Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book Review: The Time of the Fireflies by Kimberley Griffiths Little

In The Time of the Fireflies, Kimberley Griffiths Little has created a beautiful story of connection, loss, tragedy and redemption across several generations of family.

Larissa Renaud's family is hurting. Her mother, tired, stressed, and constantly on edge, is pregnant and second-guessing their choice to move back to her hometown in Bayou Bridge, Louisiana.  Their antiques business is struggling. They've had a hard time fitting in and finding their place. A year earlier, Larissa was badly injured in an accident on an old, disintegrating bridge and was left with an angry scar on her face and an angry heart toward the kids that she blamed for the accident.  Nothing is going right.

And then Larissa makes a remarkable discovery.  With the help of a swarm of fireflies, she's able to travel back in time and see the chain of events that has saddled her family with a dark curse as well as some of the earlier tragedies that still affect her mother and grandmother.

I appreciated the character development and settings, though the characters' accents (mostly bad grammar) seemed to come in and out a bit.  The "flashbacks" to earlier times were fascinating and a great tool for moving the story forward, though occasionally they were a little confusing as they were out of order sometimes.  I also found myself wishing that - without giving away the ending - the resolution of the curse had more to do with what ended up being the coda rather than the more supernatural path it took.

Again good, uplifting messages about looking for the positive and not making assumptions about others.  Also, the corrosive effect of hatred on oneself is highlighted and the message that "it's never too late" to apologize or to forgive is a constant theme running through the story.

The Time of the Fireflies
by Kimberley Griffiths Little
ISBN: 9780545165631
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: Almost Super by Marion Jensen

Almost Super is Marion Jensen's debut novel.  (A sequel is also already out.)  And a worthy first novel it is.  It's even up for a Whitney Award this year in the middle grade category!

Two families with superpowers, the Baileys and the Johnsons, live in the same town.  The Baileys are the superheroes, defending all that is good and right and true.  The Johnsons are the supervillians, constantly searching for ways to undermine the Baileys and all they stand for.

Or are they?

Almost Super focuses on brothers Rafter and Benny Bailey who, as the book opens, are just about to get their superpowers.  (Every February 29th, every member of the family over 12 receives their superpower.)  When the clock ticks over to the magical minute of 4:23 in the afternoon, great disappointment reigns.  The new "superpowers" are anything but.

This is a concern.  Especially when the Johnsons daughter, Juanita, appears to have been granted Super Super status with ALL of the superpowers!  Those evil Johnsons must have found a way to steal the Baileys' superpowers!

Except Juanita is acting strangely, not at all like a villain.  And saying things like, "We are the superheroes.  You are the villains."

I don't want to give away too much, but I appreciate the message that it's important to listen to others, getting to know them directly instead of just believing what you've heard (especially if it conveniently reinforces your already-existing beliefs - confirmation bias, anyone?).

An oft-repeated lesson in the story is "having a superpower doesn't make you a superhero.  That you have to earn."  "It's not the powers that make us superheroes--it's what we do with those powers." "You don't need powers to be super."  And finally, "Iron resolve.  Ferocious courage.  And a health does of insanity.  That's what makes a superhero."  And of course, that's exactly what saves the day in the end.

A quick read, a solid story that's really just getting going at the end of the book.  Looking forward to the sequel!

Almost Super
by Marion Jensen
ISBN: 9780062209610
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 111


Growing up, I loved the Where's Waldo series of books.  We eventually owned all of them and I pored over them for hours, finding not only Waldo, but Wanda, the Wizard Whitebeard, the scroll, the tiny little key, and all the other little "extras".

And now I discover this: the optimal search pattern to find Waldo.

But where's the fun in that??


Reading the headlines or watching the news can lead us to assume that the world is falling apart at the seams and getting worse every day.

But that's not really the case.

Whether it's confirmation bias, sensationalized media, lack of context, or just not a big enough sample size, the perception that the entire world is going to hell in a handbasket simply isn't accurate.

