My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Dec 2, 2016

My book club selected My Brilliant Friend for our November meeting, and, I'm ashamed to say, I almost didn't read it. Ashamed because it was such a good book, and it pains me to think about how I almost missed out on one of our best discussions of the year. But yes, I almost skipped it because reading has been stressing me out something serious over the last few weeks, and I didn't know if I could possibly add one more book to the teetering stack. (This is all stress I've brought on myself, by the way, and I just need to devote an entire post to it so I can remember not to do this same thing next year.)

Originally published in Italian, My Brilliant Friend is a coming-of-age novel about two young women growing up in Naples during the 1950's. Lila is smart, confident, manipulative, and fearless. Lenù (the one telling the story) is also smart but a little more timid and unsure of herself. She seems to rely a great deal on Lila for her self-esteem.

But therein lies the intrigue of the whole story for me. Their friendship is extremely complicated, and I spent the whole book wondering, Who is really the dependent one here? Or are they both dependent on each other but since we're getting it from Lenù's perspective, we don't realize how much Lila is really dependent on her?

I was reminded of one of my best friends who I roomed with during my freshman year of college. That first semester, I was extremely homesick--like, losing weight, begging my parents to let me come home, failing my classes kind of homesick. Beth was one of the reasons why I actually survived that semester and, by extension, college. She was really the only one who knew I was having such a hard time, and I was so grateful for her. The next semester, my homesickness was completely gone, and I was thriving when all of a sudden, the same kind of homesickness hit Beth like a wave. Then it was my turn to be the shoulder and support until she made it through. I've always thought it was so ironic that we didn't both get homesick at the same time but rather took turns so we could help each other.

Although my experience is on a smaller, far less complicated, scale, that's kind of what Lila and Lenù's friendship is like. Lenù herself senses this give and take and says: "In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other."

However, in spite of their close connection, there's also this deep-seated animosity (or, perhaps that's too strong a word--jealousy, competitiveness?) that underlies it all. One moment they're helping each other, even to the point of making great personal sacrifices, and the next, they're silent and resentful and avoid each other.

There's one scene that still baffles me but that I feel holds some sort of clue to understanding their friendship. It happens early in the story, when they're both still fairly young. Lila suggests that they skip school so that they can walk to the ocean and see it for the first time. Lila is usually the one to come up with fantastic, dangerous plans, but Lenù agrees. They make the necessary plans to deceive their parents so that they can be gone the whole day without anyone noticing, and they set off. It's a long, hot walk, and after they've been going for several hours, they notice a storm on the horizon. Even though they're close to their destination, Lila, usually the fearless one, insists that they turn back while Lenù wants to keep going.

Lenù says, "A mysterious inversion of attitudes had occurred: I, despite the rain, would have continued on the road, I felt far from everything and everyone, and distance--I discovered for the first time--extinguished in me every tie and every worry; Lila had abruptly repented of her own plan, she had given up the sea, she had wanted to return to the confines of the neighborhood. I couldn't figure it out."

I couldn't figure it out either. Was Lila really, inexplicably, afraid? Or was she trying to get Lenù into trouble (remember, I told you their relationship was complicated)? Or was it actually a foreshadowing of things to come: Lila was more comfortable at home where things were far from perfect but at least she knew how to deal with them while Lenù was more content with the new and unknown (but didn't really realize it yet).

The story reminded me a lot of Betty Smith's, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Maybe not so much in terms of the plot (I don't remember Francie being in the middle of a volatile friendship), but more in the tone and setting. The slums of Brooklyn and the slums of Naples seem to have a lot in common. They're dangerous and dirty and just so, so violent. People are murdered by their neighbors, weapons and threats are flashed about, and fights erupt at the least provocation. Abuse is rampant. Lenù describes it this way: "Life was like that, that's all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us."

And of course, there are some rather frightening characters behind all that violence. But the thing I couldn't stop thinking about was this cycle that seems miserably common in poverty-stricken cities: the sins of the fathers become the sins of the children. Occasionally, the cycle hits a bump, as when a child tries to leave those things behind or when, alternatively, the child actually sinks lower than the parents, but generally the cycle just spins over and over, a seamless circle from one generation to the next.

