Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review: Bloom

I remember being especially moved when I first discovered Kelle Hampton's blog back in the beginning of 2010.  I followed a link to her birth story for her daughter, Nella, who was born with Down Syndrome.  It was so beautifully written and full of raw emotion.  I also remember being completely perplexed when I happened upon some Kelle-Hampton-haters out there in the blogosphere.  These women had nothing but ill-will towards a woman who attempts to "find beauty in the unexpected."

This is the subtitle to Kelle Hampton's memoir, Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected.  Kelle Hampton has several things going for her (well, let's be honest, she has a whole heck of a lot going for her).  She is an excellent writer and an equally excellent photographer.  This memoir was beautifully compelling because of both the writing and the awesome photos.  In fact, those are the two reasons I continue to check in on Kelle's blog from time to time.

Bloom gives a more comprehensive telling to Kelle's life and the first year of her life with her unexpected and beautiful daughter.  I still think I prefer the birth story as found on her blog.  It is perfect.  I went back over and over to read it again and to listen to the perfect music she had paired with it (that track no longer plays in the background of her blog - but it was the essense of what she was writing and moved one just as much as the words).

The memoir is chock full of excellent photographs of this beautiful family.  The stories are riveting.  The lessons are inspirational.  It is a wonderful memoir and I'm thrilled that Kelle put the time into capturing this important story.  It will, no doubt, minister to many who walk in similar shoes.

Having said that, I hesitate to voice some of my negative sentiments towards the book.  I don't want to be a hater.  I don't want to say anything to detract from the lovely story of a woman who expected to give her daughter a close sibling relationship and wondered if that would be compromised by the presence of an extra chromosome.  She writes with honesty and that should be honored.

However, here are a few things that stand out in my mind when I contemplate this memoir: Life has not gone from "perfect" to "less than perfect" for this family.  They still have an abundance of blessings and thus, with countless blessings it is easy to find beauty and constantly view a glass as half-full.  Indeed, is it hard to see a glass half-full when in reality it is a glass full to almost a hair from the top?  This woman has so much.  She has a wonderful husband, two loving step-sons, two gorgeous daughters, a beautiful home with a pool in an idyllic part of the country (Naples, Florida), a wide circle of cherished friends who gather around and buoy her up whenever she is slightly down, talents that are above and beyond the norm, creativity ... the list could go on and on.  Why shouldn't she be able to find beauty?  There is beauty in abundance. 

I can sympathize with those women who state that she is a little too perfect for comfort.  When I read of someone's life, I want the good, the bad and the ugly because, frankly, all lives are full of good, bad and ugly.  It is just that Kelle's ugly never seems ugly enough.  Her blog is perfect.  Her photos are stunning.  Her following is wide. Even though imperfections are mentioned (she is supposedly a messy housekeeper with clutter that probably rivals my own), the photos and words present too pristine an image.  I think that is what some women find unnerving.

Enough negativity.  The book is well worth the time spent reading it.  It is a human story worth telling.  It is full of raw emotion and a fair amount of frivolity (perhaps too fair an amount of alcohol intake).  It is one woman's journey to acceptance and love for the child she didn't expect to have.  She has come around to seeing this beautiful baby for the blessing she is.  She is, indeed, able to find beauty in the unexpected.  And so should we! 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Review: Talking Back to Facebook

The cover says it all for this book by James P. Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media.  Titled, Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age, this book addresses a myriad of questions parents might have.  "Will TV corrupt my toddler?  Should I ban violent video games? Who is my child texting all the time? Did the Internet give my kid ADHD? When should kids get on Facebook? and Does privacy exist for kids online?"

I found this book disturbing.  I know I should already be aware of the dangers outlined in the book (Bryce kept saying 'Duh' when I would mention another fact gleaned from the book about technology and the tracking of our every click), but reading about them really filled me with apprehension and a desire to disengage from digital devices.  I'm not all that technologically savvy, but I do have a Facebook account and a blog.  As Steyer points out, I'm leaving a digital trail for both myself and my children.  That is what I find scary.

