Bookmark: n. to mark the reader's place

Jun 29, 2012

My very first bookmark was pink with a teddy bear and I think a quote about friendship on it. It had a long, feathery pink tassel. I used it religiously, and it made me feel like an authentic reader. (EDIT: a real reader...I don't think I knew the word "authentic" then).

From there followed a long string of bookmarks, some homemade, some picked up for free, some received as gifts. My favorite was made of a bendy plastic. It was clear but opaque and was one of those optical illusions where it looks like the picture is jumping off of the surface. In this case, the "picture" was just a bunch of bumps, so it looked like the bookmark had a soft and squishy texture when in fact it was hard and smooth. I think it was a prize from the summer reading program.

After I hit about age 12, I stopped using bookmarks. I don't know if it was because I always lost them (I did) or because my mom never used one (she didn't) or because I was perfectly able to remember my place (I was...sometimes). I developed the bad habit of "tenting"...leaving the book open but face down.

I took a reading hiatus in college; that is, I did plenty of academic reading but almost no reading for pleasure. Occasionally, that would cross over, as when I read a biography about Clara was research for a paper, but I quite enjoyed it. I don't recall anything about my bookmark habits in college. Probably because they were unremarkable.

Anyway, this is getting boring...there's only so much about bookmarks that's worth discussing. The whole point of this is that now, I really do prefer to use a bookmark. I don't like flipping through pages trying to find my spot when time is precious, and I only have a minute to read as it is.

My preferred bookmark of choice is...wait for it...any old scrap of paper. Not only is it thin and lightweight so it fits between the pages and doesn't damage the spine (okay, I'm being ridiculous), but it is perfect for marking sections that I want to return to. When I read something I want to remember, I rip off a small corner, and stick it between the pages. If I have a pen handy, I jot down a quick note to help jog my memory when I come back to it.

This works well, and if I misplace it, I just get another piece of scrap paper, and I'm back in business again. Easy as that.

I'd love to hear about your own bookmarking practices. Do you take notes while reading? Almost everything I read is borrowed from the library, so I'm not allowed to write in the margins. Please share all your tips and tricks on this vastly important subject. :-)

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Jun 28, 2012

I like to put things on hold at the library. And I exercise this right What this means is that my hold list is usually maxed out at 25 items. It also means that almost without fail, items I've been waiting for for a long time all converge on the library at the same time and leave me completely swamped.

As soon as I found out that Dead End in Norvelt won the 2012 Newbery, I reserved the audiobook. But wouldn't you know it? After waiting for six weeks, it came at just the wrong time. I returned it without listening to a word. I put it on hold again. After waiting for another several weeks, it arrived with another pile of long-awaited books. I took it back.  By the time I reserved it for the third time, the post-Newbery rush had died down, and I received it immediately when I had plenty of time to listen to and enjoy it. And it was the perfect summer read, so I'm glad I waited anyway.

Set in the 1960's, Dead End in Norvelt is about 12-year-old Jack Gantos, who is grounded for the entire summer due to the accidental firing of his father's gun AND the purposeful mowing down of his mother's plot of corn. The grounding is only temporarily lifted anytime he has to help his rheumatic neighbor, Miss Volker, write up the obituaries of the "original Norvelters" as they pass away. Besides that, his father is building an airplane and some angry, revenge-hungry Hell's Angels are setting homes on fire, so even with the grounding, the summer isn't too dull. But when the old ladies start dying with increasing frequency, the whole town begins to suspect that things are not as innocent as they seem...

Turns out, although heavily fictionalized, this story is built on a foundation of truth. According to an author interview I listened to, Jack really did live in Norvelt, one of Eleanor Roosevelt's project towns. He really did have epic nosebleeds. And there really was a Miss Volker, although she had a different name. I wish the interview had been longer. I would have loved for him to go through the story piece by piece separating the fact from fiction. Then again, maybe knowing what wasn't true would have made the book lose some of its appeal.

When this won the Newbery, I heard titterings of disappointment all around the internet. No one expected it to win. And, once it surprised everyone and did win, many thought it was undeserved. I know there were some strong contenders among the favorites, but after finishing this book, I had no trouble giving it my whole-hearted, two-thumbs-up approval as a Newbery medal winner. Here are some reasons why:
  • Jack exhibits tremendous character growth. The story begins with him making some stupid decisions that lead to unpleasant consequences. As he helps Miss Volker, learns more about the history of Norvelt and history in general, and spends more time with his parents, he becomes kinder, more sensitive, smarter, and more independent. In the final scene, during a critical moment, he has the choice to either do something stupid again or make a more mature decision. I think many 11- and 12-year-old boys will be able to relate to Jack's decisions, and hopefully, man up and make the right decisions themselves.
  • The book is full of history: Jack reads about it in his bedroom; Miss Volker tells about it in her candid way. It's interesting and exciting, and each event has a point and moves Jack's story forward. I love it when learning doesn't feel forced. And it doesn't feel forced here.
  • It's funny. I guess some people think a funny book shouldn't win the Newbery, but why not? I love reading a book that makes me laugh out loud. And there were a lot of those moments in this book. 
    • For example, when the whole fleet of Hell's Angels come roaring into town, Jack gets really nervous and starts doing jumping jacks and shouts, "Welcome to Norvelt! We are a friendly town." I don't know why, but this scene struck me as incredibly funny.
    • One more example: Jack's nose bleeds whenever he gets nervous or scared or sick about anything. This leads to many funny scenarios, not the least of which occurs when Miss Volker operates on his nose (twice). In the middle of one of the procedures, the phone rings, and she answers and says, "Make it fast. I'm in the middle of a nose job." Maybe you have to be immersed in the story and intimately acquainted with Miss Volker for that to be funny, but I laughed.
  • There is mystery and suspense and danger. I have to admit I didn't love the ending. I thought there were some unmet expectations that were never adequately explained, but overall I liked this aspect of the story.
And now a word about the audio:

Although I wasn't reading great reviews about the book itself, I was hearing only glowing reports about the audio version of it. Jack Gantos himself narrated it, and everyone said it was just phenomenal. So, knowing that the format of a book can make or break my experience with it, I knew I had to go with the audio.

