Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Review: The Sunflower

This was a thoroughly enjoyable, lighthearted little tale. I chose the audio version and found myself looking for reasons to head off in the car. It is simply a sweet story.

Christine Hollister is shattered when her fiance calls off their wedding just two weeks prior to the planned ceremony (hmmm - that resonates with me for some reason - wink). When her best friend, Jessica, presents Christine with a humanitarian trip to Peru to take her mind off things, Christine wants no part of it. But, since her mother has put forth the money, she agrees to go to the informational meeting. She is lured in by the photos and stories of young children at an orphanage called The Sunflower.

Paul Cook is an ER doctor whose life spins out of control after an especially difficult night in the operating room. He retreats to a new life in Peru at The Sunflower. Jessica falls for the handsome tour guide, Jim, and Christine is intrigued by the orphanage director, Paul.

Although there is plenty of description of the travel on the tour, it never felt like a travelogue. The story always remained the primary focus. I found myself fully engrossed in the lives of these characters and rooting for their very best outcome. Who will she end up with, the handsome doctor or the repentant jilting fiance?? Read it to find out!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Saving Alice

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It seemed like a promising story (hmm - too many of the fiction books I have picked up lately have the same feel to them). Plus, it had the name Alice in the title and somehow I have been attracting Alice books ever since I became engrossed in Lisa Genova's Still Alice. Sadly, David Lewis' Saving Alice was not so absorbing.

Stephen Whitaker is a man who lost his first love when a tragic accident ripped her from him just as he had proposed to her. As the back cover proclaims "losing Alice was the event that changed everything for Stephen." He marries his second choice, Donna, and has a daughter, Alycia, whom he adores. As Alycia begins to uncover the past which led to her name, Stephen supposedly finds himself at a crossroads, a second chance, where he must choose his future.

It sounded like a good story. Unfortunately, the main character seemed almost too weak. I think I never came around to liking him in any way. When you don't like the main character, it is hard to become absorbed in the reading. The tale played out predictibly enough. The daughter was appalled that her mother was not her father's first choice. Stephen's lack of commitment to his wife and daughter have driven them from him emotionally.

The ending veered into a dream scenario within a dream scenario and seemed too unrealistic. As I said, I wanted to feel more engaged, but never got there.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

I had heard of the popularity of this book and was looking for a riveting book to bring along to camp. Alas, I didn't get far in this before putting it down to read again after returning home (this was partly because the book was too big to carry around all day in my bag).

I wish that I liked this book more. It feels like the last few books have held great promise, with interesting premises, but failed to fully deliver on the possibilities available. This was certainly true of the concept behind this book.

Rose Edelstein arrives home a few days before her ninth birthday to discover that her mother has baked a lemon cake with chocolate icing (hmm ... can't even seem to get to what that would taste like ... lemon and chocolate??). Within the first few bites, she realizes that she has stepped into an alternate reality because she can actually taste her mother's emotions within the cake. This mother of hers, who loves her children intensely, serves up an unwieldy desperation and emptiness.

At this point, I felt hopeful. I myself am at a place in life where mothering often leaves me desperately empty, a raw hollow shell of the person I once was. Thus, I thought that I would really latch onto this narrative and enjoy the discoveries Rose makes. But, apart from her mother's deep ache and a few test subjects (a bakery experiment), Rose tends to avoid her "special gift" and seek instead to understand the unique gifts of her other family members (her detached, oblivious father and her anti-social, brilliant brother).

I continued reading, hoping it would offer up some deeper wisdom about life. There was none to be had. It dissolved into pointless explanations of how Rose could tell the location each ingredient came from and the emotions of the growers, etc. The special skill almost became tedious instead of illuminating.

My biggest complaint had to be the difficulty of trying to read through a book where conventional structure is thrown aside. The text of this novel fails to provide any quotation marks. Thus, the reader has to work extra hard to follow the tale because they must decipher where the quotation marks would have been.

