Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review: The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas

An Interesting First Person Account of Life in the Untamed West

To introduce the concept of the diary, the author sets the stage with the discovery of the book among the belongings of an elderly neighbor who is about to move. The introduction and plan to transcribe the diary is brief and we get immersed in the story of one woman's journey almost immediately.

Mattie Smith is 22 when the handsome Luke Spenser proposes to her. She describes herself as "plain" and on her way to be an old maid when he asks her if she would join him in settling in Colorado. The courtship is nonexistent but more of a proposal. . . Mattie is amazed and happy to find herself in this situation and new adventure and immediately accepts, leaving behind her family, her job and her best friend.

Mattie starts out as an idealist with a pragmatic sense about her. She sets her sights on being the best wife she can be and looks at ways to make her new life work. Life is full of challenges in both the journey west in a Conestoga wagon and once they settle on Luke's claim.

The journal provides insight into Mattie and her feelings without being overdone. It seems "true" the time period and her entries evolve as she discovers herself and negotiating a relationship with another person who really starts out as almost a stranger. Mattie develops into a woman that does abide by most social conventions of the time but learns to assert herself when needed, especially given the harsh reality of where they live.

This is not a fairy tale and Mattie's life is often difficult and harsh. Her marriage is not always ideal (I don't want to give anything away) and there are Indians to contend to, as well as a lack of many of the conveniences she used to have in her previous life, including medical care.

At one point I was planning on giving this book a negative review as it was making me a little angry as I rooted for Mattie but I learned that it would play out in time and that the story was able to come to a full circle that I was satisfied with. It was realistic and I think the best outcome given the circumstances.

I really recommend this one. Easy read but very insightful. It was really was a sweet read.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Umbrella Stand Flower Bed

You can always add more weight. . . 

Summer preparations continue and this is the latest addition. We recently bought a patio umbrella and the base was to be filled with 190 pounds of wet sand. We managed to get about 100 pounds of sand in based on the weight of the bags we had. The umbrella was not exactly cheap and I was a little nervous when the day after we built it we had a storm with 60 mph gusts of wind. Better safe than sorry, we decided that if we want to secure this a little more and brainstormed what we could do to add to the weight.

I think the base is pretty ugly on its own. Sure it's pretty simple as a black disk but I didn't think it
really lent to the concept of the oasis we are trying to create. Landscape blocks added weight quickly but then we can up with the brilliant idea that we could create a miniature flower bed at the same time.

Now, I know I am rushing the season and perhaps it's not really warm enough to be planting flowers. . . I waited a couple of days and left the flowers inside the house as that storm with 60mph gusts also included some snow. I also picked flowers from the ones that were already outside at Lowe's so they may be hardened a bit. We went with dianthus which, according to some websites, is really a perennial anyways. They are apparently often sold as annuals because aesthetically once they lose their flowers folks seem to pull them out.

The flower bed itself is kind of shallow as we only used one layer of landscape blocks so we will see how these flower fare, especially with knowing they won't bloom all summer long. I already plan that we will rotate some other flowers in throughout the summer to keep it blooming.  We may also use some wildflower seeds to keep it blooming throughout the year. I don't imagine this will last through the winter but only time will tell really.

I won't place a wager but I think this added weight, combined with the sand, will really keep this umbrella secure throughout the season. I can't wait to actually use it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: The Midwife's Confession by Diane Chamberlain

Imagine finding out that you really knew nothing about your friend. . .

When their friend Noelle suddenly commits suicide, two friend begin to unravel the mystery of why she might have done it. They are confronted with the motivations and find out that perhaps it was "suddenly" at all. Looking for reasons they find much more than they had bargained for including an unfinished letter to a mysterious woman named Anna, and the secrets Noelle kept that tore her apart.

Learning that the Noelle who they had always known, a compassionate midwife who had opened up her heart to them and has a passion for helping other, and reconciling her with the secrets that they learn, becomes a journey with long lasting results that impact their lives forever.

I really liked this book and found it interesting as it alternated between the perspectives of Emerson and Tara, the two close friends of Noelle as well as third person past events that provide us a glimpse of Noelle in the past and what events transpired. Other sections of the book bring other voices of characters from their perspective as well.

I have read other books by this author, including The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes and The Lies we Told. Chamberlain tells a good story, with a dramatic flair, without being too melodramatic. Her characters are complex and are often conflicted, and seem true in their portrayal rather than flat. The interaction between characters are always interesting and often events in the stories challenge the characters to make choices that will impact them in the long run in ways that they cannot foresee.

This book does not disappoint either and I would recommend this for an entertaining read.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Book Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

This book is a hard one to review. Think Dance Moms for the Ivy League? Or Perhaps Honey Boo Boo.

