Monday, September 30, 2013

Homecoming Festivities

Several weeks ago, we received the wonderful news that Bryce was nominated as a candidate for Homecoming King.  What an honor!  His biographical sketch was listed in the little booklet highlighting the high school royalty.  We were so proud.

Although he wasn't eventually selected as king, we still had a wonderful homecoming weekend.  Grandma came for a visit.  She enjoyed watching the game and spending lots of time with the little boys.

Sadly, on Friday morning, when I went to lace up my shoes for my morning walk, I twisted in some way and a painful spasm went up my back, triggering another spell of back-ache.  It was really discouraging because I knew I had a special role to play in Bryce's homecoming pep rally and I was mortified that I might embarrass him in some way.  I remembered mimicking my own father when he was laid low with a backache, waddling across to the car after him.  Now that I experience my own backaches, I understand fully the insensitivity of that.  So all Friday morning I waddled around praying that my back would ease up enough for me to walk normally at the pep rally.

Bryce knew I would be coming because I had signed on to help make sandwiches for the team in the afternoon.  I told him I would stick around for the pep rally to hear if he won the spot as Homecoming King.  But, really I was sticking around because I had been asked to participate in a little trick called "Kiss and Tell."

The senior football players were called out onto the track and asked to sit in chairs.  Then, the cheerleaders paraded in front of them and the boys were told they would don a blindfold and be asked to guess which cheerleader might have kissed them.  Once the blindfolds were on, the mothers of the seniors strode out to stand behind their player.  At the appointed moment, we kissed our sons and stood a pace behind them.  They pulled off their blindfolds and began to make their guesses, not even realizing we were standing behind them.  Bryce guessed that his date for prom kissed him.  Several of the other players all selected the same cheerleader, interestingly enough.  Plus, one young man declared that another football player's girlfriend kissed him.  Then, they were told to look behind them to see who really kissed them.  It was a wonderful ruse and so much fun.  Thanks to a generous dose of ibuprofen and a heat patch, I don't think I waddled too much when I walked over to stand behind him.  Besides, there were so many mothers, I doubt many eyes were trained on me and my inability to walk normally.

Saturday, thanks to Grandma's willingness to stay with the boys, John and I were able to get away for an evening.  We had a great time shopping (snagging many wonderful deals like: a brand new pair of jeans at Kohl's for $13, after using my $10 bucks and a 30% off coupon, and a new pair of designer sunglasses and a VanHuesen tie for John at Gordman's for only $11 each, thanks to another 20% off coupon).  We tried a new restaurant for dinner called "Chicago's Pizza."  We were hoping to purchase a deep dish spinach pizza but, alas, spinach is not on the menu of topping offerings.  If they really want to carry off the deep dish Chicago style pizza reputation, they must add spinach as a topping. Of course, they would still be hard-pressed to match a Giordano's deep dish stuffed spinach pizza!

Sunday we did a bit more shopping and then stopped by J.C. Penney's to pick up the portraits Bryce had taken a few weeks back.  The little boys had a photo session just five days after Bryce's so we were offered a fantastic deal of two 16x20 canvas portraits of Bryce and the boys for only $40.  We jumped on that deal.

After picking up the photos, we headed to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  I don't know why I never realized before that admission to the museum is free.  I guess I always drove by and thought, "maybe some day we'll go visit the museum."  I'm so glad we decided to end our get-away with this trip to the museum.  We had a wonderful time, enjoyed a fabulous meal in the café (spinach artichoke melts with multi-grain crackers and crème brulee for dessert), and began plotting to bring Trevor for a visit.  I'm sure he will love it, and if we can manage to get him there before the end of December, he can even enter a drawing contest held in a special Matisse room on the second floor of the museum (he'd love that).