There's something about having the author read his own words that casts them in just the right light. Jack Gantos isn't an exceptional reader per se (it's not like he use a wide variety of accents and voices like some narrators), but he gets the inflections just right...exactly like he heard them in his head when he wrote the book, and that counts for a lot. For example, when Jack (the boy) goes over to Miss Volker's at the beginning of the story, she has her hands in a boiling pot of wax. She's talking to Jack but her voice is strained and tight and chopped up because she's in so much pain because of the heat. Jack Gantos (the author) chopped up the words just right to give it the right effect. I just felt like having him as the narrator helped me get to know the characters on a deeper level because I saw them more through the eyes of the one who created them. I can't recommend the audiobook highly enough.

I read a review on Goodreads that said an award-winning novel shouldn't just be entertaining or humorous but that there should also be a "universal, worthwhile theme and dynamic characters who grow and change from their experiences..." This reviewer said Dead End in Norvelt lacked those two elements. With all that I just said above, I guess you know I disagree. I felt like the point of the book was something along these lines:

Don't just learn ABOUT history; learn FROM it; let it influence your decisions and change you. Don't make history repeat itself.

I think Jack (the boy) did just that, and Jack (the author) described it perfectly. Seeing that change made the book not only worth it for me, but also worthy of the Newbery it garnered.

Finding Myself in Books

Jun 26, 2012

I've never participated in a meme before, but Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is one of my favorites to enjoy vicariously. I was intrigued by this week's topic (Top Ten Characters Who Remind Me Of Myself), and so I'm going to weigh in on this one.

I found that it was really hard to separate myself from characters I'm emotionally attached to and focus on those who actually have similar character traits to myself.  There are a lot of characters I wish I was more like (Jane from Jane Eyre, Betsy from The Hiding Place, Melanie from Gone with the Wind to name just a few), but they're definitely not me.

After some thought, here are ten that at least bear some resemblance in some way to myself:

1. Rosalind from The Penderwicks
She's the oldest, I'm the oldest. She's bossy, I'm (very) bossy. But she really has her sisters' best interests at heart, and I would say that (for the most part), my motives are pure, too. (But Rosiland is definitely kinder and more patient than I am.)

2. Anne from Anne of Green Gables
You have to know that I adore Anne. So I would like nothing better than to be like her. (When I was a teenager, I was at a youth conference, and one of the chaperones decided to call me "Anne" because she said I reminded her of Anne Shirley. I'll love her for life even though I did not keep in touch with her and no longer remember her name.) But am I really like Anne, or is it just the wishful desire of my heart? Like Anne, I love to read and write, and I completely relate to her romantic side and get caught up in the beauty of life all around me. But, if I'm completely honest, there might be more of Diana than Anne in me (which kills me to say). I'm practical, I love to create but can't come up with a single creative idea on my own. I'm a rule follower and a loyal friend. In a word, like Diana, I'm boring. :-(

3. Meg from Little Women
Again, as with Rosalind, I see myself in Meg because she carries the responsibilities of her younger siblings. I have five younger brothers and two younger sisters, and it was in my nature to worry about them and try to help them.

4. Gretchen from The Happiness Project
Is it legal to use a real person? Because the whole time I was reading The Happiness Project, I kept thinking, I could be friends with Gretchen Rubin. (And, theoretically, since she is a real person, I really could be friends with her. Slim chance, but still...) I like to make lists and achieve goals and work towards resolutions. I'm passionate about reading. And I always have big dreams of improving and making myself better. (Now if I were only more organized about said personal improvements like Gretchen...)

5. Anne in Persuasion
I'm quiet and introverted. I'm shy. I overanalyze things. But I'm not quite as noble and selfless as Anne.

6. Tacy from Betsy-Tacy
I've been meaning to reread these books for ages, and now I have a reason to. I think I'm like Tacy (timid and shy in new situations and even sometimes with old friends), but my memory is poor, so I might be completely wrong. Is that what Tacy is like? At any rate, I am reserved with lots of people and occasionally even with good friends, so match me to whatever character is like that.

And now, I can't resist putting in a few picture books, although these ones might not paint me in the most favorable light...

7. Harriet's mother in Harriet You'll Drive me Wild
Harriet does one naughty thing after another. Her mother starts out very patient, but as the day wears on, she gets more and more frayed until finally (when Harriet accidentally tears open a feather pillow), she just loses it and yells and yells and yells. Sadly, I can relate perfectly to this mom. I start the day with the kindest of intentions. But if my boys disobey me enough and make a million messes, then finally the bucket overflows, and I have to take a break. But in the end, as with Harriet and her mom, we work things out and even laugh about all of the things that went wrong.

