Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Family Man

Goodness, I just mentioned my friend Jane and her prowess at book recommendations and she's gone and done it again with Elinor Lipman's The Family Man! I love Elinor Lipman and have done since reading her very first novel, Then She Found Me, way back in 1990. Then, a few novels later, she went off the rails and we went our separate ways, during which time she wrote this little gem, which has endeared her to me all over again.

Aren't good books such a double-edged sword? On the one hand, how marvellous to find a book so great that the world simply drops away while you immerse yourself completely in it. On the other hand, it means that you speed-read your way through and are done in two days, and are left missing the characters and the world you have been inhabiting with them, basically at the expense of all else! This is where I now find myself. Lipman creates such wonderful characters; they really are people you want to hang out with.

This book revolves around Henry and he's a treat — with a quiet life that's not destined to stay that way for long. His past becomes his present, and his future, in all manner of ways and it is an undeniable pleasure to be a spectator for all the events that follow. It's set in New York City and has the whole host of characters you'd expect. Lipman has filled them all with humanity and heart. When Henry, gay and lonely, is reunited with Thalia, his estranged step-daughter things certainly get interesting.

Lipman is a genius at witty, intelligent dialogue and her observation skills are second to none. She reminds me of Nora Ephron, but with a voice that is very much her own. She specializes in relationship studies and this one features those between Henry and his step-daughter, ex-wife, therapist, new boyfriend, his step-daughter's boyfriends…and all are beautifully painted. It is a perfectly executed and enjoyably uplifting tale and I am sad to say goodbye. I guess I will have to dig around to see if there's anything else I missed or just hope that she's working on something new. If I'm really lucky, it will be a sequel!

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Comfort of Chimes

I live near a church and every time it chimes the quarter-hour, it takes me back to my grandparents' house on the shores of Lake Erie. They had an old-fashioned, chiming clock on their mantelpiece above the fire. I have such distinct memories of lying in my bed there, reading late at night, and listening to that clock. It made me feel safe and anchored. My grandfather built that house from scratch and nothing ever changed the whole time they lived there.

Every time we visited (usually twice a year as children), my brother and I would run to each room and check that everything was the same: puzzles and games in the cupboard under the fish tank, the old piano (always hopelessly out of tune) right where we left it in the corner of the basement in between my grandfather's workshop and my grandmother's laundry room. A quick peek in the tall, shallow cupboards that lined the walls revealed shelf after shelf of tins and jars of food Grandma had stockpiled or canned herself: peaches, pickles, jam, apple butter, beans….

And, finally, I always went and sat in the garage for a few minutes on my own, just to sink into that familiar smell of wood shavings, gasoline, grass clippings, autumn leaves and that slightly musty smell of things that have been stored for decades. Everything was so blissfully familiar. I had a lot of upheaval after we packed up and moved continents in my childhood, so being able to go to that house that forever stayed the same, which housed two people I loved beyond measure, was supremely reassuring.

Is there any sight, smell or sound that takes you back to a particularly peaceful or happy time? How can you incorporate it into your daily experience? Maybe burning a cinnamon candle to remind you of eating cinnamon toast on cold, snowy mornings or planting a scented rose bush to remind you of visits to your favourite aunt's house or a framed, photo montage of things that make you smile. Anything that will trigger a pause and a happy thought will do. It's a nice ritual to sneak into a busy life.

All the feelings of love, peace and security that I associate with my grandparents rush back each time there is enough of a lull in the city din for me to hear those church bells. I listen out for them now and when I hear them, I pause and am grateful for the comfort their chimes bring.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Best Eye Gel Yet!

I am on a perpetual search for an eye cream or gel that can tackle the serious visual effect of exhaustion around my eyes that my heart challenge produces. Having gotten the worst of my physical symptoms on the run, mostly what I struggle with now is my endless need for rest. As a full-time mom, I never get as much as I need and it shows, so it was even sweeter to receive REN's Active 7 Radiant Eye Gel from my eldest daughter for my birthday.