All in all, it was a wonderful homecoming weekend for the whole family.  The little boys enjoyed reading to Grandma (well, Sean did, anyway - reading a whole chapter book called Lulu Walks the Dog), playing Monopoly with her on the computer, setting up Hot Wheels tracks all over the porch, and enjoying the treat of KFC for lunch, in our absence. Bryce's team slaughtered their opponent for the homecoming game and he enjoyed some extra time hanging with friends. Couldn't ask for a better weekend.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk

Ever since I read Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, and heard him read his lovely little story, The Blueberry Girl, I've been convinced that I'm a Neil Gaiman fan.  Now, I'm beginning to think, not so much.  After feeling disappointed with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I decided to give him another chance, this time with his new children's book, Fortunately, the Milk.  I wasn't very impressed with it.

In Fortunately, the Milk, a dad heads out the door to purchase a bit of milk so his children can have their breakfast cereal and he can have a spot of tea.  He tells a wild tale of encounters with aliens and time-travelling dinosaurs and what-not, which waylaid his return with the milk.  Fortunately, the milk saved him time and time again.  Thus, the title.  Although the title is interesting, the various difficulties he encountered weren't.  Both Sean and I found ourselves yawning through the escapades and plugging away to get to the end of the story.  We did read the whole book, but it was a stretch to say it was very interesting.  It just sort of fell flat for us.

Perhaps it doesn't with others, but I'm wondering why it garnered so many great reviews on Amazon. One publication declared that he "knocked it out of the park with this imaginative tale."  Really? We discovered that our library had billed it as a book for "Tweens" with that label on the spine of the book.  I doubt tweens would find it any more interesting than my six year old did.  It was all rather frivolous.  I'm not saying I've given up on Gaiman, but the last two books haven't encouraged me to seek him out more than any other author.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Review: When God Makes Lemonade

This is another book which you can read in spurts.  I read this over several nights for my bedtime reading.  It was highly inspirational and before I knew it, I'd read all 68 of the vignettes of God's amazing grace turning trials into triumphs.

Don Jacobson starts the collage of stories out with his own story of how God changed his life and occupational goals, leading him into the publishing industry.  He went out hunting alone one day and accidentally shot himself.  As he lay there, blood ebbing out of his body, he wondered whether anyone would find him in time to save his life.  Jacobson had been an avid outdoorsman and loved working with his hands outdoors in the construction industry.  When his life was saved, it became obvious that his career path in construction would no longer work.  Thus he turned his energies to working behind a desk in publishing and hasn't looked back.

In story after story, all true and all revealing the wondrous grace of God, the reader feasts on tales of tragedies with happy endings.  God, the great redeemer of all our pain, chooses to move in our trials to bring about blessing and fulfillment we previously couldn't have envisioned. As it says in the introduction, "If you're struggling beneath the weight of unemployment, depression, broken relationships, an unexpected death, or any of life's other difficulties, don't give up! ... you're not alone! ... stuff happens in life, but so does lemonade." God does, indeed, make lemonade out of the lemons life hands us and this book catalogs some of those stories to give the reader hope and perspective.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Book Review: Ghost Dog Secrets

I'm so happy to have run into another excellent book by Peg Kehret.  She does an awesome job of hooking her reader and keeping them turning the pages.  That is exactly what happened for us.  I originally planned to read this prior to attempting it with my boys, but when Sean saw the book was about a dog he asked me to read it out loud to him.  The first day he wouldn't let me stop reading until we got to page 78.  He was most definitely hooked!

Ghost Dog Secrets tells the story of a young sixth grade boy, Rusty Larson, who notices a dog chained up in a yard without food, water, or shelter.  He feels sorry for the dog and goes back to the house again to try to feed the dog.  Convinced that the dog is mistreated and neglected, Rusty contacts Animal Control to report it, but they request proof.  Thus he takes photos of the dog at the same time every day and documents the date on the photo. A ghost dog appears and begs him to intervene. When Rusty realizes that the owner is abusing the dog (probably kicking it or beating it with a bat), he decides to take matters into his own hands and takes the dog back to his fort.  From this point on, every page propels you into another as Rusty encounters Mean Man Myers (the owner) and fights to keep the dog.