8. Mrs. Peters in The Seven Silly Eaters
I love this book. When I'm standing in the middle of my house, and all I can see is chaos stretching out around me in all directions, I feel just like Mrs. Peters. I have felt that same despair that she feels when, despite my best efforts all day, it hasn't been enough. The kids have won, they've beaten me, and I'm not sure I'll ever resurface and claim my house again. (But the other thing I love about Mrs. Peters is that she really does love her darling little Peters, and I really do love my boys, too.)

9. Little llama in Llama Llama Red Pajama
I've always dragged out bedtime. Now it's not so much that I don't want to go to bed as that I just have a really long routine. Also, I really don't like sleeping alone. I can remember sleeping in the hall to be closer to my parents' voices or on the living room couch or on a mattress outside their bedroom. I don't like being in a cold, dark room by myself.

10. The mother in I'll Love You Forever
I know this is a controversial book, and I have to agree it is a little disturbing to think of a 70-year-old woman breaking into her grown son's house to hold him on her lap and sing him a song. The sad thing is...I can totally see myself doing that! I love my little boys, and a part of me wishes they could just stay little forever. They're so sweet and (for the most part) innocent, and they love me best. Aaron and I play a little game where I say something like, "Aaron, you can't grow up. How about you skip your next birthday and just stay three?" And then he says, in a very exasperated tone, "Mom, I have to turn four. I just have to." I hope I'll be able to let all three of my boys go when the time comes, but I hope it feels like a long time in coming.

What do you think? If you know me personally, can you think of anyone I remind you of? Is there a character in a book who reminds you of yourself?

Unfinished: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Jun 25, 2012

It practically kills me not to finish a book. I am a very task-oriented person, so to purposely leave something undone leaves me with a cluttered if my home is littered with toys (which it often is) but I choose not to pick them up. I need the closure of reading the last page and shutting the book with a satisfied snap. I can't stand the feeling of all those loose ideas left hanging, those 200 pages left unread.

But sometimes it just has to be done. And this time, it had to be done.

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I stop reading for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's because the writing is poor. Sometimes the plot is so full of dragons and ogres that I just can't take it. Or sometimes it's too long or too boring with too many big words, so I have to set it aside for a time. Sometimes it doesn't fit my current mood (in which case I usually come back to it). And sometimes, the content is inappropriate or makes me uncomfortable.

In this case, I loved the writing but after skipping the third sexually descriptive scene in the first 115 pages, and with only more infidelity on the horizon, I decided to call it quits.

Based on fact, The Paris Wife is the fictionalized account of Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley. The story is told from her perspective: how she met and fell in love with Ernest, their move to Paris and subsequent meeting of other writers and artists, and then the gradual crumbling of their marriage.

Anytime you take real people and turn their lives into a story, you run the risk of fictionalizing too much (What if Ernest's favorite sneakers didn't have a hole in them? Did he even have a favorite pair of sneakers? Does it matter if he didn't but she said that he did?), or, on the other side, leaving out too many details so that the story feels dry and stale. I have to say that from what I read, I was very impressed with the way Paula McLain melded fact and fiction in a very seamless, readable way.

But no matter how you slice it, Ernest Hemingway was a womanizer and an alcoholic. And I don't like reading about infidelity or excessive drinking. So, much as I find it interesting to read about a real person's life, there was nothing inspiring about this book for me. I finally had to look at the book from the following perspectives: Am I enjoying this book? Is it thought provoking? Am I going to be a better person for having read it? When I realized the answers were no, no, and no, I decided it was time to take out my bookmark and return it.

Everyone reads from a different viewpoint. That's part of the beauty of reading; it is completely individual and personal. Reading this book from a different background would be a completely different experience, I am sure. We all take our own thoughts and experiences and combine them with the plot and characters in the story, and what comes out is a truly unique experience for each person. Really, it's one of the reasons why I love reading so much.

That said, in this case, as much as I loved the writing, it wasn't enough to make reading it worth it to me. Take that as you will.

What books have you stopped reading? What made you stop?

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Jun 22, 2012

Have you heard? Shannon Hale's latest book, Palace of Stone, is coming out in August! I am just a little bit excited. (And if I were 12 instead of 27, I could admit to being a lot excited.)

Palace of Stone is the sequel to Princess Academy, which won a Newbery Honor in 2006. It's been several years since I read it, but no one had to twist my arm to get me to read it again.

Miri lives on Mount Eskel, a remote territory of Danland where the only source of industry comes from mining linder stone. (Incidentally, from my limited research, it looks like linder stone is not a legitimate natural resource, but you could have fooled me.) Miri wants nothing more than to help in the quarry but is forbidden by her father. One day, the chief delegate of Danland arrives with the news that the priests have divined that the future princess will come from Mount Eskel, and so an academy is set up to prepare all the eligible young women to meet the prince. Miri is smart and determined but also struggles with feelings of self-worth, and so the story is as much about her discovering her potential as it is about impressing the prince.

If that summary sounds a bit dry, let me just add that there's also corporal punishment, dangerous bloodthirsty bandits, a little bit of romance (go Peder!), and a surprise twist at the end. See? Definitely not boring.

The villagers use "quarry speech," a method of communication where they basically send messages through the linder stone. They use it mainly to convey warnings and instructions while working in the noisy quarry, but Miri discovers that it can be used for other purposes. This detail gives the story a faint taste of fantasy without being over the top. As with the Books of Bayern, it is one little fantastical element that is so well described as to make it completely believable, making it the best kind of fantasy in my opinion.

