Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Review: The Lost Hero

I don't have the time to pre-read everything my kids read. Mama has her own teetering stacks of books to devour. I ask them about their books, though, and when something piques my interest, I will definitely add it to my own pile after the child has finished (or, occasionally--as was the case of a certain someone who read the last Harry Potter book much too slowly--before). This is what happened with the Percy Jackson series.
The author, Rick Riordan, says that he first developed an interest in mythology when he was hooked on the Lord of the Rings series in middle school. His teacher told him the author (Tolkien, of course) had been heavily influenced by Norse mythology (I didn't know that, but it makes sense, eh?), so young Rick soon turned to Norse mythology, which then naturally progressed to Greek and Roman.
I loved his Percy Jackson series (a total of five books) because he made Greek mythology easily readable and accessible to a wide audience--even adults! The books have great characters, they're funny, and the action and mystery are intense and well-paced. I also enjoyed the way Riordan wove appearances of mythological beings (gods, demigods, monsters, etc.) into modern culture. The Three Fates as taxi drivers (and you know how crazy that would be: they share an eye),Medusa's garden sculpture shop (everything is stone, of course), the Empire State building as Mt. Olympus. Each book was a fun read, and I could understand why my kids enjoyed them.
The Lost Hero is the first book in a new series, but it picks up where the Percy Jackson series ended, and many of the characters reappear. Just like the other series, you have great action, adventure, and memorable characters.
In this series we meet Jason, Leo, and Piper--all three of whom are castoffs and misfits, trying to figure out why they don't really seem to get along with their peers or fit in anywhere. For those who've become familiar with Riordan's series, the reason is clear: they're demigods, children of a mortal's union with a god. Sure enough, they end up at Camp Half-Blood with other demi-gods where many of their questions are answered and their divine parentage is revealed. But Jason's past is still shrouded in mystery. It's like someone has deliberately erased his memory, and the only one who might have a clue--Chiron, the centaur head teacher at Camp Half-Blood--gets pretty nervous and starts pawing the ground when asked directly.
Soon the three set off on a quest to rescue Hera, stop an evil (and unknown, for most of the book) being from overthrowing the entire order of the world, and of course they make a few stops along the way to visit various gods and beings and ask for help or fight for their lives--or both. The characters take turns as narrative focii in the chapters, which gives unique insight into their varied backgrounds and issues, and each one adds a different sort of spice to the story.
This novel also introduces Roman mythology, where the first series was entirely Greek. It's interesting how the characters acknowledge that while the Roman gods were usually very similar to their Greek counterparts, there were some distinct differences, which makes sense, considering the vast differences between Ancient Greek and Roman cultures. I was particularly interested by this part of the novel, as it wasn't something I had really considered before. I knew that most of the Greek gods played a part in Roman mythology and their names were interchangeable, but I hadn't considered that the Romans would have valued certain characteristics in their deities over others and superimposed them on the "characters" of the Greek gods as they'd already been established. But as I said, it makes sense.
Anyway, a fun read. Lighthearted and a little bit educational as well, which is always a bonus. If I have any complaint, it is that there is less of a meld of the mythological world with the "real" world, but I did learn that Jack London was a demigod. Did you know that? Hmm. I didn't think so. (Well, I guess I didn't either before I read the book. We're even.) (Well, we will be if you read at least one of Riordan's books.) (If you don't like Greek and Roman mythology, you can try one of his Kane Chronicles. Those are about Egyptian gods and are equally funny, although I didn't love the characters as much.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Playing God

One of my favorite things about sunny, warm days is hanging clothes outside on the clothes line. Sure, my towels may be a little scratchy and my jeans may be a little stiff when I first put them on, but I like some crunch in my clothes and some backbone in my bedsheets.

So anyway, this morning--knowing it was going to be a bright and beautiful day--I strolled outside to the back yard and began hanging t-shirts and sheets on the clothes line. I got to the end of the line, the part near the boundary of our property where there is a thick line of bushes, and some movement caught my eye.

It was a white moth, and it was caught in a spider web. The moth was fluttering, flapping, trying desperately to free itself. I hung the sheet, smoothing its damp edges, and I began to turn away.

I have been reading Charlotte's Web to Jared, after all, and Charlotte has reminded us both that spiders are not bloodthirsty monsters but animals who need to eat just as much as pigs--or people--do.

