Friday, January 23, 2015

Pork and Poblano Soup

I can't bring myself to eat soup when it's hot outside, but when the cold comes, I can't get enough. It is the perfect fall and winter food--prepped the night before or in the morning; meat and vegetables all in one dish; freezes well; leftovers are delicious; easy to double and share.

But what do you do when you get bored with the classics--when you've already made vegetable beef and chicken tortilla and chili, but you're still itching to fill your crockpot with soup? You need this soup in your life.

I tore the recipe out of Better Homes and Gardens a couple of years ago. I've been a little bit obsessed with cinnamon in savory dishes ever since discovering it was the secret ingredient in my friend Mandy's chicken enchiladas. I love sweet-spicy combinations. And I love orange-flavored just about anything. So when I saw this, I was immediately intrigued. I don't typically buy cinnamon in stick form, but we had some on hand after one of Steve's homemade apple wine experiments, so I had to give this soup a try. And I am so glad I did!

Every time I make this, I love it more. This is one of only a few recipes where I've barely changed a thing. The original calls for doing everything in a saucepan on the stove, which would make fewer dishes, but I much prefer to get my food prep done in the morning and let soup simmer in the crockpot all day. If you're in a hurry, you could probably even skip the stovetop step altogether and dump the raw pork and chili powder directly in the crockpot with everything else--but I can't promise you won't miss the extra flavor that comes with browning the meat.

Also, don't skimp on the orange peel or skip the cinnamon--they are what make this soup lively and interesting! The end result is so satisfying, bright and zesty without actually being spicy. (Poblanos, for the record, aren't hot--they are large and green, sort of an elongated bell pepper.) This has a totally different flavor profile than any other soup I make.

Pork and Poblano Soup
adapted, barely, from Better Homes and Gardens


  • 1 to 1 1/4 lb. pork tenderloin, cut into bite-sized pieces*
  • 2 tsp. chili powder
  • 2 T oil
  • 1 poblano pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 red (or orange, or yellow) bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 14.5-oz can fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 2 c. chicken or pork stock
  • 1/4 c. orange juice
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 tsp. orange zest
  • salt, to taste (you may need to add up to 1 tsp. if you're using homemade stock) 
*You can use pork shoulder (Boston butt), but I don't recommend it unless you hate yourself. You'll spend hours in futility trying to separate the endless fat from the meat without slicing a finger. Pork chops would work just as well as tenderloin, though, if you find them on sale.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle pork with chili powder and cook in batches for about 4-5 minutes or until browned. (Avoid overcrowding to ensure adequate browning.) Use a slotted spoon to remove browned meat from the skillet.

Add peppers and onions to skillet and cook until just tender (about five minutes).

Transfer meat and vegetables to a large oval crockpot and add tomatoes, broth, and juice. Cook on low for about 4-6 hours. Add the cinnamon stick during the last 30-60 minutes.

Before serving, remove cinnamon stick and stir in orange zest.

Yield: About 4 servings.

Note: This freezes beautifully, so you're crazy if you don't double the recipe, cook it in a 6-quart oval crockpot, and freeze half of it flat in a gallon Ziploc bag. I've even quadrupled it, since I have two large crockpots. You'll thank yourself on a night when soup sounds delicious but you don't feel like cooking.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Nonfiction of 2014 (Part 2 of 2)

Continuing from yesterday, a look back over the rest of the nonfiction books I read in 2014. Again, my rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

Surprised by Motherhood: Everything I Never Expected About Being a Mom - Lisa-Jo Baker****
Really lovely. At least 4.5 stars--maybe even 5. I copied down lots of stirring, poignant quotes from this memoir.

Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Image - Hannah Anderson****
Excellent, timely, important. Full review here.

