Review x 3: The Railway Children, Ereth's Birthday, Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine

Mar 20, 2017

I'm a little behind on some reviews again, so I'm keeping my thoughts a little briefer than usual in order to get through several at once (not an easy task for me--I particularly had more I would have liked to say about The Railway Children). All three of these books are ones I read to or with my kids.

1. The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

I didn't grow up reading anything by E. Nesbit. In fact, I don't think I'd ever even heard of her until a couple of years ago. But she's definitely the type of author who told the types of stories my mom loved, so I know she would have been a favorite.

I originally thought I'd start with Five Children and It and even had it checked out from the library last summer, but then I found this pretty edition of The Railway Children <---- at my local bookstore and made an impulsive purchase (rare for me since I usually only buy books I've already read).

I read it aloud to my kids, and we all loved it. Truly loved it.

It's about three siblings, Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis, and when the story opens, something is seriously amiss with their father. They don't know what it is, but one minute, everything is fine, and the next, he is being whisked away without explanation. Their mother takes them to live in a small cottage in the country where she manages to eek out a living by writing stories and poems for magazines. Despite the abrupt interruption to their normal lives, the children are happy overall (although Bobbie is acutely aware of their mother's sacrifices and also that all is not well with their father). They grow quite attached to the nearby railroad and make friends with the stationmaster and porter and even a regular traveler on one of the trains.

The language in this book is a bit detailed and old-fashioned (it was originally published in 1906), but my kids didn't even seem to notice (we occasionally paused so I could define a word for them or look up something we weren't familiar with, but that was it). I love that all of our consistent reading aloud over the years has made stories such as this one very accessible and not the least intimidating to them.

And in spite of the older writing style, there is no shortage of adventure in this book: The children help alert a train before it plows into a rock/landslide; they save a baby from a houseboat fire; they rescue a boy from a tunnel after he falls and breaks his leg. You can imagine that, with stories such as those, my kids were enthralled, old language or not.

I really think E. Nesbit might have been the Beverly Cleary of the early 20th century. I've always been amazed with how in tune Beverly Cleary is with the actions, worries, and dreams of children, and E. Nesbit struck me in the same way. Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis are not perfect children by any means. They fight and bicker, they get dirty, and they make poor choices, but they're also selfless and brave and kind.

And of course it has a happy ending--the kind of ending that made me cry and made my kids roll their eyes at me while jumping off the couch in excitement themselves.

P.S. Soon after we finished this book, I noticed that I could get the audio for just $2.99. It looks like it's still that price, in case you'd like to listen to it!

2. Ereth's Birthday by Avi

Sometimes when we're trying to decide what our next readaloud should be, we have to take a vote. And this time, the next installment in the Poppy series won.

This one stars Ereth, Poppy's grumpy porcupine friend. It's his birthday, and he's expecting Poppy to remember it and do something about it. After all, she's that kind of mouse. But when there's no sign of her, he leaves in a huff and goes in search of some salt as a birthday present to himself.

Things quickly go awry when he comes upon a dying fox in a hunter's trap, and she makes him promise to go find her three kits and tell them what happened. Ereth prefers to be a loner, but he doesn't know what else to do, so he finds the fox's den, and one thing leads to another until he's caring for the three fox kits--something he never would have imagined. Meanwhile, he's being stalked by a very sneaky, very patient fisher (an animal similar to a marten--we had to look it up, even though Max was already well aware what it was) who is hungry for some porcupine.

Personally, I think I prefer Ereth as more of a secondary character than the main character. In the other books we've read, I've enjoyed his sour attitude and creative swearing, but it started to wear on me a little in this one. Everything he says is an expletive: "Bouncing bear burps!" "Phooey on all children with a squashed boll weevil on top." "Pulsating puppy pimples. He can start by chewing my tail!" My kids still thought he was absolutely hilarious, and many of his ridiculous exclamations made them giggle uncontrollably so that I had to stop reading until they'd calmed down, but for me personally, it got to be a bit much.

I think my favorite in the series is still Ragweed, but this one was still enjoyable and definitely different than the books that came before it.

3. Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine by Richard Hamilton

It has been so much fun reading some of the same books as Aaron, so one of my reading goals for 2017 was to do the same thing with Maxwell. I knew it would be a harder sell with him, and this book confirmed my apprehensions.

A couple weeks ago, I approached him with the idea, and he was all enthusiastic about it until I started actually suggesting possible books, this being one of them. Then he was completely uninterested (now that's the Max I know...). But Bradley overheard our conversation and said, "That gravity one sounds good to me. I'll read it with you!" (And that's the Bradley I know...)

It was actually so much fun to read the same book as Bradley. He was always very careful not to get too far ahead of me. He would read a couple of chapters and then wait for me to catch up.

The book itself was fine; it's not going to be something I rave about to all my friends (and you know I do that with some children's novels), but I'd be happy to recommend it to those same friends' kids.

It's about a boy named Cal and his grumpy old dog, Frankie, who live next to an introverted, eccentric inventor. Everyone else in the neighborhood is super annoyed by all the noise and the mess created by Mr. Frout, but Cal is fascinated by it. Mr. Frout usually doesn't like children, but Cal is different (quieter, less invasive), so Mr. Frout lets him hang around. Cal knows that Mr. Frout is experimenting with gravity, and one morning he crosses the fence early, before Mr. Frout is out, and pulls the lever on Mr. Frout's new machine (so much for being less invasive...). Suddenly, he's floating, and it's the most wonderful feeling in the world. But things get a little crazy when he tries to bring back gravity and moves the knob to "anti-gravity" instead. Things aren't so fun anymore, and Cal has to think quickly before they all get pulled into space.

