Thursday, December 31, 2015

Family Reunion 2015

Back in 2009, we started inviting my whole family to have an annual Christmas reunion at our house here in Indiana. When I say "whole" it is no small thing. The total number of people in our house this year? 29:

And not everyone attended. We were missing 5 people from the total tally. My mother kept coming to me, this year, and saying "I don't know how you can stand it - all these people crowded in your house - it would drive me crazy." Ha!

I think if they were all here for two full days, I would probably start getting a bit batty, but the largest family within our ranks (my brother Mark's family of 8) only come from 1-9 on one day, because they simply drive up from Kentucky to join the ranks. The rest either stay in our home or get hotel rooms nearby. I enjoy having them all come and I enjoy the chance to spend time with them in games, laughter, and conversation.

While there weren't as many games this year (we almost always play a card game called Scum - where you try to make it to the position of "president" and avoid the lowest seat of "scum"), we had more time for conversation (partly because we skipped the cousin gift exchange - you can imagine how long that took). At one point, I found myself marveling at the fact that I was sitting at the table with all of my siblings for the first time in a long time and having a shared conversation (often when we visit, with that large of a group, we tend to have one-on-one conversations, instead of group ones).

Some of the conversations were fun and easy: We got to hear about two of the cousins' significant others - what they do and how they met. They listened while I blathered on and on about the novel I wrote in November-December (so much blathering that Trevor came and said, "Are you reading the whole novel to them, Mom? Because it sure feels like it." - Ha!). We talked about good books some of us have read this year and about The Salvation Army's efforts to influence church growth.

Other conversations were more difficult: My sister shared some of her anxieties related to her job. My father shared news about my mother's health. This was perhaps the most difficult conversation we had anticipated. My mother went in for an emergency heart procedure in May and after receiving the anesthesia for that, began developing signs of dementia. We have all been concerned about her steady decline and feel the need to address what that means for the future (especially since my father has a spinal surgery coming up faster than we had realized - January 5th). Living in Florida, as they do, we kids cannot be there to support them regularly.

I was feeling a strong need to know that all plans are in place to ensure that my mother is never left alone (this is perhaps my strongest anxiety because I know that people with dementia can be fine one moment and then in another moment forget where they are and wander off trying to find their spouse). At this time, my father is convinced that she is fine being left alone while he goes on his daily bike rides and to run minor errands. I would prefer that he hire someone to come sit with her in those moments (I understand how vital it is for him to have time for exercise and time for his own pursuits - caregivers often burn out because they do not allot time to pursue their own life).

He also informed us that she has taken her medicine and hidden it (my sister-in-law, who has been down this road with her own parents, said this is a very common thing with dementia patients). We are very concerned that he lock up the medicine and carefully dole out what she needs to take at the moment she needs to take it (rather than allowing her the independence he is desperately trying to provide for her, where she takes a dose and marks it off on a calendar - something which will very quickly prove to be ineffective for someone with dementia).

Of course, hearing about her decline and seeing differences in her (we had the same conversation about a planned trip to a Chinese buffet three or four times; she doesn't interact as much; she seems so very frail physically) is a difficult thing. It brings me to tears. I long for the days when my mother and I could sit and talk about a good book we had both read or give suggestions for things the other person should check out. I know that I will probably never again receive a letter from her.

While I'm exceedingly glad my dad is there for her (and said he plans to live to be 120 - yes, you read that right - a lofty goal for sure), I know that things can happen. He could fall and be unable to get up again. He could have an accident while on his bike. He could suffer a heart attack. All things that would place my mother in a very desperate position. I understand how important it is to maintain life in a similar pace (they still hope to do their visitations - a job they hold visiting retired officers in the South; they still wish to participate in their church activities; they have friends close by), but I know that eventually they will need to be closer to at least one of their children so that we can fill in the supportive role you cannot expect from friends.

Thus, we had some difficult conversations. But, despite the discouragement of having to face those issues, we had a delightful time together. At one point, I brought out a large (and I mean large) ball of Saran Wrap with goodies tucked inside. Those interested in playing formed a large circle and began to unwrap the ball (something they could do until the person next them rolled doubles in a box). At times it was frustrating because the neighbor either rolled doubles too quickly for them to get anything, or they didn't roll doubles for a long time and one person ended up with a majority of the booty. But I think they had fun playing, nonetheless.

Inside the ball, in addition to other various tiny prizes, I had wrapped about 25 balloons. Of course, my sons ended up with some of the balloons and blew theirs up. This led to a game of balloon toss where they desperately avoided the yellow balloon (clearly full of Trevor's saliva - yuck). I think if we play it again next year, I will primarily purchase small chocolates because those seemed to be the biggest hits as prizes.

Trevor reveled in the chance to show all his cousins his great skill at solving several different kinds of Rubik's cubes. One cousin sat and watched him for quite a while and they talked strategies and algorithms. Sean cracked us up with his frequent interjection of "awkward silence."

We felt sad that Bryce and his cousin Kari were both unable to attend because they were on planned vacations with their significant others' families. Kari and Clayton went to the Virgin Islands with his family.

Bryce and Madisyn went to Florida with her family.

I'm sure they both gloried in the sun and good weather, but we did miss having them for the fun and festivities. I received a sweet Facebook message from my youngest brother's son. He wrote to say what a wonderful time he had and that he hoped we could do it again next year (we skipped a year last year and I think everyone missed it - especially my younger boys who look forward to the annual visit of their cousins). The cousins had a blast playing with our Magnatiles and playing some Mafia game together. I'm with Caleb. I hope we can all get together again next year (perhaps without any absentees). Despite the chaos, it is such a blessed event.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book Review: Twice Loved

This little Christmas novella was a perfect brief read for the season. Even if the story line held a fairly standard plot and theme, it was a quick and easy, inspirational read, and a delightful diversion from my cleaning schedule prior to the visit from my extended family. I'm not sure I've ever read a novel by Wanda Brunstetter before, although I know the name is familiar in the Christian publishing world (especially for Amish fiction, which has never really appealed to me at all). I would certainly give another of her books a try.

At the close of World War II, Bev Winters is a widow with a six year old daughter. Due to jobs reverting to the men who left for the war, she finds herself seeking work at a time when the widowed Dan Fisher is seeking a manager for his deceased wife's used toy store. The story has all the elements you would expect. Romance develops between the two newly single individuals, a neighbor feels slighted because her interest in Dan is passed over when Bev comes on the scene, lessons on grief and accepting assistance unfold, and the birth of Christ coincides with possibilities for new beginnings.

Although it was typical of Christian fiction (bearing messages of the importance of seeking only believing spouses, the need to trust God when trials come, and the blessing of His provision for our every circumstance), it didn't hammer the message more than the story. It felt like accurate historical fiction. The post-war atmosphere was clearly illustrated and fleshed out. So, despite being a bit predictable, it was an entertaining read. Moreover, as an added bonus, the end of the book contained a few simple wartime recipes and a toy craft.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: The Time Keeper

It has been quite a while since I've regularly walked on my treadmill for exercise, thus I haven't been consuming audio books much. It was a bit of a hard start for this book, Mitch Albom's The Time Keeper, because I only listened to the first disc in two installments on days when it was too rainy to walk the track and really my mind was on my novel, so I didn't get into the start of this story very well. But, once I finished my novel and devoted more daily walk time on the treadmill, I was thoroughly sucked into this story and enjoyed the process of thinking about our obsession with time and the length of our days.