Photo credit: John Shappell

Even though I had turned my back on the desperately struggling moth, I kept seeing its frantic struggle in my mind's eye. I hung another shirt and tried to close that inner eye. The moth had blundered into the spider's web. The spider needed to eat. I should let nature take its course. Who was I to try to free the moth? As I hung another shirt, I felt a glow of self-righteousness, thinking Charlotte would be proud of me. I was quite certain that if she were nearby, she would weave an adjective or two about me into her web.

I hung the last towel on the line and picked up the basket to go back inside. Then I hesitated. I had to look back one more time. The moth was still struggling, still fluttering, still hoping to live. I set the basket down and stepped closer, looking for the spider. I thought, maybe the spider is right there, watching its dinner lose its will to live and surrender to fate. But I couldn't see the spider at all, just the moth.

Then, without even really thinking about what I was doing, I stretched forth my godlike finger and tore at the net. I tore and tore around the moth, freeing it. Without one word of thanks, it fluttered away, and I stood up, staring at the devastation I had caused, brushing sticky shreds from my fingers.

And I thought, as I bent to pick up the empty laundry basket, of how easy that had been for me: how with a few strokes of my finger, I had saved a life and destroyed something beautiful. Would the spider snare another moth--or something less lovely, perhaps--later that day, or would it have to wait days before its next meal? Would it survive those hungry days, or had I doomed it to starvation--certainly, I had made a mess of its web, and it would have to repair it.

Photo credit: The Natural Stone (

As I stumbled through the rest of my day, I tried not to think too much about the divine power I had used, refusing to think about things like guilt or remorse or pride. These were a spider and a moth, and I had more important things to take care of, like feeding my children and paying bills, but now, as I sit in my quiet chair, my day's tasks nearly completed, I think again about the godlike action I took this morning, and I wonder whether I did the right thing.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Decorating the Branch

This past fall while cutting wood at a local church, Clint found this branch and, knowing I'd love it, he brought it home. I walked around and around it, carried it around the house for awhile, and then decided it needed to hang from the ceiling in our family room. At Christmas time, it was decorated with ornaments that sparkled and glittered and some lovely birds. The birds got to stay on the branch after I took the ornaments down.

They look too comfortable, I think, to be packed away in the darkness of the basement. And I like to look at this teal one in particular. He has such lovely tail feathers, and sometimes I think he winks at me.

But if the bird loved me, the bare branch taunted me. I knew it needed decoration, but I couldn't decide what. Whatever I chose had to be light weight so as not to break the fragile small limbs, and not too fancy or frilly as it wouldn't go with the rest of the room. I knew I wanted to make it, and I didn't want to spend a lot of money.

So, one day I sat down and started sketching simple flowers and leaves. I cut a flower out and held it up to the light, but it was just a little bit too boring. It needed some dimension, some shape. Also, my sketch was a little lackluster, if I must admit, and I wanted something more simple and less fussy.

After searching awhile online, I found this tutorial, which was both easy to follow and simple in design. I don't have extra vellum, and I was looking through my paper stash when lightning struck my brain in a moment of sheer crafting and penny-pinching genius: I could use last month's Crate and Barrel catalog. (I had saved it for once and have been using the pages for wrapping paper and envelopes...hate to thow such beautiful pictures away!)

I used a small glass to trace lots and lots of circles, as the tutorial instructed. Then, I cut out each circle (and you don't need to be super precise because the edges get rounded). After cutting each circle, I folded them into eighths (half and half and half again) and then rounded off the edges. Then after unfolding my almost-flower (and here's where you really need to look at the tutorial to get the visual help), I cut out one little section and a tiny part of another. Apply a kiss of glue stick and adhere the cut tab to the other part of the flower and voila! 3-D flower.

Having a one-girl assembly line makes the process run much more quickly, I think, than making each flower individually. The next step is making the stems. As the tutorial suggested, I cut pieces of floral wire and bent one end into a hooky thing to look like the (ahem) reproductive parts of a flower. Thread the unbent end of the wire through the very, very tiny hole in the middle of the flower and there you go! All set. Now I just needed to attach them to the branch.

Here's one lone guy on his branch. He's waiting for more friends to join him.

And soon they were all on the branch (except for the few who still sit on my counter top: I ran out of floral wire!), where they introduced themselves quite politely to Mr. Teal Bird and his friends. Sometimes I look up from my chair (which is right below the branch, of course, almost like a halo of crafty benediction) and smile at them as they bob gently in the breeze from the window.

You'll be happy to know that the branch no longer taunts me at all. It has become quite friendly since the addition of the flowers. The only trouble now is the nagging I get from the flowers that still lack their wires. I'll get to it, I assure both them and you, in my own sweet time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Book Review: The God of Animals

This is the first sentence: "Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy." If you're anything like me, you want to read this book already, don't you--even without the rest of this review.
Well, here's the rest, for those of you who still aren't convinced:
The narrator, Alice Winston, is a twelve-year old girl, a lonely girl who wishes she had at least one friend, who wishes her father relies on her as much as he had relied on her older sister--the one who ran off with the cowboy without a word of explanation. Alice's father owns a struggling horse ranch in the town of Desert Valley, Colorado. Nona had won a slew of awards at local, national, and international levels for her horsemanship, but Joe Winston won't even let Alice get on a horse to start training for a show. Instead, he trains an inept rich girl, flattering her in the hopes that she will bring her rich friends out for lessons as well. When no rich friends show up and the situation becomes even more desperate, Joe takes on boarders, and the owners of these pampered horses seem interested mainly in grooming their horses, eating frozen grapes, drinking wine and gossiping--oh, and flirting with Joe. They are rich, indolent women, and Alice is both intrigued by them and repulsed.
In her loneliness, Alice manufactures a friendship with the drowned Polly Cain to initiate a secret friendship with her English teacher, lets Sheila (the rich girl taking showmanship lessons) into her life, lies about why her mother hasn't left her bedroom since Alice was a baby, and accepts gifts of clothing and jewelry from one of the boarders. Matters come to a head as all of her lies and fabrications are tested and begin to unravel, as she desperately rides one of her father's wildest horses in a show, as Nona and her husband reappear one day at the ranch. And as the long, brutally dry days of summer come to a shattering end with first a rainstorm and then, a short while later, a blizzard.
Aryn Kyle, the author, is a first-time novelist, and according to the notes at the end of the novel, she considers herself more a short story writer than a novelist. Indeed, the first chapter in the novel began as a short story, which won an award from The Atlantic Monthly. Many of the chapters read a bit more like short stories than novel chapters, actually, as in each one, Alice learns something of a life lesson and each could function as a complete whole in itself.
The plot is certainly compelling with all the troubles of the Winston ranch and the uncertainty of its survival, but what really makes this story work is the variety and complexity of the characters, major and minor alike. Alice's adolescent voice is honest and wry, naive and yet wise, clear-sighted and also self-absorbed. She is both selfish and selfless, compassionate and careless. She is very much a young girl. The other characters are similarly beautiful and yet flawed. Most have a secret they would like very much to keep buried. Some of them are revealed through the course of the novel and some are not. As Sheila Altman remarks near the end of the novel: "That's what we do for the people we love...we keep their secrets."
Also, Aryn's written style is something to be remarked upon. Desert Valley is a fictional place, but the descriptions of the setting are quite realistic. Consider this: "And the snow fell. Like in a dream, it distorted shapes and colors, hiding everything that was familiar, burying everything that was real. Somewhere in the distance was the barn, the house, the world of my childhood. But the snow swirled like a million white insects around me, and I could see none of it."
In the end, though, Alice is what remains in my head. Like I said, she is wise beyond her years but also quick to make judgments and innocent despite her clear vision. Listen to her:

"But alongside the canal, there were no such promises. The water rushed, fierce and hungry. I pictured it rising, spreading across the entire valley until the town disappeared beneath, a sunken ship lost forever on the ocean floor. Maybe when it happened, I would float to the surface. Maybe the blue ribbon, worn and grubby in my backpack, and the memory of myself inside the ring--the lightness of my body, the pure, perfect silence--would be enough to lift me. And from up above, I would peer down into the watery ruin of the town, trying to remind myself what it had been like to live there, to recognize the place that had been my home before the rain came and everything old was lost."

"I tried to imagine anything I could do for my entire life, anything I was good enough at that someone might pay me to do it. I'd been repeatedly complimented on both my penmanship and my ability to whistle through my fingers like a boy, but these skills seemed unlikely to pay off in the long run."

"Through the window, Jerry's eyes locked with mine. In the movies, there were two sorts of men who had guns: heroes and criminals. Inside the truck, Jerry reached down, yanking the blanket back across the floor, then climbed out, locking the door behind him. He turned to face me and I could feel the fear rising inside my chest like ice water. Jerry was not a hero."

"All those years I had been unnoticeable, hiding behind my hair, slumping my shoulders, scuffing through the hallways alone. There was no way to get that time back, and so there was no point in thinking about it. What was important was today, tomorrow, the day that came after. What was important was knowing that all I had to do to be better than other people was act like I was."

"The sun was shining into my face, drying my tears, stiffening my skin. 'Even when you were a baby,' my father told me, 'we never knew what to make of you. We'd try to hold you and you'd arch your back, squirming away.' He turned his face to mine, and his eyes softened with seriousness, a moment of pure perfect truth. 'You're just like me.'
We looked at each other through the blinding glare of sunlight. This was the closest my father would ever come to saying that he had been wrong, the closest thing I would ever get to an apology. And I tried to smile at him, my lips waxy with dried tears. I tried to show that it was enough."

You need to read this book. Trust me.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Book Review: Sarah's Key

I have a hard time stopping reading a book I don't like, and I don't know if this is a good quality or a bad one. Does it mean I am stubborn and refuse to give up--or that I am optimistic and keep hoping the book will redeem itself? Or is it a mix of both? I have a stack of books to read: it's not like there aren't more options, but for some reason, I persist--even when I am not enthralled with the book. Such was the case with Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.
I had heard good things about it, and the blurb on the back looked promising. And I must admit: the first 100 pages were great, actually. I like a novel that alternates between past and present, as this one does. Let me explain the premise:
In 1942, 10 year old Sarah is taken with her parents from their home in Paris. Before she leaves, she locks her young brother in the secret cupboard in their bedroom, promising him that she'll be home soon, never suspecting that she will not. Thousands of Jews--mostly women and children--are detained in a bus station in the city for days without adequate food or water or bathroom facilities. When Sarah shows her parents the key and explains that she locked little Michel into the secret cupboard, they are horrified, and Sarah quickly realizes that she has doomed her brother to a horrific fate. From the bus station, which is called the Vel' d'Hiv, they are taken to an internment camp near Orleans, and soon Sarah is separated from her parents, who are taken to Auschwitz. Sarah's story continues on, though, as she is tormented by her brother's fate--for which she blames herself completely.
In 2002, an American woman, a journalist living in France, is assigned to report on the 60th anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv roundup, something that she--and most people in France or elsewhere--know little about. Julia is appalled to learn that this operation was carried out by French policeman under German orders. As she learns about the inhumanity of the treatment of the prisoners, she feels personally affected and soon becomes caught up in the story. By tracing the clues and talking with witnesses, she learns that the apartment her husband is renovating--the one his father had lived in as a child--was Sarah's home. Many past secrets, long buried, are revealed as Julia keeps digging.
Doesn't this all sound good? It is a great idea for a novel and an important piece of history that deserves to be told. I have no problem with any of this. For the first 150 pages or so, the brief chapters alternate between Sarah's story and Julia's. Then, midway through the book, Sarah's story reaches a climax and ends. The rest of the novel is Julia's story alone. The chapters are short and often fast-paced, and indeed the novel itself is a fast read.
I guess the part that annoyed me about the novel is the fact that Julia's character was so much less interesting than Sarah's, and Sarah's story ended so precipitously. I felt there were other paths the author could have taken with the plot, paths that would have been more satisfying and less predictable. The ending was too obvious, and yet the motivations of the characters when they got to the end weren't entirely believable. The last thirty pages skipped three years into the future, and all of Julia's problems from the rest of the story were summed up and swept under the rug. I actually rolled my eyes a few times in the last scene!
Normally, I consider myself a pretty tolerant reader, but this novel had the potential to be so much more, and I thought the pace, the character development, and the plot did not live up to it. I would have liked to see more mystery, stronger characters, fewer loose ends with minor characters, and (please) longer, more complex sentences.
Apparently, there is a film version of the book, and I plan to see it. It will be interesting to see how the film makers handle the story. I'm looking forward, however, to my next book. I hope it far surpasses this one.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Apron Thanks

A dear friend admired one of my aprons a few months ago and inquired about whether I took commissions. I assured her that I do, but after thinking about the project for some time, I realized that I could not accept payment from this selfless woman. She gives her time, her treasure, and her many talents with a recklessness I admire. Thus the thank-you apron was born.

