Review x 2: Charlotte's Web and Dory Dory Black Sheep

Oct 19, 2016

For probably the last year or so, Bradley has listened to every single one of our readalouds. (Before then, he was a bit hit and miss--sometimes he'd listen, sometimes he preferred Mike to read picture books to him while I read to the older boys.)

It's been a joy to have him along for the ride, especially since he's one of my best snugglers. But I have wondered about how to make sure he doesn't miss out on books that a) I've already read to the older two or b) seem too young or babyish to Aaron or Max.*

And then, soon after the beginning of school, I stumbled upon the perfect solution. I could read those books to Bradley in the afternoons while his older brothers were at school.

These are the two books we've read so far, and I have to tell you, it's been nothing but a treat (but then, most things are with Bradley).

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
We started with a classic--one that I would never be able to forgive myself for if I somehow omitted it in any of my children's childhoods. (Although, now that I've given it more thought, I'm pretty sure there's no way Max, who was two-and-a-half when I read it the first time, could possibly remember it, although he claims that he does. This is a grave oversight.)

I already wrote a thorough review of it when I read it to Aaron, but I wanted to add just a few things that made me dog-ear the pages this time:

First, this book feels so timeless . . . except when it doesn't. For instance, one morning Fern and Avery are rushing to catch the school bus. Mrs. Arable takes tiny Wilber out of Fern's hand and gives her a doughnut to eat on the way. Avery grabs his gun and another doughnut and runs out the door. Did you catch that? His gun! I'm still getting over the shock that Avery takes his gun to school, and its as natural a thing to take as another doughnut. Times have certainly changed.

Second, I find it so interesting that the only person who thinks it might be the spider, rather than the pig, who's extraordinary is Mrs. Zuckerman. Everyone else just believes the message in the web: "Look, it says 'Some Pig,' so he really must be some pig!" They don't even think that a spider might be capable of weaving words into her web. Rather, they're convinced it must be some supernatural miracle that just uses the web that's already there as its canvas. But the readers appreciate the silliness of all the adults because we know who the real truly brilliant character is.

Third, I think I felt more irritation with Wilbur than I have on previous readings. While his innocence and naivety are endearing, he's sometimes so self-centered in his wishes. For example, when Charlotte tells him that she can't go to the fair with him, he freaks out a little. Finally, after all his whining and begging and pleading, Charlotte agrees to try. Wilber says, "Oh, good! I knew you wouldn't forsake me just when I need you most," and I kind of just wanted to slap him up the side of the head. Charlotte has literally worn out her life in his service, and he is so completely blind to it. He is not unlike a small child. (Luckily, he redeems himself when he is willing to make great sacrifices to keep Charlotte's egg sac safe.)

Finally, this story just gets me, right here, every time. I was an emotional wreck during the second to last chapter. My voice tightened, and I could barely choke out the words. The tears just streamed down my cheeks. My heart was breaking. Bradley kept looking at me, totally dry-eyed himself. I asked him if he felt sad, and he said yes, but I think it's one of those things that, even though it's a children's novel, grows in poignancy with age and maturity. I have had amazing friends who have sacrificed a lot for me. I also know what it's like to lose someone I love. So this story touches an emotional soft place for me that Bradley doesn't have yet.

I just love this book so much. It will always be one of my favorites.

Dory Dory Black Sheep by Abby Hanlon
After loving the first two Dory Fantasmagory books so much, I actually pre-ordered the third one in the series. I gave it to Bradley for his fifth birthday, and although it's at just the right reading level for him to read on his own, I didn't want to miss out on it, so I read it to him.

In this installment, Dory's real and imaginary worlds continue to collide in fantastic and amusing ways. One day she sees her best friend, Rosabelle reading a big thick chapter book. Dory exclaims, "I love pretending to read chapter books, too!," not realizing that Rosabelle can, in fact, read it. When she finds out, Dory is mortified and frustrated--she is still struggling through the very simplest easy readers. When she tries to force herself to read these "baby books," she finds herself suddenly in the book, and her fairy godmother, Mr. Nuggy, is there too, and so is the evil Mrs. Gobble Gracker. Fighting off villains is way more fun than reading, at least until something finally starts to click and a whole new world opens up to Dory.

