Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review: The Wednesday Wars

This was a delightfully entertaining book. In The Wednesday Wars, author Gary D. Schmidt introduces us to Holling Hoodhood (I didn't care for this name, but loved the character anyway), a seventh grade boy whose father is grooming him to take over the family's architectural firm, whose world is thrown into chaos by the Vietnam War, whose sister is determined to be her own person, and whose teacher is out to get him.

With many reminders that he is representing the Hoodhood name, Holling is urged to impress this teacher who clearly doesn't like him (because she is stuck with him during a special time on Wednesdays when all the other students head to Catechism or Hebrew School). As the Wednesdays play out, and she fills his afternoons with classroom chores and assignments from Shakespeare, Holling is forced to navigate through countless obstacles and adventures. He accidentally sets the classroom rats free while cleaning their cages. A bully is after him. The class expects him to come through and provide them with cream puffs. And, worst of all, he has to wear yellow tights with feathers on the rear when he plays Ariel in a Shakespearean theater production.

The book was equal parts funny and tender. Frankly, I can't wait to read this book to my younger sons in a few years. The parts about Shakespeare give basic plot-line information but can easily be understood without a well-defined knowledge of Shakespeare. Plus, they drive home the point that Shakespearean plays are still relevant today and might even encourage boys to check them out (since the plays are full of stabbings, poisonings, witches, monsters, storms, and things that excite the boy imagination). Finally, I have to say that it was refreshing to find a book that appeals to boys without resorting to foul language, gross bodily functions, or sexual exploits. It was a good, clean book and I felt glued to it from beginning to end.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: The First Phone Call From Heaven

The blurb on the inside cover is quite a bit to live up to: "From the beloved author of the #1 New York Times bestsellers Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven comes his most thrilling and magical novel yet - a page-turning mystery and a meditation on the power of human connection." While it was good and definitely read quickly, I wouldn't agree that it is his most thrilling book. I think I preferred For One More Day and The Five People You Meet in Heaven to this one.

When the little town of Coldwater, Michigan, begins receiving phone calls from deceased loved ones in heaven no one knows what to make of it. There are numerous responses. Some believe and are thrilled to have a renewed connection. Others are skeptical and believe it must be a hoax. Still others are terrified by the disturbing calls and try to ditch their phones so that they will no longer be forced to face the past.

Woven through the seams of this little story, the author shares the history of Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone.  And what if we could hear loved ones calling again from heaven? Who would you want to receive a call from? What would you want them to tell you? Would this phenomenon inspire hope in you?

With a cast of characters, each with a story and a reason for hope, the small town becomes a mecca for others who want to become a part of this media frenzy and modern miracle.  One particular character, a disgraced pilot who has recently returned from prison to Coldwater, is intent upon discrediting the story. The suspense builds as he gathers evidence and tries to dissuade his own son from eagerly awaiting a call from his mother.

Although it was an interesting premise and a well-plotted book, I wasn't overly-thrilled with the ending and didn't really connect with the story as well as I had hoped. Still, I would say it is a worthwhile read and certainly an inspirational story in keeping with Mitch Albom's usual fare.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: Think Confident, Be Confident for Teens

Back in November, when I was working on my novel for Nanowrimo, I sought out books that teens might access to encourage their self-esteem, since my novel was about a young insecure girl who finds a golden bobby pin and begins to believe it is her good luck charm. I wanted to find out what teens might read to boost their self-confidence and become the kind of teen my character becomes.

This book, Think Confident, Be Confident for Teens: A Cognitive Therapy Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Building Unshakeable Self-Esteem, by Marci Fox and Leslie Sokol (faculty members at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research), is a wonderful tool for teens to use to build their self-confidence. It is an outlined plan for replacing negative thoughts of self-doubt with thoughts of affirmation and realistic assessment of situations they are facing.

As the publisher's blurb puts it: "Confidence is like a magnet that attracts people to you and helps you get closer to reaching your goals. When you believe in yourself, you send the message that you have the brains, ability, and talent to handle whatever life sends your way. And the truth is, you do!

"Using powerful skills based in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Think Confident, Be Confident for Teens shows you how to tap into your self-esteem so you can be yourself in every situation, no matter how awkward you feel or scary that may sound. The fun exercises and tips in this confidence-coaching workbook will guide you past feelings of self-doubt and encourage you to believe in yourself, strengthen your friendships, and meet every challenge head-on."

