Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Some Favorite Cheeses

Today is one of those days when I'm gone from home almost all day. And that means that right before I run out of the house, I have to grab something to eat... which almost invariably means CHEESE!

I'm currently snacking on one of my more recent favorites: Wensleydale with Cranberries. It has a bright, almost tart flavor, and yet it's sweet. A little crumbly. Very creamy. And the best part is that you can buy a large brick of it at Costco for a decently inexpensive price!

For the last couple years, Paul and I have tried to go to Whole Foods and try two new "exotic" cheeses a month. It's been a few months since we've done that, but I thought that as long as I was thinking about cheese, I might as well mention a few of the most memorable ones.

In the process of trying new cheeses, I was introduced for the first time to the delights of goat cheese. There are tons of different kinds that we've tried at Whole Foods, not the least of which is the generic herb covered soft Chevre (meaning "goat" I believe). It's amazing for spreading on crackers, and sharing with a nice rich red wine. But a couple of the more memorable ones were Yodeling Goat Gouda and Drunken Goat. Besides having completely awesome names, these two were phenomenal for their solid, unbelievably creamy textures. With the first, the tangy goat flavor mixes with a traditional gouda to make a truly wonderful blend of flavors. The smallest slice will give an amazing taste that stays in your mouth long after you swallow.

The "Drunken Goat" cheese has a similar effect, but with a very different flavor. The cheese is soaked in wine, thus producing the purple exterior. The wine flavor is very subtle, but (like the gouda) an amazing complement to the natural goat flavor. 

There are many others I could mention, and maybe I will write another post about them in the future. But I think my all time favorite has been the Whiskey Cheddar. Of course, I'm partial to whiskey anyway, but even those who don't really like the liquor but appreciate strong, sharp cheese will like this. It's expensive, I admit. But it's truly worth every cent. And like the two above, you only need the smallest bite to get a mouthful of enormous, striking flavor. I like to eat these cheeses plain, unencumbered by bland crackers or breads or whatnot. If you are at a store where there is a knowledgeable person behind the cheese counter, ask for this or something that might be similar. Once when I asked, the man gave me a Scottish cheddar (not specifically whiskey cheddar) that was almost equally phenomenal. I wish I could remember what it was called... There are other similar cheeses made with Irish stout and brandy that I would love to try. But if I never try another new cheese again, I'm pretty sure I could stick with these and be happy with them for the rest of my life! Be sure to try them if you like cheese!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

What I'm Doing

As a housewife in the D.C. area, I get a lot of strange looks and the awkwardly phrased question, "So...what do you do?" Often, there is a badly veiled connotation that the speaker believes that I don't really do anything. I've even had people say these very words: "Don't you get bored sitting around doing nothing?"

I just laugh and tell them....

First of all, I'm being a housewife. People don't realize how totally awesome this is. Because I have flexible hours, I can babysit, go to Bible studies, meet up with friends, a totally fluid, not exact, often spur-of-the-moment schedule. I relish it! This also means I try to cook a lot. Since I (in my totally fluid, not exact, spur-of-the moment nature) don't use recipes... and when I do look at them, I never follow them to the letter, I often get in a rut of cooking similar things for several weeks, and then move on to something else. I'm grateful that Paul never complains, and he always seems to think it's better than what he would have made on his own.

Also, being a housewife means that I feel responsible to do a lot of the chores around the house. On the whole, this wouldn't be such a bad thing if I weren't so irresponsible. Clean the bathrooms? I say.... oh yeah, they definitely need to be cleaned....right after I finish reading this chapter....and the next one....and the next..... So cleaning and picking up are things I struggle with. When I really get going, I enjoy them and it's satisfying work because the difference I make is really obviously apparent; it's just the getting started that is SO hard. But again, Paul is gracious....and prods me on to love and good works when another month goes by and the kitchen still hasn't been mopped. (yes, that's probably the priority on the cleaning list right now.) A few other things that I think fall under the privilege of being a housewife: working in the backyard to get it ready for planting, grocery shopping, laundry, sewing, scrapbooking, decorating, and occasionally setting up or hiding surprises. I'm so glad I can have this life--it is full and varied, and I know I'd go crazy if I had a regular 9-5 job where I knew what was going to happen every day.
But, believe it or not, my life is even more full! I am also a piano teacher. Without taking the time to count, I think I have about ten students. So it's not a lot, but enough to feel like I'm beginning to understand how different students need different styles of teaching. My students' ages range from 5 to that explains some of the need for different styles as well. I enjoy it though, because almost all my students are really excited about their lessons and really practice over the week. I see them all improve quickly, and it's a joy to my heart to be able to teach them something that I loved learning.

