Reading Goals: Check, Check, and Check

Dec 29, 2014

It was by the skin of my teeth, but I did it. On Christmas Day, I finished the last book I needed to complete all my reading goals.

It was a fun year of reading, and once again, I'm really happy I set some goals at the beginning of the year to help guide my reading.

Here's how it all went down (book titles linked to full reviews):

1. Read something that I put on my to-read list in 2009
I have dozens of books on my to-read list that have been there for so long, I basically just scroll past them when I'm trying to decide what to read next. I made this goal in an effort to stop the scrolling and newly consider some of those titles again. I thought I would for sure read more than one book from my 2009 list, but I didn't. It turns out it's hard to give priority to books I've easily overlooked for the last five years. The book I read to complete this goal was In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (April 2014).

2. Read something that I've checked out once from the library and had to take back before I could read it
Back in January, I mentioned two books that I currently had checked out that would qualify for this goal (since I'd checked out both of them once before): 168 Hours and The Great Unexpected. But . . . I returned both of them to the library without reading them. So there's the evidence right there: I have a bad habit of checking out too many books and returning many of them without reading them.

The book I ended up checking out again and actually reading this time was A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty (June 2014).

3. Reread a book from my childhood
I figured as long as I was rereading a book I had enjoyed as a child, I might as well read it to my own children. I picked The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (even though I actually have much more vivid memories of the second book in the series, The Four-Story Mistake). We read it in November 2014, but if you've read my review of it, you'll know that even though we enjoyed it, it didn't quite create the warm, nostalgic feelings I was going for.

4. Finish a series I already started
This was one of my favorite goals last year (when I finished The Chronicles of Narnia), and I'm so glad I made it again this year. I decided to finish The Little House on the Prairie series, and reading those books was an indescribable treat. Given my lukewarm feelings toward Little House in the Big Woods (which I read several years ago), it's kind of amazing how much I now love the series as a whole. But love it I do. If I was pressed to choose a favorite, I think I'd have to go with Little Town on the Prairie, but it would be a really difficult choice.

For more of my thoughts on each book:

February 2014: By the Shores of Silver Lake
February 2014: The Long Winter
July 2014: Little Town on the Prairie
July 2014: These Happy Golden Years
August 2014: The First Four Years

I'm pretty sure Farmer Boy is on the docket for 2015. I just can't wait any longer to read it to my boys.

5. Read another installment in a series I already started
This goal was different from the one above because it gave me a chance to continue on in a series I was enjoying without having the pressure of finishing the whole thing off. Plus, there are some series that do really well with a little dip here and there without taking the whole thing in one gigantic gulp. So I decided to read Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith, the second book in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. While I liked the first book in the series, I really liked this second one (September 2014). I'm excited to take another little dip into Botswana and read the third installment in the near future.

6. Read something by Dickens
At the end of 2013, I knew I wanted to make reading another Dickens novel a priority in 2014, so I made it its own goal. I held off completing it until October 2014 (because Dickens just goes so well with October), but then I read Oliver Twist. And I was not disappointed. Except by the very last paragraph.

7. Read something less well-known by an author I love
I deliberated a long time about this one. I narrowed it down to three favorite authors: Daphne du Maurier, Sharon Creech, and Betty Smith. I finally went with Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith because that's just what I happened to be in the mood for when I had time to complete this goal. It was a great choice. I don't know that it topped A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Francie Nolan is hard to beat), but it definitely didn't disappoint.

8. Listen to something I've already read or vice versa
I completed this goal during the first half of the year when I read a hard copy of Navigating Early (May 2014) after listening to the audio version in 2013.

But then . . . wait for it . . . I decided to do the reverse experiment and listen to a book I had previously read (I know, overachiever right here). I listened to The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (November 2014). While I hadn't loved it in paper form, the audio changed my mind. (Having a different experience with another format definitely left me wondering how many other books I would have enjoyed more (or less) if I'd read them another way. I guess I'll never know.)

9. Read four Newbery contenders
I read four and enjoyed them all. I'd be happy to see any of them get some Newbery love, although I think Brown Girl Dreaming was my favorite (and it's the only one I now own, if that's any indication).

June 2014: A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
August 2014: West of the Moon by Margi Preus
November 2014: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
December 2014: Greenglass House by Kate Milford

10. Read a biography
The big surprise of 2014 was that out of all ten goals, this one was the hardest to complete. Harder than the goals with multiple books. Harder than Dickens. I chose to read Fire in the Bones (December 2014), a biography of William Tyndale by S. Michael Wilcox, which didn't seem like an overly ambitious biography, but for some reason it took me forever to get through. Out of all the check marks, I'm most proud of this one.

And that's it--18 books to complete 10 goals. Stay tuned because next week I will share my reading goals for 2015. Try to contain your excitement.

What was your favorite book of 2014? Most challenging? Most inspiring? Please share in the comments!

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Dec 26, 2014

You might remember that I put this book on my October reading list.

And then I took it off.

And put it on my December reading list instead.

Within the first few pages, I discovered that the story took place during winter break, immediately before Christmas, and that the inn was covered in a blanket of snow. Definitely December fare.

As it turned out, the last 130 pages actually happen on Christmas Eve, and I just happened to read a big chunk of those 130 pages on Christmas Eve. I didn't purposely plan it that way, but my weird obsession with reading the right book at the right time was very satisfied.

When Mike asked me what this book was about, I said, "Oh, it's a mystery. Middle-grade. Takes place during the holidays." And then after such a gripping description, I wondered why he didn't seem all that interested in hearing more about it.

Hmmm, maybe it's because I didn't tell him that Greenglass House is an inn that usually boards smugglers (most of them smuggle really harmless things like house plants or ballpoint pens--the notorious Deacon and Morvengarde hold the market on just about everything, and so if anyone wants to buy anything at a decent price, it has to come from the smugglers).

