Friday, October 30, 2015

Book Review: The Carnival at Bray

This is another example of a debut novel displaying great stylistic ability. There are many things I think author Jessie Ann Foley nailed in this novel, The Carnival at Bray. She presented a realistic teen character with a strong personality and equally strong voice. She captured a time and place very well. She evoked an emotional response and a sense of empathy in the reader for her main character and many of the minor characters, as well.

I think if I had been the kind of person who deeply connects to popular music, this novel would have struck an even more significant chord with me. Alas, I have never really been all that absorbed in popular music. I am far more moved by things like classical music or Christian music or, perhaps strangest of all, brass band music. Thus, I know, one of the great strengths of this novel was basically lost on me as a reader. Even still, I could appreciate the young character's strong affinity for the music her uncle made and loved. This created a depth of connection which played a key role in the empathy surging in the reader when their relationship is shattered.

Apart from the mother (portrayed as a ditzy woman who is more consumed with finding love than with being a responsible parent), I felt drawn to the characters. The elderly gentleman who is esteemed by the whole village. The doting and concerned Irish nuns. The young lad dealing with a schizophrenic mother and wishing for the type of relationship where he could actually have a normal teenage fight with his parental figure. And especially, the struggling main character who is intent upon finding her place in the world.

It is perhaps the setting of the novel I delighted in the most. Sixteen year old Maggie Lynch, an Irish-American living in Chicago in the early 1990s (a full decade after I lived there), is plucked from her familiar surroundings and transplanted to Bray, a small town in Ireland, to live there with her newly married mother, her Irish stepfather, and her younger sister, Ronnie. In this coming-of-age tale, Maggie deals with loneliness, identity-issues, young love, and grief. Ireland was vibrant and alive for me in this book (helped all the more by hundreds of photos I have recently viewed on my niece's Facebook from her trip to Ireland). The details of both Chicago and Ireland all felt dead-on and created the perfect atmosphere for this tale of battling isolation and forging identity.

I know teenagers will feel immensely drawn to this novel. My only hesitation goes back to my personal pet peeves against all the junk authors feel they need to fill a YA novel with in order to appeal to young adult readers. Does an adventure always have to include sexual exploits, drug use, alcohol consumption, and rebellion against parents?

I'm sure the author was attempting to reach out to young readers by instructing them on the difference between good sex and bad sex. Maggie gives in to a sexual encounter with someone she isn't all that attracted to, simply because the opportunity is there and it seems like the thing to do. Then, she experiences sex on a whole new plane when she is intimate with a far more compelling and appealing individual. Within months, Maggie has "fallen in love" with this second boy and has a far more satisfying experience. She has only known him for a space of months and yet, she is ready to "know" him. And I find myself, as a parent, thinking "would I want my teenage daughter to think that sex is the next inevitable step when you believe you have fallen in love?" I say "believe you have fallen" because so often young girls think they have discovered love only to later understand that their emotions betrayed them into mistaking attraction and chemistry for something stronger than it actually is.

I know I am fighting a losing battle. YA novels are not going to clean up simply because I believe they can tell a good story without muddying the waters with so much bad behavior and teenage fumbling. Teenagers do fumble. Teenagers do make mistakes. They have sex with others simply because they think it is expected of them or because they think what they have found is going to last forever. They give into drug use because the joint is passed their way and their peers convince them that it is stupid to not smoke it simply because it is labelled illegal.

And, amazingly, I still enjoyed the novel despite content riddled with drugs, alcohol, sex, and rebellion. I enjoyed the adventure. I embraced the characters. I loved the writing. I wouldn't steer teenagers away from this book, but I would want to discuss some of the messages pushed in the story - especially the one that "There will always be time to do the responsible thing. Before that, live." As if, being irresponsible is the path to truly living. As if your teenage years are splayed out in front of you for the very purpose of exploring all the things you might not get to do in life if you turn them down in your moment of freedom. As if teens are meant to behave irresponsibly, an expected journey, in their path to maturation. I can't embrace the message, even if the writing was great, the characters realistic, the setting stunning, and the plot development flawless.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: The Language of Flowers

I'm always amazed when an author can jump right out of the gate with a stunning, entrancing novel for his or her debut effort. Vanessa Diffenbaugh has done just that with her first novel, The Language of Flowers. Diffenbaugh skillfully weaves a story, jumping back and forth from the past to the present, and merging all the emotional investment into a redemptive and satisfying conclusion. It's not enough to have an interesting topic: here, the messages and meanings of flowers (a practice from Victorian times). If an author can take that topic and flesh it out with realistic characters and a steadily moving plot, they tap into a whole deeper level of meaning. I believe Diffenbaugh has done just that.

