Monthly Archives: March 2015

‘Crooked Heart’, by Lissa Evans

Crooked Heart starstarstarThere are two main characters in this quirky and gritty war story.  Noel is an orphan boy evacuated to St. Albans from London during the Blitz. Vera is a middle aged woman whose life is falling apart and is lurching from one crisis to another. Noel and Vera forge an unlikely alliance that throws both of them in with some crooked behaviour and danger, but also oddly sustains them in tough times. My favourite character was actually one who is already dead, but lives on very clearly and dearly in Noel’s memory–his godmother Mattie. She is the one who has given Noel his confidence and disdain for authority and, as a suffragette, she has taught him to think for himself and not accept the status quo.

This book is hilarious and tragic at the same time. We’ve all read novels about the war, but this one has a very different feel to it–an entertaining but darkly comic addition to the Baileys’ Longlist.

‘Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life’ by Brian Wansink, Ph.D.

Slim by DesignstarstarstarFirst of all, this is not a diet book, it is a book about healthy eating. You may remember when Brian Wansink’s first book came out and introduced us to the concept of what he calls Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. That bowl of chips (or even stale popcorn) will mindlessly disappear while watching TV. Studies tell us that the size of bowl or plate matters (because we tend to finish it regardless). Getting most of our foods from the perimeters of the grocery store matters (because that’s where all the fresh stuff is). Planning ahead and having cut up fruits and veggies in a convenient form matters (because we tend to grab what’s handy).

‘Slim by design’ works better than ‘slim by willpower’. It’s easier to make a few small changes to our environment rather than depend on self-restraint alone. It is better to use a smaller plate so that we don’t have to make the choice to only fill half of it. But who knew that it matters what colour the plate is, or where we sit in a restaurant, or which door we use to enter the house? Brian Wansink, behavioural economist and food psychologist, provides scientific research into how our environment can turn us into ‘mindless healthy eaters’ and about how to make healthy options become more natural and normal.

At home, keep unhealthier snack food tucked away where it isn’t visible. It doesn’t mean we can never eat chips again. Make sure healthy foods are more convenient and attractive. Come home through the front door instead of the kitchen door, so you might not grab something to eat right away (because you are not really hungry, just exhausted) and take a short nap instead. At work, remove the candy dish from your desk and bring a bag lunch from home instead of eating in the cafeteria where you are more likely to mindlessly impulse buy. Home lunches are usually made the night before after dinner or in the morning when you are more likely to include healthier options. At a restaurant, remove the bread basket from the table, ask for a large glass of water, think about asking for veggie substitutions or half-sized meals, and if your plate is too full, take the rest home. At a buffet, scan the food selections first before choosing, begin with some salad, use a small plate, sit as far away from the food counter as possible (with your back turned to the buffet), use chopsticks, and chew longer. At the grocery store, start in the vegetable aisle and fill half your cart with vegetables first.

Wansink’s scientific studies are fascinating, but there are really only a few main ideas that are repeated for different situations and contexts. We can make small positive changes in our own homes and perhaps even be bold enough to humbly ask for small changes in our cafeterias and grocery stores (like apples and granola bars at the checkout instead of candy and chocolate). Restaurant and grocery store managers are always delighted to find creative ways to make the same amount of money by serving up less food. One amazing example Wansink uses is about the 100-calorie snack bag. In a movie theatre study, they gave some people a bag of 400-calorie M & M’s and others four bags of  the 100-calorie size. Same amount of product in different packaging. The ones with the large bag, ate all of them up. Most of the ones with the smaller bags, ate only one or two. The advent of these ‘snack’ calorie control portions means the manufacturer makes more money from selling less food, and the rest of us stay healthier. Win-win all around!

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue ThreadstarstarstarstarAnne Tyler is one of the greatest family chroniclers of our time. Her genius is in the way she tells the story, finding the nuance, and beautifully describing the emotional complexity in family relationships. Her novels are full of the humour, the secrets, the struggles, and the joys of everyday events…the stuff of our lives. It is easy to get immersed in her novels, assuming you like novels about family, that is. She gives her work a humorous touch and yet captures the tragic as well. It is not uncommon with Tyler to laugh one moment and be surprised by tragedy the next–only a novelist with a complete command of her material can achieve that so well.