Perhaps, I felt more connected to the story because of unique circumstances, as well. I have a friend, a woman who taught a theory class with me at our annual music camp here in Indiana, who has just been given two weeks to live. I have been putting myself in her shoes quite a bit over the last few days and have been aching for her and her family. It is especially hard because she will leave behind a teenage son who is really seeking his way in the world and a seven year old daughter (a spunky little red-headed girl) who cannot understand what is about to happen in her life. She also leaves two other daughters, a husband, and a grandson. Even though their faith is strong, and my friend is anxious to escape a failing body and be united with the Lord, it is still a difficult scenario.

This story begins with the first human to think about and create tools for measuring the passage of time, a man the author calls Dor (which I swear, sounded more like Daw, in the British lilt of the narrator of the audio version). Dor is obsessed with time and is fascinated by the many ways you can track time. But when he creates a sun dial, he is visited by a supernatural being who eventually places Dor in a cave and makes him into a Father Time figure. After an endless sentence of sitting in the cave, listening to the voices of people in the world, the supernatural being puts a mission before Father Time. He is required to return to Earth to find two of the people whose voices he has heard, and to intersect with their stories in a meaningful way.

The two individuals Dor encounters are quite different. One is a teenage girl who is anxiously awaiting a date with a boy she is crazy about. The other is a multimillionaire man who is facing immanent death from cancer and wanting to somehow secure more time. As the story progresses, the reader's heart is tugged by the girl's plight and the man's schemes. Dor must learn his own lessons while teaching these two individuals something about the value of our limited days.

These three stories all merge to teach valuable lessons about our perspectives on time. We tend to wish for more time or wish to draw out time, but there is a reason and purpose in the length of our days. God limits our days to make each one more precious and we should focus more on using the time wisely than in wishing for more of it.

I thought the ending was a bit too neatly wrapped up, but it was still a fitting conclusion that enhanced the theme. I didn't find the story smarmy at all (the criticism commonly voiced at our book club meeting discussing another Mitch Albom book) and thought the takeaway was a valuable one. If you are looking for an inspirational look at the value of your days, you might wish to pick up this little volume (only 4 CDs in audio length). In my opinion, Mitch Albom has a gift for presenting thought-provoking tales.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Book Review: The First Miracle

Leave it to Jeffrey Archer to tell an age-old tale and provide an unexpected twist. This little gift book with a story of the nativity scene is worth the quick read and worth giving as a gift to someone else in need of a clever new take on the story of old. I'm glad I managed to secure this book in the library's $1 per bag sale, just before the holidays. I'm surprised they didn't recognize it as a big hit and save it for the holiday sale they run every December.

In this little tale, a troublesome teenager is sent to town on an errand for his mother in the time of Christ's birth, near Bethlehem. The boy makes the purchase for his mother, but is sidetracked by the vision of a man with his pregnant wife on a donkey being turned away from an inn. Since the boy's father is a census taker, he is well aware of the influx of people in the area and not surprised by their plight, but he takes an interest in them, nonetheless, and his interaction with the couple leads to an unexpected miracle.

As I read this little book on Christmas Eve, it made me think of my mother. She would so enjoy this story as she is a fan of Jeffrey Archer's books (she introduced me to this quick-witted author). I may try to read it to her when she comes for a visit, but she has said that she cannot really retain what she reads any more. So sad to hear. Perhaps, if I read it to her, she will be able to still reap some enjoyment from this brief little tale (only 30 pages, with the accompanying illustrations).

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas 2015

Another Christmas morning has come and gone. This one turned out to be far more of a successful venture than I had anticipated. I was riddled with worry that one child (the youngest, who is simply harder to buy for because he expresses so few wants and needs) would feel slighted or disappointed with his gifts. I do try to keep things equivalent, but this year proved too difficult in that regard (Trevor had far more needs and wants than the other two and some of his needs were more expensive, so he was, by far, the favored child today).

One of the best things about today's gift giving was that the two older boys both participated in purchasing gifts for others (they haven't really done that in the past). Sean had a gift for each of his brothers under the tree, but he was oblivious as to what they were because they had actually been purchased by a parent. Both Bryce and Trevor bought thoughtful and interesting gifts for everyone. Bryce even managed to buy me a book that I liked but didn't already own and hadn't already read (now that's a feat).

We had some hits and some misses, but that's par for the course. The biggest hit was immediately evident - the BMX bike for Trevor. He came out and saw it and his face lit up. I had wanted to find an awesome sled to put under the tree for Sean (so that he would have something large and similar to Trevor's big present), but we procrastinated long enough on that one that we were unable to secure one in time for Christmas (and frankly the weather looks like it might not even bring sledding weather any time soon). Thankfully, Sean was not disappointed in the slightest and loved his gifts (which were primarily cool clothes - he had said that everyone else wears cool clothes at school while his aren't so cool - i.e., thrift store clothes - ouch).

Some of the misses? Bryce bought Sean a gift that was supposed to produce smoke from your fingertips. We opened the tube, spread the horribly smelly ointment on the thumb, rubbed the forefingers over the thumb and managed to produce only the slightest bit of disappointing smoke. The worst bit came when we tried to get the product off the hands. It was apparently (Bryce explained it well, with the correct words I cannot even remember now) unable to be washed off with water. It required the use of olive oil to get it off the skin and anything else it happened to touch - yikes. That one went straight into the trash can.

I had purchased a Koontz jet propelled car for Trevor from Fat Brain Toys (usually a great source of educational fun). What a joke! While he did have some fun putting the cardboard car model together, the actual use of the car was quite a disappointment. He would blow up the balloon to power the car and release it only to see the car move less than two feet across the floor. Groan. For the price, we felt it really should have been a bit more impressive than that.

In the past, I've had next to nothing under the tree for me, plus John had already informed me that my gifts were little and so he just wrapped them all in one box (really? that sort of takes all the fun out of the unwrapping and surprise factor). Thus, I really wasn't anticipating much. Thankfully, my boys really outdid themselves. John's gift was full of books, a DVD, CDs, and a gorgeous purple journal. Bryce bought me three things (the book, a pair of lavender-infused fuzzy purple socks, and a bar of dark chocolate) and Trevor gave me three, as well (a pair of monkey pajamas, a monkey blanket/pillow set, and a tile trivet with his picture on it).

Bryce's girlfriend, Madisyn, made me a beautiful hand-made gift with great significance. She created this lovely image of the state of Indiana, with a heart in the place of Lafayette, where Bryce goes to school at Purdue. I love it and can't wait to find the best spot to display it.

Thus, we've had a truly blessed Christmas. I'm off to help John prepare the Christmas dinner, which will be followed by a splendid nap. Perhaps after that, I'll do a puzzle. Blessings to all on this Christmas Day of 2015.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book Review: Journey into Christmas

Our library attempts to entice people with displays of books on certain themes. This time around, I was sucked into their display of books for Christmas and was hoping for an entertaining, heart-warming, inspirational tale or two. Thus, I picked up this book of Christmas-related short stories, called Journey into Christmas and Other Stories, by Bess Streeter Aldrich. I don't think it quite lived up to my expectations, but given its publication date, it was probably just a matter of too intense of a time gap.

The stories in this volume emphasize life in the eighties and nineties. No, I'm not talking the 1980s and 1990's. I'm talking 1880's and 1890's. Yes, it was a bit of a stretch to pull myself back into that time period. After I read a few stories, I checked the publication date and noticed that it was first published in 1928. Our library copy was a seventh reprint from 1949, so it was a quite popular edition ... back in the day. There was an element of timelessness to each tale. Christmas hasn't changed all that much. People still long for a deeper sense of family togetherness during the holidays and want to emphasize a spirit of giving that transcends the ordinary existence of daily life.

Yet, I did find myself wondering why I kept reading. It was almost like I kept at it merely to finish the book. The writing wasn't bad. The characters each held some nugget of truth about Christmas. But, somehow, it wasn't enough to really move me in any significant way.