The book "ends" without really ending at all, and now I don't know what to do. You know I'm not usually a binge reader, but especially not when I'm trying to finish all my reading goals by the end of the year. However, I want to know what's going to happen, and I know that if I wait too long, I'm going to forget who everyone is (there are a lot of characters, and even though they're all very well-developed, they have similar enough sounding names that I'll never be able to remember who's who). Most of the other women in my book club had already put in their requests at the library for the second book, but I think I'm going to have to hold out until at least the first of the year. That, or I might have a mental breakdown. Over books. How pathetic.

Content note: the aforementioned violence and abuse as well as some foul language (including the f-word) and a few brief sexual scenes. I didn't say the subject matter was easy.

The "I Would Buy That Again" Gift Guide

Nov 29, 2016

In the four-and-a-half years of my blog's existence, I have never published an official "gift guide." I've shared favorite things here and there in random posts, but never compiled a conscientious list.

But over the last few months, I've had a number of friends ask if certain toys that we own are "worth it," and I've also had the thought cross my mind on more than one occasion and about more than one toy, That was one of the best things we ever invested money on.

I also realized how much I love recommendations from trusted friends and sources (Mel's gift guides are among my very, very favorite), and so I thought I could maybe do the same for you.

We are not huge consumers, and so this list is going to be relatively short, as well as random. I'm including outdoor toys, building toys, games, crafts, books, etc. These are gifts that have gotten heavy, sometimes daily, use at our house (some of them for years) and are still going strong. These are all things that I would really and truly buy again if I were given the choice and that I've never experienced even the slightest twinge of buyers' remorse over.

(Disclaimer: Many of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase anything through that link, I earn a small commission without changing the cost for you. But please, feel free to shop around for a better deal!)

1. Wiggle Car
When Aaron was eighteen months old, we bought him a blue and red wiggle car with some Christmas money Mike's grandma had given us. At the time, these were still relatively new toys, and so we actually went to a swing set store to buy it because they were a distributor of them. I can still remember the sales guy sitting down on one and riding it around the show room to demonstrate its weight capacity. In the years since, we've acquired two more (one yellow, one green), and, except for extremely cold winter days, all three of them are driven around every single day. My kids race around the driveway and ride them up and down the street over and over and over. I keep expecting a wheel to break or a handle to fall off, but even the blue one (which is now seven years old) is still going strong. There are so many riding toys that get quickly outgrown (we keep having to buy new bikes because my kids just keep getting taller), but wiggle cars work for toddlers all the way up through teenagers (and yes, we have some older neighbor kids who love to ride them around). There are two brands (wiggle and plasma) and they look almost identical, but I believe that all three of ours are wiggle cars.

2. Legos
Ah, Legos. We entered the world of Legos the Christmas when Aaron was four-and-a-half, and I think they've been a part of our Christmases ever since. Prior to that Christmas, Mike scoured the classifieds and finally found a decent collection of bricks for a good price. That was definitely a nice way to start because it gave them a good foundation of basic pieces, but since then, my kids have loved saving up for and asking for actual sets (their favorites, and the ones they dream about the most, are from the Star Wars collection and the Creator collection). People have asked me before what we do with those built sets (do they display them? play with them? take them apart and build the same set over again? take them apart and build something completely new?), and the answer is: all of the above. This year I'm giving Aaron this book of Lego designs to inspire him to try new projects, but honestly, he seems to be plenty creative on his own.  In fact, it is not unusual for him to go directly from the car to the Lego bin in the basement when he gets home from school. They're beastly to step on in the middle of the night and I find that I always seem to have a random collection of them in my pocket because I find them all over the house, but oh, my kids love them.

3. Magformers
There are dozens of building toys out there, but this is where we've chosen to spend our money (along with Legos--see above). Why? Oh, for so many reasons. First of all, they're durable and well-made. We've had them for three years, and during that time, I think we've had two pieces break (and I blame my kids entirely for both breakages--they're hard on toys). Second, they appeal to a wide age range: Clark and his friends play with them as do our teenage nephews. Even adults find them impossible to resist. Because they're magnetic, they go together easily, almost without trying, and there is no end to the creative possibilities. And third, they are a breeze to clean up. This is where they trump Legos; instead of little random pieces scattered all over, they just all sort of clump together, making it super easy to gather them up and throw them in the bin. These are by far one of the more expensive toys we've invested in, and at the time, I really wondered if it would be worth it. But it has been. Again and again and again it's been worth it. Originally we bought the largest set we could find (and we've never felt like we had "too many" Magformers) and then later added one of the construction sets because it came with a couple of shapes we didn't have as well as a few specialty pieces. When I've been tempted to buy other building toys, I always ask myself, Will we like them more than Magformers? And the answer is almost always, Mostly likely not.

