Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis

Apr 12, 2019

Before my book club decided to read this book, I'd never even heard of Rachel Hollis. (Since she has 1.3 million followers on Instagram, maybe that means I've been living under a rock; it wouldn't be the first time.)

But even not knowing a thing about her, I made assumptions about the book. And those assumptions made me less than excited about reading it.

And now comes the part where I say, "But I was wrong! This book changed my life!"

Except . . .

I was right.

The book was basically exactly what I thought it was going to be. The general gist? Be true to yourself. Pursue your passion. Achieve your dreams. You've got this, girl.

I am not above reading motivational self-help books. In fact, there are times when it's a genre I quite enjoy. But in this case, there were a couple of overarching things that I just couldn't get past.

First, Rachel Hollis came across as a bit full of herself. I don't know how many times she mentioned her self-made company, wide recognition, and devoted tribe, but it was more than enough for me. Also, there was something about the way she touted her many years of experience and wisdom that just rubbed me the wrong way. For example, she wrote about being named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top thirty entrepreneurs under the age of thirty. This initiated a slew of speaking engagements at various colleges, and she said that every time, she would get some variation of the same question (my snide comments and observations are in the [ ]): "'Hi, Rachel,' they'd always begin (because apparently we call adults by their first names now like we're a bunch of hippies! [last time I checked, college students were also adults]). 'Can you tell us the secret of your success? Like, what's the one thing that truly gives you an advantage over others?' First of all, God bless our youth [that are, at most, ten years younger than she is]. God bless these wee infants who believe that a lifetime [29 years] of hustling and working and sweating and stressing and building, building, building a company could be summarized with one single answer."

Do you see what I'm talking about? If she was named one of the top entrepreneurs under the age of thirty, then that means that the very oldest she could be was twenty-nine, right? And here she is, talking about a lifetime of hard work like she's eighty or something! Granted, she has worked really hard and accomplished as much or more than some people do in an entire lifetime, but still, it was presumptuous of her to act like she had all of the answers at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.

Second, our dreams did not match up. Like, at all. Of course it's not her fault that I don't want to be an entrepreneur or run my own company or give advice to millions of people or plan large-scale events. And she's quick to say that your dreams don't have to be the same as her dreams--you just need to identify what your dreams are and then go for them. The funny thing is, you might think we have some things in common since she is also a Type A/Upholder personality, a wife, a mom, and religious--just like me. But even within those categories, we're actually really, extremely different. So yeah, it just wasn't the greatest fit for me. Not her fault.

I will say that in Rachel's defense (I'm thirty-four, so does that make me enough of an adult to call her by her first name?), I read a paper copy of the first two-thirds of the book and then switched to the audio (which Rachel reads herself) for the last third. And I liked it much better. Somehow, hearing her interpretation of the words made them sound more genuine and authentic. Given the fact that she does do a lot of public speaking, I guess this makes sense--maybe this book is a little like poetry: it makes more sense when it is read aloud.

Also, for all of my cynicism, I was actually incredibly impressed with her own vulnerability and the way she opened up and shared some very personal stories, some of which did not always put her in the best light. She has gone through some extremely difficult and challenging and heart wrenching things, and I respect her for being honest and open in the hopes that by so doing, she will help others through their own hard things.

The book wasn't all for naught. Besides finding some of her stories really captivating and interesting, I also had a couple of takeaways.

The first was when she was talking about goals and developing habits. She said, "It's much easier to add a habit than to take one away." Even though I kind of pride myself on being able to make and achieve goals, when she said that, a little light bulb clicked on for me. Suddenly I could see why I was having a hard time eating more healthily. It sounds a little bit stupid when I write it out, but I was trying to cut the junk food out of my life without filling it in with nutritious foods. I was trying to break a habit of bad eating instead of creating a new habit of healthy eating.

The second thing I really loved was when she quoted Tony Robbins, who said, "If you're going to blame your hard times for all the things that are wrong in your life, you better also blame them for the good stuff, too." Without getting into the details because I think that's Rachel's story to tell, she shared the traumatic experience of losing her brother and then acknowledging that some positive things came out of that horrible event. This was a little bit mind-blowing to me. While I definitely believe that God can turn all experiences for our good, I've always been hesitant to acknowledge that good because it feels wrong to be at all grateful for something bad. But this insight gave me a new perspective.

I feel a little like a jerk for criticizing certain aspects of this book, but I always try to give as honest of a review as possible. And the truth is, I wasn't in love with this one. (And thankfully, I know Rachel won't be reading this review because "my opinion isn't any of her business anyway.")

I have a feeling this might be somewhat of a polarizing book. What did you think of it?

A Little of This and That in March

Apr 5, 2019

I was a fan of March. There was still a fair amount of snow, but the weather cooperated when it mattered (and we can always use more snow . . . or so I'm told). We enjoyed time together as a family and made some good memories, such as . . . 

Celebrating . . . a shiny new nine-year-old. We kicked off the month with Maxwell's birthday. Every year, I am always so grateful that he ended up being born ten days late, which put his birthday in March instead of February. March just sounds like spring. Max was pretty easy to please for this birthday because he just wanted the last three Hazardous Tales books so that he would have the complete series. He received a few other things as well (including tickets to a Vocal Point concert--see below). He invited a couple of friends to go bowling that night (which was infinitely less stressful than planning a huge friend party). And we had my parents over for a dragonfly cake a couple of days later.