Victoria Jones is an unreachable foster child. Aging out of the system, she finds herself alone, with no job and no place to stay. But she has one thing going for her - her love of flowers. She takes over a small plot of land in a city park and begins to grow flowers. Then she stumbles into a job with a florist and quickly proves her worth. For anyone else, this new beginning would bring hope, but Victoria is convinced that she will mess things up as she has always done in the past. Her way with the flowers and her ability to match flowers to the sentiments customers wish to convey is the only thing keeping her afloat. But her past is bound to catch up to her at some point and she will learn the truth. Will she destroy everything she has gained, as is her habit, or will she find the strength to push into the life she really wants and make peace with the actions of the past.

I loved how the author developed the characters gradually. Victoria certainly has rough edges, but I really felt pulled in by her character and wanted good things to come to her for once. Moreover, I marveled at the perfect pacing - every other chapter dipping back into the past to set the stage for events in the present. I loved the conflict raging beneath the surface. And the flowers, while I wouldn't have been drawn to them normally, were full of significance and beauty. This was simply an outstanding debut novel. I'm eager to delve into further works by this talented author.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: El Deafo

Our selection for the October meeting of my Young-at-Heart book club was Cece Bell's graphic memoir, El Deafo. This book was very reminiscent of Raina Telgemeier's graphic memoir, Smile. Both authors have overcome the challenge of circumstances that altered their sense of self. Both authors provide an interesting story line with full-color, whimsical illustrations. In Bell's book, the main character is portrayed by an endearing rabbit.

At the tender age of four, Cece Bell grows sick and suffers significant hearing loss. Her parents advocate for her and she is fitted with a phonic ear. She has to wear the device, strapped to her chest, and with wires sprouting from her ears, in front of all her classmates. Cece suffers the typical childhood fears and anxieties concerning her differences, but she also discovers the phonic ear provides her with a bit of a superpower (she is able to hear the teacher even when the teacher has stepped out of the room and might be in the teacher's lounge or the restroom). Through it all, she learns to embrace her differences and find friendships that can stand the test of time.

The particular book I received from interlibrary loan revealed a shelf designation as Junior Graphic Comics. Thus, the book would probably appeal to younger kids than the teen set. However, any individual who has struggled with an outwardly different appearance will be able to relate to this book. I'm not sure how much discussion we'll actually pull from this, since it doesn't exactly lend itself to discussion questions, but it was an interesting selection and a very easy read.

Side note: Amazon lists it as the Number One Bestseller in Children's Physical Disabilities Books and proclaims it a 2015 Newbery Honor Book. Also of interest: Cece Bell is the wife of the author of the Origami Yoda series, Tom Angleberger.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review: Thirty Million Words - Highly Recommend

When my middle son was in first grade, I brought along my youngest to a parent-teacher conference. During our conversation, both of the boys stood a short distance away reciting a math progression they had recently learned from the outstanding children's book Rock, Brock, and the Savings Shock. Away they bantered: "1+1 is 2, 2+2 is 4, 4+4 is 8, 8+8 is 16, 16+16 is 32, 32+32 is 64, 64+64 is 128, 128+128 is 256, 256+256 is 512" ... up and up they kept going. They were newly-7 and 4-1/2 at the time. The teacher marveled at their math skills and asked me, pointedly, what I may have done to bring out such math skills in my boys. The only thing I could think to tell her, in the moment, was that we talked about math often and I incorporated math into everyday life regularly. For example, every night since they were infants, I would rock on the rocking chair and while they set about to the task of falling asleep, I would count out loud to one or two hundred before leaving the room (This also worked at nap times, when I would tell my reluctant napper that he only had to remain absolutely still while Mommy counted as high as 200 and if he was still awake, then he could get up.)