4. Q-Bitz
I probably could make an entire gift guide entirely out of games because my kids love games and play them all the time, but I'll restrain myself, mostly because most of the games we own I haven't actually played with them (guilty confession, but that's why they have each other, right?). But this one, I have. And what's more, I actually enjoy playing it with them. Each person gets a board with sixteen little cubes. The cubes each have six different sides. A card is turned over in the middle of the table with a design on it, and players have to race against each other to be the first one to duplicate the design. I have had just as much fun playing this game with adults as with kids, and the great thing is, if you're not really a competitive person, you can just play by yourself--it's just fun to turn the cubes and create the designs.

5. Rush Hour Jr.
This is a fun single-player game that challenges logical thinking and reasoning. The player picks a card from the deck and sets up the grid board according to the picture. The goal is to get the ice cream truck out of a traffic jam by sliding the other vehicles in and out of their places until you've created a clear path. Check out this video if you want a more visual idea for how it works. The puzzles get gradually harder as you work your way through the deck. So far we've only tried the junior version, although Aaron could definitely move up to the regular version. (This is the perfect game for afternoon quiet time or just when your kids need some time away from each other . . . or is that just my kids?) (Oh also, if your kids really like these kinds of logic puzzles, another favorite of ours is Castle Logix.)

6. Round metal pencil sharpener
I know, you're probably thinking, One of these things is not like the other. How did a pencil sharpener end up on this list? But stay with me. Anne Bogel calls this "the holy grail of pencil sharpeners," and with good reason. For years, we have dealt with the most inadequate pencil sharpeners (probably because we bought them for less than a dollar at Wal-Mart). They never gripped the pencils, and when they did, they sharpened them up one side but not the other. My kids are constantly drawing and coloring and doing projects, and the lack of a good pencil sharpener was so frustrating. I considered getting an electric sharpener, but as a last resort, decided to try this one first. Lo and behold, it only took three turns of the pencil, and it had a beautifully sharp point. I was sold (and so were my kids). I'm considering getting one for each of them for their stockings because I'm so worried about losing the only one we have.

7. Ramona Quimby collection
You knew books had to show up somewhere on this list, right? And although it pains me to have to pick favorites, I will say that these books (along with the Henry Huggins series) are probably the most read and re-read series in our house. Alternatively, they also love listening to the audio versions, and if you're an audible member, you're not going to find a better deal for your monthly credit than these collections. Eight books in the Ramona series or six books in the Henry series for one credit (which ends up being about $15, depending on your subscription)?! That's incredible.

8. Thinking Putty
A friend recommended this high-end silly putty earlier this year and said that it's one of her kids' favorite ways to occupy their hands when she's reading aloud to them. I bought a small tin for each of my kids for Easter, and it has been played with countless times since then (and yes, usually when I'm reading to them). At five times the price of old-school silly putty, you're probably wondering if it's worth it. And since I'm including it here, you can probably guess that my opinion is yes, I'd take this over silly putty any day (and pay for it, too). It comes in the most amazing assortment of colors and the texture is less rubbery, more smooth, than silly putty. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that the other day I asked Mike if he would buy it again and he said no. And it's true that even though we have pretty strict rules about when they can play with it and where it goes when they're done, they've still managed to smash it into the carpet. But a little vinegar has taken it right up without any problem. So buy it at your own risk. (Also, there's quite a range in price. This four-pack is one of the best prices I've seen, even with paying for the shipping.) A perfect stocking stuffer. 

9. Perler beads
I saw that--a few of you cringed when you saw this on the list, didn't you? And I totally get that. Perler beads are either a dream come true (your kids will sit for hours and painstakingly fill up a pegboard with little beads) or your worst nightmare (you spend most of your time sweeping up all those little beads while your kids wail because they accidentally bumped the pegboard when they were almost done). We happen to fall into the first camp, which is why they made it on the list, but I totally have some things that are like the second (rainbow loom! kinetic sand! ugh!). I've tried to figure out why perler beads have worked so well for us, and I think the main reason is just that we happened on a really good system right from the start: all of the supplies (beads, boards, even their finished creations) go in one big tub that gets put on a high shelf in their closet. They're only allowed to do them at the kitchen table (never in their room) and usually only during quiet time (so that Clark can't work his destruction magic). It just works for us. So there's that, but also, my kids just really love putting them together and somehow become miraculously focused and concentrated when they're working on them.