Growing . . . out of their clothes. All of my boys suddenly seem to be wearing pants that are too short for them. I feel like this happens every spring. And I always want to hold out just a couple more months so that they can just switch to shorts for the summer before we go up to the next size in the fall.

Cheering . . . on my brother, Christian, at his church basketball game. It was quite entertaining. Christian has endless energy and darts around the court popping up in front of opposing players to block and distract them. I think you'd have to watch it to really get the full impact. I should probably mention that my brother is developmentally delayed but he is extremely loyal and committed, and his teammates are so supportive and kind to him. And my kids were all convinced that Christian was the most valuable member on the team. The opposing team didn't have any subs, so Christian literally wore them out, and his team ended up winning (their first and only win this season!).

Debating . . . when to have our neighborhood pie party. We usually try to hold it as close to March 14th (Pi Day) as possible. So when the week of Pi Day rolled around, we looked at the forecast. We could see a storm on Wednesday, but Saturday looked beautiful. We decided to take a gamble and plan it. We started telling our neighbors, Mike requested Friday off of work, and we cancelled other weekend plans. And then, we woke up on Wednesday morning to snow. This wasn't exactly a surprise, but what we weren't expecting was for it to snow all day long and accumulate several inches on the ground. We figured Saturday would be nice, as predicted, but would there still be snow on the ground? We moved forward with the preparations, and as late as Friday afternoon, I was still thinking we might have made a mistake because that snow just refused to melt! But then, the sun came out, the temperature inched up a few more degrees, and the snow magically disappeared. And that was a good thing because by that point, we had crossed the point of no return.

Baking . . . and eating ALL the pies! Our fifth annual Pie Day was a huge success. Mike baked 44 pies, which included eleven different kinds: cherry, pumpkin, pecan, caramel apple, strawberry, pumpkin custard, coconut creme, key lime, lemon sour cream, Reese's peanut butter, and chocolate. He began his pie-baking marathon on Thursday night and finished 36 hours later on Saturday morning. It was intense. We had more than 180 family, friends, and neighbors drop by for a piece. The weather was sunny and gorgeous. It felt like everyone was coming out of hibernation and we were finally welcoming spring!

Competing . . . in state Future Problem Solvers (FPS). One afternoon, Aaron came home from school with a packet of papers explaining that his FPS group had moved onto the state level of competition and that he and his team members would need to get together to create a skit they could perform at the award ceremony later in the month. I . . . had no idea what any of this was about. Luckily, one of the other moms had already had several children compete in FPS, and so she gathered the group together and helped them plan their skit. Over the course of the week, they got together four times, both to write the script, make the props, and rehearse. As part of the skit, they had to present both a problem and demonstrate a solution. They did a parody on High School Musical. There were sixteen groups competing, and many of the skits were difficult to hear and understand, but Aaron's group spoke loudly and with great diction, and the whole performance was quite polished. His group ended up winning first place in the skit competition (and the two other groups from his class won second and third). It was a pretty fun evening, and on the way home, Aaron told me, "I was ELATED when we won!" (And now I know what Future Problem Solvers is in case any of my other kids do it in future years.)

Watching . . . High School Musical. When Aaron's FPS group decided to base their skit around High School Musical, I asked Aaron if he had ever even seen the movie. He hadn't. So we had to do an emergency viewing pronto. Meanwhile, Aaron and Maxwell's classes were going on a field trip to a nearby junior high to see their production of High School Musical 2. So Maxwell also had to do an emergency viewing so that he would know the basic story before seeing the sequel (and he had to do it on another evening since he wasn't home when Aaron watched it). And then, after they saw the play, they all wanted to see the actual movie of High School Musical 2. Max has also asked to listen to the music several times. Mike and I were also going to see the junior high production because our niece happened to be in the ensemble. But she ended up getting sick on the night we were going to go, so we skipped out because by that point I was feeling a little sick of High School Musical. It was so bizarre how so much of our everyday lives revolved around this story for the month of March. I never could have predicted it.

Speaking . . . in exclamatory sentences. No one loves an exclamation as much as Ian does, and now he has a large repertoire of phrases to choose from: "Oh, darn it!" "What the heck!" "Oh my gosh!" "Oh boy!" "Oh my goodness!" "Guess what?!" "Oh dear!" "Oh man!" There is something about hearing those words in his sweet little voice that makes them infinitely cuter.

Listening . . . to this episode from the This is the Gospel podcast. I love to hear individual stories about journeys of faith, but Dusty's story took it to another level. He joined the Church as a young man, but after a few years, he left it. And he didn't just leave but vocally opposed and criticized the Church and sought to convince others to leave as well. But then, after many years and a series of miraculous events, he came back. His story had me openly weeping, and it went straight onto my list of things to listen to if my own faith ever needs a pick-me-up. Highly, highly recommend.

Treating . . . Maxwell to a Vocal Point concert for his birthday. Mike and I took Max on a little afternoon date to see BYU's male a cappella group. It was fantastic. And Maxwell has been beatboxing ever since.

Taking . . . a spring break trip down to southern Utah. Our main objective was to visit Mike's grandma and a couple of his aunts and uncles, but we managed to squeeze in a bunch of other activities as well (see below).

Hiking . . . around Hovenweep National Monument and Arches National Park. This was the first time I'd been to Hovenweep, and I loved it. The hike took us around a bunch of ancient Puebloan ruins, and it was totally different than anything we'd ever seen before. Also, it was just really cool to think about how long these buildings have survived and imagine the people that used to live in them. Although we've been to Arches many times, we went on the hike to Landscape Arch, which we haven't done in years, and we continued the hike beyond it, which we haven't done before. And on both days, we enjoyed the most gorgeous weather and very minimal crowds (especially at Hovenweep).

Standing . . . in four states at once. I have wanted to visit Four Corners for a long time, but it always just felt so far out of the way. But this time, we made it happen. And, turns out, it really is in the middle of nowhere, and there really isn't much to do except strike a pose on the four corners spot, but we all still thought it was really cool. There was a line to take photos, and we ended up standing in line three times because I kept wanting to get different pictures but I didn't want to hog the spot for too long. So our time looked a little like: take photos, order Navajo tacos from the fry bread truck, eat lunch, take photos, walk around and look at everything being sold by the vendors, take more photos, leave.

Playing . . . with cousins. We went on our spring break trip with Mike's sister, Sonja, her husband, Rob, and their kids. It made the trip at least three times, probably more like ten times, as fun as it would have been otherwise. Steven, Andrew, Addie, and Laura are so kind and helpful and creative. I always hope their good examples will rub off on my kids, and I think they did at least a little bit on this trip because my kids had good attitudes during all of our activities, even when they got tired or hot or hungry. We'll go on a trip with them anytime (although I don't know if they feel the same . . . ).

Finding . . . out at the last possible minute that Aaron was competing at the district debate tournament in the informational speech category. Okay, I exaggerate . . . slightly. His teacher sent out an email with details about the debate tournament, and I only gave it a passing glance until I caught Aaron's name in the list of competitors. It was literally the day before the competition. And Aaron had said nary a word about it. I have no idea when he was planning to tell me. Maybe he was just going to phone me from the school the next afternoon and say, "Hey, Mom! I need a ride to Magna right now." Luckily, it all worked out. He had his speech all memorized and ready to go, so even if he left his mom in the dark, I was proud of him for being prepared. And now he's going onto state! (But at least he told me about that.) 

Rooting . . . for Aaron (silently, of course, because this was serious, academic business) at the State Geography Bee. It was nerve wracking, but he kept his cool and did great. He finished in the top third of the competitors, and, considering that he was up against sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, I'd say that's something to be proud of! As you can see, it was a very busy month for Aaron.

Starting . . . but not finishing several knitting projects. I currently have a sweater with one sleeve and most of the body, one slipper, and about a fourth of a lace cowl. The slippers and the cowl have been put on hold for the moment as I try to finish up the sweater (and start another top . . . oops). Maybe I'll have something to show off next month.

Catching . . . our first few signs of spring. They're slow in coming this year, but at the end of the month, the trees were just getting ready to unfurl. My favorite.

There's always more I could share, but I think that's a good place to end for this month. What were you up to?


All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

Mar 30, 2019

This book. I had a friend recommend it to me a couple of years ago. I hadn't heard anything about it before, and I didn't hear anything else about it after that. But something made me keep it on my to-read list, and I kept circling back around to it until I finally had time (thank you, no reading goals!) to listen to it.

And, friends, this book. I loved it so much. I think it might end up being like Navigating Early for me where you might not love it as much, but then please don't tell me about it because it will make my heart hurt if you don't.

The story grabbed me right away because it was so wildly different from anything I'd ever read before: Perry Cook has lived all twelve years of his life at the Blue River Co-Ed Correctional Facility. It's an unusual arrangement to be sure, but Warden Daugherty is one to think outside the box, and it has worked out quite well for everyone. And now his mom is about to get paroled, which means the two of them are making plans for life outside Blue River.

But then everything comes grinding to a halt. The district attorney, Thomas Van Lear, looks over Perry's mom's case and is disturbed to discover that Perry has been living at a jail for all of these years. Not only is he concerned for Perry's safety and well-being, but he also wonders if Jessica has truly served out her sentence by being granted special treatment to raise her son. In a quick turn of events, Jessica's hearing is put on hold and Perry is removed from the facility and placed in the Van Lear home temporarily. It rocks Perry's world and feels unjust. Even realizing that his best friend, Zoe, is Van Lear's stepdaughter doesn't make things better. He misses his mom and his many mentors and the life he has always known.

But he tries to remember Big Ed's advice: "'Win-win.' That's Big Ed's . . . motto for being a successful resident. The first win means you count all small, good things that happen to you every day . . . The second win means you do things that bring victories to others. I've heard Big Ed say it at least a hundred times: No matter where you live, you have a community of some kind, and you can be a contributor." And so that's exactly what Perry does. And as he looks for the good and listens to the experiences of the residents for a school assignment, he realizes that there's always more to someone's story than you might think at first glance, and if he can help others to see that, then maybe, just maybe, he can use that to reunite with his mom on the outside.

See? Different, right? And you might think that a boy living in a correctional facility wouldn't be believable, but it totally was, and I just loved Perry so much from the get-go. And I liked that he was who he was because of the environment he was raised in: people had made mistakes but they were trying turn around their lives and make things right, and they passed on a lot of wisdom in the process.

One of the things I really appreciated in this book was that Mr. Van Lear was not a clear-cut bad guy. You kind of wanted to hate him because he was so insensitive and rigid, but at the same time, he was doing what he truly thought was right, and you couldn't blame him for that. I think it takes real talent to create a believable character you can be sympathetic towards even as he continues to hurt the main character.

I also really liked that there were a few short, infrequent chapters told from Jessica's point of view. It's fairly unusual to get an adult's perspective in a middle grade novel, but it worked and added just a little more depth to the story.

In the midst of all of Perry's anxiety about his mom and his new situation, there was a little secondary plot between Perry and the school bully, Brian Morris. And again, just like with Mr. Van Lear, Brian wasn't one-dimensional. Even as he was being mean to Perry, he was showing another side of himself, and when things finally resolved between them, it wasn't hard to accept.

I did end up having one issue with the plot, and it was fairly significant because it involved Jessica's sentence and Perry's father. I won't go into detail here because there was a bit of a mystery that I wouldn't want to ruin. But I will say that in spite of some rather gaping holes, I still loved this book. I can't explain myself. I don't know why with some stories, a similar oversight would have been unforgivable, but here I was completely willing to turn a blind eye and extend my belief. It doesn't make sense, but I think it must have something to do with the characters. I loved them all so much that I guess I was fine with an unresolved issue here and there. Reading is like that sometimes. In this case, I connected with the characters, and it made all the difference.

Content note: There is some mild swearing. And also, some of the subject matter might initiate some mature questions.

15 of Ian's Favorite Board Books Right Now

Mar 22, 2019

In my last monthly update, I shared the good news that Ian has finally joined the literary ranks in our family. He is happy listening to books for long amounts of time (we actually don't know what his limit is because we always seem to give up before he does). Luckily, he has six people willing to read to him, so he can usually find someone available for a book (or ten).

Here are fifteen of his most recent favorites. Some will undoubtedly be familiar to you; I wasn't necessarily going for a new and original list--instead, I was trying to give a pretty solid representation of his favorite books at this moment in time. But I hope there will be at least a few on here that you haven't heard of before that you'll want to share with your own little one.

Dinosaur Dance by Sandra Boynton
Sandra Boynton's Barnyard Dance has long been a favorite of our family's. If you feel similarly, then you will most certainly love this companion hoe-down, especially the tiny little dino who loves to cha-cha-cha!

Bird, Fly High! by Petr Horáček
One of Mike's cousins recommended this to me as one of her all-time favorite board books (and that's saying something because she has ten children . . . can you imagine how many times she has probably read this one???). It is no longer in print, but I ordered a used copy. I love the simple cutouts and repetitive text, and I will always, always enjoy Petr Horáček's illustrations.

Where's the Dog? by Ingela P. Arrhenius
I just have two words for you: felt flaps. Little hands can't bend, tear, or rip them, which means this book is basically indestructible. There is a whole series of these sweet, felt-flap books, and if I'd discovered them two years ago, I think I would have bought them all. As it is, we only have this one because the text is very simplistic, and Ian has almost outgrown it.

Peck, Peck, Peck by Lucy Cousins
When Daddy Woodpecker teaches his young son the vital skill of pecking, Junior Woodpecker takes it to a whole new level. He pecks everything in sight: the tennis racket, the sink, the clock, and seventeen jelly beans. And each thing he pecks becomes a hole in the book. This is one of Lucy Cousins' lesser known books but very clever nonetheless.

If You See a Cow by Ana Larranaga
This is a simple board book that encourages lots of interaction (beyond just lifting up the flaps): "If you see a cow, say MOO!" The companion book, If You See a Tiger, invites even greater participation, including stamping feet and whispering "Shhhhh."

Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
A classic board book, but one that wasn't a part of our home until Clark was a baby. Now our whole family loves it, and Ian can get just about anyone to read it to him. He has now heard it enough times that he has memorized most of the different adjectives and can decisively close up each flap while declaring: "He was too fierce!" or "He was too naughty!"

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
I hadn't made a point of pulling out this book for Ian. But he found it one day and instantly fell head over heels for it. I am repeatedly amazed at the universal appeal of this book. It continues to delight the newest generation of littles.

Pelican's Bill by Kathy Knight and Kate Stone
I bought this book purely because of its unique construction. On each page, you slide up Pelican's head to reveal what is inside his bill. Even though one of my kids somehow managed to slide the piece beyond its stopper and pull it all the way out, we were able to put it back in, and it has held up remarkably well.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambalt, illus. Lois Ehlert
I wish I could peek inside Ian's mind and see what he's actually thinking about when we read this book. He is too young to understand what letters are or what they can do. Does he just think they're cool shapes trying to get up a coconut tree? Regardless, he loves this book, and I can't think of anything cuter than hearing him say, "Chicka chicka boom boom" and "Flip flap flee."

Doggies by Sandra Boynton
Just going to be honest here that this might be my least favorite Sandra Boynton book of all time. The text is made up almost entirely of different dog sounds that build on each other and are repeated over and over again. It's a pain to read, especially when I don't know what things like "nnn...nnn...nnn" or "Rrowff" are even supposed to really sound like. But I've obliged and read this to Ian probably at least fifty times because it makes him so happy. Maybe I could get him to take over with the sounds?

Little Cloud by Eric Carle
Not one of Eric Carle's most popular books but still a sweet and simple story about a little cloud who gets separated from his family and spends the day turning into all sorts of random shapes. For some reason, I'm always surprised that Ian likes this one, but he continues to ask for it.

Run Home, Little Mouse by Britta Teckentrup
This is not a new book, but it is a recent discovery for us. A little mouse has to hurry home through the dark forest. On every page, he encounters a pair of menacing eyes that he has to run away from. A little bit scary, but don't worry, he makes it home safe and sound.

Pizza by Lotta Nieminen
If you have not yet been introduced to these interactive recipe board books, allow me to be the first to do so! In this one, the reader gets to pour in the ingredients (I love sliding out the salt and sugar tab and watching them sprinkle into the bowl), stir up the dough, knead it, and finally take out a slice of pizza and enjoy. Other books in the series are Pancakes, Cookies, and Tacos.

Faster! Faster! by Leslie Patricelli
What kid doesn't love to get a ride on Daddy's back and say, "Giddy up, Horsie!" In this book, a little girl urges her dad to faster and faster speeds--first a dog, then a cheetah, even a falcon--until he just runs out of steam and turns into a turtle. Such a cute story and one that I have loved for many years.

Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley
As far as I know, there is not a board book edition of this book, but I wish there was. Each page has intricate cutouts that gradually build the monster up before shouting "You don't scare me!" and then breaking him back down. I am always fearful that overeager hands are going to tear the pages, so a sturdy board book would be a winner. But Ian cares nothing about that. The only thing that matters to him is saying, "And don't come back! Until I say so."

Are any of these favorites at your house, too? Do you have any others to share with me? (I can only read Brown Bear Brown Bear so many times . . . )

Where the Wind Leads by Vinh Chung

Mar 15, 2019

If I know you personally, chances are I've already recommended this book to you. For the rest of you, that's what this review is for.

Vinh Chung, the fifth child in a wealthy family, was born in Vietnam just months before America pulled out of the war and the country fell to the communists. In a matter of days, his family lost everything they had worked for years to build and accumulate--their home, their business, their savings. For three years, they eked out a living before deciding it was too dangerous and crippling to raise a family under such circumstances. They risked everything to leave Vietnam.

But in leaving, they traded one danger for another: they found themselves on a Malaysian beach where no one wanted them, then abandoned in the middle of the ocean, then very nearly capsized by pirates. Eventually, miraculously, they made it to America (Arkansas, to be exact) where Vinh's father took menial jobs to support his family. He ended up foregoing his own dreams so his children (who numbered eleven by the time it was all said and done) could have a chance. And they took that chance and ran with it.

I haven't read a story that inspired me this much in a long time.

I had three realizations while reading it:

First, I guess I knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War. And because this story largely takes place after the war, I still know almost nothing about it. But now I know that I don't know anything about it. And I can also see why it was such a controversial war.

Second, refugees must be in the top tier of brave, heroic, determined individuals. I mean, right? Vinh's family's situation was impossible. They couldn't stay in Vietnam, but they couldn't leave either. And when they finally did leave, they put themselves at the mercy of other individuals and governments and countries, and no one wanted them. At one point, Vinh said, "Once again we were powerless, unable to control our direction or destiny. The Malaysians had the big ship, and we were consigned to the tiny boats; we danced behind them like wooden puppets on strings. They could take us anywhere they wanted, at any speed they wanted, for as long as they wanted and we had no way to stop until they allowed us to." That must be such a terrifying feeling--to know that you have no control over your own life and yet realizing that the only way you can possibly make it to the other side is by giving it everything you have. And I'm not even talking about when they actually finally make it to America. That's a whole other endeavor--finding a job, supporting a family, learning a new language and culture and customs, missing family members who were left behind, encountering racial prejudices, and being relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Third, hard things are somewhat easier to handle when seen through the lens of a young child. Vinh was a very young child when all of this was happening (I think he was three years old when they left Vietnam). His memories of the hardships and tragedies they faced are very dim. He said, "I have no memory of Bac Lieu or Soc Trang or our little farm with its ducks and geese and pigs. My very first memory in life is the moment I was dropped into that warm ocean water on the beach in Malaysia." Of course, he fills in those details with memories from his parents and older siblings, but because of this emotional distance, some of the atrocities aren't as soul-sucking as they might be otherwise. And I wonder if he kept this innocent filter over the top on purpose so that the story sounded of hope rather than misery. (But still, no matter how you spin it, there are some things, like towing 293 people out into the middle of the ocean and then abandoning them with no supplies, that can't be given much of a silver lining.)

Beyond those things, the book surprised me in two ways.

First, Vinh Chung was quite funny. At first, I thought it was a little cheesy, but after just a few chapters, I found it completely endearing. Also, I was kind of amazed that he could find anything to joke about in such a dark, hopeless situation. Granted, this was written almost forty years after the fact, but still. Some might look at it and think that his humor was inappropriate given the gravity of the topic, but I think it helped ease some of the tension, and also, I think you can't overestimate the strength that having a sense of humor can give you both in the present moment and also after it's all over while you're still dealing with the repercussions. Here are a couple of examples to give you a little taste:"
"One night my mother dreamed she was in the marketplace in Soc Trang along with our entire family. Grandmother Chung wasn't there--it was a dream, not a nightmare--nor was my uncle or his family." (Grandmother Chung may have ruled the family with a bit of an iron fist.)
The humor was a mixture of slap-stick, dry, and sarcastic:
"My father couldn't wait to try out his brand-new rice cooker, but when he went to plug it in, he discovered that Singapore used a different voltage and his rice cooker would not work in America--a fact the merchants back in Singapore had somehow forgotten to mention. Oh well. At least he could listen to his boom box. Oops." 
And second, I was not expecting Vinh's story to have a deeply spiritual undertone. But it did. His whole family converted to Christianity after arriving in America as a result of some miracles they experienced on their journey, as well as a dream his mother received and also the community they found in the church they joined.

Vinh said, "There are times when an apparent coincidence is so incredible and so perfectly coordinated that it forces us to wonder whether there must have been purpose behind it." And it may have been this, more than his humor or innocence, that made this story feel so hopeful. Vinh's family was able to see God's hand in their lives, and they expressed their gratitude for it. They worked hard, they didn't complain about the unfairness of their lives, and they rose above it all in a beautiful, miraculous way.

I hope you'll give this book a try.

A Little of This and That in February

Mar 7, 2019

February: it was sweet and blessedly short. And I actually didn't take very many photos. I need to remember to pull out the camera even when the light is not ideal. But anyway, here's a little of what we were up to . . .

Canceling . . . school. On the morning of February 6th, when the house was still dark and quiet, I received a phone call from the school district saying that school was canceled for the day. I was shocked. I mean, a ton of snow had fallen during the night and was still falling that morning, but the night before, the school district had sent an email reaffirming the district-wide policy to keep all schools open regardless of the weather. In the five years I've had school-aged children, that has always been the policy, and I have driven my kids in all kinds of inclement weather where I wished I had just kept them home. A "snow day" had become this mythical apparatus in my kids' eyes--something that was tantalizing but never a possibility. So can I just tell you how truly magical it was to have them each wake up, one by one, and stumble, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen where I shared the unbelievable news with them that we were getting an official snow day? They ran and jumped around with giddy, exuberant energy. Bradley had come upstairs fully dressed and ready for the day, and so his first official act was to change back into his athletic shorts. Mike slowly and painstakingly made his way to work (it took over an hour when it's usually less than twenty minutes), only to have them cancel work a few minutes after he arrived. So he turned around and came back home, and none of us complained. It's a day we'll all always remember because I don't anticipate it happening again.

Breaking . . . a lot of phone chargers. Random, right? A few weeks ago, one of our chargers stopped working. And then, a few days later, another one died. A day or so after that, we lost another one to whatever mysterious plague was infecting all of our chargers. We finally narrowed down the culprit to my phone. Somehow, when it was charging, it was pulling from the charger at full capacity until it couldn't take it anymore and bit the dust. I thought, This could get really expensive really fast. But Mike bought a charger that can handle more volts, and I have my fingers crossed that we've fixed the problem.

Baking . . . , eating, and watching the finale of The Great British Bake Off. As has become tradition, we watched the last episode of season 8 with James and Kathy. Although we watch most of the episodes on our own, we text back and forth during the season, sharing our reactions and cravings. We make a list of bakes we want to try, and then for the finale, we come together to eat several recipes from the season and watch the final episode. And when I say "we," I mean I eat the food and watch the contestants, but I don't really do any of the baking. I'm pretty sure I should be thrown out of the Great British Baking Club as an impostor, but thankfully the other three let me keep coming. And it was a good one this time: We had Sophie's butternut squash pie, Liam's hand-raised meat pie, Liam's million dollar bars, Kate's apple cake, and Steven's stuffed smoked paprika bread. And I was so happy with the baker who won this season.

Going . . . to parent-teacher conferences. This is one of my favorite nights of the year--there's just nothing like hearing someone else brag about and praise your child. (I say this realizing that parent-teacher conferences might not always be a pleasant, happy experience if there are real struggles or issues happening with learning or behavior. But right now, things are very good, so I'm going to celebrate it.) I especially loved visiting with Bradley's teacher, who also taught Aaron and Maxwell in first grade. Since I've sat in on a fair number of parent-teacher conferences with her now, I know how they usually go: she always compliments my kids and makes a point to shine a light on their achievements. But this time, she just gushed about Bradley in a way I've never seen her do before. She loves him, and even though he is only seven years old, she sees his potential and encourages it, and I love her for that.

Attending . . . my parents' ward to hear my little sister, Angela, give a talk before she left on her mission later in the month. She is perhaps the only soon-to-be missionary who literally wrote her talk six weeks in advance and practiced and edited it multiple times before giving it. We are already missing her something fierce.

Buying . . . a new chair for Ian's room. One of my goals for 2019 is to decorate Ian's bedroom, which is long overdue. I kicked off the process by trading out the old glider we had in that room for a lovely blue rocker/recliner. The old chair had been with us for a long time. I purchased it when I was pregnant with Aaron, and I remember that it felt like quite a splurge because it was $75 from Kid-to-Kid, but it was replacing a glider that I had literally paid only $15 for in the classifieds (and which wasn't worth a penny more). Anyway, I've rocked and nursed many babies in that chair, so it was a little nostalgic to replace it, but mostly I'm just so glad to have a new chair that is both cuter and roomier to accommodate a growing toddler who still likes to be rocked like a baby.

Reading . . . books. It finally happened! The switch finally flipped, and Ian no longer tries to yank books out of my hands but will now sit still and listen to book after book after book. I knew it would eventually happen, but it was hard to keep patiently trying while he was a wriggling, writhing mess. But now he has turned into a regular little bookworm. He has a couple dozen favorites (which I'll try to share soon), and has them all memorized but still likes to hear them again and again. (And to be a little more accurate, he started liking books back in December, but I just forgot to mention it until now.) Sometimes, he will even sit through one of Clark's longer picture books, and that just thrills me to no end.

Placing . . . aluminum foil under our bed. I never could have predicted that I would have a need to put "aluminum foil" and "bed" in the same sentence. You may or may not know that we have a cat. I don't talk about him much because I actually don't like cats, and so I merely tolerate his existence. He loves to hide under Mike's and my bed, and it drives me crazy because I don't like sharing my room with a cat. Granted, under the bed is better than on the bed, but still . . . Anyway, Mike had the brilliant idea to lay down a sheet of aluminum foil under our bed, and, it sounds crazy, but it worked. The cat no longer hangs out in our room, and that makes me happy.

Handing . . . over all responsibilities for Valentine boxes to my kids. Does anyone else agree with me that Valentine boxes are one of the worst traditions ever invented? This year, both Bradley and Maxwell's teachers said the kids could just decorate a bag in class, but they were allowed to bring a decorated box if they really wanted to. I was so relieved and grateful for those teachers until my kids said, "But we really still want to make one!" And so I said, "Then you're in charge of it." And I absolved myself of all guilt. They came up with their own ideas (Aaron: tank; Max: bug box; Bradley: TV), used copious amount of scotch tape and construction paper, and I've never seen them happier or more pleased with themselves. (And as our friend, James, succinctly put it: "Nothing says Valentine's like a wasp." Ha!)

Celebrating . . . Valentine's Day in lovely, low-key fashion. We had a special breakfast (orange rolls, courtesy of the grocery store), the boys all got new books, Ian walked around snitching candy off the table like it was his best day ever, and Mike wrote me a cute poem accompanied by some framed photos from various trips we've taken over the years. I gave Mike a raved-about lemon sour cream pie that had the most disappointing crust. (But that filling in one of Mike's crusts? Would have been a winner.) Aaron went to the fifth grade Valentine dance at school and told me that he didn't eat any treats the entire time because he was so busy dancing (I almost keeled over in shock!). That night, Mike and I went to Mike's sister's house for a cozy, not crowded Valentine's dinner, and it was the perfect way to end the day.

Brushing . . . up on my Shakespeare with an adaptation of Comedy of Errors at BYU. Actually, "brushing up" implies that there was something already there to brush up on, but sadly, my Shakespeare education is woefully lacking. So the play started, and I was so confused during the first five minutes that I scrambled to read the synopsis of it in the program, and then I enjoyed it so much that I wished I could see it a second time.

Finishing . . . and beginning a sweater. I am so happy with how my latest sweater turned out. It is comfortable and warm. I love the light pink lace yolk against the plain gray body. I also made some modifications (combining two sizes, adding a few extra rows in the back, using a special technique for the stripes) that made me feel like I'm getting to the point where I have enough techniques at my fingertips that I can interchange or add them as needed to make something that looks and fits just the way I want it to. Then, not even a week after finishing it, I purchased yarn for another sweater. I didn't exactly intend to. I told Mike I was going to the yarn store for "research purposes only," but then one of the employees told me that the colorway I had my eye on was being discontinued, and so I threw down my money on the spot. I'm not sorry.

Signing . . . up for junior high classes. Yes, junior high. Aaron is going to be in junior high in the fall. I can't wrap my brain around it. I feel like I'm reliving the months before he went to kindergarten all over again, including the part where I feel completely clueless about all of the deadlines and the requirements and the forms. I'm telling you, all parents need a mentor to help them get through each new phase as it comes along.There are just so many things you don't even know you should be thinking about until it's too late. Luckily for me, I have my sister-in-law, Sonja, who is about six years ahead of me parenting-wise and our kids happen to go to the same schools, so she has been able to keep me in the know about important details and information. Even so, there was still a lot of running back and worth to the junior high and elementary school for papers and signatures and questions, but I think it's all finally taken care of and I can relax again for a few more months (before I really start to freak out).

Narrating . . . all of our daily actions. Not only is Ian the biggest copycat on the planet, he has also taken to informing all of us about what we're doing at that exact moment in time: "Mommy's wearing a blue shirt. Daddy went to work. Aaron's eating cereal, etc." We love it. His little voice is a constant companion throughout the day, and we can't get enough of it.

