Book Review: Some Assembly Required

Friday, April 27, 2012
I've been a fan of Anne Lamott's since I first read her well-known writer handbook - Bird by Bird -- ten years ago. Since then, I've read one of Lamott's novels (Blue Shoe) and all of her faith memoirs. Her writing is cheeky, sincere and a little neurotic . . . aka, right up my alley.

But one book of Lamott's that I've avoided is her Operating Instructions, a memoir of her first year of motherhood. While I know mothers are wonderful, important creatures, I thought I'd hold out on Operating Instructions until amusing anecdotes about breastfeeding don't go straight over my head.

So why did I pick up the "sequel" to Operating Instructions - a memoir about Lamott's first grandchild, entitled Some Assembly Required? Well, for one thing, my mom loaned me her copy so I didn't have to track down a copy of my own. For another, I thought the book might have present a baby/adult relationship that I might relate with more than a motherhood memoir. (I mean, I love me some good baby time, but only as an objective third party.)  And lastly, don't we all have a teensy bit of morbid fascination about teen pregnancy?

That's right, Lamott's son Sam became a father at age 19.  Baby mama, Amy, was 20 when Lamott's grandson, Jax, was born in July 2009. Written in diary format, Some Assembly Required, follows Jax's first full year of life. The pages are filled with observations of Jax's development and growth, stories of Amy and Sam's tenuous (and failing) relationship and plenty of poopy diaper anecdotes.

While I'm sure the diary format worked well for Operating Instructions - you know, where Lamott was with her son Sam nearly every hour of every day -- the distance between grandma and baby seemed a little too great at times to make this intimate writing style really work. After all, Lamott really is just a third party (albeit, a very subjective one) in this baby's life and when she takes off for India in the middle of the book and then Europe towards the book's conclusion, the reader's left hanging, wondering "wasn't this book supposed to be about a baby?!?"

The book is less a journal of Jax's first year and more journal of Lamott's neuroses about Jax's parents during Jax's first year. Lamott does have a habit of dragging her clearly unhappy childhood, which she always manages to reference in a veil of ambiguity, into everything she writes and this memoir is no exception. As for her sobriety - that gets mentioned about once every page turn. For readers familiar with Lamott's previous works, Some Assembly Required will feel as though Lamott is processing the same ol' problems all over again, just a little less successfully this go-around.

Although the cover claims to be written with Sam Lamott (which I read in between the lines to mean "so struggling young adult Sam gets some royalty checks" but what do I know) the book is written almost completely from Lamott's point of view. I'd assumed that Lamott and Sam would alternate chapters or something, but the book contains only the following from Sam: an introduction, an essay, and occasional "interviews" with Sam about Jax's latest feats. Oh yeah, and there's the odd email from Amy included in the pages too. It's a veritable literary scrapbook of Jax's first year. 

Moral of the story: It's not Lamott's strongest work, the pieces never quite match up, but it is a tender book about learning to let go of controlling other people's lives and letting people make their own mistakes so that they might learn from them.

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Of Woods and Wool

Wednesday, April 25, 2012
As per usual, the knitting needles have been click-clacking away at Of Woods and Words. Here's the latest creations, fresh out of washing machine - felted clogs!

This pattern was super popular about ten years ago (okay, so I'm not a trendsetter) and I'm happy to finally have my own pair of handmade felted slippers. I didn't take any "before" pictures because the pre-felted slippers were truly hideous - imagine a loosely knitted size 22 slipper. But thanks to the magic of felting, these transformed into adorable little clogs after three trips through a front loading machine, using hot and cold water and a normal spin cycle. The bright amethyst color I used for the upper part does give these slippers a somewhat Muppet-ish feel, but whose life isn't enhanced by the Muppets, I say. ;)

One slipper is slightly bigger than the other (which wasn't the case before they were felted), so that slipper may be getting a bonus trip through the machine. Since the soles are made out of two layers of knitted wool, I'll be putting some puff paint traction on the bottom of the slippers soon so I don't go careening around on the cabin's wooden floors. 

