Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: Can't Wait to Get to Heaven

Elner Shimfissle is quite a character! Her name alone is sassy, unusual and fun. As a character, she carries this book along from beginning to end. She is a high-spirited octogenarian who insistently picks her own figs on a tall ladder. Alas, she encounters a swarm of hornets, triggering a horrendous fall and an adventure she never expected.

Although the author's presented view of the after-life doesn't square with mine (the creator is embodied by two elderly friends of Elner who make cake, smoke, and wonder about mistakes they might have made in their creation ... my creator doesn't need to wonder about mistakes He's made and is not made in human image), this was still a delightful tale. The story was fun and entertaining. The characters were lively and quirky. The plot twists were interesting and unexpected.

The author's answers to the questions, "Why are we here?" and "What's the purpose of life?" were a bit simplistic (things like "to be as happy as we can be" and "to make life better and better as we learn to get along"). There were many times when I was scratching my head, wondering if the author really holds to this world-view she presents. It wasn't a favorite book of mine, but the story kept me listening. If you are looking for depth or a Christian perspective, look elsewhere. But, if you are welcome to a fun, romping tale of one person's life and positive influence on others, then you might enjoy this book.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: The Red Suit Diaries

This was another attempt to find an inspiring Christmas read. While the book was somewhat entertaining (interesting tid-bits about what it is like to play a professional Santa), it didn't exactly live up to my aspirations of an inspiring, heart-warming Christmas read.

In The Red Suit Diaries: A Real-Life Santa on Hopes, Dreams, and Childlike Faith, Ed Butchart chronicles his rise to the position of professional Santa. He shares vignettes from his experiences. Mostly he encourages people to seek the spirit of love embodied in Santa and maintain that child-like faith exhibited by so many children during this time of year.

My own sons decided that they were too big to visit Santa and sit on his lap this year. I'm pretty sure that Trevor is on the verge of giving up the idea of Santa. I don't have a problem with him believing in Santa. I don't think it detracts from the real meaning of Christmas (he is aware of the significance of Jesus' birth). And I have enjoyed watching his wonder, but I also won't be crushed when he loses that wonder. Indeed, I'm assuming he will pull his little brother along with him.

For now, we did enjoy taking their letters to Santa at a local library and then receiving back a personally written letter from Santa. Trevor was able to send along a drawing of a shark, which really impressed Santa.

I don't believe I would ever want the job of portraying Santa, nor will I ever be asked, I'm sure. I'll settle for reading the light-hearted anecdotes of one Santa who makes it his business to treat children with kindness and love.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: Raising Cain

In Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, authors and child psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson focus on the emotional needs of boys. While society tends to paint boys and men as being macho strong, males have just as many emotional needs as girls do and sometimes these needs are overlooked because they are expected to behave as "strong men."

The authors argue that emotional literacy is one of the most important things we can bestow upon our sons. The beginning of the book emphasized the strong desire men have for connection, especially with their fathers. When that connection is absent, it affects the man in all parts of his life. Teachers are encouraged to deal with typical needs for more physical movement during the school day. Parents are urged to assist sons in developing empathy by showing empathy themselves and revealing some of their deepest struggles and difficulties.

I think the aspects of this book which I found the most disturbing were the statistics given for general use of alcohol, drugs, and sexual involvement by high school boys. The book opened the door for me to have an open talk with my own teenage son about these temptations. He felt that the statistics were fairly accurate, even if he isn't involved in any of those things (thank the Lord).

While the book did provide a thorough glimpse into the inner lives of boys, I don't believe it is as seminal a work in the field of "parenting sons" literature as touted on the front cover. It did seem to have a liberal bent to it. Still, it was a worthwhile read and certainly could only benefit any parent wishing to connect more fully with their sons.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Down Memory Lane

Recently I unearthed two boxes full of nostalgic items. The first box contained bundles of letters from about five or six good friends. These letters were written to me during my year long exile in South Dakota (my parents were moved there during my senior year of high school and, to me, it felt like outer Siberia). I had to chuckle when my best male correspondent wrote: "Could you send me some more of those xeroxed photos of South Dakota? I'm planning on starting a collection of South Dakota xeroxed pictures." Ha! I had sent him two photos from my text book for my required South Dakota History class.

It was great fun reading through some of these letters again. It made me long for a really good correspondence again. My friend, Brian, wrote to me faithfully (about every other week) during my final two years of high school and all through college. He was funny and open and often our correspondence covered deep subjects. I thoroughly miss that blessing in my life.

The second box contained little knick-knacks from the past. I especially loved seeing these key chains from London and from Disney World. This pencil gripper bears the memory of a punishment where I had to write a certain sentence several hundred times before I could go to camp. Wonder if that exercise altered my actions or mood? Plus, it was a joy to see my old Northern Illinois Youth Band patch (so many happy memories of times in the youth band) and a special sachet gift from a friend in college.