I was glad I was reading it with Bradley because there were a few words and technical things I wanted to check and see if he understood. For example, Frankie (the dog) can talk, but only Cal can understand him. At first, Cal thinks it must be some trick of their friend who is giving Frankie to them. He thinks she must be a ventriloquist. I asked Bradley, "Do you know what a ventriloquist is?" He didn't, and we spent the next half hour looking up videos of Shari Lewis and Lampchop so he could see a ventriloquist in action (and Aaron and Max were very interested as well). (Incidentally, ventriloquism has virtually nothing to do with this book, aside from that one passing statement, but it still sparked a really fun conversation.)

So I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do about my goal to read a few books with Max--I'll keep trying (and hopefully he'll come up with a book himself, and I can just tag along), but in the meantime, I'm happy to read some books with Bradley.

What have you been reading with your kids lately?

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Mar 15, 2017

This book has been on my personal to-read list for several years, and I waited long enough to pick it up that by the time I finally did, I had a child who was old enough to read it, too. Procrastination for the win.

I gave it to Aaron for Christmas but told him to let me know when he was ready to read it because I wanted to read it, too. It ended up being a great book to read along with someone else because the whole story is a little like one giant puzzle, and it was nice to have someone to discuss and speculate with.

Reynard Muldoon (Reynie for short) is something of a genius, or at the very least, extremely gifted. Sadly, this natural intelligence does not help him relate to or make friends with the other children in the orphanage, so he is a bit of a loner. The only person he can really talk to is Miss Perumal--his tutor, friend, and surrogate mother all rolled into one.

One day, he and Miss Perumal are reading the morning newspaper (a favorite ritual of theirs) and come across this advertisement: "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" Even though Reynie has no idea what those "special opportunities" might be, he figures he might as well give it a shot. The test is broken up into three parts (with a couple of secret tests masquerading as normal events thrown in), and Reynie excels at all of them. Only three other children besides himself make it to the final round , and when they've all made it through to the other side (literally--the last test is a maze), they find out that they've been carefully selected by Mr. Benedict for a secret mission.

Strange things have been happening over the last few years. Government officials have given it the rather blanket title, "the Emergency," but basically there's just a lot of chaos and confusion, and it grows by the day and no one can seem to make sense of it.

Mr. Benedict has been studying the Emergency for years, and he knows it has something to do with messages being secretly broadcast to the citizens and that these messages are somehow coming from the Institute--a mysterious school on Nomansan Island. Mr. Benedict knows time is running out and that children are his last hope of infiltrating the system.

Besides Reynie, there's George "Sticky" Washington, who has a photographic memory and can regurgitate information at will; Kate Wetherall, whose physical prowess can't be matched, especially when she has her trusty bucket of supplies belted to her waist; and Constance Contraire, a mere slip of a girl who has the most unyielding stubborn streak. Together, those four make up the Mysterious Benedict Society, and Mr. Benedict warns them that they are all necessary to the team and they must rely on each other in order to succeed.

This need for teamwork was one of my favorite parts of the book, particularly because it's fairly obvious from the beginning why Reynie, Sticky and Kate were chosen, but it's not at all evident why Constance made the cut. She complains about everything, she's tired all the time, she doesn't do well on any of the tests, she has to be carried everywhere because she's too short to keep up, and she's always grumpy. The other three are tempted more than once to leave her behind because she definitely seems like more of a hindrance than an asset. But they remember Mr. Benedict's counsel, and the whole time I kept thinking, There has to be more to Constance than anyone else is seeing. Somehow she's going to end up doing something very important. And sure enough, Constance's talents are indeed needed at a very critical moment in the story, but I liked that the reader had to have a little bit of faith, along with Reynie, Sticky, and Kate, for the majority of the book before that confidence in Constance paid off.

As much as I liked the whole book, I will say that the first third was actually the most interesting part for me. I really loved seeing the formation of the team, but once they were actually in the Institute, it lost a little of its drive for me--I think because I could never quite figure out how these "messages" were going to overtake the world, so the threat didn't carry as much impact as it probably should have. I understood that the citizens were going to be brainwashed, or, even worse, "brainswept" (memories erased), but the logistics and actual method were a little lost on me.

But I thoroughly loved the characters and loved seeing their trust and friendship for one another develop and deepen throughout the book. These thoughts from Sticky were echoed by all of the Mysterious Benedict Society: "And yet, in these last days, he'd become friends with people who cared about him, quite above and beyond what was expected of him. With perfect clarity he remembered Reynie saying, 'I need you here as a friend.'"

In many ways, it reminded me of Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, which Aaron and I read last year. The stakes aren't nearly so high (it's just a game rather than a possible take-over-the-world threat), but the puzzles and the teamwork and the friendship and the importance of knowing who to trust are all there. But if I'm really comparing the two books, I have to be honest and say that The Mysterious Benedict Society surpasses Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library on all counts.