10. Ravensburger puzzles
We are a family of puzzle addicts. Mike claims that he doesn't love doing puzzles, but it sure seems like anytime we have one out, he somehow ends up being sucked into it, so the evidence would speak otherwise. At this point, Clark's interest is probably more of an adversarial one, if you know what I mean (nothing like having the power to make an older brother scream and chase you), but he loves doing wooden ones, so I think he'll come around. Our favorite brand is Ravensburger because the pieces are sturdy and fit together securely, the pictures are colorful and kid-friendly (even as you move up to more pieces), and they've got a wide range of sizes (even breaking it down into the 200- and 300-piece sizes, which are sometimes difficult to find). We have even ordered one of their custom puzzles, and it was the same great quality we've come to expect from their other puzzles but with a picture of our family on it. We still haven't braved anything beyond 500-pieces, but I think this might be the year for it.

11. Shrinky Dinks
These simple craft sheets literally kept my kids busy the entire Christmas break last year. Have you seen them? You simply draw a picture on one of the clear plastic sheets, cut it out, and put it in the oven where it miraculously shrinks down and turns into a hard thick plastic in the process--perfect for Christmas ornaments or key chains or necklace pendants. There are lots of specialized packs out there, but I just bought my kids one of the regular packs with ten sheets in it (and no extra gadgets). Then I printed out coloring pages for them, which they traced over with a sharpie and colored in with sharpies or colored pencils, and then they kept an eye on them through the oven window until they reached the perfect size. So many hours of fun.

12. Magazine subscription
Last but not least, how about a gift that keeps on giving? My parents gave Maxwell a Ranger Rick subscription for his birthday, and it has been one of his favorite things this year. Of course he loves it for all the animal facts and the jokes, but mostly he thinks it is wildly exciting to get something in the mail every month that's just for him (he does end up sharing it with his brothers but only after he's read it cover to cover). There are so many fun magazines to choose from. Ranger Rick is a good fit for Max because he's such an animal enthusiast, but search around because there's bound to be the perfect magazine for whatever your child enjoys.

Are any of these your favorites, too? Tell me about the toys YOU would buy again. Also, I'm happy to try to answer any questions you might have about anything I've mentioned. 

All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Nov 23, 2016

If I was trying to review books in the order I finished them, this one would be far down the list (I'm very behind with my reviews). But Thanksgiving is tomorrow, and this book just complements the holiday too perfectly not to share it right now.

Ironically enough, towards the end of October, I was desperately trying to find a good readaloud for November. But in spite of scouring my to-read shelf plus looking to trusted sources, I just couldn't find anything that seemed like the right fit. A couple of weeks later, someone mentioned All-of-a-Kind Family (not in the context of November or Thanksgiving--just mentioned it), which is a book I remember loving as a child. It had been on my radar as a potential readaloud for awhile, and when I remembered that we actually owned a copy of it so I wouldn't have to wait for it at the library, I thought, Why not?

Very soon into the book, I realized with a start, Oh my goodness, I just stumbled on the perfect book for November, and I didn't even mean to! It's not that the Thanksgiving holiday itself plays any sort of part in it, but it's rich in food descriptions, traditions, family togetherness, and gratitude, creating just the right mood for this time of year.

Let me tell you more about it, and you'll see what I mean:

Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie live with their mama and papa on the lower east side of New York City in 1907. They give themselves the nickname "all-of-a-kind family" because they only have sisters and no brothers, so they're all the same kind. Their papa owns a junk shop where he collects scrap metal and rags and paper. As you can imagine, this kind of living does not bring in the big bucks and money is always a little tight. However, the family is always well-fed and comfortable, and they never seem to mind that their home is small and their pocket change measly.

At first glance, this might not look like the most interesting or accessible story to a family of all boys (turns out, we're also an all-of-a-kind family, but the opposite variety). However, my kids loved every single thing about this book. They didn't care one bit that there weren't any brothers and found a surprising number of ways to relate to the girls (we all teased Max a little bit during the chapter when Sarah wouldn't eat her soup because she acted exactly the same way he does when he doesn't want to eat something, and he seemed quite pleased, rather than offended, by the comparison).