Sadly, I doubt I would recommend this book. While the premise is interesting, it doesn't lead to any great insight or understanding of life or the world (apart from the fact that every family holds secrets and fully knowing the emotions of another, when those emotions are supposed to be veiled, is dangerous). Alas, I am suffering from the particular sadness of wasting time on a book that just didn't really deliver what it could have.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes

Point me in the direction of a teen book about England and I'm game. 13 Little Blue Envelopes, by Maureen Johnson, promised mystery and adventure in one of my favorite locations. This was the one riveting read that I actually completed while at CBLI. It did hold my attention, despite loads of implausible elements.

Seventeen year old Ginny has just received "13 little blue envelopes" from her spontaneous, irresponsible, wandering aunt. The same aunt who has recently died of cancer. Prior to her death, instead of creating her own bucket list (after all, she'd already done pretty much whatever she wanted to do whenever she wanted to do it), she has created a bucket list for her teenage niece, daughter of her ever-practical and reliable sister. Implausible, no? The solid sister would never allow her teenage daughter to wander England and Europe on a quest fabricated by the sister who would never settle down. Indeed, the spontaneous sister had actually disappeared without ever even informing them that she was ill. Hmmm. Even if you are spontaneous and have enormous wander lust, when one is sick, one generally wants to be near family, no?

Anyway, extending more than reasonable willful suspension of disbelief, the reader will discover that Ginny finds herself flying off on a grand adventure with a few established rules (from a non-rule oriented person): Ginny may only bring her backpack, no guidebooks or journals (???? - no journals, really? why?? why would an artistic, creative person not allow the creative, personal expression of a journal???) and no extra cash (again, why?). The whole adventure will be orchestrated by the free-flying Aunt Peg.

The first envelope provides ample cash for a ticket to London. The second envelope directs Ginny to a London flat where she meets Robert (a very solid individual who works at Harrods). The third instructs her to provide funds for a starving artist. Ginny ends up meeting a young playwright named Keith. With each envelope she opens she embarks on a new adventure and learns something about herself and her Aunt Peg.

It is a great premise and it truly was an interesting read, but somehow I still ended up with a not quite convinced taste in my mouth. Ginny was far too naive a character to have traveled across Europe with the only mishap being a lost backpack (containing the final letter - which leads to a second book apparently). Plus, too often the book read like a travel-log. I love reading about England and Europe, but wanted the story to be more convincing and more important than the descriptions of the travel.

For the average teen, this provides a delightful little read. For the individual who longs for arm-chair travel, it provides vicarious adventure. For me, I don't know if I will seek out the follow-up book, The 13th Letter.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Book Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Although I wrote several sheduled posts before leaving for CBLI, I failed to make any of them book reviews and now I find myself really behind the eight ball in trying to catch up with reviews for books I completed weeks ago. Thus for the brief synopsis of this fascinating second novel by Audrey Niffenegger (author of The Time Traveller's Wife), I merely copied the novel description from the Amazon listing:

"When Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer, she leaves her London apartment to her twin nieces, Julia and Valentina. These two American girls never met their English aunt, only knew that their mother, too, was a twin, and Elspeth her sister. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers--with seemingly little interest in college, finding jobs, or anything outside their cozy home in the suburbs of Chicago, and with an abnormally intense attachment to one another.

"The girls move to Elspeth's flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London. They come to know the building's other residents. There is Martin, a brilliant and charming crossword puzzle setter suffering from crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Marjike, Martin's devoted but trapped wife; and Robert, Elspeth's elusive lover, a scholar of the cemetery. As the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt's neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including--perhaps--their aunt, who can't seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.

"Niffenegger weaves a captivating story in Her Fearful Symmetry about love and identity, about secrets and sisterhood, and about the tenacity of life--even after death."

I was totally absorbed in this book while listening to the audio version of it. I couldn't wait for an excuse to drive off somewhere in my husband's car (my only vehicle CD access). In fact, one day I drove an hour for a book group that had been incorrectly advertised on a blog, but didn't mind the extra time at all because it was spent listening to this incredibly interesting story (I did mind the gas expense, however).