Strength in What Remains - Tracy Kidder (audiobook)*****
Incredible story about an incredible man. I've read several books about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, but had no idea what was going on in Burundi during the same time frame. I spent most of the book listening with eyes wide, shaking my head in horror as I learned about a Burundian medical student named Deo and his journey through the killing, his arrival in New York and his struggles to establish a life there. His resilience, hope, courage, perseverance and commitment to help the poor in his home country are stunning.

Coming of Age in Mississippi - Anne Moody****
I don't know that I can really say I *enjoyed* this autobiography. But it definitely held my attention, and I think it is an important and powerful book, a firsthand personal perspective from the civil rights movement. The tone is very blunt and very angry--often despairing, yet incredibly courageous. Once upon a time, I would have found the blunt anger very off-putting...I count it as a sign of grace and growth that as I read, I was less turned off by her anger and more empathetic: "If I'd been through what she went through, I imagine I'd feel that way and see the world that way, too."

Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament - David Murray****
This is the type of book that needs to be read in small chunks, with pen in hand, and revisited repeatedly. It is an accessible and reader-friendly guide to reading Scripture from a Christ-centered perspective, but it's so dense with lists and sub-points that I found it hard to retain the information. The first half is a compelling apologetic for reading Scripture this way, as the author leads you through his own process of learning and paradigm-shifting. In the second half, he'll repeatedly blow your mind as he helps you see Christ in places you never thought about before.

Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn't Give Up - Larissa Murphy***
I've been blown away over the years by Larissa's heart, her quiet but strong faith in God's goodness in the midst of profound tragedy. If you've not seen this brief film about Ian and Larissa's amazing story, definitely check it out--ten minutes well spent. I will say, however, that I did not love the book as much as other, shorter articles I've read from her. Still, it was challenging and inspiring.

Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way - Shauna Niequist****
Shauna Niequist has a lovely way with words. I underlined passage after passage as she used fresh metaphors and captured familiar feelings/experiences just exactly so. Some of the passages were exquisite. I like the style of her books quite a bit--a collection of related but mostly stand-alone essays, easy to dip in and out of. I enjoyed this one more than Cold Tangerines.

Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life's Biggest Questions - Timothy Keller*****
This was, as I expect from Keller, wonderful. A combination of compelling apologetic-type arguments (which he is so good at offering in such a disarming way) and moving, worshipful explorations of familiar Bible stories. 

The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily Readings for Advent - John Piper****
A great little Advent devotional--the readings were short, but substantial. Lots of fuel for hope and trust in the Lord.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration - Isabel Wilkerson*****
Epic indeed. I believe this should be required reading for high school or college American history classes. It gets a bit repetitive, but not enough to bother me much. Wilkerson explains and explores the period between 1915-1970 when blacks left the South in droves and relocated in Northern and Western cities. Her approach to this massive undertaking is unique and compelling. First, she tells the life stories of three people who left three parts of the South for the top three destination cities in three different decades. So the book is essentially three complete biographies, with vividly detailed narratives and fascinating comparisons/contrasts between the three. Interwoven with all this are statistics, sociological research and broader/more public narratives that fill out the bigger picture, giving the reader a better sense of the scope and significance of the migration. I don't know when I've done so much highlighting in a narrative nonfiction history. So much of what I read seemed so important, and was so well told.

Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness - Barbara Duguid
If the measure of a book is how much it makes you think, how much underlining and starring and scribbling in the margins you do...then this is five stars for sure. It took me six months to get through it because I felt I needed to answer the questions at the end of each chapter, and consider the arguments carefully.

I found so much of this to be rich and helpful. But reading it was also angst-producing, because never before have I read a book that simultaneously resonated so deeply with my experience, yet also left me skeptical of its handling of Scripture. I still can't decide whether my significant concerns and reservations are stemming from the fact that the author has pinpointed my own weaknesses and it is the message I most need to hear but find difficult to rest in, or whether my disagreements are legitimate because I am discerning sketchy theology. At this point I don't think I can recommend it without significant disclaimers/cautions...yet I am not ready to dismiss it for all the value mixed in with the questionable. 

