Monday, July 28, 2014

Tower Bridge England

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013


If Wilber (from Charlotte’s Web) or Babe the Pig were targeted toward a slightly more academic audience and wore refined waistcoats, they would be awfully close to Toby of Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby the Learned Pig. This charming tale of Toby, a pig who goes from humble farm beginnings to the life of an Oxford scholar, is fun for all. The story begins with Toby as a baby pig; he is quickly selected as favorite by Sam, the nephew of the farm owner, and the two build a rudimentary means of communication. When Toby is taken to the fair and wins a ribbon as the best pig, he doesn’t realize that he is well on his way to being sold to market. Through determination, Sam is able to rescue Toby and the two set off on their own. On the brink of collapse, they are welcomed in by Mr. Bisset, a landowner who has a menagerie of animals that he has trained for a show. While Mr. Bisset exhibits kindness toward the animals, he is a determined man, and after training Toby to recognize letters and respond to basic clicks, he takes all of his “pets” on the road to perform multiple shows with Toby heading the bill as the “Sapient Pig”. Unbeknownst to Mr. Bisset, Sam has furthered Toby’s education, teaching him to read and spell. When this becomes evident at a stage show, Mr. Bisset threatens Toby and leaves Sam behind so that he cannot interfere further with Toby’s show (or Bisset’s profit). After Bisset’s sudden death, Toby fears that he will be sold to market, only to find saving grace at the last minute. After much hard work, Toby arrives at Oxford where his academic side takes root, and readers see his talents grow (even to the point of inspiring imposters to take to the stage), and eventually see him “retire” to compose his autobiography. This story is delightful and has historical elements woven throughout to make it a reflection of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Pyg is a unique tale that is absolutely enjoyable, and Toby is an endearing character, but with traditional British voice and somewhat antiquated language it might not appeal to young children who would appreciate Charlotte’s Web a bit more. Overall, it is a fun and engaging read.

Roasted Tomato Couscous Salad

Couscous salads are kind of a summer staple in our house – when the weather gets nice, it is great to have a tasty dinner option that is healthy and low-key (but still impressive if you have friends pop by). I used vegan feta in here which may be a bit tricky to find, so you can leave it out and the salad will still be delicious!
Roasted Tomato Couscous Salad 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved 3 Tablespoons crushed garlic (I used Trader Joe’s crushed garlic for this because it saves so much time) 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram 1 Tablespoon grape seed oil 1 cup Israeli couscous (prepared according to package directions) 3 Tablespoons pine nuts 3/4 cup freshly packed basil, thinly sliced 3/4 cup vegan feta 3 Tablespoons capers 1/2 peeled English cucumber cut into 1/2″ cubes 1/4 cup Kalamata olives Salt and pepper 1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. On a foil-lined roasting pan, toss tomatoes with garlic, oregano, marjoram, and 1/2 Tablespoon grape seed oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. 2. Place cooked Israeli couscous in a serving bowl. Spoon roasted tomatoes over them and mix in pine nuts, basil, feta, capers, cucumber, olives, and remaining 1/2 Tablespoon grape seed oil. Stir to combine. Serve immediately.

A Hundred Flowers

“Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.” – Mao Tse-Tung, 1956. This quote serves as the backdrop for A Hundred Flowers, a tale of one family’s journey to survive Mao’s Communist China. While Mao seemingly encouraged scholars and academics to be open and honest about politics, government, and learning, it was a guise to catch rebels in the act. Kai Ying’s husband, Sheng, is one of the individuals arrested by Communist soldiers who accuse him of writing an oppositional letter and of being a threat to China; for this, he is sent away to a reeducation camp (for an undetermined amount of time) so that he may learn to be a good citizen by doing hard labor and living in squalid conditions. It is here that the story begins – Sheng has been gone for several months, leaving behind Kai Ying, his father, Wei, his son Tao, and his “Aunt” Song – and the family is still trying to cope with his absence. Attempting to remember his father, young Tao climbs a tree in the courtyard, and comes crashing down, breaking his leg. It is with this act that the story begins, and as Tao heals, he watches the world around him change. Through the eyes of various characters, we come to understand that Tao’s injury may in fact be the gateway to recovery as it spurs everyone into action (and ultimately forces them to reveal long-hidden secrets that could threaten their family bond). Kai Ying, an herbalist, must reconcile with the fact that while she may be a talented healer for others, there are things which she will never be able to overcome, and Wei, a retired art historian, is in fact forced to grapple with the reality that he never really knew his son, and now it may be too late. In the midst of this, Suyin, a young pregnant teenager, finds refuge with the family, and is forced to question her notion of home in order to figure out where she really belongs. With a sense of the Chinese culture in the Communist 1950s, A Hundred Flowers is a delightful piece of historical fiction, but it is the story of the family that is so compelling. Each character gets to share their view (this is done in a third person narrative style which is very approachable and enjoyable), and we learn about how deeply the Communist Revolution touched everyone, regardless of age or class. This story is poetically written and is a wonderful read, even for those who are not very familiar with Communist China. The choices that the characters make and how those culminate at the end, however, may be the one element that readers struggle with. We don’t necessarily get attached to all of the characters, so it is a bit diffciult to understand their actions and motives at times. Overall,however, this is a powerful read that tells a timeless tale of what it means to be family.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend

This was the best book that I have read all summer – I truly loved Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. The story is narrated by Budo, the five-year-old imaginary friend of Max Delaney, a nine-year-old boy with traits that would suggest Asperger’s. Budo is clever (perhaps the smartest imaginary friend ever, according to his estimation) and compassionate; dedicated to Max during the day and free to roam the world at night (he doesn’t need to sleep), Budo has wisdom and insight that extends beyond his years. Budo’s voice is refreshing and real (despite his imaginary status), and he helps Max to navigate the social situations and classroom challenges that he faces on a daily basis (he even helps him to decide which color shirt to wear when Max gets “stuck”). Budo is especially dedicated to Max because he fears that if Max ever stops needing him, he will disappear – a fate that he has seen all too often as imaginary friends slowly fade when they are no longer wanted. While Budo is used to dealing with the daily routine, he is not sure what to do when Max confesses that he has a secret with Mrs. Patterson, his para-professional. Max has never held anything back from Budo, so it scares Budo to think that this could be his end. After spying on Max, however, he comes to fear for his imaginer’s safety – he sees Max get into Mrs. Patterson’s car and hears snippets of a frightening conversation. When Max realizes that Budo has spied on him, he refuses to talk to Budo; the next day at school, though, when looking at the teacher parking lot, Max finally speaks and promises Budo that he will tell him everything if Budo stays put. Budo quickly realizes that he has been tricked, though, as he watches Max get into Mrs. Patterson’s car and drive away. After waiting for hours, Budo realizes that his friend has disappeared and watches as teachers, policemen, and Max’s parents deal with the aftermath, realizing that Max is lost in a world that he does not fully understand. Budo knows what happened, yet is unable to communicate with anyone other than Max or other imaginary friends. Panic sets in, and Budo becomes determined to save Max, the bravest boy in the world, even if he is forced to face some of his greatest fears. This story is incredibly touching with moments of humor and suspense sprinkled throughout. It is beautifully written, and the storyline is so original that it will keep you reading until the very end. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is a wonderful read from beginning to end, and readers will root for Budo and Max the entire time!

Cool Key Lime Coconut Cheesecake

I love how easy this dessert is. It is a refreshing treat on these hot summer days and honestly takes 5 minutes to make! The hardest part is waiting until after it has been chilled to eat it. Enjoy!
Cool Key Lime Cheesecake 1 prepared graham cracker crust 8 ounces vegan cream cheese 1 cup prepared key lime pie or tart filling 1 Tablespoon corn starch 1/2 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (I used Bob’s Red Mill) 1. With a stand mixer, whip together the cream cheese and key lime filling until light. Add cornstarch and mix in until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps. Pour into the prepared crust and top with coconut. 2. Place cheesecake in the freezer and freeze for 20 to 30 minutes or until slightly firm. Top with fresh fruit to serve, if desired.

Watermelon Cucumber Gazpacho

When the weather is extra hot and it doesn’t make sense to turn on the stove, this is the perfect solution for dinner. While it is not technically the gazpacho that we think of because this version is chunky, it is just as refreshing as the original version. This will keep you hydrated and cool and the longer the flavors meld together, the better it is (making it just as good the second day as it is the first).
Watermelon Cucumber Gazpacho 6 cups seedless watermelon, cut into 1/2 inch cubes 2 medium cucumbers, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch cubes 1 teaspoon salt 3 Tablespoons finely chopped mint 1/2 cup coarsely chopped basil 3 Tablespoons finely minced shallots 1. Put watermelon and cucumber in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt. Stir together. Mix in basil, mint and shallots. Place the gazpacho in the refrigerator for at least an hour so that the juices come out of the fruit and the flavors blend together.