Archive for the ‘2012 Book List’ Category

I bought a cookbook, and I’m really excited about it.  It probably isn’t fair to review a cookbook I’ve owned for less than a week but I’ve read every word and I think I’m a decent enough cook to know that these recipes are going to be good.

Well Fed:  Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat  by Melissa Joulwan is looking to be a good investment in my health and sanity.  Joulwan blogs at The Clothes Make the Girl but I was not a reader of her blog prior to buying the book.  I am not a strict “paleo dieter” and I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic but, in a nutshell, the paleo diet works on the premise that human beings were most healthy prior to the advent of agriculture.  The paleo diet has a few variations but Well Fed  is free of grains, legumes, dairy, soy, and sugar.

My own views on what constitutes a good diet are definitely a work in progress.  We’ve always been fairly healthy eaters.  We both like to cook and we’ve never been a big processed-food family.  We first encountered the Weston A. Price Foundation several years ago and we remain convinced that they have quite a bit right when it comes to how humans should be eating.   We used to do quite a bit of home fermentation and I’d like to get back to that before too long.  But despite eating an above-average diet that looked “crunchy” and super healthy to a lot of observers, I have mostly been pretty unsatisfied with my health over the last several years.  I don’t have any particular problem–just lots of little things that add up to a lower quality of life than I’d like to have.  My vocation asks a lot of me and I didn’t feel like my body was up to the task.

About a year ago I hit–as I periodically do–a wall, of sorts.  I’d been running regularly for a few months by then and my body felt sore and creaky.  I had wild mood swings and I was at least 30 pounds overweight (a guess since I didn’t yet own a scale).  I tried a low-carb diet for a bit which did result in some weight loss but I felt terrible.  Then I tried counting calories but I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to make my calories count with healthy food.  Through the early fall I gradually slid back into bad habits and hit another little wall in late October.  My husband and I decided then to try a grain free experiment.  I’d known instinctively for years that wheat is a huge problem for me but I just couldn’t bear the thought of giving up bread.  But we tried it for most of November and this time I was motivated enough to really stick with it for more than a few days.  And I felt a lot better.  Cutting out grains didn’t solve every problem in my life or turn me into a saint, but it removed a lot of obstacles.

But, of course, then Thanksgiving came.  And Christmas.  And since Christmas I’ve probably been 50-75% successful at eating grain free.  That’s a big improvement but it’s not enough for me personally.  And I’ve done a terrible job at kicking sugar out of my diet.  My initial grain-free period in November was also sugar free but I’ve been struggling to limit sugar since Christmas.

And I sorely needed some inspiration for meals.  Enter, Well Fed.  I first heard of the book from Sally at Castle in the Sea and I was intrigued.  I don’t know Sally in real life but I’ve been reading her for years and I think I can safely say that she is not one to be swept up in hype and she strikes me as a frugal person.  If she liked this book, I wanted to give it a good look.    

What I love about this book is that the “paleo” thing is really beside the point.  She doesn’t make the argument for the theory and nutrition behind it.  She wants to eat really delicious food every night of the week without spending hours slaving away in the kitchen.  She explains how to do a weekly “cook up” to stock the fridge with ingredients.  Then she outlines a few basic formulas for “hot plates” or salads inspired by various international cuisines.  There are also more complicated recipes in the book all of which also include several variations.  The book is rather slim, at first glance, but the variety of recipes is almost endless.  We tend to cook from a pantry already and this book seems like the perfect companion to that approach.  And I think I’m going to try her weekly cook up model at least a few times to see if it might be a time and money saver for me.

Her book also doesn’t try to make “regular” food into “paleo” food with weird ingredients.  It’s just good, healthy, nutrient-dense food that could be served to any normal person.  The recipes work whether you can spend a lot or a little on meat and the entire book makes me want to eat ten cups of vegetables a day.  I’m hopeful that between my certain knowledge of how I should, personally, be eating for optimal health and this new burst of inspiration, I’ll soon be able to reconquer the creeping bad habits I’ve regained in the last few months.


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After a couple of weeks immersed in a long novel I was ready for a quick read in an entirely different vein.  I picked up Style, Sex, and Substance:  Ten Catholic Women Consider the Things that Really Matter,  edited by Hallie Lord.  The book was billed as an encouraging read for Catholic women and I found it be so.  Of the ten authors who contributed to the book I regularly read only two of them, sometimes read a couple others, and was almost completely unfamiliar with the others.  In fact, I’m chagrined to admit that I’d never heard of Barbara Nicolosi prior to this book despite the fact that she’s involved with an organization that used to employ me (I’ll try to assume our time didn’t overlap).

