Thursday, July 21, 2011

"The Help"

I haven't written in a few weeks because I have been reading every spare minute I have available.  With two little ones and a more jammed-packed-than-it-has-a-right-to-be schedule, I typically don't have as much time as I would like for my two favorite pastimes, reading and writing.  However, this summer I have managed to read a fair number of books and am very thankful for that.

I just finished "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett.  It was recommended to me by two of my closest friends, one who updates her blog and one who does not. :)  It took some time for me to become fully interested in it, but once I did, I managed to read 500 pages in just 2 1/2 days.  I'm a fast reader, but that's fast even for me.  Let's just say I took 2 really long baths after the kids went to bed and my motive for taking the girls to the pool was multi-factorial. :)

In any case, I couldn't put it down and fell in love with so many of the characters.  In a lot of ways it reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that will always have a place of honor in my heart's library.  Like TKaM, it paints a painful picture in such a beautiful way.  It's not preachy, sanctimonious or intended to guilt the reader.  It is simply honest.  The language is touching, the story is heartfelt, and the characters are genuine. In fact, my one real complaint is the ending.  Part of me just wanted it to continue another 500 pages, and part of me just wanted an alternate ending in which Elizabeth tells Hilly to "shut up and get out" so Aibileen could get on with the business of raising "Baby Girl."  My heart broke for Mae Mobley, and more than once I had to remind myself that I was just reading a book so I wouldn't worry needlessly about her future with such a self-centered mother.  (As a side note, I also felt that Skeeter's mother's resolve to simply "not die" from cancer was a weak point in the story. Just sayin').

However, like To Kill a Mockingbird, I thought The Help was a wonderful snapshot of history.  I'm just jealous that this was Stockett's first attempt at writing a book. What must that be like?

As a side note, these are the books I've read so far this summer:
  • The Midwife's Confession, by Diane Chamberlain
  • Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella - (See previous blog entry)
  • The Tuesday Club Murders, by Agatha Christie - (I needed a beach mystery; one simply cannot go to the beach without a mystery)
  • The Body in the Library, by Agatha Christie - (I was home, but I needed another mystery)
  • The House on Tradd Street, by Karen White - (I needed a third mystery--notice a theme?)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling - (8th time reading it - I had to get ready for the movie, didn't I?)
  • The Help, Kathryn Stockett 
  • The Summer We Read Gatsby, by Danielle Ganek - (in progress)  
Please tell me what you've been reading. I always want to hear about new books!

    Thursday, June 30, 2011

    You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go

    One look at me and most people would never guess that my choice for all-time greatest singer/songwriter would be Bob Dylan.  (I'm a little tightly-wound and just a wee bit on the conservative side). :)  However, he has remained my favorite musician for the past twelve years, and that is far longer than any other performer has held that honorific.

    Truly, I have always been a fan of folk music, but Dylan was a different kind of folk; he was (and is) a different kind of everything, and honestly, I didn't really get him at first.  The voice. The obscure lyrics. The voice.  If you've heard him at all, you know what I mean.

    However, I purchased a Dylan CD on a whim in 1999, and after listening to it over and over again, I fell in love with him. All of him. The voice. The obscure lyrics. The intriguing character of the man.  I realized, the voice is just who he is, and you're not necessarily supposed to understand the lyrics.  In my opinion, this is one of the things that makes him truly great.  He never pretended to be a good singer, just an artist, and the whiny, nasal sound eventually becomes a thing of beauty to the person willing to give him a chance.  The brilliance of the lyrics is that they can mean anything to anyone at any time in his or her life; they're fluid and their meaning shifts as the listener ages and grows in life experience.  

    (He didn't try to make excuses for his sound.  He didn't [and doesn't] make excuses for anything.)

    My first Dylan CD was his original "Greatest Hits."  I listened to it, excited to have a new folk master to add to my already-vast collection.  Unfortunately, I didn't love it.  I had always liked the songs "Just Like a Woman," "Blowing in the Wind" and "Like a Rolling Stone," but many of the other songs alluded me.  After listening to it a few times, however, I found a number of personal mood boosters among the tracks and soon discovered that hope, humor, fear, envy, rebellion and nostalgia found a home within the lyrics.  The whiny, beautiful voice simply became the vessel through which the soundtrack of my early twenties was delivered.  

