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.