04 September 2011

A River Ran Through It

I don't know who this lady is - got her photo online - but this pile behind her?
This is pretty much what was in front of every house in the neighborhood this morning.
New Jersey is 62% forest, according to an article I read earlier this week. The Northwest corner, where we live, is a mix of farmland, lakes and forest, with some people, deer, squirrels and black bear roaming around too. We don't get too much in the way of natural disasters here, thank God - earthquakes are both mild and a curiousity, and when a hurricane heads up this way, we're usually the stormy 'tail end' rather than in the middle of the thing. There are areas here prone to flooding, but most of my personal experience with those has just been to have sections of Route 17 blocked off for a day, or having to drive through too-deep puddles if I get caught out in a hard rainstorm.

When Hurricane Irene hit, the area right around our house mostly suffered watery basements (which the local fire company pumped out regularly for a few days) and power outages. (We know at least one friend who still hasn't regained power since the storm hit a week ago.) Inconvenient, surely. Inconvenient during the storm, and for several days afterwards. Some lost food. Occasional damage to a home or a car from a falling tree. Stuff like that.

But the congregation where I teach is centered in an area prone to some pretty heavy flooding, and an email 'call' came after the storm, looking for volunteers to help a congregant family remove waterlogged furniture from their home in Lake Hiawatha. I didn't know my schedule for the weekend when I got the email, so I called Sunday morning to see if I was still needed, or if enough people had already volunteered. I was told that ten or twelve people would be there, but they didn't know how big a job it was going to be, yet. About the house I was told, "the river ran through it."

Lake Hiawatha is a lovely area, with well-maintained properties, family-sized houses and comfortably wide roadways. Driving towards the house in question this morning, I found myself thinking, 'this area doesn't *look* like it was hit too hard.' And then I turned the corner onto the road two blocks from my destination.

I was now driving through what looked like a grotesque version of 'move-out day' in a college town. In front of every house was a huge discard pile that looked like it contained the entire contents of the house - everything from appliances and furniture to children's toys and chunks of drywall. Big letters, boxes and X's spray-painted on the sides of several houses marked, I was told, which were to be condemned. A closer look at some of the cars revealed a dirty water-line up by the car windows, or headlights half-filled with water.

Inside the house we were working on, which was likely a good representation of every other house on that block, we found - among other soggy, moldy, slimy, overpoweringly smelly, once-precious things - a waist-high waterline and a refrigerator that had toppled to the floor because it was too top-heavy to float when the river came through.

An American Red Cross vehicle drove through the neighborhood at lunchtime, serving as a food truck. They honked to alert residents (many of whom were working on house clean-outs) of the arrival of a free hot lunch and bottles of water. Volunteers inside the 'food truck' hailed from Michigan and Jacksonville. Their arrival in Lake Hiawatha, friendly faces handing out lunch and water, got us all out into the fresh air for a while - breathing, conversing, communing, reflecting. A much-needed break before re-donning face masks and rubber gloves, and heading back in for more.

I have a friend who has been volunteering for the American Red Cross throughout her retirement, traveling to disaster areas across the Eastern U.S. It never occurred to me before to ask what, exactly, she was doing there. I always imagined their role as something kind of medical. Ish. This was simply human. Sustaining. People helping people get through. People helping the helpers help.

I didn't take any photos today. It *occurred* to me, for maybe a second, to take a shot of the neighborhood. But for all the photos I've seen of disaster sites throughout the years, somehow, driving through an neighborhood like this, actually *being* there - it just would have seemed disrespectful somehow. Of the people working to clear their homes, which mean so much to them, of so many things that also have meaning to them. There are enough photos on the internet for everyone to get their fill.

Last night, our family went to see the Somerset Patriots play. They were hosting 'Hurricane Relief Night' - co-sponsored by the American Red Cross. The game was free to everyone. Parking was free. We were given bobbleheads of a player who hit a home run that night his first time at bat, then batted in two more runs his second time up. A collection was taken for the American Red Cross. We contributed something, of course. But I'm thinking next time, we might try to contribute something more.

