Books Enjoyed, 6/26/13

The next couple book posts are not, strictly speaking, just library books–some are books my three year old received for her birthday, and one is a chapter book I read for my own enjoyment alone (next week)! Just doing my part for truth-in-advertising.
Princess Pigtoria And The PeaPrincess Pigtoria And The Pea by Pamela Duncan Edwards

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the space of about 3 weeks, I have encountered 2 different books that take a fairy tale (or several) and spin it. Both with pigs. And they were both good. Who knew?!

Princess Pigtoria goes looking to get married for financial reasons, but ends up marrying for love (which is good, because the prince she encounters is a real loser). A cute revision of The Princess and the Pea. My kids enjoyed it, too.

Tiger in My SoupTiger in My Soup by Kashmira Sheth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book didn’t really work for me. The premise is cute (a boy is bored while his older sister is babysitting, but gets some excitement at lunchtime), but the way it played out just didn’t seem that exciting to me.

However, my kids loved it. I’ve had to read it over and over multiple times, and even banned reading it for the remainder of a day. Obviously, the author and illustrator know something about what kids like that I don’t. Hence the 4 star rating.

The Gingerbread GirlThe Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my daughters received this for her birthday, and she loves, loves, loves it. The other two kids also like it. I think it’s ok, but won’t be a favorite for me.

The good: a decent retelling of the Gingerbread Boy, but it continues what happen to his (smarter) younger sister; it has some fun points and a happy ending; it’s a great read for younger siblings; the refrain is fun for kids to say aloud with you

The ok: some of the rhymes that the Gingerbread Girl calls out don’t really make sense until the end of the story, and it’s a little long for a before-bed or before-nap reading.

Rip And RapRip And Rap by Amanda White

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one I didn’t particularly care for, but my three year old loved. It’s the story of twin sheepdogs, and I thought going into it that the conflict would be whether Rap wanted to be a sheepdog or not, but it was a different, less compelling conflict. Rap gets dirty and the dirty spot won’t come off in the one place where he has a white stripe different from his brothers–everyone can’t tell them apart until Rip helps him get it off. Still, since it was a repeat request, I have to give it a little more credit than I normally would (hence the three star rating).

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Spinach

I think we are now safely past the spinach stage in our CSA season. So, now seems like the perfect time to talk about spinach, since I am not spending all my time cooking and freezing it.

First, a little background: we are on the CSA roster for Britt Farms, and we get a box of produce each week. We never know what we’re going to get until the day of the pick-up, but there’s always some fruit and lots of vegetables. Despite being a family of five, we still just get the small box, because our kids still largely subsist on macaroni and chicken, with vegetables added in as flavoring or discussion pieces. My husband and I make it our goal to eat all of the food before it spoils, and this year we are probably doing our best yet. I think I’ve had to throw out half a head each of cabbage and lettuce, plus a beet or two. We also haven’t had to given anything away yet. It helps that we’ve been doing this for about four years, so we now know many ways to cook most of the vegetables we get, and I also know how to save some of them for later use.

Which brings us back to spinach. Everyone in our family actually seems to like spinach just fine, but we just don’t eat it in quantities. It’s a pain to wash, it goes bad quickly, and I never used it fast enough.

Now, however, I use the “wash, steam, and freeze” method of spinach preparation. I wash the whole bag at once (which takes a good half-hour, but it won’t take that much less time for less spinach, so you may as well do the whole bag), steam it in batches, then freeze the batches (making sure to label them with both contents and date) for later use.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. Clean out the sink–both sides if you have a double sink.
  2. Plug up one side of the sink and run a good inch of water into it while you start to add the spinach.
  3. Pull spinach leaves off the steams and add to the water to soak. Discard stems. Make sure to occasionally swish the spinach around in the water and/or spray it with your sprayer.
  4. Once all the leaves are in, move spinach over to the other side of the sink or into a bowl or colander. Rinse out the side that you’ve just used.
  5. Repeat soaking the spinach at least once.
  6. Steam the spinach for about 3-5 minutes (2-3 if you’ve already got the water boiling)–try to get it cooked without the color turning dark. If your steamer or pot isn’t big enough to do all the spinach at once, you can do it in batches.
  7. Use tongs to transfer the spinach into quart size freezer bags (pre-labeled makes life easier, or else use freezer tape to label them). Let the spinach cool before you seal the bags and put them in the freezer.
  8. Voila! You have lots of spinach ready to use when you want.

This method works for any greens (not so much cabbage and lettuce, at least not that I’m aware). I am particularly fond of doing this with collards and freezing them in tiny batches, so that I can hide them in things (none of us likes collards).