Although I don't feel like I gained any insight for enriching the process my character goes through in the novel, it was still a worthwhile book to read for enlightenment on what type of struggles teens are facing and how they might address them with more confidence. I think I'm on the right track in the novel and I think my character changes her life by changing her thoughts (the key truth the book wishes to drive home).

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas and Some Snow Art

A very Merry Christmas to my blog readers. May God bless you today and in the New Year!

To help you celebrate, here's a look at an amazing artist who walks miles in the snow to create art he knows will be blown away or naturally erased. Had to show this to Trevor. Maybe the next time we have a good snowfall, he'll be out there trying to create some picture in the snow.

The artist's name is Simon Beck and you can visit his art on a special Facebook page as well.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Great Aw-Factor Photography

Since this is a viral hit, you've probably already seen these darling photographs that a mother caught of her toddler napping with their puppy, but for the few who might not have found it:

The story I found was at http://www.natureknows.org/2013/12/toddler-naps-with-his-2-month-old-puppy.html?m=1, but the photographer's blog is at www.mommasgonecity.com.  You can't beat the cuteness factor, can you? Apparently there is a book coming out in 2015 with photos of the two (Bedtime for Theo and Beau). Looks like it will be a sweet book.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Early Christmas Gifts

This year there were three gifts we acquired several weeks prior to Christmas. We have been thoroughly enjoying them and I'm so glad to have them.

First off, we have been attempting to help Trevor lose some weight. During the winter months, it is always more difficult for us to keep him moving, so we tossed out the suggestion of having one of his gifts be a treadmill. He seemed to really go for the idea.

We didn't plan on purchasing a new one. I began scouring the Craigslist offerings and were thrilled when we found someone in a neighboring community selling a "new-in-box" walking treadmill. Apparently, they had bought it for their son and he purchased a different one before they could give it to him. While it doesn't have an option for running (it is a walk-to-fit model), it is easy to move and is getting quite the workout already. Trevor walks on it for a half an hour at least four days a week and I walk for a half hour almost every morning and Bryce has been walking on it, as well. Grateful to have this new blessing of a gift.

Then, there's Bryce's new television. He had been content with his old bulky one for quite some time, but a friend got a new flat screen and ... well, you know how it goes ... once he saw how awesome the graphics were on his friend's t.v., he wanted one for himself. We were thankful to get a percentage-off-deal after the purchase of a new camera (remember Trevor left the old one out overnight on the trampoline - groan). Now, he is reveling in his new television. Plus, the purchase spurred him to thoroughly clean his room in preparation for installation, so we got an added blessing. Score!

Finally, I am extremely grateful for a gift I received at The Salvation Army Eagle Creek corps at their annual Christmas party (something I don't usually attend). They gave me a cd of brass band Christmas music and I have been listening to it like crazy this month. I love me a good brass Army band and I'm really enjoying the gift of this music!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The Emotional Life of Your Brain

I am a sucker for books by neuroscientists explaining the processes of our brain.  I find the subject thoroughly fascinating. This book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live - and How You Can Change Them, was no exception. I enjoyed listening to the research and the findings and the arguments for changing the patterns of your individual brain.

Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies and teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, argues that the brain has six emotional styles: resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention. Each individual varies in their strengths or weaknesses in each of these areas. In other words, some brains just aren't wired to be as resilient to life's trials and tragedies as others.  Depressed individuals have a different brain make-up than others who sail through life with a Pollyana-like enthusiasm despite setbacks.  I found the research to be quite interesting. I reveled in all the terminology flying by - the pre-frontal cortex, the amygdala, etc.

The argument goes further than just identifying six styles of relating to life. Dr. Davidson argues for the brain's plasticity and claims that we can actually change the way our brain responds. He is a big proponent for eastern meditation and much of his research focused on the changes in brain chemistry and brain response in individuals who rack up hours and hours of meditation. Although I'm not likely to take up this form of meditation after reading the book, I do think there is some value to considering the benefits gleaned from such practices and I would venture to guess that Christian prayer could elicit fairly similar results to those cited for meditation.