Today, I have proof that these attempts to raise their math performance potentials really worked. It is not only that my boys do very well in math. I have firm support in a recently released book, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child's Brain - Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns. Written by Dana Suskind, M.D., the book puts forth the theory that "parent talk" is one's most powerful resource for insuring that your child will reach their optimum brain development and tap into all of their potential. Although math is a very small component to the discussion in this book, I recognized the validity of my own assertions that incorporating math concepts into daily discussions is the best way to increase the pre-school levels of math ability.

This book's focus is on the over-all potential a child holds for brain development and explores ways in which that potential has been short-changed in our society. The author begins by citing some studies identifying the early language environment for families in a wide spectrum of socio-economic levels. These studies resulted in the discovery of the thirty million word gap. It became clear that children in more affluent homes heard thirty million more words (and of a wider variety) than their counterparts in welfare homes. Not only that, but they received more positive words. While professional children heard 664,000 affirmations and 104,000 prohibitions, welfare children heard 104,000 affirmations and 228,000 prohibitions. The book attributes the "achievement gap" in kids to the differences in early language environments.

Parents have a window of opportunity, from birth through the third year, to establish the rich language environment necessary for optimum brain development. The author states, "By the end of age three, the human brain, including its one hundred billion neurons, has completed about 85% of its physical growth, a significant part of the foundation for all thinking and learning." The goal of this book is to encourage parents to understand the TMW gap and to take the necessary steps to ensure that their own children receive a richer, more varied, early language environment. To do so, the author provides a simple mantra for parents to reflect on: The Three T's - Tune In, Talk More, and Take Turns. Interaction is key. You cannot simply expose a child to audio or video of rich language and expect that to increase the brain's firing synapses. You have to get down on the child's level, allow for child directed speech, and engage the child in interaction. Even "baby talk," often ridiculed as inferior, serves a purpose and "helps babies' brains parse out sound and commit to the language they'll be using." What you say and how you say it is, ultimately, very important.

While I believe that this initiative is a vital message to be sending to parents everywhere, I wonder whether the parents who would benefit from the message the most will even pick up the book to read its findings. Moreover, I don't believe the message is quite the panacea it is presented as in the book. At one point, the author writes "It's simply a matter of parents understanding the importance of the language environment and, when there is a need, having accessible, readily available supports in place. Understanding the TMW gap also helps set the stage for turning the tide for all children. In this regard, the science is clear. In order to close the achievement gap, in order to ensure that all children in this country are able to achieve their potentials, well-designed, carefully monitored programs, based on scientific evidence, must exist to help it occur." In other words, in order to solve the problem of lower-income children not reaching their potential, we simply need to educate parents about their important role in fostering the optimum language environment and provide programs to stimulate more talk and beneficial interaction. Personally, I don't think greater understanding or more government programs will eradicate the problem.

Here again, I fall back upon an example from my own background. When I was teaching, I had a particular student who seemed to always be in trouble. I did everything I could to encourage better behavior in this student and when I caught him doing something positive, I decided to phone home to alert the parents of his positive actions. What followed was the most eye-opening conversation I've had in regard to a problem student. When the father took the phone, I knew that the student was standing nearby. This father proceeded to berate the child extensively to me, repeating over and over again that he was just a screw-up and a sorry excuse of a human being. In trying to reinforce the positive, I learned just how extensive a negative environment this child endured.

While you can make every effort to provide parents with skills to improve their interactions with their children, and to enhance their ability to tap into the brain's key development period, you cannot create the changes required simply through understanding of the TMW gap. You cannot enforce change. You can hope for it. You can reach as many as you can, but there will always be parents like the one I encountered in this particular phone call.

Having said that, I still consider this a book I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone I can. The book is extremely well-written (great structure and readability) and is full of interesting scientific studies, thoughtful encouragements for parents and teachers alike, and practical advice for building a child's brain. Even though my children are long past those first three crucial years, I enjoyed reading about the very way in which I may have fostered just such a rich early language environment to stimulate their brain development.

I listened to the book in audio form, but then checked the book out to go over more thoroughly in hardback form. If you are parenting a small child between birth and four years of age, you would certainly benefit from reading this book. Teachers will find the book interesting. Moreover, if you are at all interested in ideas about the development and malleability of the brain, this is sure to appeal. I believe this book serves a noble purpose. I just wish that understanding, alone, was all it took to change behavior and improve society as a whole. If so, this book would, indeed, put us on the path to a better world.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Book Review: Head Case

What if your whole life had been spent struggling with anxiety issues and learning disabilities without any clue as to where the struggles originated? What if the source of all your difficulties was finally established but promised nothing in the way of remediation for the things that perplex and confound you? What if your difficulties left a lasting imprint on the dynamics of your family structure and left you wondering about your place in the world?

Enter Cole Cohen. She lived just such a scenario. She had long been plagued with the difficulties of telling her left from her right, of judging the speed and motion of oncoming moving objects, of solving simple mathematical equations, or of keeping letters and numbers from flipping in her mind. Finally, at the age of twenty-six, when she is on the cusp of beginning a MFA degree, doctors discover a hole in her brain the size of lemon. In her touching memoir, Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders, Cohen writes very honestly about her struggles and how her struggles impacted the people around her. Without whining about the hand she has been dealt, she conveys humor in the midst of a very perplexing situation. Given the size of the hole in her brain, it is remarkable that she is able to function as well as she does, and to write a memoir about the journey is even more incredible.

While the story was intriguing and well-told, I still wouldn't declare it one of my favorite memoirs about neurological difficulties. I think if someone approached me requesting a recommendation for a great neurological memoir, I would be far more likely to recommend Susannah Cahalan's Brain on Fire, reviewed here. It was simply a more powerful book, with a wider reaching purpose. But, if you plan to read it, do so soon, before it comes out in movie form in 2016.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Book Review: Bright Beginnings for Boys

Whenever our library advertises a book about raising boys, I jump at the chance to read the book. Add in that the book is about increasing literacy, and I'm jumping even higher. I have three boys who are not nearly as fond of reading as I am (although one would say he enjoys a good book, but would still prefer to be read to instead of doing the work himself). Since my boys often see me reading, I know that I am already laying that groundwork of a good example, but I wondered what else I could do to increase their literacy skills.

In Bright Beginnings for Boys: Engaging Young Boys in Active Literacy, authors Debby Zambo and William G. Brozo present a text-book style manual for increasing literacy in young boys. Most of the information followed common sense: let them see you reading, seek out books which appeal to their particular interests, encourage them to find good books, and be cognizant of the special physical needs of boys (energy and curiosity). The book is aimed at both parents and educators. The first few chapters focus on the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development of boys. There is a chapter addressing ways to create a classroom climate which meets the special needs of boys and one on matching literacy activities to boys' interests.

I think the most helpful resource in the book is a  fourteen page appendix listing books that demonstrate positive values for boys. Many books are suggested for teaching the values of cooperation, courage, generosity, honesty, perseverance, respectfulness, responsibility, and tolerance. All of the book suggestions, while entertaining and educational for both sexes, bear special appeal to boys. I was thrilled to see books I recognized by Kate DiCamillo, Kate Klise, M. Thaler, Tedd Arnold, Natalie Babbitt, and Cynthia Rylant, but many more by authors I am unfamiliar with and titles that sounded intriguing (each listing presents the author, title, and a brief description of the book).

The book also includes an extensive fourteen page list of references which could be culled to discover many more helpful articles and books on the subject. I believe this book will be especially valuable to elementary school teachers who are interested in promoting literacy in their classrooms. They will find a wealth of information for encouragement, questions to ponder for increasing literacy in their classrooms, and plenty of suggestions for great teaching literature. I also noted, from the back cover, that William G. Brozo has another book available, To Be a Boy, To Be a Reader: Engaging Teen and Preteen Boys in Active Literacy. I think I will need to search out that book for suggestions for my own boys, since their literacy levels are leaning toward the pre-teen category. Moreover, I would be thrilled if that book also contains listings of suggestions for great tween and YA literature.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Book Review: The End of the Sentence

I'm quite sure I wouldn't have selected this book to read on my own. As October's book club selection, The End of the Sentence did fit the bill for spooky, eerie, All Hallow's Eve fare. It was a subtle blend of supernatural terror and fairy-tale charm. However, in the end, I can't say that I would recommend this as a great read. The pages, while they did fly by quickly (it only took a short time to read the whole little novella), simply didn't appeal to me all that much.

Malcolm Mays is fleeing a terrible personal tragedy. He has purchased a small house and homestead in a remote location in Oregon. Yet, when he arrives, he is greeted by mail from an inmate at a nearby prison who claims to own the house. This inmate, Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, begs him to perform a personal favor for him before he returns at "the end of the sentence." The house seems to be possessed. It urges him forward in this mad dance of understanding what is required and deciding whether or not he will fulfill the request.

Thus the conflict is presented and the inner turmoil begins as the main character attempts to discern the best course of action while the clock ticks down to the inmate's anticipated release. The supernatural bits, while sufficiently creepy, failed to suck me in. The characters were flat and rather lifeless (then again, perhaps that was the point). The back cover promises "a deliciously creepy and atmospheric mashup of old myths and new twists." Creepy? Yes. Atmospheric? Yes. Delicious? No. I think if I were suggesting better October fare, I would recommend Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. That, to me, was creepy, atmospheric, and delicious.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review: On Becoming a Novelist

Bret Lott, in his writing memoir, Before We Get Started, cited John Gardner's book On Becoming a Novelist as a seminal treatise on the life of a novelist. I knew I had the book. I believe I even had to read the book back when I was in college (although perhaps that memory is false and I simply picked it up soon after college because of my own interest in becoming a novelist someday). Thus, I brought this book along on a brief trip to a water park with the boys for their Fall break (always good to bring a book you own, instead of a library book, in case it somehow gets water-damaged).

Perhaps it was simply the distractions of frolicking vacationers or the piecemeal nature of the reading, but I didn't like the book nearly as much as Bret Lott must have. Basically, Gardner sets out what type of individuals seem to be drawn to the profession of writing novels. His comments outline various tendencies, frailties, and temperaments. I felt that I fit the intended audience, as Gardner proclaims in the preface, "I write for those who desire, not publication at any cost, but publication one can be proud of - serious, honest fiction, the kind of novel that readers will find they enjoy reading more than once, the kind of fiction likely to survive." He declares at the outset that the book is not intended to be a "book on craft," but rather a book meant to "deal with, and if possible get rid of, the beginning novelist's worries." Still, apart from the admonition to pursue the craft with vengeance and seek to present one's very best work, without giving way to despair over rejection, I didn't glean all that much.

He says things I have already heard before: "write what you know," "be vigilantly observant," "use precise language," and "persistence is absolutely necessary to success." I suppose I bristled a bit at the opinion that education is also a necessary ingredient for success. He seemed to urge new writers to seek out quality writing courses (outlining which ones were not "quality") and hone their craft by careful study of the masters. I suppose I want to believe that someone without an MFA in writing can still achieve success.

Another recommendation that didn't sit well was the encouragement that novelists work backwards to the skill of honing a short story. That is something I have never felt I excelled at. I'm sure writing a short story would prove difficult because I am used to relying on many pages to develop my characters and bring forth my plot. Perhaps it would be wise to attempt it, but I seriously doubt that I would do well.

Mostly, the writing in this book wasn't nearly as accessible as the writing in Lott's memoir on the craft of writing, Before We Get Started. This wasn't as easy a read and required a bit more diligence to follow his arguments and encouragements. I'm sure this is, indeed, an important text if one is interested in pursuing novel-writing, but I didn't really enjoy reading it, sadly. Other writers must feel differently than me, because Kenneth Selb of the Fresno Bee writes, "Let me say at once that this is simply the best book ever written for someone who aspires to be a novelist."

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Book Review: Before We Get Started

Catherine, who blogs at A Spirited Mind, recommended this memoir by author Bret Lott, Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life.  It was an excellent read just a month before I embark on another novel writing month with the National Novel Writing Month organization (Nanowrimo). Lott presents a series of essays on aspects of writing and his life, as his writing has matured and gained exposure.

In the first essay, "Before We Get Started," Lott uses the story of Ezekiel commanding the dry bones to spring to life to encourage writers to just show up. He writes of Ezekiel, "He leaves it to God, and then proceeds - and here is the most important moment - to speak the prophecy he has been called to speak, whether he believes it or not, and not knowing as well what that prophecy means. He speaks, because he has been called to, and not because he knows what will be the outcome."

He continues, drawing the example closer to the writer: "And then, in the writer's answer to whatever has called him to write, and in his willingness to look at each word with fear and trepidation coupled with faith that speaking it will be an act in obedience to what has called him to speak it, those words will line up, will breathe, will become the vast army of sentences that will take up residence in the new Israel every story, novel, essay, and poem ought to be."

I found the second essay "Why Write Anyway?" to be especially helpful in the same way. The words reminded me that I write because there is joy in getting it right, no matter if what I write receives grand exposure or few readers. He quotes Raymond Carver who queries, "If the writing can't be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it?" and answers, "In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave." Lott decides that writing is its own reward and that each writer is on his own in the process and the results.

He writes about rejection, providing stories of his own experience with rejection. He declares it will come to every writer. Expect it. Learn not to fear it. March on. Grow wiser in your submission, but march on.

But, I think the most powerful passage of all in the book, came when he quoted J.D. Salinger's words from one character to his younger brother, a writer: "If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world ... [you] would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself... Oh, dare to do it... Trust your heart."

The book is more memoir than writing instruction, but several key points about writing do come out through the stories of the author's journey. He writes of being selected by Oprah and the big hub-bub that came as a result. Yet, he is very humble and writes over and over again of his limited understanding, making those of us who "don't know anything" like him, feel understood and encouraged.

After completing this book, I'm eager to get my hands on another book of his, also recommended by Catherine, Life & Letters: On Being a Writer. That one will have to be inter-library loaned because none of the libraries close to me have that one on their shelves. After reading that one, I'm going to give his novel, Jewel, a try. Heck, if Oprah selected it for her book club, it has to be a great read, right?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Book Review: Every Fifteen Minutes

I was thrilled to find the audio version of another Lisa Scottoline book, Every Fifteen Minutes, on the shelves at my library. She is an author who is quite skilled at weaving great stories full of suspense. I was up for a thriller and up for a lengthy story to capture my imagination. Lisa Scottoline certainly delivered, with a compelling tale about a sociopath on the loose.

Dr. Eric Parrish is the head doctor of Havemeyer General Hospital's Psychiatric Unit. Recently separated from his estranged wife and missing the constant contact with his seven year old daughter, Eric is eager to make some changes to increase his custodial provisions. Unfortunately, someone is out to get him and he doesn't even realize it. He is dealing with a new teenage patient with an obsessive compulsive disorder. The teen, Max, feels a compulsion to tap his forehead every fifteen minutes and recite a spectrum of colors. Max is also obsessing about strangling a girl he has a crush on. Eric must decide whether patient confidentiality allows (indeed, behooves) him to contact authorities with his concerns for the girl or whether to attempt to keep tabs on Max on his own.

Throughout the story, there are portions of narration from the sociopath who is after Eric, but that sociopath is not revealed until the final moments of the story. Scottoline expertly weaves suspicion on several characters in the story line. The reader is left to wonder again and again exactly who it is. Moreover, the ante continues to be upped over and over again as time begins to spiral things out of control for the good doctor.

I was sucked into the tale right away and felt great sympathy for the main character (despite the fact that his actions were a bit unbelievable and self-absorbed at times). I enjoyed the book and would recommend it if you are looking for a riveting thriller with a mix of medical, legal, and ethical issues. The author kept me guessing right up to the end as to who was responsible for the many troubles plaguing Dr. Parrish's private and professional life. Happily, my library has another few legal thrillers by Lisa Scottoline in audio form, so I can rest assured for more quality listening time in the future.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review: Naptime with Theo & Beau

Although this is billed as a pre-reader children's book, the photography in it is so stunning, even adults will ooh and aah over it. Author, Jessica Shyba, began taking photos of her young son and their puppy and posting them to her popular blog, Momma's Gone City. The photos quickly went viral and soon she had quite a large following of people eagerly awaiting another photo of Theo and Beau asleep together. The story is simple and the photos are, as The Daily Mail bills them, "unbearably adorable." For any parent with dog-lovers in the home, this is a must-read/must-view book. Warning: it will melt your heart.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Our Guardian Angels Are Working Overtime

When we first moved to this house out in the country, Bryce was ten. That first summer, we went to a neighborhood garage sale in the next town over and happened upon a two-seater go-kart for sale for $350. Knowing we had the perfect scenario for go-kart ownership (a large meadow in front of our house), and having just ripped the boy from the comfort of the only life he'd known, we seized upon the opportunity and bought the darn thing. Although it has provided many an hour of great fun, the thing has been down far more often than it has been working and we have plunked out WAY more than a few hundred dollars to keep it going year after year.

The go-kart runs on a small lawn mower engine (follow this link for a brief video of the go-kart in action and two adorable photos of my younger guys when they were toddlers). Bryce strained the engine and the belts to the breaking point many times by attaching a rope and a sled to drag one of his friends behind the go-kart as they whipped around in circles out on the meadow. One time, he and his friend, Ian, decided to try to mix things up by having Bryce, the passenger, steer while Ian, the driver, pressed on the gas. They ran smack dab into a tree, wrenched the steering wheel right off, and damaged the frame of the go-kart.

I think I had forgotten how reckless Bryce used to be with the go-kart until I reread those earlier posts about his behavior with the go-kart. This summer, my husband had the go-kart repaired yet again so that our younger boys (now 11 and 8) could use it. While Sean is a fairly careful driver, Trevor makes me cringe in concern. It seems like his goal is to get the go-kart to balance on two wheels or something. What he doesn't seem to understand is that going on two wheels leads to real danger. These boys laugh at danger because they have no experience with it.

Sunday evening, I had $10 in Kohl's cash burning a hole in my pocket and the added benefit of a one-day $10 off a $30 purchase offer. Bryce has been needing a new pair of jeans because one of his labs requires they wear jeans with no holes (the trend is to wear those ones with the rips - why people pay big bucks for clothes that look like they've been worn to shreds is fully beyond my realm of understanding). Thus, I left the boys in the front yard, go-karting, with hubby putzing around outside, tending his flowers and such.

When I returned home, all was quiet on the Western front. Trevor was in his room and Sean was in the living room working on homework. As soon as I walked in, though, Sean came running over to tell me that they had an accident with the go-kart. It flipped over while they were riding in it and Trevor landed on top of Sean, crushing him. Apparently, Trevor was driving (he's the most reckless driver out of the three boys) and when he attempted a turn, before they even knew what was happening, the go-kart went onto two wheels and then toppled over to its side, with Trevor's weight coming full onto his brother. Even though they were both wearing seat belts, Sean was pretty banged up and showed me his scrapes and bruises (on his arms and the back of his waist). Trevor did something to his elbow and has been complaining about dull pain in it ever since.

When I went in to see Trevor, he was very somber and subdued. I'm pretty sure John exploded when he saw what they had done (after assisting them in righting the thing). Trevor said the go-kart won't run now, and it was leaking oil or gas. This, after just plunking down several hundred more dollars to get the thing repaired so they could use it this summer. I tried to impress upon him the blessing in the scenario - amazingly neither of them were seriously hurt. When I picture the damage that could have been done, I shudder. It was probably Trevor's weight which kept the thing from flipping completely over. One of them could have broken their necks and been paralyzed or killed.

The go-kart is history. Hubby said he is unwilling to plunk another dime into its repair (it is really difficult to find mechanics who are willing to repair go-karts because they cause so much physical damage and, after an accident, people often attempt to sue the last person who worked on their go-kart). I can't say I'm sad to see it go. While I love seeing my boys have a good time, it always put me on edge worrying about the possible injury and death scenarios. I'm so thankful this accident didn't bring any of those scenarios into reality. And as grateful as I am that nothing happened to my boys, I'm even more grateful that this accident didn't happen with one of their friends in the go-kart. Who knows, maybe their friends' guardian angels don't work overtime like my sons' angels do!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Book Review: The Patient's Playbook

The past several months have brought a whirlwind of change on the health front for my parents. It has been rather unsettling to be so far away while all these changes occur. Some time in May, my mother experienced some pain radiating from her chest up into her chin. My dad rushed her to the emergency room. They found a 90 percent blockage and went in to place a stent. Upon coming out of the anesthesia, she seemed much better but suffered from some short term memory loss. A few weeks later, she was back in the hospital with an intestinal problem. She really needs to have a kidney removed, but cannot have that done now because of the blood thinners she is on as a result of the heart surgery. In the time since then, her memory issues have continued and been rather worrisome to me (she has found she can no longer read because she cannot retain what she has just read - reading has always been a significant connection between us).

In addition, my dad has been told that he needs outpatient spinal surgery to correct a disc problem he has dealt with for years by taking ibuprofen (something he cannot continue to do). Prior to scheduling the surgery, he needed to meet with a cardiologist for clearance, but that clearance has been a long time coming since they were rather concerned that he might be a candidate for stroke, as well (they believe my mother experienced a mini-stroke while in the hospital and that the memory issues are some sort of vascular dementia). I am deeply concerned about both of them and wish I could be closer to assist them and to be there for my mother during whatever surgeries my dad might incur.

