What I Read in July

Aug 10, 2018

July was a good reading month for me, both in terms of quantity and quality. I was satisfied and content in every way.

1. America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoi
This was my favorite read from July, in part because it suited the month so perfectly (and you all know how I feel about a good, seasonal read).

It is a fictionalized account of Martha "Patsy" Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's daughter). Her mother passed away when she was just ten years old, but not before securing a promise from Patsy that she would always take care of and protect her father. The promise itself seems fairly innocent on the surface--her father had just lost the love of his life; of course she would want to look after him and help him--but it has far-reaching consequences. Patsy is her father's secret keeper, pushing forward the image that the new nation expects and covering the human foibles that would turn people against him. She gives up her own heart to protect his.

Much of the story is embellished and dramatized for the sake of entertainment, but I found the author's note at the end of the novel to be completely fascinating (and impressive). Every care was taken to make the story as historically accurate as possible, but where facts were not known (in part probably because Patsy herself erased portions of incriminating history), plausible details were inserted. Regardless of what is or is not true, Patsy's life was a tragic one, and at times, the heartache is almost too much to bear.

I listened to this during our trip through the midwest last month (more on that in my next post) and found that this long novel (over 20 hours) was the perfect companion, especially because our trip went over the 4th of July holiday and ended at Mt. Rushmore where we all got a good look at Thomas Jefferson's stony features. In spite of its length, it was a compelling novel that I couldn't seem to listen to fast enough. For those who love historical fiction or emotional drama, I can't recommend it enough.

2. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
The Willoughbys are an old-fashioned family of father, mother, three sons, and one daughter. But they are not a happy family. The parents cannot stand the children (they "frequently forgot that they had children and became quite irritable when they were reminded of it"), and the children's feelings are mutual. Thus, they both devise plans to get rid of each other: the children suggest a vacation the parents can't turn down (volcanoes, alligator infested lakes, frozen mountain peaks--all perfect ways for them to meet their end), and the parents sneakily sell their house out from under the children while they're away.

With that brief introduction, I'm sure you can see that this is a morbid, irreverent, and even dastardly wicked plot. Being big fans of Roald Dahl, it's just the kind of book my kids and I love, and it certainly had a lot of potential going into it. However, it lost some momentum for me when it introduced a whole bunch of sub-characters (an abandoned baby, a grief-stricken candy inventor, a no-nonsense nanny, an organizational freak, a lonely boy, and a love-sick postmaster). It was wildly entertaining to see how the different plot lines all eventually entwined with one another, but I think my interest waned because I didn't love some of the characters, but I felt forced to pay attention to them so I wouldn't get lost.

Still though, my kids loved it from beginning to end and always begged for me to read and then keep reading. There's also a delightful glossary (with explanations such as, "Irascible means having outbursts of bad temper. I myself had a very irascible third-grade teacher and it made for a miserable year.") and a bibliography of famous books at the end of the book. And it's Lois Lowry. So you know that even if I'm complaining about the plot, it isn't all bad. Not by a long shot.

3. Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary
As a teenager, I remember reading Fifteen by Beverly Cleary and loving it, so I wanted to try one of her other young adult novels (in part, to help fulfill my goal of reading three pre-1970 young adult novels).

I honestly don't know what today's teenager would think about this book. I'm sure they would find it a little bit cheesy and a lot old-fashioned (because I myself kind of felt that way about it), but I wonder if they'd also be able to see past some of those things to the lessons of the story:
  • Jean makes almost all of her own clothes because, even though she is just fifteen, her parents expect her to furnish her own wardrobe and handmade clothes are so much cheaper than ready made garments. Even though it would be just the opposite today (I speak from experience that you cannot save money by making your own clothes), the principles of frugality, contentment, and gratitude are still needed.
  • Johnny is a real jerk. At first, I thought Beverly Cleary was actually casting him as the perfect male lead, and I was absolutely disgusted. (When Johnny takes Jean out for a soda and makes her listen to his entire radio program with himself as host, I laughed at how ridiculous it was.) But Beverly Cleary comes around, and so does Jean, and I think it would help all teenage girls see through the phoniness of so many boys.
  • Jean refuses a kiss on a first date. As someone who held my kisses close, I gave a silent cheer for Jean's level head.
  • The family dynamic in Jean's home is sweet: her father and mother sit around in the evenings, meeting their daughters' dates; Jean looks up to her older sister, Sue, and seeks her advice, but then rejects it when it doesn't fit with what she wants to do. It all feels very realistic while at the same time feeling just a little too good to be true.
In spite of my initial reservations, I ended up enjoying this story and wish it was the kind of book teenagers wanted to read today. It is the very definition of wholesome.

4. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
This was the book we settled on for our little family book club, and it was a big success. Even Mike, who hasn't read a physical book in probably a couple of years, really liked it and was actually the first one finished with it.

It's definitely a book that must be read, not listened to, because half of the story is told through pictures. Ben's story takes place in 1977, beginning in Gunflint Lake, Michigan and ending in New York City, and is told through words; Rose's story begins in 1927, beginning in Hoboken, New Jersey and also ending in New York City and is told through pictures. It is an interesting format, one that moves along at a rapid pace because you read two pages and then you look at the next twenty. 

