Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Return to Willow Lake


Return to Willow Lake
Return to Willow Lake by Susan Wiggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



The characters were pretty lovable, and though this story touches on some deep, thought-provoking themes, it never gets heavy or depressing, which is hard to do and maintain credibility in the story. Recommended.



View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Review: The Castaways


The Castaways
The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars



Excellent, intriguing, and very entertaining read, with fully-developed, human-scaled characters who are fitted into the setting with careful attention to detail. Will definitely look for more by this author.



View all my reviews

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day!

Here's a coupon worth 25% off the purchase of Lucky Southern Women - Click on the image and enter the coupon code to redeem your discount! Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How Far We've Come, To Fall So Far

There is simply no excuse for the fact that well into middle age, with advanced degrees, a respectable middle-class income, and a credit history over 20 years long, that my husband and I are still patently unable to purchase a house, and each month we struggle to meet the bills for basic needs such as food, fuel, shelter, clothing, and education.

Consider this: My parents, who were young professionals with no credit background to speak of and a two-year old, in 1963 purchased the home that my mother still lives in. At the time they were both teaching school, with advanced degrees and a respectable middle class income. This home was about five years old and cost $17,000.00 (slightly less than the average price of a new home in the US at the time as recorded by the US Census), and was paid off at the tidy sum of $103.00 per month, principal and interest, well before the time of my father's death in 1988. The property is valued at around $125,000 today; it is a 2/3-acre lot with a 4 BR/1.5 bath home in excellent condition and still located in a respectable neighborhood. My mother also has excellent health insurance and pension benefits and will never have to worry about how she will pay for basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, eyeglasses, and medical care. She never has and she never will. She's a classic example of someone who worked hard, paid her bills and was able to put something away each month for the future. She pays cash for a brand new vehicle about once every eight years or so because she has an abhorrence of paying interest that can not be deducted from one's tax bill. She has lived a tidy, respectable life, and has earned her comfortable retirement.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has this handy-dandy little table that details teachers' salaries for the period 1959-2006, with comparable 2006 constant dollars that make it simple to see these salaries' equivalents in 2006 dollars. You will see, for instance, that though my parents jointly earned about $12,000 (my mother taught elementary and my father taught high school), the equivalent salary in 2006 dollars was about $80,000. This was because the cost of housing, fuel, automobiles, education, groceries, clothing, etc. - i.e., the cost of living - was considerably lower then than today.

It's quite shocking, in fact, to look over the chart and see how the value of middle-class salaries fell into the toilet during the ensuing years.

To be perfectly sure we're comparing apples to apples, my mother & father paid about $900 annually for taxes, insurance, and social security, making their effective joint disposable income about $11,100 (including obligations of 3.625% for FICA/SSec, 22.6% less exemptions & deductions for federal taxes, and 2% for Virginia state income tax). Their employers actually contributed to Virginia's retirement system and paid for their health insurance. Employees did not have to contribute at all until shortly before my mother retired in the 1990s. A pension and health insurance were considered part of one's compensation package - those were the days! However, during this period, all of the amounts deducted for FICA and Social Security came from an employee's paycheck; employers did not contribute to those programs at that time. There is a nice table at the Social Security administration's website that details federally mandated deductions for taxes and FICA starting in 1937. Historic federal tax rates are here, and you can peruse the actual 1040 and 1040a forms and instructions used to file back in 1963 at the IRS website. Historical state tax rates are contained within tables in this report.

So - let's compare: my husband and I just happen to jointly earn about $80,000 annually as professionals working in the non-profit and government sectors, from which about $20,000 is deducted in order to pay for medical insurance, withdrawals for retirement and deferred compensation of which our employers pay minuscule matches of less than 15%, and taxes, effectively making our joint disposable income in the neighborhood of $60,000. (Bankrate has a nice calculator to help you determine if adjusting payroll deductions might be a good idea in case you'd like to compare your own).

The problem begins to become apparent.

