Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

What a lovely, lovely book! Everything I found wanting in the characters of The Lost Symbol, was present in spades in this novel. Every character was purposefully developed and wonderfully unique. The plot was well paced and multi-dimensional. There was a nice balance between the conservation of words and the grace and artistry of the prose.

The novel is set in England at the end of World War II and has the dual focus of a look back at the German occupation of the English Channel island of Guernsey and the personal journey of self-discovery of the central character, Juliet Ashton. Juliet is a young author in London who gets caught up in a correspondence with the members of the title society.

The entire book is told in letters, telegrams, and notes. Shaffer and Barrows execute this style brilliantly, letting each character's narrative style distinguish itself from the others, while still only revealing them bit-by-bit at the same pace at which our heroine gets to know them. Some letters are missing, leaving the reader to guess at their contents from the letters written in reply. The subject matter hops from one topic to another depending on who is writing to whom, simultaneously revealing the story of the past and moving forward the action in the present. The overall effect is that of finding a box of keepsakes in your grandmother's attic and exploring it at your leisure.

It is charming and poignant, touching on difficult topics with the perfect blend of somberness and the lightness of hope. I have read many books on the subject of World War II, but I have never read one that made me smile as much as this one.

(Much thanks to Heidi for the recommendation!)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Living Without Dairy

When I was a kid I loved milk. I didn't drink much else. When I was 11-years-old, I developed a scalp condition similar to an infant's cradle cap. My hair was coming out in clumps. The diagnosis? Cow's milk allergy. Our solution? Dairy goats. We raised dairy goats from then until I left for college 7 years later. At that point I gave up drinking milk altogether. I would have regular old cow's milk on a bowl of`cereal, but that was all. I never realized how dairy-dependent my diet was until the past 4 months.

When my little Oliver was born at the end of August, I was determined to breastfeed him as I had done my second son, Carter. My sweet husband hates to see me put any of the responsibility for my oldest's autism on to myself, but I can't help but wonder how things might have been different if I had nursed him as well. I'm not burdened down with guilt over it--I made the best decision for myself at the time--but the fact remains that I had a bottle-fed child with a developmental disability and a breastfed child without one. I had no plans to test out the odds with my third.

Getting started brought the same blood, sweat, and tears as it had the last time, but I was too stubborn to throw in the towel. However, we soon faced an unexpected element to the whole mix. The peeling skin typical of post-term babies seemed unusually persistent and began to intensify around Oliver's face in a way that made us believe it was not typical after all. In addition, he was excessively fussy and gassy and his stool was bright green. Based on my history, Austin's subsequent dairy troubles, and what we turned up with a little research, it seemed we were dealing with an allergy to the cow's milk protein that was passing on to him from what I was consuming.

Removing milk and cheese from my diet brought swift improvement, but there were still some lingering symptoms. It took some serious digging to discover all the many sources of dairy there were in my diet. Did you know that there's only one type of margarine in my grocery store that is totally diary-free? Did you know that English muffins have milk in them? How about breadcrumbs? (I found this out after making a meatloaf and spending a sleepless night with a cranky, miserable baby afterward.) Tastykakes, salad dressing, croutons, fish sticks, crackers, chips, cookies, the list is extensive. Not only that, but I was surprised to discover how many of my favorite meals are made with milk or cheese. As for restaurants? Forget it. Pretty much any roll, biscuit, or breaded item is off limits. It has been truly miserable, though I would have to credit this situation with forcing me to rely less on prepared foods and go the homemade route more.

Formula is out of the question. Our one attempt to supplement with soy resulted in a violently ill baby who kept nothing down for 5 hours. So I continue to breastfeed, dreaming of having a bowl of cereal, and trying very hard to not imagine the summer with no pizza or ice cream ahead of me.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I love cooking in the crock pot. I think I mainly enjoy the fact that the work of the meal is so far removed in time from the eating of it, that it feels like a shortcut. I have always been fond of tossing a roast in the pot on Saturday night, turning it on Sunday morning, and coming home from church to a cooked meal waiting for me. And it always turns out fairly well. But, in keeping with my new recipe vow, I was determined to find a new way to slowcook my roast. So, courtesy of my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, I took on a Pot Roast in Cider.