The book was interesting in terms of the author's perspective on parenting and her stereotypical descriptions of Chinese parenting vs. Westerner parenting but in the end those are just stereotypes. She made a decision to parent her children in a way that modeled Chinese immigrants although she was born in the United States and is far from living the life of a poor immigrant that she romanticizes in this book. This woman that speaks about that generation being so frugal has no qualms about spending exorbitant amounts of money on vacations and entertaining that I cannot even begin to fathom. At one point she uses the vacation budget to prepare a lavish party to celebrate her daughter's performance at Carnegie Hall which seems to contradict so much of what she is trying to preach in this book.

There is no doubt that her two daughters' successes are related to her pushing them but I have to wonder at what cost. I am shocked that this author would have documented and published some of her interactions with her children. There is no balance. While most of us would like to see our kids succeed and often challenge them to do their best, I don't know any mothers that would shame their children or call them names to do it. Amy Chau repeatedly states that this is the "Chinese Way" and expects better than the best for her children that has to go beyond a cultural convention. An A is not good enough, one has to be the best in everything in her world and I can't imagine that motivation is selfless but more about how it reflects on the author. Her daughters' practice regimes go beyond anything normal, skipping sightseeing on vacation to foreign lands, not eating dinner, performing when ill. It made me very angry for these girls that she claims to love.

I can't help to lump this mother in the category of some of those reality TV shows that as a society we tend to gravitate to. . . is she really that different than Honey Boo Boo's mother or any of those other parents on Toddlers and Tiara's? Yes, maybe because while they often push their kids I can't recall any one of them (in the brief snippets I have seen) calling their kids "fat" or "stupid". This is just a higher class version.

I think I am not recommending this one. While it's well written and an honest self description of the author I can't help but cringe. 

Book Review: Same Kind of Different as Me:

A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together by Ron Hall and Denver Moore

This novel alternates between the voices of Ron and Denver, who on the surface are a different as different can be. Ron is an International Art Dealer who started out with almost nothing and through hard work and luck became a financial success. Denver is a black man who had none of those same opportunities but began his life as a child of sharecroppers in Louisiana and ended up in his journey near a mission in Texas.

Deborah, Ron's wife, is the one who brings them together when she declares that Ron must become friends with Denver who is unapproachable and angry. This is part of the missionary work that she chooses as she decides that both she and Ron will volunteer at the mission.

I should note that I am not Christian and this book has many Christian themes in it as it is written by people that truly believe in Christ and salvation. That being said, I still enjoyed this book and was not put off by the underlying gospel message. I did not find it condescending or a lecture. Simply, this is how the narrators feel and they are sincere in their message. Additionally, they were honest in speaking about times that the lost faith and times that they may have acted less Christian.

I think this book is fascinating and inspiring. Seeing these two men come together and learn to trust each other, and value each other as true friends, made for a good read.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Restaurant Review: Comet Burger

It's a Royal Oak Classic

No frills, just burgers, shakes and all that jazz. . . 

It's Spring Break and there are certain local traditions we partake in when we are out of school and work. Comet Burger is one of them. Many folks go for a conventional milkshake but I really am a fan of Chocolate Coke. Chocolate Coke? Yes, you heard me right. Chocolate syrup added to Coca Cola. It creates this great fizz and there's nothing quite like it. Put it in a classic red coke plastic glass and I'm a sucker!

Of course there are burgers. They are really a larger version of a slider and they are offered up with pickles and steamed onions. Our family is more purist and request plain with cheese. Fries are also an option, as is onion rings but there's a certain young man who lives with us who forgoes all of this for a side of mozzerella sticks.

The burgers are okay in my opinion but I much prefer a grilled cheese. I think that a grilled cheese on a grill that has cooked decades worth of burgers had a wonderful flavor. Nothing fancy here, just white bread in its most synthetic form, along with some American cheese which is probably labeled "cheese product" in all honesty. And honestly, it's delicious! This is a burger joint with stools at a counter. This is not supposed to be a gourmet dish.

I also really like the fried mushrooms which probably come out of a package (I shouldn't say "probably" they of course do. . . ) but because they are deep fried they really border on awesome. Add a side of ranch and it's really all about the mushrooms for me. I could have probably even skipped that grilled cheese.

The decor is 50's diner with an eclectic collection of album covers as wallpaper. This place hasn't been updated in years but I still think it's fun and a great place for a quick meal. I'm looking forward to slightly warmer weather. We can't wait for the two picnic tables to return outside.

Nutting Cart Coffee Table

A Railroad Cart Makes a Great Addition 

Coffee Table Shopping Turns into a Roadie

We were looking for a new coffee table for quite some time. It's an essential element in a home where the majority of meals take place on it as we sit on the couch. I admit that we rarely use a dining room table for a sit down dinner so we were deliberate when we began looking.