It seems like 10 minutes ago that she was smiling up at me from her crib and now she is a fully fledged teenager, buying me "product" that she has discovered herself! She hit the teen phase of "Make-Up" with a vengeance and our house was starting to resemble an independent pharmacy til I put my foot down and we learned the lesson of quality over quantity. I am happy to report that she is a quick study and not only did she take that lesson on board, but she has also indulged my love of organics and whenever possible (well, what teen can resist the latest fun and functional offering from Benefit?!) she researches and buys natural products. Bless her!

And this REN eye gel is a serious credit to her ability to sniff out the good stuff. It has a silky, featherlight texture that goes on smooth and sinks in quick, leaving the eye area feeling soft and moisturized, and looking better by the day. I am only on my first week of usage, but it has made more difference than any other product I have tried in the past two years… and there have been too many to count! The puffiness is gone, the dark circles are on the wane and the whole area looks somehow "younger" than it has done for a long, long time. I am eternally grateful to her for this clever buy, and very happy to have a new partner in crime on the product front!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Book For Girls: 5-8

When I was looking through my daughter's shelves for books in the 7-11 category, I kept coming across really great reads for 5-8s, so here's a little round-up for those of you looking for something in that range. This is such a special time, when kids start to read independently and discover whole new worlds for themselves. It reminded me of the books I started out with and how the characters have stayed with me all my life. It's a little miracle, in a way, that authors can create these very real worlds for us to inhabit as we grow through all the different stages of life. They help to shape our way of viewing the world, help to explain things we might not yet be confident enough to ask about and provide friendships that we share with ourselves. What a gift!

Both my girls fell hard for Judy Moody (as did, it seems, most of their generation!). She is a terrific character and one that all kids can relate to. She is spunky and slightly mischievous, but with a big heart and enough foibles to always remain likeable. There are a lot of these books and they are very reader-friendly, so if your daughter likes Judy, she will have many adventures to look forward to.

Another character that almost all our daughters encountered in their picture-book days is Fancy Nancy. She was Fancy, with a capital "F", but also clever and curious and adventurous. She and her best friend Bree are super creative and the illustrations that accompany the text are superb: very detailed for little eyes to pore over and beautifully colourful. I was sad when my Reluctant Reader outgrew this series and was over the moon to discover that Jane O'Connor had moved her character along into chapter books. I was really struggling at that stage to find titles that were easy enough for my daughter to read, but also engaging enough to keep her interested. Nancy Clancy fit the bill perfectly, and my daughter was excited to be able to revisit one of her favourite characters, but in a more "grown-up" format. This one is a win-win!

We were on holiday in California a few years ago when our dear friend Karyn took us to an amazing little independent bookshop in Lafayette called The Storyteller. My daughter was immediately swooped up by the owner and together they delved into some US titles that we were unfamiliar with. Ivy and Bean was her favourite find of that day. While Ivy is the good girl character, and her best friend Bean is the less predictable one, they both share enough of the other one's qualities to not end up as stereotypes. The level of detail here is one of the main draws, allowing younger readers to really picture the adventures they are reading about. Again, this is the first in a long series, so lots to build on here if your daughter clicks with these two lively, realistic characters.

If there are any other moms out there who are around my age (44 this week!), you will already be more than familiar with Ramona! I loved Ramona growing up. It was so amazing to me that there was a "naughty" character in a book! And poor Ramona isn't really naughty, of course, she is just extremely individual and high-spirited, like soooo many kids, so this was a reassuring discovery. No matter what scrapes she got into (and there were plenty), her family still loved her and made sure she understood how things worked for next time.

It was great to revisit these stories as "the mom" and see them from a whole new perspective. One night I heard wild howls of laughter coming from my daughters' room. My husband was reading out loud to the two of them and had changed the names of the main characters (Ramona and her bossy big sister Beezus) to the names of our daughters, which was hysterical because their personalities are a very good match and they loved hearing "themselves" acting out the goings-on in the book! Clever man!

