Thursday, October 31, 2013

Amazing Baby Art to Bless Your Halloween

(Photo from

This was too cute to miss passing on (although, chances are you caught it elsewhere on the web, since it is quickly going viral):

Visit it!  You won't be sorry.  My favorite two were the ones with the baby in the claw machine and with the baby atop a stack of books!  Which were your favorites?

Apparently, there are over a hundred photos of the baby in fairy tale-esque scenes and the artist, Queenie Liao, has created a book called Wengenn in Wonderland, but I couldn't find a link to any book by that title.  Give it time, though.  It will definitely hit stores one day!  What talent!


For a video slide show with even more of the photos visit:

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: Taylor's Gift

Once you become a parent, your life is forever altered and connected to another life.  Moreover, once you become a parent, you open yourself up to empathy for every other parent's worst nightmare.  I could not read this without putting myself in the shoes of these two parents, who tell of their own personal tragedy when the life of their bubbly, vibrant 13 year old daughter, Taylor, was snuffed out in a skiing accident. If you have a child, you can't help but feel even a sliver of the pain this family experienced through this loss.

But the great thing about this story, is that the pain comes with God's redemptive power.  I love to watch God redeem brokenness and pain.  It makes me want to shout, "Go God!" (something my brother used to say when he'd see an especially stunning sunset or something of great beauty).  God took this tragic story, these horrific circumstances, this family's deepest pain, and turned it into something hopeful and beautiful.  He gave Taylor a legacy that lives on despite her absence in this world.  Through her organ donation, Taylor went on to save or greatly improve the lives of five individuals.  When Todd and Tara Storch decided to donate Taylor's organs, they opened themselves up to a whole new world.  Todd left his stable job to become the founding creator of Taylor's Gift, an organization devoted to increasing the organ donation registries across the nation.

I loved the vulnerability both parents expressed in the telling of this tale.  They were willing to share their own personal weaknesses, like the desire to run away from the pain and the tendency to sometimes snap when others didn't respond in ways they wanted (I, too, would have snapped if I saw someone heading to launder my deceased child's clothes - I would want to bury my head in the items and continuously sniff up the lingering scent).  Despite being overcome with grief, Tara Storch bravely shared her lows and came around to finding a renewed sense of joy in life.  I think this story is also important because it shows others the reality that two individuals often grieve in different ways. Tara was overcome and barely able to function, while her husband channeled his grief into action and seeking a purpose in the pain.  The key to maintaining strong relationships in the face of the loss of a child is in allowing for different grieving styles.

If you are looking for an authentic, courageous story, which weaves the pain of one of life's worst challenges with the hope of life's greatest potential, you can't go wrong with this book.  It will bring you to tears and move you to make a commitment, yourself, to allow others the gift of life by registering to be an organ donor.  This was such an inspiring read and I'm sure both God and Taylor are looking down with big smiles of approval.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Minecraft Halloween Party

When Bryce was small, I had a dear friend who woke one morning to discover that she was miscarrying a set of twin boys.  Not wanting her two young daughters to go with her to the hospital or be alarmed, she gave me a call and I invited them over, telling her to tell them it was a Halloween party invitation.  That first Halloween party was a happy/sad event and thrown together quite quickly.  But, it marked the beginning of a long string of Halloween parties my eldest son enjoyed.  It became an annual tradition and quite a lot of fun (there was the year of the Spurting Spider cake which I've posted about before).

Since the two younger boys have been around, I haven't been game to attempt another Halloween party.  I suppose I have more anxiety issues now than I did then and it always seemed like it might overwhelm me.  But, this year, over Fall Break from school, all Trevor could talk about was wanting to throw a Minecraft Halloween party.  For his last birthday party, only one third of those invited attended.  I worried he might be disappointed again if few kids could come.  He talked me into inviting 12 kids and he began to frantically work out all the details.  He is a detail-oriented kind of guy.  He had a blast searching the Internet for ideas.  Thus, none of our ideas here are original, really, but we had a lot of fun pulling it all together.

Sadly, I failed to take a single picture during the festivities.  I guess I was keyed up about everything going off without a hitch.  Plus, there is the factor of my camera being broken (thanks to Trevor leaving it out on the trampoline overnight), which means I have to take all pictures with my I-pad (not quite as convenient).  But, I managed to take a few photos before and several after it had all been cleaned up (sorry, not quite as authentic, I know).

First, Trevor set about making each of the invited kids a Minecraft character mask.  He printed these out on the computer and then affixed them to large squares of cardboard.  The Enderman mask was the biggest hit and I think several of the kids were fighting to have it, which led to an indoor game of chase.

