Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Reading, lately

I dropped off the face of the earth for a while and I'm still catching up. My new nephew decided to arrive a few days early, so I booked it up north for two weeks of baby bliss (and exhaustion - 17 months + a newborn is a special form of crazy, a fact we had all suspected but had brutally confirmed). My sister and her husband handle parenting so gracefully and I feel honored that they've let me be there for the beginning of their kids' lives. Every time I leave it gets harder, though. I started crying before we pulled away from the curb this time around.

This is approximately what our lives looked like - wild toddler running around and bestowing kisses at random, placid baby just soaking it all in, burp cloths everrrrrywhere.


Oh wait, is this supposed to be a long overdue post about books? Let me get to that. As I was writing this I realized that I thought I'd already posted about the first half of these, but apparently I didn't get around to it before I left. Whoops. Gear up for a long post.

The Wilder Life - I thought I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books but compared to the author of this book I barely qualify as a fan. She sets out to recreate some prairie life experiences and makes pilgrimages to various sites. I have to say, I expected to love this book more than I did. It's a little meander-y and introspective and I think I was expecting Ingalls bootcamp. However, it's a fun read if you're a big fan of the Little House series.

Pretty Is - This is supposed to be a thriller but it's just strange. The premise is that two young girls are kidnapped and held together for a summer, eventually released, and then their lives intersect many years later. I kept thinking it was going to get interesting, but it's impossible to get over the fact that you never get any explanation for the kidnapper's (totally bizarre) actions. It felt unfinished, somehow. As I write this I'm wondering if that was a conscious choice, because it's true the girls would have had no way of knowing his motivations, but it felt more haphazard than intentional. It left me very unsatisfied, either way.

One Step Too Far - A mom steps out of her life and reinvents herself completely and we're supposed to try to figure out why. Look, I love suspense stories with twists, but I hate the gimmick of teasing the audience with the promise of a big reveal. This book does it in almost every chapter (just the publisher's description does it three times!). If suspense is done well enough, you can keep your audience interested without dangling the reveal in front of them constantly. I think the only redeeming quality this book had was that the reveal was actually pretty shocking, but even that wasn't enough to make up for the lead up.

Before the Fall - This novel about the aftermath (and lead up to) a small plane crash is written by the creator of the TV show Fargo, which I love. I heard the author interviewed on NPR and filed this away in my "to read" category. I really enjoyed the book, which has a little bit of mystery and a lot of human interest. It's a quick read.

Bastard Out of Carolina - I read Dorothy Allison's Cavedweller years ago and still remember it as one of my favorite books, but somehow I hadn't gotten to this one. This book touches on such deeply depressing subject matter (child abuse, poverty) that it should be almost too painful to read, but I just loved the main character so much that I didn't want to put it down no matter how heart wrenching it got. Bonus - I checked out the 20th anniversary edition and there is an afterword by Allison that is really interesting and wonderful. She discusses her feelings about the book being banned by some school boards and also has some really thoughtful things to say about memoirs vs. fiction (I am a huge memoir fan, but reading her take on the genre does make me think about it a little more critically).

This Life Is in Your Hands - Ironically, perhaps, the next book I picked up was a memoir. The author was raised by parents who were deeply involved in the back to the land movement in the 70s and she traces their family experience. I really enjoyed reading about the back breaking labor that goes into making a successful homestead but this book felt just a little off to me. I was hoping there was an afterword that explained what sources she was using as she wrote (I assume she spoke to her parents extensively, and she mentions reading her mother's journals, but I was wondering if she also tracked down some of the other people who lived with them). The memoir picks up shortly before the author was born and so for a good portion of it she's describing events that happened before she existed or when she was too young to remember them, but she describes emotions, motivations and backstories of many of the adult characters. And one tiny quibble - it drove me a little batty that Coleman refers to her parents as Mama and Papa throughout the book, which meant I kept forgetting their actual names and getting confused when they would occasionally get used.