Everything I post puts me out there on the web for all to see.  I know that, but the magnitude of that reality really hit me while reading this book.  It almost made me want to stop writing my blog.  Basically, anyone can know quite a bit about me just from reading my blog posts.  Of course, I did remind myself that apart from one stalker (from Allendale, Michigan??? who are you and why do you open my blog every couple of hours?), not many individuals are interested in knowing more about me.  Most of my hits come from people searching for a book review.  But still, I do post photos of my children and I am creating a digital fingerprint for them often without giving it enough thought. It is hard to balance the desire for readership and documentation of a life that is speeding by with the desire to maintain privacy.

Steyer outlines three major pitfalls relating to kids' use of the all-encompassing web: relationship issues, attention/addiction problems and the lack of privacy.  It was the lack of privacy that hit home with me most significantly.  I don't want my children to be tracked for their every consumer-related click.  I don't want them to be targeted simply for their spending capacities.  I don't want information about their political views and religious perspectives to be documented and one day used against them.

We are already fighting the battle of keeping our children off the computer and limiting their screen time (an extremely difficult discipline to follow and we seldom manage to limit it to two hours a day as Steyer suggests).  I recognized every danger highlighted in this book.  These dangers applied to both myself and my children.

Thankfully, the book also included a section of common sense advice for parents, broken down by age group and addressing common questions for each stage.  Moreover, the book didn't lionize technology as completely evil, but realistically addressed some of the issues which have arisen as we have made rapid advancements in this area.  It is difficult for parents to keep abreast of new technology and even to know how to confront the completely new dilemmas technology poses today.

It seems every day this world is looming with more dangers.  Government and social networking organizations continue to head towards the direction of the Big Brother society.  My husband was telling me about the genetically-modified corn which is being used in many of our food products despite full knowledge that rats tested are developing large cancerous tumors.  The bottom line is more important than the privacy or health of individuals.  All of this is scary.  Maintaining a healthy life in today's world requires both knowledge and diligence. Hopefully, this book has made me more aware of pitfalls and dangers in the digital world, so that I can take every step available to safeguard myself and my children.  .

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: A Tale of Two Cities

For this month's fare, my book club selected Charles Dickens' classic, A Tale of Two Cities.  I was thrilled, since I have been such an intense Dickens-lover in the past.  From the time I was in high school, through college and graduate school, I researched Charles Dickens' life and works and wrote countless papers focused on Dickens.  After going on the Wheaton-in-England program, I even prepared a tour guide to cover the various locations in England associated with Dickens and his writing (wonder if any use was ever made of it).

Yet, I found the re-reading of this book to be hard-going.  I suppose I am too used to modern writing and the popular fiction of the day.  It was work to follow the words and get at the heart of what Dickens was trying to communicate.  The first fifty pages made me wonder how I could have changed so because I really wasn't enjoying it at all.

Thankfully, the further I read, the closer I got to those old sentiments (although, I will admit, I never got back to the full-out love I used to hold for this writer).  Having finished the book, I can see again why his works were so appealing.  Dickens is a master at weaving together various characters and wrapping them all up into a neat little package in the end.  This is something Maeve Binchy also mastered (I was sad to discover recently that she has passed away and we will no longer be able to look forward to further novels chock full of Irish characters and intensely vivid settings from her hand).

He is also a master at social commentary.  He took the ills of society and portrayed them fully enough to cause a reader to think about what should be done to rectify these situations (whether it be rote-learning in education, long drawn-out legal cases, or revolutions where the revolutionaries become as despicable as those they are revolting against).

If you haven't ever read A Tale of Two Cities, I would encourage you to read without giving up because once you are fully drawn into the story and the characters, you will not regret slogging along to get to the gold.  The book tells the story of two men, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, who both love the same woman, Lucie Manette.  It is set in two cities, London and Paris, during the time of the French Revolution. At the beginning of the tale, we are introduced to Doctor Manette who is "recalled to life," after a lengthy imprisonment in the Bastille.  By the end, we are introduced to an even larger concept of resurrection and redemption.