Next, he tackled ideas for games.  He wanted to hold a costume contest.  Plus, he made these two games, as well (a Creeper Toss game and a Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Piggy game):

He had a set idea of what kind of refreshments he wanted and they had to fit the Minecraft theme.  So we placed out little bowls (inexpensive green ones located at the dollar store) filled with things to represent gold (Rolos), iron (Kisses), carrots (carrots - ha), Zombie Poo (chocolate covered raisins), Redstone (watermelon jello squares), Diamond (blueberry jello squares), Sticks (pretzel sticks), and TNT (Twizzlers).  He also provided Creeper juice (small water bottles with a creeper label he crafted and then copied on the copier).  The Rice Crispy Treat Creepers were the biggest hit and there was only one left in the pan at the end of the party:

The most amazing costume (in my opinion) didn't win.  One of the two girls who came wore a head of foam snakes to compliment her Medusa costume.  There were four boys (plus my two) and none of them voted for her.  Sad.  But, Trevor had great fun passing out prizes (to everyone, so nobody would feel left out).  He gave out a Minecraft poster (to the costume contest winner), two Yahtzee games, a bead set, a wooden helicopter model and a glow-in-the-dark ball (which was the only prize the recipient didn't seem too thrilled about - all the rest were hits).  Each guest also went home with a Creeper goody bag filled with small Halloween items and candy.

Apart from some moments of anxiety when too many of them were piled on the trampoline together (I had visions of bodily injury) and when a few of the boys wandered off to the bridge (led by my two mischievous ones), it was a thoroughly enjoyable party.  For the most part, Trevor didn't even want me to hang around, so I just sort of kept a side eye on them and a low profile.  They told jokes and played chase and Trevor showed a few of them how to get skins on Minecraft.  The kids all had a wonderful time and several asked if we could do this every year (um, I'm not there yet, although I did say that if we have one next year it will be Sean's turn to invite his friends - the poor kid already never gets a birthday party because his birthday is so close to Christmas that nobody would want the added expense or time commitment).  The party was a big hit and a lot of fun to plan and pull off.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: The Monstrumologist

Recently my library advertised a new book club for adults who enjoy reading young adult literature.  I thought this was a perfect opportunity to find other like-minded individuals and to continue to expose myself to more young adult fare.  So, I joined.  The first month's selection displayed perfect timing: The Book Thief.  I was already re-reading it for my other book club.  At the discussion of The Book Thief, we chose between two suggested selections for the October meeting.  The leaders of the group had selected titles which would fall in line with an October feel.  Together, the group selected Rick Yancey's The Monstrumologist, the first in a series of four books.

I will admit, I wasn't thrilled with the choice.  The book didn't sound appealing to me at all.  But, I barreled on anyway, reading this book so that I could participate in the discussion of it.  While it wasn't a book I would have chosen on my own, it wasn't a bad book either.  The writing was sound and the characters well-drawn.  The horror elements were suitably horrific and the plot, although it didn't move as quickly as I would have liked, moved to an inevitable conclusion.

Framed as a story told in journals by a man who claims to be a hundred and thirty-one years old, The Monstrumologist begins in 1888 when 12 year old Will Henry is working as an assistant to a scientist, a monstrumologist, who studies monsters.  The doctor calls for Will to "snap to," because there is a caller at the door delivering a horrific find from the graveyard.  Thus begins the adventure to locate and eradicate a species of monster documented by Herodotus, Pliny, and Shakespeare as the "Anthropophagi," a monster without a head, whose eyes are located on his shoulders and whose mouth, complete with an array of sharp teeth, is located in the chest.  (For a You Tube promo of the book, click here.)
                                                   (Photobucket image by J. Cortez)

After being orphaned by a fire, Will Henry, whose father was once the doctor's devoted assistant, stays with the monstrumologist out of loyalty to his father's devotion.  The Anthropophagi specimen hanging in the basement choked on the pearl necklace around a young girl's neck.  Will Henry is horrified by the image, but bravely fights alongside his master to root out the nest of this dreaded monster.  Unfortunately, there is a whole pod of monsters in the very village of the monstrumologist and they strike again before the doctor, his assistant, and the constable can root them out.  Thus another young boy is lured into the adventure after losing his whole family to an attack by the Anthropophagi. They must figure out how the monster came to be in the town and how to effectively get rid of them before they feast again.

