2016 Reading Goals: The Final Report

Dec 29, 2016

This is one of my favorite posts of the year to write. There's something so satisfying in saying, "Here's what I set out to do . . . and I did it!" Then again, if I didn't complete all my goals, I probably would just hang my head in shame and disappointment instead of writing about it because where's the fun in admitting defeat?  But since I'm writing a post, I guess you know it all turned out okay. Here's what I read to complete each goal (book titles are linked to the full reviews):

1. Read a book I put on my to-read list in 2011
I always think this goal is going to help me knock out a bunch of books that have been languishing on my to-read list for a long time, and then I usually just squeak by with the bare minimum of one or, if I'm really in an overachieving mood, two. This year was no different. My to-read list from 2011 is only one book shorter, and the book that won the honor of being removed from it was Tuesdays at the Castle (July 2016) by Jessica Day George (which I added to my to-read list in October 2011).

2. Read a female author I've been meaning to read
I read two books for this goal. The first was Cinder (July 2016) by Marissa Meyer, and the second was The Great Ghost Rescue (October 2016) by Eva Ibbotson. The ironic thing is I've been wanting to read something by Eva Ibbotson for forever, and out of all the books she's written, I probably picked the book I was least likely to like. The other ironic thing is I really wanted to read a book by Susanna Kearsley for this goal, and it just never happened even though I had the best of intentions (I had The Winter Sea checked out at least once, maybe twice, from the library without ever even starting it).

3. Read a male author I've been meaning to read
I read Crossing to Safety (April 2016) by Wallace Stegner during the first half of the year, and it's still one of my favorite reads of 2016: Quiet, poignant, and meaningful with characters so real I would recognize them if I saw them walking down the street. (And, as a fun side note, my blogging friend, Carrie, also read Crossing to Safety this year but didn't have the same reaction to it. So when she saw that I loved it, she mailed me her copy of the book. Wasn't that so sweet of her?)

4. Read (don't listen) to something by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens
I was so scared of this goal because classics are usually so much easier for me to listen to than read, but it ended up not being bad at all (in part because listening just wasn't as easy for me to do in 2016 as it has been in past years, so I think reading it actually turned out to be the faster route). I read Sense and Sensibility (September 2016) by Jane Austen and enjoyed it immensely.

5. Read six books with Aaron
This was such a fun goal and one that I'm planning on repeating in 2017. Aaron is so easygoing and was basically up for anything I handed to him, so it was great fun to branch out into a variety of genres. We read:

February 2016: Truce by Jim Murphy
March 2016: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein
May 2016: One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale
June 2016: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier  
October 2016: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit  
December 2016: Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming December 2016: Smile by Raina Telgemeier (If you read my review, you'll know this one was unplanned, but we both read it, so I'm including it.)

Out of all of those, Aaron's favorite was Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, and mine was either that same one or Amelia Lost.

6. Read a book in preparation for Europe
Mike and I visited the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, and Norway in July, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the year. It was important to me to do some reading about some of the places we'd be traveling to because I learned a long time ago that those places take on much greater significance when I've read about the events that happened there and then see them for myself. So I read The Monuments Men (summer 2016) by Robert M. Edsel, which tells the true story of the men and women who helped save important pieces of art during WWII. Then I actually saw Michelangelo's Madonna and Child when we were in Belgium, and it was basically the coolest thing ever.

7. Read another book by Louisa May Alcott
After much debate, I read Eight Cousins (November 2016) by Louisa May Alcott, which was all well and good until I realized I really must follow it quickly with Rose in Bloom before I forget everything. So that's going on the agenda for 2017, which is not a bad thing because the more I read of Louisa May Alcott, the more I adore her.

