Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Another Beautiful Wedding

On the heels of Music Camp, we headed up to the Chicago area to attend my niece's wedding. Kari and Clayton dated for seven years, so it really felt like the culmination of years' worth of anticipation as they entered into this covenant relationship. My brother gave an outstanding address, focused on the sacrificial nature of love. It was fun to see family and celebrate the grand occasion together.

(My nephew, Eric, with the mother of the bride, Miriam)

(Kari's entrance on my brother David's arm)

(Photo credit: Erika Morris)

(Photo credit: Erika Morris)

(Photo credit: Erika Morris)

(Photo credit: Heidi Bailey)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Book Review: The Mothers

This was another book I probably wouldn't have picked up if it hadn't been a book club selection, merely because I hadn't heard the buzz about the book. Yet, the book has plenty of buzz, having earned numerous awards (New York Times Bestseller, NBCC John Leonard First Novel Prize Finalist, PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction Finalist, New York Public Library Young Lions Award Finalist, An NPR Best Book of 2016, Entertainment Weekly Best Book of 2016, Vogue Magazine Best Book of the Year, Goodreads Choice Award Finalist, and's Best Books of the Year). As a debut novel, I believe Brit Bennett did an outstanding job.

The Mothers tells the story of seventeen-year-old Nadia Turner, whose mother inexplicably commits suicide. Six months later, Nadia discovers she is pregnant. The father of the child is the pastor's son, Luke. Even while dating, Luke had kept their relationship a secret, and when Nadia expresses a desire to simply be rid of the problem, Luke comes up with the money for the abortion. Nadia assumes this means he agrees with her decision to end the pregnancy. The novel weaves back and forth highlighting the ramifications and consequences.

I appreciated the depth of exploration into ideas of motherhood. Moreover, I agreed with author Danielle Evans, who declared the book "a brilliant exploration of friendship, desire, inheritance, the love we seek, and the love we settle for. It is the kind of book that from its first page seduces you into knowing that the heartbreak coming will be worth it."Although I didn't feel the heartbreak was worth it, primarily due to the way the story ended without hope, I do think the book tapped into many important truths about life and love. It presented a fair picture of the emotional turmoil surrounding the difficult scenario of abortion.

I loved the keen observations about grief. For example, "Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip." (p. 57) "But she hasn't learned the mathematics of grief. The weight of what has been lost is always heavier than what remains." (p. 226) Another delicious sentence about secrets: "All good secrets have a taste before you tell them, and if we'd taken a moment to swish this one around our mouths, we might have noticed the sourness of an unripe secret, plucked too soon, stolen and passed around before its season."

While I admired the use of the mothers of the church, in the form of a Greek chorus telling the story, I'm not sure it was executed effectively. For the most part, if felt like the narration perspective centered on Nadia, rather than the mothers. I kept expecting a big reveal at the end, which would explain why the story seemed to be filtered through the eyes of these observing women. Yet, the end didn't follow through with an explanation for their involvement. Indeed, the end sort of tapered off and Nadia failed to really grow or learn from her experiences. I would have liked to have seen more redemption and character development.

Nonetheless, I felt the novel succeeded in revealing deep truths. I remained riveted, wanting to know how the story resolved. In the end, there was much to think about, in terms of ideas about motherhood, love and loss, choice and consequences. How different Nadia's story would have been had her mother chosen a different path. How different the unborn baby's life if Nadia had placed his/her needs above her own. Even how different the story might have gone had the church mothers stepped into Nadia's life in a more significant way than merely as detached observers.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Whirlwind Music Camp

The Salvation Army's Indiana Music Camp for 2017 has come and gone in a blur. Trevor accompanied me and we both had a lovely week together, I enjoying the fellowship with the faculty and he enjoying the camaraderie of the campers. Because two other excellent teenage drummers were there this year, Trevor placed in the Intermediate Band. This was a blessing as he was able to really shine on the drum set during their Wednesday evening performance, despite only practicing on a drum pad in rehearsals. Plus, their conductor selected really fun pieces that Trevor thoroughly enjoyed. (Sorry for the shaky video - I never do well at holding it steady.)

On Wednesday evening, the faculty all headed into town for the annual trip to Steak-n-Shake. We sang our grace in harmony together and then enjoyed food and laughter.

On Thursday afternoon, Trevor competed in the solo competition and managed to snag second place with this outstanding minute-long performance:

I think he did a fine job on adhering to the dynamics and rhythm of the piece.

Thursday evening the program showcased the various elective classes. I was thrilled that two of my Creative Writing students got up to share their poems. Really, for the most part, my elective students chose to work on short stories, so we didn't have enough space to print out their work in a small flyer to give to the other campers (as I had hoped). Still, I think they all loved the class. I brought in worksheets demonstrating various types of poetry and offered to copy off whichever ones they were interested in attempting. Plus, I brought along last year's writing prompts for personal essays and short stories.

After the Thursday evening program, the faculty enjoyed a bonfire with hot dogs and s'mores.

Before I knew it, Friday arrived and Trevor and I had to prepare to leave for my niece's Saturday wedding. We enjoyed one last moment of entertainment as the faculty band paraded around and then down into the pool in what they called a "Parade of Wetness." I must admit, I was none too displeased that I couldn't participate, but it was rather funny watching and videotaping it all, especially the end of the video when the front players met the deep end a bit before they were expecting.

I also was thrilled to discover, after the fact, that Trevor received the 1st place award for Intermediate Band at the final awards concert on Saturday. All in all, it was a wonderful week and I was, as always, grateful for the opportunity to participate.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Book Review: The Dancing Rat of Paris

I'm not sure how, or perhaps why, my library obtained this brief comedy sketch in audio form. Once again, it filled a need, as it was only one CD long and I had one more day of exercise before departing for a week-long camp. The back cover proclaims a menopausal audience member declared, "I laughed so hard my cramps went away!" Well, I can't say I laughed hard enough to alleviate any cramps, but I don't want to come down too hard on this offering. It was funny, in bits, just not as funny as anticipated.

Indeed, because it had Paris in the title, once again I was drawn in, hoping it would provide some sort of travelogue from someone who has traveled in Paris. While the author, Nancy Donoval, did indeed visit Paris, and one of the stories is set in Paris, it really didn't provide much in the way of a travelogue. Basically, the audio provides three taped performances at the Black Forest Inn, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You hear the audience feedback. The author provides humorous pauses and expressive storytelling. Alas, it just wasn't really my cup of tea. Thankfully, I didn't have to abandon it because before I knew it, it was over.

If I had enticed you, you would be out of luck, unless you visit my same library. I could not find the book available anywhere. Again, how and why did my library acquire this? It is a mystery.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Book Review: Room One

Where do you head in the library when you need to find a book to listen to for only three or four days? The tween audio book section, of course! Having cast aside an audio version of a Haven Kimmel novel (it just didn't hook me in and was taking far too long to get to the driving conflict), I needed something small to fill my daily treadmill time until time to leave for my music camp assignment. How thrilled I was to find this 3 CD book by Andrew Clements (one of our favorites, when it comes to tween authors).

Room One tells the story of a fifth grade boy living in Plattsford, Nebraska. Ted Hammond loves reading and solving mysteries, but suddenly he is knee-deep in some mysteries of his own. The most pressing one has to do with a face he could swear he saw in the Anderson's abandoned house. He's also confused about the town's pressing problem of depopulation. Since the town is shrinking, the one-room-schoolhouse just might have to shut down. If the school goes, everyone knows the town will dry up and disappear.

Clements once again sucks the reader in from the very start. His excellent narration from a young boy's perspective rings true and the characters peopling the story prove endearing. I appreciated the author's emphasis on honesty and integrity. Ted faces his problems head on and and tries to solve them to the best of his ability, seeking out additional help when he realizes he cannot solve them alone. If you are ever in the market for a good tween read, you can always depend on Andrew Clements for an uplifting, well-written tale.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Review: Maps and Legends

I've never read anything by Michael Chabon, and yet I'm familiar with the author's name. A few blogging friends have mentioned his books, I've read references to him in other writing books, and he received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001, so he must be doing something right. Thus, I decided to pick up this collection of essays, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. The Amazon cover, shown here, is not nearly as interesting or delightful as the three-part, intersecting cover on the library copy (although I was still unable to enjoy it quite as much as intended because it was covered in protective plastic).

Each chapter is an essay focused on either reading or writing. I noted that one of the initial chapters addresses fan fiction and since I'm not that fond of fan fiction, I thought it might be wise to read what he had to say. It was interesting to learn that he had his start in attempting to copy the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. To be specific, he wanted his voice to mimic the voice of Watson. The historical bits about Doyle were fascinating. I will have to think long and hard about his advice to find a good writer and attempt to mimic their strengths. This may change my opinion about fan fiction.

In another section, he devoted an essay to Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass series. While I haven't read Pullman's books, I found their exposition quite interesting. Indeed, I feel more compelled to read that series after reading Chabon's take, despite the fact that it is billed by some to be anti-Christian (this is perhaps mostly because he disparaged C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series, however, not having read The Golden Compass, I can't be sure - after all, many Christians despise Harry Potter as being anti-Christian because it involves witches and wizards, yet I don't feel the Potter series poses any threat to my sons' religious beliefs).

I preferred the second half of the book, when he began to talk more about his own personal experiences with writing. At one point, he talks about the "bathyspheric pressures that weigh on a second novel, particularly where the first has met with any kind of success." Although the word "bathyspheric" was new to me, I could certainly relate to this observation. After all, I've chided plenty of authors whose latter works haven't lived up to their first offerings.

Another observation I could relate to: "The hardest part of writing a novel is the contemplation of the distance to the end." I remember feeling exactly the weight of so much still to come while I was knee-deep in writing my most recent YA novel. I had traversed so far and yet, had so far still to go.

Finally, I chuckled when he clarified toward the end of the book that some of what he had written within its pages was, indeed, fanciful because a writer tells a lie in order to tell the truth. I appreciated his discussion about the risks a writer takes when putting themselves out there because readers can assume bits are autobiographical when they aren't really autobiographical and even things that are true emotions and feelings about subjects of personal interest (as in an article he wrote about Yiddish) can certainly offend readers.

All in all, even when I had no experience with the literature he referred to (Pullman's series, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and the constant references to comic books), I thought Chabon's descriptions and interactions were worth reading. This is obviously a book with appeal for anyone who desires to be a writer. And even those who simply like to read Chabon's books, will be interested in hearing what he has to say.

Given Chabon's message about fiction being a blur of lies presented to express deeper truth, it should come as no surprise that his most recent work is a novel presented as a fictional memoir by an author sharing his name. It is called Moonglow and has received quite a buzz of publicity. I may have to seek it out, as well.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Book Review: The Mountain Between Us

While scanning audio books recently, I came across this survival/love story, The Mountain Between Us, by Charles Martin. The author's name looked familiar and when I checked my blog, I discovered that one of my first posts, at the outset of blogging, was a book review of Martin's When Crickets Cry. I quickly became engrossed in the tale of Dr. Ben Payne and Ashley Knox, two unregistered passengers on a charter plane attempting to beat an oncoming storm. Just before their pilot dies of a heart attack, he manages to safely land the plane on the mountains in the High Uintas Wilderness of Utah. Ben is in bad shape, with broken ribs, but Ashley is worse off, with a badly fractured leg.

Throughout their harrowing journey, attempting to return to civilization, Ben continues to record messages for his wife, Rachel, on a small recording device. Ashley, listening to Ben pour out the love in his heart, begins to wonder whether she is merely settling for convenience in her upcoming marriage to her fiance. What's more, the longer Ben takes care of her, the more she wonders whether she is, in fact, falling in love with him instead. But, Ben holds many secrets and is clearly running from a conflicted past.

I felt a similar response to both Martin's books. The reader is asked to take giant leaps and often they seem unreasonable. The main character/narrator is too perfect and has everything he needs exactly when he needs it. When the conclusion played out, despite enjoying the deep emotions triggered by the writing (the mark of a true craftsman), I found myself talking back to the narrator, questioning the plausibility of the way things went. Despite this, I really enjoyed the ending. I wept as the truth was revealed. I felt the full range of brokenness and despair along with the surging of hope in the power of love.

When an author can evoke such intense emotions in a reader, I can overlook a bit of over-the-top plotting. Part of me felt tricked, but a larger part of me felt a sense of deep connection. I enjoyed the bumpy ride and will happily suspend my disbelief for Martin's stories again (especially so because they always provide a clean read or a listen I can enjoy with my boys in range). Moreover, it is supposed to be made into a major motion picture sometime soon, starring Kate Winslet. I have to admit, I will probably seek out the movie.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Book Review: The Power of Different

I've often wondered why so many creative individuals struggle with the demon of depression. Is it the very capacity to feel so deeply that causes them to be pulled so low by emotion while also enabling them to soar so high with their creativity? This book, The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, by Gail Saltz, M.D., highlights a variety of supposed disabilities that often open up a world of creative endeavor. Given my own experience with clinical depression and intense anxiety episodes, I eagerly devoured the pages of this book for insights into making the most of my personal weaknesses.

The book is structured in an unusual way. Instead of highlighting famous individuals who have battled various mental disorders yet found a measure of success, the author has organized the book around the symptoms of disorder and focuses on each symptom separately, using examples within each of the seven different chapters highlighting learning differences, distractibility, anxiety, melancholy, cycling mood, divergent thinking, and relatedness. I was surprised that the examples were often unknown individuals the author encountered in her research. I expected to learn more about a wide array of famous individuals (I can think of quite a few examples off the top of my head), but really only encountered a few, like Hemingway and Darwin.

I appreciated how the author dissects the various disorders, revealing the intensity of the struggle each causes, while also offering up suggestions for working around the problems and focusing on the strengths as opposed to the weaknesses. In the end, the author really champions the benefit of even the most devastating disorders. She writes, "I am convinced that there is something special about the brains of those struggling with mental illness that also yields some of the most astounding and beautiful achievements. I think this is an enormously positive and encouraging message for the nearly 50 percent of Americans who will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime."

Moreover, I agree wholeheartedly with her goal of removing the stigma of mental incapacity and pushing to emphasize the positive aspects of such illnesses. As she observes, "Every brain and every life holds potential. Squashing that potential by dismissing those outside some standard mold is not only cruel on an individual level, it is a sad waste on a societal level. Armed with the knowledge of how to treat and manage the differences that cause suffering and knowing how to best mine the potential that accompanies those differences, we can not only increase the genius output of many but also enhance the quality of life for many millions."

Although I expected a bit more out of the book, it was still an interesting topic to explore. It is sure to appeal to anyone who is fascinated by the correlation between disorder and creative genius. For those who struggle with these disorders, it is a primer for how best to work around the disadvantages and glean the many hidden advantages.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: Poetry: Starting from Scratch

Once again, summer has arrived and with it, an invitation to volunteer my time on the faculty of The Salvation Army's Indiana Music Camp. I'm grateful for this opportunity to be involved in the music programming, but this year I have the added plus of being in charge of a Creative Writing elective. This fills me with such joy. I don't often miss my old teaching days, but when I do, it is usually a longing for a place to live out my passion and nurture young people with a love of reading and writing. Because it has been so long since I was in charge of a high school Creative Writing class, I decided to seek out some reference material on the subject. The best my library had to offer was this book on teaching poetry by Michael A. Carey.

Even though this text was written in the 1980's, the subject is timeless and the author provides excellent suggestions for opening kids up to a love of writing. Carey emphasizes the importance of communicating your own passion in order to stir up a passion within your students. That sounds easy enough! The first two lessons seek to encourage kids to make their readers feel what they feel and think what they think by the age-old adage, "Show, don't tell" and to do more with less by encouraging them to "say the most you can in the fewest words." Then, Carey moves on to the basic tools, which are not rhyme and rhythm, as some would assume, but are instead metaphor and simile.

I loved several of the suggested exercises like "What If" poems and riddles (taking an ordinary object and comparing it to something so the reader must guess what you are referring to). My favorite exercise? "I'm So Sorry" poems. The author encourages kids to think about making a tongue-in-cheek apology for something they are really not that sorry about. He provides examples of actual poems by kids in his program. One such poem apologized for putting a mouse in his mother's bed but delighting in the shock on her face that "was like watching fireworks on the Fourth of July." Carey also provides lessons for letter poems and first time experience poems.

I'm pretty sure I will use many of his suggested exercises as we work on short works of art in the few sessions we have (I think there are probably only four 40 minute elective sessions, so it is not a lot of time to work with). I will bring in music and pictures to serve as writing prompts and will also bring along the short story prompts I made up for last year's class, when I served as an assistant instructor. Hopefully, the kids will go home with at least a few pieces they can be proud of and I will relish the chance to pass along my passion for writing.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review: Chase the Lion - Highly Recommend

One of my favorite reads from last year was Levi Lusko's Through the Eyes of a Lion. In his book, Lusko talks about how the male lion's roar is intended to send the prey running right into the lair of the lioness. It is only natural to run from the roar. Just as Lusko urged readers to fight that urge to run, Mark Batterson encourages his readers to not only fight the urge, but instead turn around and Chase the Lion. The subtitle to his book says it all: If Your Dream Doesn't Scare You, It's Too Small. Batterson's favorite verse of Scripture tells of one small act by a seemingly inconsequential player, a moment when Benaiah chased a lion into a pit on a snowy day (hence the title of Batterson's prequel to this book, In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day, reviewed previously here).

As much as I loved Batterson's previous book, a book I highly recommend, Chase the Lion fell into my lap at just the right moment. My personal dreams and goals feel very much like a gigantic lion and fear has me running into the jaws of the lioness. Reading this book felt a bit like being in a football locker room when the coach comes in and gives an inspirational pep talk to build the players up in preparation for the game. Batterson makes an excellent coach. He gets the reader fired up and ready to face whatever dream God has given. Instead of running from a terrifying, overwhelming task, the reader is encouraged to reflect on the depth of meaning behind our hopes, dreams, and goals.

Within the first ten pages, Batterson begins to work his magic. When talking of the Wright brothers and the importance of their minor interaction with a book by Louis Pierre Mouillard that nurtured their curiosity about flight, he called that author "a prophet crying in the wilderness, exhorting the world to repent of its unbelief in the possibility of human flight." Within sentences, he fires back at the reader with this powerful question: "What impossibility do you need to repent of?" Batterson is determined to encourage his readers to have God-sized dreams and to rely on God's provision to make those dreams come true.

I wished I owned a copy of this book because I found so many pages with quotes I wanted to highlight. Here are a few:

"At the end of our lives, our greatest regrets will be the God-ordained opportunities we left on the table, the God-given passions we didn't pursue, and the God-sized dreams we didn't go after because we let fear dictate our decisions." (p. 4)

"We tend to avoid situations where the odds are against us, but when we do, we rob God of the opportunity to do something supernatural." (p. 35)

"Sometimes you need to stop praying for something and start praising God as if it has already happened." (p. 85)

"The hardest part of any dream journey is the holding pattern." (p. 92)

"God doesn't always call us to win. Sometimes He just calls us to try. Either way, it's obedience that glorifies God." (p. 101)

In speaking of the ripple effect of our dreams, he writes, "Whether you're aware of it or not, your dream is contingent upon someone else having the courage to pursue his or her dream. And someone else's dream is contingent upon you pursuing yours!" (p. 140)

Urging the importance of others alongside you, he observes, "Whether it's a Holy Club, a literary club like the Inklings, or a band of brothers like David's mighty men, you will ultimately reflect those with whom you surround yourself. And they will reflect you. Bad company corrupts good character, but good company helps you go from good to great." - a worthy lesson to share with my boys! (p. 171)

This book was so inspiring that I often found myself tearing up with conviction and renewed motivation. His message is simple, really. You are important. Your dreams are important. What you do to pursue those dreams has a ripple effect that will carry down through future generations. So, don't shrink back in fear. Like Benaiah, pursue the lion in front of you. Chase whatever dream God has laid on your heart. Win or lose, He wants you to give your all and never give up.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Review: What I Was

While looking at the alternative audio selections at a library in a town a bit further off, I happened upon this YA novel by Meg Rosoff, What I Was. I have read a few other Meg Rosoff novels and although she tends to hold a more liberal perspective than I do, I've somewhat enjoyed her novels. The best thing about this novel? The stunning prose. The writing was absolutely beautiful, from the first lines to the closing one.

Here's the enticing book blurb from the back cover of the audio version:

"In this beautifully crafted and heartbreakingly poignant coming-of-age tale, an older man recounts the story of his most significant friendship - that with the nearly feral and completely parentless Finn, who lived alone in a hut by the sea,

"As a boy suffering the constrictions and loneliness of boarding school in East Anglia, the young narrator idolizes Finn and spends as much time at his beachside hut as possible, hoping to become self-reliant and free. But the contrast between their lives becomes ever more painful, until one day, the tables turn and everything our hero believes to be true explodes - with dire consequences."

I enjoyed listening to this novel. Ralph Cosham, the British narrator, did an excellent job of conveying the intense emotions and communicating the rich language. If I had been reading the novel in paper form, I would have wanted to jot down especially beautiful passages. The ending took me by surprise and was a delightful conclusion to a tale of longing and desire. Although this novel wouldn't appeal to everyone, I am glad to have read it for the exposure to such fine writing.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Book Review: All Things New

After a quick look through the A's in the audio books section at the library, I landed on this excellent inspirational historical novel by Lynn Austin. You cannot go wrong with her historical fiction. She sets the stage well and peoples it with authentic characters. I was sucked into the plot quickly and enjoyed the pacing as troubles intensified leading to the climax.

All Things New is a post-Civil War novel set on a Virginia plantation. With their slaves newly living as freed men, Josephine Weatherly's family must confront the chaos from the wake of the war. Her father and brother are dead and her brother, Daniel, has returned a fractured man, intent upon scaring his former slaves into submission. Josephine's mother has her own worries. Unsure whether her son is up to the challenge of running a plantation his brother was groomed to run, and troubled by some distressing heart issues, she must regain the control she wielded during the war.

