Friday, July 20, 2012

Kids' Day 2012

It must have been ten years ago or more that we were gearing up for the late spring/early summer dash of Mother's Day-my birthday-Clint's birthday-Father's Day when Lauren asked, "Mom, when is Kids' Day?" When is Kids' Day indeed? A good question. We considered the calendar and decided upon July 20, as July is a pretty sparse month in our family as far as birthdays and other celebrations go. Since that inaugural year, we have celebrated Kids' Day every July 20.
Just like Mother's Day or Father's Day (in our house, at least), Kids' Day means the kids each get a gift and they don't have to do any jobs. We usually do something special for dinner too.
This morning, thanks to a very late movie, Lauren and Jonah slept in (and Jared too--but he didn't have that excuse!), so I had plenty of time to drink some coffee, read my book, go for a run, make monkey bread, and take a shower before they woke up.

Looks yummy, doesn't it? Thanks, Mom, for the pan!

Jonah digs in

Just the thought of Kids' Day makes Jared giddy with excitement!

Ok...or maybe it's just the presents...

Before the opening...

And they open...discovering what's inside

Jared made me a thank you gift as soon as he woke up
And the playing commences
 Yup, this is Kids' Day. Since this morning (well...actually...they didn't wake up to eat their breakfast till almost noon), we've gone on a fun trip to Target to return Jonah's Legos (would you believe I got him a set he already has? That's a sure sign of Too Many Legos), then home to finish construction. Now they're playing and I'm scheming up a special dinner. And blogging, of course.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: The Weird Sisters

A few weeks ago, I was in Traverse City, so of course I had to go to my favorite bookstore in the entire world (Horizon Books--have you been there?) (their children's section is particularly amazing). I like to save money, that's certainly true, so I do most of my book buying on amazon or at used bookstores, but when I go to great indie bookstores like Horizon, I feel compelled to at least buy something. This time, I limited myself to just one something, this book by Eleanor Brown. She's a new novelist; in fact, I think this is her first one.

So, here's the premise: Rose, Bean, and Cordy are sisters, daughters of a professor of Shakespeare at a prestigious midwestern university, where they have grown up memorizing passages, bantering with bardic quotes, and reading all the time. Their mother is dreamy and somewhat absent-minded, their father is obsessed with Shakespeare, and they really don't have much in common at all. Oh, and their names aren't actually Rose, Bean, and Cordy; they're Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia. Shakespearean heroines, of course, and while their life paths don't completely follow their centuries-old namesakes', there are certainly some similarities. Rose desperately wants to find true, romantic love; beautiful Bianca is often bombarded by suitors; and Cordy is beloved of most everyone who meets her.
None of them are married or have families, and as the novel begins, all three find themselves at loose ends and heading back home. Also, their mother has just been diagnosed with breast cancer, so they come to care for her in their various ways. The biggest problem, though, is that while these sisters love each other--they are family, after all--they don't really like each other very much. Rose comes off as judgemental and bossy; Bianca can be careless and cruel; and Cordy's free spirit seems a lot like a childish refusal to accept responsibility. But serious illness can often act as a crucible, and by the novel's end, the sisters must come to terms with themselves, each other, and the bonds of family.

It's a solid first novel, overall. One of the things that Eleanor Brown has done exceedingly well is her use of first person plural point of view to tell the story. I haven't seen that done but one other time ("A Rose for Emily" by Faulkner), and I imagine carrying it through in all its complexity for an entire novel must have been quite an undertaking. But that part was flawlessly done. Speaking of flawless, the characters aren't. If there is one issue I have with the novel, it is this, I think: all of the sisters--and their parents too!--have serious issues. None of them is wholly likeable. Of course, this also makes
them human, but I like to have at least one principal character that I like, and I got frustrated with each of them in turn. I did, though, really like some of the ancillary characters: Father Aidan, an Episcopalian priest, had just the right mix of kindliness and spunk; Dan Miller, a coffee shop owner, was a great listener and full of wry wit; and the indomitable librarian, Mrs. Landridge, was keen-eyed and perceptive.
Lots of great details of midwestern setting and scenery; that rings true. Ms. Brown's details about the mother's battle with cancer are vividly detailed (the afterword revealed that she had first-hand knowledge; her mother had also fought breast cancer). And of course, the idea of a family that loves, loves, LOVES books like I do is always appealing. The novel's depiction of the idiosyncracies of family life is realistic, as are its reflections on being true to yourself. All in all, I'd give it 4.75 out of 5 stars, I think.

