Homemade Granola Bars

Granola is one of my very favorite breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and snack foods. It plays an extremely versatile role in my diet and I love to mix up both store-bought and homemade varieties with different dried fruits, seeds and nuts, and healthy additions such as wheat germ and ground flax seed.

But sometimes a bowl of crumbly granola just isn't convenient when I'm at work or need a snack on the go. For one thing, I find granola much more satisfying when enjoyed in a bowl of milk. And for another, it's quite a messy snack to enjoy when attempting to maintain a professional appearance. Thus I decided to make granola bars, full of the same wholesome flavors and healthy ingredients as my beloved granola but much more easily edible!

Just like when making granola, this recipe is highly adaptable. I actually came up with my own version by scoping out tons of granola bar recipes from all over the internet and each one is completely different, but I'm sure they all yield highly delicious products. So feel free to mix up the following recipe, whether you'd like to switch out the dried fruit and nuts included with other varieties or would rather skip the peanut butter and apple butter entirely. Whatever changes you make, just try to keep to the wet-dry balance as much as possible - add a little more honey or butter if you remove the peanut butter or include a few more cranberries if you decide to steer clear of the golden raisins.

Homemade Granola Bars


  • 4 cups oats
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/2 cup chopped cashews
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 6 Tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup apple butter

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare 9 by 13 inch pan with butter or line with wax or parchment paper.
2. Combine oats, pumpkin seeds, cashews, almonds, cinnamon, salt, dried cranberries, and golden raisins in a large bowl.
3. Over medium heat, warm brown sugar, butter, honey, peanut butter, and apple butter until sugar dissolves and butter is completely melted. Lower heat as needed to prevent burning and stir occasionally to fully incorporate.
4. Pour melted warm ingredients over dry ingredients, making sure to fully coat all the dry ingredients.
5. Transfer granola bar mixture to prepared baking pan. Pressly the bars firmly down, ensuring that the mixture fills all corners of the pan.
6. Bake for 35 minutes until bars are golden brown and fragrant.
7. Allow the bars to cool in the pan for 20 minutes. If used, grab the ends of the waxed or parchment paper to turn out the granola. Cut into bars of desired size. Enjoy!


The New Kings of Nonfiction

Though I've recently started listening to a lot of public radio, I'm fairly unfamiliar with Ira Glass and This American Life. In fact, I've never heard a single minute of the award winning program that Glass hosts and produces, nor do I have the slightest idea what he looks like or why he is so widely beloved at the moment.  But when I picked up The New Kings of Nonfiction and saw his name listed as editor of the collection, I figured it was about time I discovered what all the fuss was about.

The book is an assortment of nonfictional stories compiled by Mr. Glass himself. At first I requested it from my library assuming it would appeal to my newfound taste for essays. But in the introduction, Ira explicitly states that the pieces included therein are not essays at all, but rather true stories that are authentically, intelligently, and memorably told. The New Kings of Nonfiction is a testament to those modern writers who have mastered that delicate balance of skills required in any journalistic endeavor. Among them he includes Chuck Klosterman (a personal favorite of mine), David Foster Wallace, Bill Buford, Lawrence Weschler, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Savage, Michael Pollan, Susan Orlean, and many others.

Glass offers a selection of intriguing stories that present some larger truths in the telling of single events or encounters. The writers don't always adhere to the standard rules of journalism, many of them allowing their own voices, thoughts, impressions, and emotions to become part and parcel of their final pieces. Others infuse their writing with a sense of humor and level of personality that many nonfiction writers consider anathema to the medium. But after reading all of these stories and digesting the central tenets of Glass's introduction, it becomes clear that such a style of writing imparts immeasurable strengths to a writer's nonfiction pieces, rather than detracting from them. Glass makes explicit the basic facets of great storytelling by carefully selecting a diverse collection of well-told stories.