My husband would complain that I save too much, but in moments like these, I'm grateful to have hung on to things which give me such deep, happy memories.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Proof of Boys

You know you have boys when your reminder board looks like this:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: Follow the Star

So far, T.D. Jakes' Follow the Star: Christmas Stories That Changed my Life has been my favorite holiday read. Since the book contains 20 brief chapters, or stories, I intended to read one story each night before bed. This became a problem, because I couldn't stick with just one story. I felt compelled to keep reading.

Full of childhood memories, hardships and blessings, and real spiritual wisdom, this book is sure to warm your heart and soul during the holiday season. Each story is touching and poignant, filled with insight and joy. Many of the stories make direct appeals to change the reader's way of thinking and chart them on a course to something new.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and might make it a yearly fare. Perhaps next year, I'll be able to limit myself to one story per day, as I had intended.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: The Christmas Wedding

While I enjoyed the last Christmas book, I cannot say the same for this James Patterson book. I have heard the name James Patterson. He must be a very popular novelist. From the reading of this book, I cannot understand why. The only thing that kept me listening was a slight desire to discover which prospective groom won out in the end. It wasn't worth the wait.

To begin with, the constant cursing was a problem for me. Now, there are times when I can read a book which contains cursing and not allow it to get under my skin, but this cursing came with a general air of low-class, immoral, dregs-of-life situations and characters. I can handle cursing if the story trumps the cursing. Not so here.

Gabi Summerhill hasn't had all four of her children together to celebrate Christmas since the death of her husband, their father, three years ago. Instead of just asking them all to come, she sends them all a video chat, enticing them with the information that she has received proposals from not one, but three prospective suitors. The three men have all been part of her life for many years and are all good friends. Each of her children, Emily, Claire, Lizzie, and Seth are dealing with their own dilemmas, but they make the time to come because Gabi has held the mystery of the groom over everyone's heads, including the prospective grooms.

The story line was a bit far-fetched, but my biggest complaint was that the story held no important take-away. You learn and gain nothing from listening (I needed a good audio book for the car) or reading this story. In the end, her choice is even a bit of a let down. Everything wraps up nicely, but you don't feel warmth or any inspiration. I was greatly disappointed by this book. In fact, I wish I hadn't wasted my time on it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Book Review: A Season of Gifts

This was another delightful read featuring the inimitable Grandma Dowdel, first introduced in the award winning book, A Long Way From Chicago. Richard Peck is a master at presenting small-town Midwestern life. He also does an amazing job of persistently writing, having churned out 39 books in the last 39 years. Wow!

I selected this one based on the delightful cover (which shows Grandma Dowdel and the narrator scrambling away with Christmas trees tied to the roof of the car) since the Christmas season is upon us. I didn't know that it featured Grandma Dowdel, but that was a definite plus. It made me want to read A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder all over again.

In this episode, Grandma Dowdel takes the new preacher family under her wing as they encounter local bullies, engage in dangerous crushes and endeavor to win over a new congregation. Grandma Dowdel behaves in the manner she has become famous for, but she also bestows gifts upon her neighbors in her own special way.

If you are looking for a light-hearted, quick Christmas read, look no further. Richard Peck has written a timeless tale, sure to delight and tickle both children and adults during the holidays.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Favorite Christmas Decorations

My boys are destructive. There's no way around admitting it. Sometimes I think that eventually they will have broken every thing that is special to me in any way. Thus, I feel it necessary to document these special things before they are gone forever. Ha!

Here are a few of my favorite Christmas decorations. This post was prompted by the destruction of one of my elves in the walking elf decoration. I was able to glue the cracked foot back together and it does work fine ... for now. I purchased this at a House of Lloyds sale back when my parents lived near Kansas City. I cannot even find House of Lloyds on the Internet. It seems they were bought out by another company. I doubt I'll come upon one of these walking elf decorations again in my lifetime.

Another favorite, which has also been broken and repaired on two occasions, is my spinning carousel decoration. I found this at a garage sale and fell in love with it. My initial repair, back when Bryce broke it, was much better than the present one, but you can still get a feel for the appeal of this decoration.

Finally, I love this moving Santa decoration. It was a gift from a very dear friend, Beth. It holds such sentimental value. True to form, the boys used to pick it up by the hat and for a short time, it wouldn't move. Somehow it came back to life ... a Christmas miracle. I pray it has a good long life (although, I'm pretty sure I could replace this one - we saw a larger one, just like it, at our dentist office the other day).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Book Review: Writing Great Books for Young Adults

Last year, I impulsively entered the first 250 words of my Nanowrimo novel for a young adult novel discovery contest. Two hundred and fifty words is a hard sell, let me tell you. Last year's novel didn't even really reveal the basis of the plot in the first several hundred words. Personally, I don't think that's too much of a problem, because although the initial words need to be tight and draw the reader in, a published book has the benefit of an attractive cover and blurbs on the inside and back to pull in prospective readers. But, I understand the drive to really hone the beginning, since that is what will entice or repel an editor.

