold of Eric A. Kimmel's fun new picture book, The Three Little Tamales, that I wrote about here several Fridays ago. It is a retelling of the three little pigs story featuring adorable tamales. My older kids have read it aloud several times to my six year old son. It begs to be read with accents and silly voices.

We've also recently read Wiggens Learns His Manners at the Four Seasons Restaurant about a cute little puppy who learns some etiquette lessons. It would probably be best for a preschooler or kindergartner read together with an adult.

My last bit of Foodie Friday randomness (besides mentioning that I need to get to the grocery store pronto) is that I flipped through Roy Finamore's new cookbook, Tasty, just before bed last night. It is filled with scrumptious sounding recipes that seem relatively simple and don't call for too many ingredients. I had several food dreams last night, including one about sundried tomatoes and crusty French bread which made me drool all over the pillowcase. Sadly, when I woke up this morning, Cornflakes and frozen waffles were my only breakfast options. As I said, I must get to the food store.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Popcorn or Candy?

You know those preference questions which supposedly reveal so much about a person quickly? John or Paul? Beatles or Rolling Stones? Batman or Superman? I've never been good with those because I have few absolute favorites in life, except that my current husband is definitely my favorite (actually, he's my only husband). I guess I'm moody- my favorite husband would testify to that. Some days John is my favorite Beatle, but some days it's Paul. For weeks breakfast is my favorite meal, but then I get really into lunches. Anyway, since some of my favorite books are opening as movies this summer, I thought I'd put a question to you: Popcorn or candy in the movie theater? For the record, I'm popcorn with butter.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Lunch Lady: Serving Sloppy Joes, Jokes, and Justice!

How happy am I? Lunch Lady happy. That's going to be my new measurement of happy because these books are so enjoyable. When I lose a few pounds or see a great movie, I'm going to tell people the experience made me Lunch Lady happy. Speaking of movies, I've read that Universal Studios has picked up the movie rights to this series with Amy Poehler to star! Now I'm even more Lunch Lady happier (that needs a little work).
Let me back up and tell you that my daughter and I have just finished reading the newly released Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute and Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians. The length, humor, and subject matter of these books make them ideal for second through fourth grade readers. The limited color palette reminds me of the popular Babymouse books with yellow here substituting for pink. The plots, however, are very different.
Lunch Lady is, of course, a lunch lady by day, but she's a a crime fighter in her off duty hours. She's wonderful, but the real fun in these books (for me) comes from her sidekick Betty. In the boiler room, Betty, like James Bond's Q or Foaly in the Artemis Fowl series, supplies Lunch Lady with the gadgets that make her crime fighting possible. As we know from Batman, Bond, and Inspector Gadget, all crime fighters without superpowers need super gadgets. Betty invents a spatulacopter, Taco-vision Night Goggles, Hover Pizzas, and more. The possibilities for cafeteria technology are endless and I can't wait to see what author Jarrett J. Krosoczka will have Betty create in future adventures of Lunch Lady.
Only three students in the school, Hector, Terrence, and Dee (aka The Breakfast Bunch) know that Lunch Lady and Betty do more than just ladle out helpings of tuna surprise. It's unclear what grade the students are in, but that's okay. Having them be in a particular grade might limit the appeal of these books. Their involvement creates opportunities for a variety of adventures. For instance, the plot of the second book revolves around the simultaneous release of a new video game system and the annual school book fair. I love that the villains in that one have created The League of Librarians, although one of their number, high school librarian Jane Shelver, makes it clear that she prefers the term media specialist. This and many other little details make the Lunch Lady books fun even for a hesitant graphic novel reader such as myself.