Maude - Donna Mabry****
Whew. It is kind of hard to believe that one person's life could be so very tragic. This gripped me from the opening pages, and held my attention to the end, but the longer it went on, the more painful it got. I wasn't entirely sure whether to feel only overwhelmingly sorry for Maude, or whether to also question her perspective and call her to account for some of the pain that she undoubtedly brought on herself. A fascinating exploration of a real and flawed person whose life seemed almost too terrible to be true, yet held deep joys as well. Worth 99 cents for the Kindle version, at any rate.

Unwrapping the Greatest Gift: A Family Celebration of Christmas - Ann Voskamp**
I really, really hate to give this a negative review. But it just did not work for our family at all. Full review here.

Behold Your God: Rethinking God Biblically - John Snyder
Our church did this study at the beginning of last year, with videos during Sunday school and a workbook to complete throughout the week. Some of my friends found it to be incredibly edifying; some have gone through it multiple times. Steve and I both chose not to finish it. It just was not the right thing for me in that season, and about halfway through, I finally gave myself permission to stop. It was a relief to resume my own studies in the Word, which I had been previously enjoying, rather than forcing myself to slog through this and feel beat up every morning. As I said, I know several people who think it is just the best study ever; I simply did not care for Snyder's tone/style.

The rest of my 2014 reviews and recommendations:
Fiction: Read-Alouds
Nonfiction Part 1

Comment below with your best-of-2014 nonfiction recommendation!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Nonfiction of 2014 (Part 1 of 2)

Looking back over the year, two nonfiction books rise to the top of my list. The first is Destiny of the Republic, a narrative nonfiction history book that gripped me and left me recommending it to every reader I know (and every one of my friends who has read it has loved it as well!).

The second is The Warmth of Other Suns, an epic history of race in the 20th century United States and an exploration of the lives of three black Americans who lived and left the South during the Great Migration. I read many, many wonderful nonfiction books this year, but these two in particular stand out from the rest.

Here's a rundown of the rest--first half today, second half tomorrow. 

My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life - Cloud & Townsend***
I admit I was highly skeptical of this book for years, but once I finally gave it a chance, I actually found much of it to be solid and helpful. However, it was often rooted in man-centered perspectives and fell short of the glorious truths about God and the human heart I have gleaned from places like the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. As Ed Welch argues, I think the "boundaries" metaphor is *a* helpful metaphor, but should not be *the* central, driving paradigm for a Christian's relationships. Toward the end of the book, I felt incredibly appalled by and angry with the authors'  distortion of/disregard for the gospel--to the point where it nearly negated every other good thing they had said. I'd recommend it, but with caveats.

Death by Living: Life is Meant to Be Spent - N.D. Wilson****
Many stirring quotes and a challenging push to live well before you die. The author's unflinching stare at mortality and his celebration of life in the midst of the dying is poignant; his tributes to his deceased grandparents are especially beautiful. Still, I didn't love this one as much as Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl.

Anything: The Prayer that Unlocked My God and My Soul - Jennie Allen****
So much of this resonated deeply with me. I love Jennie Allen's passionate, surrendered heart. Challenged, inspired, moved to reorient myself and seek God's face. 

The Mistress's Daughter - A.M. Homes (audiobook)****
An adoption memoir (from the perspective of the adoptee) that was dark and depressing, but incredibly well-written and worthwhile. It ended on a much better note than I anticipated.

The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home - Carolyn McCulley****
Refreshing, disarming, wise and winsome. Yet also a bit contradictory or disingenuous at times. The historical analysis of women and work was incredibly helpful; the chapter(s) specific to my age/season of life were less helpful. 

Summer at Tiffany - Marjorie Hart**
Pure fluff beach book. Given my NYC obsession, I thought I'd love this memoir about a summer spent there, but it was just OK. It's a quick read, not much depth or substance, but still charming (probably 2.5 stars). It reads like a grandmother telling her grandchildren stories of an adventurous summer she spent in Manhattan in 1945, casting a rosy glow over her memories. It really isn't that I disliked it. I just felt like the time I spent reading it could have been spent on many more worthwhile books.

Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences - Leonard Sax***
Mixed feelings on this one. It frequently surprised me how he would seem almost to play into gender stereotypes, only to turn around and argue against them (which strengthened his case, I think). Some parts, like the discipline section, were a bit maddening; he comes off as pretty arrogant and know-it-all at times. But a lot of it was really helpful. What frustrates me is that his main solution to everything is gender-segregated schools. I agree that seems ideal in a lot of ways, but it also feels so farfetched and unrealistic in the deeply-entrenched system of education today. So...what then?

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch - Sally Bedell Smith (audiobook)****
Fascinating, though I might have found this LONG book a bit tedious if I hadn't been listening at 2x speed. I'm more ardently anti-royalist than ever, though paradoxically, I find the royal family completely fascinating. Full review here.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President - Candice Millard (audiobook)*****
This is exactly my favorite kind of nonfiction--where all kinds of seemingly-unrelated topics converge in one expertly-written narrative. I fell in love with President Garfield, got irrationally angry with Dr. D.W. "Ignorance Is" Bliss, shook my head in wide-eyed disbelief at delusional Charles Guiteau, and clapped my hand over my mouth as my stomach turned at the descriptions of how medicine was practiced in the 1870s (the details are not for the faint of heart). I blew through this in about four days, captivated in suspense even though I knew how it turned out in the end. And I still feel upset that Garfield's presidency was cut short. What an incredible man. 

Interrupted: When Jesus Wrecks Your Comfortable Christianity - Jen Hatmaker****
I just love Jen Hatmaker. This was powerful and convicting, though it's not a good book to read alone--it needs to be read, discussed and applied in community. Full review here

Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds - Jen Wilkin****
This is an excellent, accessible book for anyone (though a few parts are specific to women, I've no doubt men could benefit, too) new to studying the Bible for themselves and wanting some guidance and help. The chapter at the end with wisdom and tips specifically for teachers was wonderful, packed with insightful advice. Jen's style is likeable and her passion for seeing women dig into the Bible in order to love the God it reveals is evident throughout. I pray that this book will be widely read in order that God may develop in our generation countless women who are able and eager to feed themselves on Scripture.

The Message New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs - Eugene Peterson
Certainly shouldn't be your primary/only Scripture intake, but I find it quite helpful for fresh and challenging perspectives on overly familiar texts. 

Bossypants - Tina Fey (audiobook)**
I expected to laugh out loud a ton, but really didn't--it was frequently amusing, but not bellyache-inducing hilarious. More often merely shocking--she is just. so. crass.

Stay tuned for the second half of the nonfiction list. Meanwhile, what were your favorite nonfiction books from 2014?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Fiction of 2014: Grown-Up Novels

Besides all the read-alouds, I did make it through some grown-up novels last year. My favorites were The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd and Room by Emma Donoghue.

Here's the detailed rundown. My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

The Light Between Oceans - M.L. Stedman***/****
The story hooked me from page 1 and I was captivated throughout, not wanting to put it down and staying up late to finish, in tears at the end. Carefully crafted, provocative, suspenseful; I really did not know how it was all going to turn out, and wasn't even sure how I *wanted* it to turn out, honestly. That said, when I closed the book, I didn't quite have that satisfied, "I'm so sad to be done reading that book; what a great story" feeling. In the end, I wasn't convinced that some of the main characters' choices were believable. Not that they *couldn't* have been--but that the author didn't get me there adequately. I also found the style a bit annoying at times. She kept switching back and forth between past and present tense--not shifting between different time periods (I don't mind that if it's well done, a la Kate Morton) but switching abruptly from present to past in the same section, on the same page. It was just odd and distracting.