The primary judge in the novel discovery contest is Regina Brooks. I think the reason I knee-jerked last year was my desire to be one of the first 50 entrants, who then receive Regina's book, Writing Great Books for Young Adults. This year, I made it a point to read the book prior to and during my Nanowrimo attempt. I also honed my initial 250 words of this year's novel and sent them in (it can't hurt to try and every year I participate, I practice making my novels more enticing).

This book is an outstanding explanation of writing for young adults. Its structure makes it an easy read. Plus, it contains all kinds of extra comments by authors and editors in the business. Writing for young adults is not like writing for adults. You have to really hook them in quickly and they will not tolerate any extraneous fluff that detracts from the main story line. They want a good story and one that keeps them turning pages. Otherwise, they'll head for their I-pod or other electronic entertainment devices.

I especially appreciated the break-down of thirty-six dramatic situations, the descriptions of the advantages and disadvantages of the various points of view an author can write from, the listing of common themes, and the questions to ask as you review your manuscript or pitch it to an agent.

I would certainly recommend this book to any writer who is interested in writing young adult novels. Of course, now that I've read the book, I have to continue putting the lessons into practice and keep honing my manuscripts and my writing skills. Thankfully, that still feels fun for me.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Recent Kid Book Favorites

Tomorrow I have to return three books to the library because we've renewed them EIGHT times and have run out of renewal options. This means we've had these books for twenty seven weeks! The thing is, we are really sad to return them. They have been our favorite books during that time. I may just have to run out and buy them now.

The first is Rock, Brock and the Savings Shock. I can't believe how much my boys loved and learned from this book. It is the story of twins Rock and Brock, who are very different. One is tidy and perfect and the other is a total slob. But, the tidy one spends money like water running through a sieve and the other saves like the tiny gremlin character in The Hobbit clings to his ring, calling it "my precious." Gramps offers them a deal. He will pay them $1 every Saturday for mowing his lawn and washing his car. However, if they save the money, he will double whatever they have. My boys began chanting the progression of savings: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512. Trevor's first grade teacher was amazed when she overheard my four year old reciting these numbers. I'm amazed that they clearly understood the principals presented and took them to heart.

The second book, I Always, Always Get My Way, tells of a three year old girl who milks her mother's sympathies for her tender years. The child is a whirling dervish of disaster, spilling orange juice on her father, tramping mud into the home, getting into her siblings' belongings. My boys loved the rhyme and loved watching the main character wreak havoc in her home.

The final book is When Pigasso Met Mootisse. It is obviously the story of the relationship between Picasso and Matisse, but told with the main characters in pig and cow form. This book was udderly delightful (sorry, I couldn't help myself). It is full of clever puns (an art attack, a pork of art, a moosterpiece, etc.). The illustrations are bold and charming. My boys even enjoyed listening to the realistic account of the two artists at the back of the book.

We are sad to see these books go back to the library, but heartily recommend them and feel obligated to let other patrons discover the pure gold within these spines.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Certificate Glory

My boys are always asking, "Why do you write a novel in the month of November just so you can get a certificate saying you're a winner?" Ha! Of course, that isn't the only reason I choose to attempt to write a novel. But, I'm very grateful to the Nanowrimo organization for coming up with this grand enterprise and for the simple certificate which shows that I'm a winner:

As I was printing out this year's winner's certificate, Bryce caught me and said, "Don't exit. I want a certificate, too." I watched as he typed in his name, using his own special language (where he replaces vowels with an "er" sound) and then titled his book, "Ther Ermerercern Ernglersh Dercternerer." I'm pretty sure that phony certificate is the closest my number one son will ever get to writing a novel. Still, I'm glad he makes me laugh!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Nanowrimo Success in 2011

I did it! In fact, this year was the best year yet. The words came easily and quickly. I finished in the least amount of time, with the highest number of words. Plus, I don't think the novel is too bad. It does need some editing and I'm hoping to find some constructive criticism from some readers, but otherwise, I feel quite pleased with this year's Nanowrimo endeavor. Yippee!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book Review: The Whole-Brain Child

I cannot recommend this intuitive parenting book enough. Perhaps it was due to my love of the subject of the human brain. Perhaps it was due to my own needs to integrate more fully the various aspects of my own brain. Whatever the reason, I found myself wanting to go out and buy a copy of this book (which I had secured from our library's recent release shelf).

One of its major strengths is the excellent structure which makes the book very easy to follow and utilize. It provides 12 strategies for nurturing a child's developing mind. The strategies are easy to remember and make complete sense.

The authors explain the various regions of the brain - left (logical, literal, linear) and right (emotions, images, memories, communication) hemispheres, and upper (thinking) and lower (feeling) parts of the brain. By understanding more fully the parts of the brain, we are able to navigate the waters of life to avoid chaos, on the one hand, and rigidity, on the other. It was immediately clear where my own integration issues lie. I tend to be much more right brained and lower brained.

