Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sep 23, 2016

At the beginning of the year, I made a daunting reading goal: Read (don't listen) to something by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. Some of you probably laughed when you read that goal, especially if you consume most of your classics by reading the hard copies.

But a few years ago, I discovered that I actually enjoyed most classics far more if I listened to, rather than read, them. I can be a little bit OCD when it comes to reading. I'm not a skimmer and hold myself to reading, and understanding, every word on the page. As you might imagine, this habit becomes a tedious problem when reading classical fiction because there are some tediously long sections with big words and complex sentences that actually don't become much clearer on a second or fifth or eleventh rereading. (I'm sure many of you speed readers are literally cringing right now.)

The solution for me was audiobooks. The sections that would have been a hangup for me if I'd been reading now just floated by effortlessly. In fact, sometimes hearing passages spoken out loud actually made it easier for me to understand the meaning and intent. And with the right narrator, the characters magically came to life. It was a win-win-win, and consequently, any classic I've read in probably the last five years has been listened to.

Except . . . it made me feel a little less than a reader--not because I think listening is a lesser way to enjoy a book but because I was purposely avoiding the paper and ink copies. Because I was afraid. And intimidated.

I could devote an entire post to the ridiculousness of my reading habits, but over the past year, I've made a lot of progress with letting go of some of my harsh reading rules. It's been very freeing, to say the least, and I finally felt like I was ready to tackle a classic in this format again.

So that's the long version on the origin of this particular reading goal, and I have to say that I'm quite proud of myself. It took me about a month to read it (I'm a slow reader no matter how you slice it), but I enjoyed it so much, and that's all I really wanted.

You know the story: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are devoted, but very different, sisters. When their father dies at the beginning of the story, most of the inheritance goes to their older brother, John. You would think and hope that he would be generous with his step-mother and half-sisters, but he is much too easily persuaded by his greedy and stingy wife for that. Determined to get by on their meager living, they move into the small cottage of Sir John Middleton, a distant, but nonetheless generous, relative. The family is quite happy there until the love lives of Elinor and Marianne begin to take a dramatic turn in the wrong direction.

Elinor "had an excellent heart;--her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them." Marianne, on the other hand, "was sensible and clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent."

I love those two opening descriptions of Elinor and Marianne because they capture so succinctly what the rest of the book fleshes out. We get to know them more intimately as the story progresses, but it doesn't change a single thing about what we learned about them at the beginning.

This review could easily be five different posts if I explored all of the things that made me pause and highlight and think while I was reading.

But instead, I'll just share three short observations and then one slightly longer one.
  1. I haven't read all of Jane Austen's novels, but out of the ones I've read, this one was definitely the most passionately romantic. I've become accustomed to long tangents in Jane Austen where the romantic tension all but fades away, but this one stayed pretty firmly fixed on Elinor and Marianne's romantic hopes and dreams and triumphs and agonies, and I liked it.
  2. Mr. Palmer is probably one of my favorite secondary characters of all time. His dry wit, his sarcasm, his disgust at his wife's frivolity, and underneath it all, a sort of sensitivity that kind of catches you by surprise. Every time his wife exclaimed, "He is so droll!" I had to smile a little because it was just so ludicrous but kind of accurate at the same time. I wish there'd been more of him in the book.
  3. One of my favorite moments in the whole book is when Elinor bursts into spontaneous sobs after finding out that Edward Ferrars is not, in fact, married. Throughout the book, Elinor is the anchor, the voice of reason in the storm, the one who will always be in control. She is, after all, described thus: "Elinor was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs." It isn't until that moment that the reader realizes the full toll all those months of composure and grace in the face of adversity have taken on her as the tension all gets expelled in one great round of crying. It's one of the most starkly visceral moments I've ever read.
One of the things that caught my attention early on was Elinor and Marianne's inability to communicate with each other. They each have so many questions for the other ("Are you engaged?" "What communication have you had with Willloughby/Edward?" "How is your heart?" "How can I help you?"), but they evade asking them. When they talk to their mother, it's the same; they hash out the questions they have about the other, but won't touch their own relationships. As a reader, it was maddening and frustrating and even puzzling. They're sisters with a strong bond and love for each other--what was keeping them from being each other's confidante? Why wouldn't they talk to each other?

And then one day, while still in the middle of the book, it hit me. I was about to call a family member, but I couldn't do it. I knew we would spend the entire conversation in an awkward dance, avoiding the subject both of us couldn't stop thinking about. Why? Because the subject we were avoiding was so emotionally charged that even the barest mention of it could act like a spark and send the entire conversation up in flames. It was agony not to say anything, but it seemed better than the alternative.

It was the same for Elinor and Marianne. They longed to know what the other was thinking and feeling and what had transpired behind closed doors and in sealed envelopes, but they didn't dare talk about it for fear that the hurt involved would somehow damage their own relationship beyond repair. It made total sense, and I suddenly realized that it wasn't just a literary device to keep the story moving forward. It was a reflection on real relationships that, solid though they may seem, are fraught with hidden mines, any one liable to explode if given the right trigger.

After I identified it in that one instance, I saw evidence of it everywhere in both my past and present relationships. There were dozens of subjects that were off-limits in order to keep the peace and maintain a positive, albeit strained, relationship.

I'm not advocating this type of communication, but sometimes it does seem like the better alternative to having the whole relationship crumble. It's better to handle the whole thing with care and hope that at some point, something will happen to make it easier to talk about. This eventually happens in Elinor and Marianne's story, and when it does, things finally begin to work out, which makes a compelling argument for why open and honest communication is so vital.

And now, I'm going to go watch the movie again . . . happy sigh.