Related links:

An article about Lake Hiawatha's evacuation:

American Red Cross re: Hurricane Irene: http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.53fabf6cc033f17a2b1ecfbf43181aa0/?vgnextoid=19eddb420d602310VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD&vgnextchannel=e6c7aaf9bc911310VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD&vgnextfmt=default

Somerset Patriots home page: http://www.somersetpatriots.com

Article from whence the above photo was borrowed: http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/08/hurricane_irene_cleanup_and_re.html

01 September 2011

Pretty's Got Nothing To Do With It.

Yes, I've always been a tomboy. My Dad taught me a 'paratrooper roll' (which he learned as an Army paratrooper during his service) when I was probably a tween, just in case I fell out of the maple tree...because no matter how many times Mom yelled me out of the tree, I just kept climbing. I dreamed of having a huge Lion-L train set when I was little, which I wasn't allowed because I was a girl. I wanted SO badly to learn how to mow the lawn, which Dad was eager to teach me, but which Mom vetoed..because I was a girl. I got away with what I could. The high dive at Darlington, no matter how many heart attacks it gave Mom. Weight training instead of 'aerobics'. Whatever.

I've never been anti-girly, though, either. I used my fair share of pan-stick and hairspray back in Ye Olde Eighties. I squeezed into corseted court gowns in the SCA and flirted with the best of them, even as I practiced Heavy Weapons with the gents. I think Strong and Womanly are a perfect fit.

And I have a daughter now. She's six. And I want her to do everything. But even if she doesn't WANT to do everything, I want her to know that she *can*. 

An ad for a big department store chain here has come under fire for selling a tee-shirt for girls that says something like, "I'm so pretty I don't have to do homework. My brother does it for me." Um..cringe? I sort of get the funny, but on the other hand...well, cringe.

And then a wonderful Mom-conceived, Mom-owned business I've purchased from in the past puts out not just a blog post or a rant or whatever about the controversial tee..they put out the anti-tee. An awesome, girl-strong tee shirt (which, coincidentally, is their most attractive design to date - by far!) that I can't wait to get on my little girl. So awesome that I had to share it with you. Here she is, new from Pigtail Pals:

Pretty's Got Nothing To Do With It: http://www.pigtailpals.com/

 And isn't she lovely?

13 July 2011

Summer Reading: Princess Candy: Tales of a Sugar Hero (graphic novel)

In the midst of a summer when most of the big kids' movies coming out are boy-centric - that is to say, boys lead and girls serve as sidekicks/decorations - Princess Candy: Tales of a Sugar Hero is a welcome reprieve for little girls who would like to see themselves as the hero for a change.

Halo Nightly receives a very special present from her late Aunt Pandora on her eleventh birthday: a box containing jar upon jar of...candy. Each jar is labeled with a Spanish word indicating a force of nature, and as Halo soon finds out, each also bestows upon her a very special superhero power! As Halo navigates through problems that arise at Midnight Elementary School throughout the four stories in Tales of a Sugar Hero, she meets up with superpowered meanies including the Marshmallow Mermaid and cheating teacher's pet Doozie Hiss. Can any resist the do-gooder powers of Princess Candy?

While there are some typical 'little girl' thrills in the book - candy! becoming a 'princess' superhero! crush on a school basketball player! candy! - this snappy comic brings readers into a girl-power world. All of the main characters, including the villains, are girls. And Halo's attitude towards herself is unthinkable - she likes herself just the way she is! (Even if she thinks of herself as 'nice and average.')When Grandma suggests taking Halo to a hair salon so that they can both get their 'hair done,' Nightly politely declines, telling Grandma, "I sort of like the way I am."