If you've read anything by Shannon Hale, you know she has a way with words. Without being overly flowery or descriptive, she comes up with the perfect way to describe emotions, places, and actions. For example, when Miri is wrestling with how much she likes Peder but also how much she desires the changes in lifestyle the prince would offer her, it says, "Her mind and heart tangled." That's it. One little sentence, but instantly I related to how she felt.

At the beginning of every chapter, there is a little poem, what is supposed to be a song from the quarry. I absolutely loved these. They were all different, using rhymes and meters in different ways. My favorite one was: No wolf falters before the bite/ So strike/ No hawk wavers before the dive/ Just strike. Not only could I practically hear the quarry workers singing this song to help maintain the rhythm of their mallets, but Miri applied the song in a couple of other ways outside the quarry, and I thought it tied bits of the story together very nicely.

This might be considered a spoiler, so skip the next paragraph if you're worried:

I was so grateful that none of the girls or villagers died in the face-off between them and the bandits. Not even a minor character. Shannon Hale could have easily had one of the nameless characters die to add gravity to the situation, but somehow it would have felt so wrong to me. I read plenty of books where characters die (even important ones), but in this case, I felt like it was right to keep everyone alive (except for Dan, but he had it coming...).

The only thing I didn't love was the little twist at the end. I loved that it happened, but the details never settled for me, and it all happened too quickly. (What?! The prince just left after one night without asking any questions of Olana? What?! All of the girls are happy with the prince's selection and merrily traipse back to Mount Eskel?) I know I'm being vague, but I don't want to give anything away. If you've read it, I'm interested to know if you agree/disagree.

My only regret is that I wish I would have waited to re-read this book. Palace of Stone doesn't come out for two months. That's too long to wait...because, confession: regardless of whether I'm 12 or 27, I really am a LOT excited.


Jun 20, 2012

Aaron often interrupts me mid-sentence in a story to ask, "What does that word mean?" I love it when he does that. It means he's not only paying attention but thinking critically. Isn't reading great?

Yesterday we came upon a gem of a word:

Me: "'Pete the Cat* put on his favorite shirt with four big, colorful, round, groovy buttons.'"
Aaron: "Mom, what does 'groovy' mean?"
Me: "It means 'cool' or 'awesome.' So if you really like something, instead of saying, 'That's so awesome!' you could say, 'That's so groovy!'"

Aaron got that delighted look on his face that just delights me, and I could tell he was planning ahead, trying to figure out when he could use the word in real life.

"You know, Aaron," I said, "Daddy would think it was so funny if you used this word. You could say something like, 'I like your groovy rocket, Dad.'" (Mike got two model rockets for Father's day...definitely a kid at heart, that one...and Aaron and Max have been helping in the building and construction.)

Aaron loves surprising Mike with anything, so all day he worked on remembering "groovy." When he woke up from his nap, the first thing he asked me was, "What was that word again? The one that means 'awesome'?" "Groovy." "Oh yeah, groovy." And his face broke out in such an Aaron-grin accompanied by such an Aaron-laugh. (You have to admit, it is a funny word.)

That evening, during a little post-soccer-game snack, he whispered, "Mom, that word..." and trailed off because Mike was standing right there and could tell Aaron had a secret.

Then he suddenly remembered, and before he could forget it again, he said, "I love your groovy rocket, Dad!"

And  the way those two cracked up, you would have thought Aaron had used a really impressive word like, I don't know, "menagerie" or "clandestine" or something. But then again, the word was groovy, so maybe their reaction was spot-on perfect.

*opening line of Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons. If your kids haven't been introduced to Pete the Cat, then it's high time they were. He even made it to #20 on Fuse #8's Top 100 Poll. Not too shabby.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (First Half)

Jun 18, 2012

I'm halfway through Gone with the Wind, and because of its length, I think I'll do better if I talk about it in two parts.

I must preface my thoughts by saying I feel overwhelmed to talk about this book. In fact, I've been dreading writing anything, which is most unusual for me since one of the main reasons I started this blog was because I like writing reviews.

It's just because it's a favorite of so many, and it has already had thousands of pages written about it by regular readers like me but also by literary geniuses and esteemed critics. So what could I possibly say that would be 1) different or 2) interesting or 3) intelligent?

But in some ways it's easier: Everyone has already read it or seen the movie or at the very least knows the story, so nothing I say here is going to persuade anyone's loyalties one way or the other. So the pressure is off.

Can you tell that I'm stalling?...

I can't write about all 500 pages (and no one would read such a long post anyway), so I'm just going to limit myself to a few thoughts...we'll call these my "reactions to the first half."

First, Scarlett. I can't write this post without mentioning her somewhere, so it might as well be at the beginning. I'm trying to think of another main character like her, and maybe I just haven't read enough, but she seems to stand alone in all her self-centered, defiant glory. And yet, if it was selfishness alone that made up her character, it would be nothing memorable. No, to me it's the fact that in spite of her multitude of flaws, in spite of all the reasons not to like her, I simple as that. Scarlett invokes feelings of sympathy and heartache because, as much as I want to believe my actions would be pure and noble like Melanie's, the sad truth is that I have a little streak of Scarlett in me, and hard times are more likely to bring out those qualities..

While I'm on the subject of Scarlett, I thought it was interesting that once she was back at Tara, this time as mistress, Scarlett was described as being "so changed"...unkind, hardened, and cruel with a quick temper. Did I miss something? Because that's how I thought she acted from page one. I would not have called her "so changed." In her previous life, she might have occasionally masked her personality with the civil graces of the day, but underneath it seemed like she was always on the rough side.

