Category Archives: Reviews

I read a romance novel over the weekend…

…It was kind of on accident.

Beyond some classics — Austen, Brontë — I don’t think I’ve purposely read a romance since I was in junior high, 25 years ago.

I rather disagree with the whole premise of romance novels.  I tend to think that it’s unhealthy for women to live in the fantasy world of The Perfect Relationship;  it sets them up for disappointment with reality.

I feel the same about most chick flicks — “relationship” movies.  I see almost none of them, on purpose.

Strangely enough, this was a decision I came to WHILE I was in junior high.  A very odd thing was the catalyst for my decision:  the movie Romancing the Stone.

In the movie, Kathleen Turner plays a romance novelist who becomes caught up in an adventure.  The movie opens with her, alone in her apartment, crying over her typewriter, sipping wine, and talking to her cat.  As a 13-year-old or so, this made an impression:  “I’ll bet that’s what it’s really like.”  It dawned on my pubescent self that the people writing those books and movies weren’t relationship experts — just relationship dreamers.  And I swore them off.

Now…  I know that a number of friends read romance novels and some of my readers even WRITE them.  I’m sorry if my stance is offensive.  I’m sure any number of people can come up with good reasons to read romances, and exceptions to my stereotypes.  But, I stand firm.  I just don’t think romances are a generally healthy read.

So, imagine me:  standing eagerly at the library counter, waiting for the librarian to fetch my reserved copy of the latest Charles Todd novel:  Charles Todd who reliably writes mystery novels.  Picture my surprise when I see that, on the book in her hand, the “R♥MANCE” label is slapped on the spine.  I was literally, physically startled.

Charles Todd, how could you do this to me???

I have always enjoyed mysteries;  since I read my first Hardy Boys book,  borrowed from my brother, while I was in 2nd grade, I have been hooked.  And, for the last couple of years, I have been immersed in the World War I era.

It’s hard to find compelling, literate mysteries, that aren’t trashy — full of sex, bad language, and violence, masquerading as “intrigue”.  And when you add my caveat of setting it in WWI, the list is even smaller.

  • Yes, I’ve read almost all of Laurie R. King’s books — I’m tired of her.  She seems too  impressed with her own cleverness, and her books have devolved into farce.  I put The Pirate King down, midway through — something I virtually never do! — and swore her off, too.
  • And I’ve read all of Dorothy L. Sayers’ works;  she’s the queen, the original, and Peter Wimsey is a classic.  But, she’s not writing anything new… 😉
  • And I’ve read all of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series.  I like them all right.  Winspear, though, liberally injects her books with her personal philosophy, with which I generally disagree.  I do like the story lines, though.
  • And I’ve read Anne Perry’s World War I four-book series, which starts with No Graves Yet.  They were all right only.  The first and fourth books were the best.  Clean:  Yes.  Compelling story line:  Mostly.  Interesting, believable-but-inspiring-yet-flawed characters:  Mostly.  Literate:  No.  Perry has written a whole lot of other books;  I don’t believe I will read any of them.
  • And, I’ve read a bunch of stand-alone novels set in the 1910-1930 era;  I prefer series, though.

So, really… the ONLY author of whom I know who fits my extremely niche current interest, plus my long list of requirements:  Charles Todd.  The author is really a mother-and-son team.  They have written the 14-book series featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, who suffers from PTSD in the aftermath of his service in the war.  I love Inspector Rutledge!!  They have also written the newer four-book series featuring World War I nurse, Bess Crawford, all set during the war years.  I’ve loved all those books.  Their first novel — The Murder Stone — I must admit that I didn’t like.  It was an absolute maze of characters for whom I cared nothing, and I put it down after the first 100 pages or so.

Overall, though, I do love the Todds’ work.  They’re my favorite current fiction authors.  Last spring, two friends and I even traveled to the Prescott Public Library to see the authors!!  It was a glorious day trip — the best of company, with two friends who are also fans of the Charles Todd books.

Karen with a cheesy smile with the Todds.

Karen with a cheesy smile with the Todds.

So, having a track record of 18 “loves” and one “dislike”, I always look forward to any new Charles Todd novel!  When The Walnut Tree came out, even though it is (kind of) stand-alone, rather than part of the Crawford or Rutledge series, I really anticipated reading it.  However, I have done very little reading the last few months;  it’s just been an insanely busy season, and when I had time for reading, it was not typically books for pleasure.  So, even though the book was published late last fall, I just now got around to reading it.

So, again… imagine my surprise when I saw that offending sticker on the back…

Ugh.

Under partial internal protest, I read it.

And, I liked it!

I had to get past the “this is a romance” thoughts.  And I had to get past my internal editor, who was highly annoyed that there are a TON — and I mean hundreds — of incomplete sentences in the book.  I finally rationalized that by saying, “Well, the book is in first person, in which Todd generally does not write… and when we think, we often think in incomplete sentences…  The protagonist is narrating her thoughts…  Oh, well.”

I liked the story line;  I found it very compelling.  The book was very readable, though “lighter” than I typically prefer.  And, I got a kick out of the fact that the protagonist is actually tied to the Bess Crawford series, so there were some character references and interplay that I really enjoyed….

I used to voraciously consume books.  Now that I’m a mother of five with responsibilities, I tend to read in a more self-controlled manner, finding ten-to-20-minute snippets of time in which to indulge my reading compulsion:  In a doctor’s waiting room, while a little one is in the tub, waiting in the car to pick up a child who is finishing an event, that sort of thing.  But, I (perhaps unwisely) stayed up late into the night on Friday and Saturday nights, long after everyone else was in bed, to read…  And I finished it on Sunday afternoon, in less than 48 hours.  (I typically take 1-3 weeks to complete a book, using my stop-start technique.)