As I read the book, and the various suggested steps for helping children achieve better brain integration, I observed my own parent use some of these strategies. I called my parents to share with them an aspect of the future that I am greatly fearing. My father used the first strategy ("Connect and Re-direct") to help me get away from the overwhelming stream of fear and into a more rational state about the situation. He connected with my right brain and then redirected with my left brain. After talking, I didn't feel so distraught. It was a perfect example of what I was busy reading.

The second strategy could also be useful in my own life. It is called "Name it to tame it: telling stories to calm big emotions." This is a tactic used when something traumatic causes a child to get stuck in lower brain responses. The clearest example I can think of is the trauma I experienced at age three when I received 64 shots within eight days. The effects of this experience still linger to this day. Every time I talk it through, though, I become better able to construct ways of dealing with the anxieties I feel in medical situations.

Some of my favorite things about the book were the sections where they offered pictorial lessons for using with your children to explain some of the principals, as well as sections devoted to helping a parent achieve better brain integration. They also provide a reference guide at the end of the book where they break the lessons down into the various ages and stages children go through.

Overall, I find myself wanting to read the book again next year, to continue to fully learn the strategies offered here. Another thing they provide is a refrigerator sheet that breaks down each of the twelve strategies for quick reference. This is a highly practical and interesting book. It is a wonderful resource for parents who wish to help their kids grow and thrive.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Review: Dancing With Rose

I was entirely absorbed in listening to this audio book, by Lauren Kessler, which was about finding life in the land of Alzheimer's. I cannot explain the pull I feel towards literature about Alzheimer's. I don't know of anyone close to me with the disease, and yet I find myself time and again picking up books about it.

This book was a memoir of sorts. The author's own mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and she felt that she hadn't handled the diagnosis very well. She expresses the fear, denial, shock, and distance she felt towards her mother and the disease. Thus, after her own mother's death, Kessler decides to redeem herself by really getting to know people with the disease and those who provide their care. She did this by filling a job in an Alzheimer's care facility. There she discovered first-hand the tireless efforts of the minimum wage workers who serve as Resident Assistants.

Her story is eye-opening and refreshing. She comes to see that Alzheimer's is not a tragic sentence, but a disease that frees the individual to remain entirely in the present. She encounters Alzheimer's patients who are endearing and who live a full, enjoyable life. She explains the idiosyncrysies that come with the disease like hyper-sensitivity to touch and a freedom from the constraints of social dictums. It was a pleasure to hear her descriptions of some of these patients and her interactions with them.

I don't know that I could ever take on, even temporarily, the job Kessler did (I even buck at the demands of my small children, who are, thankfully, sweet enough some of the time to redeem the moments of frustration). I suppose that is how Kessler came to view these patients. I'm just glad to have been able to vicariously experience along with her something that I don't quite feel up to.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book Review: Getting Things Done

In Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen encourages readers to get to a place of "mind-like-water" in their connection to productivity. He believes that the secret to being more productive lies in assessing all that is in your psyche to do and take care of and assigning it an action to get you calmly on the road to completion of these tasks or ideas.

I will have to say that I was hopeful that the book would teach me to make better use of my time at home and end the day with more accomplished, but I was also skeptical that the lessons, geared towards professionals and business-people, would be able to be fleshed out in my home environment. Bryce kept asking me why I was listening to the book. I think he found it tedious. At times, I did, too, but I stuck with it.

I think the final section benefited me the most because it enabled me to see myself in many of the characteristics he listed of creative individuals who are often the worst procrastinators. Frankly, the whole book was like getting inside of the mind of my husband, who lives under the dictates of lists and files and is highly organized. I am a disorganized, creative sort and frankly, I fit the author's profile perfectly and recognized many of the reasons he suggested for why intelligent individuals fight this structure most vehemently.

The book clearly taught me that when I don't take care of things which need to be handled or completed, it lingers in my brain as unfinished business and keeps me from being calm and fulfilled. My own procrastination shoots myself in the foot, because it keeps those numerous plates still spinning, instead of finishing their rotation and moving them off the sphere of consciousness.

I doubt I'll be able to incorporate all the lessons (and I did find myself wishing I had read the book instead of listening on CD, since it came with bonus organizational charts and explanations) from the book. I won't become a type A person just because I listened to someone who champions the behaviors of the type A individual. To some extent, that is just not me (I cannot imagine going through every inch of my house and psyche to list and gather things that need my attention - I think my brain would go into overload!), but I will try to be more productive. Plus, I will be more thankful for my husband's lists and files mentality. At least one of is highly productive!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Godly Heritage

One of my friends posted this photo on Facebook today and tagged me. She found it on e-bay, where they are selling press photos of The Salvation Army.