But they also loved it because of all the differences between the girls' life and their own. For one thing, the family is Jewish and much of the book centers around Jewish rituals and holidays (the Sabbath, Purim Day, Seder, etc.). (Incidentally, even though there's no traditional Thanksgiving in this book, the Jewish holiday Succos, which is a "thanksgiving for the harvest," was celebrated and felt very timely.) My kids were fascinated and asked dozens of questions about how Judaism differs from our own religious beliefs and in what ways they're the same. All of the religious references were a natural part of the story, and as such, it didn't feel like we were having a lesson on Jewish culture, but the questions were springing up naturally because of their intense interest in the story.

As I mentioned above, food is a major component of this story and is integrated into almost every chapter, whether Charlotte and Gertie are sneaking candy and crackers into their bed or Mama is making dozens of Haman taschen (a triangular shaped cake filled with poppy seeds or prunes) or they're at the market and Mama puts on an apron before she plucks the chicken she intends to buy (taking the concept of "self-service" to a whole new level). The descriptions were both foreign and familiar, making our mouths water and tempting us to try new recipes. Food is such a part of our own holiday traditions, and there was something so captivating about seeing how all these unfamiliar dishes (to us) had the same comforting, joyous effect on these little girls.

And it wasn't just my kids who found things to admire and relate to. I felt a certain kinship with Mama who, although her life was much more exhausting than mine, expressed similar sentiments. When four of the girls come down with scarlet fever, I understood how overwhelmed she must feel as she tried to take care of all of them while still preparing for the Seder holiday. When she decides to take all of the girls to the beach in order to escape the August heat, I felt both anxious (so many little girls to keep track of in so many crowds!) and proud (she did it for purely selfless reasons because she knew they needed it). When she invented a game so that the girls would dust the front room more thoroughly, I caught a spark of hope--maybe I can teach the same kind of pride in their work to my own kids.

Even with all that praise, I realize this story might not be for everyone. It is old-fashioned and slow-paced and might not hold the interest of today's children who are accustomed to more action and drama. However, I guess I'm raising old-fashioned kids because I heard nothing but love for this book while we were reading it.

Reading a book about an all-girl family made me feel very possessive of my own all-boy family. We'll be finding out in a couple of weeks if we'll be adding another boy to our family or braving a whole new world with a girl. The end of the book was good for me because a baby brother joins the family, and Ella realizes, "We aren't an all-of-a-kind family anymore," but Mama replies, "In a way we are. I think that means more than our having five daughters. It means we're all close and loving and loyal--and our family will always be that." In spite of the changes coming to our family next year, whether they be big or small, I hope we'll also be exactly that. 

What are your thoughts about reading old-fashioned stories to your kids? Do you have any other old-fashioned books to recommend to us?

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

Nov 21, 2016

The Night Gardener had been sitting on my to-read list for a couple of years, but it quickly got bumped up to the top after Aaron and I read Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes earlier this year and I fell in love with Jonathan Auxier's style of storytelling.

I knew it would make a perfect October read so I held off for a few months, but as soon as the calendar turned, I checked it out. I had a stack of other books pressing for my attention, and so when I finally had time for it, it was nearing the end of the month. I considered just returning it to the library and waiting another year, but then I thought, No! This is the one book I really wanted to read this month, and so who cares if there are only a couple of days left in it?

And so read it I did. And was it spooky? Yes. And chilling? Yes. And just downright creepy? Yes. This book was made for October, and I'm so glad I squeezed it in.

Molly and Kip are orphans. Or at least, they're without parents. Kip thinks they're off on an adventure at sea, but Molly seems to know better. At any rate, she has suddenly become the official provider of the family, and she feels the heavy weight of it.

The only job she can find is as a maid/cook/nanny for the Windsor family. They live in an old estate in the sourwoods, and everyone in the village gives them a very wide berth. The place is steeped in mystery and rumors and legends, and Molly has a hard time getting information from anyone (and what little she gets makes her want to run for the hills). Still, a job is a job, and she's desperate.

Within hours of their arrival, it's obvious to both Kip and Molly that there's a reason everyone is afraid of this place. A gigantic tree twists itself around the house and penetrates every room. Master and Mistress Windsor and their two children are deathly pale and cold. There's a mysterious green door at the top of the stairs that Molly is forbidden to enter. And, worst of all, there are muddy footprints and traces of leaves that randomly appear every morning, and sometimes Molly gets the distinct impression that there's someone in the house at night, maybe even in her room. After several weeks, Molly is ready to take her brother and flee when she suddenly finds a reason to stay . . .