And, when finished, I found myself hoping that The Walnut Tree would be the first in a new series by the Todds.

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Sheltered foodies

In some ways, the clichéd accusation is true:  my homeschooled children are sheltered.  Two events happened in the last 24 hours, though, that made me chuckle while thinking, “Being sheltered isn’t such a bad thing.”

  1. Yesterday, I took the five children to the Prescott area, about an hour and a half north of here.  Among other things, we picked up my nephew and went to Costco.  So, I had six children, ages 3 – 16, in the store with me, and everyone was fabulous.  I was so pleased with how smoothly everything was going, and wanted to bless them.  So, I decided that everyone could have a frozen yogurt or a berry smoothie.  Oh, I laughed as my children inadvertently reminded me how infrequently we do this sort of thing — both because of cost, the sugar, and because who knows what’s in “yogurt” at Costco??  I usually avoid that sort of stuff like the plague.  But, this was a special occasion.  “Chocolate, vanilla, or swirl?” I asked each child.  “What’s swirl?” replied two of them — my six-year-old, Audrey, and my 15-year-old, Ethan.  Swirl.  They didn’t know what swirl was.  Adding to Audrey’s confusion was the whole topic of “yogurt.”  She is familiar with plain, whole milk yogurt, which she very often has for/with her breakfast.  “Yogurt can be ice cream??” she marveled.  Once we got it sorted out what swirl and frozen yogurt was, we could proceed.  Ethan and Audrey both decided to try this novelty of an idea:  swirl.  I had chocolate and gave Fiala (my three-year-old, who has almost kicked a systemic, REALLY BAD candida albicans yeast infection) six little bites.  Everyone else chowed down, and by the end, two of my children were saying it was too sweet and they had a stomach ache.  Ha!  It was a learning experience for all of us, and a really good ~$8.50 spent.
  2. Yesterday, we also received a package from Riega Foods for us to review*.  Now, this isn’t the official review, but I had to share:  I wanted to finish cleaning bathrooms before getting lunch ready, and the clock was ticking, especially since I sat down after being 80% done and chatted with my sister for a half-hour on the phone, which I absolutely do not regret.  😀  My oldest, Ethan, was especially interested in the cheese sauce mixes, and asked if he could make some macaroni and cheese for lunch.  I thought this might be a good idea, especially since my dairy-free child is gone at a friend’s house for the day.  Well, we didn’t quite have enough of the right sort of gluten-free noodles to make a whole meal of it, but I decided that he could work on that to be a “lunch snack” while I finished cleaning the bathrooms.  Now, you need to understand something:  Ethan is my sous chef.  He is a great hand at food prep:  washing, chopping, slicing, stirring, flipping, mixing, pretty much anything I need him to do at the cutting board and the stove top.  Very often, I’m the brains behind making a meal, and he’s the brawn, doing a good portion of the actual work.  So, it’s not like he’s inexperienced in the kitchen.  However…  he continued to come to me to ask me a question or two or three about the process of making what is the (almost) natural equivalent of Kraft Mac & Cheese — powdered mix combined with ¼ cup milk and a couple of tablespoons of butter.  I was partly annoyed that he was having difficulty with such a simple kitchen task when it dawned on me, “He has very little experience following the directions on a package!!!”  We make virtually everything from scratch, and I can’t remember the last time a “cheese sauce mix” was in our home!!  He’s more accustomed to, “Slice these ¼-inch thick and sauté them in butter.”  I finally had to stop what I was doing, and go over in great detail how to make boxed pasta.  I also completely abandoned my annoyance, and was amused and rather pleased that, in his fifteen years of life on this planet, he has virtually no experience with “cheese sauce”.

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*Stay tuned for a whole review and a giveaway!!!!

Thus ends the most French-filled blog post I think I’ve ever written.

YUM YUM YUM

Few things lately have made me as giddily elated as this:

A while back, when I embarked on a no-sugar Paleo-ish diet, I looked high and low for honey-sweetened chocolate for an occasional treat.  I was pretty aghast to find that the prices of such chocolate are typically around $3-4 for a one-ounce bar.  ONE OUNCE.  Plus shipping.  I couldn’t find any locally.  That was a no-go.  $64 a pound doesn’t work on this budget.

At Trader Joe’s on Thursday night, I stopped by their “new products” display and I think I gasped aloud when I saw the above package.  Then, I started to hyperventilate.  Well, not really, but I was really excited.

When I got to the car, I sampled.  These Dark Chocolate Honey Mints are SO GOOD.  They’re like junk-free peppermint patties, and an absolute dream for anyone who loves dark chocolate.  They’re $3.99 for a 7 ounce package, which isn’t cheap, but compared to all other honey-sweetened chocolate, and many chocolates in general, not unreasonable.  That works out to $9.14 per pound.  I can work with that.

My package contained 16 good-sized candies.  Per the nutrition info, there are 21 g carbs (17 g sugar, 2 g fiber) in three chocolates.  Not hyper-low-carb, but definitely workable for any reduced-calorie or reduced-carb diet.