And I spent last week's road trip whipping up this stack of knitted goods:

What are they, you ask? 
It's an owl - I still need to add sequin or bead eyes
Coffee cozies!

I know, I know, you'd think I would have managed to have made more than 8 of these little guys over the course of 6 days and 1600 miles on the road. But, because I was working sans pattern, there was a whole lot of frogging going I figured out the proper gauge and designs for the cozies. ( Btw, "frogging" is knitter colloquial for tearing out work -  named for the noise made when you tear out a piece of knitting: "rip it, rip it.")

Is there an Etsy shop in my future? The verdict's still out, although it would be nice to bring in supplemental income with my knitting  This batch of coffee cozies will most likely be donated to the museum where  I work, because it's beneficial to both of us: 1) It's a safe place for me to test out the product and designs 2) It generates expense-free income for the museum. I'll keep you posted on any developments!

What have you been crafting lately?

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Garden Envy. Garden Lust.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Gardening really is an addiction. One you get that first, sweet taste of gardening success, you just want more and more.

They really should put warning signs on seed packets. You know, something in big bold letters like "This is only the beginning!" or "Slippery slope ahead!" or "For the love of your wallet, don't plant this!" If they'd done that, maybe I wouldn't have a cabin brimming with houseplants and a perpetual scheme in the back of my mind about how to expand my gardening space in the backyard.

Warning signs or no, I'm a goner by this time. 

Each summer I convince myself that I finally have just the right amount of gardening space. After we put in the large-ish raised bed last summer, I was sure I had plenty of gardening space to keep myself content until we move onto bigger, green pastures (aka, some place where the septic mound doesn't take up all the good planting spaces).  But then the new raised bed was super successful, which only inspired more great ideas for garden expansion.

It kind of defeats the purpose of gardening to be thrifty when you just keep buying more and more bags of top soil, manure, and peat moss. Somehow, there's never compost to go around and I'm always in need of more large pots and building equipment for raised beds.

But then, I always keep stumbling upon something I just have to grow. Here are some fruits and veggies I'm currently lusting after:

I love asparagus and we've been eating a lot of it this spring. But each time I throw a bundle of asparagus grown in Central or South America, I suffer terrible locavore pangs. After all, it is a vegetable that we're perfectly capable of growing in the Northwoods and if I simply waited until it was in season in these parts, I could enjoy all sorts of locally sourced asparagus. So why not grow it myself?

As one of just two perennial vegetables (the other is rhubarb), asparagus takes a couple years to establish itself and because it doesn't offer instant gratification (or as instant as any vegetable can offer) I worry that we will have perhaps moved on before we can actually enjoy the asparagus.  The bed would also require special insulation during the winter months and of course, we'd have to built another asparagus bed to house the patch. . .


Another source of locavore guilt. I buy far too many strawberries that hail from California. There are plenty of pick-your-own strawberry farms just over the border in Ontario, but when the strawberries ripen in mid-July, I'm too overwhelmed with summer mayhem to make the two-hour trip up to one of these farms. Which makes me want to grow my own so badly.   

But they're kind of a pain to grow (or so I'm told) and I don't think they'd like a raised bed much, since they're pretty susceptible to frost damage. I'd have to figure out some way to make some sort of an embedded patch for them and we just don't have much top soil to play around here.

I might just have figured out away to grow potatoes this year. Our growing space has been too limited in the past years to give potatoes the garden real estate they need. But I think we might have some success with potatoes if we grow them using the Stout method.

We recently moved all the soil out of the roadside garden into a new raised bed and I think we'll try to put down a layer of compost in the new empty space, then throw down some seed potatoes, and cover them with mulch and maybe a layer of top soil, just to make the garden a little more presentable to passersby. What the heck, eh?

What veggies and fruits do you have a hankering to grow this year?

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Great Scott, Great Lakes!

Sunday, April 22, 2012
Well, hello there. We rolled into the cabin after a week on the road yesterday afternoon and are still shrugging off the last bits of road weariness. Let me tell you, it's a long, long ways from the woods to Grand Rapids, MI - about a 15 hour drive each way. Compared with the 2.5 days we spent visiting my brother and his girlfriend in MI, we definitely spent a disproportionate amount of time in the truck. Next time we'll allot more time for the journey.