Take a look at my parents' joint disposable income of $11,100.00 in 1963 transferred to today's dollars in this handy-dandy little table:

[Note: Current data from this source is only available till 2012.] In 2012, the relative worth of $11,100.00 US from 1963 is:

  • $83,200.00 using the Consumer Price Index
  • $64,300.00 using the GDP deflator
  • $93,500.00 using the value of consumer bundle
  • $90,500.00 using the unskilled wage
  • $106,000.00 using the Production Worker Compensation
  • $170,000.00 using the nominal GDP per capita
  • $282,000.00 using the relative share of GDP
  • Put another way, if you want to compare the value of $11,100.00 worth of disposable income in 1963 with what it's worth in 2012 the relative:
    ...historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is $83,200.00
    ...contemporary standard of living value of that income or wealth is $93,500.00
    ...economic status value of that income or wealth is $170,000.00
    ...economic power value of that income or wealth is $282,000.00
    By any measure, our parents were wealthier by far than we can even hope to be, given today's economic realities. Thank you, banks, insurance companies, corporate welfare queens, and politicians. You've made it such a pleasure to be living and working today, working just as hard but making a fraction of what our parents did. Good show.

    See also US Census Historical Income Tables

    Measuring Worth

    1963 Enterprise Statistics

    Taxfoundation.org

    Bankrate.com

    SSA.GOV

    IRS.GOV

    University of North Texas Library

    ~

    Friday, January 24, 2014

    What Goes Around... i.e., Karma is a Bitch

    Bob McDonnell Throws his Wife Under the Bus at Politico

    I guess it's possible that the ex-Governor has the hubris (or the mad hope) that he can manage to defeat the charges in spite of the mountain of evidence. But I am sad for the woman beside him, because yet again we have an example of the fact that men who try to control women through legislation designed to keep them fighting for the right to be free and equal tend to treat their significant others rather badly through neglect, public embarrassment, or worse.

    Like so many others of his ilk, while in office Gov. McDonnell made no effort to hide his lack of respect for women's rights to adequate health care, to be safe in their own homes, and to be paid fairly for their work. It probably didn't even occur to him that these are real issues compared to the types of issues that interested him. It probably didn't even occur to him to think of his family and the consequences for them if their mother went to prison for awhile.

    I wonder why that is.

    Let this be a lesson to all of us. If he treats women poorly as a general rule, don't think for one second he will make an exception for you when the cards are on the table.

    Friday, January 10, 2014

    The Trans-Pacific Partnership, aka TPP: NAFTA on Steroids

    NAFTA is one of the worst decisions we've ever made as a country. It basically killed US manufacturing, it allowed Big Ag to destroy Mexican agriculture and line its pockets with the spoils of economic collapse that in turn allowed Big Ag to become even bigger and badder, and we can NOT repeat this mistake. We simply can not afford to do so.

    We were warned, and we ignored it. Do you remember Ross Perot's "great sucking sound" speech? He was right, and we should have listened. We did not, and as a result we murdered the domestic textile and manufacturing industries and nearly killed the auto industry, which was only saved by a last-ditch effort and lots of government bailout money (your tax dollars).
    We must not ignore the warnings about the President's new trade initiative. They are accurate and the threat is real. We won't have an economy if this horrible idea becomes law. Mr Obama, you are one of my favorite world leaders, and an otherwise excellent President, but Please Do Not Repeat Mr Clinton's Horrible Mistake.

    Trade Expert: Why TPP — “NAFTA on Steroids” — Must Be Stopped (via Moyers & Company)

    The post-NAFTA era has been marked by growing inequality, declining job security and new leverage for corporations to attack government regulations enacted in the public interest. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Back in 1986, when the leaders…

    Sunday, January 05, 2014

    Pre-publication Copies: Lucky Southern Women

    Lucky Southern Women, a new novel by Susannah Eanes, will be available for book reviews starting Friday, January 10, 2014. If you are interested in obtaining a free pre-publication copy, please send us a note in the comments or email us at propertiuspress@gmail.com. Pre-publication review copies are available for the next 21 days only. The book is scheduled for release on February 1st.

    by Susannah Eanes
    Coming soon - the new novel of love, suspense, and redemption from Propertius Press!

    Synopsis: The rural landscape entwines around the lives and loves of two strong, yet troubled women, a beautiful contrast to the beliefs they absorbed as children. Only in moving beyond the past can they forge a way ahead not only for themselves, but for their loved ones. In so doing, each finds something vital that will give them the power and resilience they need to meet the greatest challenge of all.

    Friday, December 27, 2013

    Why Two Spaces After a Period Isn't Wrong

    (or, The Lies Typographers Tell About History)

    The above link is to an excellent, very well-researched and thorough treatise on the subject that I highly recommend. Since it's rather lengthy I won't elaborate, just get over there and read it - if you are a writer, editor, publisher, or otherwise earn your bread in the industry, you really need to get your facts straight no matter which camp you decide to belong to.