As the package front proclaims, they have only three ingredients:  honey, chocolate liquor, and oil of peppermint.  The inside is a creamed honey flavored with peppermint.  This means that whether you’re gluten-free, dairy-free*, vegan*, vegetarian, refined-sugar-free, or on just about any hyper-restrictive diet, you can eat these.  In fact, one of my first thoughts was for a dear friend:  one of her daughters is on the Feingold diet, another is gluten-free and dairy-free.  I stopped by her home with the world’s smallest gift:  Five candies, one for each family member.  🙂  I should have purchased a whole package for her;  I was kicking myself for not doing so.  But, knowing that candy that fits the diets of her daughters has been really tough to find, I had to share, at least a little.  The look on the face of her oldest daughter — the one on Feingold — is imprinted on my memory.  She was SO THRILLED.  For someone who normally can’t have candy, these chocolates are like GOLD.

Another thought was for my Paleo-inspiration, Kim.  I sent her a text and a pic, and she was excited too — she shops at Trader Joe’s all the time and hadn’t seen them before!  Having Paleo-friendly chocolate is a rare, rare treat.

The only drawback is that the chocolate itself is wholly unsweetened.  It’s plain, pure, dark chocolate, and all the sweetness comes from the creamed honey center.  So, you really have to chew these to eat them, or it tastes like you’re licking a square of baking chocolate.  I prefer to savor my chocolate slowly, and don’t usually chew.  But… I kind of have to make an exception here.  Small quibble.

I had planned on eating one a day, but here it is, about 48 hours after I purchased the bag, and they’re all gone.  Now, I did share with my friend, and gave one to my hubby, and one to Fiala…  But, uh, that means I ate nine of them in two days.  That’s not sustainable — too much sugar for me, even if it’s sugar from honey.  So, the next package I buy, I’ll have to ration it more carefully.

So, y’all go out and buy some, so Trader Joe’s will keep this product on their shelves forever.

Here’s another review, with a bit more info.

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*the package does warn “may contain traces of milk”.

How I cured my itchy scalp.

So.  I can’t say that my scalp never flakes, but I don’t really have dandruff.  However, I have had an itchy scalp, um, forever.  I have used dandruff shampoo since childhood, and assumed that it would be part of my routine forever.

I had discovered that salicylic acid-containing shampoos (like Neutrogena T-Sal) work better than… uh… whatever makes the blue dandruff shampoo blue.

Four or five months ago, though, I learned about the “no ‘poo” movement:  People “washing” their hair with baking soda, and using apple cider vinegar as a conditioning rinse.  I already buy my baking soda — which I use for everything — in 13.5 lb bags from Costco, and apple cider vinegar (raw, organic, unfiltered) in quarts.  So, I had the supplies on hand, and was already a fan of them.  Plus, I am always on the lookout for ways to make our household more natural.  I suspected that my normal regimen of Suave clarifying shampoo for the first wash, Selsun Blue Naturals for the second wash, and Herbal Essences None of Your Frizzness conditioner didn’t meet any benchmarks for “more natural”, and on my low-priority list at the back of my mind, I’d been wanting to figure out a replacement for them.  Win-win, all the way around, right?

So, I did no ‘poo for a few weeks and hated it.  It’s not so much that it didn’t work, exactly.  It’s because I have so much darn hair — it’s thick and reaches the small of my back — that the process took FOR-EV-ER.  Working enough baking soda into my hair to wash all of it required a LOT of baking soda and a LOT of time.  Then, it’s hard to rinse out.  The apple cider vinegar rinse helps with that because the acid neutralizes the soda.  However, I am already trying to minimize my water usage in the shower;  I could languish in a hot shower pretty much perpetually, but know that it is wasteful.  All that water draining as I’m trying to get enough soda into my hair to wash it, then enough water in my hair to rinse it…  I just could never get all of the soda out, even using up an entire water-heater full of hot water in the process.

As a consequence, my hair would feel heavy afterward, and I hated that.

I had read that there is an adjustment period where your hair needs to get “used” to not being stripped of its oils, etc., like normal shampoo does, and thought that, maybe, that’s what was happening to my hair.  But, I find myself suspicious of this because:

  1. Baking soda strips stuff of oil.  That’s one reason it’s an effective household cleaner.
  2. I deeply suspect that the “adjustment period” is not your hair balancing out, but you, as a person, finally getting used to how weird your hair feels after “no ‘poo”ing.

So, I shelved that idea.  Chalk me up as Not a Convert to No ‘Poo.

One thing I had noticed, though, was that my scalp was NOT itchy, at all, while doing “no ‘poo”.

I had already recognized that at least one of my children (Audrey) is “allergic” to Suave shampoo.  It makes her head peel.  I’ve know that for years.  Literally, about four years.  With a slowly-dawning “duh”, I thought, “Maybe my shampoo is what is making my head itch.  Maybe I need to switch shampoos.”  For nearly my whole life, I have used a clarifying shampoo as my first wash — I am not looking for frou-frou in my shampoo;  I just want my hair clean.  If I’m going to splurge, I save my $$ for conditioner.  Therefore, I use the cheapest clarifying shampoo I can find:  Suave.  Hmmm…  If it makes Audrey’s scalp peel, maybe I have the same problem, and that’s why my head itches.  <facepalm>

I shopped for various natural shampoos, to give it a go.

Lemme tell you, I hated that.  The cheapskate in me CRINGES over the per-ounce cost of natural and organic shampoos and conditioners.  And, I had a reasonable fear that I’d plunk down my $15-20 dollars for two bottles of stuff that

  1. wouldn’t clean my hair,
  2. would make my scalp still itch, and
  3. would totally waste my money.