    It was a time in my life when I was trying to discover who I was, what I believed, who I wanted to love and how I wanted live.  In short, it was my personal version of the 1960s; I suppose Dylan's music was oddly appropriate for this child of the '80s.

    Over the years, I have collected many, many Dylan albums, and as his style has changed over his multi-decade career, my appreciation of him has grown.  He can write war, hate, love, envy, religion, and a multitude of other themes in a way that earns him a spot in the pantheon of the greatest creative writers of all time.  When I taught American lit, I would bring in his music and copies of his lyrics to study alongside other great modern American poets. As a writer, he touches people on an emotional level, and his words mean something different to everyone who hears them.  And whether you "get him" or not, his work has withstood the test of time.  The same could be said for most of the great writers throughout the centuries, could it not?   

    More than anything, I suppose his music represents something personal to me, a time in my life that I like to frequently revisit. For me, Dylan's music will always remind me of grad school, friends I don't see often enough, late nights, date nights, and a turning point in my way of thinking.  I am honored that he was along for my ride. He will truly "make me lonesome when he goes."

    For the record, here are my favorite Dylan masterpieces:
    1. "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"
    2. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" 
    3.  "Just Like a Woman"  
    4. "Forever Young"
    5. "Shelter From the Storm"
    6. "Things Have Changed"
    7. "Hurricane"
    8. "Brownsville Girl"
    9. "Shooting Star"
    10. "Not Dark Yet" 

    Wednesday, June 29, 2011

    Chicken Spinach Pasta Casserole

    This is a variation of a Southern Living recipe I came across not too long ago. I thought it sounded yummy, so I gave it a try with some added ingredients and a little tweaking of the measurements. I was pretty pleased with the result. I hope you enjoy it!

    Chicken Spinach Pasta Casserole

    8 ounces uncooked penne pasta
    1 tablespoon olive oil
    1 cup finely chopped onion
    1 (10-oz.) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
    3 cups cubed cooked chicken breasts
    2 (14.5-oz.) cans diced tomatoes, flavored with green pepper and onion
    1 (8-oz.) block cream cheese, softened
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon pepper
    1/2 teaspoon onion salt
    1/2 teaspoon soul seasoning
    1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

    Prepare pasta according to package directions. While your pasta is cooking, spread oil on the bottom of a baking sheet and add the onion in a single layer. Bake the onion at 375° for 15 minutes or until tender. Transfer onion to a large bowl, and set aside.

    Drain your thawed, chopped spinach well by squeezing it between layers of paper towels. Stir together the pasta, spinach, chicken, onion and next 6 ingredients. Spoon the mixture into a greased baking dish, and sprinkle evenly with shredded mozzarella cheese. Bake, covered, at 375° for 30 minutes; uncover and bake 15 more minutes or until bubbly.

    This recipe just makes me happy. Great flavor...pretty comfort food. Enjoy!

    Tuesday, June 21, 2011

    "Confessions of a Shopaholic"

    Chick lit isn't supposed to stress you out, is it?

    With a title like Confessions of a Shopaholic, this book should be the very definition of "chick lit," but never before has a book effused with so much fluffy, feminine subject matter made me want to run faster to something more deeply profound, like perhaps, Elmo Goes to the Doctor.

    Basically, the plot goes something like this: the main character, Rebecca Bloomwood, likes to shop. Duh. She sees something she likes, buys it, regrets buying it later, and then spends more money on half-baked schemes designed to make enough cash to cover her debts, buy a fabulous home, and then buy more stuff.

    Throughout the course of the book she convinces herself she will win the lottery, beat the house at a casino, marry a millionaire, and become fabulously successful in a home-based business venture.  All the while she buys more and more things that she convinces herself she must have because they are "investments" or she "deserves them."  The book is punctuated with demand letters and final notices from her bank and other creditors that she throws away, rips up, or stuffs into her dresser drawer, convincing herself they never existed in the first place.  She lies repeatedly to her best friend, potential love interests, her boss, her parents, and her creditors.