    You're quite welcome. 

    [Image credit: crucialbiitch at deviantart]

    Tuesday, December 17, 2013

    Recipe: Cassoulet Proven├žal




    Cassoulet Proven├žal  (French Country-Style White Bean Soup)
    French provincial cooking is typically savory and slow-roasted in a medium oven, with the distinctive flavors of olive oil, fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, parsley, tarragon), piquant spices such as clove and mace, and a good dash of garlic.

    To make the Soup:
    Start with the base of white beans, adding liquid broth, then when softened add browned meat(s), season with garlic, parsley, and clove, and cook for several hours until flavors meld. Chop “les trois soeures” (three sisters – celery, onion and carrots) and add with chopped red or green sweet pepper.  Finish cooking and serve topped with croutons and parmesan cheese.

    1 lb. dry white beans (Great Northern, Cannelini, Navy, etc.) 
    4 – 6 c water (to cover)
    Soak, then cook overnight until beans are soft in dutch oven or crock pot.
    Brown 6 whole mild sausages (I use a free-range chicken/beef blend from Jones Farm in Winston-Salem) in 1 tbsp olive oil. Chop sausages, then add to soup. Reserve pan drippings.
    Add:
    1 pint vegetable or beef broth
    1 tsp garlic
    2 tsp parsley
    1 tsp ground cloves
    Cook 30 minutes or so.
    Add:
    1 whole carrot, chopped
    1 stalk celery, chopped
    1 small red sweet pepper, chopped
    Cook several hours until flavors are well developed and blended.

    In reserved pan drippings (from cooking sausage), add 2 ¼ c. water, ¾ c. brown whole-grain rice and ¼ cup wild rice. Cover & bring to boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook 50 minutes until liquid is absorbed. [Alternative to rice: 2 ½ c. dry whole wheat or whole-grain bread crumbs or croutons, browned in 1 tbsp butter]
    Add rice [or breadcrumbs] to soup, cook at least 45 minutes more.  Serve warm with dry brown bread or crackers. Top with grated Parmesan Cheese.

    Tuesday, December 10, 2013

    Murder and Forgiveness

    For now we see in a mirror dimly
    but then we will see face to face [1Cor 13.12]
    [Image credit: publicphoto.org]
    It has been a little over nineteen years since two sweet innocents sank into the bottom of a man-made lake in South Carolina, sent there by the woman who carried them in her womb. Susan Smith's story changed us all, mothers and fathers and families alike. None of us were unaffected, and yet, looking back, it is perhaps time we saw the lake as a mirror, and recognize our own reflection within it.

    As a society, although individually we may strive toward good, we are none of us innocents. We should acknowledge, as Beverly Russell did, that there is a seed of capability to do great evil within us all. We owe this woman forgiveness, and until we do this we can not move on toward reconciliation, and we will not be able to realize our great responsibility to our children to ensure they grow up in a safe, loving world, full of possibilities.

    When the word first came out that this mother had done the unthinkable, I remember being in the grocery store with my then 7-year old daughter and my son who was about the age of the youngest Smith child. Strangers who passed by my shopping cart reached out toward him, fastened safely in his little seat, to touch his head and to grasp my hand, wrapped protectively around him. "Take care of that child," some would whisper. "I can tell you are a good mama," others would say. I saw friends of mine from church, also young mothers, and we reached instinctively toward one another, asking, "How are you? Do you need anything? Is everything all right? You know you can call me," our eyes searching deeply within each other's, trying desperately to re-validate the safety net of community that had been rended and torn by the news.

    We all knew that sometimes we are only a breath of time away from losing it ourselves, and we needed to know that we could stop it from happening if we could only remember we are there for each other, to help shoulder the load.

    Before Susan Smith's trial and the facts and analysis that would come out of it showing she was a desperate, troubled individual with a past that some of us could not fathom or relate to - we young mothers knew. Only the grace of something greater than ourselves up to that point had saved some of us from recklessly destroying our greatest and most precious gifts, that of our children and ourselves. For some horrible reason, that grace had failed a young mother, allowing her to send her children, her flesh, her blood, to a watery tomb. And I think that our shock and horror allowed us to separate ourselves after a time from this recognition, in order to move on and to be better parents.