I admire how the author presented the writing with a Victorian feel.  The story wasn't so horrific that I wanted to put it down (not being a fan of horror stories), but it didn't really leave me wanting to turn the pages faster until close to the end.  When Will Henry is called (for his small size) to crawl through a tunnel in the underground chamber of the Anthropophagi, I was transfixed.  This was truly terrifying.  He was trapped in a small place and then fell into the very nest, where he encountered the dominant female's youngest progeny.  Although I knew the boy survived to write the tale, it was still quite suspenseful.

I imagine this book would hold great appeal for teenage boys who are looking for a horror story.  They would relish the details of the attacks and the plight of the young apprentice.  For me, however, I wouldn't say this book left me wanting to search out the rest of the series.  I'm just not a fan of horror fiction, I guess. Still, it wasn't too horrific and the author didn't resort to fluffing the book with extraneous violence or foul language, so it would be a suitable title to suggest for a young male reader interested in monsters (like say, my middle son, in a few years).

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Book Review: Salt Sugar Fat

In this stunning expose' of the processed food industry, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss warns the American public of the pressing problems of obesity and health concerns brought on by the economic exploits of the makers of processed foods.  He considers his book to be a wake-up call to consumers to become more aware of the tactics and methods used by the processed food industry.  He likens the grocery store to a battlefield, complete with minefields and subtle enemy attacks.  But his final exhortation is this: "We have the power to make choices."

I found this book absolutely fascinating, while at the same time deeply disturbing.  Moss outlines clearly (and with plenty of documented support) the way we got to this point.  Weaving history lessons on societal shifts along with explanations of the processed food industry's giant pull towards making more money, Moss leaves the reader with no doubt that we are in a very dangerous state when it comes to the foods we are choosing to ingest.  These foods are pillared on three of the most dangerous ingredients: salt, sugar, and fat.  These are the things which the industry relies on to keep us coming back for more - more Oreos, more macaroni and cheese, more sugared cereals, more chips, more inexpensive and convenient foods - despite the fact that these foods are causing tremendous health problems.

Moss shows that "sugar, salt, and fat are the foundation of processed foods."  He outlines the growing tensions between consumers and these food giants who are determined to put "the pursuit of sales above consumer welfare."  I don't know which aspect I found more engaging: the history of how our society has advanced to this state of affairs (where we are more concerned with saving time and grabbing quick snacks instead of sitting down as a family to three established daily meals, where we are determined to find the cheapest, fastest foods available, where we glibly buy into the marketing genius of these companies to feel good by eating the foods which actually hurt us the most) or the investigative reporting the author provides about the key players and their endless pursuit of the mighty dollar.

Written in a narrative fashion, this book will change the way you look at the food you are purchasing in the store.  Even if you weren't an advocate of the "real food" movement before, you might begin to lean that direction after you ingest all of this telling information.  I found myself afraid of entering a store, for fear I might get sucked into the strategies and persuasions offered by the processed food industry.  I have a bent towards this food.  It is the most appealing fare for kids today.  When I go to feed my kids, it is macaroni and cheese, cheeseburgers, chicken nuggets and sweetened yogurts they are after.  Although I can summon enthusiasm from my middle son for a good meal of salmon, steamed baby carrots, and fresh fruit, it is still a constant battle to keep him away from his favorite processed foods.  We eat entirely too many of these foods and this has to change. 

Thankfully, this book has given me even more motivation for making the switch from a diet full of processed foods to a diet more full of real foods and things which take more time and money to prepare, because my family's health and well-being should, indeed, be more important to me than saving a dollar and the energy it takes to prepare wholesome fruits, vegetables and lean meats like fish and chicken.  The heads of these processed food giants don't eat their own foods.  That should tell us something right off the bat!  They value their health, so they avoid the very chips, Lunchables, Hot Pockets, and colas they are making for the general consumer.  Europe won't even allow the levels of salt, sugar, and fat, which we willingly consume.  Something has to change and Moss's great argument is that it should start with you, the reader.  Each of us can only control what we do in response to these companies and we have the power, as he says, to make different choices from here on out.  This book will open your eyes and hopefully, change your behaviors.  I certainly hope it helps me to change our family's food consumption habits.

For an interesting interview with the author, a 3 minute video pitch by the author, and plenty more positive reviews of this book, head here.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Prayer of Protection Over a Teen's New Car


I have such mixed feelings about this exciting new development.  On the one hand, I am thrilled that my son found a car he is so enthusiastic about.  He loves it!  Look at it.  How could he not? It is such an awesome-looking car.  On the other hand, it is the kind of car that will attract attention and get him pulled over more frequently.