In my opinion, this book isn't quite as good as the first two in the series, but it comes close. The other two made me laugh out loud at some point, and this one, for whatever reason, never did. It could have been that the endearing six-year-old-humor is mixed together with the obnoxious six-year-old humor, and since I already live with my own six-year-old, who seems to get more obnoxious by the day, it hit a little closer to home than before. For example, one afternoon Dory gets home from school and starts jumping on a chair while swinging around two hammers and yelling at the top of her voice. Her mom rushes in and yells, "Dory, what are you doing? DON'T! STOP!" Dory says, "Okay . . . you said, 'Don't Stop,'" and she keeps on doing it. My resident six-year-old did and said something almost like that just yesterday (can someone please tell me how to stop the stupid Christmas songs with first grade lyrics? I'm about to go crazy).

But the very fact that Dory's so obnoxious at times is also the reason why these books are so good. Somehow Abby Hanlon has entered the six-year-old psyche and nailed it perfectly. And the clash between Dory's two worlds is so extremely clever. Dory is visited by Mary or Mr. Nuggy or Mrs. Gobble Gracker at wildly inappropriate times, which makes for some funny and awkward situations.

But I think my favorite moment was this one, when Dory is all alone, with no distractions from real or imaginary friends: "The next morning, I wake up extra early. One by one, I take my favorite books off the bookshelf. All alone, in the quiet of my room, I lie on the floor with my books. As the morning light slowly shines brighter and brighter through my window, I turn the pages and look carefully at the pictures. I look at the words carefully, too, and some of the words . . . I read."

I guess six-year-olds can be unbearably sweet sometimes, too.

*My kids will actually listen to just about anything, so this is probably not a truly legitimate concern. In fact, I might have thought Aaron would think Dory was too young for him, but he thinks she's hilarious and read this whole book one night before bed.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Oct 14, 2016

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to be a guest on one of my favorite podcasts, What Should I Read Next? The show, hosted by Anne Bogel (aka, Modern Mrs. Darcy) works like this: the guest shares three books she loves, one book she hates, and what she's currently reading, and then Anne comes up with three recommendations that hopefully fit the reader's bookish tastes.

When I was on the podcast, one of the books I shared as a favorite was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It's been nearly four years since I read it (so time for a reread, I think), and I still can't think of it without remembering the wide range of emotions I felt while reading it. It's one of the most visceral reading experiences I've ever had, and I specifically chose to mention it on the podcast because I wanted help finding something that would give me that same sort of reading experience again.

The book Anne came up with was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Before she revealed what it was, she said something like, "I have a great book to recommend, but I'm just sure you've already read it because it's so perfect for you." Well, I hadn't read it, but I was nonetheless very familiar with the title because many of my friends had read it, loved it, and then recommended it with a bunch of caveats. And it was those caveats that always held me back.

But after Anne recommended it, I decided to just read it and see for myself.

And now I get it. I see why everyone liked/loved it, and I also see why all the reviews came with reservations. I'll get to all that in a minute.

But first, the story itself. Margaret Lea is a quiet, solitary woman. She lives and works in her father's bookshop, which is also a quiet, solitary place, and that suits her just fine. As you might expect, she is quite fond of books and reads a lot. However, she sticks mainly with classics and biographies and has very little interest in popular fiction.

So of course she is very surprised when she receives a letter one day from Vida Winter, a famous authoress, who requests that Margaret write her biography. Ms. Winter is in her seventies and quite ill, and although everyone knows and loves her books, her actual life is cloaked in mystery. Many reporters have tried to get it out of her over the years, and she always obliges them with a fantastic and captivating story, but it's always just that . . . a story.

Margaret can't figure out why, after all these years, Vida Winter is requesting someone to write her biography, and why that someone should be her. But after reading (and rather embarrassingly, devouring) one of Vida Winter's books, she decides to accept the invitation. However, she goes in with her guard up. She is determined to sniff out the truth and not be pulled in by another one of Vida Winter's tales.

Before they begin, Margaret has one requirement: she asks for three facts from Vida Winter's life that she will be able to corroborate with outside sources. Ms. Winter gives those three facts and then sets down a rule of her own: "Beginnings, middles and endings, all in the correct order. No cheating. No looking ahead. No questions." In other words, she demands to tell her story in her own way.

A truce is reached, and the story begins. It is fascinating, captivating, mesmerizing. And, as it turns out, it is not just Vida Winter confronting the pain and secrets of her past, but Margaret, too.

I'll have to stop there because I'm trying to be very careful not to give away too much. So far, I've just laid the barest framework and haven't even hinted at the details or characters of the actual story, and I'm going to leave it that way. The essence of this story is its mystery. If I take that away, even in a small way, the life would just go out of it.