Finally, I settled on Everyday Shea, mostly because I liked the info provided on the bottle, and it was 32 ounces, and about $10, which is a fair price for such a large bottle.  I’ve read some glowing reviews of it, but I’m here to tell you that stuff is CRAP.

  • It doesn’t clean worth a darn,
  • I had to use a good quarter to half-cup of both the shampoo and conditioner each time, to get a good lather on the shampoo, and to feel like the conditioner was being spread through my hair.

I had to stop using it, which made me groan at the waste.  I tried using it a few washes even after I knew it wasn’t working for me, just to try to get my money’s worth, but I just couldn’t continue.  Then, I tried — ahem — passing it to my children, because maybe their standards were lower than mine.  But everyone — husband and children included — uniformly reported, “This stuff is weird.  It’s so watery.  My hair doesn’t feel clean.  Do I have to use this?”  Now, the bottles — FOUR OF THEM, mind you, because I thought that if one variety of it didn’t work, maybe another did — are just sitting around my house (and yes, that’s $40 worth of crappy shampoo and conditioner), because I can’t bear to throw them away, but neither could I, in good conscience, give them to anyone.*

Nature’s Gate, which, while somewhat expensive on the outset (about $6-7), at least comes in healthy-sized 18 oz bottles, so the cost per ounce was lower than most of the other options.  It’s not organic, but it is sulfate-free, paraben-free, butylene glycol-free, and more.  I’m not sure — at all — which of those — if any — is what was making my scalp itch.  But, I thought it was likely to be at least one of those things.

I must say that, initially, I didn’t want to buy Nature’s Gate because I bought some, years ago, and the stuff smelled exactly like Old Spice, and it was a SSTROOOONGGGG scent.  So, I’d smell distinctly like a man whenever I used it.  That’s a no-go, even though I liked how it worked.  But, in the store, I noticed that there were several new varieties of their shampoo, and it had that chipper “New Improved!” graphic, and I hesitantly picked it up.  I opened the cap to smell.  Wow!  It smelled GREAT.  I plunked two bottles in my cart.

I’m happy to report that, a few months later, after using both the Aloe Vera and the Jojoba versions of Nature’s Gate shampoos and conditioners that

  • It cleans my hair, on ONE wash, even if it’s been several days since I last washed my hair.
  • I don’t have to use a ton of the shampoo, just a normal amount.
  • The conditioner conditions well, and even with my long, thick hair, I don’t have to use a gallon of it, either.  It’s thick and rich.
  • It doesn’t make my scalp itch.  I am itch-free, and no longer need to use dandruff shampoo.
  • And it smells great.  Not like a man at all.  But, my hubby likes it, so it doesn’t smell girly, either.

Overall, I’m very happy with Nature’s Gate shampoo and conditioner.  It’s still pricier than my penny-pinching self likes to pay.  BUT, it’s cheaper than dandruff shampoo.  And, I have been pretty successful buying it on sale.  Locally, to the Phoenix area, the everyday price at Bashas’, of all places, is LESS than at Sprouts, $6 vs. $7-something.  But, from the 25th of April (today) through the 2nd of May, all of Sprouts’ vitamin and bodycare goods are 25% off, so if you’re interested, it might be a good time to buy…  (And, NO, I’m not paid by Sprouts to say this;  I just like shopping there.)

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*Although, if anyone I know IRL is reading this, and wants to try it, even after my thumbs-down review, you’re welcome to.  I’ll give you my bottles.

Thanksgiving family, friends & food; drooling over a seed catalog; a good/bad movie

  • So, Thanksgiving was awesome.  At one point, we had 21 people here —  some watching football, some snoozing, some chatting over coffee and pie, kids running around and playing,  spilling out into our courtyard, friends and family.  Perfect.
  • I made this recipe — Roasted Squash with Almonds and Cranberries — and it turned out so good.  I’m definitely making it again, and I probably won’t wait until Thanksgiving;  I LOVE root veggies.  I used parsnips, carrots, and butternut squash.  I baked it a little longer than recommended, and at 325°F because that’s just how it worked out with the other stuff that was in the oven at the time.  I made it about 1/3 bigger than suggested, and wished I had MORE.  Double recipe next time.  I also chose not to add the lemon zest at the end.  I guess I can’t make a recipe without messing with it.
  • On Thanksgiving, my mom gave me a seed catalog that she said would be right up my alley.  She was right.  Pinetree Garden Seeds is located in Maine, so many of their selections are for much cooler, wetter, more northerly climates than here in the sunny desert.  But, I can’t resist.  I’m making a list and hoping for the best.  They have all sorts of heirloom veggies, plus herbs for medicinal use and even plants for dying cloth.  Lots of other stuff, too…  I’ve been savoring the catalog, reading each description.  The seeds are really inexpensive, too.  So far, I have eight packets on my list, and the total is $10.30.  And their shipping is reasonable, too:  $3.95 for up to $19.99 in charges.  I have this book on companion planting, too:  Carrots Love Tomatoes.  ~sigh~  Makes me want to plant stuff.
  • The ones at Home Depot are the identical brand, but MUCH cheaper -- about half the price.

