Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Book Reviews. Show all posts

Mar 16, 2015

5 Picture Books That Will Make You - and Your Child - LOL

I love a good picture book - especially if it makes my children laugh. And even more so if it makes me laugh, too. Since we can all use a good laugh now and then, I hereby present our top five favorite funny picture books.

#5. The Messy Family by Katherine Pebley O'Neal and Laura Huliska-Beith

Even if you consider your family a messy one, chances are you aren't quite as messy as this messy family. We catch them trying to clean up for company - emphasis on trying. But they just have too many other things to do, including helping an eldery couple, taking donations to the shelter, and helping to build a "habitat" house. When their company does come, though, God blesses their mess.

I do appreciate the message here - that we should focus on more important things than a spotless house - but the laughs really come in when you and your kids look at the pictures in this book. My kids never fail to crack up when the kids clean their room by stuffing things under the bed, for example, and they think it's funny that the family discovers all kinds of critters hidden in their mess.

We also enjoy The Loud Family and The Silly Family, by the same author/illustrator team - but, perhaps because we are a bit messy ourselves, The Messy Family is our fav.

#4. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett

Quite probably, you've seen the movie by this same title, but trust me - the book is almost entirely different! Grandpa loves to tell his grandchildren stories, and his yarn about a little town called Chewandswallow - whose food is supplied entirely by the weather - will fill you with chuckles, gafaws, and laughter. (We especially love how the townspeople escape Chewandswallow when the weather becomes too much - using a giant peanut butter sandwich with sails made from cheese.)

#3. The Knight Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Barbara Shook Hazen and Tony Ross

Sir Fred is an honorable man and a noble knight...but he's terrified of the dark. He keeps an electric eel in his bedroom, and a jar of fireflies on his "knight table." But when his beloved Lady Wendylyn begins to wonder why Sir Fred will only meet her once in a while (when the moon is full), Sir Fred faces his fear head on so as not to loose her. Armed with his light producing critters, he heads into the dark to meet his lady - who, with a shriek, "saves him" from the glowing creatures who are "attacking" him. In the end, Sir Fred confesses his fear, and Lady Wendylyn realizes he's even more noble and brave than she thought.

Read it and laugh, my friends!
#2. Too Many Toys by David Shannon

Laugh and learn how Spencer and his mom deal with the fact that he has way too many toys. Although going through the toys and coming up with a large box of them to donate isn't easy (afterward, Spencer's mom needs a cup of tea and a little rest), they both get a big surprise at the end of the book.

My children get big belly laughs every time we read this one - and it makes eliminating some of our household toys easier, too, because we quote the book as we go along. Who could have thought a book about children giving away their toys could be so funny?

#1. Parts by Tedd Arnold

Here's a little boy who comes to the sudden realization that he's falling apart! The flint in his belly button indicates his stuffing is coming out. The gray, wet stuff that falls from his nose must be his brain falling out. The bit of skin that fell off his foot means his skin is all peeling away. He's terrified he'll cough and his head will fall off!

This book is brilliant. And makes me (and, oh yeah, my kids) laugh every. single. time. That is all.

Feb 16, 2015

Backyard Winter Gardening: A Book Review

Over the years, I've read a number of books on winter gardening, but Caleb Warnock's Backyard Winter Gardening is by far the best - for the simple reason that it gives easy to follow advice on the simplest ways to grow and harvest food in the winter.

Warnock is best known for his "Forgotten Skills" books, which look at the way pioneers sustained themselves and how we can recreate these skills for modern life. So it's no surprise that the methods included in Backyard Winter Gardening are old standbys easily duplicated today. Specifically, Warnock focuses on cold frames and hot beds.

A cold frame is just a low, bottomless box with a glass lid that's set over vegetables. Warnock explains he's used many types of cold frames, including the store bought variety and cold frames made with straw bales and a piece of glass. But, he writes, his simple, inexpensive, homemade two by four cold frames work best. Happily, they are extremely simple to make and even someone without building experience should be able to create one.

The author also uses hot beds; they have the same construction as his cold frames, but before planting vegetables in them, the author puts fresh manure or green clippings beneath the soil; as these decay, they keep the temperature in the box quite warm.

Using one of these two devices, Warnock grows an abundance of vegetables in winter, including beans, cabbage, lettuce, peas, spinach, and even melons. Between these fruits and veggies and the produce he keeps in his cellar, he easily feeds his family all winter.

In addition, Warnock offers details about his geothermal greenhouse - an underground greenhouse that requires no electricity and gets quite hot (100 degrees F. or more), even in Utah's coldest, snowiest winters. Here, the author grows tomatoes year round and keeps tropical fruit trees.

Warnock also mentions overwintering some veggies. This produce isn't really growing during winter; it's just staying fresh by staying in the soil. He includes carrots, beets, and other vegetables in this list, and also shows readers how to harvest them pre-winter and store them in a cool location, like a cellar or garage. I was especially excited to see that if stored correctly in a box in a cool place, many vegetable tops will continue growing, giving fresh greens all winter.

Throughout, Warmock stresses that choosing the right seed for growing food in winter is essential. Not all varieties do well in the cold, dark months. To help readers find the right type of seed, he includes the names of some of his favorite varieties and gives advice on the best places to find winter vegetable seeds.

The only thing I feel this book is missing is some information about using tunnels for winter gardening. I do realize the author is trying to focus on the most old fashioned and easy ways to winter garden, and tunnels are more of a modern invention. But at the back of the book, the author excerpts some of his gardening journal, mentioning tunnels briefly, but never explaining why he doesn't recommend them. (Elsewhere in the book, he mentions the high winds his area receives, so I assume this is why tunnels don't work well for him. Still, it would be helpful to read what he feels the pros and cons of tunnels vs. cold frames and hot beds are.)