In the book, Margaret describes the excitement of discovery this way: "One element at a time, taking all the different angles separately, I reviewed everything I knew. Everything I had been told and everything I had discovered. Yes, I thought. And yes, again. That, and that, and that, too. My new knowledge blew life into the story. It began to breathe. And as it did so, it began to mend. The jagged edges smoothed themselves. The gaps filled themselves in. The missing parts were regenerated. Puzzles explained themselves, and mysteries were mysteries no longer."

I love that description because I've had very similar experiences with stories before (this being one of them). Having all those questions and unknowns and twists and turns suddenly come into sharp focus is one of the things I loved most about Rebecca, and it's what made me enjoy this book as well. I wouldn't spoil that for anyone for the world.

So even though I'm not going to talk about the plot any further, there are still a couple of things I want to address.

First, when readers recommend this book with a good dose of caution, they're right to do so. As you might expect from a Gothic suspense novel, there are some dark, I would even say disturbing, themes. They're essential to the story, but that doesn't make them any easier to read about, especially when they come back to you at 2am, as one of them did to me.

It's really, really tricky to review a book with difficult or disturbing content because it's easy to over-focus on the uncomfortable parts. On one hand, this is good because it means future readers will go into the book with their eyes open. On the other hand, it can give a false representation of the actual story and the overall feeling and just how big those moments really are.

For my part, I always appreciate it when I know about mature content ahead of time, but it's also hard because, even with the warning, I still don't really know what its effect on me will be. Of course, if there's any doubt or hesitation, just don't read it (there are plenty of other good books to choose from), but I will say that in the case of this book, the disturbing acts are not gratuitous or glorified in any way. They are repulsive, as they should be. (And now, after that glowing recommendation, I'm sure you're all rushing out to read it--feel free to talk to me about it if you want more specifics.)

The second thing I wanted to mention is just that even though I liked this book and was completely immersed in it from the beginning, it was no match for Rebecca. There are similarities for sure, and I can definitely see why Anne would recommend this to someone who loved Rebecca, but it wasn't the same.

For example, both books are extremely well written, but I love the writing style of Rebecca more. Both books have dark themes, but Rebecca's are less disturbing (although feel free to debate me on that one). Both books have a strong sense of place, but I would much rather go to Manderley than Angelfield. Both books have striking and vibrant characters, but . . . this is the big one for me. With Rebecca, I felt deeply invested in the narrator as well as Maxim de Winter. But with The Thirteenth Tale, something was missing for me, even with Ms. Winter and Margaret, and especially with one character in particular--a character who seems well-loved by so many, and yet, I couldn't find anything lovable about her. I'm actually not convinced that the reader was supposed to love her in the same way that the characters in the book did, but still, it was a real problem for me and actually is the reason, more than anything else that I mentioned above, that I just didn't love this book as much as Rebecca.

There's so much to discuss with this book though, and so I'm dying to talk to someone who has read it. If you have, let's chat because I have some questions and issues to work through.

I'm sure this review has given you a mixed impression of the book, and that's probably kind of accurate because I honestly came away with rather mixed feelings. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I'm glad I read it, and it was a perfect read for this time of year, but is it going on my favorites list? That remains to be seen.

Have you read this book? What did you think about it? Actually, let's just go have lunch and talk about it! And what would be your recommendation for someone who loved Rebecca and wants to read something similar?

What We're Listening to Right Now #7

Oct 10, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, Tsh Oxenreider put up a post about the music they play in their home. She included twelve different playlists she's created for various moods and situations. For instance, there's a fall playlist (she's compiled playlists for the other seasons as well), one for dinner, and another for cleaning/working. I found the whole thing fascinating (not to mention, between the post and the comments, we have a lot of new music to try), but I also realized that I think I've made a total of one playlist in my entire life. And now I'm wondering, why? It sounds like so much fun to pull together music from different artists in order to achieve a kind of theme, however loose or vague it might be. So don't be surprised if sometime in the future, these music posts include some kind of personalized playlist.

However, when I'm listening to an artist for the first time, I prefer to check out an actual album because it gives me a much better impression of their style than a single track in a random playlist can do. (That post also made me realize that some people are much more serious and dedicated to their music than I am. Creating a bunch of playlists sounds a bit time consuming and overwhelming. I think I enjoy the convenience of popping in a CD from the library or letting Pandora create a playlist for me.)

