Thanksgiving 2017

We sat 41 people for dinner for Thanksgiving this year. Well, technically, 37 adults (if you include one 16 year old velociraptor) and 4 kids under 10.

The menu was as follows:
Thai pumpkin soup with gougeres
Smoked turkey
Roasted turkey with confit legs
Stock-braised turkey legs
Deep fried turkey
Roasted pork shoulder
Roast duck
Roasted beets with chimichurri sauce
Skillet roasted Brussel sprouts with mustard and brown sugar
Chickpea, arugula, and picked carrot salad
Sweet potato and star fruit chaat
Mom’s stuffing (that’s Jim’s mom, obviously)
Mashed potatoes
Orange cranberry sauce
Kimchi
Rice
Gravy
Hawaiian dinner rolls
Chocolate pumpkin cheesecake
Blackberry pie
Apple pie
Pumpkin spice cake

If there is a term for exhausted and stuffed at the end of a meal (stuffausted? exuffed?), that’s what we were. Thankfully, Jim’s nephew, Robert, came to help cook, and Robert’s girlfriend, Victoria, made the pumpkin spice cakes. (We had two of each dessert.)
And since Thanksgiving is all about thankfulness, I would like to say that we are extraordinarily thankful for our family and friends, who celebrate with us in good times and sustain us in bad times.
We hope your Thanksgiving was equally festive!

Thai pumpkin soup

traditional day-after-Thanksgiving sticky buns

 

 

Eagle Project: Part I

On a fortuitously cloudy but not rainy Sunday (November 5), Marcus and about a dozen of his friends embarked on Part I of his Eagle Scout project, which was to build a shed and water catchment system for a church in Purcellville, Virginia. The project took the better part of the day, but by the end of the day, both projects were completed.
There were certain conclusions to be drawn from this part of the project:
1. Boys, whatever the age, mostly eat like velociraptors.
2. Pizza is always acceptable nourishment to the aforementioned velociraptors.
3. Young boys (below the age of 12) and power tools are a combustible combination (fortunately, there were no trips to the emergency room—my only goal).
4. Boy Scouts are more punctual than school friends (unless school friends are also Boy Scouts).

Nonetheless, Part I was a great success!

project management

the new shed!

water catchment system

shingling the roof

all done!!

Note: the full Eagle Project is on behalf of the Saint Isidore Project (www.isidoreproject.org). Part II is to assemble garden-in-a-box kits and convince various houses of worship that their lovely country club lawns might be put to better use by creating a garden to grow food for the poor.  Stay tuned!

Parent Potluck 2017

One of the lovely traditions at the kids’ school is that of parent potlucks. During the fall, various parents volunteer to host potlucks at their homes for the parents of the grade. We always try to host at least one, but sometimes schedules get in the way.
After not being able to host last year, we did host one this year for our son’s grade. Jim is opposed to potlucks as a concept and since he likes to cook, we cook the entire dinner. Guests are asked to bring their favorite bottle of wine to donate to the school’s auction.
This past weekend was a rather hectic one. Both Jim and I had board meetings followed by a wedding and reception on Saturday. The day of the potluck was also the day of Part 1 of our son’s Eagle Scout project (more on that in a subsequent blog post). But we managed to fit it all in (although I’ve never seen 2:00 am before on a day where the clocks were moved back—a new experience).

The menu was as follows:
cheese, pate, & crackers
cucumber & carrot salad
chickpea, arugula, & picked carrots salad
tossed salad
fruit salad
beef bourguignon
spicy shrimp
buttered baby potatoes
baguettes
steamed rice
apple pie

We had four couples over for dinner, some we knew and some we didn’t (which is a perfect combination). It was a fun evening with great conversation and some memorable moments.

 

Book review: A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

A Perilous Undertaking (Veronica Speedwell, #2)A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Profound relief was my first reaction after reading the first half of the book. I was disappointed that one of my favorite authors (whose Lady Julia Grey mystery series I love) had created a heroine that I took an immense dislike to in the first book of the series (“A Curious Beginning”): the know-it-all, smug, and arrogant Veronica Speedwell. In this second installment of the series, Veronica has mellowed out significantly and while still opinionated and sometimes difficult, is *much* more likable and sympathetic. The series is narrated in the first person by Veronica, and in this book, she is more self-aware and less self-absorbed, to the benefit of the reader.
The other main character of the series, Stoker (short for Ravenstoke Templeton-Vane) is also less irascible, more sympathetic, and more likable than in the first book. There is additional information on Stoker’s background, which further rounds out his character.
Oh, and then there’s the mystery. Veronica and Stoker race to clear a man that has been convicted of a murder but that an important person claims is innocent. The mystery is complex, filled with interesting secondary characters (most of them suspects), and well plotted. I will say that the week or so that the main characters have to solve the mystery seems to move rather slowly (that is to say, there seems to be more activity than one might think could be fit into a week), but I wasn’t keeping particular track of the days, and it is possible that the temporal pace of the book might not require any time travel.
This second installment of the series was a TREMENDOUS improvement over the first, and I highly recommend it!

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Disneyworld Redux (thanks to Hurricane Irma)

Disneyworld!! We have not been since last September. We were planning to go again this September, as a combination birthday/going off to college trip, but Hurricane Irma vetoed that idea. :(. So we rescheduled the trip to last weekend, when Marcus had a 3 day weekend. He brought a friend, Matthew, along for the trip. It was Matthew’s first trip, and it reminded us that there are certain rides we love because of the memories that don’t necessarily appeal as much to a teenage boy going for the very first time (can anyone say “It’s a Small World?”)


Because we had to reschedule the trip, the only place available for us to stay was the Four Seasons (it’s a hardship, but someone had to do it!). The rooms at the Four Seasons are much nicer and roomier than at even the high end Disney resorts, but there is, obviously, much less Disney theming and the system is not as tied in as at the Disney resorts. For example, while you can get Magic Bands at the Disney desk at the hotel, you cannot put park charges on it, and they don’t serve as keys to the room either. All of which makes perfect sense. And it’s a great add for Disney because there are certainly folks who would come and stay at the Four Seasons who would not stay at a Disney hotel. (We are not one of them, as you might have guessed.)
The new Pandora ride—“Flight of Passage”—the more popular of the two Pandora rides—is amazing. It’s a cross between Soarin’ and Star Tours and is an order of magnitude better than either. The premise is that you are flying on a banshee through the world of Pandora, so there’s a big screen like Soarin’, but you are on a contraption that mimics being on a banshee (a kind of giant flying bird). The banshee even breathes as it sits between your legs. It’s pretty mind-boggling and definitely a fantastic addition to the park. (Time to update the Disney tome!)

in the world of Pandora

We also visited Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney), which we have not been to for years. It, too, has grown and improved and is a nice place to visit in the evenings or whenever you want a little down time from the parks (as difficult a concept as that is to imagine).

Disney Springs

With the older one off to college, it gives the younger one an opportunity to catch up on the number of trips to Disneyworld count. This is Marcus’s 55th trip, so he has only a few more before he ties his sister. (Not that this is a competition or anything!)

Book review: The Good Knight by Sarah Woodbury

The Good Knight (Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mysteries, #1)The Good Knight by Sarah Woodbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the first in a mystery series that takes place in medieval Wales. The characters are interesting, and I always enjoy books where the protagonist is a woman. The secondary characters were well characterized and had sometimes outsized personalities. The author is clearly extremely knowledgeable about the time period and setting. The plot was quite clever, with a last-minute twist that was both unexpected and plausible.
My only issue (but it’s a big issue) is with the writing. The dialogue was flat and two dimensional, and the writing seemed unnecessarily simple. There was not much nuance or subtlety–when a point needed to be made, it was made with a sledgehammer. I would have preferred more deftness in the book.
That being said, I was torn between 3 and 4 stars and decided to give the book 4 stars. The author definitely gets points for writing about a culture and place that doesn’t get enough attention (Wales tends to be overshadowed by its larger neighbor). And I am intrigued enough by the characters to be willing to try the second book to see if the writing matures as the series progresses. I’ll keep you posted! 🙂

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Book review: Thief of Hearts by Teresa Medeiros

Thief of HeartsThief of Hearts by Teresa Medeiros
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t typically review the romances I read (although I read a lot of them!), but this one is an exception. The author is a recent discovery for me, and I’ve enjoyed reading all of her books so far, but this one was a cut above the rest. It’s difficult to say why, although I think it’s because the hero and heroine are both so well fleshed out in this book. The hero is handsome (of course!) but with a conflicted past, a thirst for (justifiable) revenge, and dark corners in his soul. The heroine is beautiful (naturally!) but has a distant parent, a repressed upbringing, and a spirit that has somehow flourished nonetheless. They make for a lovely couple. Add into that the choices each makes at different points in the book (revenge over compassion? principle over love? loyalty over truth?), and this book consists of a multi-layered, complex plot and characters. It is a book to soothe and nourish the romance in your soul (assuming you have some). 🙂
If historical romances are your thing, this is a must-read!

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Book review: Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris

Where Serpents Sleep (Sebastian St. Cyr, #4)Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t always review individual books in a mystery series after the first book, unless one book particularly stands out. This is one of them. The Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries series is set in Regency England but instead of using the frothy tone of most books set during that time period, this series exposes the reader to the dark side of the period.
The reason this particular book stands out (and I’m still working my way slowly through the series) is because of the development of the relationship (if you can call it that) between Sebastian St. Cyr and Hero Jarvis, the daughter of a powerful noble and enemy. In addition, the book examines the issue of prostitution during this era, the assumptions made about the morality of the women who were prostitutes, the different business models, and how they were treated by others. Occasionally, the tone is a tad didactic, but the topic is interesting and well-integrated into the plot. In some ways, the book demonstrates that civilization has not moved forward in its attitude towards prostitutes some 200 years later.
As with my previous review of this series, I highly recommend it!! (The series is definitely best read in order.)

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Book review: Beguiling Beauty by Sherry Thomas

Beguiling the Beauty (Fitzhugh Trilogy, #1)Beguiling the Beauty by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I’ve read by this author (who seems to have a remarkable writing range, from fantasy to mysteries to historical romances). I found myself quite taken by this story, despite some significant flaws. Without trying to reveal spoilers (although it *is* a romance, after all), the basic plot is hero falls in love with heroine at first sight, hero learns of heroine’s perfidy and reveals it publicly, heroine swears revenge, and the couple lives happily ever after. 🙂
The author’s best writing happens during the period when the heroine is seeking her revenge. The somewhat unrealistic (even for a romance!) plot device results in an authentic and gripping romance that is the highlight of the book. The book weakens after the revenge subplot predictably blows up in the heroine’s face, and the ending, while highly satisfactory from a romance novel point of view, seems to happen at breakneck speed and without the subtlety of the rest of the book. (It’s almost as if the author realized she was in danger of going over her page limit and had to end the book sooner rather than later.)
The presence of the secondary characters who are clearly in line for their own novels is somewhat distracting, as they are almost forcibly inserted into certain parts of the book without any need for their existence.
But the book totally redeems itself during the period when the hero and heroine are discovering each other’s true selves. There is heartfelt romance and a deft and subtle touch in revealing it.
I am not so in love with the secondary characters in this book that I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, but I will definitely be trying her other books, in particular the Lady Sherlock Holmes books. She’s definitely an author worth keeping an eye out for!

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Book review: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in BusinessSetting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business by Danny Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Danny Meyer has created an extremely successful restaurant empire that includes restaurants as varied as The Modern (in MOMA), Union Square Cafe, Blue Smoke, and Shake Shack. In his book, he relates how he built his restaurant business and what he thinks the keys to success are.
While the author’s background is definitely in the restaurant and hospitality business, his outlook and his philosophy, not to mention the rules he has for his business, are applicable to all businesses (and non-profits). The Union Square Hospitality Group (the name of Danny Meyer’s business) focuses on treating its employees well, attracting and retaining customers, being community-oriented, and delivering an excellent product. All of this, the author believes, results in a profitable business model.
The results speak for themselves. The restaurants in his portfolio all have a reputation for excellent food and outstanding customer service. The author discusses how he looks for “a hospitality heart” when hiring employees.
I am generally not a fan of business books, but this one is well-written, straightforward, and thoughtful. In particular, I like how the author presents his philosophy and gives concrete examples of how that philosophy creates a successful business model. (This goes much further than “the customer is always right.”). In fact, the author states explicitly that even when the customer is not right, focusing on giving the customer a positive experience still is the correct approach.
Anyone who believes in emphasizing customer satisfaction, especially those in service-oriented businesses would benefit from reading this book. Heads of non-profits—where care and feeding of their donors is key to thriving—should also read this book. I highly recommend it! (Which, given that it is a business book, is unheard of!)

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