What is your favorite moment in Sense and Sensibility? And how do you handle difficult-to-talk-about subjects?

One Mom's Opinion on When to Read Harry Potter

Sep 20, 2016


A couple of weeks ago, the boys and I started Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Last September, we read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. And next September, we'll read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Are you picking up on the pattern?

I'm a planner by nature, and Harry Potter is one of those things I've thought long and hard about. I'm not exactly sure why deciding how and when to present this particular series has caused me so much grief. I never finished the series when I was a teenager (I made it to book three), and although I liked the books I read well enough, I definitely never caught HP fever.

So with that kind of apathetic attitude, you would have thought I would have had very little opinion about when and how (or even if!) my kids read the series. But I think seeing the way Harry Potter has become such an iconic figure in the literary world and also such a part of childhood made me realize that I couldn't ignore it. And if I couldn't ignore it, I might as well embrace it . . . and have some control over it.

I was talking to a few friends at the park a couple of weeks ago, and Harry Potter came up. I mentioned that we had just started the second book and that we were just going to read one each year until we finished the series. One of my friends incredulously asked, "So you're not going to read the last book until Aaron is thirteen years old?!" I have to admit that up to that point, I'd never really done the math. I mean, it should have been fairly obvious (there are seven books, and if you start when Aaron's seven years old and only read one each year . . . ), but it wasn't until someone else said it that I realized just how long this plan would take us.

And to be honest, it made me rethink it a little. Was I really going to make Aaron wait until he was in eighth grade to finish a series all of his friends read when they were in first?

But actually, getting older was one of my main reasons for doing the one-per-year plan, so after I got over the shock of thinking about Aaron being so old, thirteen actually sounded just about right. So right now, I'm sticking with my plan, and these are the reasons why:

1. My kids can grow up with Harry.
When the series begins, Harry is eleven; when the series ends, he is seventeen. It's a simple fact that eleven-year-old boys (and their friends) are not thinking about, talking about, or participating in the same things as seventeen-year-old boys (and their friends). And quite frankly, I'm not all that anxious for my seven-year-old to encounter some of those more mature themes. And then of course, the books deal with some really dark, scary, frightening things. No matter how mature a child might be, some wisdom can only be gained by growing up. Reading just one book a year lets that growing up happen in a natural way.
 
2. Fall is the best time to read Harry Potter.
You all know how much I love seasonal reading, and I'm convinced that Harry Potter was meant to be read in the fall. It just feels right to be reading about the beginning of a new school year, Quidditch matches, and Halloween when we're doing those same things in our own Muggle-lives. Not to mention that the whole book is filled with witches and wizards, which definitely gets us in the mood for October. I love traditions, and I like the thought that these books will always be linked to this season for my kids.

3. Reading these books as a family is beyond enjoyable.
Even if I'm not a die-hard Harry Potter fan, I have to admit that these are some of the most fun books we've ever read aloud. And even though I could just hand them to Aaron and let him read them on his own, I wouldn't want to. This is reading aloud at its finest . . . a completely magical experience. We all huddle together, sometimes physically, sometimes just figuratively, and hang onto every word--tensing up when something scary happens, cheering when something good happens, reliving favorite parts, and predicting what will happen next. Plus, I love doing all the voices (even though I'm not very good at them). 

4. There are so many other good books to read.
Since we've loved the first two books so much, I would just hate to feel burned out with Harry Potter. But I'm pretty sure if we read straight through the series, that's what would happen (at least for me). I have so many books on our to-readaloud list. My kids aren't going to outgrow Harry Potter for a long, long time, but they will outgrow some of the other books on my list. I'm not going to devote an entire year to reading Harry Potter and by so doing miss the chance to read some other fantastic books. I'm sure this is partly my own issue since I don't enjoy reading book after book in the same series without a break between, but I also like interspersing our fantasy with other genres.

5. We get to anticipate the next book.
Readers from my generation will remember what it was like before a new Harry Potter book came out: the weeks leading up to it were spent talking about it, rereading all the books that had already come out, and making plans for the book-release party. It was as exciting as Christmas. Personally, I didn't really participate in all the festivities because I wasn't all that interested, but I knew plenty of people who did. If I had to wait for one book each year and grow up a little and read other things in between, what would be so wrong about having my kids read them the same way? After we've read the book together, I'm fine with my kids reading it as many times as they want to by themselves, and I think rereading will only increase the anticipation of the next book. Isn't it so fun to have things to look forward to?

As great as my plan is, we're already running into little snags. For example, Bradley didn't listen to the first one last fall, but he's listening to the second one this year. He's still quite young (he'll turn five in a few days), and if he continues to listen with us, he's going to get to the more mature books before I'm ready. So I'm not sure what to do. Maybe next year, Mike can backtrack and read the first one to him, and then they can go on from there. And then what about Clark? The timing with the younger ones is just as tricky as with the older ones.

Also, I should probably mention that so far, my kids have been completely fine with this plan. They haven't begged to go onto the next book or continue with the series on their own. If they were chomping at the bit for the rest of the series, it would certainly make things more complicated (and I'm curious to know how those of you with voracious, fantasy-loving kids handle this). 

Of course, reading the books in this long, drawn-out way means that certain key plot twists will almost certainly be spoiled for the boys before we get there ourselves. But I'm pretty sure we crossed that bridge long ago, when Aaron was in first grade and all of his friends were reading the series on their own.  Six-year-olds don't really know how to give the"spoiler-free version."

I'm very curious to hear your opinions on this modern parenting dilemma. When did you let your kids read Harry Potter, and what were your thoughts and reasoning behind it?

