Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the first of Neil Gaiman’s books that I’ve read, but I have a feeling it won’t be the last. I don’t think I would’ve picked it up on my own (it’s not typically my favorite genre), but the book club I joined chose it for their July book, and I’m so glad it nudged me in this direction. This was also the first book I checked out from our library here once we got our cards, too. Resolution still going strong 😉 It made it feel official!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells the story of a grown man returning to his childhood home and visiting his neighbor’s house, where he remembers an extraordinary friend, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother from when he was a little boy. Almost as if by magic, when he steps across the threshold of their property, memories come flooding back to him that he had otherwise forgotten.  The rest of the book tells what happened when the boy was seven years old and something was afoot at the ocean at the end of the lane.

This was a relatively quick read (it took me ~2 days) and because of that, it makes for a great summer book. I think if you had an afternoon at the pool, you could finish this in one sitting. The story pulls you into another world that is somehow connected to this world, and days later, I’m still looking at everything around me in a new way. There are some lessons to be learned from this book, and it was a great one for a group discussion about some of the underlying themes/messages. I also like hearing how different people interpreted different parts of this story.

This incredibly imaginative story is completely new while somehow seeming to have existed in society’s collective conscious for all of time, like a familiar fairy tale I’m just now reading for the first time. Definitely check it out if you have the chance. I’ll be on the lookout for some of Gaiman’s other works – there are plenty to choose from and I’m glad I’m no longer a stranger to at least one of them!

Rating: 3/5 stars
Stats: 180 pages
Recommended for: Middle schoolers and up; anyone with a penchant for a magic twist to seemingly ordinary surroundings.
Up next: Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

What I Learned: July 2017

Wondering what “What I Learned” is all about? Check out my first post for details!

Here’s what I learned in July:

The difference between flotsam and jetsam. I knew most of the others on this list but I always like a little refresher. Anything with “grammar” in the title is total clickbait for me 😉 Flotsam and jetsam are used together so often I never stopped to consider the different meanings. Now I know!

U-Turn arrows exist. Like…instead of a straight turn arrow, the arrow is in the shape of a U on the traffic light. I should’ve just taken a picture instead of trying to explain. Regardless, there are U-Turn lights here and for good reason! U-Turns are to Cville what roundabouts are to Carmel, IN.

How to close our bank accounts while living out of state. This was a fun grownup experience 🙂 #sarcasm. Turns out, Chase doesn’t have banks anywhere near Virginia. Sooo…we had to open a new bank account here, then transfer and close out our old account all long distance. It was a headache. It is done now. Not sure we could’ve done anything differently to make it easier so let’s just hope this is a lesson we don’t have to learn twice!

Nail-only ledgers are not safe for decksand other fun facts from my new job at a structural engineering firm. I find this stuff interesting, which is making it a lot easier for me to get the swing of things here.

How to cut a mango. Thanks to this recipe, I tried to cut a mango for the first time and it. was. so. hard. Even after looking up how to do it, it probably took me ~15-20 minutes. I think our mango was ripe enough and everything but still…felt like I was doing something wrong. Needless to say, I’m not convinced it was totally worth it. A learning experience indeed – I learned I will stick with with pre-cut mango from now on 🙂

What stacked rocks on a trail mean. My parents and I saw an impressive collection of small stacked rocks (known as “cairns”) on our hike at Crabtree Falls. From what I googled afterward, this is a marker of others who have gone before us as a mini-memorial. Apparently there’s some debate as to whether or not it’s a good thing, though.

How to get free admission to Monticello. If you’re a resident of Virginia and take people from out of state, you get in free. We used this to our advantage when I took my parents to Monticello during their visit!

New podcasts for the month: My Favorite Murder (*explicit language warning*), Running for Real, and Revisionist History

New recipes for the month: Chipotle-Honey Chicken with Mango-Avocado Salsa and Shrimp Caprese Pasta

Dinner Recipe: Shrimp Caprese Pasta

When life gets crazy, there’s nothing quite like a cooking date in our own kitchen to unwind and recharge together. Of course, it’s always fun to go out to eat too, but with Nathan’s night shift schedule, that wasn’t feasible for about a month. Even cooking together was trickier than usual. He’d have breakfast while I ate dinner, so we were rarely eating the same food. I was starting to miss our time in the kitchen together!

When I came up with this recipe, I hoped it would be enough to tempt him to eat dinner-food for his breakfast and have a little date night before his shift, and I was right! It was such a treat to do something that felt “normal” for us in the midst of an unusual work schedule.