Oh, and have I mentioned that I keep a book of great quotes? Have been doing so for years. Anything I come across in my reading that strikes me as profound, witty, well-phrased, or hilarious, I write it in that little book. Here are the two I pulled from this novel:

She never managed to find herself in these books no matter how she tried, exhuming traits from between the pages and donning them for an hour, a day, a week. We think, in some ways, we have all done this our whole lives, searching for the book that will give us the keys to ourselves, let us into a wholly formed personality as though it were a furnished room to let. As though we could walk in and look around and say to the gray-haired landlady behind us, "We'll take it."

There are times in our lives when we have to realize our past is precisely what it is, and we cannot change it. But we can change the story we tell oruselves about it, and by doing that, we can change the future.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: Heaven Is Here

I first heard about Stephanie Nielsson this spring, when a dear friend at work came running into my classroom as I was leaving for lunch waving an insert from Sunday's newspaper. (Maybe it was the day after Mother's Day? That would make sense, but I don't remember.) "Kir, you have to read this," she said. "You're gonna cry." Hmm. Them's fighting words! I'm a girl who doesn't cry for much. Choked up, I get; actual tears, rarely. Maybe three or four times a year, tops. She opened the insert to the right page and wiped a few stray tears from her own eyes. "I can't stop crying," she admitted, and I hugged her in sympathy, but this lady is a crier and I am not. I was sure I'd be immune.
Still, just to be safe, I stayed in my classroom for lunch and read the article about Stephanie Nielsson's forthcoming book, which details the story of her flaming brush with death and her remarkable recovery of health and spirit.
Let's just say it's a good thing I stayed in my room.

That evening when I got home, I put her book on my Amazon wish list. A few weeks later, I opened it for Mother's Day. How did Clint know? He's so smart! :)
I waited for the right moment to read it though. After thinking about what happened in my classroom when I read the article, I was pretty sure I'd spend most of my time reading the 300+ pages of the book in a similarly wet state--not a place I like much at all. Gives me a headache.
Finally, I felt like I was in a sufficiently fortified emotional state to take the plunge (I was at the in-laws) (always a good place for a messy sob-fest).

Here's the premise, for those who don't know her story:
Stephanie grew up dreaming about the day she would get married, like many girls do. She spent some time in college, but really, all she could think about was finding the right man and settling down in the perfect house to raise a family. Her parents were a wonderful example: a devout Mormon couple who had raised nine children, who were happily married and invested in each of their children and supportive of their endeavors. When Stephanie met Christian one summer while she was in college, she knew immediately that he was the one. It took him a little while to figure it out too, but they married soon and began to raise their family.
Christian's job took them to New Jersey, and it was difficult for Stephanie to leave the support of her family in Utah, but they encouraged her to start a blog as a way to keep in touch. She did, blogging about her faith and her family (they had two children by now, girls), as well as her ideas about how to create a happy and beautiful home and lifestyle. Soon, Stephanie's blog had thousands of followers.
When Christian got a job offer in Arizona, they eagerly took it. It wasn't Utah, but it was close to his family and certainly closer to hers. The book continues through the birth of two more children, centering on the deep devotion Stephanie and Christian shared and the delight they took in being parents of their happy, healthy children.
Knowing that since he was a child Christian had dreamed of flying (he once ate birdseed hoping it would help him grow wings), she bought him flight lessons. Christian was elated, and he soon got his pilot's license. One Saturday afternoon, he and Stephanie flew out to visit his parents' ranch. His friend Doug flew with them, a veteran pilot, as extra support. The flight out was perfect, and they spent a few happy hours at the ranch. On the flight home, they crashed.