The recipe calls for a 1.5-2 pound boneless pork shoulder roast, but I substituted a 6 pound blade roast instead, which is pretty much the largest thing I could fit in my crock pot. The first step is one I've seen in other recipes but have always skipped in the past: brown the roast on all sides in 2 tablespoons of oil. Let me tell you, it was not easy to wrangle that piece of meat around with hot oil spitting at me. But I did it and it looked quite nice afterward. I sliced up a medium onion into the bottom of the pot, put the browned roast on top, and poured 1 1/4 cup of apple cider, mixed with 2 teaspoons of beef bouillon, 1/4 teaspoon of dry mustard, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, over the whole thing. I cooked it on high for about 6 hours and it was seriously the best pork roast I've ever eaten in my life. It even got the stamp of approval from the picky 10-year-old, which is really saying something.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Lost Symbol

I received this book for Christmas and was very excited to read it. I very much enjoyed both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, so I had high expectations. Unfortunately, I was mainly disappointed. There were certainly elements I liked. Learning a little bit about the Masons (which I know I must take with a grain or two of salt) was very interesting and there was a truly gratifying plot twist at the book's climax that literally made my jaw drop. In hindsight, though, I think I might have seen it coming had my brain been more fully engaged in the characters than it was.

The characters are where the bulk of my complaints lie. They seemed to be secondary, as did the plot, to an overall agenda on the part of the author to expound upon a pet philosophy. Nearly everything in the book took a backseat to the apparent need to elaborate on the various fine points of Brown's personal belief system. The characters were largely wooden mouthpieces, placed into various contrived situations for the sole purpose of pontificating on the matter.

All this was capped off with a series of unlikely strokes of luck that took even more teeth out of the plot. A character dies, but doesn't really die; another's life's work is destroyed, but there's a surprise secret backup copy of everything; a third has his hand chopped off but is well enough that he doesn't even need a trip to the hospital before being deemed fit to saunter across town and descend every step in the Washington Monument.

And the great mystery of the lost symbol? There really isn't one, unless you count the buried Bible referred to in the post-climactic ending. I won't say it was a bad read, just not a very good one. It either fails to measure up to its predecessors, or Dan Brown's storytelling has become too formulaic to remain fresh.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Doctor, Doctor

So Oliver went in for his 4 month well-baby visit today. My adorable little cherub weighed in at 15 pounds and is now 25 inches long. He dutifully messed his diaper moments before the doctor came in. He then smiled and babbled and kicked his way through the exam, not getting crabby until vaccine time. We are using a modified vaccine schedule to minimize the stress on his little immune system. I have mixed feelings about the autism-vaccine connection, but I definitely feel better erring on the side of caution. So today was Oliver's very first vaccine. We did two, actually: Hib and polio. He has been cranky and feverish all afternoon, but seems to be feeling a bit better now.

Note to my little son: your doctor tells me that you do not need to eat at night, so I would appreciate it ever so much if you would stop waking me up every 2-3 hours.

Monday, January 11, 2010

What's Cooking?

Or, as my 10-year-old son puts it, "What's this garbage?" I dig New Year's resolutions, and one of mine this year is to improve my cooking skills. Whether I am succeeding so far depends on who you ask, apparently.

So, I'm attempting to expand my culinary horizons ("Huh?", says the 10-year-old) by trying a new recipe every week. Today was a chicken recipe called coq au vin. This appears to be French for chicken with wine. Since I don't cook with wine, I'm not sure why I picked this, except that the rest of the ingredients sounded good to me. Adapting it to be made without the alcohol makes me wonder what I should really call it. Coq?

I started by hacking a chicken into pieces, which was an adventure in and of itself. I had to do a search online to find instructions on how to do it properly, which I believe I mostly did. I cut up five slices of bacon and sauteed them with 2/3 cup chopped green onions. Once the bacon was crisp, I removed it from the pan and browned the chicken pieces. I sliced 5 small onions and put them in the bottom of the crock pot. Then the chicken went on top, sprinkled with 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon basil. Then the bacon and green onions went on top of that, followed by a half cup of chicken broth with one minced garlic clove mixed in. Then it cooked for 8 hours and smelled divine. I thought it was quite tasty, my 15-year-old son downed it without hesitation, my husband declared it "pretty good" though he found the white meat a little dry (not sure how meat cooked in broth all day can become dry), and my 10-year-old, well, I finally had to set a timer and force him to eat it under threat of dire penalties. I believe he said it was "blah". Given the labor involved and the lukewarm response, I'm not sure I'll make this again, though I can see recycling the bacon-on-chicken theme in the future. Perhaps as a casserole--coq au cracker crumbs? Hmm.