Anyway, here are six albums we've been listening to a lot lately:

1. Make a Circle by Jennifer Paskow*
I think I have a fairly high tolerance for children's music (higher than Mike anyway), but lately that tolerance has plummeted. I can't even tell you how many children's albums I've checked out from the library over the last four months that have all been promptly returned on our next visit. They vacillated between being obnoxious and loud, stupid instead of funny, or just a copy of someone else, and I just couldn't handle any of them. That's why when I listened to Jennifer Paskow for the first time, it was like a breath of fresh air. Like, I think I may have actually sighed in relief because it was just so pleasant and such a welcome contrast to the other things we'd been listening to. Her voice hits on all the right tones, creating a combination that is at once easy and light-hearted and sweet. I could seriously listen to her all day. The message of this album is about loving yourself and loving others, two concepts that are so important for kids (and adults!) to internalize. Nothing about this album screams "kids' music" (which I love), and yet it feels like a safe and happy place to be, and that's exactly what a children's album should do.

Favorite Song: "The I Love You Song" (it's just so catchy!)

2. My Heart by Sissel
When we got back from Europe, I longed for something to listen to that would remind me of where we'd been. The only Norwegian singer I knew was Sissel--my father-in-law has always been a fan of hers--but I had never really listened to much of her music. (This could be due, in part, to the fact that when she sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at their 2006 Christmas concert, Mike and I had tickets, but we didn't make it into the hall until twenty minutes before the concert started (the tickets said you had to be in your seats a half hour before show time), and by then they were already letting in the standby lines. The ushers shuffled us from section to section and finally told us we'd have to watch it in the overflow theater on the screen. Ever since then, I think I've always associated Sissel with extreme disappointment.) But after we got back, I checked out one of her albums, and I fell in love. Her voice, while classically trained, is not overbearing but crystal clear and gorgeous. And as an added bonus, it feels perfect for fall (so if I ever make a seasonal playlist . . . ). She's probably not my kids' favorite, but sometimes I get to listen to what I want to.

Favorite song: "Tristezze" (the lyrics are set to Chopin's Etude in E major, which was a favorite of my piano teacher growing up, and Sissel's voice just fits the melody so well)

3.  A Celebration by John Williams & The Boston Pops Orchestra
My dad has always loved the Boston Pops. That love has carried over to me, and it was time to pass it on to my kids. I kind of cheated: this album has the Star Wars Theme on it, so it was bound to get their attention, but they've enjoyed the other songs, too. I don't see how you couldn't enjoy them actually--that big band sound is so invigorating (if I were making a cleaning playlist, some Boston Pops would surely find their way on it). It makes me want to dance, and not just because my dad used to spin me around the room to, "In the Mood."

Favorite song: "Star Wars--Main Theme" (obviously), but my favorite is actually "New York,  New York"

4. Senior Piano Recital by Anna Nielsen
It's completely unfair of me to put this on the list because there are only a very limited number of copies in circulation. My younger sister, Anna, graduated with her bachelor's in piano performance last spring, and this is the recording of her senior recital. I went to the actual performance and was completely blown away. I mean, I knew she was good, but this was beyond good. This was emotionally moving, powerful, gorgeous. After the performance, I begged for a copy of the recording, and she kindly obliged. It's been so fun to listen to it over and over again and think, That's my little sister! (My kids love to tell me that she can play the piano better than I can; they don't realize we're not even in the same league anymore--she surpassed me a long time ago.)

Favorite piece: When I heard her perform live, it was "Nocturne in B-flat Major" by Gabriel Faure, but now that we've been listening to it in the car, it's "Novelette no. 2 in B-flat Minor" by Francis Poulenc.

5. Songs from the Neighborhood: The Music of Mister Rogers by various artists
Okay, this is totally nerdy so forgive me. I've been a fan of Mister Rogers all my life.  His was a unique, one-of-a-kind show. The combination of songs, an ongoing story enacted by puppets, a field trip to somewhere fascinating (anyone else remember the dominos episode?), and heart-to-heart chats with the man himself have not been duplicated in children's television before or since. I was thinking about it recently (probably because my kids were watching the spin-off show, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood), and I wondered if any other artists had ever recorded the songs of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. A quick search led me to find this album, which has some of the best-loved songs from the show, including "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," "It's You I Like," and "It's Such a Good Feeling." They're performed by various famous artists (although, if I'm being honest, most of the names are unfamiliar to me). Some I like better than others, but the thing I love is the nostalgia that washes over me whenever I listen to them. Even though it's not Mister Rogers himself singing, the melodies and the lyrics are the same, and it's kind of fun to hear some different arrangements. (Oh, and as I was writing this up, I discovered that several of the original seasons are free on Amazon Prime, so I guess you know what I'll be brainwashing my kids with over the next few weeks.)