Maybe it's because I didn't tell him that Milo and his family own the inn, but it used to be the home of Doc Holystone (one of the more famous smugglers). When the story begins, Milo is just finishing up the last of his homework so he can enjoy the entire stretch of winter break worry free. The holidays are a slow time at Greenglass House, so he and his parents are looking forward to some quiet family time.

But then (and maybe this would have helped pique Mike's interest), the bell rings, indicating that a guest is at the base of the mountain and waiting to ride the Whilforber Whirlwind (a single rail car that is one of the only ways to get to Greenglass House--unless you like to climb hundreds of stairs) up to Greenglass House. Milo is more than a little disgruntled about the imposition on his holiday, but things only get worse when the bell rings again . . . and again . . . and before he knows it, the inn is full of a strange mix of guests who all seem surprised and displeased to find more guests than just themselves there.

It soon becomes apparent that all of the guests have an unexplainable interest in the house, and so Milo and his friend, Meddy, invent a role-playing game to try to uncover the host of mysteries that exist in Greenglass House--things Milo would have never dreamed were a part of the home he had lived in his whole life.

If that wouldn't have been enough to spark Mike's curiosity, then I hope it at least sparked yours because really, this a middle-grade novel worth reading. It's been getting some Newbery attention, and I'm really thrilled about that. The writing is fantastic, and it's a complex story with a myriad of little pieces that all (rather amazingly) fit together in the end.

Towards the end, there's a pretty big reveal that I wasn't expecting at all. At first I didn't know how I felt about it, but it had been led up to really well (there were so many clues I should have seen but didn't), and it actually fit the mood and plot of the story really well. So in the end, I liked it, and now I won't say anything more about it because I would hate to spoil the discovery for anyone else.

Another thing I didn't know if I was going to like was the role-playing angle of the story. When Milo and Meddy start discussing it and inventing their characters, it seemed like it was about to go in a direction that was a little too dangerously close to Dungeons & Dragons (something I know just enough of to know I don't want to know anymore).

But besides all of the mystery, there's another side of the story. Milo is adopted from China, and he's at an age where he's incredibly curious about his heritage. Because of the type of adoption, it's not really possible for him to learn anything about his birth family, but he can't help thinking and wondering about them sometimes. This sometimes brings on feelings of guilt because he really loves his mom and dad, and so he worries he's somehow being disloyal to them if he thinks about the family he'll never know. Even though it doesn't start out that way, the role-playing actually helps Milo explore some of his feelings and figure out who he is. As part of the game, he becomes Negret, the blackjack; Meddy becomes Sirin, the scholiast. Through the role-playing, they have moments like this one:
"Milo knew, of course, that no antique bric-a-brac in Greenglass House was even remotely likely to be connected to his own ancestry, even if it did have Chinese writing on it. Negret, on the other hand--Negret knew no such thing. Negret, he thought with a little thrill, could perhaps know the exact opposite.
Through the game, Milo not only explores his feelings about being adopted, he begins to confront some of his fears and insecurities. Negret isn't shaken by unexpected circumstances. Negret is stealthy and observant. And pretty soon, Milo is all of those things too.

However, I also loved a point in the story when Milo realizes that, as Negret, "he could call upon the exploit that would allow him to tell a perfect lie, but Milo discovered he didn't want to try the Fabulist out on his parents." It was nice to see him recognize his potential but also realize that, morally, there are just some things not worth doing and a trust worth building and maintaining.

I've spent a lot of time in this review talking about Milo and his self-discovery, but the mystery is probably the bigger story (or at least takes up more time to tell), and it wouldn't be possible without a cast of truly fantastic characters who each have their own history and agenda. There's Mr. Vinge and Georgie and Dr. Gowervine and Mrs. Hereward and Clem and Owen. There are Milo's parents and Mrs. Caraway and Meddy. There's Fenster and Brandon and Doc Holystone. Each one made a contribution, without which the story would have been lacking a certain degree of suspense and intrigue.

And then of course the house--I don't know what it was about the descriptions but I felt like I was literally walking through Greenglass Inn. Even now, as I'm writing it, I can see the green glass knob that led into the Emporium. I can see the poinsettia at the end of the hallway and the stained glass windows on each landing. I can feel the cold wind on the fire escape and hear the creak of the stairs. It was all so vivid and memorable--to the point that if I was all of a sudden dropped down on the front door, I think I'd know my way around it pretty well.

This really was a perfect way to spend the holiday break. It's a book you can cozy up with and get lost in, and I'm excited to share it with my kids in a few years.

Content note: there's a very little bit of mild language that you might want to be aware of if you're going to let a young child read it.

Merry Christmas

Dec 25, 2014

After weeks of really no snow to speak of, we woke up to this:

That's Christmas magic. Right there.

KidPages: Two Newly Found Christmas Favorites

Dec 24, 2014

Besides our book-a-day Christmas countdown, we've checked out some seasonal books from the library (and, miracle of miracles, some of the books I reserved actually came in before Christmas!).

Here are two new (if you consider books published in 1993 and 1996 "new") favorites:

1. Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present by John Burningham

Mr. Gumpy's Outing is a favorite around here, but I had no idea about this Christmas book by John Burningham until earlier this month. I'm so glad I heard about it because we liked it so much it will probably join our collection sometime in the future.

When the story begins, Santa is just returning home after a long night of delivering presents to boys and girls around the world. He tucks the reindeer into bed (one of them is feeling a little under the weather) and is just climbing in bed himself when he notices a lump in his bag. On examination, he discovers he failed to deliver a present--to one Harvey Slumfenburger (and if that's not a fun name to say, I don't know what is). Harvey Slumfenburger lives at the top of the Roly Poly Mountain. His parents are very poor . . . so poor, in fact, that the only present he ever receives on Christmas Day is from Santa Claus. And Santa forgot to deliver it!