The ten essays were light, encouraging reading but, I confess, I was hoping for something a bit more challenging.  I think each of these women has a lot to say and all of them seemed to suffer from having to condense their thoughts to just one short chapter.  I wonder if a tighter unifying theme might have brought more out of these talented women.

I enjoyed Simcha Fisher’s chapter on motherhood which was no surprise since I enjoy her regular columns quite a bit.  I also really enjoyed Rebecca Teti  (whom I’d never really read before)  on women and work.  That surprised me as I generally don’t care for essays on themes of “women’s work” or “new feminism” or anything in that category.  Perhaps I’ll explore all that a bit more down the road.

My favorite chapter was probably the last by Barbara Nicolosi on engaging the culture.  Her defense of the arts has gotten me thinking a bit.  Of course, I completely agree that the arts should be a big part of of our lives.  Music is a big part of our life and the other fine arts have as a big a place as our time, talent, and budget allows.  But Nicolosi gives far more respect film and television than I ever have.  It’s had me thinking a bit about how I engage “pop” culture and the various new media.  Again, perhaps more on that later.

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I first read Kristin Lavransdatter  when I was first married.  I’d never heard of the book but Eric and I were at a used book sale together and he pulled it off the $1 shelf and handed it to me.  “It’s about some girl in medieval Norway.  I never got into it, but it’s supposed to be good.”  Well, with a recommendation like that!

I read it during slow times at my circulation desk job in a small academic library.  I considered myself fairly well-read at the time so I was a little chagrined at how many people exclaimed about how much they loved the book when they noticed me reading it–and I’d never even heard of it.  My first copy is the eighth printing from 1931.  It was either a very large printing or all the previous ones looked very similar because I’ve since encountered the exact same edition in lots of used book sales over the years (there is also a three-volume edition from Penguin floating around).  It’s an ancient book with paper thin pages and I enjoyed it immensely.  I was newly married myself and I came away thinking that Kristin’s marriage was just horrible and depressing.

Spending a couple of weeks with Kristin again, almost nine years later, I found myself, understandably, relating much more to Kristin-the-Mother this time around. And her marriage, while certainly less than ideal, seemed much more normal to me this time.  My marriage is heaven on earth compared to hers but it was easier to understand, now that I’ve lived through more trials as a married woman, how a difference in temperament can cause problems and how destructive small miscommunications can be if left to fester.

I was just now browsing some of the Amazon reviews for this book and, overall, they are pretty favorable but there was more than one reader who really hated this book.  One complaint was that none of the main characters are really likable.  This is certainly true.  Kristin is one of the most frustrating characters I have ever read.  I just want to reach into the pages and shake her until she grows up and sees reason for once.  But then I have to admit to myself that I’m generally just as much an idiot as Kristin.  In different ways, of course.  I’ve never run off with a man against my family’s wishes while engaged to someone else, for example.  And I don’t tend to hold grudges.  But I do find myself saying the same exact things in confession over and over again.  And I dwell on my sins more than I should.  There is one scene where Kristin’s parish church has been struck by lightning and is burning to the ground and–in an astonishing fit of self-absorption–she asks her parish priest if the fire is God’s punishment for her own sin.  The priest rails at her, “Do you really think your sins are important enough for God to destroy a beautiful church?”  (paraphrase).

There is little to cheer the reader over the 1000 pages of this book but it is very real and there is a glimmer of hope at the end.  One senses that Kristin is finally starting to “get it” during her final years.  I thought when I first read the book and I thought again that Kristin should be required reading for high school students.  It paints a vivid picture of how sin can eat away at your peace and poison your entire life though, again, there is the hope of redemption in the end.

As for the much-discussed new translation by Tina Nunnally:  I liked it but the difference wasn’t as great as I expected.  The original translation by Charles Archer uses archaic language and that certainly takes some getting used to.  But after the first few hundred pages, I did get used to it and I hadn’t remembered it as a stumbling block to understanding the book.  The new translation is in a very straightforward style.  The introduction to the new translation claims that this style was a hallmark of Undset’s writing style.  Since I don’t know Norwegian I’ll just have to take the translator’s word for it but I’m certainly in favor of sticking closely to the author’s original style.

I was pretty disappointed in the notes in the new edition.  Medieval Norwegian culture is pretty different from the modern world and the older edition had much more extensive notes explaining various aspects of daily life and the political situations referred to in the story.  There were also diagrams of the various estates.  All of this was missing in the newer edition which had far fewer notes.  For that reason, I’m glad I have the older copy as well.