Now about the length...While I don't mind this book being over a thousand pages because it is so well-written with vivid characters against a dramatic backdrop, I will say that I don't think you could publish this book in its entirety today. Is that too bold a statement? Probably, since I have nothing concrete on which to base it. But I feel like an editor would cut out entire sections left and right. I'll give one example of the repetition I noticed:

The journey back to Tara and Scarlett's adjustment to being mistress felt very drawn out. This made the grief and desolation feel more real but also long-lasting. I kept thinking I was coming to the end of Part III because of very conclusive statements. For example, Scarlett's first night back at Tara was concluded by saying that she was no longer a girl but finally a woman. So I thought, This is it. Part IV begins with Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton as wise and hardened woman. But then it continued, and the next day at Twelve Oaks, the "climax" was essentially repeated again, with Scarlett saying that she would no longer long for the past but would give herself completely to the future. But then the section still didn't end. So even though Part III ended up having a very clear and definitive conclusion, I felt like Scarlett's "transformation" was rather anti-climatic, simply because it happened too many times.

(As a side note, it reminded me of the first time my friend heard a performance of Handel's Messiah. If you are familiar with the final Amen Chorus, you know that it goes on and on and on. Well, she was just a little girl, and she kept thinking it was ending, and then they sang some more...and then some more. Finally she was in tears because she thought it was never going to end. My reaction to this book wasn't quite so dramatic (and actually, I can't remember for sure if she cried or not, but it makes for a better story anyway), but I did feel like I was being led on.)

Also, on a related note, I admit to thinking on more than one occasion: "How else is she going to fill up 800 pages? 700? 600? 500?" (Obviously, I haven't seen the movie, or I would know.) I'm especially curious now that the war is over, and I still have half of the book left.

Now moving on to some of the moments that I thought were especially well done...
  • Scarlett and Rhett's heated romance: Amidst the horror and devastation of war, these two individuals are united in their selfish desires and egotistical natures. The stark contrast between suffering and greed was very well described.
  • Battle of Jonesboro and Melanie's labor: Here was another scene of contrast that really helped the moment feel real. Pitting the deaths of many against the (potential) death of one and the fear of the Yankees invading Atlanta against the fear of delivering Melanie's baby gave this scene depth and dimension. It was this section that made me think, Okay, Margaret Mitchell, you deserve your place among remembered authors.
  • Scarlett's grief: As Scarlett's world is crumbling around her, she keeps saying to herself, "I'll think of it later." With each new tragedy, she repeats that mantra: I'll think of it later. I just think Margaret Mitchell captured grief perfectly. Isn't that often how we get through a devastating trial (especially if we're forced to be the strong one)? We push all thoughts and emotions out and concentrate solely on the physical needs of the present.
  • Scarlett and Melanie: I just love their relationship...Melanie loving and Scarlett loathing, it just feels so awkward and real.
And that wraps up my thoughts on the first half. Now I'm taking a break and reading a couple of shorter books, but then I'll dive right back into the second half. Looking forward to it...

More from Brooklyn

Jun 15, 2012

Ever since finishing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, certain passages have been on my mind, and so I feel compelled to revisit Brooklyn and share some of my thoughts.

One of the themes I noticed throughout the book was the nature and purpose of suffering. When Francie begins to go to school, all is not as she expected with her teachers or her peers. One of the more physical problems is lice. Conditions being what they were, the lice flourished and was passed from head to head from week to week. Francie's mom, Katie, had her own vicious method of combating this problem, which still resulted in an isolating effect on Francie. The response, however, that I was particularly interested in was that of the other children towards the child with lice. They were cruel and mean and did little to comfort the afflicted, even though chances were good they'd either had lice already or would have it soon.

I was especially struck by this passage: "It might be that the infected child would be given a clean bill next examination. In that case, she, in turn, would torment those found guilty, forgetting her own hurt at being tormented. They learned no compassion from their own anguish. Thus their suffering was wasted." (p. 161, emphasis added)

I've thought so much about that phrase: Thus their suffering was wasted. What things am I going through right now that will be wasted if I don't learn from them and change my actions?

When I was 14 and 15, I went through a trial which was rather personal in nature. About a year into it, I remember thinking: What have I learned from this experience? I took a sheet of paper and wrote down every lesson I could think of (and there were many!). Somehow, looking at the long list, the trial did not seem so bad; in fact, it seemed almost worth it. Since I'd already gone through it all once, I didn't want to have to go through it, or something similar, again. I didn't want my suffering to be wasted.

I want to make sure my experiences count for something, that my energy and heartache and time are not given in vain. But suffering is rarely completely personal. Usually it involves others. And when it does, suffering has the potential to bring us together in a tender way that nothing else can.

At a later point in the book, Francie is outside and witnesses the way a young woman is ostracized because she gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Her name was Joanna, and she was a kind and attentive mother, but she had no friends or mentors because of her immoral actions. One day as she pushes her small baby in a stroller, the other women literally begin to throw stones at her, and they even end up hitting and hurting her baby.

Francie then makes this observation: "Most women had the one thing in common: they had great pain when they gave birth to their children. This should make a bond that held them all together; it should make them love and protect each other against the man-world. But it was not so. It seemed like their great birth pains shrank their hearts and their souls. They stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman...whether it was by throwing stones or by mean gossip. It was the only kind of loyalty they seemed to have." (p. 237)

This made my heart break. They could have built such a tight friendship around their common suffering but instead they turned on each other and let the suffering drive wedges between them. There have been times in my own life when I've been on the stone-throwing end, maybe not in an aggressive, brutal way but by turning my back and not offering help or friendship.