    I’ve been making my own cheapie windowsill seed starters for months:  You need a paper egg carton and a foam one.  Cut out the paper “egg cups” one at a time and place them in the tray of the foam one.  Fill each paper egg cup with seed starting soil, and place in your windowsill.  Absolutely free (except for the eggs!), but it’s easy to over-water (and thereby have water all over your windowsill), and they dry out really fast — no lid and all, and only 1-2 Tbsp of soil in each cup.  So… at Home Depot, I bit the bullet and purchased a ready-made flimsy, plastic, effective 24-plant windowsill “greenhouse” seed starter, complete with peat pellets that expand like crazy.  I now have lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower sprouts happily growing on my windowsill.  Bugs and birds seem to like lettuce and broccoli;  I haven’t had great success directly sowing them into the garden.  I haven’t tried cauli yet, but I figured if the birds like broccoli sprouts, they probably like cauli, as they’re in the same family…

  • Only (maybe) tangentially related to the above — just because we had wine at Thanksgiving — I wanted to mention that if anyone saw my little post on Facebook that said I was going to watch the documentary Blood into Wine and were interested, you may want to reconsider.  On one hand, the movie was REALLY interesting:  lots of wry humor, the fascinating process of growing and making wine in Arizona, and the relationship between the major characters (Tool’s Maynard James Keenan and Arizona winemaker and ecologist Eric Glomski).  I’m always interested in the… intersection of relationships.  Meaning, the events that conspire to bring two people of really diverse paths together.  I LOVE THAT.  I think of it all the time, and if you meet me in real life, one of the first things I will likely ask you is what brought you, here.  However, the movie was also full of f-bombs, sexual references, and way more all-out earth-worshiping religion than my husband was comfortable with.  I could have hung with the movie, compelled by the good parts and filtering out the other… but after an hour, my hubby asked that we turn it off.  And we did.

Training pants duke it out. Easy Ups win.

Reasons I’m liking Pampers Easy Ups more than Huggies Pull-Ups (and no, no one is paying me for this post.  Ad-free blog, remember?):

  1. NO easy-open sides.  Fiala, who is 27 months old, and not able to “hold it” when she sleeps, was having a fabulous time, during nap and nighttime, removing her jeans (or whatever) and Pull-Up via its easy-open sides.  Just like velcro.  Rrrriiiipp! Easy Ups don’t open like that.  Whew!
  2. Cheaper.  Pampers Easy Ups are less expensive.  Occasionally, I had a $2 coupon which took away a bit of the sting when I bought Pull-Ups, or I could buy a store-brand version of them.  But, on my last trip to the store, Easy Ups — with no coupon — were cheaper than even the Target/store brand of Pull-Ups!
  3. More appropriate marketing.  I’m not a huge fan of Dora the Explorer, for a multitude of reasons, but I’m even LESS a fan of Disney Princess.  Actually, I’m even LESS LESS LESS of a fan of marketing to toddlers, but if I’m going to have to put up with some marketing, I’d rather have Dora on my toddler’s training pants than Disney Princess.  Way more age-appropriate.
  4. Softer finish.  Both the exterior and interior of Easy Ups are softer, and just have a nicer finish to them.
  5. They smell better.  Actually, Easy Ups smell just like Pampers, and I try not to think about how that scent is chemically-produced — nothing natural about Easy Ups, I’m sure! — and scent generally is not high on my list of reasons to buy something.  But, it’s a small factor.

We’re only going through 2-3 Easy Ups daily, but as I write this, I realize I still have some cloth diaper stuff… Maybe I could try that, instead, when we next run out of Easy Ups.

 

Book, books, books!!

  • One more reason why it takes me 18 months to two years to get through one year’s worth of Sonlight Core material:  DK’s Children’s Book of Art.  I spied this book at the library a few weeks back, flipped through it, and fell in love.  We checked it out, and I gave it a trial run as part of my 9yo Wesley’s school, reading two pages daily to him, on top of everything else we do.  It quickly became his favorite, and after a week or so, I purchased our own copy.  Every day, I let Wesley pick the order of the day’s subjects.  He typically puts a favorite at the beginning, and a favorite at the end, with all the so-so stuff in the middle.  Art has begun our school day for the last several weeks.  The book is full of history and technique, with loads of pictures, and interesting bites of text, as well as illustrated projects for children to do, to approximate a subject of the day’s learning.  Excellent!!
  • NO, it was not picked because it's an Oprah's Book Club selection. Ugh.

    I’m part of a semi-secret book club.  There are… nine of us, I think.  We meet every-other-month, and each selects a book in rotation.  It’s semi-secret, because we don’t really want the group to grow.  We fit, just right, around a table, and there is a perfect mix of similarity and differences amongst us:  similarity to enjoy the book at hand and each other’s company, and differences to pepper the discussion with varying points of view.  The goal of each book — which has varied WIDELY in genre in the three years of the club’s existence — is Good Art + Good Message.  Both are vitally important.  This month, the choice was Cry, the Beloved Country.  A)  I cannot believe this book has never been on my radar, previously.  B)  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  The book made me weep on a number of occasions, and I placed a Post-It at the top of just about every other page, describing something significant therein.  A friend asked me to describe the book.  I wrote to her:  Inspiring, convicting, beautiful, gripping, personal, glorious, powerful story of the intertwining — through tragedy — of a black family and a white family in 1948 South Africa.  “Convicting” regarding my relationship with the Father, and my willingness to serve others… not in a “race relations” sort of way.  My mom purposed to raise my siblings and I with an understanding of the sinfulness and tragedy of racism/oppression, and I think she did a great job.  But, there were a handful of times when I just wept — and I don’t cry all that easily! — and said, “You’re killing me, God!!”  The book is such a testament, in many ways, to the Body of Christ — good relationship with other believers in Christ, and how necessary and beautiful that can be, especially when we are broken.