My love for caprese flavors stems from the chicken caprese at Bravo, which has been well documented on this blog. Sadly, there are no Bravos in Charlottesville. When I came across a chicken caprese pasta recipe in a recent Southern Living magazine, it sparked my craving and I knew I had to find a way to fix it, with or without Bravo nearby.

Enter…this shrimp caprese pasta! It can be made in ~20 minutes, which makes it a great choice for a weeknight when you still want to feel fancy (or when you’re trying to squeeze in a solid meal before someone’s night shift…)

I loosely based the below recipe off the one in the magazine. Pasta screams comfort food to me, particularly for cozy cold nights, but with the shrimp, fresh tomatoes, and asparagus, this felt like a summery spin on a classic dish. This is good for breakfast, lunch, or dinner – just ask Nathan 🙂

Shrimp Caprese Pasta

(Adapted from Southern Living magazine)

Ingredients

  • 12 oz. cooked and peeled shrimp
  • 20 oz. basil pesto
  • 16 oz. angel hair pasta
  • ~3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 10 oz. grape tomatoes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 cup onions

Directions

  1. Cook pasta according to directions, drain. Reserve 1.5 cups cooking water.
  2. In a large pot, add olive oil and heat for a couple minutes before adding grape tomatoes. Stir. Cook until softened, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add garlic and onions to pot while continuously stirring.IMG_1622.JPG
  4. Add shrimp, pasta, pesto, and 1/2 cup of the cooking water to pot. Stir. Gradually add in remaining cooking water until desired consistency is reached.IMG_1623.JPG
  5. Transfer to serving platter. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.

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This was outstanding! Cooking the tomatoes takes them to another level, and the shrimp were delicious too. As much as I love the classic chicken caprese, shrimp caprese gives it a run for its money. We don’t normally buy seafood, so when we do have it, it’s a treat!

For our sides, Nathan charred the asparagus in our cast iron skillet and we had some leftover French bread from the week before. Both made excellent accompaniments to this meal – I wouldn’t change a thing!

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This recipe makes plenty of leftovers, so it’d be great to cook when you’re having a dinner party or for a family. It’s so good, you won’t mind having it all to yourself either though 😉

Book Review: The Half-life of Happiness

The Half-life of Happiness was a fun book for me to read this summer because it takes place in Charlottesville! I always enjoy getting “lost” in books that take me to new places but it’s also a treat to be “found” in books that happen in familiar places (I have a penchant for English settings for this very reason – takes me back to my study abroad days!). It was fun to recognize more and more of Charlottesville throughout the book as we become better acquainted with our new city.

With that said, on the surface, this plot is not lighthearted. It tells the story of attorney Mike and filmmaker Joss, a married couple at the mid-life crisis of their marriage who are soon sent reeling from major personal revelations. Their two daughters, Edith and Nora, are often caught in the crossfire, and as the story is told, readers hear from grown-up Edith about her hindsight perspective on this time in their lives.

As I said, *on the surface* this plot is not lighthearted, but the banter and situational comedies involving different characters throughout make this book feel lighthearted many times. The dialogue is quick and witty, with many highbrow allusions strewn for good measure. As any good small-town story should include, the cast is lovably imperfect and quirky in each of their own rights. Main characters Mike and Joss face their struggles, seemingly shoot themselves in the foot (feet?), and try to rally over and over again for family. I found them endearing and relatable, even when I know I could never fully grasp the magnitude of their circumstances without having experienced it myself.

In the end, I felt more fully human, more perfectly OK being fully human, and also better able to see the beauty in others’ humanity through all of life’s stages. The best book is one that can give you a glimpse into a mile (or a lifetime) in someone else’s shoes, and this book did just that. This story is a great reminder that no one is perfect, especially ourselves but even early life idols like our parents, and it explores what happens as you grow up and try to reconcile that.

I experienced Charlottesville in a new way from reading this book, and I can’t help but think as I walk down the mall, “I wonder if Joss was here before…” Certainly makes you wonder where the inspiration comes from when you read a book that takes place locally and is written by a local author. Of course it’s fiction, but you know what they say…”real life is stranger than fiction.” 🙂

Rating: 4/5 stars
Stats: 528 pages
Recommended for: A summer read you can sink your teeth into, this book has plenty of family drama and marital troubles, yet with an overarching plot to keep you invested in the big-picture story. I kept turning the pages many late nights while also feeling completely comfortable taking my time (I love books that just let you enjoy them without rushing you along!). Perfect for a week-long getaway to a cabin in the woods…or, perhaps, to Charlottesville 😉
Up next: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I recently joined a book club here and this is the first book on the docket. I rented it from the local library (resolution still going strong!) and will report back on both the book and the club’s discussion in my next review.

