Reading Goals, End of the Year Report

Dec 31, 2013

It's been a productive reading year for me. I reached outside my comfort zone, dove into some challenging literature, and finished what I started.

Looking back, I think I set just the right number and type of goals. In order to complete them all, I had to read at least twenty books; it was a big enough number that I couldn't leave them all for the last month, but not so big that I couldn't read anything else. Also, they helped balance my reading so that I wasn't spending all my time on mindless books but had some substantial literature (or even just books I'd been putting off for a long time) mixed up in there.

It is with great pleasure that I now give an account of each goal and how I completed it (click on the book title to go directly to my review):

1. Read a new genre (graphic novel)
This one scared me, but I knew right from January 1st that I really wanted to try reading a graphic novel. I discovered that while graphic novels will probably never be my go-to genre of choice, I really, really enjoyed Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack (August 2013)

2.  Finish a series I already started
I thought I was going to spend weeks deliberating which of my plethora of unfinished series I should finish. But I got such an overwhelming response (like three people) that it should be The Chronicles of Narnia that my decision ended up being really easy.

I wish I could describe how much I loved these books and how glad I am that I took the time to finish all of them. I tried to express my feelings here:

February 2013: The Silver Chair
April 2013: The Horse and His Boy
July 2013: The Magician's Nephew
December 2013: The Last Battle

3. Begin and finish a series
Turns out, I was a bit of a wimp with this one. More than any of my other goals, I dug in my heels and had a difficult time committing to a series. But once I actually made a decision (the Princess trilogy by Jessica Day George), I discovered it was actually pretty fun. And I can't even begin to tell you how good it felt to start and finish a series (even if it was just a trilogy) in quick succession.

August 2013: Princess of the Midnight Ball
September 2013: Princess of Glass
October 2013: Princess of the Silver Woods

4. Read and reread a book
This was definitely something new for me. I've reread lots of books, but there have always been years in between the readings so that I've forgotten most of the basic plot points and it's almost like reading a new book. Never have I reread a book a mere few weeks after reading it for the first time. I listened to Boys Adrift (April 2013). I learned so much from it that I bought my own copy and read it a second time (May 2013), and this time I had the luxury of marking the points that I especially wanted to remember. This has probably been my most talked-about-book (both on the blog and in real life) of the year. Read it. And then, if you're so inclined, read it again.

5. Read something less well-known by an author I like
I was really hoping to read several less well-known books by some of my favorite authors, but I only ended up getting to one: Safekeeping by Karen Hesse (March 2013). Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust is one my favorite books of all time, and so even though I liked Safekeeping, it ended up feeling like a bit of a disappointment. It doesn't even hold a candle to Out of the Dust.

6. Read two classics from the 19th century and two classics from the 20th century.
I feel like I just barely made it with this one. I didn't even start this goal until the second half of the year, and then two of the books I read (East of Eden and The Woman in White) were quite lengthy and took me a long time to finish. Still though, I felt a great sense of achievement finishing all four books for this goal. I know for a fact that I definitely would not have read four classics this year without this goal. Usually I try to read what I feel like reading, but in the case of the last two especially, I really was ready for some lighter fare, but I buckled down and read them anyway, and I'm so glad I did.

October 2013: East of Eden
November 2013: The Woman in White
December 2013: Their Eyes Were Watching God
December 2013: A Study in Scarlet

7. Read at least four Newbery candidates for 2014
It is always fun to see which new books separate themselves as strong contenders for the Newbery award. I loved deciding which ones to read, and out of the five I read, I'd have to go with Navigating Early for the Newbery. It was one of my favorite books of 2013. I'm so excited to see who actually ends up with the award next month.

May 2013: The Center of Everything
August 2013: Navigating Early
September 2013: The Water Castle
November 2013: The Year of Billy Miller
December 2013: The Real Boy

8. Read Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson
Not going to lie, out of all my goals, reading Blackmoore (September 2013) was definitely the most fun goal to complete. Pure enjoyment.

All of my siblings who are in college have been bragging about their grades from the last semester. I was feeling a little left out, but now that I've reported on my successful completion of goals, I'm giving myself an "A" in reading for the year.

Stay tuned: Reading Goals for 2014 (because why would I stop such a good thing?) coming up when it's officially 2014!

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

Dec 28, 2013

The days of this week are all starting to blend together in one happy blur. Christmas Day was wonderful, but so were the days leading up to it and the days following it.

On the day after Christmas, we drove to my parents' home in Colorado. On the drive, in between handing out crackers and turning on music for my kids, I managed to finish this little gem. It was much more substantial than some of the fluffy Christmas stuff I indulge in, and I enjoyed it very much.

This is the behind-the-scenes look at what went into Charles Dickens’ writing of A Christmas Carol and the effect it has had on the world’s celebration of Christmas in the 170 years since its publication.

I probably don’t have enough stamina to read a full-blown biography of Charles Dickens (maybe someday . . . ), but I am still interested in his life and creative process. This book was the perfect substitute. At only 226 pages, I wasn’t worried about my life being half over before I finished it. Also, I loved the focal point of A Christmas Carol. I still learned a lot about Charles Dickens’ childhood, his home life, the financial difficulties that beset him, the early publishing process, world events, and the evolution of Christmas, but it was all done within the context of A Christmas Carol. Having that beloved little Christmas book as the unifying thread made everything seem like it had more meaning and purpose.