Apart from demonstrating Ira's aptness for story selection, The New Kings of Nonfiction offers some intriguing, entertaining, and memorable reading. A piece on Lois Weisberg, one of Chicago's most well-connected and socially productive Renaissance women, unexpectedly but nonetheless aptly offers commentary on the pros of affirmative action. The first story included profiles a teenager who engaged in white collar stock market crime and ultimately speaks volumes about our nation's economics and the at-times dangerous reach of technology. The lessons to be learned from each of the stories in Glass' collection are often surprising and always significant.

Each story highlighted in this volume, though maybe not concerned with topics I would normally consider to be of interest, proved compelling and educational. Glass' collection gave me pause to reflect upon my feelings toward nonfiction storytelling. In all honesty, I almost returned the book without reading a single story after I finished the introduction, so adverse was I to the notion of nonfictional stories. Few among the array of topics considered, from the stock market to soccer, sounded the least bit appealing. But I decided to give the first story a try, and then the second, and so on until I found myself converted.

I enjoy learning and reading is one of the primary venues through which I aim to educate myself. But these appeared, at first, to be arduous profiles of people, circumstances, and the like which had no relevance to me. Though I would still argue that most of the topics are far from relevant to my everyday life, the pieces within The New Kings of Nonfiction were entertaining rather than arduous and not completely irrelevant in theme. The factual nature of these stories makes them compelling in themselves,  and my impulse to continue reading was only enhanced by the quality of the writing.

For the endlessly interested individual, the type of person who finds anything and everything about the world we live in to be a source of excitement, Ira Glass' The New Kings of Nonfiction is a no-brainer. But even to those of us who may be harder to convince, this nonfiction collection offers a captivating look at just a select few of the vast number of subjects about which and from which we can learn. And for those who love the written word, as a creative medium, a personal outlet, or a source of leisurely entertainment, Glass' compilation is a wellspring of inspiration proving that good writing can transform just about any old topic into the stuff of a brilliant composition.


Coconut Thumbprint Cookies with Caramel and Sea Salt

Though sea salt and caramel has been all the rage lately, I was one of the last few to indulge in this sweet and salty combination. I'm not one for coffee, so salted caramel macchiatos were out of the question and I like my chocolates pure and simple, so salted caramel truffles weren't really tempting me either. But then I saw these incredible cookies in the latest issue of Martha Stewart living. Coconut Thumbprints with Salted Caramel. I love caramel and I am a huge of macaroons, so this seemed the perfect combination of two delightful sweets. And with a little bit of sea salt on hand, I figured I better go all the way and add the requisite saltiness on top so I could see for myself what all the fuss is about.

As usual, Martha's recipe does require a bit more work and attention to detail than seems necessary - but once you finish off these cookies with a little sprinkle of sea salt, every last minute will be totally worth it! 

The dough is simple and whisk-licking delicious (I probably ate about 4 cookies worth of dough before I even prepared my baking sheets)! Just butter, sugar, flour, and vanilla, coated in egg wash and coconut. Melted caramel and heavy cream makes the perfect filling for the cookies' thumbprint indentation and the tiny taste of sea salt really makes the caramel pop. Melting the caramel was surprisingly simple - it was forming the cookies and maintaining their shape when doused in a beaten egg and rolled through shredded coconut that proved the most challenging aspects of this recipe. I found it easiest to periodically wash my hands and clean as much excess coconut and dough from my hands between each rolling as possible. Adding a little water to the dough helped a bit as well.

The finished product is dainty and scrumptious. I was tempted to eat the cookies sans caramel because they looked so tasty after emerging from the oven. Luckily the caramel, once spooned into the little thumbprints, hardens up fairly quickly, so by the time you've finished salting the final cookie, the first one is ready to eat. Just don't wait too long to sprinkle your salt on since the caramel will harden pretty quickly!

These cookies are light, flavorful, and buttery. I was a little mislead in imagining they would taste like macaroons. There is great coconut flavor but these were much less dense than a traditional macaroon. Both the saltiness and the sweetness will keep you coming back for more, but these adorable cookies aren't heavy enough to weight you down after eating a few. And don't be alarmed by the 3 sticks of butter the recipe calls for - it yields a hefty 54 cookies. I halved the recipe myself (which was a good idea given how labor-intensive cookie-dough-shaping proved to be) and was much more pleased to be using a mere one and a half sticks of butter for my 25 cookies.