These kitschy stories include snappy, tongue-in-cheek humor (some of which only Mom or Dad might pick up on), clean, brightly-colored illustrations, and clearly defined characters. The stories could have used a little more development in places. Halo seems particularly unsurprised to hear from Grandma that a deceased Aunt has left her a birthday present, for instance. And she also makes an offhanded comment once about not having any friends at school. What's that about?  Basketball player Cody semes to like her just fine. I'm also a little curious to know why the candies are labeled in Spanish, since there doesn't seem to be any other tie to the language or culture in these stories. But overall the stories are humorous, colorful and entertaining - a fun read for summer or any old time.

This book is intended for children reading at a primary school reading level, though the interest level is probably for children a little older. I shared it with my daughter, who's entering first grade, and my son, entering third, and neither could get enough of it. They've both been through several of the stories more than once, and spend a lot of time enjoying the artwork as they read. We have a winner!

Publisher's info:
Title: Tales of a Sugar Hero
Publisher: Capstone
Imprint: Stone Arch Books
Pub Date: 08/01/2011
ISBN: 9781434234582
Written by Michael Dahl and Scott Nickel
Illustrated by Jeff Crowther

Disclaimer: The publisher has provided me with a complimentary galley of this book for review purposes. My opinions are solely my own.

12 July 2011

Summer Reading: Dragonspell by Donita K. Paul

Donita K. Paul's 2004 novel Dragonspell is a finely woven, character-driven tale that introduces us to a unique new world while paying distinct homage to classic fantasy.

Kale is a 14-year-old o'rant girl who is uprooted from the only life she's ever known - that of slavery in a remote village - after the town council realizes she has a special talent that will need to be honed at a religious training facility called "The Hall." Naive to life outside her small town, she is quickly abducted by creatures she thought were only from fairy tales, and just as rapidly rescued by a party sent out from The Hall to find her. As Kale discovers the depths and dangers of her newly discovered talent, she begins the transition from 'slave' to 'servant', in the service of the Creator of the seven high races, Wulder. She also becomes familiar with evil Pretender and his seven low races, as she works on learning the difference between the Truth, and lies crafted to sound like truth.

This engaging coming-of-age story is a smooth read populated with characters and situations that are both new and familiar to devotees of fantasy fiction. As Kale and her new friends of various races quest together to find a meech egg deep within the stronghold of the powerful and evil Risto, we meet a young dragon who faints every time he's startled, a delightful but all-too-familiar flighty wizard, and a preening doneel who has furry ears and an outfit (and musical instrument) for every occasion. Dragon-lovers will also find no shortage of dragons here, each with his or her own individual quirks, talents and personalities.

As in other fantasy novels, the Dragonspell world divides rather neatly into Good versus Evil, and if you've played Dungeons and Dragons, you'll recognize this as a book that revolves around clerics and other character classes in service to a common deity. Rather than utilizing the more mythical deities of many of the classic fantasy and gaming worlds, however, Wulder and Paladin and their moral code have been modeled after the Christian religion, with the moralizing present in the book (and there is some, a little heavy in spots) reflecting some traditional Christian values. I was aware of this before reading the book, thanks to comments in front of the book; I would love to know how far into the book I would have gotten before recognizing that for myself. But you certainly don't have to be Christian or looking to convert in order to enjoy this well-woven story, and enjoy spending a few hours inhabiting this delightful fantasy world along with Kale and her companions.

Dragonspell is the first book in a series, and I'm already looking forward to reading the second installment. Readers from middle school on up will enjoy it.

Also, as a neat aside: you can request a free, autographed DragonKeeper bookplate by sending a SASE to the author at the address given in this link. You even get to pick the color.

You can also read the first chapter online here!

Would you like to win a copy of DragonSpell?   "Follow" this blog and then leave a comment below in order to enter. That's it!

Publisher info:
by Donita K. Paul
WaterBrook Press (2004)
ISBN: 1578568234

Disclaimer: Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book for review purposes. My opinions are solely my own.