Both of these examples lead me to this conclusion: Suffering is a tool. If we use it in the right way, it does so many wonderful things: It pushes us onward to the next bend in the road and makes us stronger for the next mountain to climb. It builds bridges and creates true friends out of mere acquaintances. And last, and this is my personal belief, it changes our very natures to make us more like Jesus Christ...humble and meek, forgiving and faithful.

Isn't it amazing that something that leaves us feeling weak and vulnerable actually makes us strong and unconquerable?

LibraryPages: Lost and Found

Jun 13, 2012

Have you ever lost a library item? Then maybe you can commiserate with this sad tale...

We do not own a lot of DVDs, so we usually check out a few me-approved, family-friendly shows each week. (I'm very picky about what I let my boys watch, but I do let them watch a little something every morning while I get ready for the day.) On one such week about eight months ago, among our other selections, we picked, Shaun the Sheep: One Giant Leap for Lambkind. I checked it out and stuck it in the library bag without a second thought.

That weekend we went on a little trip to the family cabin. I brought along a few DVDs so the boys would have something to watch in the car, but they chose other things instead of Shaun.

So it wasn't until we'd had it almost a week that I finally cracked its case. And when I did: EMPTY.

I was completely puzzled by this. Was it ever in the case? I always check the cases before checking them out, but I honestly couldn't remember if I had this time or not. Maybe the case didn't snap securely, and I'd lost it on the walk home, but it didn't seem likely. Maybe Aaron or Max had opened it when we got home, but I certainly never saw them.

I started with the most obvious answer and went back to the library. I asked them if the DVD was still there, but it wasn' least not in the files. I was bummed with disappointment since that meant it was fully my responsibility, but I didn't have the faintest idea where to look.

Nevertheless, I gave it my pluckiest effort: I  searched under the couches, coffee table, and entertainment center. I looked in the car. I asked Mike's mom to look at the cabin. I enlisted the help of Mike, Aaron, and Max, and we scoured the bedrooms and every possible and impossible corner and cranny.

I renewed it twice to prolong the chances of it miraculously turning up but finally admitted defeat and paid for it.

A couple weeks ago, we got "new" living room furniture (new being defined as someone else's old furniture). This included an armoire to replace our entertainment center. Mike lifted up our bulky, heavy, not-flat-screen TV, and there lying in the dust was a DVD, shiny side up.

Instantly my mind flashed back to October, and I knew without looking what would be on the other side.

Sure enough, there was Shaun the Sheep: One Giant Leap for Lambkind, which until that moment I'd never seen in living person but only in my dreams. At last I knew who the culprits had been, but it no longer really mattered.

Instead I said, "Well, look, kids! A three-year-old scratched up library DVD that is now our very own! Merry Christmas!"

KidPages: Three New(ish) Board Books

Jun 11, 2012

It seems like if it's a board book, people automatically think it will be good for babies. But let me tell you, those cardboard pages are not created equally.  Here are three board books released in the last year that get our stamp of approval:

1. Bizzy Bear: Let's Go and Play by Benji Davies
Want to know the main reason I love this one? It is baby-proof, toddler-proof, kid-proof sturdy. The pages are made of super thick cardboard, which does have the downside of making the book only four pages long (or is that an upside?). The moveable parts are all set inside the pages so little fingers can't rip or pull apart or otherwise destroy the very things that make the book fun (like a swing that moves back and forth, a window shade that pushes up, etc.) 

The rhymes are something a 7-year-old could write, but they're catchy and simple, and that pleases the young crowd in this house.

There are four Bizzy Bear books, but our library doesn't have the newest two yet. (But I've heard Off We Go includes some pretty amazing cardboard creations, so I'm anxious to look at it.)

2. Yawn by Sally Symes
After you've read 112,976  children's books (a rough estimate), you know that about half of those involve animals in one form or another. A truly predictable approach is to feature one animal per page. What I love about this book is that it takes that classic structure but uses it in a unique way.

It begins with Sean (a little boy, not an animal) who, getting sleepy, gives a great big yawn. His cat catches the yawn, gives one of his own and then passes it on to a bird. The pattern continues until everyone has yawned and fallen asleep. 

Using a large open-mouthed hole, all of the characters literally share the same yawn. I love that it teaches the nature of a yawn and that it holds the interest of small children by showcasing animals they know and love.

My only warning (or should I say, challenge?): I dare you to make it through this book without giving a yawn or two of your own!

3. Animal 123 by Britta Teckentrup
If you've tried to find books that teach math concepts to very young children, you know it's a difficult feat to find a good one. Sure, there are oodles of counting books, but very little beyond that unless you're looking for something more advanced and appropriate for older children.

But Animal 123 fits the bill perfectly. It introduces very basic addition. It begins with one snake, but then a little number flap on the side opens up, and magic! Now there are two snakes (1+1=2). On the next page, there are two elephants until the flap is opened, and then there are three (2+1=3).

For Bradley (8.5 months), it is perfect because it has big, simple pictures with lots of contrast. For Maxwell (2 years), it is perfect because he loves to try to count the animals. For Aaron (almost 4), it is perfect because he understands the concept of adding one and with each page says something like, "Look! 4+1=5!" So from baby to preschool, it's really very versatile.

(And, okay, technically it's probably not considered a "board" book, but the pages are heavy-weight, so I think it's still fits in that category. Let's not be too picky, all right?)

