Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Compost: The Natural Way to Make Food for Your Garden

This may seem like an odd book to spend time with. After all, how much can one possibly write on the subject of compost? You’d be surprised. I’ve toyed around with the idea of a compost pile for a while. There was even one very short-lived attempt at it. Let’s just say climbing into a pit of smelly waste with a pitchfork to turn all of it was not top of my to-do list. But now with a better garden than I’ve ever had before, and plans to expand, I decided it was something I needed to think about again, with the hope of finding an easier way of doing it. Really, with the amount of waste the average household can produce between the house and yard, there should be more than enough material to work with and make a success out of composting. But how to accomplish that?

Compost by Ken Thompson is the best and most simplified explanation of the process I could ever have hoped for. Many nonfiction books on topics like this read as though they were written by some grand horticultural scientist sitting in his state-of-the-art conservatory, judging all other gardens like his own. This was nothing like that. This was much more like an average (though knowledgeable) gardener sharing what he knows with other average (though less knowledgeable) gardeners.

It is not an instruction book so much as a guide. He manages to explain the biological processes that take place in a compost pile in a very simple and thorough way, while even managing to make it appealing. After outlining conventional composting advice, Thompson takes it apart element by element showing how it sets you up to fail from the beginning. But he doesn’t stop there. He explains what does work, and several ways of accomplishing happy results.

Whether you have lots of kitchen waster, garden waste, prunings, etc., he has advice and clear instructions on what to do with all of it. He factors for different budgets and personalities having different abilities or styles. Purchased compost bins, DIY bins, and open piles are all laid out, explained, and the reader is shown how they can make any of them work best for them and their particular situation.

Aside from the content, this is also just a beautiful little book. Thick, rich paper, every page a different color/pattern, lovely full-color photographs every couple pages, the whole presentation makes composting exciting…as nerdy as that sounds.

I don’t consider myself an ecologist, a greenie, a “crunchy”-anything, or any other popular term for naturalists. However, the idea of composting is something that can appeal to every gardener. Who doesn’t like taking something they would throw away and turning it into something useful, and something that can, in the long run, save you money? As Thompson says:

Most waste is incinerated or ends up in a landfill, yet about half of all household waste could be composted. At the same time, every year gardeners around the world buy millions of tons of growing media, soil conditioners, and mulching materials…A high proportion of this could be replaced, free of charge, if gardeners started recycling what they now simply throw away.

This book is an excellent introduction to the composting process. It is very thorough without being overwhelmingly scientific, preachy, or obnoxiously tree-huggy. If you think composting is too hard to bother with, but it still sounds interesting, or if you’ve tried and failed badly in the past, or if, like me, you want to start, but you aren’t sure where to turn first, definitely give this book a try. If nothing else it is very beautiful to look at.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

It took me awhile to decide whether Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses annoyed me and was insignificant, or offended me and was worthy of a tirade. I decided on the latter, although I will try to control the tirade. Dark fairy tales and fairy tale retellings are some of my favorite things to read. I’ve gotten away from them for a while, and was looking forward to this book as a return, and that it was in verse, was supposedly a bonus. I was sadly disappointed.

I know I’ve mentioned before that I love poetry. Whatever this was it wasn’t poetry. There has always been much dispute over what constitutes true poetry, and it’s a debate I don’t really like to get into, so I’ll only say this: to me poetry is one of the highest forms of language, it requires discipline and skill, it elevates thought, and it makes a kind of music that is all its own, whether it rhymes or not, whether it was a rigidly structured meter or not. I’m not one of those people that feels it’s only poetry if it’s rhymed and metered, but I do feel that all these “rules” of poetry above should apply to free verse as well. It should have kind of hum and feel about it, something you can almost taste and say, “Yes, that is obviously poetry,” even if it’s unrhymed, unmetered free verse.

This book had very little about it that to me qualified as poetry. Even by the rules of prose the language was crass and common, the structure and wording was amateurish and cheap. The whole writing style was extremely harsh, rough-draft-ish and grated on me terribly by the end, even though it’s only 88 pages long. Going simply by the writing style, this was written on a very immature, middle-grade level – not even good middle grade. As you’ll see, there’s a problem that keeps it from being truly middle-grade. But leaving aside the style, it was the content that truly offended me.

Classic “un-Disneyfied” fairy tales have always been dark, and yes, even adult. The farther back you go, the more adult they become. Even Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen cleaned them up and lightened them for a younger audience. However there is a difference between being dark, and being unnecessarily vulgar, sexual, and morally repugnant.