11 July 2011

Hey, how about a giveaway??

I just noticed a count of '11' followers on my recently revived blog - on today, the 11th of July. Neat-o! Feels like time for a mini-celebration, and I happen to have here a beautiful (soon to be reviewed here ;) ) paperback edition of Dragonspell, by Donita K. Paul, which would love to find a new home with someone who would love to add it to his or her summer reading collection.

Dragonspell is a light-read, enjoyable fantasy book (first of a series) that will feel familiar to anyone who's read stories written in the classic 'questing party' style, or perhaps played a little Dungeons and Dragons. It's marketed to the Christian YA crowd - but you certainly don't need to be Christian to enjoy it, as long as a little clerical moralizing here and there doesn't offend you. The characters are fun and engaging, and I certainly wouldn't be holding it out to you as a 'prize' if it wasn't one :).

Would you like a chance to win? Then help me make a dozen and beyond by 'following' (right side of the page) this blog, encouraging friends who may be interested to do the same, and then posting below that you'd like a chance to win the book. If you're already following, just comment below and you're in the running. I'll post an 'end date' for the giveaway with my full review tomorrow. Stay tuned!

07 July 2011

'Deer Neighbors'

We refer to them jokingly as our 'dear deer neighbors', but they are such a pain in the rear. I spent hours this year researching what plants deer don't like to eat, and planted my entire garden (except for the pumpkin patch) in containers - rather than my actual backyard garden - as part of my attempt to stop them from eating everything I plant.

So WHAT demented part of my brain is it that tells me all these itty bitty fawns that now roaming the neighborhood...smaller than half the dogs that walk with their people every day...fawns that I will be muttering about incessantly in a few short months, after they have grown to terrorize my flora...are actually...adorable?  Sigh!

06 July 2011

Summer Reading: Tomatoland

If you live in the Northeast, or were raised here, there’s a decent chance that you’ve experienced, at least once, the exquisite pleasure of biting into a just-picked garden tomato.  In the suburbs and rural areas of Northwest New Jersey, where I live, backyards are peppered with staked tomato plants growing from the ground, and every fourth patio seems to be hung with Topsy-Turvy planters lush with greens and ripening tomatoes. We’re no exception, watching our somewhat late-planted cherry tomato plants for hints of red as our currently pea-sized green fruits grow and develop.  When we spent time at our friends’ house this weekend three towns away, their five year old eagerly harvested everything that could pass for ripe from their backyard garden, then ran his handful over to us to show them off.
There’s a big difference between these garden delights and the shiny, thick-skinned orange-to-red orbs we’re used to picking up at the supermarket when our own tomatoes go out of season. I knew this had to do with the fact that these Florida tomatoes were ‘off-season,’ and I didn’t give it a second thought. By the time I was a page or two into Barry Estabrook’s new book, Tomatoland, though, I was having a lot of second thoughts. About a lot of things, all worth thinking about.
Tomatoland is an expansion of a James Beard Award-winning article Estabrook originally wrote for Gourmet Magazine, for which he was a contributing editor before the magazine folded. The book is at once a meandering survey of tomato history, and a detailed expose’ of the modern Florida tomato industry.
Early on, Estabrook takes readers through rural Peru on a hunt for the modern tomato’s tenacious forebears, then follows the tomato through to its place on the modern American plate.  But much of the book is a harsh indictment of the Florida tomato industry, led by the Florida Tomato Council.   Readers learn that the indestructible ‘off season’ Florida tomatoes we find in our supermarkets from October through June are unripe by design – harvested ‘mature green’ and then gassed for a couple of days to turn them colors mimicking those of ripe tomatoes. Estabrook presents statistics showing how much richer in nutrient (and lower in sodium) our grandparents’ tomatoes were.  We are shocked (I hope) to learn that Florida tomatoes are doused with insecticides so toxic that their use has been forbidden for all but four US crops, necessitating a chlorine bath (also appetizing!) for every tomato as it comes away from the field. And the darkest parts of the book, dealing with worker abuse involving both the lethal pesticides and the culture of modern day slavery in Florida (so commonplace that we meet in the book a US District Attorney in Florida who specializes in prosecuting slavery cases) provide a discomfiting amount of detail.
Estabrook provides more villains than heroes in Tomatoland, but one can walk away with a glimmer of hope that maybe it’s not too late to make changes that will begin to reverse the damage that’s been done. Maybe. Will reading this book turn you into a local tomato advocate, eschewing forever supermarket and fast-food tomatoes? Maybe. Will it have you thinking, as you take a bite out of your next tomato, about its origins, and the good or bad that went into its production? Ohhh, yeah. Tomatoland is a thoughtful, engaging read, well worth including on your summer reading list.
The takeaway:  Pick up Esterbrook’s informative eye-opener, Tomatoland, for a stark look at the ills of today’s Florida tomato production practices, and learn to enjoy (even more than you already do) the sustainable, humanely grown seasonal harvest of your more local tomato farmers. Reading this book will, in the end, give you a greater appreciation for this fruit in its all its beauty and variety.

