End of Summer Books

I’m finally on summer break from school, so I’m devouring books like they’re going out of style. It’s amazing what it feels like to actually have some bit of free time back – I’d almost forgotten what it feels like. Most days, I spend working full time at the day job, then a bit of family time around dinner, then 3-4 hours minimum of school work per night. Then the nightly decision drama – stay up for an hour and sacrifice sleep for personal free time or, go to bed on time and get reasonable sleep?

I’ve got three weeks left before I start fall term (and I’m insanely taking five classes) but my son goes back at the end of next week, so that’s when “fall” officially starts for our family in term of back to school. Also, it’s barely 8:15 PM and it’s already dusk again… the summer really is winding down. I feel like I blinked and missed it. And with the weird weather for more than half of it, that wasn’t conducive to spending time outside, I don’t feel like I really got over my cabin fever from last winter. I’m hoping we have a mild autumn, so we can soak up as much outside time as we possibly can, before the days get so short and cold we won’t want to.

But, back to the books. I’ve had a stack of review copies on my bedside table for oh, three months now, mocking me. First, the fine print before I dive in sharing these gems – I do get them for free from the publishers, but as always I only share what I love, and the ones I’m sharing today are all fantastic. It’s been a great week of getting hours on end of reading time in after the kiddo goes to bed and the husband starts working on painting commissions. It feels like such an indulgence.

Beehive Alchemy by Petra Ahnert

Oh, the bees – such wondrous little creatures that offer us spirited gifts – honey, propolis and beeswax. So simple and basic, yet luxurious. There is no better light than that from a beeswax candle, no better sweetness than golden honey. I adore bee products, especially crafting with them at home, which is a more affordable way than buying ready-made products at the store. This book takes you from hive to home, with gorgeous photography and step-by-step instructions for making your own favorites, including soap, lip balm, lotions, candles, wax food covers, and more. And there are several chapters of recipes for cooking as well. Unfortunately for me, a lot of the recipes contain gluten and dairy, but that’s my problem, not the book’s. There are quite a few fun drinks recipes I’m excited to try, especially the “Turmeric Honey Super Booster”. My first project from the book will be the Waxed Cotton Food Wraps though. I’ve been wanting to add beeswax wraps to my kitchen fit for a bit, but some of the other instructions I’ve seen sounded messy and difficult. But the process in this book is ingenious – melting beeswax in a shallow electric skillet, and then immersing the fabric in it. So smart! If you love bees and honey as much as I do, this is definitely a book you’ll want to add to your library.

Home Robotics by Daniel Knox

Last year at the fair, there was a robotics demonstration in the 4H building. The kids had put on an interactive display of coding stations to code robots, as well as a large course that the robots could run through. As soon as my son saw it, he ran over and watched with rapt attention. He was over the moon when one of the bigger kids showed him how write some basic code to “teach” a robot how to move, and then he got to see the robot run the course. He was thrilled to see that the robot did what he programmed to do. And that’s when his interest in machines and robotics really crystallized.

Since then, we’ve been exploring the basics. Since he’s just six, we started out this summer working on Rube Goldberg machines, and that was the project he entered as his Science in Technology entry in his first 4H Cloverbud fair show this year. He made a Lego cleanup Rube Goldberg machine – it’s cleans up Lego by pushing loose pieces down a ramp into a bin, and of course it’s made of Lego too. It was a great introduction to machines and how they work. Now he’s ready to dive into basic robotics, and with a little help from Mom and Dad with reading the book, there are plenty of projects in Home Robotics that he can start with as a beginner, but also keep him engaged as he learns more. The Basic Bots section are really more simple machines than programmable robots, and many can be made with re-purposed items from around the house. The Squibble Bot is particularly fun for kids – using a cup, some markers, a AAA battery pack and a tiny 3 volt motor (plus a couple more basic items to decorate it and put it together) you can make a cute robot that will roll across a piece of paper and draw it’s on designs. Definitely a fun way to create unique art.

The second section on Simple Bots gets into actual programmable robotics with the use of microcontrollers. Think of these as tiny computer motherboards that can be programmed to do simple tasks. The code is also very basic, because the operations they perform are not complex, so they’re a great way for beginners to start with basic coding. The Garden Guardian bot is on our short list to build, as it’s a cute little robot that can be programmed to tell you when a plant needs to be watered. And then the last section of the book, Smart Makes, covers how to build three robotics with more advanced components and programming. For those that are familiar with BattleBots, this chapter will show you how to make your own. The book is chock full of color photos and well-written instructions for how to assemble each bot, with good explanations of the how’s and why’s. For someone who has never written code before, I can tell you I’m not intimidated at all by the prospect – it’s laid our clearly, so you know just how to get started. If you’ve got a budding robotics engineer in your life, this is a must-have book to add to your shelf.

Nourishing Diets by Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell, associated with the Weston A. Price Foundation, is a pillar of the traditional foodways movement. Similar in ethos to the Paleo form of nutrition, it advocates whole, unprocessed foods – nutrient dense ones. Morell wholeheartedly believes, using science and well crafted research to back up the assertion, that whole foods based nutrition is the key to optimum health and minimizing illness. Her keystone work is Nourishing Traditions, a 674 page tome covering the full spectrum of what a traditional diet is, why it works, and how to incorporate it into our modern lifestyle. I’ve read through it a few times, and it’s an invaluable resource. But it can also be pretty overwhelming. As a person who is dealing with a chronic illness myself, I’ve been trying for years to figure out what the best nutrition and exercise routine for me is, that will help me minimize the day to day impacts of my condition. Changing 30+ years of ingrained dietary and health habits is no easy feat. So when Nourishing Diets came out this year, I was excited. At 261 pages, the book itself is far less intimidating than it’s predecessor. It essentially takes the key premises from the mother book and streamlines them, but without sacrificing the integrity of the message.

That message, while similar to Paleo for the uninitiated, is also radically different in a couple of key ways, notably in that it doesn’t “ban” all grains and dairy, nor does it promote coconut oil as the only reasonably healthy fat out there. Those points have long been my biggest beefs with the Paleo diet. I have a hard time believing that our ancient ancestors never ate any grains or dairy products. Paleo tries to make us think those are relatively recent additions to our diet, that came to be with the rise of agriculture. And naturally, they certainly become more prevalent with the rise of sedentary agriculture systems. But surely our ancestors foraged for and at least experimented with these foodstuffs before they settled down. Also, coconuts don’t grow everywhere. I’m quite sure cultures in northern climes relied on other, equally as healthy, natural fats in their diets. Nourishing Diets makes sense of all of this. The crux of the argument is that it’s not certain foods that are bad necessarily, it’s how they’re prepared/created (or notably, not) in our modern world that makes them damaging to our health. For example, soaking grains and legumes can help reduce the harmful elements to them, and make them both easier to digest and make their nutrients more accessible when we eat them. Fermenting dairy and produce (the most familiar example being sauerkraut) can actually enhance their nutrition, not to mention being a great way to preserve them for a longer shelf life than in their raw state. Of course, it’s not a panacea. Certain diseases can’t be cured or reversed, as my household well knows with celiac disease. Once a person develops it, it’s a lifelong necessity to avoid gluten. There’s no science that says celiac disease can be cured, either through diet or medicine, as of today. But while we may need to avoid gluten-containing grains, there are certainly other gluten-free grains that we can prepare in traditional ways in order to optimize maximum nutrition. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water. Not all advances in modern food science are bad, of course. But we eat a lot of processed foods nowadays, and a lot of empty calories. It’s pretty much something we can all nod our heads in violent agreement about, while we’re plowing through a family-size bag of chips. But with so many “right” ways to do things, and our daily crisis of choice, it can be hard to get our nutrition where we know it ought to be. Nourishing Diets can help broaden the horizon of what healthy eating can be. I feel like the mist cleared a bit after I read through it the first time – at the end of the day, it’s the most common sense advice on good nutrition I’ve read. Maybe it can help clear the mist for you too.

Prepping 101

Being prepared for life’s curve balls is important, and it’s the responsibility of every adult. Common issues most of us will have to deal with at some point are power outages from thunderstorms or snow storms, economic uncertainty due to job loss, or even a fire or flood at our homes. Understanding the basics of ensuring consistent, adequate access to shelter, water, and food is essential for the health and well being of ourselves and our families. If you’ve never thought of being prepared for things like that before, it can be pretty overwhelming to know where to start. There are quite a few books on the market these days on this topic, but I find the ones written by Kathy Harrison particularly invaluable. A few years ago she wrote Just in Case: How to be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens and it was such a vindication – finally, here was a booking about preparedness for regular people! So much of the content is aimed at the doomsday, world apocalypse, bunker dwelling set that it can be downright off-putting to everyone else. And that’s a real shame, because it’s knowledge we all need. We all know what happened to thousands of people during Hurricanes Katrina and Marina, not to mention many other natural disasters. Most people don’t have 3 days worth of food on hand, let enough to get through a disaster that would last a week or two.

Harrison’s latest book, Prepping 101, puts a new spin on good information. Her first book took a narrative format, following two fictional families, one prepared, one not, through a snow storm. This book has more of a graphic novel feel (for lack of a better way to describe it) and is organized by action item – 160 of them to be exact. Items such as “keep warm”, “keep cool”, “manage your laundry”, and “build a first aid kit”. You can work each chapter in order, or you can go directly and easily to the chapter that most interests you. It’s a well organized book and the information is sound. She also includes a lot of great resources so you can dive into a topic more if you’re interested in. The thing I like the best about Harrison’s books is how she completely demystifies “prepping”. Prepping is taking care of ourselves. We’re fortunate to live in a time and place where we have the world at our fingertips, but sometimes things still go awry. We can expect the best while still planning for the worst, and it’s good sense to do so. How would you like to deal with an expected power outage during a snow storm? In relative comfort – warm, with hot food, and a board game for the family to play, or cold, eating cereal with the milk before it goes bad and staring at blank screens waiting for the power to return?

The Prepper’s Canning Guide

Continuing with the theme of preparedness for a bit, another great book on this topic is The Prepper’s Canning Guide. As most of you know, I am big into food preservation. I enjoy doing it, and it’s great way to put by healthy food at an affordable price. When I first become interested in prepping many years ago, I just bought extra cans of green beans and Lipton noodle and rice dinners, and called it a day. While store-bought green beans still have a place in my home (I don’t have to the time to can everything we eat still), I’ve abandoned a lot of the other “typical” stock up items most people buy, like the canned soups and those ubiquitous Lipton dinners. With food allergies, there’s not a lot of that kind of stuff we can eat. Fortunately, we don’t have to give up the convenience of ready to eat meals – there are plenty of things that can be canned at home. Pressure canning soups and stews, and even breakfast sausage are fantastic ways to weather which ever storm you’re dealing with, weather it be of the natural, man-made or economic variety. As a veteran canner, I know about a lot of these delicious meals already, but it was great to have Daisy Luther marry food preservation and prepping in a direct way.

Part one of the book focuses on canning basics, and I’m happy report that Luther knows her stuff, following USDA recommended guidelines for food safety. If you’ve never canned before, this first section outlines the how’s and why’s in an easy to read and understand manner. Part two covers basic recipes like jams and pickles that are water bath canned, as well as vegetables and meat that need to be pressure canned. Part three is the real star of the show, covering pressure canned main dishes. Southwestern chicken soup, beef stroganoff (add sour cream when serving, or it’s just as good without it), jambalaya base (add rice when serving), marinara sauce with meatballs, and pot roast are just some of the recipes covered. I’m glad to have this book on my shelf, and if you’ve ever wondered if you can make home made dinners instead of stocking up on Dinty Moore, then this is definitely the book for you.

The Prepper’s Dehydrator Handbook

This is another great book that combines the concepts of prepping and food preservation. Written by Shelle Wells, it covers dehydration from a prepper’s point of view. She follows safe food handling practices, and outlines both how to dry a variety of foods, as well as recipes for how to cook and eat them – some as re-hydrated meal ingredients, and others eaten as-is. My favorite chapter is the one on jerky, as that’s a favorite snack at our house. The teriyaki and chili lime are both great jerky recipes that can really punch up the flavor. It’s a great book and can help anyone get started with food dehydrating.