Santa knows that even though his reindeer are already in bed and even though he himself is exhausted, he can't let Christmas Day come for Harvey Slumfenburger without a Christmas present waiting for him. And so, he sets out, and, with the help of a few kindhearted people, manages to make it just in time.

The story is told through engaging repetition, and, as Santa meets with one disaster after another, that repetition conveys a sense of urgency to the reader: Please let Santa get to Harvey Slumfenburger's house on time! Please don't let him wake up on Christmas morning and not find a present! Hurry Santa, hurry!

I wish this was the way Santa Claus was portrayed in every book: as someone who is kind, selfless, and willing to do whatever it takes to make it a merry Christmas for all children. If that was the case, I think my lukewarm feelings toward him would disappear.

2. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojchechowski, illus. P.J. Lynch

I've been hearing about this book for years. And I even had it checked out at one point but decided against reading it to my kids because it looked too long for them at the time.

But this year I checked it out again, and a couple of days ago we read it. It definitely wasn't too long anymore. In fact, my kids listened with rapt attention the entire time.

From the cover, you might assume that it's going to be about a kind and gentle carpenter who lovingly nurtures a little boy. But that's the Christmas miracle. Because when it begins, Jonathan Toomey is anything but kind, gentle, loving, and nurturing. In fact, most people in the village refer to him as Mr. Gloomey instead of Mr. Toomey because he is so gruff and grumpy.

But what the village doesn't know is that there's a reason for Jonathan Toomey's gruffness (as there almost always is). Several years before, Jonathan's wife and little baby son became ill and died. What is perceived as grouchiness is actually a mask to cover up the pain he is still feeling.

Enter the widow McDowell and her young son, Tommy. The widow commissions Jonathan to carve a nativity set to replace a lost family heirloom. Every few days, she and Tommy stop by to check on the progress. Eventually Tommy works up the courage to give Jonathan a few suggestions about the pieces he's carving ("my sheep looked happy," "my cow looked proud") and even asks if Jonathan will teach him how to carve.

As they spend more time together, Jonathan's walls begin to come down and his heart begins to soften. He allows himself to love (and be loved) again. As he carves the final two pieces (Mary and the Baby Jesus), he draws inspiration from the perfect place.

This is a sentimentally sweet story. If that's not your thing, you're not going to like it. But I happened to love it (and yes, I choked up at the end). The illustrations are gorgeous (I think my favorite page is the same one that's used for the cover) and tell the story almost as well as the words. Jonathan's transformation is gradual and believable.

My kids loved it too. There's no Santa Claus or reindeer or snow-packed action, but I think even they recognized that this is what Christmas is really about: love, giving, and the power of a Little Baby to heal our hearts and change our lives.

Tell me: what are the Christmas books you've discovered this year?

Fire in the Bones by S. Michael Wilcox

Dec 22, 2014

Four years ago, Elder D. Todd Christofferson (a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) opened his General Conference address with these words:
"On October 6, in the year 1536, a pitiful figure was led from a dungeon in Vilvorde Castle near Brussels, Belgium. For nearly a year and a half, the man had suffered isolation in a dark, damp cell. Now outside the castle wall, the prisoner was fastened to a post. He had time to utter aloud his final prayer, 'Lord! open the king of England’s eyes,' and then he was strangled."
My interest was piqued. The man he was speaking of was William Tyndale, and much of the information he went on to share was compiled from the biography, Fire in the Bones by S. Michael Wilcox. That evening, I put it on my to-read list, and the good thing about Goodreads is that it doesn't let you forget about the books you put on there . . . even if it takes four years for you to pick them up.

At the beginning of this year, I decided that I really wanted to make an effort to read this book, so I made one of my goals, "read a biography." As far as biographies go, this one is on the short side (only 235 pages), so I figured it would be a relatively easy goal to check off.

. . . And then, after almost an entire year and multiple renewals, I finally finished it. It turned out to be slower going than I originally thought, but I'll talk about that in a minute.

First, let me tell you a little about William Tyndale. He lived during the 16th century, and while you might not recognize his name, you almost certainly would recognize some of his words, including some that are especially appropriate at this time of year: "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

In 1520, the Bible was confined almost entirely to Latin, which made it purposely inaccessible to the common people. A few incomplete translations had been rendered, but Tyndale decided to take on the entire New Testament with the goal that "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou [the pope and clergy] dost."

With the help of several brave friends, Tyndale translated the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament, published his translations, and got them into the hands of men and women who were starving for the word of God. He lived in exile and eventually was found and executed.

Before reading this book, I didn't give much thought to the differences in various translations of the scriptures. Of course I knew there were differences, and I know many people who compare various translations to gain added insight into the scriptures, but since we mainly use the King James translation of the Bible, I didn't think much about where some of the phrases we know and love, such as "still small voice," "I stand at the door and knock," and "let there be light," came from.

All three of the above quotes happened to be translated as such by Tyndale, and I really thought it was fascinating to learn about how his translations influenced the English language in general, as well as the language of the scriptures. I was especially interested to learn about the word "atonement." Although Tyndale didn't create the word, he was the first person to use it in reference to "Christ's redeeming act." It happens to be one of the words most loved in my faith because it attempts to encompass all that Christ did for us when He took our sins upon Himself. And while it's rather audacious to assume that a single word could convey the magnitude of such an event, the word "atonement" tries to do just that, and I'm so grateful we have it.

