Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

I love it when I find another blogger who shares my same taste in books. Thus, when Catherine Gillespie wrote a raving review for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, I knew I was in for a treat.

Eleven year old Flavia de Luce, lives on a quiet country estate near Bishop's Lacey, England. She is a feisty, curious girl in a passionate family. Her father is passionate about stamp collecting, her sisters are passionate about books and boys (hmmm, kind of like me??) and Flavia is consumed with a passion for chemistry. When a dead bird appears on their doorstep, with a rare stamp pinned to its beak and Flavia discovers a dead body in the garden, nothing can stop Flavia from getting to the bottom of things on her own, keeping one step ahead of the police.

This was such a delightful read. The protagonist literally jumps off the page and into your life. Actually, that is exactly what the author says happened. Alan Bradley took an early retirement in 1994 to write. As he was working on another book, Flavia appeared in the story seated on a camp chair and demanded a book of her own.

The really fabulous news is that Flavia has more adventures ahead. Bradley has already completed the second novel in the series and has committed to three more beyond that. Even though these would be wonderful books to recommend to young female readers, I would wager that my own boys will really enjoy these books once they reach the age of seven or eight. I may just plan now for a wonderful Flavia-fest during the summer of 2014!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: Year of Wonders

I think I first read about this book in a writer's magazine. The brief author interview, provided there, really whet my appetite. Geraldine Brooks wrote this novel while living in a fairly isolated location, similar to the setting of her novel. It made her really contemplate what it would be like, in such an isolated location, to quarantine the entire town as the village of Eyam did during a year of intense plague contagion.

For a first novel, Geraldine Brooks (a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal) did a fabulous job. Based on actual events, Year of Wonders, tells the story of a small village in rural England during the year of 1666. The widowed housewife Anna Frith is in the forefront of the story when a new lodger brings hopes for the future, destroyed prematurely by the infectious "seeds" of the plague. As numerous individuals begin to die off, the town makes the uncomfortable decision to voluntarily quarantine themselves until the contagion is vanquished.

Geraldine Brooks' writing is vivid and fluid. I was immediately swept into the story line and thoroughly enjoyed the voice of narrator Anna. As she reels from her own losses, she fights for survival and sense from the madness going on around her. The story gives rise to all kinds of contemplation of human belief systems, the purpose and value of tragedy, and the power of knowledge. While the death toll mounts, various townspeople turn to violence, extortion, witchcraft and self-flagellation in their efforts to turn the tragic events to their own advantage.

My only complaint would be that the author, after offering up numerous religious reactions to difficulty and trial, settles upon a totally secular view. She pronounces (through the main character) the plague to be merely a thing of nature, like a rock that sticks up from the ground and sometimes causes you to stumble.

I know that generally you want a character to grow and change through the course of a novel. However, I found that I really didn't like the way Anna (and the minister of the town) changed. In fact, it even seemed a bit too much to believe towards the end of the book.

Even so, I really did enjoy the novel and it is still resonating in my mind. In fact, not long after finishing the novel, my mother sent me an e-mail containing a hauntingly beautiful Irish blessing pronounced by Roma Downey (what a fabulous narrator's voice she has!). I immediately thought of Year of Wonders and considered the blessing to be a fit answer for the final conclusion drawn at the end of the novel.

I believe that suffering and difficulty always holds a purpose. I believe that there is more to this universe than meets the eye. We have such a limited view of what is really going on. Moreover, like the blessing intones, I want to believe that my life is "an important part of God's plan." In my opinion, to do otherwise is to rip from life its meaning and purpose.

Here are the words of that Irish blessing:

"May the blessing of light be upon you,
light on the outside and light on the inside.
With God's sunlight shining on you,
may your heart glow with warmth like a turf fire
that welcomes friends and strangers alike.
May the light of the Lord shine from your eyes
like a candle in the window, welcoming the weary traveler.
May the blessing of God's soft rain be on you,
falling gently on your head,
refreshing your soul with the sweetness
of little flowers newly blooming.
May the strength of the winds of Heaven bless you,
carrying the rain to wash your spirit clean,
sparkling after, in the sunlight.
May the blessing of God's earth be on you
and as you walk the roads,
may you always have a kind word for those you meet.
May you understand the strength and power of God
in a thunderstorm in winter,
the quiet beauty of creation
and the calm of a summer sunset.
And may you come to realize that
insignificant as you may seem in this great universe,
you are an important part of God's plan.
May He watch over you and keep you safe from harm."

And, upon completing Year of Wonders, I would add:

But if harm should o'ertake you and His watchful eye seem less than kind,
May you hold His hand in the dark and remain open to His meaning and purpose.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Boys Will Be Boys

I will begin with sweetness and light:

This is a very sweaty Sean at a local jump house establishment. They had fun. Dad stayed with them, while I drove off to shop for a new bathroom scale.