This article displays 26 charts and maps that show how the world is improving and life is getting better for its inhabitants.  Poverty, hunger, child mortality and child labor are at all-time lows.  Life expectancies, democracy, education, and literacy are on the rise.  These are all really good things!


Of course, there is still a lot that is not right with the world, and plenty of room for continued improvement.  For example, this photo gallery about inequality broke my heart.  The black and white photo of the beautiful, wide-eyed little boy by Giles Duley, as well as Duley's explanation below it, brought tears to my eyes.

I think that optimism, based on the actual data that shows the vast improvements that have been made, is healthy.  But I also firmly believe that we should educate ourselves to the horrors and tragedies and desperate need that still exist in the world, and then figure out what we can do to ease the very real suffering that is far too easy to ignore.


I really loved this post about how to treasure and encourage creativity, balancing it with a desire to be unselfish.  This thought resonated with me:
Elder Maxwell pointed out that even the Savior occasionally took time away to recharge before he could serve. Being unselfish is not the same thing as being self-less. If we give everything, we may have nothing left to give.
Particularly as women, wives, and mothers, I think we often put ourselves, our needs, our desire for creativity at the very bottom of our priority list.  Of course service and our families are important, but if that focus leaves us so empty that we become resentful or joyless, I can't believe that's how God wants us to live.
I think we forget—or at least, I do—that one of God’s defining roles was that of Creator. As children of God, that creativity is part of our birthright.
The past several months I've stepped back from writing for several reasons, a primary one being there's so much on my plate and not enough time to get everything done!  But I've missed it.  I've missed getting my thoughts out of my head and onto a screen.  After reading this post, I decided to make a concerted effort to get back to writing more.  I still have a full plate, but I'm going to carve out a bit more time for my writing.

That's my plan, anyway...  We'll see how it all plays out!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

Another relaxing dip into the slow-paced Botswana of Mma Precious Ramotswe.  If you're looking for an action-packed detective thriller, this series is definitely not that.  If, however, you'd like to immerse yourself in a different world where life moves a little more slowly, where the country is its own character, where shoes can talk and cars have souls, by all means join us.  (But do start with The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.)

As with several of its predecessors, there are only a couple of major cases in this short book.  One involves a recently opened beauty salon being maligned by an unknown enemy.  The other will determine whether the nephew who stands to inherit the farm and estate of his recently deceased uncle is actually an impostor.

And then Mma Ramotswe's assistant - excuse me, I mean, associate detective - Mma Makutsi becomes a mother and they navigate what that will mean for the future of the detective agency and their partnership.  And Mma Ramotswe's husband, the solid, reliable, and devoted Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, decides that he must learn to be a "modern husband" in order to please Precious.  (His one evening at the "Husband Course" is one of the most delightful sequences in this book.)  Of course, Mma Ramotswe dispatches both her cases in good time and justice ultimately prevails, Mma Makutsi finds her footing as a new mother, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni continues to be the solid, reliable, and devoted husband he is.