Stephanie was burned on 80% of her body, and when she awoke in the hospital, three months had passed. She couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't understand what had happened. The rest of the book is the story of her survival, a survival that could not have happened without the strength of her faith and of her family. As she suffers through multiple surgeries, skin grafts, dressing changes--all part of the slow, painful process of recovery--she also suffers through mental and emotional torture. She was once a very beautiful woman; now she cannot bear to lift a mirror to see her face. Finally, she agrees to see Christian again, certain he will be repulsed by her. And it takes her a long, long time to agree to see her children, fearful they will have forgotten her--or, worse--run screaming away from her when they see her. Through all of this, it is her family that sustains her, her faith that supports her.
By the end of the book, she returns home and recreates her life, learning how to cope with further surgeries, limited movement, constant pain, and the stares of strangers. And, of course, the fact that the face and body in the mirror are nothing like the Stephanie she once was.

I didn't cry, although I was fully prepared to. It may have been the place, but I think it was because after reading the article, I knew what to expect, and instead of finding her story sad this time around, I found it inspiring. Through her ordeal, Stephanie learned a valuable lesson that she has, with great pain, shared with her readers: beauty is of the soul, not the body; God is all-powerful all-knowing, and He has a plan for everything, even when the world is very dark; a loving family is a strong support in times of trouble. Reading this book has reminded me to slow down and create peaceful, simple moments with my family. It has reminded me of the great power of prayer. It has reminded me that I need to work on cultivating my inner beauty instead of the outer, for that will fade. And it has reminded me how very, very blessed I am to have life and health and to be surrounded by my unbelievable family.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book Review: The Apothecary

Of all genres of fiction, I think I most prefer children's literature, and here is why:
1) The stories are closely plotted and studded with densely developed characters. I think young readers are less tolerant of hypocrisy in their characters than adults are. They want to get right to the action, and they want the characters who create it to be real.
2) The setting is usually richly drawn without superfluous detail. Everything is intense and finely described in children's literature. I don't know if it is because the authors want to teach their readers a bit about the wider world or if it is less consciously done than that, but I have found it to be true.
3) Food is often described in rich and glorious mouth-watering detail.
4) There is often magic or hints at the unreal, which I fervently enjoy.
5) The endings are most usually happy ones, which I also enjoy. Who wants to spend 250 pages growing to care about a character only to have him die or lose everything? Not me!

So, for these and boundless other reasons, I was quite happy to get sucked into the world of The Apothecary a few weeks ago. I had a sneaking suspicion when I bought it that the author, Maile Meloy, might be related to another author, Colin Meloy (who wrote Wildwood--have I told you about that one?), whose novel I greatly enjoyed. I still don't know if they are related for real, but they are siblings of greatness in the authorial world.
Here's the story: Jane Scott is only daughter to two writers who work together writing television shows. Jane thinks her life is perfect, especially after Japan surrenders to the Americans, but then as time passes, she notices that her parents have begun to have hushed conversations, they look strained, and one day two men in a black car tail her as she walks home from school. It is 1952 now, and her parents, blacklisted as suspected communists, take Jane and flee to England.
Jane hates to go. England is drab and cold and rainy, nothing like sunny California, with strange customs and rules she doesn't understand. But then she makes friends with Benjamin, son of the strange apothecary, and her world becomes very strange indeed. For Benjamin's father is not just any apothecary. He is a member of an ancient and secret society, one devoted to the preservation of a very old manuscript, which he gives to Benjamin to keep safe before he is taken captive by evil people.
Benjamin and Jane, with the help of a clever pickpocket, find their courage and their belief tested as they protect the manuscript and foil the plans of a group determined to unleash a horrible weapon on the world.
Along the way, they learn some magic and have many adventures, and Jane begins to like England and consider that she could be happy there.

This novel has all of the above mentioned qualities: exciting action, well-rounded characters, beautiful settings, and plenty of magic. I also heartily approved of the illustrations introducing each chapter. This book appeals to readers of all ages, serving as more than just an escape from reality: it also teaches about secrets and lies, trust and loyalty to friends and family, and the importance of believing more than what your senses tell you: allowing for the possibilities.