As a result of waiting on pins and needles to hear about both their progress and decline, I was immediately drawn in by the title of this book, The Patient's Playbook: How to Save Your Life and the Lives of Those You Love. It is a recent acquisition on my library's shelves and I signed up as soon as I heard of it. This blurb on the back cover, from the forward by Dr. Peter T. Scardino of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, really sums up the book's effectiveness well:

"The decisions you make about your medical care will have a profound impact on you and your family's life ... Successfully steering through the medical system can be a challenge. In The Patient's Playbook, Michelson gives away secrets of the trade - lessons he's learned from more than thirty years of helping people get better outcomes ... He levels the playing field by providing average patients who have ordinary health insurance with the resources, advice, and tools they need to make better medical decisions ... As a patient, you have more power than you think. This book will help you find that power and use it to maximum advantage."

The very first steps he suggests? "Find and partner with a good primary care physician, complete your personal health binder, and round up your wellness team." He encourages every patient to recruit a health care "quarterback." This is someone who steps in as a support, attending doctor appointments so that the information given is fully absorbed, providing encouragement and support throughout the medical journey, and intellectually stimulating the patient to maneuver through the potential problems involved in securing the most excellent care available.

In the chapter entitled, "Emergency 101: The four most common mistakes made in the first twenty-four hours of a medical emergency," the author provides some horrifying stories of medical visits gone wrong. Although difficult to read (because they stir intense empathy), these stories definitely prepare the reader to take charge and secure better care for themselves by thorough preparation and active intervention during any hospital stay. He also provides information for protecting yourself from unnecessary treatments (because sometimes overtreatment is just as dangerous as undertreatment). Moreover, I plan to copy the pages where he outlines ten pertinent questions to ask at the end of a hospital stay.

There is a wealth of information provided in this book and I found it to be a very effective tool as I consider how best to prepare for any possible medical needs I might have as well as ways to assist my parents as they journey through their own medical paths. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in gleaning the best possible outcome from the need for medical intervention. As the fly-leaf proclaims, "This book will enable you to become a smarter health care consumer - and to replace anxiety with confidence."

While I still feel the burden of distance, since my parents are in Florida and I cannot afford to fly down on a regular basis, I feel more qualified to ask the right questions and help them get the best care they can, under the circumstances. Moreover, when I finally do go down to assist them (whenever the spinal surgery is scheduled), I will take some time to prepare my own medical health binder of health history information (my recent trip to the eye doctor reminded me of my need to know exactly what health issues my parents and grandparents have experienced because it might indeed factor into my own health experiences). Leslie Michelson has provided a well-structured, easily-understood treatise on securing the very best care possible. This was probably one of the most helpful non-fiction books I have read this year. Even if you don't check out the book, you can check out the website for the book, where you can access helpful lists and worksheets to help you get started on a path to being a better health care consumer.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Book Review: The Sound of Glass

The Sound of Glass, by New York Times bestselling author, Karen White, was very well done. The pacing was calculated and precise. The characters were well-drawn and believable. Moreover, the plot carried the book along until the final secrets were revealed and pieces were tied down.

Merritt Heyward has just learned that she is the new owner of her deceased husband's family home in Beaufort, South Carolina. Leaving her old life behind in Maine, she embarks on a new one, moving into the home and beginning to clear out the old and renew the ancient house. Although she is unsure why the house didn't go to her husband's younger brother, Gibbes, she agrees to allow him to access whatever he might want from the house. When her step-mother (only a few years older than herself) arrives with Merritt's ten-year old half-brother in tow, she begrudgingly puts them up for a while so that she can establish a relationship with her half-brother, Owen. Demons abound under the surface and there is a past which will rupture Merritt's understanding of the present, once she uncovers secrets long hidden.

I know that description is a bit vague, but there were so many layers to the story and they just have to be peeled back by the reader bit by bit. It is told from the perspective of three different women (the original owner of the house, Merritt, and her step-mother). These characters, bound by a common thread of domestic violence, must make peace with their past and bravely pursue the future.

Although I felt things were a bit too tidy and convenient, I was willing to suspend my disbelief for the genuine pleasure of putting together the pieces of this story. The conclusion was satisfying. The characters achieved a level of reconciliation and redemption in the end. It was definitely a good read.