Coconut Thumbprint Cookies with Salted Caramel
from February 2012 issue of Martha Stewart Living Magazine


  • 3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 12 ounces sweetened flaked coconut
  • 44 small soft caramel candies (12 ounces)
  • 6 Tbsp heavy cream 
  • Large flakey sea salt, such as Maldon


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat together butter and sugar with a mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. With mixer on low, gradually add flour and 1/2 teaspoon table salt, and beat to combine. Press dough together in plastic wrap, then roll into 1 1/4 inch balls. Dip each ball in beaten egg, and roll in coconut. Place balls on parchment-lined baking sheets, and press an indentation into each with your thumb. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove sheets from oven, and re-press indentations. Bake cookies until golden, 9 to 10 minutes more. Let cool on wire racks. Repeat with remaining dough.
2. Place caramels and heavy cream in a small saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the caramels are melted and mixture is smooth, 4 to 6 minutes. Spoon into indentations in cookies, and sprinkle with sea salt. Rewarm caramel if it hardens before all cookies are filled. (Store in airtight containers for up to 2 days.)


The Summer of the Bear

Bella Pollen's The Summer of the Bear was an absolutely incredible novel. I read all 430 pages in a matter of three days, so enraptured was I with the story Pollen beautifully wove out of the tragic suicide of Nicky Fleming, an English diplomat stationed with his wife Letitia and three children, Georgie, Alba, and Jamie, in Berlin. 

Nicky's sudden death sends Letty and her children to the Hebrides, the sparsely populated Scottish islands where Letty grew up. Though she imagines a return to her childhood home and favored relaxation spot will help heal the wounds of widowhood, Letty realizes that her decision was rather brash and potentially at odds with the wishes of her grieving children. Nonetheless, Letty wallows in grief at her seaside home, damaging her relationship with her children in the process. But thorough investigations from the British Embassy into Nicky's death force Letty to question the circumstances of and motives behind her husband's suicide. As Letty grows more suspicious of the man she thought she knew so well, she further distances herself from the children who hold the greatest potential as sources of both happiness and truth about Nicky.

For teenaged Georgie, the Fleming's stint in the Hebrides is simply transitory as she hopes to attend college in London and enter the world of dating and intimacy. A classic middle child, difficult and stubborn Alba incessantly picks upon both of her siblings. No one is spared her harsh criticism and biting sarcasm, until Georgie crafts a deal with Alba that she cannot refuse, one that protects Jamie from Alba's meanness for an entire month. And young Jamie stumbles through the world of fatherlessness, lost in his imagination and inability to process the death of Nicky. So confused is Jamie by the euphemisms employed by family and friends to protect the youngest Fleming child from the reality of his father's death that he begins to question whether his father truly is dead, if he can return from heaven, and what elaborate mission has kept Nicky from his family for so long. But all of the children demonstrate a great fondness for their late father, from the imaginative stories he told his children to the fascinating way he had of making them each feel like his special favorite, Nicky was a very attentive and present father despite his high-powered political post.

The entire story is situated against the tense backdrop of the Cold War, the bleak environment of Scotland's northernmost islands, and the mystery of a grizzly bear who has supposedly inhabited the island. Though there have been numerous sightings by island natives prior to the Fleming's arrival, it is Jamie who continues to hold out hope that the grizzly is still prowling the land long after the rest of the Hebrideans reason that the bear must have perished. And the cast of island characters are themselves a wellspring of great intrigue, each one presented with their own unique story and all of them devout believers of island legends that frame the Flemings' story. 

Jamie's imaginative and colorful theories about the fate of both his father and the bear are juxtaposed with the unapologetically realistic portrayal of an insensitive Cold War era investigation into the lives of a grieving family. The Summer of the Bear seamlessly transitions through the various Fleming family members' anguish; from Jamie's immersion into a fantasy world built upon reticence and denial to Georgie's desire to break free from the bonds of her sorrowful family, from Alba's hardened facade which requires constant reminders to be maintained to Letty's anger as the facts reveal Nicky to have been an incomprehensibly different man from the one she knew. Pollen demonstrates an enviable talent for storytelling and construction, for balancing the stuff of childlike imagination and more mature and weighty content. 