The Monsters of Templeton - I loved this funny little almost fairytale about home and family. It centers around a young woman, reeling from an ill advised love affair, as she comes home to the small town she grew up in and begins a search for her father. There is a giant sea monster involved and a sort of Greek chorus comprised of an elderly male running club, so how could you not enjoy it?

Make Me - Ah, Lee Child. I will read every new Jack Reacher book that comes out, even though I know they are hit or miss, with the misses being insane enough to make you roll your eyes. Luckily, this one was good! If I'm ever caught up in a completely bizarre and highly dangerous conspiracy, Reacher is who I want to have my back.

The First Time She Drowned - An 18 year old girl checks herself out of the mental institution where she's been forcibly committed for three years and tries to build a life for herself, despite continuing interference from her narcissistic mother. This book was, unsurprisingly, very depressing. I also didn't realize it was YA when I checked it out, not that that would have stopped me. For a debut YA novel, this is pretty good.

A Spool of Blue Thread - I felt like I needed something a little more literary, so I moved on to this novel, which was short listed for the Man Booker Prize. This is one of those books that's easy to fall right into. It's about a family, and the house they live in, and the stories they've created to explain their lives. It's lovely.

Wondering Who You Are - I almost left this book off the list because I'm not sure how to talk about it, or if I'm even the right person to talk about it. It's a memoir written by a woman whose husband suffered a brain injury (always a topic I'm interested in hearing about, for obvious reasons) and while there were parts that I related to and understood so well that my heart hurt, I had a really hard time with the writing, which never quite hit a natural tone and felt laboriously poetic. There's also an upbeat finish to the ending that I had a hard time believing, since the author explains that at times over the years she had misrepresented her situation to friends, claiming to find meaning and positivity when that wasn't actually how she felt at all. That left me wondering if she was being honest at this time, or if she just wanted to pull everything together neatly for the book. It's also possible that I'm just bitter that her journey through brain injury involved a whole lot of house sitting at foreign villas, which is entirely my issue and not hers.

After a While You Just Get Used to It - And another memoir, this one about a woman growing up in a family of dysfunctional packrats. This is mile a minute funny, and at first I thought it might be trying too hard (the 90s cultural references aren't sprinkled in so much as dumped by the truckload) but once I accepted it and settled in I really, really enjoyed it. Note - probably not nearly as funny if you didn't grow up in that era. It felt a little David Sedaris-y to me, in a good way. She has a similar way of presenting her family fairly (although obviously emphasizing the crazy for comedic effect) but lovingly, and it's hard to resist.

Book club question of the day - do you feel like an asshole for criticizing someone's memoir? Y/N

Bonus - if anyone has read the afterword from Bastard Out of Carolina and wants to have an lit class style deep discussion about memoir vs. fiction, I want in. I tried to get D into it, but he reads non-fiction almost exclusively so it was really just me talking to myself.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Monthly meal planning - August (and Big Oven!)

I'm playing August almost completely by ear, hence the very few planned meals. My sister is expecting her second baby in early August and I'm just waiting for the call. It would be very sweet if my new nephew decided to hang in there until I'm scheduled to arrive (his sister was really accommodating this way) but I'm prepared to head up earlier if need be. So this is really just 1.5 weeks of meal planning, but I am using a fun new tool that I wanted to share.


Meals for August:
Miso salmon + Asian chopped salad - both new to me. The salad recipe is for mason jar portions, but I'll probably just make one big salad and maybe set aside one (undressed) serving for lunch.

Meat and veggie balls (in marinara sauce) + green salad - I love these meatballs and haven't made them in forever. They're a great summer dish.

Farro salad with roasted veg - Another tried and true. I made this last month and it was a hit with D's brother, so I'm repeating it.

Coconut, tomato and red lentil dhal - Almost every month. Not sure I'll get up the energy to make saag to go with it.

Modified version of Heather's quinoa salad - We ate this a lot two summers ago but I haven't made it lately. It holds up well in the fridge so I figured it was a good dish to make right before I leave (assuming the timing works out!).