Still, I was a little bit disappointed with the book.  The lion's share of the book is spent talking about the author and his research and discoveries. When I placed the final disc (out of 9 cds) into my player, I was relieved to hear that he was finally going to address the ways he feels people can change the patterns of your brain. However, the methods suggested were vague and often the same across several different emotional styles. So that, if you want to be more resilient, practice mindfulness meditation, and if you want to be more attentive, practice mindfulness meditation. It sounded like the same solution almost every time - meditation.

Sadly, I don't think I can use this book as a resource to withdraw from all use of antidepressant medication (something I would welcome). It wasn't as practical as I had hoped. It did affirm for me the concept that each of us have been hard-wired in a particular way, but that our brain also responds to things based on our surroundings and our life experiences (lots of experiments with rats whose mothers paid close attention or completely ignored them and such). It is good to recognize the brain's plasticity. There just wasn't a step-by-step method for changing the way our brains are wired, at least none that I could embrace and follow rigorously.  I would have preferred to have been given some training in the cognitive behavioral therapy - changing the thoughts we think in response to situations by reassessing them consciously and reframing them into a different context or outlook.

So, while I did really enjoy listening to this book, and gleaned a lot of useful information about the brain, I don't think I enjoyed it quite as much as I had hoped. It was more focused on stories of the author's adventures and experiments and less focused on really handing over useful tools for people to change their brain chemistry. It is good to know there are scientists willing to look into something other than medication, but I'm still not sure I have the tools to change my own clinically depressed brain chemistry enough to wean from medication.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian

This book, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, was selected as our December read for my young adult literature book club. I wouldn't have picked it on my own. I think I would have been put off by the fact that it is about an adolescent on an Indian reservation. Sounds like a ridiculous reason to be put off, but I guess I just wouldn't select something with that subject matter. However, I am so glad that I took the time to read this book. It was delightful and fun.

I think Ellen Forney's illustrations were significantly beneficial for this novel. They were clever and hilarious and really well done. They added so much to the flavor of the story. This is the tale of a young boy living on an Indian reservation who longs to get free of the burdens of life on the "rez." It reveals the sad reality of the life of poverty many experience in such circumstances. While the novel was heartbreaking at times, it was also laugh-out-loud funny at times. Arnold Spirit is a gifted student drowning in the local school on the reservation, until he decides to travel twenty-two miles to a small town "white" school outside the reservation boundaries. This doesn't go over well with the other Indians in his community. They consider him somewhat of a traitor.

At times the story just seemed to ramble, but it was perfectly fine rambling. The voice of the main character was clear and strong and the reader really gets inside the head of the character (both through the words and the illustrations). It is basically the tale of one year in the life of an Indian boy who considers himself part-Indian, part-white because of his immersion into the new school situation. Throughout the chronicle of the ups and downs of life, trying to balance the two cultures, the main character shines and overcomes adversity. It was a tale worth reading (despite some people's objections because it mentions masturbation, has some sexual comments, and some crude boy humor - didn't bother me at all, since I live with a herd of crude boys).

Friday, December 13, 2013

Amazing Close-ups of Snowflakes

Found another talented photographer on the web. His name is Alexey Kljatov and he's from Moscow. He purchased some sort of magnification lens and used it to photograph snowflakes, with amazing results:

To see more snowflakes and read more about his process, visit his website here.



Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Book Review: The Greatest Gift

I love the cover on this book, The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas, by Ann Voskamp, author of the best-selling One Thousand Gifts. It shows gloved hands gently holding an intricately cut Christmas ornament. The words in this book are like that intricately cut Christmas ornament - delicate and inspiring. They are words reminding us to be still and experience His full love for us during this season where the celebration of His birth is often overshadowed and silenced by the rush of decorating, purchasing, wrapping, baking, and visiting.

Although I was unable to read this book as intended, in daily doses across the 25 days of December leading up to and bringing the ultimate day of Christmas, it was still a blessing.  Voskamp takes a different Bible passage for each day and illuminates a lesson for the anticipation of Christmas. The stories are not all merely devoted to the birth of Christ. She delves into stories of Abraham and Sarah, Rahab, Moses, Ruth, King David, and Jonah, among others. All of the stories carry telling messages of God's love for His people and His gift of new life. In addition to the Bible passages, and the brief devotionals, the author provides activities to enrich each day and thoughtful questions to journal through. Although I didn't participate in the activities or journaling parts of this process, I can see how this might benefit someone reading through this book in the way it was intended.