Here are a few of the interesting facts I learned along the way:

  • Charles Dickens' early pen name was Boz.
  • Chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop sold more than 100,000 copies per week, which, considering the number of literate citizens, was really an astronomical number.
  • Prior to A Christmas Carol, Christmas itself was not universally celebrated. The holiday was originally an excuse to get drunk and engage in immoral and illegal behavior. Although one of the kings decreed it a Christian holiday in an attempt to convert more people, the Puritans banned it because they thought it was sacrilegious. Eventually, a milder, more religious version was reinstated, but many people still had lukewarm feelings toward it.
  • Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol at a dismal, desperate point in his life . . . his popularity had plummeted, his debts had increased, and his family life was stressful.
  • Nevertheless, the story was not some shoddy little thing he dashed off quickly in order to make a few pounds. The story consumed him (he admitted, "I was very much affected by the little Book myself"), and he really hoped that it would make a lasting impression on his audience.
  • At the time, Dickens' publishers were unhappy with him and wouldn't invest in A Christmas Carol. So Dickens had to pay for everything himself: the illustrations, publishing, binding, etc. In other words, A Christmas Carol was akin to a self-published novel.
  • A Christmas Carol was instantly well-received by the public. The first 6,000 copies sold within four days.
  • Because of relaxed, or even non-existent, copyright laws (especially between countries) piracy ensued soon after publication. Cheap editions were sold for pennies, other authors lifted the material and used it as their own, and theatrical reenactments could be put on without any sort of author's knowledge or permission.
  • A Christmas Carol impacted and enlarged such traditions as having a turkey for Christmas dinner (apparently, the goose industry really floundered after people read the scene where Scrooge buys a turkey twice the size of Tiny Tim), Christmas decorations, activities and games, and Father Christmas.
  • Dickens wrote several more short Christmas stories, and during his lifetime The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth were probably even more popular than A Christmas Carol.
Probably one of the most poignant moments in A Christmas Carol, aside from Tiny Tim, is the moment when the Ghost of Christmas Present flings back his robes to reveal the two small children who represent Ignorance and Want. I found it so interesting to learn about the events in Dickens' childhood that inspired that portion of the story. Although Dickens' didn't have as degenerate a childhood as many in 19th-century England, he was forced to give up his education and work in order to help his father get out of debtor's prison. 

Eventually, he was able to go back to school, at least for a short time, but I think having the two contrasting experiences helped him realize the value of education: without it, your life is stagnant and unchangeable; with it, you can progress and gain success. Prior to writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens' commented on the idea that "a little learning is a dangerous thing." He said: "Why, a little hanging was considered a very dangerous thing, according to the same authorities, with this difference, that, because a little hanging was dangerous, we had a great deal of it; and, because a little learning was dangerous, we were to have none at all."

And later on, while doing research for Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens' visited an impoverished school and said: "Side by side with Crime, Disease, and Misery in England, Ignorance is always brooding, and is always certain to be found."

These examples highlight one of the things I learned the most from reading this book and that was that, in spite of his personal faults and weaknesses, Dickens hoped to achieve good things with his writing. I think it is fairly common today to look at a story and say something critical like, "It was interesting enough, but it was obvious he had an agenda." Well, Dickens had an agenda too, but I can't help but respect and admire him for it. He knew his writing would reach the masses in one form or another and that it had the potential to change the hearts and minds of men and women.

Sometimes his stories got a little preachy, and in those moments, his words were his downfall. But in A Christmas Carol, he crafted something that was perfectly balanced, beautifully constructed, and emotionally powerful. Many have said that it is his best work, and if that is not true, then certainly it is his best-known work. It has become an icon of Christmas.

At one point in the book, Les Standiford made the observation: "Celebrating Christmas without some reference to A Christmas Carol seems impossible, a remarkable fact given that the book was published more than 150 years ago. Indeed, the resonance of the story has remained so strong through the generations that commentators have referred to Dickens as the man who invented Christmas."

This book not only gave me a deeper appreciation for Dickens' works (I can definitely see a Dickens novel in my reading agenda for 2014), but also strengthened my love of Christmas. This is a book that could be enjoyed any month of the year but that I especially enjoyed in the days leading up to Christmas.

An Early Christmas Present

Dec 23, 2013

One of the big differences between Mike's family and mine is how sentimentally attached we get to things. Mike's family re-gifts like crazy, and if you leave something at his parents' house, it will probably soon belong to someone else. My family hangs onto things, and consequently, I can still find most of the clothes I wore as a kid and most of the toys I played with . . . along with a million other items.

When I grew up and left home, I boxed up many of my favorite toys (my Playmobil and my dolls) and inconsiderately left everything else for my mom to deal with. As my boys have grown older, it's been fun to pull out my Playmobil on special occasions and let them play with it. I'm flooded with happy memories every time I set up the various pieces and people.

But Mike doesn't have any toys like that. I'm sure he had favorite toys, but he probably passed them onto younger siblings instead of selfishly boxing them up the way I did. So, aside from photographs, we don't really have any tangible items from Mike's childhood.

A few weeks ago, we were at his parents' house, and his mom said, "Aunt Kathy sent you a package." Aunt Kathy is Mike's dad's sister. She has thirteen children of her own and  probably close to fifty grandchildren, so I couldn't imagine what she could have had the time to send us.