I don't know if this was the right step to take, buying him such a nice car.  After two accidents, my thought was to buy him a beater of a car, something inexpensive and dull.  His dad reasoned that we wanted to be sure he was in a safe car, one that was built well.  Indeed, the Mustang is a well-built car.  We're hoping this car will see him through the college years, but realistically, I can't stop thinking about those accidents and playing with the "what ifs" in my mind.

Since it is such a nice car, he's bound to take better care of it, I suppose.  However, I can't help feeling like he should have been made to suffer a bit more for his mistakes.  Then again, they were just mistakes.  I've made the same mistakes myself.  If we went according to accident record, I'd be driving a beater, too.  Ha!

The money is coming from three sources: the check the insurance company gave us upon the other car's demise, a portion from us, and a portion from Bryce's savings.  However, does it really hit him very hard to take it from his savings?  Will he feel the pinch and appreciate fully the value of the car he's been entrusted with?  Are we depriving him a valuable lesson by not requiring him to work in some sort of job, saving up for a replacement car.

Logistically, I wouldn't want to still be driving him everywhere.  It is so much easier when he can transport himself to where he needs to be.  And, he will, indeed, need a car for college next year.

Thus, the argument rages in my brain, Lord.  But the primary thought is for his safety.  Please place Your protective hand on my son and this car.  Please watch over all the elements of traffic around him.  Keep those crazed drivers out of his path.  Help him to make swift and careful decisions.  Teach him responsibility despite our possible failings in the parenting department.  I place him and the car in Your hands and will try to let go of the anxiety I feel.

Thank You for this bountiful blessing and for the delight my child is experiencing.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Help Trevor Win a Matisse Drawing Contest

The boys are on Fall Break from school this week, so Tuesday I took Trevor to the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  I was surprised at how quickly he moved through the museum.  He was most interested in the sculptures and did really enjoy one painting in particular which portrayed Jesus entering a demon-infested landscape.  That painting is quite gruesome ... totally boy-appealing!

While there, he said his absolute favorite thing was entering the Inspired by Matisse contest.  In a small lab room, set up with I-Pads with a drawing app, individuals were urged to try their hand at drawing like Matisse.  Trevor drew this entry and titled it "Sway:"

If you would like, you can follow this link and vote for his drawing in the 6-12 age range competition. Below the drawing there is a place to click "vote."  Thanks for helping out!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Review: Handling the Truth

When I noticed this book on the recent acquisitions list at our library, I placed my name on the hold list. Although the book is about memoir writing, and I have no plans for ever writing a memoir, I figured it couldn't hurt to read someone's insights into the writing process for this genre.  Plus, in the back of my mind, I was remembering a request from one of my GED students (back when we lived in DeKalb).  She asked that I write up her life story (which is biography, but a kin to memoir, certainly) and she has quite a story to tell (raped at 11 by a family friend, she gave birth to her first-born at 12 and went on to establish a solid marriage and have two more children).

One of the first suggestions Beth Kephart makes is one I wholeheartedly support, the need to immerse yourself in other memoirs in order to prepare for writing one's own. (I have done this with YA novels to prepare myself for writing my own.)  Sadly, as the author shared illustrations of the craft, I realized that I was unfamiliar with most of the memoirs mentioned in this book.  Her appendix of suggested reading at the back would no doubt be quite helpful to any writer interested in writing memoir.  Instead of merely providing the titles of read-worthy memoirs, Kephart highlights each book with an explanation of what the book is about and why it would be helpful as an example of good writing.  I was thrilled to discover that one of my favorite writers, Oliver Sacks, has written a memoir.  This, along with a few others, will be added to my lengthy list of books to one day read.

For me, the key take-away from this book was the idea that memoir must have meaning above and beyond the mere cataloguing of what happened.  The writer has to find a way to share experience in a way that the reader will relate to and benefit from.  The author quotes Vivian Gornick as saying, "A memoir is ... under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom."  Truly great memoirs find a way to draw meaning from the events of life.

I cannot say whether this is the best book to read about writing memoir (I don't feel qualified to make that judgment). There were times when the flowery language of it made me wish the author would just say things in a more concrete manner.  Moreover, I didn't really glean many general writing tips that I hadn't already encountered elsewhere.  I know that Sheila, of The Deliberate Reader, highly recommends The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith.  Plus, Kephart herself suggests a list of profitable titles to read on the art of writing memoir.  If nothing else, this book will certainly provide you with more reading fodder and anyone who wants to write books should be prepared to read many books, both books of instruction and books of example.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review: Unbroken

I have heard the buzz about this book and been intrigued, but it took a book club selection of the book to get me to finally read it.  It deserves all the wonderful accolades on the back cover: "gripping in an almost cinematic way" - The New York Times Book Review; "a powerfully drawn survival epic" - The Wall Street Journal; and "stirring and triumphant ... a nearly continuous flow of suspense" - Los Angeles Times.  Rebecca Skloot declares the author, Laura Hillenbrand, "one of our best writers of narrative history."  I concur on all counts.  This book gripped me and would not let me go.