What's even more, Pollen's novel isn't heavy or daunting. Though the story itself is far from lighthearted, the narrative is engaging and as easy to navigate as a bestselling beach read. Pollen has a way with words, crafting the most tantalizingly apt descriptions in her own mellifluous but intricate style. The world of the Hebrides and the Fleming family tragedy is one that Pollen quickly reels readers into almost without their knowledge. I found myself completely hooked by the time I reached page 10 and surprised to see that I had made it nearly a quarter of the way through in a single sitting. 

The Summer of the Bear is not to be missed and I imagine that Pollen will continue to be source of great fiction in the future. This novel reminded me a lot of the Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna and I can easily see Pollen finding her place amongst writers of Kingsolver's distinction. I only wish that I could get my hands on one of Pollen's four prior novels, especially Hunting Unicorns which was a bestseller, so as to spoil myself with another spectacular read by one of my new favorites Ms. Bella Pollen.


January Tunes

Here are just a few lovely songs/videos that have been helping me get through the January cold lately. Hope you find something in here to love!

Feist "The Bad in Each Other" from Metals - Feist's latest release has certainly delivered the same mournful melodies that I've come to love from this talented lady! "The Bad in Each Other" is a bit more upbeat and I love this live version from Jools Holland.

Wilco "The Good Part" from War on War B Side - I am quite the Wilco fan but there last few releases have been a bit disappointing to me. While recently scouring YouTube, I've come across a few B-sides and demos that have re-instilled my love for the Chicago-based band. "The Good Part" is the most catchy of the bunch and easily my favorite Wilco song of the moment.

Dan Mangan "Pine for the Cedars" from Nice, Nice, Very Nice - I've posted about Dan Mangan recently but had to share yet another one of my favorite tunes from this Canadian singer-songwriter. "Pine for the Cedars" is a simply beautiful song and I love the Mumford & Sons-esque build up he's got going on (sorry I am not better versed in musical terminology to more aptly describe the beautiful compositional elements of Mangan's and Mumford's music!).

Mumford & Sons "Ghosts That We Knew" - New Mumford & Sons! Need I say more?


Blind Sight

The last week of December offered me an unusual wealth of free time that I occupied primarily with eating, sleeping, and reading. There were plenty of prize-winning novels in my pile from the library, but it was Blind Sight, Meg Howrey's debut novel, that proved the most entertaining and left the most lasting impression upon me heading into 2012.

Howrey's narrative structure is completely unique and compelling from the get-go. We find ourselves privy to the musings of Luke, a teenager heading into his final summer before senior year. The beginning of each chapter is composed of Luke's attempts at college essays and other written ramblings, followed by a third person narrative closing out each chapter. I'm pretty sure this is one of the only books I've ever encountered that offered both types of perspectives on a central character without the use of multiple narrators. But Howrey's narrative ingenuity is just the beginning of Blind Sight's many virtues.

Luke is considered an accident among his family, the first male descendant in twelve generations which have followed a very distinct pattern when it comes to producing offspring. The youngest of three children, Luke's mother Sara is all New Age, taking each of her children on ritualistic pilgrimages on the cusp of their thirteenth birthdays, prohibiting any entertainment that promotes violence, and encouraging meditation, natural healing, and the like among her progeny. Luke's sisters Aurora and Pearl are positive figures in his life, providing him with a firm handle on how to talk to women and an unusual level of knowledge regarding menstruation. And they all live with Nana, Sara's widowed mother who is a devout Christian and prays for her grandchildren on a daily basis. As the sole male in his family's sea of women, Luke was brought up in a way largely different from that of his male friends.

Though Luke's family is obviously outfitted to provide some comic relief (though I probably identified with Sara a bit more than Howrey intended), the real story pertains to the long-missing family member, Luke's father Anthony Boyle, better known as the actor Mark Franco. Luke's mother shared one night with Anthony/Mark after Aurora and Pearl's father divorced her and left the family. Anthony/Mark met Luke just once when he was a newborn. When he became famous, however, Sara was so far removed from celebrity culture and popular entertainment that she barely knew who Mark Franco was, let alone came across his well-known face and recognized Anthony Boyle, Luke's father.

When Anthony/Mark contacts Sara in the hopes of meeting with his now-teenaged son, plans are made so that Luke can spend the summer with his father in Los Angeles. Though the relationship is at first strained by lack of familiarity between the two and the vast number of years spent apart, a unique rapport develops between father and son as they travel around the country for Anthony/Mark's various acting gigs and publicity stints, to visit Luke's paternal grandmother, to relax in Hawaii, and to camp in Sequoia National Park.

Blind Sight is part family saga, part coming of age story. Humorous situations are devised, undercutting some of the heavier aspects of Luke's written ramblings and his at-times difficult relationships with various family members. Luke and his father attempt to forge a father-son bond against the backdrop of a Hollywood career and exorbitant vacations, a completely alternate reality for Luke whose Delaware upbringing prized mindfulness, simplicity, and the renunciation of material goods. Though Howrey's story is largely that of Luke negotiating his newfound role in his father's life, all that he learned and valued via the female household in which he was raised begins to come into question too.

Though the situation itself isn't entirely unique (I believe I've read a story or two about absent parents, at least one containing a famous or remarkably rich father), Howrey creates an extremely relevant, relatable, and engaging story out of this basic construct. For a first-time novelist, Howrey's ability to narrate as an authentic and sympathetic teenaged boy is truly remarkable and her storytelling was entirely enrapturing throughout. I was quite pleased to find a book that I could read for two hour stretches at a time (since I finally had the opportunity to do so!) without growing bored or simply logging pages until reaching the final one.

I love to read and make as much time to do so as possible. Each book I begin with the hope that it will instantly grab my attention, keep me hooked through the last page, and stay on mind even after I finish. I'm constantly seeking the next novel that will stand apart from the others, and Blind Sight stood up to the test. Reading Bling Sight was a delightful experience, one that I didn't want to end (save for the ten books waiting to be opened as soon as I finished). Though the book wasn't exactly as profound as those I place among my very favorites (Markus Zusak's The Book Thief and Nicole Krauss' The History of Love for instance), the experience of reading Blind Sight was very much like that of reading those books that have become my favorites for the first time.


Dan Mangan

Canadian musician Dan Mangan is quickly becoming one of my new favorite artists (and not just because he reminds me of a charming Seth Rogen). With soaring compositions reminiscent of Mumford and Sons and melodies comparable to those of Josh Ritter, Mangan's sound could be described as polished folk, indie singer-songwriter, or alternative acoustic rock. His songs quickly get stuck in my head in the best way possible and I have yet to hear a single song of his that I dislike.

I'm pretty new to Mangan's whole catalogue, but I was glad to see that my local library carried both of his CDs. I'm still waiting for Mangan's most recent album, Oh Fortune, to come in, but I'm loving the songs off his debut release, Nice, Nice, Very Nice. Here are just a few of my favorite tracks from that album, and there is plenty more to listen to on his website. Enjoy!


We The Animals

Justin Torres' We The Animals is the story of three sons, the children of a tempestuous couple whose violent bond only solidifies that of their three offspring. Torres' novel is short and a relatively easy read, but its seeming simplicity belies a story ripe with beautiful imagery and a startling narrative voice.

Told from the perspective of the youngest unnamed brother, We The Animals is about a brotherhood marked by loyalty, a sense of adventure, and sometimes even a hint of desperation. Torres depicts their escapades and the settings in which they take place with starkly arresting description despite offering limited detail. His storytelling style is truly unique and makes for quite an engaging read, especially in his ability to recreate a sense of the unlimited magic of childhood. This band of brothers seeks respite from their parents' tumultuous love affair in the woods and around the neighborhood, demonstrating a degree of imagination, ingenuity, and good old trouble that marks fewer and fewer childhoods these days, irregardless of whether children come from happy or dysfunctional homes.

Though the three boys may not always feel safe in the violent company of Paps or that of their alcoholic Ma, the family life's is not completely devoid of all displays of love, happiness, and childlike joy. Torres offers a very realistic picture of both the highs and the lows experienced by a family borne of an unhealthy relationship. Married as teenagers after the birth of their first son Manny, Ma and Paps had two more boys in quick succession and constantly struggle to provide their family with some semblance of stability despite their limited education and experience. But between stints working graveyard shifts, tumultuous fights to which their children bear witness, and scrapping together whatever money they can find to make ends meet, the two manage to provide their sons with thrilling midnight outings and impractical but unforgettable adventures.

The relationship between these three brothers, forced to protect one another in the face of their family's problems and the taint of their father's Hispanic blood which separates them from the rest of the neighborhood kids, ultimately proves rather tenuous when the youngest, our narrator, develops differently from the rest in a highly fundamental way. Fear, jealousy, and misunderstanding all try the strength of their brotherhood in the end, quite unexpectedly turning this tale into one of moral questions and the value of common blood.

Although Torres' We The Animals was a novel I finished in a single sitting, its impact was much deeper and long lasting. Torres' novel is entirely unassuming and absolutely refreshing to read.  And while his title at first appears to be a description of the animal nature of the brothers, ravaging the neighborhood and running wild together, it ultimately takes on more profound meaning in regards to how we treat one another, a theme that Torres subtly but beautifully introduces.


Martha Stewart Vegetable Enchiladas

Life's been hectic around here lately what with the holiday season, school, and job switching. In light of all this busyness, it has been pretty rare for Mike and I to sit down to dinner together during the week, both because we're on different schedules and because I don't have the time or energy to prepare a full on meal. In an effort to subvert at least one of the reasons why we've had trouble having dinner, I decided to make some freeze-able meals, things that can be made ahead of time and pulled out for a quick defrost whenever Mike and I find ourselves together, hungry, and in the mood for a healthy meal.

Martha Stewart was my go-to on this one and I found plenty of recipes on her site that are freezer-friendly. One of the most pleasing dishes I made was her Vegetable Enchiladas. Stuffed with corn, spinach, and beans, these enchiladas are healthful and filling but not too heavy. Though the recipe calls for 3 cups of cheese, you could easily downsize it to 2 for a less calorie-intensive dish. And topped with some sliced avocado or served alongside some simple grilled chicken, this is a satisfying and versatile meal to eat any day of the week.

Martha's photo of the enchiladas (below) is much more appetizing than mine (which I opted not to post on account of their unappetizingness), mostly because I forgot to capture the baked enchiladas before divvying them up to freeze. Though these are pretty messy and they're not the prettiest of dishes, they're flavorful and simple to make and come highly recommended for busy people in need of a freezer-friendly meal solutions.

Vegetable Enchilada Recipe


Our Idiot Brother

As 2011 came to a close, my movie buff husband Mike asked me about my favorite films of the year. We saw plenty of good, even great, ones in the past 12 months and more than a handful of duds, but there were a select few that certainly stood out from the rest. 50/50, Super 8, and Win Win were films that I look forward to revisiting again and again in years to come. And Our Idiot Brother also easily made it into my top 5 and was, in fact, my favorite comedy of the year.

So many of the blockbuster comedies that come out these days just don't appeal to my strange sense of humor I guess. The Hangover and Bridesmaids, for instance, were movies that plenty of people I knew (and thought I shared similar tastes with) recommended, but I didn't find them extremely memorable or hilariously entertaining. Some of the popular comedies these days are just too outrageous for my taste, but Our Idiot Brother was just right. There were definitely wacky situations and over-the-top characters, but these rather unrealistic elements crafted for laughs never felt forced to me, largely because of the sincerity and authenticity of the movie as a whole.

Our Idiot Brother stars Paul Rudd as Ned, the unconditionally loving hippie brother of Miranda, Natalie, and Liz. Ned's sisters are portrayed by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer while Adam Scott, Rashida Jones, Kathryn Hahn, and T.J. Miller are also included in this winning cast.