One really minor note:  the new Penguin edition is very sturdy and attractive.  I don’t like worrying about whether or not my book might fall apart while I’m reading it.  The volume I just spent two weeks reading mostly while nursing my baby to sleep looks practically brand new.  I like that in a book.

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I finally finished, last week, Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture.  It took me about as long to get through those 175 pages as it did to get through 700 of Ancient History.  Part of the blame for that is that I paused to read up on gardening and composting.  And, also, I get less reading done during “Ordinary Time” than I do during holidays and vacations.  But, really, this one was a tough go.  It’s the kind of book I would have read and discussed intelligently in college but these days, I confess, I sometimes feel like flipping through Better Homes and Gardens is a mental stretch.  But part of the goal with my Book List this year is to flex my reading muscles a bit and I had to start somewhere.  Lucky for me, I’m married to a theology professor and my reading has sparked some good conversations during our nightly dish washing time.

The book is actually a volume of two separate essays.  The first, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture” is a discussion of the nature of work and the nature of leisure.  The modern idea that we rest only to be able to work again is challenged.  Pieper suggests, rather, that we have “leisure time” so that we may engage in our true work:  worship.

The second essay, “The Philosophical Act”, was a more enjoyable and understandable read for me.  Pieper discusses the relationship between philosophy and theology and the rootedness of philosophy in “wonder” (rather than doubt, which is  the more modern view).

I don’t have anything very interesting to offer to my readers at this point, I’m sorry to say.  But this is the sort of book that enters one’s intellect quietly and percolates down over time as other ideas and works are considered along side it.  I’m glad to have read it, glad to have cracked open the door to more serious reading.

But up next is a novel.  Never a good idea for me as I am a most intemperate novel reader.  I can muster self-control for a long time and keep myself from starting one but, once begun, I am stuck until the book is through.  And I have a terrible habit of entering the characters’ world a bit more than is strictly healthy for someone who has other responsibilities.  So it is, unfortunate, given these propensities that I chose Kristin Lavransdatter.  If you’ve read it then you can understand why it’s hard to wander around in Kristin’s head.  And you know that I have a long way to go.  I’ve read it before (it’s definitely on my Top Five list) which only makes it worse.  Because then I have absolutely no hope.  I know things just get worse and worse until . . . well, I do like the end of this book.  So, that’s good.  I read it first just after we were married.  Now, with almost nine years under my belt–and four children–I suspect I will read it differently.  And I’ve heard such rave reviews of the new (not that new–I just noticed that it came out seven years ago!) translation by Tina Nunnally.

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I’m taking awhile to get through my next official “Book List” book because I’ve taken some time this month to read Mel Bartholomew’s All New Square Foot Gardening and also Mary Apelhof’s Worms Eat my Garbage.  You can read a bit more about our adventures in urban vermicomposting over on the kids blog but the short version is that we keep a big bin of worms in our house and feed them all our compostable kitchen scraps.  We did this more or less successfully a couple of years ago but we never had a garden that could benefit from the castings.  This year:  we have big plans.

Last spring my husband was the big garden enthusiast in in the family.  I think I was still in the post-partum fog which was severely compounded by buying a house and moving.  I was still in survival mode while Eric sang rapturous odes to home-grown lettuce.  I was okay with the home grown lettuce idea, in theory.  One of the happiest periods of our courtship was the summer Eric house sat at a place with a huge garden and we went and picked a big salad for ourselves each evening.  But I didn’t want to be the one actually growing the lettuce.  Eric gamely threw together a planter box, scattered seed much too late, scratched his head when shoots would come up and then disappear, found the slugs that were munching our crop, and then hand picked the slugs from our lettuce each night and killed them.  After the Slug Danger Window had passed we enjoyed delicious lettuce for the rest of the summer though we all wished there had been more.  A lot more.  We managed to successfully grow basil, parsley and mint as well although there was not nearly enough basil for our purposes.

So with that amazing early gardening experience under our belt, we ordered the All New Square Foot Gardening on the advice of several friends.  When it came in the mail I surprised myself by having an inordinate amount of enthusiasm for the project.  I can’t recommend the book or the method until the fall (I hope) but after I had sketched our plans for a 47-square foot garden I called our tenants (and friends) who live upstairs from us and asked that we consult out on the back patio to divvy up the garden space.  My neighbor really just wants to get a few tomato and green bean plants in pots so it was a simple matter to show her where she could put those.  But she chatted with me for awhile as I outlined my ambitions and wondered aloud why we don’t move out to the country since so many of our interests in sustainable living and quality food seem, to her, incompatible with city living.

There are, I think, many, many reasons why living in the city is better for the planet but let’s just talk about food for now.  It stands to reason that city dwellers would have just as much desire for good, responsibly raised food as people who live elsewhere and, from what I’ve seen, getting that food is actually a little easier in the city.