And last, but certainly not least, is Clementine, another character in the same vein, but with a personality all her own. She lives in an apartment block in New York City, as the daughter of the porter, so there is a hint of Eloise at the Plaza, but this is a modern tale and Clementine is never deliberately naughty. Her behaviour is more in keeping with Ramona; she finds the world a little bewildering as she sees things a little differently from everyone else. Her dad is brilliantly realized and it's nice to see a male parent taking centre stage. Her mother is an artist and also figures prominently, but Clementine and her dad have a special bond that is quite common for this age group in real life, so I thought that was a clever addition here. We have a whole collection of these in hardback as my daughter couldn't wait for the paperbacks to come out! A very good sign!

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Wonders of Coconut Oil

Really, the question is: is there anything virgin coconut oil is not good for? The more I read about this stuff, the better it gets! My mother, who is always ahead of the curve, has been singing its praises for several years now and, finally, it seems the word is spreading. I was desperately looking for a way to help a good friend with bad feet. His unidentified condition sits somewhere between eczema and athlete's foot and conventional treatments have not helped. As I was casting around for a solution, my eye fell upon a little book called Virgin Coconut Oil by Dr Bruce Fife that my mother had bought me last year, so I had a quick flick through to see if any help lay within.

Dr Fife is also (respectfully!) known as "Dr Coconut" and for good reason. He is evangelical about virgin coconut oil and after having read the book, I can see why! Virgin coconut oil possesses the holy triumvirate of antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, so no matter what you are trying to treat, virgin coconut oil will most likely help. In the Philippines, they call it the "drugstore in a bottle".

Here are just a few things that it will help with: digestive problems, nutritional deficiencies, weight loss, skin rejuvenation, yeast infections, high blood pressure, cold sores, pain reduction, rosacea, dental health, Alzheimer's, eczema, parasites, boosted energy levels, epilepsy, healthy skin and hair, inflammation, immune system function, improved cholesterol ratio, chronic fatigue syndrome, kidney stones, thyroid function, preventing cancer, diabetes and heart disease…. I could go on and on, but you can read more on its uses and benefits, as well as all the scientific stuff, at the Coconut Research Center.

It can also be used topically as a beauty aid. My mother ditched her regular skin creams a while back and has been applying neat virgin coconut oil to her face and body ever since. I think she won't mind me telling you that while she is in her late 60s, she has the skin (and good health) of a woman at least 20 years younger. She is beautiful inside and out, as well as being hugely inspirational, full of curiosity and blessed with wisdom (these are her own traits, not derived from the coconut oil!) and I am so lucky to be the beneficiary of all of these qualities. She actually looks younger than I do in the picture below, but I will be gracious and share it anyway!

Now, back to my good friend with the bad feet. I suggested he clean them with some colloidal silver first and then apply the virgin coconut oil directly to the raw and blistered skin as often as he could throughout the day. Within hours, he reported an improvement. The pain and infection were both gone by the next morning and he was able to wear shoes without wincing for the first time in a week. And at the end of Day 5, the skin is almost completely healed. There are no known side-effects to using virgin coconut oil (unless, of course, you are allergic to coconuts!), so if you have a condition that you would like to heal, why not go ahead and give it a try!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Eating Seasonably: November

Oh, dear, we are now halfway through November and have we been eating seasonably? Well, no, not exactly. We have been eating lots of healthy, home-cooked meals, but I'm afraid my energy levels did not stretch to experimenting with lots of new seasonal vegetables. However, all is not lost: we have simply added October's edibles to November's list. Much of the autumn/winter veg overlaps by a good few months anyway, so we are still in the game! For November, we have: red cabbage, Jerusalem artichokes, clementines, pomegranate, chestnut, quince and potatoes. I made a beautiful potato dauphinoise on Sunday night, but forgot to take a picture, so you will just have to take my word on that one!

You will also have to forgive me for cheating slightly on the chestnut and quince. Now, I am all for going back to basics, but I do not have the energy for making quince paste from scratch just now. I still wanted to enter into the spirit of things, though, as well as introduce my daughters to this tasty delicacy, so I have bought a pot to support the lovely people who are making good use of these extraordinary fruits. I like mine with a bit of Manchego cheese, and possibly a biscuit….