When we had our book club meeting, I asked everyone to tell us about their favorite moment. Mine was easy. It was the part where the two stories collided, and I turned the page and saw Ben's face for the first time. I think I actually gasped. I probably can't tell you about each person's favorite moment without giving away major parts of the plot, but almost all of them were pictures, which I found so interesting especially since they told me they liked Ben's story (the one told in words) better than Rose's. I think pictures lodge in our memories a little more easily and maybe trigger emotions faster as well.

There are some mature themes with this one, not the least of which is that Ben's mother and father were never married (and Ben never even met his father). Mike and I were a little concerned about this, mostly because six-year-old Bradley was reading it, and we didn't know if we wanted to get into any hard explanations. But adults see very different things than kids, and because this relationship was merely alluded to without going into any sort of detail, it went right over his head. And we let it. Instead we focused on Ben and his adventures in the Museum of Natural History (think From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) and Rose's loneliness in her quiet, protected world, and we marveled at this masterful storytelling. 

5. Courage to Be You: Inspiring Lessons From an Unexpected Journey by Gail Miller
I'm going to be completely honest with this one (even though I'm sure many readers will not share my opinion): the overall message was good, a few of the stories were interesting, and there was a smattering of memorable insights, but from the beginning this felt like a trite and formulaic inspirational read that was only selling copies because of who the author was (wife of Larry H. Miller). Whew, that was a long sentence, but sometimes it's best to just get it all out in one fell swoop.

The writing itself was overly simplistic and bland (despite being co-authored by Jason Wright) and was filled with many self-deprecating statements such as, "My marriage wasn't perfect; I'm not perfect; I might look like I have it all figured out, but I don't." I'm not saying that these statements weren't sincere; they probably were. But the tone just struck me as a little bit lofty even while she was trying very hard not to be.

My favorite chapter was, "Love to Serve--Serve to Love," where she shared this thought, "The only people I don't love are those I don't know yet." That alone was worth reading the book for, and I wish I could keep this statement at the forefront of my mind and really internalize and live it. In spite of not loving this book, I think Gail Miller really exemplifies this and the other principles she attempted to teach, as did her husband, Larry.

6. The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech
This was recommended to me by a friend a couple of years ago, but it wasn't until I was searching for an audiobook that was available for immediate download (an increasingly difficult feat) that I remembered it and finally listened to it.

It's a short book, which sometimes makes a story somewhat forgettable, but this one had a sweet poignancy that I think will stay with me. That said, I wouldn't have minded hanging out with the characters for a little longer.

When middle-aged couple, John and Marta, find a boy on their porch one morning, they are surprised and also a little disturbed. Try as they might, they can find no information about the boy save for a cryptic piece of paper from someone (his parents? a guardian?) that says they'll be back for him. What's more, the boy can't (or won't) talk, and so John and Marta are left to deduce as much as they can. Although the whole situation is strange, they both have big hearts that have been longing for a child to love. And so their relationship grows quickly and easily, until one day, when they've begun to assume it will go on like this forever, it comes to an abrupt end.

This novel took an unexpected turn toward foster parenting that I absolutely loved. My cousin and her husband have been foster parents for several years, and after I finished this book, I immediately told her about it. Even though it's a middle-grade book, John and Marta's self-sacrifice and non-judgmental warmth will touch the hearts of children and adults alike. Foster parenting is a roller coaster ride of emotions and is not for the faint of heart. This book celebrates those courageous individuals who are willing to share a piece of their hearts with others.

What have you been reading lately? Have you read any of these books? Tell me in the comments!

The Mid-Point: Where I'm at With My Reading Goals

Aug 2, 2018

Yikes, the year is more than halfway over, but I am definitely not halfway through my reading goals. I'm hoping I can summon up a lot of drive and really organize my reading to get through the rest of them before December 31st (which still sounds like such a long way off, but I know it isn't). Here's where I'm at so far:

1. Read the 2018 Newbery winner (complete)
This is the only goal on this list that is 100% finished, so I'm going to celebrate it. When I made this goal, the ALA youth media awards had not been announced yet, so I didn't know what I would be reading. The book that ended up winning the Newbery medal was one I hadn't even heard of (which wasn't all that surprising considering I didn't really keep up with the bookish buzz the way I had in previous years). The 2018 winner was Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly. I listened to it soon after it won, and, although I really enjoyed it, I was still pretty surprised that it beat out all the other contenders. I can see myself making this same goal for many years down the road though because it's so fun to read the winning book, regardless of what it is.

2. Read A Rambler Steals Home and Zinnia and the Bees (partially complete)
I follow Carter Higgins and Danielle Davis on Instagram, so I was very aware when both of their books were published last year, especially because they were first novels for both of them. I intended to read them last year, but my intentions are never as strong as my goals, so this year it's actually happening. I read Zinnia and the Bees a few months ago, and it wasn't my favorite (I actually think I might have liked it more if I could have listened to it, but currently there isn't an audio edition). I'm in the middle of A Rambler Steals Home right now, and so far, I'm liking it quite a bit more than Zinnia.