We opened the box and pulled out an adorable wooden train.

Turns out, when Mike was probably thirteen or fourteen and in a woodworking class, he made the train. His older siblings had made similar trains when they took the class, and Mike wasn't going to play with it himself, so he decided to give it to Aunt Kathy's kids (his cousins).

Aunt Kathy included a note with the train saying that she thought it was time the train went back to its original owner so it could be enjoyed by his kids.

I often find myself battling my urge to be sentimental vs. my desire to have an uncluttered house. But in the case of this darling little train, sentimentality is winning. Even though this train isn't something that Mike himself played with, I still feel like we have a little piece of him when he was younger, something that he crafted with his own hands before he ever knew he'd have three little boys who would enjoy playing with it.

And they have enjoyed it! They've loaded it up with marbles and pulled it around the house and fought over whose turn it was to do what.

I'm so glad Aunt Kathy was sentimental enough to hang onto it all these years, and that when the time came to part with it, she was sentimental enough to ship it back to Mike instead of just doing the easy thing and taking it to the thrift store.

Mike, being his unsentimental self, probably doesn't care that much either way. But I definitely care. It means so much to me to have this little train and watch my boys play with it. It has definitely been one of the highlights of this Christmas season.

And, in the words of Aaron, "Dad was only fourteen when he made that? That's pretty good for a fourteen-year-old." Says the capable, confident five-year-old.

An Old-Fashioned Christmas Card

Dec 20, 2013

Want to know one of my very favorite things to read over the holidays? Christmas cards. (Sorry, cheesy opening line, but since this is a book blog I have to tie in reading somehow!)

And when I say I like reading Christmas cards, I don't mean on facebook or in my email or as an e-card.* I mean a real, honest-to-goodness, tangible card that I find in the mailbox with a stamp on it. I mean a card that I can rip open at the front door and hold in my hands. I mean a card that can become as much a part of our decorations as our Christmas tree or advent calendar.

If I'm being completely honest, the real reason I send out loads of Christmas cards is because I'm hoping to get loads of Christmas cards back. This is probably the only time of the year when I check my mailbox multiple times a day in the hopes that we've received something besides junk mail.

When I was growing up, my mom always had a little sled that she kept the Christmas cards in. (And, to this day, when we go home over the holidays, I always spend the first hour or so going through all of their cards and reading up on the lives of family, friends, and random people . . . I'm not picky when it comes to Christmas cards.)

Last year, I decided I wanted to be able to see all of our cards at a glance. We have incredibly tall cabinets in our kitchen, so I attached a long ribbon to the front of them and just used clothespins to secure the cards. (This was not my own idea. I saw it somewhere on the vast space of the internet, but I don't remember where. So, thank you, whoever thought this up first and shared it!)

 This is my kind of decorating: cheap, fast set-up, quick clean-up, and I can see and enjoy all of our cards.

And when I say easy, I really do mean easy. I just attached the ribbon to the back of the cabinet with masking tape, like so (as if you really need a picture of this):

My kids love looking at the cards, too. This is by far their favorite one:

They laugh every time they look at it and seek it out among all the other cards.

So this year, my Christmas card craving has been more than satisfied. All I have to do is look at this mass of cards, and I feel overwhelmingly blessed to know so many good people.

 *But if sending your Christmas good wishes via the internet makes your life less stressful, I'll take it! I like hearing from family and friends in any form!

Christmas Failures

Dec 18, 2013

I couldn't decide what to title this post: "5 Things That Didn't Go As Planned ," "A Few Christmas Disappointments," "Why 2-Year-Olds are Expensive," or "Trying to Force My Personal Taste Upon My Children."

"Christmas Failures" sounds melodramatic, but it's short and maybe a little bit eye-catching (you are reading this, after all). However, this post is really just an excuse to lament/vent/talk about a few of the things that have happened this month that haven't gone the way I wanted them to. Enjoy.

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My kids love watching Rudolph and Frosty and some of the other classic Christmas movies. After years of waiting on long hold lists for the DVDs at the library and then suffering through extremely scratched up, almost un-watchable copies, I finally decided, "Mike has a real job now. I think I can afford to just buy the collection for ourselves."

So I did.

We watched Frosty the Snowman as a family at the beginning of the month. And then the boys watched Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer a day or so later. A few days after that, I was desperate to artificially entertain Bradley (we were in the process of wrapping up a huge batch of caramels at the time), and so I decided to pull out Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which was on the second DVD, the one that hadn't been touched yet.

I opened up the case, and here's what I found:

It seems Bradley beat me to it. That child-safety feature definitely backfired. He couldn't pull it from the case, but he could snap the DVD right in half in his noble attempt.

I was ridiculously upset about this. I definitely need to learn to just chill out when it comes to little, inconsequential things. It was just so hard to see that cracked, un-fixable DVD that we hadn't even watched one time. It hadn't even been taken out of the case! It was sitting there, broken, firmly attached at the center. I begged Mike to fix it. What's an engineer for anyway? He said, "Oh yeah, I can fix that." And he bought a new one.

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We have been enjoying opening up a Christmas book every morning. There have been many good ones, but only one so far has been met with cheers and exclamations of, "Oh, I love this one!" It was The Bears' Christmas, and I was surprised and also, I admit, a little disappointed. It's not that I have anything against this whacky tale of Papa Bear's misadventures as he "teaches" Brother Bear how to ski and sled and skate. I guess I was just hoping some of the more sophisticated books (The Gift of the Magi or The Christmas Train) would get the same kind of response.