Cracking . . . the reading code. Not only did Ian start enjoying listening to books, but Clark is reading, actually reading. We've been doing reading lessons for many months now, so he has been sounding out words for quite awhile, but something changed this month. I can always tell when we've broken through the reading barrier, so to speak, because all of a sudden, the new reader wants to read everything in sight . . . not just the comfortable, familiar-looking words in the reading manual. That happened with Clark this month. He checked out simple books from the library. He and I read some Elephant and Piggie books together (one of us reading Gerald's words, the other one reading Piggie's). He has been reading signs. He began reading his verse during family scripture study instead of repeating what Mike or I told him to say. This is the thrilling stage of learning to read where the world is opening up. I love it so much.

Completing . . . a pair of socks! I bought a "How to knit socks" online class a year ago and have been working on the socks off and on ever since. They were a great on-the-go, in-between-other-projects project, and slowly but surely, I made progress on them until I finally finished them this month! Even though I have made dozens of other items (some of them quite a bit more complex than these socks), there's something about knitting a pair of socks that actually fit me that makes me feel like a real knitter. Step aside, Caroline Ingalls! I've got this.

Losing . . . a tooth. One of Max's top front teeth was loose for most of the month, but he wouldn't pull it out until the very last day of February. He had carefully calculated the loss of this tooth so that it coincided with his birthday eve, figuring that maybe, just maybe, the tooth fairy would give him extra money if it happened to be his birthday when she visited him. Even though it was just hanging on by a single root, he still needed his theme song ("Whatever It Takes") and a new issue of Ranger Rick to distract him while Mike pulled it out with a pair of tweezers. And his plan worked . . . the tooth fairy left him double the usual amount.

That's a wrap! What did you spend your February doing? Please share!

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Mar 1, 2019

If I had to choose one word to describe this book, it would be wrenching.

Gut wrenching. Emotionally wrenching. Heart wrenching.

Roy and Celestial have only been married a year-and-a-half when their lives change suddenly and drastically one night. They went to Roy's hometown to visit his parents, and their motel room door was forced open in the middle of the night and they were dragged from their bed. A woman a few doors down claimed that Roy broke into her room and raped her.

But Roy is innocent. He knows it, and, more importantly, his wife knows it. She hadn't even fallen asleep yet when their door burst open.

But the trial proceeds quickly. Unfortunately, Roy is a black man being accused by a white woman, and the timing and the circumstances are not in his favor. Roy is convicted without proper evidence. He is sentenced to prison for twelve years. (Side note: it never explicitly says that Roy's accuser is white. I assumed she was because her word was given more credibility than Celestial's testimony, but some of the women in my book club assumed she was black, so it was somewhat ambiguous. Regardless, Roy was convicted.)

At first, Celestial and Roy are unfailingly loyal to one another, pledging their devotion until either Roy serves out his sentence or his attorney (Celestial's Uncle Banks) gets him acquitted. But as time marches on, Celestial goes on living, and other things (and people) move into take Roy's place. After three years, she writes that she is done with their marriage; she has to move on; she wants to get a divorce. Except . . .months pass, and she never files for a divorce.

When Roy is finally released after five years, he doesn't know what he'll find and if it's even possible for a marriage that was still just in its infancy to be able to survive such a tragedy.

The story is told from three perspectives: Roy's, Celestial's, and Andre's (oh, I didn't mention him? He and Celestial have been friends ever since they were children. I'm sure you can guess why he's in the story . . .). Their voices are distinct, raw, and vivid. I loved the writing so much, and listening to the narration by Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis only enhanced it.

I won't pretend to know what it takes for a novel to move from best-seller to classic, or if the two are even related. But with the words still fresh enough to be ringing in my ears, this feels like the type that might last. I could see it being studied in literature classes decades from now. It just seems to have all of the right pieces to make something that's deep and mulit-layered and will keep giving each time you read it.

That said, I didn't love the ending. And not because it wasn't a happily ever after kind of ending. Celestial and Roy both move forward with their lives. Celestial's seemed natural and expected (probably because a big chunk of the book had been pointing that way), but Roy's seemed unlikely and maybe even fantastical. I'm not going to give it away here, but I'd be interested to know what you thought about it if you've read it. (As another aside, discussing this with the other ladies in my book club actually helped me resolve some of the issues I had with the ending, and I'm not as skeptical as I was when I first finished it.)

This was my book club's pick for February. We always try to select a book for this month that will have something to do with love and relationships. We've had some misses over the years, but this one was spot on perfect. Although there are some underlying themes of racism and equality, the heart of the book is about relationships and what happens to those relationships when life throws its punches.

At one point, Celestial says: "Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime. And then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition." Part of the problem for Celestial and Roy was that their limb and trunk hadn't been together for long enough before the graft was put under extreme stress.

But back to my original word: wrenching. I became so deeply invested in the characters, and it was painful to watch all of the choices and circumstances play out and just wonder, "What if . . . ?" What if Roy hadn't been convicted? What if he had gotten out sooner? What if he and Celestial had been married longer first? What if? What if? What if?

It was those plaguing questions that kept me listening, and the unsatisfactory answers that kept me thinking long after I finished.

Content note: This is a heavy story. There is some language, including the F-word. There is also infidelity, including one descriptive scene that I chose to skip over.
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