3. Read something by Virginia Woolf (not complete)
I have the audio of To the Lighthouse on hold at the library right now. It would be awesome if it came in soon since I'm currently without anything to listen to (something that doesn't happen often), so I could get to it right away.

4. Read three older (pre-1970) young adult novels (partially complete)
So I guess the solution to my dilemma "Find books to recommend to teenagers" is as simple as diving back in time. So far I'm loving this goal. I read And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle (published in 1949), and it was a treat. I've read one other so far, but I read it in July, which is technically the second half of the year, so I'll keep you in suspense. If you have any other older titles to recommend, please share!

5. Read the three books I recommended for book club this year (partially complete)
As a reminder, my book club decides on their schedule for the entire year by having each member bring three recommendations for a certain genre. My genre was nonfiction for the month of September, and the three books I recommended were Dead Wake, Walkable City, and The Four Tendencies. The book club members voted and chose to read The Four Tendencies, but I still wanted to read the other two as well. So far, I've read The Four Tendencies (because my family also chose to read this for our family book club), but I've had Dead Wake checked out  twice from the library already, so does that count for anything?

6. Read a classic I own (not complete)
I've kind of been saving this one for the fall because I'm planning to read Wuthering Heights, and it just seems like it will fit the mood of that season. Tell me if I'm right.

7. Read three books from Honey for a Child's Heart (partially complete)
So far, this is my least favorite goal. That could be because the one book I've read for it so far (Tom's Midnight Garden) I didn't really like. But I'm also just finding it frustrating to choose a book from the book lists (which I wasn't expecting at all; I thought that would be the fun part). I think I'm making it more difficult for myself because I added the stipulation that the book had to be one that wasn't already on my to-read radar. This made sense at the time because the whole point of looking at the book lists in Honey for a Child's Heart was to get new ideas. But I'm having a hard time finding books I don't know about that actually sound good. So maybe I should just use the book lists to remind myself of the good books I've been wanting to read. Sounds like a better plan, right?

8. Read Simplicity Parenting or No-Drama Discipline (not complete)
These are both books I've had on my parenting to-read list for awhile, but I don't really know anything about either of them. I need to read a bunch of reviews of each one so I can decide which book will most benefit my parenting at this time. If you've read either of them, I'd love to hear your opinion/recommendation!

9. Read a book by Clara Parkes (not complete)
Clara Parkes is a knitter who writes memoir-type books about knitting. Her latest book, A Stash of One's Own, is actually a collection of essays written by other knitters, and it's the one I want to read for this goal. Sadly though, the library doesn't have it, but I asked if they would order it, and they did. Now I'm just waiting for it to come in and be processed, which I anticipate taking a fairly long time . . .

10. Read snippets from my favorite books on at least one Sunday each month (partially complete)
This has been such a fun goal. I have loved going back to some of my favorite books and just casually perusing the pages, reading a page here and there, wherever strikes my fancy. I don't feel any pressure to reread the entire thing. I just read as much as I feel like and remember why I loved it in the first place. So far, I've read:
Apparently, I completely spaced it in June and forgot to read a book. Luckily, I read from two books in February, so I'll count that. I'm looking forward to continuing this goal for the second half of the year and revisiting more of my favorite books. 

Excluding Goal #10, I have only read five of the sixteen books I need to complete these goals. In other words, I'm in trouble. Or at least I need to up my focus for the last half (now down to just five months) of 2018.

How are your reading goals coming along? What has been your most challenging read? Most enjoyable?

The Book Blab Episode 18: Books for Book Club Plus Two Perfect Summer Reads

Jul 30, 2018

When Suzanne and I last chatted, we talked about everything you need to know to start a book club . . . except for the books you might actually want to read at said book club! That's what today's episode is for. Consider this a part two (in fact, you might want to watch part one first if you missed it). It's chock-full of book recommendations (although we did try to show some restraint), and it was fun to get to the heart of what makes a book a great choice for a book club discussion (spoiler: it's not always your favorite book). As always, we'd love to hear YOUR thoughts. What have been some of your favorite books to discuss with your book club?

0:24 - Summer update
1:35 - Today's topic: What makes a good book club book?
2:25 - Tips for choosing books for book club:
  • 2:47 - Favorite books don't always make for a good discussion
  • 3:55 - Choose a book that generates opposite opinions or strong feelings
  • 6:35 - Some ambiguity in the plot/ending encourages discussion
  • 8:15 - This is a simple indicator for knowing if a book will be good for book club
  • 9:58 - Take the length of the book into consideration
  • 12:45 - Be careful of choosing a bestseller 
  • 15:30 - Check if your library has book club sets
  • 16:12 - Identify the unique tastes and interests and commitment levels of your book club
  • 17:22 - Nonfiction is generally a safe choice
18:50 - A few of our favorite book club books
28:17 - Two recommendations for summer reading
  • 29:03 - Suzanne's recommendation 
  • 31:20 - Amy's recommendation
32:32 - Conclusion

Books and links talked about during the show:

The Book Blab Episode 17: Book Clubs (Part One)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Amy's review)
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (Suzanne's review)
Educated by Tara Westover (Suzanne's review)
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson (Amy's review)
 The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin (Suzanne's review)
Bomb: the Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Amy's review // Suzanne's review)
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (Suzanne's review)
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (Amy's review)
Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Suzanne's review)
Jefferson's Sons by Kimberly Brubraker Bradley (Amy's review)
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows (Suzanne's review)
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls (Amy's review)

Now it's your turn: Share your favorite book club reads, and tell us what we should talk about next time on The Book Blab!