I also got us a couple packs of veggie burgers for quick meals. Trader Joe's has the best veggie burger options and I'm tempted by all of them but we usually end up with the veggie masala burgers, because potatoes are the best.

In meal planning news - I'm experimenting with using Big Oven for meal planning. The actual monthly meal plan is easy enough for me to do on paper. Usually I shuffle through my recipe binder (or the stacks of recipes I haven't put away) and then just sketch out the grid. The sucky part comes next - doing the shopping list. I have to look at each recipe and write down the ingredients, then go back again to compile them into a single shopping list. It usually takes about 5 sheets of paper and I forget at least one thing. It's not a huge deal, since it's basically 30 minutes out of my entire month, but last month it finally annoyed me enough that I went looking for a better option and found Big Oven.

The premise is pretty simple. You can search for recipes directly on Big Oven, or "clip" them from various websites (how simple this is depends on whether the site is using formatting that is compatible - my blog is 100% not compatible because of my formatting, sadly, but it's still fairly simple to enter the recipe), or enter it by hand. Then you can use the meal planning feature to drag recipes from your collection to the calendar and (this is the part I'm excited about) export a grocery list.

This is what my meal planner looks like for August on the website (yes, I still write it out by hand because I like having something to stick up on the fridge).

Big Oven interface

They offer a two month trial of the Pro membership, which gives you an ad-free experience, unlimited recipe uploads (although I can't figure out how many recipes you can add with the free membership) and custom folder sorting. I've been using that so far and I think I might go ahead and pay to keep using it, since the cost is pretty reasonable ($1.99/mo or $19.99/year).

There was a fairly big time investment to start, since I had to add my most frequently used recipes. I ended up creating a folder that is just called "All my recipes" in addition to my category folders, since sometimes I just want to see everything at once. I'm still getting used to the interface but sometimes I find things a bit wonky. One small example - you can organize your recipes by dragging them into folders (love), but unfortunately the Pinterest button shows up almost exactly where you need to grab the picture and sometimes makes it difficult.

The grocery list feature works really well in general. You can specify what time frame you want to buy groceries for and then the program pops up each recipe to give you a chance to uncheck ingredients you already have. Once you've done that for each recipe in the time period, it will compile everything (sort of - it won't add up how many carrots you need, but at least it sorts everything so that each type of item is grouped) and you can have it emailed to you or just access it on your phone. I end up re-writing my grocery list on paper at the end, because I like to split it up by store. But having everything from each recipe automatically pulled together is amazing.

Because I like to do one massive shopping trip at the beginning of the month for any non-perishables or hearty stuff, and then just purchase vegetables weekly, I do need to figure out a way to modify it a little. Because you have the option to make edits when you are checking each recipe's ingredients (while Big Oven compiles your grocery list) I've just been adding a note to the "notes" section next to the ingredients that I want to buy during a specific week. That note will show up on your grocery list.

Overall, I'm feeling really good about this and I think it will make it easier for me to try out new recipes. In my paper system the most often used recipes tend to rotate back into the top of the stack, and if I lose a recipe sheet then I forget about it for ages. With the online system, I can quickly add in any recipe that catches my eye, even if I'm not meal planning right at the moment. You can flag recipes as "want to try" and scroll through those first.

Anyone already using Big Oven care to chime in? I'm still so new to it that this is all first impressions.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Meal planning - July wrap up


Meal planning - July

It was a busy month. As I mentioned, I bumped up my planning to four meals a week, to accommodate our slightly larger family last month. As it turns out, four meals a week is pretty much perfect for three adults on a good week. We had two weeks where we were all at home for dinner almost every night and it was nice. But then everyone got busy at work and the last two weeks were pretty unpredictable and we all seemed to eat at different times. I cut out a few meals to accommodate this and it was fine.

I didn't try anything new last month, so this is going to be very short.

But, I do have the PDF of the monthly meal planning template for you, in case you want it! It's very simple, but I much prefer using the grid to hand sketching one every month, so hopefully it'll be useful for some of you. You can download it right here.