While Trevor didn't listen to the whole book, he was listening with rapt attention when we reached the climax of the story.  Even my husband got sucked in. It was a nail-biter and we were super-concerned for Rusty's safety.  The supernatural elements of the book were tastefully done and not over-emphasized. It was a fabulous book and one I would highly recommend for boys or dog-lovers of any age.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Crazy Commercial

Another Facebook find, this commercial would seem to be a spoof, but it is real:

Kudos to this actress who creates a compelling character you cannot seem to look away from.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Book Review: Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder

This book was recommended to me by my mother.  When I discovered the first book in the series was available in audio format, I snatched it up. I know you can pick up any of these Hannah Swensen mysteries and read them out of order, but something always makes me want to start at the beginning.

In Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, we are introduced to the likeable sleuth, Hannah Swensen.  She is an independent woman who runs a local cookie shop in the small town of Lake Eden, Minnesota. Her brother-in-law is trying to earn the position of detective, so Hannah agrees to help him ferret out the killer of a local milk delivery man.  In the midst of her sleuthing, she must also fight off the dating schemes of her over-zealous mother, who is desperate to get her married off.

This was a light-hearted, well-done mystery.  The narrator repeatedly rehashes the clues as they add up, so that the reader feels like they are solving the mystery right alongside Hannah. There are the typical red herrings and a wide cast of possible suspects.  The pacing was perfect.

Best of all, the book includes seven interesting cookie recipes, complete with instructions for why you should do certain steps in the procedures.  Since I listened to the book in audio form, I doubt I will ever attempt to make any of the cookies she mentioned, but perhaps in one of the future books by Joanne Fluke, I'll select it in book form specifically so I can have the recipes to copy down.  I'm better at baking than cooking, so the recipes in her books have added appeal.  This was a delightful little book, or as one Amazon reviewer put it, this was a "sweet mystery."

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts

It has been many, many years since I read Erik Larson's fine book, The Devil in the White City, a remarkable retelling of some scary events in Chicago at the turn of the century.  Knowing this author does a fantastic job of bringing history to life, I was eager to see how I would like his tale of an American family in Hitler's Berlin (this was a book club selection). I was a bit worried about the length, because it seemed like a large book, but in reality it came in at less than four hundred pages, so not too bad to get through (and the writing propels you along very well, just like in the Chicago story).  Both books take on disturbing scenarios and dip the reader down into a world of turmoil and terror.  I can't agree with the New York Times assertion, "By far his best and most enthralling work of novelistic history." If I had to rank them, The Devil in the White City would win out over In the Garden of Beasts.  I found it to be a more gripping tale.

In this book, Larson follows the lives of the William Dodd family when Dodd accepts a position as the American Ambassador in Berlin.  The patriarch is an intellectual man, chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago, whose greatest desire is to complete a book of history on the Old South (he has been working on this for years without making much progress).  Mrs. Martha "Mattie" Dodd, ambitious on his behalf, urges him to take the position.  Their two grown children (in their early twenties), William Jr. and Martha, decide to accompany them and move to Germany as well.  (Never before have I encountered a couple who have named their two children after their own names - ha!) This sets the stage for a tale of adjustment and difficulty as this American family live out their lives in the setting of Hitler's Berlin.

Sadly, I'm at a loss for words to describe my experience with this book.  Wallowing in the tensions of Germany in those volatile years made for somewhat disturbing reading.  Indeed, the author himself says that researching this book really pulled him down due to the oppression of the period.  As many others have observed, Larson has a knack for making history read like a novel.  He does a fine job of reeling the reader in and placing them squarely in the setting of Berlin during a time of great change and difficulty.  The only sentence which stuck with me throughout, and pretty much summed up the key personalities of the era, was this one: "There is nobody among the officials of the National Socialist party who would not cheerfully cut the throat of every other official in order to further his own advancement."  It was that kind of world, filled with that kind of people.  What I find truly terrifying is the thought that, due to man's hubris and the common man's vulnerability, we could easily repeat this bad spell of history.