I should have seen it coming, just from reading the reviews on the back of the book. The critics used phrases such as “subversive, post-modernized”, “the best antidote I know to the sanctimonious sanitizing of fairy tales”, [it has a] “scent, stench, fragrance”, “a wicked send-up of nursery tale morality”. I happen to agree with most of these statements. The only difference is, they mean them as compliments, and I very much do not.

I like dark, “unsanitized” fairy tales. (READ: the originals). I like the dark retellings. To the serious fairy tale reader: you can do so much better than this book. The entire point of this book was to shock and appear oh-so edgy and avant-garde. Virtually every story in this book is full of glorification of sexual deviancy and extreme violence, including self-violence, incest, affairs, lesbian incest, etc. Ogres, wolves and the like are portrayed in sympathetic light, while admitting the horrible evil they had committed. This was not so much a retelling as a corruption and destruction of the originals.

To me the best part of this book was the silhouette-style illustrations by Andrea Dezs√∂. Once you subtract title pages and illustrations from this 88-paged book, you average less than two pages for each of the 23 stories, and honestly I didn’t have a problem with that. I would rather look at the illustrations than read the actual book. Yes, they were dark, and sometimes violent, but they were still infinitely better than the contents of the stories. Really, it’s a miracle I read the whole book. I probably shouldn’t have, but because it was so short, the pain was over quickly.
I cannot think of anyone I would recommend this book to. To the contrary I would try very hard to recommend other, better stories, some of which I hope to revisit in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

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To my readers, I'm sorry had to this. I would have tried to do something a little more subtle, but adding this header was the only way BlogLovin' would allow me to claim my blog. Thank you for your indulgence.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Full disclosure: The Magician’s Nephew was not and probably never will be among my favorites of The Chronicles of Narnia. With that out of the way, I have to say it was pretty enjoyable, and my issues with it are more of a personal nature, than anything wrong with the story itself. For some reason, while I do enjoy character origin stories (which this book did sort of involve, but no spoilers here), I don’t tend to like prequels that go so far back that it wipes out the world I love. Something about going back in time to a point before anything I’ve come to know as a reader, going back to a point where I have nothing familiar that I care about is just not very comfortable reading for me. The first time I noticed that in myself, I was about eleven, and it was the origin story for The Indian in the Cupboard. I don’t remember the story, or even the title of the book, but the story explained where the cupboard came from and how it got its magic, and I remember it greatly disturbed me. This felt very much like that.

Digory, a young boy living with his bachelor uncle and spinster aunt, finds himself and his best friend, the girl next door, Polly caught up in his uncle’s magical experiments and swept back and forth between several different worlds. Digory foolishly wakes up an evil witch, and in the attempt to keep her out of his own world, he and Polly, the Witch and Uncle Andrew witness Aslan creating Narnia. Unfortunately, the Witch’s presence introduces evil into the virgin land even before it has really had a chance to exist, and Digory must take fruit from a very special forbidden tree. Take the fruit to plant it for Narnia’s protection, not for his own use or enjoyment, or even for his sick mother, though it could save her life.

This section, involving the fruit of the tree, was the most interesting part of the story to me. So often we think we can do something very good for someone. We may think we know better than God, even if we won’t say it in so many words. But the only way to truly do good, is His way, whether we think so or not, whether we believe it at first or not.

I don’t regret reading it, but I’m also very glad I didn’t start out with it. Many people say you must start with this one. I can’t agree, just on a personal level. I will probably read it during each of my read-throughs or Narnia, but I can’t promise. I will read it again, I’m sure. Maybe not as much as the others though. Passages like this make it worth it:

Both the children were looking up into the Lion’s face as he spoke…And all at once (they never knew how exactly how it happened) the face seemed to be sea of tossing gold in which they were floating, and such a sweetness and power rolled about them and over them and entered into them that they felt they had never been happy or wise or good, or even alive and awake, before. And the memory of that moment stayed with them always, so that as long as they both lived, if ever they were sad or afraid or angry, the thought of all that golden goodness, and the feeling that is was still there, quite close, just round some corner or just behind some door, would come back and make them sure, deep down inside, that all was well.