While I loved learning about this quiet, but incredibly valiant, man (and it increased my appreciation of the scriptures by probably a hundredfold), I won't pretend there weren't sections that were a bit tedious to get through. S. Michael Wilcox tells much of the story through eyewitness accounts and relies especially heavily on John Foxe (a contemporary of Tyndale). My Old English reading skills are not very proficient (although a quick search on wikipedia tells me it's not even Old English that was being spoken in 1526, but "Early Modern English"), and I had to read multiple paragraphs multiple times to try to figure out what they were talking about. (And when you are doing a lot of rereading, even a short book can seem to drag on and on.)

But then there were parts of the book that whipped right along. For example, when I was reading about Tyndale's betrayal by Henry Phillips (a man straight out of a Dickens' novel if ever there was one), I didn't have to make myself read it at all. I wanted to find out what was going to happen next (even though I was already aware of Tyndale's fate).

This particular biography of William Tyndale is probably different from most of the other ones out there (not having read any others, I'm taking a wild guess here) because it's written by an LDS author. So S. Michael Wilcox makes a lot of connections between the Bible and the Book of Mormon and also makes the logical point that without William Tyndale, the boy Joseph Smith would not have been sitting in his living room reading the Bible. He would not have read the verse in James that reads: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God," which prompted him to go to a secluded grove of trees. He would not have had a vision that changed the course of his life and led to the restoration of the Gospel.

While I really liked the added insight this perspective gave to my own beliefs (the chapter that talked about Nephi's vision where he saw the early colonists traveling across the ocean with a book that was "of great worth" to them was especially poignant for me), it might not be for everyone. But then again, it might. If you are not Mormon and end up reading it, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

As I read about Tyndale's struggles and many sacrifices, I couldn't help but think about what his reaction would be if he knew about the easy access most individuals now have to a Bible. There's a copy of it in the nightstand of every hotel room. You can buy it for 50 cents at the local Goodwill. You can read it for free on the internet.

Tyndale said: "I would wish even all women to read the gospel and the epistles of St. Paul . . . I wish that the husbandman may sing parts of them at his plow, that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle, that the traveller may with their narratives beguile the weariness of the way." It seems his wish has been fulfilled, but there's a part of me that wonders if having it at our fingertips has devalued it. Has the pendulum swung to the opposite side? When no one could read it, everyone wanted to. Now everyone can, but no one wants to. 

Reading about Tyndale's death and the deaths of so many others (seriously, the authorities did not bat an eye about executing anyone, guilty or not) to put this book into the hands of common people deepened my appreciation of it so much. I can't even tell you. I am so grateful that I can hold it in my hands and read it each afternoon or evening. There have been times in my life when I didn't give it the value it deserved, but I hope I never treat it so lightly again. 

Why Australia Was the Perfect Trip

Dec 19, 2014

in the airport

I am not one for keeping up on current events (Mike does enough for both of us), but you can be sure I followed the hostage situation in Sydney earlier this week. Just a couple weeks before, I was walking very close to where it happened. I wish it had turned out better but am so grateful it wasn't worse. We feel a connection with that country that I hope we never lose.

It's safe to say that Australia most likely ruined us from ever traveling again (while at the same time giving us this intense desire to see more of the world). It was as near to a perfect trip as you could possibly get, and I'm fairly confident in saying that nothing else will ever quite match up.

It's not that Australia is the be all, end all, nor the ultimate vacation getaway. It's just that, for us, all the stars seemed to align, and everything just seemed to work out.

 palm beach


I keep trying to tell people how awesome our location was, and no one seems to get it. Anne and Nate literally could not have lived any closer to the beach. This is the view from their balcony:

 manly beach

And of course, now I'm just feeling super frustrated because even though I'm showing a picture of it, it's too bright, and you can't hear the crash of the waves or smell the salt or feel the ocean breeze. But let me tell you how amazing it was. We could say, "We're going surfing now," grab the boards, cross the street, and we were there. When we were done, we could cross the street the other way and immediately hop into a hot shower. No parking, no driving, no planning. It was just there. (Besides the beach, they also live next to the Corso, a strip mall with unlimited access to fish-n-chips, souvenirs, groceries, peachees, and other necessities.

And for all of this, we paid the grand price of . . . nothing. I just don't know how you beat that.

Christmas downtown


If we had had to spend our entire vacation on Anne and Nate's beach, you wouldn't have heard us complain (Mike, I'm sure, would have gone snorkeling every single day). But part of the reason the trip was so amazing was because of the variety of activities we got to do. We spent a lot of time on the beach for sure, but we also went into the city and got away into the country. Mike played rugby with the locals, and we even dressed up one afternoon and went to a concert at the Opera House. It was just a perfect mix of things to do.

rugby field


During the course of our trip, we went on a jet, ferry, train, and bus. We drove in a car. And we walked. If we'd been limited to one form of transportation, we wouldn't have seen such a big slice of Sydney and the surrounding areas. We wouldn't have driven north (and later, south) along the coastline. We wouldn't have seen Sydney's skyline from the water. Taking a variety of ways to get places made the trip interesting.

sublime point lookout (near wollongong)

Tour Guides

There is no substitute for having people who know their way around. There just isn't. It takes away the stress and fear and makes everything go so much more smoothly. Anne and Nate were the perfect tour guides. And even though they weren't with us for every minute of the trip, they were always available to give directions, suggestions, and advice.  

mike and nate, manly bus stop

Laid Back

You might not believe this, but Australians are just really laid back. Which makes traveling there really easy. You don't have to worry about what you're wearing. You can ask for help from just about anyone. It was actually really entertaining to just walk along the beach and watch all the people. There was quite the array of beach attire, but everyone just sort of seemed to go together.

 manly beach

Time of Year

Originally we were going to do this trip in January, but then we thought, Are we crazy? I'm so glad we changed our minds because going at the end of spring was infinitely better that being there during the height of summer. The temperatures stayed almost entirely in the 70's and 80's and the vegetation was gorgeous.

