Merry Christmas

Yesterday was Winter Solstice, and in a few days, it will be Christmas. However and wherever you celebrate, I hope your holiday is filled with joy and light. Perhaps this year, friends and family will be joining you. For the first time, we’ll be celebrating Christmas with our two-year-old grandson, Henry. We’re excited! We’re also feeling deep gratitude. Henry was in the hospital just a few weeks ago (not Covid-related, and he’s home and better now), and he received exemplary care from medical staff who are overburdened yet continue to work very hard caring for people during these difficult times.  

On a happier note, and with Henry still in mind, this year, we’ll be baking gingerbread cookies. You’ll find the recipe below. As a child, I never liked gingerbread. It was too bold a flavour for me. In fact, I was even lukewarm about gingerbread as an adult until I tasted my friend Vivien’s cookies. They’re more like Dutch speculaas than true gingerbread, and they are delicious. Enjoy!

Vivien’s Gingerbread

1 cup/225 grams butter

1 cup/210 grams brown sugar, lightly packed

1 egg

1 teaspoon/5 ml vanilla

2 ½ cups/375 grams all-purpose white flour

1 teaspoon/5 grams baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons/4 grams cinnamon

½ teaspoon/1.5 g allspice

½ teaspoon/1.5 g nutmeg

½ teaspoon/1.5 g ground cloves

Cream butter, sugar, egg and vanilla. Stir dry ingredients together and add to wet. Form into a ball of dough. Refrigerate for an hour or until firm (or until you’re ready to bake; I sometimes mix the dough up the day before). Lightly flour your counter or board. Roll dough to about ¼ inch/3.5 cm thick and cut into shapes using cookie cutters. Bake at 350 7 – 9 minutes. Cool and decorate. They’re also delicious unadorned! Makes about two dozen cookies.

Holiday Reading

Christmas is just around the corner, and that has me thinking about books. Books I might want to give as well as books I might want to read myself over the holidays. This week’s blog focuses on some 2021 non-fiction recommendations. While I generally love a serious read, this year I’m gravitating to lighter reads, or at least books that leave me feeling somewhat hopeful at the end. I seem to need that these days. First, two non-fiction recommendations for the kids on your list, followed by suggestions for more advanced readers.

For younger readers:

Finding Home: The journey of Immigrants and Refugees, written by Jen Sookfong Lee and illustrated by Drew Shannon. There are many reasons why people leave their homes in search of a new one. This book explores the history of human migration and how it has shaped our world, as well as current issues facing immigrants and refugees. Profiles of immigrants and refugees across the globe are also included. Ages 9 – 12.

The Power of Style: How Fashion and Beauty Are Being Used to Reclaim Culture by Christian Allaire. As a fashion-obsessed Ojibwe teen, Christian Allaire rarely saw anyone that looked like him in magazines or movies. As the current Fashion and Style writer for Vogue, he is working to change that. Clothes are never just clothes; style is self-expression, representation and transformation. Topics range from cosplay, makeup and hijabs to culture, politics and social justice. Ages 12 and up.

For the rest of us:

These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett. When novelist Patchett sits down to write a book, she knows how it will end. Life, however, often takes unexpected turns and it is this truth that Patchett touches on in this collection of essays, all of which have been published before. You’ll find reflections on writing and publishing, insights into living and dying, friends and family, as well as lighter pieces on knitting, Snoopy, and surviving a year without shopping.

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl. The Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman takes us behind the scenes of his life as a rock star while also pulling back the curtain on his personal life. Entertaining, engaging and insightful. Perfect for the music fans on your list and even those who aren’t necessarily fans because Grohl is a master of the anecdote.

London’s Number One Dog-Walking Agency by Kate MacDougall. A wonderful memoir about a young woman who left her job at Sotheby’s and started her own business as a dog-walker for busy London pet owners. The theme of this uplifting coming-of-age book is about chasing your dreams in spite of facing challenges. It’s charming and funny . . . and there are lots of dogs!

Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh by Li Juan, Jack Hargreaves (translator). A bestseller in China for years and the winner of the People’s Literature Award, this tale follows Li Juan, a Chinese journalist, as she joins a family of Kazakh herders – and their camels, sheep, cattle and horses – to spend winter on a winter grazing spot in Xinjiang Province where the population density at that time was one person per every square mile. This blend of memoir, travelogue and nature writing gives us an incredible picture into a remote part of the world.