Now because I began with a full disclosure, I’m ending with one. I’m stalling on reading The Last Battle. It’s partly because I know spoilers that sound very sad, but mainly because the whole LAST thing doesn’t sound very fun. I don’t like endings, goodbyes, or last things. I prefer my ending left slightly open so I can imagine everything continuing perfectly. But that said, I have started it, and it’s very interesting so far. I’m just a little afraid. I’m quite excited about my next round of books though, so I’m making myself finish this first. A little incentive never hurt anyone. So, hopefully, next Tuesday will bring a review of The Last Battle.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Manic Monday X

This post is both a small review of the last week (or weeks rather, since I haven’t been writing much lately) but also a bit of an ‘upcoming’ prediction. I feel like I owe my readers an apology for not writing as much lately. I don’t really have any excuses, except to say that sometimes other things in life take precedence. Lately there have been an awful lot of those ‘other things.’

So. Review. The last few weeks have been HOT HOT HOT, but have also brought much-needed rain to SoCal. And I have to admit, we probably don’t have much to complain about considering that on the weather map, Texas was labeled “Unrelenting Heat.” Even with all the heat though, my garden is flourishing. I did indeed get an 11-jar batch of salsa done as I hoped to. And when our back-up freezer over-iced, conked out, and thawed all its contents I also found myself with about 14 pounds of thawed cranberries…not really. But there were a lot. So I experimented. I canned homemade cranberry sauce! Not, I am not a particularly adventurous person, and it sounded intimidating at first, but I found an official Ball brand recipe that had only three ingredients. Can’t ask for much more than that. And if I do say so myself, it was so yummy it made me want to cry.

On the scheduling front, I am finally starting to get things a bit more figured out. And this is important to Close to Heart & Home, because hopefully I will begin finding the time to write more regularly. Sister-in-law #2 gave me an incredible book a few years ago called Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson, and her weekly/monthly/semi-annual/annual cleaning lists have proved invaluable. While I didn’t just rip them straight out of the book so to speak, they were a helpful base to begin with and to makeover for my own home. That plus an old yearly planner that I could practice writing the schedule in before settling on one made the whole process much more palatable.

Brother #3 has also recently become a self-admitted Potterhead. Between that and his recent trip to Florida which of course involved two days at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the house is overrun with Harry Potter merchandise and projects. On the merchandise front are chocolate frogs (much larger than they appear in the films) and my own special pet Pigmy Puff, pumpkin juice, a wand, and other such wonderful nerdishness. On the project front we have tried several experiment rounds of Butterbeer, and finally hit on the most authentic combination. (Hint: the trick is to use a bit of extra salt). With all of this going around, when I saw The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook by Dinah Bucholz (which looked very official) at the library, I had to pick it up. While it’s not exactly a substitute for being able to visit the park and buy the “real” thing, many of the recipes are very fun and straight from the series of books. It would be especially fun for kids just starting on their Hogwarts journey.

Now, as far as what will (hopefully) be coming up soon on CTH&H. Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite holiday is Christmas. But it’s a lesser known fact that my second favorite holiday is Halloween. Fall weather, candles, pumpkin and spice, Jack-o-Lanterns, costumes, candy, scary movies…it’s all so perfect. This year, I’m going to try something I’ve never done before. I’m going to immerse myself in books to set up the Halloween mood leading up to October 31st. Heaven knows I have enough appropriate choices on my to-read list. Why not pull them out now, at the perfect time! So as far as upcoming book reviews, expect, the last of Narnia, a very small amount of true horror, a larger number of ghost stories, a few dark-and-stormy-night type mysteries (think And Then There Were None), and a handful of fairytales. On the non-fiction front, Pencil Dancing is on my list after seeing another blogger’s posts inspired by it, but also Compost by Ken Thompson and any visual encyclopedia-type books on style and fashion terms that I can find (although that has proven challenging),

Apart from books, I’m also planning on traveling a bit next month, both near and far, so I’m hoping to do a few posts on trips from the Reagan Library, to the legendary Last Bookstore, to the Pacific Northwest. I hope you’ll be ‘traveling’ with me.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

For some reason (I’m not sure why) The Horse and His Boy was not on my radar as one I would particularly enjoy. I have a dim memory of one of my brothers not liking it much, but I couldn’t very well skip it, now could I? And now, knowing what I do, I would never have forgiven myself if I had.