Today is Christmas Eve. I still hold out hope for a delightful Christmas read. I have a Christmas book my mother-in-law was getting rid of (by Wanda Brunstetter) and another short Christmas book by Jeffrey Archer. The presents are all bought and wrapped (even the ones for Sean's birthday a few days after Christmas), so I should be able to snag a few hours this afternoon for reading in bed (a delightful prospect, to be sure ... much more delightful than cleaning for my family's imminent visit after Christmas - that can wait for the day after Christmas). So, even though this book didn't spur new thoughts for Christmas, perhaps the next ones will.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book Review: Crenshaw

The cover art on this book drew me in. I recognized the author name as the author who wrote The One and Only Ivan. Sadly, we tried to read that book together a few years ago and just couldn't get into it at the outset. We set it aside and never picked it back up again, but Sean's classroom read the book together just recently and when he saw what I was reading, he, too, recognized the author name (wonderful to have a child who recognizes author names!).

Crenshaw was a tender, touching tale about a young boy (maybe not so young, since he is just entering fifth grade) who has an imaginary friend, a giant cat named Crenshaw. Crenshaw came into Jackson's life in first grade, but is making an unwelcome reappearance now because Jackson's family is heading for more hard times financially. Things are up in the air and Jackson is uncomfortable with the uncertainty of it all.

The book provides a sad glimpse into the lives of homeless families. It is a quick and easy read and the characters are genuinely likeable. This would make an excellent read-aloud for an elementary classroom. (My library shelved it with the tween books, but I'm doubting many middle school kids would find it appealing. I could be wrong.) For my part, I'm in love with the purplish hues and the giant cat profile on the cover. I don't know that it swayed me to try The One and Only Ivan again, but I would certainly consider another book by this author.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Done! Finished! It's a wrap!

At long last, I have finished the novel I started writing on November 1st. By last week, I was starting to despair that I would never finish. My greatest fear was that I would still be writing when the boys finished school and were home constantly for their Christmas break (which starts today as soon as school lets out). Thankfully, with the help of my walks on the school track, I saw my way clear to the end and wrote it all down.

The novel came in at 113, 517 words, and that is after I took out 1665 words (words and scenes that I later came back to and knew needed to be eliminated). I feel really good about this effort. I did my very best on it. Is it all that it can be? Not yet, by a long shot. It will need a good month or two to simmer and then I'll have at it with a hacksaw to eliminate any unnecessary words, refine the language, clarify the plot, develop the characters more firmly, and shape it into the thing of beauty I know it can be. I'm eager to begin shopping it out already, because I think the story is a very timely one, but I will wait until I feel it cannot be improved any more in my hands. Then, we'll just have to wait and see what happens to my creative child that I have lovingly birthed in this seven week process.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Review: The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje (Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient), was our December selection for my book club. Otherwise, I doubt I would have sought it out. I never read The English Patient, but did see the movie (ages ago). My memory of the movie is that it was slow-moving, but somewhat interesting. That about sums up my experience with this book.

The story follows the youth and adulthood of a young man named Michael (the author admits parts of the story are autobiographical), who travels alone on board a ship at the tender age of 11 to move from Sri Lanka to England. He has been living for the past four or five years with his uncle and is to be reunited with his mother on the other side of the journey. While most of the book focuses on the friendship created between Michael and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, it also dips into his adult life and his reflections on the journey.

The ship carries a prisoner and the boys are very curious about his crimes and his nightly walk upon the ship's deck. Michael describes, with boyish intensity, his encounters with others on the ship, including the table mates where he is seated at the "cat's table," the table farthest from the influential people asked to sit at the Captain's table. His older cousin, also on board the ship, becomes involved with the mystery surrounding the prisoner.

I cannot say that I was captured thoroughly by the tale. It was pleasant enough to read, but nothing of great interest to me. I think the passage I enjoyed the most described a youthful venture where the boys strap themselves to parts of the ship during an especially intense storm and manage, somehow, to survive the foolhardy escapade, to the captain's relief and consternation.

I will be interested to find out what the other women thought about the book. I wonder if any of them will have liked it intensely, given my own indifference. I am often surprised by the wide variety of experiences others have with books. I can absolutely love a book and find others there who felt it was ineffective or somehow lacking, and other times I dislike a book, while the other women share resounding praises. Funny, how that works. We bring so much of our own individual backgrounds to what we read and sometimes a book stirs a connection and sometimes it doesn't. This one just didn't stir many personal connections for me.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

When Friendship Potential Turns to Dust

My situation is unusual. I have lived in this small farming community for 9 years and have yet to make a true close friend. I try not to write about it because, really, who wants to read about something so depressing as loneliness? Moreover, who wants to admit to being the one person that others seem to shun rather than seek out? If I were a desperately shy, introvert, it might be understandable going almost a decade without establishing a friendship base. But, I'm not a shy introvert. If anything, I love to be with people and love to talk.

I can analyze it and see some of the reasons for the paucity of friendship material. For one, I do not work. I have no access to workplace camaraderie. Besides, we do not have a solid church home. I attend The Salvation Army on a sporadic basis, but even if I went there every Sunday, there are really few women there who fit a potential friend profile (similar age, similar mothering situation, similar interests, similar beliefs, etc.). The one woman who best fits that potential friend profile is an officer and is, therefore, simply too busy to pursue a deeper friendship than the cursory Sunday greeting.

We attended another church for a solid four or five month period, but no friendships developed there either. I inquired about information on their preschool program, enrolled my children, attempted to strike up conversations with other mothers ... all to no avail. Eventually, we shifted into sporadic attendance and then stopped attending that church altogether. So the two most common places to strike up friendships, work and church, are ineffectual for me.

Often, the problem in attempting to make friends with the mothers of my children stems either from an age difference or differences in parenting philosophies. Sometimes, it even comes down to bad timing and unfortunate circumstances. Friendships with the mothers of my oldest, who might be closer in age to me, since I had him at the reasonable age of 30, have always fizzled into nothingness. It isn't like I fail to make an effort. I invited one (who, while ten years younger than me, had children with the same age span) to attend the theater with me. Unfortunate events (drug use) led to the demise of that potential friendship. Another mother of my eldest son failed to pick my son and her son up when they were in a bad part of Indianapolis late at night with car trouble (we were out of town) because she was in a fight with her son. Somehow that makes friendly feelings dissolve. I have yet to establish a friendship with one of the parents of my oldest son.

Often the mothers of my younger two are simply distant in age (since I had them at 39 and 41). But sometimes, they have failed for unknown reasons. My middle son enjoyed a brief friendship with a delightful young boy. I really liked the boy's mother. She worked in the education field (my background) and was outgoing and friendly. Then, my son attended a sleepover at their house and their friendship dwindled into nothing. I peppered my son with questions: did you break something? did you bother the parents by staying up too late? - all possible scenarios. Needless to say, with their friendship gone, I have not had any further contact with the mother.

Lately, I am grieving the friendship scenario for my youngest. He was desperate to invite over one of his favorite friends at school, so I called to make the invitation and heard nothing back for days. I called to repeat the request and when I did so, I made a fatal error. I was new to my phone and didn't realize that clicking off at the base button only popped the call into a separate window without shutting down the call. Therefore, when Sean yelled from the other room his dissatisfaction with not knowing the results, I replied "We can't make them call us back, Sean." A few seconds later, I realized that those words went into the message I had just left with the mother because the call was still going. Great! They did get together, but - not surprising - haven't had any further contact. And Sean really likes this boy.