I will be interested to see where our discussion goes as we follow-up on this book club selection.  We seem to be stuck in a WWII mode, after reading The Book Thief last month and next month moving on to Unbroken.  I think I'll be happy to get to November, when we will discuss The Story of Beautiful Girl.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Cool Commercial

Saw this on a friend's Facebook status and had to share (To advertise the new "Touch Wood" mobile phone, Drill Inc. built a 144 foot xylophone in the middle of the forest, using only sustainably harvested wood.):

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Book Review: The Chance

If I'm going to seek out Christian fiction (not always the case with me - I'm usually on the lookout for what sounds like a good story, not a spiritual lesson), then Karen Kingsbury's name is one that comes up at the top of the list of good authors.  When I began reading this one, it sounded familiar and I wondered if I had read it before, but it only came out this year, so that was obviously not the case.  Turns out I read a preview of this book, The Chance, back in January when I read The Bridge.  She's smart to put the first few pages of her next novel at the end of each book.  I get hooked right away.

Ellie Tucker and Nolan Cook are best friends.  In fact, Nolan often teasingly tells Ellie that he plans to marry her one day.  But when Ellie's father discovers his wife is pregnant with another man's child, he decides to hurt her by moving away with Ellie to San Diego.  The night before their hasty departure, Ellie and Nolan meet under their favorite tree and write letters to each other declaring their true feelings for one another.  They place the letters in a tackle box and agree to return to the site eleven years later to read the letters.

However, time has muddied the waters with letters that have gone undelivered and feelings of abandonment.  Ellie, having lost her faith during the intervening years, focuses entirely on raising her six year old daughter, Kinzie (named after the street where she and Nolan used to meet).  Nolan, whose faith was actually fortified and strengthened despite the loss of his father, continues to feel a hole in his heart that only Ellie can fill.  Unfortunately, Ellie doesn't want to be found and is convinced that Nolan wouldn't want her if he knew who she has become.

I will admit, the book took a great deal of suspension of disbelief for me.  I struggled to believe that the two friends would have lost contact so thoroughly so early on in their story.  I also struggled to believe that both the mother and the boyfriend wouldn't have put more effort into the search or been able to find the girl in this day and age.  Although I enjoyed the happy ending, it was perhaps too sweet.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.  As always, Kingsbury sucks the reader into the story and doesn't let go until the final resolution appears.  She creates beautiful, believable characters who face common difficulties and rely on faith to ferret out the solutions to life's pressing problems. She doesn't beat her religion over the heads of readers, but subtly weaves in spiritual insights through the situations her characters face.  Foremost, I appreciate that she is big on grace and redemption (my favorite story elements).

Friday, September 6, 2013

Book Review: I Can't Complain

Every once in a while, I like to pick up a volume of essays because I can read them in snippets.  Plus, this one promised a whole section "On Writing."  While not as funny or engaging as the essays by Nora Ephron (I read two of her books of essays last year), these were still entertaining and interesting.

I think I laughed the loudest at her recounting of her son's introduction to sex education.  It was just a funny essay, tapping into that natural discomfort we all feel when our children approach us for information about babies and the like.  Of course, the essays on writing were of interest to me, since I consider myself a writer.  Less interesting - the ones about soap operas and "Sex and the City." I've never read any of Elinor Lipman's novels, but her writing style was certainly easy to read.

If you are looking for a small collection of personal essays or for tidbits from a writer, on writing, you might enjoy this book.  If you're looking for side-splitting humor, you might want to try Nora Ephron instead. At 161 pages, it is a quick, entertaining read.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Book Review: Sisterland

Although I couldn't put this novel down (reading it well into the night, two nights running), it still isn't a novel I feel I can recommend wholeheartedly.  There were too many things about it that didn't sit well with me: lesbian relationship, marital infidelity, and not-so-subtly nuanced sex scenes.  There was still value in the story, a complex story of identical twins who are not always identical in their approach to life, but it was muddied a bit.