And the deep, sweet philosophy!  Precious contemplates the loss of her baby years ago:
We all had to say goodbye, sooner or later, to those we loved--or they had to say goodbye to us.  Those were the only two possibilities that this world allowed. But no matter how much we tried to face up to it, it never became easier.
And then ponders on forgiving and forgetting Note, her first husband:
Perhaps a deliberate act of forgetting went along with forgiveness. You forgave, and then you said to yourself: Now I shall forget. Because if you did not forget, then your forgiveness would be tested, perhaps many times and in ways that you could not resist, and you might go back to anger, and to hating.
Then she muses on the unpredictability of life and suffering and our responsibility in the face of it all:
The problem with being a private detective was that people expected you to provide them with a clear-cut answer to their query. Sometimes that could be done...but there were many occasions on which that simply was not possible and a more tentative answer was all that could be given--or no answer at all.  Some matters remained obstinately unresolved because that was what life was like. Not all the uncertainties we faced were capable of being resolved--there were many strings left untied; there were many events that happened and could not be explained; there were many injustices that remained injustices because we could not find out who had perpetrated them, or who could rectify them. As a child she had believed that wrongs would always be righted, that somehow the world would not let the innocent suffer, but now she realised that this was not true.  Old oppressors were replaced by new ones, from another distant place or from right next door. Old lies were replaced by new ones, backed up by old threats. There had been so much suffering in Africa, and nobody had done a great deal to stop it. In some places the suffering continued: through wars fought by child soldiers, crying behind their guns; through famine and disease, quick to take root in the shanty towns that perched on the edge of plenty. People waited for intervention, for rescue, but it never came--or only rarely, and then too late. Contemplating this vast human suffering, you might be tempted to shrug your shoulders, but you could not. You had to try, thought Mma Ramotswe--you had to try to sort things out for others and point them in the direction of the truth that they were so anxious to find.
In his "Husband Course",  Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is skeptical of the teacher's invocation of a calling from God to help men become "modern husbands":
People were always claiming that God agreed with them even when there was little or no evidence that this was the case...No, thought Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni--people should be careful about claiming authority that they did not have.
Quick read, even at the naturally slow pace of the story, but so enjoyable and soothing, so restful and comfortably familiar.

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
by Alexander McCall Smith
ISBN: 9780307378415
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma was a revelation to me when I first read it eight or so years ago.  His deliberately mindful approach to an activity many of us take for granted - eating - opened my eyes to how much I had to learn.  Then, when my youngest was diagnosed with dairy and soy allergies a couple of years later and we had to completely overhaul the way we fed our family, I drew on several of the principles in both Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.

Cooked is a natural progression from those two books, from knowing where our food comes from and the process it undergoes from beginning to end, to actually producing it and preparing it ourselves, participating in that process.

Pollan divides the book into four sections, each representing a different category of cooking: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.  For "Fire", he delves into the dark world of barbecuing - real, slow Southern barbecuing.  The kind that takes all day and sparks civil wars over the proper techniques and mustard vs. vinegar-based sauces.  "Water" investigates the processes of boiling and braising.  "Air" chronicles his attempts to discover the perfect recipe and method for baking bread.  And in "Earth" he learns the mysteries of fermentation, and its involvement in making everything from sauerkraut to cheese to beer.

Cooking is "a defining human activity", one of those things that sets us apart from other animals, Pollan asserts.  It's a communal activity, one that is practically vital to a shared meal, which is "a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending."  (Don't know about you, but that doesn't describe my dinner table every night, though we're making efforts to civilize our three boys.)  Throughout the book, Pollan describes cooking in terms of relationships: with other people, with the food, with previous and future generations, and with other cultures.  "Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes...but the very best cooking, I discovered, is also a form of intimacy."

Modern Americans spend a ridiculously small amount of time on food preparation - 27 minutes a day on average.  Some may see this as a triumph of technology, an ode to the wonders of specialization. Pollan disagrees. "Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force.  And yet it is also debilitating.  It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility."  And I can see this.  The more distant we are from the origins of anything - our food, our clothes, whatever - the more removed we feel from ethical and moral responsibility to make sure it's done "right" or at least in accordance with our values.  On the other hand, the closer we are to understanding how what we consume is produced, the more responsibility we feel.  For example, we've had six to eight backyard chickens for a few years now, and my boys will gladly regale you with stories of how happy our chickens are compared to those poor chickens that live on factory farms in horrible conditions.  (They'll also sell you on our how much better our happy chickens' eggs taste!)

Now of course, specialization in today's world is a necessity.  We don't all have time to make everything from scratch, but a bit more awareness, a few more skills, a little more self-sufficiency certainly isn't a bad goal.  If nothing else, once you better understand what goes into making a truly high-quality sourdough bread or cheese or braised duck, you can more fully appreciate it.

