Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

Virtual Book Discussion: Cooked January 31, 2014

Thanks to everyone who joined us for our virtual book club for January. This month we’re discussing Cooked by Michael Pollan.

cooked1

 

Here’s how it works: I’ll throw out a few topics for discussion, and you can write your responses about these topics (or others you’d like to discuss) in the comment section.

 

Discussion #1: Cooking with the Elements

I thought the author’s structure for the book was fascinating. I’d never considered how different types of cooking fit into the categories of fire, water, air, and earth, and it made for an intriguing setup. I also enjoyed the way he showed his own progression from kitchen amateur to apprentice to blossoming cook. I felt like I could relate since he didn’t start out as an expert, and I appreciated his willingness to jump in to various types of cooking with both feet.

Did you have a favorite section? Which of the elements are you most comfortable in when it comes to cooking? Which elements are you least comfortable in?

 

Discussion #2: Cooking and Community

I really appreciated the author’s observations about how the way we cook and the way we eat effect how communal we are as a society. I was especially intrigued by his theory that the style of the cooking itself impacts the way we consume meals. When people prepared food around a fire, they cooked and ate together as an entire community. Then when people started cooking with an oven in individual households, cooking and eating became family-centric events. Now, as microwaves and fast food become the meal-prepping tools of choice, the focus is on the individual. One of my favorite parts of the book was seeing how the author’s various cooking experiments brought his family together and resulted not only in edible rewards but also in intangible gifts, such as bonding and conversations with his wife and teenage son.

As our cooking and eating become more individualized, do you think we’re in danger of losing a sense of community and family? Is there anything we can do to promote these values in our own homes?

 

Discussion #3: Intentional Food Choices

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was the way it opened my eyes to the underlying ramifications of the choices we make about food, cooking, and eating. When we mindlessly stick something in the microwave, pick up dinner at the drive-thru, or prioritize other activities over “scratch cooking,” there are consequences—both for us as individuals and for us as a culture. Although I haven’t necessarily revamped my approach to cooking after reading this book, it certainly has made me more aware and more thoughtful about the choices I make to get dinner on the table. I wasn’t nearly as ambitious as the author (no whole-hog barbecue or beer brewing for me), and I didn’t try any of his recipes, but this book did inspire a few modest “from scratch” attempts. My biggest success was my bread-baking adventure (the first time I cooked with yeast!). I wasn’t ambitious enough to make a starter and baby it for weeks like the author did, but it felt like a step in the right direction.

Did this book cause you to reevaluate any of your cooking/eating choices? Have you ever attempted any cooking experiments similar to what the author describes in this book?

 

Rating

I’d give this book 4.5 stars. It made me think about food choices in a new way, and I appreciated the author’s style. He was at once knowledgeable and brilliant (I was impressed with the historical context and scientific background he offered throughout), but he was also accessible and an engaging storyteller.

 

4.5 stars

 

How many stars would you give this book (out of five)?

As a side note, if you liked this book, I’d recommend Bread and Wine, which we discussed here.

 

{Remember: there will be a free book giveaway for one lucky commenter!}

 

 

Announcing the Virtual Book Club Selection for January January 7, 2014

Congratulations to Cindy, who won the free book giveaway for December!

 

And now, the first book of the month for 2014 is . . . Cooked by Michael Pollan.

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Here’s the description from the back of the book:

 

In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.


Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse–trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius “fermentos” (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

 

Join us to discuss the book the Boston Globe calls “important, possibly life-altering, reading for every living, breathing human being.”

 

{Remember: There will be a free book giveaway for one lucky commenter!}

 

Virtual Book Club: Wonder January 3, 2014

Thanks to everyone who joined us for our first young adult novel discussion. This month we’re talking about Wonder by R. J. Palacio, which I introduced here.

 

Here’s how it works: I’ll throw out a few topics for discussion, and you can write your responses about these topics (or others you’d like to discuss) in the comment section.

 wonder1

Discussion #1: The Best and the Worst in People

In this novel, Augie goes through a more extreme version of what everyone experiences at some point—the agony of being different, the fear of not being accepted, the pain of being excluded. Middle school is a crucible that brings out the best and worst in people, and this is even more obvious with someone like Augie, who has a significant physical deformity.

 

We see the pain inflicted by Augie’s classmates who bully him and actively avoid him (claiming he has “the plague”), and we also see the pain inflicted in more passive ways by peers who aren’t mean to him but don’t stand up for him either. But on the flip side, we also see the good in humanity, such as when Jack forfeits his popularity to be Augie’s friend and when Summer sits at his lunch table even though it meant the popular kid wouldn’t go out with her.

 

When you were a kid, where did you fit in the social pecking order? Were you a leader, someone who went with the crowd, or someone who marched to your own drum? How can we encourage kids to stand up for what’s right, even when it’s not popular?

 

Discussion #2: Everyone Has a Story

I enjoyed hearing the different perspectives on the same story—it was a good reminder that everyone has a story to tell. (Although it did get tedious at times when the content overlapped from one person’s story to the next.) Via, the dutiful big sister, is often overshadowed by everything that’s happening to Augie, but when we hear her story, we realize that she’s dealing with challenges of her own too. And while we may be tempted to judge Miranda at first, after we hear her side, we discover that she’s been struggling with her parents’ divorce.