Daisy and Violet Shramm are unlike others because they possess a strange ability to sense impending danger.  They are also unlike each other.  While Violet wants to maximize her "senses," Daisy (who calls herself Kate to provide distance from their past and their reputations) wants to limit her use of the special gift.  Their relationship is fraught with conflict and it almost seems impossible that they could be identical twins (one a lesbian, the other a suburban mother, one an attention hog, the other a private, self-effacing individual).

So what drives this novel?  After experiencing a minor earthquake, Violet is convinced that her spirit guide, "Guardian," has informed her of the immanence of a more powerful approaching earthquake.  She is interviewed on television and her prediction goes viral.  This, of course, makes Daisy/Kate uncomfortable, especially so since her husband works with scientists who quickly discourage the prediction.   Still, the public is enthralled and although Daisy wants to distance herself from it, she also complies by providing a specific date which she has sensed. 

Spoiler alert: I spent most of the novel waiting to find out if the prediction would come true.  Then, when the outcome was revealed, I was still caught up wondering if it would just happen at a later date.  Then, the author increased the suspense level by introducing the marital infidelity (which seemed unrealistic, given that there wasn't a whole lot of spousal friction and the man had just endured a horrendous scene of prejudice).  Would Kate tell her husband about her infidelity or keep it a secret?  Would she end up pregnant by this other man (a situation which would be obvious since he is black and both she and her husband are white)? Would she abort the baby (as one character in the novel does because a test indicated the baby would have Down's Syndrome - another bit where I internally shuddered) or keep it?  Thus, I kept turning pages, despite my discomfort with various aspects of the story line.

I think I was most intrigued by a relatively small scene in the story because it mirrored our experience this summer with my youngest son.  In the story, Kate's daughter develops a swollen eye and ends up in the hospital in critical condition because the infection was not diminishing and could lead to meningitis.  It was wild observing the events unfolding in such a similar manner to what we experienced in the end of July.

So, I can't discount this novel entirely.  It was interesting and compelling enough to keep me reading.  It contained a snippet torn from the pages of my own life experience.  The writing was very good and not muddied further with lots of foul language [someone on FB recently mentioned foul language, but spelled it "fowl" and it took everything I had not to respond with a comment like "Aw, chicken-nuts" - hee-hee!]. The author did a great job of developing and fleshing out the characters.  I just couldn't embrace many aspects of the novel, thus it doesn't get higher marks in my book.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Book Review: Fly Away

I can't say this was one of my favorite Kristen Hannah books.  I liked Night Road far better.  Still, it was a fairly pleasant reading experience.  I have a recently acquired friend who lost his spouse six years ago and is still fairly grief-stricken.  This book put me in touch with many of the sentiments he must experience on a regular basis.  It is always good to walk a mile in another man's shoes and far better to experience this vicariously, through a book, than having to experience it first hand.

This book follows the aftermath of the death of Kate Ryan.  It reveals how her death impacts the lives of her husband, Johnny, her daughter, Marah, and her best-friend, Tully Hart. I was sucked in by the back cover which promised a "powerful journey of redemption," one of my favorite kinds of journeys to follow.  As their lives implode, they truly do finally find redemption, but it is hard-won and a long journey to get there.  Tully loses her fame and fortune when she walks away from her talk show to be with Kate in her final days.  Marah loses her perspective and follows a path of self-destruction as she deals with the death of her mother.  Johnny shuts out the pain by distancing himself from his wife's best friend and in the process loses his daughter as well.

If you've recently lost a loved one, this might be too raw to read, but if there's some distance between you and grief, this is a tale worth exploring.  Indeed, most of the people who gave the book poor reviews on Amazon did so because they found the book too depressing.  I felt like I was eavesdropping on someone else's life.  The characters were believable and the tale was authentic and real.  It didn't hold me as tightly as other books by Hannah, but it was still a worthwhile read. From reading the reviews, I realize that I should have read Firefly Lane instead, since that book preceded this one in the story line and was, apparently, a more favored book.  Perhaps I will try that as my next Kristin Hannah book.