Titled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, this book tells the tale of Louie Zamperini and his extraordinary life experiences before, during, and after World War II.  From his mischievous days of youth to his exciting Olympic ambitions, his early life was a whirlwind of activity and marked him as an exceptional individual.  But the heart of the story picks up when Louie's plane, a B-24 bomber dubbed the "Green Hornet," goes down in the Pacific Ocean.  There are three survivors clinging to two life rafts.  Their story was so exciting (especially the bits about sharks swimming circles around their raft and even jumping up into the raft in attempts to pull the men into the water) that I began to read bits of it aloud to my boys.  Sean was especially riveted and kept saying, "keep reading."  We read of the time Louie caught a bird and in attempting to eat it, became covered  in lice so that he had to dip his head into the ocean to drown the lice, while his raft-mates beat back the attacking sharks. Sean marveled when the men were able to catch a shark and eat the liver.  We were astonished when we read of the amount of weight lost during the forty-seven days stranded at sea (they shrank down to 67 and 80 pounds).  Louie bargained with God, that if He would save him, Louie would serve Him the rest of his days.

Amazingly, the harrowing adventures while lost at sea paled in comparison to conditions of life after he washed ashore in enemy territory.  I had to stop reading aloud because the details became far too graphic (although I did relent and share with them the fact that the disease beriberi often swelled a man's testicles to the size of bread loaves - boys relish those kind of details).  The stories of other prisoners of war were woven into Louie's tale.  William Harris was captured by the enemy but escaped and swam eight and a half hours across Manila Bay while a storm raged and fish bit him.  He made a run for China, surviving on ants and the assistance of sympathetic Filipinos, until some civilians turned him in to the Japanese.  His tale was especially interesting because he had a photographic memory.  Louie would sneak into the guard house and steal a map, rush it to Harris, who would look it over carefully for a few seconds and then draw up the map as Louie rushed it back to the guard house undetected.  This activity eventually netted a horrific beating for Harris.

The worst of the stories centered around a particular guard, nicknamed "the Bird."  Mutsuhiro Watanabe, "the Bird," became Louie's worst nightmare.  Although he was monstrous to all the POWs, he was especially focused in on Louie, for some reason.  This man made Louie's life a living hell and Louie was filled with hatred and rage toward the man.  Even when he was eventually freed, at the end of the war, he was plagued by nightmares of encounters with "the Bird."  At one point, he woke from a nightmare to find that instead of strangling "the Bird," he was instead strangling his own wife.  Louie began to run to alcohol to avoid facing the demons that plagued him from his war-time experiences.

Just as I was beginning to despair over the story, feeling the weight of all the devastating details and worrying that perhaps there would be no redemption, only a sad tale of a life destroyed by horrific war conditions, Hillenbrand tells of Louie's wife's attempts to drag Louie to a Billy Graham crusade. Referring to actual transcripts of Graham's sermon, it was as if the preacher's words were directly pointed at Louie.  Remembering his bargain with God, he responded and broke away from the hold of alcoholism and resentment.  He even took a trip back to Japan to face and forgive his old guards.  His life was changed and he channeled the tragic story of his life into work reforming troubled youths.  Moreover, he eventually penned a letter to "the Bird," expressing forgiveness and good will.

Although the book was especially gruesome to read, it was a fascinating and truly well-told story.  The pages fell away quickly.  Even if you are not a war-story enthusiast, this book is a riveting, remarkable read.  I thought that I would be frustrated with yet another World War II book selection, but this was my favorite book selection of the past three war-centered books. 

Update: My Unbroken movie review: 12/27/14 - Went with Trevor to see Unbroken yesterday. Thankfully, the violence wasn't too intense for his ten year old eyes, and he did enjoy the movie (perhaps more than I did). I felt disappointed with it. It failed to capture the most important aspects of Louie Zamperini's life and story. Yes, it told of the horrific circumstances the man endured, but it didn't focus on the redemption of his story or on the amazing story of forgiveness the book highlights. These key elements (the bits about Louie's decline from PTSD and his eventual turn to God and journey to forgiveness for his enemies) were left to sentences displayed on the screen in the final moments of the film.