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel

Sep 16, 2016

If anyone wants to know what I listened to over the summer, well, here it is. One book. It's pitiful. And embarrassing. I started it in June and finally finished it a couple of weeks ago.

Some of you are probably thinking, That bad, huh? I guess I can skip that one. But wait! Don't judge too quickly. This had absolutely nothing to do with the book itself. It could have been the most exciting, nail-biting thriller, and it still would have taken me that long because, it turns out, listening and summer just don't go together for me. Or at least, they didn't this summer. Having my four kids around all day meant that there was rarely a quiet time to listen. And when I'm listening to a book, I do require quiet. I hate missing important information, and it's so frustrating to start it up, get back into it, only to have to pause it thirty seconds later (and then back it up fifteen seconds) because someone started talking to me. So, usually, I just didn't even try. And when you're only listening to about an hour per week, a 14-hour book takes a long time.

The reason I picked up this book in the first place was because of our Europe trip. I wanted to read something that would feature some of the places we were going to visit. My goal was to have it done before we went on the trip, but by the time we left, I was only halfway through (see above comment on summer and listening). As it turned out though, I think this may have been the perfect way to read it. Since I had read half of it, it really did make our trip more meaningful. But when we came home and I finished it, it made the book more meaningful. The cities and places had become real to me, and I felt so connected with certain parts of the story. I'll share some specific examples in a minute.

But first, a little about the Monuments Men themselves. In 1944, a special art division was created in the Allied army to locate and recover all of the art that had been damaged, looted, or stolen by the Germans during the last eight or nine years (interestingly, there had never been such a group created before, nor has there been one since). Headed by George Stout, the division was manned by only a handful of men and women with extremely limited supplies and resources. Here's a small taste of what they were up against:
"The museum directors didn't understand the military. The military still wasn't confident this was a good idea. The Monuments Men were only advisors. They couldn't force any officer of any rank to act. They were allowed freedom of movement, but they would have no vehicles, no offices, no support staff, and no backup plan. The army had given them a boat but not the motor. The men in the field, George Stout could already see, were going to have to row, and he had a strong suspicion they would be rowing against the tide. But once you're on the water, he knew, a schooner might just pass. Just get us over there, Stout thought, still not convinced the operation wasn't about to collapse. Just give us a chance."
But in spite of this lack of support and almost no outside direction, the Monuments Men were able to recover the largest art depositories during the war at Althaussee (Hitler's personal collection), the Merkers mine, and Neuschwanstein castle. The amount of art they found was staggering: thousands upon thousands of pieces, from small paintings that belonged in personal collections to huge treasures, like the Ghent altarpiece. I'm not exaggerating when I say that finding these depositories and then transporting everything back to its rightful owners was like something straight out of a crime novel.

On the third day of our trip, on our way to Paris, we stopped off in Bruges, Belgium. It was the most picturesque little village, cut through by shimmery canals and stone bridges and watched over by an imposing Medieval spire. We went on a boat ride, ate some Belgian waffles, and were about to get in the car and be on our way when we realized that Michelangelo's sculpture of the Madonna and Child was displayed in The Church of Our Lady, not more than a few blocks away from where we were then standing.

The Bruges Madonna has an incredible history. It was sandwiched between a couple of mattresses  and smuggled out of Belgium in 1944 by the Germans. Several months later, monuments men Robert Posy and Lincoln Kirstein found it hundreds of feet below ground at Althaussee. When we walked into the quiet church and saw it safely encased in glass, I'd read the first half of the story, but I hadn't gotten to the second half. It was one of those things where, when you see it, you know you are looking at a masterpiece. No one has to tell you. When we got back home and I finally got to hear the rest of the story about how it made it back to its home in The Church of Our Lady, I could picture Mary's tranquil face and the soft drapery of her garment. The story had come to life for me because I'd been in the same room as that priceless sculpture.


When I was recapping the highlights from our trip, I neglected to mention one of the places we visited in Germany because, for me, it was not a highlight.  It was the Buchenwald concentration camp. Even seventy years later, with the inmates replaced by tourists and all of the barracks gone, it was a dark and dismal place. I felt the weight of it, heavy upon me, as we walked over the grounds and through the buildings. The sadness and misery and heartache of so many thousands still pervades every corner of that place. At the time, it hurt so much to be there that I wished we hadn't gone.

But then, a few weeks later, I was so surprised when I was listening to this book and Robert Posy visited Buchenwald the day after it was liberated. Even though I did not see the horrors he witnessed as he walked through the camp (can you even imagine...), since I had been there, I had the tiniest bit of empathy for what he must have been feeling. And without that experience, I would have passed over that section without much thought. In fact, when I told Mike that Buchenwald was in The Monuments Men, he was incredulous. He had read the book a couple of years ago, but not having that stark and vivid memory in his brain yet, the name Buchenwald didn't actually mean much. For the first time since we'd returned home, I'd found a reason to be grateful we'd gone there (although I felt a kinship with two of the monuments men, Lincoln Kerstein and Walter Hancock, who refused to go in because they didn't want the things they were sure to see there to haunt them for the rest of their lives).

Even places that I hadn't actually seen felt more real simply because I'd seen places like them or been near to them. Now that we're home, there are really only two places I deeply regret not having enough time to see: Mont Saint Michel (an abbey located on an island near Normandy, France--one of the tasks of the monuments men was to restore historic buildings and landmarks, as well as art) and Neuschwanstein castle (completed in 1886 and the hiding place of one of the largest art depositories during the war). I think I regret these oversights so much because we were so close to seeing both of them. They were both on our list of places we wanted to go, but they were both out of the way enough that we just didn't have time for them. If we ever go back, they will be top priorities.