Recipe Remixes: Cream Cheese Brownie Cookies & Homemade Pizza

One of my favorite creative challenges is looking at what we have on hand in the kitchen and creating a recipe or meal plan for the week trying to use up as much of what we already have as possible. Is it just me or does using up all of something before it goes bad thrill you too? #nerdalert

This gets especially fun when you have unusual ingredients around, which happens a lot more now that we’re trying new recipes every month! I recently put a spin on two of our old standby recipes (one savory, one sweet) to use up what we had lying around, and the results were so delicious I had to share here, too.

First up…

Goat cheese & prosciutto mushroom pizza 

The last time we made homemade pizza we used ingredients from one of our new recipes, and this time we did the same thing! All I had to buy to make this was pizza crust, prosciutto, and mushrooms. Starting with a Pillsbury crust, I added:

  • olive oil (from our prosciutto wrapped stuffed chicken)
  • mozzarella cheese (leftover from our sausage pasta bake we had earlier in the week)
  • goat cheese (from our prosciutto wrapped stuffed chicken)
  • diced prosciutto
  • chopped mushrooms
  • diced onions (on hand)
  • spinach (on hand)
  • …and more cheese

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All of it goes into the oven for a little bit and voila!

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Nathan and I both LOVED this flavor combination, and pizza was the perfect thing to have on hand for him to take for lunches/dinners when he was on call for CCU. He said, “This is better than most pizza I would order at a restaurant!” I’ll take that as a win, especially on the heels of Lampo 🙂

For something sweet…

Reese’s Pieces Cream Cheese Brownie Cookies

I hadn’t made this recipe in forever, but when we found ourselves with some cream cheese leftover from our prosciutto wrapped stuffed chicken and a box of brownie mix in the pantry (which is a staple for us for emergency chocolate craving situations), it came to mind and I knew just the twist I wanted to put on it: Reese’s Pieces! I don’t know how random candy ends up in our pantry or where it comes from all the time, but I am more than happy to put it to good use in recipes like this. Really…mixing Reese’s with brownie batter into cookies…these are the rare moments when I feel like a genius.

Usually the drawback to this recipe is dragging out my heavy Kitchenaid mixer, BUT in our new apartment it is not a hassle at all because it has a permanent spot on our counter! I seriously love the way we’ve organized our kitchen (and how big it is). All my baking stuff in one area, pots and pans in another, etc…I think I threw this recipe together in <5 minutes because everything is conveniently right where I need it. All the storage and counter space has been a game changer when it comes to cooking/baking for me in general. It is so much easier and enjoyable for me now than it used to be!

Anyhow…the only thing I needed to buy for this recipe was…NOTHING! So, into the mixer went:

  • 1 stick butter (room temperature – KEY!)
  • 4 oz. cream cheese, also room temperature (leftover from prosciutto wrapped stuffed chicken)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 box of brownie mix (Ghiradelli triple chocolate FTW)
  • 1 box of Reese’s Pieces

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I always have to take this action shot to show you just how incredibly LUSCIOUS this dough is. If it were a Dairy Queen blizzard, you could definitely hold it upside down without it spilling out (anyone else remember those days??).

Give it some color…

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Plop it on parchment paper – also key!! It is a gooey mess otherwise.

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BAM – 11 minutes later, the kitchen smells like heaven and you have this chocolatey masterREESEpiece waiting for you…(see what I did there)

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Side note: Am I the only one who never gets even CLOSE to the number of cookies a recipe says it’ll make? Or do I just make gigantic portions? This supposedly makes 24 cookies but I got 19. And no, before you ask, I did NOT eat all the dough…just some of it, for quality testing purposes only. Ahem. 

Additional highlights of this recipe include 1 bowl and 1 pan to clean up after (because duh…you lick the spoon clean yourself).

I love when my creative side finds an outlet in the kitchen – fixes my craving for a creative challenge and delicious food in one fell swoop!

What are your favorite pizza topping combinations? What candy should I mix into these cookies next time? And seriously…do you EVER get 24 cookies from a recipe or am I the only one?