For one thing, while it is true that urbanites don’t usually have big yards, we are often less attached to the yards we do have.  When we were house hunting we assumed we would have no yard.  You don’t choose a dense urban neighborhood for the wide green lawns.  The two are completely incompatible.  So, any outdoor space we have is a complete bonus as far as we’re concerned.  We ended up with a 100% concrete patio that is about 400 sq. feet.  Almost 25% of that space is now consumed by a wheelchair ramp.  It’s not like the space is huge “run around outside” area for my kids.  It’s more like an outdoor room.  Putting vegetables and plants out there will only make it a nicer outdoor room.  Though, that said, my 47-square foot garden isn’t going to take up a lot of that space in part because . . .

City dwellers can garden on their roofs.  The bigger your building, the more likely it is that you’ll have a flat roof.  Only a section of our 2.5-story house is flat and we aren’t gardening up there–at least not this year.  But we are gardening on the flat roof of the storage shed that sits in one corner of our tiny patio.  And the rest of the garden is going to get tucked into spots that aren’t all that useful for other purposes.  City dwellers who have small living spaces inside are accustomed to making the most of every square inch on the outside as well.

But, what if you really, really don’t have any outdoor space?  The density in a city allows for co-ops to flourish.  You do need a critical mass of people who want the same kind of food and, frankly, we don’t have that where we live now.  But when we lived in Washington, D.C. we helped start three different neighborhood co-ops and eventually were purchasing about 90% of our food on that model.  It just made sense for a small farmer to partner with us and send a truckload of stuff where there was a high concentration of customers all within walking distance of each other.

My one disappointment with our current situation is that we can’t have chickens.  It’s actually allowed, at least unofficially, where we live now and we had neighbors who did it when we first moved to this neighborhood.  But that 100% concrete yard isn’t going to get me good eggs.  I can buy eggs at the grocery store from chickens raised on concrete and not have the hassle of getting a chicken sitter when we go on vacation.

But, livestock aside, urban living has not meant sacrifices for us when it comes to obtaining quality food.

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This is not one of the two books I said I would post about next but I am usually reading at least two books at once since I try to have one going for “spiritual reading.”  Regular spiritual reading is a habit I have long tried–and often failed–to cultivate.  I have generally pegged my spiritual reading to bedtime so I’m never up for anything too heavy.  If I put spiritual reading at more alert times of the day I tend not to do it.  Since the New Year I have managed to generally read as I’m nursing the baby to sleep.  This has been a good compromise.  I actually have a separate “spiritual reading” section on my 2012 bookshelf which is also pretty motivating.

I just finished In the Image of St. Dominic:  Nine Portraits of Dominican Life by Guy Bedouelle, O.P.  I have always enjoyed lives of the saints and my husband really loved reading this book last year.  He is actively pursuing the Dominican Third Order and, while I certainly support him I’m not sure how or if something like that would fit into my life.   I certainly have a deep love for the Dominicans.  Our first couple of years in Washington, D.C. I worked at the Dominican House of Studies and it was our main place for Daily and Sunday Mass.  I was also really blessed to go on a couple of individual silent retreats with the cloistered Dominican nuns who used to live right in D.C.  I loved their life.

This title of this book is fairly self-explanatory.  Nine saints who exemplify the spirit of St. Dominic are given a chapter each.  Bedouelle is not my favorite author and, though I enjoyed the book well enough, I wasn’t quite sure where he was going with it.  Until the last paragraph.  I’ll quote in full, and in closing, because it is a better summary than anything I could say.  The title of the final chapter is “St. Dominic and Fervor”:

The seed of everything is contained in Dominic’s fervor, and it is this dynamism that begets joy.  This is the leaven that pervades Dominican life; it is the salt that flavors all we do, the salt Christ asked of his apostles in the gospel.  If we would have Jordan’s (of Saxony) concern for Dominican communion, if we would possess zeal for the Faith with Peter Martyr, if we would thirst to seek truth with St. Thomas Aquinas, if we are drawn to spiritual beauty and long to express it with Blessed Fra Angelico, if we love the Church like St. Catherine of Siena, if we struggle for justice like Las Casa, if we are aware of the mystical dimension of our life like St. Catherine de Ricci, if we desire humility in the service of the poor like St. Martin de Porres, and if we fight for the liberty of Christian and of the church like Lacordaire–if we should do all these things and yet not have St. Dominic’s fervor–we have yet to discover the essential.  For I am convinced that beneath this “divine fervor”, there lies hidden in him the fire of charity that enkindles the joy of the Spirit.

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