But that's enough about our trip. The point is that, for me, this book did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to give added meaning and significance to the places we saw on our trip.

One thing I hadn't expected from this book was just how much it deepened my appreciation for art. I would say that up until I read this book, my feelings toward art were, in general, pretty lukewarm. I would look at a famous piece of art and think, What is so great about this? Why does anyone care?

But three things helped change my mind this summer. First, I checked out the book, Art Fraud Detective for Aaron and Maxwell and helped them work through it. Second, Mike and I finished watching the last couple seasons of White Collar. And finally, I listened to this book. And even though I won't say that I understand, or even like, classical or contemporary art any more than I did, I definitely appreciate it more and have a desire to learn more about it. So that's a step in a new direction.

Many of you are probably aware that a film based on the experiences of the Monuments Men was released in 2014. Since I hadn't finished the book by the time we left on our trip, Mike and I decided to watch the movie on the flight over. After we were about forty minutes into it, we turned to each other and asked, "Do you want to finish this?" and neither of us did. It was such a disappointment. All of the names of the key players had been changed, and everything had been dramatized in a way that was not true to the real story. I couldn't help thinking, This story had it all! Excitement, danger, drama, heroism. Why on earth would they have changed it? Feel free to disagree with me, but the book (and the real story) is far superior to what Hollywood tried to do with it.

This review has gone on way too long (but, you see, I've been saving up my thoughts on it all summer!), so I'll wrap it up with one of my favorite stories that really captures the type of people these monuments men were: hardworking, honest, humble, and just so good.

The mine at Merkers was more than just an art depository: it was a literal Nazi treasure trove. There were rooms completely filled with gold bars and jewels and money. Robert Posy was one of the men on the job, and he said,
"At the gold mine, they filled my helmet with twenty dollar American gold pieces and said I could have it," he wrote Alice on April 20th, a few days after emerging from the mine. "I couldn't lift it off the ground. It contained thirty-five thousand dollars, so we poured it back in the sacks and left it. I seem to have absolutely no greed for money, for I felt no thrill at seeing so much of the stuff. Your poem means more to me."
These men (and women) weren't hoping to get rich from the runoff of treasures. Most of them weren't even tempted by it. All of their work and dedication was because they loved their country, they had a deep appreciation for art, and they valued the impact art has on a country's culture and history. 

This is another book I wouldn't mind having in my home when my boys are teenagers. The writing isn't quite as fast-paced or captivating as some of the other similar books I've already added (The Boys in the Boat, Endurance, etc.), but the story is amazing, and you just can't beat a real-life treasure hunt like this one. You just can't.

Thoughts on this book? The movie? Or just the melding of past and present in general?

"The Human Resistance to Change"

Sep 13, 2016


This past week, I've been listening to Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. It's by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation, and it has been absolutely fascinating so far. His thoughts on cultivating a creative environment, collaborating with others, and pursuing your dreams have resonated with and inspired me more than I was expecting.

This isn't a review of the book because I'm not even a third of the way through it yet, but I wanted to explore one of the topics I've found most interesting so far.

Long before the Pixar we all know and love was born, Ed worked for George Lucas in, what was then, the brand-new computer department. Ed and his coworkers were developing a new editing process which had the potential to considerably shorten the amount of time it took to edit videos. Unfortunately, the film editors were not the least bit supportive or interested in this new process, and without them, Ed and his team didn't have anyone to actually use what they were working on. In Ed's words:
"They were perfectly happy with the system they had already mastered, which involved actually cutting film into snippets with razor blades and then pasting them back together. They couldn't have been less interested in making changes that would slow them down in the short term. They took comfort in their familiar ways, and change meant being uncomfortable. So when it came time to test our work, the editors refused to participate. Our certainty that video editing would revolutionize the process didn't matter, and neither did George's backing."
Ed labeled this "the human resistance to change." Forty years later, and knowing what we now know, it sounds ludicrous that the film editors would have wanted to continue their painstaking and laborious cutting and pasting process instead of trying something new.

But I get it.

After Aaron was born, I tried three different pediatricians before I found one that I felt comfortable with. There wasn't anything particularly fantastic about her, but she didn't make me feel like a loser of a parent like the others had, so I figured she was probably my best option. As we added more children to our family and gradually moved farther and farther away from the clinic, we stayed with her because it felt safe and familiar.

There were other pediatricians who were much closer, but for some reason, it just sounded so daunting to call a new clinic, find a doctor who was taking new patients, transfer all of our records, drive to a new place, and get acquainted with a new staff and doctor. And what if we went through all that work and emotional effort and it didn't end up being any better? Or even, what if it was worse?!

If it's that difficult to make a rather low-impacting decision (on average, each of my kids visits the doctor once a year for their annual checkups), no wonder it can be almost paralyzing to change something that has the potential to negatively affect your day-to-day life.

To put it even more simply than our pediatrician dilemma, consider the game of Rummikub. This was a favorite of my grandma's, and so she always obliged us by playing rounds and rounds of it when we visited her. Just like any rummy game, you're trying to create groups and runs with the end goal being to get rid of all your tiles before everyone else. The tiles are displayed in the middle of the table, and once they're down, they are free game for anyone else. You can steal and add and reshuffle as much as you want in order to lay down more tiles.

Sometimes it can get rather complicated. For example, you might have just one tile you want to lay down. You start going through the options in your head: If I disassemble that group of 12's, I can put one of them there and one of them there and keep one for myself. Then I can take the 11 from that run over there, etc. etc. In the end, the only thing to do is to try it: start breaking things up and rearranging, hoping that it all comes back together--different, but with your new tile in place.