Favorite song: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (there are two versions, but I like the one sung by Jon Secada

6. Superhero by Laurie Berkner*
Out of all the music mentioned today, there is only one album that my kids love so much, they move it around from their room to the car to the family room, and this is it. As you know, we are huge Laurie Berkner fans (in fact, she's probably had more than her fair share of mentions on this blog), so of course we were thrilled when we heard she was coming out with a new album filled to the brim with brand-new, never-before-heard songs. This hasn't happened since 2008, so it's kind of a big deal. Even though I knew my kids loved Laurie Berkner ("We are the Dinosaurs" and "Rocket Ship Run" are some of our favorite kids' songs of all time), even I was surprised with how quickly they gravitated towards this music. Usually I'm the one to put it on for the first time, but they saw it sitting on the table and snatched it up. And ever since then, it's been on constant repeat. They have dance parties with it in the basement, they listen to it as they go to sleep at night, and they belt out the words when we're driving in the car. They love every single song on this album, and I do, too. Laurie Berkner has created another winner.

Favorite song: Of course we can't choose just one, but the three that sometimes get put on repeat because the kids love them so much are "Superhero," "Bicycle," and "Elephant in There."

That's it for this roundup, but of course I'm dying to know what you've been listening to lately. Please share in the comments!

*I received copies of Make a Circle and Superhero, and I was only too happy to review them. All opinions are my own--two thumbs up for both albums.

A Little of This and That in September

Oct 5, 2016

September was a blur. As I sat down to write this post, I couldn't remember anything we did. Good thing I wrote in my journal and took a (very) few pictures so I knew we did do something. A few of those somethings were:

Teaching . . . piano lessons. I took a break over the summer, and when it was time to come back, I realized that I couldn't manage twelve students again. So I cut down my studio by half, and now I'm just teaching one afternoon a week, and it is heavenly. Definitely the right move for our family. Now if I could just get back on a meal planning schedule . . . 

Starting . . . preschool. Once he got over the disappointment that he couldn't go to kindergarten, Bradley was so excited for preschool. For the first time in the history of our family, I'm paying real money for preschool . . . and I don't regret it in the least. He goes three days a week, loves the kids in his class, and loves his sweet teacher even more. It has been perfect for him (and for me too!). It's been another reminder that it's so important to be flexible. I loved participating in a preschool co-op so much . . . . until I didn't, and I'm glad I recognized that and was okay with finding another solution.
Coming . . . to a standstill on our "simple" fireplace project. Last month, Mike took out the brick wall, re-bricked around the fireplace, framed the rest of the wall, and put up insulation and drywall. Our plan has always been to put up shelves and cabinets on either side of the fireplace with a mantel in between. But if you know anything about old houses, it is that they are not regular or standard in any way, and our fireplace is no exception. The main problem is that the wall on the left side of the fireplace is eight inches longer than the wall on the right. This means that our original plan to put two cabinet doors on each side is not going to work because the left side is too long. So now we have to decide: do we add something to the left side (cubbies? drawers? another door?), and then do we do the same thing to the other side (except narrower) so it sort of looks symmetrical or do we just embrace the fact that they're not symmetrical and make the two sides look completely different? Help!

Finding . . . myself in a total photo-taking slump. I'm blaming my camera. Clark dropped one of the lenses, and now 85% of the pictures it takes are out of focus. The other lens is for portraits, and since a lot of the pictures I take are not portraits, the results are more blurry photos. And if there's one thing I can't stand, it's blurry photos (my apologies for the ones that are in this blog post--my pickings were severely limited). I really would love to take a photography class . . . and a new camera wouldn't hurt either.

Cheering . . . on Aaron at his school's blockwalk fundraiser. He ran/walked a total of 29 laps from 4:00--8:00pm. We calculated it afterwards, and that translated to 14.5 miles! I had no idea he had that kind of stamina in him. His friend, Ezra, beat him by one lap, and sadly, there wasn't a prize for second place, but I think he still felt like he'd accomplished something significant.