I didn't do the best job of keeping a photo journal of the trip - we were too busy eating, drinking, and catching up - but brace yourself for a photobomb of the pictures I did take.

Leaving on Monday morning proved more difficult then we anticipated. The night before we had an ice/snow storm, which resulted in many downed trees along the Trail and a nearly two hour drive into town.

The four days, 30+ hours and approximately 1600 miles we spent on the road this past week were dominated by two things: 

Mackinaw Bridge (left and top right)and Blahnik Bridge (bottom right)

Great Lakes:
Lake Michigan (top left and right), Lake Superior (bottom left), and Lake Huron (bottom right)
At long last, we reached the great city of Grand Rapids, MI:
Everything was green and blooming: 
Here's the people I spent the week with:
 While in the lower peninsula, we visited the nature area where my brother worked for the last three summers. It was beautiful! 

We spent a lot of time on the road, but luckily the long miles were punctuated with amusing signs like this one:
Something went very, very wrong with this marketing campaign.
It was a whirlwind of a trip, but it was good to see my brother and I think all that time on the road may have inspired us to start planning for a more leisurely road trip some time not too far away.

Oh, and happy Earth Day! I'll be spending the day celebrating the goodness of Mother Nature by transplanting by transplanting some tomato plants that are ready to burst out of their seed starting tray.

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The Freelance Writing Trenches: Follow-Up guest post

Tuesday, April 17, 2012
 Note from Ada: Today's installment of The Freelance Writing Trenches comes from Robert Lillegard, a college classmate of mine, and one of the most successful 20-something freelance writers I know. Over the years, Robert and I have kept in touch about our freelance success and headaches and I've always admired Robert's tenacity. There's a lot we call all learn from Robert when it comes to having a successful freelance career. 

The Importance of Follow-Up
By Robert Lillegard

I’ve been freelancing for about six years, but I’ve really started taking it more seriously in the last two. I’ve sold stories to the New York Times, Midwest Living, Relish, Latina, and a couple of major trade journals. One of the biggest things that has helped me along the way is something my editor at my day job told me: the persistent get published.

The simplest way I can say it is this:

Pester editors until they get back to you. 

I’m the online editor for Duluth~Superior Magazine, and I periodically get pitches for stories, emails from potential interns, etc. There are a few things I look for in those emails. I appreciate it when people get my name right. I appreciate it when people give off the impression that they have read our magazine—they don’t have to actually have read it, but they have to sound like they have (hint: this doesn’t mean saying “as I was reading your magazine, I noticed that you could use more articles”. It’s more like “Your Sojourn section has done stories on Bayfield and Ashland, but you haven’t yet covered Ely.”) And, I appreciate it when they send me polite follow-up emails checking if I’ve had a chance to look over their query yet.

Ok, appreciate is the wrong word. Frankly, those follow-up emails are pretty annoying, because they mean more work for me. But you know what? Half the time they’re the only emails I respond to. I’ll ignore the original email but after a follow up or two I basically always respond. There are a few reasons for this (for example, following up shows me a writer can be diligent, which makes a good impression) but the main one is this: it keeps the writer at the top of my mind. I’ll eventually write back, if only to say “no”, because that person took the effort to keep working on me.

The Lesson: Follow-up is key.

So, I apply this to my own writing as well. I track every query I send out with an Excel spreadsheet that has the date, subject of the query, the publication, and the editor’s name. If that sounds like a lot of work, come on—doesn’t it take you at least an hour to write a query? Even pitching a nearly identical query to a competing publication takes at least 10 minutes just to track down the editor’s name and email. So an additional 45 seconds to update your query log is really no big deal.