This is a photo of my Dad. If the picture were larger (showed a wider frame of reference), I'm pretty sure I might have been in the picture, too. My dad and I used to get up early and, before school started, head down to the elevated train station near us in Chicago. We would play duets from the Christmas carol tune book. I can see the bell of an alto horn in the side of the picture. I'm guessing it is me.

This photo brings back such wonderful memories. I loved playing duets with my dad, even if it did mean rising extra early (something I've never been fond of). And seeing this photo reminds me of what a godly heritage I've been given. My dad is a man after God's own heart and what a gift that has been.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

It's Nanowrimo Time Again

November has come around again and I am passionately plugging away at another novel. I can't say that it is my best work to date. With the other two novels (written in 2009 and 2010) I had already ruminated on the ideas for a good many years before writing. This year I had a novel idea that I had been tossing around in my head for many months. But then a few days before the Nanowrimo challenge began, I came up with another idea.

Although the writing is flowing fairly easily (I ended the first day with 3643 words, the second day with 6,216, the third with 10,509, and the fourth with 12,696), I still think my characters are coming off as flat and the pacing is too stiff. Of course, these are things which can be edited and worked with later.

The main thing that I'm finding is that the writing is so completely energizing for me. When I am focused on writing, I feel like my days matter and I look forward to accomplishing the best I can.

What's more, I receive accolades from my kids. Every day they guess what word count level I have achieved. Bryce said he cannot believe I can write 4,000 words in one day. It is something he could never imagine doing.

I don't get those kinds of positive reinforcements for my regular mothering role. It's not like he comes to me and says, "Wow! Mom! I'm so impressed that you were able to get that ketchup stain out of my favorite white shirt! Thanks so much!" or "These toilets are pristine. Didn't I just spray all over in here a few hours ago??" or "This meal is the best meal I've ever eaten in my life!" Nope, those kinds of comments never come.

Last night, Bryce gave me the best encouragement yet. I remarked that I thought the pacing was making the novel boring and if a teen were really reading it, they might get bored and stop reading. He replied, "Well, if Golding can win a Nobel Peace Prize for Lord of the Flies (a novel he is reading for class), and it is the most boring novel I've ever tried to read, then you shouldn't worry so much!" Ha!

Heck, if it weren't so much strenuous work - cranking out all these words - I might wish Nanowrimo took place every month!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Weekend in DeKalb

Since I'm going to be fairly busy writing a novel during the month of November (NANOWRIMO), I thought I would save some family updates for later. A few weekends back, the little boys and I drove all the way up to a friend's house in Wisconsin to pick up a picture, then drove down to DeKalb for a day.

Trevor's favorite part of our time in DeKalb would have to be the time we spent at the skate park. He is sincerely wishing that criminal activity hadn't closed the one closest to us (a half hour away - but that seems close when you live in the country). Here are some shots of the boys at the skate park:

It cracked me up when, in the middle of skating, Trevor decided he had to stop for a moment to get his black book and draw something cool in it. So Trevor!

After our time at the skate park, we stopped in to visit with our old friends, Andy and Renee, and their five children. The boys had a wonderful time playing with the kids and I enjoyed some quiet conversation with grown-ups.

Friday night, we drove out to Waterman, IL, to ride Pete's Train. This was a tradition I used to keep with my oldest son for years, back when we lived in DeKalb. Back then, the train was free. This time, we were charged a $7.00 per person fee for the pumpkin train (including picking a SMALL pumpkin from a patch mid-way through the ride) and a walk through a small, boring haunted house. It seemed like there were less lights than there used to be. Plus, it was definitely not worth $7.00 ($3, maybe, but $7??).

Here you can see that Trevor was none to excited to start with:

Plus, he felt compelled to do the thinker pose for the final picture!

On Saturday, we rounded out our visit with a trip to the free STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) conference at the DeKalb Convocation Center. The advertisements had shown one of those large balls filled with electricity, where the slightest touch causes your hair to stand on end. I had lured them into this activity with promises of seeing this hands-on display. Sadly, we never found such a booth or exhibit. Rats!

Still, the boys enjoyed the various booths:

Robots lifting inflated tubes to place on a pole.

Sean dressed in the full regalia of a scientist in the Antartic.

By the time we were finishing walking around and seeing tons of cool things (balls that balance in mid-air, foil boats which hold numerous pennies, optical illusions, light-up sticks, etc.) the boys were exhausted and ready to head home.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Book Review: Eleven

Patricia Reilly Giff is an author recommended to me by my mother. Ever since she read Pictures of Hollis Woods, she has been on the look-out for other Giff books. Thus, when I happened upon this book, Eleven, at the library book sale, I had to add it to my bulging bag of books for a dollar.