Feasting . . . on the fall colors. We went up into the canyon a few weeks ago to check out the changing leaves. Sadly, I think we were about a week too early. The leaves had changed on one side of the road but not on the other, so we didn't see as many colors as we would have liked. We haven't had a chance to get back into the mountains. However, just watching the mountain slowly change color from our front window has been gorgeous enough.

Cozying . . . up during some rainy weather. After two months of virtually no rain, September has had quite a few storms, and I've loved it. Everything just looks and smells so good. The rain is melancholy and matches my current mood as I watch summer fade away. One rainy night, Mike and I had our bedroom window open as we went to sleep, and we could hear the steady drizzle coming down. I was reading The Thirteenth Tale, and this was literally the last thing I read before I closed my book for the night: "I left the window ajar so that I could listen to the rain as it continued to fall with an even, muffled softness . . . It accompanied my dreams like a poorly tuned radio left on through the night, broadcasting a fuzzy white noise beneath which were the barely audible whispers of foreign languages and snatches of unfamiliar tunes." I'm not making that up, and it was a little too perfect for me.

Celebrating . . . the sweetest of five-year-olds. Bradley had been planning and anticipating his birthday for months. Every week he came up with new ideas for activities, cakes, presents, and meals. But one thing always stayed the same: he wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese's. I was not keen on it but decided if he could be that unwavering for so long, we better go. Luckily, it met all of his expectations and hopefully he'll move onto something else for next year. Later in the day, we had a traditional party with cake and family.

Blazing . . . through the first season of The Great British Baking Show with Mike. Some of our dear friends recommended it to us, and we were hooked from the beginning (we even signed up for Netflix just so we could watch it, and we have never had a Netflix subscription). The season begins with twelve amateur contestants. Each episode focus on a different baking technique (pastries, breads, sponges, etc.). There are three rounds each week: a signature dish (which the contestants have perfected at home ahead of time), a technical challenge (where they each make the exact same recipe without any previous heads up or instructions), and a showstopper (where they create something that both looks and tastes spectacular). It is so different from the similar American shows. The contestants are polite and kind and very good sports. The judges offer positive feedback and constructive criticism. And Mike and I felt like we learned so much and had so many things we wanted to try just by watching and listening. It was so fun. Unfortunately, the first season was the only one on Netflix, so now we don't know how to watch the other two. Any ideas? Also, is anyone else obsessed with this show?

Reading . . . a lot more than listening. I can't seem to get through audiobooks anymore. I guess audiobooks just aren't conducive to my current phase of life, which is frustrating because they're such a great way for me to "read" nonfiction and classics.

Meeting . . . my blogging friend, Linnae. She's been one of my loyal readers for several years and even guest posted here awhile ago. She and her family travel to Utah rather regularly to visit family, but this was the first time we coordinated our schedules so we could meet. It was absolutely delightful. In spite of being no help when trying to offer her directions, she didn't hold it against me and was just as nice as nice can be. She was easy to talk to, and if we'd had more time, we definitely could have filled it with more talk about books and our families and life. Linnae started her own blog at the beginning of this year, and if she was my next door neighbor, I would definitely have her help me landscape my yard. I love it that she's not just a virtual friend anymore, but a real friend, too. 

Realizing . . . that I don't enjoy shopping for baby girls. Weird, right? Two of my sisters-in-law are expecting baby girls, and we had a double shower for them last week. I was looking forward to actually buying something ruffled and pink, but once I was standing in the store, I was overcome with anxiety. I didn't trust myself to know the difference between what was cute and what was hideous. I don't enjoy shopping in general, and both moms-to-be have very particular tastes, so I'm sure those things contributed to my general misery, but I decided it's a good thing I only have boys because I just could not handle that kind of stress on a daily basis.

Spending . . . time with Mike's parents who came home for General Conference. We always pack these two weeks with tons of family time (this time: a birthday party, family Christmas party, baby shower, couples dinner, Sunday dinner, General Conference, a special family home evening, and our very own one-on-one time), and by the end, I think we're all a little sick of each other. But we just can't help but make the most of this time together.

What fun and exciting things did you do in September?