8. Read five Newbery related books
I was purposely vague with this goal, but my hope was that I would read a good mix of past medal and honor winners, as well as a couple that had the potential to win in 2017. I think I achieved my objective:

March 2016: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (Newbery medal 1936)
May 2016: Rascal by Sterling North (Newbery honor 1964)
June 2016: Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus (Newbery honor 2011)
July 2016: Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai (Newbery honor 2012)
August 2016: Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary (Newbery honor 1982)
September 2016: Charlotte's Web by E.B. White (Newbery honor 1953)
October 2016: The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (potential winner 2017)
December 2016: Pax by Sara Pennypacker (potential winner 2017)

9. Read a verse novel or poetry collection
I chose to read Inside Out and Back Again (July 2016), a verse memoir by Thannha Lai. You might notice that it's also on the list of Newbery books above, but I really read it for this goal and then just included it up there because it fit that category as well. I'm also in the middle of another verse novel right now, A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman, and I'm hoping to have it done before January 1st.

10. Reread Edenbrooke and The Happiness Project
This goal was good for my soul. It was good for me to revisit two books that fill me up as a reader. I know I wouldn't have made time for them without this goal, and that makes me sad to think about because they were two of my favorite books this year. I don't consider myself much of a rereader (there are just so many good books to get to), but this goal helped me see that rereading really does have a valuable place in my life, and so it's important for me to consciously select books to read again. I read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin in February 2016 and Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson in December 2016.

How did you do with your goals (reading or otherwise) this year? Do you have grand plans for 2017, or do you think you'll scale back? Which book made the greatest impact on you during 2016?

Review x 3: Smile, Pax, and Amelia Lost

Dec 27, 2016

My goal this week: crank out the rest of my reviews. I'm getting close to being done with all of my 2016 reading. Here are three more:

1. Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Several years ago, I made a goal to read a graphic novel. It was a goal that was truly outside my comfort zone, and although the end result wasn't bad (I read Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack), I distinctly remember saying that it would never be my "go-to genre of choice."

Well, I'm kind of taking back my own words. Although it's not like graphic novels are the only things I read these days, I have periods where I actually seek them out because they're just the kind of quick, entertaining read I need.

It also helps that the graphic novel genre is booming right now, and there are many high-quality, realistic stories to choose from. Authors/illustrators are really thinking outside the box and using this medium to share memoirs, classics, and even history in a new way. I've been quite impressed.

One of the graphic novels that has been on my list for a long time (and I think was even recommended to me when I made that goal four years ago) is Smile. I think this was one of the first "graphic novel memoirs" to be published, and Raina Telgemeier has been something of a pioneer when it comes to reinventing the genre.

When Raina was in sixth grade, she tripped and knocked out her two front teeth (one was knocked out onto the sidewalk, the other was knocked up into her gums). It turned out to be a pretty serious accident with a lot of damage to the roots and her jaw. Over the next three years, she experienced ordeal after painful ordeal as various "dontists" tried to reconstruct her teeth . . . and all of this during perhaps the most vulnerable time in a person's life: junior high.

Raina relates it all with a candidness and humor that won me over from the beginning. There's one scene where she and her mom are driving home and going over all of the events of the past year. Her mom says, "It's been a pretty strange year for you, hasn't it. You knocked out your two front teeth, you got braces, you got your ears pierced." Raina adds, "I survived a major earthquake . . . " (she and her family live in San Fransisco). "I guess in the grand scheme of things . . . losing a couple of teeth isn't the end of the world!" But in spite of her positive attitude, the next panel shows an anxious frown on her face as she stares out at the falling rain. A sigh escapes her lips. It was such a perfect representation of real life: for all that you can recognize your blessings and tell yourself that "little" things aren't that significant, in reality, those day-to-day insecurities and trials really do hurt and make a lasting impact.

I had this book checked out from the library for several weeks before I got around to reading it. During that time, Aaron spied it and snatched it up. He can't resist a graphic novel. I actually had no plans of letting him read it because I thought junior high was a little old for him, but he was halfway through before I even realized he had it, and by that time, it was too late. I was a little nervous about what I might find in it and have to explain to him after the fact, but it was very mild. There were some brief mentions of puberty, a little boy/girl drama, and some rocky, unhealthy friendships but nothing that I felt uncomfortable with him reading. So we dodged that one.