Still, lots of food for thought about sticky, complex issues: adoption, parenting, marriage, truth, loss, etc. Money quote that sums up the whole book: "He struggles to make sense of it--all this love, so bent out of shape, refracted, like light through the lens."

The Girl Who Chased the Moon - Sarah Addison Allen (audiobook)**
A mildly entertaining way to pass the time while in the car or exercising, but pure fluff. It had a sex scene and some glorification of immorality which disappointed me. Also, apparently the book falls into a genre called "magical realism" which I now know I don't particularly care for. Give me magic (Harry Potter) or give me realism, not some strange blend of both. 

The Kitchen House - Kathleen Grissom****
A gripping historical novel about race, class and slavery in the late 1700s. It was heart-wrenching and horrifying, and the ending didn't quite satisfy me, but a very worthwhile book nonetheless. 

Sycamore Row - John Grisham**
Meh. I still think Grisham has lost his touch. Either my taste was wildly different 15-20 years ago and the books I thought were so great actually weren't...or he has never since matched what he did in his first four novels (A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Client and The Pelican Brief). I gave him another chance when I found out this was about some of the beloved characters from A Time to Kill, but Jake Brigance and the other familiar characters, as well as some interesting new ones, weren't enough to carry a mediocre plot. I thought this one was anticlimactic.

Sarah's Key - Tatiana de Rosnay (audiobook)**
This started off so promising, so compelling. But the longer it went on the more impatient I was for it to be over (and that's coming from someone who listened to it at 2x speed!). It dragged out much further than necessary and the ending was anticlimactic and fairly predictable (and I'm not one to usually say that). A couple of the characters seemed to me unbelievable and/or utterly unsympathetic to the point of being barely human.

Hannah Coulter - Wendell Berry (audiobook)****/*****
This is the first of Wendell Berry I've read (OK, listened to)--and I'm stunned that a man could write an elderly woman's voice so authentically (an elderly woman who has experienced WWII grief and loss, no less!). Really lovely, poignant writing, and the story was rich, full of timeless truth (if somewhat depressing). I enjoyed the audio version, but suspect I could have better savored the writing if I'd been reading it instead. 4.5 stars. 

The Invention of Wings - Sue Monk Kidd****/*****
A gripping, powerful story based on the life of a real woman who fought against slavery in the early nineteenth century. Loved it. 

Room - Emma Donoghue*****
Intensely captivating. The five-year-old narrator voice is powerful. And I don't know when a book has actually made my heart RACE like this one did. Whew.

Cry, the Beloved Country - Alan Paton (audiobook)
I should not have blown through this at 2x speed over the course of several weeks--it is more rich, nuanced literature and needed to be read more carefully, thoughtfully. Still, powerful and wrenching.

Abandoned novels:
Little Dorrit - Charles Dickens
I made it a quarter of the way through this one and struggled with the decision to abandon. I remember how awesome the last third of A Tale of Two Cities was, and I loved David Copperfield and Bleak House. But I kept putting this aside for other more captivating books and then totally losing track of who everyone was (and still hadn't even figured out why they all matter). Dickens, why must you be so difficult to love and yet so lovable? I might give this one another try this year, but I'll definitely have to check out the Cliffs Notes on the first 25% of the book.

Coming Home - Rosamunde Pilcher
The first hundred pages of this were enjoyable enough. But at 752 pages, it felt like such a massive commitment. Ultimately I just wasn't convinced it was worth it to devote my time to this one book rather than three other books I could read in the same time. 

Your turn--what was the best novel you read in 2014?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Fiction of 2014: Read-Alouds

It's that time of year again: an onslaught of book recommendations. Some of you may really need ideas for new books to read; others of you already have hundreds waiting on your "want-to-read" shelf at Goodreads. Either way, I'd love to share what I enjoyed and loathed in 2014. It's so much fun when my friends pick up and fall in love with books I recommended!

