Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Tall Story (spoiler alert)

While I most often enjoy reading older (classic) books--or award winning children's books, I do occasionally investigate some of the modern kids books that are recently published. One day at our local library, I was browsing the "Young Adult" section and was rather disturbed to find that every single book on display sounded horrible and completely devoid of any wholesome instruction. The "Children's" section was a relief. I'm not sure how they make the distinction between "children" and "young adult", but the latter could certainly learn something from the fiction aimed at their younger counterparts.

Today, I just finished a recent book, published just last month in the USA (maybe sometime last year in Britain?): The Tall Story (by Candy Gourlay). It was unique in several ways from the books I've read recently. Most noticeably, it is told in first person by two different people. Telling alternate chapters of the book are Andi, a 13-year-old tomboy who is a short but skillful basketball player in London; and Bernardo, who is 8 feet tall, 16-years-old, and considered to be a reincarnation of the legendary giant Bernardo Carpio by his hometown of San Andres in the Philippines. It certainly seems that these two characters could not be more different. But they are, in fact, half siblings. Bernardo's father died when he was a baby, and his mother had to move to London for a good job while her sister and brother-in-law took care of her son. For 15 years she had been trying to clear immigration papers for her son, and in the meantime, remarried and had a daughter--Amandolina. (Andi, with and i, she always insists.)

Another unusual thing about this book are the relationships between characters. Andi, as a young teenager in London with two parents that work all the time, is predictably rebellious and independent. And yet, it's rather a surprise that no friends from school and no confidants ever figure by her side for sympathetic support. Her character stands very well on her own, thank you very much.

Once again, Bernardo's side couldn't be more different. He is extremely respectful to his Aunt and Uncle and indeed to all of the "Brothers" and "Sisters" in San Andres. In telling his part of the story, he jumps back and forth between past and present. And we see that even though he is tall, he often feels the weight of the world on his shoulders--perhaps because all the people of San Andres expect him to "save" their town from the earthquakes that roll through. Once he even felt that, because of her energy and spark, Andi seemed taller than he! Another point of difference: Bernardo has a best friend, Jabby, who is almost as crazy about basketball as Andi. They're "thick as thieves", where one goes, the other is surely not far away. But when Bernardo leaves, there is a terrible earthquake and Jabby is among the missing. What could Bernardo do all the way in London?

Perhaps the most surprising relationship (at least for someone reading a lot of kids' books recently) is that of the parents. "Mum" and "Dad" have a very strong, loving relationship, working well with each other in spite of the fact that they're both nurses and work ridiculously long shifts at the hospital. I can't say how refreshing that is! It's so good to read a book about a family that has all its elements in place. Mother and Father still in love, rebellious daughter learning that the world is bigger than her room and her high school, siblings learning to love and sacrifice for each other as their worlds collide. Perhaps this element of loving and learning to be a family after 15 years of being apart is what makes this book so charming to me. 

So Andi is in London, telling her half of the story, and Bernardo is in San Andres, telling his part. But everything changes when Bernardo's immigration papers finally come through, and Andi and her parents meet an 8-foot giant boy at the airport, dressed in clothes held together by Velcro. When Bernardo leaves the Philippines, earthquakes start again in San Andres. When he arrives in London, Andi has to share her brand-new bedroom with him, he overflows the bathtub, and gets an automatic spot on their new high-school basketball team. He says over and over again in his Philippino accent, "I am the blame. I am the blame." What do you think will happen when a wishing rock is thrown in amongst the mess?

The wishing rock is woven through the whole story. It's a superstitious/magical element that gives the whole story an dash of fantasy. But you never really know if it's just coincidence or if the wishing rock really is magical. The bully girl, Gabriella, wished on the stone for Bernardo to become a giant. Bernardo himself wished on the stone to be taller. Again, he wished to go to England to be with his family. And finally, Andi wished to be point-guard for the Souls (the all-boys basketball team.) All these things actually happen in the story. But. There's no real way of knowing if it was magical or not. These things may have happened with or without the wishing. But one message is clear: be careful what you wish for. You never know how your wishes will effect everyone else that you love. Each wish has unexpected, bad events surrounding its fulfillment.