The chestnuts, too, are pre-prepared and I am thinking chocolate-chestnut cake. I realize this doesn't overly highlight the chestnuts, but really, who doesn't think "cake" at the beginning of any new venture?

And, finally, I am sure most of you are aware of the Jerusalem artichoke's fearsome reputation for giving people wind, so I thought I'd try a recipe I came across recently that makes crisps out of them! I will, of course, let you know how we get on with all of these wonderful, seasonal goodies, but do bear with me if I don't manage it by December 1st!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Georgette Heyer

I absolutely love Georgette Heyer. I was introduced to her a few years ago by one of my dearest and most erudite friends (and fellow bookworm), Jane, who told me most emphatically that I must read her, and I always, always read whatever Jane tells me to for she is never wrong! In fact, she was shocked that I wasn't already a fellow fan. (Shh, don't tell her, but I had never even heard of Georgette Heyer at that point and when I perused a few of her books at the bookstore I could not fathom what all the fuss was about!)

However, from the very first paragraph of Lady of Quality I was hooked. I finished one chapter and was unable to stop myself from starting the next. The truth is they are the most guilty pleasure: a feisty damsel and a roguish anti-hero, whom you know from the outset will end up together, but the journey to get there is not to be missed. Heyer excels at pacing and is the high mistress of linguistic sparring, and I love all the Regency details; rather bizarrely, as its not "my era" at all.

I really cannot beseech you strongly enough to indulge in one of her stories — any of them! Most recently, I was kept up late at night by These Old Shades, which is as good a starting point as any. All of her books are tremendously well-observed, sharply witty and desperately romantic. The perfect antidote to almost any of life's maladies. When you are in the mood, there's really nothing better. As India Knight says, "They are triumphantly good!" Indeed they are!

Friday, 8 November 2013

Books for Girls: 7-11

I worked in publishing for a decade, the last few years editing children's books (which I loved!), so when I got pregnant you know I was hoping to share my love of books (and huge library!) with my first-born. Luckily for me, she too was a bookworm. However, when her little sister came along a few years later, I found myself with what can best be described as a Reluctant Reader.

Not being quite able to accept that there are people on this earth who don't love books as much as I do, I made it my mission to try to dig out titles that would win her over. We've had varying degrees of success and I'm sure there are those of you out there with the same dilemma (judging by how many times I've been asked for recommendations!), so here's a little round-up of some our recent successes. Depending on the kid, these books would probably be most suitable for the 7-11 age range, and all have strong boy characters too. I think they would be enjoyed by both boys and girls, but as I only have girls, I can't vouch for that!

Our all-time favourite: The Whizz-Pop Chocolate Shop by Kate Saunders. (And, joy of joys, we just discovered the sequel, The Curse of the Chocolate Phoenix, two days ago and are already on Chapter 4: hurrah for Kate Saunders!)

These books follow the adventures of London twins Lily and Oz. Their father's ancestors were famous chocolate-makers as well as clever sorcerers and when they move into the old family home (with the old, boarded-up chocolate shop downstairs), Lily and Oz find themselves drafted in by the SMU (Secret Ministry of the Unexplained) to help uncover a plot to steal an old recipe for some very magical and very dangerous chocolate. The plot is fast-paced, but easy to follow, with likeable characters and fantastical settings. Saunders writes with wit and charm and is great at building suspense. We had trouble stopping at bedtime each night, and that is about as good a recommendation as I can give! These stories also lend themselves perfectly to being read out loud.

We are also huge fans of Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series. When the girls were younger, I read the entire series (all 12 books!) to them out loud. It took us a year, but we were all a little bereft when we finished the last one, although I think I was the only one who cried! Ha! So, I was happy to discover a modern writer writing in the same vein. Helen Moss has really captured the Blyton spirit of adventure in her Adventure Island series. We started with The Mystery of the Whistling Caves and if you like this exciting tale of stolen treasure in Cornwall, there are 11 others (with more on the way) to gobble up.