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. As you’d expect, this book is Tucci’s life through food – from his childhood growing up in Westchester, as a young actor in New York, through marriage and children, and on movie sets. As well as sharing some of his favorite food memories over the years, Tucci doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the more difficult times in his life, notably his first wife’s death from cancer and his own recovery from the same disease, but he can also be irreverent and sharply funny, particularly as he discusses feeding five kids through the pandemic. Bonus: there are recipes.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. Some great insights here into health and mindfulness. Nestor is a journalist who began his journey into the world of breath reluctantly, and only because of health issues. Along with being part memoir, Breath also looks at breathing traditions throughout history, presents some thought-provoking research and offers practical takeaway tips too. Though it was published in 2020, Breath impressed me enough that I’m including it on my 2021 list.

Next week, some fiction recommendations.

Merry Christmas

Wishing you a joyful holiday season, even if things are quieter than you’d like and different than you’d hoped for. It’s a good time to celebrate those simple but incredibly important things: health, peace, and the family and friends who make our lives worth living. They may not be able to join us at the table this year, but they can be with us in spirit or perhaps virtually. It’s also a good time to indulge just a little. For those whose indulgence is chocolate, here’s my easy and go-to recipe for chocolate truffles. See you in January!

Chocolate Truffles

8 ounces/227 grams bittersweet chocolate (Bakers or a high quality bar)

3/4 cup/180 mL whipping cream

2 tablespoons/30 mL butter

2 – 3 tablespoons/30 – 45 mL orange or almond liqueur (or substitute your favorite)

Combine cream and butter, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat; add liqueur and chocolate. Stir until chocolate is entirely melted. Chill the mixture until it’s firm enough to handle, but not rock-solid, about 3 hours. Using a teaspoon, form and roll mixture into small balls. Roll each truffle in cocoa powder or ground nuts. Store in the fridge for several weeks or freeze for up to three months.

The Gift of Reading

For me, the holidays aren’t the same if I don’t have a new book to read. I always made sure my kids got a new book for Christmas, and even now, as adults, they look forward to the tradition.

But it can be difficult to know what book to give. With that in mind, I asked some writer friends to recommend a few titles. You’ll find their picks here over the next few weeks. And don’t stop at their recommendations. Check out their bios and their own books too. Many of those are ideal for gift giving as well! This week, several non-fiction recommendations, one board book for little ones, and a French YA novel.

Fiona McQuarrie: Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali by Mike Stax (Feral House). Part biography, part detective story, and part pop culture history, Swim Through the Darkness chronicles the author’s 15-year quest to find Craig Smith – a clean-cut ’60s musician who became a “psychedelic messiah,” released a legendary self-funded double album, and then disappeared. It’s an epic story, and it’s thoroughly engaging and poignant.

Fiona McQuarrie is the author of Song Book: 21 Songs From 10 Years (1964-74) (New Haven Publishing). https://writingonmusic.com/song-book-the-book/

Lea Tassie: The Green New Deal and Climate Change by Lynne Balzer (Faraday Science Institute/Kindle edition). This is an excellent and clear explanation of the scientific concepts about climate change, by a science teacher. Over the past couple of years, I’ve read reams of articles on the subject, so can say with confidence that Balzer nails all the facts.

Lea Tassie is the author of Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail. For more information, check her website: http://leatassiewriter.com

Karen Hibbard: Mary: Who Wrote Frankenstein, written by Linda Bailey; illustrations by Julia Sarda (Penguin/Random House).  This atmospheric picture book is the inspiring story of the young woman who wrote one of the greatest horror novels ever written, and one of the first works of science fiction. For ages 5 – 8.

Karen Hibbard is the illustrator of Nimoshom and His Bus, written by Penny M. Thomas (Portage and Main Press). Visit Karen’s website at  karenhibbard.ca

Marjorie Gann: HERE babies, THERE babies, written by Nancy Cohen; illustrated by Carmen Mok (Nimbus). A wonderful board book for parents or young ones expecting a new addition to the family. Bouncy rhyming verse accompanies boldly coloured paintings; combined, they give young ones lots to talk about. Suitable to about age 4.

Marjorie Gann is the author of Speak a Word for Freedom: Women against Slavery (Tunda/Penguin Random House 2015) Her website:  www.gannwillen.com

Monique Polak: Félines by Stéphane Servant (Rouergue). In this un-put-downable book, set in the not too distant future, teenage girls around the world begin to develop feline characteristics. The shape of their eyes changes, their skin turns to fur, and they can sense the feelings of others. Fearing this “mutation,” the authorities try to control and confine the girls. But les félines are not about to let that happen.

Monique Polak’s most recent titles are Room for One More (Kar-Ben) and The Taste of Rain (Orca Book Publishers). Find her at: www.moniquepolak.com

Next week, more fiction titles for all ages and tastes.