Along with fascinating historical insights, religious connections, and scientific knowledge, Pollan provides an account of what he learned from each of the experts who agreed to teach him.  The "tricks of the trade" more often than not turn out to be the three "p"s: "patience, presence, and practice".  "Unfortunately," says Pollan," not one of the "p"s came easily to me."  Me neither, Michael, me neither!

But I will say that I'm more inspired to return to my earlier attempts at artisan bread and cheese-making, and I'm encouraged to continue and expand my canning abilities and perhaps be a little more adventurous with cooking from scratch.
There is a deeper kind of learning that can only be had by doing the work yourself, acquainting all your senses with the ins and outs and how-tos and wherefores of an intricate making. What you end up with is a first-person, physical kind of knowledge that is the precise opposite of abstract or academic...At a time when four of our five senses and the whole right side of our brains must be feeling sorely underemployed, these kinds of projects offer the best kind of respite.  They're antidotes to our abstraction.
And how delicious an antidote!

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
by Michael Pollan
ISBN: 9780143125334
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 110


I'm not big on doing cutesy stuff for holidays, but I decided to get into March 14 this year because it wasn't just Pi Day, it was Epic Pi Day: 3/14/15.  And I managed to catch Epic Pi Second on time.gov!

I wore the Pi-to-35-digits necklace that I bought from Boutique Academia.  The boys were excited to have chicken pot pi for dinner:

And of course, there was pumpkin Pi for dessert.

It was really fun!  I might even try it again next year, with some kind of quiche for breakfast maybe.  And pizza pie for lunch.  Maybe shepherd's pie for dinner this time...


The Relief Society, the women's organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, turned 173 on March 17.  I found this video, put together by a Young Single Adult ward in Provo, where they talk about some of the previous Relief Society general presidents they studied.

This post on By Common Consent highlights the Relief Society motto - "charity never faileth" - and how underappreciated it sometimes is as an organization that can do extraordinary things:
Our souls most magnify the Lord when we serve our fellow beings in love, as the Relief Society calls us to do. This saving work—even small acts of kindness—enables us to rejoice together in God. And when we remember our lowliness as servants, we will give thanks for divine favor rather than seeking to elevate ourselves above others, whether explicitly or implicitly. The Church is diminished when it dishonors or discourages the exercise of spiritual gifts by some of its members; the saving work to which Relief Society calls us all (both women and men) is to nurture those gifts in the people around us, to give their souls that bread of life with which they can grow to the full measure of their creation.
And I found "A Love Letter to Mormon Women on the Anniversary of the Relief Society, from a Mormon Historian and Feminist" very moving. The author's call to "keep trying to love each other, to understand one another, to strengthen the Body of Christ, and to brighten our sisterhood across differences" is exactly what I feel we need.


International Women's Day was a couple of weeks ago, a day to celebrate, recognize and honor women.  This series of photos shows women doing "women's work" around the world.  And they are beautiful, strong, varied and capable.  Take a look at #16, #18, #22, and #31 in particular.


A couple of days ago I discovered this sweet message on the white board downstairs:

I was glad to see that my youngest included himself on the list of people he loves along with the rest of the immediate family. :)

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 109


Last Sunday, the whole family attended the 74th annual Kosher Dinner put on by Temple Beth Shalom on Spokane's South Hill and it was great!  There was a little bit of a wait when we got there, but they fill the time by having members of the congregation put on musical performances for us.  Most of our waiting time was to the soundtrack of a quartet doing fun oldies, but there was also a female duo who did traditional Jewish music, too, which I really enjoyed.

And then, of course, there was the food.