royal botanical garden 


Maybe it was the time of year we went, but the weather cooperated beautifully almost the entire time. There were a few light showers here and there, but they never slowed us down, and most of the time, we appreciated them. Even the mornings that seemed cool turned out not to be bad at all once we were in the water.

sydney opera house


Staying with family meant that we could go, go, go, and then when we got tired, we could come home and crash. We could stay up late chatting, eat leftovers, or take a nap. It offered the perfect balance to what could have been a crazy-exhausting trip.

early morning swimmers


You have to admit that if you're going to see another part of the world, going somewhere with an awesome accent is a pretty great bonus (especially when they're still speaking English).  Before we'd even left the Sydney airport, the customs official had called someone "mate," and Mike and I both went a little giddy.

42 wallaby way, sydney (actually manly wharf)


During the course of the trip, Mike and I frequently said, "Clark, you are a pleasure to have along." And he was. Truly you've never met a better baby. But he was still a baby. There were moments when it would have been inconvenient to have to bring him with us except that . . . anytime we wanted to do something baby-free, we would just put him down for a nap, ask Anne to keep an ear out for him, and go gallivanting around like we didn't have any children. (Thank you a million times, Anne!)
palm beach


Mike and I enjoyed this getaway (understatement of the year), but we both admitted we would have gotten sick of each other if we hadn't been able to break up the time with family. It was just so nice to have other people to talk to, a place that felt like home, and kids to help us not miss our own too much.

In the weeks before the trip, I spent a lot of time worrying. Leaving three of your children for 10 days? Scary. Taking a six-month-old with you? Scary. Flying halfway around the world? Scary. Swimming in the ocean, driving on the wrong side of the road, trying new things? Scary, scary, scary.

A friend of ours recently went on an Alaskan cruise, and just a couple days into it, she broke her leg. I know it's kind of morbid, but I kept thinking, If I broke my leg now, would the trip still have been worth it?

But I didn't break my leg. And everything did work out. I'm so grateful Mike and I got to have this adventure. We will always remember it.

It was definitely worth it.

Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Dec 17, 2014

A couple of years ago I read Betty Smith's well-known and much loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Not surprisingly, I loved it too. (I loved it so much that I wrote my review of it and then, a few weeks later, I wrote even more about it.)

Since that time, I have wanted to read more of Betty Smith's words. And I finally did.

Joy in the Morning wasn't A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But I didn't expect it to be. And really, I didn't want it to be.

The book begins on the morning of Carl and Annie's marriage. Annie had turned 18 on Wednesday, and so, against their mother's wishes (as well as the advice of the Dean of the law school), they decide not to waste any time and are married on Saturday--immediately after Annie arrives from Brooklyn on the night train.

What follows is a recounting of their first two years of marriage: the ups and downs, the exciting and mundane. There are money problems (Carl still has two years left of law school, and he tries to work three jobs at the same time); they have dozens of arguments (some of them petty, others more substantial); Annie tries to find herself (she loves to read but only has an eighth-grade education); they find out they're expecting their first child (they didn't want any children until after law school, but once they find out, they're thrilled). In those two years, they're selfish and selfless; they grow in love; and in the end, they come out on top.

When I wrote about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I said that it didn't have a gripping plot . . . unless you find human nature gripping (which I do). The same is true for Joy in the Morning. Nothing particularly exciting happens, but you get to peek in at the window of Carl and Annie's little house and see how they handle disappointment, ambition, passion, and stress, and it's completely fascinating.

My initial impression of Carl was not flattering. Because the book drops you off at the cusp of Carl and Annie's marriage, you haven't yet spent any time getting to know them, and here they are, making a pretty big life decision. That afternoon, they are waiting to get into their little studio apartment, and Carl is having a difficult time keeping his passionate feelings subdued. All of a sudden something sets him off and he starts ripping off Annie's shirt while they're still sitting on the front porch. This was a mere twenty-five pages into the book, and I seriously thought, Who is this guy, and why in the world did Annie agree to marry him?

But first impressions can be wrong, and in Carl's case, mine was. By the end of the book, I liked him so much. He proved to be hard-working, respectful, thoughtful, sweet, and tender. Once I knew the real Carl, the passionate porch scene didn't necessarily seem out of character but neither was it an overriding component of his personality. In fact, his most frequent request is for Annie to come sit on his lap and put her arms around his neck. Which, you have to admit, it pretty cute.

If Carl took a little warming up to, Annie was instantly loveable. She is open and honest and genuinely kind and friendly. Even though her formal education is very limited, she has this insatiable desire for knowledge that is inspiring. She can't seem to stay away from the campus where Carl attends classes, and she religiously camps outside one of the literature classes--eagerly listening, taking notes, and fulfilling assignments without anyone in the class even knowing she's there. (Incidentally, I found it fascinating to discover that this part of the book was not unlike Betty Smith's own early years of marriage.)

It was also just so adorable to see how much joy and pride she took in becoming a wife and having a home of her own--even if it was just a teeny tiny room (it definitely reminded me of my best friend and her husband, who also lived in a one-room apartment but loved it so much you would have thought it was a palace). I loved this paragraph during their first week of marriage, after she has carefully arranged each of their few possessions:
"She wondered how the room would look to a stranger. She decided to test it. She went out, closing the door, and walked down the hall, then came back. Hand on the doorknob, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and walked in. She opened her eyes. The sunbeam on the glass ashtray threw off colored, shimmering glints. The bittersweet, duplicated in the mirror, seemed to fill the room with color. Her makeup things looked dainty--and the clock! With its short legs spraddled out, its shiny tin sides and honest open face, it seemed like an old friend. Annie sat on the bed, her hands clasped between her knees, and whispered, 'It's beautiful! It's just too beautiful!'"
Besides being really sweet and uplifting, there were some darker undertones to the book as well. There are some hints to Annie being abused by her stepfather (which is part of the reason why she rushed to get married as soon as she was a legal adult). Also, both Carl's and Annie's mothers were initially opposed to the marriage and are still angry and unforgiving even by the end of the book. These were both themes that I think would have been more of a focal point if the book had been written today (because we seem to prefer books with issues).