Eleven tells the story of Sam MacKenzie, a boy turning the magical age of eleven. When Sam sneaks up to the attic to look for his birthday presents he stumbles onto a locked metal box. A newspaper clipping is peaking out from the box and even though Sam struggles with reading, he is able to make out a picture of himself at the age of three and the words "Sam Bell" and "missing." Sam approaches the new girl, Caroline, to ask for help in reading the strange documents in his attic. Together they forge a fast friendship and uncover further clues to Sam's past and the mystery of the newspaper clipping.

This was a quick, easy read, sure to appeal to boys and girls in the 8 to 12 age range. However, even as a grown-up, it tugged at my heart strings. It is no wonder why Giff is a two-time Newbery Honor-winning author.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: Runaway Twin

I can't remember when I first encountered the writings of Peg Kehret, but I know that I have come to associate that name with good writing. Runaway Twin was no exception to that rule. It was a delightful little book and an easy, engrossing read.

Sunny Skyland has been in more than her share of foster homes. At age three, when her mother died, she and her twin sister, Starr, were separated. Sunny clings to an old photograph of their home in Enumclaw, Washington, and hopes it will lead her to finding her lost twin. When she happens upon enough money to make the trip possible, she takes off on her own, determined to reach Enumclaw and find her twin. Along the way, she befriends a stray dog, battles bullies and a tornado. When she finally reaches her destination, she finds something different than what she expected and discovers quite a bit about what she already has.

This would be a great book to recommend to readers between the ages of 10 and 14. Moreover, anyone can benefit from the theme of reconsidering the blessings one already has.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review: Are You in the House Alone?

Ever since falling in love with the audio books for A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder (Grandma Dowdel is such a treat!), I have been a big fan of Richard Peck's books. I recently passed along Here Lies the Librarian to my mother-in-law to read. I knew she would enjoy both the tale and the fact that it takes place in this area where she grew up.

This time, I wasn't necessarily looking for a Richard Peck book, but snatched this one up in a dollar bag of books from our library's book shop (oh, how I love that little nook and their fabulous sales). I was expecting another wholesome tale (albeit the title, Are You in the House Alone? should have clued me in that this was a teen horror novel). Thus, I was shocked to discover a reference to the main character's sexual exploits right at the beginning.

Thankfully, I stuck with it long enough to discover that the previous sexual involvement was, in a way, necessary for the story-line's climax. Despite this initial hesitation, the book was a quick, easy, engaging read. I'm sure that it would, indeed, appeal to a teen or young adult reader.

I still prefer Peck's more wholesome tales. I love the humor and sense of location he creates in those other books. So, I'll keep my eye honed for more of that kind.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sweets from my Sweetest

In addition to a trip to Nashville, Indiana, which included a beautiful drive down viewing the absolutely gorgeous fall colors, my husband also bought me two special treats for Sweetest Day. He bought me a pound of yummy dark chocolate mint cookies from Fannie May. Then, in one of the little shops, I spotted this cute sculpture of a boy with his puppy:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review: Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

With a title like Don't Say I Didn't Warn You: Kids, Carbs, and the Coming Hormonal Apocalypse, Anita Renfroe sucked me in. Who is Anita Renfroe, you ask? She is the woman who is the author of the viral sensation, "The Mom Song." What mother can watch that routine and not end up with a giant belly laugh and a burst of applause?

I was looking for a light-hearted, humorous book to take along on a mini-getaway when my husband and I went to Nashville, Indiana, to celebrate "Sweetest Day" this past Saturday. Although it wasn't quite as funny as I had hoped, it still offered up a few genuine laughs and a great deal of internal resonance. Renfroe writes about having babies, weddings, mammograms, purses and holiday stress. Whatever the topic, she has a humorous anecdote or angle. This is a quick, funny read, sure to appeal to mothers in the thick of their harried role.

I also discovered a kid's response to The Mom Song. But even funnier is Tim Hawkins' "The Wife Song."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Review: Till Death Do Us Bark

This is the third book in Kate Klise's 43 Old Cemetery Road series. It is typical of Kate Klise's "punny" writing (presented in letters and newspaper clippings) and her sister Sarah's fabulous, endearing illustrations. The book was delightful.

A lovable, lumbering dog shows up at the old Spence Mansion. Seymour Hope wants to be the perfect son for his new adoptive parents, I.B. Grumply and Olive C. Spence, but he also wants to keep the dog. He discovers the dog's name, Secret, and his owner, the recently deceased, Noah Breth, but he keeps it a secret, in the interest of keeping the dog. Meanwhile, Mr. Breth's children, Kitty and Kanine, a couple of bad Breths, are fighting over Mr. Breth's hidden inheritance. Tucked inside are great lessons of the value of friendship, letter-writing, and the chance to change your mind or your life.

This was a marvelous light-hearted romp of a story. As far as I'm concerned, Kate and Sarah Klise can just keep on churning out these punny little tales! Bravo for books that are sure to appeal to kids and tickle their funny bones at the same time! Can't wait for the next installment: Phantom of the Post Office.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: A Soft Place to Land

Sadly, this was another book that really irked me. I had noticed it in Target one day and was impressed that it held an endorsement by Kathryn Stockett (author of The Help) on the enticing front cover. She called it "a beautiful story of the complicated love between two sisters," and declared it to be the next pick for book clubs.