But, here’s where the query log is key. Make 5 extra columns and label them First Follow-Up, Second Follow-Up, Third Follow-Up, Fourth Follow-Up, and Phone Call. Then, send out your queries and wait. When no one gets back to you after two weeks, forward the editor your original query and at the top add something along these lines:  

Dear Mr. Morton, 

Just wanted to follow up with you about my story pitch on kayaking in the buff. I think it would be a perfect fit for the Give it a Try section of Naked Sports Magazine. Is this something you’d be interested in? 
Best, Frankie Freelancer

(You wouldn’t actually say Frankie Freelancer though, you’d say your name).

Then, under the First Follow-Up column, write the date you followed up. Continue the process, varying your follow-up emails just slightly, every couple of weeks until you hear back. If you keep not hearing back, give a polite phone call a try.

 Some places won’t ever get back to you. But if your queries are good and you’re targeting the right markets, this should really improve your response rate. I had to follow up with one magazine something like eight or nine times, but now I have a monthly column with them and I get a feature basically every month, too. Plus, of course, there’s the New York Times, which I try to mention at least twice every time I write something about writing. Whether you’re pulling $50 an article or $1 a word (or both if you write really short articles), following up persistently will help you get to the next level in your writing career.
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Clearing Trail

Sunday, April 15, 2012
Remember a couple weeks back when I mentioned the new/old hiking trail we're reopening on the museum and nature center grounds where I work? Yesterday, Andy, I, Andy's aunt and cousin, spent our Saturday afternoon clearing the end of the trail to the scenic overlook where the trail will now end. Initially, the trail went past the scenic overlook and into a federally designated wilderness, but for maintenance reasons (aka, you can't use chainsaws in a federal wilderness), we're ending the trail before we hit the wilderness border.

The trail is about a mile, maybe a mile and a quarter, long and the first half had been cleared out in March. Because the trail's been unused for nearly 15 years, there's all sorts of undergrowth that needs to snipped away from the trail, not to mention a slew of fallen trees (from a windstorm and a forest fire) that need to chainsawed off the path. Believe it or not, the picture below is of the cleared path: 

There might be a little work to do yet . . . .

I always get swamping duty because I can't be trusted with chainsaws and I actually really enjoy grabbing bits of charred tree truck and hurling them off the trail.  There's such visceral satisfaction in taking a hiking path that's all tangled up with deadfall and undergrowth and making it passable. 

No matter what the path looks like getting there, there's always one heck of a view at the end of the path.


It's still too early for wildflowers to be popping out, so I contented myself with taking some pictures of lichen.

As we stomped back through the woods, chainsaws on our shoulders, backpacks filled with empty waterbottles and cookie bags, we found a moose hiding out in the brush. Can you spot her?

Soon Andy and I will be clearing another trail, so to speak. We leave tomorrow to go visit my brother in southwestern Michigan. It's a 15-hour drive (one way) and I'm already having nightmares about crossing the five-mile long Mackinaw Bridge. Still, I'm excited to see a new part of the country (the only time I've been in Michigan's lower peninsula was to change planes in Detroit) and catch up with my brother.

I'll be popping in and out during the week as time allows and I have a guest post or two for you to enjoy during my absence. Have a great week!
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Foods I Don't Get

Thursday, April 12, 2012
Andy grilled up some venison steak last night. They came off the grill beautiful: juicy with charred grill marks and smothered with homemade BBQ sauce (compliments of Mel's Kitchen Cafe.)  We served them up with a side of  roasted Yukon gold potatoes and steamed broccoli. What's not to love?

But halfway through this very American meal, Andy looked over to find me dutifully, but not very enthusiastically gnawing my way through my steak. "You don't have to eat it if you don't like it," he said. So I sawed off one more bite of steak and gave the rest to him. 

As much as I appreciate Andy's woodsmanly ways that filled our chest freezer with venison last fall, I really don't care for venison steak. I mean, I love it in stew, in pasties, in sausage, in stir fry, in just about anything. And I feel that way about about all meat. If it's part of recipe, great! But a piece of meat plunked down on my plate as the main dish? Meh.

I'm not a terribly picky eater (although Andy probably disagrees . . . I do get turned off by food's texture on occasion), but there are a handful of foods that make me feel like Sam I Am of Dr. Seuss fame:

"I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!"