Earlier this month, I mentioned that Mike and I are on the brink of our 10-year wedding anniversary (by the time it actually happens in the spring, you all will be sick of hearing about it). Reading this book right now felt both poignant and sentimental as it surfaced all sorts of memories from our first year of marriage. Not unlike Carl and Annie, we were poor (but, "poor for something," as Annie so aptly put it), working multiple jobs, and trying to get through school. We lived in a tiny apartment, made some dear, long-lasting friendships, and tried to get used to the give-and-take of being married to another person. There were hard moments, but I think both of us would agree that we look back on that time with only fondness.

Betty Smith captures what that year is like with stunning and, at times, jolting candidness. Marriage is not endless bliss but neither is it eternal drudgery. It's a mix of the two. Annie and Carl made that discovery. And Mike and I made it, too.

A Perfectly Eclectic Christmas Tree

Dec 15, 2014

I don't think I will ever be one of those people who has a gorgeous, perfectly matchety-matched  Christmas tree. I'd like to be, but even if I someday live in a home that is big enough to house two trees, two trees is . . . a lot of work. I guess I'm a fan of being able to finish all our decorating in one day. Actually in about three hours. It's really pretty nice.

And if I can only have one Christmas tree? Then I guess I'll stick with the eclectic, homemade variety I've got. It's not like I have an amazing ornament collection, but the ornaments I do have are full of happy memories.

I love the little Christmas tree ornament I made out of a paper bag when I was around nine years old--not because it's pretty to look at (to tell you the truth, I usually put it around the back of the tree), but because it was one of the first sewing projects I ever completed, and sewing has brought me a lot of joy in the years since.

I also love the handcart ornament I got when I was 12 and participated in the sesquicentennial trek commemorating the Mormon pioneers' arrival in Utah.

I even love the dozen or so beaded candy cane ornaments that Aaron made with obsessive zeal last year. Every time I turned around, he was hanging a new one on the tree, and it was actually pretty funny to pull them all out again this year and think about how he's changed (and not changed) over the last year.

But one of my favorite ornaments (and the real reason for writing this post) is one I didn't even receive until after last Christmas. So really, this is its first official year hanging on our tree.

My little hometown commissioned a series of limited edition ornaments that featured various landmarks unique to the town. One of them was the library, and my mom knew that out of all the ornaments, that's the one I would want to have. Other than my parents' house, the library was my very favorite spot and the place where I spent an amazing amount of time as a child. (If you are a fairly new reader here, you might want to go back and read My Hometown Library--still one of my very favorite posts.)

Anyway, on the back of the ornament, it gives some cool little facts--such as that the town's first library opened in 1915. But to me the most amazing info given there is that since 1931 (when the library featured on the ornament was built), there have only been three librarians. Did you catch that? Three. In over eighty years, a grand total of three women have held that position. (And something tells me that, unbelievable as that is, it must be true since in the 31 years my parents have lived there, they have only known one librarian). Apparently, when you're one of only three, you've basically reached star status, and you get your name printed on the back of the commemorative ornament.

When we decorated our tree a couple of weeks ago (and one of the added benefits of having a tree like ours is that you don't worry about your kids helping with the decorating), I was so happy to pull it out and give it a spot among the paper bag Christmas tree, handcart ornament, and beaded candycane.

It looked just right.

P.S. I seem to wax sentimental in December. Last year I wrote about the little wooden train Mike made when he was a teenager.

Australia Top 10, Part 3

Dec 12, 2014

I know you're probably getting sick of seeing pictures from Australia, but humor me. I've been having so much fun going through them the last couple of weeks and remembering all the fun we had.

Here's the third installment of our Top 10 (which means we're now up to a Top 30):

1. Finding Peachees

My brother served a two-year mission in Sydney (and surrounding areas), and he told us one of the things we had to try while we were over there was Peachees. We looked (and asked) for them everywhere, and everyone just looked at us like we were crazy. I was just beginning to think they weren't really an Australian thing when Mike found one (the last one in the case!) at a convenience store. I think perhaps they're not really referred to that often as "peachees," at least not in Manly. Bundaberg has a whole line of carbonated sodas (and a couple days later, we ended up trying them all). The grapefruit one was a close second to peach. (Oh, and that BenBry burger Mike's holding? Not a gross complement to the soda.)

2. The jackaranda tree

And . . . another tree makes its appearance. But tell me you don't just love this purple tree (the one in the center)? It's like a lilac bush . . . but a tree. I'm so glad we were here during the time of year when it was in bloom.

3. The Sydney Opera House

There were moments on our trip when I would forget what part of the world we were in, but this was not one of those days. I knew exactly where I was, and it was magical. We went to a performance of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor (Op. 15) and Mahler's first symphony in D major. We sat at the very back, which might have been considered the worst seat in the house, but I loved it because I could see every part of the concert hall.

4. Pie Thanksgiving

Australians may not celebrate Thanksgiving, but we Americans knew how to put an Aussie spin on it. Our whole meal consisted of pies, both savory and sweet. It was delicious! Mike's sister made five of them, and the other four were purchased. I'll always remember this Thanksgiving, and I'm so grateful we got to spend it with people that we love so much.

