Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: The Snow Child

Our library has recently begun sending out e-mails with information about their recent book purchases. I love this feature. You can discover a book you might like to read and then put your name on the hold list. It didn't take long for me to get my turn with this recently released book by Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child. I can see why the hold list is quickly vanishing. This book was hard to put down.

Set on the Alaskan frontier in the early 1900s, this magical tale tells the story of a couple, Jack and Mabel, who have moved to this isolated area to get away from the constant reminders of their childlessness. Still grieving a stillbirth, they begin the hard life of homesteading, often barely making ends meet. To lighten his wife's depression one night, Jack helps his wife craft a snow child. Jack carves a delicate face. Mabel provides a red hat and mittens. They adorn her with yellow straw hair. Mysteriously the next morning, the snow child is gone, with only a trail of footprints leading away from the mound of snow.

When Jack and Mabel both begin seeing a small blond girl out in the woods, they don't know what to think. Mabel remembers a Russian fairy tale her father had told of a childless couple who craft a snow child that comes to life. Neighbors believe the couple is merely suffering from delusions of cabin fever. The question remains: who is this child and how does she survive life in the wilderness and often leave blizzards in her wake?

This book will plunge you into the realistic world of Alaskan life alongside the fantastical world of magical longings and hopes. Eowyn Ivey's writing is beautifully lyrical. Here are two examples:

"All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across the cow pond and turned the water to light. Mabel could not remember the last time she caught such a flicker."

"No matter how she turned it over in her mind, Mabel always traced the child's footsteps back to the night she and Jack had shaped her from snow. Jack had etched her lips and eyes. Mabel had given her mittens and reddened her lips. That night the child was born to them of ice and snow and longing.

"What happened in that cold dark, when frost formed a halo in the child's straw hair and snowflake turned to flesh and bone? Was it the way the children's book showed, warmth spreading down through the cold, brow then cheeks, throat then lungs, warm flesh separating from snow and frozen earth? The exact science of one molecule transformed into another - that Mabel could not explain, but then again she couldn't explain how a fetus formed in the womb, cells becoming beating heart and hoping soul. She could not fathom the hexagonal miracle of snowflakes formed from clouds, crystallized fern and feather that tumble down to light on a coat sleeve, white stars melting even as they strike. How did such force and beauty come to be in something so small and fleeting and unknowable?

"You did not have to understand miracles to believe in them, and in fact Mabel had come to suspect the opposite. To believe, perhaps you had to cease looking for explanations and instead hold the little thing in your hands as long as you were able before it slipped away like water between your fingers."

This is just an example of the beauty of this novel. By the end, I was moved to tears. If you have ever longed for a child or lost a child, this novel is sure to move you, as well. It will transport you to a time and place you've never been.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Is it a Puddle or a Lake?

I thank God for blogging friends. My life currently isn't surrounded by other writers like it was back in DeKalb when I had my own writer's group. My writer's group buddies were always there for feedback and encouragement. They kept me going when I just wanted to stand still and stare at a blank page. Now, I have found fellow bloggers who slog through with me and, without even realizing it, provide me with the gumption and motivation I often lack.

Today, was a case in point. My blogging friend, Amy, provided this intensely insightful post which is resonating with me deeply. She is expressing the very things my heart and soul have been struggling with for the past several weeks.

Several weeks ago, I read a novel written by someone I know. It was self-published. I read the book as a critic. It was not above criticism. In fact, I dare say it probably would not have been published, as is, by an official publishing company. It held great promise, but had several weaknesses.

Those weaknesses began to plague me. I found myself awash in self-doubt. This writer obviously put forth his very best effort. I began to wonder if my own best efforts are rife with weaknesses that I am unable to see. I began to wonder if the time and effort I am pouring into my own writing is really of any value at all.

Essentially, I began to question my own talents and abilities. I had to ask myself if the waters of my writing talent are really a puddle or a lake. I know (having read a good many outstanding pieces of literature) that I am not near the power of a river or an ocean. But, I began to worry that my abilities are merely the size of a puddle. Instead of focusing on the what-ifs that motivate great story lines, I became obsessed with the what-if of my own talents. What if I only have the talent of a puddle and nothing ever comes of this life-long dream and investment? What if I write novel after novel and they only sit in file folders in piles around my house (because goodness knows, they wouldn't be in a filing cabinet where an organized writer would keep them)?

Talking about my writing is fun. The other night, at book group, I mentioned how thrilled I was to have completed the polished first draft of my second novel (now two out of three of my Nanowrimo efforts have gotten to the first draft stage). When I share with others the basis for the stories I have written, I feel energized and encouraged to plug on. But it is just talk. They nod their heads and make responses I take to be encouraging, but they haven't read a single line of my novels.

I recently sent off one of the novels to four individuals for feedback. I haven't heard anything back. That contributed to the puddle/lake question. I couldn't help but turn to thoughts like, "if they really liked it, they wouldn't be able to put it down and would have gotten back to me by now about the manuscript." (Even though I told each of them that they didn't need to get back to me right away.) Then, the self-doubt about unseen weaknesses took hold in full force. I mused, "perhaps, like me, they are afraid to express their honest response for fear of wounding my pride or something." In reality, they may not have even had time to pick it up and begin reading, but I'm standing here in the wings of the stage wondering what they think of the performance.

All this navel-gazing is exhausting. It has put me into a blue funk. The fear is immense. How does one keep walking (keep writing) when one is afraid of stumbling (failing)? A writer writes not just out of a need to put something down on paper, but with the genuine desire for a reader to respond to what has been written. I read voraciously. I couldn't possibly write with no glimmer of hope for my own writing. But, it is a deadly trap to get hung up on where the writing is leading.

As my life coach would say, "your only requirement is to show up." If what I write never amounts to a hill of beans, I still need to write it because that is what God wants me to do with the talent (puddle or lake) He's given. And maybe I have to write for a good long time before my writing is polished or good enough to warrant the favorable response of others. I must plug on, continue practicing, no matter the outcome. If I fail to pursue my dream, I will certainly fail. If I practice, I may one day have a song worth singing, a story worth telling, and the ability to sing/tell it.

So whether I'm swimming in the shallows or paddling through more, the important thing is to keep making strokes. It is easy to say this - easy to voice the thought that I will write and leave the results to God - not so easy to put pen to paper daily regardless of any reliable assessment of the swimming conditions. I have to fight the fear, fight the self-doubt and just bring forth the words God gives.

And for me, maybe my talent is more in encouraging other writers. When I look at the number of published authors in my old DeKalb writer's group, I smile. Those individuals had to have had moments of doubt, like me. Perhaps I played a role in reminding them to keep swimming, keep writing, regardless of assessment (or lack of assessment) of the conditions.

Amy has encouraged me. Believe me, her talent is an ocean compared to mine. Her willingness to share the self-doubt makes my own self-doubts easier to take. We may not know each other personally and we may not meet in a writer's group ever, but we can spur each other on to plug away with whatever talent we've been given and to let the chips fall where they may.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book Review: The Sibling Effect

I grew up in a family with four siblings. I would say we were very close while in our childhood years. I'm sure there was squabbling. I can remember moments where my parents would wonder aloud as to why we couldn't "just get along." Now, I watch those same moments in my own household between my boys.

I'm sure we have the normal amount of sibling fighting here, no more or less than other households. Still, the fighting does get to me and I have voiced my own pleas for more peace in our house. My greatest struggle is with the dynamics between the boys. Bryce, the oldest, tends to favor Sean, the youngest, leaving Trevor out or even outright ostracizing him. While I will concede that Trevor brings much of it on himself by being annoying, it still breaks my heart when they gang up on him.

I expected something different than what this book delivered. I went in hoping to glean some wisdom on dealing with sibling rivalry. This was not the book for finding that answer. It was part-memoir (telling the story of author, Jeffrey Kluger's, childhood in a family of four boys) and part-expose (sharing the findings of various studies on a wide variety of aspects of sibling relationships).

And even with that, I found myself disagreeing with many of the tid-bits of information. When discussing the influence of birth-order, it suggested that the eldest is often more timid of dangerous rides. Not so in my house! It also declared that the oldest is usually the smartest, since it began with more parental attention than the younger siblings. Not sure that is so in my house either!

I would say that all three of my boys are very bright, but if anything, the youngest shines out with greatest brilliance for early acquisition of knowledge. He knew his letters earlier. And his math skills are stunning (he can already understand the concept of negative numbers, at age five). The other day, I was sitting with him while he was taking a bath. Out of the blue he said, "So 3+3+3 is 9, +3 is 12, +3 is 15. Wow! That means I've been alive for more than 1500 days!" I was blown away. He clearly understood that there were over 300 days in a year and then calculated to see approximately how many days he had been living.

The book also suggested that parents often say of middle children, "they've never been a bit of trouble." I'd have to ask my parents whether they considered me to never be a bother, since I was dead middle of five. But, I can guarantee that comment would never be said of my middle boy. If anything, he provides the greatest trouble of them all.

My conclusion is that the birth order science is none too scientific. There are so many variables involved. I'm guessing many families would beg to differ with the findings cited.

Another area where I found myself shaking my head was a section on homosexuality. Research was claiming to have discovered variables of likelihood. For example, the more boys one has, the more likely you are to have a boy who "comes out." Not buying that one! It made me laugh even harder when it was suggested that the size of one's fingers or ear canal played a role in such tendencies.

The memoir elements were interesting enough, since the author had a chaotic upbringing, with divorce, remarriage, committing their mother for a prescription drug addiction, a brother's "coming out," step-siblings, half-siblings, being cut out of their father's will, etc. The story was interesting, it just didn't provide much in the way of suggestions for nurturing the strongest sibling relationships or combating triangulation (the official term for what happens in our house when the two boys gang up on the third).

So if you are looking for an interesting memoir about sibling relationships, this might fit the bill. But, if you are hoping for guidance in fostering good relations between your kids, then look elsewhere.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

I love the clever titles Alan Bradley has come up with for his Flavia de Luce series. This title, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, comes from a poem written by Sir Walter Raleigh to his son. It fits this novel well.

Eleven year old, Flavia, is thrust into a new mystery when a famous puppeteer comes to town. When he unexpectedly dies at the helm of his marionette, Flavia must deduce what brought him to town in the first place (the weed), what it has to do with the mysterious death of a neighbor's boy (found hanging from a gallows), and who is responsible for doing Rupert Porson in. Again, she amazingly stays one step ahead of the adult investigators.

Alan Bradley has certainly created an entertaining protagonist in this series. His mysteries move along at a good pace and include interesting tidbits of information about chemistry (Flavia's love). I have already checked out the third book in this series.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book Review: MWF Seeking BFF

In MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend, Rachel Bertsche writes of her difficulty in a new city (Chicago) without the friend base that she had always enjoyed back in New York. Of course, this book jumped out at me from the moment I heard about it, because I have experienced similar difficulties. Coming from a Chicago suburb (of sorts), I have found it very difficult to find even a friend here, let alone a best friend. Indeed, it was somewhat depressing reading the book because I kept thinking to myself, "Sister, if you think you've got it bad, you should be in your forties, in a town the size of a peanut, with small children to care for all day and no nearby family to lean on for child care."

Yes, Rachel's life is different than mine. She has a job. She lives in a vibrant, pulsing-with-life city. She is still quite young and untethered with wee ones. But, I should also say that Rachel IS different. Instead of just whining about her circumstances (she admits she did this for a while), she made a concerted, year-long effort to remedy the problem. She seized the bull by the horns, so to speak.

The book is full of all sorts of friendship facts (like the depressing statistics for declining health in the absence of a good friend base), quotes and insights. Of course, it is all woven around the story of her pursuit. She tried things I might not have been willing to try (like hiring a friend - hmm, not surprised that one didn't work out) and she shamelessly plugged her mission to fill her life with more and better friends.

I agree with her assessment that we women tend to feel ashamed to admit that we lack friends for fear of appearing to be a "loser" of sorts. I'm a pretty outgoing individual and it blows my mind that I could have lived anywhere for over five years and still not even have the name of a person to put on my kids' school forms for an emergency contact. Thankfully, we've had no emergencies because it would take an hour and a half for my mother-in-law (contact) to make it over here if I couldn't be reached. It would definitely be more healthy for all of us, if I were to make a friend.

Interestingly enough, just as I began reading this book, I received the first possible random extension of possible friendship. Like Rachel, I posted a profile on Girlfriends Social, a free social networking site that claims to assist in the matchmaking business. Sadly, for two years now, I've had not a single bite (in the form of a friendly note saying perhaps we should meet up). But, Rachel's book must be working some magic because I received a note from a woman who actually sounds normal and interesting and a mother-of-boys and even lives close enough that we could meet up with less than a half hour of travel time. Like Rachel, I'm feeling small glimmers of hope. Perhaps, we will form a bond and become friends.

What I did find hard to deal with was the terminology she used in the book, referring to the outings as girl-dates, etc. It wasn't that I don't see similarities to pursuing friendship and pursuing romance, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.

All in all, though, it was an interesting book and fun to eavesdrop on her process of making more friends. I obviously felt connected because I internally cheered when she located the wonderful friendship of Jillian (a real keeper). It gave me more courage to go out and pursue friendship and that's a good thing. It even took away some of the shame of admitting that I've lived somewhere for half a decade and still haven't located a single friend. (What would I do without my virtual friends in bloggy-land?) Thus, I give it two thumbs up.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Book Review: Hunger Games Series

What can I say that is new about this best-selling series? Of course, like everyone else, once I picked the books up, I could not put them down. I devoured all three books in the space of five days. They were definitely riveting.

In the first book, The Hunger Games, we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl who lives in the future, in a civilization born out of the ashes of North America. Now called Panem, there are 12 districts which all serve the main Capital. To keep these districts in line, once a year they are required to draw forth the names of one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the annual "hunger games," where they will fight until only one remains. When her younger sister Prim is called forth, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Thus begins a whirlwind adventure full of action, grief and romance. With plenty of philosophical messages about war and power in society, the book draws the reader along and provides plenty to think about.

I don't want to outline the second and third books, because to do so I would have to give away some of the mystery of the first book. Suffice it to say that you cannot go wrong choosing these books. I even mentioned them to Bryce, my ever-reluctant reader. Of course, his answer was that he will see the movie. No doubt I will, as well, hopefully with my book club (this was our March selection). Author Suzanne Collins has definitely earned the praises of many for these books!

I'm so thankful to my sister for giving us the books for Christmas. If you haven't seen the trailer for the upcoming movie version of The Hunger Games, click here. It will chill you to the bone, just watching the trailer!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Book Review: Bras & Broomsticks

I picked this book up merely because I was looking for a good book to listen to in the car on my long drive to book club. At the outset, I almost gave up before giving it a chance because I felt loathe to attempt another "magic" story. Boy, am I glad I didn't turn it off.

Bras & Broomsticks was absolutely delightful. First of all, Sarah Mlynowski has really captured an authentic teen voice for her main character, Rachel. The narration was funny and true and heart-warming, all at the same time. The metaphors and similes were fresh and humorous. I laughed out loud numerous times. Moreover, even though I could tell where the plot was leading, the climax both moved me to tears and had me rolling on the front seat with laughter. That's quite a feat!

The best description for this book would be a modern day retelling of "The Parent Trap," aimed at the nine to twelve age range. Imagine two sisters who are about to be forced to accept someone they have dubbed STB (step-monster-to-be). But, maybe they won't have to lie down and accept that fate because they have just learned that the younger sister, Miri, is a witch and has magical powers. Older sister, Rachel, can't imagine what harm could come from milking the situation for a chance at popularity, the ability to dance, the return of her best friend and the demise of her father's fateful decision to remarry. But, alas, magic, like life, has consequences both good and bad.

I loved this book. It was fresh and funny. I can't wait to read more of Sarah Mlynowski's books (there are sequels to this one). I'll be up for some more gut-wrenching laughter and heart-tugging tears.