We'll start with fiction, and I'll divide it up to make these posts more readable. The boys and I spent much of 2014 in some old favorites of mine (the Wingfeather Saga and the Little House series). We blew through quite a few read-alouds this year, in large part because I discovered that reading to them during lunch and snack times is the best way to preserve my sanity and patience :) My favorite new read-alouds were The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron and The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden.

My rating system:
***** Loved it, would definitely read again
**** Liked it, would recommend
*** It was OK
** Didn't really like it
* Hated it

The Magician's Nephew - C.S. Lewis (audiobook)*****
In just three years since my first time through, I'd forgotten so much of this--and loved it all over again. So many poignant lines and scenes. All kinds of delightful surprises in terms of links to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was surprised and disappointed that my 6yo didn't get into this one much, but I still think it's wonderful. 

Farmer Boy - Laura Ingalls Wilder****
My favorite of the first three in the series. My 6yo *loved* it. Since this is stand-alone, it's not a bad place to start to get your kids interested in the series, especially if they're boys. I found it tended to build suspense in terms of when Laura would meet and fall in love with Almanzo, since they already knew about him.

On the Banks of Plum Creek****/*****
Both my 6yo and 3yo were really into this. It's so hard to fathom the hardships the Ingalls family endured! This book, like #2 in the series, is a lot more interesting than #1 because it's more plot-driven, rather than "this is how you churn butter, this is how you smoke a hog, etc." (That stuff is fascinating, but not so much for read-aloud.) It was even suspenseful several times. Just really fascinating, heartwarming stories about pioneer life. Probably 4.5 stars. 

By the Shores of Silver Lake***
After the last three in this series were so enjoyable, this one was slow, super-descriptive, and boring at times again. My 6yo was much less interested. The latter half was better, and there were certainly some suspenseful/exciting chapters, but overall this one ranks with #1 in terms of its having historical value but not being overly fun as a read-aloud.  

The Long Winter*****
This is one of the best in the series. Poignant and suspenseful. The depiction of what life was like for the Ingalls family during that awful, unimaginable winter is not at all melodramatic, just straightforward and sparse, yet leaves you continually blown away at what they endured. My 6yo kept begging for one more chapter. FYI, "Stuff You Missed in History Class" has a fascinating podcast about this book with background information about just how horrible that winter actually was.
Little Town on the Prairie****
By this point in the series, I felt kind of surprised that my boys were still into it--the later books are hardly relatable to a 7yo and 3yo, when they're about a teenage girl--but both boys continued to be interested; as soon as we finished this one they were eager to start the next. 

These Happy Golden Years*****
This one might be my favorite of the series. I continued to be surprised how much my boys were into the story, despite it being primarily about the experiences of an older teenage girl--but the 7yo especially loved it and would beg me to keep going with another chapter. The way Laura and Almanzo's relationship evolves is amusing and sweet. 

The First Four Years** 
It was suggested to me that this last Little House book perhaps be left out of the read-aloud-to-my-boys lineup, so I revisited it on my own. And I think that was wise--best to just leave the series on the happy ending of These Happy Golden Years. This one is dark, very different in tone and content from the rest of the series--likely because it was published after the death of Laura's daughter and was printed as-is from her journals, unedited.

You realize immediately you're in for something very different with the jarring opening scenes, in which events from These Happy Golden Years are repeated with the details changed. Almanzo, who was so courageous and generous and smart in the earlier books, comes across as an idiot here, and the Laura who seemed so headstrong and independent in previous books is suddenly all, "OK dear, drown us in debt, no big deal, it's not my business." What?

Perhaps this book is more realistic and less sugar-coated...but for the sake of childhood nostalgia and fun reading aloud, I prefer the warm and happy books to this one. It's a quick read when you're not reading aloud, but too depressing to plow through with my boys.

Three Tales of My Father's Dragon - Ruth Stiles Gannett****
A charming set of stories, with lots of illustrations. My 6yo and 3yo loved it. The first was my favorite--I enjoyed how clever the boy was portrayed to be. 