In the face of her intense losses, Josephine has cast off her belief in God. Then, she meets a Yankee who has been sent to help the freed slaves establish working relationships with their former plantations. Despite her family's distrust of the Yankee, Josephine desperately clings to his friendship and contemplates the deeper issues he draws to light. But, her mother has other plans for her daughter. She wants Josephine to marry Harrison, the son of her best friend, a man who returned from the war a legless, bitter shell of his former self. He is sure that God is punishing him for his sins. Josephine tries to reach out to Harrison as the Yankee reaches out to her.

I thought the story was very engaging and realistic. The spiritual applications offered up in the novel arose naturally from the story, without being forced upon the reader in a heavy-handed way. The trials highlighted God's ability to work blessing from unbearable burdens and triumph from seeming tragedy. The book reminded me that "God will make a way where there seems to be no way."

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

While the title of this book is a mouthful, I think it is well-suited. It is, perhaps, my favorite E. Lockhart book yet. Even though it took me a while to be fully hooked into the story (well over a hundred pages, but I was interested in learning what the antics would be, so I kept reading), I ended up devouring the last half in one sitting.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is about boarding schools and secret societies, about language and love, about wanting to be on the inside and longing to make a mark. Frankie, who has blossomed from a gangly, geeky girl of 14 into a buxom, boisterous girl of 15, is tired of being invisible. She no longer wants to be known as "Bunny Rabbit" to her family. When she acquires a senior boyfriend who is involved in a secret society, she decides she absolutely must find a way to infiltrate their all-male ranks. What better way to do that than to outsmart them in their own pranks?

I loved Frankie's gutsy, feisty character. Her voice was distinct and vulnerable. I enjoyed thinking about the use of words. The pranks were magnificent and expertly maneuvered. I couldn't help but fly through the pages wanting to know what would finally topple Frankie from the intricate web of intrigue and mystique she had created. The reader knows from the very first page that Frankie is called on the carpet for her misdeeds. The set-up to those misdeeds took a little while in coming, but once they arrived, I couldn't put the book down.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Book Review: The Unbreakable Code

The Unbreakable Code is the second book in the Book Scavenger series by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman. I always feel sorry for an author who hits it big with a book meant to be the first in a series, because they face enormous odds against them for creating a book that will rival, or even equal, the first. I would certainly feel pressured in their shoes. Although this was a valiant effort, I do think I enjoyed the first book more than the second (gave it a "highly recommend"). Of course, I had my own pressure from a hold list requiring me to read the book when I might not have been in quite the right mood for it. It was very similar to the first because it held puzzles and codes and a mystery tying them all together.

This time around Emily and James, neighboring kids who love cracking codes and solving puzzles, are curious about their teacher's strange behaviors. They catch Mr. Quisling reaching into someone's purse to retrieve a clue to his own puzzle. When he drops the clue, they are pulled into his quest to solve Mark Twain's "unbreakable code." As the two seek out the hidden Twain books in their beloved Book Scavenger game, an arsonist begins setting fires. They are not only driven to solve the unbreakable code but also to figure out who is responsible for the various fires.

I do tend to think I was just not quite in the mood for a tween mystery book because the book has received all five star reviews so far on Amazon. Everyone else has overwhelmingly argued that Bertman has done it again. She has written a book sure to delight tweens and families who love puzzles, ciphers, codes, and treasure hunts. Fans of the Mr. Lemoncello's Library books will also be thrilled with this series. I'm not giving up on this series, but I will time my future reads to fit my mood better. Who knows, maybe I'll recommend the series to Sean for some riveting summer reading.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: My Anxious Mind

Mostly, I read My Anxious Mind: A Teen's Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic to further understand the main character in one of my YA novels. That character suffers from severe social anxiety and I wanted to read more about the strategies for combating the intense discomfort and panic she experiences in the novel. However, I must admit, I hoped to glean strategies for myself, as well. While I never used to experience anxiety at all (not even for speaking in front of others), ever since my third child was born, I have battled various episodes of extreme anxiety (including a few full-blown panic attacks). Indeed, as I think of my upcoming Europe trip, I'm overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy for handling the anxieties travel will no doubt stir in me.

Although the book is geared toward teenagers, the steps for managing anxiety and panic are helpful across the board. If you have a teen battling anxiety issues, I would highly recommend this resource. The book breaks down the complexities of such disorders into simple terms, with ample illustrations, and highlights various ways to retrain self-talk and calm agitated nerves.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Review: The Monogram Murders

Although I've heard of Sophie Hannah before (knew she is a mystery writer), I had never read one of her books. This is billed as an Agatha Christie Hercule Poirot novel. Thus, this modern writer takes Agatha Christie's well-known character and places him into a mystery of her own making. I suppose it is a glorified fan fiction, in a way (something I've never been fond of). Although the author's writing skills are sufficient, I still ended up feeling like I would have rather read an actual Agatha Christie novel.

One of the subtle sub-plots involves Poirot's partner, a police officer by the name of Catchpool, working on crafting a cross-word puzzle. It was a fitting device for this novel because the novel felt very much like the belabored effort of such an endeavor. Clues were tediously drawn out and repeatedly referenced. The names of the characters were read out in full time and time again so that Harriet Sipple, Ida Gransbury, and Richard Meekus are etched into my memory forever. The nine CDs did not exactly fly by for me. Although I remained interested in solving the mystery, I wasn't thoroughly riveted.

The Monogram Murders tells of a case where three guests at the same hotel have been murdered. Each body is found on the floor, neatly facing the door, with a monogrammed cufflink tucked in the mouth. To add to the mystery, Poirot encounters a woman who rushes into his regular coffee shop in fear for her life, then dashes out again. Poirot must determine if the woman is, indeed, about to become a fourth murder victim. In his search for the distressed woman, Poirot parses out the meticulously plotted clues and solves the crime with his astute observational skills.

Although the author did create a somewhat compelling mystery, it was so drawn out that it lost some of its intensity.  I grew weary of the repeating of clues and Poirot's arrogance in dealing with his partner (constantly treating him as if his intellectual skills were severely lacking). I cannot really recommend this as a good Christie knock-off. Indeed, the above cover presents Agatha Christie's name with such prominence that readers might mistakenly believe they are getting the real thing. I prefer this British cover where Sophie Hannah's name is larger than Christie's, so that the reader knows full well what they are getting. If you are interested in a tightly-wound plot, where the murderer turns out to be the very last person you suspect, pick up an original Agatha Christie book. She was the master, after all.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: Make Your Bed

My husband was raised in an environment where productivity was God and personal worth and value derived from what you accomplished. In the end, the stress and pressure of that mentality was quite crippling for him. When I married, I had no idea that I would be evaluated from such a standard. Held up in that light, I'm fairly worthless. After all, my primary occupation right now (since my little ones are more independent and no longer little) involves sitting at a desk, writing and revising and scouring books and websites on marketing. When nothing tangible comes of that, I'm viewed as lazy and unproductive. It is hard not to let those assessments alter my own view and self-esteem. There are days when I question my worth and value because my pursuits provide negligible profits for our family. Despite aspirations of accomplishment, my hands come up empty.

Yet, there is a simple act that can set each day in motion toward greater productivity ... making one's bed. As the subtitle of this book proclaims: "Little Things That Can Change Your Life ... And Maybe the World." In Make Your Bed, Admiral William H. McRaven outlines ten simple principles to live by, the first being a simple chore as mundane as straightening the sheets, aligning the comforter, and placing the pillows in order. Admiral McRaven is a retired Navy SEAL who gave the commencement speech to graduates in 2014 at the University of Texas. He outlined ten basic life lessons he gleaned from his time in training. Despite their simplicity, they have the potential to ripple out into significant life-changing ramifications.

As he mentioned in the beginning of his actual speech, the actions of one individual can alter the outcome for a whole host of people. After mentioning several key moments, he argues, "not only were these soldiers saved by the decisions of one person, but their children yet unborn were also saved. And their children's children were saved. Generations were saved by one decision, by one person." Never underestimate the value of your life and the simple things you can do to begin to change the world.

His prescription sounds almost too easy. Begin the day with a simple task completed, so that it will kick off a chain of events, making you more productive. Acknowledge ahead of time that things will not always be fair, life will sometimes be dark, bullies will beat you down, and hope will seem distant. Determine to learn from your failures, take risks, look difficulty in the eye and provide hope to others. Such basic determinations can reap astounding results. Like Churchill's famous admonition, McRaven encourages his audience to "never give up."

I made my bed today. I plan to continue to plow away at my writing dreams. Despite failure and seeming futility, I will press on. I need not question my worth and value. Hopefully, someone will one day benefit from the neatly tucked sheets and the words I set down, because every life holds the promise of making things better. Who knows, even little things can change the world!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: Underground Fugue

A member of my book club recommended this title because it was written by a friend of hers. Underground Fugue really got me thinking about how writing books can be akin to writing music. Divided into seven chapters, the story sings out from multiple voices shedding light on relationships, identity, and loss. The author, Margot Singer, skillfully weaves the perspectives of her tale like passages of music in a fugue, quite an artistic endeavor.

Moreover, I loved how the title played out in the story on so many levels. "Underground" can refer to several ideas: 1) beneath the surface of the earth; 2) secret or hidden; and 3) a subway system. It also comes through in the myriad of emotions plunged beneath the surface by individuals unwilling to face them head on. In the same way, fugue can mean "a musical form or composition designed for a definite number of instruments or voices in which a subject is announced in one voice and then developed contrapuntally in strict order by each of the other voices" or it can follow the psychiatric meaning of "a state of psychological amnesia during which the subject seems to behave in a conscious and rational way, although upon return to normal consciousness he cannot remember the period of time nor what he did during it; temporary flight from reality." (Webster's)

Fleeing the tragic death of her young son and the concomitant dissolution of her marriage, Esther arrives in London to care for her dying mother. Unable to sleep on the first night, she takes to the porch for a smoke and is intrigued to notice a college-aged boy slipping into the neighbor's house in the middle of the night, covered in mud. She is immediately curious and suspicious, but doesn't let on when she first meets the boy's father, Javad, an Iranian neuroscientist. Javad seems to know as little about his son as Esther does. Javad and Esther's developing relationship is threatened when a terrorist attack occurs and the boy goes missing.

Woven among the stories of the main characters is a subtext of a factual story about a man who washed up on a beach in England in early 2005 wearing a suit and tie. This man, dubbed "The Piano Man," was an outstanding pianist, yet would not, or could not, say a word about his identity (see this NPR article). The inner workings of the brain have always fascinated me, so I was especially drawn to the neuroscientist character. Javad is called in to consult on the case of "The Piano Man." He cannot tell if the amnesia and aphasia (language impairment) are due to brain injury or voluntarily affected. The mystery surrounding this man serves as a counterpoint to the mystery festering among the main characters.

My heart also ached for Esther and the onslaught of loss she weathers. As she reflects on the structure of the fugue performed by a pianist in a recital, she observes, "Its variations make connections between seemingly unlike things and reveal the ways in which the new is recreated out of the material of the old. It shows us how the present is always in conversation with - in counterpoint with - the past." Thus, Esther deals with the reverberations of fallout from her own troubled past.

Truly, the writing sings. In a passage told from the perspective of Esther's dying mother, the author writes, "Time has a different rhythm now. Days and nights bleed together as she drifts in and out of sleep.... Time dilates and contracts. In the stillness of the afternoons, or late at night, the sound of the piano rises through the floorboards.... The notes like fractals, a filigree of counterpoint.... Music for the beginning and the end of time."

The author reveals, in the acknowledgments, the germ of her idea (that NPR piece on the "Piano Man") and the painstaking effort to create a worthy manuscript ("many drafts and many years"). I was blown away when she admitted to having discarded the project's earliest draft. I cannot even imagine! But, I am thrilled that she persisted because her work paid off to produce a beautiful, lyrical novel. A deep sense of grief stuck with me long after I put the book down. My mind continues to lick over ideas of identity and relational friction. Just as music evokes emotion, this melodious novel stirs the heart to feel and the mind to think.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

This novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, by Ramona Ausubel, is one I probably would not have chosen on my own. It was my book club's May selection. Although I didn't attend the group discussion (exhausted from our recent vacation to Cedar Point), I know that at least one other group member had a similar response to my own. I just didn't connect with the book on any level. I didn't care for the characters, feel drawn in by the plot, or relate to the theme. Indeed, I felt a bit annoyed with the characters as they responded in childish ways to their reversal of fortune.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is probably meant to be some sort of statement about privilege and class identification. The characters supposedly despise money, yet when it dries up, they are thrown into such a tailspin that the father, Edgar, pursues an adulterous relationship and heads off with his new lover for Bermuda, while the mother, Fern, embarks on a road trip with a stranger to find that man's son. Both assume that the other is home with the children. Alas, no one is caring for the children. Instead, nine-year-old Cricket attempts to pick up the slack, getting herself and her younger brothers off to school each day. Fearful of the orphanage, Cricket keeps their plight a secret and buoys the spirits of her brothers with tales of early American courage and stamina.

I was perplexed by much of the novel. As the family unravels in the face of their newfound poverty, the story weaves back and forth from past to present, providing commentary on individual roles in a family (Fern's twin brother, Ben, is fully fractured by the separation brought on by Fern's marriage and his military enlistment), the burden and weight of privilege, and the idea of one's place in history. Yet, as I said, I never really felt any affection for the characters or cared even slightly about their plight (they seemed self-absorbed, immature, and unstable). Even Cricket confused me. At one point in the novel, she goes off alone to the restroom and seems to be molested in some way (hard to tell what really occurred). On another occasion, while they are camping out in a teepee, they discover a dead fawn (abandoned, like them) and Cricket attempts to skin it (to mimic the self-sufficiency of American Indians??).

Edgar loses his glasses while on his jaunt with the other woman and his sightless state seems to finally bring him to his senses and call him home. Fern pursues her own infidelity in retaliation to Edgar's, and the guilt and remorse remind her of her lost perspective on the needs of her children (how do you lose sight of the needs of your children, seriously?). Moreover, Fern seems more concerned with helping her companion locate his lost son than she is with the fate of her own children. I just couldn't seem to get behind these characters or understand their motivations.

So, while the novel wasn't really difficult to read, I can't agree with any of the endorsements claiming it is a "gorgeous and moving must-read," and "a book brimming with life." It was fairly well-written, but simply not my cup of tea. I didn't come away with any meaningful new thought or perspective on life and am none-the-richer for having read it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: Think Like a Five-Year-Old

I'm always struck by how easily I grow discouraged in my creative endeavors. Writing is a lonely occupation. Success in writing is often elusive. I too frequently find myself praying, "God, do you just want me to give up on my writing dreams, since they seem so unproductive?" It is in moments like these that I rely on books like Think Like a Five-Year-Old: Reclaim Your Wonder and Create Great Things. Thank goodness for writers like Len Wilson, who understand my dilemmas and speak encouragement to my doubt.