Not surprisingly, an apron of this gratitudinal magnitude required a trip to one of my favorite fabric stores (in Ann Arbor, where so many of my other favorite stores live), where the fam helped me choose the three coordinating fabrics. (Okay, mainly they walked around and picked out other fabrics I should buy them to make purses and aprons and pjs and pillows with.)

The friend I made the apron for gives me an earthy vibe, so I chose fabrics in that range, but she also loves to get crazy, hence the bold prints and the zany orange stripes. I made this a pretty apron, with ruffles and a drawstring on the bodice because this friend gives so much of herself to others that she often forgets to pamper herself. I wanted her to remember that she is beautiful and well-loved each time she puts this apron on.

A few years ago when I opened my etsy shop (etsy is like a huge online shopping mall for handmade and vintage items), I thought it would be smart to have a label that would help create a brand for my work. I found Jennifer's Jewels on etsy, and she helped me design a sew-in tag that would suit my purposes. It didn't take me long to sew through my first package of labels. I reordered another (larger) supply a month or so ago. (PS: in case you didn't know, I no longer stock my etsy shop. I found that sewing is more fun when I sew for those I know and love.) (I do take commissions, though!)

I almost thought I was done with the apron, but when I held it up and squinted my critical eye at it, I realized it needed a pocket. For the pocket, I cut two large rectangles of contrasting fabric (so the pocket is lined), a narrow strip for the trim, and sewed them together. But a big straightforward pocket was too boring for my fun apron--and certainly too boring for my fun friend. I played around with the shape, folding it and turning it on a slight angle, and I came up with this design. It looks a little like a flower itself, I think. The extra pleats make the pocket nice and roomy inside.

And here it is, the finished product. You can see the belt ties hanging down in back. I used two different fabrics for them: one for the front and one for the back, so when tied, the colors will both show.
I can't wait to give this to my friend. I hope she knows, each time she wears it, how much we love her and appreciate all she does.

I picked up this book at the used bookstore in town (which, by the way, I love. It's not as organzied as my other favorite bookstores (Horizon in TC or Schuler's in Lansing), but it is such a rambling place, full of odd stacks of unshelved books, a treasure-hunter's paradise. I have often spent hours in its incense-spiced rooms, my arms becoming increasingly heavy with the growing pile), hoping I'd find some great information, the sorts of odd, often-gruesome facts my World History students love to learn about when we talk of the middle ages.
And--just like those freshmen--I'd rather learn history in a fun way than a boring one, so I figured a travel account would be much more fun to read than that history book about medieval history I bought a couple years ago...the one with the still-pristine cover and uncracked binding. (Wonder why it still looks new?)
This book was certainly easy to read, a nice slow amble from London to Canterbury as the author walked the distance in a week's time, chronicling his experiences, the people he met and the thoughts he had. Along the way, he adds information about the differences between medieval life and modern.
I was hoping for some new nuggets of information but didn't find them, aside from the fact that medieval wine and beer had to be consumed immediately, as they didn't have a great way to preserve them. Beer particulary had to be drunk as soon as it was brewed, but wine could last up to a year, afterward becoming so acidic and bitter that it was unpalatable.
Jerry Ellis, the author, is half British-half Native American. Earlier, he walked the Trail of Tears, on which the Cherokee nation was forced to travel from their homes in Georgia to a barren landscape in Oklahoma, and chronicled his journey. His native American ancestry is clear throughout this narrative as well. He speaks often of a kinship with nature, of shamanistic spiritual ideas, of saving bits and pieces of his trip to bury at home under a sacred tree so that he can preserve the spirit of this journey with the one he took on the Trail of Tears.
I must admit, I rolled my eyes a few times at his mysticism. I try to keep an open mind as a reader, but I had such high hopes about this book, and I found that while I enjoyed learning of his journey and the very friendly people he met along the way, and while I admired the spirit with which he undertook the journey--fully prepared to take what came to him, eyes wide open, his ruminations on the past were not as deep as I had hoped.
Maybe, though, I just know more than I thought I did about the middle ages. Yes, maybe I am just too lofty a genius to appreciate this dabbling in the past. I think I'll tell myself that to assuage the disappointment I feel.

(Which reminds me of my favorite line in "A Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving: "Tom consoled himself with the loss of his property with the loss of his wife, for he was a man of fortitude.")