  • On a homeschool forum I infrequent, I requested suggestions for a series set in the post-WWI era of Britain.  Someone immediately recommended The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King.  I am about halfway through, and am enjoying it immensely.  It’s quite a literate mystery, and I am keeping my well-thumbed dictionary close at hand.  Since I’ve never read any Conan Doyle, and because there are a number of stories-within-stories, and references which I am surely missing, I had thought, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to really get this book.”  Then, about a third of the way through the book, which is set in 1918, the protagonist puts a “plaster” (Band-Aid) on another character.  Because of another book I’d recently read, I thought, “I don’t think Band-Aids were invented in 1918!” I hopped up to Google it.  Sure enough.  They were invented in 1920, but not in widespread use until much later in the 1920s.  That doesn’t help me catch any subtle Holmes case-references or anything like that, but it did make me feel a tad smug, like I DID have what it takes to appreciate such a book.  So there.  😛
  • I love this cover.

    Speaking of post-WWI series, I recently finished the latest book in Charles Todd’s Inspector Rutledge series, A Lonely Death.  ~sigh~  As someone who relishes character development and a carefully considered plot, Todd’s books — with one exception — are an absolute treat for me.  This latest book did not disappoint.  Charles Todd is actually the pseudonym for a mother-and-son writing team, and they’re American.  This is a point of wonder to me — not only because they seem to have really nailed the British culture so exactly, but because the tone of the books — the sensibility of them — is SO NOT AMERICAN.  There is a patience there not found in many books today.  There is a lack of sensationalism.  There is a respect for the story — both the individual novel itself, and for the arcing story that has slowly developed through all 13 of the Inspector Rutledge books.  Not quite literary perfection, but really close.  I don’t usually read reviews of books before I read the books themselves, but I accidentally happened upon one a few weeks ago.  It said something about there being too many coincidences in the book, and the reader having to suspend belief in order to enjoy the book, calling it “implausible”.  To that, I say, “Wha??”  Well, except for, perhaps, the Inspector Cummins subplot.  Perhaps.  But, that’s a minor quibble, in my opinion.  All in all, both the Rutledge series, and the fledgling Bess Crawford series come highly recommended, especially if you like books that unpack with rich detail and are more about people than they are page-turners.

Simpli Gluten-Free Instant Apricot Oatmeal — Review

Simpli Gluten-Free Apricot Oatmeal

First, the good news: 

  • Simpli Gluten-Free Instant Oatmeal is delicious. I loved it, as did my 9 year old son, Wesley, and my 4 year old daughter, Audrey.  All of us have to be on a gluten-free diet, due to celiac disease.  Some gluten-free products can run on the odd/nasty side, unfortunately.  Not so with this one!  For taste, it gets a hearty thumbs up from all who sampled it.
  • I am in full support of the company’s aims to produce completely gluten-free oats, from seed to packaged product (more on that, later).
  • And, with only four ingredients DONE RIGHT, Simpli Gluten-Free Instant Oatmeal is CLEAN food, which is important to me.  
  • The product is stellar.

However, I’m not sure I’m the best person to review it.  Here’s why:

  • I’m too cheap, and I want to buy locally. Currently, Simpli products are available online, through their website — http://www.livesimpli.com.  Perhaps the ONLY good thing about living in a large city is the ready, local availability of just about anything I could want or need, gluten-free items included.  I virtually NEVER purchase food items online, especially ones that are $4.95 plus $3.95 shipping ($8.90 total) for one 8.4 oz package of five packets of oatmeal.  No matter how stellar a product, I absolutely cannot afford — even for a special occasion — to spend $1.78 for a small bowl of oatmeal.  Although I rarely eat instant oatmeal, my children, when they eat it, use two packs at a time.  So, realistically, you’re looking at a $3.56 bowl of oatmeal.  Buying a bulk pack of nine boxes is slightly more economical — it works out to $5.70 per box, including shipping, or $1.14 per serving ($2.28 per double serving).  Still.  I would just never pay that. If Simpli was carried it locally, at my local natural-foods store, Sprouts, had their biannual 25% off of all gluten-free items, which would make it about $3.70 per box… I might consider that for a special occasion, like packing food for a trip whose destination may not have g.f. foods readily available.
  • I like thick-cut oats. I’m just not a fan of the gooey consistency of any instant oatmeals.  I like some chew and heft to my oats, which is why I love Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Rolled Oats, a pantry staple of mine.  However, those take (according to the way I make it, not according to package specifications) eight minutes to cook, after the water has boiled, so a good 12 minutes cooking time, plus about five minutes of sitting time… so, 17 minutes or so, from start to finish, versus about four with Simpli Apricot Instant Oatmeal.  In other words, I understand that, given the nature of instant oats (thinner cut), they’re just not going to turn out the way  I like them… so it’s not a flaw in the product;  it’s just a difference of opinion, values, and texture.  Also, returning to the “I’m too cheap” mantra, I buy Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Rolled Oats locally for about $5.50 per 2 lb bag.  That works out to $0.34/oz for Bob’s vs. $1.06 per ounce for Simpli — THREE TIMES THE COST — when Simpli is purchased online.  And Bob’s Gluten-Free Oats aren’t cheap!!!