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness - Andrew Peterson (audiobook)****
I was really sad that my boys didn't get into this like I thought they would. I suspect it might have been different if I'd read it to them rather than listening to the audiobook in the car. I wasn't overly impressed with the narrator--he wasn't much for voices, nothing on the level of Jim Dale or Stockard Channing. Still, I love the story.
North! Or Be Eaten - Andrew Peterson*****
I still just adore this book. This was at least my third time through and it was just as fresh and wonderful as the first time. Once we gave up on the audio version and I started reading it personally, the boys were more engaged and my 7yo kept asking for "just one more chapter!" 

The Monster in the Hollows - Andrew Peterson*****
Loved this every bit as much the second time around, as a read-aloud. I marvel at how men like Peterson have not only the imagination to tell a captivating story, but also the ability to weave profound truth throughout, such that you see and think about life and eternity in fresh ways. So wonderful. 

The Cricket in Times Square - George Selden*****
A charming, heartwarming classic. Both my boys loved it. I don't know if there's an audio version, but this would be a good book to listen to if the narrator does character voices reasonably well. I felt like this was one of those books that required a good variety of character voices and I am laughable in my attempts :) 

The Stories Julian Tells - Ann Cameron*****
Really charming and delightful, though lots shorter than I expected (more like the length of five or six picture books rather than a chapter book). I loved the father's gentle, playful parenting. This made me eager to look for more books about Julian and his family...only to be sorely disappointed (see below).

Julian, Secret Agent - Ann Cameron**
I did not enjoy this nearly so much as The Stories Julian Tells (maybe because the winsome, wise father only appears at the very end?).

Spunky Tells All - Ann Cameron***
A decent read-aloud. Charming and clever at times, as it was written from the perspective of the family dog who's lots more intelligent than anyone realizes. 

A Bear Called Paddington - Michael Bond****
Charming and sweet. A lot of it went over my 3yo's head, but amused me. 

The Boxcar Children - Gertrude Chandler Warner***

Caboose Mystery - Gertrude Chandler Warner***
Sweet little stories, slightly cheesy, fairly predictable. They kept my 3.5yo interested and didn't bore me. 

What stories did you and your kids enjoy in 2014?

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Things I Learned in December

Yes, OK, so we're a full week into the new year and I haven't even managed my "Things I Learned Last Month" post, much less my annual roundup of books I read, to say nothing of any further reflections on 2014. Sigh.

Either I didn't learn much last month, or I just didn't keep careful track as well. I've only got two things to share--one is quirky and the other will make me look totally stupid but I don't care, it was life changing. 

1. You can make Velveeta in your blender. For real.
See, I have this soup recipe: the love child of broccoli cheese soup and chicken noodle soup. It is so, so delicious. Total comfort food for me in the winter. But it uses an entire pound of Velveeta, and I  shudder every time I am cutting that rubbery block of pasteurized processed cheese food product into chunks. It is just so wrong. So more than once, I have tried to substitute real cheese for the Velveeta. Once I tried just dumping a bunch in (that obviously didn't work). Another time I made a roux and carefully constructed a cheese sauce. Neither was satisfying--it just didn't taste or feel right in our mouths. So I buy the Velveeta, I cringe, and then I forget those unnatural bouncy orange cubes and enjoy my delicious soup.

Then Pinterest told me there was such a thing as homemade Velveeta. I could not resist. I printed off the recipe, I bought some unflavored gelatin and dry milk powder, and Steve whipped up a batch of Velveeta with only four ingredients, all of them real food. It was kind of creepy how much it looked and felt like real Velveeta. Unfortunately, it still was not a close enough substitute in the soup. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't the soup I was hungry for, in either flavor or texture. Maybe we need to wean ourselves gradually--half real Velveeta (?! hello oxymoron) and half homemade next time? I'd love to stop using the nasty stuff, but when you are used to the fake thing, the real deal just isn't quite right. Sadness.