I was especially enthralled by Martin's character because he suffered severely with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. While my husband's OCD tendencies don't even come close to Martin's, it was interesting to observe the wife's reaction to the stresses of living with someone for whom everything must be done in a certain, specific way. Although I could have done without the attempt at romance between the teen twin and this aging deranged man, I am glad the author incorporated Martin and Marjike into the story (I would have never known the pronunciation for Marjike [mar-eye-ka] if I hadn't listened to the audio version).

I also enjoyed the locale of this story. I was privileged to visit Highgate Cemetery with my good friend, David Mitchell. It was an extraordinary visit and this book brought back those happy memories. Plus, the book mentioned Postman's Park, a favorite haunt of mine (near Little Britain Street) when I visited and lived in London. I have several photos in my scrapbooks of the small memorial plaques dedicated to individuals who gave their lives trying to save someone else (things like:

"Edward Morris, aged 10, drowned in the Grand Junction Canal trying to save his companion when they went swimming in the summer of 1897. David Selves, aged 12, died in Woolwich Reach "supporting his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms," September 1886. At 9 years old, William Fisher was the youngest: he died in Walworth in July1886 trying to save his little brother from being run over in the street." (taken from

The ghost story, with the element of communication with the trapped ghost of Elspeth, was highly intriguing. I think I could have been fine with the whole thing until the "Little Kitten of Death" was introduced.

Towards the end, I felt like the story line waxed a bit convoluted, but it was still interesting and full of surprises. I think I may have liked it better if there had been a different ending, since this one left a bad taste in my mouth, but I cannot think of how it could have ended differently.

It is, without a doubt, a riveting read. I will happily open another Niffenegger book if she writes one. She has a great ability for asking the what if questions that stretch life as we know it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Review: Man Walks Into a Room

I found myself waiting in the library a few weeks back while Trevor attended a Science show. To kill the time, I picked up a book magazine (I know it wasn't "Book Page" but cannot remember the name). I wanted to find a really riveting book to take along to CBLI (our annual ten day Bible camp). Nicole Krauss' Man Walks into a Room sounded like it fit the bill. However, I didn't wait until camp to read it.

The first half, while interesting was a bit plodding. It tells the tale of Samson Greene, an English professor who turns up in the desert, caught in the throes of amnesia from the pressure of a brain tumor. Once the tumor is removed, Samson awakens with only the memories of his first 12 years. His entire adult life is unknown to him, yet he must return to his wife, his job, his associations as if he understood them all. This what-if question elicits plenty of fodder for thought.

It focuses on the idea of memories, asking whether they are a blessing or a curse. At one point, the main character says of Dr. Ray Malcolm's extravagant house which he holds onto because of the memories it holds : "Seems like maybe it's a burden to keep." (both the house and the memories).

As Samson continues to interact with Dr. Ray Malcolm (for an experiment in the possibility of transferring memories from one brain to another) he examines the idea that man can harness some power, but then watch it used for evil instead of good, as happens time and time again. As I read, I felt very connected to Samson. I wanted to know what image, what memory, would be transferred to Samson's consciousness from the mind of someone else.

Although it would be a blessing to share the good in someone else's memory (to be able to witness a loved one's entrance into the world when say, you were far away, in the military), what grace that we cannot fully share the evil in someone else's mind.

Krauss manages to nail key aspects of the human longing for connection, as well as the incredible resilience people often demonstrate in the face of tragic loss. She writes (through the narrator):

"When you're young, you think it's going to be solved by love. But it never is. Being close - as close as you can get - to another person only makes clear the impassable distance between you.... You fall in love, it's intoxicating, and for a little while you feel like you've actually become one with the other person. Merged souls, and so on. You think you'll never be lonely again. Only it doesn't last and soon you realize you can only get so close, and you end up brutally disappointed, more alone than ever, because the illusion - the hope you'd held on to all those years - has been shattered.... But see, the incredible thing about people is that we forget ... time passes and somehow the hope creeps back and sooner or later someone else comes along and we thing this is the one. And the whole thing starts all over again. We go through our lives like that, and either we just accept the lesser relationship - it may not be total understanding, but it's pretty good - or we keep trying for the perfect union, trying and failing, leaving behind us a trail of broken hearts, our own included. In the end, we die as alone as we were born, having struggled to understand others, to make ourselves understood, but having failed in what we once imagined was possible."