Lastly (and this is probably the most exotic) I spend my time writing. For the last year and a half or so, I've been working on writing children's chapter novels. I've finished one draft, which I'm calling Home in America, and am currently editing the manuscript and trying to prepare it to submit to a list (still being developed) of children's book publishers. This first novel is a mid-grade (8-12) family story about a little girl (8) who has to deal with brothers, school, and friends. Through funny, interesting, and heartfelt situations, she learns to be herself and sees why her life in America is so wonderful. (no, she is not an immigrant...."native" Americans can learn to appreciate their home as well.) The second story I'm working on, which I've set aside half-finished in order to complete this first is a very different sort. It's a young-adult fantasy dystopia about two opposing city-states and a teenage girl's quest from one city to the other to find her missing father. It's a really fun adventure story, and I'm excited to get back to it when I'm done with Home in America.

Also, you may see that I spend quite a bit of time reading. I do this because I love it, but it's also my form of research. I like to read old classics pretty much just for fun. But I delve into the children's/YA genres to see what the trends are in story-lines and analyze how different authors use dialogue, description, and foreshadowing techniques. It's so fun and interesting...and it's something I've wanted to do my entire life.

So when people ask, and I go on for about fifteen minutes telling people "what I do", most of the time, the condescending looks slide off their faces and are replaced by often inspired, kind of jealous looks accompanied by the words, "That's so awesome. I wish I could do that too...."

I mean really, who wouldn't want to be a housewife?

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Skeleton's Knife by Joni Sensel

   Last December I wrote a post about the first two Farwalker books: The Farwalker's Quest, and The Timekeeper's Moon. And when Joni Sensel left me a note saying that the third one was just out, I did pounce on the book, and ordered it immediately. Unfortunately, we were gone for several weeks traveling (see previous posts) so I didn't get to read it until mid-January. When I did, I was ever so slightly disappointed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the book... and I read it nearly as quickly as the other two, proving that Ms. Sensel's style is certainly up to the standard of the first two. The main difficulty that I had was with the story-line. This story was simply not as compelling as the first two. The Farwalker's Quest and The Timekeeper's Moon both had events happening outside of and around Ariel that required her to take action, for discovery and for explanation: the first book used an ancient dart and kidnapping to bring Ariel into the midst of an ancient quest that only she could complete, and the second book use the moon to drive her batty until she realized that her first quest actually wasn't complete, and the world as she knew it would be unmade if she didn't accomplish it in time. 

By contrast, The Skeleton's Knife has no real compelling problem outside of Ariel that forces her on a journey and requires her to be courageous. In this story, it is merely the past that haunts her. All the unease and strange signs were a little bit too ephemeral for me. There's a creepy band of flies that keeps following Ariel around and a crow keeps delivering bones to her. When she finds the knife of the man that killed her mother and tried to murder her as well (Elbert), Ariel goes on a quest to "put the knife at rest" and "return it to where it came from." I want to be quite clear and say that this book is an excellent, fun read....but the elements that Sensel uses to propel the plot are weak. She is so clever in the first two books, developing a system of workers and knowledge and behavior in a new world, that she could have easily come up with a truly compelling reason why Ariel had to follow the course of the knife...even into the underworld, which is where she goes. As it is, I feel like Ariel is just being silly, and can't let the past lie. At the end of the book, it's easy to feel like she could have avoided the whole mess if she just hadn't been so silly about the knife in the first place...which on the whole, simply makes the story weaker and less memorable, even if the storytelling is still impeccable.

Other interesting elements include two fascinating new characters: one, a new friend for Ariel and potential girlfriend for Zeke, if he will ever let go of his fancy for Ariel. The other is a fascinating woman, who ends up falling for Scarl. (yay!) The romantic developments in the book are very interesting and fun to follow, along with the new scenery of the water town where Elbert grew up. The harrowing quest across the bridge between life and death is well told and very inventive, drawing on the story of the bridge that Scarl described in the first book. And the ending, which reunites Ariel and Nace, is fantastic. Really, it's a good read...just not the strong story that I had hoped would end the trilogy.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Empyrion by Stephen Lawhead

After Eragon, I decided to try some other books that Paul recommends. Stephen Lawhead is one of his favorite authors, and though I don't usually gravitate to sci-fi novels over fantasy, the Empyrion duo blew Eragon out of the water. I really think that The Search for Fierra and The Siege of Dome changed my life, in a way.

