Book Review, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a beautifully-written, detail-rich, atmospheric historical novel. Though the story’s setting in 1617 Finnmark couldn’t be more different than that of the 21st century, grief, worry, family, religion, curiosity, power, accusations, betrayal, and love are timeless. I wanted to delve deeper into characters’ motivations and personalities as well as find out the thing that makes us turn the pages–what happens next? I only have one critique. The portion of the book which describes historical events might have been placed before the first chapter. Knowing the research done ahead of time would give this novel even more gravitas.

Hon, have you read this book? What did you think of it?

The Mercies Book Review

After a storm has killed off all the island’s men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft.

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Northern town of Vardø must fend for themselves. 

Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil. 

As Maren and Ursa are pushed together and are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence. 

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1620 witch trials, The Mercies is a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

Goodreads

Quotes from The Mercies

“I remember once when runes gave you comfort, when sailors came to my father to cast bones and tell them of their time to come. They are a language, Maren. Just because you do not speak it doesn’t make it devilry.”

“But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgement with a human tongue.” 

“This story is about people, and how they lived; before why and how they died became what defined them.” 

Goodreads
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Kids Kindness Project + Picture Book

I had the opportunity to meet art director and author/illustrator Ann Koffsky when I attended Highlights Foundation “Jewish Symposium 2022: An In-Community Experience for Jewish Creatives” in October. She wrote the adorable picture book What’s In Tuli’s Box? When I read it, I knew just how I wanted to tie it in with a preschool class project.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, our theme was Kindness. Our project? Tzedakah boxes! Prevalent in Jewish homes, Tzedakah boxes collect extra coins to be donated to those in need. What an important lesson, in addition to a hands-on, tactile activity, for preschoolers.

The children painted glue on containers, chose colors of tissue paper, and stuck the tissue paper to the gluey containers. They practiced dropping coins in the coin slots, listened it jingle, and discussed the kind acts that they–even as young as they are–can do.

Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for philanthropy and charity. It is a form of social justice in which donors benefit from giving as much or more than the recipients. So much more than a financial transaction, tzedakah builds trusting relationships and includes contributions of time, effort, and insight.

Learning to Give

Review of What’s In Tuli’s Box

In this charm­ing pic­ture book for young chil­dren, Ann D. Koff­sky presents the con­cept of tzedakah through the char­ac­ters of a kit­ten and her moth­er. With kinet­ic images and bright col­ors, chil­dren learn that a sim­ple box pro­vides not only an oppor­tu­ni­ty to climb and play, but is also a means to con­tribute to char­i­ty. The book’s sim­ple text mim­ics the way a child learns from her par­ents about an impor­tant mitzvah.

For par­ents and care­givers con­sid­er­ing the most effec­tive way to intro­duce the con­cept, Tuli the kit­ten pro­vides one answer: con­crete expe­ri­ences and few abstrac­tions. Tuli is as active as a tod­dler, and just as focused on explor­ing her world. Koff­sky begins with Tuli becom­ing inter­est­ed in a box labeled tzedakah. Nei­ther this nor its slit for deposit­ing a coin means any­thing to her. Through touch­ing, push­ing, and lis­ten­ing, she dis­cov­ers the box’s phys­i­cal qual­i­ties, while her moth­er offers more infor­ma­tion. The box is not a toy, she comes to find, although the clink­ing sound of a coin drop­ping would seem to sug­gest that it is.

Koff­sky com­bines feline and human char­ac­ter­is­tics with sub­tle humor. While the char­ac­ters look like real cats, their facial expres­sions of curios­i­ty and affec­tion, cou­pled with the mother’s pur­ple pock­et­book, add a dif­fer­ent visu­al ele­ment to the sto­ry. Gen­tle expla­na­tions from Tuli’s moth­er con­firm what the kit­ten has learned, but also extend the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Tuli is final­ly ready to hear that the coins are meant to help those in need. As moth­er and child rest their heads against one anoth­er, young read­ers fin­ish the book with a sense of sat­is­fac­tion. Tuli’s ener­getic activ­i­ty has become a path to empa­thy, and to the reward of her mother’s pride and love.

Emily Schneider for The Jewish Book Council

Show-n-Tell, Ceramics and Needlepoint

Working with my hands is my meditation.

I purchased this floral and geometrics needlepoint canvas at Wool & Grace and decided to switch the original colors from pinks and oranges to blues, yellows, green and grey. I finally had it made into a pillow and really like how bright and cheerful it is.