And for my part, I thought it was an absolutely fantastic story, and I'm anxious to read Raina Telgemeier's other books . . . even though graphic novels are not my "go-to genre of choice." Haha.

2. Pax by Sara Pennypacker
This seems to be a favorite to win some sort of recognition at the ALA Midwinter meeting next month. At least, I've seen it on a lot of prediction lists. I haven't read any other novels by Sara Pennypacker (although some of you might be familiar with her Clementine series), but this one definitely seems to have a more serious lean to it than most of her other work.

It's about a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax. When the story opens, Peter and his father and the fox are driving deep into the woods. When they come to a stop, Peter throws one of Pax's favorite toys (a plastic soldier) as far as he can and then, while Pax runs off to get it, he and his father get back in the car and drive away.

The reason? War is coming; Peter's father has enlisted, and so Peter is being sent to live with his grandfather, which is no place for a fox. But the decision doesn't sit well with Peter, and within a day, he has decided that he has to go back and find Pax. He just feels like it's the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, he is now a couple hundred miles away from his home and not exactly well-equipped to travel such a long way, especially not after he breaks his foot just a short way into his journey. But he already abandoned Pax once, and he's not willing to let anything, not even a broken foot, abandon him again. It turns out that Peter has a lot more to prove than just his loyalty for Pax. For example, that he can be different from his father and his grandfather, that he can be where and who he needs to be, and that, most importantly, life matters.

The chapters alternate between Peter and Pax, and although I usually love getting more than one viewpoint, I have to admit that I felt like I mainly endured the Pax chapters just so I could get back to Peter's. Sara Pennypacker tried to be as accurate as possible with the patterns and behaviors and language of foxes, and while I appreciated the authenticity, I was also a little bit bored. That said, I feel like it was a good format for telling the story--I think it was important for the reader to see what was going on with Pax at the same time as Peter, so I don't know what or how it could have been changed. Maybe it was just one of those necessary things. (It could have also been that I listened to this book, and listening to anything has been taking me a long time lately. If I had gone through the story a little more quickly, I don't think those chapters would have been quite the same struggle.)

The other thing that confused me was the war itself. I actually kept going back and looking for an author's note or some other sort of explanation for this war. When I couldn't find anything, I wondered if I was just totally missing something or had completely forgotten about some war that happened on American soil fairly recently. (I don't think I would have overlooked such a thing.) At any rate, there is a war, and it's serious enough that it's causing many towns to evacuate, but it seems to be made up for the sake of the story.

I can definitely see why this book is generating a lot of attention. It doesn't sidestep important issues but faces them head on in a real and authentic way, which means that it doesn't necessarily have a "happy" ending, but it is completely appropriate and satisfying.

Oh, and have I let this whole review slip by without mentioning my favorite character? That would be Vola, a reclusive war veteran whose stern, no-nonsense attitude helps Peter get back on his feet and who wrestles with her own past as she helps Peter wrestle with his. The book could be read and enjoyed for Vola's character alone. She's that good.

3. Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming
Can I just tell you that when I find gripping, well-written middle grade nonfiction I kind of feel like I've won the lottery? . . . Not that I actually know what it feels like to win the lottery, but honestly, it can't be better than this.

And Amelia Lost was one of those times when I won. I think I've always had a certain fascination with Amelia Earhart (who hasn't?), but this book took it to a whole new level. The writing is snappy and compelling without feeling overly dramatized or embellished. It's an honest, candid look at Amelia's life and the details behind what happened on her infamous around-the-world flight.

I think Amelia Earhart would have been well-known regardless of what happened on that fateful flight in 1937, but the fact that she disappeared has kept her in the news even as recently as two months ago. And after reading about who she was and what her personality was like, I can't help thinking that in some ways, she would have loved the mystery and intrigue that has surrounded her life (and death) for the last eighty years.

She and her husband, George Putnam, were always very aware of the publicity side of her career. They knew it was important to keep her in the spotlight if she was going to be able to continue to reach new goals, and they could both be rather ruthless and deceptive at times to make it happen. Candace Fleming wrote, "But no publicity scheme concocted by George Putnam could have enhanced Amelia's image more than her tragic accident. In life, she had been famous. But now--by vanishing--she became a legend."

If you had asked me what I knew about Amelia Earhart before reading this book, I would have said that she was one of the first female pilots who made several historic and record-breaking flights before disappearing at sea while trying to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

While that information is all true, what I didn't really realize was that even though she "disappeared," it wasn't like one minute she was communicating via radio and the next she was just gone, vanishing in thin air, which is what I kind of always assumed. In actuality, she was nearing the end of her journey, coming in for her second-to-last landing on Howland Island, a tiny speck of land in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. She was well aware that this would be her hardest landing to make because navigation tools were so primitive in the 1930s, and she only had a short window between when she needed to find it and when she would run out of gas. There definitely were some radio signal issues which contributed to the disaster, but for several days after she failed to land on Howland Island, many people were still picking up radio communications from her. Unfortunately, they were never able to get an actual navigational bearing and so couldn't rescue her, but it's obvious that she landed somewhere and survived for who knows how long as a castaway. It's really kind of crazy.

And speaking of crazy, any of those early aviators, including Amelia Earhart, had to be blessed with a good dose of insanity to attempt what they did. Reading about all of their early escapades and daring expeditions might have been my favorite part of the book because it was just so unreal to me that anyone would put their lives at such obvious risk. For example, on Amelia's first solo trans-Atlantic flight, she experienced problems right from the get go: her altimeter failed a few hours into the flight (which meant she had no idea how far above the ocean she was flying, and don't worry, it was completely dark outside). Then, she smelled burning oil and looked out to see that one of the welds was broken and the hot exhaust that was pouring out had caught on fire. And if that wasn't enough, she then flew into a rainstorm that turned to ice and coated her entire plane which sent it into a spin. A few hours later, the plane began to shake (because of the broken weld), and she also discovered that her reserve fuel tank was leaking. But in spite of all that, she eventually made it down safely. (I had to laugh when, on a later flight, she flew over the ocean during the day, something she usually didn't do, and after seeing the wide expanse of water under her, decided it wasn't safe to fly her little, single-engine plane over so much water. Ya think?)

I actually read this book with Aaron, and he enjoyed it, too. I was a little concerned about some of the more mature content--Amelia's alcoholic father and George Putnam's affair with Amelia before his first wife divorced him--but it was all just addressed in such a frank, sparsely detailed way that I think it was fine for him to read.

That's actually the danger of reading about real life--human beings are not perfect; they make real, heartbreaking mistakes, and I was grateful that Candace Fleming didn't put Amelia Earhart on a pedestal but looked at who she really was, weaknesses and all. She definitely didn't dwell on the mistakes, but they were there, for the reader to assess and learn from on their own. Candace Fleming has said she likes writing about the puzzle of people's lives, and that is very much what this book is. I found it absolutely brilliant.

A Few of My Favorite Moments from A Christmas Carol

Dec 25, 2016

Merry, merry Christmas!!! It seemed appropriate today to share a few bits from one of my very favorite Christmas stories. Earlier in the month, one of my friends asked if anyone wanted to read A Christmas Carol along with her. It had been several years since I last read it, so I quickly agreed. (Plus, it gave me an excuse to buy an edition I've been drooling over for the last year. <-----)

This month, Mike and I also took Aaron to a local theater production of A Christmas Carol. Much of the script was lifted directly from the novel, a fact I was able to easily recognize since I was in the middle of my reading when we went to see it. I loved being able to hear the words spoken and also compare and contrast the things they decided to keep versus the things they decided to change.

So yes, A Christmas Carol was definitely the backdrop for my December this year, and while you don't need a recap or traditional review of the story, I wanted to share just three of my favorite moments that stood out this time around.

The first is a scene that was brand-new to me, or at least it seemed so. I have no previous recollection of it, and I seriously wonder how I couldn't have paid more attention to it before. It takes place years after Belle released Ebenezer from their mutual contract. The scene is a happy one: a mother and daughter sitting by the fire while children (more children than "Scrooge in his agitated state of mind could count") run around the room laughing and playing. In that moment, a knock is heard at the door, and upon entering, the father (for that is who it is) is greeted by the most "irrepressible affection."

There is no question that this is a happy home and that this is the life Belle found for herself. But then, this, the striking, heartbreaking contrast: Belle's husband says, "I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon," and of course it was Ebenezer Scrooge. He saw him as he was walking by Scrooge's office window, and when he glanced in, he saw Scrooge sitting there alone, "quite alone in the world, I do believe." I think this is perhaps the only scene from the Past where the reader catches a tiny glimpse of what might have been. All of the other scenes show who he once was and remind him of the happiness he once felt. But this one shows how his greedy and miserly actions actually cut him off from the things that would have brought him true joy. It could have been him being greeted by a half dozen children. It could have been him sitting by the fire next to his wife. But he gave up that life when he decided money was more important.

The second moment I wish to mention features Nephew Fred. I've always liked Fred--his generous heart, his boisterous personality, his fun-loving self. But this time, I realized just how genuine a person he was as well. Year after year, he went to Uncle Ebenezer to invite him to Christmas dinner. He didn't do it out of obligation or as a token of goodwill that he knew he'd never have to follow through on. No, year after year, he made the invitation in all sincerity, hoping that this would be the year that Scrooge would finally say yes. Of course, there's the scene later on at the party during the game of Yes or No where he gives a rather unfavorable description of his uncle, but it's all out of fun and not out of malice or spite. In fact, after the game, Fred's wife exclaims, "I have no patience with him," and Fred replies, "Oh, I have! I am sorry for him; I couldn't be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims! Himself, always." I would love to be more like Fred--to feel sympathy for others, give them the benefit of the doubt, and always be ready to welcome them if they have a change of heart.

And finally, during this reading, I was struck anew by Scrooge's complete transformation. ("Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more.") I loved it, and yet the cynical part of me couldn't help thinking, Really? He's been tightfisted with money for so many years and now he's showering it on other people without a second thought? He has hated people's enthusiasm and goodwill, but now he's saying, "What a delightful boy! It's a pleasure to talk to him." He hasn't laughed in who knows how long and now, all of a sudden, it seems to be his favorite thing to do?

And yet, transformations like this really do happen. Gretchen Rubin calls them "lightning bolt moments" where something (and not necessarily something as dramatic as ghostly visitors) sparks a change and makes you do a complete 180. It's happened to me before (although not as often as I'd like), and I can think of other real life examples where just the right push happened to tip the scale and transform a life (hopefully for the better, although sadly, I've seen it happen in reverse as well).

Before Scrooge parts from the Ghost of Christmas Yet  to Come, he pleads, "Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?" I think that's something most people ask themselves in one form or another. Have my previous actions set my course in an unwavering, unforgiving line? Or can I make a course correction and turn my life in a different direction? The take-home message of Ebenezer Scrooge's story is, yes, there's always time to change for the better. It's never too late.

I believe it's that message of hope, more than anything else, that has kept this book as one of the most beloved classics.

Three Holiday Readalouds: The Children of Noisy Village, A Christmas Adventure, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Dec 24, 2016

A couple of months ago, I planned out what I wanted to read to the boys during the month of December. It's nerdy, I know, but if you don't plan ahead, the holds don't come in on time and the month flies by, and you find yourself in January when holiday books just don't carry the same kind of magic. The only problem is, I was so busy planning what we were going to read in December, I kind of neglected queuing up any other books, so we may have a bit of a dry spell. We'll see if anything ends up under the tree tomorrow to fill the gap.