In addition, it's important to remember that Warnock is somewhat selective in the foods he mentions in the book. For example, he neglects to mention parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, or collards, all of which are good winter vegetables. On the other hand, he talks about his amazing trials growing cantaloupe in hot beds (!) and has a chapter dedicated to mangels, an excellent through little-known crop for livestock.

Finally, several times in the book, Warnock refers readers to his website or blog. For example, he suggests checking his blog for an update about growing cantaloupe in winter. But when I arrived at his site, the search feature wasn't working. In fact, his blog looks a little neglected, with loading problems and infrequent posts.

All in all, however, Backyard Winter Gardening is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it to those who want to grow more of their family's food.

Jan 1, 2014

How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty - a Book Review

There are a lot of homesteading and self-sufficiency books available these days, but in my experience, only a few are really worth reading. How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty by Janet Chadwick is certainly one of them.

What makes Chadwick's book unique isn't so much it's scope (it covers the typical homesteading topics, from gardening to caring for animals), but the fact that she's been living a mostly self-sufficient homesteading lifestyle for some time now. The most valuable parts of her book, then, are the wisdom and (often amusing) anecdotes she passes down to the reader.

The book begins with a little information about how and why Chadwick and her family chose to homestead, then proceeds to give some great advice about what to do in your homestead's first year. The supposition is that you aren't in an urban area, but that you have at least some land. Chadwick even gives a basic idea of how much you can expect to spend doing basic homesteading activities, like gardening and caring for animals.

Other chapters teach you how to start seedlings (conventionally, indoors); plant, care for, and harvest vegetables; grow fruit; keep bees (offering one of the more realistic guides I've seen, by the way); raise goats, hogs, rabbits, poultry (chicken, ducks, geese, and a wee bit on turkeys, which the author has never raised), and a veal calf. (The author argues that a small, self-sufficient homestead can't support a milk or meat cow through grazing or the growing of grain.) Throughout, I discovered advice I'd never heard or read before, even though I read a lot of gardening and homesteading books.

Ever practical, Chadwick explains why dairy and beef cattle aren't practical for a small, self-sufficient homestead. (You can't grow enough food for them, so you'd have to bring in feed - which makes cattle raising not self sufficient.) She explains how to choose the best animals for your homestead, and all the information you need to house and care for their basic needs. The last two chapters are mostly recipes - recipes you probably won't find in a cookbook. For example, you'll learn how to cook an old hen, make headcheese, render lard, and cook a rabbit or a goat. You'll also find recipes for making basic soap, cheese, candles, and such. In addition, Chadwick gives readers the basics on how to make an indoor seed starting center (that looks something like a bookshelf, plus grow lights), a simple smokehouse, homemade dehydrator, cheese press, and many housing requirements for homestead animals.

My only real complaint about this book is the title, which I find a little misleading. Sure, the author shows readers how to raise or grow almost all of their food, but that is only part of living. The title implies Chadwick might also discuss things such as affording the land for a homestead, clothing the family inexpensively, and energy. But she does not.

Nonetheless, Chadwick packs an amazing amount of information into a 271 page book. More even than The Backyard Homestead (another guide I highly recommend, but which lacks personal anecdotes and advice). For anyone striving toward the homestead life, How to Live on Almost Nothing and Have Plenty is a must read.

Nov 20, 2013

Interview with Jocelyn Green: Bestselling Author, Wife, and Mother

Being a writer, I'm a pretty picky reader - especially when it comes to novels. I'm also a history buff (and a published author of history-related books), so when historical novels stray from real history, I tend to get annoyed. But when I read Jocelyn Green's historical novels Wedded to the War and Widow of Gettysberg, I was impressed. Big time.

What's even more impressive, though, is the author herself. She not only writes novels, but she has several nonfiction books, too. Plus she's a mom and a homeschooler. Better yet, she's a sweet lady who loves Jesus and seeks to lead others to him.

That's why I interviewed Jocelyn (who kindly agreed to the interview even though she'd just passed a grueling deadline and just wanted to get her neglected floor mopped). But don't worry; she won't make you feel bad about not being supermom. Instead, Jocelyn tells it how it really is.

Me:  I love your novels - but I admit, I have a fascination with your personal life, too. You're a wife and a mom of two young children. How do you find time for writing?

Jocelyn: I have to fight for it, no doubt about it. Thankfully, my husband is very helpful, and my parents live 20 minutes away, so they help a couple days a week and when I’m on a deadline, too. But I’ve had to learn to let some things slide. I try to cook ahead of time and have dinners in the freezer during crunch time, but sometimes we eat cereal or frozen pizza. I don’t decorate for every season as much as I’d like to. I don’t vacuum as much as I should. Etc. I also don’t get enough sleep. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle at all, it’s just a lot of triage on my priorities from week to week, and sometimes from day to day.
Me: A lot of moms get so discouraged because they think they should do more. Thank you for being honest about the sacrifices doing more means. 

You recently started homeschooling. How do you work that into your schedule?
Jocelyn: I did! Ha! Well, to  be honest, our homeschool schedule was pretty light this fall while I finished my third novel. Now that I’ve turned it in, we are finding a rhythm that works for our family. We do school from about 8:30am to 2:30pm, and after that, I have some time to work with. Right now I’m just in the research stage for novel #4, and I can easily read while in the same room with my chattering children. But when it comes time to write again, we may need to take some “vacation days” from homeschooling, or I will just have them do independent work on their own. I really don’t know how it’s all going to work out, yet. I’ll let you know next summer.
Me: What tips do you have for moms who aspire to/need to work for money?
Jocelyn: I would say that many times, skipping the byline pays. My best paying writing jobs never gave me any “credit” but the work was steady and the income predictable. For me, that was writing for nonprofits, universities, and web sites. Work your networks and find out who could use a writer. Attend writers conferences to broaden your circle of contacts. Be willing to take smaller jobs first to build up your resume and references. Remember that being faithful in the little things will lead to bigger things. Keep in mind, too, that unless you are Karen Kingsbury or Max Lucado or Jerry Jenkins, writing books is not a lucrative venture. When I consider how many hours I spend on not just writing a book, but then promoting it afterwards, suffice it to say I could make more money working at McDonalds. Seriously. Writing books is more of a ministry for me than anything else. The actual incomes comes from writing stuff that is far less interesting.