Here are some of the things I use the pre-cooked spinach in:

  • Risotto
  • Lasagna
  • Mexican lasagna
  • Quiche
  • Omelets
  • Chili
  • Spinach and potato soup
  • And, our new achievement this year, spinach pasta:

    Spinach pasta

    Ta-da!

One Dishcloth: Check

So, I thought I’d be using this space to occasionally blog about knitting, which is my current craft of choice. However, I’m such a slow knitter, that I haven’t had anything really worth sharing. I’ve been working on a prayer shawl for church that is taking forever. I got some neat alpaca yarn to make into a shawl, but haven’t got past a first swatch on that. I’m also still swatching to get gauge on a Christmas stocking project, and that got stalled when I needed needles a size smaller than I had, and needed to wait for an auspicious day to take all 3 kids to the yarn shop. Plus, I have a quilt for my sister that’s 6 years overdue (I had her college friends each make a block when she graduated and was going to put them all together) that I really need to finish piecing.

Naturally, the solution to all this was to do something completely different.

So here’s a dishcloth:

Pretty pink dishcloth.

Pretty pink dishcloth.

I made it last week, and it only took me 4 days. At least I accomplished something!

Anna Karenina: FINISHED!!

It’s silly to call this a review, since Anna Karenina has already been declared a classic work of great literature many times over. However, now that I’ve finished, I’d like to publish an overview of my thoughts on the book.

Since my last update, here’s an overview of the plot (spoilers, as you probably already know, occur): After Dolly’s visit (during which Anna confides in her that she either uses some form of birth control or has become sterile due to her illness after her daughter’s birth), Anna and Vronsky continue their relationship, but move to Moscow for a time. They wait for a divorce to be granted, but Karenin has fallen under the spiritualist influence of Countess Lidia Ivanovna and refuses. Only Dolly, Stiva, and a few society hangers-on will visit Anna, although she strikes up a friendship with a British family who’s daughter becomes Anna’s student. Levin and Kitty also move to Moscow for Kitty’s confinement, and a son is born to them. Levin and Anna meet in a striking scene just before the birth of the baby, and Levin is touched by Anna’s difficult position and not a little charmed by her–but resolves never to meet her again after seeing how it hurts Kitty. Anna becomes more depressed and jealous, eventually committing suicide by throwing herself under a train. Levin falls into some depression, both from his brother’s death shortly after his marriage and from not feeling the way he thinks he should feel toward the baby. After moving back to the country, Levin is brought back to Christianity  and a lightning storm that endangers Kitty and Mitya brings warmth back into their family life. Vronsky, now depressed himself, takes a unit of volunteers out to fight the Turks in the Servian war, and Karenin is given Anna’s daughter to care for.

Several of the characters continued to surprise me with their actions. I was disappointed in Karenin’s complete enchantment by Countess Lidia Ivanovna and his turn to the spiritualist side of Christianity, as well as the return of a vindictive streak on that front (his or hers, it’s hard to tell). Seryozha therefore continues as the most tragic figure in my opinion, stuck with a father who doesn’t think much of or about him. Vronsky’s continued faithfulness to Anna throughout the whole book impressed me against my will–I went into the story preparing to dislike him, and many times I did, but he really did seem to love Anna, and he stuck by her despite her growing jealousy and the growing rottenness of their situation.

I still find Anna’s spiral downward a little perplexing–even she can see that she gets caught in thoughts and thought patterns that are both dangerous and false, but she can’t seem to stop. On the one hand, it seems fairly true to depression, as I understand it–and even I frequently catch myself thinking things that I know aren’t true, and needing to stop and re-evaluate. On the other, I never quite get why Anna is depressed. Does she feel guilty for the choices she’s made? Is she just completely devastated by realizing her fall from society? Is she upset because she’s given up her son? What is it that makes her feel and act the way she does. Although I still have these questions, I am impressed by Tolstoy’s sympathetic treatment of her, and really, of almost all the characters. Even while characters act in ways that are stupid or cruel, very rarely does the reader feel like a character is completely worthless and hateful.

The train scene was a surprise to me, not that it happens (I learned at some point long before reading the book how Anna dies) but how it happens. When I picture someone throwing herself under a train, I expect it to happen quickly and in front of the train engine. But Tolstoy very clearly describes that Anna threw herself under the middle of a carriage, and that she had to wait for the right point and watch a carriage pass before she could physically do it. It may seem slower than expected because it is largely from Anna’s point of view, but overall, I think that I lack some understanding about how trains worked in 19th century Russia.

I felt very satisfied at the end of the book–I thought Levin’s final reflections and feeling at peace were well done, and since he is just as much a protagonist as Anna, the book does end on a happy note. Still, on reflection, there is more I’d like to know. First, I want to know what happens to Anna’s kids. Does Karenin soften toward Seryozha? Does his initial affection for the baby girl continue? Also, what about Stiva and Dolly–will Dolly’s position improve, will Stiva ever become a better husband? Finally, it seems like Vronsky is going off to die in the war, but does he?