Sorry for the shirtless aspect, but this is what we have been seeing around the house ad nauseum these days. Trevor spends a good part of every day, standing on his head against any furniture or walls he can find.

The boys, in their endless teasing of the dog, finally suffered a less than pleasant response. I fully believe that Trevor is the more offending party in these antics, however, the dog managed to chomp down on Sean's forehead.

Then, he got the short end of the stick again when we went to get haircuts yesterday morning. Normally, they both love a trip for a haircut, but this turned out to be quite an ordeal.

There was a new heavy-set black woman working at the Great Clips where we always go. Somehow the lot fell to Sean again as she called out his name. To begin with, Sean looked downright scared of her. He didn't really say a word, but several times I thought he was going to burst into tears. The woman was sweating profusely and had to stop to wipe her brow with a towel about 20 times in between cutting. The whole time, I just wasn't sure she really knew what she was doing (or for that matter, had even really cut hair before).

After Sean descended from the chair, I noticed that the area around his ears looked like a square had been cut around the ears. I hemmed and hawed (I hate to be the customer who registers their dissatisfaction aloud). Finally, I asked if she wouldn't mind touching up the area over the ears just a bit more. Even after we left, I was still uncomfortable with the cut, but decided it was just hair. So, here they are after their trims (Trevor's turned out just the way he likes it - spikey).

At the moment, they are in their rooms
for the rest of their lives for a half hour following a horrible shopping adventure.

When we left the house at 2:10, I swear my blood pressure was in the normal range. We needed to take Harley over to the vet for a Bordatella shot (since the last time we went to Indiana Beach and kenneled him, he returned home with a case of kennel cough). That alone shot the old blood pressure right up.

The dog goes into manic mode and the little boys seem to feel that they have to mimic his behavior (checking out every single animal they see and wandering hither and yon). Thankfully, we were only there for about ten minutes.

Why I decided to follow up that brief adventure with another one, I don't know. Once the dog was safely crated at home, we headed off to Kroger. Sean noticed those EVIL race car carts (fine, back in the day, when I only had one child to deal with - EVIL when you have two boys along). Trevor assured me that he didn't even want to go in one, so I reluctantly agreed.

No, instead Trevor walked directly in front of the car cart the entire time and I ran over his ankles a few hundred times. Sean could not decide whether he wanted to be in the cart or out of the cart, so finally, I turned around and headed back to the cart corral and exchanged the EVIL cart for a normal one.

Sadly, this didn't solve the problems, since Sean persisted in trying to hang off the side of the cart ... the empty cart, I should add. I continued to run over ankles and beg them to walk nicely next to the cart. Trevor persisted in offering to help: "I want to pick out the bananas. Let me put the eggs in the cart. No, let me do it, Mom."

I thought it would be quickest to avoid the long lines and approached the self check-out lane. Once again, Trevor wanted to "help." I had to monitor closely so that we would neither leave with groceries we hadn't paid for nor pay for groceries we didn't leave with.

In the midst of the joint check-out effort going down, Sean piped up that he ... of course ... had to go to the bathroom RIGHT NOW. Helpful Trevor offered to take him to the bathroom. I reminded them to go to the women's and said I would be right there (the bathrooms were only about 10 feet from where I was completing our transaction).

When I popped my head in the door a minute later, they were both in the handicapped stall with the door wide open (I doubt the one other woman in the bathroom really minded). Sean jubilantly tattled on his brother: "Trevor peed ALL. OVER. THE. WALL."

I looked over, and sure enough, there was a puddle of urine at the base of the wall next to the toilet. I know that I really should have stopped, grabbed my purse from the cart, left the cart untended and joined them in the stall to clean up their mess.

Instead, smoke began to pour out of my ears, I ordered both of them to skip washing hands and come immediately with me to the van. I stormed out of the store with them both clinging to the sides of the cart. I drove the entire way home in silence while Trevor wondered aloud what his punishment might be.

I am quietly hoping that the individual who is assigned to clean those bathrooms today will be a patient young MAN who will merely be doing "his time" for all those occasions when he urinated all over the place as a young boy!

I am writing this all out now so that I can return to my blog twenty years from now and bring back these terribly present feelings of utter mortification. Because obviously, I'm going to look back on all this and miss these days, right? That is, if I live to see twenty years from now!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book Review: Adrenal Fatigue

Two years ago, when we were at CBLI, I had the great fortune to visit with Mary, my friend from college (since she lives near the camp). We were marvelling at how we had both been encountering the same constant itch issues and had received a similar diagnosis. It was one of those odd, "No, way, me too!" kind of moments.