This was so popular that upon opening it, the boys immediately begged for me to read it (which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't), but I was busy getting ready for the day. So Aaron sat down, and with a brother on each side, he read it through not once, but twice. Can't beat that. Maybe it will be my new favorite, too.

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Every year, I try to help the boys make some new ornaments--one that they can keep for themselves and some more that they can give to their teachers.

This year, I found this darling homemade ornament that used newsprint. I had the brilliant idea of using pages from a book in place of the newspaper. And then I had the even more brilliant idea of using the pages from A Christmas Carol.

The ornaments themselves turned out cute enough, but the time involved was tremendous (tracing, cutting, modpodging, modpodging again, painting, modpodging, embellishing, etc.). And in the end, I could hardly see the words through the paint (which was the whole point of using A Christmas Carol!). In the tutorial I found, you could see the words through the paint much better, so she must have thinned out her paint a little or just used a better color.

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Anyone who knows me knows that I love having boys. They are rambunctious, yes, but they are also a lot of fun. For the most part, I enjoy all the hobbies and activities of little boys with a couple of exceptions: super heroes and guns.  I have tried very hard to completely ban these items from our home.

But last year, in a weak moment, I agreed to let Mike make the boys rubberband guns for Christmas. I wasn't as bothered by them since they seemed like such a classic toy and didn't have the commercial look about them.

But you should never open the door even an inch. When we sat down at the beginning of the month to write letters to Santa, all Aaron wanted was some Perler beads and, as he calls it, a "bullet gun" (like this one). I don't know why I didn't nip it in the bud right then and there. I guess I thought as the month went on, he would change his mind. But he has stayed very consistent with those two things.

It sounds so silly, but this has been agony for me. It's not an inherently bad request, and yet, I think boys are prone to violent play, so why should I encourage it with the accessories to go with it?

I feel a bit defeated, but Aaron is going to get what he asked for . . . but not from me. And not from Santa either (I don't want him to think he can bypass family rules by going through Santa Claus). Mike and I usually give separate gifts to the boys. I always give them books, and Mike gets them whatever he wants. So he is giving Aaron the bullet gun, and there will be strict rules attached . . . rules that I will be only too eager to enforce if need be. (I should probably mention that Mike and I discussed this matter at great length and that he wouldn't have gone ahead with it without my okay. So even though I am not in favor of it, I did give my consent . . . if that makes sense)

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And finally, in my recent post about our book advent calendar, you might recall that I said "I almost squealed" when I found Dream Snow at the thrift store. I had of course looked it over before purchasing it, and it seemed to be in near perfect condition (aside from needing new batteries for the last page in the book).

But then, after the boys opened it, we sat down to read it, and I was so disappointed to find two pages that weren't only torn but completely ripped out. Gone.

Turns out it wasn't squeal-worthy after all.

A Winter Dream by Richard Paul Evans

Dec 16, 2013

You knew this was coming, right? It is December after all. And if you remember my confession from last year, you know that I can't resist a predictable, sappy, happy-ending Christmas story.

This was pretty much all of the above.

Based on the Biblical account of Joseph and the coat of many colors, this modern story features Joseph Jacobsen, the twelfth of thirteen children. His father owns a successful advertising company, and Joseph is the apple of his eye. His older brothers are all aware of their father's bias, and they resent Joseph for it. Soon after the company wins a lucrative advertising campaign (thanks to Joseph's ingenuity), the brothers hatch a plan to get rid of him. They find out that the youngest brother, Ben, embezzled a substantial amount of money from the company, and they know Joseph will do anything to keep his younger brother from going to jail . . . including cutting all ties with his family and joining a large advertising firm in Chicago.

Leaving his entire life behind without so much as a good-bye is understandably traumatic for Joseph, but he throws himself into his new work, and his talent and work ethic quickly pay off. Following the story of Biblical Joseph, modern Joseph rises and falls and rises again, and eventually wrongs are made right, and forgiveness is asked for and offered.

I've read two other books by Richard Paul Evans where he takes an old story and gives it a modern twist  (The Christmas List, based on A Christmas Carol and Lost December, based on the Prodigal Son). I definitely like this format--it's fun to read something that is both familiar and different. But I also think there are times when the similarities can be carried too far.

For example, in this book, Evans' kept all twelve sons from the original account. I have nothing against big families (I'm from a rather large one myself), but twelve sons (plus one daughter) in a fictional story can be rather cumbersome. Plus, he kept all twelve names fairly intact: Rupert, Simon, Levi, Judd, Dan, Nate, Gage, Ashton, Isaac, Zach, Joseph, and Ben (as opposed to Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin). I almost felt like he should have just straight up used all of the actual names (but true, Naphtali is a little odd . . . ) or changed them all completely. And I think the point of the story (while still being true to the original account) could have been maintained with half as many children (it's not like Nate or Ashton ever got a speaking part anyway).

But then, there were elements to the story that I thought were truly creative. For example, when Joseph gets "banished" to one of the New York offices (a dumpy building with only three co-workers who affectionately label themselves the L.B. OutKasts), I found the whole scenario very entertaining (especially when they gradually get their original positions back and when Joseph finally gets called up to the top).