Sometimes it's so hard for me to tell if Aaron likes a book or not (this spills over to all other parts of his life as well). He never complained about reading it, but it wasn't like he couldn't put it down. But then I overheard him telling Max about the plot and the characters, and I knew we'd found a winner. Only some books are worth sharing with your younger brother.

A Little of This and That in February

Mar 10, 2017

I was going to begin this post by saying, "February eased us out of winter," but then I thought, Who am I kidding? I don't need to be "eased out of winter." I would be perfectly happy waking up to a permanent sixty or seventy degrees with nary a backwards glance to those winter temps. Still though, February was good to us with lots of decent weather and only a couple of snowstorms, so I'll take it. As far as our family was concerned, February found us . . .

Enjoying . . . some uncharacteristically warm weather. Although February ended with a couple of snowstorms, overall it was a fairly pleasant month. My kids even went without coats on a couple of days (I did not). February made me hopeful that spring is on its way (and I am ecstatic about the light lasting a little longer each day).

Finding . . . a solution for our spice cupboard. Ever since we moved into our home (three years ago), Mike and I have felt disgruntled about the spice cupboard. It seemed like every time we needed a spice, it was at the back of the shelf, and we had to take every other spice out in order to get to it. We finally found some plastic containers at The Container Store that fit those three shelves perfectly. We labeled the tops of the spices, and now all we have to do is pull out the container to find what we need and then push the whole thing back onto the shelf. I'll admit, I felt a little miffed that it took us so long when the solution was so simple, but mostly, I just feel happy that finding a spice jar is no longer a ten-minute endeavor.

Trying . . . to go on a little family hike, only to turn around after ten minutes because the trail was one gigantic sheet of ice. Sorry, winter, I tried.

Listening . . . to Maxwell give a presentation about himself at school. To celebrate his birthday, his teacher sent him home with a power point outline he could fill in about himself and bring back to class. He also got to fill a bag with a bunch of show-and-tell items. Then, for forty-five minutes, his entire class celebrated him. His classmates gave him compliments and pictures and notes and asked him questions, and he got to talk all about the things he loves, which include bugs, math, science podcasts, and facts. I remember when Aaron got to do the same thing a couple of years ago, and he went through his presentation as fast as he possibly could. But not Maxwell. He milked it for all it was worth, and it was so entertaining to watch. 

Building . . . a replica of the Vatican out of pasta. Every February, our friends, James and Kathy, host a fabulous adult-only dinner in celebration of James' birthday. This year, the evening had an Italian flair, and Kathy wowed us all with focaccia, arancini, and tiramisu. Dinner was followed by a pasta building competition where each team had to try to replicate a famous Italian landmark. I can't take any of the credit for our model as I mostly just watched and provided moral support, but we ended up winning. I felt a little like I was a college student again on a group date (except for my ginormous belly).

Refereeing . . . computer time. I have always been very strict about my kids' screen time. We go through periods of no TV, and when we do watch it, I try to keep it to an hour or less (although there are those days when I'm just getting so much done without interruptions . . .). We don't own a video game system (unless you count Mike's vintage atari, which he pulls out about once every two months). We don't own an iPad. And I only have one little boring addition/multiplication game on my phone. These have all been very purposeful decisions on my part because it's easier to just not even have the temptations there rather than have all the begging, bribing, and managing that would naturally come with additional screens. But my kids are sneaky. Aaron has math homework that he has to print off, and one day, he casually asked if he could play a "math game" that he sometimes plays at school. "Sure," I said. Several months later, and this math game (Prodigy) has become something of an addiction for him and Max. So here I am managing screen time against my will. It was bound to happen one way or another, I guess.

Holding . . . a new baby cousin. Clark can't get enough of babies lately, and Mike's sister was nice enough to let Clark hold her brand-new, two-day-old baby girl not just once, but twice. Clark can't wait for our own baby to get here, and I'm inclined to agree with him. A few days ago, I was putting Clark down for a nap, and he kept slipping off my lap. "Sorry," I said, "This baby is just getting too big!" Bradley said, "When the baby comes out, then you'll have room to hold Clark again." "But then I'll be holding the baby," I said. "NO!" Clark yelled. And I thought, Uh-oh. Here comes the jealousy. But I had misread him. "No!" he yelled again. "I will be holding the baby." I guess I'm the one who's going to have some competition.

Watching . . . the third season of The Great British Baking Show. Big new, guys! The first three seasons of The Great British Baking Show are now on Netflix! So take advantage of it while you can. You won't regret it.

Taking . . . my knitting obsession to a whole new level. I've been enjoying knitting for the last almost-two years, but I mainly did it when I was traveling in the car for a long time or watching a show, which meant that sometimes a week or two would go by without me picking it up at all. But something happened in the last month, and now I can't seem to stop. I think it's that I've done several short projects in a row, and, just like reading a fast-paced book can rekindle my love of reading, these shorter projects have spurred me on to want to knit more, more, more. I've been poring over patterns and different yarn types and knitting every spare chance, sometimes at the sacrifice of other things. It's been fun, but I'm wondering if it's going to taper off after awhile or if this is just the beginning of a life-long hobby. (Check out the hat I made for myself! My first project with cables!)