I, for one, am glad I didn't suggest it for my own book club. I have two primary complaints. The first is that the book practically beat me over the head with its disdain for Christianity and those who call themselves "Christians." Of course, what is presented as "Christian" is the demonized, ultra-conservative, self-righteous, harmful individual who stifles all the good in others by attacking them with legalese and condemnation.

I cannot abide Christian fiction that spends too much time proselytizing and not enough time focusing on the story behind the message. This book, took the opposite extreme. Page after page was dedicated (interrupting the story, in my opinion) to blasting Christianity. The author must have had some kind of horrible experience at the hands of a self-professed Christian to have built up the kind of rage that comes out in this book.

My second complaint is that the story held great promise, but didn't deliver all that it could have. The premise itself was truly thought-provoking: what if a set of parents died, leaving behind two half-sisters who are shipped to two different locations and lives? Perhaps, the focus on making those lives as opposite and extreme as possible sidetracked the author from the true wealth available for exploration in the relationship between the two siblings. It seemed like far more time was spent on explaining the diverse lifestyles of their separate guardians than on exploring the internal conflict each sister must have experienced.

Naomi and Phil Harrison perish in an airplane accident. Their will stipulates that the older daughter, Julia, go to live with her biological father (the ultra-fundamentalist Christian environment), while the younger daughter, Ruthie, is sent to live with her father's sister and husband (an enlightened, easy-going couple who provide a wealth of opportunities and healthy stimulation for Ruthie). The two sisters must struggle through the arrangement (Ruthie with guilt over receiving the "better" deal and Julia with anger over receiving the "worst-possible" deal).

The mother, Naomi, is lauded over and over again for her strength and bravery in leaving her first husband (whose great transgression was that he never said "no" to Naomi, but, in his goodness, would allow her to do anything she wanted). Her action of divorcing her first husband and returning to her first love (who also ended up divorcing his spouse in order to join with Naomi) is viewed as heroic. In my opinion, it is far more heroic, and demands greater strength and bravery, to stand by a marriage commitment and work through, tooth and nail, differences and difficulties than it is to follow the whims of the heart.

While the writing itself was very good and kept me reading clear to the end, I cannot say that the telling of this particular story provided "a soft place (for me) to land." Come to think of it, neither character in the story ended up with a soft place to land either. Sad, really. Even the most difficult of situations can provide a glimmer of redemption, but I didn't find much redemption in this story.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Review: The Mind's Eye

I discovered the excellent writing of neurologist Oliver Sacks, when I happened upon his book, Musicophilia, a fascinating discourse on the brain's interaction with music. With an Oliver Sacks book, you get both intellectual stimulation, as well as wonderfully interesting case histories. The Mind's Eye was every bit as engaging as Musicophilia.

In The Mind's Eye, Dr. Sacks looks at the brain's connection to the use of our various senses. The book is chock full of interesting case studies of individuals who lose various assumed abilities: the ability to speak, read, recognize faces, see three-dimensionally, or just see at all. You will come away with a renewed respect for the many things your brain enables you to do.

The stories were my favorite part of this discourse (although the nitty-gritty descriptions of how the brain works were excellent, just a bit harder to follow when listening in audio form). He tells the story of a concert pianist who one day lost the ability to read words or music, a neurologist who suddenly acquires stereoscopic vision after five decades of an inability to see three-dimensionally, a novelist who loses the ability to read after experiencing a stroke, and Oliver Sacks' own story of dealing with vision loss after ocular cancer.

After listening, I decided to check out the hard-cover form of the book, so that I could glean some titles for further reading. He mentioned Susan Barry's Fixing my Gaze: A Scientist's Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions, Frank Brady's A Singular View: The Art of Seeing with One Eye, Howard Engel's The Man Who Forgot How to Read, John Hull's Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, Heather Sellers' You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know, Sabriye Tenberken's My Path Leads to Tibet, and Zoltan Torey's Out of Darkness. Each of these books sounded interesting in their own right.

My final impression is, again, of endless gratitude to God for the incredible precision in his creation of our human body in the way our brain works with our senses to allow us to enjoy things like three dimensional vision, reading, recognizing our loved ones, and even overcoming the losses of certain senses with the increase of others. Every journey might be different, but every journey is of great value.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Simple and Delish - Cheeseburger Pie

Last night, I made this dish for the second time. I'm pretty sure it will be a staple before long. This was another recipe gleaned from the "Five in a Fix" section of our local paper. It was super quick and easy to prepare and tasted fantastic. The first time, I didn't know if the boys would eat it (given the large tomato slices on top), but the second time around I made them to try a bite. It was a hit!