Later, she writes of the horrific experiment:

"No matter how great the desire to be understood, the mind cannot abide any presence but its own. To enter another's consciousness and stake a flag there was to break the law of absolute solitude on which that consciousness depends. It was to threaten, and perhaps irrevocably damage, the essential remoteness of the self. This transgression was unforgivable."

Thus, our consciousness is the very thing that keeps us separate from another, yet this separation is actually quite necessary and beneficial. It is interesting to contemplate how I might respond to the loss of all memory apart from my childhood memories.

Apart from some raunchy talk in spots, I found the book to be quite interesting. It raises questions worth thinking about. It would especially appeal to male readership, I believe. It is a quick read, yet will leave you thinking for a good while after.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mystery Solved, Heirloom Uncovered

Sixteen years ago, I created a counted cross stitch picture as a memorial to the baby I miscarried. I remembered taking it along in my purse to a store to purchase a suitable mat for the frame I had selected. That is all I remembered.

For years, I have wondered what ever happened to the cross stitch I had worked so diligently on. It wasn't just any old cross-stitch. It held tremendous meaning for me. I was so crushed that I couldn't find it.

Then, this weekend, I went down into our basement to root around in our storage boxes for a suitable frame for the Thomas Kincaid print I purchased last week at the thrift. There were several frames in a box full of decorations I used to have up in our older apartments (from when we were first married). We moved to a small house when Bryce was one and I guess it just felt very temporary. Plus, there wasn't much wall room for decorations. So, this box has been in storage for fourteen years.

Here is what I found:

When I pulled it out, I had to say "Awwww!" I was super thrilled to know that I didn't lose it in a store (apparently something was up with my memory skills even back then because I didn't even remember framing it). Since I didn't include a last name on it, I had always assumed that even if someone had found it, they would have been unable to identify the owner.

I am overjoyed. I showed it to the boys. They know all about my baby Colin. Now this memorial can be displayed again.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

CBLI Part Two - Rippin' Zip Line Fun

My least favorite part of CBLI this year? On Friday night, during the lengthy Kid's Night program, I had to have Sean with me throughout. He isn't very patient, so I pulled out my brand new I-Pod Touch (birthday gift at the end of May). It was a god-send because he played games quietly throughout the meeting. However, on the way out the door (I should have taken it from him the minute we left our seats), he dropped it on the pavement. Yikes! The screen shattered:

I was heartbroken. When I returned home, I searched I-Pod Touch on E-bay and felt much better when I saw one that looked like it had been dropped from a twenty story building. Somehow another's pain eases and minimizes our own.

That was one minor setback in an otherwise enjoyable camp experience.

I believe our absolute favorite free time activity this year was undoubtedly ... the zip line. Our friends, Laura and Annie, who roomed across the hall from us in Sandpiper convinced us to go:

It was the perfect year to give it a try and we loved it so much we went back day after day after day.

It is composed of a tall wooden structure about 40 feet tall:

We climbed the stairs, tightened on our harnesses and waved goodbye before jumping off a tiny platform extended out over the ground (truly, this was the worst part for us timid folks ... however, both of my boys just walked right off the edge without lingering).

Here's Trevor riding upside down:

And Sean "the Fearless One":

Even I rode the zip line. I figured, if I'm ever going to do it, I'd better attempt it now, while I'm still in my mid-forties!

Here's a brief video of Trevor:

And one of Sean:

The boys also decided to try the "Giant Swing." There was no way in the world I was trying that. You have to sit suspended over the ground and then scooch your rear end off to swing down violently.

Here's Trevor doing it:

And, not to be outdone, Sean, of course:

As I said, we were there almost daily!

It was a wonderful week of memorable fun. Then, we were privileged to see something unusual on the drive home when we saw this castle near Harvard, Illinois:

Looking forward to CBLI 2012 already!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Our CBLI Experience - Part One

Prior to leaving for CBLI (Central Bible Leadership Institute), we had five days of peaceful quiet. Trevor spent from Sunday through Thursday at his grandmother's house. It seems horrible to say, but all of us enjoyed the quiet. I accomplished so much more than usual. Bryce and Sean spent loads of time cuddled in with each other on the couch or bed playing with I-Pods.