Me: So true! Many moms have trouble juggling their mommy and household responsibilities and Bible and prayer time. How do you fit in private and family devotion time?
Jocelyn: I have my personal devotions with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. Then when the kids are eating breakfast, I read to them a devotion for kids. At night, we read straight from the Bible to the kids before bed, and before any other bedtime stories. We recently finished going through the One Year Bible with them. Granted, it took us almost two years, but we did it. 
Me:  Would you tell us a little about your journey as a writer? How did your first book come about? 
Jocelyn: My first book was Faith Deployed: Daily Encouragement for Military Wives. I was a military wife when I pitched the proposal, but by the time it was published in 2008, my husband was no longer active duty. (It took three years to get a contract.) When I was writing that one, I had a two year old and I was pregnant, and very sick. Thankfully, Faith Deployed was a compilation of devotions that 14 other military wives contributed to, so I didn’t write it all myself. That was really the key that made future book contracts so much easier...I had no interest in writing novels for years. But during the research for my nonfiction book, Stories of Faith and Courage from the Home Front, I was inspired to try historical fiction. I was so inspired by reading real diaries of women who lived in Gettysburg 150 years ago, I really wanted to give them a voice again and bring their stories back to life. I felt that a novel would be the most vivid way to do that. That’s when I conceived the idea for the Heroines Behind the Lines Civil War series.

Me: Tell us about your newest books.
Jocelyn: Widow of Gettysburg just released during the summer of 2013. It shows readers what the civilians experienced during and after the battle of Gettysburg. (For more information, including the book trailer, go here.) Next up is Yankee in Atlanta (releasing in June 2014), which follows a Northern woman who lives in Atlanta as a governess for a Confederate soldier’s daughter. Yankee is a story of divided families, conflicting loyalties, and hearts refined by fire. 

Me: I can't wait to read it! 

To learn more about Jocelyn and her books, please visit her website (which includes fun freebies like recipes, and helpful stuff like study guides) or follow her on Facebook.

Feb 6, 2013

Our Favorite Gardening Books for Kids

Nothing beats getting out into the garden with children, showing them how plants grow and how bugs and critters have a positive relationship with them. But when the weather is cold or rainy, or it's just too early to get into the garden, there's nothing like a good gardening book to get my children primed for planting season. Here are our favorites.

#4. Garden Partners by Diana Palmisciano. This sweet book is the tale of a young girl who plants a vegetable garden with her grandmother. Gram's ways are old fashioned (much to one neighbor's head-shaking), but the resulting garden is bountiful. As readers, we feel the anticipation of the little girl as she helps prepare the bed, plant seeds, water them carefully...then waits and waits for them to grow. Ages 4 - 8 (although my daughter loved this book even as a toddler).

#3. Up, Down, and Around by Katherine Ayres. This colorful, fun book is perfect for kids from preschool through about first grade. It helps teach directions (like up and down), but also offers a great glimpse of how vegetables grow - and how yummy they are. My kids love spotting the bugs (many of them underground), seeing root crops from an underground perspective, and arguing about which veggies taste the best.

#2. How Groundhog's Garden Grew by Lynne Cherry. If you only buy one gardening picture book for your kids, let it be this one. It's gorgeous, as well as educational and fun. Groundhog is caught eating veggies from other critter's gardens, so squirrel teaches him how to plant his own. They begin by collecting seeds from plants, then storing them while the animals hibernate in the winter. Groundhog wakes up in late winter and sees his shadow; he goes back to sleep, but squirrel later wakes him saying the potatoes are sprouting. They plant their garden, tend it, then share the harvest with their animal friends. Throughout, the author showcases amazing vegetable gardens and the endpapers and edges of many pages feature plants in various stages, from seed, to sprout, to bloom, to harvestable - all labeled so you know what plant is featured. For children from about 4 to 8 (although I love looking through it, too!).

# 1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Actually, #1 and #2 are ties in our house. But for children who are ready to read or listen to a book with fewer pictures, none will get them as excited about gardening as this classic tale of a miserable little girl who goes to live with her uncle and discovers a locked, hidden garden. There is much more to this story than gardening, but children will learn about gardening and plant growth reading this tale.

Jan 16, 2013

Book Review: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter

"It's empowering to know I can cure bacon, brew vanilla, age Camembert, extract honey from a hive, and behead a chicken, even if I have no desire to do at least one of those things ever again," writes Jennifer Reese in her book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. It's also nice to save money (which happens often, if not always) when you make food at home - and, as Reese points out repeatedly, often homemade makes you wonder how food manufacturers ever convinced people to pay extra for their dismal products in the first place.

If you've ever wondered: Is this worth making at home? Reese book is probably for you. For each recipe in this book, she offers up her opinion on whether it's worth making from scratch (Is it a hassle to make? Is it cheaper? Does it just taste better?) and how much you might (or might not) save making it at home. She covers a wide variety of foods, from veggies and junk food to bread and cheese. She even tells us (because this book is as much commentary and food memoir as it is cookbook) of her adventures raising chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats, and bees. There are certainly gaps in the book; Reese discusses homemade butter, yogurt, and cream cheese, but what about cottage cheese, ricotta, and sour cream? But unless her publisher was to market a huge tome at a high price, I don't think we can fault the author for this.