This first picture is of the second time around, when I took time to flute the edges. The first time (next two photos), I was in a hurry and merely folded the crust over the filling. I was hoping to get better photos of the more attractive pie, but it was gone before I could snap shots of the finished pie or a slice of the pie.

I fudged on the recipe a bit, but it turned out fine.

Cheeseburger Pie

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 lb. ground beef (I used turkey)
1/2 C. finely diced yellow onion (I used frozen diced onion)
2 Tbsp. flour
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire Sauce (I was out, so I substituted A-1 sauce)
salt and pepper
1 unbaked deep-dish pie shell
2 large eggs
1 C. small-curd cottage cheese
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced (I only used one)
1 C. shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 395 degrees. Heat beef and onion in oil in skillet until cooked through. Drain fat. In a large bowl, stir meat, onions, flour and Worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon into the pie crust. In a small bowl, stir together eggs and cottage cheese. Spoon evenly over meat. Arrange tomato slices on top and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake until set and the cheese has melted, about 30 minutes.

It is not low-fat (although you can take steps to pare it down), but it is sure to be a people-pleaser! For me, the fact that it only took ten minutes to whip up, coupled with the taste, makes it a winner.

It was definitely a winner with my kids. Bryce kept asking Trevor (the only one who had risked a bite) if it was really good or not. I think he suspected I might be trying to hoodwink him into eating something he wouldn't like. Trevor told him it was good. After Bryce's first bite, he grabbed the rest of the pie. He ended up eating half the pie all by himself (leaving none for dad, who settled for just salad). I have a feeling he'll be requesting this again!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Book Review: I'd Know You Anywhere

Several years ago, my cyber friend and fellow blogger, Cardiogirl, expressed a desire to find a new (to her) mystery author to read. She was looking for an author who had written more than just one book and she expressed an interest in crime fiction. Not long after that, I stumbled upon a novel in our library's Christmas shop by Laura Lippman. I don't remember the title, but it looked so interesting that I purchased it and sent it on to Cardiogirl. I explained to her that I couldn't vouch for my opinion about the author, since I had never read anything by Laura Lippman, but if it sounded intriguing to me, perhaps it would also be intriguing to her.

Thus, after reading the endorsements for I'd Know You Anywhere, I decided to give a Lippman book a try. This novel is about Eliza Benedict, a woman who has shortened her name in an attempt to distance herself from a frightening episode in the past when she was kidnapped and held hostage by a serial killer. After seeing her photo in a magazine, the killer, Walter Bowman, contacts Eliza with a desire to express his remorse.

An endorsement on the inside cover proclaims the novel to be "a powerful and utterly riveting tale that skillfully moves between past and present to explore the lasting effects of crime on a victim's life."

I anticipated the process of getting inside the head of a victim of crime. However, I cannot say that I enjoyed this book. The writing itself was very well done. The characters were drawn with depth. The plot did keep me reading. But the more I read, the more angry and irritated I felt.

Another blogger friend of mine, Lucy, once wrote that she doesn't like to read fiction when she feels that the author has "an agenda." This is entirely how I feel about this book. There was an agenda here and it got in the way of the story for me.

The author alienated me on two counts within two pages. Walter (the kidnapper/murderer of teen girls) is in Sussex (death row) and is thinking about the deaths of his parents from lung cancer and diabetes. He states:

"The men on Sussex had nothing on God when it came to killing people in painful, prolonged ways. The hardest case here hadn't taken more than a few hours to kill anyone. God took months, years."

I cannot help but think this view comes through from the author and not just a perspective of the criminal she is painting.

Then, in thinking of his victim, now a stay-at-home mother:

"He had no doubt that Elizabeth was a good mother. But he was still disappointed that this was all Elizabeth's life had amounted to, that this was what she had chosen to do with the great gift he had conferred on her."

Between the assault on Almighty God (implying that man doesn't hold a candle to God when it comes to causing suffering) and the assault on the valuable role of a mother, I was seething.

From that point on, things deteriorated further as it became clear that this was a novel with an agenda to denounce capital punishment. Walter isn't looking to merely apologize for wrongs he has committed. He is looking to escape the penalty of his actions. I want a good story, not a noble agenda.

Two further passages also rankled:

Barbara (Walter's support person) addresses Elizabeth (the only living victim):
"A man's going to die because of your testimony. But he's not the same man who committed the crimes .... How do you sleep at night? How can you live with yourself?..."

She goes on to declare that if Elizabeth "let Walter die ... then she was a killer, more cold-blooded than any death row inmate." (Somehow both victims and God are more responsible than an individual who chose to violate societal and religious standards.)

Later, an adult explains to a child that "religion and magic are pretty much the same thing." That about sums up the perspective this was written from.

So, although this book was riveting, although I read clear through to the end, I cannot bring myself to recommend it. There are certainly books I have enjoyed despite being written from a different political and religious perspective than my own, but this was not one of them. Story must trump agenda and, for me, this book didn't deliver.