The focus of this book emphasizes the budding creativity found in young children. As I read the passage about the fourth-grade slump, and how creativity begins to taper off, my own fourth-grader was reading next to me and I had to share some of the insights. He agreed wholeheartedly with the theory and gave his own perspective on why kids begin to pull back, squelch their own ideas, and lose the freedom to express their creativity. It is, apparently, a universal trend and one every writer/artist, indeed, every individual should fight.

As Wilson observes in the preface, "We're made to be creative. When we, as an image of God, exercise our heavenly impulse, the result of our expression, regardless of our field of endeavor, is art.... The problem is that while we have this supernatural power, this creative wellspring, within us, we've lost it." Wilson prescribes a method for countering the lies we tell ourselves that steal our creativity out from under us. As he quotes Madeleine L'Engle, "God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling." He encourages creatives to approach our process with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:29-30) and he offers up stories of individuals who have done just that.

I loved how his insights always lead the creative individual back to the source of creativity, God. Wilson comments, "The counterintuitive trick is to surrender our passion, which come from God anyway, back to God and then wait." We cannot gaze at our navels and worry about the productivity of our endeavors. He goes on to say, "The paradox of creativity is that, to the Christ follower, personal fulfillment is a misnomer. A focus on fulfillment belies the truth that when we focus on ourselves, we'll never find ourselves. Our passions exist for a greater purpose than our own fulfillment."

For any reader who is stymied by discouragement or ennui in their creative ventures, Wilson will spur you on to reclaim the innocent wonder of childhood and pursue your talents and gifts without the baggage of lowered expectations, self-glory, or control. He provides an excellent source of renewed encouragement. He turns the focus on God's purposes and reminds the reader of who is truly in control. As my son informed me, "a fourth-grader begins to realize how stupid their enthusiasm has looked and they pull back in fear." Don't let that process rob you of your gifts! Respond with the enthusiasm of an uninhibited child and give your gift back to God to bless Him and others.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: Talking as Fast as I Can

Meeting the actor or actress behind a famous character can be a bit like pulling the curtain away from the glorious wizard in The Wizard of Oz. In other words, it can be a let-down when you discover the magic was created by someone altogether different from what you imagined. This was my experience encountering Mel Gibson. I loved him in such movies as Forever Young, The Man Without a Face (one of my all time favorites), Braveheart, The Patriot, and What Women Want. Then, I saw him on a talk show, shortly after Braveheart. In real life, he seemed crass, rude, and brash. All my happy images of the characters he portrayed beautifully suddenly shifted. Granted, I will still watch those movies and relish his performance, but my respect for the man behind the mask has been stripped away. He is only human, after all, not the wizard he pretends to be.

Thus, when I saw advertisements for Lauren Graham's memoir, Talking as Fast as I Can, I was hesitant to pick it up. What if she turned out to be crass, rude, and brash? What if, in attempting to be as humorous as her beloved character on The Gilmore Girls, she tried too hard and impressed too little.

I'm a big Gilmore Girls fan. In my previous life, back when I worked full time and had a young child who dictated the channel setting (oh, yeah, I still have that), I occasionally caught an episode here or there. I loved the characters, the witty banter, the clever come-backs, and the sweet relationship between Lorelai and Rory. It was only months ago, when I discovered all seven seasons of the show available on Netflix that I became literally obsessed. I loved that I could watch it in snatches on my phone in the quiet of my room after washing up the dinner dishes or while waiting to transport my middle-schooler home from his post-school work-out sessions.

It became a bit of a running gag in our house. Where's Mom? Oh, she's in her room watching yet another episode of The Gilmore Girls. When I realized that my boys didn't mind the interruption and actually relished watching with me (imagine, if you will, us belting along to the theme song - truly happened on more than one occasion), I began to watch some of the episodes on our television in the living room. It was a cozy something we shared (although I don't approve of everything on the show and thus had to provide them with some parental commentary).

Thankfully, meeting Lauren Graham through this memoir was painless and fun. It turned out, she is down-to-earth, real, and delightful. I liked her just as much as the character she portrayed. I breathed a sigh of relief because she wasn't crude and didn't try too hard to make a favorable impression. By listening to the audio version (read by Lauren), it did indeed feel like "catching up with your best friend, laughing and swapping stories" - a back-cover teaser - but I put my name on the hold list for the hard cover book, nonetheless, because I missed out on the photos accompanying the text.

I also appreciated her humility. Instead of focusing on herself (a key player in the popularity of the show), she highlights the many quality actors and actresses who played their parts so skillfully that they seemed perfectly cast (here I think aloud of Rory, Lorelei's mother, Luke Danes, Michele, Suki, and the hilariously ubiquitous Kirk). Moreover, she recognizes the finesse of the writing team behind the dialogue that won the hearts of the American people. The witty banter I so love in the show lends the title to this book. The scripts apparently became longer and longer because Lorelei's character was so well-known for her quick responses and her fast talking.

As a writer, I was pleased to find advice on tackling daunting writing tasks (since Lauren wears the writer hat on occasion, as well). It reaffirmed my belief in the power of getting it down without worrying about the quality or quantity. She reiterates someone else's advice to set a timer for a do-able increment (say, an hour, or less if your schedule doesn't even allow for a solid hour) and refuse to give in to any other distraction. I loved the idea of pulling up two documents: your work-in-progress and a personal journal. How freeing it must be to know that when you set out to put in your allotted time, if the work-in-progress is stuck, you simply pass over to journaling. This sounds reminiscent to Ray Bradbury's advice to begin by randomly writing down a list of words. The very act of coming up with those words tends to trigger a path into reasonably productive territory. But then again, you're free of the worry associated with productivity at the outset. The key, as always, is to silence the inner editor, the task-master, and the naysayer, and simply focus on pushing out the words.

Pull me off to the side in a room full of people and I will happily talk your arm off about what I liked and didn't like about both The Gilmore Girls and the Netflix series of A Year in the Life of the Gilmore Girls. Dare I admit that I was so frustrated in my efforts to find another engaging series to watch on Netflix that I have begun season one all over again? My fascination is cemented. My relief is immense. I like Lauren Graham just as much after encountering her behind the screen as I did before she stepped out from behind the curtain. And if my book reviews taper off, you can bet I'm either hunkered down with another episode of The Gilmore Girls or I'm setting a timer for another hour of focused writing of my own.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Book Review: Hallelujah Anyway

I like Anne Lamott. I really do. Yet, once again, I felt less than satisfied with her newest book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. I think, in order to fully grasp mercy, one has to fully grasp mercy's need. To that end, Lamott spends quite a bit of time portraying the faults and failings of our humanity. Still, the true extent of our need for God's mercy is never tapped. In the end, the reader comes away with ruminations on personal need to show one's self and others mercy.

Just as in Help, Thanks, Wow, I bristled at the political infusion in categorical denunciations. And, once again, I found it hard to stomach the familiarity and crassness used in speaking of both Paul and Jesus. At one point, she declares (when Jesus wept for Mary and Martha's sorrow) that Jesus was "pissed" and she responds to this sentiment with her own declaration "Oy vey!" Hmm. Not my take on that whole scenario. She calls Paul "cranky, judgemental, and self-righteous," although does admit that she sees these very attributes within herself. For me, it feels like a lack of respect. I want to step back and recognize holy ground when I see it. I don't want to sully things beyond me with my own limited perspectives.