So, we recently accepted the invitation from another of Sean's friends, whose mother is a spunky, friendly woman. He had a wonderful time at their house and we wished to reciprocate. The mother expressed concern that I not allow the boys to play any violent video games. I assured her that we would stick with rated E games on the X-box 360, even though my sons are allowed to play some games with more mature ratings. I swear, without hovering, I kept a close eye on them. But, when the mother arrived to pick up her son, he exclaimed that he had killed people off with diarrhea and insanity (they had played a virus-spread game on the I-pad - no violent shooting, but still ... it did come out as "killing" and I saw a flash of concern cross her face). Now, I am worried that we have, once again burned our bridges (what's more, Sean feels like it was his fault because he introduced the game thinking it was okay).

I am sad for my sons, who lose out on the benefits of close friendships, but I am equally sad for the loss of potential friendship for myself. My husband says that I over-analyze these things (and I probably do - I spent several hours reviewing everything I had said to the mother and critiqued every area that could have raised eyebrows or alerted the inevitable shun-factor). While he, too, feels the pain of my lack of friends, he tends to take a laid-back approach (the boys can still be friends at school even if they don't get together in the off-hours). I feel everything more acutely.

I don't know what the answer is. Perhaps we should be making a more concerted effort to find a church home. I do want my boys to be in a solid youth group when they reach those troublesome years of adolescence. Perhaps I should seek out even a part-time job. I don't want to abandon my writing goals by seeking full-time work just to provide an environment where friendship can grow more naturally. I suppose I can only keep reaching out and praying for some alignment in the heavens to bring along a person I can relate to and comfortably converse with.

In the meantime, I cling to the words of Paula Rinehart in her book, Better Than My Dreams:

"There is a quiet release in my spirit ... when I realize that often, my dreams really are not God's dreams. What does not happen was not meant to take place. My failure - or someone else's failure - didn't catch God by surprise, like it slipped under the wire when he wasn't looking."

The might-have-beens could rob me of my peace and joy. I must fight against that. I must surrender again, believing that if God intends a friendship to grow, He will provide it and nurture it and yield whatever He wishes from it. For now, my isolation and loneliness, must be within His plan. I will scoop up the dust and give it back to Him. He has a purpose. My goal is to yield to that purpose and use the pain to fuel a deeper empathy for those who struggle with loneliness.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Book Review: Beyond Blue

Although I picked up this book as research for the main character in the novel I am writing, it really provided more personal benefit than assistance with fleshing out a character. As a person who has struggled with clinical depression, this book was a blessing. It is so helpful to hear someone else articulate the frustrations and the deep lows experienced at the hands of the disease of depression. It was refreshing to hear it identified as a physical disease, not just a tendency to get blue over life's difficulties.

In Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, Therese J. Borchard chronicles her journey into the pit of despair and offers up hope to others who might be battling the same demons. The demons of depression and anxiety are real. They are not simply a weakness displayed by individuals who cannot cope with life. The body does a number on you and suddenly you are incapacitated by overwhelming symptoms of grief and despair. Often, there is no real reason for a struggle. You could have a decent life, beautiful children and spouse to live for, pleasant activities and everything, yet still struggle with the immense desire to cease existing.

Although I didn't really learn anything new about the disease or its treatment, it was such a blessing to read someone else's journey and know that I am not alone in the battles I have faced. Moreover, I'm not alone in facing the varied responses others have to the manifestations of illness (try this, try that, if only you'd do this, if only you focused entirely on God, etc ...). Thankfully, like the author, a psychiatrist was able to come up with the right balance of medicine to help me counteract the imbalances in my brain and hormonal chemistry. But, like the author, I wish there was greater understanding of the illness and less stigma attached to it.

It would be wonderful if I could go back to the person I was prior to my miscarriage and three births, prior to the imbalance. There are those (I'm not naming names) who look at me in wonder and say, "She was such a go-getter, productive and dynamic, and now she accomplishes so little" - as if productivity equals worth. Even with the medical cocktail that gives me a degree of normalcy, I still battle the demons and thus, I was able to fully relate to Borchard's very personal, very raw and honest portrayal of her experience. I marvel that she has maintained such a wonderful sense of humor through it all. The book is not only insightful; it is downright funny, at times. If you have struggled with clinical depression, you will find comfort, inspiration, and understanding in these pages.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Still Writing Away

Well, I should say still attempting to write. Some days are more productive than others. I ended up taking off two days over Thanksgiving because we were at my mother-in-law's house and I just couldn't focus there. It is always hard to get back into the swing of things after a step away from the novel writing. Thus, when I got back into it after the weekend was over, I had one day of less than a thousand words and another with less than a dozen. Yikes.

I finally got my groove back up again and was writing over 2000 words a day, when another weekend hit and my husband was desperate to get the Christmas stuff up (since it was already the 5th and 6th of December). I only wrote 168 words for those two days combined and now I'm back to the struggle of resuming momentum.

It is hard going at the moment. I've laid the foundation, established the characters and their separate goals, propelled the plot in the direction of the final climax, but have not yet reached that climax. Moreover, I'm already at 87,000 words. This novel could well be the hardest one I've attempted yet. It is longer. It is written from a more difficult point of view to use (dueling third person limited chapters from alternating narrators). It is set in the future (which means I have to stay consistent with a whole different world) and it sets up problems that are none too easy to resolve.

I would say I'm still having fun, but also growing a bit weary of the slow progress. I want things to begin moving at a quicker pace. I want to know how the story resolves, not continue hanging on a thread wondering what big event will take place to propel the main character into a cathartic moment. It is equal parts thrilling and frustrating. I persist in walking on the high school track, hoping for inspiration and mulling over what needs to happen with each day's writing, even though when I requested permission to walk there, I told them I would probably be walking on it through the month of November. Who knew it would take two full months to complete the rough draft of this novel?

All of this to say, I'm still alive and well and attempting to balance Christmas preparations and activities with novel writing and reading (in addition to books about my novel's topic or character traits, I also need to read the book for my book club coming up). I'm not done with my shopping yet, but I've tried to avoid the long lines at stores by making more of my purchases on-line. Thank goodness for that option.

And as for paring back this Christmas - pah! Not really happening. The boys might not get everything they want (like a certain one who thinks he should have an I-phone at age 11), but they are certainly receiving more than four items under the tree (to be honest, though, most of them are needs, like socks and clothes).

Friday, December 4, 2015

Book Review: Ender's Game

Once again, my reading choices have been dictated by research for my novel. In my novel, a male teenager is reading a dog-eared copy of a book. Seeking a book with great appeal to teenage boys, I decided to make the book he is reading Ender's Game, even though I had never read it. I liked the fact that it has a character trying to save the world, since this particular character has a bit of a hero complex himself. It is, indeed, probably a perfect fit for reading material for this character.

Alas, I didn't find it quite so charming that I personally would consider reading and re-reading the novel. I felt that the book was extremely violent and I found it distasteful that the adults were attempting to turn the children in the novel into killers. Plus, it felt somewhat unbelievable. Seriously! Ender is six years old when he is taken to begin training to command a fleet against the enemy aliens. Yet, he is dangerous enough that he kills another child and this earns him the coveted spot in the Battle School, where they play endless simulated games to prepare for war.

Everyone's hopes are pinned on Ender Wiggin. At six, he accomplishes far more than other kids his age. He is a ruthless opponent and sees strategies that elude others. He is taken to the Battle School for training, knowing full well that he will not be released to see his parents or his beloved sister, Valentine, until he is at least twelve. He isn't the least bit sad to say farewell to his older brother, Peter, a boy with sinister violent tendencies (supposedly more violent than Ender, although Ender kills two boys, while Peter never kills anyone). Even though he loves Valentine, he agrees to go to the Battle School in the hopes of becoming the commander to lead the human forces in war against the Buggers (aliens).