Publisher's Information:
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit
c 2011 by Barry Estabrook
Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC

Disclaimer: I was provided a reader's copy of the text of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed in the review are solely my own.

Summer Reading: Eating the Rainbow and Too Many Pears!

We are a reading family, and this summer the kids and I are absorbing new books as fast as we can for all of the summer reading programs we've joined! Last night's reads were both published by a company called Star Bright Books, and though the books are targeted for different age groups, all three kids had a ball reading both of them together.
It can be a challenge to get little ones to eat a variety of foods, or harder yet, try new ones, and Eating the Rainbow is here to help! This brightly-colored chunky board book features a variety of beautiful babies snacking on an even more varied selection of healthy foods including fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products. Each two-page spread highlights foods of a particular color, encouraging little readers to identify both the colors and the foods pictured. Children are as excited to recognize common fare such as oranges and grapes as they are to learn new foods, like litchis, coconut or figs. The publisher suggests this book for the 0-2 age range, but three-year-old Franklin laughed each time the page was turned and he got to 'discover' the next color, and even the big kids enjoyed seeing photos of foods they'd never heard of before. The interesting, colorful and simply-presented content makes this beautiful book the kind Franklin will pick up and pore over in the car even when there's no one reading it to him. I especially appreciate a line on the back of the book reminding me to "Make sure your child sees you eating a rainbow of foods!" I feel inspired to head out to Ledgewood farms now and see if I can lay my hands on some litchis and maybe a guava! What's summertime for, if not to experiment a little?

Publisher information on the book:
ISBN 978-1-59572-174-7
20 pages, 5 3/4"x5 3/4", ages 0-2
Board Book, $6.95
Note: this title is available in English, French/English, Portuguese/English, Spanish, Spanish/English and Vietnamese/English

Our second book of the night, Too Many Pears! by Jackie French, is a lighthearted story about a friendly-looking but mischievous cow named Pamela, who might just eat all of the pears if Amy doesn't stop her! Though all of our kids enjoyed the story (advertised for the 3-7 year old crowd), our six-year-old daughter laughed out loud at the funny illustrations, the myriad ways Pamela finds to nibble on pears, and also at the surprising appearance of a wombat in the story (have we ever seen a wombat in a story before??) There might even be a little lesson about eating too much in here...maybe! An enjoyable summer read, and a perfectly respectable inclusion on the well-read child's summer reading log!

Publisher information on the book:
by Jackie French
illustrated by Bruce Whatley
ISBN 978-1-932065-47-3
32 pages, 10 1/4"x9 1/8", ages 3-7
Hardback, $16.95; paperback available
This title is available in English, Japanese/English, Portuguese/English, Spanish/English