Moreover, I didn't really feel a strong sense of connection with what was being said. Many times in reading previous books by Lamott, I have felt moments of kinship. This time, I couldn't get inside her pain or her acts of mercy. I wanted to feel more deeply, to be convicted more intensely.

So, while there is some value in reading Lamott's observations - we all could certainly stand to treat one another with more mercy and forgiveness - I came away wishing for more depth, more respect, and more conviction. We need mercy from God far more than we need mercy from ourselves. We cannot hope to show mercy to others without recognizing the depth of our need for mercy from the One who atones for our death-infused sins.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review: Carrot Cake Murder

As I said in my review of the ninth installment of this series, I probably wouldn't continue with the books if I couldn't find them in audio form (I'm always requiring a book to listen to while I walk on the treadmill each morning). Indeed, I was rather disgruntled with this tenth book, Carrot Cake Murder. So many of my complaints played out in this episode.

For starters, the reader is dragged along with the numerous love interests of the main character, a woman who has admitted to herself that she can't hold a candle to the raving beauty of either of her sisters. Yet, somehow three men are willing to dangle on a thread in hopes that she will cast her lot in their direction. Really? Moreover, ten books and Hannah still hasn't made up her mind? Come on.

The formula is simply growing tiresome. Thankfully, we didn't have to hear too much about the cat in this book. Hannah's detective boyfriend allows her to sleuth away, sharing evidence. Yet another Lake Eden citizen has cooked up murder over a trivial reason. Hannah, of course, finds the dead body and dishes up recipe after recipe throughout the process of determining the killer.

Another pet peeve I have with this series is the author's insistence upon teaching the reader tid-bits of information. Often it comes in the form of grammar lessons, Regency dialect information, or detective procedure.  It's not that I don't enjoy learning something from what I read, but rather the grating tone the author uses while instructing on trivial bits of information. As another reader expressed in an Amazon review, why does the reader need to be informed what "slate blue" means?

Finally, I am weary of the main character's slow mental processes when it comes to technology. This is a woman who is supposedly smarter than the average detective, yet she stumbles through instructions on how to use a cell phone? Really? I'm not the brightest when it comes to these devices myself, but I find her cluelessness less than endearing.

So, why am I still listening? Good question. Is it that old conundrum of wanting to finish what I started? I do still enjoy hearing the recipes read off (and will probably attempt one or two of them someday). It is definitely easy listening because it is not hard to follow, even when my mind wanders during the walk. And finally, my library just doesn't have enough fairly clean audio books to keep me going (I have three on the back burner right now, but I'm wondering if I will be able to listen to them on weekends, when my boys are around). So, I plug on in this seemingly endless series where the formula never alters a bit: the main character drags several love interests along behind her while she stumbles upon countless dead bodies and outwits any other individuals attempting to solve the troublesome cases. Please tell me this author isn't as committed to her formula as R.L. Stine was (whose 62 book Goosebumps series is still read voraciously by young kids in schools across the country).

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Book Review: The Writing Life

I first encountered Annie Dillard in a course at Wheaton College. I remember marveling at the poetry of her wisdom in words. It is like she holds a reader's eye up to a microscope and describes every detail with such precision and eloquence that you sense the beauty in all the parts that make up the whole.

In The Writing Life, Dillard turns her lens from nature and onto the creative act of writing. I found so many gems of wisdom in this little volume. In explaining the writer's need to forcibly pursue the work, she writes: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair." As to attitude toward your work, she says of the writer: "He must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not."

Dillard's words reminded me of the importance of keeping up the momentum (something I only did once I discovered the Nanowrimo challenge). She says: "I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.... If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.... You must visit it every day and assert your mastery over it." Writing is sheer pursuit. "It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then - and only then - it is handed to you." She writes further: "It feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence."

And finally, of the responsibility to fill our hearts and minds with what is good for the soul and good for our writing, she says: "The writer ... is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know." Dillard's words are inspiring. I could turn to them again and again for motivation in my writing tasks.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Book Review: The Acid Watcher Diet

Sometimes, in the medical world, determining the cause of particular ailments leads to a wild goose chase. I have experienced this before, am experiencing it now, and will probably go down this road again in the future. While I don't want such experiences to color my view of physicians or infuse me with a general distrust, it seems inevitable. I grow weary of floundering around in the dark.

For the past seven months, I have been battling a chronic cough and a constant need to clear my throat. About a month ago, I was attempting to take a vitamin when the pill became lodged in my throat. As I reached up to feel if it was actually still lodged there, my husband noticed a distinct lump in my throat. Weary of my constant coughing and throat-clearing, and alarmed at what might be a growth of some sort, he insisted that I see my primary care physician (a task I vehemently avoid because of my general squeamishness in medical procedures and my flagging confidence in medical personnel).

And so, the run-around began. Blood tests revealed that my thyroid levels were within the normal range, but an ANA test came back positive. The doctor ordered a thyroid ultrasound to examine the lump, but that came back normal. Because of the ANA test, and noticing the pervasive redness of my cheeks (which the doctor considered might be the butterfly rash of lupus, rather than the hereditary rosacea I had always thought it to be), the doctor referred me to a rheumatologist. Thankfully, the rheumatologist, after posing diagnostic questions, doubted a lupus diagnosis and merely found a UTI.

Yet, the chronic cough continues and the doctor doesn't seem to pay it much mind beyond associating it with asthma. Then, I happened upon the questions on the back cover of this book, The Acid Watcher Diet. "Do you suffer from abdominal bloating?" Check. "a chronic, nagging cough?" Check. "postnasal drip?" Check. "a feeling of a lump in the back of your throat?" Check. My interest was peaked. My parents both suffer from acid reflux and I had noticed, recently, a few occasions of bile coming up when I was lying down (the most classic symptom).

In The Acid Watcher Diet: A 28-Day Reflux Prevention and Healing Program, Dr. Jonathan Aviv highlights the lesser-known symptoms of acid reflux and acid damage and brings awareness to dietary solutions for the problem. He identifies the links between inflammation, weight gain (another troubling problem for me), and acid reflux. I never before really thought about the acidity of so many of the processed foods we are tempted to eat. It was eye-opening to learn the pH factor in different foods.

The book is broken down into three parts: A Diagnostic Tool for Assessing Acid Damage (including what you should know when you see your doctor); Food and Lifestyle Prescriptions (including the importance of fiber and an especially helpful chapter titled "Breaking Acid-Generating Habits and Establishing Acid-Reduction Practices"); and a 28-Day Healing Phase meal plan, Follow-up Maintenance Plan, and coordinating recipes. In the first section, I became convinced that my problems might be associated with some acid damage to my system from eating foods with high acidity. The second section reinforced some information I had already read about the microbiome, importance of fiber, etc. And, the final section, made me question whether I have what it takes to attempt this 28-day cleanse.

The most difficult challenges for me would be giving up coffee and chocolate, increasing my intake of raw vegetables (not my favorite way to eat them, but prescribed at a 1/2 cooked, 1/2 raw ratio), and consistently eating my evening meal a full three hours before heading to bed (since I'm an early-to-bed-early-to-rise person, this would mean eating before 5:30 and my husband tends to schedule our evening meal more toward 6 or 7). Still, I am intrigued and fairly eager to attempt this diet to see if it will eliminate the chronic cough, especially so when I read about the undetected acid damage leading to esophageal cancer. Many of the recipes (including easy-to-prepare smoothies, omelets, and fish/chicken dishes) sounded like something I could manage, and that's saying something since I'm fairly hopeless in the kitchen. The photo of elimination diet foods is appealing (from the Acid Watcher Diet website).