From the very start of his time at the school, his precociousness is milked by isolating him from the other students because he is labelled special. This is the premise which Card says earned the most value with teen readers, especially among the gifted who feel isolated and misunderstood, just like Ender. But the level of conversation, intention, and behavior presented by these children felt unrealistic. I never really cared much for any of the characters presented, to be honest.

The twist at the end was ruined because I had done an Internet search on why teens like the book and one person had mentioned the twist, so I guess I didn't get to experience the novel as it was intended. Still, I did manage to glean a few quotes I felt might stand out for the character in my novel. "We might both do despicable things, Ender, but if humankind survives, then we were good tools." (Colonel Graff to Ender on his usefulness to humanity). And toward the end of the book, Valentine turns to Ender and says, "Welcome to the human race. Nobody controls his own life, Ender."

In thinking of the book, I am curious to see the movie. I would like to know if it ends up being as violent as the book. I don't know that I want my boys to watch it with me, although they have watched other PG-13 movies where the violence level was beyond my comfort level (The Maze Runner). Somehow I doubt the movie remained faithful to the book in beginning with Ender's training at the age of six. I'm guessing they started training him as a teen or pre-teen. Much more believable. Also, there are a host of other books in this series, but I have no desire at all to seek them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Curses, Savings Foiled!

I hate it when a great plan falls apart. I suppose karma is biting me in the butt for gloating over my triumphs in the savings arena. Now, I am no longer feeling the love of a great deal, but rather weeping over sour grapes of a good deal gone bad.

Kohl's lured me in with their e-mail proclaiming there was still time to earn $15 in Kohl's cash for every $50 purchase, plus I had a code to save 20%. I had been wishing for a pair of boots to wear with the lovely $1.74 outfit I scored recently. Thus, I searched the Kohl's coffers and found this lovely boot, normally $79.99, on sale for $24.99 ($20 with my 20% off):

Next, I needed a new comforter for Sean's bed. All three twin beds in their room have black comforters. Sean's is the only bed with red sheets. Thus, I felt like I had scored big time when I purchased this $80 reversible down alternative comforter for $24.99 (again $20, with the 20% off):

For my final purchase, to bring me to the $50 point, I ordered a twin set of memory foam pillows for $17.99 ($14.40). That brought my total over $50 and thus I secured the coveted $15 Kohl's cash to use on socks for my husband.

Alas, the comforter arrived today and it is red and tan, not red and black. I checked on-line and the store near me had some available, so I called to see if it was an error in the on-line presentation. Woe is me. They have no black twin down alternative comforters (this was a misprint on-line ... all the red ones have tan on the reverse side). My only option, in order to keep the Kohl's cash, is to trade the red/tan one for another color. So, when I return the comforter, I will be stripped of my Kohl's cash. Curses! Most foul misrepresentation!

So, Sean and I began another Internet search for an alternative black comforter. We found a reversible black/gray one on the Target website. Sadly it is not the fine quality of the Kohl's one and is not down alternative. It was listed as only $14, but when I placed it in the cart, it came up as $18. Oh well, I plugged on. I entered my Target card information (hoping to save the meager 5% they offer when you use their store card). My card was declined. When I called, I learned that they closed my account because I hadn't used the card in over a year. Curses! Foiled from saving yet again (I suppose ninety cents won't kill me).

Then, I open another e-mail to discover that the American Eagle coat I purchased just days ago for 40% off has now, just for today, been marked down to 50% off. That's a whole ten further dollars I could have saved. Blimey! I feel like change is falling out of my pockets! Now, I'm off to wash my $1.74 outfit so I can wear it when the $80 boots I scored for $20 come in the mail (please Lord, let nothing be wrong with those).
Update: I called American Eagle and they processed my request and are putting the difference back on my card. Yippee! Bless you, American Eagle, and thank you for putting the customer first!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Biggest Score of the Season

Christmas this year is going to be pared back. In part, because the boys are a bit older and simply don't wish to receive a lot of little things (no - their requests are far bigger, like Trevor's request for a $400  We the People BMX bike - yikes - I promptly visited Craigslist and found a generic one for $40, think he'll mind?). In part, because I have no desire or energy for making a bigger production out of it. And in part, because, well let's face it, the times ... they are a bit perilous.

I told the boys we're going to follow the rules I see posted all over Facebook these days: Four gifts: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. Trevor is having a fit! He keeps declaring that Dad will never go for it because it is only Mom who is CHEAP!

In light of those rules, I began, of course, with something to read. I found some fantastic deals at CBD. I bought a joke book for Sean, a book of fascinating facts in the Bible for Trevor, and a book about being all in for Christ for Bryce. Thankfully, each book was less than $3, because I can guarantee you that the only book thoroughly read will be the joke book. Trevor will glance at his for a bit, and Bryce will never even crack the cover (well, maybe he will in a few year's time, who knows). For John, I took advantage of Amazon's annual 30% off one book sale and then had him make the purchase himself because he has an account with Amazon prime for the free shipping. Won't he be surprised.

While on the CBD site, I also snagged 5 boxes of 12 Christmas cards for only $1.84 per box. With the Walgreens print sale of 10 cents for each 4x6, I can send my cards for only 25 cents per card. I debated which photo to use. I had a photo from a recent honor induction for Bryce, but the sunlight made the two younger boys squint so. In the end I went with the lower photo, even though the background is boring. They're not nearly as nice as last year's photo cards (using a professional photo from Penney's), but they'll do.

For something to wear, I have only one option for Trevor. He will only wear American Eagle clothing - persnickety fellow. He has been in need of a coat and AE was offering 40% off their winter collection. This still left me spending $60, but by paying with PayPal, I took advantage of a $20 credit for any purchase over $50. Not bad.

But, the biggest score of the season actually came from K-mart before Thanksgiving. I had $7.74 in reward points from a recent purchase of recliners from Sears. Then, K-mart sent a note saying they were giving me $12 in surprise points for any $12+ purchase in women's clothing. Thus, I secured this top and pants for only $1.74. You can't beat that!

Plus, at the checkout they gave me a 20% back in points off my next purchase. So, I went Friday night (long after the rush of people, but still in time for the 50% off sales) and bought a few Purdue items for Bryce, using the 20% back offer and then applied that ($7.50) to a separate purchase of a $13 sweater for me, a $20 winter coat for Sean and a $12.50 pair of snow pant overalls for Sean. Yippee! How I love a good bargain!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: Best Boy

One of the nice things about belonging to a book club is that other people come to recognize your tastes and interests in books and can then offer up suggestions and recommendations of books they think you would enjoy. This book was just such a recommendation. I'm known for my interest in Asperger's syndrome and books with characters dealing with Asperger's. Eli Gottlieb's book, Best Boy, features a character dealing with autism in an institutional community.

Todd Aaron is one of the oldest residents at the Payton Living Center for individuals with developmental disabilities. He loves reading from the Encyclopedia Brittanica. After being in the institution for forty years, he is definitely used to his accommodations, but Todd is dealing with some recent changes and desperately wants to return home. His parents are dead, but he wants to return to see his childhood home and visit his younger brother, Nate.

Todd's new roommate, Tommy Doon, is aggressive in his attempts to elicit an outburst from Todd. Plus, there is a new staff member, Mike Hinton, who reminds Todd too much of his abusive deceased father. When a one-eyed resident, Martene, encourages Todd to stop taking his medicines, Todd begins to hatch a plan to burst free from the chains that bind him.