Cleaning . . . on Saturday mornings. I mentioned this in my recent cleaning post, but we're now five weeks into our Saturday morning cleaning routine, and it is going so well. It's not that different from what we were doing before. It's just that the expectations are a little clearer for our kids: they know we will all be cleaning from 8:00-10:00am on Saturday morning, and we will share the jobs and the work load. Even though it still doesn't take our kids long to mess up everything again after we're done, I am noticing that some things really have stayed cleaner, like the microwave or the fridge, because I'm making sure they get cleaned every week rather than waiting until they're so dirty I can't take it anymore. Plus, this last Saturday, and I'm not kidding when I tell you this, I didn't hear one word of complaint from any of my kids for the entire two hours. Miraculous.

Making . . . Valentines. We started a new family tradition last year where we put out a mailbox on February 1st and delivered valentines and love notes (and an occasional treat) to each other during the two weeks leading up to Valentine's Day. Maxwell definitely wins the prize for leaving the most notes for everyone. That kid is a valentine-making machine. For the boys' classmates, we went with a very simple homemade Valentine: paper Jedi robes that said, "The Force is Strong With You" or "Be My Jedi" with attached glow sticks (light sabers). I got the idea from Miranda at Live Free Creative, and it was just crafty enough for my kids without being overwhelming or tedious.

Blogging . . . less. You've maybe noticed the decrease in posts. I could blame a variety of things, but I'm pretty sure the biggest culprit is that I'd rather spend my free time knitting than blogging. And yet, I'm always happy when I blog, so I'm not giving up yet.

Skiing . . . for the first time. No, no, not me. But Aaron has been dying to learn. And even though Mike grew up in Utah, he'd never been skiing either, so he decided to take Aaron, and they could both learn together. He picked up some second=hand equipment, and they went to the bunny slopes that had a free tow rope, and he and Aaron skied down over and over again and had a blast. And then they went back three days later and did it again.

Trashing . . . a knitting project. After searching through a bunch of baby hat patterns, I finally settled on one that used seed stitch. I loved the texture, and the whole time I was knitting it, I thought it was going to be so cute. I finished it, washed and blocked it, and then I basically couldn't stand the sight of it. I don't know if my yarn weight was just a little too fine for the size of needles I was using or if my tension was off or what, but every time I looked at it, I thought, That looks like a first knitting project. And I know I'm still an amateur knitter, but I think I'm beyond first projects. Anyway, I unraveled the whole thing, and I'll save the yarn for something else.

Celebrating . . . Valentine's Day. We actually postponed our family's celebration of it by one day because the 14th was extremely packed with other things. Taking Gretchen Rubin's advice, I've tried to make this holiday a little more special for my kids by setting the table with a tablecloth (!), candlesticks and festive (but still plastic and paper) cups and plates. It works. It feels like a holiday for them, and it's hardly any extra work for me. We also gave them a few little gifts: a book, new watercolors (this set is awesome), LEGO mini-figures, and a 1000-piece puzzle for everyone.

Competing . . . in a backgammon tournament. That would be my dad and Maxwell. My dad taught Max how to play a few weeks ago, and now every time they see each other, they have to pull it out and play at least one game. Max won the first few, so he was feeling pretty confident, but now my dad is evening up the score. I love watching them play because it brings back fond memories of my own childhood.

Snoozing . . . at church. At the beginning of the year, our church schedule changed from 9-12 to 11-2. I knew it was going to be rough on Clark, who loves an afternoon nap (and I didn't want to wait until after church for him to take one because that's just too late in the day). So Mike suggested just taking him out to the foyer during the first hour and seeing if he would just fall asleep in his arms. It seemed like a long shot, especially since Clark is almost three, but wonder of wonders, it totally worked. Now Clark just expects it and brings along his blanket. He takes a 45 minute nap, which makes him bright-eyed and happy for nursery during the second and third hours. (Interestingly, Aaron was exactly the same at this age.)

What fun, normal, everyday things were you up to in February?

What My Plans For 2017 Look Like . . .Two Months In

Mar 3, 2017

Lest you think all goal posts are out of fashion from now until January 2018, I beg to differ. March actually seems like the perfect time to talk about the 2017 goals I made back in January.

For one thing, at this point, I know I'm serious about these goals. This isn't just wishful thinking or false ambition or following the crowd. I've spent the last eight weeks or so tweaking and fine tuning, implementing and strategizing, and, while I still have a long way to go towards actually accomplishing anything, I'm far enough along on my path that I feel comfortable sharing it with you.

My blueprint for the year can be broken into three parts:
  1. One overarching theme
  2. Five big, project-type goals
  3. Smaller weekly goals (that often go towards making progress on #1 and #2)
Several weeks before the end of 2016, I came across this quote by Marjorie Pay Hinckley (wife of Gordon B. Hinckley):
"I don't want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. 
"I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp. I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbor's children. I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone's garden. I want to be there with children's sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder.
"I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived."
I'd heard it before, but that time, it struck with unusual force. It perfectly summed up the kind of person I wanted to be--a person that, regrettably, I was a long way from being. The truth was, there were many days when I didn't want to wear that smudge of peanut butter with pride but was instead embarrassed about it because I felt like it made me look incompetent. 

But when I examined the perfectly manicured fingernails and the sticky kisses side by side, I knew which one I wanted to choose. The question for myself was, If sticky kisses are what I want in the long run, why is it so hard to be okay with them in the day-to-day moments? 