Besides wanting to read this book myself, I was also reading it with the intention of scoping it out for Aaron. And what I came away deciding is that at some point he should read it because I think he'll like it, but that time is still at least two, maybe three, years away. In terms of the tone and overall feeling of the story, I would compare it to Laura Amy Schlitz's Splendors and Glooms or Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, both of which, although written for a middle grade audience, seem most appropriate for the older end of that group.

In the case of The Night Gardener, a certain darkness pervades the entire book. It's always there, lurking, and as more and more is revealed, it becomes even more horrifying. There were evenings when I was reading it when it scared me enough that I was glad Mike was at home. Then again, I'm a wimp, so I do tend to have a low tolerance for scary things (hence, I read children's suspense novels when I'm in the mood for something spooky and don't venture into the adult equivalents).

That said, I really liked this book, and there were three themes in particular that, in my eyes at least, elevated it from just a creepy story to something of real merit.

The first of these themes was that of fear. At the beginning of the story, as Molly and Kip are making their way to the sourwoods, they come across an old woman named Hester Kettle. She is heavy laden with all sorts of contraptions and wares and seems to know a great deal about the goings-on of everyone in the country. In fact, she makes her living by sharing the stories she's picked up over the years. Molly and Kip are hesitant to trust her, but later on, Kip is desperate to make sense of what he's seeing in the Windsor's home, so the next time he sees Hester Kettle, he asks her to tell him what she knows. Hester says, "I'm not sure your sister would appreciate me frightening you." And Kip responds, "I ain't afraid. Well, I am afraid...but I'm not afraid of being afraid. If that makes sense. True is still true, even if it's bad. That means I want to hear it."

I think there's a lot of truth in this bold statement of Kip's. First, he acknowledges his fear but separates that from the actual feeling of fear. Turns out, there's a difference. Fear should propel us to action, not make us cower in the corner, and Kip's fear was of the first variety. The second part of Kip's statement is about truth. He realizes the truth isn't always pretty or happy but knows that the only way to fix anything is by confronting the truth head on, ugliness and scariness and all. After Kip assures Hester Kettle that he knows what he's getting into, she gives a satisfied nod and says, "Your sister raised you up right."

The second theme is that of contentment. All of the main characters in the story want something: Master Windsor wants money to cover his debts, Mistress Windsor wants her marriage to be restored to what it was when they were newlyweds, Molly wants her parents back. Without giving too much away, Molly soon finds out that the tree has the power to grant all of their deepest wishes, but it comes with a terrible price. Kip is really the only one not fooled, even though he also has something he wants very much--to be able to walk and run and work and play like other little boys, something that is currently impossible with his crippled leg. But when he's given the chance to get his wish, he resists. Later when he's talking to Molly, he admits that he wanted to open the packet that contained the cure, but he didn't because "even if it works, what happens when I run out? I'd go back for more. And more after that. It'd never be enough." And I think that's the way it is with everything, whether it's controlled by magic or not. We have to be content with what we have right now because there will always be another upgrade, a bigger home, a nicer car. That's not to say we can't improve our lives or our situation, but we can't wait for things to happen before we'll be happy. We have to find happiness and contentment in whatever our current situation is.

And finally, there's the theme of redemption. The Windsors have two children, Penny and Alistair. Penny is a sweet child who longs to be loved and has an enchanting imagination. Alistair, on the other hand, is rude and piggish and just downright mean. He especially picks on Kip because he is disabled and can't stand up to him very easily. At one point, he does something so cruel, my heart just wanted to break. However, towards the end of the story, he's given an opportunity to change and become a different person, and he takes it. It's hard for Kip to grant him that grace and, quite frankly, it's hard for the reader to grant it as well. But it's amazing the healing that takes place for everyone involved when real forgiveness is extended.

If you can't tell from the three examples given above, Kip's kind of the hero of the story. I loved that boy.

Oh, and one final note before I sign off. This book should not be confused with the brand new picture book of the same name. Where this one is dark and scary and slightly disturbing, that one is sweet and magical and uplifting. I would save this one for kids at least 10 years old and older, but the picture book could be shared with your smallest, most innocent children.