But there's always the fear that you'll go through all that work and be left holding one lone tile at the end that doesn't have a place to go. And then what do you do? You have changed the board so completely that you can't possibly remember how it all started. Without meaning to, you didn't win the game, but lost it (and ruined it for everyone else).

My parents know exactly what this is like. Earlier this year, they began to consider the idea of moving to Utah. There were a number of factors that pushed them to want to do it but also a lot of reasons to hold back. One thing my mom kept saying was, "Change isn't always better. I like where we live right now. I like my friends, I like my community, I like my house. What if I leave it all and find out nothing about the new place is better?"

There it is, that human resistance to change--the fear that by trying something new, you'll lose what you had, and it will actually end up being the better option.

But my parents went for it. They found a beautiful house in the nicest of neighborhoods and bought it. My dad figured out a way to continue with the same job he's had for the last 34 years. They registered my brother for a special school near their new home. They purged their stuff and packed up the rest. They put their house on the market. They passed along their responsibilities to new people. They said difficult good-byes and did things "for the last time." It has taken them almost the entire year to do it all, and they're not done yet.

And I know my mom is worried. What if they've nearly killed themselves with the monumental effort of it all and a year from now, they're still holding that one metaphorical Rummikub tile? What then? They've already gone too far and done too much damage to ever put their lives back together the way that they were.

When put that way, change just sounds awful and scary and like, "Let me stay in my safe little box where I won't ever be disappointed or hurt!" But if Ed Catmull hadn't kept pushing and developing the new editing software, would movies still be where they were forty years ago? I mean, I'm not bashing movies from the 1970's (well, maybe a little), but we've come a long way since then, and I think everyone would agree they'd rather not go back to cutting and pasting the film by hand.

And what about my pediatrician example? I finally decided I had to try another one, not because anything had changed with our current pediatrician (although there was a really mean nurse I was not fond of . . . ) but because it felt like there must be something better. I didn't go into it blindly. I talked to my friends and got their recommendations and then I called the new clinic and made an appointment.

And . . . wouldn't you know it, but we love our new pediatrician. He is a hundred times better than the other one (and let me reiterate, there was absolutely nothing wrong with her). He makes my kids laugh. He remembers our family and how many kids we have. He talks directly to my kids instead of just to me. He's cautious without being overly concerned. He treats me like a partner in raising my kids instead of like he's the one and only authority. Plus, did I mention it takes us five minutes to get there instead of twenty-five?! The only thing I'm sad about is that I didn't have the guts to make the change years ago.

Of course, there's the flip side, which is contentment. The grass isn't always greener, and sometimes you just need to stop chasing the rainbow and find joy and contentment with where you are right now. Just as it takes courage to rearrange all the pieces of your life, it also takes a certain level of skill to be happy and at peace with the decisions you've already made (even, or especially, if one of those decisions left you holding one lonely, mismatched tile).

But contentment should never be the enemy of change. Rather, they should be partners. C.S. Lewis said, "It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."

Without change, there is no growth And I don't know about you, but I think growth is kind of the point of this little life we're living.

I would love to hear about the big or little daunting changes you've made in your life and what the results have been. Are you one of the many who resists change, or one of the few who embraces it? How do you balance change and contentment?

Review x 3: Ramona Quimby Age 8, The Twits, and Mathematicians Are People, Too

Sep 9, 2016

We ended our summer reading with books that were familiar, hilarious, and educational.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary

Being a child of the 80's and 90's meant that I was quite adept at using the "record" button on the VCR. Anytime there was something good on TV, I would stick in a blank VHS, record the show or movie, and then carefully label the outside (and the box).  Some people probably only recorded shows that they were going to miss, but I recorded anything I thought I might want to rewatch at some point. I could usually fit three movies or anywhere from six to twelve shows on one video, and it was a very economical way to stock up on my favorites (although, since we only had an antenna, we only got a few channels, and the quality was usually lacking.)

One favorite (and I think my mom actually recorded it when I was still quite young) was the made-for-TV series about Ramona Quimby. Did anyone else watch these? I believe it only ran for one season with ten episodes, but I got a lot of mileage out of those few episodes because I watched them so many times.

I couldn't help but think about that old TV series while we were reading Ramona Quimby, Age 8 because almost all of the episodes were based on chapters from this book. There was the egg-cracking fiasco where Ramona accidentally cracks a raw egg, instead of a hard-boiled one, onto her head, and then she overhears Mrs. Whaley say, "What a nuisance!" There's the weirdly textured meat at dinner, which turns out to be cow's tongue, and Ramona and Beezus complain about it so much that Mr. Quimby tells them they can make dinner the next night. There's the fruit fly larvae in the blue oatmeal (a classroom experiment) and the stomach flu that strikes in the middle of school and the "meow meow" book report. There's Yard Ape and Mr. Quimby drawing his foot and the nice older gentleman who pays for their dinner.

I was kind of glad my kids hadn't seen the TV series because it followed the book so closely that that's literally all I could think about while we were reading it and I think it's nice when they can go into a story without any preconceived ideas, but at the same time, it was kind of nostalgic for me.

One of the things that makes these books so continually fantastic is just watching the way Ramona grows up. With each book, she becomes a little wiser and more mature. She focuses on other people (and worries about her mom's job, her dad's school, the faulty car etc.) while also becoming more aware of what people think about her (does Mrs. Whaley think she's a nuisance? is the whole class going to make fun of her because she threw up?). But her growing up happens in the most believable way possible, and she is still very much the Ramona that we've always loved.