Although I felt the first person narration accurately captured the essence of an autistic individual, I don't think it deserved the comparisons it received on Amazon with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. While Best Boy was interesting, its plot wasn't nearly as compelling as The Curious Incident and the character didn't spring to life as vividly. I was a bit worried the story line was going to veer off into something sexual when Todd begins to explain his attraction to Martene, but the author keeps it fairly PG-rated.

My favorite character of all, wasn't the main character, but rather, a staff member at the institution named Raykene. Raykene displays such tenderness and love toward Todd and offers up wisdom and compassion. She, along with Todd's mother, demonstrate the love developmentally disabled individuals long for and deserve. Through Raykene's friendship and Todd's mother's encouraging words, Todd is able to face the difficulties in his life and find redemption.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Review: Serafina and the Black Cloak

I cannot remember how I heard about Serafina and the Black Cloak, but it is billed as a New York Times Best Seller. I absolutely loved it. The author, Robert Beatty, does a remarkable job of sucking the reader in right from the beginning and filling his/her head with all sorts of questions to drive the reading. I couldn't turn the pages fast enough and I fully enjoyed the tale.

Serafina has been secretly living in the basement of the Biltmore Estate with her father, the Biltmore's maintenance man, for all twelve years of her life. Her father has instructed her to never be seen by the owners or guests and to never disclose her name. This is the first mystery I couldn't wait to unravel. Why must she hide from the light? Why can't she get to know other kids? Is he only fearful of losing his job, or is there more to her story?

When Serafina observes a man in a black cloak stealing away to the basement with a young girl, who later is declared missing, she knows that she must come out of hiding in order to help find the girl and identify and defeat the individual in the black cloak. Longing for a friend, and for someone who will believe what she saw, Serafina joins forces with Braeden Vanderbilt (nephew to the owners, whose own family was lost to him in a fire) to solve the mystery before more children are taken.

The pacing was perfect. It kept me reading and hoping for further answers. The revelation of the mystery behind Serafina was satisfying and entertaining. There was just enough historical information about the Biltmore Estate to be informative and interesting. I loved the characters of Serafina and Braeden. This would make a fun read-aloud for an upper elementary classroom in October because it has a shade of spooky and a mite of magic. If you are enticed by book trailers, this is an excellent trailer for the book:

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: Wish I Could Be There

Another book I picked up off the free table for research for my novel, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, is a memoir/study on social phobias. The main character in my novel suffers from acute social phobia and extreme test anxiety. Her personality is the crux of the novel because she is called upon to take a test she feels she cannot possibly pass and the consequences of failure are no simple matter.

This book was an interesting look into the life of someone who struggles with agoraphobia. While my character doesn't necessarily have trouble with wide open spaces, I found many passages well worth my time as I attempt to flesh out this character in my novel. Allen Shawn clearly articulates how the body responds to the fear messages phobias send to the rest of the body and he provides plenty of rumination on what makes a person develop such phobias and how they can fight them. It was quite interesting to learn that Shawn is a twin, whose twin sister was sent away to an institution when Allen was eight, an event which no doubt led to many difficulties.

I found it rather intriguing that many of the things I had already written fell in line completely with his assessment of the situation. I have only had one major panic attack in my life (it happened at camp and I truly thought I was having a heart attack and that my two small children would awaken the next morning to find their mother dead on the floor ... then it passed and I survived and I realized the terror was fully physical and yet it came from somewhere in my dormant mind, since I was asleep at the time it struck). Yet, even without a thorough understanding of what it must be like to be a social phobic, I find it is not terribly difficult to step into this character's shoes.

If someone you love struggles with extreme anxiety issues, this might be a helpful book to read in order to more fully understand their perspective. Regardless of whether you know someone who has social phobias, this book allows you to step into someone else's life and live a day with the irrational terror such difficulties bring. It's not a book I would have gone out to purchase, but I'm just as glad that I stumbled upon it for free.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Wonderful Writer's Retreat

My husband scheduled workmen to come into the house to repaint our dining room and kitchen and replace some doors and trim in that area. This is right where I normally sit to write (although I have recently taken to working in Bryce's room because it is more isolated and I think better). Thankfully, my husband encouraged me to find a retreat center where I could go for a writing retreat. I thought about going to the place I visited several years ago, but remembered that they have no wifi or phone service in that remote location (and I often feel a need to look something up to support something I'm writing at the moment, like I found a wonderful list of names meaning wolf to use for the counselor and test administrator in my novel). Thus, I sought out a different place and happened upon this wonderful retreat center on Lake Bruce in upper Indiana.

Run by a family of wonderful Christians, the center is used for prayer retreats, marriage retreats, group retreats, and individual retreats. You have to place a request and be approved and I was thrilled to learn that my request was granted. There was another group of nine college students there (for less than twenty four hours of my stay) when I arrived, but they were quiet and remained in their side of the house. I was placed in the Francis Schaeffer suite, complete with two bedrooms with queen beds, a sitting room, and a kitchenette.

(these first three photos were taken from the retreat center website at Mahseh Ministries, where there are loads of photos that fully reflect the beauty of the house and grounds - I'm not capable of providing such quality photography, nor did I have access to a boat to take the lovely shot from the water - ha)

I had a lovely view from my balcony:

Once I had the house to myself, I tended to work at a desk in the hallway with four windows overlooking the lake (again, the photo is mine, so the quality is meager):
There was a tremendous library in the basement (along with access to a DVD player and television equipment, but I left those alone, choosing to focus entirely on my writing and on some supportive reading - these are again photos from the website):

There was a beautiful view of the water from the basement (my photos):

I brought simple foods to prepare so that I wouldn't need to leave the retreat center at all and could focus entirely on my writing. Alas, upon arrival, I realized that I had forgotten the cord to my laptop at home. Thus, I had to take a trip over to Rochester, Indiana, to visit a Walmart and pick up a universal laptop cord (not cheap - expensive mistake).

But, I was indeed able to focus on my writing for the most part and managed to spit out another 21,769 words during the time I was there from Monday afternoon through Thursday morning. This brought me up and over the Nanowrimo goal of 50 thousand words, but much of the novel still needs to be completed. I was feeling stuck when I left, because the main character needs to do something bold and sacrificial and I had no vision for what that was, but a walk at the track this morning has given me a bit of an idea (although I don't know that it is sufficient or what I'm really looking for).

All in all, it was a very productive yet relaxing time. The owners were very gracious and even invited me for dinner one night (I declined, preferring to hole up in my suite writing away). I'm so grateful this opportunity came together for me. It was a God thing, to be sure!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: The Human Blueprint

There are libraries in two separate nearby communities, thus even though I cannot borrow a book from a library in my own town, I have access to two different libraries within a twenty minute drive from my house. Usually I only go to the farther one when I am travelling there to do some shopping. The past two times I have stopped in they have had books for free - yes FREE - in the front lobby of the library. It just so happened that several of those books looked like they would be great for research for the novel I am writing, this being one of them.

Robert Shapiro, a chemistry professor at New York University, has written this book, The Human Blueprint: The Race to Unlock the Secrets of Our Genetic Script, to familiarize the common man with the Human Genome Project. You might remember from a recent book review I wrote, that I was studying up on the topic of eugenics. After Hitler's disturbing application of eugenics ideas, the scientists and financial backers of the eugenics movement shifted gears and renamed their efforts "genetics" instead of "eugenics." Most of Shapiro's comments and background information about the eugenics movement reveal that he wants to clearly distance himself from those ideas as well. Yet, he is fascinated by the study of human genes.