Several months ago, when I began to complain of constant fatigue and of great difficulty rousing myself for the day's tasks before noon, Mary once again began to turn over the similarities between us in her mind. She has recently been diagnosed with Addison's disease and wondered if I might be struggling with Adrenal Fatigue.

She did more than just wonder, however. She also send two books for me to read and a week's worth of adrenal support supplements for me to try.

At the time, I was wondering if these symptoms were caused by the antidepressant I had been on (Cymbalta). It seemed like I was always tired, even after a really good night's sleep. I could sleep for twelve hours and then turn around and fall asleep when putting my littlest guy down for his nap (often falling asleep quicker than he did).

When I approached my doctor about these problems, he felt that we could attempt to wean me from the Cymbalta to see how I fared. I will admit that I was somewhat apprehensive to be weaning in the midst of a family funeral. But, at this point I have been off for over six weeks. I think my husband believes I should return to the meds, but I am loathe to go down that road again.

The doctor did run some blood tests, but said that everything came back normal, with no signs of thyroid difficulties. When Mary suggested adrenal fatigue, I requested a cortisol levels blood test. I found that endeavor almost humorous, since they wanted you at the lab for blood draw as soon as I awoke, but so often I couldn't even drag my body out of bed before 8:30 or 9 a.m. I did finally manage to get the test, but again, the doctor reported all results as normal. When I look at the lab results myself, it appears that I am within two points of the low end. John wanted me to call back and ask what the suggestion would have been if the results had varied by those two points. I guess I felt like traditional doctors are not really taking my symptoms or difficulties seriously.

This book was really beneficial to me. It is full of practical tests and advice for the patient. It promises to explain what adrenal fatigue is and how you can recover your energy, vitality and enjoyment of life.

When I read Chapter 5, which offered an illustrated list of the signs and symptoms of adrenal fatigue, I felt like I was looking in a mirror. Here are some of the things I have been experiencing: 1) difficulty getting up in the morning, 2) continuing fatigue not relieved by sleep, 3) lethargy (everything seems like a chore), 4) increased effort to do every day tasks, 5) decreased sex drive, 6) decreased ability to handle stress, 7) depression, 8) less enjoyment or happiness with life, 9)increased PMS, 10) thoughts less focused, more fuzzy (you may remember my questioning whether I might have early Alzheimer's), 11) memory less accurate, 12) decreased tolerance (I know the little boys have to do far less to get on my nerves than Bryce ever did), 13) cycle of wakefulness which begins between 10 a.m. and noon, with a slump between 3 and 4 p.m. and then coming alive around 6 p.m. only to find it difficult to sleep before midnight or 1 a.m., and ... the bane of my existence - 14) decreased productivity.

The book offered a questionnaire, but I could already tell that I bear most of the symptoms, so I failed to complete the lengthy questionnaire. When I look at my health history timeline, I would have to say that much of this began with the birth of my final son. Of course, it wasn't lost on me that this birth coincided with our move to this isolated area where I began caring for two small children with little or no family or friend support.

Next the book offered some simple tests to perform on yourself. The first required shining a light on iris to determine whether the iris lazily stays open despite the light. I requested my husband's assistance for this test, but did not bear much hope for the test. For as long as I can remember, my irises have always been larger than normal. In fact, I have been able to read in the dark for most of my life. We were unable to confirm anything with this test.

I should admit that I didn't try the second or third test options either. The second suggestion was to test your blood pressure both from a lying position and then immediately after standing. We did not have a blood pressure cuff, so I was unable to perform this test. The third test is called "Sergent's White Line," and involves testing your skin's reaction to a stroke with a pen.

I'm pretty sure, even without confirmation from lab tests or patient-driven tests, that I have at least a mild form of adrenal fatigue.

So, what is adrenal fatigue? It is quite simply a slowing down of the function of the adrenal glands. This is the seat of hormone production in the body and when the adrenal glands become fatigued (often from being in overdrive for far too long), many other systems of the body are affected. As the book says, "Changes occur in your carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolism, fluid and electrolyte balance, heart and cardiovascular system, and even sex drive."

Thus, I feel no hesitancy in believing that my recent weight gain (which seems to add up on in the chest and abdomen areas), my perpetual fatigue, my irritability, and my non-existent sex drive all stem from a form of adrenal fatigue within my body.

One of the reasons modern doctors don't seem eager to diagnose syndromes like "adrenal fatigue" is because there is no pill to fix the problem. Even the charts used to diagnose, only allow for the most extreme cases which are then treated with some patented prescription. This illness does not require a pill, it requires a lifestyle change. The key ingredients to healing your adrenal system involves healthier considerations of sleep, diet, exercise, and enjoyment of life.