    This had to happen. But it is time now to take the next step, and forgive her for her actions. To recognize as a society that we had some hand in this undertaking, and to heal and to move forward toward ensuring that infanticide does not have to happen, that we recognize the warning signs and stop this evil, desperate act from taking place ever again.

    ***

    We know better now, how ill and wretched this young woman was. We know, and we must recognize, that she was manifesting the symptoms of the classic murderer of her own children. At that time only trained specialists knew and were capable of seeing in; indeed it is what helped them to guide Susan Smith into confessing her great horrible deed.

    Driving alone at dusk [Image credit: publicphoto.org]
    But we all should know now. It's been nearly twenty years. Surely we can recognize that she was at the apogee of human error and selfish grasping for attention, love, and acceptance for who she was and what she was at the time: a lonely, depressed woman whose inner child grieved for the father she had lost, and who could not, for whatever reason, accept that now she was a mother, with limited options.

    It's sad, but true. As her life gained complexity, her future seemed to dim, and the possibilities voiced in the letter written by the lover who rejected her probably seemed like a carrot too far from reach. She lashed out, angrily, at what seemed to have slipped away while she was busy attending to her greatest accomplishment: motherhood. She was confused, and oh so empty, and her fear allowed her to believe that emptiness was permanent.

    We have all felt like this, at some time or another. Fortunately, most of us have resources and loved ones who help us see the folly of that belief, and can show us the good and lovely opportunities and choices for good in our lives, so that the fear and loneliness and rejection do not last.

    Susan Smith did not.

    Why?

    Why, when she looked around, did she only see a situation that further estranged her from her best self? Why did she want to end her life, and that of her children? And what, if anything, could have been done to stop it?

    I will reflect further on this as time allows. For now, I want to just think about this rationally, given the facts as we know them. I'll write more as soon as I can.

    Tuesday, December 03, 2013

    Review: Gingham Mountain


    Gingham Mountain
    Gingham Mountain by Mary Connealy

    My rating: 1 of 5 stars



    I honestly want to know how drivel like this makes it past an editor.

    At the beginning you meet Grant, who is likeable enough, and the premise of a bachelor raising orphans in early 20th century Texas is just odd enough to work. However, that is the best I can say about this book. Even if you can manage to ignore the anachronistic language (I honestly can't), there is nothing else about this story that is plausible or even interesting. Hannah is an idiot and completely ridiculous, and it's really, really hard to ignore her lack of judgment or powers of observation (there aren't any). Even the way Grant and the children interact is completely out of the realm of reality given the time period. There are too many language foibles and awkwardly out-of-place sentences. I made it about 50 pages in and had enough.



    View all my reviews

    Cathead Biscuits


    Bryson City Cathead Biscuits (original recipe)
  • 2 1/2 c. flour
  • 1/3 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 5 tbsp. lard
  • 1 c. buttermilk

  • Sift and mix dry ingredients then blend with lard. Add buttermilk. For each biscuit, pinch off a portion of dough about the shape of a large egg and pat out with your hands. Bake in a 350 degree oven in wood stove about 10 minutes. In a modern electric or gas stove, bake at 475 to 500 degrees.

    This recipe is found on page 115 in the chapter entitled, "Biscuits," in the book Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, and Scuppernong Wine, by Joseph E. Dabney (Cumberland House, Nashville, TN 1998).

    I've made a few adjustments over the years, starting with the substitution of shortening for lard. I do not adjust the amount and have good results. I choose a quality unbleached all-purpose flour such as King Arthur or Hodgsons Mill Organic. Also, when I do not have buttermilk, I substitute 1 c. whole milk plus 1 tbsp. plain yogurt. The texture of the biscuits is fluffy and light, and they brown nicely in a hot oven - however, I've found that generally the temperature does not need to be more than 450.

    Serve warm with jam, honey, or just good butter. This recipe is also suitable to use for dumplings.

    Saturday, November 23, 2013

    Review: Turtle Moon


    Turtle Moon
    Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars



    About halfway through this book I wrote the following: "One of my gauges for a great read is one that continually sends me back to a work in progress to do an inspired creativity dump that seems to come out of nowhere. It's like the story dials into my subconscious and tells me things I didn't know I knew. This is one of those books. It's quirky, human, and all-too-real. The characters are alternately loveable and maddening, just like most folk I know."

    I really didn't want this book to end, but at the same time, it was time to leave the story, and further words might have become maudlin or mundane. That is not to say I understand every character's motivation, or that the book ended happily. You'll have to find that out for yourself. Still, I'd love to read a sequel set maybe twenty or thirty further years in the future, to see if the boy and the baby ever meet again as adults, and what happens then.