 

The Gift of Reading Non-Fiction

If you have non-fiction readers on your gift giving list, you have many books to choose from this year.

In the biography category, artists will undoubted appreciate Ninth Street Women: Five Painters and The Movement That Changed Modern Art by Mary Gabriel. Young sports aficionados will be inspired by Open Heart, Open Mind by Canadian Olympian and advocate for mental health Clara Hughes. And memoir lovers with an interest in politics will enjoy Michelle Obama’s Becoming Michelle which details her journey from working class Chicago to the White House.

For the coffee drinker who loves to travel, consider The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers. A gripping account of a 24-year-old Yemeni American man, raised in San Francisco, who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee and travels to his ancestral home to source the beans only to face militia roadblocks, kidnappings and threats against his life. Another option for foodies: Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat by award-winning journalist Jonathan Kauffman. An outstanding food and cultural history that traces the colorful origins of once unconventional foods and shows how the concept of health food evolved in the kitchens of young baby boomers before becoming mainstream.

If your reader is focused on social justice and immigration The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu is a shocking insider look at US immigration from the perspective of a border patrol agent. Another powerful read is The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq by Iraqui-American poet and journalist Dunya Mikhail.

An Amazon best book of 2018 that reads like a thriller and will appeal to crime aficionados as well as business geeks is Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. Bad Blood is the story of Theranos, a Silicon Valley start-up whose charismatic founder, Elizabeth Holmes, raised nearly one billion dollars over 15 years for a company founded on lies, falsehoods, bullying and fraud.

In a year when laughs were hard to come by, at least as far as current events were concerned, John Cleese, Professor At Large is a sharp and clever collection of Cleese’s lectures at Cornell University while he was a visiting professor. For some mother-daughter humor, I See Life Through Rose`-Colored Glasses by Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella is a hilarious collection of essays about the pitfalls of daily life.

And finally, for inspiration and motivation an ideal pick is Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan.  Named a best book of the year by Real Simple and Bustle, this is a story-driven collection of essays on twelve powerful phrases we use in our relationships including I don’t know; tell me more; no; I was wrong; and I love you. Both funny and touching, Corrigan’s book is a fabulous read heading into a new year.

 

The Gift of Books

Tis the season for giving but it can be hard to pick just the right book for each recipient.  I usually blog once a month about what I’m reading, and if a book makes my monthly post you can bet I’ve enjoyed it. You can source those blogs by checking through my archives for ‘My Reads.’  Here are some titles that stood out for me this year.

I really enjoyed Girl Who Drank the Moon, a middle grade novel that was published in 2016 and won the 2017 Newbery Medal. Luna was raised by a witch and must figure out how to handle the magical powers she has accidentally been given. A solid fantasy fiction choice for middle grade readers.

Teens who like realism will appreciate The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater. For an historical teen read you can’t go wrong with Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse. Set in Amsterdam during WW11, this mystery novel is gritty and deserving of last year’s Edgar Award. For teens who appreciate a terrific love story, my pick is The Problem With Forever by Jennifer L. Armentrout.  Well-written and emotional, you might want to include a box of Kleenex with this one.

For older romance readers, I was captivated by Between You and Me by Susan Wiggs. This contemporary love story straddles two worlds and two cultures: Pittsburgh as well as Amish farm country. Richly-layered and compelling.

I could not put down All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin. This is a heavier, more issue-oriented story than Giffin’s usual fare and the through line that carries the novel is how far are you willing to go to protect the ones you love? Though this book is marketed for adults, one of the point of view characters is a teen and I think this story would be a great jumping off point for discussions between parents and teenagers.

For more fiction ideas, check out Goodreads Best Books of 2018. https://www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/books/g25361954/goodreads-best-books-2018/

Or go here to see what the CBC recommends: https://www.cbc.ca/books/the-cbc-books-fall-2018-reading-list-18-must-read-canadian-books-1.4821996

Next time, some ideas for the non-fiction readers on your list.

The Importance of Fallow Ground

Gardeners and farmers know the importance of fallow ground. Allowing a field or a garden bed to rest for a bit – to go fallow – gives the soil’s nutrient balance a chance to naturally restore itself. As the ground rests, fertility can be restored. Letting ground go fallow was a common practice centuries ago, but it’s not as common anymore. As commercial fertilizers became more readily available and the agricultural industry became ever more competitive, it became less and less popular to leave land fallow. Constant production was the goal.

Constant agricultural production, however, is rarely sustainable, at least not in any kind of healthy way. And it’s the same for people. Though we can, and often do, push ourselves to constantly produce, we function best when we have time to rest, time to naturally restore ourselves, to go fallow.