Even though Stephen Lawhead is a "Christian" author, his books aren't obviously Christian. He writes of different lands and cultures, and his Christian heritage comes out in how some people/cities (in this case, Dome) are truly evil, worshiping hateful things and giving themselves over to being almost like animals....while another people/land/city (in this case, Fierra) represents Heaven in being loving, caring, hard working , and are transformed by their fierce love for their God.

The basic plot is that Orion Treet, a down and out historian on Earth, is hired (more like kidnapped and coerced) by a major corporation based out of Texas to travel through a wormhole in space to get to a colony in a different galaxy. His mission is to discover and document why the colony no longer communicates with the corporation back on Earth. How has it developed and why? The major hitch is that, on the other side of the wormhole, time lapses far more quickly than on the Earth side. So even though the Cynetics colony has only been around for a few years, when Treet gets to Empyrion, he finds a culture that has evolved and changed over time, suffering several major catastrophes from within. When he teams up with a female guide in Dome, where he and his fellow travelers were captured, he finds hundreds and hundreds of years of history and begins to understand what happened. The people of Dome live in a stratified society, much like the caste system in India....only even more stratified, if you can imagine it. There are power struggles and murder and "conditioning" (read: torture) and through it all, the citizens of Dome are taught to fear the Fieri more than anything. They have no concept of space travel, not even of traveling through the air. What a long way they have fallen from the original Cynetics colony.

Treet and his friends eventually escape from Dome with plans to find Fierra, their last hope to help a small band of insurrectionists that want to overthrow the powers in Dome. But when they reach Fierra, it is so perfect that no one wants to leave and go back to Dome. No one will help him.

At the end of The Search for Fierra, Orion must leave the love of his life, choosing his duty over her, believing that the God of the Fieri will guide him. In The Siege of Dome, we see Treet captured and tortured, escaped and joined with the rebel band. The battle rages on between the rebels and Jamrog, the merciless head Director, who will stop at nothing to crush his opponents...and who wants more than anything to destroy the Fieri. They did it hundreds of years before by dropping an atomic bomb in the middle of their city, and he will do it soon as the "magicians" figure out how to work the ancient mechanism found in the storage vaults.

All the way to the end, you'll read these books with edge-of-your-seat excitement. The characters are interesting and intriguing--even the evil ones. As all good books must end, good triumphs over evil, not without casualties, and not without heartache, but it's still good and satisfying knowing that Right is the strongest and Love will always conquer Fear.

About changing my life--what really struck me about these books was how the Fieri attribute everything good to their God. They give him thanks in everything and for everything. The style of their homes reflects their love for Him and the beauty of his creation. The way they perform and give concerts and attend concerts is changed by their belief the presence of their God. They are always conscious that only their God is worthy of praise...ever. This is what made me think differently. I know that as a Christian, I want my life to be transformed by my love for God and gratitude for what He has done for me, but this book really gave me a lot of new ways to think about how my life could look different. The things that I enjoy. The efforts I make. It could all be more intense, more purposeful, more joyful. Because of this, The Search For Fierra was an especially amazing, delightful experience. I know I will read it again someday.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

When I was in Mexico, I read Eragon by Christopher Paolini. My husband had told me about how much he enjoyed these books when he was home on break from college several years ago, and since the last book recently came out, he wanted to have a go at them again. I picked up the first one and slugged through it. I usually devour these kinds of stories, but this one just didn't enchant me. It seemed slow and predictable: Incompetent hero with incredible potential is protected by awesome sidekick (dragon) and follows his destiny back and forth across an interesting landscape first searching for revenge and then realizing that he's already caught up in something bigger than he knows... what is it? read the second book and you'll find out. I know that many people rave about this series (and my husband enjoys it so much that I got him the last book for his birthday) but really, it just wasn't inventive and purposeful enough for me to pursue it past the first book.

However, one thing I did really enjoy was the treatment of magic and the thought-communication between dragon and rider. It's always fun to see a clever author take a look a genre with new vision. For another visionary, check out Rachel Neumeier's The Floating Islands. I read this a while ago, but still think about the magic in her story--flying and tasting magic as spices (so cool!). If you love dragon stories, check out Paolini's series, but if you just love fantasy and magic, find The Floating Islands or Diana Wynn Jones's The Chronicles of Chrestomanci --which probably has the distinction of being the six books I've read the fastest (approximately a day each). Also take a look at The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley or for more recent novels, check out The Farwalker's Quest and The Timekeeper's Moon by Joni Sensel. Incidentally, Joni Sensel published the third book to the Farwalker trilogy at the end of last year, The Skeleton's Knife....which will be appearing shortly in another review. Unfortunately, I wasn't as crazy about it as the first two, but it's still worth a read.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

I'm going to post several short book reviews of what I have read recently, trying to catch up for this year at least. I spent so long away from internet that I got woefully behind. So I'll start with the beginning of 2012 and go from there. When I was in Alaska for Christmas, I took a short break away from children's fiction and picked up an old classic that's been on my to-read list for ages.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, was a surprising delight! In the days when the Saxons were oppressed by the Normans, and the Jews were persecuted by both, Ivanhoe, the Saxon servant of King Richard, quietly returns to England from the Crusades in disguise, known only as "The Disinherited Knight." He crushes his foe, Brian De Boi Gilbert in the lists, stands up for and extends mercy to the hated Jew, Isaac, and eventually saves the Jewess, Rebecca from being burnt at the stake. When Ivanhoe is held captive inside a castle with his father, the lady Rowena, and the two Jews; his friend, the Black Knight (none other than King Richard himself!) and the band of the forest (anyone who knows the Robin Hood legends will recognize him here) bravely attack and succeed in storming the castle and razing it to the ground on top of its hateful Norman lord.

This is an exciting story, written in a delightful, old style. I learned a lot of good vocabulary relating to the era of the Crusades. One other point of style that I loved was Scott's use of quotations at the beginning of each chapter. Some are from famous works, some not, but all are clever and apt, and show Scott's excellent knowledge of literature. All in all, I found it engaging and inspiring.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Lesson from Jane Austen

I just recently finished Jane Austen's Persuasion. Having read most of her books, and come away from nearly all of them delighting in their language and wry sense of humor, but looking down on their social life as meaningless, I was surprised to get a different impression from this book.

The story bears the predictable similarity to all her others, and yet I enjoyed it more because Anne, the heroin, is less effected and mortified by her family's frivolities than say, Lizzie and Jane Bennett. (My aversion to hopeless awkwardness and impropriety is enough to make me skip certain sections both of the book and the movie of Pride and Prejudice.) So that was the first thing in Persuasion's favor.

The next thing that I appreciated, I think I may have scorned until now. And that is Austen's presentation of the virtue of contemplating propriety. I think on the whole, it's usually annoying to me to read how characters just sit around wondering whether they should do this or that...whether they should disclose this or that "sensitive" information to such and such a party. And heaven forbid that they should let their "violent" emotions show when present with truly astonishing information. But I think my feelings have changed somewhat in this latest Jane Austin reading.

Certainly, there is an enormous contrast between that kind of mental lifestyle and that of today's society. Now, people commonly recommend "being yourself" or "being honest" with no thought to propriety. You want to let out a big belch at a cocktail party?'s just being yourself. You want to be friends with the pretty, popular girls and ignore the one who is frankly horrible at playing the pianoforte? No's just being honest. Today's modern society has effectively brushed aside all consideration for the other person and constantly asks of us, "How do you feel?" and recommends, "Don't pretend to be anything other than your natural, horrible self."

And I do think that Jane Austen's society may have carried the concept of propriety a little too far. But I also think she would agree with that. For Jane Austen, I believe, valued sincerity just as much as our modern authors, and yet she effectively illustrates in her novels that sincerity without decorum (Mrs. Bennett sincerely wanted her daughters to marry rich men, and Mr. Elliot in Persuasion sincerely valued his own beautiful appearance) is quite as bad, or worse, than decorum without sincerity (take a look at Mr. Wickham or Mr. William Elliot).

The lesson for me was (is) a simple one: there is virtue in sitting down and contemplating propriety and what it ought to look like. For me, it doesn't mean trying to revert to Victorian norms (heaven forbid!). Nor does it mean going with whatever people say is right or okay in the latest fad of self discovery. Instead, I think it is important (for Christians at least) to really consider the principles laid out for us in the Bible, which gives us fairly clear guidelines that we can apply in a number of different cultural settings. What are some of these? Consider others as more important than ourselves. Don't gossip or slander. Build each other up and edify each other by speaking words of spiritual truth (as opposed to the "truth" that I might happen to hate your guts.) Dwell on what is pure and holy and blameless. Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.

I could go on and on and on...there is practically no end to Biblical advice on how to interact with other people, both Christian and non-Christian. So while finding the advice is easy, I think it may be valuable for those of us raised in a "just be yourself" society, to spend more time contemplating how it should change our behavior and make us more thoughtful of others around us.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Being an Aunt

Being an Aunt isn't like being a mom...or a grandmother...or a sister (and I wouldn't know anything about those anyway.) But I do know something about being an aunt, and that's because I have two adorable nieces. Part of the joy of having my brother and his family on the East coast is that I can fly up last minute (for astonishingly low prices) and visit whenever I want (or they need) me to.