With those caveats, let me reiterate that Simpli Gluten-Free Instant Oatmeal is delicious.  As stated above, I like my oats with a little more heft, so I don’t prefer the texture of any instant oats, and don’t regularly eat instant.  However, that’s not Simpli’s fault.  Judging by taste — it’s perfect.  “Bright” is the adjective that comes to mind.  The apricot flavor REALLY shines through beautifully.  With only four ingredients — Oats, apricots, sugar, and salt — I was wondering how they would be able to make the apricots tender enough.  Simpli’s solution?  Mince them.  Mince them teeny, teeny, tiny.  That way, they rehydrate perfectly, and the apricot flavor is broadcast through each bite.

Also, Simpli Gluten-Free Instant Oatmeal is not too sweet.  I think it’s perfect.  There are only 10 grams of sugar per 48 gram packet, and much of that, I’m sure, comes from the apricots themselves.

The instructions on the box call for 2/3 cup boiling water, stir, and let sit for one minute.  I knew I was reviewing the product, so when I made a bowl for myself, I made sure I followed the instructions to a “T”, including using a measuring cup for the boiling water (something I would never normally do), and setting the timer for that one minute.  Based upon that, I would suggest that, unless you want some soupy oatmeal, you should EITHER use less water (say, 1/2 cup), OR you should let your bowl sit for a good 4+ minutes, to let it thicken.

About the gluten-free aspect:  Simpli takes it seriously.  I’m slightly bummed that this oatmeal is a product of Finland, but perhaps that’s the only place where they could ensure that the oats would grow and be processed according to their exacting specifications.  Although I can occasionally be somewhat lax about cross contamination, I’m a stickler for g.f. oats.  I get asked frequently about why, if oats are technically gluten-free, does one need to buy GLUTEN-FREE OATS.  I explain that there are so many chances for cross contamination in the grain-growing, harvesting, storing, and processing process that unless a producer is intentional about maintaining the gluten-free aspect of his oats, you, as the gluten-free consumer, are almost guaranteed to consume gluten if your oats, if they’re not certified gluten-free.  This graphic, from Simpli, illustrates it so well:

SO!

All of that to say that Simpli Gluten Free Instant Apricot Oatmeal is a fabulous product.  But, I hope it’s coming to a store near me, because I will almost certainly not be buying it, otherwise.

Maybe this is the opposite effect of what Simpli anticipated, sending me a free package to review, but this product has inspired me:  I think I’m going to purchase a package of Bob’s Red Mill Quick Cooking Gluten-Free Oats, and make up my own packets of instant oatmeal, and just place them in Ziploc sandwich bags.  If Simpli can create a simple instant packaged oatmeal, so can I!!

The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide review

A couple of weeks ago, I received a complimentary copy of a book that I’d been considering buying, The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide (5th Edition).  My son and I were diagnosed with celiac disease eight years ago, when very few restaurants had heard of “gluten-free.”  Prior to diagnosis, my husband and I used to delight in hole-in-the-wall, mom & pop restaurants, especially ethnic ones.  Probably my toughest adjustment to a g.f. life is that of eating-out monotony:  As a family, we’ve become accustomed to the few places we know are safe.  (Or, at least, the safest possible, as very few establishments are 100% safe for a celiac diner.)  However, as the gluten-free diet grows in popularity (for sometimes dubious reasons), and as more and more people become acquainted with celiac disease, the options for eating out have been expanding!  Thankfully, I live in a large city where there are numerous, unexplored options for g.f. eating, and I’ve been wanting to expand my gastronomic horizons.

Thus, I’m very pleased to own this book.  It, combined with my local Yahoo Celiac group, gives some great suggestions which I’m excited to try!

I will put this guide in my truck and travel with it every where I go.  There are a few websites that have reviews of restaurants with gluten-free options, but for those of us (like me) without a smart phone, and for those of us (like me) who just like books, this is a great way to go.

The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide (5th Edition) is a 468-page, 50-state guide to restaurants which

  • Have gluten-free menu, and/or
  • Regularly stock g.f. menu items (like pasta, beer, etc.), or
  • Are a 100% g.f. facility
  • Are a chain restaurant which has a g.f. menu (menus — sans prices, of course — are included in the rear of the book)

There are also symbols noting which meals each restaurant serves, as well as its price range.

Each entry has a 3-10 line description of the restaurant, often noting g.f. menu items, and other things for a gluten-free diner to consider.  Picked at random, here is what is noted for Bloom, a Scottsdale restaurant to which I’ve never been.  Bloom does not have a g.f. menu, and is in the $$ range, and serves lunch and dinner:  “Marketing Coordinator Julia reports that many menu items are naturally GF.  She advises making reservations noting GF and calling ahead to speak with a manager or chef.  She also notes that all chefs are trained on the GF diet.”  Another restaurant, Bombay Spice Grill and Wine, in Phoenix, does have a gluten-free menu, serves lunch and dinner, and is in the $ price range:  “Extensive GF menu includes mango chicken salad, kebab skewers, tikka skewers, biryani, chicken keema, curries, and more.”

The book also has about 15 pages which supply (good) advice on safely eating gluten-free in restaurants.  Toward the end of the intro section, an author notes that restaurants policies, menus, and ownership (and even their existence) are always in flux, and reminds readers to use the guide “as a starting point, not a definitive resource.”

Indeed.

Case in point:  The Scottsdale location of small chain, The White Chocolate Grill, recently worked with a local celiac, Nina Spitzer, who owns a business (Gluten-Free Absolutely!) that helps restaurants create a g.f. menu, and trains staff in how to safely prepare gluten-free food.  The restaurant was certified by Nina in November of 2009.  However, it is not listed in the Scottsdale section of the Guide.  (It is, however, listed in the guide under its Naperville, IL, and its Lone Tree, CO, locations.)  That’s a shame, because my husband and I went to The White Chocolate Grill a few weeks ago, and it was easily the among the best gluten-free dining experiences I’ve ever had.