 

Did you like the multiple viewpoints format? Did you have a favorite character?

 

Discussion #3: Loving without Overprotecting

I liked the way the relationships were portrayed in Augie’s family. His parents seemed believable—imperfect but full of love. I imagine that every parent or teacher feels the struggle they felt when they sent Augie off to middle school “like a lamb to the slaughter.” How do you protect your child and still prepare him/her for the real world? How do you know when to let go and allow him fall sometimes?

 

Do you think you would have sent your child to school, as Augie’s parents did? What would you have handled differently?

 

Discussion #4: The Ending

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting for the ending of this book, but I was a little disappointed. It seems like Augie’s award at graduation was supposed to be the climactic moment, but rang somewhat hollow to me. His whole life, Augie has wanted to be a regular kid, like everyone else. He doesn’t want to be different or special or pitied or coddled by adults, so having the principal select him for the award didn’t seem like an apt conclusion. Maybe it would have been more satisfying if the award had been voted on by all his peers—it would have shown how much had changed over the course of the year.

 

What did you think of the ending? If you were writing an alternate ending, what would happen in your version? What do you think will happen to Augie next year?

 

Rating:

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars. It was a little slow at times, and I wanted to skim past some of the tedious fifth grade interactions. But then again, maybe that’s because I’m not the target audience. This book will spark good conversations—for adults and kids alike—and it rings true as a study of the human condition.

 4 stars

 

How many stars would you give this book?

 

{Remember: there will be a free book giveaway for one lucky commenter!}

 

 

Announcing the Book Club Selection for December… December 6, 2013

Filed under: Book Club — Stephanie Rische @ 8:09 am
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Congratulations to Linda for winning the free book for November’s book discussion! (You can check out our conversation about foster parenting and flowers and guys carrying around chick lit here.)

 wonder1

Since December is so busy, we’ll be reading a young adult book this month:  Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

 

Here’s the description from the back cover:

 

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

 

The book received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly:

Auggie Pullman was born with severe facial deformities—no outer ears, eyes in the wrong place, his skin “melted”—and he’s learned to steel himself against the horrified reactions he produces in strangers. Now, after years of homeschooling, his parents have enrolled him in fifth grade. In short chapters told from various first-person perspectives, debut author Palacio sketches his challenging but triumphant year. Though he has some expectedly horrible experiences at school, Auggie has lucked out with the adults in his life—his parents love him unconditionally, and his principal and teachers value kindness over all other qualities. While one bully manages, temporarily, to turn most of Auggie’s classmates against him, good wins out. Few first novels pack more of a punch: it’s a rare story with the power to open eyes—and hearts—to what it’s like to be singled out for a difference you can’t control, when all you want is to be just another face in the crowd.

 

You can click here for a trailer for the book.

 

Hope you’ll join us for our discussion at the beginning of January.

 

{Remember: I’ll send a free book to one lucky commenter!}

 

 

November Book Discussion: The Language of Flowers December 3, 2013

Thanks to everyone who participated in our virtual book club this month! The selection for November was The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, which I introduced here.

 

I’m going to throw out some discussion topics, and you can post your comments—about these topics or other things you want to talk about.

 Language of Flowers1

Discussion #1: Storytelling Method

One of my favorite parts of this book was the way the author wove together the two stories—the present-day narrative and the story of Victoria’s childhood. The connections between the past and the present were masterfully pieced together, and I enjoyed the slow reveal of what severed Victoria’s relationship with Elizabeth.

 

What did you think of the layered story? Did you like the author’s style, or would you have preferred one cohesive story?

 

Discussion #2: The Theme of Forgiveness

One idea that kept surfacing in this novel was the pain of unforgiveness and the redemptive power of forgiveness. We see this played out in almost every relationship: Elizabeth was able to forgive Victoria for burning down the vineyard, despite the years of hurt and distance between them. Elizabeth finally forgave Catherine for taking the man she loved, although that came too late to restore their relationship. Grant was able to forgive Victoria for leaving him and deserting their baby. Even Baby Hazel, with her innocence and trust, seems to offer forgiveness to Victoria, and she serves as a springboard for the healing of other relationships in Victoria’s life.

 

Have you ever extended forgiveness to someone who caused you great pain? Did you think the portrayal of forgiveness in the novel is realistic?

 

Discussion #3: Foster Parenting

Having known several families who have fostered children, I was intrigued by the exploration of what it takes to stitch together a family out of love but no shared genes. When I did some research about the author, I discovered that she is a foster parent herself and has founded a network to support youth transitioning from foster care.

 

Do you know any foster parents? How does this novel ring true with your experiences? Do you think Victoria will be able to overcome her past and become a good mom?

 

Discussion #4: Communicating via Flowers

It was fascinating to me the way Victoria was able to communicate her emotions through flowers when words failed her. She didn’t always have the skills to relate to people through the spoken or written word, but flowers gave her a way to express what she was feeling and thinking. I also enjoyed watching her share that gift with others at the flower shop. Some of the symbolism felt over the top to me (her name is Victoria?!), and sometimes the connections with the flower meanings felt a little heavy handed, but overall I enjoyed it.