Shapiro wrote this book back in 1991. I believe he felt we would be further along in our understanding of human genes and how they influence what we look like, eat, feel, and fall prey to (illnesses). He provides numerous hypothetical scenarios to underscore his beliefs about what we will learn through this study. I found these scenarios a bit tiresome after a time (probably since I'm in the period he was speculating about). While I did enjoy reading up on the background of the project (starting with Gregor Mendel's observations about the hereditary makeup of peas, following Thomas Hunt Morgan's genetic maps, and Watson and Crick's discovery of DNA strands revealing genetic coding in four-letter scripts), after the history lesson left the 1950's, the narrative began to slog for me. I skimmed through much of the middle of the book, only pausing to read thoroughly on passages I thought might support the fictional world of my novel.

It was primarily Shapiro's predictions for our future that I was interested in gleaning. Here are the two paragraphs from the inside cover that sucked me in:

"Shapiro takes us inside the laboratories of the geneticists involved in the project, pioneers whose discoveries could give us the cures to hundreds of ancient diseases, catalog exactly the genetic makeup of each individual, identify risk of disease, identify a criminal from a single fragment of skin, and a thousand other wonders no one could have dreamed of a few years ago.

"Yet when this mammoth scientific undertaking reaches the point where the information it reveals becomes applicable, society will be faced with a variety of deeply troubling ethical dilemmas. Should corporations be allowed to screen potential employees for disease risk in order to keep down health care costs? Should children be directed along a specific educational path based on their genetic abilities? Will the choice of a marriage partner be based on hereditary compatibility? Will some genetic propensities be declared "good" and others "undesirable"?"

These were the questions and ethical issues I was most eager to explore because they play a significant role in the book I am writing. However, I did not glean as much useful information as I had hoped from the book. There were a few quotes I felt summed up the theme of my work. For example, sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman wrote: "In gaining the choice to control the quality of our children, we may rapidly lose the choice not to control the quality, the choice of simply accepting them for who they are." Another helpful quote came from geneticist Albert Jacquard who wrote: "Genetic richness comes from diversity ... we need to understand that others are precious to us insofar as they are different from us."

All in all, it was a semi-interesting exploration into the topic of genetics. While I am not opposed to the interventions of scientists to eradicate horrible diseases like cystic fibrosis, I am concerned that we play God too often. We wish to produce a certain outcome and mold things in our favor, when often the things that don't go in our favor are the very challenges that stretch us to grow and make our stories both interesting and meaningful.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Book Review: We Never Asked for Wings

This book took longer for me to get through than it normally would have, simply because I acquired it in audio form and then promptly stopped walking on the treadmill (choosing instead to walk on the track where I can think about the novel I'm writing). I did bring it into the kitchen when washing the dishes, but tried not to have it on when the boys were around (not that there was a lot of bad content, but it occasionally veered into territory I didn't want their young ears to pick up). After reading Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers, I eagerly scooped up her second book, We Never Asked for Wings, when I saw it in audio form on the recent acquisitions shelf at our library.

While the story was a good one (struggling mother wanting what is best for her children and wanting to give them far more than she is capable of providing), I found it difficult to like the main character. In the beginning she is portrayed as a drunk who leaves her children home alone while she drives (drunk, remember) to find her mother who has left to follow her father back to Mexico. Although her character grows and changes, and I liked her better by the end of the tale, I still never warmed to her completely.

Letty Espinosa has been perfectly content to allow her capable mother to raise her children, Alex (age 15) and Luna (age 6). Unfortunately, when her father returns to Mexico because of a death in the family, Letty's world begins to spin out of control. Her father fails to return and her mother feels she must go to him. Letty drives her down into Mexico, but is involved in a car crash before she can return to the children she left alone. Now, back in the States, Letty must assume the position of mother when she feels most vulnerable and incapable.

With the help of a friend from work (a man she is reluctantly developing an affection for), she attempts to move the family from the poverty of "The Landing" to a more affluent neighborhood so that her brilliant son can attend a good high school with a sound science program. She is doing her best, trying to juggle the demands of work, the challenges of motherhood, and the financial needs of her parents in Mexico, when the father of her son reappears in her life, stung because he was never informed of the birth of his child.

There were a few things I felt uncomfortable with. The characters in this novel repeatedly break the law (entering illegally, lying to secure a better education for the boy, bringing a small child along to a bartending job, looting from boxes behind stores, breaking into the high school and altering computer records in an attempt to secure a better location for the boy's girlfriend, etc.) and yet all of these incidents are presented in such a way as to win the reader's affection for the characters and overlook the fact that the actions are inherently wrong. Apparently, the wrong is on the side of the demons who wish to enforce rules and standards. I don't want to say my heart strings weren't thoroughly tugged by the novel. Indeed, I found myself wanting the characters to prevail, even when they went about it in the wrong way. So, the author was certainly capable of sucking me in and making me feel horrible for the situations the characters found themselves in. I can handle characters making mistakes; I just want those characters to recognize them as mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.

Moreover, there were many unbelievable aspects to the novel. She totals her car and yet manages to get home and secure enough money to build a good life for her family. In the beginning she is an alcoholic working three jobs (how can an alcoholic even hold down one job, really?), yet suddenly she is sober, working only in the daytime while her children are in school, and making enough money to rent a place in a school district with a stellar science program. The parents in Mexico no longer need her financial assistance because they have struck it rich with the father's art, enough to finance a plane trip for Letty and the kids to come visit them in Mexico. I guess it just seemed unrealistic that money always showed up whenever there was a new need of it.

This makes it sound like I didn't like the book, but that's not true. I did enjoy the story. It was very well written. I was able to remain engrossed even though I only managed to consume the book in snippets here and there. Diffenbaugh presents lively characters with real-life problems. She paints her scenes well and infuses the writing with beautiful passages of prose. Once again, she takes an interesting topic (the migratory habits of birds and the use of their feathers for art) and fleshes it out as a support to her characters and plot. The information was fascinating and the story was full of hope and redemption. If only the book hadn't presented right as wrong and wrong as right quite so much, it would have been a thoroughly enjoyable tale.

I still think it was a very worthwhile read. Diffenbaugh is an excellent writer. She weaves her stories well and they stay with you for quite a while after you put the book down. I will keep my eye out for more from this fine author.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review: The Lake House

I think when a person is writing a novel, they become highly attuned to the craft side of a novel. Kate Morton is an outstanding writer. In her novel, The Lake House, she draws the reader into the story, people's the landscape with interesting, flawed characters, and paces the plot development perfectly.

I have been thinking about these details for my own novel. I have one character who seems too perfect. She needs a character flaw to round her out and to provide some inner conflict. I have also been thinking about what it takes to reveal just enough information a bit at a time to compel the reader to stick with the story and allow the plot to develop at just the right pace. How do you blend background information effortlessly into the story without bogging it down or slowing down the story progression? How can you continue to present new evidence making the reader second guess what they had assumed about the story up to that point? These are all things a writer has to contemplate and complete.

Kate Morton has clearly contemplated these issues and completed them quite successfully. Once again, as in her only other novel I have read (The Secret Keeper - a novel I didn't like quite as much as this one), Morton skillfully weaves a tale that bounces back and forth between two time periods. Modern characters set out to understand the actions of others in the past and secrets, long buried, are slowly revealed.

Alice Edevane is a precocious, sixteen year old girl deeply in love with the gardener on her family's beautiful country house, Loeanneth. The family is preparing to celebrate a Midsummer party and Alice is preparing to present her very first manuscript to the gardener, with a dedication to him for his assistance in its creation. But by the time the evening is over, her dreams are dashed and the party comes to a tragic end, when Alice's infant brother, Theo, goes missing.

Seventy years later, Detective Sadie Sparrow has been forced to take a leave of absence and is visiting her kindly, old grandfather when she discovers the cold case of the missing baby. She has a weakness for missing babies. She longs for justice both in the case that led to her enforced leave and in the case of the missing baby from long ago. As Sadie digs deeper and deeper, she finds secrets long hidden and even a missing piece in herself.