    Eventually, the author sees fit to punish our long-suffering "heroine" by allowing her to write an article that is magically published overnight in a national publication, which lands her not only a regularly-recurring spot on a daily morning show with a fabulous salary as a "Financial Expert," but also hot sex and a marriage to the second millionaire in the story that falls for her.  Seriously?  

    I kept reading this riveting saga only because I was praying she would eventually see the error of her ways, make amends with everyone she had lied to and/or cheated, and grow-the-heck-up.  In the end, I was sufficiently (albeit temporarily) satisfied that she was going to make some changes in her lifestyle and become at least somewhat financially mature, but then I read an excerpt from one of the sequels to this masterpiece, Mini Shopaholic, which blew that theory to shreds.  She, in fact, doesn't change her ways at all; her selfishness is only exacerbated by the fact she now has a daughter for which to buy and a super-rich husband's charge card with which to do it.  *Sigh*

    And seriously, there is not enough Prozac in the world that would enable me to open this chick's mail even one time.  (Those of you who know my mail issues, understand what I mean).  In short, cute idea for a book, but oh, how it missed the mark on the fun beach-read it could have been.

    (My apologies to all the women who love this novel, including my best friend who recommended it to me in the first place.  In addition to my mail phobia, I am just too tightly-wound and financially-anal to thoroughly enjoy it).

    Friday, June 17, 2011

    My Weapon of Defense Against Reality

    Those of you who know me well, know that I am not the most laid-back person in the world. In fact, I'd more likely be awarded the "Anal Retentive" prize, and I have the mouth ulcers and stomach problems to support that statement.  I can fret, wring my hands, and lose sleep at night with the most neurotic among us. However, I discovered something in high school that helps me decompress even better than a bubble bath, a good book or a glass of wine.   

    I first watched The Dick Van Dyke Show on a snowy day at my grandmother's house when I was about ten-years-old.  The episode was "Talk to the Snail," which admittedly has a pretty silly plot.  I liked the show because even back then I thought Dick Van Dyke himself was pretty great (Mary Poppins was my favorite movie as a kid).  However, it didn't become the secret weapon in my self-help arsenal for several more years.  Once I finally discovered how great this show actually is,  I made it my mission to record every episode (on VHS, of course), so that I would have a complete collection to help me through the many stresses of life.  You think it sounds ridiculous, right?  Well, you're entitled to your opinion.  I, on the other hand, felt it was a necessary thing to do and I spent the next two years attempting to record all 157 episodes, which came on in the middle of the night on TV Land and programming was sporadic at best.  When I was finished, I had eleven VHS tapes filled with my favorite show and a typed list detailing which episodes were on which tape for ease in watchability. You think I'm kidding.  I assure you, I'm not.

    I now have the complete series on DVD and I couldn't begin to tell you the number of times I've watched each episode.  I know most episodes by heart and I especially enjoy the ones that prominently feature Rob and Laura's next-door-neighbors, Jerry and Millie.  I'm not sure why this particular show has such a calming effect on me, but I came to rely on this show when I was in high school and college and fell in love with all of the characters (except maybe their son, Richie; he was a bad actor even by the standards set in the 1960s).

    I have always thought the part Dick Van Dyke played on the show was perfect.  To me, he was the ideal man: a handsome, funny, talented writer who adored his sometimes-neurotic wife and always seemed to love her unconditionally, even when she royally screwed up.  Even as a teenager, I related strongly to Mary Tyler Moore's character, Laura Petrie, and hoped that one day I would marry a man who was a lot like her Rob.  I wanted that life, so it was easy to become lost in the simplicity of it.  I guess I still lose myself in the simplicity of it.  And even though I now have a wonderful husband (who actually is very much like Rob Petrie), beautiful kids and a nice home, life is just plain hard sometimes and being able to escape to an easier time is really quite a wonderful thing...especially when the problem can be solved in just 30 short minutes.  