When Joseph's brothers banish him to Chicago, he gets hired by Leo Burnett, which apparently is a real advertising agency (I was not familiar with them before, but I guess I should have been--their clients include Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Kellogg's). I don't really understand how an author can place a fictional story in a legitimate company, especially when the main character rises to the very top of said company. Does he have to get permission to use the company's name? Or since everything else is fictional (characters, accounts, clients, etc.), is it just obvious that there are no real ties to the actual company?

Unlike the Biblical story, this one doesn't have religious elements. Even though Joseph does have foretelling dreams, he doesn't attribute them to God's hand in his life; he never prays; he never attaches his success to God's help. I can't decide if I appreciated this omission or not. In one sense, yes, I think a fictional story should not include the same spiritual elements involved in a true account. But on the other hand, no, do we really have to make everything so secular?

And finally, unlike some of Evans' other novels, this one had a decidedly rushed feel to it. There were times when I got the sense that Evans was looking at his checklist of Joseph plot points and said to himself, "And now, I need Potiphar's wife (i.e. Peter Potts' girlfriend) to seduce Joseph. Okay, they're at a party, she traps him in a room, and done. Next . . . " At times, it felt creative, but at other times it felt very contrived. Maybe Evans had an impending deadline with this one.

Overall, I liked it. It was a fun story, and really, I never seem to get irritated with Evans' actual writing like I do with some other popular authors. So if you're in the right mood for a predictable Christmas story, I'd recommend it.

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

Dec 13, 2013

I follow several book blogs that regularly review advance copies of books. I like seeing what books I have to look forward to, but it can also be agonizing to read an intriguing review and not be able to read the book immediately but instead have to wait weeks (or even months) for it to come out.

Such was the case with this book.

As early as this summer, it was already receiving a fair bit of Newbery attention, but it wasn't officially released until the end of September. And then, of course, it wasn't like the library had it on its shelves the day afterward. So it felt like I had to wait an eternity before I finally got a copy (really, it was just a few months).

Although I would have preferred not waiting, I'm glad I did because this is some pretty good middle-grade fiction.

Oscar lives in the Barrow, just east of Asteri (aka, the "Shining City"). He is the hand of the great magician, Caleb, which basically means he does all of the menial tasks: gathering, drying, chopping, and storing herbs, as well as dusting and cleaning the shop. He is not an apprentice (which, in the hierarchy of the village, is definitely more respectable than a lowly hand) and probably never will be, for in spite of his affinity for plants, he is socially awkward and inept.

But then, strange things begin happening in the Barrow: businesses and the forest are destroyed overnight by an unseen, monstrous hand; the Shining children (from Asteri) are getting sick (which is NOT supposed to happen); Caleb and the magic smiths are leaving the Barrow for days and weeks at a time without explanation. Oscar would rather stay in his cellar surrounded by plants and cats and wait for the troubles to go away on their own, but Callie (the healer's apprentice) pushes Oscar to reach outside himself and do what no one else will to save the village and the city.

This was my first experience with Anne Ursu's writing, and I was absolutely enchanted.  Her prose is simple but sparkling. For example, "[Caleb] smiled his cloaking smile, and Oscar folded himself up into it." When an author can find a way to make a smile more than just a smile but an experience, something that I can feel and remember, I could keep reading forever. Here's another one:  "'And what?' She hit the t so hard it felt like a slap." And also this one: "'And,' Callie said, words tiptoeing up to him, 'what do you think?'" Some people think there is no place for fiction, but how can there not be when words like this have the power to make me think about thoughts and emotions and actions in new and vibrant ways? The story may be made up, but the new ways I feel connected to people are most definitely real. (Incidentally, I've been meaning to read Ursu's Breadcrumbs for awhile, and you can bet it's now going to the top of my list for January.)

Besides just the beautiful writing, this is an intricate story that explores the complex web of good vs. evil: What is really good? Who is really evil?, etc. So many of the characters (Caleb, Mister Malcolm, the Shining people) exhibit conflicting motives, desires, and ambitions--not with each other per se, but with themselves. For example, Mister Malcolm is a baker who used to be a magician. He is kind and generous (good). He abandoned magic because he felt like it was being used unwisely and selfishly (good).  He decides to leave the Barrow because its problems seem overwhelming (maybe not  exactly bad but also not noble), and he feels like the magic-crazed citizens are getting their due (kind of sad). Mister Malcolm has the potential of being a wise mentor, but he takes the cowardly route instead. He's definitely not the most complex character in the story, but I used him as an example because he demonstrates what I mean about the personal struggle between good and evil without giving away any major plot points.

I also loved the setting for this story: the country of Aletheia with its rich and mysterious history (wizard trees, the Plaguelands, unblemished children). There was an element of mystery mixed in with the magic and problems, and everything came together in a really stunning piece of writing.

And the good news? This book is available at your local library right now. No waiting required!

Read Your Way to Christmas: 2013 Edition

Dec 11, 2013

Last December, we counted down the days to Christmas with a book advent calendar. You've seen the ideas, right? You wrap up (or you don't have to) 24 (or 25) Christmas books and unwrap (and read) one each day. My boys loved it. And I wrote up a post all about it, showing all 25 books and sharing a little personal info about each one.

And then I didn't publish it until after Christmas.

Yeah, I know, timing was everything on that one, and I completely missed it.

I don't think that post has been viewed once since it was published. So, will you make me feel better and go check it out now?

Thanks so much. That post just needed a little love.

Anyway, it was such a success last year I decided to do it again. Luckily, I found some replacements for some of the books I really disliked from last year (Good-bye, Max's Christmas), and so I'm even happier about the countdown this year than last year.

Since many of the books are the same, let me just highlight the new ones from this year.

(Oh, and as a side note, I've had several people ask me if I buy all new books for the countdown. Are you kidding me? 25 new Christmas books each year? No, thank you. These books are put away with all the other Christmas decorations, so it is just as exciting to open them as if they were brand new. Even more so, because they're like old friends that you haven't seen for 11 months. (Oh, and to tell you the truth, I bought most of them at our local thrift store, so we never ever saw them brand new.))

1. Christmas From Heaven - I already wrote about this one here. You know how much I love it. Nothing can beat a true story of human kindness and goodwill.

2. The Gift of the Magi - I have always loved this story, and I can't read it without hearing my dad's voice. This version, illustrated by P.J. Lynch, is absolutely gorgeous. The text is O. Henry's original words, but I'm hoping the pictures spread them out enough to keep my kids' attention (we haven't read it yet).

3. Dream Snow - I almost squealed when I found this at the thrift store. We read it from the library last year and loved it. It has these awesome transparencies of the falling snow, and of course you can't beat Eric Carle's timeless illustrations.

4. Dinosaur vs. Santa - I am not a huge fan of the Dinosaur vs. ______ series, but I actually think this one's kind of funny.

5. Can You See What I See: Night Before Christmas - Last year we had the little I Spy Christmas book, but it was getting a little too simple for Aaron and Maxwell. I can't wait for them to open up this one.

6. I'll Be Home for Christmas - Featuring the irresistible Toot and Puddle, this is just a fun story.

7. The Last Straw - This story is about a camel who makes a long journey and acquires many gifts for the Christ Child.

8. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree - I know a lot of people love this book. I actually haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

9. (not pictured) The Grinch Who Stole Christmas - In all my thrift store searching, I have yet to come across The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. It is one of my very favorites, so I succumbed and ordered it. Our Christmas collection needed it (at least, that's what I told Mike).

Books that didn't make the cut this year (some of these I still put out, I just didn't wrap them up):

1. Country Angel Christmas
2. The Night Before Christmas
3. Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas (this one I kept out so Aaron could read it)
4. Max's Christmas
5. Christmas Mouse
6. Ernest's Special Christmas
7. I Spy Little Christmas
8. The Cheerios Christmas Play Book

Some of you might wonder why, with all my love for the library, I don't just check out all the books for our countdown.

Three reasons:
  • Getting the holiday books you want from the library is an extreme pain (and you can't count on them becoming available before December 25th).
  • If you do plan ahead and put them all on hold in a timely manner, there's no guarantee that someone else won't also put them on hold, and you'll end up having to unwrap them so you can return them.
  • I love being able to love these books as much as we want to without worrying about fines and such.
One of main reasons I love doing a book advent calendar is that it spreads our books out for the entire month, so we get to savor each book before moving onto the next. It also makes it so we enjoy all our books, not just our very favorites because we read the new one each day.

Do you do a book advent calendar? What are your favorite Christmas/holiday books?

The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis

Dec 9, 2013

The end of the year is fast approaching, and I'm rushing to finish the last of my reading goals for 2013. (I'm so, so close. Reading the last book I need as I write this. Okay, not as I write this. You know what I mean.)

One of my goals was to finish a series that I had started sometime in the past. I had many series to choose from, but you all convinced me that the unfinished Chronicles of Narnia was a travesty not to be lightly overlooked. I had read the first three (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and Voyage of the Dawn Treader), so I needed to read the last four to complete the series.

Everyone who pushed me to finish The Chronicles of Narnia was right. I'm a little embarrassed it took me so long to read them all (especially since everyone else in my family loves the books and has probably read all of them multiple times).  Well, now I've joined the ranks.

When the story begins, Narnia appears to be at peace. But all is not right beneath the surface. The Calormene people are greedy for power, and deceit and betrayal begin to snatch away all but the most faithful Narnians. One of the instigators of this evil plot is an ape named Shift who convinces Puzzle, the donkey, to put on a lion skin and pretend to be Aslan. It has been so long since anyone has seen Aslan that the masquerade comes off surprisingly well. However, Tirian, king of Narnia, is not so easily convinced but doesn't have enough faithful followers to expose the deception. As the despair begins to set in, Jill and Eustace arrive from England, and they are soon followed by Digory, Polly, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy. (Susan no longer believes in Narnia and so does not have the opportunity to come with the rest.) Together they discover that Aslan has plans for Narnia, plans so wonderful and great none of them could have dared imagine or dream them.

One of the things that continued to surprise me with each book was how little I knew about it before I read it. I guess I just thought since Narnia has been such a well-known name to me since childhood that the plots and characters would feel familiar even though I hadn't read them before. But they didn't. Each book was a delight and a surprise as the plot unraveled itself and new characters were introduced. Even though I didn't read all of them when I was eight, in many ways I felt like a kid again because I was reading them with completely fresh eyes and an unbiased mind. 

Even with this last book, I found myself going into it thinking I knew all about Narnia only to be surprised by a cast of entirely new characters: a unicorn, donkey, ape, cat, and dogs, all of which never make a memorable appearance in any of the other stories. Maybe one of the reasons I have a hard time finishing a series is just that I get a little bored with it all after the third or fourth (or even second . . .) book. Each book is just a continuation of the last with the same types of adventures happening again and again.

But with Narnia, although the setting and the children remain somewhat the same (bringing continuity to the series as a whole), each book is an entirely new adventure with new problems, new villains, new friends, and new lessons learned.

With this last book, the story didn't grab me as quickly, and I was worried the symbolism wasn't going to be as poignant or as powerful as in the other books. But the story was just being set up, and so when the symbolism finally came, it was all the richer for having waited for it.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes (and corresponding thoughts). (Forgive me if they're not exact quotes since I was transcribing them from the audio.)

  • "Tirian had never dreamed that one of the results of the ape's setting up a false Aslan would be to stop people from believing in the real one." When Lewis wrote that line, I wonder if he had any idea how true it would be of the world today . . . how we fill our lives with so many tangible things, it's easy to stop believing in Someone who doesn't demand our attention.
  • This next quote comes from Emeth, one of the few Calormenes who is not lost in Narnia's destruction. As he is wandering in the Real Narnia, he meets Aslan and is amazed that Aslan knows and loves him since all his life he has served the Calormen god, Tash. Aslan explains that Emith's heart and intentions have always been in the right place. As Emeth tells his story to Eustace and Jill and the others, he says,  "And my happiness is so great that it even weakens me like a wound. And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me 'Beloved.' Me, who is but as a dog." I have a feeling that I will feel much the same way when I finally meet my Savior: wonder, awe, and gratitude.
  • The next two quotes are similar, as they both describe the various characters' reactions to discovering that they are still in Narnia. First, from Lord Digory, "Listen, Peter, when Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of, but that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow, or a copy, of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here. Just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world." And also this one, from Jewel, the unicorn: "I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this." What a beautiful way to describe the transformation of the world that is described in the scriptures. In some ways, C.S. Lewis reminds me of Albert Einstein. They both had a unique understanding of time and space--one spiritual, one scientific, but who knows but that they're not the same.
  • And finally, this quote: "But very quickly, they all became grave again, for, as you know, there is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes." I don't know that I've ever heard this kind of happiness described so well, but I've felt it, and I think C.S. Lewis captured it beautifully. 
Before I wrap this up, I just want to say one thing (okay, maybe two or three) about Susan. After the first two books, she is mentioned only briefly, here and there, through the rest of the series. But even without knowing the details, her fall from belief is tragic. I don't think children reading the book will understand the gravity of it all (especially since it is skimmed over), but surely adults cannot miss it. Susan was a queen of Narnia. A queen. And yet, she lost her estate. It is definitely a good reminder to me that no matter how strong your testimony is or the depth of your understanding, it is possible to fall away and lose it. We must all hold fast to that which is precious.

Even though this wasn't my very favorite of the Narnia books, I thought it was a perfect ending to the series. It felt complete while still giving a hint that the story was far from finished and that new adventures would continue to happen. Reading this series has been one of the highlights of my year, and I even put the collection on my Christmas list because I want these books to be a part of our family.

Bah Humbug

Dec 4, 2013

I love Christmas. It is by far my favorite holiday. I love the whole month of anticipation and activities leading up to it; I love the Christmas carols and songs; I love the transformation of the dark and dismal streets into elegant splendor. And I love focusing on the incomprehensible love and sacrifice of the Savior.

But I don't love everything about the Season. At the risk of offending the majority of my readers, here are five things I fervently wish would go (and stay) away:

1. Elf on the Shelf. I know this is supposedly a revived tradition from the 1950's, but it seems more like a commercialized scheme to me. Honestly, I think if this was someone's personal family tradition, I might think it was kind of cute and creative, but where everyone has their own little elf to keep an eye on them during the day and then wreak havoc at night, it's just so ridiculous for so many reasons: 1) I know the elf doesn't have to do naughty things, but many of them do (that seems to kind of be the point), and that just seems like a horrible message for my kids (you better watch out, you better not cry, but let's all laugh about Bobby the Elf spilling soda pop all over the floor and making snow angels in rice). 2) It feels so fake to me. Even if I was a fan, I don't think I could pull off the nightly deceptions. (What about Santa, you ask? That's a whole other discussion, but even though Santa comes to our house, I try to focus more on other things. Still, I know I'm a bit of a hypocrite on this point.) 3) It's one more daily thing to clutter my life. We do have lots of holiday traditions (some of them daily), but I try to only hang onto ones that I feel strongly about and enjoy doing every year. So if you do Elf on the Shelf, I hope it's filling your life with joy and happiness. (I found this article on the Nauvoo Times to be very validating.) I had a feeling Aaron would probably be hearing about elves on shelves from kids at school, and so before he even asked about it, I flat out told him there was no way we'd ever get one. Just call me Scrooge.

2. Inflatable decorations. You know what I'm talking about, right? Giant Santa Clauses and Grinches and Snoopys that blow up like balloons and fill up your entire front yard. They look so tacky and cheap to me, and it seems like the lazy man's way of decorating: instead of stringing lights around your trees, why not stick a giant purple hippo wearing a Santa Claus hat on your front porch (you think I'm kidding . . . I drove past this very thing today) and call it good?