My writing friend, Julie Kloster, articulated my dissatisfaction well when she wrote on Facebook: Teachers remind students to "find the main idea" of stories. Angelina, dear, you missed the main idea of UNBROKEN. What makes this story great isn't the endurance of war torture, but the supernatural ability to forgive those who torture us by "loving our enemies" with the love that we first receive from Christ. What our hearts long for is not just strength, but healing. Where are the scenes of Zamperini's post traumatic stress? Where are the scenes where Zamperini was finally....broken....and recognized his need of God? Where are the face to face encounters of forgiveness with the Japanese soldiers that tortured Zamperini? All of these scenes would have added up to make the beautiful torch run not just touching, but mind blowing. A bit less torture and a lot more redemption would have catapulted this film from inspirational to a classic, life-changing piece of art."

My recommendation is to definitely read the book before seeing the movie. I'm not saying the movie isn't worth watching, but without reading the full account and getting a clear picture of the heart of the story, you are settling for the shell when you could experience a fully-fleshed out story of redemption.

It reminds me of an image I shared on Facebook this past year highlighting the differences between a movie and a book.

(Image shared from The Other 98%'s Facebook page).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Sad Demise of the Grand Am

For a dozen years now, we've owned a beautiful, black Pontiac Grand Am.  That car has stood us in good stead and we've loved it.

Enter a teenage boy.

When Bryce acquired his license last November, my husband passed the Grand Am on to him and he began driving a vehicle his mother had lent us (a truck that I loathe, but that my husband just purchased from her officially when she was here a few weeks back - groan, how I hate that monstrous behemoth of a vehicle, which takes up so much of the garage space and forces me to suck in my gut every time I want to climb into the driver's seat of my van).  If you ask me, this was quite generous.  I was never handed a car when I reached the driving age.  The boy's a lucky dude!

Within a few months of driving it, he had his first minor fender bender in the school parking lot.  He came out to find his windows fogged up with condensation.  He thought it was frost and tried to scrape the outside, but this accomplished nothing, so ... he just got in and tried to drive with limited vision.  He said he waited for a long time at the intersection and finally pulled out ... right in front of an oncoming car.  Her car was barely scratched, but he managed to damage the front corner of the bumper and lose a headlight.  No insurance information was exchanged and we decided to merely cover the repairs ourselves.

Now, he has had another accident.  Granted, we are extremely grateful that in both instances there was no bodily harm.  If he had been pulling out onto the main road home from school (instead of still in the parking lot) he would have encountered cars coming at 55 m.p.h.  In this second accident, he was driving two fellow football players home from school.  The accident occurred right in town, so the speeds were only around 30 m.p.h., but still, if the other driver had collided a few seconds earlier then the boy in the back seat could have been hit.  God was watching out for our boy and his friends.  Bryce thought he had enough time to make a turn and turned in front of a woman who (as he indignantly puts it) "didn't bother to slow down at all."  She clipped the back end of the vehicle and pulled off the rear fender.

Sadly, our insurance company has written the car off as a total loss (since repairs would probably be more than the value of the car).  So, now the boy and his dad are scanning used auto businesses in our area for a replacement car. As I said, he's a lucky dude!  We're hoping whatever we purchase will last him through his college years.  At this rate, though, it is looking a bit grim.  This is a sad good-bye to a well-loved car.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: More Than This

I have been known to gush about Patrick Ness's writing.  I absolutely loved his The Knife of Never Letting Go, not only for its intriguing title, but also for its fast-paced adventure.  The second and third books in the Chaos Walking trilogy were also fairly good.  Then, I wept as I read A Monster Calls.

It must be quite difficult to be an author with a blockbuster right out the gate.  His first book was phenomenal.  It was a stunning debut.  How do you live up to that kind of hype and appreciation?  I don't know.  It must be hard.

I don't think Ness quite lived up to his reputation with this new book, More Than This.  While it holds many of the landmark Ness traits - an alternate reality, fast-paced adventure, cliffhanger chapter endings, and philosophical questions about life as we know it - it wasn't quite up to the caliber of his first novel.  I'm not saying I didn't like the book, because I did, but of all his books, this would be my least favorite.