5. Surfing

I think Mike and I both have a deeper appreciation for surfer dudes. It's not easy, and it's quite a workout as well. Even though I stuck with the body board, I still only managed to ride a few waves. It was actually relatively chilly on this morning, but once we were in the water we were perfectly comfortable.

6. Walking across the Sydney Harbor Bridge

We didn't do the climb over the bridge (my fear of heights would never have allowed that), but just walking across was super fun anyway. The harbor was absolutely beautiful from up above.

7. The view from the Sydney Eye Tower

First the bridge, then the Eye Tower--Friday was definitely the day for taking in the size and scope and look of Sydney. I'm glad we saved this for the end of our trip because by that time we had already done quite a bit of sightseeing and were able to orient ourselves fairly quickly once we were up the tower and find familiar landmarks. The picture above shows Hyde Park, which we walked through the Saturday before.

8 Fish 'n' Chips

Let's just say it's a good thing we left Australia when we did because I think we would have just kept eating fish and chips (as it was, we ate it three times). The snapper we had in Huskisson was my favorite.

9. Cousins

I'd be lying if I didn't say that being in Australia with family was one of the highlights of the trip. And for Clark, I'd say it was the highlight. Man, he loved being around his three cousins.

10. Seeing Sydney at night

The night before we left, Mike and I put Clark to bed and left him with Anne and Nate and then rode the ferry from Manly to Circular Quay. When we got there, we got off, grabbed some gelato, and got back on. Oh yes, we're that exciting. But seriously, all we really wanted was to see Sydney all lit up, and seeing it from the water definitely provided the best view. It felt somewhat symbolic to ride back to Manly and see the lights of Sydney fade away. It gave us an opportunity to bid that country a very fond farewell.

That wraps up our trip, but I still have one more post to share with you about our time in the land down under. Look for that next week!

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

Dec 10, 2014

When I made the goal at the beginning of the year to reread a favorite from my childhood, I immediately thought of The Saturdays. I have a little tender spot in my heart for the Melendy family, but my memories of actual details were very limited (basically, the only thing I could tell you was that it was about four children who lived in a house with a cupola on top (and that little bit is actually from the next book, The Four-Story Mistake)).
At first I was just going to read it myself, but then I thought, As long as I'm reading a book from my childhood, I might as well be reading it to my children. And so I did.

There are four children in the Melendy family: Mona (13), Rush (12), Randy (10.5), and Oliver (6). They live in a tall, skinny house in New York City with their father and the housekeeper, Cuffy. On one rather boring Saturday, Randy comes up with a brilliant idea: If they all pool their allowances together each week, they can take turns using the money and going on an adventure. The plan is a good one, but it does backfire a little when Mona uses the money to bob her hair and paint her nails bright red and when Oliver takes the money on his week and goes to the circus all by himself without telling anyone. Eventually, they decide that perhaps it would be a better idea to still combine their resources but go on the adventures together instead.

When I read this book as a kid, I'm pretty sure I didn't think it was anything shocking for a kid my own age to be wandering around New York City alone. I wandered around my town alone. Why shouldn't they? (Granted, there were only 1,700 people in my little town of one square mile, but how different could it be really?) But you can bet I noticed it this time around.

I realize this book was written in the 1940's, and maybe 10-, 12-, and 13-year-olds were more mature and responsible back then (maybe there's no maybe about it), but New York was still a vast city with millions of people, and there were times when they were very much at the mercy of strangers (thankfully, always kind and well-meaning strangers). Their father sends them off with this advice: "Don't get run over. That's the first and most important rule . . . If you get lost or in trouble of any kind always look for a policeman . . . Don't talk to strangers. Unless you know by looking at them that they're kind people, and even then think twice."  (I'm not including the six-year-old in any of this because, even though he also was wandering alone around New York City, it was without his father's permission. Speaking of Oliver though, I can't imagine my own six-year-old navigating our city alone . . . he could maybe make it to the park at the bottom of our street, but that's about it.)

Besides that, there were also a couple of truly frightening moments--one when the house fills with coal gas in the middle of the night and they all nearly suffocate and another when Randy leaves a dress hanging over a bare light bulb and the house starts on fire. If I'd remembered those near-tragedies, I probably would have held off reading this to my kids for a few more years. As it was, I couldn't tell that they were negatively affected until we were two pages away from the end and Max said he wanted to stop reading because, "I haven't liked any of it. Not the fire or the coal gas or the sharks. Not any of it." I guess he was processing it after all, and it was scaring him a bit. You can be sure that I felt bad then about reading the whole thing.

So maybe it wasn't the best choice for a four-year-old, but overall, I liked it, and I can see why I liked it so much when I was eleven-ish. I loved their old brownstone, which was so full of personality. I loved their family unity and the way they loved to do things together. And I loved the distinct personalities of the children and Cuffy, captured so well in the following paragraph when they're on the train, bound for the lighthouse: "Oliver got chocolate all over the windowpane trying to get a last glimpse of Father, and Cuffy mopped her hot face with her best handkerchief. Mona started reading her book almost at once so that the other passengers would realize that travel was nothing new to her, but Randy stared out of the window frankly interested. As for Rush, he surreptitiously opened the suitcase beside him and gave Isaac [the dog] a piece of chocolate."

While it won't go down as one of our favorite readalouds ever, I would still definitely recommend it to kids in the 7-12 age range or to adults who like nostalgia. 

A Decade Old Engagement Story

Dec 9, 2014

One of the reasons Mike and I decided to splurge on the Australia trip was because our 10-year anniversary is this coming April, and we wanted to celebrate it in a big way. (Australia may have been too big since we probably won't be able to top it for the even more momentous 25- and 50-year anniversaries.)

I go back and forth between thinking, Whoa, it's already been ten years?! to Only ten years? Really?