Book Bargains: Angela's Birthday

Jun 8, 2012

I am a cheapskate. I try not to pay full price for anything. And that includes books. (We'll save the "How Much I Love Bookstores and How I Would Spend All My Money There if I Could" post for another day.)

I'm also pretty stingy about what books I'll buy. I don't want to clutter up my house and bookshelves with a book I'm only going to read once. So the book must already be tested and tried before I'll give money for it.

Lately I've been buying a lot of books at Savers...mainly ones that are like-new that I can use for gifts. (Yes, I'm one of those people, and I feel no guilt whatsoever.)

One day as I perused the stacks (and really you have to be quite patient sifting through the millions of completely trashed paperbacks), I happened upon a beautiful hardback copy of Ida B...and her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World. It was in mint condition, probably never even opened except to stick in the gift tag To: Ms. Rawlins, From: Justin. (Ms. Rawlins, how could you not read Ida B? And you, a grade-school teacher?)     

As soon as I saw it, I knew exactly who I would give it to. My little sister, Angela, has the same spunk and (sometimes) fiery temper as Ida B, and even though she's not the type to curl up for hours with a book, she would enjoy this one over the course of a couple of weeks.

The gift tag sticker was easily removed, and earlier this week, I sent Ida B off in the mail with a birthday card for Angela, who is 13 today.

What amazing book bargains have you found? Please share (and I'll try not to get too jealous)!

Funny in Farsi: a Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas

Jun 6, 2012

I'm rarely not in the mood for a memoir. I like reading about the experiences of real people in their own words. Maybe that's why I'm such an avid journal writer myself (I like being able to read my own memoir whenever I want) and also why you should hide any personal writings you don't want me to read (one of my brothers used to hate it when I read his letters, but really, if they were out in plain sight, what did he expect? The temptation was just too great).

Firoozeh Dumas said that when people found out she was writing a memoir, they would ask, "What in your life are you writing about?" Firoozeh said, "It is true that most people write a memoir after an achievement. I, however, skipped the achievement part and moved straight to the memoir. This is because I truly believe that everyone has a story and everyone's story counts." I agree completely. That's not to say I would read anyone's personal anecdotes, but I do believe there is much wisdom and perspective as we relate through our similarities and differences.

Firoozeh Dumas moved to the United States from Iran when she was 7 years old. (And with a name like Firoozeh, you know she is 100% authentic.) The book is written as a series of stand alone essays, each chapter telling a different story. Her father loved America, but there were still many moments where the two cultures clashed in sometimes sad but mostly funny ways.

It is meant to be funny, and, don't get me wrong, it is funny, but some of the humor felt a little forced or contrived. For example, this sentence: "If worrying were an Olympic sport, my parents' faces would have graced the Wheaties box a long time ago." For some reason,that just felt like she was trying to think of something creative and funny, and that was what she came up with. It just misses the mark. Contrast that with this line: "Should Time-Life publish a Do-It-Yourself Guide to Medical Procedures, my mother and I will be leaving the country." Of course I'm taking both of these quotes out of context (this last one was in reference to the fact that her father was always trying to be a handyman, using his 14-volume Time-Life set as a reference), but the point is that for me, some of the writing really was funny while other attempts were only worthy of a courtesy laugh.

Criticism aside, the stories are memorable, heartwarming, and, yes, funny. For example, there's one about her money-making attempts as a young teenager; there's another about her father taking advantage of every free sample in America; there's another about her miserable two weeks at summer camp. Through these stories, Firoozeh reveals a universal truth about life:

"Sometimes if you give something thirty years and if no one was hurt, some of life's less shining moments can be quite funny."

We never like to go through horrible vacations or irate neighbors or expensive car repairs, but they sure make for great stories later, and this is true regardless of whether you're Iranian or American.

However, a few of the chapters do touch on the serious. There's the extremely intelligent aunt who, because of cultural restraints, never gets a formal education...a bright mind wasted because she was a woman. There's also Firoozeh's father, who worships all things American but still loses his job because of social prejudices and distrust against Iranians. And there's Firoozeh herself who marries a Frenchman against the wishes of his family and experiences the heartache that comes with hatred and tension among family members. For me, these stories stand as a reminder that some hurts don't go away even when we look at them through rose colored glasses, and we must therefore by careful what we say and how we treat others.

When Firoozeh was asked why politics didn't figure more prominently in the book, she said, "One of the biggest problems I have faced as an Iranian in America is that no one knows much about Iran except what is on the evening news. Politics has grossly overshadowed humanity in the Middle East and I wanted to write a book that would shine the light on humanity." This was one of the most refreshing aspects of the book. We have attached such inaccurate stereotypes to Iranians (and other Middle Easterners), and now I have a different view of a group of people I knew very little about.

If I was writing my own memoir, I think I would have a hard time writing about the people I loved best. I would want to present them in the most positive light, but if I cut out all of their weaknesses or their annoying habits (because we all have those!), then I would have eliminated the very things that would help endear them to other people.

And it is this, setting aside everything else I just talked about, that made me love this book. Firoozeh's father was one of the most prominent characters in almost all the stories, and I loved him...not because he was the kindest, most perfect father, but because he ate ham even though it was a forbidden food, and because he yelled at Firoozeh when he was trying to teach her how to swim, and because he never would admit to making a mistake. As hard as it must have been to paint her father in a less-than-perfect light, it was those very flaws that made the story real and believable, and oh, so funny.

I checked out a copy of this book from my local library.

Why I'm Dancing in the Kitchen

Jun 4, 2012

Have you heard of Mindy Gledhill?

I ask only because I'm so out of the loop when it comes to pop culture that I have absolutely no idea who is locally, nationally, or internationally famous. (It's one of my unique talents, along with eating too many chocolate chip cookies in one sitting.)

But back to the point: Have you heard of Mindy Gledhill?

Stephanie Nielson (the mom who was in the terrible plane crash) mentioned Mindy in her recent memoir, Heaven is Here. One day, while Stephanie was struggling through the frustration and pain and heartache of so vast a recovery, Mindy stopped by with her newest album. In Stephanie's own words:

[Mindy] told me how she'd been writing a song before our accident, but it just hadn't come together, so she'd put it aside for a while. Then, when she heard about what had happened to Christian and me and thought about how much our lives had changed, the words had come together.

After Stephanie heard the song, she said:

She had captured perfectly how I felt and just what I was going through... 

My curiosity was piqued. I checked out the album, "Anchor," from the library, and I skipped ahead to the song that was written with Stephanie in mind:
Then I went back to the first song and listened to the whole CD all the way through. I was hooked. I feel like anything I say will just sound trite or dumb, but I love every single song. I've listened to them over and over again. I dance around the kitchen to them. I get them stuck in my head.

Here's one more song by Mindy. I actually heard this one more than a year ago without realizing who it was. If you're a mom to boys, you will especially love it.

P.S. These songs both showcase Mindy's soft, lilting voice, but she has others that are fun and quirky and will make you want to show off your best, kitchen-worthy dance moves.

ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool by Hal Edward Runkel

Jun 1, 2012

One thing you have to know about me is that I read parenting books like they're novels. This is already the fourth one I've read this year. Anytime I feel like my parenting has fallen into a rut and needs a little pick-me-up, I read a book about it. And with the sheer volume of parenting books out there, I can usually find one that fills just the right niche for me in that moment. (Though I must confess that the reason I selected ScreamFree Parenting right now was because it was the only audio parenting book to be found. Luckily, it gave me what I needed.)

Even though all parenting books are written with the same goal in mind (raising, emotionally healthy, confident children), everyone seems to approach it just a bit differently. Hal Runker's philosophy is: "If you're not under control, then you cannot be in charge." Most of the book focuses more on taking care of yourself as a parent and less about how to discipline/teach your children It was interesting to spend most of the book analyzing myself instead of my kids.

For example, he discusses the four levels of love, created by Bernard of Clairvaux (a French monk who lived a thousand years ago, in case you didn't know). The most basic level is I love me for my benefit (i.e., babies who are only focused on being fed, changed, put to bed, or entertained). The second level is I love you for my benefit (i.e., being a great parent so that others will say, "Wow, you are such a great parent."). The third level is I love you for your benefit (because of human nature, this level is basically impossible to achieve and usually falls back to Level 2). The fourth and highest level is I love me for your benefit. It's such an interesting concept, and one that we've kind of trained ourselves to think of as selfish when it's actually the most selfless kind of love you can give.

Mike did a little bit of eye-rolling when I told him about the four levels (this is a hot topic lately and unfortunately does lead to a lot of selfishness in the name of "self-love"), but his eye-rolling was even more exaggerated when I started in on "labeling."

We hear about the damaging effects of labels all the time, but after reading this, I finally did a little self reflection and looked at the labels I grew up with. When I was three and four and even beyond, I threw terrible tantrums: screaming and crying and shouting for hours. My parents realized that my outbursts seemed to be linked to the times I ate something sweet and sugary, so they cut processed sugar out of my diet. After that, when offered a cookie, I would tell people, "I can't have that. They make me throw fits." Growing up, I always heard about my horrible fits. Even once I'd grown out of them and could eat a Starburst without flying into a rage, it was still brought up in family gatherings and dinner conversations. Did it damage me? No. But I still remember it. (And I knew that if I ever did have a rough day, someone was bound to say that I'd always had a difficult time controlling my emotions.)

Thinking about my childhood led me to think about my own children and the labels I'd already given them. For example, I've sung to Aaron since he was a baby, but well after he'd started talking, he still wouldn't sing a note, even when he was by himself. If people asked him to sing the ABC's, I was quick to jump in with, "Oh, Aaron doesn't sing." Then one day, surprise, surprise, Aaron started singing. All of the songs he'd heard for years poured out along with ones we'd never heard before. I couldn't believe it. Somehow I thought because he hadn't sung in the first 3 years of his life, it meant he would never want to sing.

Hal Runkel said, "Whenever we label our children, we severely limit their space." And look at how severely I might have limited Aaron if he had been paying attention to what I was saying about him! Hal Runkel also said that if we just change the word always (as in, "Amy is always so emotional") to can be (as in, "Amy can be so emotional"), it will open up the options and give our children the freedom to change.

Although most of the book is focused on changes parents can make to themselves, he does spend one section talking about the power of consequences and how much more effective it is to the let the consequences do the screaming for us. I totally agree with this but have found that the only way to really implement it is by choosing consequences that I am okay with enforcing. For example, I can't say, "If you do that again, we're leaving the park" if I'm talking to my friend and don't really want to leave the park yet. So that's been the trickiest part for me: finding consequences that I will actually follow through with.

If parenting books usually leave you feeling guilty and like you're ruining your children, this might be the one for you. It's full of encouragement and humor. And it focuses on the only thing you really have any control over: yourself.
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