This one is about the house as much as the family that lives in it. I loved the way Tyler describes how it was built, how they got possession of it, how it was lovingly cared for, and how Red and Abby and two other generations of Whitshanks grew up in it.

There has been a lot of speculation about whether this is her final work. She told the BBC she might not finish another, but that she would keep on writing. If this is her final one, then she has ended on a high note, although this was not my favourite of hers (Ladder of Years still has that spot). I do hope it advances to the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 shortlist because it would be great for her to receive one more honour after giving us so many great novels, 20 in all. As I move on to another Baileys’ long listed book, my personal vote for the winner so far, would still be for either Elizabeth is Missing or Station Eleven.

‘The Looneyspoons Collection’ by Janet and Greta Podleski

Reposting is not something I’ve ever done…until now! Here is the original post with an introduction and some additional stuff thrown in.

Eat Shrink and be MerryCrazy PlatesIt’s been 2 years since I posted on the Looneyspoons cookbook and since then I’ve realized just how valuable it is. In our family we each have a copy of the original Looneyspoons Collection and even now we are still regularly ‘What’s Apping’ each other to pass on great finds in the book, complete with pictures of the meal and page references! So four family units must be a definitive study right? None of us has ever made a recipe in this book that we didn’t love. Every recipe always works out, is easy to make, is attractive, uses simple nutritious ingredients, and instantly becomes a family favourite. The recipes are full of fibre and protein without a lot of fat and salt and they’re still tasty! Now that’s worth reposting! Here’s an interview with these Canadian sisters and then the repost.

Good food!
Good health!
Good fun!

LooneyspoonsstarstarstarstarstarThese sisters are dedicated to making cooking healthy and happy using good food, great recipes and lots of punny fun along the way. The book is literally packed with beautiful photos, useful recipes, nutritional information and lifestyle tips. When looking for a recipe in this book, I often get a bit of “ADD” and end up reading a bunch of the sidebars and inserts which have helpful and interesting tidbits, which is not a bad thing! There has been a lot learned about nutrition in the past years, and their recipes focus on including better carbs, better fats, more fiber, less sugar, and less salt, all without sacrificing taste. This book was a gift from a friend and I had never heard of this duo before, but apparently they are on TV and have had their recipes in magazines. Healthy living is a priority for everyone, but this book also includes many recipes for diabetic, gluten-free, and vegetarian diets.

And the recipe and table of contents names will keep you chuckling and make you eager for someone to ask for the recipe or say, “what is this called?”

Become a Beleafer (salads)
Ladle Gaga (soups)
House of Carbs (cakes, puddings, pies)
Satayday Night Fever (scrumptious chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce)
Broccoli Mountain High (crunchy and creamy broccoli coleslaw with turkey bacon)
Salmon and Garfunkel (creamy salmon and corn chowder with dill)
Quiche Me, You Fool! (crustless roasted pepper and potato quiche)
Worth Every Penne (whole wheat penne noodles with chicken, bacon, vegetables and pesto sauce)
Tuna Turner (grilled tuna steaks with a tropical fruit marinade)
Life in the Fast Loin (skillet pork loin chops drizzled with apricot-mustard sauce)
Honey, I Shrunk My Thighs (honey-garlic marinated chicken thighs)
A Bran New World (scrumptious bran muffins with sweet potato and currants)

Alright, alright, enough already….. 🙂 If you happen to be one of my children reading this, don’t buy it…you might find it under the tree at Christmas… recipes complete with “Mommy” jokes, what could be better?

‘Mosquito’ by Roma Tearne

Mosquitostarstarstarstarstar“Life in this paradise, he felt, was exactly as the beautiful mosquito that lived here, composed in equal parts of loveliness and deadliness.”

