A Little of This and That in July

Jul 31, 2015

I think a little monthly update might be in order. I have a lot of odds and ends things to say--none of them quite long or important enough for their own post but taking up valuable brain space until I get them out. So consider this a bit of a dump.

Right now, I'm . . .

Reading . . . the third book in the Emily trilogy to myself (it will complete one of my reading goals) and Just So Stories and Story of the World to the boys (plus lots of picture books--I try to highlight our favorites on Instagram).

Listening . . . to The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I'm on disc three and already loving it so much more than The Forgotten Garden.

Loving . . . my new header. Do you like it? My friend, Molly, painted it for me, and I think she perfectly captured what reading looks like in our family right now (at least, the way I want it to look . . . )

Neglecting . . . the backyard, which is slowly being overtaken by weeds. Actually, not so slowly. You leave it for a day, and when you come back, the weeds have taken up residence again.

Hosting . . . lots of house guests. We've had some friends from our BYU days, my little niece and nephew, Mike's cousin and her family, and Mike's brother and his family.

Planning . . . for a new school year (and bitterly wishing summer wasn't coming to a close). Aaron and Maxwell will be going to two different schools this year, the explanation of which probably does deserve its own blog post. Stay tuned.

Bragging . . . about my friend Sarah's new podcast, Bringing Up Betty. It's pretty fantastic. You should give it a listen.

Learning . . . how to knit. I've wanted to learn for so many years, and an older woman in my neighborhood recently offered to teach me. I just finished my first project, and I might have a slight obsession.

Appreciating . . . these long summer nights. We try to get our kids to bed at a decent hour, but if the weather is perfect and the neighborhood is out in droves, we make an exception (which means that going to bed at a decent hour has become the exception).

Rescuing . . . items from the trash or the toilet or the pool. On Sunday alone, he threw away the older boys' markers, my shoe into the toilet, and Mike's watch into the trashcan at church. That boy has to be watched like a hawk.

Basking . . . at the pool. Becoming members of our neighborhood swim club was probably the best decision we made this summer. We've gone almost every day (although in the last couple of weeks, it's tapered off just a bit), and the three older boys love it so much. (Clark loves running around the deck and chucking anything he can find into the water, which means this is not really my summer to relax at the pool.)

Dreaming . . . of a new roof. Ever since we moved into our house almost a year and a half ago, we've been planning to get a new roof. Every time someone asks us what projects we're working on, we don't have much to report because all we're doing is saving for that darn roof.

Going . . . to a million family events. I'm really grateful for all the things we get to do with our families, but sometimes I need a day or two to catch my breath, and sometimes the activities are packed so closely together, I don't get a chance.

Chasing . . . Clark. He runs, he climbs, and he gets into everything. The only way I survive is by keeping the doors to every single room closed so that I know exactly where he is and what he's doing.

Missing . . . Mike's parents. They moved to Germany yesterday. The last time they lived out of the country was eight years ago in Chile. That was before any of our kids were born. This absence will hurt a lot more because it won't just be Mike and me missing them but our kids, too. On the bright side, we're already planning a vacation to Europe.

Hoping . . . my parents will move to Utah. With Mike's parents so far away now, I want at least one set of grandparents close. They're dragging their feet though.

Working . . . on our summer goals. With it being the end of July already, I'm realizing that I may have set the bar too high. In the meantime, we keep chipping away at them.

Crying . . . about having a seven-year-old. Seriously, how do you pause this growing up thing?

What have you been up to lately?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Jul 29, 2015

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin book review
Ever since we discovered the Ling and Ting series earlier this year, I've wanted to read something else by Grace Lin. I figured anyone who was able to write for early readers with that much wit, humor, and style would not be half bad for a slightly older crowd.

And then, when I was reporting on my reading goals for the first half of this year, I mentioned that I still needed to read a past Newbery honor book to fulfill one of the goals. Beth suggested this one, and that was all the additional encouragement I needed.

Minli lives on Fruitless Mountain with her Ba and Ma. The name suits the place, and they have to work hard just to eke out a meager living. In the evenings, Ba tells Minli stories--a pastime that Ma does not approve of ("Our house is bare and our rice hardly fills our bowls, but we have plenty of stories. What a poor fortune we have").

One of those stories is about the Old Man of the Moon, who reads the Book of Fortune and directs the destinies of people on earth. When Minli hears it, she decides to travel to Never-Ending Mountain and ask the Old Man how to bring fortune to her house. Of course, once Ba and Ma discover Minli is gone, they are devastated. As Minli journeys and Ba and Ma hope for her return, they all realize the fortune they had might not have been so bad after all.

I started out liking this book but not loving it. I felt like I could see the end from the beginning: Minli would go on this long journey and never find the Old Man of the Moon, but she would meet people along the way who would help her realize that the love of her Ba and Ma was all the fortune she needed. Her fortune wouldn't change, but her heart and expectations would.

I was right in part: at its heart, this is a story about family and relationships and how those are the most valuable possessions. But it was the parts I was wrong about that made me switch from a mere liking of this book to a strong loving of it. I can't share the resolutions of those false predictions without giving away the best parts of this book, but if you read it, just put aside all preconceived notions and let the story beautifully unfold.

Grace Lin is a storyteller, and she has that rare talent of being able to tell a story within a story within a story: part of the plot depends on the folktales of Minli's father and others; part of it is made up of Minli's own journey; and eventually, Minli's story joins the others as being one that is passed down from generation to generation. The folktales not only relate to Minli's own journey but also to one another: the same characters and objects appear again and again (i.e., the magistrate, the moon, the red thread, etc.), and even little details (like peaches) keep the stories connected.

Minli gets her instructions for how to get to Never-Ending Mountain from a goldfish. (Minli bought the goldfish in a rare frivolous moment but then decided her family really didn't have enough money to be able to feed themselves and a pet.) The story cuts to the next scene before the reader finds out what those instructions are, and so each new step in Minli's journey is a surprise.

There were two really poignant moments in the story for me. One occurred after Ba and Ma return home after trying to find Minli (the narrative skips back and forth between Minli and her parents). Ma catches Ba with his ear in the goldfish bowl (long story, but as they were searching for Minli, they ran into the goldfish man, and he gave them another goldfish). Ma doesn't know that Ba can hear the goldfish talking to him and so has no idea why he would be doing something so ridiculous as sticking his ear into the bowl. Ba feels embarrassed, and both of them start laughing. "Their laughter intertwined but when they looked at each other, they could see the tears forming were not from joy." I felt like real grief was captured in that moment: the situation was funny, but as they laughed about it, that emotion released another and gave them permission to cry.

The other moment occurred when Minli is at the base of Never-Ending Mountain. She is saying good-bye to the villagers who live there. They are a perpetually happy people, and before she leaves, they give her a brightly colored coat that they made overnight. As they raise their arms to wave good-bye, she realizes  that each one is missing a square of cloth from his or her own sleeves, and she realizes that each one gave a piece to make her own coat. She is touched by the generosity and kindness, and I was too.

Speaking of the villagers, Minli's story is supported by a wonderful cast of secondary characters: Ba and Ma, the goldfish man, the goldfish(es), the dragon, the buffalo boy and his friend, the king, A-Fu and Da-Fu, and, of course, the Old Man of the Moon. Each one was important and memorable, and as the narrative shifted and focused on each of their stories in turn, I began to see how they were all connected and how Minli's story was just one that fit into this seamless history--hence, the story within the story within the story.

I read (actually, listened) to this by myself (and, although I liked the audio, the actual book is worth checking out because it is filled with Grace Lin's beautiful illustrations), but I think it's one my kids would have enjoyed listening to also. I'm kind of sad I didn't take them on the journey with me, but not really because now I can read it again.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Jul 27, 2015

A book review of "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A few months ago, I read MotherStyles and discovered that I'm an ISTJ.

Since that time, I've been a little obsessed with personality type, so it's probably no surprise that when Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy (one of my nine favorite blogs for book recommendations) came up with a list of sixteen different books highlighting each personality type, I had to read the one with an ISTJ protagonist.

Which happened to be this book.

A.J. Fikry owns the only bookstore on Alice Island. He's not terribly successful since he's not really interested in selling books he doesn't like (a quite expansive list, including "children's books, especially ones with orphans"). For years, he did okay because his wife, Nic, was more personable and knew how to sell books.

But about a year and a half before, she was killed in a tragic car accident, and since that time, A.J. can't bring himself to care much about what other people think. Already introverted and unemotional (hence, the ISTJ label), A.J. turns even more inside himself after the accident.

But early in the story, two things happen that begin to soften A.J. Fikry. He meets Knightly's publishing rep, Amelia Loman (their first meeting does not go well, and it's several years later before anything really starts to happen between them), and a two-year-old girl (Maya) is abandoned in the children's section of his store. The mother left a note pinned to her saying that she wants her daughter to "grow up in a place with books," but of course, A.J. has no interest in becoming a father (especially not under these circumstances).

But as fate would have it, A.J. inexplicably grows attached to little Maya and makes amends with Amelia and his life begins to have meaning again.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was not at all what I was expecting. And that might be kind of the point. Life, by its very nature, is unexpected, and, if I had to give a succinct summary of this book, it would simply be "a fairly quiet, but unpredictable, recounting of A.J. Fikry's life." The book itself is relatively short (at 258 pages, A.J. would approve since he does not like anything over 400 pages or under 150) and it spans quite a few years (I can't remember exactly how many, but it's over a decade for sure). Gabrielle Zevin doesn't try to get too ambitious with A.J.'s story. She knows she can't tell about every single event in his life, so she settles on the most meaningful and tells them very well. Really, I can't praise her writing highly enough: some might consider it sparse, but it was so tangible that it never felt like anything was missing.

I think Anne Bogel was right when she labeled A.J. as an ISTJ. Although I hope I come across as a slightly more approachable person, I could definitely see myself in him. I like to be alone (preferably with a good book); I often take awhile to warm up to people; I like to think about and analyze stories and relate them to real life (obviously); I am meticulous and rather set in my ways. (A.J. is so happy when the Christmas season is over because he "likes [his] routine. He likes making breakfast in the morning. He likes running to work." I can relate.) But in spite of all these similarities, I didn't read this book and think (like I sometimes do), I wish A.J. Fikry and I could meet in real life. We would work so well together. Our personalities might overlap, but I think our interests might not. I guess that's kind of a funny thing to say since A.J. Fikry loves books, and I love books, too, but it doesn't really seem as if we like the same kind of books. So we wouldn't have much to talk about.

That being said, one of the best parts of this book is all of the references to books. Each chapter begins with a little excerpt from a book journal of sorts. A.J. gives a brief summary of a book and then tells Maya why it is meaningful to him. Besides these little snippets, there are book references scattered constantly throughout the story, and I was familiar with enough of them to feel like a real reader. Besides being about A.J., this is also a book about books, and it's pretty delightful.

I finished this book a few weeks ago, but as I've been writing this review, I've been paging back through it and remembering just how much I enjoyed it. The writing is just so marvelous. (I loved the part when Maya christens their new home Bag End "because it looks as if a hobbit might live here," and "A.J. kisses his daughter on the forehead. He is delighted to have produced such a fantastic nerd.") (I had a similar moment over the weekend when we walked into our hotel room, and Maxwell gave a delighted cry before flinging open the doors of the closet: "It's a wardrobe! It's a wardrobe!" I'm sure he was secretly hoping Narnia would be just on the other side of it.)

And now I'm on the lookout for other books with ISTJ protagonists. Got any ideas?

Content note: I liked this book a good deal, but please be aware that there is some content I don't feel comfortable recommending: language (including the f-word) and some pre-marital sex (but nothing very descriptive).

Nine Blogs I Visit For Book Recommendations (For Me)

Jul 24, 2015

Last fall, I gave you eight of my favorite blogs to go to for children's book recommendations. But what about when I need a good book for myself? Of course I rely heavily on asking everyone I know the time-honored question of, "So...have you read anything good lately???" but I also look to these nine blogs for new recommendations:

1. Everyday Reading
I have been reading Janssen's blog since about 2009. She is one of the few bloggers I knew in real life before blogging (we were freshmen together at BYU). Janssen is a voracious reader, and although she tends to read more Young Adult than I do, our tastes in nonfiction definitely overlap (it's because of her that I picked up The Happiness Project, and you all know how much I love that book). I love reading all of her reviews, regardless of whether or not I think it's a book I'd actually read. She has a captivating way with words.

2. Modern Mrs. Darcy
In my dreams, I can read as fast as Anne Bogel. She cranks through hundreds of books every year, and her summer reading guide is legend (and she's read everything she recommends). She tends to read a lot of nonfiction, classics, and women's fiction, and while our tastes don't always sync, I love reading her posts because they are intelligent and interesting (and the discussions and recommendations she gets in the comments section are amazing). One of my favorite series on her blog is her literary matchmaking series where she considers three books a reader loved, one book they hated, and one they're currently reading and then gives them new recommendations. Her suggestions are always fresh and unexpected, and it's pretty obvious from them how widely she reads.

3. Maybe Matilda
While not technically a book blog, Rachel shares a roundup post every month of what she's been reading, and I love reading her short but insightful comments on each book. Recently she's also been sharing some of the books she's been reading with her four-year-old son, and of course I love seeing those as well. (Oh, and did I mention that she crochets? A hobby that tends to go very well with audiobooks.)

4. Mel's Thoughts
Melanie reads a lot, and she is not afraid of long, dense, intimidating books. (She has this really impressive goal of reading a biography of every U.S. president, and she's made a lot of headway so far.) For the most part, we have similar reactions to the same books (although she didn't like Better Than Before, and, well, you know I loved it), which helps me know that if she recommends a book, I'll probably really like it. Besides that, she travels a lot and takes beautiful photographs. She recently moved to Utah, and we met each other in person earlier this year. What a treat.

5. Other Women's Stories
Carrie definitely has her preferred genre (nonfiction, especially biography/memoir), but one of the things I really admire about her is that she's constantly pushing herself to branch out and try new genres. Consequently, I hear about a wide variety of books from her. She also keeps her blog very up-to-date on her reading status, so you always know exactly what's she's just finished, what she's currently reading, and what's in the queue.

6. Avid Reader's Musings
Out of all the blogs on this list, this is the one that is easiest to recognize as a traditional book blog. Melissa reviews pretty much everything she reads. Some of the reviews are long, and some of them are grouped into little mini-reviews. But you can be pretty confident that if Melissa's read it, then there's a review of it. She reads a lot of classics, and I appreciate knowing there's somewhere I can go to find a review if I'm trying to decide if it's worth it to delve into a long one. Even with it being a review-heavy blog though, you still get to see a lot of Melissa's personality, and I really like that.

7. Making Room
I haven't been reading Becca's blog for very many months, but enough to know I like her style and I like seeing what she's reading. Like Maybe Matilda, Becca does roundup posts featuring the books she's read during the month. I love it that she usually includes any chapter books she's read to her young daughter. Those totally count! And it gives me ideas for what to read to my kids (in fact, it's because of her high praise of Pippi Longstocking that it's up next for us).

8. Stacey Loscalzo
Stacey is another blogger who combines her love of reading with motherhood. I love seeing how the two intersect in her life and how she always makes time for reading for herself. She has many insightful posts on the value of reading. (And, I know this is supposed to be about how I find recommendations for myself, but she also shares her family's favorite picture books every month, just fyi.) I enjoy her "in this moment" posts,  as well as her mini-reviews of the books she's read.

9. Such Stuff
Suzanne and I often joke about being kindred spirits. We've never met in real life, but if we ever do, we're just sure we'll be great friends. Suzanne is getting her master's in literature (along with being a mom to two little boys), so of course you know she has good taste. Besides doing roundup book posts at the end of every month, Suzanne takes what she's been reading and applies it to real life in thoughtful, intelligent posts (she even applied The Book of Strange New Things to her own marriage). She probably likes fantasy and sci-fi a little more than I do (okay, she definitely does), but our preferences intersect at many other genres.

As you can see, these bloggers represent a wide range of reading tastes and interests. There's young adult, modern fiction, nonfiction, biography, fantasy, and science fiction among them, so it's highly likely that at least one of these blogs (if not more) will appeal to your personal preferences. Happy reading!

What's your go-to blog(s) for book recommendations?

The Lightning Bolt of Habit Change

Jul 22, 2015

photo credit goes to my brother-in-law, Jon

Many of you know I'm a diligent journal keeper. No, diligent is too mild a word for it. Dedicated? Yes, but still not strong enough. Obsessed? There we go.

But have I ever told you about how that diligence/dedication/obsession came about? Probably not because, the truth is, it's a very short story.

I was a teenager, and, as usual, I was stressing about something (a characteristic trait that, unfortunately, has not changed in the last fifteen years). It was probably a lot of little somethings because I tended to let them pile up in my brain until I grew so overwhelmed I couldn't stand it. My dad was inspired to offer me some short and simple counsel: make a to-do list every night.

And so that very night, I did just that. It felt nice to write, and so I decided that as long as I had a pen in my hand, I would just write about the day, too.

And, just like that, in a single moment, a habit was formed.

I had experienced a Lightning Bolt.

In her book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin says, "Sometimes we're hit by a lightning bolt that transforms our habits, instantly. We encounter some new idea, and suddenly a new habit replaces a long-standing habit--without preparation, without small steps, without wavering--and we pass from before to after in a moment."

That's exactly what happened to me. I don't remember thinking, I'd like to be better about writing in my journal regularly. In fact, I don't remember thinking about my journal at all. I was trying to write out a to-do list. But then, suddenly, there I was, writing about my day every day.

The thing about this particular strategy is that it's unpredictable. Gretchen says, "It's practically impossible to invoke on command. Unlike all the other strategies, it's not a strategy that we can decide to follow; it's something that happens to us."

It's really too bad because, as you can imagine, it's actually pretty nice to just wake up one morning and find you've acquired a habit (but only if it's a good one). Gretchen says that big events can trigger Lightning Bolts but that it's often something small: "a passage in a book, a scene from a movie, or a casual comment by a stranger."

That last one? A casual comment by a stranger? That set off a Lightning Bolt for me a couple of months ago.

For a long time now, I've been struggling with how to prioritize my time, particularly as it relates to this blog. I get a lot of joy and satisfaction when I finish writing a post but that can be compounded by feelings of guilt and frustration if I sacrificed time I would have been spending with my kids to write it. For many months, I tried to write during quiet time, which we have every afternoon, but I found that there were still little interruptions throughout the afternoon, and those interruptions broke my concentration and irritated me.

Then, one evening, I was chatting with a new woman in our neighborhood. She's approaching eighty, and so naturally, the three of us who were visiting her wanted to hear all about her long life. At one point, someone asked, "What are your hobbies? Reading? Sewing? Cooking?"

This woman replied, "Oh, I used to sew a lot. When my daughters were young, I sewed all their clothes. But now I wish I hadn't. I was so concerned with getting things done, and it didn't really matter."

Many people express similar sentiments of wishing they'd spent more time with their children, but there, in that otherwise normal moment, hearing that regret hit me hard. I thought, I don't want to share similar thoughts when I'm almost eighty. So something has to change now.

That woman's statement cast an illuminating light on my situation, and all of a sudden, I realized that if I really wanted to write, I should be doing it in the early morning hours before anyone in my house was awake. I've always been a fairly early riser, but I shifted my wake up time even earlier so that I could have a solid hour and a half to two hours before anyone else woke up.

Almost immediately though, I ran into a problem. I have a tendency to stay up late, like 11:30ish, but now I was trying to wake up between 4:40 and 5:15 every morning. I often have interruptions in the middle of the night from the baby or Maxwell who needs to relate all of the details of his bad dreams in order to go back to sleep. I knew I wasn't getting a healthy amount of sleep, but I felt fiercely committed to waking up early, so obviously the change needed to happen on the other end, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.

And then, on a Sunday evening just a couple of weeks ago, I was reading this article about how so many successful people follow a pattern of going to bed early and waking up early, and something finally fell into place. It was another Lightning Bolt, if you will.

The article mainly talked about the benefits of arising early when our minds are clear and our energy is replenished, but the reminder that this is only possible if you also retire early made me decide to move up my evening routine an hour earlier. I don't know if I was finally ready for the lesson or what, but suddenly I was able to make the change.

Because I've seen the wonderful results that have come because of these two recent Lightning Bolts, I've been trying to think if there are any ways to encourage them to occur more frequently. I believe what Gretchen says--that it's not a strategy we can "invoke on command"--but I also think there are certain things I can do to make Lightning Bolts more likely: read a wide variety of material (books, articles, current events) that will expose myself to new ideas (and maybe one of those ideas will be just the trigger I need); visit new places, regardless of whether they're near or far from home; chat with new people and glean what I can from their experiences.

And then, once the Lightning Bolt strikes, I can harness that energy by using some of the other strategies to hold it in place. A Lightning Bolt carries a lot of momentum with it, and sometimes it's enough, but it never hurts to secure it.

I'm very interested in hearing about the Lightning Bolts you've experienced in your life. What triggered those positive changes in eating or exercising or [fill in the blank]?

Review x 2: Henry and the Clubhouse and Ramona and Her Father

Jul 20, 2015

The summer wouldn't have been complete if we hadn't had any Henry Huggins or Ramona Quimby in it. So we read one of each.

Henry and the Clubhouse by Beverly Cleary
My dad used to keep a box of scrap lumber in the garage, and I can still remember the day that my brothers and I came up with the great idea to build a playhouse. We scavenged for wood pieces and started haphazardly nailing them together while talking out our plans: it would have windows! and a door! a real wood floor! a second story even! Who needs plans when you have a perfect vision of it in your mind's eye? I think our enthusiasm petered out by the end of the afternoon. It soon became apparent that not only did we not have enough wood but our skills were extremely limited. We abandoned the project in favor of a game of Monopoly.

Luckily, Henry's stamina and resourcefulness and ability far exceeded my own. After Henry inherits a bathtub crate from Mr. Grumbie, he decides to build a clubhouse. He hits the jackpot when Mr. Bingham decides to tear down his garage. He tells Henry he can have whatever he wants, including the windows. Henry recruits Murph and Robert to help. Murph draws up the plans, and before long, their clubhouse begins to take shape.

But Henry has more to think about than just his clubhouse. With his newly acquired paper route, he has a lot of responsibility. He doesn't want to disappoint his dad, and he knows he has a lot to prove to Mr. Capper since he's the youngest paper boy in the neighborhood. But it's hard. Part of the job description of a paper boy is to sell new subscriptions to the paper. Henry has the perfect opportunity when someone new moves onto his route, but it takes him several tries before he's successful.

Meanwhile, he's dealing with a completely different challenge in the form of five-year-old Ramona. She's quite taken with his clubhouse, but he and Murph and Robert have definitively decided that all girls (regardless of age or friend status) will be strictly excluded from entering. Of course, Ramona has plans of her own and ends up saving the day (but not until after she locks him inside his own clubhouse . . . ).

It's kind of funny, but I think my kids actually like Ramona's stories better in the Henry books than in her own books. It's partly because she's a little bit younger in them, but I think it's also because in her own books, her problems are a little too much her own. You know what she's thinking and how she's feeling, and her emotions get all tied up in everything.

In the Henry books, it's all from Henry's perspective, and Ramona is usually (at least part of) his problem. She's irrational and stubborn, and watching Henry deal with the pesky little neighbor girl is quite entertaining. (But for all his irritation, Henry almost always chooses the higher road when it comes right down to it, and that's one of the things I hope my boys take away from these books--Ramona might be shadowing him all around the neighborhood, and it might be driving him crazy, but the night that she's cold and exhausted, he's going to pause what he's doing and help her get home--what a kid.)

Once again, I was so impressed with the set up and execution of this book. When we were in the middle of it, it felt like just an ordinary story with very little going on, but in the final chapter (and this seems to be very typical of Beverly Cleary), little details suddenly had a big impact on the outcome of the story. Things that you thought were just random and pointless came back into play, and it was pretty brilliant.

Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary
We read these two books back to back, and Ramona takes a little leap in age and maturity between the two. The content moves in that direction as well.

At the beginning of the book, Ramona's father comes home from work, and almost immediately, Beezus and Ramona can tell that something is terribly wrong. Their mother breaks the news gently but bluntly: Mr. Quimby has lost his job.

In all of the books leading up to this one, you get the distinct impression that although the Quimby's have enough, they're always stretching just a little bit to make ends meet. So you can imagine the impact this news has on their financial situation.

But, it turns out, a lack of available funds is only one of the consequences that comes from a job loss. Another one, and, as it turns out, it's the one that Ramona feels even more acutely, is that Ramona's father's morale plummets. His sense of humor slowly fades and his irritability slowly increases, especially after Beezus and Ramona convince him to give up smoking (both to save money and also his health).

So this story definitely has a more serious undertone than the previous ones, but the truth is, Ramona is still just seven years old, and even though she's worried about her dad, she's more worried about not having the perfect sheep costume for the nativity play. I think many authors would have fallen into the trap of taking this serious subject too seriously, but not Beverly Cleary. A seven-year-old is almost always going to be more interested in her own needs than those of her family. It sounds selfish, but it's actually pretty realistic.

And that's not to say that Ramona never worries about her father. She does, and at one point, after their cat knocks their jack-o-lantern off the table and ruins it, she even thinks, "Didn't grown-ups think that children worried about anything but jack-o-lanterns? Didn't they know that children worried about grown-ups?" So it's always present but just not always her first and foremost concern.

However, the reader gets a better glimpse of how tense the situation is based on how Beezus is reacting to it: she is sassy and rude and defiant, and that's also realistic. It's natural that a thirteen-year-old is going to have a better grasp of what's going on than a seven-year-old.

I think it was good for my boys to hear because up to this point in their young lives, I don't think they've ever really considered the ramifications of what would happen if their own dad lost his job. I don't want it to be something that they fret over, but I think it made them appreciate what they have just a little more.

And lest you think, this book is all seriousness with none of Ramona's usual mishaps, think again. The disaster with the crown of burrs is enough to assure anyone that she is still, always and forever, the same Ramona. 

Review x 2: It's All Too Much and Design Mom

Jul 17, 2015

I think my subconscious must be telling me that I need a more organized/less cluttered home because somehow I keep coming home from the library with books like these two.

It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan For Living a Richer Life With Less Stuff by Peter Walsh
I think I found this book after reading an article by Peter Walsh (somewhere, I can't remember where) and wanting to read more by him. Since I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up earlier this year, I can't help but compare Marie Kondo's approach with Peter Walsh's. I found both books very helpful (and both inspired me to get rid of stuff), but where The Life-Changing Magic seemed a little unrealistic, Peter Walsh's approach seemed very methodical and practical (and yet, you don't see it taking the world by storm . . . )

He suggests going room-by-room after completing a general purge that clears away the surface clutter (this makes sense to me, but Marie Kondo insists that you should purge by category instead). He gives suggestions for how to make it happen in each space and encourages the whole family to communicate with each other and be involved in the process.

He has a very peppy, go-get-'em, motivational-speaker type voice, and it grated on me after awhile. I appreciated his enthusiasm for the tasks at hand, but it seemed like he was saying, "So let's get started!" every other page. I guess decluttering requires many starts since it's so easy to get derailed.

I remember in Marie Kondo's book, she mentioned again and again that tidying, if done right, need only be a one-time event (which happens over the course of several months, but which she defines as a one-time event just the same). This just didn't sound realistic to me. And so I felt justified when Peter Walsh said that the defending of your home against the threat of clutter is a daily battle.

Therefore, one of the most helpful parts of the book for me was the chapter about maintenance. He talks about the importance of continuing the cycle of one item in, one item out once you've achieved your ideal balance. I also loved the task list where he gave a different assignment for every month of the year, thereby spreading out the jobs of the home but making sure they all get attention. For example, February is "shred mania" month where you take care of all of the paper you've needed to hold onto over the past year. I love schedules and already have certain tasks delegated to specific months (for example, I always rotate our clothes on the first Saturdays in April and October), and so this was a really helpful schedule for me to see.

Between this book and Marie Kondo's book, I freed myself of three bags of clothes, one box of books, and a pickup truck load of random junk. Not a bad endorsement . . .

Design Mom: How to Live With Kids: A Room-By-Room Guide by Gabrielle Stanley Blair
I will tell you one thing from the start: Gabrielle Blair really delivered on the "how to live with kids" part of the book. Usually I feel like advice on this front is a little idealistic while being completely unrealistic so that I find myself thinking, Does this person even have kids?

But with Gabrielle Blair, I didn't doubt it for a minute (she does, in fact, have six children of her own). Just little passing references made me realize she knew exactly what she was talking about.

This book was a dream to read: Each chapter was divided into short sections with colored photographs on every page. It was like reading an adult picture book, and what could be better than that? The photos looked like they were taken in real family homes instead of designer models. They weren't all pristine and perfect (although I'm guessing even the ones displaying messes were somewhat staged,) and they showed a wide variety of solutions (but, I'm sorry, the one showing the overstuffed bookshelves almost gave me a panic attack--it didn't look like someone who loved books (which is what she claimed) but like someone who placed so little value on them they just stuffed them in any old corner).

As with most books like this, I had a hard time applying her advice to my particular situation. That's not a problem with the book; it's a problem with me. For example, I completely agreed with her about having a large workspace in the office available for every member of the family to use for art projects, homework, etc., but I couldn't figure out what that would look like in our home since, at the moment, we don't really have an office. Could we make one of the rooms into an office? Turn part of the family room into a workspace? Do we even need such a table? (Answer: yes.)

She's very good about insisting that you adapt and think creatively outside the box until you stumble upon the perfect solution for your family. While I appreciated her vote of confidence, my own creative skills are limited, and I really think I would do better if I just hired someone else's creativity.

However, one thing I did begin to do early on while reading this book was keep a running list for anytime some little burst of inspiration did strike. Most of these were small ideas, like, "get a couple of trays to cull items on top of the dryer." Some of them were direct applications of Blair's own suggestions, like, "get a plant for the bathroom" (we have the counter space, so why not?) while others were my own variation, like, "try putting all the spices in a basket so that it's easy to pull out of the cupboard."

This list is probably one of the most helpful things I came away with from this book because it's  something tangible I can refer to often, and it's very applicable because I'm the one who made it! We've already tackled some of the items on the list, which is pretty thrilling: we hung something on the wall of the entryway, and we organized the front hall closet.

The book is organized room-by-room, and Blair is pretty thorough (even making her way into the bathroom and laundry room), but there were two spaces that were unfortunately missed--the master bedroom and the yard (or garage or shed).

The first was intentional on Blair's part: she says right at the beginning of the book that children's possessions don't belong in the parents' bedroom, so you don't need her advice there. But I still would have loved her thoughts on how to make that space into a kid-free sanctuary because it's obvious I don't know how to do it.

And I'm not sure why she didn't tackle the outdoor space. We certainly have a big problem with corralling the bikes and helmets and chalk and bubbles and balls and tools at our house, and many of my friends do too. Maybe she left it out because it's not actually in the house, but it's certainly an extension of the house and one of the first things guests see when they arrive. That's really the only change (i.e., addition) I would make to the book.

I'm curious if you've read either of these two books and how you've applied their advice to your home. Please share!

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

Jul 15, 2015

I think I was probably only two weeks into my first semester of college before someone was organizing a party to see The Princess Bride. Now, that doesn't surprise me at all (more surprising is that it took two weeks), but at the time, I'd never even heard of The Princess Bride, so I was absolutely baffled by the enthusiastic response the title invoked.

You see, when I was growing up, my parents had very strict movie standards: no PG movies, no exceptions. They've since relaxed the standard a bit, but when I left home, that was still the rule. So that's why I hadn't seen The Princess Bride (although I'm still surprised I hadn't heard of it). Not knowing anything about it, and not being one to blindly jump into something I wasn't already familiar with, I made it through an entire college semester without seeing this cult classic.

And then . . . I met Mike.

And never having seen The Princess Bride was just not going to work for him.

He grew up in a home, not unlike many of your homes, I'm sure, where The Princess Bride was the golden standard. Everyone, parents and siblings, loved it. They could quote every line and fit in a reference in just about every situation. Basically, if I wanted to keep dating him, I had to watch it.

And so I did. And I have to say that that first viewing left me less than impressed. I can remember thinking, Why is this so funny? Why does this movie have such a following? What am I missing? Is it ever going to be over?

But I'd watched it, so Mike's and my courtship was saved. But Mike wasn't done yet.

During our second or third year of marriage, Mike checked out the book by William Goldman, and we read it together over Christmas break. This was a different experience for me. I loved it, and I can still remember laughing so hard on our drive to my parents' house. Reading the book called for another viewing of the movie, and I know I tolerated it much better the second time (although it still wasn't a favorite).

Anyway, I'm telling you all of this so that you'll understand that when this book about the making of The Princess Bride came out, it looked interesting to me, but I wasn't like, Oh my goodness, I have to check out that book!

But I thought Mike would like it, so I requested it for him (yes, I'm that wife . . . ), and he liked it (although he thought there was a little too much of the cast gushing over each other), but he confirmed my original thoughts: a lukewarm fan like myself wouldn't find it overly enjoyable and probably only semi-interesting.

I probably would have  taken his advice except that it was already scheduled as my book club's book for August. So I just decided to go ahead and listen to it--it was only six CDs after all, and if I listened at double speed, the torture would be over in no time.

I hope you can catch the underlying sarcasm there. Because, the truth is, I loved this book. It was so entertaining and interesting, and when I was just about done with it, I borrowed the movie and insisted that Mike and I watch it together (I don't think he ever imagined such a thing would happen). What's more, something finally clicked on this third time through. Whether it was because I'd listened to the book and could watch for little details or just because three's the magic number, I loved it. It was hilarious, and it was like all the cleverness and wittiness finally came through. About twelve years too late, I think I've finally turned into a devoted fan (anyone want to come to a Princess Bride party at my house?).

I'm not saying if you do not love The Princess Bride that you should rush out and buy this book and you'll be an instant convert. I've always loved behind-the-scenes info, so I think I was predisposed to like it. (Mike says I better read a book about the making of Star Wars.)

But I will say that if you decide to read it, then please promise me you'll check out the audio. Cary Elwes (i.e. Wesley, i.e. the Dread Pirate Roberts) reads it, and this is not like some author reading his book. No, this is an actor performing his book, and it's fantastic. He's a very animated reader, and he gives flawless impressions of many of the cast members.

Even if the audiobook was comprised entirely of Cary Elwes reading it, it would be fun to listen to. But then, scattered throughout the book, are these little side notes written by Vizzini, Buttercup, Miracle Max, Rob Reiner (the director) and several more, and these actors read their own parts (except for Inigo Montoya, Fred Savage (who plays the grandson), and William Goldman). Hearing their actual voices as they shared little details definitely enhanced the overall experience.

As Mike warned, and so now I'll warn you, there is a superfluous amount of praising going on between the various cast members in this book, but I tended to find it endearing rather than annoying (although, by the end, I'd had about enough). They all really did seem to have a genuine bond with each other, and that was fun to hear.

One day as I was listening to it, I turned to Mike and said, "Could you believe that they used the take where Count Reuben actually knocks Wesley unconscious?" Mike looked back at me blankly. "You know," I prompted, "where he hits him on the head with the hilt of his sword?" Finally, Mike responded, "I know the part of the movie you're talking about, but I don't remember anything about it in the book." So I decided to try another recent scene: "But you did hear the part about Wesley breaking his foot on Andre the Giant's ATV?" "Nope," Mike said, "I definitely didn't hear that."

Turns out, he'd accidentally skipped over an entire CD and missed some of the best info in the whole book: the two scenes just mentioned, plus the filming of The Greatest Swordfight in Modern Times. So he listened to it right then and there. That particular CD had very little complimenting in it and a lot of action, so, out of the whole book, it was definitely the one he should not have missed.

Mike and I own very few movies. I'm not kidding--if you saw our movie collection, the only words you could use to describe it are "pitiful" or "pathetic." It's because we watch so little TV, so it makes more sense to just check out from the library or rent anything we're interested in watching; the chances are very high that we'll only want to see it once. But I've decided The Princess Bride is one we need to own. It's obvious that, more than 25 years later, it has become something of a classic. I know we'll want to share it with our kids. And I need to watch it a few more times so that I can flawlessly quote lines from it with the best of them.

On a scale from one to ten, how much do you love The Princess Bride? What's your favorite line? Are you interested in reading this book?

2015 Reading: First Half

Jul 13, 2015

A recap of all the books I've read so far in 2015

I made a goal to read 65 books this year. At the end of June, I'd read 30. That means I'm behind, and I hate being behind (why do I do this to myself? why does an arbitrary number like 30 have to carry so much guilt with it?).

But I've read some truly amazing books during the last six months (as well as a couple of really awful ones), so overall I'm very happy with the year so far.

Here's the rundown (titles are linked to my full reviews):

1. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, 6/10
Kind of a depressing start to the year. An engaging, but ultimately disappointing, read.

2. Nancy and Plum by Betty MacDonald, 7/10 (readaloud)
From the author of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, this is a sweet story about two orphan sisters who outwit their mean boarding house mistress.

3. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, 10/10 (audio)
There are times when I'm convinced I must not belong to the same species as some other people on this planet. This was one of those times.

4. A Heart Revealed by Josi S. Kilpack, 2/10
The more time goes by, the less I like this book (and I didn't like it to begin with).

5. Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary, 8/10 (readaloud)
For the "Guts! Guts! Guts!" scene alone, this is worth reading.

6. El Deafo by Cece Bell, 7/10
My enjoyment of this book was tainted by the fact that it won a Newbery Honor. I really liked the book, but the whole time I was reading, I just kept thinking about how impossible it was for the text to truly stand on its own.

7. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, 8/10 (readaloud)
The boys and I blazed through this book. They loved it just as much as I hoped they would.

8. Henry and the Paper Route by Beverly Cleary, 7/10 (readaloud)
This story is a nice glimpse of what life was like in the 1950's. I wish my boys still had the option of delivering papers as an after school job.

9. The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, 10/10
I went into this book with looooooow expectations, and wow, I've never done such a complete turnaround. Who knew poetry and basketball went together?!

10. MotherStyles: Using Personality Type to Discover Your Parenting Strengths by Janet P. Penley, 8/10
Not going to lie--this was a tedious read. But it's one that now, months later, I'm still thinking about. It helped me get a clear grasp on personality typing (and caused me to type just about everyone I know).

11. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, 6/10 (audio)
This one was far easier to read/listen to than MotherStyles, but it hasn't stayed with me at all.

12. Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl, 7/10 (readaloud)
At first I didn't know what to think about the fact that the whole book centers around the illegal poaching of Danny and his father, but it's growing on me.

13. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, 7/10
I liked it, and it definitely helped me purge my clothes and books, but to call it "life-changing" would be taking it a bit far.

14. Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery, 7/10
I love Emily, but Teddy is no Gilbert Blythe, which means I could never love these books quite as much as the Anne books. 

15. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 8/10 (readaloud)
My kids now want to dress up as characters from Oz for Halloween, so I'd call this one a success.

16. The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall, 9/10
A little more melancholy and emotional than the first three in the series, but I loved it. It's fun seeing the Penderwick sisters growing up.

17. Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes, 8/10 (readaloud)
I was talking to my neighbor a couple nights ago, and he mentioned that many years ago their dog was stolen out of their backyard. I was shocked. I thought that kind of thing only happened in books (specifically, this book).

18. Middlemarch by George Eliot, 7/10 (audio)
This book had its slow moments, no question, but overall I'm very happy to have read it. Even though it isn't my favorite book of all time, I can see why it is for many people.

19. Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin, 9/10
I'm an Upholder all the way. Habits make me a happy girl. I'm still thinking about this book.

20. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Changes the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown, 7/10 (audio)
This book helped me recognize the good vulnerable moments in my life, but I'm still not exactly sure how to have more of them in the future (in other words, it wasn't as applicable as I would have liked).

21. Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, 8/10
One of those books where I felt like I needed to bookmark or highlight or write down every single quote because there was so much truth in it.

22. Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff, 7/10 (readaloud)
Loved this spin on the Rumpelstiltskin story. So did my boys.

23. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter, 8/10
I had no idea there was so much controversy surrounding this book. It tainted my opinion a little, but overall, I still really enjoyed it.

24. Poppy by Avi, 8/10 (readaloud)
Despite this story falling second chronologically in the series, I have strong opinions for why you should read it first.

25. Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos, 2/10
I disliked this book on so many levels and for so many different reasons.

26. To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han, 6/10
There were things I loved and things I hated, and that made this a complicated book for me.

27. Poppy and Rye by Avi, 8/10 (readaloud)
I landed on the perfect voice for the sweet-talking, superficial beaver, Mr. Canad, and the memory still pleases me. "Well, bless my teeth and smooth my tail . . . "

28. Lessons From Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L. Scott, 6/10
I read this book for the bit about the ten-item wardrobe, but I think the most memorable thing ended up being that I now feel completely okay with my preference to wear very little makeup.

29. The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling, 9/10 (readaloud)
I don't know that my kids have ever laughed so hard at a book before. Completely delightful, and we will remember it forever.

30. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest For Gold at the 1936 Olympics by Daniel James Brown, 10/10 (audiobook)
This will go down as not just my favorite book of the first half of 2015, but as one of my favorite books of all time. Absolutely riveting.

And that's it! I'd love to hear about your favorite reads of 2015 so far!

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

Jul 10, 2015

When I was growing up, my mom had her favorite "Did I ever tell you about . . . " stories. One of these was from when she was  a student at the University of Nebraska. My mom is very petite and when she was a college student, she weighed a mere 100 pounds. Besides being a gymnastics teacher who was mistaken as one of the children one time (another favorite story of hers), her slight build also made her the perfect candidate for the coxswain of the school's rowing team. To this day, I don't know how long she was on the team or how many races she was in or even any of the names of the other rowers. I just know that it's something she took a certain amount of pride in.

My dad was the first one to read this book, and you can probably already tell from the title and the cover, this is a story about rowing. Suddenly, his interest in my mom's college experience escalated. He began following her around the house, asking questions like, "As the coxswain, did you use a megaphone? Did you ask for an increased stroke count? Did you ever say, 'Give me ten big ones'?"

My mom began to get a little annoyed. At that point, she had not read the book (although she has now), and I think she felt a little called out--her favorite story exposed! "No!" she'd reply. "Stop following me around! The University of Nebraska had a very small rowing program. We were not out to win any Olympic medals. I was usually so busy steering, I didn't have time for giving commands."

But then she read the book. And the pride returned. Because even though Nebraska can't boast a competitive rowing program, she was the coxswain. And that's kind of a big deal, no matter the size or ability of the rowing program.

The Boys in the Boat is the true story of nine young men from The University of Washington who went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936, just as the world was on the cusp of the second world war. For the most part, they were boys from working class families. At the time, Washington felt far removed from the eastern United States where rowing was an esteemed and time-honored sport. But with the likes of Al Ulbrickson (Washington's coach), Tom Bolles (Washington's freshman coach), and Ky Ebright (California's coach and Washington's biggest rival), the western rowing teams became a force to be reckoned with.

The story mainly follows Joe Rantz, who sat in the seventh seat of the Olympic boat. His childhood was not ideal. His mother died when he was only four years old, and he found himself shipped off to various relatives (including his older brother who had already graduated from college and was married). Eventually, his father remarried (to his son's wife's twin sister, believe it or not), and Joe moved back in with them. But Thula did not get along well with Joe (or really anyone, for that matter). The Rantz' life was hard: they lived in tiny cabins in rural towns and struggled to make ends meet. It was not the life that Thula, an accomplished violinist, had envisioned for herself, and she took out all of her frustrations on Joe.

When he was just fifteen years old, Joe's father and Thula packed up once again, but this time they did not take Joe with them. Thula couldn't stand to be around him, and so she basically gave Joe's dad an ultimatum: her or him. He chose her (along with their four children), and Joe was abandoned and left on his own. His dad's parting words of advice were, "Look, Son, if there's one thing I've figured out about life, it's that if you want to be happy, you have to learn how to be happy on your own" (advice that, apparently, he himself did not follow since he was willing to let Thula dictate what he could or could not do).

This was during the Depression when there really weren't jobs readily available, even for an industrious boy like Joe. He struggled just to have enough food to eat, and so it's pretty remarkable that just a few years later, he found himself at the University of Washington. He wanted a spot on the freshman rowing team, not because he had a particular affinity for rowing (he'd never even done it before), but because he wanted the guaranteed part-time job that would come with it. But once he was on the team, he held onto it for all that he was worth. He was determined to make it to the Olympics.

I am not really much of a sports person, and I knew very little about rowing before reading this book (in spite of my mom's tales from Nebraska's rowing team). But I love the Olympics, and I love a good underdog story, and so after just the first couple of chapters, I was gripped with an intense interest in rowing. (Did you know that "physiologists . . . have calculated that rowing a 2000-meter race, the Olympic standard, takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back to back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes"?)

I learned new vocabulary (for example, "catching a crab" doesn't really mean your oar caught a crab--just that it hit the water wrong), and I listened to the rundown of every race with bated breath. If anything, the credit for my sudden devotion to rowing probably goes to Daniel James Brown who has the remarkable ability of being able to tell a true story like it's fiction without actually fictionalizing any part of it.

I couldn't believe how intense and suspenseful it was, even while knowing right from the beginning what the final outcome would be. As I was listening to the final Olympic race with full knowledge that they would come out on top, I still questioned myself. The details were so incredible, the odds against them so seemingly insurmountable, that I found myself thinking, Did I misunderstand? Did I miss something? I thought they were going to win! Because as they're in the middle of the race, rowing with all their might, it seems absolutely impossible that they could possibly end up winning.

I'll refrain from sharing the details since I feel like, even knowing that they win, it would spoil it to tell you how it all happens, but I was truly amazed (and maybe even got a little teary-eyed).

Even though the narration follows Joe Rantz (which provides some cohesion to the story as a whole), Brown fills in the gaps with all sorts of other interesting details: historical information (including some about the impending war), little glimpses of small-town life in rural America, and brief life sketches on the rest of the cast in this incredible story.

One of the people you get to know is George Yeoman Pocock, Washington's resident boatbuilder. As a young man, he immigrated to the United States from England and began to build boats for a living (it's what his family was trained to do). By the time Joe Rantz came onto campus, Pocock was building all the boats for the western teams and for some of the eastern ones, too. He was a master craftsman.

Quiet but observant, Pocock could give any of the famous fictional mentors a run for their money. He watches from the sidelines while polishing a hull here or shaving off a piece of wood there. At the critical moment, just as Joe is about to lose his chance of being on the Olympic team, Pocock takes him into his workshop and tells him to "think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player in the orchestra." He says, "Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you've ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars."

That advice leads to my favorite scene in the book. For weeks, the coach, Al Ulbrickson, has been fiddling with the teams--swapping out a boy, changing seat assignments, trying to find that magic combination that will make the boat fly. Joe has just about given up hope of being on the Olympic team when Ulbrickson moves him from the third boat to the second boat (which ends up being the one selected for the Olympic team). At the time Ulbrickson doesn't realize it, but it's the final change he'll have to make. I loved the moment when Joe got into the boat and sat down in the seventh seat. The way Brown described it, it was as if Joe was the missing link and all the pieces finally clicked into place:
"From the moment he stepped into the shell that afternoon, [Joe] felt at home. He liked these boys. He didn't know Gordy Adam and Don Hume well, but both made a point of welcoming him aboard. His oldest, most reliable shell house friend, Roger Morris, sitting up front in the bow, gave him a wave and shouted the length of the boat, 'Hey, Joe, I see you finally found the right boat!' His buddies from Grand Coulee, Chuck Day and Johnny White, were sitting up near the front too. As he strapped his shoes to the footbaord and began to lace his feet into the shoes, Stub McMillin, his face alight, said, "OK, this boat is going to fly now, boys.' Shorty Hunt slapped him on the back and whispered, 'Got your back, Joe.'"
That paragraph perfectly describes the camaraderie these boys felt with each other, but the reason why it's my very favorite scene is because you get the sense that Joe has finally found his place in the world with people who understand him, respect him, and even love him. (And I think the rest of the story attests to this bond because all nine of the boys kept in contact with each other throughout their lives, even decades and decades after that Olympic race.) It was just a very sweet, very emotional moment for me.

This book's style reminded me a lot of Unbroken or Endurance. You might remember that when I read Endurance, I said I was going to buy it because I want my boys to have easy access to it during their teen years. This book is another one that I will buy for that same reason. It is such a phenomenal story told in such an engaging way. Those nine boys, and particularly Joe Rantz, are exactly the kind of role models I want for my own boys: hard working, dedicated, and loyal. They went after the impossible, and they achieved it.

Okay, and since we're on the subject of character and the kind of examples I want for my kids, I'm just going to give you one more glimpse at the kind of man Joe Rantz was. After he's been in school for about a year, Joe finds out that his father and stepmother have been living in a home not too far away from him. One afternoon, Joe and his girlfriend, Joyce, decide to pay them a visit. Thula is as prickly and cold-hearted as ever and tells him to "Make your own life, Joe. Stay out of ours."

As they drive away, Joyce is furious (I could go on and on about Joyce--if Joe is the role model for my kids, then Joyce is the role model for me. She is absolutely incredible). She can't believe the way Thula treated Joe, and she can't figure out why Joe just quietly takes it. In frustration, she cries, "I just don't understand why you don't get angry." And Joe quietly replies, "It takes energy to get angry. It eats you up inside. I can't waste my energy like that and expect to get ahead." If my boys can read that and take it heart, they'll be well on their way to becoming fine young men.

When we discussed this book at book club last month (one of my favorite discussions ever, by the way), it got a unanimous stamp of approval, but some people in the group said that it didn't quite meet their expectations (it is, after all, a book that has received a ton of praise in the last year) or that it dragged on endlessly in some parts. Although this was not my experience at all, I thought I'd mention it here with my own recommendation: I don't know if it would make a difference, but I listened to the audio, and it was brilliant. If there were slow parts, I honestly never noticed them. And the races! The races were especially exciting to listen to--almost like you were listening to the actual commentary over the radio. The actual book is still worth checking out because it includes some great photographs, but if you're a little worried about it dragging, I'd say give the audio a try.

And as far as it being too hyped up, all I can tell you is that my expectations were high (since my dad, mom, and husband had all read it before me and couldn't stop praising it), and those expectations were still blown through the roof. They were met and exceeded in every possible way.

I'm sure I've probably talked it up too much myself now, and you'll all be disappointed if you read it. But if you've read it, please tell me your experience with it. What did you like? What didn't you like?

Reading Goals: The Halfway Point

Jul 8, 2015

We've passed the halfway point of the year, and so it's time for me to take a minute and report on how my reading goals are going so far this year (and remind myself of what they are . . . oops!).

1. Read a past Newbery honor and a past Newbery winner (partially complete)
In April, the boys and I read Ginger Pye, which won the Newbery Medal in 1952 (we loved it, by the way). I'm still looking for a Newbery Honor to complete the second half of the goal. We are just about to start Ramona and Her Father as our next readaloud. It won a Newbery Honor in 1978, but I haven't decided yet if I'm going to count it for this goal. The whole point of the goal was to branch out and read a Newbery book I hadn't yet considered, and Ramona and Her Father has been on my list for a long time because I'm planning on reading all the Ramona books to my kids. I don't know . . . we'll see how the second half of the year goes. If I get in a pinch, I'll count it.

2. Read two classics by female authors (partially complete)
I added the qualifier that one of the books needed to be by an author I'd read before and the other by an author I hadn't. I still need to read a book for the first half of this goal (and I'm thinking it will be Little Men by Louisa May Alcott), but I'm done with a book by a female author I hadn't read before. I read Middlemarch by George Eliot. I'm patting myself on the back for that one. I may have some catching up to do with these goals, but I think I can safely assume that's the thickest book I'll read this year, and it's done!

3. Read a book I put on my to-read list in 2010 (complete)

I read The Education of Little Tree, which I put on my to-read list on July 20, 2010 (this is one of the great reasons to use Goodreads. For more of my Goodreads tips, click here). I admit, I picked up The Education of Little Tree for the sole purpose of completing this goal, but I ended up really enjoying it. I still have my eye on a few books from my 2010 list (to clarify, these are books I added to my to-read list in 2010, not that were necessarily written that year), so I may exceed this goal.

4. Read a children's classic (not complete)
The boys and I read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz this year, and I consider that a children's classic, but I'd read it before, so I'm not counting it. Even though I made up these goals and can accomplish them however I choose, I'm not a cheater, and my original intent was to read a children's classic I hadn't read before, so that's what I'm sticking to. I'm going to attempt Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories with the boys. Hopefully it will go over well.

5. Read a book on writing (partially complete)
I've started The Sound of Paper: Starting From Scratch by Julia Cameron, but I'm only about thirty pages into it. It's slow going because at the end of every chapter (and each chapter is only about four pages long), she gives a little writing prompt, and I've been trying to follow most of them. My favorite one so far was the challenge to describe myself as a literary character in third person.

6. Read a short stories collection (not complete)
After I made this goal, my friend, Jen, loaned me a big stack of short stories collections. I've glanced through them, but for the most part they've sat untouched in my nightstand. Even though it shouldn't feel like that big of a commitment, it does. I think I have a fear of getting one or two stories in before realizing that that collection's not for me. I wish I had a collection in mind that I was really excited to read.

7. Read something of a religious nature (complete)
I read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. It was a great companion to my daily scripture study, and I'm sad it's over.

8. Read two more installments in series I've already started (partially complete)
I read the fourth installment in the Penderwicks series: The Penderwicks in Spring. It was fantastic--a highlight of the year so far. It's funny though--until I started writing this post, I didn't even realize that I'd partially completed this goal. I guess that just goes to show that there is nothing assignment-like about the Penderwicks for me. Reading about them is pure pleasure (also, it helped that I was already caught up with the series and was just biding my time for the next installment).

9. Read a food memoir (not complete)
I've kind of held off on this one on purpose because I know how much I love food books in the fall.

10. Finish a series (partially complete)
I'm finishing the Emily trilogy by L.M. Montgomery this year. I'd already read Emily of New Moon (twice) but was having trouble getting to the last two books. Now I've read Emily Climbs, and I'm looking forward to reading Emily's Quest in a few weeks. If you love the Anne books but haven't read these ones about Emily, then I highly recommend them.

So it looks like I've read six of the fourteen books I need to complete these goals. That's not great, but I'm not terribly behind either, so I think I can manage it. If you have any great recommendations for books I should read to complete these goals, I'd love to hear them! How are your 2015 goals coming along?

Raising Readers: Give Dad a Turn

Jul 6, 2015

For months, I have wanted to let Mike have a chance to read aloud to Aaron and Maxwell. It's not that he's never read to them, not by a long shot. We've always shared the reading of picture books, but up until this point, I've been the sole reader of anything longer than thirty pages (except for a brief, but fairly unsuccessful, attempt at The BFG a couple of years ago).

That's because I've selfishly hoarded that time for myself. It wasn't exactly intentional. I wanted to give him a turn. We even talked about which books he would like to read to them. But every evening when 7:30 rolled around, I found I couldn't let go. There were so many books I wanted to read to my kids, and I treasured that quiet time at the end of the day.

But then with the advent of summer, I realized the time had finally come. I planned on doing a lot of reading with the boys during the day, so I figured I could give the evening time slot to Mike. We even made it one of the summer goals, and I take those very seriously, so I knew I wouldn't snatch it back again.

I knew this would be a good experience for everyone, which is why I was so adamant about it (even while dragging my feet). But it has far exceeded our expectations. Everyone has benefited from it (yes, even me).

So here are those benefits, from the viewpoints of everyone involved:

From the boys' perspective:
  • They get to hear books they wouldn't hear otherwise. Mike and I have different tastes, it's true. Awhile back, Mike said, "Why don't you read Redwall?" And I said, "Why don't YOU read Redwall?" So that's the first book they started with. And they've all loved it.
  • They have more freedom. Mike is more laid back than I am, and so I've noticed he doesn't really mind if they're wrestling on the floor while he's reading to them. He doesn't even seem to mind if Bradley starts chit-chatting on the side (provided it doesn't go on too long). He just keeps the reading going in a steady flow, and they know that even in the midst of their movements, they better pay attention or they'll miss something.
  • Even Bradley loves it. This was something I hadn't expected. In the past when I read to the two older boys, Mike would take Bradley and read picture books to him. With Mike now being the one to read the chapter book, I kind of just assumed that I would read with Bradley, and I was looking forward to that one on one time with him. But in a surprising turn of events, he usually opts to go with Mike and Aaron and Max. I guess he doesn't want to miss out on boy time.

From Mike's perspective:
  • He loves seeing them get excited. For a long time, I've been telling him how much fun it is to see the boys' reactions to whatever we're reading. Maxwell especially loves to make predictions and gets very animated as he conjures up elaborate climaxes and endings and pins all sorts of motives on various characters. Mike had seen the boys do this when I was reading to them, but it's completely different now that he's immersed in the story himself.
  • It gives him something to talk about with them. Even when they're not actually reading, they've found a new common language with each other. I find them talking about the story all the time or relating it to something else that's going on.
  • It gives him an excuse to unwind in the cool basement. When Mike gets home from work, he likes to retreat to the basement (especially if he's commuted on his bike). Now he gathers up the boys, grabs the book, and reads for a half hour or so before dinner (an added benefit for me--see below).
  • He enjoys the book himself. It's one of the rules you have to follow if you hope to enjoy reading aloud to your kids: only pick things that you yourself will enjoy reading. Mike absolutely loved the entire Redwall series as a kid, and he is enjoying it just as much as an adult.
  • It's just good quality time. That's the simple, basic truth. It's why I enjoy reading to my kids, and it's why Mike enjoys reading to them.

From my perspective:
  • I don't have to read books I'm not interested in. (See above.)
  • I get some time to myself. I hadn't even originally factored this into the equation. I was so worried about missing out on the readaloud time myself that I didn't even think about getting some extra quiet time. I also hadn't realized that Mike would enjoy reading aloud so much that he would take them away any chance he could get.
  • It's so heartwarming to see them loving each other's company so much. I'm usually in the midst of the reading aloud. It's a position I love, but there's something equally magical about being the outsider looking in.
When we made our goals at the beginning of the summer, Mike only agreed to read two books to the boys (Redwall and Prince Caspian). He was so sure it was going to take him all summer to get through Redwall because it's such a long book. (He even insisted on buying it because he didn't want to have it checked out from the library for that long.) Two weeks later, I think they only have twenty pages left. I'm pretty sure they will easily surpass that goal because I don't think Mike has any intention of stopping.

How about it, dads? Do you read aloud to your kids? What have been some of your favorite readalouds to date?
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