On the whole, I loved this book for how it combined two different lives and cultures together into one family--that truly loved each other and desired to be one whole family. And I'm so glad that Candy Gourlay paints that desire as a good and beautiful thing. Even though the Mother-daughter relationship is not the best, there is a lot of good ideas and lessons to be found in this book (besides a completely fun and interesting story.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Amazing Apple Cake

Some friends of ours from Hillsdale brought a bunch of apples when they came to visit last week. And what better to do with a bunch of apples than to make an amazingly delicious, moist cake? It's funny. I never really liked cake until I started making my own... so from someone who doesn't really like store-bought cake that's really light and fluffy, I think this cake is just about the best I've ever had. (If I do say so myself.)

Here's the recipe:

2 eggs
3 cups white flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup oil
1/2 cup applesauce
1 tbs vanilla
3 cups chopped, peeled apples

Combine 6 oz cream cheese, 1/4 cup melted butter, a dash of vanilla, and 2-3 cups of confectioner's (powdered) sugar. If the frosting doesn't seem stiff enough, just keep mixing in more sugar until the consistency seems right. This should make around 2 cups of frosting, maybe a little more.

1. First, you should probably grease two cake pans and set them aside. Also, set the oven to about 350F.

In a smallish bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and a dash of salt. (so, basically all the dry things except the sugar.)

2. In a large bowl (this will be your main mixing bowl), combine the sugars, oil, eggs, vanilla, and applesauce (I just used a couple extra apples to make the applesauce: chopped and cooked in a saucepan with a little water and no sugar.) You should make sure that everything is well combined and then gradually add in the dry mixture, beating with your mixer after each addition. After everything is combined, stir in the apples.

3. Pour half of the batter into each of the cake pans, and bake them for 20-30 minutes. It will be moist, so if it looks like it's almost done, check it every couple minutes until the toothpick comes out clean. I very nearly burned the cake when I made it. If your oven cooks on the hot side, you might want to set it for 300F instead of 350F and just cook them for a little longer.

4. While you're waiting for the cakes to cool, you'll have plenty of time to make the icing. After you let the cakes cool completely, set one layer on a flat surface or cake plate if you have one. Spread a good portion (maybe 1/2 cup) of the frosting along the top of the layer. This will be in the inside of the cake. You should have at least a cup and a half of frosting for the outside of the cake, so setting that aside, you can use whatever is left for the inside layer. Then, with the other layer on top of the first, use the rest of the icing to spread over the top and the sides.

5. Keep it in the fridge. It will be easier to cut if it's cold, and it shouldn't last long enough to dry out.... Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

3 Things I Like About New Friends

1. The shock factor. I love the surprise of truly liking someone different and of being so comfortable with someone new. It's always a surprise to me when I make new friends. I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it's because the majority of people that I meet, I'm not particularly interested in befriending. I guess that makes me not much of a people person. But once in a while, I'll come across someone that comes from a very different background, is interested in completely different things, and for some reason, I feel so at home with them. I'm sure everyone has a friend or two that are like that--you have no idea why, but when they're around, you breath a sigh of relief and think Thank goodness that I don't have to try to think of something interesting to say... because really, you could probably say the random-est thing you're thinking of and they would probably find it interesting.

2. A new way of looking at things. No matter how many differences there are, there's always some uniting force between two new friends. Whether it's a shared interest in an activity, or a general curiosity about the world, or a similar sense of humor. But because of the differences, each person approaches these things from a different point of view. It is so amazing to share something lovely or strange or funny with a new friend and discover how their differing point of view makes it lovely or strange or funny to them. I suppose this doesn't really change when new friends become old friends...but it does become a little more predictable.

3. More things are special to me now, because they make me think of someone special. For example: a name. My new friend's name is Sara. I think I have known "Sara"s before, but now I have an association that makes me happy every time I hear the name. And it's not just the name, it's stories that we share, things that I know she'd find interesting, funny made-up words....the list could go on and on. I love that when you get to know someone new, a whole slew of things that would fall under the category of "boring" or "neutral" thoughts suddenly gets bumped to the "fun" and "happy" thoughts.