Montezuma’s Dark Chocolate Advent 

1) Dark chocolate

I want my chocolate smooth and creamy. If I wanted bitter chocolate flavor, I'd just stick a spoon into my baking cocoa. And no, washing that spoonful of cocoa down with some milk is not an acceptable alternative to milk chocolate.

Cake Balls
2) Cake balls/pops

I like cake just fine, but it doesn't seem to be my go-to dessert.(That would be ice cream and/or pie, apparently.) Still, while I do enjoy a nice cupcake or slice of homemade cake, I have a low tolerance for boxed cake mixes and I despise canned frosting. So who's brilliant idea was it to take a box cake, mix it with a can of frosting, then dip it in chocolate? Cake balls look so pretty and they taste so horrible. Holy preservatives!  

Beet It
3) Beets

I have a deep appreciation for vegetables. But when it comes to the beet, well, I might as well just go get a clod of dirt and gnaw on that because the "earthy" goodness of beets is spoiled on me.

macaroni and cheese
4) Macaroni and cheese

There was a time, a long, long time ago, when I used to eat macaroni and cheese . . . a lot. And then, I hit my tipping point and suddenly, I could not stomach it . . . at all. It's probably been 15 years since I had my last bite of mac and cheese and while I do think I could choke some down if it was the last food on Earth, I still avoid it like the plague. And no, I don't mean just Kraft Dinner. I mean all the Mac and Cheese.

5) Shrimp 

That smell! That texture! I have tried shrimp many times, prepared many different ways and it still kind of revolts me. The other day I was listening to NPR's The Splendid Table and heard the host, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, say that everyone likes shrimp. The result? I no longer trust anything Lynne Rossetto Kasper tells me.

What foods don't you get? 

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The Freelance Writing Trenches: Network

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
You should be networking as a freelance writer. You really should. What with it being the era of social media and all, you really have no excuse.

You know. it's funny. As a girl who has reached her (gasp) late 20s, I've watched my Facebook feed evolve drastically over the last seven years. What started out as a random assortment of mostly amusing postings from classmates at my alma mater has now been overtaken by applications, postings from my friends' moms, and pictures of the babies of the people I haven't talked to in years. Connections that seemed so vital back in the day end up looking almost superficial after a few years and miles are between the two of you.

When I'm in a hasty mentality, I'll poo-poo Facebook as silly and unnecessary. But when I'm in a more objective mood, I can see that Facebook has allowed me to stay in touch with some very important people.

The thing is, when I originally "friended" them, oh, six or seven years ago, I knew I'd probably never them again after graduation. (And I haven't.)  I never imagined they'd be so important. But the mere fact that we've all pursued freelance writing and been able to keep in touch through the wonder of social media has made these individuals indispensable contacts.

You hear on any career building website how important it is to network. In fact, the word "network" kind of makes me glaze over. But I do think it behooves freelancers greatly, no matter where they're at with their careers, to stay in touch with fellow professionals who are following in similar footsteps.

Here's three reasons why:

Freelancing is lonely business. Sure, you'll get out of the house for an in-person interview every now and then, but most of your work is done through phone calls and emails. What's more, if you're a freelancer, you probably get this a lot when you explain the whole query/write for pay process: "Wow . . . that's . . . so . . . interesting. I didn't know you could do that." When you have someone you can contact who understands how you make your living (and not just in the "oh, good for you" way), you feel a little more legitimate and a lot less prone to spontaneously bursting out into a heart-wrenching version of "All By Myself." 

If I wasn't passive aggressive, I'd call this reason "accountability" but the truth of the matter is, I like winning. (Maybe that's why Andy refuses to play cribbage with me anymore?) But when you're self-employed, there's no such thing as raises and promotions. Without any external forces pushing you to work harder, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking "hey, there was enough money to pay for groceries this month, who needs more than that?" But when you send off an update to one of your writer friends and they reply by telling you that they recently broke into the New York Times, you're presented with one of those "now wait a minute , , ," moments where you realize if they can do it, there's no reason why you can't either.  