That quote embodies a life well-lived, which is truly what I want for my own life (who doesn't?), but in many ways, it's considerably less glamorous than the alternative, and sometimes it's difficult to keep things in their proper perspective. 

That is why I instantly latched onto that quote as my theme for 2017. Similar to a word of the year (but more verbose), I knew that that mental picture (the station wagon, the dirt, the tears) was what I wanted to govern my actions during the next twelve months. 

After I'd settled on it, I commissioned my friend, Sarah, to artistically render the quote so I could hang it on my bedroom wall. I knew it would be easier for me to become that person if it was staring me in the face day in and day out (and with something this pretty, its looming presence isn't a bad thing at all).

Once I had my overall them for the year firmly in place, I focused on a few project-type goals. These were things I'd wanted to accomplish for a long time (some of them for years) but hadn't made time for. Committing to do them in 2017 gave me both flexibility (I have an entire year) and a deadline (by December 31st, they'll be done).

They're not anything special or grand, but I'm going to record them here for the sake of a little more accountability:
  • Improve my photo editing skills by learning how to use a new program (probably Lightroom). This is one of the goals that has already been tweaked a little. It started out as "Buy and learn to use Photoshop," but then after talking to a few photographers, I realized that it wasn't really the features of Photoshop I wanted. I'm not really interested in altering or adding to my photos--just enhancing what's already there. If any of you have any tips or suggestions or know of a really good online class (since I'm extremely technically challenged), I'm all ears. 
  • Set up a filing system and file the last fifteen years of papers. Can I admit something that will make any die-hard organizers out there cringe? At this very moment, in my guest room closet, there is a big, cardboard box filled with letters, papers, cards, and memorabilia. Besides that, there is a filing cabinet with randomly labeled file folders for my kids, doctor's appointments, etc.And in addition to that, Mike has his own system for bills, documents, warranties, and other important information. It has worked, and yet, it could be so much better. For the last few years, it's been far enough out of sight that I've tried to forget about it, but we need to turn the guest room into a bedroom for a couple of our kids, so it's time to confront the beast.
  • Submit an article to a magazine. I don't have grand ambitions to become a writer, but I've had a couple of ideas for articles that I could submit to one of our church magazines, so I'm going to do it. 
  • Complete my reading goals. I've already written about them in great detail here. I'm looking forward to the ways they will stretch me as a reader and as a person (as they always do). 
  • Take a knitting class. This is my one, completely all fun goal. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do for it yet, but I anticipate it being enjoyable. There are a couple of local yarn stores that offer monthly classes (but none of them have struck my fancy yet), or I'd be fine going with an online class. I'm interested in learning how to knit fairisle or a sweater or socks. I'm keeping my options open, and in the meantime, I'm knitting (a lot).
And finally, in addition to these big goals, or maybe I should say in concurrence with them, every Sunday evening, I sit down with my journal and plan out smaller goals to be accomplished that week. This has actually been one of the best things I've done for myself this year. There is always so much that I want to get done, but now, at the beginning of the week, I look at my calendar and the days ahead and decide what's truly important and manageable and realistic for that specific week.

As I plan out my weekly goals, I find myself turning to my 2017 quote, as well as my project goals, for guidance. I also look at my calendar and take into consideration anything I've already committed to. And I also look back over the week and examine those moments where I felt like a failure or that left me irritated, and I try to figure out what I could do differently to avoid such moments in the future.

Here's a small sampling of goals that have made it onto the weekly lists so far:
  •  Limit Instagram to five times a day (if you're anything like me, you know it's so easy to open it up a million times just to see if there's anything new)
  • Don't yell if someone spills something (this was prompted by an overreaction on my part the week before when Clark dropped his cereal bowl and milk splashed everywhere--there's something about spilled milk that makes me go a little psycho; this was also inspired by Sister Hinckley's quote because I don't think that kind of woman gets so worked up over spilled milk)
  • Memorize a hymn
  • Clean out corner cupboard in kitchen 
  • Finish book for book club 
  • Figure out the difference between Photoshop and Lightroom (this was one of my early goals--I knew that I needed to spend a little bit of time researching before I could actually get to work on my photo editing goal.)
  • Read 5% in housekeeping book (related to my reading goals)
  • Write 2017 goals posts (I literally put this on the list for the week, and look! I'm accomplishing it.) 
These weekly planning sessions have worked so much better for my stage of life right now than a daily to-do list (which used to work so well when I was a college student). As much as I love structure, I really have to stay flexible in order to be available for my kids. However, a weekly plan is helping me use whatever open time I have more wisely because I know which things are important for me to accomplish. It's also helping me consistently work on the character flaws and weaknesses I want to improve so that I can be that confident, gracious, kind, self-sacrificing, happy, flexible, and fun person from Sister Hinckley's quote.

This is 2017. And by the end of it, I hope to be at least a little more like the person I want to be.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Feb 27, 2017

So far, 2017 is not the year of the audiobook for me. This is the only book I've listened to, and it took me nearly two months to finish. At this rate, I'll be lucky if I make it through six audiobooks this year, which is a far cry from the years where at least half of my reading was done by listening. I blame podcasts, knitting vlogs, and my noisy children for the drop in numbers.

All that said, even though it took me an agonizingly long time to listen to, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There have been a bunch of WWII bestsellers lately; besides this one, I've also read All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, but I have to say, I liked this one best: the setting, the plot, the characters, and the treatment of hard subject matter were all just really well done.

The book jacket claims that this is a "novel about three lives entangled during World War II," but I would argue that it's really about just two: Mary North and Alistair Heath. I think the third character the summary refers to is Tom Shaw, who is Mary's boyfriend and Alistair's best friend, but although he certainly plays a critical role in both of their lives, the story is never really told from his perspective, whereas it travels back and forth between Mary and Alistair. If Tom is noted as a main character, I feel like you also have to mention Hilda (Mary's best friend) and Zachary (a young student whom Mary tutors).

But really, I'm getting ahead of myself since I haven't actually told you anything about anyone.

The story opens with this line (which I quite like): "War was declared at eleven-fifteen and Mary North signed up at noon." Mary lives in London and comes from a wealthy family. But I love that opening sentence because I think it sums up Mary so perfectly: she's feisty; she doesn't think twice when it comes to making a decision; she's willing to work hard and fulfill her duty; and she doesn't care much about propriety or social standards.

Mary is hoping she'll be assigned as a liaison, or possibly even a spy, but instead she gets sent to a school. It's not quite as glamorous as she was hoping for, but she discovers that she really enjoys teaching children. However, just a few days into her responsibilities, the children are evacuated to the countryside, and the headmistress dismisses Mary from her post: "I like you, Mary. Enough to tell you that you will never be any good as a teacher. Find something more suited to your many gifts." And so, just like that, Mary has nothing to do, and she's rather embarrassed about it.

Meanwhile, on the other side of London, Tom Shaw and Alistair Heath are good friends and flatmates. With everyone enlisting, there aren't many young men left in London, so Tom, a teacher, has recently been put in charge of a school district (most of the children have been evacuated, but there are a few left--mostly those who, for one reason or another, are unwanted by families in the country). It's to Tom that Mary goes for help finding a new position, and he eventually finds one for her, teaching a small class of outcasts and misfits. Alistair, on the other hand, is not content to stay in London, just waiting to be drafted, and enlists almost immediately. Within weeks, even before he's seen any real fighting, he's seen enough to know this war will change him forever.

Mary and Tom begin dating very soon after meeting each other for the first time, but then, she meets Alistair on his first leave back to London, and, even though he was actually set up with her best friend, Hilda, she begins secretly writing him.

One thing that almost all of my friends have mentioned after reading this book is the smart and witty dialogue, and that was definitely one of my favorite parts as well. Between the daily bombings in London and the horrible assault on Malta (where Alistair is stationed), the devastation and heartache in this story is tremendous. Lives are stamped out so quickly and with so little fanfare, it sets you reeling trying to grasp it and keep track of it all. But then there's the dialogue, which, in stark contrast to the awful scenes, is light and often quite amusing. These conversations don't downplay the grave situations, but they do provide the right kind of balance to help the characters (and the reader) survive.

The title of the book was actually one of my favorite parts, and I don't often say that, mostly because it's usually pretty obvious why a book bears a certain title. But in this case, I didn't really understand the title until I was about halfway through the book, and then things started clicking, and I just thought, Oh my goodness, how beautifully tragic.

At one point, Mary herself uses the line. She writes, "I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime, courage is cheap and clemency out of season," meaning, everyone has to be brave so showing mercy doesn't even matter.

And yet, it does.

As the book progressed, and the costly and fatal mistakes began to pile up, I really saw the truth in the sentiment, "Everyone brave is forgiven." In spite of what Mary said, perhaps the need for bravery and accompanying forgiveness is more apparent during war than any other time. Decisions have to be made, and usually those decisions involve death on one side or the other, making the decisions impossibly impossible.

I wanted to list a few of those devastating decisions from this book, for my own memory, with the warning that spoilers will follow, so please stop reading now if you haven't read the book.

(I'm not kidding--major spoilers ahead.)

Here are just a few of the instances where some of the characters had to overcome the intense guilt brought on by their decisions and forgive themselves, all while hoping others would show the same mercy: 
  • Zachary leaves the school basement in the middle of a bombing raid (all of the parents are in attendance because the children are performing the school Christmas play). Mary sends Tom after him, and then she soon follows. A bomb hits the school, killing everyone inside. Tom, on the outside, is hit by flying debris and is also killed instantly. Mary and Zachary are the only survivors.
  • Alistair leaves the comfort and warmth of a truck to help a fellow army buddy walk back to camp. On the way, his friend steps on an unexploded artillery shell and is killed mid-sentence.
  • While helping on an ambulance crew, Mary nearly dies when her leg becomes trapped by a fallen beam and pins her down while the water level in a basement steadily rises. She's given morphine to ease the pain while she heals but becomes addicted to it and makes some poor choices because of it.
  • Alistair is bitten on his hand by a dying German and ends up losing his arm.
  • Alistair restores a painting for a local church. He takes great pride in it and wants to deliver it before he returns to London, so he convinces his friend, Briggs, to drive him to the church. They have no other reason to be out (and Alistair has to lie and say they're delivering maps to some other camps in order to have the request approved), but during the drive, a host of shells fall on them, one of which kills Briggs.
  • Alistair's good friend, and commanding officer, Major Simonson, pulls a few (unapproved) strings in order to bump Alistair ahead of some of the other soldiers waiting for a flight home.
With each of these situations, I could see the goodness and courage twisted up among the final consequences. Perhaps Alistair said it best when he receives a letter from Mary's friend, Hilda, informing him (quite bitterly) about Mary's addiction to morphine. She paints Mary in a very unfavorable light, and Simonson says, "If half of what she says is true then you are best off without Mary, and this Hilda has done well to warn you." But Alistair replies, "I should like to know Mary's side of the story."

And ultimately, that's what this book is: it's this side of the story and then that side of the story, and looking at all these different sides reveals the great complexity of human choices. As much as we like to think that decisions are clear-cut and black and white, many times they're not at all. We do the best we can with the information we have. We reap the consequences, as awful as they might be. We give our best and hope that it's enough.

And it is. Because, in the end, everyone brave is forgiven.

Content note: Mild language (I don't remember any f-words, but there might have been one); one pre-marital sexual scene (not descriptive); the usual violence associated with war.

Raising Readers: When a Book Finds You at Just the Right Time

Feb 21, 2017

I love it when a book falls into my lap at just the right time, and my life seems to converge with the characters in the story in an almost uncanny way. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, I pay attention.

One of the most notable times this has happened in our family was last fall when I was reading All-of-a-Kind Family to my kids (one of our favorite readalouds of the year!)

The very first chapter is about Sarah, the middle of five daughters. One Friday afternoon, the girls are getting ready to make their weekly trip to the library, an activity that is eagerly anticipated by all of them. Except this Friday, Sarah is found in a crying heap instead of getting ready with her sisters. When questioned, she chokes out the awful truth: She can't find her library book.

The whole family is enlisted to help search, but it doesn't turn up, which doesn't surprise Sarah because she actually loaned the book to her friend, Tillie, who said she returned it to Sarah's desk at school but Sarah never saw it. Although sympathetic to Sarah's plight, Mother tells her she won't be allowed to check out anything else from the library unless she pays for the book.

It's a hard lesson, particularly because, most likely, it was Tillie who lost it, not Sarah, but, as Mother says, "You borrowed the book, and that makes you responsible. The library lets you borrow the book, and you're not supposed to lend it to anybody else." Things get even harder when Sarah asks her mother is she'll come with her to the library, and Mother says, "No, Sarah, that's something you must do yourself. If you explain just how it happened, I'm sure the library lady will understand that you didn't mean to be careless. Find out what you have to do, and we'll talk about it when you get back."

It's a long walk to the library, and when it's finally Sarah's turn to talk to the librarian, she can barely get out the words. She's so embarrassed and ashamed. Luckily, the librarian is incredibly kind and understanding, and even though Sarah ends up having to pay for the book (it costs a dollar, which takes Sarah several months to pay off), she is allowed to check out another book, and it's the beginning of a sweet and lovely friendship with the librarian.

I know that was a rather long recounting, but it will be worth it, I promise.

Not two days after we read that chapter, Maxwell came home from school with a slip of paper. It was an overdue notice from the school library, which said that one of his books was ninety days past due, so he would need to pay for it. He seemed fine when he handed me the paper, but as soon as I started questioning him about it, he burst into tears.

I was completely unaware that he'd even lost a library book, much less that it had been gone for ninety days, but from the way he was crying, it was apparent that he'd known it was missing all those weeks but just didn't know what to do about it. All of the pressure and stress and worry unleashed itself in a great flood of inconsolable sobs.

Maxwell has always been very concerned with his image. At school, he is a model student. He does careful work, pays attention, and follows directions to the letter. But a model student does not lose his library book, and the thought of having to own up to it and fix it was almost too much for him to handle. He was not at all unlike Sarah, who was also absolutely mortified at the impression the pretty, new librarian would have of her if she admitted to losing a library book.

I'll admit that my heart almost burst seeing Maxwell's anguish. I was ready to swoop in and take care of it all for him when I remembered the words of Sarah's mother: "This is something you must do yourself." And so instead I said, "Max, do you remember what happened when Sarah lost her library book? She had to talk to the librarian and take care of it herself. I know you can take care of this, too."

We came up with a plan: We were sure he'd lost the book at school because it hadn't ever come home with him. The next day was Thursday. He would talk to his teacher first and explain the situation to her (during first recess because he was adamant that none of his friends know about his mistake). He would ask her if he could look through the bookshelves in the classroom and see if it had somehow been shelved there by mistake. ("Maybe she'll even help you look for it," we said. "She's been teaching for a long time. You aren't the first of her students to lose a library book.") If the book was nowhere to be found, he would go to the library on Friday and pay for it so that it would all be taken care of before the weekend.

The next morning, we said a prayer before he left for school. We prayed that he would be brave and that, if possible, he'd be able to find his book. Then, armed with the memory of how it had all worked out for Sarah, he walked into school. And I let him go.

His story has a happy ending, even happier than Sarah's. He followed our plan and talked to his teacher during first recess and, just as I'd suspected, she helped him look for the book, and they found it on one of the classroom shelves. He returned it to the school library and cleared his record. When he came out of school, his eyes were bright and happy and he was literally beaming.

I know Max's experience would have probably turned out very much the same whether we'd read that chapter or not. But it was so nice to feel like there was someone, albeit fictional, in our corner. It gave both of us a little boost of confidence to do the right thing.