Summer Goals for Kids: 2018 Edition

Jul 25, 2018

Although it pains me to say it, we are two-thirds of the way through our summer break. We had a big road trip and three family reunions over the past four weeks, but now things are quieting down for the rest of the summer, which means we're focusing on our summer goals with renewed determination.

This is our fifth year making summer goals (see past years here), and it is one of my very favorite parts of summer. Interestingly though (and this is probably because I recently read The Four Tendencies), I've been a little more aware of my kids' responses this year, and it definitely varies. While I don't have anyone who flat out refuses to participate, some of my kids definitely seem to enjoy the process of setting and achieving goals more than others.
For example, one of Bradley's goals was to complete a second grade math workbook. I thought it would keep him busy all summer, but he immediately attacked it with a vengeance and finished it before the end of the first week. Aaron is also very dedicated and looks over his list every day and chooses something to work on and check off. On the other hand, Maxwell and Clark require a little more reminding/encouraging. Goals may or may not be a part of their love language in the same way they are mine. 

I wanted to share our goals before any more of the summer slips away. As a reminder, we try to have a good variety of goals that are a mix between practical, educational, and fun. (I go into more detail about how and why in this first post about summer goals). Even though school starts on August 20, I usually give my kids until Labor Day to finish up their goals, and I think they're well on their way to having them completed before then.

Aaron, age 9 (almost 10)
  • Practical
    • Learn to mow the lawn (He has been waiting his whole life for this)
    • Bake cookies (He can do it from scratch, completely by himself; my life will never be the same.)
    • Make salad
    • Sweep and mop the kitchen floor
  • Educational
    • Master five cards from Geo Safari History (yes, we're using an old vintage Geo Safari and Math Safari that I borrowed from my mom. They're so great for learning quick facts. Let's hear it for old school!)
    • Master Math Safari fractions, decimals, and percents 
    • Learn European capitols
    • Six units in piano books
    • Memorize The Living Christ (this is a carry over from last summer when we memorized the first half or so)
    • Listen to history/science podcasts (our two favorites for this are The Past and the Curious and Brains On)
  • Fun
    • Three science experiments with Dad (Mike hasn't done any yet, so I guess this could end up being more educational, but knowing him, I'm guessing it will be more fun) 
    • Play tennis with Dad
    • Write a story
    • Family book club (coming this weekend!)
    • Three family hikes
    • Insect kit (Just a little note about this one: I ordered an Insect Lore praying mantis kit. We have been so excited to see a hundred little praying mantises hatch, but even though the kit said it could take up to twelve weeks, I'm pretty sure ours has already failed. I'm pretty bummed about this since it was supposed to be one of the coolest parts of our summer, but I guess there's always next year to try again.)
Maxwell, age 8
  • Practical
    • Make macaroni from a box
    • Clean bathroom toilet and floor
  • Educational
    • Six units in piano books
    • Master five cards from Geo Safari Animals
    • Master Math Safari Division
    • 3rd grade geography workbook (He's been doing this one)
    • Write a story (You might notice that this same goal is in Aaron's fun category)
    • Memorize The Living Christ
    • Listen to history/science podcasts
  • Fun
    • Gut a fish with Dad
    • Run a mile and improve time
    • Three science experiments with Dad
    • Family book club
    • Three family hikes
    • Insect kit
Bradley, age 6.5
  • Practical
    • Wash breakfast dishes/utensils
    • Follow a recipe
  • Educational
    • 2nd grade math workbook (He did this one)
    • Six units in piano books
    • Read six nonfiction books (He has read a lot of these books)
    • Listen to history/science podcasts
    • Work in writing book (We're actually using the same book Max used last year; as in, the very same book; Max didn't end up doing much out of it.)
    • Memorize The Living Christ
  • Fun
    • Three science projects with Dad
    • Practice throwing and catching a frisbee
    • Family book club
    • Art Fraud Detective (Aaron and Max did this same book two summers ago and loved it)
    • Three family hikes
    • Insect kit
Clark, age 4
  • Practical
    • Make toast
    • Wipe the kitchen table
    • Memorize address
  • Educational
  • Fun
    • Pump a swing
    • Ride a two-wheel scooter
    • Put together 100-piece puzzle
    • Insect kit
As we've done in the past, if the boys are making good progress on their goals, then we have a little family reward each month. In June, Mike took the boys to an air show. For July, we're going to see Newsies at Hale Center Theater. And we haven't decided on a reward for August yet.