Both my daughters have always loved history and so The Mystery of Wickworth Manor by Elen Caldecott ticked an extra box there. It is set in the present day and follows Paige and Curtis, who are on a school trip to a stately home. Curtis finds an old portrait in the attic and he and Paige have to put aside their differences if they want to solve the mystery of who the boy in the painting is and why his story has been kept a secret for over 200 years. Caldecott manages to deftly weave the history of the slave trade into a story that also tackles how it feels to be at the cusp of moving from primary to secondary school. She writes engagingly on issues that kids worry about, and her characters feel genuine.

My final offering for today is in a slightly different vein, but one that might just get your child reading. They are calling them graphic novels now, but for all intents and purposes, they are cartoons! I am a huge fan of anything that gets a kid to open a book and am not remotely snobby about what they read. I figure as long as they are reading something, that something will lead to another something and they will find their own way into the rich world of literature.

Jimmy Gownley's Amelia Rules! series is "highly recommended for all ages" by the Library Journal and judging by the wide age-span of kids that have told me they love Amelia, I have to agree. Here's what the critics are saying about them:  "delightfully drawn", "comic genius", "full of heartbreak, humor and high drama", "honest" and "poignant" as well as "side-splittingly hilarious". These are all-encompassing tales of what it's really like to be a kid nowadays. What can I add, but "Buy them!"

That's it for today, but I have another whole round-up for this age group to come, which I'll publish before Christmas in case you need some good gift ideas, as well as some suggestions for the 5-8 age group. And if you have any books that your kids loved, I'd love to hear about them!

Friday, 1 November 2013


I have been focused on authenticity for a few months now and it has thrown up many interesting things. One of which is simplicity. It's a concept that's been bubbling around in my mind for a while now, but I haven't been able to quite put my finger on what it means to me. So, after two weeks of activity with my girls over half term, I climbed back into bed today with a copy of The Simple Things (and, no, the irony is not lost on me!). I love this magazine and suggest you go and get yourself a subscription as soon as you finish here!!

Jennifer Kavanagh sums up simplicity in Issue 15 perfectly: "But what does simplicity mean when it's applied to our own daily lives? When we strip away the unnecessary, the extraneous, we become more truly who we are, and as such we reveal the potential we were born to express.

What's the point of simplicity? If in simplifying our lives we're stripping away the inessentials, then the real questions are: What's left? What's my purpose? What we "clutter" our lives with can take many forms. By the very process of removing the clutter, the answer will become clearer."

How perfect is that? Basically, simplicity leads to authenticity, which leads to harmony! One of the simple things that has crept slowly into my life over the past couple of years is gardening (although I use the term loosely). We have a large terrace that is longer than it is wide and how we use it has been evolving. We wanted to love it and use it more, but the decking was ugly and unkind to bare feet. This spring we replaced it with fake grass and hurrah: the space was transformed! We are now out there all the time. It is beautiful to see so much green (all year round!) in the city and it really feels like a garden now.

It is soft to lie on and is never muddy. The kids can play (think space hoppers, paddling pool....) or just hang out (beach towel, book, lemonade...) and my husband enjoys the deck chair and a glass of wine as the sun goes down. Me? Well, I am still surprising myself with ways to articulate my creativity and have found the garden to be a place where I can indulge my love of colour.

We had a hot summer this year and so a palette of cool whites and purples (see pic above) felt just right...along with our vegetable patch. Now the temperatures are dropping, I've been craving the blazing autumn colours of my childhood in Michigan: deep, bright reds, burnt oranges and glowing yellows (see pic below). I asked my lovely greengrocer, John, what he could do and he came back from the flower market yesterday with a stunningly simple array: "true red" giant cyclamen and some chrysanthemums that seem to incorporate all the colours I described to him in one!

It took me all morning, but I got them in just before the rains came. They are making me so happy that I could just sit here quietly all afternoon and look at them. For me, that is the perfect definition of simplicity.