The Book Blab Episode 9: Reading as a Means to Learning Plus Two Books That Helped Us Learn Something New

Oct 1, 2016

Suzanne and I got together a couple of days ago and recorded another episode of The Book Blab, and I'm so happy to share it with you today! As mentioned in our last episode, we had to switch to Google Hangout. It doesn't use a split screen but instead shows the person who is talking at that moment. I didn't love it last month, but this month was even more annoying. I've had a cough for a couple of weeks, and every time I gave even a little cough, the screen switched to me hacking away. Sorry about that! Other than that, this platform seems to be working for us, so I think we'll continue with it.

And now, onto the show! Enjoy!

0:20 - September marks the beginning of a new school year
1:36 - Today's topic: Reading for educational purposes
2:06 - Reading for pleasure vs. reading for information
3:39 - Pew survey says parents of small children do the most informational reading
5:35 - If presented in the right way, nonfiction can be just as riveting as fiction
6:15 - A few examples of books that satisfied a specific educational need
7:30 - Biographies vs. memoirs
8:58 - Self-help books
9:52 - Fictional reading can be educational, too
11:10 - Classic and historical fiction novels are a great way to learn about history
12:52 - The value of writing about literature in a critical way
16:28 - Why there can be educational value to "cotton candy" books
17:45 - The subtle way fiction can actually help you be a better parent, spouse, human etc. and expand your perspective
19:45 - Use reading goals to tackle topics you want to learn more about
21:47 - Two books that helped us learn something new
  • 22:06 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 25:38 - Amy's recommendation
28:27 - Conclusion

Books and links mentioned in the show:

A Disciple's Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell by Bruce C. Hafen (Amy's review)
Beethoven by Maynard Solomon (Amy's review)
Baby-led Weaning by Gill Rapley (Amy's review
Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin (Amy's review; Suzanne's review)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (Amy's review)
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Suzanne's mentions it in this post)
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
Little Men by Louisa May Alcott (Amy's review)
Middlemarch by George Elliot (Amy's review)
Reading goals (Amy's; Suzanne's)
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (Suzanne's review; Amy's review)
Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt (Amy's review)

What about you? Do you read for information or pleasure or both? What is one of the most memorable things you've learned through reading? 

In Praise of the E-Reader

Sep 28, 2016

In the great e-readers vs. real books debate, I have always stood quite firmly on the paper and ink side of things. I didn't own an e-reader (and never read on my phone) and had no desire to acquire one. I loved the feel of a real book in my hands and couldn't imagine that holding a slim plastic screen could ever bring me the same kind of pleasure.

But as life goes, I suppose it was only a matter of time before I had a legitimate reason to want, and even need, an e-reader. That reason was our summer trip to Europe. Mike informed me in no uncertain terms that I would not be able to bring a whole bag of books on the plane. As loyal as I am to paper books, I'm more loyal to just reading in whatever format I can get it, so I buckled and agreed this was maybe an appropriate time for an e-reader.

Mike got me a Kindle Paperwhite for Mother's Day, and I forced myself to read one book on it before we left on our trip so that I didn't have to adjust to it while we were traveling. That first experience wasn't awesome, but luckily, two weeks of traveling followed closely on the heels of it, and I soon discovered a multitude of reasons not only to tolerate it, but to, dare I say it?, love it.

First of all, and probably most obvious, is that it is just so portable. Before the trip, I kept a close watch on  Modern Mrs. Darcy's kindle deals page and stocked up on books that were already on my to-read list. By the time we left, I had a nice little stack . . . except it wasn't an actual stack. I didn't have to agonize over a single book decision before we left. In fact, it was the easiest part of my packing. I just put the kindle in my purse, and I was set for whatever sort of reading mood I found myself in.

I usually love the weight and heft of a real book, but sometimes the compact size and lightness of the kindle can be very appealing. For example, I was so excited to read Sense and Sensibility because I'd purchased the Penguin clothbound edition, and it was just so pretty. But the spine was stiff, so it wouldn't lay open very easily (and I didn't want to crack it!), and it was thick enough that it was difficult to hold open with one hand. So I got the kindle edition and read most of the book that way (although I would sometimes switch to the paper copy for the fun of it). As another example, I'm debating including Cheryl Mendelson's Home Comforts on my reading goals for 2017, but it is massive (like, 900 pages massive--who knew keeping your house clean could be such an intense subject?). I knew that I would be much more likely to read it if I didn't have to deal with such an unwieldy size, so when the kindle edition recently went on sale for $3.99, I snagged it.