What do you do in the summer? Goals? A summer bucket list? Camps? Tell me in the comments!

A Little of This and That in June

Jul 17, 2018

June was idyllic summer: warm days, long evenings, structured mornings, lazy afternoons. I would take June over and over again.  We spent our time . . .

Going . . . to the zoo. Early in the month, we had a cool morning that was not great for the pool but was perfect for the zoo. Our zoo recently opened up a new red panda exhibit, which we were very excited to finally get to see.

Fasting . . . from social media for seven days. On June 3rd, the prophet of my church, President Russell M. Nelson, gave a devotional with his wife to all the youth. In his address, he issued five challenges: 1. Take a week-long break from social media, 2. Make a weekly sacrifice of time to the Lord for three weeks, 3. Do a thorough life assessment, 4. Pray daily for all of God's children to receive the blessings of the Gospel, 5. Be a light to the world. The first two challenges were more focused and tangible while the last three are more ongoing and constant. Even though I am long past being a teenager, I knew that accepting those five challenges would bless my life. I stayed off social media (Instagram, blogs, Youtube, Facebook, etc.) for seven days. The results were both expected and surprising. I found that I legitimately missed certain people. I also felt greatly unburdened. I realized that I'm not usually negatively influenced by what other people post, meaning I don't look at other people's perfect lives and feel sad or depressed that my life is not as perfect. However, I realized that my emotions are very tied up in the way other people react to my posts, and when a post or a picture or a caption doesn't get the kind of engagement I was hoping for, I feel disappointed and depressed. Interesting, huh? When I got back on social media, those old feelings started to flare up, and I realized I'd been blissfully free of them for the entire week. Sorry, I probably should have saved all of this for its own post, but needless to say, this is something I'm still trying to find a happy balance with.

Eating . . . doughnuts. We have made it a tradition to celebrate National Doughnut Day on the first Friday in June. Mike was in charge of buying doughnuts from our very favorite doughnut place, Banbury Cross. He came home with two dozen, which I thought was excessive for six people, and he thought was totally justified.

Scorching . . . microwave popcorn. I accidentally put it in for a minute too long, which doesn't sound like it should be that destructive, but it was. The inside of the microwave was completely discolored and every time we used it, it smelled like burnt popcorn. After trying all the Googled tricks to restore it to its original condition, we called it a loss and bought a new microwave, which Mike was only too happy to do. We'd had that microwave since we got married, and we had long outgrown its teeny tiny size. So overall, we're calling it a win.

Teaching . . . my sister how to knit. This might just be my favorite thing from all of June. With my sister's recent graduation, she suddenly has more free time than she's had in the last seven years. So one weekend, she came over, and I taught her the basic knit and purl stitches; then we went out and bought yarn for her first project--a hat. Once she was in a good rhythm with that, we watched Sense and Sensibility while knitting. It was so much fun that we repeated the knitting day three weeks later, right down to watching another adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I can see this becoming a tradition (although we're going to run out of Sense and Sensibilities . . . ).

Finishing . . . off another soccer season. And for Aaron, this will probably be his last. He has played with the same coaches and group of boys for three years, but at the end of this year, they decided to move to a competitive league. Neither Mike or me or Aaron was willing to take on that kind of commitment, and Aaron wasn't really interested in switching to a team of strangers, so we're going to move onto something else.

Baking . . . chocolate chip cookies. That is to say, Aaron baked chocolate chip cookies. All by himself. From start to finish. Completely from scratch and without any help from me. We're all pretty pleased with this development.

Agonizing . . . over paint colors. Since the day we moved into our home more than four years ago, we have known that we wanted to paint the exterior. We thought the time had finally come last fall, but the cold weather came on fast and thwarted our plans. So this spring, we started over and went about getting estimates and comparing paint colors. But guys, it is hard, soooooo hard, to settle on a paint color when 1) you're not sure what you want, 2) you doubt your own taste, 3) even little decisions tend to cripple you, and 4) you can't afford to second guess your decision (like, you literally can't afford it). So thank you to all of our family and friends and neighbors who weighed in with their opinions because in the end, all that agony led to . . .

Admiring . . . our "new" house. Because really, there's nothing like a fresh coat of paint to breathe new life into an old, ugly house. (And if anyone needs a painter, we can highly recommend ours.)

Before (I cheated a little because I found a photo from two years ago when we still had the old roof)


Vowing . . . not to take our kids to the movies ever again. We took the three older boys to see Incredibles 2, and Maxwell and Bradley couldn't handle it. It was just too scary for them, and they begged Mike and me to take them home. We didn't because the rest of us were loving it, but this is at least the third time they have pleaded for us to take them home in the middle of a movie (the other times were with Moana and Coco). I think we've finally learned our lesson. The big screen is just too big. (Side story: see that big tub of popcorn? It was upside down and all over the floor two minutes after this photo was taken.)