I knew that my sleep system had been really taxed. It is so tempting to stay up early into the morning blogging and seizing what little time I can for myself. But, I have been seriously trying to follow the advice of getting to bed before 11 (when the second wind can often set in). I have also cut myself slack concerning naps. If I need a nap, well then, gosh darn it, my body needs a nap. If I didn't need it, my body wouldn't cooperate and sleep, now, would it?

I have been trying to eat smaller amounts more often throughout the day. I would often forget to eat breakfast (because my fog only allowed me to focus on performing the tasks of caring for the boys). Now, I try to eat soon after rising and think more about what and when I am eating.

I have stepped up my exercise to include at least 20 minutes of exercise daily. Some days this is difficult, if my energy levels are very low. Plus, I am attempting to utilize a variety of options (instead of boring myself with one repetitive video tape). I rotate between time on the Airdyne Exercycle (I think this is the hardest work - it absolutely shatters me, some days), a low-impact stretching routine with hand weights, my Jane Fonda tape, and walking. I even attempted a Taebo tape the other day (now that was humorous, since I could barely keep up with them or figure out where they were moving which body part to).

Finally, I am trying to seek out things that will provide more enjoyment personally. The book suggests the importance of laughing, so I have been spending time with Trevor watching episodes of America's Funniest Home Videos. I am considering joining a local choir. And, I continue to seek out ways to focus more on my writing (since that is what brings me the greatest pleasure).

If you are interested in more information about Adrenal Fatigue be sure to check out James Wilson's website, where you can acquire information and links to doctors and supplements.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Quick Way to Help Families with Cancer

Two days after my niece Amelia's second birthday, on December 21st, 2005, my sister-in-law and brother noticed some bruising on her body. They showed the bruises to a nurse friend and she advised them to head to the emergency room. That night changed their lives forever. Amelia was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and immediately began chemo treatments.

One of the real blessings in their life, in the time since Amelia's diagnosis, has been their involvement in, and benefit from, an organization called "Families of Children with Cancer" - FOCWC. On their web-site, they explain their vision:

"We are a non-profit support organization open to families of Northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula who have or who have had children with cancer, adult survivors of childhood cancer, and individuals who wish to assist such families with their professional and/or personal assistance. No salaries are paid, and all money raised directly benefits area families of children with cancer. Childhood Cancer is difficult both for the child and the family. We offer a wide range of support and activities for families dealing with this difficult situation."

Indeed, Amelia and her siblings have had great fun at the FOCWC events they have attended. They get a chance to meet sports celebrities, ride in helicopters and motorcycles and have fun as a family despite the circumstances that bring them all together.

This organization is offering a quick way to help them raise money in their efforts to meet the needs of families of children with cancer. All you have to do is click on this link and watch a brief video. For every click, Allen Hunt and the Nicolet National Bank will provide a donation. You can help just by watching a video!

Amelia has completed her treatments and is in remission. She is a beautiful little girl, full of life. Sadly, though, she knows that cancer often wins the battle (as evidenced in the photo of Amelia beside the grave of her little friend Mariah).

I don't know if a family that has been touched by cancer ever gets over the fear that accompanies the diagnosis. I know this has been true for my brother's family. I also know it has been true for another cancer family I have followed, that of little Coleman Larson's family.

Coleman was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and passed away in January of 2009. They have recently felt the further fears of cancer, when Coleman's mother, Peggy, was diagnosed with a tumor. Praise be to God the tumor was removed and the threat defused.

How important it is for us to lift and carry friends whose lives have been affected by cancer. We can give encouragement and help to share smiles. Won't you take a moment and watch a video??

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Lovin' the Little Boy!

I have been experiencing swells of deep emotion for my youngest son lately. He is just delicious. Of course, I do recognize that, unlike the other two, at this point in life he has yet to develop habits and behaviors that annoy me. He is pure and unadulterated cuteness.

If you don't believe me, check this out:

He makes me smile every day. Lately, he is in love with the "Despicable Me" commercials. Here is his all time favorite one. He asks Trevor to replay it over and over again, because he loves the line where Gru says: "No Annoying Sounds!" and the little girl responds with "Does this count as annoying?? (cheek slapping)" This bit occurs at about the one minute mark.

Plus, he has recently been noticing certain signs along the road. Now both Trevor and Sean spend a good portion of every drive pointing out all the "No Pee signs."

Hee-hee. Boys!

My absolute favorite thing is to watch him cuddling his Sleepy Bear and sucking on those fingers. It is his trademark. Trevor even caught that on video this past week
(at this point in the post, I tried, unsuccessfully three nights in a row, to get the video to upload ... I'm giving up for now, but may try later).