Related, while we're on the topic of "real" and "fake"...I also learned there is such a thing as "diet imitation margarine." My mom keeps her emergency sewing kit in a very old margarine tub (from my grandmother's era). You know, the little round, pale yellow kind. Steve noticed over Christmas break (in the midst of heroically stitching up an injured Clifford) that the lid of the tub said "Diet Imitation Margarine." If margarine is imitation butter, what in the heck is imitation margarine? I don't even want to know.

2. You can scroll up and down on a laptop screen by using two fingers on the touchpad instead of one.
Oh my goodness you guys. See, I have this two-handed method of laptop mouse use. I move with my right hand and click with my left. It's unconventional, maybe, but it works really well for me--I feel like I have more control and can be more precise with the cursor. But I will admit, scrolling on my laptop was annoying compared to the smart mouse for our desktop computer. If I didn't have my cursor placed just right, if I didn't hold my fingers still, the page would jump all over and I'd lose my spot.

One night Steve was sitting next to me while I was doing something on the computer, and after watching me a moment, he said, "You know you can use two fingers to scroll, right?"


He just shook his head sadly; not sure whether because he couldn't believe how dumb I was for not knowing that, or because of my giddy excitement at the new trick. I couldn't stop scrolling all my pages just for fun--Up! Down! Up! Down!--and giggling. Mind. Blown.

How about you? Did you learn anything strange last month, or anything you totally should have known already but somehow didn't? For a much more profound list of things learned--she did a year-long reflection rather than a December post, and there are some wonderful gems--head on over to Chatting at the Sky.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Multitude Monday, Take 341

Thanking God this week for the gifts that came with holiday break, including but certainly not limited to...

6951. a free guest pass to go with my mom to the gym
6952. time to connect with her
6953. the incredible train track Steve built for the boys

6954. Jude inviting every adult available to come play trains with him
6955. a lunch date with Steve

6956. half-price Christmas tree and ornaments to put up in the office next year
6957. pizza subs at my favorite hometown spot
6958. the Christ-centered poem my MIL wrote for a Christmas activity with the grandkids
6959. her gift for hospitality and bringing beauty to her home
6960. Steve playing games with Elijah

6961. thoughtful gifts we received
6962. others enjoying what we gave them
6963. sleeping in
6964. cousins having fun together
6965. my BIL and SIL hosting us for New Year's Eve

6966. delicious beef tenderloin an old friend bought and cooked for us on NYE
6967. peaceful adults-only meal after the kids had eaten and were off to play
6968. a kiss at midnight
6969. His mercies that are new every morning, not just once a year
6970. second chances and fresh starts available every moment, not just January 1

6971. the fact that Steve has never, ever treated me with anything but kindness and respect
6972. a friend's high compliment about enjoying discussion with me even when we're not on the same page
6973. lunch with my two best friends from high school
6974. watching Ohio State football with Steve's granny
6975. a Buckeye win over an SEC team

6976. my wonderful husband's 33 years of life

6977. a visit with my "adopted grandma"
6978. peek-a-boo with my 1yo niece
6979. great conversations with Steve in the car
6980. boys being awesome travelers

6981. the fact that I only ever feel protected and comforted, never threatened, by Steve's strength
6982. the hilarity of playing car games with Jude
6983. safety on the road over so many miles
6984. home sweet home after a long trip
6985. news that a friend who was told she probably couldn't conceive is pregnant

6986. news that another friend is also expecting
6987. our friends' 2yo running to me at church and throwing her arms around my legs for a big hug
6988. the fact that we have a far better covenant than that offered in Exodus 19
6989. our pastors' sensitivity, gentleness, compassion, humility
6990. reminders of the pain and devastating consequences sin can bring to ourselves and others

6991. conviction of unbelief
6992. my engineers busy at play Sunday night

6993. beginning a new week not fighting alone but alongside a dear friend