Soon after we finished this book, and not on purpose at all, we had hard boiled eggs one night when we had breakfast for dinner. I wasn't even thinking about Ramona, but my kids were. Crack! Crack! Crack! All of them smashed their eggs onto their foreheads. Clark, who hadn't listened to any of the story, had no idea what was going on, but that didn't stop him from joining in. Who can resist cracking an egg on your head?!

The Twits by Roald Dahl

 My mom and I have similar tastes on many different things, including books. However, those tastes do not cross at the point of Roald Dahl. She read James and the Giant Peach to my siblings and me when we were little, and that was enough for her. She finds him bizarre and strange and maybe even a little offensive. I find him bizarre and strange too but also incredibly funny, witty, and creative. And that makes all the difference. 

I couldn't help but think of my mom when we started in on the Twits because it basically takes everything she doesn't like about Roald Dahl and condenses it into one 76-page story.

First, you have Mr. and Mrs. Twit--the most despicable and disgusting couple you ever met, not to mention the rudest, too. They play nasty tricks on each other: spontaneous ones, like Mrs. Twit dropping her glass eye in Mr. Twit's coffee, and also carefully calculated ones, like Mr. Twit adding about an 1/8 of an inch to the bottom of Mrs. Twit's walking stick every night so that she'll slowly be convinced that she's shrinking. I'm pretty sure my mom would be horrified to read about such a mean, abusive couple, especially in a children's novel, but my kids and I laughed our way through it. They're just so ridiculous and the perfect villains because they literally have zero redeeming qualities.

But if the sheer nastiness of the Twits didn't turn her off, the next part most certainly would. Besides being awful to each other, Mr. and Mrs. Twit happen to have four monkeys they've been training for an upside down circus. It's a terrible life, as you might imagine, and eventually the monkeys decide they've had enough. They band together with the Roly-Poly Bird and the other birds who Mr. Twit likes to catch with his Hugtight sticky glue so he can eat them in stew. They pull off the most elaborate trick to date, one that puts Mr. and Mrs. Twit's own tricks to shame. (And, spoiler: it works.)

The thing about this trick is it's kind of out there--like, there's no way you would ever do such a thing, and even if you did, it would never work. And that's the other reason my mom wouldn't like this book. Even though the evil Twits get their just reward, it's all just a little too strange and morbid and unrealistic.

But that's exactly why I loved it. I mean, who can pull off something this bizarre and make it absolutely hilarious and entertaining at the same time? Only Roald Dahl.

Aaron read this book last year on his own and had been begging me to read it ever since. I'm so glad we did, but I'll be sure to tell my mom she can skip it.

Mathematicians Are People, Too by Luetta and Wilbert Reimer

Last summer we read the third volume in the Stories of the World series for one of our summer goals. We made a gigantic timeline out of the events we read about, and it ended up being one of the highlights of our summer, but it was also a pretty ambitious goal given its length and the amount of time we had. We really had to pace ourselves and keep on top of our reading to get through the whole thing in three months.

This year, I wanted to have another history-related goal, but I wasn't feeling quite up to tackling such a daunting book, so we went with Mathematicians Are People, Too instead. Comprised of fifteen chapters, each one focuses on the life of a different famous mathematician. Some of these I'd heard of, like Archimedes and Isaac Newton, but many were completely new, and I was always so intrigued by these unknown mathematicians who did so much to move the study of mathematics forward. In fact, some of them contributed so much that I kind of couldn't believe I didn't know about them (maybe if I'd been a math major, I would have).

One of these was Sophie Germain. As a woman mathematician in the early nineteenth century, she was up against almost insurmountable obstacles. No one thought a woman could, or should, be doing math. In fact, it was so impossible that she took on a pseudonym, Monsieur LeBlanc, so that she could correspond with other mathematicians without having to overcome the gender obstacle. She was a gifted mathematician and made great strides on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces. To their credit, two of the most famous mathematicians at the time, Joseph Lagrange and Carl Gauss (who also have their own chapters in this book) were quite accepting of Sophie when she turned out to be a woman and collaborated with her on many things.

Other stories were incredibly exciting . . . and tragic. One mathematician, Evariste Galois, died at the tender age of twenty because he was forced into a duel over a young woman he didn't even care about. He lost. In his short life, he not only made important strides in algebra, number theory, and group theory, but he was also a political activist and ended up in jail twice for being a little too outspoken. Can you imagine what he might have accomplished if he'd had the chance to live an average-length life?

I liked the length of the chapters (i.e., not too long) and that they were filled with both memorable stories and important information about each person's life. My one complaint is that sometimes the dialogue at the beginning of each chapter seemed a little contrived and inauthentic. If you can get past that, and I could, it's a book well worth sharing with your kids, and I'm glad that there's a second volume of stories. Maybe for next summer . . . 

Have you read any of these books with your kids? What's your opinion on the Ramona series and Roald Dahl's books? Please share in the comments!

Review x 2: Tuesdays at the Castle and Owls in the Family

Sep 6, 2016

One of my regrets at summer being over already is that we didn't read nearly as many books as I wanted to. But honestly, I think that would be my regret whether summer was two or four or six months. There are just so many good books and not enough time to read all of them. Here are two of our recent readalouds, and I'll be sharing a few more later in the week.

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

This book has been on my to-read list for forever (in fact, it's been on there so long that reading it fulfilled one of my 2016 reading goals: "Read a book I put on my to-read list in 2011"). When I first added it, I assumed I would just read it to myself (since Aaron was only three at the time). But several years passed, and when I remembered it again, I thought I might read it to my kids. I checked it out and discovered it didn't have any pictures, so I decided against it (this is, in my opinion, still a grave oversight on the part of the publisher--this book felt like it would really be improved by a few pictures). Then finally, this summer, I knew my kids could handle no pictures, so I checked it out. And we finally, finally read it.

It's about a royal family who lives in an enchanted castle. But this isn't just any enchanted castle. No, it's a castle with personality, intelligence, and very strong opinions (for example, it hand picks who the next heir will be . . . and it's not always the eldest son of the king). Every Tuesday, the Castle rearranges itself--shuffling around rooms, adding new ones, eliminating others, and making sure the family has exactly what they need. The youngest daughter, Celie, has been attempting to create a map of the Castle's layout and has her work cut out for her.

Early in the story, Celie's parents leave the Castle in the care of the three youngest children (or maybe it's the other way around) while they go to their oldest son's graduation. Everything goes smoothly until several days later when word reaches the Castle that the royal party was ambushed and the king and queen did not survive. Many different rulers from neighboring kingdoms show up for the funeral and, later, coronation ceremony, and some of them do not have the best intentions. It soon becomes obvious that the Castle, the family, and the entire kingdom of Sleyne are all at risk of being taken over. Luckily, the children and the Castle have a few tricks up their sleeves, and their opponents discover it's not as quick and easy as they planned.

I had such high hopes for this book but almost gave up after the first five chapters because they were so tedious to get through. You'd think if a book leads off with an ambush, that would be a sign of an exciting, fast-paced story. So I don't know what exactly happened to lose that momentum except that there was just so much talk of politics and various ceremonies and protocol in the first half that there was very little real action.

I'm happy to report that the pace eventually picked up, and we ended up finishing it in a rush because we wanted to see what happened, but the process to get there was painful and, I'm not sure, maybe not worth it. The Castle itself is a very clever character and has a lot of potential, so maybe the rest of the series improves. However, I'm not feeling very compelled to find out.

Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat

This book came highly recommended from several different sources. Although more than fifty years old, the three copies at our library were in surprisingly high demand, and we had to wait quite a few weeks for it. And then of course, as so often happens, when it finally was our turn, it was not a convenient time for it at all: we were trying to finish another book, our Europe trip was only a few days away, and there was no promise of renewals. Luckily, it's a slim book, and we squeezed it in with only hours to spare. And I'm so glad we did. It was one of our favorite books of the summer.

It hearkens back to a simpler time, when boys spent their afternoons running wild and exploring in the woods and when kids were encouraged to be inventive and creative. Billy is quite fond of animals and has it in his head that he wants a baby owl for a pet. So he and his friend set out to find an owl's nest. Their plan is to steal an owl, although they're not exactly sure how, but as it happens, a storm helps them out and orphans a little owl. And then, just a few days later, they find another abandoned owl and take it home as well. (Can you even imagine a kid today being allowed to keep not just one, but two horned owls in captivity? It's unthinkable.)

Billy names the owls Wol and Weeps. Wol is adventurous and has retained some of his predator instincts. But Weeps was completely traumatized by his first few days of life and remains skittish and fearful for all the rest of his days. Together they make a pretty hilarious pair.

Remember earlier in the year when we read Rascal by Sterling North? We loved all of the funny anecdotes about Rascal himself (riding in the bike basket, begging for food, etc.), but some of the descriptions in between felt a little long-winded. Owls in the Family took everything we loved from Rascal (the unusual pet, the entertaining stories, the nostalgic setting, the inventive kids), but cut out all the superfluous language, so it was a total win. I don't think I'd ever say, "Don't read Rascal," but I would give Owls in the Family the higher priority because it's just so much more accessible to kids.

One of my kids' favorite stories was when Wol decides to bring home two skunks just as the family is sitting down to eat. He drags them in, wearing a very innocent expression that seems to say, "Mind if I join you? I've brought my supper with me." That line completely cracked up my kids. But Billy's parents don't think it's the least bit funny and won't go into the dining room for two whole weeks following the incident.

One of my favorite chapters was the pet show because of the sheer variety of animals that kids considered pets. I think a pet show today would look rather boring in comparison, plus kids would just never put in the effort to actually try and win. Coming up with a clever presentation kept Billy and his friends busy for weeks. And there was absolutely no parental involvement or taking over or making them do it a different way. I kind of loved that.

But even though times are different now, some things remain constant between the generations, and one of those is that both boys then and boys now love to wrestle. It made me laugh every time Billy and his friend took a break from whatever else they were doing just to get in a few pins and jabs . . . not because they were mad at each other, but just for the fun of it. I swear boys are born knowing how to wrestle. I always find my kids tackling each other on a whim, and seeing that little detail in this book made it even more endearing to me.

But my very favorite line might have been this, when Billy's mom is baking in the kitchen and says that "until a woman [has] tried to bake a cake, with two horned owls looking over her shoulders, she [hasn't] really lived at all!"

It's just such a great story and one that I would highly recommend.

What have you been reading to your kid latelys? Have you read either of these books? What did you think?

A Little of this and That in July and August

Sep 2, 2016

Oh, summer, summer. It was perfect in every way, and I'm so sad to see it go. I never wrote up a July update, and there were a few things I wanted to tell you about so I'll just add them in with the August report, if that's okay. In July and August, you might have found us . . .

Blowing . . . bubbles, playing with cousins, paddling kayaks, eating yummy food, watching the film festival, throwing rocks into the stream, and generally wearing ourselves out at Mike's family's reunion. So much fun.


Seeing . . . my sister for something like eight weekends in a row. She is usually so busy that I don't think this has never happened before, but she had a more laid back schedule this summer, and it seemed like every weekend brought something for us to do together (including the two weekends when we were in Europe and she was watching our kids for us!). Now she's in graduate school, and I suppose those regular visits will come to a halt.

Hiding . . . from fireworks on Independence Day. That would have been Clark.The rest of us loved them, but he freaked with the first crackle. We had to borrow a pair of noise-canceling earphones, and he kept his head buried almost the entire time.


Recording . . . Episode 7 of The Book Blab with Suzanne in person. She and her family were in Utah, and we decided we couldn't pass up an opportunity to record the show in the same room. It was so much fun, and we wish we could do it that way every time. (Since then, Episode 8 has also aired, but we had to go back to chatting over the internet.)


Gallivanting . . . all across Europe with Mike. I've already written up a pretty complete travelogue so won't make you endure any more. I'll just say, it was a trip of a lifetime, and now that we've been home for over a month, we are just so grateful we had the chance to go. (Netherlands/Belgium/France; Germany; Norway; Stuttgart Library)


Squealing . . . over my podcast episode on What Should I Read Next. I alluded to this in June's update, but didn't want to say more lest I jinx it. But it's up now, and has been for nearly two months. It came out on the day we left on our Europe trip and in the words of Mike, "You're acting more excited about that podcast than you are about leaving for Europe." There was just something a little surreal about listening to my voice chat about books with Anne Bogel. It's something I'd wanted to do ever since she started the podcast, and I'm so glad I had the opportunity to do it (and then had the courage to follow through with it . . . because, believe me, it was intimidating). You can listen to the full episode right here.

Celebrating . . . Aaron's eighth birthday with cousins, Legos, a bounce house, and the most incredible Yoda cake I've ever seen (I can say that because I didn't make it).


Discovering . . . what it feels like to be the parents of seven children. Mike's sister watched our kids for the first five days of our Europe trip. Then, she and her husband, Nate, joined us in Norway, and when Mike and I got back, we watched their three kids for the last five days of their trip. It was a great trade, and even though I was happy to get back to just my own four kids, those were about the three easiest extra kids you could ever add. They were obedient and kind. They played so well with my kids. They ate and slept like champs. And they were just all around so pleasant. But we have a small kitchen, and boy, we felt it during those five days.

Learning . . . new skills. Bradley had a very productive summer: he learned how to pump a swing (something he's been working on for a long time), became a pro at riding his bike, improved his swimming, began to read fluently, started piano lessons, played soccer, and even mastered a flip off the diving board. There is no stopping that kid.


Realizing . . . for the first time that Maxwell is a strong-willed child. And the rest of you are all thinking, Um, yeah? It's taken you this long to figure that out?! But honestly, it wasn't so much that I hadn't figured it out as that I'd just never even thought about it before. And then suddenly, one day, the light bulb went on, and I was like, "Oh! When people talk about a strong-willed child, this is the type of kid they're referring to!" And then five minutes after making this discovery, I checked out Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child from the library. It's been most helpful so far.

Hiking . . . as a family. One of our family goals was to go on three family hikes. I'm sure that doesn't sound very ambitious to those of you who are hiking every weekend, but for us, it really did stretch us beyond our usual routine and activities. We loved it though. I expected some complaining and whining from our kids at different points along the trails, but there never was any (it helped that we chose shorter trails, but still . . . ). They were genuinely happy the entire time (except, see that big rock in the photo below? That was a point of contention. Maxwell really wanted to climb it, but Mike told him he couldn't, and a major argument ensued with Max contesting each of our reasons with reasons of his own.)


Reading . . . some long, slower books. As much as I'm loving Sense and Sensibility right now, I'm realizing that I lose a little bit of my reading drive when it takes me over a month to finish one book.

Attending . . . Aaron's baptism. I wrote an entire post about it here, but in summary: it was a sweet and special day, but it made me realize how quickly my kids are growing up.


Watching . . . the Olympics. I'm always amazed that a non-sports fan like myself can become totally obsessed with and completely dedicated to random sporting events, but it happens without fail every two years. This year, my kids were just as obsessed as I was, and they raced through their work each morning so they would have time to watch it during the day. It was nice to feel like cheering for Michael Phelps again, I've never seen a race like Katie Ledecky's 800m freestyle, all of my childhood love for gymnastics came back after watching Simone Biles, and I wish synchronized swimming got more screen time.

Helping . . . my parents move into their new home here in Utah! It's been a long, exhausting, emotional process for them (and it's still not over yet), but I'm so happy to have them closer and so glad they took the scary leap and made it happen. My kids are so thrilled to have Grandma B and Papa Dave so close to them.


Driving . . . up into the canyon with Mike to watch the meteor shower. We went in Mike's trusty old pickup, and we had the inflatable air mattress in the back along with lots of pillows and blankets. It was so fun to lie there, cozy and warm, looking up into the endless black sky dotted with millions of tiny stars, some of which went zooming across in blazing streaks. The next night, Mike took the three older boys, and they had an equally great time.

Going . . . to the first day of school. After the hassle of two different schools last year, it felt so good to be able to take Aaron and Max to the same school at the same time and watch them walk over to the playground together. And so far, they've both been having a great year (Maxwell especially, who seems to be a much happier and contented kid after he's been at school all day).


Demolishing . . . the eye-sore of a brick wall in our front room. We have big plans for it (book shelves, a new mantel, etc.), and I'm just keeping my fingers crossed it will all be done by December in order to avoid any more fiascos reminiscent of last Christmas Eve.

Rewarding . . . the boys for their hard work on their summer goals. For June's reward, we went to see National Parks at the IMAX theater; for July's, we went mini-golfing; and for August's (which still hasn't happened), we plan to visit some caves.


What were some of the highlights of your summer?
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