My only quibble, which seems unfair actually, was that at times the words were just too flowery, too intricately carved. I guess I wanted the words to be more straight-forward and less decorative. Still, I found several passages which bear repeating and recording for future thought:

"When you are brave, you give yourself the gift of facing and touching the torn places. The places where we're torn to pieces can be thin places where we touch the peace of God. Joseph touches his thin place ... and sees through: 'You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good.' What was intended to tear you apart, God intends to set you apart."

"That is always the secret to abundant life: to believe that God is where you doubt He can be."

"No personal choice that muddled your life can ever trump the divine choice to wash your life clean."

"You aren't equipped for life until you realize you aren't equipped for life.... In that moment of realizing your limitations, your short-comings, your inescapable sins, all that you aren't - in that moment of surrendered lack, you're given the gift you'd receive no other way: the gracious hand of an unlimited God."

Those words spoke to me and ministered to some need within my heart. I'm sure that any reader can find the words they are needing to hear within this small Advent devotional. If you are looking for a book to help you herald in the coming of our Messiah, then you might pick up this little devotional by Ann Voskamp for yourself. If you choose to check it out from the library, as I did, then be prepared to read it in a shorter space of time because the hold list will probably be as long at your library as it was at mine.

Monday, December 9, 2013

More Hilarious Photography

What better way to start off your Monday than with a series of funny photos of animals dressed up in human attire. Yago Partal, of Barcelona, has created a humorous series of photos of humanized animals which he calls "Zoo Portraits."

Here are my favorite two (taken from his website at the link above):

I love the way the lemur's chest hair is exposed in this fashionable pose. Plus, his red eyes slay me.

The rhino tough guy.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Clever Elf on a Shelf Scenarios

I'm not a big fan of Elf on the Shelf myself.  We tried it and I found it tiresome to try to come up with clever new places to hide the elf (we didn't purchase the real deal, but used something similar to stand for the elf ... I think it was a bear on a rocking horse) on a daily basis. If only I'd had a little help from these creative minds ...

I have a friend who posted pictures of her naughty elf last year on Facebook, doing things like binging on candy. It was fun to watch. If I were participating, this is the idea I would steal:

This is the one my boys would appreciate the most:

And here's a hilarious one that a friend alerted me to on Pinterest:

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: Blackmoore

It took a romance set in Northern England in the 1820s to stir me out of my reading torpor.  The novel, Blackmoore, by Julianne Donaldson caught me up and kept me reading. I'm now eager to seek out her other novel, Edenbrooke.

In this book, we meet the lovely Kate Worthington and her lifelong goal of visiting the estate called Blackmoore, set between the ocean and the moors in North Yorkshire. Her neighbors and best friends, Sylvia and Henry Delafield, have been telling her tales of their summer visits to Blackmoore for years, but Mrs. Delafield has been loathe to invite Kate along for a visit because she fears it will distract Henry from his courtship of Juliet St. Claire (a girl whose match would secure a title for the family).  Finally, Henry has put his foot down and insisted that she come.

Now, the threat shifts to Kate's mother, who is furious because Kate has spurned a marriage proposal by the elderly, diseased Mr. Cooper.  Kate's mother is intent upon marrying Kate off, despite Kate's vow to never marry (she already feels penned in and doesn't want to confine herself even further). Her mother forbids a visit to Blackmoore and the further dream of accompanying her spinster aunt on a trip to India until Kate makes a deal that if she goes to Blackmoore and secures and rejects three proposals, her mother will finally release her from the requirement of marriage.

Because of a previous scandal with her older sister, Kate begins to realize that she will never receive the three proposals she needs to secure. Thus, she begs Henry to make the proposals, promising she will reject each one so that she can earn the right to her longed for trip to India and the freedom it entails.  What she hasn't banked on is her own heart's internal struggle with this process.

I thoroughly enjoyed this light romance. The setting was intriguing, the characters were lively, and the plot moved along nicely. This would make an excellent book club selection as there are study questions at the end of the book to explore.  I'm glad I picked up this lovely, clean romance.