4. Oops....I guess this is a bonus one: taking fun pictures with new friends. *grin* Meet my new friend Sara. (This was when we went to the zoo together yesterday.) And I guess another one (5) that doesn't happen to apply in every new-friend scenario, but does here: Sara and I are both in-laws to the same family...which means we're family and we'll get to hang out together for years and years and eat ice cream for breakfast when we're together and get the hankering.

Yay for friends and family and friends that are family.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

At the Beach with Friends

Over the weekend, we drove down to Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina. There, we ate amazing food, drank margaritas, played fun games, built an enormous sand castle, and the best part....we did it all with great friends. Above is Anna and Tucker. I lived with Anna for two years in college, and we came to consider each other as true sisters. (So it was appropriate that we shared the last name of Williams.) I try to see her every chance I get. Anna and Tucker both graduated from Hillsdale with Paul and me.
Introducing Henry David LaPrade. Charming, playful, and inquisitive, he'll bowl over all the girls with one glance and keep them cooing with his hearty giggles. The whole time we were there, he was quiet and delightful, happy to explore the beach even when it was cold and windy! A first-class delight!
This is Henry in his back-pack carrier. Ready for his nap...
Fun on the beach! Anna and I made a fantastic sand castle while the boys dove into the water. The air temperature was somewhere in the upper 50s. And though it was sunny, it was by no means hot. You can imagine how cold the water was! But still, Paul dove in with our body-board and rode several of the waves... and seemed to enjoy it too! 
We also had fun hanging out at the house that we rented for the weekend: The Lucky Pelican. We played with Henry, and (from the hordes of games that we all brought) we played the classic games of Stock Exchange (which is a lot like Pit) and Balderdash, both of which brought a lot of laughs as it got later and we became more creative in our answers.
David sported his heavy-duty mo-hawk hat for us while we played Stock Exchange. 
can I just say: "awwwww...."

Saturday night, there we went out to the Southwest point of the island to watch the sunset. It was so beautiful, seeing the sky and the colors and the sand all stretch off into the distance. It was windy, and there was a slight film of moving sand from the wind that made it look like we were watching the world turn around from miles and miles above it. So completely cool. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Easy Granola

Road trips are so fun. I think one of my favorite parts is snacking on the way--reaching into that ever present bag full of goodies, conveniently stashed behind the driver's seat. Ah the joys of propping my feet up on the dash and nibbling away at cookies and crackers and apple slices, not to mention brownies and the occasional gummy worm.

Well, we're going on a road trip this weekend, and I decided to make something new and fun to munch along the way. Above, you see the almost-finished product. I took this picture of the plain granola: rolled oats and some chopped walnuts with maple/brown sugar coating. So very easy! It only took a moment to prepare and bake. I think I'll add some dried cranberries and chocolate chips to enhance the snacking potential.

Here's what I did:

1. Combine 4 cups of rolled oats, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 cup nuts (I used walnuts, but anything goes--sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds... whatever you fancy). Then you set that aside.

2. In a smaller container (I actually used a pint measuring cup so that I didn't have to dirty too many dishes) combine 1/2 cup maple syrup (or honey or another thick syrup), 1/4 cup vegetable oil (or canola), 1/2 cup packed brown sugar, and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Mix this up thoroughly so that the sugar is dissolved into the liquid.

3. Pour the liquids over the oat mixture and stir it up. It will look darker and shinier. Then, spread the granola out on a baking sheet and put it in the oven at 325F for about 25 minutes. You'll want to stir the granola and spread it again at the 10 and 20 minute marks to keep the bottom from burning. Once you take it out to cool, the granola was harden and become crunchy (and delicious!)

4. Add fun stuff! Dried cherries, cranberries, or raisins are a great *healthy* touch. Chocolate chips are yummy too. It's always good to be creative.