Of course, the novel is best known for it's two famous passages at the beginning and end of the book.  Both of these passages show an intense dichotomy and both stir immense feeling in the reader.  The first sentence: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity ...."  And the final sentence of Sydney Carton's: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."

There were images I could easily recall from when I read the book almost thirty years ago: the wine spilling like blood in the beginning of the book, the women of the French Revolution knitting away while heads are chopped off by La Guillotine, Madame Defarge knitting in the names of those she deems deserving of La Guillotine, and the final moments of heroic sacrifice.  This is evidence of the book's enduring qualities.  So, even though the language is old and sometimes difficult to follow, the story is timeless and beautiful and well worth the work involved.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Gift of Time

There has been a dramatic shift in my life in the past few months.  Anyone who has had more than one small child in their home, knows how hectic life can be when you are faced with the mothering duties of tending to several or many small children.  I cannot imagine how women function while caring for a whole slew of small children (say five children under the age of five).  I found two to be exhausting and all-consuming.

But, towards the middle of August, my last little one finally began all-day school.  Now, I find myself with a whole day spread out before me.  The house is quiet.  It is an absolutely amazing transformation.

I have been able to resume daily exercise.  Every morning, I get the boys off to school and then head to the track to walk laps.  This has been such a good thing for me.  It is beneficial to my health and my prayer life.  (The only thing I don't understand is why some people walk the track in the opposite direction of what I consider to be the natural flow ... this means I must pass them twice with each lap and sometimes they give a greeting or comment with each encounter, which detracts from my ability to focus my heart and mind on prayer.)

I am able to have morning quiet time, instead of squeezing it in at the end of the day when I am tired.  This is such a blessing.  When I am spiritually centered, I handle life's curve balls better.  And there have been curve balls slung in the last month or so: automatic windows on the car needing to be repaired; the garage door suddenly refusing to go up, requiring the replacement of both springs on the door; Sean locking us out of the house one Saturday morning, resulting in the fee of a locksmith; and another boy, who shall remain nameless, leaving the refrigerator door open overnight, causing the loss of food and a thoroughly cleaned out fridge.

But, best of all, I am relishing the ample time for writing.  I have been hard at work trying to finish my third young adult novel.  In addition to the writing, I have been doing research into possible agents to pitch my work to, with the hopes of finally getting published.  This means the honing of the first three chapters, writing queries and composing a synopsis for each book.  It is all a bit overwhelming, but thrilling at the same time.

I am grateful for this gift of time.  I recognize the blessing and pray daily that I will use my time wisely and to good purpose.  I kind of thought I would accomplish more in terms of keeping the house clean, but for now, the writing is my primary focus and I'm content.  I don't know how long this gift of time will be available to me, so I want to appreciate it fully and make the most of it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Review: Cosmic

This is a book I will definitely return to.  It is recommended for listeners (an audio-book, obviously) ages 8 to 12.  I know that my two younger sons will enjoy this in a few years.  Trevor, being almost 8, is ready, but I want to wait until Sean's attention span is a bit longer (the book was almost 8 hours long).  Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this listening experience.

In Frank Cottrell Boyce's book, Cosmic, Liam is a boy who, at the age of twelve, already looks like an adult, thanks to his height and some early facial hair.  This leads to all kinds of interesting mishaps, like when a new principal mistakes him for a teacher and when a car salesman almost lets him drive off in a Porsche.  Since he's always being taken for a grown-up, Liam decides to take the trick to the next level (he's a big fan of the "World of Warcraft" game) and enters a contest to win the "Best Dad in the World" title.  The prize is supposed to be a ride on the most awesome new thrill ride to be invented.  What he doesn't know is that this ride will take him to space and he will be expected to act like a grown-up through the whole encounter.

Liam is truly stuck between two worlds - earth and outer space, childhood and adulthood.  There were so many laugh-out-loud moments.  At one point, I found myself replaying one section over and over again to hear Liam's co-hort, Florida Kirby, say "No, no, no, no" when he proposes driving a car because he's "the dad." 

Full of genuine pre-teen insights, this book is sure to appeal to both boys and girls and was even fun for me, a grown-up.  When the final sentences were read, I felt that wonderful glow one gets when a book has caused them to think in the middle of an enjoyable romp of a tale.  It made me appreciate both childhood and adulthood more (especially the importance of dads) and gave me a good many laughs.  I highly recommend this book and the audio version, read deliciously by Kirby Heyborne (who did an amazing job switching between a multitude of voices - although I didn't understand why Dr. Dracs [sp?], who is Asian, didn't have a more Asian accent).  I can't wait to read another book by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Jeffrey Hatcher's Adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde

(Image taken from Wikipedia)

Last night, I braved the traffic of downtown Indianapolis on my own as I headed to the Indiana Repertory Theatre's presentation of Jeffery Hatcher's adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde."  Despite my apprehensions (I don't like to drive in unfamiliar territory or by myself in the evening), I managed to make it smoothly into the Sun Garage (the cheapest parking option, within the Circle Center Mall - only $1.50 for the evening ... can't be beat) and across the street in time to not only claim my ticket but also hear the prologue presentation.

During the prologue, I was delighted to learn previously unknown facts about Robert Louis Stevenson.  I hadn't realized that he fell in love with an Indianapolis-born, married woman, named Fanny Osbourne, who was living in France.  When he followed her back to the States (waiting for her to divorce her husband), he ended up "penniless, depressed, and near death ... [and] got lost near Monterey, California, where two ranchers nursed him back to health." (Taken from the playbill.) Interesting! 

It seems Fanny was seminal to his success as she nursed him, protected him from taxing visits from friends, and served as his chief editor.  I believe they stated that Stevenson wrote "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" over the space of three days and when Fanny read his manuscript she claimed that he nailed the horror aspect but failed in the moral instruction department.  Thus, he tossed the manuscript in the fire and rewrote it in another three days, producing the book, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as we now know it.  Amazing!

Sadly, I also learned that he died at the young age of 44.  He had always suffered from lung issues and was a smoker.  Just think of all the further writing he could have produced!

The IRT's production was well done.  I appreciated the stage design, where characters appeared from above, below, and the sides.  The actors did a superb job.  I thought Hatcher's decision to use four characters to represent Hyde was intriguing and well-executed.  At one point, all four Hydes are reverberating in the brain of Dr. Jekyll quite effectively.

Although there were bits that were a tad raunchy (remarking over the private parts of the deceased body of a prostitute), I thought that Hatcher's adaptation did present well the general theme of the good and evil which resides in us all.  The audience certainly came away with plenty to think about.

I think I was most grateful for the humor presented in the adaptation.  There were several times when I laughed audibly at the jokes included in the script.  Without the humor, the story might have come off with a darker tone and feel.

On the whole, I enjoyed this production of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."  I failed to re-read the novel before attending (as I had done with the production of "Dracula"), but imagine that, as with movies, the book is always better than the play.  Still, for a night out at the theater, the IRT's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was a delightful experience.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book Review: The Uninvited Guests

I first heard of this book in a review on Swistle's blog.  I entered a blogging giveaway hoping to snag a copy of it, but alas, I didn't win.  Then, fate smiled on me and I found the book on the new requisitions shelf at our library.  How I love the library!

This was a moderately enjoyable read.  Set in the Edwardian era, the Torrington family is preparing to celebrate Emerald Torrington's twentieth birthday with a dinner party that evening.  Unfortunately, a near-by train derails and a motley band of disheveled rail passengers show up seeking temporary shelter.  When a more refined (first-class) passenger turns up as well, Emerald's brother decides to invite him to the dinner party.  Amidst the chaos of birthday dinner plans gone awry, this new interloper brings a whole new level of discomfort to the band of party revelers.  Add in an additional twist of the youngest daughter's decision to bring a pony into the house, to pose for a portrait, and you have a regular comedy of errors.

The story itself was fun and faithful to the era.  There were only a few aspects which left me confused.  Towards the end of the book, the author suddenly includes a wild, sexual romp between a member of the serving staff and a member of the dinner party.  This seemed incongruous.  Not only was it unnecessary to the story line, it didn't seem to fit with the characters themselves.  The man is interested in Emerald and the housekeeper is Emerald's mother's age.  He is already mortified by his continued presence in the house.  I believe he just wanted to get out, not to romp and carry on with a member of the serving class.  My opinion only.  Indeed, a total of three couples pair up right at the end of the book.  Hmm.

Plus, there were a few minor details that didn't seem to add up for me.  One was that the youngest daughter left her locked room via the roof, yet they enter the room with no difficulty later in the story.  Also, she re-enters the house through her mother's bedroom window, into a rather unbelievable conflict.  Furthermore, if the interloper left through the window, it didn't seem to add up to me that he would make another appearance under the mud on the stairs.  These are just questions that loomed in my mind as I read.  In addition, all the loose ends were tied up a bit too neatly.

If you are interested in British fiction set in the Edwardian era, you might enjoy this romp of a tale.  Despite my questions about details in the novel, I did somewhat enjoy this read.  The cover of the book was also a perfect touch to match the story, giving the feel of an Edwardian tale.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Book Review: The House I Loved

I don't remember where I heard about the Tatiana deRosnay's book, Sarah's Key.  I know I saw it once in Target and considered buying it (a rare thing, when I think I can secure a book from the library).  The story sounded interesting and I know that some other blogger plugged it, I just cannot remember who it was.

So, a few months ago, I found the DVD of the movie, Sarah's Key, available at our library and brought it home to watch.  First, I watched it alone and cried through it, loving every minute of the beautifully, sad story.  Then, I convinced my husband to watch it with me and he loved it just as much as I did.  I highly recommend the movie.  It caught you from the beginning and held you all the way along.

Thus, when I noticed The House I Loved, another book by deRosnay, I jumped at the chance to read it.  I cannot say that I appreciated it nearly as much as the movie version of the author's other book.

It tells the story of Rose Bazelet and her deep and abiding connection to her house, which is about to be torn down for the development of a new road system in Paris.  It is meant to be suspenseful, but the book took so long getting to the secret buried in the walls, that the secret ended up feeling anticlimactic and even a bit disjointed (the secret, in my opinion, would have lessened her connection to the house, rather than strengthened her resolve to remain in the house).

I suppose if you are a lover of all things Parisian, you would find enjoyment in this book.  It paints a picture of Paris in the 1860's.  I'm sure it was a troubling time for home-owners who suddenly found themselves expropriated out of their homes, the very canvas of their lives being altered around them. 

I can sympathize with their plight, but I just couldn't get connected enough to care all that much.  I kept wondering how many more pages it was going to take before we learned something other than her endless pining for her deceased husband and son and her affection for "the house".  At page 50, and then at page 100, I still held no more clues about the supposed secret.  Only something about an intruder, vaguely mentioned from time to time with the words "I cannot bear to speak of it yet."  By the time the secret was revealed, it was not only expected, but it seemed an unlikely thing to keep from someone who is supposedly your deepest love.

Anyway, I was not terribly impressed with this book.  I do think I would be willing to read Sarah's Key because I'm thinking the author probably did a much better job with that book.  If you haven't seen the movie, it is most definitely worth your time.  So, kudos to Tatiana deRosnay, even if I didn't particularly care for this book.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How I Hate Cleaning House!

My mother-in-law is coming for a visit.  She is coming to watch Bryce play football on Friday night, but will be here Thursday through Sunday.  This means I must spend today, not writing, not eating bon-bons and sipping coffee, but cleaning our whole house.  Of course, if I did a better job of this on a daily basis, the prospect wouldn't be so daunting, but gosh how I hate cleaning the house.

I can remember a time when I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment when something went from dirty to clean.  I remember visiting my husband's younger brother, Rob, and spending a good twenty minutes cleaning his coffee maker because it was just too dirty for me to look at.  Of course, this gave my husband the impression that I was a keeper.

Somehow, that feeling of accomplishment never comes anymore.  The cleaning is just something that has to be done and is then destroyed before it can even be appreciated.  Plus, who really appreciates it, besides my husband?  My sons are perfectly happy to live with the clutter, toys and books strewn around them.  When it gets to me, I pick up.  But, when I HAVE to clean the house, it feels like such pointless work to me.

Granted, one must remember that I am living in a house which belongs to my mother-in-law.  Thus, when she visits, she is perfectly entitled to expect that it is being cared for in a much more effective way than I usually muster.  She is quite vocal about the fact that we have "too many things."  So, when she comes, I have to scramble to find a place to hide those numerous things.  Then, after hiding them, I forget where I put them.  So when that important paper for school (right now it is the annoying one-time-fundraiser form for PTA where they are expecting every student to send in at least 15 different addresses to as many different states as possible to send a walk-a-thon form to - this is another rant, in and of itself, because the person on the receiving end gets absolutely nothing for their involvement and yet our PTA has pinned all of its hopes on this one fund-raiser for the year, even making you feel guilty because each fund-raising packet cost the school $1.50 - and I hate the idea of petitioning my friends and relatives to give money to a cause they feel no sense of connection to.  And this is only the beginning, because Trevor just joined the Cub Scouts.  Ay-yi-yi!) is due to be turned in, I will be at a total loss as to where I hid the stack of papers it was once in.  If I could keep my stack, I'd know exactly where things were.

Alas, this problem is not going to go away.  I must face it head-on. I must stop my blog-whining and get down to work this morning.  Who knows?  Maybe I'll be able to keep it looking spiffy for the three hours between when my kids get home from school and when my hubby gets home from work, so at least he'll be impressed, even if my mother-in-law isn't.  And hey, at least I no longer have a dog underfoot.  That eliminates the endless problem of dog-hairs!  So things aren't really as bad as they seem, are they?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: Uglies

One of the characters in my unfinished novel is absorbed in a popular teen book.  At the moment, I still don't know what that novel is.  I want it to be pertinent to the story as a whole, but when I look back at my own young adult reading, I can't really remember a novel which would fit.  So, I googled top teen reads of 2005 (the approximate setting of my novel) and happened upon this title, Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld.  I don't think I realized it was the first in a trilogy.  Now, to find out how the story ends, I'm going to have to bite the bullet and read the follow-up novels, even though I don't think this is the novel my character gets engrossed in and I doubt I'm engrossed enough to want to go on.

Tally Youngblood is about to turn sixteen.  In her world, this marks the point where her life will truly begin, because in her world once you are sixteen you are given an operation which turns you pretty and the purpose of your life becomes one big party.  Sounds inviting, right?  Who wouldn't want to be pretty and fun?  Well, Tally's friend, Shay, for one.  Plus, there's a whole group of runaways who have chosen exile rather than undergo the operation which might change more than just your appearance.  Tally must decide which side she's on.  In fact, she's forced by the Special Circumstances unit to reveal Shay's location or remain an "ugly" for the rest of her life.

Although I can understand the appeal of this book for young readers, I found it a bit too convoluted.  The premise was interesting, but the execution was less so.  The characters didn't reel me in.  Plus, so much of it seemed unbelievable and inconsistencies bothered me (they keep saying that Tally is the only one to find the runaway hideout on her own, yet Shay left alone just a few weeks before Tally).  The idea that a whole society would consider themselves ugly unless fine-tuned with cosmetic surgery was a bit much for me to swallow. Still, I did find it somewhat compelling.  I read the whole thing in the space of a few days.  And, I felt disappointed that the loose ends weren't tied up more for the conclusion of this first installment.  At this point, I can't say whether I'll give the rest of the series a whirl or not, but I do know the character in my novel is not caught up in this particular book.