    And now, it's back to my own writing, because - as I said in so many words - there are things tumbling out of every creative port of my psyche, that must be set down.




    View all my reviews

    Saturday, November 16, 2013

    Review: Blue Camellia

    Blue CamelliaBlue Camellia by Frances Parkinson Keyes
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Amazing work, a story so skillfully crafted that its social anachronisms seem charming and quite forgiveable in the context of their time. Powerful and based loosely on historical facts, the story of a woman who found her own way in life and carved a niche for herself that, instead of rejecting family and society, carefully selected the finest yields and stoutest promise, enfolded a heart full of love and wisdom with the best portions of her heritage and fortune to triumph over her personal nightmarish tragedy and make a life well lived.

    View all my reviews

    Sunday, October 20, 2013

    Review: The Color of Lightning


    The Color of Lightning
    The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles

    My rating: 2 of 5 stars



    THIS BOOK SHOULD COME WITH A HUGE TRIGGER WARNING. Truth to tell, I didn't make it very far into this book. Much as I adore Ms Jiles' work, I felt shocked and dismayed at how little prepared I was for the sickening violence that began only a few pages into the story. If I had wanted to read an accurate portrayal of the horrors faced by some early settlers, I would have picked up a clearly-marked non-fiction historical narrative. That the story wheels so suddenly from the interpersonal struggles of the characters as they adjust to a new life to a terrifyingly descriptive, jaw-dropping scene that sadly is all too real without warning is just too triggering for a reader with PTSD, or for those who simply do not have the stomach for this kind of violence. It may be exactly what some readers like, but not me, thanks.



    View all my reviews

    Monday, July 08, 2013

    Review: The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti


    The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti
    The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti by Annie Vanderbilt

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars



    I loved, loved, loved this book. Superbly written, with an authentic voice and the twists and turns that are the hallmark of a life truly lived. Looking for more by this fantastic author.



    View all my reviews

    Thursday, June 20, 2013

    Review: Garden Styles by Kathleen S Dickason

    Garden StylesGarden Styles by Kathleen S Dickason
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Beautifully illustrated book with many creative ideas, this is more than just a book with which to relax and dream about your next garden project. It's a definitive guide to choosing plants and arranging them for viability in your landscape. Contains reference tables on hundreds of landscape plants with complete descriptions and suggestions for using them to their best advantage. Profuse colorful illustrations of many types of gardens show the range of selected plants during all stages of growth, from young gardens through established mature ones. One of my favorite garden reference and inspiration books.

    View all my reviews

    Wednesday, May 01, 2013

    Review: The Gift of a Home


    The Gift of a Home
    The Gift of a Home by Beverley Nichols

    My rating: 5 of 5 stars



    I loved this book, and will go searching for more by this author. It's like a neighborly walk with a favorite uncle, except said uncle has an aversion to neighbors. A perfectly charming read, with interesting characters and gardening anecdotes that will have you giggling into your cup of Earl Grey. Highly recommended.



    View all my reviews

    Saturday, December 08, 2012

    Review: If Wishes Were Horses


    If Wishes Were Horses
    If Wishes Were Horses by Robert Barclay

    My rating: 2 of 5 stars



    The theme of this book interested me because it was a romance primarily told from the point of view of the male character, and the first chapter set up some possibility of good storytelling. However, the language and plot overall were just too trite and formulaic to hold my interest. I could not like the female character, and the way she was characterised by the author resulted in neither a sympathetic nor sophisticated protagonist. Two stars for effort, and that is just barely merited IMHO.



    View all my reviews

    Sunday, October 07, 2012

    Review: A Lost Lady


    A Lost Lady
    A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

    My rating: 4 of 5 stars



    In this short novel, Willa Cather paints a disturbing portrait of a woman caught in the social grip of her times. At once a fiercely independent, charming free spirit and an obedient member of the quietly patriarchal backbone of Victorian society, Marian "Maidie" Forrester elicits both derision and sympathy from today's readers, as she did from the young male narrator of her story. We wonder if we could have performed any better on the stage where Mrs. Forrester found herself. I would be willing to bet that few would.

    This story is an insider's view, told in the language and attitudes of the late nineteenth century, and is highly recommended for students of Women's Studies and Social History.



    View all my reviews