Apparently, I'm not the only one lavishing great love on my boy these days, either.
Here's the evidence:

Really, those mosquitos can't help it. After all, he's so SWEET.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Budding Entrepreneur

This morning, John allowed me to sleep in until 9:30 a.m., while he kept an eye on the boys. This was especially helpful given the fact that last night -

(a) Sean wouldn't go to bed because he was worried that there were dummies in his room (my fault, since I'm the one who allowed him to watch "Night of the Living Dummy," with Trevor);

(b) Bryce was convinced that my activity on the computer (uploading the photos of the heron, salamander, and bird) was causing him to lag out of his on-line game and therefore make him lose and de-rank (my fault???);

(c) when I finally got to bed at 1 a.m., Trevor woke me to say that he needed me to lie with him because he had had a nightmare about neighbors coming over to attack us (really??),

(d) when I finally fell asleep in Trevor's bed, Bryce woke me to apologize for his behavior (wow) and ask where he could find a pillow for his friend who was spending the night. I clearly needed to sleep in.

I was actually surprised how quiet the two little boys had been. I mean, normally, I can't sleep very late because Trevor's voice, alone, is at a similar decibel to the sound a jet gives off just prior to lift-off. I'm not sure that boy has an "inside voice." It turns out that Sean was happily playing "Croc" on the old computer in our guest room and Trevor was hard at work creating art at a little table John had set up.

Trevor was thrilled to see that I had joined the living. He called me over to his table. I noticed he had two very-confusing signs. He clarified that they said "ten dollars" and "eighty dollars." When I informed him that I couldn't afford his prices, he graciously reduced them to ten cents and eighty cents.

Here's an example of his ten cent wares:

Here's an example of his eighty cent wares:

And, here is the fine piece of art that I selected (after great deliberation and a gentle raiding of my wallet):

Yesterday, we had watched an amazing video of artist David Kassen, drawing an amazing portrait on an I-Pad. Trevor wanted to meet Kassen and have him draw his portrait until he discovered that the distinguished-looking gentleman had sat for three hours while Kassen worked. Thanks to technology, it was condensed to a five-minute endeavor for our viewing pleasure.

I'm guessing there will be more art purchases in my future. Plus, I have a feeling that Trevor will up the ante when his birthday rolls around. He has already been begging for his own digital camera and is jealous because Bryce and his teenage cousin both have an I-Pod Touch. Now, I believe he just might be tempted to add an I-Pad to his list. I'll tell him he just needs to write it off as a business expense.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Close Encounter with a Heron

This morning, as I stood by the kitchen sink, I looked out the window and noticed a deer biting leaves off of the trees on the bank across from our creek. I called Trevor over and we watched for several minutes. Perhaps, it was the studied eye, looking for the deer, but after the deer had gone, I found myself still looking and the looking paid off. I saw the shadow of giant wings hovering over the grass and trees and knew it had to be a blue heron. Sure enough, one landed in the branches of our tree.

Unfortunately, I had just poured batter for pancakes on the griddle and couldn't afford to devote much time to heron watching. I snatched one obscure photo while the bird perched in the branches. As I waited for the pancakes to cook, it took off and flew down into the creek bed.

Once the little boys were settled at their trays in front of the television with plates brimming with pancakes and cups full of milk, I snuck out the back porch door and did the "fox walk" all the way down to the edge of the creek.

Bryce used to go to a fabulous day camp at Russell Woods Forest Preserve, back when we lived in DeKalb (we loved it so much, in fact, that the first summer after we had moved to IN, we drove back and stayed in a hotel so Bryce could attend one more session of their nature camps). He loved the camp and he loved the instructors. One particular instructor, Jason, taught Bryce how to "fox walk," creep through the woods as stealthily as an animal, with silky smooth movements, barely making a sound. I remember how he would practice in the back yard, trying to creep up on squirrels. Thankfully, Bryce passed this skill on to me.

I made it all the way down to the tree at the creek's edge, without the heron seeing me (not because I am an expert in stealth, per se, but more because the heron was perfectly positioned behind the tree during my entire descent down towards the banks). At that point, I held my camera (just a basic point and shoot, mind you - imagine the shots an expert could have gotten) and caught some wonderful close-up shots of my beloved heron. I was on cloud nine.

Although this one is blurry, I like it because the heron almost looks like a prehistoric creature.

This final shot is probably my favorite. I was really hoping that the bird would startle and spread his wings, so that I might attempt a shot of his incredible wing span. However, even after the heron became aware of my presence, he didn't bolt. He merely walked down the creek towards the woods.

I think, perhaps, I was almost as excited as Trevor was earlier in the week, when he and his dad found a black salamander near a drainage spout. He begged to keep it as a pet. John agreed to let him keep it for a day.