And can I talk about reading in bed for a minute? Because that was one of the advantages of the kindle I was not prepared for. The first night I read it in bed and didn't have to turn over from side to side depending on which side of the page I was on was like a miraculous discovery. I also love that if I accidentally fall asleep, I don't club myself in the face with a behemoth of a book.

And then there are the "pages" themselves. When I'm reading on my kindle, I do miss rubbing the page between my fingers and absently rifling through the edges and feeling how much I've read and how much I have left. I love the act of turning over the page and dog-earing the corners. And of course, the sweet, aged, sometimes dusty, smell of paper just can't be beat. Reading can be such a tactile experience for me, and I miss it when it's not there.

However, I will say, I've been super impressed with the way the kindle page looks. The Kindle Paperwhite's screen doesn't have a glare, and Mike pointed out that when you go into the sun, you can actually see the page better, just like a real book, not worse like you would if you were reading on a phone or tablet. But it also has a built-in light so that if it does get dark all of a sudden (like if you drive into a 15-mile long tunnel in Norway), you can keep right on reading without missing a beat. I've found that I actually don't need the light turned up much at all to see it just fine in the dark. (And of course, this is another plus for reading at night or when I'm rocking my two-year-old to sleep . . . shhhhh, I didn't just admit that I do that.) So yes, the page doesn't feel the same, but really, essentially, it looks the same.

I'm a very visual person, and one thing that was difficult for me with the kindle at the beginning was that I couldn't flip back through the book to refresh my memory about a particular scene or character. I can often remember the general location (left or right side, top or bottom of page), and so it's fairly easy to find info if I need it again. But of course, with a kindle, this is impossible. This frustrated me so much at first, but I've started to employ two different features that have countered this quite well.

First, I use the highlighting tool to mark anything I want to remember or come back to. This actually works quite a bit better than my traditional dog-earing method because I can add a little note and mention why I highlighted that particular passage (you'd be surprised how often I come back to sections, only to wonder what struck me about them the first time). I also use the search tool to help me find a specific passage. This is especially helpful if I want to reread the first scene with a specific character or if I can't place where I've already heard about a particular object or place. In other words, it doesn't help so much if I'm searching for something about the protagonist, but if it's something that has had only infrequent mentions, it can be a really efficient way to go back.

I know some people really love the statistics that run along the bottom of the kindle page--76% complete, 3 minutes left in chapter, 1 hour 17 minutes left in book, etc.--but I often turn them off because I get distracted by them (plus, the time left in the chapter/book is usually not anywhere close to being accurate, so it's not even helpful). I find that I get lost more easily in the story if I'm not worried about when that darn percent is going to go up again. However, without page numbers or the feel of the pages in my hand, I tend to feel a little adrift without some type of gauge for how much I've read, so I usually check in with the stats when I'm done reading for right then.

I've also become a fan of digital checkouts from the library. As far as brand-new releases go, it's not usually that helpful because you have to wait a really long time for your turn (although, I reserve them anyway and just hope that when they come up six months later, I still want to read them). However, for backlist books, digital checkouts are great because you can usually download them instantly without any need to go to the library and then they automatically return themselves when they're due. What service.

One other thing  I wanted to mention is that I use my kindle for reading and reading only. I don't know how to use the Wi-Fi on it (and I don't want to). I don't have games or apps or anything else on it. When I'm reading on it, my only option is to read. I'm not distracted by anything else, and I love that. My kids have no idea that it has any capabilities beyond holding books, so they know if I'm looking at it, it's because I'm reading. This was something that was really important to me. I didn't want it to just become a kind of tablet, and it hasn't.

Of course, my experience with an e-reader hasn't been one hundred percent positive (and I've mentioned a few minor drawbacks already). The first book I read on my kindle was Heart of a Samurai. The overall reading experience was okay, although it seemed to feel a little more tedious than a traditional book. However, when I got to the end of it, I found a glossary of definitions for Japanese words and a pronunciation guide and a couple of author's notes about the social and economic impact of some of the events. I was so disappointed to find these helpful guides after I was done with the book because it would have been so nice to have while I was reading it, but I didn't even know they existed because I was reading it on my kindle.

But overall, my transition to an e-reader has been smooth and painless and overwhelmingly, and surprisingly, positive. I've learned to embrace both digital reading and traditional reading. I can candidly acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of both and select the appropriate format for the book and/or situation. And having more options is incredibly freeing.

What do you think? Do you own an e-reader? How and when do you use it? What do you like/not like about it? Please share your opinion!

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?
Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground