The Family Dinner by Laurie David

November 17, 2010

This is a guest post by my wife Sarah: My husband knows me well. After receiving a copy of Laurie David’s new hot-off-the-press book, The Family Dinner: Great ways to connect with your kids, one meal at a time, he immediately handed it over to me as he knew I’d enjoy anything about food and kids. Upon first glance, I thought it was a ‘green’ cookbook with some information about how to connect with your family, but as I started turning the pages, I realized it was quite the opposite. I became engrossed immediately and ended up reading the entire book cover to cover, which I definitely was NOT planning on originally doing!

Perhaps the best way I can describe this book is to call it the must-have manual or bible for anyone who wants to raise well-adjusted children and foster a loving and connected family atmosphere (and who doesn’t?). Definitely not your average cookbook. Laurie David, producer of An Inconvenient Truth, author of Stop Global Warming and former wife of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, is a passionate parent who strongly believes that simply by consistently having one meal a day together, today’s overwhelmed, busy, technology-addicted families can learn how to engage and converse with one another, feel more connected as a family unit, and eat healthier and help the planet to boot.

David shares that research consistently proves that everything we worry about as parents – from drugs and alcohol, promiscuity, to obesity, academic achievement and just good old nutrition – can all be improved by the simple act of eating and talking together around the table. The book is divided into themed chapters to cover everything well-meaning (but busy) parents need to know, including easy steps and rules to having a successful dinner, setting the scene, involving everyone in the cooking and preparing, ways to express gratitude, conversation starters and inspirational ideas from the news, books, and poetry.

There are over 75 fantastic recipes submitted by the family’s Danish friend and personal chef, Kirstin Uhrenholdt, including tips on getting kids involved. There’s also a great section about how to keep the family dinner ritual intact in the months and years following a divorce or family change.

The book also focuses on how family dinners offer an opportunity to help sustain our planet in addition to our family connectedness. There are plenty of green tips, including composting, growing your own vegetables and herbs, eating less meat (there’s a whole chapter on “Meatless Mondays” including plenty of veggie recipes) and using organic and local produce in your everyday cooking.

As if that weren’t enough, Laurie has incorporated personal stories, words of wisdom, tips and advice from a wide range of well-known chefs, restaurateurs, celebrities, authors, poets, academics, doctors, food activists, and family and parenting experts, which add credibility, interest and inspiration to this gem of a book. These contributions are scattered throughout the book amongst the recipes, text, and beautiful photos, making the whole thing very visually appealing and easy to read.

Perhaps the only criticism I have of The Family Dinner is how the recipes are organized. They are included within certain chapters by theme; for example, vegetarian recipes can be found in the Meatless Mondays chapter, easy and fast recipes are to be found in the Fast Recipes section, recipes that the kids will have fun helping out with are in the Cook Together chapter, etc. It makes sense as you read the book straight through but when it comes down to finding a recipe to cook for tonight’s dinner, you’ll have to do a bit of searching and flipping pages to find the one you want.

Aside from that, I found this book to be incredibly powerful. I am pregnant with our first child and already have visions of our happy little family sitting around the dinner table, playing games, talking and laughing, eating healthy and nutritious food, and simply being together. Thanks to this book, it’s not simply a pie in the sky notion now, it is an easily obtainable dream.

The Family Dinner will be making itself a permanent home on our kitchen shelf and every time I find myself needing pointers on how to engage everyone in a productive conversation (I’m sure we’ll reach those teenage years before we know it!), fun word games, thought-provoking readings, ideas for saying grace, how to get kids involved in the process of preparing and enjoying food, or just simple inspiration on how to stay connected in today’s harried world, there is no doubt I will be reaching for this book again and again.

Available now from Amazon.

Oil By Tom Bower Book Review

November 3, 2010

There’s no getting away from oil and with the spill in the Gulf of Mexico still fresh in our minds, we received a book all about the black gold.

Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century by Tom Bower was written before the latest disaster but nonetheless aims to tell the story of oil over the last 20 years. Oil follows the stories of BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, the traders, Russian oligarchs and environmentalists.

When I picked up the book I was a little apprehensive, thinking it would be a serious tome, but Bower is an old hand and has written it in an easy-going style that makes it a compelling read.

Oil by Tom Bower

Saying that, it’s a hugely complex issue with many different players across businesses and countries, so it takes a certain concentration to read. Again, Bower has helped by giving these people personalities from his extensive interviews (more than 250 people) and research. You start to think you know the head of BP or Shell as you go through your book.

It’s a fascinating read, and the amounts of money involved, shady deals and disasters all make an intriguing book. I found myself compelled to read more and learn about the world of oil and while Bower tends to shy away from making judgments, he does offer facts that lead you to certain conclusions. Especially on the environment issue, calling BP’s rebranding greenwash and showing how reality and perception aren’t the same thing.

Oil: Money, Politics, and Power in the 21st Century by Tom Bower is available from bookshops and online at the Hachette Book Group priced $26.99.

21st Century Smallholder – Book review

August 18, 2010

If you are looking for a book that covers everything about being self-sufficient, then this is the only one you will ever need. In ‘21st Century Smallholder’, author Paul Waddington describes various eco-friendly ways to change your home and garden in a simple and often very humorous manner.

Most of us think that to live a self-sufficient life, we have to sell up and move to the country but as Paul states in 21st Century Smallholder, this is not always a viable option. This is what makes this book worth its money. Starting with apartment owners and moving all the way up to houses with big gardens, Paul explains how we can live in a more eco-friendly environment.

Window box allotments

Paul starts by explaining how we can grow some of our own food in window boxes and pots in a small balcony or tiny garden. Crops like herbs, strawberries, tomatoes and salads are ideal for people living in the city because they are fast growing and space-efficient. Even plants such as peas and beans can be trained to climb walls saving you even more space. Moreover, because they are easy to maintain and grow quickly, the results of your window box allotments will be quick in coming. The only problem is you might be tempted to have a taste and end up seeing your crops plundered before they land on the table.

Bigger gardens, bigger results

As you move up from small gardens to houses with big gardens, the opportunities to live self-sufficiently really start to increase. Not only can you grow your window box crops but you can also plant crops that require more space like potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower. Sections of the garden can be put aside for a compost heap or even a small pond to attract frogs and birds that will help keep the garden pests at bay.

Chickens on the loose

If you really want to turn your back garden into a smallholding, Paul in covers a section on livestock though for most of us, chickens may be an easier option than keeping goats, sheep and cows. A farmyard full of lowing cows might not be advisable in your average suburban neighborhood. The great thing about chickens is that they are relatively easy to house and maintain. Bear in mind that a chicken lays an egg a day so even with only four chickens you will soon be selling eggs outside your front door.

If you are raising livestock for their meat, it might be worth keeping in mind that you may have to explain to your child at some point that Toffee, their favorite chicken, has just been served for Sunday lunch.

Total self-sufficiency

If you are really serious about self-sufficiency, 21st Century Smallholder goes onto to cover the very top of the eco-friendly ladder. Paul explains how to use solar panels, wind turbines and even water features to create electricity and heat. Subjects as diverse as bee keeping are covered as well as how to turn your garden into a paradise for wildlife.

The most refreshing thing about Paul’s book is the extensive research he has done and the humorous way in which he writes. Paul lists the pros and cons of each situation and does not hold back if he thinks that something that is hailed as eco-friendly does not really work. For example, wind turbines are used to generate electricity around the world but for even a large property, you would need a garden full of them to generate enough electricity to drop off the grid. And of course, you would need constant wind.

Paul Waddington’s 21st Century Smallholder can be bought at most online book retailers like Amazon and is well worth the money, even if you are a beginner or only have an apartment with which to work your self-sufficiency magic.

The Green Blue Book – Eco Book Review

April 14, 2010

The Green Blue Book: The Simple Water-Savings Guide to Everything in Your Life is written by one of the authors of The Green Book, but this time it focuses specifically on saving water.

The Green Blue Book

I recently reviewed Water by Steven Solomon and the battle over water seems to be brewing more and more these days. This book is less about the causes and reasons for it, but more what we can do about it, chiefly by saving water.

The first section takes you through the water that you can see, so the water you use in your home in daily life. So shorter showers, turning off the tap while cleaning your teeth and/or shaving. The water you use in the garden, or at work or while on vacation. Simple tips of what you can do and how much it will save.

Section two moves on moves on to invisible water usage, the water that you can’t see being used. This mainly involves the water used in the production of food, clothes, furnishings, pets, and anything you buy or consume on a daily basis. It’s very interesting to read about the amounts of water that go into your kitchen granite countertop or how much water is used growing and transporting that one pear to you (7.8 gallons apparently). There are usually brief tips about how to reduce this (buy locally and in-season produce or use a roll-on rather than spray deodorant for example).

Finally it goes through how to calculate your water footprint with some simple mathematics. Reducing the water you use is not only good for the environment but also for your wallet. My water bill went up 25% last year for the same amount of water. The book finishes off with a huge (over 50 pages) list of resources and references, with some URLs so long you have no hope of typing them in correctly. Using a url shortening service would have be a smart idea here. There’s also a quick handy reference guide at the back and an index as you would expect.

Overall the book is very interesting. Some of the tips are a little obvious (at least to me) but most are easy to implement and make perfect sense. Broken into easy to read paragraphs and with the quick reference guide it’s easy to keep around and see how simple it is to start saving water.

Buy it now for around $11.55 from Amazon.

Water by Steven Solomon Book Review

February 3, 2010

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon is a weighty tome at 500 pages plus photographs and notes but covers a heck of a lot.

Not having time to read it all I dipped in and out of it’s chapters and found it fascinating. With freshwater use growing twice as fast as population growth, water is rapidly going to replace oil as the world’s most valuable resource (if it hasn’t already) and there is going to be bigger battles between those who have access to it and those who do not.

Water famine could outstrip famine and religion as the cause of wars and the scenario played out in the book is pretty bleak indeed. Researched in great detail, Solomon shows enormous understanding of the issues and gives us the history of water’s role in shaping of the world as we know it today. Interspersed with maps and a set of photos, the understanding of the past is critical to understanding the present situation. Egyptian, Roman, Islamic and Chinese sea and water power are explained; the building of the great canals; “The Sanitary Awakening” that lead to a massive clean up of the way water was treated; and much more.

With humans requiring two to three quarts (~2 liters) of fresh water a day to stay alive, population projections for 2050 to be in excess of 9 billion, and only 2.5% of water on earth being freshwater, the challenges are enormous.

If you’re interested in the issues surrounding water in the 21st century and how the issues came to be, I don’t think there is another single book that encompasses all the issues in such great depth and detail.

You can buy it from Amazon for around $18.50. Now I just need to finish it!

Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin Review

January 27, 2010

Originally published in 1981, and began to be called ‘the bible of the simplicity movement’ shortly thereafter, Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin apparently is “not a book about living in poverty, but living with balance. Elgin illuminates the changes that an increasing number of Americans are making in their everyday lives – adjustments in day-to-day living that are an active, positive response to the complex dilemmas of our time. By embracing the tenets of voluntary simplicity – frugal consumption, ecological awareness, and personal growth – people can change their lives and, in the process, save our planet.”

Voluntary Simplicity

The book was apparently in much need of an update, the ecological landscape has changed much in twenty years, an the author has done much since, including winning the 2006 international Goi Peace Award. It’s a relatively short book, and with two forewords and an introduction to the second edition it gets a little shorter but they do explain the context of the book and sever as a good platform for what is to come.

Split into seven basic chapters it’s an relatively easy read, covering what simplicity really means (in his terms), and the lifestyle choices it can involve. However it’s not the strongest book on the practicalities of making such changes, but provides a thorough understanding of what choices there are.

It’s an interesting book but I’m struggling for more to say about it as it delivers what it offers. The resources section at the end is pretty useful too. Take a look at the latest edition on Amazon.

A World Without Ice Book Review

November 30, 2009

Henry N Pollack, the author of A World Without Ice was the contributing author to the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, was a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan for more than forty years and now serves as a science adviser to Al Gore’s Climate Project training programs.

A World Without Ice

The book attempts to show that it’s not difficult to envisage a world without ice, and how the relationship between humankind and ice is at a dangerous turning point. Ice is the direct source of drinking and agricultural ware for more that 25% of the earth’s population, and the possibility of “climate refugees” in places like New York, London and Japan is a distinctly real one.

It feels, perhaps deliberately, old-fashioned. I love a book with maps, black and white drawings in, and quotes at the start of each chapter. It makes the reading seem more enjoyable and “real” for some reason. The author explains why ice is such a great indicator (or barometer) of climate change and why changes have such a big impact in the world of ice, and beyond.

The historical context into which facts and arguments were presented was most interesting to me, particularly the early chapter on Arctic tourism. Each chapter has numerous sub-headings throughout that nicely break up the text for easier reading.

I actually found the background, history and factual information around ice more interesting than the later parts about the impact humans are having. Again, perhaps this was deliberate, it made ice seem much more important, and even wondrous, before telling us of what will happen if it keeps declining. A very interesting read overall though, worth a look.

Further details can be found on The World Without Ice website, and you can buy the book from Amazon.

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