Bringing . . . basil back to life. I have a black thumb. I really do. All my plants seem to come to a swift and fast end. Such was the case with a basil plant I purchased recently. I needed basil for a recipe, but then hoped I could keep it alive and enjoy basil all summer. In just a few days, it was drooping and looking stressed, but I went ahead and re-potted it, which only seemed to make matters worse. But I persevered, even when it looked like the most pathetic spindly little thing. And guess what? It survived! And it is getting nice and bushy, and I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Learning . . . new skills. Aaron has wanted to mow the lawn for several years, and Mike decided he was finally tall enough to try it this summer. I hope Aaron enjoys mowing as much when he's sixteen as he does when he's (almost) ten.

Overflowing . . . the toilet. Not our best moment in June, for sure, and maybe a little too much information for all of you. One morning, Clark found me, and said, "Mom, something very bad happened in the bathroom." I was worried he had broken the soap dispenser again and made a big soap mess (which has happened before). If only. I was horrified with what I found. I'll spare you the details, but it was bad. Clark sat on the edge of the bathtub and kept saying, "It's all my fault. It's all my fault." I think he was pretty traumatized, but it will all be worth it if he remembers not to use exorbitant amounts of toilet paper ever again.

Going . . . on a little family hike. We didn't realize how little when we started out, but it ended up being less than half a mile to get to a waterfall after which the only way to go forward was with ropes straight up the cliff face. No thanks. But it was short enough that none of my kids complained, so I think it was perfect for us.

Celebrating . . . Father's Day. The boys made some things for Mike, and we gave him treats and a new game. In the evening, my family came over and we celebrated with my dad. I'm very blessed to have these two good men in my life.

Rekindling . . . our love of The Great British Baking Show. A new season is up on PBS. Have you watched any of it yet?

Hanging . . . out at the pool. We spent a lot of time at the pool in June. Clark and Bradley took swimming lessons; Max and Aaron did swim team. Clark cracked the swimming code and became an independent swimmer. Bradley learned how to do a back flip off the diving board. We were even joined by a few family members on a few occasions.

Knitting . . . a shawl for my Aunt Sheri, which I gifted to her a couple of weeks later, but not before I took some photos in it. I loved planning it; I loved knitting it; I loved finishing it; I loved wearing it; I loved giving it away. The whole process brought me joy.

Spending . . . time together at a family reunion. It's the season of family reunions over here (we have three this summer), and the first one took place with my family at the end of June at Lava Hot Springs. I sometimes complain about going to so many reunions, but the truth is, I really do love it. I only got to go to one family reunion during my entire childhood, so I'm so glad my kids are having a very different experience. This is the stuff of memories.

And that's it for June! How is your summer going so far?

What I Read in June

Jul 2, 2018

It kind of felt like all of my reading was dictated to me for the month of June. Three of the books were for book clubs (not kidding), and the fourth was our readaloud, which, even though I chose it, began to feel like more and more of an obligation as it dragged on for the entire month. Here are a few of my thoughts on each book:

1. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
I was in the mood for a sweet, lighthearted read for summer, and this definitely fit the bill.

It's about Don Tillman, a middle-aged genetics professor who decides it's time for him to get married. But he's tired of going on the usual dates and making the usual small talk. It's so inefficient. So he comes up with a comprehensive questionnaire to screen potential candidates, asking everything from what flavor of ice cream she likes to what she does in her free time. He calls this, "The Wife Project." With the questionnaire, he can immediately see if they'd be a compatible match or not.

But then, he meets Rosie, and she basically fails the entire questionnaire, and yet, upon reflection, he realizes that he would place his time with her among his happiest moments (right after his three visits to the Natural History Museum). Luckily, Rosie is searching for her biological father and so Don agrees to help her with "The Father Project" and doesn't have to worry about their incompatible interests.

The thing that is never explicitly mentioned but is obvious from the beginning is that Don has Asperger's Syndrome, and this makes this search for the perfect wife even more hilarious and endearing because Don tries to go about it all in just the right way, but everything is just a little more awkward than it needs to be.

I honestly could have loved this book if not for two things: the excessive swearing (including the f-word) and the behavior of Don's best friend, Gene, who is married but sleeps around in the name of research and science. I almost put down the book several times because of this content, and, in spite of how much I loved Don, I wouldn't be able to recommend it.

2. The Wolves at the Door: the True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson
This story could have been so good, so good, in the hands of another author. It is the true story of Virginia Hall who worked as a spy for the SOE and OSS during World War II. Right from the beginning, when she accidentally shoots herself in the leg during a hunting expedition and has to have it amputated, you know that she is an extraordinary lady. But the writing was so dull and dry that it was a struggle for that spunk and fearlessness to come through.

For example, at one point Virginia has to escape from France by way of the Pyrenees into Spain. This would have been an arduous journey under any circumstances, but with an artificial leg to contend with, it was absolutely torturous. And yet, I felt virtually no emotion when I was reading it because the writing was so bland.

This was my book club book for June, and our discussion was as much about how bad the writing was and lamenting about what the story could have been as it was about Virginia and her noble heroics.

Look her up on Wikipedia, but skip this book.

3. Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
A few weeks ago, I was flipping through Honey for a Child's Heart, looking for something that sounded interesting for our next readaloud. I wasn't looking because I didn't have any ideas (I always have ideas) but because one of the goals I made at the beginning of the year was to read three books recommended in that resource. The problem was that many of the books that caught my attention did so because I'd already heard of them, and the point of the goal was to discover new-to-me books.

So when I happened upon Tom's Midnight Garden, I jumped on it because it was a completely never-before-heard-of title and it was described as "timeless" and the type of story that "will probably be reaching out to children in 2102 on both sides of the Atlantic." Perfect. I put it on hold that very moment.

Tom has the whole summer to look forward to when his younger brother, Peter, unfortunately contracts a bad case of the measles. Tom is immediately whisked off to his aunt and uncle's flat to avoid any exposure to the disease, and he can't think of any place that would be more boring. But then, on one of his first nights there, the clock wakes him up, and he opens the back door and steps into a beautiful garden that was nothing more than a few trash bins and an old car in the daylight. Night after night, Tom returns to this garden, and slowly he realizes that he isn't just stepping into another place, but another time entirely.

When we were two or three chapters into the story, I enthusiastically posted about it on Instagram. We loved it! It was so fun to discover an old classic. Etc., etc. But with each chapter, my enthusiasm seemed to wane just a bit more. The story unfolded slowly, so slooooowly, and some nights I couldn't even muster up the interest to read a chapter. Consequently, it took us more than a month to read, and maybe we should have abandoned it.

The problem was, it did have its enjoyable moments and we all had a bunch of unanswered questions. So we plowed on. And by the last five chapters or so, it had picked back up again, and we didn't have any trouble finishing. So, was it worth it to keep reading for ten good chapters out of twenty-seven? In this particular case, I'm going to say yes. (But I'm really glad we get to read something else now.)

4. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
My whole family read this book for our family reunion book club (which was this past weekend). Even though the official discussion took place during the family reunion, we've been informally talking about it for weeks. We couldn't help ourselves.

Gretchen Rubin first introduced the Four Tendencies in her book, Better than Before. She came up with the framework to better understand why some people are able to form good habits so easily and others really struggle. This book honed in on the four tendencies specifically (Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, Rebel), exploring each one thoroughly (strengths and weaknesses, how it interacts with the other tendencies, what it looks like in different situations, different leanings, etc.).

You can imagine what happens when a family reads this book. Everyone starts identifying everyone else, and no one can say anything without everyone else jumping in and saying, "Questioner, right there!" or "Definitely an Obliger." For example, at the reunion, all the girls went out for pedicures on the last morning. We had an appointment scheduled for 9:30, so we said we would leave at 9:00. But then, as the time approached, we thought if people were ready earlier, we could leave earlier, and then maybe the salon could get us in sooner (we were a little worried about checking out of our VRBO on time). Anyway, we failed to tell my sister the new plan, and at 8:50, we were all in the car waiting for Anna. She finally came and was quite put out because we had said 9:00, and it was not 9:00 yet, and if we were going to change the plans, then she needed to be informed. We all laughed and said, "Typical Upholder" (and I felt some empathy because I'm also an Upholder, so if the situation had been reversed, I would have reacted the same way).

My brother took it a little too far and would label any activity with a tendency: "She's eating peanut M&M's. Isn't that just like an Upholder?" Or, "He fell asleep on the couch. What a Rebel." Or, "She's reading a book. Typical Obliger behavior." He was just saying it to be funny, but Gretchen Rubin was quick to point out that "the Tendency describes only how a person responds to an expectation, not what the person's talents, personality, intelligence, or interests are." I think this is an important distinction to keep in mind. This framework analyzes just one small part of a person's personality, and it's up to you to figure out how it fits with everything as a whole.

I will say that just as a general reading experience, I enjoyed Better Than Before quite a bit more. The Four Tendencies is fairly repetitive, and, while it's interesting and I liked all of the examples, I feel like you could get the gist of the system by reading just the first chapter or listening to Gretchen Rubin's podcast episodes on each Tendency.

In fact, one family member didn't read the entire book but stopped after he thought he had it figured out. Questioner, no doubt.

What did you read last month? Anything I should put on my TBR?

What We're Listening to Right Now #8

Jun 22, 2018

I kind of can't believe it, but I think it's been nearly two years since I last shared a roundup of what my family is currently listening to. Maybe some of you don't even remember that this used to be a somewhat regular feature. But I've got some good ones to share with you today, and I hope you'll share your recent favorites in the comments.

1. The Greatest Showman soundtrack
First up, it's the soundtrack that everyone is listening to. In fact, it seems silly to even include it because is there even anyone out there who hasn't heard of it? Nope, no one. But seriously, I couldn't make a list of our current favorites and not include this one because we have listened to it countless times in the last four months. In fact, sometimes we even have it going in two different locations at the same time. We're hard core fans here. Mike and I saw the movie first; then we bought the soundtrack and our kids fell in love with the music; and then after they'd memorized all of the lyrics, they finally saw the movie. They liked it, but in the words of Aaron, "It was different than I was expecting." Having grown up on the musicals of the 40's and 50's, I'm pretty happy that musicals seem to be making a comeback. There's just nothing like getting up and dancing in the middle of a movie because you just can't help yourself.