I think the most off-putting thing at first is the fact that the lead character is not a Pevensie, or even the relative of a Pevensie. But Shasta is a hero in his own right. The slave-son of a poor fisherman, Shasta sets off on a grand adventure to flee to Narnia and escape his country of Calormen with Bree, a talking Narnian horse. Another escapee and her talking Narnian horse join them on the way. Each of the four traveling companions has their own flaws and strengths. Each has to learn how to cooperate and “play well” with the others, often in the face of impossible circumstances. The teamwork their journey requires brings about a level of character growth that stands out even from the other Narnia books.

While on the surface the plot sounds a bit thin (simply leaving their country doesn’t sound that interesting), the setting and background plots were what really grabbed me. Calormen is frequently talked about in the other Narnia books, and at least you get to visit it. Lewis built quite a beautiful country, though it is a sharp contrast to Narnia – a pagan desert land, ruled by Tisrocs and Tarkaans (this land’s version of sheikhs and sultans), reigning in magnificent palaces while their people live in squalor.

Add to the setting a conspiracy against the Narnian kings and queens, the Pevensies, a plot to force Queen Susan to marry against her will, and the possibility of a three-nation war, and I found myself glued to this book.

As with the other Narnia books, I saved a few of my favorite quotes, some meaningful, some simply comical.

Natural affection is stronger than soup and offspring more precious than carbuncles.

…In Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a things you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.

Strong hands wrenched [his] sword from him and he was carried away into the castle, shouting, threatening, cursing, and even crying. For though he could have faced torture he couldn’t bear being made ridiculous.

…Draw near. Nearer still…Do not dare not to dare.

Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.

I have to say, that last quote may be my all-time favorite variation on “and they all lived happily ever after.”

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis

This was the first book on my most recent read-through of The Chronicles of Narnia that I had never read before. That was a bit of a special treat I was looking forward to. Reading any of the Narnia books for the first time is always an adventure, and this did not disappoint.

The Silver Chair brings back Eustace Clarence Scrubb and introduces a new character, Jill Poole. Jill and Eustace are sent on a quest to find the missing prince and return him his rightful place in Narnia. Dozens of heroes have gone out on the same quest, and none have ever returned, so what hope do Jill and Eustace, two children have? That would be Aslan. Aslan has sent them out and given them five simple (or seemingly simple) instructions for the journey.

Silver Chair tied with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for second place on my list of favorite Narnia books. Like Dawn Treader, it is pure, quest-style adventure. But I have to say, it is quite a bit darker than Dawn Treader. From cannibalism to bewitchments to a hell-like abyss descending into the fiery depths below Narnia, I would consider it for a slightly more mature audience than the earlier books in the series.

I loved Jill. She seemed to be a very well-developed character, and as much as I liked Susan and Lucy, and even though they will always be the classics, Jill earned her place next to them. More adventurous than Susan, yet more flawed than Lucy, Jill truly is her own character, and had elements I think a variety of people could identify with.

But oddly enough, my favorite character was the Marsh-wiggle Puddleglum. Or perhaps that’s not odd at all considering Reepicheep, Mr. Tumnus, and all the other ‘secondary’ characters that steal the show for me. Puddleglum is a sad, depressed creature, who truly believes he is flighty and unserious. He becomes the children’s guide, and frequently also fulfills the role of their conscience, Jiminy Cricket style. Beyond all that though, for some reason I just found him adorable and hilarious…I guess I’m just weird like that.

As with the other Narnia books I collected my favorite quotes. This time, almost all of them came from Aslan.

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,” said the Lion.

This quote was particularly poignant to me. It seemed like a rephrasing of John 15:16: “You did not choose me but I chose you…” Jill’s folly was in thinking she somehow had power over Aslan, and that she had summoned him, not vice versa. Silly human, thinking she had power over the Great Lion.

“…remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

Aslan always gives his laborers the warnings, information and help they need. Whether they remember it and use it or not though, is another matter. Yes, the air is thick and clouds the mind. They even faced enchantments leading them into overpowering unbelief. But they always had the signs and promises of Aslan, if only they would remember then. And yet even when they forget them and are full of shame and regret, he has words of comfort:

“Think of that no more. I will not always be scolding. You have done the work for which I sent you into Narnia.”

Aslan is always forgiving. Sometimes he rebukes and punishes, but he always forgives those who care to be forgiven. Really, in the end, Aslan is why I feel I will be rereading this series many times.

And just to end on a light note, two quotes that made laugh quite hard when I read them.

“Where I come from,” said Jill…, “they don’t think much of men who are bossed about by their wives.”

“Shalt think otherwise when thou hast a man of thine own, I warrant you,” said the Knight…