With the ground frozen and the garden resting for the winter, and with the holidays nearly here, it seems only natural that we pause not just to celebrate the season but to renew ourselves. To fill the well, however you define that personally.

So along with wishing you a Happy Solstice and a Merry Christmas, I wish you time for peaceful reflection. And time for peaceful reading too.

Book Buys for 2017

Books make awesome gifts. If you’re looking for the right title for that special someone, here’s a selection of books I’ve enjoyed reading this year. If my suggestions don’t resonate or if you’re still feeling uncertain, wrap up a gift card to an independent book store or on line book seller.

Books make awesome gifts. I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating.

For fiction Lovers:

General Fiction: The Almost Sisters by Jocelyn Jackson. A timely southern drama featuring quirky characters, sharp writing, and a complex story that manages to deal with some heavy issues yet not get bogged down. I love Jackson’s writing and this was a satisfying read.

Map of the Heart by Susan Wiggs. A nicely layered, emotional story that moves between present day and World War 11 France. The setting is beautifully rendered, family dynamics (and the concept of a second chance at love) are deftly explored, and there’s a bit of a mystery that kept me turning the pages until the end.

Romance: Blood Vow by J.R. Ward. I’m a huge fan of Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series so naturally I wanted to dip into her Black Dagger Legacy series. This, the story of Axe and Elise, is book two in the series and it’s dark, sexy, funny and fast-paced. It’s the perfect read for vampire aficionados, or for those who need to be converted.

Dating-ish by Penny Reid is book six in Reid’s Knitting in the City Series though I read it as a standalone and it worked well for me. Fresh and funny with surprising depth and intensity, the character development and attraction between Matt and Marie was extremely well done. Reid was a new-to-me author and I’ll be looking for more of her books.

Young Adult:

Julia Vanishes by Catherine Egan. A thought-provoking young adult fantasy with touches of mystery and suspense, Julia Vanishes is book one in the Witch’s Child Series. Julia is an appealingly flawed heroine with the ability to make herself unseen, a skill that comes in handy since she’s a spy and thief. Clever, original and ideal for readers who appreciate strong female protagonists and fantasy fiction.

Autoboyography by Christina Lauren. A poignant coming-of-age novel about two boys who fall in love in a writing class, one who comes from a progressive family and the other from a deeply religious one. Beautifully written and a profound look at bisexuality, the love of family, religion and how we view right and wrong.

For the wee readers on your list, Stephanie Simpson McLellan’s The Christmas Wind is a gorgeous, just released picture book and a lovely reminder of what’s really important, not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

For mystery thriller fans The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. Here’s the promo line for the book: Two girls are forced into the woods at gunpoint. One runs for her life. One is left behind. If you like thrillers, how can you not buy it? I did and I loved it. Anybody who appreciates a good, dark read will devour this book.

For the non-fiction lovers on your list, check out these titles:

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal Al-Sharif. A gripping true story by Manal, a devout woman from a modest family in Saudi Arabia who was arrested by the religious police for daring to drive. While there’s no law forbidding women from driving, the religious police are powerful; Manal became the unexpected leader of a courageous movement to support women’s right to drive.

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Sandburg, the COO of Facebook, faced the unexpected death of her 47-year-old husband while they were away on holiday. What followed was painful and raw as she tried to figure out what life could look like when it wasn’t what she had planned. Not always an easy read but one that lingered with me afterwards.

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters. Any foodie on your list has heard of Water’s Chez Panisse, the iconic restaurant which quite literally redefined North American cuisine for chefs and food lovers. This memoir recounts the events leading up to the opening of America’s most influential restaurant.

Since we’re talking about food, there’s always a time when you want to get in and out of the kitchen quickly, yet still want to eat well. That’s why Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients, Quick & Easy Food is wrapped and under the tree waiting for a lucky recipient in my life. I may have to spring for my own copy; I have several of Oliver’s books and this one looks like a keeper too.

Finally, any gardener, no matter what they like to grow, will appreciate receiving a copy of The Bee Friendly Garden by Kate Frey and Gretchen LeBuhn. Winner of the American Horticultural Society 2017 Book Award, this book gives you all the information you need to create a vibrant and colorful habitat that will attract both honeybees and native bees. And with threats to our beloved honeybees on the increase, it’s a resource every gardener will utilize over and over again.

Don’t Be a Plastic Flower

Plastic flowers are popping up around here like fall mushrooms sprouting in my lawn. And when something shows up repeatedly in a fairly short time I think the universe is trying to get my attention. I’m weird that way.