Yes, readers should understand Reese's price estimates are just that - estimates, based upon her personal location. Before deciding whether it's cheaper to cook from scratch, readers should investigate their own local prices. (But do remember it's not all about saving money. Sometimes it's about avoiding GMOs, or nasty chemicals, or just plain making food that tastes better than store bought.)

And yes, Reese has occasional feminist rants - which I suspect weren't edited out because they are designed to be mildly amusing - or offer up excuses for a feminist writing this kind of book. For example, Reese writes about her childhood fixation over a book called Laurel's Kitchen - and her apparent disgust upon re-reading it as an adult:
"Was I hallucinating? Had I really once loved this book? And were these truly the views of groovy Berkley, California women in the 1970s? Interspersed between paeans to the glory of homemade bread and recipes for cashew gravy were meditations on the nature of women that struck me as so essentialist and retrograde that they might have come from a fundamentalist religion sect.
'I would never go on record as saying 'a woman's place is in the home,' wrote one of the authors. 'But to my mind the most effective front for social change, the critical point were our efforts will count the most, is not in business or profession...but in the home and community, where the problems start.'
In the home, kneading a big batch of cracked wheat bread, was where women - the 'nurturant' sex - belonged...If I saw my teenage daughter reading this today, I would gently remove it from her hands and suggest that she go to the library and find herself something energizing and appropriate for a girl her age, like Wifey or Scruples."
And yes, Reese uses a some coarse language - usually when quoting her husband. She appears to do it as an attempt at humor, but really it's unnecessary and distracting.

And yes, sometimes Reese seems clueless about things that (to me, at least) seem obvious. For example, she writes about her family's test of home roasted chicken vs. grocery store bought rotisserie chicken, without seeming to understand the difference in cooking methods - or that store bought rotisserie chicken is almost always injected with sugar and salt water to make it more moist and flavorful. Another example is her problem-filled story about having backyard chickens. It's pretty discouraging and the author never admits the issues could have been avoided if she'd just had a little expert advice.

BUT these flaws are actually pretty minor when you look at the book as a whole, and I'm glad to have Make the Bread, Buy the Butter on my bookshelf.

Among many other foods, you'll read about making peanut butter, hot dog buns, "Nutella," yogurt (including lemon and coffee flavored yogurt), English muffins, croissants, baking powder, cakes, pot stickers, French fries, onion rings, potato chips (the fried kind; Reese doesn't mention the baked or microwaved variety), tortilla chips, crazy-complicated fried chicken, popcorn (the stove top kind; oddly, she doesn't mention homemade microwave popcorn), glazed donuts, marshmallows, croutons, Graham crackers, beef jerky, salt pork, Canadian bacon, bacon, pancetta, sauerkraut, mozzarella (which she claims you can't make with typical store bought milk; this contradicts Ricki Carrol's Home Cheese Making...More on this soon, when I attempt my first batch of mozzarella), stuffing, pumpkin pie, lemonade, ginger ale, a Cheese-Its style cracker, vanilla and lemon extract, "Oreos," and "Fig Newtons."

Some critics complain there are a lot of not-so-healthy foods in the book - but aren't those exactly the sort of foods we tend to buy, instead of make from scratch? I definitely won't use every recipe in this book, but I do think it's a great reference for those who want healthier, cheaper food for their families.

Dec 3, 2012

Best Christ-Centered Christmas Picture Books

Song of the Stars: Imagine how nature might have reacted to Christ's birth and you have the essence of this book. Animals, plants, the wind, skies, sea, and more all celebrate Jesus until finally we see Bethlehem with shepherds and angels, then a little barn, then a baby surrounded by animals, then the baby held by his mother. "Our Rescuer!" Mary cries, and all "gazed in wonder at God's great gift...Heaven's Son sleeping under the stars that he made."

The Christmas Troll: A boy is angry with his parents for not letting him open one of his Christmas presents early and takes his little sister and runs off into a nearby forest. There, they meet a troll - a wonderful, sweet troll. He is a fantastic, unexpected gift - one they hadn't deserved, yet received all the same - and now the boy can't wait to tell everyone about it. This is a well layered story that will lead to discussions such as: Do people put God in a box? Is God more unexpected and wonderful than we think? Are God's greatest gifts the surprising ones?

Tiny Baby Jesus: "Tiny, tiny fingers touch a piece of hay./Tiny baby Jesus born in Bethlehem today. Now those very fingers,/grown so sure and strong-/Jesus is a carpenter,/working all day long." So this book goes, highlighting some aspect of Jesus at birth, then some aspect of the rest of his life - up until the miracle of his resurrection.

The Christmas List: Everyone keeps asking Emily to make a Christmas list of things she wants - but she's uncomfortable with the idea and not very excited about the holiday. Then she learns that God's love - and the action it requires - is the most important thing to put on a Christmas list.

The Three Trees: Three trees have great aspirations, but when they are cut down, they think there's no chance they will do anything great. However, the first is turned into a feeding trough that later holds baby Jesus. The second is turned into a boat from which Jesus later calms the water. The third becomes Jesus' cross. This beautiful story highlights the idea that God often uses us in ways we don't expect.

Berenstain Bears Get Ready for Christmas: This simple lift the flap book shows the bear family preparing the nativity scene for their home. They find various parts (baby Jesus, Mary, the shepherds, etc.) throughout the house (and under the flaps) and each one is explained.

My First Countdown to Christmas: Actually an advent devotional, suitable for toddlers through perhaps first grade. In addition to the devotionals, some crafts are suggested, as well as prayers.

Touch and Feel Christmas: A great first Christmas book, it tells the basic story of Jesus' birth with highly attractive collage illustrations that have touch and feel elements.

Away in a Manger: In this simple book are the lyrics to the song "Away in a Manger," accompanied by gorgeous illustrations. It's a great way to both cement the reason why we celebrate Christmas and teach your child a simple Christmas song.
When Mother Was 11 Foot 4: A beautifully written story of a boy whose mother love Christmas. But one year, Mother, now single, is working but not making much money. There may be no huge Christmas tree and abundance of gifts. Mother is defeated, but her children work to raise enough to buy a meager tree. They decorate it (including a little Sunday School project of Jesus in the manger) and when Mother walks in and sees it, the little woman suddenly feels 11 ft. 4. The children have learned the power of giving.

Pine Tree Parable: A farmer and his wife plant Christmas trees. Years pass and finally the trees are ready for selling. But one tree, the farmer's wife just can't part with; she puts a not for sale sign on it. Then a very needy family visits the tree farm. The only tree they can afford is pathetic. The little girl in the family hopefully asks for the beautiful, not for sale tree instead; the farmer's wife cannot say no. As the tree falls, she thinks, "Yes, it was a great sacrifice. but it brought even greater joy. Isn't that just like Christmas?"

Saint Nicholas: This attractive book explains the man behind the Santa legend, telling the most famous parts of his story. A man has daughters who cannot marry because they can't afford a dowry. Nicholas secretly drops the needed cash into their shoes, set before the fireplace at night. The legend of St. Nicholas - a man who serves God - begins.

Josie's Gift: Josie wants a gorgeous blue sweater for Christmas. But it's the Depression and Josie's father just died. Christmas, she thinks, is about everything she doesn't have. On Christmas Eve, Josie spots a package under the tree and secretly opens it; it's her sweater! Yet moments later, she feels just as empty as she was before opening the box. She walks outside, asking God for answers. She discovers a man and his wife huddled in the barn, with an infant in their arms. They need a warm place to sleep for the night. Josie tucks her blue sweater around the baby. “Christmas is not about what we want. It’s about what we have.” Josie heartfully thanks God for Jesus and for Christmas. Because Christmas, the author concludes, is about “what she had, deep down in her soul that only God could give.”

Legend of the Christmas Stocking: There are a number of books out there explaining Christmas symbols with a Christian slant, but The Legend of the Christmas Stocking is by far the best-written. It's the story of a boy who longs for a beautiful model ship for Christmas - but there isn't much money for presents. Then the boy hears a sermon explaining why we use Christmas stockings - and the he decides to sacrifice his own desires so he can give gifts to his mother and sisters.

Gift of the Christmas Cookie: It is the 1930s, in the heart of the Depression. To one boy, Christmas doesn't seem very appealing without his father (who is far away, working) or presents. His mother makes some Christmas cookies for the poor, explaining such cookies were originally used to tell the story of Jesus' birth. Still, the boy is not happy the cookies will go to others, instead of him. Yet when his mother offers him the biggest of the cookies, the boy gives it to a vagrant man...then tells him the story of Jesus' birth.

Waiting for Christmas: Is a story about waiting patiently for Christmas. In it, a young German boy learns Jesus had to wait two or three years for his gifts from the wise men. To help the waiting, his mother gives him a daily advent cookie. “Christmas would come, he knew. For now, he would just have to wait. But that was all right. Some things are worth waiting for.”

The Tale of Baboushka: Baboushka ("grandmother" in Russian) keeps a very tidy house, and when three visitors come to her door, she makes sure they have exactly the food, drink, and shelter they need. When they tell her they are traveling to meet a new king (Jesus) and ask her to join them, Baboushka says she will follow -  but first she will tidy her home. By the time she gets around to Jesus, the star guiding the way to him is gone, so she travels around giving gifts to children around the world, ever in search of the king.

May 11, 2012

Free-Range Chicken Gardens: A Book Review

When I saw that landscaper Jessi Bloom had written a book about keeping a beautiful garden while letting chickens run around in it, I was excited. Did she have some secret insights into keeping my hens from gobbling up my collards and lettuce? Well...yes and no; but I still found Free-Range Chicken Gardens an inspiring and useful book.

So Bloom's ideas about hens and gardens, in a nutshell? Train the girls, block them when needed, give 'em plant diversity, and plant with chickens in mind.

The book begins by explaining why hens and gardens do go together. Chickens "weed" for us, eat pests, aerate the soil, "mow" our lawns, and provide organic fertilizer. If you don't have chickens yet, Bloom also offers sound advice on choosing some that are appropriate for your yard - and how to plan the yard to everyone's best advantage. I was surprised to see her define a typical suburban backyard as 7,000 to 13,000 sq. ft. - that's enormous in my neck of the woods - and much of her advice seems geared toward this size. But there is still plenty of info for those who have larger and smaller pieces of land.

Bloom also gives a good overview of taking care of chickens. She talks about their life cycle, their basic needs, clipping their wings, protecting them from predators, and so on, even offering tips for choosing chickens that do well with a free range lifestyle. She also delves into topics like composting chicken manure (although, surprisingly, she only explains how to do it with your kitchen or garden waste compost - with no info on keeping a compost bin just for manure). There is an entire section on coop design, with some amazing examples to inspire. And then Bloom discusses training chickens.

Most people think training a chicken is impossible, but I already know from personal experience this isn't so. For example, all we have to do is pick up a blue toy hoe, and all our chickens run into their house to be locked up for the night. My husband can also put a hand over them, and they will "sit" and allow him to pick them up. Bloom also says chickens can be trained to come when you call them by name. All of which is very useful when protecting your garden.

Next comes practical advice on temporarily fencing, netting, or blocking off new plantings, seedlings, and nearly-ready-to-harvest fruits and veggies. Fencing and hardscaping are covered rather extensively - which I suppose is to be expected from a professional landscaper. She covers garden design in depth - sometimes in a general way, but often with chickens in mind. For example, she offers diagrams and descriptions showing how hens can be cordoned off from certain areas (say, a vegetable garden, a children's play area, or a patio), while still giving them free range elsewhere. She then goes on to suggest how trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials should be layered in the garden - both for beauty and for chicken foraging and habitat. In fact, plant diversity is a big part of how she suggests keeping hens from destroying the garden; the more plants, the less likely the chickens are to destroy any of them.

My favorite part of the book, however, is when Bloom discusses plants that seem to deter hens. For example, she notes that while all above-ground parts of nasturtiums are edible, her hens seem to hate them. She says a mixture of low growing ground covers may also deter hens and offers a page-long list of chicken-resistant plants. This gives me excellent ideas for protecting my vegetable garden from our hens, all while making the garden more attractive. Bloom also discusses plants that either provide hens with habitat or food and may be mixed into an ornamental garden. Oh, and if you're worried certain ornamentals could poison your chickens, Bloom gives expert advice on that, too.

Besides all this good info, the book is gorgeously illustrated with color photographs (most by Kate Baldwin) featuring hens in gardens and inspiring landscaping designs.

So while Free-Range Chicken Gardens wasn't exactly what I expected, I'm glad to have read it and have it as a part of my library. Already, I'm itching to improve my garden - then let the hens have at it.

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Feb 14, 2012

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 Acre

A great many people these days are talking about being more self-sufficient, and many are planning on buying land in order to make this more feasible. Brett L. Markham's book Mini Farming promises food freedom with just 1/4 acre - significantly less than what most homesteading books suggest. So naturally, I couldn't wait to see how Markham does it.

Overall, I think Markham does an excellent job with this book, covering many areas other homesteading books neglect. He clearly grows or raises most of his family's food. Most - so I find the sub-title a little misleading. But if you're looking to grow produce and raise chickens for eggs - and if you especially want to do it on a scale so you don't have to buy either of those items and still have enough left over to sell, Markham's book is a definite must read.

First, let me explain my quibbles with the book.

Readers should know Markham uses an intensive gardening method. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise, since he suggests gardening on so little land. My only complaint, then, is that he fails to mention that without plenty of water and fertilizer, you're not going to be at all self-sufficient using intensive methods. In other words, while intensive gardening works well when water is plentiful and not too expensive, it fails miserably if there is a drought or the gardener can't afford to pay the water bill. And if there's no money to purchase the supplements for the soil Markham suggests, the garden isn't going to do well, either. A heads up to readers on this matter would have satisfied me.

Markham also repeats the old idea that vegetable garden rows come from "agribusiness" and have no place in a successful homesteading garden. But wide row gardening actually dates far back into history and was most likely adopted because vegetables grown far apart require far less watering. (Their roots spread out better, and it's easier for them to find water already in the soil.)

Markham also suggests planting one seed per hole, in order to save money on seeds. But he fails to mention that even the best seeds don't have a 100% germination rate. Certainly a gardener can follow his advice and have a fine garden, but they should be warned that not every seed will sprout.

But Markham does such a superb job in other areas, I can't help but recommend his book. For example, he may offer the best guide to starting a new bed that I've ever seen. He also gives some good, solid ideas of how big intensive gardens should be (700 square feet per person, in his estimation). He also provides great information on maintaining the soil in the garden, and even attempts to answer how many vegetable plants should be grown, using the USDA pyramid as a guide. He explains why growing grain on a small scale isn't economical. He teaches pest control through prevention first. He offers good advice on starting seeds on a big scale and discusses the difficulties of seed saving due to inbreeding in a relatively small garden. He covers cleaning eggs for sale, butchering meat chickens, and how to build a plucker and a thresher.

He briefly mentions graywater for irrigation; but here he should have mention that graywater (the dirty water from the washer, for example) can contain feces. (If you wash your undies, that is!) And that in many areas it's illegal to use graywater. He offers the basics of canning and covers freezing with a sealer. And - more briefly than I'd like - covers selling produce and eggs. He also does an excellent job of explaining soil tests and how to amend the soil so a garden can thrive.

So whether you just want a backyard veggie garden (and maybe some hens) or you want a 1/4 acre intensive garden, you're sure to learn something from Markham's personal experience, years in farming, and skill at making the complex simple and understandable.

Jan 9, 2012

Backyard Homesteading: A Book Review

LinkThere are two kinds of homesteading books: Those offering some practical info, but also heaps of inspiration for further research, like The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It and Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century. The other type of homesteading book focuses more on how-to advice, like The Backyard Homestead.

Until now, when asked to recommend the most practical homesteading book, I suggested only Backyard Homestead. But now I'll recommend both Backyard Homestead by and Backyard Homesteading by David Toht.

Backyard Homesteading is designed primarily for those living in the suburbs, although city and country dwellers will find lots of good, practical information in it, too. In comparing it with Madigan's book, I have to say I find hers most thorough. However, Toht's book offers a different outlook and quite a bit of different information. For anyone seriously wanted to homestead in the suburbs, both books are worth referencing.

Toht begins at the beginning by covering municipal regulations and basic homestead planning. He briefly covers topics like rooftop gardening and water supply, then delves right into the heart of the book: Growing edibles. Here, he offers advice on choosing vegetables, preparing the soil, improving the soil, and timing plantings. He briefly covers seed saving, dealing with weeds, and basic requirements for common vegetables and herbs. Illustrations show what a typical suburban garden might look like during the various seasons, while others show what a generous urban homestead might look like compared to a suburban homestead and a mini-farm.

Fruit trees, nuts, and berries are covered in a separate chapter, with all the basics covered, including concerns about pollination, maintenance, pruning, and general care requirements. The entire section on gardening is not, in my opinion, as comprehensive as Backyard Farming's, but it does offer some different information.