It was actually my husband who first mentioned Nutting Carts, or railroad carts for coffee tables, after he had looked for options locally on Craigslist. Most of them were out of our price range as they were finished and already converted but with a little persistence we found a few that were rather cheap. The coffee table mission became an actual roadie and we drove to Clare, Michigan. While this would normally be a two and a half hour drive one way, because of the snow it took closer to four hours. Now, that's commitment for a coffee table!

Our coffee table was actually an "extra" for displays at the local sporting good store. It did require a little bit of work to get this in working order but it was worth it. After cleaning it up we discovered that because of its function, it was designed to tilt with the weight when it was loaded which works for a moving cart but not necessarily for a piece of furniture that you want to put your dish or full glass on, or sometimes your feet! We actually removed the end wheels, pulled the springs and then fixed them permanently in place so they could not slide with screws. I also sanded the top of the piece to remove years of grime while trying to preserve as much of the character as possible and made a decision to stain that part of the table. We did not touch the sides of the table as we decided we wanted to leave the stamping and some of the age of the piece alone. I think that the combination of stain and untouched wood actually added a nice contrast. The stain really brought out some of the imperfections and grain.

I really think it was worth the drive and the little bit of work to have something a little more unique. Of course, now that I have searched this out a little more, I can tell you that it might not be as unusual as I first thought it was and it's important if you do shop for one to look around a bit. We did find that some of these tables that are finished are not really railroad carts but rather copies that folks are building and then distressing. There are even do it yourself instructions to make them. Also not all of these carts have the same dimensions, and if you are going to take a road trip you may want to check measurements first. Some of them are really low to the ground and may not be suitable for your purposes especially if you are eating off these and don't want to hunch over.

Now this wouldn't be my blog without a food reference, although the fact that we use this table for eating may suffice. . . No roadie would be complete without a food adventure too and in Clare, Michigan there is Cops and Doughnuts which can be a destination for a foodie all by itself. The bakery was bought by the local police officers when it was about to close and has wonderful treats (bacon doughnut, mini fruit pies, bread that smells like donuts) as well as some touristy items to purchase. The kids enjoyed taking mug shots. If you are out that way, think of this as your public service announcement. I should say that the kids ask when we are going back and it's because of the bread I used for their sandwiches that week rather than the doughnuts.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cheesy Shrimp Dip and Blue Corn Tortilla Chips

It's Time to Experiment with Small Plate Treats!

The weather is getting warmer and I want to be ready for eating and entertaining on the deck. While it's not quite hot enough today to me to sit outside there without physical activity to keep warm, we are getting ready.

I decided to try this Paula Deen recipe for cheesy shrimp dip I found on Pinterest. Of course there had to be a few changes (less red pepper as I live with carnivores, no green onion at all) but for the most part we stayed true to the original post. I did use frozen shrimp, jumbo red ones, from Trader Joe's as I didn't want to search for fresh ones. We also used blue corn tortilla chips instead of crackers which we get at Trader Joe's.

I do think next time I make this I'm going to add a little heat, with a couple doses of Siracha!

Here is the recipe as we made it:


Cheesy Shrimp Dip 


1/2 stick of butter
1/3 cup chopped fresh red bell pepper
1 tsp of chopped shallots
1 pound frozen jumbo shrimp, thawed and drained, then chopped
1 cup sour cream
1 cup shredded mozeralla cheese
1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
Salt and Pepper to taste
Blue Corn Tortilla Chips


Melt butter in large saute pan and add bell peppers and shallots. Saute for about 3-4 minutes. Add shrimp to pan and cook until pink.

Add sour cream and cheeses and stir until melted. Place in a casserole or over proof dish and put in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes, until the cheese begins to brown and bubble.

Serve with chips.

Friday, April 4, 2014

One Small Change

No, it's nothing noble but rather just a toilet seat. I just think it makes all the difference.

I haven't typically posted home photos unless they related to food but this might be a public service announcement for those with boring white toilets. You see, when we moved in, our toilet also suffered from the doldroms. An all white toilet standing like a big blob in the bathroom. The toilet seat was old and hard to clean, scratched from efforts in the past, and was just gross. We needed a new one but I thought a black one would be better, especially with the black trim in the bathroom.

I envisioned the old retro look of an elementary school bathroom but found out that those toilet seats, the ones that don't make a complete circle, did not come with a lid. A google search did not reveal any real examples of people who had made this switch so I just did it.

It's actually kind of hard to find a black toilet seat. You can't find them at the local big box stores in stock. Visiting a local specialty plumbing supply I found out I could get one but I would be paying close to a 100 dollars. Amazon however had quite a few varieties including the one we chose. I suppose in the world of toilet seats, this one is pretty deluxe. It has a whisper quiet feature that you cannot physically slam it. It also features a special mounting that I can life the whole thing up off the toilet to clean so there's nothing stuck in the hinges.

Posting this so I can pin it for others!