Amazingly, Grandma said that Trevor was as good as gold. The moment we arrived (Thursday night), he began showing off for his brothers. It was good to know that he behaved for Grandma, but it sure would be nice if we had a bit less attention seeking here in our home. Ha!

We spent the night there Thursday and then headed for CBLI on Friday morning. Before we left, Trevor showed us the helmet and knife Grandpa used during World War II:

He also presented Sean with some gifts that Grandma allowed him to buy: a necklace (broken within an hour - sob,sob) and this "adorable" shirt (?).

We were placed in Sandpiper cabin again this year, which meant a huge walk up a steep hill several times each day. It also meant no Internet access. However, the real plus to Sandpiper is the close proximity to friends and a lounge to watch movies in (I watched "A Beautiful Mind" in the evening while the boys slept) and play. Of course, there's always the hallway, too:

The boys were really pleased with their classes. Trevor's kid's track featured loads of exploratory science experiments. They made slime, dropped eggs from a tall ladder (attempting to avoid breaking), decorated a t-shirt, and investigated owl pellets (yuck). He also loved the daily trips to the pool.

Sean's 4s and 5s class studied bugs and God's creation. Sean even was able to hold a tarantula, with no squeamishness at all. At the end of camp, they always present a video about what has gone on in the small children's classes. This year they asked the fours and fives questions designed to get "kids-say-the-darnedest-things" kind of responses. Sean delivered when he answered their question of who the Commissioner is. When asked what he wants to be when he grows up? Tall! You can view this here It is a short, five minute video.

The boys also enjoyed the carnival on Wednesday. They played games and had their faces/arms painted. With tickets won at the games, they were able to buy some cool prizes (like a Paper Jamz guitar, Hot Wheels cars, etc.).

As for me, perhaps I was just in the right place for things to mesh, but I would say this was the most productive year for me, spiritually, in a long time. I appreciated Commissioner Ken Baillie's instruction during the Bible Study time (didn't miss one - a first). Plus, I really gained a lot from Linda Himes' class on Titus. It was a precept class. Generally, I find this method of study quite tedious with all the focus on individual words and the circling and underlining and noting. However, when it comes to Linda Himes' classes, she always manages to bring us around by the final class to a place where the whole thing gels into a complete picture. For me, I liken it to a painter, painstakingly making little dots on a canvas, until in the end it reveals a bigger picture that is beautiful and uplifting. More than anything, I believe these two classes stirred within me a passionate desire to get back into the Word of God more fully (and more daily).

I was also thrilled with the leadership of Major Steve Yoder. From the outset of the first evening meeting, he did a fabulous job of making everyone feel welcome and included. After getting things off the ground, Linda Himes led us in a massive game of Bunco (new for me). Even though it was a bit intimidating at first, it provided a wonderful ice-breaker so that we left feeling we had made connections with the other adults at camp. Usually, it takes me about three days to feel a sense of belonging at CBLI. This year, Steve and Linda produced that feeling by the end of the welcome meeting.

But my favorite day of all was the second Friday. On that day, one of my married friends, Tom and Cheryl, offered inclusion in a Ladies Day Out. Tom took on numerous children (ten to twelve, I'm guessing) and supervised them (with the help of the lifeguards) at the pool, while us ladies went into Antioch, Illinois.

We began our time at a delightful ice cream shop, then posed for a funny photo in front of the tattoo parlor (humorous because some of us are Salvation Army officers), then investigated an interesting jewelry shop (bedecked with posed mannequins that made me slightly uncomfortable - ha) and rounded out our time at the local thrift shop (where I found an educational insect game, three workbooks, a Thomas Kincaid print and a frame - all for about $6). This is the kind of thing that I just don't get enough of these days and I thanked Tom and Cheryl profusely!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lessons from the Smitten Kitchen

I love the Smitten Kitchen blog. Even though I'm not one to spend loads of time in the kitchen myself, I adore bringing up her beautiful posts, chock full of pictures that make me salivate and wish I were more domestic. I will often find myself making a mental note to come back and try one of her recipes.