There is also a chapter on raising chickens, including information about city codes, choosing breeds, caring for chicks, and general care. I notice the author makes the common assumption that backyard eggs are more expensive than store bought, but as I wrote about recently, this isn't always the case. There is helpful information on getting the most eggs from your hens, making your own feed, chicken health, and cleaning dirty eggs. Only two pages are devoted to raising meat birds, and a few basic recommendations for butchering are given. The author also very briefly covers ducks, geese, turkeys, and quail.

There's also a chapter on raising goats, which covers everything from housing to milking. Cows, sheep, and pigs are given only a few paragraphs, making these sections not very useful. Bees are given an entire chapter.

Next, canning is covered, as well as making sausage, dehydrating, smoking, and freezing. The basics of beer, wine, and cider making are covered, and there's a useful chapter on root cellaring (hint: even a garbage can will do the trick).

All in all, this is a useful book, especially for those just starting out in homesteading.

Jun 24, 2011

Raising Farm Animals in Your Backyard

The Backyard Homestead is probably the best book available for those who'd like to become more self-sufficient when it comes to food. As you can see from my review of the book (here), most of that volume is dedicated to growing vegetables; there is far less information on raising livestock. However, the same publisher recently released The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals; this is unquestionably the best book on the market for those in the suburbs or country who like the idea of raising animals for eggs, milk, and meat, but aren't sure where to start.

The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals has chapters covering chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, rabbits, bees, goats, sheep, pigs, and cows. Each chapter lays out the basics of how to raise the animal, including housing and feeding requirements, and how to keep the critters healthy. There are also tips on choosing an appropriate breed, keeping predators at bay, and general ideas on whether or not you're likely to save money raising your own.

The editor, Gail Damerow, also offers a visual on how much room is needed to raise certain animals through three drawings at the front of the book. Each offers an idea of how a homestead could proceed, showing how properties (each with a typical house and a veggie garden) could be laid out. For example, on the smallest property (1/10th of an acre), bees, rabbits, and chickens are shown. On the largest property (1/2 an acre), bees, rabbits, pigs, waterfowl, poultry, and 1 cow or 2 steers and either 2 goats or 2 lambs, are suggested.

At the center of the book is a folded color chart picturing the most common breeds raised for food; while this is pretty, I didn't find it very useful - although I did like how some small silhouettes at the bottom of the chart give an idea of the size of each breed mentioned. Aside from this, my only real complaint about the book is that it rarely address difficulties urban homesteaders face, like coming up with space, keeping kids safe, and addressing the concerns of neighbors.

But despite certain limitations, this is still is the best book I've found on the topic. It's clearly not meant to be the only book you'll want on how to raise your backyard livestock. You can and should read as many books as possible on how to raise the animals you select. But The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals is an great one stop source for making decisions about which animals you can - in all practicality - raise in the suburbs or country. I recommend it!

Jun 13, 2011

Putting Up More: A Radically Different Approach to Home Canning

When I heard that author and boutique commercial canner Stephen Palmer Dowdney lays out a completely different way to home can in his new book Putting Up More, I was intrigued. Like most other American canners, I was taught to home can with strict adherence to the USDA's guidelines. As I became a more experienced canner, I found that other countries, including England and Canada, have different guidelines, all touted as being "the safest." I also noticed that some families used non-USDA approved recipes for such things as tomato sauce, canning it the way their family had canned it for generations - without giving anyone food poisoning. So I am perhaps more open to non-USDA approved canning than some other canners.

But Dowdney's technique is completely different from anything I've read about before. And here's the real kicker: It is USDA approved...but only for commercial canning. In other words, the government has different guidelines for home canners than they do for those who are selling canned goods commercially but using home canning equipment. After reading Dowdney's book and looking up the USDA commercial guidelines myself, I can only suppose the government thinks the average home canner is too stupid to follow the guidelines that a business must use. Why else have two different guidelines?

Dowdney uses only a hot water bath canner - even for foods usually canned in a pressure canner. He uses ordinary canning jars and lids. He even cans some foods using an old fashioned method where you simply fill a sterile jar, put a lid on it, and turn it upside down. But here's how his method is radically different from what you'll find in other canning books:

* He sterilizes everything - jars, lids, cooking utensils, the counter, etc. - with bleach.

* He tests many recipes with a special but inexpensive acidity testing strip.

As any knowledgeable canner will tell you, getting the correct level of acidity is essential to having safe canned food. I'd always read there is no accurate way to test the acidity level of recipes at home, but clearly if people who are selling canned goods commercially are using this method (as recommended by the USDA), then simple acid testing strips are accurate. This opens up an amazing world of food to home canners.

Oh, and as Dowdney points out, with today's genetically altered food, USDA-approved home canning recipes may not be safe without running an acid test, anyway. Modern tomatoes, for example, can have a different acidity level than heirloom tomatoes, putting them in a dangerous range. This is certainly food for thought.

Although Dowdney says he lays out all the safety information more thoroughly in his first book, Putting Up (which I hope to review soon), Putting Up More offers readers plenty of information on how to can safely using Dowdney's method. Notes beside each recipe explain whether or not an acid test is necessary, and how to adjust the acidity level of the canned goods if they test out of the safe range.

To learn Downdey's technqiue is a good enough reason to buy this book, read it, and keep it as a reference, but Downdey also offers lots of great recipes, too. Primarily, you'll find jams, jellies, and preserves, relishes, chutneys, soups, and sauces and marinades. There's also a section on pickles, salsas, and hot foods (like pickled jalapenos and hot vinegars).

Some recipes don't call for acid level testing, like red tomato jam, blackberry-lemon marmalade, and mango preserves. Others call for one or two acid level tests (one before canning and one after). Some that sound especially good to me include sweet onion jam (for serving with meat), peach relish, hot pepper relish, kiwi fruit chutney, summer squash pickles (which look and sound so much better than the USDA approved home canning recipe), pickled Brussels sprouts, black bean soup, butternut squash soup, bouillabaisse (!), and apricot-jalapeno jam.

I am anxious to try Dowdney's techniques, as well as his recipes. I highly recommend Putting Up More for any canner.

Apr 4, 2011

Reading the "Real Bible"

My oldest is just 5 years old, but she often asks me read the "real Bible" to her. By this she means a Bible translation, not a Bible storybook. I'm all for this. Although she may not understand the "real Bible" thoroughly, I believe hearing it now instills it in her heart - a conclusion I've come to after talking to adults who had the Bible read to them as children.

There are inherent difficulties in doing this, of course. The Bible is full of mature themes, and at this point I'd rather not have to answer questions like "What's a virgin?" So a certain amount of preparation or editing-as-I-read is necessary.

In addition, while she sometimes sits next to me on the couch and listens to me read, I find she's actually more attentive if she has some busy work - like coloring - to do while I read.

Lately, we've been reading from The Family Reading Bible, which, although better suited to slightly older children on up through teens, has made my job a little easier. This is an ordinary NIV Bible, but with sidebars containing very short commentary and questions for parents to ask. There are also reading plans in the back to help you work your way through the Bible, or certain portions of it. Last Christmas, we followed the Christmas reading plan, which gave us background on what the Old Testament says about Christ, as well as taking us through the New Testament Christmas story. Now we're working on the Easter reading plan.

Whether you use an aid like The Family Reading Bible or whatever "real Bible" you have laying around, why not start reading it out loud to your kids today?

Feb 4, 2011

Self-Sufficiency for the 21st Century

I see it everywhere. People in all walks of life are developing an interest in being more self sufficient. Maybe it's the economy. Maybe it's a desire for a more simple, traditional life. Maybe it's a longing to be more in tune with nature. But whether you live in the city and want to grow food on your rooftop, live in the suburbs and want to raise chickens, or live in the country and want to make your property a small farm, Self Sufficiency for the 21st Century by father/son writing duo Dick and James Strawbridge, offers lots of inspiration, both in the writing and in the abundant full color photos.

No single book on self sufficiency can be entirely adequate for the curious mind, but what I really enjoyed about the Strawbridge's book is their writing comes from practical experience. For many years, they've owned and operated Newhouse Farm in Cornwall, England, and I loved getting a peak at what works for them - from their electricity-producing water wheel, to their rainwater harvesting system, to their gorgeous and practical garden, to their critters. And while their book is clearly modeled after John Seymour's classic The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It (read my review of Seymour's book here), Strawbridge's book is more practical for modern life.

The book begins by considering the basics of self sufficiency: Food, shelter, and energy. Throughout, we get glimpses of life at Newhouse Farm, but the authors also offer ideas and illustrations for being more self sufficient in an urban and suburban setting. Next, we settle in to ideas about how to make our homes more energy efficient, including using passive solar gain (basically, large windows facing south), and heat recovery. There's even brief information on building earth homes or houses lined with straw bales. Energy options are next, and an introduction to many possibilities is included. Their view of solar energy is realistic, but they offer ideas about where it can be useful. They even offer basic instructions for building a solar shower. They also cover wind and water energy in fair detail; at Newhouse, they use a combination of all these energy sources. In addition, there are ideas for safe rainwater usage, compost toilets, and making and using biofuel.

The next section of the book covers gardening, and while the techniques used at Newhouse seem pretty traditional, the authors offer some ideas on forest gardens, no dig gardening, and growing plants only in water (hydroponics). They offer all the info needed to start traditional composting - and they include a method of composting cooked meat, fish, and dairy products. There's even a page detailing how to make an all natural, balanced fertilizer from comfrey, a type of herb. The authors also offer an intelligent chart for rotating crops, as well as information on using a greenhouse, hoop house, and cold frame, gardening in urban areas, building a raised bed, doing worm composting, sowing seeds, and basic but useful information on growing various types of vegetables, fruits, and herbs.

The next section is most useful for those with land. It offers insights into working large areas, including making natural boundaries, growing fodder for animals, storing large amounts of crops, and managing wooded areas. Lessons in animal husbandry are offered next, and while the information is brief (8 pages tops per type of animal), it's pretty informative. If you want to begin raising hens, for example, you'll find all the necessary information on how to begin: How to buy, offering housing, watering, feeding, making a hen tractor, increasing your flock, and butchering the birds. There are also sections on turkeys, geese and ducks, pigs, sheep, goats, bees, and cows. A very brief section also mentions wild game and fish, offering illustrated instructions on skinning, drawing, and butchering a rabbit.

For those new to preserving food, the next section of the book offers an overview. The authors cover making butter, yogurt, cream, cheese, and bread; pickling; preserves; drying herbs, vegetables, and fruit (mostly by solar means); curing meat and fish; smoking (including making smokers); and making hard cider, beer, and wine. Unfortunately, there are a few odd-ball statements, like: "Preserving vegetables at home by canning is not advisable...Our advice is to only can fruit, and preserve your vegetables by freezing them," but since this book isn't a canning manual, one hopes readers will look elsewhere for thorough canning information.

The least helpful part of the book, in my opinion, is the section on "natural remedies." The information seems much too vague to me. For example, there are instructions on making "revitalizing infusions" - just for general health, I suppose. Specific information on using herbs and plants to treat ailments is absent entirely. Finally, there is a brief section on "green cleaners," like baking soda and vinegar, and a section offering very basic information on working with wood, basketry, and similar skills.

It is important to remember that Self Sufficiency for the 21st Century isn't the place to learn how to do everything mentioned in the book. Rather, it's a place from which to draw workable ideas, learn the basics of important skills, and learn from two men who live an essentially self sufficient life. After reading this book, I think you'll be inspired to do further research into how you can live a more self sufficient life.

For those who dream of owning a small farm or those wanting to find ways to make life in the suburbs or country side more simple and self sufficient, this book is an great addition to the bookshelf.