The menu is the same every year, at least the three years that I've had the pleasure of partaking. Apricot kuchen greets us as we sit down - dessert first!  Plenty of delicious challah is easily within reach as well as three relishes (a three-bean salad, pickles, and picked halibut) and horseradish.  Then this bountiful plate is set in front of us:

Amazing brisket.  I mean, falling apart tender and so flavorful.  I swear I saw a recipe in an article somewhere, but I haven't been able to find it again and it's driving me nuts.  The potato knishes were such a hit with my boys that I bought a 4-pack to take home (along with some challah and some apricot kuchen).  The carrots are sweet and yummy.  The baked apples were a touch too "spicy" for my youngest, but the other two took care of his portion as soon as it was clear he wouldn't be finishing them.  My only minor complaint is that there isn't enough!  I could (but probably shouldn't) eat quite a bit more...

One major advantage of the Kosher Dinner for our family is that since meat is being served, we know there's no dairy in the meal so it's safe for our two dairy-allergic/intolerant people! Yay!

Thanks, TBS!  We'll definitely be back!


This week I've still been getting over my cold - the darn thing is just hanging on forever! - but I've managed to make progress on both my yoga practice and "40 Bags in 40 Days".  I did give myself a bit of a break for my birthday, though.  My sister took me to lunch at QQ Sushi & Kitchen where I ate way too much.  A California roll is pretty standard and I'd had it before, but the Rainbow roll (actual raw fish!) was new to me.  I confirmed that I don't care for ahi tuna, but actually liked the halibut.  My favorite was the TNT with scallops on top.  Yum!  Oh, and the avocado boat.  Anything that combines avocado and crab is a winner in my book!

THEN she surprised me with a gift card for her hair stylist, so I got my hair cut yesterday and LOVE IT.

Yes, I have the world's best sister. :)


And THEN, my sneaky husband and boys brought this beauty home:

All of those books had been languishing in books or piles scattered around my bedroom.  It was irritating me that they were getting all dusty and my bedroom was cluttered and I couldn't see all of the books and argh!!  And now they have a lovely, solid-wood home, my bedroom feels much roomier, and I couldn't be more pleased.

Plus, the wonderful man brought home dinner (so I didn't have to cook OR clean up!) in the form of my favorite fish tacos from our favorite locally-owned taqueria, Fiesta Brava.  And my boys baked me a birthday cake (which, for some reason, they decided just had to be frosted with orange frosting and blue sprinkles:).

Not sure why it's sideways, but it's not cooperating
with my efforts to rotate it, so this is what you get...


AND an insane number of family, friends, and acquaintances wished me well for my birthday via facebook, twitter, text, phone calls, and in person.  One friend dropped off a slice of delicious chocolate cake and stayed to chat and catch up for a bit.  My young women from church and my fellow YW leaders signed a sweet card and provided more chocolate.  Always a plus!

It was a lovely birthday and I'm so grateful to the many, many people who made me feel so loved.  Thank you!

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 108


I've had a cold this week, so I've been less productive than I had hoped, but I still managed to keep on with Lenten efforts.  My freezer is defrosted and reorganized, my refrigerator has never been cleaner, the laundry room is much less cluttered, and my hall closet by the front door holds far fewer coats than it used to.

Along with the 30 Days of Yoga series and the Foundations of Yoga series, Yoga with Adriene has a specific video for yoga when you're sick.  It was nice to be able to take it a little easy on my poor congested head, but I don't think that I'll ever really like the "downward-facing dog" pose. Ever.


I managed to change out of my pajamas, shower, and remain vertical long enough to attend book club last night.  We discussed Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli; two heart-warming books with complementary messages of accepting others, being "kinder than necessary", and living as your genuine, authentic self.  Good food, good conversation, book club is one of my favorite evenings of the month!


Along the book club theme, a couple of days ago, a facebook friend linked to this post on 9 Tricks to Look Smart in a Book Club.  No one wore a scarf last night, but I was sipping lemon tea with honey.  And I did share a quote from Wonder.  I'll have to try some of the other techniques next month...


And this gave me a chuckle this week: "If Dr. Seuss had been a little less subtle"

I particularly appreciate the reworking of Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat.