A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Jan 30, 2014

When I mentioned last year that as part of my reading goals, I planned to read my first-ever Sherlock Holmes mystery, I received several suggestions to not begin with A Study in Scarlet.

Um, you can see how well I followed that good advice . . .

The story begins with Dr. John H. Watson, who recently returned to London after being injured in Afghanistan. He is looking for a place to live--somewhere quiet where he can rest and fully recover. Upon hearing this, his friend suggests he look up Sherlock Holmes, a friend of his who is looking for someone to share his flat with.

Watson and Holmes make an agreeable pair, but Watson is overcome with curiosity about Holmes' unusual daily occupations. Eventually, Holmes divulges that he is a detective and not long after that, he receives a request for his services in the death of a man who was apparently poisoned in an old manor.

The Scotland Yard authorities and Holmes use completely different methods of investigation and deduction. Holmes' attention to and interpretation of detail are truly remarkable, and long before the officials, Holmes has the mystery neatly wrapped up and solved.

Now that I've read A Study in Scarlet and have some perspective, I think I can see why some friends recommended reading one of his other mysteries first (even though, as yet, I can't compare this one with any of the others).

I don't think this recommendation had anything to do with the structure of the mystery itself. It's plotted out nicely, and Holmes is an intriguing character from the very beginning. Personally, I was captivated by the little minute details that made a big impact in the end. In order for someone to write about such small occurrences and observations, even when he's making them all up himself, it means his attention to tiny details in his own life must be astounding.

So no, I don't think people tried to postpone my reading of this book because the mystery wasn't well-executed. My guess is that the strange section about the Mormons in the middle of the book is not an accurate reflection of Conan Doyle's later mysteries, and so they thought it might be better to begin with something that demonstrated his true style.

And if that's the case, then I would have to agree with those well-meaning friends. The middle section is so strange. Even if I wasn't Mormon and couldn't identify all the inaccuracies, I would still think it was strange. For one thing, the story suddenly transports itself to the middle of nowhere (i.e., Utah, that place I call home) and introduces a host of new characters who belong to a disturbing cult (not Mormonism). Even though it revealed the entire story (and motive) behind the murder, it was still jolting. It felt like I wasn't even reading the same book. I had to go back and listen to parts of it again because I was so disoriented.

I was not at all offended by Conan Doyle's depiction of Mormons. At the time he wrote this book, there probably was not a lot of information about such a small religion, especially in England. I don't know who or what his source of information was, but I'm know there were a lot of misconceptions about the religion, even in the U.S. What little he knew probably intrigued him and sounded like the perfect setup for his mystery. While I hope others do not base their opinions of Mormons solely on this book, for the most part I just found it rather amusing.

All that being said, I don't regret beginning with this book. I have no doubt I will like other Sherlock Holmes mysteries better, but I thought being introduced to Watson and Holmes and seeing them meet each other for the first time was indispensable. Those initial introductions were probably my favorite parts of the book, and I'm so glad I will have that background information as I read some of the other mysteries that follow.

But now I'm curious: if you've read several Sherlock Holmes mysteries, did you begin with this one? Which mystery do you like best? Do you prefer Conan Doyle's short stories or his novellas?

ALA Youth Media Awards 2014 (i.e., Christmas for Book Lovers)

Jan 27, 2014

In between teaching piano lessons, kindergarten drop-off and pick-up, and dentist appointments for all three boys, I managed to sneak quick peaks here and there at what was going on at ALA and which books were winning all the big awards.

And what I saw thrilled me.

In fact, in the ten minutes I had between dropping off Aaron at school and teaching one of my lessons, I had to call my mom to say, "Guess what just won the Caldecott?" It was a much more exciting year for me than last year since I was disappointed about many of the books chosen (especially in the Caldecott department).

But I was not disappointed this year.

Mind if I share a few thoughts with you?

Newbery 2014
(For the first time in my life, I had actually read one of the winners! Make that two!)

Medal: Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

I feel a strong attachment to this book. Aaron and I heard Kate DiCamillo speak several months ago. We bought a copy of this book and had it signed by Kate DiCamillo. And I am currently in the middle of reading it aloud to Aaron and Max.

We love this book. It is hysterical . . . very different from some of Kate DiCamillo's other works (Edward Tulane, The Magician's Elephant, etc.), which lean towards the more serious, sentimental side. This one is about a self-proclaimed cynic and a superhero squirrel. Oftentimes, when I'm reading to Aaron and Max, I have Mike take Bradley into another room to have their own reading time together. But sometimes Mike catches a paragraph or two before he leaves and wistfully says, "I wish I could stay and listen." Some of the content is a little mature for my boys (Flora's parents are divorced, and her mother has an, um, interesting personality) and some of the humor goes right over their heads, but on the whole, it's one of those books that bridges the generation gap quite nicely.

(Plus, did I mention that we already have our own signed copy?!?! Besides never having read an award winner before it became an award winner, I have also never owned an award winner before it an award winner.)

I have to say, for all my happiness over it winning, I honestly didn't think it would, in fact, win. (Although on Saturday, I did have the fleeting thought, Maybe the boys and I should try and finish the last 70 pages just in case . . . )

Honor: Doll Bones by Holly Black
This was one of the books I heard the most about over the course of last year, but it didn't really sound like my type of book. Still, I know a lot of people loved it, so maybe I'll have to give it a try.

Honor: The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
You already know how much we loved this book (my review here). I am so, so pleased it was awarded an Honor.

Honor: One Came Home by Amy Timberlake
This was not a book that was on my radar at all. Maybe I didn't follow all the pre-Newbery news as much as last year, but I had to look it up to even see what the cover looked like and what it was about. Maybe it wasn't really a dark horse, but it definitely surprised me.

Honor: Paperboy by Vince Vawter
Yikes, another one I wasn't really familiar with. I really want to read this one though, even though it sounds like it deals with a hard subject (definitely not a flying squirrel who writes poetry on a typewriter).

Caldecott 2014
(a very wordy medal and three wordless honors)

Medal: Locomotive by Brian Floca

A couple of weeks ago, I called my mom and told her she had to check out Locomotive from the library. We had recently read it, and I was extremely impressed with how well it detailed the transcontinental railroad journey in 1869. It is difficult to find nonfiction picture books that don't get bogged down in details. This one is the perfect balance between information, gorgeous writing (seriously, I think it could have qualified for the Newbery), and breathtaking illustrations. 

So that is why I called my mom and told her she must check it out as soon as possible. And that is why I also called her this morning to excitedly squeal, "Locomotive just won the Caldecott Medal!!!!" I couldn't be more thrilled about this as the winner (in stark contrast to my feelings about This is Not My Hat from last year).

Honor: Journey by Aaron Becker
I am not at all surprised this won an Honor. It was a favorite for sure. Personally, we also loved it. I am surprised I haven't written about it here yet.

Honor: Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle
Bradley fell in love with this book just after it came out. I can't begin to count the number of times I "read" it to him. We always had to pause for a long time on the page where Flora falls down, and Bradley would sympathetically say, "Oh no! Hurt! Crying!" The story is kind of different, but the illustrations are quite captivating.

Honor: Mr. Wuffles by David Weisner
And . . . David Weisner does it again. Well, how can a committee help themselves? His stories are always unusual and creative, his illustrations mesmerizing. This one is no exception. We happened to really like it.

(Although I was happy about all of the Caldecott winners, I was sad to see a few of my favorites neglected, namely The Tiger Goes Wild, The Black Rabbit, and Chu's Day)

Geisel 2014
(a surprising medal, three not-so-surprising honors)

Medal: The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli

The Geisel isn't something I necessarily try to predict, but if I had, I never in a million years would have predicted The Watermelon Seed. For one thing, it's not even technically an easy reader (although it definitely can be read by that age group). But even though I was not expecting it, I was really excited to see it get some love. I already shared my thoughts about it in a KidPages post. It's a crowd-pleaser, no question.

Honor: Ball by Mary Sullivan
I'm almost positive we read this one, but for the life of me, I can't remember what it's about. 

Honor: A Big Guy Took My Ball! by Mo Willems
I can't say I blame Mo Willems for always winning something in the Geisel department, but it does kind of lessen the suspense and surprise.

Honor: Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes
If anyone ever questions whether or not an easy reader can be a poignant, beautiful, memorable story, have them read this book. I love it so much.

Printz 2014
(I've never been so happy about an Honor in my entire life)

Last year, I didn't even mention the Printz. That's because I don't follow YA literature nearly as closely as juvenile titles. Usually I've never even heard of the winners so don't have any opinions on the books themselves.

But this year . . . this year . . .

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool won an Honor! You haven't forgotten how much I LOVE Navigating Early, have you? It was only in my top five books from last year and will probably remain one of my favorites for the rest of my life. Seeing it win the Printz Honor was a huge surprise. Not only is it geared toward a younger audience, but it doesn't touch on the same type of issues or maturity that Printz books normally do. 

All in all, I'm feeling a little giddy about the way the awards turned out.  I feel like it was an interesting year because many of the winning authors had won an award in past years (definitely not unusual, but it does make me wonder where all the new authors are). But I was so happy to see some of my favorites make the final cut. Congratulations!

Maxwell's Preschool: Walter the Baker

Jan 22, 2014

Maxwell is part of a preschool co-op this school year. The group consists of five children, two girls and three boys. We do a weekly number, letter, color, and theme. For more of our preschool lesson plans, click here.

It was my turn to teach preschool last week. The theme was cooking and baking along with the number 19, the letter R, and the color brown.

When I saw I would be teaching about baking, I immediately thought of Walter the Baker by Eric Carle. 

Our family loves this story about Walter's invention of the pretzel. Every morning, Walter bakes a batch of sweet rolls for the Duke and Duchess. But one morning, the cat spills the milk, and Walter substitutes water in the rolls instead. The rolls turn out like rocks, and the Duke is ready to banish Walter from the Duchy. But then he realizes he will miss Walter's sweet rolls, so he gives him a difficult challenge instead: "Invent a roll through which the rising sun can shine three times. It must be made from one piece of dough, and most of all, it must taste good." Walter works all through the night, and at last, quite by accident, comes up with the pretzel.

Although the story is not based on fact, it turned out to be the perfect way for our little group of preschoolers to learn more about baking.

On the first day, I arranged for a tour at our nearby Great Harvest. I don't know if all Great Harvests offer preschool tours, but this one was fabulous.

Our tour guide, Sarah, was so nice. She was great with the kids and made sure they all had a fun time.

First she read them a book about baking bread. 

She showed them the ingredients (whole wheat flour, water, salt, honey, and yeast) that go into a regular batch of bread.

Then the kids donned aprons so they'd be ready to head into the kitchen and meet the bakers.

The rule was, Keep your arms folded so you stay safe next to the hot oven.

The kitchen was brightly lit and warm. Sarah showed everyone the big work table where the bakers get the dough ready.

Then we saw a batch of bread come out of the ginormous oven. I couldn't believe how many loaves were in this oven at the same time. There were several racks just like the one you see, and they have a big timer to let them know which batch of bread is ready to come out when.

Then we got to see the large wheat grinder where they grind the grain into flour, and also the huge bowls and mixer that they knead the dough in. They said that over the holidays, all of their bowls were full all the time. Each bowl had an extender going up the sides so that it could accommodate enough ingredients for 100 loaves of bread. Pretty crazy.

Then we left the kitchen and went back to the table where Sarah gave each of the kids a small ball of dough.

They pounded and twisted and molded and shaped their dough until it was exactly like they wanted it.

Then they went back to the kitchen to politely ask the bakers if they would please bake their creations for them.

Besides their own hand-crafted rolls, the kids also each got a little goodie-bag filled with a large half-loaf of honey whole wheat bread, a chocolate chip cookie, and a coupon for another free loaf. Great Harvest was very generous, and the children loved the tour (although when I asked all of the them what their favorite part was, one of the little girls said, "The drive going there.")

On Thursday, I had all of the children at my house where we experimented more with baking.

After our usual opening activities (calendar, pledge, weather, etc.), we talked about our field trip to the bakery. I asked them if they remembered the ingredients that went into a loaf of bread. When they mentioned water as one of the ingredients, I told them we were going to read a story about one baker who tried to use water in place of milk for his rolls. We then read Walter the Baker.

At the end of the story, we talked about how different ingredients are good for different things. For a loaf of bread, water is essential. For sweet rolls, it doesn't work as well. Ingredients work in combination with other ingredients, and sometimes you have to experiment for quite awhile before you find a combination that works.

With those ideas going around in their minds, I did something very brave: I let the children create their own recipe.  I first saw this idea on Tinkerlab, and I tweaked her suggestions to work with our group of four-year-olds.

In spite of my fears, this activity was a huge success. Here are a few of the things I did (either accidentally or on purpose) that I think helped it turn out so well: 

Tip #1: Choose complementary ingredients
No, I didn't give five children free reign in the kitchen (maybe if you were only doing this with one child, you could allow a little more freedom). I pre-selected ingredients, but I tried to give them enough choices that the end result was still wide open and they felt like they were in control of the decisions. I went with flour, sugar, cocoa powder, applesauce, butter, eggs, water, milk, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, blueberries, chocolate chips and raisins.

Tip #2: Give some basic guidelines
I told them the measuring cups were for the flour, sugar, blueberries, etc.; the glass measuring cup was for the liquids; and the measuring spoons were for the spices, baking powder, etc. I just wasn't prepared to let anyone choose to add a cup of salt. We wanted to experiment, but even experimentation calls for a few boundaries.

Tip #3: Take turns
Each child got a turn to choose an ingredient/amount and a turn to stir. Then we added a few more ingredients by voting.

Tip #4: Give a few gentle nudges
I tried very hard to keep my mouth shut. But when one of the children chose to add a tablespoon of salt, well, I may or may not have filled it up only partway. However, in my defense, when another child chose two cups of water, I pressed my lips together and didn't say a word. As we neared the end, I just asked them about a few of the ingredients they hadn't considered yet and let them decide (by raise of hand) if they thought we should add them or not.

Given that the batter was on the significantly runny side, I didn't quite know what to expect.

But they actually baked up rather nicely and resembled a muffin when I took them out of the pan.

All of the chocolate chips sunk to the bottom, and they were on the spongy side, but the kids still ate them up. And some of them even asked for seconds. I think they were just so proud of their own creation, they overlooked some of the obvious faults. (Although there was one little girl who was adamant that there was too much salt (and I had to agree with her). But even that was a good lesson.)

And just in case you're interested in seeing what all went into these scrumptious muffins, I happened to write it all down:

Salty-Sweet Chocolate Muffins (salted chocolate is all the rage right now, right?)
Add ingredients in the order listed below. For authentic results, stir after each addition:
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup chocolate chips
2 cups water
2 tsp. salt
1 T. cinnamon
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 cup cocoa 
1/2 cup butter

Pour into greased muffin tins and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

Because I wasn't sure if their baked creation would turn out edible or not, I also made a batch of pretzel dough the night before. (Plus, how can you talk about Walter the Baker and not make pretzels? That would be very, very wrong.)

I gave each child a ball of dough. (I adore this recipe. It's quick to mix up, it can wait in the fridge overnight, and it is very forgiving of too much flour.)

The children stretched and rolled and stretched and rolled, and then we twisted each one into a tricky pretzel shape. We talked about the function of yeast and how it helps bread and pretzels to be light and fluffy on the inside. We baked them up, and then I brushed them with butter and sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar when they came out of the oven.

(Confession: I actually made two batches of pretzels the night before, and after all the kids left, my own kids and I twisted up the second batch, baked them all right then, and ate them for lunch. Yeah, we love these pretzels.)

The letter of the day was "R," so since we'd been talking about yeast and bread, we talked about other things that RISE. The children mentioned the sun and balloons. Water also rises during flooding or when the tide comes in.

We made a cute little craft to show some of the things that rise. I gave the kids a piece of cardstock with pictures of bread, balloons, and the sun. 

They colored and cut them out. Then I attached a brad in the middle of each one and poked it through a precut slit in the black cardstock. Then the children could slide up the brad to make the sun (or the bread) (or the balloons) rise.

Then we made a thank-you card for Sarah, who gave us a tour of Great Harvest earlier in the week.

Finally, we were supposed to play a game with the number 19, but we were completely out of time. But this is what I'd planned for us to do:

I made up this little gameboard with 19 squares. At the beginning of the game, I was going to have each child choose which number they thought would be the last one chosen. Then we would begin drawing cards. If they chose the number 5, they would put a pretzel on it. Then if they chose the number 14, they'd put a pretzel on it, etc. The last number drawn would be the winning number, and whoever made the closest guess to the winning number was, obviously, the winner. I know, not the most creative or exciting game, but I thought it would help them reinforce their number recognition.

And that was our week of baking and cooking!

One Page at a Time

Jan 17, 2014

Since the first of the year, my reading has slowed down significantly. I am trying to get through the rest of A Mind at a Time before my education group meets at the end of this month.

It is a great book, and I have learned so much from it, but it is a tedious read. I have been slowly inching my way through the pages. I've set a goal to read at least 5-10 pages daily so I'll be done in time, but even that sometimes seems overly ambitious.

Even though Dr. Levine shares many stories, the writing is also somewhat dense and technical. It's taking a lot of my brain power and concentration, which means it's not something I can usually read at night (when I'm super tired) or during the day (when I have kids distracting me). That is why it sometimes seems impossible to squeeze in even five pages of reading.

I'm anxious to finish though because I have several other books that I want to read. One of them is The Forgotten Garden. I've read all of twenty pages so far, and I know if I read anymore, I will get sucked in, and it will be good-bye to A Mind at a Time.

I've mentioned before that one of the reasons I read is to learn new things. So even when a book is a mite tedious, like this one, I force myself to continue because I can see the evidence of it enriching my life and stretching my mind. It is really rewarding to read a book where the pages don't slip effortlessly away and where I have to employ my mind to thinking and learning and understanding.

What about you? Do you sometimes force yourself to read denser books for the sake of learning, or do you strictly reserve reading as a form of escape?

And now, enough chit chat. It's nearly bedtime, and I've only read one page so far today!

One of Our Very Favorite Old Men

Jan 15, 2014

At our house, we adore Mr. Putter and Tabby. Sadly, I feel like they're not as popular or well-known as Cynthia Rylant's other great characters, Henry and Mudge. Don't get me wrong, we're definitely not opposed to Henry and Mudge. We like them. But we, I repeat, adore Mr. Putter and Tabby.

Tonight Aaron was reading Mr. Putter & Tabby Write the Book for his 15-minutes of reading. It has been a really long day, and I was worried he would put up a fight because he was so tired. But Mr. Putter provided just the kind of cozy, comfortable reading we both needed.

In this episode, Mr. Putter decides to write a novel because there has just been a really big snowfall, and he and Tabby are too old to go out in it. First, he needs a title. He has always loved mysteries, so he decides to write a novel called The Mystery of Lighthouse Cove. Sounds intriguing. Then he decides he needs a snack. He makes a big apple salad, corn muffins, custard pudding, and a cheese ball.

And then comes this line:

"Mr. Putter spent three minutes on his title and four hours on his snack."

And it is because of sentences like that that we adore Mr. Putter and Tabby.

For more great early chapter book suggestions, check out this old post.

How Do You Forget to Breathe?

Jan 13, 2014

Over a year ago, I shared this little random fact about myself: " I am an avid journal writer. I write in it every day, no exceptions."

And I wasn't lying. I really write in it every. single. day. A few sentences or many, exciting news or boring routines, deep thoughts or fluffy nonsense, I record the events of my life.

With fourteen, perfect-record years under my belt, I thought my habit of journal writing was as secure as remembering to breathe.

But last night, I picked up my journal and found where I last left off. My pen was poised, ready to write "January 12th" when I realized there was no "January 11th" on the previous page.

Laughing to myself, I flipped back a couple of pages wondering where my dating had gone awry. I was sure I'd find two January 8ths or some other such nonsense.

But no, everything seemed to be in order. So I flipped back to the last entry I'd written, dated January 10th. I read over it; there was no question; it was written on Friday.

Up to this point, I still wasn't even considering that I actually hadn't written on January 11th. Of course I'd written! I must have just had other things on my mind at the time and so hadn't paid attention to which page I was writing on. I meticulously went through my journal, page by blank page.


And that is when it finally hit me:  I didn't write in my journal. I broke my fourteen-year-long streak. And it wasn't because I was in childbirth or deathly ill or exhausted. It was simply because I forgot.

How do you forget to do something that you've done every single day for the last fourteen years? 

I know many of you are probably laughing at this absurd post. "So you missed one day in fourteen years? Big deal. Have you ever heard of world hunger?"

It doesn't really matter. I know. I will continue writing, and January 11, 2014 will never be missed. But I guess I feel like a part of me is missing. I mean, I know I forgot. But now that I realized I forgot, shouldn't a part of my brain kick in and remember that I forgot? But no. I keep going back over the perfectly normal events of Saturday night, and I can't remember not writing in my journal.

So yes, I'm (more than a little) sad that I can no longer say "I write in my journal every day" without qualifying it with "except for that one totally random day where I forgot." But more than that, I'm worried that I'm losing my mind. When I wrote about it in my journal last night, I said, "I am flabbergasted. There is no other word for it."

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Jan 10, 2014

Last year, when I decided to read two 19th-century classics and two 20th-century classics, I nailed down three of the books pretty quickly (East of Eden, The Woman in White, and A Study in Scarlet). But for months, I had no idea what I was going to read to fill that last spot. I began to wonder why I had even made that goal since I obviously didn't have any pressing 20th-century classics on my mind. In fact, it would have been much easier for me to just read four classics from the 1800's rather than try to split it between two centuries.

I searched through lists of classics, but nothing sounded interesting. In desperation, I turned to my to-read list, hoping I'd forgotten about something on there that would both (a) sound interesting and (b) fulfill my self-imposed requirement.

And what do you know? That massively long list came through for me. Hidden in between parenting books and middle-grade novels was Their Eyes Were Watching God. For the life of me, I couldn't remember why I'd added it to the list. But it didn't matter. It was a 20th-century classic; it looked interesting; and it wasn't 700-pages long. Triple check.

When Janie Crawford's grandmother catches her flirting with a young man, she lays down the law: Janie must find a good man and get married quick . . . before anything bad happens. Nanny had such high hopes for her own daughter (Janie's mother), and when things didn't go at all the way she had planned, she determined she'd do better with her granddaughter.

And that is how Janie, at the ripe old age of 16, ends up marrying Logan Killicks, a man many years her senior and mainly interested in having someone to share the load of running a farm. Janie married him to please her grandmother (she knew how heartbroken her grandmother was about her mother's broken life). She hoped love would follow. It did not.

Two more marriages follow, and with each one, Janie learns more about herself, her own abilities and talents, and how to realize her dreams.

I loved this story. It was different from what I was expecting, but I think that made me love it even more. I thought it was going to be about the fair treatment of African-Americans, but instead it was much more about women's rights.

I generally don't consider myself a feminist, mainly because, for me, the word "feminist" conjures up an image of radical, career-obsessed, men-hating women, and I don't feel like that's me at all. But this book is about the kind of feminism I can resolutely stand behind: fair and equal partnership, using your talents to love and help others, and standing firm in your own beliefs and convictions.

I loved watching Janie's transformation from insecure, irresolute teenager to strong, confident woman. One of the first big changes occurred when Janie realized that, for all she loved Nanny, her grandmother had dictated her life in unforgiveable ways. I absolutely loved this quote:

"Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made--the horizon,  for no matter how far a person can go, the horizon is still way beyond you--and pinched it into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her."

It is a miraculous thing when you realize the horizon (your future) is not one little predestined path but as big and vast and miraculous as you want it to be. During the course of the book, Janie tested her horizon's boundaries and found that they were indeed limitless.

I've done very little reading of other people's analyses of this book, but I did see that the book has been criticized for glamorizing the life of the South a little too much. It definitely does have a folk-like, small-town feel to it--one where cares are few and troubles are far between. In my opinion, this impression has little to do with the actual storyline (since Janie's life is far from ideal) and more to do with the writing: the conversations, the charming and memorable characters, and the setting all contribute to the overall untroubled feeling. And, like I said before, it really doesn't touch on racial issues.

I loved the contrast between Janie's second and third husbands: successful, controlling Joe Starks and laid-back, self-sacrificing Tea Cake. They both helped Janie learn different things about herself, and seeing the true love between Janie and Tea Cake was much more satisfying for all the struggles that came before.
I have to admit, I was not expecting the tragic ending, but these two thoughts from Janie sum up the majority of the book for me (and forgive my rough transcription of the dialect . . . this is what happens when you listen to the audio and can't let a good thought go by):

"So, I'm back home again, and I'm satisfied to be here. I done been to the horizon and back, and now I can set here in my house and live by comparisons . . . Then you must tell 'em that love ain't somethin' like a grindstone that's the same thing everywhere and do the same thing to everything it touch. Love is like the sea. It's a moving thing. But still in all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."

And this one:

"Two things everybody's got to do for theyselves. They got to go to God, and they got to find out about livin' for theyselves."

This was Janie's journey: learning to love, going to God, and truly living. And reading about her journey made me realize just how important those discoveries are in my own life.

P.S. After I finished this book, I happened to come across a picture book at the library based on one of Zora Neale Hurston's folk tales. It's called Roy Makes a Car and is written by Mary E. Lyons. My boys loved this tall tale about a man who makes the "perfect" car, and I loved that Lyons captured Hurston's style so perfectly.

The Snow Angel by Glenn Beck

Jan 8, 2014

Sometimes when I'm in the mood for a certain kind of book, I can be quite stubborn. A couple of weeks before Christmas, I was nearing the end of an audiobook and realized I didn't have anything else to listen to (this is rare for me--usually I have piles of waiting books). I frantically searched the library website for anything that was available for immediate download or pickup. And of course, there were lots of choices, including many from my massively long to-read list. But I was desperate for something with a Christmas theme (you know how I am in December...), and I couldn't find anything. (It didn't help that the catalog system for one of our libraries (the one with the wider selection of audiobooks) was being revamped and unavailable for public use.)

But then this one came up, and although I would normally avoid Glenn Beck at all costs, it seemed like it might be exactly what I was looking for.

And surprisingly, it was.

By the looks of it, Rachel Price has the perfect life: a gorgeous house, a successful husband, and a charming daughter. But underneath, things are not so pretty. Rachel's husband is controlling and manipulative and often resorts to abusing Rachel, both verbally and physically. Rachel also still suffers from the past effects of having an abusive, alcoholic mother. What's more, after her marriage 12 years before, she lost all contact with her father, a decision she now regrets. Rachel is trapped in the downward spiral of abuse, but just as the story begins, Rachel feels the spark of independence and rekindles a friendship with Max, a tailor who was like a father to Rachel during her tumultuous teen years.

Meanwhile, the story visits an old man in a care center. He is obviously suffering from the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's, but in his lucid and even not-so-lucid moments, it is clear that he wants to see someone very much and tell her he's sorry.

I had to laugh when I read the reviews for this book. Some people were adamant that it was not in any way, shape, or form a Christmas story. Never mind that it takes place in December, the climax happens on Christmas Eve, and that it is imbued with the themes of love and forgiveness. No, it deals with abuse, which cannot ever be linked with Christmas. The very idea!

Of course, I'm exaggerating a little bit. But the fact is, abusive relationships do not pause for the month of December and then resume with a vengeance in January. They are present and ugly in every season. (Speaking of present and ugly, I just got called away from writing by my three-year-old who threw up. Real life is definitely going on in the midst of writing these reviews.)

Even though this book was about abuse, it did not have the harsh, dark, oppressive feeling that other books dealing with similar situations have. In other words, it would definitely still be considered a light read. From the beginning, there is hope that Rachel will be able to get out of her bad marriage and rebuild her life. She has support from Max, who loves her like his own flesh and blood, and also from her good friend, Sarah, as well as from her 11-year-old daughter. They give her the emotional and financial support she needs when she finally decides to make the break and leave. Underlying all of that is her father's intense love, even though she is not aware of it until the end of the book.

I have to admit, I was afraid that Glenn Beck would try to lighten it up too much. He paints a picture of real abuse, the kind that is often hidden from view but invades every part of daily life, and there were moments when I thought he was going to try to make it all go away and suddenly make Rachel's marriage happy and glorious. But he didn't, and I appreciated the heart wrenching honesty of it all.

Speaking of the writing, it was good. Not breathtaking, but good. My favorite scene was actually the one from which the title of the book is taken. It is a scene from Rachel's past. That day, her mother had been especially cruel, and Rachel couldn't sleep that night. A fresh blanket of snow had fallen over their neighborhood, and her father, in a moment of rare inspiration, suggested they bundle up and go out into it. They make snow angels in the new snow--dozens of them in all of their neighbors' yards. It is a precious moment from Rachel's childhood, a moment where she really feels the depth of her father's love. I thought this scene was beautifully written. And it made me wonder, who actually wrote it? I'm not necessarily doubting that Glenn Beck could write such a poignant scene, but he did write this book with someone else (Nicole Baart), and I am very curious to know how much of what I liked about this book were her contributions.

So no, the subject matter is not sleigh rides and hot cocoa and romance, so I guess if that's your definition of a Christmas novel, then this is not one. But if you want a story about real trials and real hope set during the time of year when even hard things seem possible, then this is the perfect Christmas story.


Jan 7, 2014

Today is my birthday. I am 29 years old. No, really, I am. I keep telling people that there must be something magical about this age since it is the one everyone wants to go back to. I am expecting great things from it.

But at the same time, I keep hearing myself say, "I'm 29," and I practically faint from the shock of it. 29! When did that happen?!?!?! 

If there was a pause button on life, I'm one of those people who would always be pushing it. I'm afraid I'm never living in the moment enough . . . I'm too worried about the moment being over! A conundrum if ever there was one.

But it's been a good day so far. A good week, actually, since I started celebrating while we were still in Colorado with my family. So far, I think my favorite part of the day was walking Aaron to school. We haven't been able to walk in over a month because of the snow and extreme cold and inversion. It felt like a gift to be out in the brisk morning air.

My least favorite part of the day has been Bradley's constant stream of tantrums. Everything is making that little boy cry today. It's hard to be 2. Probably harder than being 29.

For my birthday, I would really love to know who is reading my blog! So come out of the woodwork! Say hi! Introduce yourself! It would make my day to get a boatload of comments from friends and soon-to-be-friends!

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Jan 6, 2014

When this book came into the library for me, Mike was out running some errands, so I asked him to pick it up. I didn't tell him the title of it, and when he returned home with it, I blushed a little bit. The Husband's Secret . . . it just sounds so much like a trashy romance novel, which is not my usual book fare at all.

Even though I loved What Alice Forgot, also by Liane Moriarty, I probably would not have picked up The Husband's Secret if not for my book club. The premise sounded intriguing enough (a wife accidentally finds a letter from her husband, which she is instructed only to open in the case of his death), but it also sounded like there was plenty of room for some edgy content (plus, I already knew from What Alice Forgot to expect a fair bit of language).

However, based on my experience with What Alice Forgot, I also knew the novel couldn't possibly be as shallow as a husband simply confessing to an affair. And I was right on that point: it was unexpected and multi-layered and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, I was also right about the language and the mature content.

Cecilia Fitzpatrick leads a charmed life: she is married to a loving, successful husband, she has three beautiful daughters, she runs a thriving business, and she is an irreplaceable member of her community. When the story begins, Cecilia has just found the tantalizing envelope. It was in a box of old receipts she accidentally knocked over. It looks like it was written at least a decade before. Part of her feels like she shouldn't open it (John-Paul isn't dead after all . . . ), but another part of her is desperate to know what he will only confess after he's gone.

Meanwhile, in another city, Tess is finding out that her husband and her best friend/cousin are having an affair (I can't say I was totally shocked to find out there was an affair somewhere in the book, even if it wasn't what I originally expected). Tess isn't about to give up on her marriage, but she also needs some time to think, so she boards a plane with her six-year-old son and heads to her mom's house in Sydney (the same suburb where, as fate would have it, Cecilia Fitzpatrick lives).

Finally, there's Rachel, an older woman in her late sixties who cannot come to terms with her daughter's tragic death over twenty years before. She is the secretary at St. Angela's, the Catholic school where the Fitzpatrick girls and Tess's son are enrolled.

The entire story takes place over just seven days. The perspective shifts between Cecilia, Tess, and Rachel. As things progress, their interactions with each other become more frequent, and their lives become mixed together in unforeseen ways.

While I really loved the characters and the development of this story, I was really in a bind because there was a lot of content that made me quite uncomfortable (especially in Tess's sections--her reaction to her husband's infidelity was to be unfaithful herself). I spent almost the entire book questioning whether I should just stop reading and let my book club fill me in on the details.

Unfortunately, I have never been one to want to read wikipedia summaries or CliffsNotes. So much of the story's impact (for me) is dependent on the writing and the pacing and not reducing a 400-page book to four paragraphs.

But what really made me keep reading was that when I wasn't reading it, I couldn't stop thinking about it (and not just because I wanted to know what was going to happen next). I was thinking about what I would do if I was in Cecilia's place. I was thinking about second chances and forgiveness and healing and guilt. Often when I'm struggling to know whether or not I should put down a book, I ask myself, "Is there value in this book? Am I becoming a better person for reading it?" Every time I asked myself that while reading this book, I had to answer yes. It wasn't shallow or gratuitous. There was real depth and meaning behind all those flawed and troubled characters.

One of the main themes of the book is guilt; or rather, the pain that so often comes from rash decisions and whether or not it's possible to ever make up for past mistakes. I've thought a lot about this paragraph: "He was always calculating, wondering what else God would expect of him, how much more he would have to pay. Of course, he knew that none of it was enough . . . "

But I've thought even more about this line: "Did one act define who you were forever? Did one evil act as a teenager counteract twenty years of marriage, of good marriage, twenty years of being a good husband and a good father?" This question is agonizing for me. I keep thinking about a movie I saw last year about Dr. Ben Carson, the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins at the head. I've been meaning to read his autobiography, but in the movie, it depicts a scene with him as a rebellious, stubborn teenager with a quick temper. He gets into a fight with a group of guys and tries to stab one of them with his knife. Fortunately, the boy's belt buckle stops the knife, and Ben realizes with horror what he almost did. I have often thought how tragic it would have been if his fit of rage had led to murder. One senseless act would have cut off a life destined for amazing good and discovery.

I thought of that scene again while reading this book. Over and over in this story, it is a senseless act, a split-second decision, that alters the course of the various characters' lives. It seems unfair that such choices should be allowed such deep impacts. And yet, if the choice hurts another person, then there is no way that the perpetrator shouldn't have to suffer for his mistakes.

Am I being vague enough? I'm trying not to give anything away, but perhaps I should have just given a spoiler-alert heads-up and written freely. The point is, our decisions really do define who we are and who we become. But it really is tragic that it's possible for two different people to make the same kind of decision but have very different outcomes.

As with What Alice Forgot, I was captivated by Liane Moriarty's writing. Her pacing is amazing. She knows just how to give you the barest of details without leaving you totally confused and frustrated. She knows just when to deliver the punch for the greatest impact (Cecilia finally tears open the letter midway through the book, and the scene is perfectly placed--plenty of lead-up but also lots of time left to struggle through some resolutions). I also love the interplay between dialogue and the character's thoughts. For example, this scene, where Rachel is at a party and hears two women talking: "'It's unacceptable,' said Eve. 'In this day and age. I refuse it. I say no thank you to pain.' Ah, so that was my mistake, thought Rachel. I should have said no thank you to pain." Eve is talking about childbirth, but Rachel hears that and thinks about her daughter's death. I really feel like Liane Moriarty has a tight hold on who her characters are. She knows them, not just superficially, but deep down inside.

The ending is . . . unexpected. I honestly didn't know if Moriarty would be able to pull off a satisfying conclusion. But while not exactly happy (and I was disappointed to not find out what happened with Rachel's son and family), I think it was probably the best way it could have ended.

Because of the content, this isn't a book I can universally recommend. But if you don't mind the condensed version, I'd love to fill you in on the plot so we can discuss it.

Reading Goals for 2014

Jan 4, 2014

2014 is officially underway, and I am ready to share some reading goals. I've mentioned before that I like to read what I feel like reading, but I also like to have some structure and a reason to push myself to read something I might not be prone to otherwise.

A lot of readers have been posting their reading goals, and I feel like mine look a little lame in comparison. They're not super specific, and many of them are not extremely ambitious. But they're flexible, which I like, and they still guide me to read a wide range of books.

1. Read something that I put on my to-read list in 2009
I joined Goodreads in early 2009. It has now been almost five years, and my to-read list is (at this very moment) 293 books long . . . and it never seems to get any shorter. Thankfully, I'm also always reading books from the list (so it's not as unwieldy as it could be . . . ), but the ones I added in 2009 have been woefully neglected in favor of the ones I'm currently hearing about. I've been looking at and considering these books for years, and I always end up choosing something else. This goal is just a way for me to make a (very small) dent in that vast list. I have quite the variety to choose from: 64 books and everything from Emma to Al Capone Does My Shirts to Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World. This is what I mean by flexibility. 

2. Read something that I've checked out once from the library and had to take back before I could read it
Do you do this too? Put seven things on hold, and all seven come in on the exact same day and cannot be renewed? This happens to me more times than I care to admit. The problem is, once I've checked it out once, I have a hard time checking it out again. It's almost like I've already read it, even though I most definitely have not. So this goal will help me get back to some almost-read books. I actually have two such books checked out from the library right now: 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and The Great Unexpected. We'll see if I actually get to either of them or if it will take a third time to do the trick.

3. Reread a book from my childhood
I love revisiting old favorites. It's like eating a bowl of chicken noodle soup on a cold winter day (for me, at least . . . Mike doesn't care for chicken noodle soup). I've been wanting to reread The Saturdays for a long time. It's been far too long since I've peeked in on the Melendy family.

4. Finish a series I already started
I'm reusing this goal from last year because it was such a success. I was so happy to have a reason to finish The Chronicles of Narnia, and I want to have the same motivation to finish another series this year. Most likely it will be Little House on the Prairie. Is The First Four Years considered to be the last one? If so, I have five books left in order to finish out the series.

5. Read another installment in a series I already started
This is not to be confused with the above goal. There are some series that I would never want to finish all in one year. I'm talking about the kind where each book is a self-contained story so it stands alone perfectly well, but the series as a whole does have some progression and development because it involves the same characters. I'm thinking of either reading the next book in the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency or Maisie Dobbs (but I have lots of other choices if the mood strikes me).

6. Read something by Dickens
I've had this goal in mind for a long time, but after reading The Man Who Invented Christmas last month, it became even more of a priority. I've only read A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities before, so I'm looking forward to expanding my Dickens repertoire. Tell me: which Dickens novel do you love best?

7. Read something less well-known by an author I love
I know, I know. Another goal from last year. I might not be so inclined to make it again this year if I'd read more from favorite authors last year. But as it was, the only book that fulfilled this goal in 2013 was one by Karen Hesse. I had so many more ideas for books that would fulfill this category, so I'm continuing with the goal. Maybe this year I'll get to another novel by Daphne du Maurier. I hope so.

8. Listen to something I've already read or vice versa 
Sometimes I listen to a book and love it, and I wonder if I'd love it so much if I'd read it instead. Or sometimes I read a book and hate it and wonder if I'd like it more if I'd listened to it, etc, etc. Anyway, I can think of two books off the top of my head that I read and didn't love, but I seemed to be the only one: The Wednesday Wars and Hattie Big Sky. I think it would be fun to listen to one of them and see if my opinion changes. By contrast, I absolutely loved Walk Two Moons and Moon Over Manifest when I listened to them. So I might read one of them instead and see if I love it just as much in that format. Anyone have any fun experiences with reading and listening to the same book?

9. Read four Newbery contenders
I love feeling like I'm a little bit in-the-know before the awards are announced, and this goal helps me stay on top of any books that are getting attention and also entitles me to a small opinion.

10. Read a biography
I still reserve the right to change my mind, but I'm setting this goal specifically because I want to read Fire in the Bones, which is the biography of William Tyndale.

To complete these goals I will need to read at least 14-17 books (depending on which series I choose to finish). The only rule I give myself is that I can't use the same book to fulfill two goals. I think it's going to be a fun year of reading. What goals have you set (reading or otherwise) for yourself?

Books of 2013, Last Half

Jan 1, 2014

Somehow I ended up reading the exact same number of books (34) in the second half of 2013 as I read in the first half. I guess I'm nothing if not consistent. If you'd like to see a summary of the books I read from January through June, click here.

(Click on the title to go to the full review.)

1. Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls by Leonard Sax, AUDIO, 8/10
This book made me glad I'm raising boys instead of girls. Not that boys don't have plenty of challenges themselves, but girls are dealing with some pretty scary things.

2. The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis, AUDIO, 10/10
This might be my very favorite Narnia story.

3. Beyond the Wood by Michael J. Roueche, 7/10
The ending was frustrating, but I liked the rest of this Civil War story.

4. Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson, 4/10
I was expecting better from the illustrator of The Story of Ferdinand. Really a bit tedious for my kids and me.

5. The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens, 9/10
I always intended to write a review of this book, but every time I thought about doing it, I felt overwhelmed. I learned so many good things. I guess I'll just have to read it again and then write a review.

6. Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale, 8/10
First foray into the world of graphic novels. Very enjoyable.

7. Blackmoore by Julianne Donaldson, 9/10
If I were going to spend all my time reading fluffy romances, I'd wish for them all to be like this one.

8. Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything by Laura Grace Weldon, 6/10
This book had a lot of useful and practical ideas . . . whether you're interested in homeschooling or not.

9. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, AUDIO, 5/10
It wasn't that I disagreed with the information in this book. Not at all. It was just that it felt so incredibly long and repetitive. Thank goodness for double-speed audio.

10. Calamity Jack by Shannon Hale, 8/10
I didn't like it quite as much as Rapunzel's Revenge, but almost.

11. Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool, AUDIO, 10/10
I adored everything about this book, especially Early Auden, one of my favorite characters of all time.

12. A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, 8/10
I wish I could make my childhood of growing up in small town sound as interesting and funny as Haven Kimmel makes hers.

13. Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, 8/10
Pathetic female lead, chivalrous male lead, fun fairy-tale retelling.

14. Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George, 7/10
Clever retelling of Cinderella, but the ending felt rushed.

15. Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, 10/10, Steve Sheinkin
If all nonfiction could be written like this, I think every child would be interested in history.

16. Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace, 8/10
Loved sharing this much-beloved story from my childhood with my boys.

17. The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore, 6/10
Not an unenjoyable book per se, but the writing wasn't my favorite and the ending was not at all satisfying.

18. Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary, 10/10
Yes. YES. This is what all children's literature should be like.

19. Calm and Compassionate Children by Susan Usha Dermond, 7/10
Ever since reading this book, I have used music to both motivate my children and also calm them down. Definitely a worthwhile read if only for that one change.

20. East of Eden by John Steinbeck, AUDIO, 10/10
I don't think it's possible to sum up this book in one sentence. How about one word? Amazing.

21. Princess of the Silver Woods by Jessica Day George, 7/10
Out of the three books in this trilogy, I liked the characters in this book best. But sadly, the ending was a total copy of the first book.

22. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, 9/10
One of the best mysteries I've ever read but also disturbing and creepy.

23. The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, 8/10
Billy Miller reminded us of Henry Huggins, which made us all fall in love with him instantly.

24. Pumpkin Roll by Josi S. Kilpack, 8/10
Finally! A mystery involving Sadie Hoffmiller where I didn't hate the ending.

25. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, AUDIO, 8/10
Suspenseful and thrilling, but the climax seemed to happen too early. Marian Halcombe was added to my list of all-time favorite characters.

26. Homer Price by Robert McCloskey, 7/10
Any book involving a doughnut-making machine was sure to be a success with this family.

27. The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, AUDIO, 8/10
A fitting end to this wonderful series.

28. The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, 8/10
I liked this magical story, but it was the writing that really made me love this book.

29. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, AUDIO, 8/10
I was not expecting the ending to be so tragic, but I still thought this was a great book.

30. A Winter Dream by Richard Paul Evans, 7/10
Predictable but not in a disappointing way.

31. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, AUDIO, 6/10
Loved the mystery itself, but the middle section was so strange.

32. The Continuous Atonement by Brad Wilcox, 9/10
So glad to have read this book. Deepened my understanding and love for the Savior's priceless gift.

33. The Snow Angel by Glenn Beck, AUDIO, 8/10
I was expecting only mediocre things from this book, but I quite enjoyed it.

34. The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, 8/10
A perfect read for Christmas and also for the end of the year. Loved learning more about Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.

Combined with my first half, that makes for a total of 68 books, 17,571 pages, and a lot of good reading.
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