When you stay in touch with other freelance writers, you have an opportunity to share your experiences, yes, but also your contacts. Success in freelance writing depends to a certain extent on having an "in" with an editor. Most of that time, you're depending on a great story idea to land you a gig, but every once in a while, you'll get tipped off about a particular publication by another writer.  I've landed more than one job from a lead I got just from checking in with a fellow freelancing colleague. Classic scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. 

I don't have any specific formula to my networking, although I will say my most helpful networking has been with people who are in a similar stage of their freelance writing career as me. Still, there's value in networking with people who are just starting out (you will learn something just by answering their questions) as well as those who have reach that pinnacle of success you aim for. Many people recommend networking once a week. I find once a month is more attainable for me and enough to keep me on track with my goals.

Moral of the story: keep in touch. Shoot a writer you admire an email. Send a college classmate who's gone into a similar career a Facebook or Twitter message. You never know what doors might open as a result of your correspondence.

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A Visit from the Easter Bunny

Monday, April 9, 2012
I hope everyone had a wonderful Easter/Passover holiday this weekend. I spent all weekend worrying about meringue and as a result, I'm having some difficulty adjusting to the real-world projects, concerns, and tasks that come with Mondays. (Sadly, I have yet to make a living wage worrying about if the relative humidity will be too high for meringue to set properly.) 

For the record, the lemon meringue pie was a success and didn't warrant all the worry I threw at it. My meringue had a teensy bit of shrinkage and just a touch of weeping on the top. If you're ever wanting to tackle a lemon meringue pie, there's a fantastic tutorial over at the Not So Humble Pie blog that's definitely worth checking out.

Other than (literally) whipping up the pie, I spent the Easter holiday going for a long walk with my parents at the nearby nature center, then sitting down to a delicious Easter feast prepared by my mom, Andy's mom and yours truly. Because I'm a bad blogger, I didn't take any pictures and since everything was devoured with great enthusiasm, there weren't even leftovers to photograph. (Well, there were, but I ate them.) It was a lovely day. 

The Easter bunny made a surprise visit at the cabin.  This picture doesn't do it justice, but my Easter "basket" is made out of recycled candy wrappers. Not sure if it's an Ecoist, Nahui Ollin or what, kind of bag - the Easter bunny snipped off its tag -- but I'm pretty pumped about it since my current tote bag's handles are turning into a frayed mess.
The bag was filled with all sorts of good stuff: a spring-y scarf, lovely soap, chocolate, and this little lady to join my springtime decorations:
The Easter bunny also brought a TracPhone which will be put to good use during my upcoming travels since I've been without a cell phone contract for nearly a year now.  Don't worry friends, I'm back in the 21st century now . . . sort of.

I woke up to find a dusting of snow on the ground. I thought for sure it would be gone by this afternoon, but it's still coming down. I'm so . . . enthused.
These guys don't seem to be minding the snowfall.I have peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and an assortment of flowers all poking up now. I'll do a second planting at the end of the week.
I'm trying to focus this week and get some extra work done, since the traditional "end of the winter" travels are nigh. I had a mini freak-out this morning when I realized I'm just over a month away from going back to work full time again. On the bright side, that means the Ireland trip is just a year away.  Time to get a fare alert set up on Kayak. . . .

Hope you're having a happy Easter Monday. How did you celebrate this weekend? Who has spring travel plans?

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Saturday Outtakes (Easter edition)

Saturday, April 7, 2012
Yes, a Beanie Baby. From a Happy Meal. (No, not my Happy Meal.)
Happy Easter everyone! Despite having a bucket load of St. Paddy's Day decorations, I realized last week that I have a total of three (count 'em) Easter decorations. There's the two in the picture above, and then there's this gal:
Yes, she does totally lay bubble gum eggs. Apparently this plastic wind-up hen is as close as I'm going to come to real actual chicken ownerships, although I do have some plans to domesticate the neighborhood grouse this summer . . . . Just kidding. . . . Kind of . . . .

The bubble gum eggs will also be the closest we get to dyed eggs this year. Every year I think I'll dye some eggs (of course using some of those cool techniques that have been popping up on Pinterest lately), but then I remember that I'm not actually the biggest fan of dying eggs. It can be tedious and I'm just not artistic enough to create spectacular colored eggs. I'm sure we'd dye eggs if there were some littles around, but since there aren't, any eggs that will be consumed tomorrow will be fried.
I'm amused by this picture. I think I'll sell it to the MN tourism agency . . .
Andy's mom is up for the weekend to celebrate the holiday and last night we went over to the nearby campground for a picnic to soak up the beautiful spring weather we've been experiencing this week.

Today, I'm keeping busy in the kitchen, getting set for tomorrow's Easter dinner. So far, I have my pie shell baked and there's bread dough raising in a warm corner. This evening I'll mix up a batch of hot cross buns.  My parents are coming up tomorrow for dinner, so we're having a big ol' holiday celebration at the cabin this year.

2011's hot cross buns
Here's our Easter menu:
  • Hot Cross Buns 
  • Greek Salad
  • Lamb and Green Beans (Arni me fasolakia)
  • Yet-to-be-determined rice dish
  • Lemon Meringue Pie 
Currently, Andy and his mom are out fixing up our two new raised bed gardens. There's something about Easter weekend that makes me want to shove my hands in the dirt in get gardening. Must be all the talk about renewal and rebirth associated with Easter.

However you celebrate the weekend, I hope you have a lovely one filled with the promise of spring. 
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Book Review: Born Wicked

Thursday, April 5, 2012
As a teenager, even before the sweeping Harry Potter phenomenon, I always gravitated toward fantasy literature. As a result, the book shelf in my childhood bedroom is stuffed full of tomes by Tamara Pierce, Patricia Wrede, Jane Yolen, and, of course, J.K. Rowling. If it has witches, wizards, and dragons in it, I'm all over it.
So I was pretty excited when my copy of Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, arrived.

This debut young adult novel follows the tumultuous journey of 16-year-old protagonist, Cate Cahill, to adulthood. Since her mother's death, Cate's taken on the responsibility of mothering her two younger sisters, a task that would be difficult even if the three weren't witches. The family lives in New England at the turn of the 20th century, but for some, yet to be explained reason, the Cahills' world is drastically different than the world historically was at that time. New England is ruled by a heavy-handed religious authority, the Brotherhood. When young women reach age 17, they must either marry or join the female religious order, the Sisterhood. Being a witch in this world means imprisonment . . . or worse.

This first book of the Cahill Witch Chronicles (a trilogy) holds all the elements you might expect in a YA fantasy novel. There's a prophecy, danger, a love triangle, and an overbearing governess. The dialogue moves along at a snappy pace and although I felt that Spotswood was guilty of holding back a little too much "illuminating" information in the book's beginning, despite the ambiguous start, I did come to like the main characters quite a bit.  

One of the most confusing things about the book to me was why the book is set in a drastically altered "real world." India and Dubai are mentioned in the book, but it's clear that New England is cut off from the rest of the United States, if there even is a United States in Cate's world. New London (Connecticut?) is the commerce hub in the books, rather than Boston, which seems like the obvious choice. I'm sure Spotswood has her reasons, but it's not explained at all in the first book and unless she plans to turn the books into a deep and remarkable commentary on world politics, I'd have preferred she'd set the story in a whole new made-up world. Some of the most compelling arguments I've heard again communism and racism were set in novels with completely imagined realities.

Born Wicked certainly doesn't have the depth of say, Philip Pullman's Golden Compass books and I'm not sure it will have the broad appeal of the Twilight series. (Although, having never read the Twilight books, I can say for sure.) But it's a rollicking quick read with loveable characters and I'll probably pick up the next books to see just how things end up for Cate and Co, especially since this first book ended on a cliffhanger.

And when I say cliffhanger, I mean cliffhanger. 

You can join in the conversation about Born Wicked over at the BlogHer Book Club.