*note: because of the oil, the granola won't last too long. Be sure to use it up within two weeks... it shouldn't be too hard.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Westing Game

This book is so fun. It's fast, so you could probably read it in a day, but it's complicated and intricate, so you have to stay on your toes while you're reading. It reminds me of those logic puzzles where you have a certain number of people and a certain number of occupations and you have to figure out who committed the crime based off of one or two paragraphs of informative statements. You know, "The gardener works Monday through Thursday, wears brown shoes and lives next door to the jockey... etc." 

In this book, there are sixteen different people named to be heirs of a millionaire's (Westing's) estate. Ah, but the catch: only one person will inherit the entire estate! And how will this person be chosen? They have to play the game that Westing set up in his will. For the first part of the game, they are paired into groups of two and given clues, scraps of paper with single words on them. Will they share or not? And what do you think will happen when home-made bombs start going off in the rival restaurants and the bottom and top floors? And who would ever suspect a quiet, kind, bride-to-be as the bomber?

Though the book never explains how such a diverse group (respected African-American judge down to batty old delivery man) is all related to the same wealthy old man, it is fairly easy to look past this quibble and assume that he picked these people because of his personal connections with them. These sixteen people make up every kind of relationship possible, because it includes so many different types of people. For example, there is a strange Polish woman, who wears bright colors and fakes a limp just so people will notice her. And there is a handicapped boy that sees everything but has a hard time communicating. There's a wife and husband that sometimes get along but often don't. There are siblings and business owners and immigrants and a college student and a regular, down-home laborer trying to provide for his family. What is Westing up to? 

The way he's written his will, it's as if he's talking to everyone in the room, predicting (and answering) all of their comments and reactions. One might Westing really dead at all?

If I were trying to make a literary analysis of the book, I would draw some kind of comparison between all the players and the pieces in a chess game. But I will refrain from attempting to draw clever parallels and simply point out that chess plays a large role in the book. Looking at the interaction between the sixteen people in Westing's game, you can see how each person's move strategically effects everyone else. 

Pick it up, and enjoy a really fast, fun read. (Play the game yourself and see if you can give the correct answer in the end!)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

From a Dream

This is a picture that I drew a few weeks ago from a dream that I had. It was probably one of my favorite, most peaceful dreams. I had amazing, curly hair, and I was holding two thin twigs (maybe stalks of wheat?) in my hands and twirling around and around and around in this HUGE open field. There were trees all around the field, and no one in sight. And I was just so thrilled to be all alone in this wide open space that I wanted to dance and never stop.

Sometimes, I'm really glad that I remember dreams as often as I do. I know it's not a perfect picture, but I'm glad that I can have (or make) little mementos like this one for dreams that I'd really like to remember.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ginger-Cinnamon Cookies

Last week, we had a friend over for dinner, and I thought I'd experiment in the kitchen with making a new kind of cookie. Since peanut butter and chocolate are my go-to flavors, I thought I'd branch out a little bit and use some of the ground ginger that I have tucked away among my spices. This time (unlike most times I experiment in the kitchen) I wrote down what I put in so I could try it again....and so can you! Since I made them, I have found my hand repeatedly (and of its own accord, mind you) going to the cookie jar. They're quick and easy and have that delicious gingery tang--you should try them and let me know what you think!

Ginger-Cinnamon Cookies
Set the oven to 350F

1/2 c butter (softened)
1/2 c brown sugar (packed down, a generous half cup)
1/3 c white sugar
2 large tsp ground ginger
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1 "squirt" baking soda (probably about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp)
2 eggs
2 cups flour

In your mixing bowl, mix the butter and sugars together. Then add the ginger, cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda and mix again. Add the two eggs and mix. Lastly, add the 2 cups of flour and mix them in. (If it still seems too moist, add a little more flour--it would probably depend on the size of the eggs you use.) I found two cups to be just perfect.

Roll into small balls and put on a baking pan (I didn't bother to grease it and that worked just fine.) Then put them in the oven for 10-15 minutes--until they get just a little bit cracked on top. Or, you could test it with your finger, and if the cookie offers a little resistance, then you could probably take them out for a nice moist cookie. For something crunchy...look for a different recipe.

Oh! And don't forget your glass of milk. It's an absolute must with these--they're perfect for dunking.