This was a fantastic read. Although it was a sizable investment of time, given its 492 pages, the story held my interest throughout. I marveled at the writing skills revealed in the telling of this tragic tale. I've decided you can always count on a great yarn when you pick up a Kate Morton book.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Review: War Against the Weak

I have been knee-deep in research for the novel I am working on. One of the subjects of interest happens to be eugenics, a word meaning "well-born." Most people think of Nazi Germany, when the topic of eugenics comes up, but Edwin Black's book, War Against the Weak, clearly illustrates the origins of the scientific campaign for better breeding of people. Had America had a charismatic leader like Hitler, we could have easily gone down the same path.

The word eugenics was coined by a man named Francis T. Galton. A cousin to Charles Darwin, Galton was obsessed with counting and quantification. He is linked with the early development of meteorology with his 1863 book, Meteorigraphica: or Methods of Mapping the Weather. He then became interested in the idea of identity identified through the unique patterns of fingerprints. Following the rise of family lines full of geniuses, he wrote a book called Hereditary Genius.

In America, the study of heredity and development of various species began with a concentration on plants and animals. As the book proclaims, "This radical human engineering program would spring not from the medical schools and health clinics of America, but from the pastures, barns and chicken coops - because the advocates of eugenics were primarily plant and animal breeders. Essentially, they believed humans could be spawned and spayed like trout and horses." Thus, the start of the eugenics movement in America was fed along by a zoologist named Charles Benedict Davenport, working with the American Breeder's Association. Breeders were focused on creating the very best cattle and horses. Why shouldn't the same principals be applied to humanity? Thus, one breeder declared, "Every race-horse, every straight-backed bull, every premium pig tells us what we can do and what we must do for man .... The results of suppressing the poorest and breeding from the best would be the same for them as for cattle and sheep."

Pair this ideology with the financial backing of big names like Andrew Carnegie and J.D. Rockefeller and you have the beginnings of the eugenics movement in early twentieth century America. These early scientists and proponents of eugenics sought to document incidents of human defects by establishing the Eugenics Record Office. Next, came things like Stanford-Binet testing to identify intelligence levels and attempts to sterilize the weak or inferior. I was surprised to learn that Indiana was "the first jurisdiction to legislate forced sterilization of mentally impaired, poorhouse residents, and prisoners."

The book also explores the Malthusian notion (taken from Thomas Robert Malthus, who studied political economics and demography) that "A world running out of food supplies should halt charitable works and allow the weak to die off." Another influential individual tied to the eugenics movement was Margaret Sanger (the woman who campaigned for birth control for women). Although she was not a proponent of sterilization or elimination of defectives, she played a significant role in the eugenics movement.

Of course, once Hitler rose to power and used these principals to justify his desire to eliminate an entire race of people and more firmly establish a Nordic nation, American scientists and eugenicists wanted to distance themselves from the whole fiasco. Thus, eugenics quietly turned into human genetics and genetic counseling. The American Breeder's Association became the American Genetics Association. Frederick Osborne, known for switching the name of the movement to genetics, stated "The purpose of eugenics is not to breed some ... superior being, but to provide conditions ... for each succeeding generation to be genetically better qualified to deal with its environment."

Edwin Black goes on to predict how this movement will possibly play out in our own future. He states, "In the twenty-first century it will not be race, religion, or nationality, but economics that determines which among us will dominate and thrive." He goes on, "Newgenics may rise like a phoenix from the ashes of eugenics." There is already talk and advancement of things like DNA databases and digital fingerprints. Black's predictions are scary, his final conclusion worthy of repeat:

"Only one precept can prevent the dream of twentieth century eugenics from finding fulfillment in the twenty-first century genetic engineering: no matter how far or how fast the science develops, nothing should be done anywhere by anyone to exclude, infringe, repress or harm an individual based on his or her genetic makeup. Only then can humankind be assured that there will be no new war against the weak."

Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Review: Brain Maker

It was the subtitle to this book that drew me in - Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain - For Life. Dr. David Perlmutter, author of the New York Times Bestseller Grain Brain, puts forth the idea that the center of our mental and emotional health is determined by the state of our microbiome, the environment of our gut. He hooked me from the very start when he began by talking about the amount of money our nation spends in caring for dementia patients compared to that spent on heart disease and cancer patients (twice heart disease and triple cancer). Dementia isn't simply a problem for my own family, with the decline of my mother, but it is a national epidemic.

I had a three-fold interest in the information presented in this book. First, I was interested in what dietary changes could possibly assist my mother in fighting off dementia and could assist me in fighting off depression and chronic fatigue. Second, I was interested in the statistics for anxiety disorders, since the main character in the novel I am writing suffers from an anxiety disorder. And finally, I was interested in how the gut influences those who suffer from migraine headaches (another ailment of my main character). I found the information fascinating, even if the proposed program seems a bit daunting (perhaps not as daunting as the whole 30 program, which suggested the elimination of so many things I would find hard to give up). I think the biggest hindrance to my adopting this dietary plan would be the prevalence of fermented foods (something I'm not especially fond of nor likely to take the time to make for myself).

The basic premise is that the state of the microbiome is the key to human health. I took great interest in a small section devoted to a relatively new science, epigenetic medicine, or the science of how diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management influence the expressions of our DNA and, eventually, our brain health. After this brief introduction to the importance of one's microbiome, the author provides a questionnaire meant to help the reader determine the level of dysfunction in their microbiome. As I read all the things which can be detrimental to one's brain health, I was surprised that my oldest son is as healthy as he is. He struggled with many of the factors mentioned on the questionnaire. He was born via c-section (meaning he failed to get the vaginal birth transfer of healthy maternal gut bacteria). I received antibiotics, which were passed on to him, in preparation for the c-section. He was breastfed for less than three months and suffered from frequent ear infections, requiring antibiotic treatment and the eventual placement of tubes. I'm sure it is true that we, as a society, have been so eager to eliminate bad germs and bacteria, that we often destroy the good along with it and then wonder why we are sick.

Another interesting, though slightly disgusting, tool the doctor recommends is FMT, or Fecal Microbiota Transplantation. This process involves taking the healthy stool from someone with a healthy microbiome and transplanting it into the gut of an individual suffering from various ailments (it is only used in the U.S. to treat C. Difficile infections, but many of Perlmutter's patients went to other countries for the procedure and found it helpful in battling things like Tourette's Syndrome, Autism, and a range of other difficulties). It is said to be very helpful for individuals suffering from Crohn's. I can see where placing samples from healthy individuals might battle the unhealthy elements in the gut of a patient plagued by health difficulties. Even though it sounds gross, it also sounds promising.

So what does the doctor prescribe? His plan involves six steps: 1) Choose foods rich in probiotics; 2) Go low-carb and embrace high-quality fats; 3) Enjoy tea, coffee, chocolate and red wine for polyphenols; 4) choose foods rich in prebiotics; 5) Drink filtered water; and 6) fast every season. This sounds far more do-able than the strict eliminations many current dietary challenges propose. But still, I'm not sure I'm going to start eating sauerkraut because it will balance out my gut environment with healthy bacteria. I will recommend the book to my parents. The ideas are intriguing and remind me of a similar informative book I read, Clean Gut. Even if the information was simply enlightening for contemplation for the character in my novel, it was worth the read. Moreover, I'm now off to read an article he referenced entitled, "Mind Altering Microbes: Probiotic Bacteria May Lessen Anxiety and Depression," by University College Cork (I see now that this information is old news as it came out in 2011). Next, I intend to head to the author's own website,, to see what other resources he has available.