When it comes to Ceramics, it seems I work in sets. Maybe that’s my way of improving upon a technique or maybe it’s because I get into a creative zone and keep going. The past year, I spent a lot of time hand-building different size jewelry/catchall dishes: some made free-form and some using GR Pottery Forms. I re-visited pressing real leaves into clay, but when I used a dark stain called iron oxide to define stems and veins, it bled and smeared. More practice needed.

Carving into clay that’s been brushed with slip is a technique called Sgraffito. Slip is thin colored clay that’s painted on a piece before it’s put into the kiln to be bisque fired. The slip and clay are set aside to dry. “Once the piece is firm enough and the surface is not tacky, a design or pattern can be carved through the slip and into the clay body beneath. Once the design is pulled away by incising, there is a beautiful contrast between the slip and the clay. This contrast is stronger after firing and glazing.” (source: Cindy Couling)

A new semester of Ceramics classes started and I’m trying to get back to the pottery wheel.

Hon, you know what I’m meditating on when I work with my hands? Stories, characters, plots, and words. My mind doesn’t rest!

I pressed real leaves into the clay and tried defining stems and veins with iron oxide.
I used a technique called Sgraffito, which is carving into clay that’s been brushed with slip.

Easy DIY Kids Activity in Honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Image source: thespruce.com

Last year, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my preschool class created Cheerios Birdfeeders. The kids enjoyed stringing Cheerios on pipe cleaners, hanging them up outside of our classroom, and watching for birds, but guess what? The birds didn’t eat them! (Maybe we should have used Honeynut Cheerios?–lol)

Instead, this week with Kindness as our theme, we’re going to create a different DIY Kids Activity–Pine Cone Birdfeeders.

Texture, scent, math, and fine motor skills were explored with the pinecones I collected in the Fall. You know what’s fun? Making pinecone prints by covering them in paint and then rolling them on paper. You never know what patterns will emerge.

Steps to Make Pinecone Birdfeeders:

1) Tie yarn or twine around pinecones.

2) Spread Sunbutter over pinecones (no peanut butter allowed in school, although pb, almond butter, or similar will do).

3) Roll sticky pinecones in pumpkin seeds (birdseed, sunflower seeds, etc. can be used).

4) Hang in bushes and trees.

5) Wash hands!

Tips on creating Pinecone Birdfeeders from The Spruce:

  • Work seeds in between the rows of scales.
  • Hang in cool, shaded area so peanut butter (or whichever butter is used–sun, almond, etc) doesn’t melt.
  • “If you want to make multiple pine cone bird feeders at once but don’t want to hang them out simultaneously, they can easily be frozen for several weeks. The feeders do not need to be thawed before hanging, and freezing them first can help them stay firm in warmer temperatures.”

I’ll let you know what the birds think of them!

Pinecone birdfeeder made by a preschooler.
Image source, BBSMI

This poem by Edgar Albert Guest is thought-provoking and meaningful.

Times Square Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve

Guess what’s now crossed off my bucket list?!

Watching the Times Square Ball Drop live on New Year’s Eve!

Watching the Ball Drop in person wasn’t actually on my list. The thought of being squished in a giant crowd is not my cup of tea. Every year as I watch the Ball Drop on t.v, I wonder why anyone would want to wait for hours on end to be in Times Square whether it’s clear, raining or snowing. To confirm that this was not something I ever wanted to do, I found myself in Times Square a bunch of year ago at the end of December. Cousins and our daughters got together to see a matinee and, though I’m not claustrophobic, I couldn’t get out of the packed-with-people streets fast enough. Hubby and I agreed that the only way we’d go to Manhattan on New Year’s Eve was if we had reservations at a restaurant near the festivities. This year, an opportunity came up.

Hubby found a promotion through United Airlines Mileage Plus and Visa Lifestyle Events–heavy hors d’oeuvres, open bar, dancing, and more at Charlie Palmer Steak. We stayed overnight at the beautifully appointed Conrad hotel. United Airlines threw in an Uber credit. We booked it!

On December 31, 2022, we drove into the city and passed thousands of people waiting in line. Security in the area was intense, so we had to show our hotel confirmation and restaurant reservations to be allowed through metal barriers.

We finally joined the New Year’s Eve party at Charlie Palmer’s where the restaurant was decked out in a 1920’s themes, flappers danced along with the guests, a woman performed acrobatics on an aerial ring, blackjack tables were bustling (people played for fun, not real winnings), a line formed to take photos at the photo booth, friendly people were ready to welcome in a new year, and there were even swag bags.

About 11:40 pm, the entire restaurant–patrons and the event and kitchen and staff–emptied into the closed-off street. There was the ball! We counted down from 10 to 1. Fireworks erupted immediately after. It was very exciting!

Hon, wishing you unexpected opportunities and happy surprises in 2023!

Craft Cocktails & Mocktails, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, December 2022

Craft Cocktails & Mocktails

For my second article in Elegant Lifestyle Magazine’s Winter 2022 issue, I was tasked with finding fun drinks for a variety of holidays. I admit it, hon, I didn’t know what making a craft cocktail entailed, and researched ingredients and instructions on how to create simple syrups before deciding which drinks to include. Craft Cocktails & Mocktails features recipes for: Cranberry Old Fashioned, Apple Cider Fake-Tini, The First Fruits Cocktail, Bread & Oil, and Cotton Candy Mocktails. Guess which drink sounds the best to me? Hands down…Bread & Oil. Why? It includes jelly doughnut holes!

Good things definitely come in small packages when the “gift” is made with fresh ingredients, tailored to the holiday, and presented in a unique and imaginative way. Craft cocktails, poured one glass at a time, usually include four or five ingredients, homemade syrups, freshly squeezed juices, and niche liqueurs. In a hectic season, creating and serving flavorful upscale drinks is a way to slow down and drink in the moment.

Naomi Gruer

Pretty Party Pieces: Your Guide to Fashion for Festive Occasions, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, December 2022

Pretty Party Pieces: Your Guide to Fashion for Festive Occasions is the first of two articles I wrote for the December issue of Elegant Lifestyles Magazine. Writing this fashion article put me in the mood for holiday get-togethers and, now that’s it the end of December, I’m happy to say I went to a bunch! The directors of the pre-school hosted a Chanukah dinner, my niece and her husband hosted a family Chanukah brunch, we’ve been out to dinner, the owner of The Red Balloon treated us to a holiday dinner, and we’ve had company here. The best? Visiting our dear friends, their children and extended family on Christmas Eve–think trivia games, Left-Right-Center, and tracking Santa on an app–lol!

Usually, New Year’s Eve is mellow as Hubby and I act as chaperones for our youngest daughter’s annual NYE party. She’s having a party, but this year we’re changing it up. Hubby has planned a “night on the town,” and we’ll be dining and dancing at a restaurant overlooking Times Square! We’re staying in Manhattan overnight, so no need to worry about driving back.

Hon, what should I wear? I better check my article!

Highlights Foundation Word Garden

Highlights Foundation Kidlit writer retreats in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains are said to be magical. I’d head the campus is a place where editors and agents take the time to read and discuss the writers’ work, publishers and writers support each other in their joined goal of creating quality stories for children, there’s space and time to write, imagination is nurtured, and the food is excellent. One writer-friend told me a retreat changed the course of her career.

I’d also been told poems were “written” in the Word Garden, but had no idea what that was. In October, when I attended the “Jewish Symposium 2022: An In-Community Experience for Jewish Creatives,” I found the place where words are engraved into hundreds, if not thousands, of smooth, round stones. There, amongst the nouns, adjectives, prepositions, and verbs, sit “tables” made of flat-topped boulders—surfaces on which to create and communicate associations, poems, stories, wishes, and dreams.

Truthfully, hon, the Word Garden made me emotional. It felt like the words were pleading with me. They wanted to be lifted from the piles, combined with other words, and formed into something funny, catchy, quirky, or meaningful. Something all their own.

It felt like the smooth stones with grey and black engraving wanted what my own words want–to be known as stories that are lyrical, honest, beautiful, and wonderful. Stories which can be read over and over, and each time reveal a little more magic.


When I was ten years-old, I started attending a Girl Scouts sleep-away camp in Shadowbrook, MD. Upon arrival, we were told we could be called whatever name we wanted. My counselors were Clover and Honey, and I asked to be called “Flower.” Thereafter, in the summers I spent at Shadowbrook, I was known as “Flower.” No one knew my other name and I preferred it that way.

As “Flower,” I was free and happy and curious and independent and adventurous. I made friends with the other girls, and also the raccoon who woke me up in the middle of the night when it stood on my chest and spoke to me with its shiny, black eyes. I said hi to the daddy long legs who climbed over my sleeping bag as I slept under the stars. I practically touched the constellations which lit up a dark, wild grasses-filled meadow. I swam every morning at dawn with the Polar Bear Club, tracked animal footprints while hiking in the woods, cooked over an open fire, learned how to use my Swiss Army Knife, and helped out in the mess hall and wherever else I was needed. I wasn’t afraid of the dark or the cemetery adjacent to the camp. I belted out the words to the “The Littlest Worm” and other songs. No one told me to shut up. Or worse. At Shadowbrook, I didn’t have to pretend to be a mouse. I was a lion.

As sweet as a flower, but as strong and brave as a lion. I was who I was meant to be.

When I started writing and illustrating my own picture books, also as a ten year-old, my pen name was “Flower Milsten.” Flower was with me in the Word Garden.

Here and now,

Flower

must make it through

the thicket of bramble

in order to 

succeed in finding

light and water and wind.


			
					

Healthy & Hearty Minestrone Soup

Image source: Love & Lemons.

Rainy Days Mean Soup!

On a cold, rainy day last week, I was in the mood for soup. When I found this easy, healthy, hearty, vegetarian recipe for Minestrone Soup on Love & Lemons and realized I had most of the ingredients on hand, I had to try it. This is the kind of recipe that’s easy to alter. I didn’t have white beans or kidney beans, so I used black beans instead. I didn’t have diced tomatoes, but I had can of tomato soup to add to the veggie broth. And I wanted to use the zucchini sitting in my vegetable crisper.

One of the best things about this Minestrone Soup recipe is that the onions, carrots, and celery are sautéed in the same pot in which the soup simmers. Less pots to clean. Hubby and I agreed it was so delicious, I have to make it again.

This recipe is best right after it’s made, as the pasta absorbs the broth as it sits in the leftover soup. If you want to make it ahead of time, I recommend cooking the pasta separately and stirring it into the soup as you’re ready to eat. Alternatively, you can skip the pasta and add an extra cup of beans to the soup. Prepared this way, the soup will keep well for up to four days in the fridge.

When you’re ready to eat, top each bowl with a sprinkle of parsley, red pepper flakes, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. If you’re vegan, feel free to skip the cheese, or garnish your bowl with a scoop of vegan pesto instead. (Non-vegans take note: regular pesto is also a great topping for minestrone soup!).

Serve the soup with good crusty bread and call it a day, or round out the meal with a side salad. Enjoy!

Love & Lemons

Happy cooking, hon!

Minestrone Soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 medium carrots, chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves, grated
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups white beans or kidney beans, cooked, drained, and rinsed
  • 1 cup chopped green beans
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 3/4 cup small pasta, elbows, shells, orecchiette
  • ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Pinches of red pepper flakes
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, optional, for serving

Directions:

  1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, celery, salt, and several grinds of black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes, until the vegetables begin to soften.
  2. Add the garlic, tomatoes, beans, green beans, broth, bay leaves, oregano, and thyme. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Stir in the pasta and cook, uncovered, for 10 more minutes, until the pasta is cooked through.
  4. Season to taste and serve with parsley, red pepper flakes, and parmesan, if desired.

Servings: 4-6

Show-n-Tell Ceramics, Lace Patterns

The Fall semester at the Visual Arts Center of NJ just wrapped up (shout out to Melissa, former co-student and now teacher!), but I’m looking forward to the Winter session when I can continue to play with clay! I love textures and patterns, so I was game to work with lace. I love how these ceramic dishes came out. They can be used for jewelry, soap, candy, catchalls, etc.

In the world of pottery, I also had a good time setting up and selling my ceramics at my synagogue’s Holiday Boutique.

What does it take to create these pretty, lace pieces?

  • run clay through slab roller to flatten
  • line up lace and use rolling pin to impress lace into clay
  • brush black slip over lace, peel lace off carefully, dry wet slip with hair dryer
  • outline desired shapes, I used GR Pottery Forms
  • using large foam pieces, press GR Forms into clay to create indentations in each piece
  • smooth all edges
  • bisque fire
  • after pieces are bisque-fired, wax bottoms then dip in clear glaze
  • glaze fire

Easy, right?

Happy creating, hon!