Favorite song: A Million Dreams (but it's an almost impossible choice)

2. Tour Guide by Cheri Magill*
This is a new-to-me artist, but it turns out she lives just a hop, skip, and a jump down the road from me, which means we could theoretically be best friends, right? And after listening to each one of these songs, which is dedicated to a different aspect of motherhood, I'm convinced that Cheri Magill has been to my house, met my kids, seen the way I mother, and wrote these songs just for me. I mean, one of the lines is even, "If I had a dime for every Lego I've picked up," and if that doesn't describe my situation in this house full of boys, I don't know what does. Some of the songs (like "Crazy") are about the funny or exasperating moments of motherhood, but others (like "Unconditionally") will just make you weep and pull your kids in close and smother them with kisses because you'll just feel so lucky and blessed to be their mom . Cheri Magill's style is light and sweet and very simply adorned, exactly like sun-kissed wildflowers. She actually reminds me a lot of Mindy Gledhill, which you know is high praise from me. I know Mother's Day is eleven months away, but bookmark this one for next year because I can't think of a better soundtrack to celebrate the joys of motherhood with. And in the meantime, just listen to it.

Favorite song: "Tour Guide" (mostly because I already mentioned two of my other favorites above, and the idea of a mom being a tour guide through life is just so clever)

3. Newsies soundtrack
I can't remember what made us decide to show Newsies to our kids, but we did, and they loved it. Well, truthfully, the story went a little over some of their heads, but not the music. The music resonated deep in their souls and made them all want to go out and join a cause. Haha, not really. But it at least makes them attack their chores with a vengeance on Saturday mornings. Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley loved the music so much that they purchased the soundtrack with their own money and split the cost three ways. Our favorite local theater is putting on Newsies this summer, and so we're taking the three older boys to see it as a reward for working on their summer goals. They're already counting down the days.

Favorite song: "Once and For All" (although, as I'm writing this, Clark literally has "Seize the Day" on repeat)

4. Circle Round podcast
I know I've shared at least two other stories podcasts here before (one was the Stories podcast, the other was Sailaway Stories (which is no longer producing new episodes)). But one can never have too many stories (especially on road trips), so this one should definitely be added to your queue. It focuses on folk tales and legends from all around the world. The narration is excellent and the episode always includes some music. It is a professional, high-quality program in every way, and I am happy to put it on when we need a little motivation to go out and run errands.

Favorite episode: "The Hat, the Horn, and the Purse"

5. The Piano Guys
Okay, I'm old. I can still remember when "The Piano Guys" was literally just one piano guy--Jon Schmidt. That was long before Steven Sharp Nelson brought in his cello or they started traveling all over the world and playing their instruments against dramatic backdrops. I bought his first collection of piano solos when I was probably fourteen and memorized "All of Me," mostly because it was the first piece I'd ever played that gave me permission to smash my arm onto the keys. Recently though, probably in the last year or so, my kids have become die-hard fans of the current group. They love to watch all of their YouTube videos, and we own a couple of their albums (and Aaron has requested another one for his birthday). It's just the perfect mix of classic sophistication and upbeat fun.

Favorite song: "Cello Wars" (at least, that is my kids' favorite, but maybe not mine)

6. Summer 2018 Playlist
Last year, we compiled a summer playlist for the first time, and it was one of the highlights of the summer. We burned it onto a couple of CDs, and we listened to it almost constantly for three solid months. Sure, we were a little sick of it by the end, but it was the soundtrack of our summer, and even now, if I hear a song that was on it, it takes me right back to some of our adventures. So of course, we had to do it again this year. Each member of the family got to choose one song, and then I filled in the rest (because I'm the mom, and I can only listen to Imagine Dragons so much). I have to say, I'm pretty much in love with it. It's fun and diverse and just captures where we're at in life right now. Here are the songs that are included on it (and if someone personally selected it, I've put their name in parentheses).
  1. "Ride" from Cars 3
  2. "Everything Everything" from Born in China
  3. "Thunder" by Imagine Dragons (Bradley)
  4. "Up and Up" by Cold Play (Mike)
  5. "Hot Air Balloon" by Owl City
  6. "Seize the Day" from Newsies
  7. "Believer" by Imagine Dragons (Maxwell)
  8. "Son of Man" from Tarzan (Clark)
  9. "Paradise" by Cold Play
  10. "Whatever It Takes" by Imagine Dragons (Aaron)
  11. "Cruisin'" by Colbie Caillat
  12. "Better Together" by Jack Johnson
  13. "Whole Wide World" by Mindy Gledhill
  14. "Someday" by Michael Buble
  15. "Sunshine on My Shoulders" by John Denver (Amy)
Favorite song: Well, obviously, they're all favorites because we hand selected each one.

And that's what's playing at our house lately. How about at yours? (Hopefully I won't let another two years go by before I share again!)

*I received a copy of Tour Guide, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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