I'm so thrilled that we have this opportunity to live in the midst of such beautiful surroundings. There are constantly new experiences with animals here. The other day, Trevor found another baby bird that had left the nest without fully understanding the mechanics of flight. He would have goaded the thing to death, if I had let him.

Of course, the birds that had taken residence in the swing-set were a bit of a nuisance. We never really noticed those baby birds leave the nest, but we did notice that the entire fort area was covered in tiny bird mites. We had to remove the nest, spray a pesticide and then hose the whole things down a day later. I don't think I'll be as welcoming next year, if birds try to build a nest in the swing-set fort again. However, I'll always welcome the blue heron!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In Which I Gush Again About Patrick Ness and Inundate You With Links

I have been flirting with the idea of attending a Whole Novel Workshop offered by the Highlights Foundation. It sounds like such a fantastic opportunity, kind of like a lion I might chase into a pit. It fills me with urgency to finish the novel I started for Nanowrimo. The thought of working closely with Carolyn Coman (author of What Jamie Saw) makes my knees shake. Carolyn's books, like the one I'm writing, approach sensitive issues young adults might face. Moreover the idea of a week in a cabin to myself, no cooking or cleaning, no children demanding, just freedom to write and focus and indulge my imagination to its fullest ... ah, wake me, I must be dreaming.

Of course, this workshop is slated for a complete week in November. This gives me pause. For one, I had hoped to participate in Nanowrimo again, this time on another serious novel (one I had tackled briefly with my instructor at the Institute for Children's Literature). That was an incredible experience and I would love to duplicate it.

Secondly, I find myself doubting my ability to stick to my guns and complete the novel in time. Then, I discovered there was a second offering of this same course slated for June of 2011. My gears were eagerly whizzing as I wondered whether my parents would be willing (or able to handle that much exposure to my boys) to hold down the fort while I depart for a week of writing ... in a rustic cabin.

Finally, there comes the little detail of money. The course is over $2,000. While I am certain it would be worth every penny spent (it wouldn't be a lion if it didn't seem risky or costly, now, would it?), I'm not certain our budget would allow it or my husband would consent to it. But, still, I find myself dreaming.

Now, you're probably thinking, "from the title, I was expecting her to gush about Patrick Ness????" So let's get down to that, shall we.

After I posted my recent review of Patrick Ness' second book in his thrilling Chaos Walking series, my blogging friend Amy directed me to a fantastic link where Ness shares a prequel story of Viola prior to her arrival on New World. It is like discovering there's an extra appetizer being offered to your table because the cook is lingering over the preparations for your main course.

As I read, though, I continued to struggle with the character name of Viola. My brain just can't get around it. I tried to search for audio or video clips of interviews with Patrick Ness to see if I could find out how he pronounces this name. Is it V-O-la (like the instrument), or is it Vie-ola (like the flower)? Surely, it couldn't be pronounced like the french word, "voila," although that would fit with her grand entrance onto New World.

Unfortunately, audio versions of the book are not in the works until August and I found nothing on the Internet to answer the question. I did cruise around Patrick Ness's site, however, and found an exciting and entertaining trailer for the third book in the series, Monsters of Men.

Plus, I discovered several reviews of this final book. Either the book is out in England already or these are lucky souls who have been given copies to preliminarily review (now that would be a dream, wouldn't it?).

What I found over and over again, was that these individuals are absolutely raving about the book and raving about this series. In fact, the last linked reviewer even directed me to a delightful poem with romantic mood music. This guy, Ness, is just bursting on the scene like an explosion, isn't he?

So, now I am developing a back-up plan for the pipe-dream novel writing course (something I haven't even spoken to hubby about yet, but I did at least chase the lion enough to request the proper application forms). If the dream remains unfulfilled (either by spousal veto or failure to be accepted to the limited available slots), I am hereby drawing up a plan to secure a cabin for a day or two and purchase all three of Ness's books so that I may while away a day or two in rigorous reading from beginning to end (that seems like the only way to go with these books). Either way, I get some time off in a rustic cabin, ALONE, doing something I love. Sounds like a win-win, no?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Review: Cat O' Nine Tales

I love a good collection of Jeffrey Archer's short stories. His earlier collections contained stories where the end was always an unexpected lurch. This collection doesn't contain quite the same level of surprise ending, but is full of delightfully intricate tales of criminals and their schemes.

At first, I couldn't figure out why each story began in first person. I wondered whether the stories were true or false, but was perplexed because the narrator was incarcerated. Then, I discovered that these 12 stories were set down and honed during Archer's two year stint in prison. Wait! Jeffrey Archer was in prison? I felt so out-of-the-loop.