This past weekend, those memories felt very close, almost like they could have happened yesterday. Mike proposed on December 4, 2004, and with the anniversary of that important date passing this past week, I decided to try and recreate the evening.

It has been a long, long time since I've told this story (although, in the days immediately following, I must have told it a hundred times). As Mike and I visited our old spots, we found our own memories clashing just a bit. But this is how I remember it.

Mike and I were students at BYU. I was a sophomore; he was a junior. We had been dating since the beginning of the year and had mentioned the possibility of marriage (while still trying to be rather vague and non-committal about it).

Several weeks earlier, I had purchased tickets to Christmas Around the World, a performance that features multicultural dances by BYU's folk dance teams. The tickets were for December 4th.

Before we went to the performance that evening, Mike suggested that we get Panda Express and take it over to the Tanner Building. The Tanner Building was a favorite of ours. Although neither of us were business majors, we had choir practice there, we loved the architecture, and we liked finding secluded corners to, er, study in.

We had time to kill, so after we ate, we rode the elevator to the seventh floor. It was a Saturday evening, and the hallways were deserted. We went to our favorite corner and sat on a couch while Mike told me about why he couldn't sleep the night before. Before he started, he pulled out a box and said, "This story has visual aids." I opened it, and inside was a gold chain with a black pearl pendant. I don't think I said anything because I didn't know if it was a present or merely a prop.

He started telling me about a woman on his mission (he served a mission for our church in the West Indies from 2001-2003) who had been like a mom to both him and his companion. Before they left, she gave each of them a black pearl pendant and told them to only give it to the girl they planned to marry.

I know it's crazy, but until he said those words, I had no idea that it was the lead-in to his proposal. I glanced down at the necklace that I was still holding. Me. And he had just said that he was only supposed to give it to the girl he married. And I was holding it.

And then I knew exactly what we were doing in a secluded corner on the seventh floor of the Tanner Building. He didn't even have to say the next words (but he did), and I don't think he even really needed my answer (but I gave it anyway).

Then he put the ring on my finger, we kissed (it was our first one), and we practically skipped on our way to the performance. I remember very little about the dances except that we hid my hand from view in case we bumped into any casual acquaintances (since we hadn't told either of our families yet).

Afterwards, we phoned our parents (who were not surprised), told my roommates (who went crazy), and basked in the glow of being engaged.

And so that is why last Saturday, we did the same things we did ten years ago (circumstances called for doing them out of order, but we did our best). We again ordered Panda Express. We walked the halls of the Tanner building and sat on the edge of the fountain and argued about which corner it really happened in. (It was a little confusing since they've recently added onto the Tanner Building, but after much debate, I ceded to Mike who got me with, "I was thinking about the location a lot more than you were, and I picked the spot farthest away from the elevator.)

We went to the same performance of Christmas Around the World (thanks to my brother and his wife who watched our four (!) kids--definitely something we didn't have to worry about the first time).

I actually think I enjoyed the performance a lot more this time. Ten years ago, I was (a little) distracted.

Tanner Building - 2004

Tanner Building - 2014

Australia Top 10, Part 2

Dec 5, 2014

Okay, so it should be fairly obvious with this second set of Australia pictures that this isn't so much a top 10 (since now we're up to a top 20) as just a condensed travelogue. But it's really hard to narrow it down (believe me, I'm already cutting out a lot of pictures I would love to share) since it was a near-perfect trip.

1. Visiting the Manly Public Library

You didn't honestly think I'd pass up such an opportunity, did you?

2. Bus tour of Manly

One of the great things about this trip was just joining in with some of the things the locals did. This bus was one of those things (although, considering the fact that we rode the entire circular route without getting off at any of the stops probably revealed the truth that we were actually tourists).

3. Driving on the left side of the road

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we borrowed Anne and Nate's car and drove south along the coast. It was an adventure. Mike took to the backwards roads like a pro, and I only caught him driving on the wrong side (i.e., the right side) twice (and thankfully, both times were in rural areas with no traffic).

4. Minnumurra Rainforest

Where we sat on this bench . . .

. . . And looked at this waterfall:

(Clark, as you can see, was unimpressed.)

5. Robertson Pie Shop

You'll never hear us complain about pie being Australia's national dish.

6. The white sands of Jarvis Bay

Sadly, the evening we'd set aside to go swimming was actually a bit chilly. Mike still got in the water, but I wrapped myself in a towel and watched him, while worrying the entire time that he was being followed by a shark. The beach (and accompanying water) was really pretty though.

7. Seeing kangaroos

If I was really limiting myself to only ten favorite things, seeing kangaroos would most definitely have made the cut. There we were, just driving along, and this family of kangaroos was just hanging out on the side of the road. That little joey was out of his mum's pouch. When we drove past, he jumped in headfirst and then turned himself around. Oh, and watching them all bound away was pretty cool too.

8. This pine tree

I guess I was a little obsessed with trees on this trip (see the fig tree in the first Australia post). I believe this is the Norfolk Island pine. They are all over down here (right next to the palm trees). Their branches look like ferns. (While the tree is beautiful, the ocean and hills in the background aren't exactly ugly.)

9. Kiama Blowhole

I actually thought this was pretty cool. It's kind of like a geyser except it sprays much more frequently (and, obviously, is not created by a hot spring). When we were there, it was going up several times each minute. This video shows it much better than a picture (skip to 0:17 for the best one--although not the best one of the day, for sure).

10. The donut van in Berry

I actually wasn't a huge fan of the donuts themselves (too spongy for my tastes), but come on: it's a van that sells donuts. How could I not love that?

And . . .  that doesn't take us to the end of our trip, so it looks like there will be an Australia Top 10, Part 3. Stay tuned.
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