Though Ned's path in life is definitely unconventional, he is a sweet and endearing character who lives by a generous and loving set of ideals. After getting out of jail for selling marijuana to a police officer (a situation which is pretty indicative of his naive nature), Ned is forced to return to his mother's house since his ex-girlfriend bars him from the organic farm where he lived, worked, and grew the pot that got him into trouble in the first place.

The only brother in a close family of four children, Ned tries to find support, as well as temporary housing and employment, from each of his sisters. Liz is married to a pretentious documentarian who forces his son to engage in an array of non-violent, multicultural hobbies in lieu of learning karate. Straight-laced Miranda is trying to move up in the world of journalism while Natalie lives with her long-term girlfriend and four other twenty-somethings while trying her hand at stand-up comedy. Each of the siblings have distinct personalities which are at odds with, if not mildly disdainful of, Ned's happy-go-lucky nature and hippie sensibility. Ned's reliance on his sisters proves burdensome and problematic for the girls in different ways. But to someone as unequivocally loyal as Ned, there is no question in his mind that he should be able to turn to his family in times of need.

The ensuing comedic drama is ultimately a heartwarming, grounded story despite Ned's unbelievable idiocy, contrived for maximum humor and theatrics. Our Idiot Brother has all the requisite elements of a quality comedy without overdoing it. One-liners and short conversations provide humor as well as larger situations and plot features. But there are also lessons learned, messages about family, human nature, and kindness. And despite its rather small budget, this film is satisfying enough to please mainstream and more unconventional audiences alike. Paul Rudd is a pretty endearing guy in any role, but I'd say that his portrayal of Ned in Our Idiot Brother is one of his most delightful and winning characters.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog

My cousin Andrea recommended Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog to me and, having just finished the book, I couldn't be happier to have received her suggestion. Barbery's novel is a delightful and satisfying read full of unassuming depth. The story itself is told from the point of view of its two main characters, Renee, a Parisian concierge who painstakingly attempts to hide her high taste for art and culture as well as her intelligence behind a facade of soap operas and grumpiness, and Paloma, a twelve year old occupant in Renee's building who is both wise and intelligent beyond her years despite the debilitating impact of a family that fails to understand her and her own efforts to mask her true intellect.

Though the two lead distinctly separate lives for the majority of the book, Renee and Paloma are strikingly similar characters, kindred souls separated by 40-some years, social status, and five apartment floors. With Renee, readers are introduced to a world of great literature, feline companionship, and musings on the gross disparities between the moral character, intellectual capacity, and acquired wealth of members of Paris' highest and lowest classes. Though Renee finds solace in her bi-weekly tea with Manuela, the apartments' Portuguese cleaning lady, her preoccupation with art and culture finds an outlet in a new and discerning tenant on the fourth floor.

Paloma's story begins with her vow to burn her family's apartment and commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Driven by despair at the lack of beauty and perfect movement in the world, Paloma records profound thoughts and movements of the world in an effort to make certain that there is nothing worth living for. Though her narrative seems a morbid one, it is actually full of insight and humor, the deliberations of a child with excesses of wisdom and intelligence on the cusp of her teen years. Similar to Renee, Paloma's vast mental capacity is the primary source of her struggles in life but also a most crucial aspect of survival and escape.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a quirky book, amusing and engaging, littered with philosophical ponderings, subtle literary references, a dose of social satire, and the heartbreaking reality of life behind a facade. Barbery brings a remarkably unique voice to the table and spins a simple but elegant tale, not unlike the elegance of the very animal from which this book takes its name.

The only reservation I have with Barbery's novel is that it was over all too soon. I will admit it was a bit slow to start - I was extremely interested from the get-go but felt that Barbery made readers wait quite a bit before the story began to develop. Once things are truly happening for Renee and Paloma, however, I was sad to reach the last page and put this one down. Within The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery constructs a marvelous Parisian tale that proves entertaining, thought-provoking, and bittersweet.
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