Initially, I don't really care about an author's background or perspective. If they can weave a good story, that is good enough for me. If I find their personal opinions offensive and intrusive in the writing, I make note to avoid that author in the future. However, after reading, I do often find myself looking for more information on an author and what led them to write a particular book.

In this case, I perused Wikipedia's entry for Jeffrey Archer and discovered that he had, indeed, been convicted of perjury and served two years of his four year sentence. It was amusing to read that he was allowed to leave the British prisons to visit his home and to go to the theater. I skimmed over the political bits, because I really don't care, but I was thrilled to discover that Archer has already completed his sixth book of short stories, And Thereby Hangs a Tale, which is due for release from Amazon on September 14th (darn it all, another book I now want to purchase rather than await the library's acquisition).

According to Archer, these stories were all rooted in fact and then embellished. In Cat O' Nine Tales, Archer tells the story of "The Man Who Robbed His Own Post Office," another story of a man who tried to poison his wife but met with an unexpected end ("Don't Drink the Water"), one about an introverted accountant who attempts to con his way into a fortune at the end of his career ("Charity Begins at Home"), and one about a man who was wooed for his aunt's fortune ("The Wisdom of Solomon"), among others.

Although I would disagree with the cover blurb which billed this book as "Archer at his best," (the previous story collections were better, in my opinion) these are still stories that will keep you turning pages to discover how they play out. The stories will also give you a chuckle at the predictability of man and his desire to glean something for nothing (hmmm, kind of like individuals who wish to read bestsellers, but are unwilling to purchase the book, preferring to wait for the library to carry it).

Now, I just have to talk myself down from another title to add to my Amazon wish list. I'm sure, by now, I could get to the free shipping level, but I doubt I could convince my husband that I NEED to spend more money on more books. I have the first three short story collections (each picked up second hand, over the years). Now, I'll be on the look out for three more Archer short story collections. How far off is Christmas???

Monday, July 5, 2010

Book Review: The Ask and the Answer

Oh, how I am wishing I hadn't found these books by Patrick Ness until next year! This isn't a bad thing, really. It is just that I am really regretting that I am not able to read the next book right when I want to.

I reviewed the first book in this "Chaos Walking" series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, back in March. The very moment I finished reading that book, I requested the sequel from our library. Then, I waited and waited. Sadly, the library didn't have it available until a few weeks ago.

Now that I have finished, The Ask and the Answer, I went to Amazon to find out when the third book in this trilogy will be released. Sadly, the final book, Monsters of Men, isn't due out until September 28, 2010. As I read The Ask and the Answer, I was wishing that I had just re-read the first book, since I lost some of the momentum by waiting several months before picking up the second book. Although ordering all three of them would be a simple solution, I have been trying to cut down on the number of books (especially in the case of books I can obtain from the library).

The second book picks up exactly where the first left off, and although you could read this as a stand-alone, I think it would lose some of its coherence if you skipped the first book. The first book ended with Todd and Viola (a name I can never seem to get used to or accept - wishing the author had chosen a different name) arriving at Haven, which they were sure would be a haven. Sadly, they have walked right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. The Mayor has renamed the city, "New Prentisstown," and named himself the President.

Todd has been imprisoned in the bell tower of the cathedral along with the previous mayor. He has no idea where Viola is and President Prentiss has no plan to fill him in. Instead, Prentiss uses Todd's concern for Viola to entice him into cooperating with his every plan. Moreover, the President's plans are despicably evil.

Meanwhile, Viola has been taken to a house of healing where she is recuperating. Although Viola doesn't trust President Prentiss, she is also wary of her attendant Mistress Coyle (a power hungry woman who wishes to overthrow President Prentiss). Still, she makes a few friends within the house of healing and attempts to escape to make contact with her people (the fleets of people coming to join her on The New World). When this attempt ends in the death of her friend, the factions in New Prentisstown begin to set the stage for war.

Like the first book, it seemed like the author goes overboard in plotting. For the first half of this book, I felt irritated by the constant addition of problems. Plus, although this is probably an accurate depiction of war (where individuals begin to distrust everyone, sides develop, innocents are sacrificed, etc.), the whole portrayal of a man so hungry for power that he is willing to make all other men and women prisoners to his demands was unsettling. I understand that the author wanted to keep the action pumping so that the reader would be drawn along to continue reading (and indeed it did keep me reading), but it was rather annoying just the same.

Again, I think that this book would appeal to non-reading boys. It is full of action and adrenalin pumping suspense. It has genuinely important issues to think about: war, gender division, tyranny, the power of love, etc.) However, it still contained the distressing use of vernacular spellings that so annoyed me in the last book.

This book, unlike the first book, alternates between narration from Todd and narration from Viola. I can't pin down exactly how I felt about that. It was a welcome relief to get away from Todd's narration, but the alternating did prove somewhat cumbersome at times (especially at the end when the author began to alternate almost every other paragraph).