Some people might not even like being and Aunt. Sometimes it means getting your hair pulled, and sometimes it means getting all worn out with 2 and 3 year olds climbing all over your body and pushing on the uncomfortable parts. But here are some fun things that I discovered about being an Aunt. (They correspond to the pictures... and though there were more fun things, I decided to limit it to these.) And honestly, I think parents do a lot of these things too.... All this is from when I went to Boston for a week towards the end of January. (less than a week after we got back from Williamsburg!)

1) Being an Aunt is fun when you can go "sailing" on comforters in the middle of the floor. Incidentally, this is almost as fun and not quite as energy-dependent as "going to the zoo".

2) Being an Aunt means I can read as many stories as I want all day long....and make them up too! (Actually, some of you may know that I do this even when I'm not "being an Aunt".) 

3) Being an Aunt means that I get to go to a playground, pretend I'm a real photographer, and have almost as much fun as the girls!

4) Being an Aunt means that I'm allowed to encourage them and take pictures when my nieces are being outrageously silly with their friends.

5) Being an Aunt means that I can cook something strange every once in a while. This happens to be octopus (or squid? I'm not sure, actually). I know Margaret doesn't look very excited, but she and Adelynn both put away quite a bit. Adelynn had never had any before and had picked it out at Costco as her "special treat." She told me about it a few days later and assured me that she would share it with me....that it would be our special treat. 


6) Being an Aunt means I can have TEA PARTIES at the genuine tea time of 4 o' clock every day because a) it's when the girls get up from nap time, and b) they always want a snack right then. So even though they're only 2 and 3, we get out the nice china and the tea cups and we have cheese and bread and fruit for snacks! SO fun. Every day after the first, the girls would ask me if they could have a tea party. What did I say? "YES!" 

And finally, 7) An Aunt and her nieces can have "girl time" when we pull out two enormous bags of little household items and set up a whole miniature house! I know it sounds so 5 year old of me, but it was SO fun!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

It's hard to believe that it's already the middle of February, and I still have not started blogging again! Some of you may have wondered about the long silences, and I claim the very good excuse of not having internet (until this month) since last September.

That was when we moved. We were reborn into an existence that included trees and real dirt (and roadkill) and of course no internet. Which, many of you will be surprised to know, was quite wonderful. I read even more books, if you can believe it. And I took more walks. The Man and I talked more and we played games together. It's a sweet and simple life, and I can't wait to start a garden in my tiny backyard come springtime.

So here is a mostly picture post of various adventures since the middle of December.

These first couple are of our Christmas with my family in Alaska. There was so much snow!!! And we had SO much fun playing in it. We built a fort for our nieces for when they came after Christmas, and we built an enormous snow cave inside the mound of snow behind us (see the other picture for a better view of how big it was.)

On New Year's Day, we flew out of Anchorage and down down down to Cancun, Mexico, where we joined up with all my in-laws. It was very fun. Lots of beach, lots of sun, lots of free cocktails. How can you go wrong with that? The first several pictures were from the all-inclusive resort near the Mayan Riviera!

These were super cute creatures that frequented the dock between the resort and the beach. I think everyone wanted one for a pet!
Getting drinks with the girls at he piano bar....tequila!

Sand castles are the best! And this definitely wasn't our most impressive one....
Can I get an "awwwww"?

 These pictures are from Playa del Carmen, where we stayed for the second half of our trip. The beach was fantastic and the town was fun (I bought some beautiful serving dishes!) We didn't make this Mayan Temple, it was just so awesome that I had to take a picture of it. Below, there's a picture of me at a street quesadilla shop, and then some of the awesome banyan trees (I think they're called) and then a dead lizard from inside one of the Mayan ruins.

After we got back from Mexico, we decided that it was high time we visited some friends in Williamsburg, so less than a week later, we popped in our car and drove down to show off our tans. We had SUCH a good time. It was like going home to family! And spending a morning touring Yorktown was very worth it--especially since our friend's had a "driving tour" CD that we could just pop in our car and hear all about the battle without even getting out (if we wanted to.) As it was, we DID want to get out, and we really enjoyed exploring the sites, but I know I wouldn't have learned nearly as much without the CD leading us through the timeline of the battle. Fascinating!  After the battlefield, we went down to the water and had a fantastic fish lunch at the Yorktown Pub! Be sure to check it out if your ever in the area and hungry! 

And.... I think that's enough for now. My fun trip to Boston (not for the sights... for my nieces) will have to wait till next time. Do let me know if you need our new address (by email or facebook). I've been terrible about sending updates.