 When sixteen year old Seth drowns and then wakens to find himself back in his old house in England (a house the family had moved from after some tragedy struck Seth's younger brother), in a deserted, abandoned land, he wonders if he has landed in his own personal hell.  Every time his exhaustion brings him sleep, he dreams of key events in his past, events which plagued Seth in life.  One of these events centers on the very situation which led to his family's move.  Seth feels responsible and knows his parents still blame him.  In addition to his own private sense of guilt, Seth is struggling with the outing of his relationship with Gudmund, a boy who had been a best friend until things got a bit more personal.  Seth tells himself there has to be more than this in life.  Now, he is faced with the possibility that he was right and there is more.  But, what does that mean and how does that impact his real life?  For that matter, what is real and true in life?

I liked the characters.  They were quirky and interesting.  I liked the quick pacing.  I kept reading as fast as I could to figure out where he was and what would happen in this alternate reality (or was it reality that he had woken from an alternate reality to).  The menacing Driver character provided ample suspense, although I did think that, once again, Ness carried it to an extreme, to the point where the reader begins to say, "really?" It began to feel like just a suspense tool and not a real aspect of the story. If you are loathe to read a book with homosexuality in it, then this is not the book for you.  I suppose, if you're really wanting to encounter Patrick Ness's writing at its best, then I have to recommend The Knife of Never Letting Go, instead of this book.  The first sentence of that book and the very premise of being able to hear people's personal thoughts knock the story out of the ballpark.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

My New Horn

I've been pining for an alto horn for several years now, ever since I made the trek back to my teenage annual music camp, Central Music Institute, for their 75th Anniversary Alumni Weekend.  Playing in the large band again whet my appetite for those days of making music with others in a brass band experience (something very hard to duplicate in any other way).

The best alto horns, made by Yamaha or Besson, would cost over a thousand dollars and are out of my price range.  I began searching on-line, hoping something would turn up.  There were several Yamaha's that I've looked at over the past year, but most of them just didn't seem like they were in the best condition for the prices being asked.

Then one day, a little over a month ago, I googled "used e-flat alto horn" and up popped a Craigslist ad in Charlottesville, VA, offering this little beauty for only $60.  Not only did it look good, but it came with a case, mouthpiece (you'd be surprised how many instruments were offered without a mouthpiece), valve oil, cleaning brushes, a stand and music.

Knowing my sister lives in VA, I checked to see how close she would be. Alas, she was a full two hours' drive away. I couldn't ask her to travel to check it out. But, I called her and asked if she knew the Salvation Army officers who were stationed in Charlottesville. She did and provided me with their info. I made a quick call and before I knew it, the officer on the other end of the line had offered to check the instrument out and make the transaction for me. Once he secured the horn, he took it to a mailing center and shipped it off to me. The shipping came to almost as much as the horn, but I'm not complaining.

That is the beauty of life within The Salvation Army: you can locate something of interest miles away and find someone in an Army location there to assist in the acquisition.  The officer there said that the guy explained that he used to play an alto with his high school marching band and decided he might like to pick it up again, so he purchased the horn and used it for about four months.  Then it sat in his closet for several years and he realized it would do someone else more good than him.  Perfect!

It's no Yamaha or Besson, but I'm thrilled to pieces with my find! My tattered Arban's book hasn't seen this much action since I was a teenager, back when my brothers called me "Metallic Lips" because I spent every spare minute practicing in the hopes of joining The Salvation Army's Chicago Staff Band (a dream that I almost realized in my senior year of high school, until my parents were moved from Chicago to South Dakota and I lost the opportunity, after passing the audition phase). I'm having a blast!

I try to practice for twenty to thirty minutes each day. The valves aren't the best (I find I have to oil them frequently to keep them moving smoothly, which means they weren't made very well). It is clearly a student instrument. Nonetheless, it is meeting a strong emotional need within. I am reconnecting with my intense desire to play the horn again. I play every Thursday with the local corps band and will play with the divisional band, once it resumes in January. I will join a small ensemble this Tuesday to play for the funeral of an Army officer, Major Bob Scott, who was promoted to glory after battling a brain tumor.  Plus, if I head out to music camp again next year, I'll have my own instrument to play, although I may still ask them to provide me with a Yamaha, if one is available. By then, my lips should be in excellent shape and maybe I'll be back to making the sweet music I was capable of as a teen.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Book Review: Under a Flaming Sky

This was another book I had to ask my mother-in-law to bring from her library.  Sheila, at The Deliberate Reader, recommended this book about the Hinckley, Minnesota firestorm of 1894.  It sounded so fascinating that I had to seek it out and read it.  It was a thoroughly absorbing book, full of information about fires, burns, PTSD, and the events of that fateful day for a small town in Minnesota.

Under a Flaming Sky reads like a story, weaving historical research into a cohesive tale.  This is the kind of research and storytelling I would love to do.  It must have been so interesting to pore over the facts and details and then put the whole together into a piece for others to read and experience vicariously.