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I’m not reviewing the quality of this book–that’s already been done plenty. However, I do want to finish by saying that I’m glad I took the time to read it, and that I found it more enjoyable of a read than I expected for such a big, “classic” book. There are some parts that have long descriptions, and some of Levin’s reflections can get a little tiresome, as can some of the social debates that Tolstoy works in. Overall, though, while I would look back over a section and wonder, “Did anything happen?” I didn’t feel that way when I was reading or listening. The characters are brought to life enough that I felt for their hopes and worries and wondered what would happen next. A worthwhile reading project!

School choice

“School choice” has been on my radar a lot recently. Our oldest starts kindergarten in the fall, and in Durham, NC, there is a lot of school choice available. First, there are the choices offered just by our local school system: magnet schools, or schools with varying calendars, to which families can enter a lottery to be assigned. Then, there are area private and Catholic schools. There are also a proliferation of charter schools, which are technically public schools (they are basically free, as I understand, and they are publicly funded), but they run under their own “charters” and aren’t part of the regular school system. There’s always homeschooling, too.

We’ve decided to go with our neighborhood school. Here are a few reasons:

  • The lottery for the school system’s varying options happened in January. We watched some of our friends go through the school decision process last year and it seemed fairly stressful. Since I’m a high-stress person anyway, I need to save my school-choice stress for college, not kindergarten.
  • I am a result of public schools, and my husband mostly is, too. I went to a high school that was (and as far as I know, still is) considered fairly low performing and rough. I got an excellent education there. There are certainly conditions under which we’d think seriously about pulling out of public schools, but I am overall a believer in the value of public education.
  • Because I’m a believer in public education, I don’t really like charter schools. I think that the money and parental buy-in invested in them would probably be better spent on improving the local public schools.
  • We believe that teaching our children to follow Jesus is more important than teaching them how to make lots of money as adults (not that we’d succeed at the latter, since we haven’t figured it out ourselves). This means being part of the community we are in and loving the people around us, even when they are different. I think public school is a great place to learn this, both for kids and for parents.
  • I know several people who homeschool successfully. I’m pretty confident that I could not be one of those people unless I felt a very compelling need to. (Passage of this bill would be compelling enough for me.)
  • Oh, and the local school is 5 minutes from our house. This logistical factor is worth noting, too!

I am a worrier, and I completely understand the tendency to worry about one’s kids, whether they are getting a good education, and whether they will be ready for the future. This is one decision that lets me combine my effort to not worry with my natural inclination, based largely on my own school memories, to make use of our local school.

I’m not the only one who has neighborhood schools on my radar. I enjoy reading the NY Times’ Motherlode blog, and a recent post had related thoughts:

http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/30/why-i-want-to-choose-the-disadvantaged-local-school-and-why-i-might-not/ 

Library (and other) Books Enjoyed, 6/5/13

Catching up on past weeks, here’s a large crop of fun books. Most are from the library, but The Princess and the Pig I encountered at my aunt’s house.

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses (Olivia)Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Olivia and I have a touchy relationship. On the one hand, I love the first Olivia book, and find all of them entertaining. On the other, I think Olivia as a character gets more annoying as the books continue, particularly from the point of view of an adult who can imagine being responsible for this small child (I know, I am NOT the intended audience). However, I really did like Olivia and the Fairy Princesses.

I thought it was both cute and typical that Olivia was done with fairy princesses, and her alternative princess suggestions were fun. Most of all, though, the ending made me feel like Olivia was not too sophisticated to be a real kid. My kids enjoyed this one, too, although I’m not sure if my two-year old felt the way Olivia does about princesses, or just liked the fact that there were lots of pigs dressed like princesses in the pictures.

OwenOwen by Kevin Henkes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t know how I missed this beautiful Henkes book, but I think this week’s visit to the library was the first time I had checked it out. So sweet! I laughed out loud at Owen’s solution for avoiding the blanket fairy, and I love the perfect idea his mom has to solve the blanket problem at the end. (These days, I find perfect parenting solutions to be more magical than fairy godmothers.) My kids also loved it and requested it several times.

Whales PassingWhales Passing by Eve Bunting

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not my favorite of Eve Bunting’s, but still a nice story about a boy and his father watching a pod of orca whales pass. It was very lyrical, almost too much for my taste, but the pictures were beautiful and I like that there is more information about orcas on the last page.

Some extra text to try to make the reviews line up.

The Princess and the PigThe Princess and the Pig by Jonathan Emmett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very cute story about a baby princess and a piglet who get switched and how their lives turn out. The other characters rely on their fairy tale knowledge to explain what’s going on, but as the end of the story demonstrates, not every story is a fairy tale!

Yet more extra text.

I Completely Know About Guinea Pigs (Charlie and Lola)I Completely Know About Guinea Pigs by Lauren Child

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another fun Charlie and Lola adventure. I think this is not an original-by-Lauren-Child book, but it’s a pretty good one. Lola learns about guinea pigs when she takes the class guinea pig home, and her opinion that he looks like a girl turns out to be true!

Which Would You Rather Be?Which Would You Rather Be? by William Steig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting book that features a rabbit magician, who poses questions for his audience about which of two choices they would rather be. His magic provides illustrations, and my kids had fun thinking about the questions. It doesn’t quite click as a favorite for me, but it was a fun read.

A Present for Tinker Bell (Disney Fairies Graphic Novel #6)A Present for Tinker Bell by Augusto Machetto

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My son chose this both because it was about Tinkerbell (all things Disney are “in” at our house right now) and because it was a comic book, and I was prepared to strongly dislike it. I was pleasantly surprised.

The book has 4 different stories, which is nice, because graphic novels as read-alouds are a little unwieldy, so I like that we can read just one story at a time. I did not realize how fleshed out the “Disney Fairies” world is, but the characters are decently interesting and the stories imaginative. It will never be a favorite of mine, but it’s pleasant to read with my kids, and that’s good enough for me.

My son is fast becoming a comic book/graphic novel fan. Luckily, my mom is already one, so they can bond over that, and I can go to her (she’s also a librarian) for recommendations.
Peek-a-BooPeek-a-Boo by Janet Ahlberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up at the library last week because I like the Ahlbergs (I loved The Jolly Postman as a kid, and discovered Each Peach Pear Plum just before having my own kids) and thought my youngest would enjoy it. She did (as did the other two), but what made the book most interesting for me was the 1950’s era illustrations, reminding me of the show Call the Midwife, which I’ve recently become hooked on. I checked the copyright (1981), so this was definitely done in a purposefully historical style, and I’d be interested in finding out more of the story behind the story.

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Anna Karenina Update #2

***DON’T READ THIS OR FUTURE ANNA KARENINA POSTS IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED ABOUT THE BOOK***

Partly thanks to our recent trip, and kids who napped in the car, I am making good progress on Anna Karenina. I both listened and read some chapters over the last week, and I am on Chapter 21 of Part 6. According to my Kindle, I am 74% of the way through (thank goodness for the percentage indicator…I don’t think fat books would be nearly as satisfying to read on the Kindle without it).

Here’s a summary of where I am in the plot: Anna has left her husband for good, but not requested a divorce from him. She, Count Vronsky, and their baby daughter traveled all over Europe, made a stop in Petersburg where Anna secretively visited her son and publicly flaunted being a “fallen woman” at the opera, then settled at Vronsky’s family place in the country. Anna’s husband, Karenin, went from being a vindictive, bitter cuckold to a forgiving, self-sacrificing one who is trying to do the best he can by his son and keep up appearances in society. Levin successfully proposed to Kitty a second time and they have married and are now expecting a baby while living on Levin’s estate. Kitty’s sister Dolly (and Anna’s sister-in-law, as she’s married to Anna’s brother) has just traveled from the Levins to visit Anna and Vronsky.

Here are my current impressions/thoughts/questions:

  • Anna continues to amaze me with her behavior–I’m sure that’s part of the intent, and one the one hand, I can understand her frequent lack of rationality, because I am not always very rational myself. BUT, she continues to act without any regard for others, and this keeps surprising me. She was introduced as a caring and thoughtful character, but has completely departed from that. Her complete disgust for her husband, particularly after his forgiveness and treatment of her during a grave illness that followed her daughter’s birth is somewhat confusing to me. Most of all, her feelings and actions toward her two children is mystifying. She seems to love her son passionately, but abandons him to live with her lover. Meanwhile, her daughter, who she’s able to keep with her, she only seems to have a passing interest in. I would *love* to talk this character over with a literature teacher if any are forthcoming right now!
  • A fairly early chapter establishes that Vronsky has some money troubles and does not have an unlimited income. But now, he and Anna are living in luxury (plus all the traveling they did), and he’s building a hospital for the community. Where’s all the money coming from?
  • Karenin’s turn-about was touching, but I’m not sure it will last. Also, while he obviously feels responsible for his son, he doesn’t feel any affection for him (but does for the baby girl). Poor Seryozha!
  • I’m happy that Levin and Kitty seem to have a happy life, but wonder if Levin’s temperament will allow him to enjoy his position and family.

That’s all for now. I hope to finish the book before the end of June.