    For the record, here's a list of my very favorite episodes:
    1. "My Blonde-Haired Brunette"
    2. "The Curious Thing About Women"
    3. "The Death of the Party"
    4. "Never Bathe on Saturday"
    5. "A Vigilante Ripped My Sports Coat"
    6. "Punch Thy Neighbor"
    7. "Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth"
    8. "Who Owes Who What?"
    9. "All About Eavesdropping?"
    10. "It May Look Like a Walnut"
    11. "I'm No Henry Walden"
    12. "The Night the Roof Fell In"
    13. "My Husband is Not a Drunk"
    14. "The Life and Love of Joe Coogan"
    15. "My Husband is the Best One"
    16. "My Neighbor's Husband's Other Life"
    17. "October Eve"
    18. "The Plots Thicken"
    19. "Long Night's Journey into Day"
    20. "The Great Petrie Fortune"

    Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    Shrimp and Pork Lo Mein

    So, this is not exactly groundbreaking prose, but I wanted to post a favorite recipe that I originally posted on my short-lived cooking blog.  I guess I've had it on the brain lately since I absolutely love Lo Mein, but rarely get the opportunity to make it.  If you've seen this post before, I apologize.  I promise I'll write something original soon.

    I love Asian food, and from time to time I will experiment with healthy, at-home Asian recipes of my own. This Lo Mein recipe works in any variation: seafood, pork, vegetable, chicken. My personal choice when I make it at home, however, is a combination of seafood and pork. I hope you like it!

    Shrimp and Pork Lo Mein

    1 package of Chinese noodles
    1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
    3 thinly-sliced, boneless pork chops
    3-4 green onions, tops only
    2 carrots, diced fine
    2 stalks celery, diced fine
    1 (4 oz.) can of sliced mushrooms
    1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
    1/3 cup Soy Sauce
    Shrimp Sauce (I use the store-bought kind found near most grocery store seafood counters)

    Cook noodles according to package directions. (They usually only need to boil for 3 or 4 minutes). Drain, rinse with cold water and set aside. Slice pork chops in long, thin strips and saute in olive oil for about 5 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside, leaving the remaining oil. Add the green onions, carrots and celery, sauteing until just tender. Add mushrooms last and heat through. Add shrimp and allow to cook until shrimp turns pink (about 3-4 minutes). Stir in the pork strips and add the Soy Sauce. Stir continuously for another 1-2 minutes. Finally, add the cooked noodles, allow to heat through, and serve with shrimp sauce.

    Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite recipes. I associate it with comfort food, probably because of the noodles. If you've never cooked with Chinese noodles, give them a try. They're cheap, versatile, quick to cook and absolutely delicious! Aside from the shrimp sauce (which you can leave off, although I can't imagine why anyone would want to), this is a super healthy meal that cooks up in minutes. I hope you'll give it a try. 

    Monday, June 13, 2011

    A Place of My Own

    I am finally going to write.  Hold me to that, will you?

    I am starting this blog so that I will have a place that is truly mine, a place to spill out my thoughts and passions, my irritations and joys.  I have tried many times to do this in the past, but I think my goals were always too extreme.  It's not that I thought I was going to write the next great American novel on my blog or inspire the masses with my brilliant insight (yeah, right), but as usually happens in my life, those pesky perfectionist tendencies I've come to love and hate got in the way, and I allowed them to keep me from writing at all. 

    Over the years I have started six blogs, and never achieved more than a few entries before my vision of what I wanted it to become became cloudy and unattainable.  Now, I have decided to make it easy on myself.  This blog will be, to put it simply, "a place of my own." Virginia Wolfe said every woman writer needed one, so I've made a present of it to myself.  I've simply named it after two things I love, and likewise I plan to write about things I love (recipes, books, movies, hobbies, who knows?).  I've decided to make no more pretenses in trying to come up with the "grand title" for my teeny spot in the blogosphere.  My goal is to write. And write I shall. 

    Writing may truly be the one passion I have that scares me the most.  I dream about it, fantasize about it, read about ways to do it better, and never feel more alive than when I'm doing it.  My assumed imperfection of the finished work terrifies me, though.  For now, I will attempt to shove that fear into an ethereal satin, draw-string pouch in the back of my mind and write just for myself and for any of my friends or family who might find some small interest in my thoughts...and for now, I just need a place to exercise my love of writing and organize the many jumbled ideas that accumulate in my brain, looking for a place to lay down and find peace.