On September 1, 1894, the small town of Hinckley, Minnesota, woke not realizing that, for many of its residents, life would soon be over, and for the others, life would never be the same.  A forest fire, working from two directions, converged on the town of 1200 people in such a swift manner that the flames burst 200 feet in the air, temperatures reached 1600 degrees, and large gas bubbles floated, igniting any flammable thing in their path.  There wasn't even time to outrun the fire on the train. One train became engulfed in flames even as it tried to escape this terrifying ordeal.  For many of the survivors, life was saved by contact with small bodies of water in the form of ponds, lakes, and swamps. Moreover, even after the fire had abated, the injured were stuck in town because the railroad bridges had burned to the ground.  They had to travel out of the area on badly damaged feet and through great spasms of pain.  Burn treatment was quite primitive still and many who may have survived the fire, succumbed to complications after being burned. In all, around 400 lost their lives.

This was such a detailed account of events on that day that the reader actually feels they are experiencing the fire right alongside the people of that day.  It was so terrifying, I found myself reading snippets aloud to my husband. The author's own grandfather, a survivor, would waken screaming, years after the events of that day.  The story is full of intense drama.  I read it in the space of 24 hours and its story is still lingering in my brain.  This easy read is sure to keep you spell-bound.

As an aside, I also found it interesting that one of the individuals mentioned in the tale shares my maiden surname.  Perhaps, this was an ancestor of mine I am unaware of, since my family hails from Wisconsin/Minnesota areas. If I ever find myself in Minnesota, near Hinckley, I may try to squeeze in a visit to the Hinckley Fire Museum.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: Hope Will Find You

My mother suggested this book by Rabbi Naomi Levy, Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living.  Neither my library nor the library in a neighboring town had it.  So, I searched at my mother-in-law's library, knowing she was coming for a visit.  I'm so glad she was able to get the book and bring it to me.  It was a wonderful experience, reading this story and gleaning the lessons.

Rabbi Levy faces a questionable future for her young daughter.  They are not sure if what she has is degenerative or fatal.  Only time will tell, but it is clear that she has difficulties with balance and with learning.  In the face of this news, Levy admits that she came to a stand-still.  She couldn't move forward.  She was filled with angst and worry, waiting for life to begin when they knew the answers to the questions they faced about their daughter's future.

While telling the story of her experience with her daughter's perplexing difficulties, she weaves in stories from Scripture and Yiddish proverbs.  Each chapter contains a nugget of wisdom.  I thoroughly enjoyed the stories and the wisdom conveyed.

She highlights the story from the Bible about the widow who is faced with losing her sons, when Elisha tells her to gather pots from her neighbors and pour the oil she already has into them. Levy draws this lesson from the story: the blessings are already within you.  Look to what you already have.

 She contemplates God's question to Adam and Eve in the garden: "Where are you?"  From this story she hears God's side: "Where are you? Why are you hiding? Why aren't you living up to your potential?  Why can't you see how blessed you are, how loved you are?"

Perhaps my favorite was her story of breaking twelve pieces of her mother's beloved china set and her brother's loving attempt to restore the pieces with glue.  She writes:

"The broken shards are everywhere around us, even within our own souls.  And those shards aren't just garbage to be thrown out, they contain holy sparks, entrapped divine light.  Our task on earth is to repair the world by finding those fragments and restoring them to wholeness....  We can only repair creation by caring, by seeking to live up to our highest potential, by uncovering the secret holiness that's hidden in our ordinary lives.... If there's something broken in your life, don't just throw the shards out with the trash, bring the box back inside and face the jagged pieces.  Examine them carefully and answers will start to surface. Will there be a seamless, perfect healing? Probably not.  There will always be cracks.  But our challenge in life is to learn how to live with our scars, because our scars are holy. It's from them that we learn our strength, our compassion.  It's from them that we learn how to pray, how to dream how to listen, how to reach out and offer help."

In the end, she concludes that you don't have to necessarily go looking for hope because hope will find you, if you let it.  Amid stories of a phenomenal eye doctor who loses his vision, and various parishioners who come to her with problems, Levy manages to convey so many little bits of truth and vision for life.

I loved the book.  Levy is an excellent storyteller.  Moreover, she learns so many things from various aspects of her life.  I wish I could see so much wisdom in my own ordinary life.  This book has encouraged me to look more closely at even the temporary struggles life presents.  Everything can provide a lesson.  God wants to work through every situation we face.

You can view a brief trailer for the book, in the words of the author herself, here.