This summer after a friend finished staging her house she gave me the faux flower display she’d used to lock down the sale. It was an attractive, life-like arrangement and the colors were pretty. Despite the fact that I’m not a fan of artificial flowers and had an abundance of cutting flowers growing in the garden, I put them in the dining room thinking I’d enjoy them for a few weeks before passing them on to someone else. The faux flowers remain in their waterless vase, a testament to my over-committed schedule (aka laziness) and my inability to say no to a well-meaning friend in the first place.

Last month, the subject of plastic flowers came up again. A bride-to-be was discussing floral arrangements for her wedding and said she was probably going to use plastic flowers as they were considerably cheaper and flowers ‘really didn’t matter.’ My response was immediate, visceral and surprisingly strong. Flowers do matter, I thought to myself, and plastic flowers seemed so wrong in the context of a wedding. Better to have only a few real flowers than a boatload of fake ones I told the woman when she asked my opinion. I couldn’t articulate my reasoning, beyond the fact that I’m loyal gardener and ardent lover of all things floral, and that I almost always favor real over fake.

Last week, plastic flowers reared their perfect perky little heads a third time in a book called Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier. The authors have a fresh take on an entrepreneurial approach to business, and much of what they say (delivered in blog style chapters) is applicable to self-publishing. One chapter is called ‘Don’t Be a Plastic Flower.’

Intrigued, I turned to that one first. Their points were simple: in order to succeed and grow a business, be real, don’t fear your flaws and accept the beauty of imperfection. They go into more detail than that, and they tie it into a business sensibility, but it boils down to giving customers something tangible and genuine, and recognizing that in providing something of real value, there’s always the risk of flaws. In short, no plastic flowers allowed.

The Japanese have something called wabi-sabi. It’s an aesthetic based on the appreciation of beauty in a transient and imperfect world. Character and uniqueness are favored, scratches and fissures are okay. In that culture, many of the antique bowls used in the tea ceremony have cracks, uneven glazes, and imperfect shapes. And they are highly prized for their inadequacies.

When I write novels, I’m always careful to develop characters with flaws. Most writers I know are careful to do that too. We recognize at a deep level that flawed characters are more believable, more relatable, and more likable. And yet it can be a real challenge to accept and let our own imperfections show.

That, I decided, was the lesson of the plastic flowers. In a culture that favors the flawless, the perfect, the plastic flower, I need to honor the beauty of imperfection. And I also need to find a new home for the faux flowers in my dining room.

A Treat for the Holidays

christmascandlesMerry Christmas and Happy New Year. Whether you celebrate quietly or have a pile of people around, I hope the holiday season is everything you want it to be. I also hope 2017 brings you some pleasant surprises and many reasons to smile.

The blog is breaking for the season and will be returning in January. Since my website redesign, the blog subscription process has been wonky so I’ll probably be switching to MailChimp for blog delivery in the New Year. You shouldn’t notice any difference but if there are disruptions, they’ll be minimal.

Meanwhile, here’s a little treat to kick off the holiday season: homemade poppycock. We’ve played around with recipes for years and after some trial and error, have settled on this as the best, no-fail poppycock recipe there is. You don’t need a candy thermometer (bonus!) but you do need to bake the mix in a low oven for an hour to make sure the syrup hardens. Personally, I’d rather do that than fret about candy temperatures. Grab a helper because you really need one person to pour the syrup over the popcorn and the other to stir. And before you get started, watch for bulk mixed nuts (sans peanuts) to go on sale. Unsalted nuts are better, but if you screw up and buy salted like I did this year just rinse and dry them before using in the recipe.

 

No Fail Poppycock

 

I cup/240 mL butter

1 cup/240 mL white sugar

1 cup/240 mL brown sugar

½ cup/120 mL white corn syrup

1 tsp/5 mL salt

1 tsp/5 mL vanilla

½ tsp/2.5 mL baking soda

5 quarts popped corn

3 cups/700 mL mixed nuts (we like almonds, pecans and cashews)

 

Pop corn and pour it into a large, greased container (we use our largest roasting pan). Mix in nuts. Set aside. Grease two large cookie sheets; set them aside. Preheat oven to 250.

In a large pot, bring butter, sugar, syrup and salt to a boil over medium heat. Boil for five minutes, stirring constantly to prevent the mixture from boiling over. Remove from heat, add vanilla and soda. Stir well. Pour over popcorn and nuts and mix carefully. We pour and mix in three or four stages to make sure the corn is well-coated. Spread the mix between the two cookie sheets. Bake at 250 for one hour, and stir three times at twenty minute intervals. Cool and store in airtight containers or put into freezer bags and freeze until ready for gift-giving. Yield: never enough.poppycock