This is a simple love story set in the beautiful country of Sri Lanka against the backdrop of a brutal civil war. There is nothing simple about love, or loss, or war,  but Tearne writes with such clarity about complex situations and emotions, that it makes it seem so. She has a fresh eye on detail (as an artist/painter would) but there is nothing cumbersome about her descriptions and there are some surprising twists and turns in the story. In clear and lyrical prose, she tells a tale that is captivating, with characters so well drawn and the setting so atmospheric, I feel like I’ve been there. This is a moving novel about difficult things but it is also full of hope and very sensitively done–an inspiring read.

‘Rachel’s Holiday’ by Marian Keyes

Rachel's HolidaystarstarThe title really says it all…Rachel is in a rehab centre for addiction but she is in complete denial. She doesn’t really understand why the people who love her have committed her to this ‘holiday’ but since all she’s heard about is how celebrities go away to posh places for a ‘rest’, she thinks she’s in for a few weeks of the gym, the sauna, sun beds, and hobnobbing with the rich and famous. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Even though the author herself says it’s not, this is comedic chick lit. Wikipedia defines chick lit as stories that: “usually revolve around a strong female character who overcomes numerous obstacles to achieve lasting happiness.” Keyes’ novels are different in that the ‘obstacles’ are not frivolous fluff but important issues…in this case, addiction. Some of her other books cover topics like infertility, domestic abuse, bereavement, and depression. Though I do admit to the occasional chuckle, I mostly found the humour snarky and rude and I don’t think 600+ pages were quite worth it. I can applaud her handling of Rachel’s journey though, from major denial through to gradual understanding and acceptance of her addiction–all aspects that ring true and could be very helpful to anyone affected by this experience. But as a novel I found the characters to be flat and cliché and not developed enough to even care about them much.

Chick lit is not my favourite genre. I read the book because I have been invited to be in the audience at a BBC interview with the author (World Book Club),  and because I had not yet read any of her books before. Rachel’s Holiday seemed a bit like a women’s version of James Frey’s controversial story from a decade ago: A Million Little Pieces. After reading it, you want to not walk but run away from anything addictive that could so completely destroy your life. And that is a powerful message.

Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015 Longlist

Bailey's PrizeThis award’s list is one to watch. The Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) is annually awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English. The contenders are generally novels that are readable and well written, so for book lovers, it is an exciting smorgasbord of good picks. Every year many of my favourite reads come from this list.

Bailey's 2015 LonglistI’ve already read and highly recommended two of the books from this long-list. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. I do hope they both make the Shortlist. I will keep you posted. I have Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests on the top of my reading pile, ready to go after I finish one for my book club! The winner will be announced June 3, 2015. For a full list of all of the titles and authors and information about the judges, click here:

Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkstarstarstarstarIt was a complete surprise to me that I could be so absorbed by a book about birds of prey. The premise intrigued me from the start when I first heard about H is for Hawk. My curiosity was piqued further when I had the opportunity to witness a bird show at a falconry in the Drakensberg Mountains on a recent trip to South Africa.  This wildlife demonstration was so impressive. We learned about hawks, eagles and falcons and got a good sense of how much skill, effort and dedication goes into the training of these magnificent birds. So when I got back home I dived right into this book, and I’m so glad I did.

P1080292Helen Macdonald, grief stricken by the death of her father, takes up the biggest challenge of her life–training a goshawk, one of the most fierce and murderous of the raptors. Lots of people walk off their grief on pilgrimages, carry their burdens up mountains, or throw themselves into creating new charities in an attempt to gain some meaning and healing from searing loss. But the irony of  turning to a bloodthirsty creature instinctively focused on killing and death in the midst of coming to grips with mortality, was not lost on me. I wasn’t sure what I would find, but found myself mesmerized by Macdonald’s true story, so beautifully written, so evocative, honest and compelling.

Another wonderful part of Macdonald’s spiritual journey in training the goshawk she called Mabel, is the parallel journey she describes of author T.H. White who wrote ‘The Sword in the Stone‘ and other Arthurian chronicles. He was a solitary and troubled soul and did not lead an easy life. He wrote a book about training his own goshawk and Macdonald weaves in comparisons from his journey and biography very eloquently. Lovers of nature and humanity will resonate with this award winning non-fiction which already feels like it will be destined to become a modern classic.