I'm all for using food as medicine. While I'm not ready to commit to the diet yet, I will certainly keep it on my radar and will probably check out the book again when I am more in a position to attempt it. I definitely plan on copying the list of safe foods. Even if I never implement the diet fully, I think that I gained quite a bit of knowledge about ways to be on the alert for acid damage and that could go a long way. The key is awareness or as the book likes to type it AWareness (emphasizing the acid-watching factor).

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review: Key Lime Pie Murder

I think if I weren't always on the lookout for further books to listen to while treadmill walking, I probably wouldn't go on with this series. It has begun to feel same-old, same-old. Moreover, despite wanting to know who the main character will end up marrying, I don't particularly enjoy being strung along for episode after episode without much satisfaction in that department. Alas, Hannah Swensen remains torn between the two loves of her life: Norman and Mike.

Once again, in this ninth installment, Key Lime Pie Murder, Hannah happens upon a dead body. The formula is intact. She introduces a few glitches in her personal life (this time around, her cat is seemingly sick without cause, her mother is working on some secret writing project, and her sisters are both competing in competitions in the Lake Eden Fair). The official detective, Mike, begs her not to investigate. She does anyway, with the help of Norman and her sisters. She ends up in a pickle as things grow to a climax in the story, and Norman and Mike manage to swoop in to save the day and save her hide.

I did consider jotting down a few of the recipes offered in this installment, but frankly, couldn't be bothered to take the time. I will keep my eye out for the compiled recipe book that is supposed to go along with the series and perhaps I will secure some of the recipes in that way. The one recipe from this book that I especially hope to find is the one for Mango Quick Bread (yum). It sounded moist and sweet.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: Wolf Hollow - Highly Recommend

While the last Newbery book I read didn't appeal to me, this one was a completely different experience. Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk, was outstanding from start to finish, fully deserving of its numerous accolades and awards. It opened with a bang up first sentence: "The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie." Indeed, the whole prologue was absolutely breathtaking. I knew I was in for a treat and I wasn't disappointed. The writing sings and it is a song well worth hearing.

Wolf Hollow takes it's name from a hollow where they trapped and buried wolves in holes to reduce the threatening population. How appropriate as we meet a true threat to our young protagonist. Annabelle is a sweet, sincere girl who has no idea what is in store when she first encounters Betty Glengarry, an "incorrigible" youngster sent to live with her grandparents. At first, Annabelle is determined to handle Bettty's bullying on her own, but over time, realizes that she is in over her head. Still, Annabelle is plucky, intelligent, and compassionate. She figures quite a bit out on her own, without the help of grown-ups, something sure to appeal to young readers.

This book will stun and enthrall readers of all ages as they watch Annabelle lose her innocence and learn about the more difficult challenges of life. It takes on subjects of prejudice, justice, and mercy. Somehow the author manages to make readers feel empathy for both the bullied and the bully.

As Annabelle thinks on her plight, and the plight of Toby (another of Betty's targets), she wisely observes, "There might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried... there would be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But then a better thought occurred, and this was the one I carried with me that day: If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?"

The story ends just as eloquently. Annabelle declares, "The wind always swept my words away like cloud shadows, as if it mattered more that I said them, than who heard them." Thus, readers are challenged to live lives that speak into the darkness of this world, even if their voices go unheard. I am a better person for having read this book, and I think other readers will be, as well.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I wanted to love this book. I really did. The cover is gorgeous, the idea is intriguing. and the endorsements are full of powerfully positive words ("spellbinding," "captivating," and "imaginative"). It is a New York Times bestseller and a Newbery winner. The Amazon page is full to the brim with accolades. I just can't bring myself to join the throngs.

I know there are friends of mine who would rave about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. People who love fairy tales, readers who enjoy fantastical stories, and lovers of magic will all be enthralled with it. I could imagine myself reading the book to an eager little girl (granddaughter perhaps, because I'm done in that department). But, the story never fully engaged me or pulled me in. Despite liking the portrayal of the little girl, I really struggled to care what happened to her because the story rambled and drifted aimlessly.

Living in the Protectorate sounds like it would be safe and cozy, doesn't it? But the whole idea of the Protectorate is held up by an annual sacrifice to the Witch in the dangerous forest around them. They hope that by offering up the youngest member, they will appease the thirst of the Witch. Thus, the story begins with a baby placed on a tree stump in the forest and left to its fate. The Witch does indeed come to take the baby, but falls in love with her and allows her to drink from the moon, thereby filling her with magic. That baby's mother is driven to madness and locked away in a tower. A young boy, training for a position as Elder, watches it all, convinced that something should be done to do away with this barbaric practice. So far, so good.

But, after that, the story begins to weave so poetic and allegorical that it began to bore me. Everything seems to be leading up to a climax, but it takes so long to get there and when things do finally come to a head (and I feared the girl would be mistaken for the witch and her throat slit - surely it couldn't end that way, I thought), it just sort of unravels and resolves quietly.

I felt hesitant about the undertones of the story. Was it poking fun at people who believe in a higher power, a God figure who works in mysterious ways? Was it mocking the idea of sacrifice? Why does the religious figure end up being the supreme evil entity? It felt like New Age philosophy triumphing over Christianity. Despite beautiful writing, I hesitantly read on, hoping for some form of redemption or some value to the story. Alas, I never found it. Am still confused by it, to be honest. Great potential, but sadly not a story to my tastes.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review: Dark Matter

I occasionally join in on the festivities of The Deliberate Reader's on-line book club. When I read the description for April's selection, Blake Crouch's Dark Matter, I was drawn in. Then, when I discovered it was a book I could listen to in audio form, my participation was clinched. The only thing that could have been better would have been for me to discover this a bit sooner (since I had to avoid viewing the questions for this whole first week and a half of April).

What a thought-provoking book! Jason Dessen lives a mediocre life with his lovely wife, Daniella, and his teen son, Charlie. He is a physics professor at a small Chicago college. Where would life have taken him if Daniella hadn't gotten pregnant and they hadn't chosen to get married? On a quiet night, heading home from a celebration for a colleague's recent achievement, Jason is kidnapped and drugged. He awakens to another world. A world where he supposedly went on to pursue the great scientific discovery of dark matter (innumerable alternate realities bent by individual human choices). In this world, his wife is not his wife and his child, never born. He is faced with a host of scenarios that might have happened if his choices had been different. But once trapped in this other world, he must find a way back to his truest self and the most important choices of his existence.

Who doesn't wonder what their life would have been like if they had simply taken a different path at any number of cross-roads? I've previously mentioned my own fascination with the "what ifs" of life. I loved the movie "Sliding Doors," for its treatment of just such a question. I enjoyed this book even more than that movie. I hated the villain, even though the villain was part-and-parcel of the hero. I desperately wanted Jason to end up in the life of his choosing, where love and happiness both rule supreme over success. I loved second-guessing how Jason could triumph over his dilemma. The twists in the tale were cleverly executed.

As for personal application, I thought long and hard about whether I would trade my current existence for something other, if that alternate life provided more success or a more satisfying path. Would I trade my time with my sons, if it meant more fulfillment in a career? Would I so long for the elusive grail of publication that I would be willing to trade personal happiness for it? Hmm. I think I should focus more energy on gratitude and less on wishful thinking.

There is some on-line talk of a movie production. I would welcome the experience. Moreover, it would be a movie my husband might even enjoy seeing with me (something we seldom do) - he's always game for philosophical rumination.