Disclosure: I participated in this review for the BlogHer Book Club. I was compensated for my time and received a complimentary copy of the book. However, all opinions expressed in the review are my own.
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Summer Stockpiling - Plus Making Dried Beans in a Crockpot Tutorial

Tuesday, April 3, 2012
When I moved away from home, I realized there are a few of basic grocery items that I'm not used to buying. My family has a definite "homemade" mentality, and when I was growing up, pizzas and lasagnas weren't pulled out of the freezer or ordered; they were made from scratch. Store-bought bread was an oddity in our house and we never, ever bought jarred spaghetti sauce. It was a sad day indeed if we ran out of homemade jam and had to buy a jar of strawberry preserves, or heavens help us, grape jelly. To this day, grape jelly still tastes like sadness to me.

Now that I'm on my own, I find I also lean towards making things from scratch. It's cheaper. It tastes better. It's more satisfying. And let's be honest, when I work from home like I do the majority of the year, it's pretty easy for me to live a "made from scratch" life.

When I'm home all day, I just don't find it very time consuming to make things from scratch. Homemade bread may require 3+ hours of time, but it doesn't require my undivided attention that whole time. It's easy enough to mix up the dough and leave it to rise to rise while I go do something else, then return to shape loaves, leave again to do whatever, pop the bread in the oven and go do something else while the bread bakes. If I'm smart about it, I can get a good 2 hours of work done during the whole bread baking process. I make my marinara sauce by throwing all the ingredients in a crockpot and let it burble away for 4-5 hours for a total hands-on time of 30 minutes. In fact, I use the crockpot as shortcut for lots of "made from scratch" stuff.

If I'm making this all sound like a snap, let me assure you that it all goes to hell in a hand basket when summer comes around. By mid-August, between working full time and berry picking, I pretty much give up on making things from scratch and I'm buying bread and spaghetti sauce along with everyone else. So every spring I come up with this great idea that I'm actually going stockpile the ingredients I like to make myself in the freezer and have enough to last through the busy summer season.  Honestly, I've never managed to pull this off, but I persist in thinking it's a really good idea.

One ingredient I prefer to prepare at home are beans. It's about half as expensive to make your own cooked beans from dried beans, rather buying cooked and canned beans. You can also better control how much sodium's in your bean recipes by making your own beans. And you can cook up large batches, which saves me the trouble of having to buy canned beans nearly every week. (We eat a lot of beans.)

The other day we were running low on frozen beans, so I cooked up a batch each of kidney, pinto, and garbanzo beans over the course of three days. Here's a pictorial guide to the last batch, the garbanzos.

Take your bag of approximately 3-4 pounds of garbanzos (I purchase my dried beans at the local co-op), dump into a colander and rinse with cold water. Pick through the beans and discard any rocks or broken beans. Dump the beans into your crockpot and cover with about four inches of cold water. Cover and place in the fridge overnight. 

The next morning your beans will have doubled in size. Dump them into a colander, than back into the crockpot and cover with fresh cold water. I usually have the water covering the beans by about an inch at this point.

Turn your crockpot on high and walk away. I put an old towel around the base of the crockpot to soak up the water that will inevitably boil over. Be warned, bean water does not smell great, so you'll want to wash that towel that in timely manner. (Lesson learned.)
Check on your beans after about 4 hours. I find it takes most beans between 4-5 hours to reach desired tenderness using this method. It's okay to turn off the crockpot a little before the beans are as tender as you'd like. Like pasta, the beans will cook as they cool in the colander.

Pour into a colander (or two) and cool. Divvy up into 1 3/4 cup portions in freezer bags. Throw in the freezer. Now you have bagged and frozen equivalents of canned beans for half the price!

You can thaw out the beans in the fridge before you use them, but honestly, I'm never that organized and usually just throw them in frozen into whatever recipe I'm making and increase the cooking time a bit. Remember, these aren't salted, so you may have to add extra salt to your recipe.

Now I've got a good summer stockpile of beans, but there's plenty of bread baking and sauce making if I'm really going to make it through the summer . . .

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