So, I finally did it. Only, I didn't exactly do it well. I attempted to make her Whole-Wheat Raspberry Ricotta Scones.

For starters, I didn't copy the recipe or take it with me when I went to the store. Thus, I remembered to purchase raspberries and ricotta, but failed to pick up any heavy cream (I had to google that to discover that it was half and half - it was always just called heavy cream when I purchased it in England). Alas, I had no half and half.

I googled substitutions for heavy cream and came up with something suggesting heating milk and butter together. The only time I buy butter is when I plan to bake Christmas cookies. So, I had no butter, either.

In my very own slip-shod fashion, I threw the recipe together, taking every short-cut imaginable. For the cream, I added a slightly smaller amount of 2 percent milk. Since I had no pastry blender, I used a fork (couldn't be bothered with slowly chopping a knife through the mix).

I also couldn't be bothered with rolling the darn thing out, so I just plopped it on my foil lined pan and pressed it down into a circular shape (she made a rectangle). She cut them into nine pieces. I cut mine into eight pie wedges.

I popped it in the oven and waited. The house began to smell deliriously yummy! The raspberry wafted all around our heads. My children even noticed it and asked what I was making.

When it came time to remove the scone from the oven, I began to see the error of my ways. While she had separated the small square pieces (allowing them to bake more thoroughly), I had left it all in a lump and the middle was not done, but the edges were beginning to look slightly burnt.

Still, I must say, it looked stunning when I finally pulled it out. The piece on my plate next to my cup of coffee beckoned me as soon as it had cooled.

Sadly, the thing was as dry as sawdust. Plus, the berries (I should have remembered that I don't care for raspberries for this very reason) were so gritty that little particles remained in my teeth.

I have eaten two wedges. The rest is wrapped in the freezer. I'm guessing it will take up residence there for a suitable amount of time (we'll pretend that it is sub-letting space in the freezer) and will eventually be tossed in the trash or fed to the birds. Hey, now there's a suitable end for it. It must be destined for the birds.

Lessons: 1) Follow Smitten Kitchen's every step - she knows what she's doing (after all she tests these things in her kitchen often enough to get all those stunning photos). 2) Make sure all ingredients are accurate. (Would the thing have been more moist if I had used butter and cream???) 3) Not every food that looks amazing will end up tasting amazing (an awful lot like "don't judge a book by its cover," right?). 4) For a good laugh, view Smitten Kitchen's photography next to mine!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pics from Holiday World

I'm trying to schedule posts ahead of time to fill the time while we're gone at our 10 day Bible camp (CBLI). So, when I realized that I never posted any of my own photos of Holiday World, it seemed like the perfect filler (Grandma will enjoy these photos).

When we arrived at the hotel, the little boys claimed the hot tub and Bryce claimed the king size bed. Eventually, when they were toweled dry, Trevor and Sean ended up in the king bed with Bryce watching him play a game on the I-Pod. (Have I mentioned that I received an I-Pod Touch for my birthday? It has a camera option on it. Bryce has been bugging me to trade I-Pods now because he feels I would "do better on an I-Pod with less options to make mastery easier." Translation: "Yours goes faster than mine and has a camera, plus phone option, plus you can't even seem to figure anything out so I don't know why you won't give me your new birthday gift and take my old Generation 1 I-Pod Touch!!!!!")

These next pictures are really rather pathetic, but they do capture how hot the day was. You can see the sweat dripping off Trevor and Sean's hair. If they followed my blog (hee-hee, as if) they would be mortified that the only ride I bothered to take a photo of was the one lame kiddie ride I made them go on:

When we arrived home, the boys switched from I-Pod Touch to Playstation. I loved these two photos of Bryce and Sean cuddled up together playing the Spongebob Squarepants game together:

You can see that Sleepy Bear still holds a place of honor in Sean's heart. I don't plan on taking any action to stop that because it is so precious. Besides, I'm pretty sure he won't be taking Sleepy Bear to college, still sucking on those two beloved fingers. In the meantime, he remains my sweet-hearted baby.