Have you had any experiences like this, where your life bears an uncanny resemblance to that of a fictional character? How have stories helped you through tough learning moments? 

In Progress: Home Comforts, Part 1 (Why am I Reading This Book?!)

Feb 17, 2017

One of my reading goals this year is to read Cheryl Mendelson's 900-page tome on housekeeping. It's long. It's intense. It's not for the faint of heart (which may or may not describe me--I haven't decided yet).

Rather than give one over-arching review of it at the end of the year (because I fully anticipate it taking me the entire year to finish), I thought I'd do little monthly reports--mini-reviews, if you will. I'll share the tidbits I've found helpful (or not helpful, as the case might be) and how I'm applying what I'm learning. Hopefully, this will keep me accountable as well so that I actually chip away at it every month rather than saving it all for the end of the year (which would surely be akin to torture).

I think the first real emotion I felt soon after starting this book was depression. Not exactly the emotion I was hoping for, but there it was. The second chapter was about establishing a routine, which I'm definitely in favor of, but as I looked at her daily, weekly, monthly, and annual cleaning lists, I felt like a miserable failure.

To clarify the daily routine, Cheryl Mendelson said, "A daily routine restores the household to a level of basic order twice each day: once before work or after breakfast, and once before bed."

It was at that point that I wanted to raise my hand and ask, "And, um, what about the ten hours in between? How do you suggest I deal with the spilled milk and the crumbs from fifty snacks and the dirt and/or snow tracked in and the 500-pieces from two mixed-up puzzles and the paper scraps from an over-zealous, scissor-wielding two-year-old and the jam painted on the window and the large couch cushion and blanket fort and the four abandoned board games and the piles of books and the flooded bathroom because the (same) two-year-old decided to get himself a drink of water and the three discarded outfits and . . . and . . .????? What if by the time bedtime rolls around, I've already cleaned up so many interim messes that I'm too tired to "restore order" for supposedly only the "second" time?"

Honestly, at this point in my life, it sounds rather heavenly to straighten up in the morning, close the front door, and return in the evening with the house looking exactly the same. But as it is, if my house looks even close to the same at 5:00pm as it did at 8:00am, it's because I've done nothing but clean all day.

But it wasn't just the daily routine that depressed me. It was learning about all of the things I should be doing every week in order to establish the bare minimum of "health, safety, and comfort" for my family and realizing that I fall far, far short.

(Quick poll: How often do you wash your family's sheets? I'm genuinely curious because apparently, we aren't washing ours frequently enough.)

And thus it was that not even two chapters into the book, Mike forbade me from reading any more of it: "This is not helpful. Why are you even reading it?"

So I had a little heart-to-heart with myself and asked that very question: "Why am I reading this book?"

And it turns out, it wasn't for the routines or lists or to achieve the perpetually clean house. It was more narrow, more focused, than that. I wanted a simple how-to on all the little tasks that go into keeping a clean house: scouring a sink or doing laundry or cleaning a toilet. I do all of those things, of course, but was I doing them the "right" way . . . or was there even a right way? Those were the answers I was looking for, and they're coming, but the book had to begin with the over-arching objective before breaking it down into its smaller components.

So I didn't listen to Mike. Instead, I took a deep breath, relaxed, and realized a house with four young kids in it looks markedly different from a home with two working adults. I'm not trying to make excuses for myself (well, maybe a little . . . ), but standards are different. They have to be, unless 1) cleaning is your passion/hobby so you don't mind doing the same work a dozen times over in one day (I know people who fall into that category) or 2) cleaning is not your passion, but you're okay with feeling perpetual despair and frenzied anxiety all the time because your house is never as clean as you want it to be (there are days when I definitely feel like this). Personally, I'm not okay with either of those options.

Don't get me wrong, I am infinitely happier in a clean, uncluttered home, but I also have other interests and responsibilities outside of cleaning, so I have to find a balance that works for me, my kids, and Mike. And I think that balance is different from Cheryl Mendelson's.

But I decided to continue with the book because, while the big picture looks overwhelming and daunting, focusing on one thing at a time doesn't sound too bad. If she expounds on the fine art of cleaning a toilet, for example, I can read and learn and maybe tweak and hone my own toilet-brushing skills, and that sounds totally doable.

And no matter how Mike feels about the book, we're already seeing some positive changes from it. I decided we really should be more organized about our Saturday cleaning. Usually it's something that gets dragged out over the course of the whole day with us handing out jobs to our kids and listening to them whine and complain for hours and hours. I knew that if we all focused on the task at hand and split up the load, we could be done in a couple of hours and be left with a clean house (for at least five minutes). We actually did use Cheryl Mendelson's weekly cleaning checklist to give some structure, and we've been altering it as needed. It feels so good to work together as a family in such a concentrated way, and I'm glad my kids are learning the joy and satisfaction that comes from hard work.

The next chapter in the book focuses on food (as in menu planning, grocery shopping, meal preparation, etc.), which honestly doesn't interest me that much, so we'll see if I have much to talk about next month.

Have any of you read this book? If so, what were the most helpful bits you gleaned from it? And whether you've read it or not, how do you maintain your sanity and a clean house at the same time? (And don't forget the clean sheets question!)
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