P.S. Coincidentally, my friend, Linnae, posted a review of this book just a few days ago. I had fun reading her thoughts, and since we posted our reviews so close together, it was the next best thing to discussing it in person!

Have you read this book? I'd love to hear what you thought of it in the comments!

10 Foods I've Been Craving (and Eating)

Nov 18, 2016

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought I'd share a few of the foods I can't get enough of lately:

1. Avocado, cut in half, sprinkled with freshly ground salt, and eaten with a spoon. I wish they weren't so expensive right now, especially since anytime Aaron sees me eating one, he thinks he needs one, too.

2. Trader Joe's frozen macaroni and cheese, heated in the microwave or oven, either will get the job done. I've tried my share of baked macaroni and cheese recipes, and none can even compare to this. In fact, when I tried it for the first time, I was like, "This is what I've been searching for all my life!" I have to eat it in hiding, unless I want Clark to eat half of it.

3. Soft-boiled eggs, with the yolk still vibrant and orange, on the verge of leaking, but not quite. All last week, the magic boiling time was six minutes, but this week, for some inexplicable reason, it's not producing quite the same results. Which means, more eggs. (Bradley doesn't complain.)

4. Peanut butter, or alternatively, almond butter, spread on bananas, apples, toast, or eaten straight out of the jar with a spoon. No shame here.

5. A crunchy bowl of Cheerios, eaten in my bed, at 11:00pm. Sometimes I swap them out for Rice Chex, but generally Cheerios is the only thing that satisfies that midnight snacking urge. I heart Cheerios.

6. Oranges, easy to peel and juicy to eat. Oranges are the smell and taste of winter for me. After we bought our first official bag of the season, I may or may not have cried when my kids ate the last one without asking my permission. I realize the grocery store is a mere two minutes away, but sometimes even that takes too long.

7. San Pellegrino, preferably grapefruit, sipped slowly. I am not a big carbonated beverage fan. In fact, most of the time, nothing tastes better to me than a cold glass of water. But lately, I must confess, San Pellegrinos have been hitting just the right spot, although I'm never able to finish an entire can (which usually doesn't bother Mike, unless it's grapefruit--see the problem here?).

8. Ramen noodles, yes, the kind in the 20-cent packages, with almost certainly no nutritive value. Even as my tastes have slowly refined over time, I have not been able to curb my love of cheap ramen. And lately, it's been tasting even better than usual.

9. Cheddar cheese, softened to room temperature and thickly sliced. I also won't say no to colby monterey jack or swiss or gouda or basically any cheese. Cheese might be my love language. (I also love to sprinkle it over my ramen (see above) and watch it melt to yummy gooeyness.)

10. Haribo gummy bears, eaten at my own peril since I can't seem to stop after one (or ten). I must admit to an easy-to-please, slow-to-satisfy sweet tooth. But lately, my cravings for sweets have been greatly reduced (in fact, on Halloween, I maybe ate three pieces of candy spread out over the night and then wasn't even tempted by the overflowing buckets after my kids went to bed . . . and that's not normal for me). But gummy bears? For some reason, my sweet tooth won't let go of them.

If you've been reading this and thinking, This is the most random list of food I've ever seen. Is she pregnant or something?, let me put your mind at rest and assure you that actually . . . yes, yes I am. 17 weeks, in fact.

The Book Blab Episdoe 10: Books and Food Plus Two Cozy Fall Recommendations

Nov 14, 2016

I always seem to crave a really great food book (be it memoir, nonfiction, or fiction) in November, so for this month's Book Blab, Suzanne and I decided to delve into the topic. This episode is packed with recommendations (and all of them are listed in the show notes below), and it was just too much fun chatting about one of our favorite genres. We could have gone on all afternoon!

0:30 - This month marks the one-year anniversary of The Book Blab
0:55 - All previous episodes of The Book Blab can be found on YouTube
2:30 - Today's topic: Food books!
3:32 - Favorite cookbooks . . . or not
5:35 - Food memoirs
14:14 - Nonfiction food books
20:30 - Fictional stories with memorable food scenes
26:33 - Two book recommendations for cozy November reading
  • 27:33 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 29:10 - Amy's recommendation
33:20 - Conclusion

Books and links mentioned in the show:

Past episodes of The Book Blab
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl (Amy's review)
My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl
Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist (Suzanne's review)
Delancy: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage by Molly Wizenberg
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes From My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg (Amy's review)
Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach (Amy's review)
How to Celebrate Everything by Jenny Rosenstrach
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese
My Life in France by Julia Child (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Michael Greger (Suzanne's review)
Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right by Joel Fuhrman
Real Moms Love to Eat by Beth Aldrich and Eve Adamson
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon
Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman (Amy's review
Delicious! by Ruth Reichl (Suzanne's review)
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Amy's review)
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (Amy's review)
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl  (Amy's review)
Peace Life a River by Leif Enger (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George (Amy's review)

And now it's your turn: did we mention any of your favorites? Which food books would YOU recommend?

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

Nov 9, 2016

We have long been Peter Brown fans (Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is my favorite picture book of his), and I was ecstatic to see his first middle grade novel come out a few months ago. I've been trying to keep my finger on the Newbery pulse this year, and this one is definitely getting some mentions, although it doesn't seem to be a top contender.

It's the story of Roz, a robot who ends up being the lone survivor after a cargo ship sinks in the middle of the ocean. Her crate washes up on small, remote island, and some curious otters flip her switch and bring her to life for the first time.

Not knowing any different, she assumes that this island is where she is meant to be, but it's fairly obvious from the beginning that she is not equipped or designed for this kind of life. However, she's programmed to retain information and adapt as needed. And that's exactly what she does. She realizes that her shiny exterior does little to help her blend in with her surroundings. And she discovers that the language she was equipped to speak doesn't work with the animals of the island. Pretty soon she is camouflaged in dirt and plants and speaking fluent animal dialects . . . with a friendly tone of voice, no less.

But it's not until a tragic accident leaves a brand-new baby gosling an orphan that Roz and the animals finally learn to work together. And after that, well, that wild island is never quite the same.

I liked this book very much, but I'll warn you that it does have a bit of a slow start. Considering that the main character is a robot with no feelings and a limited personality in the beginning, I think that's understandable. It takes awhile to get to know the animals and build up the sort of momentum that creates drama and conflict. But it does eventually happen, and when it does, the story soars.

I thought Roz's character was expertly handled. Although the animals eventually care about her immensely (going so far as to even sacrifice their own lives to protect her) and she, in her own way, cares about them, she never loses her roboticness (robotity? is there a word for this?). I think it would be so easy to sort of turn her into a human (because that's what we, as humans, relate to!), but Peter Brown never allows this to happen. Roz learns how to get along with the animals and she makes it her mission to make their lives better, and it's these things that make us as readers really begin to cheer for her, but we never ever forget that she's a robot. When she malfunctions or breaks, it requires a mechanical or physical repair. When she's confronted with a problem, she looks at it from a very analytical, unemotional perspective.

For example, when the little gosling hatches from his egg, Roz is the first creature he sees, so he assumes she is his mother. When Roz takes the gosling to an old goose for advice, the whole exchange is quite amusing (and I wish I could write the whole thing right here), but at one point, the old goose says, "You do want him to survive, don't you?," and Roz says that yes, of course she wants him to survive. "But," she says, "I do not know how to act like a mother." "Oh, it's nothing," says the old goose, "you just have to provide the gosling with food and water and shelter, make him feel loved but don't pamper him too much, keep him away from danger, and make sure he learns to walk and talk and swim and fly and get along with other and look after himself. And that's really all there is to motherhood!"

Roz doesn't know how to do any of those things, but little by little, she learns that if the gosling says, "Mama! Food!," she should feed him and she finds out what that food should be. She learns how to keep him warm and safe. She learns how to let him grow up and become more independent. But she never has those instincts. She does those things because someone tells her to, and then her programming remembers them so that she can continue to apply them in the right situations. Even at the end of the book, she says something in a joking tone, and one of the characters says, "That's not funny!" and she says, "I am sorry for joking" and adjusts "her voice to a more serious tone." Turns out, being friends with a robot can be surprisingly endearing.

Lately I've become rather disenchanted with many of the new middle grade novels because they all seem rather the same: heavy and serious and packed with issues. And so I think that's another reason why I liked this book so much: it just felt different. I've never read anything like it, and that's a compliment.

Because I hadn't heard too much about it before I picked it up, I decided to read it on my own. However, in retrospect, it definitely was one I could have read to my kids or read along with Aaron. I'm pretty sure even five-year-old Bradley would have loved listening to it. So guess what's going to show up under the Christmas tree next month?
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