Obviously, even with these negative comments, I am still a fan of these books because I am anxious to discover how the story ends. Ness does a fantastic job of leaving you with a wild cliff-hanger at the end to leave you salivating for his next installment. Now to decide if I bite the bullet and purchase the book on Amazon, so that I can get it the minute it comes out, or if I shelf this until next year and simply read all three of them together, checked out from the library. My empty pockets may dictate the later option. Sob-sob.

Friday, July 2, 2010

What Does Procrastination Say About Me

Today, I am back to berating myself and my tendency towards procrastination. I am a classic case, really. I often purchase birthday cards, FATHER'S DAY CARDS, etc. well in advance of the occasion, then when it comes time to get the darn things in the mail, I can't find them or they sit on the counter waiting to be mailed.

Just last week, I finally mailed a cute little birthday card that Trevor made for his cousin, Rachael. He made the card on her birthday, but I failed to mail it until a week had gone by (even though the envelope was sitting on the passenger seat of the van that whole time).

I still have my father's Father's Day card ... somewhere ... and need to get it in the mail. Heck, I still have my dad's birthday card (along with the family photo I intended to include) from two years ago. Ridiculous, I know. But every year it happens just the same.

So, why am I rebuking my bad habits today?

Well, today Trevor and Bryce had an appointment for their school shots. As soon as we returned home, I decided I had better fill out our medical forms for CBLI and mail them in. As I scrounged around looking for whatever pile I may have placed the forms on (I had printed them out from the computer back in April when I completed the on-line registration), I discovered several other things that I had been looking for (including Sean's immunization record, which had been lost for almost a year).

When I finally located the forms (on the hallway bookshelf ... placed there when I was straightening for company ... mother-in-law, brother & family, my parents???), I noticed that the forms were due by July 1st. I did my best to fill them out completely and rushed them over to the post office, knowing full well that, with the holiday weekend and Monday considered a federal holiday, the forms won't arrive at their destination until Tuesday, July 6th. That means, I'm really almost a whole week late, not merely one day late.

The truly sad thing is that this happens all the time. I genuinely enjoy going to CBLI. My kids enjoy it even more than I do. I have every reason to get my act together and register at the first possible moment, completing every form necessary right away. Yet, every year, I dilly-dally until it is almost too late. Indeed, one year we were on the waiting list and missed two days, but were finally allowed to go because someone didn't show up for the camp (who would do a thing like that??? that sounds worse than a problem with procrastination!).

So, what does this procrastination habit say about me? My husband says that I'm disorganized because it involves work. He says I am completely capable of organizing things, but I don't do it because I don't want to work. This rubs me the wrong way, even as I gaze deep inside, timidly wondering if he is right and that I am truly just a work-averse individual.

Books on procrastination would say that I am insecure and anxious. I will admit that I feel insecure and anxious in the face of tasks that I procrastinate on.

For example, Trevor and Sean's room needs a complete overhaul. It needs a complete overhaul every single day of the week. No sooner do I get the room straightened and organized, than they walk into it, begin pulling clothes out of drawers and dropping them on the floor or pulling books off of shelves and dropping them onto the floor, or knocking over piles of sheets and blankets. Thus, when I think about the task, I find myself dreading both the act of cleaning it and the immediate demise of my efforts.

I have a tremendous paper problem. I have stacks and stacks of papers that I wish to keep, but never manage to place in an organized file system. When I try to go through them, I look at the mess and wonder where everything should go. I don't want to part with an item and yet, I cannot for the life of me, figure out where it should be kept.

Example: The little boys received swimming verification certificates when they completed their swimming lessons back in April. I have those certificates ... on a pile. I have no clue what to do with them. It seems pointless to create a file for swimming certificates, yet throwing them out seems wrong. What if they need to prove a level of swimming proficiency at some point? I don't know.

All of this spins around like a black cloud over my head continuously. I want to go through all the paper work and organize it (especially my writing), but it is such a monumental task and I doubt I can get through it (even if I worked for 10 minutes at a time each day, as the books seem to suggest).

Yet, wringing my hands and saying "I have a clear problem with procrastination," isn't really helping things either. I know this is basically viewed as a bad habit and the key to changing a bad habit is to commit to altering the habit for at least 30 days. Sadly, I will wake up tomorrow and discover more things that I have put off for another day.

So, next time you hang out with procrastination, could you do me a favor? Let her know (by virtue of my catty feelings towards procrastination, it must be feminine) that I really wish that she and I would be on the outs. She can pack up her bags and leave, as far as I'm concerned. Tonight. But, as you are talking to her, maybe bait the hook a little bit and find out what she says about me, please?