 

Did this book make you want to find out more about the language of flowers (or wish you could visit Victoria’s shop)? Have you ever found ways to communicate with others that didn’t involve words?

 

Rating:

I would give this book 4.5 stars. Despite the occasional over-the-top symbolism, it was an enjoyable read, and I really liked the characters and the way the story unfolded (bloomed?).

4.5 stars

 

What rating would you give this book?

 

{Remember: I will give away a free book to one lucky commenter!}

 

 

Announcing the Book of the Month Club for November November 5, 2013

First of all, congratulations to Rachel, the winner of the free book giveaway!

 

The selection for November is The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Here’s the description of her book, taken from the back cover:

Language of Flowers1

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

 

We’ll discuss the book at the end of November—hope you can join us!

 

Book of the Month Club: Bread and Wine November 1, 2013

Thanks to everyone who joined our book of the month club for October! Our selection was Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist, which I introduced here.

breadandwine

 

Here’s how it works: I’ll throw out a few discussion topics, and you can respond about these topics or anything else you’d like to talk about in the comment section below.

 

Discussion #1: A Call to Hospitality

I love the way Shauna reclaims eating together and sharing meals with others as not just something we do to sustain our bodies, but something that feeds the soul as well. “Food is one of the ways we love each other,” she says, “and the table is one of the most sacred places we gather.”

 

Having grown up with a grandma who can do a hundred magical things with a pie crust and her bare hands, and a mom who made every person who crossed the threshold of her home feel welcomed and loved, I have always understood at some intuitive level that the intersection of food and home is where relationships are cultivated and love takes root. But I appreciate the way Shauna puts those feelings into words and affirms the sacredness of hospitality in a world that is increasingly busy and fragmented.

“While it’s not strictly about food, it doesn’t happen without it. Food is the starting point, the common ground, the thing to hold and handle, the currency we offer to one another.”

 

What are your experiences with hospitality and making food for other people? Was that a priority in your family when you were growing up? How have you done things the same or differently in your own home?

 

Discussion #2: A Place for Vulnerability

One of the highlights of the book for me was the way Shauna emphasized that making food and inviting people into your home isn’t a performance; it’s an opportunity to create space for authenticity. When we break bread together, we can slow down, be real, let down our guard.

 

I loved her tradition of sharing toasts on someone’s birthday—saying something that person has brought to your life in the last year or a prayer for the year ahead: “The heart of hospitality is creating space for these moments, protecting that fragile bubble of vulnerability and truth and love. It’s all too rare that we tell the people we love exactly why we love them—what they bring to our lives, why our lives are richer because they’re in it.”

 

I also appreciated the way she made peace with things not going according to her own plans and being open to what God had ordained for the gathering:

“It was just as it should have been, and nothing close to what I could have planned. And that’s what makes a good party—when the evening and the people and the conversation and the feeling in the room are allowed to be whatever they need to be for that night.”

 

Have you ever hosted a party that didn’t go at all the way you planned or expected? Were there any unexpected blessings in that experience?

 

Discussion #3: Embracing a Healthy Relationship with Food

Shauna’s perspective on having a healthy relationship with food was very refreshing, and I especially appreciated her take on how there are some seasons to fast and other seasons to feast.

“I’m learning that feasting can only exist healthfully—physically, spiritually, and emotionally—in a life that also includes fasting. . . . The very things you think you need most desperately are the things that can transform you the most profoundly when you do finally decide to release them.”

 

Do you agree that we all need seasons of both feasting and fasting in our lives? What does that balance look like for you?

 

Discussion #4: Recipes

If I had one complaint about the book, it’s that I sometimes felt like a kitchen slouch when I read it. I know that wasn’t the author’s intent, and I realize the principles apply whether you’re whipping up homemade risotto or making Kraft macaroni and cheese, but sometimes I felt like I couldn’t relate to her stories about dinner parties with lobster and steak au poivre with cognac sauce.

 

That said, I did attempt a few of the recipes, and I appreciated the author’s conversational tone as she talked readers through the recipes. I felt like I had a sister in the kitchen, coaching me through the steps. I made the lentil soup, which wasn’t too hard, even for the likes of me. When my husband tried his first spoonful, he said tactfully, “It tastes like it’s good for me.” But to his credit, he ate it all. I also attempted the blueberry crisp (I made mine it peaches), the scrambled eggs with goat cheese (pretty good, but I prefer my eggs more solid than the recipe calls for), and the toffee (which I’m pretty sure I botched somehow because it just may crack your teeth). There are several others I’d still like to try.

 

Did you try any of the recipes? How did they turn out? Which one should I attempt next?

 

Rating

I would give the book 4.5 stars. I loved the bits about relationships, hospitality, faith, and the sacredness of the table. Maybe I just needed the “for dummies” version for the recipes.

 

4.5 stars

 

How many stars would you give the book?

{Remember: I’ll send a free book to one randomly selected commenter!}