I have a couple of other quibbles with the guide, all dealing with the finding of information, within the guide.:

  1. I wish the Guide had an exhaustive, alphabetized index.  Oftentimes, I will hear the name of a g.f. restaurant, but I’m not sure where it’s located.  Perhaps it’s a chain, but I don’t know if it has a local franchise.  Or, I might know it’s in Arizona, but I don’t know where in Arizona it is.  Rather than skim through the 11 pages of Arizona entries, it would be nice to have an index to which I could refer, ensuring that I don’t miss the entry, and making it easier to find the info on that particular restaurant.
  2. The Guide’s by-city layout bothers me.  Of course, I’m most interested in Arizona, since that’s where I live.  I find it quite difficult to find restaurants within the Arizona section.  That’s because the entries are for Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tucson, and All Other Cities.  The Phoenix metropolitan area is comprised of at least twenty cities, and they’re all adjacent to each other.  So, a restaurant that is in Peoria would be found in “All Other Cities”, even though it could literally be directly across the street from a restaurant found in the “Phoenix” section.  I think it would be a better layout to have Greater Phoenix Area, Greater Tucson Area, Other Cities — Northern AZ, Other Cities — Southern AZ or something similar.
  3. Similar to Quibble #2, above, a MAP would most certainly be in order — a numbered map with statewide locations pinpointed, as well as metropolitan area maps.  This would be especially valuable when traveling to another state, with which I’m not familiar.

In spite of my concerns, this is a very worthwhile book for anyone on a gluten-free diet to own.

Ten things I have enjoyed in the last few days

In no particular order:

  1. Fiala’s second birthday.  Precious girl.  We have no pictures because my camera is totally broken now, and the grandparents forgot theirs.  We had a simple cookout party with family at the park on Saturday.  Between Friday (her actual birthday), and Saturday, she received a grand total of three presents, each simple and inexpensive… but her face is such a delight when she receives a present.  I think she really understands the heart of gift-giving, and she feels so special and thankful, no matter what the gift is, which makes it all the more delightful to give something to her.
  2. Receiving new earrings in the mail.  Ordered from Mom Potter’s Etsy shop.  🙂
  3. The new Sherlock on PBS Masterpiece.  It was so wonderful!  I really enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch (what a name!) on 2008’s The Last Enemy, aired on Masterpiece Contemporary last year, and he was even better as a 21st century Sherlock.  My husband wasn’t so convinced he’d like it — he’s a big fan of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock portrayal.  But, about ten minutes into it, he said, “OK.  I’m hooked!”  Not giving too much away, but if you know the story of Sherlock Holmes, the one problem I had with the storyline/script is that it HIGHLY inferred that one character was so-and-so, but it turned out not to be the case, but another slightly lesser-known character.  I felt a tad manipulated, and I hate that in movies/TV shows.  Still.  It was really good.
  4. The cooler weather in Phoenix. Mornings in the 60s.  Days in the 80s or occasionally a bit lower.  ~sigh~  I’ve been waiting for this!!
  5. Getting a couple of bird mysteries solved, via a birding listserv I just joined.  Yes, that is a Eurasian Collared-Dove I saw;  as an introduced species, they are heading westward.  And, yes, Anna’s Hummingbirds can hybridize with Costa’s.
  6. Worship on Sunday.  It was so rich, both musically, and with the presence of God.  I couldn’t even sing, half the time.  Good thing I wasn’t on stage!  😉
  7. The author of the book I ghost-wrote signed her contract. This was after long weeks of (slow) negotiations.  She got some things altered for her benefit.  Good for her!!  Expected publication date is August 1, 2011.
  8. Our “new” entertainment center.  Our TV barely fits, but it does fit!  My hubby and oldest son spent a good portion of Saturday setting it up.  🙂
  9. The Jars of Clay Greatest Hits CD.  I have a couple of their CDs.  I’ve been a somewhat-fan over the years.  And, this CD is two years old, so I’m behind… (as always, with music)  But, what a great CD this is!!  I spied it at the library, and I’ve been greatly enjoying it.  All my kids like it, too.  I’ve been belting out the songs at the top of my lungs as we’ve traveled to and fro these last couple of weeks, as I’m familiar with all but three tracks on the CD.  It’s eminently singable.  I’m not normally a huge fan of retrospective type albums, but for someone like me, who enjoys Jars of Clay, but who does not own the whole collection of their discs, it’s perfect.
  10. My oldest son, Ethan.  He’s not a “thing”, but I have been so enjoying his growing-up.  He is 13.  In June, he stepped up to the youth group at our church, instead of the kids’ church…  He was unsure about the transition, but he’s really enjoying it now, and I think it has lent to his already-thoughtful nature, learning things and considering subjects that need some deeper maturity.  He’s a boy of few words, so it’s difficult to get a long conversation from him.  But, in our exchanges, I have been delighted in the evidence of his careful thought and kind consideration of those with whom (or of whom) he speaks.  He’s not perfect, of course, and there are a few things about him that make me wanna pull out my hair.  But — similar to my husband, of whom I have the same confidence — Ethan is faithful to work on the areas of his life’s garden which need weeding.  If you point out an error, he genuinely takes steps to improve, even if initially, he’s not all that receptive.  He’s a son to make a mother proud, and I love him so.
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