3. Jingle Bell Rock, etc. I'm as much a fan of fun Christmas songs as the next person. I like Jingle Bells and Frosty and Have a Holly Jolly Christmas. But I am not a fan of poorly composed Christmas songs with stupid lyrics performed by some obnoxious singer on a synthesizer. I'd rather drink a gallon of eggnog (see #5). 

4. Santa Claus' new persona. Instead of being a figure of generosity, kindness, and goodwill, there are so many movies, books, songs, decorations, and commercials that paint Santa as a big, fat, bumbling idiot. Santa Claus with sunglasses and polka-dotted shorts playing a saxophone? Why would I want to believe in someone like that? That is not the Santa I grew up believing in, and if that's the image my boys are creating from the superficial commercialization they see everywhere, then I guess we won't be believing in Santa Claus for much longer.

5. Eggnog. I used to drink it because my family had special Christmas mugs to sip it from, but it's foul stuff, and I'm done with it.

Whew, that felt good, but do I have any friends left? Does anyone else agree with me? What are the things that make you say "Bah humbug"?

Christmas From Heaven: The True Story of the Berlin Candy Bomber

Dec 2, 2013

One of my favorite moments from last Christmas was going to the Mormon Tabernacle Christmas Concert with my dad. Those few hours together were a rare treat, and we both came away feeling like we'd been given a special gift. I wish I could think of a way to describe what it's like to sit in such a magnificent building and be encompassed by glorious music, all while experiencing it with someone you dearly love.

For both of us, the most magical part of the evening was when guest narrator, Tom Brokaw, shared the story of Hal Halvorsen, a pilot who helped with the relief effort to Berlin following WWII.

This year, that narration has been turned into a picture book. When I saw the cover to it, I was beside myself. It is rather remarkable what the combination of an inspiring true story and beautiful illustrations will do to me. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy of the book from the publisher, and I eagerly checked the mail every day for two weeks in the hope that it had arrived.

My first time through it was with Aaron, and I could not keep my emotions down as I read him the story of how one small act transformed into something much bigger and impacted the lives of thousands of people . . .

When 27-year-old Hal Halvorsen began dropping flour and other supplies to the people of West Berlin, he was touched by the gratitude and optimism of the children in the face of such harsh circumstances. Following one landing, he wanted to give them something special, but he only had two sticks of gum. Afraid that he might cause a fight, he still went ahead and handed the measly two sticks to thirty children and watched in amazement as they tore the wrappers into thin strips and each took a turn sniffing the foreign and delicious smell.

That experience inspired Hal to ask some of his army buddies to donate the gum and chocolate from their rations to give to other children. They tied the treats to handkerchiefs, wiggled the wings of the plane as a signal, and let the treasures drop from the sky to the arms of the eagerly waiting children. Hal became known as the Candy Bomber, and before long, the operation caught the attention of many others, and donations began pouring in. The basic necessities had enabled survival, but the candy brought an even more needed hope.

This story is no less beautiful or inspiring as a picture book than it was as a large scale performance. The text, written by David T. Warner, is actually the same as what was so eloquently narrated by Tom Brokaw. It seems to work just as well for kids as it did for adults. It is factual but simple with plenty of interesting dialogue and asides.

The illustrations are wonderful. They are all done in muted, sepia tones, which lends an authentic feel to them. I especially like the depictions of Hal: with his ruddy cheeks and brilliant smile, it is easy to see why the children loved him so much, even before he started dropping candy.

But what I love even more than the illustrations are the real photographs that are scattered throughout. This really brought the story to life for Aaron. He could see what the actual planes looked like; he saw the real faces of children, some the same age as him; he looked at a photo of Hal with his arms full of parachutes. And he knew that this story wasn't made up. It really happened.

Included with this book is a DVD of this portion of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Concert. I watched it and was unprepared for the flood of memories that came back to me as I remembered what it was like to sit in that very hall and watch the parachutes float down from the ceiling and gasp when the curtain fell away to reveal the real 92-year-old Hal Halvorsen. I watched, and new tears streamed down my cheeks as the beauty and depth of the story again filled me with joy and hope.

I think another reason this story is so perfect is because it feels applicable. Hal's father always told him, "From little things come big things." Handing two sticks of gum through a barbed wire fence felt like a little thing. In fact, it was so little, Hal almost didn't do it. But that one small act grew and snowballed and ended up helping many, many children. This story is applicable not because I'm going to do the same things as Hal Halvorsen but because I can do small things too. I can give a present to the sweet crossing guard at Aaron's school or give a donation to the food bank or leave a surprise on someone's doorstep. I don't have to let the idea that my actions won't make a difference stop me from doing something.

I am so grateful to have this book as part of our Christmas collection. Every year, we will be able to take it out and be inspired anew by what Hal Halvorsen did. I really like this quote from the book: "Day by day, the parachutes brought peace and the candy renewed hope. The children made friends of their former enemies, and their parents' hearts were softened. The wounds of war began to heal." I think in a country so devastated by war, the physical necessities were obvious. But Hal realized there was something more he could do that would replenish life-saving hope. And he did it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

If you would like more information about this book or are interested in purchasing it, you can visit Deseret Book.

I was generously given a hardback copy of this book from the publisher, but all opinions are entirely my own.
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