1. The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren
This is probably the least Christmasy of the three, simply because only a portion of the story takes place at Christmastime rather than the whole thing.  (If you're looking for just a Christmas story, you could read just the five chapters or so that take place during the holidays or check out the excellent picture book, Christmas in Noisy Village, which involves the same families.)

Noisy Village isn't actually a village: it's three farms strung together in a row. There's North Farm, where Britta and Anna live, Middle Farm, where Karl, Bill, and Lisa live, and South Farm, where Olaf and his baby sister, Kerstin, live. The book chronicles some of their adventures during the course of a year, told through the eyes of Lisa.

This book is just charming and delightful in every way. You may have noticed that it's by the same author who wrote Pippi Longstocking, which we also loved. However, if Pippi was a bit too outrageous or spunky for you, Noisy Village would be an excellent alternative. While the children are by no means perfect angels (they dawdle coming home from school and tease one another and have little quarrels), their default is to be kind rather than mean and respectful rather than bratty.

The Christmas chapters are wonderful, and I was so glad we read it right now. There's a big snowstorm, ginger-snap baking, tree-cutting, traditions, gift-giving, and all sorts of descriptions that made my kids wild with anticipation for our own Christmas. I will  warn you that there's a one-sentence Santa-spoiler you might want to be aware of if you're not planning on answering any difficult questions. In Sweden, where the book takes place, a family member dresses up as Santa and hands out the presents, and Lisa admits that she used to think "there was a real Santa Claus, but [doesn't] think so anymore."

I just felt like Astrid Lindgren captured childhood so well. I loved the interactions between the boys and the girls, and there were several times when just the littlest thing would make my kids laugh out loud.This was one of my favorite paragraphs because its description of boys was just so spot on: "In the winter the boys usually throw snowballs at each other during recess. In the spring they shoot marbles, and the girls play hopscotch. When the boys have nothing else to do they fight, and during class they get into all kinds of mischief, whether it's winter or spring. Miss Johnson says she thinks there is something that makes boys' fingers itch so they can't help doing mischief."

If you're already a fan of Little House on the Prairie or Betsy-Tacy or All-of-a-Kind-Family, add this one to your list because it will fit right in.

2. Tumtum and Nutmeg: A Christmas Adventure by Emily Bearn
There are some stories I've been intending to read to my kids for a long time, and the adventures of Tumtum and Nutmeg are among them. It seemed like they kept popping up on various lists, and every time they made another appearance, I'd think, I have got to make those books a priority before my kids get too old for them.

When I realized one of the books was a Christmas story, I knew I'd finally make it happen because I take holiday reading very seriously and am always looking for books to fit into our December reading list.

Tumtum and Nutmeg Nutmouse are a darling mouse couple who live in Rose Cottage. As they're making preparations for the upcoming Christmas holiday, they can't help thinking about the two (human) children who live in the same house. They find their letters to Father Christmas and realize he never visited them last year because their chimney was all bricked up. The mice are determined to make this Christmas different from last year's even if it means getting the presents for the children themselves. They've asked for very simple things (a toy car for Arthur and a box of magic tricks for Lucy), and the Nutmouses happen to know that Baron Toymouse has an entire roomful of toys at Grimsby Hall.

Unfortunately, Baron Toymouse is selfish, childish, and extremely mean and not likely to feel generous toward two deprived children, which makes Tumtum and Nutmeg very nervous. Still, driven by the Christmas spirit, they decide to make the attempt.

The story was short and cute, and every chapter ended with a cliffhanger of some sort, so we got through it very quickly. Although we enjoyed it, I think we would have liked it even more if we'd already been acquainted with Tumtum and Nutmeg and some of their adventures. That said, I don't think the stories are necessarily chronological (although if any of you have read some of the others, please correct me), so maybe this was just as good as any of the others to start with. Out of the three books in this post, this one would appeal to the youngest audience for sure. Because of the length and all the illustrations, I think kids even as young as four-years-old would enjoy it.

3. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
I didn't think I could love this book any more than I already did, but reading it to my kids bumped it up to a whole new level. The funny lines were funnier, the poignant parts were even sweeter, and basically, it was just what I needed to read this Christmas season.

There are six Herdman kids, each one worse than the last. Their father is in jail and their mom spends as many hours working as possible . . . and not just because they need the money. They swear and steal and manipulate and torment at every possible turn. The only reprieve anyone ever gets from them is on Sunday at church because no Herman has ever set foot inside a church before . . . that is, until Charlie opens his big mouth and says they get dessert during Sunday School (which is entirely untrue--he just says it to make Leroy Herdman jealous). But with that sort of incentive, the Herdmans think they might just give church a try as well.

They just happen to go on the Sunday right before Thanksgiving when announcements for the upcoming Christmas pageant are given, which intrigues them. And if there's one thing anyone has learned, it's that you don't argue with a Herdman, even if they want all the leads in the Christmas pageant but have never even heard of Jesus (except when they're taking His name in vain).

The book begins with the line, "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world." And as we made our way through the first chapter and we read about how they set fire to an old toolhouse and let loose their deranged cat during show-and-tell and memorized everyone's weight just to use as blackmail, my kids' jaws dropped little by little until they were convinced that it was true. The Herdmans really seemed like they must be the worst kids in the history of the world.

But it's kind of amazing how your perspective changes when you learn a little bit more of their story and also how opening your heart a little bit can add a new kind of depth and perspective to the Christmas story as well. The Herdmans have never heard of Mary or Joseph, so of course they're indignant when they learn that the inn was full and the only place for Mary to have her baby was in a stable. And they've never heard of the wise men or frankincense or myrrh, so of course a ham makes more sense as a gift. To strip down this holy and well-known story to its most basic components brings it to life in a new and vivid way. And seeing the Herdmans' reaction to it really exposes their hearts, which, believe it or not, they do in fact possess.

Part of our family scripture study during the month of December comes from Luke 2, and my kids' ears perked up more than usual when they heard familiar phrases, for example, "Mary . . . being great with child," and Max interjected, "You mean PREGNANT?!" Yes, they were maybe a little more irreverent, but they were also more focused and attentive, which seemed like a good tradeoff.

But speaking of irreverent, I was a little worried before starting it that the Herdmans might be a less-than-desirable example for my kids (and sometimes even the suggestion of something naughty can make it seem more appealing). But while I will admit to a little judicious editing, overall I kept the story intact because it's pretty much perfect, just the way it is.

And as we came to the end and then the very final line when Gladys Herdman yells out the words, "Hey! Unto you a child is born!" my voice caught and I couldn't choke them out. All of a sudden, they meant so much to me, those words, maybe more than they ever had before. "Unto you a child is born." Unto you. Of course that's news worth shouting. Again and again and again.

Did you read any fun holiday books with your kids this month? I'd love to hear about them! And I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas!

The Complicated Feelings That Come When You Find Out You're Expecting Your Fifth BOY

Dec 21, 2016

During the first half of my pregnancy, when the gender of our baby was still unknown, family and friends would often say things like, "Oh, I hope you get your girl this time!"

I know they meant it with the best of intentions and I love them for it, but such comments always made me slightly indignant, like, "Do they really think I'm having another baby just because I'm hoping for a girl?!"

The truth is, before we decided to have another baby, I had to think long and hard about whether or not I was actually okay with possibly adding a girl to our family. The thought literally terrified me. I love my four boys. I love the identity that having all one gender gives to our family. I love being able to streamline gift giving and event planning because their interests and needs are so similar. Basically, I'm just very, very comfortable being a mom of boys.

I've thought often about something my friend once told me. She has two boys and one girl, and she and her husband were contemplating having a fourth. She really, really wanted a sister for her little girl, and her husband said if they could guarantee a girl, then he'd be fine with it, too. But the thing is, you can't guarantee something like that (at least, not unless you want to spend a lot of money), and my friend said she realized she had to be okay with a girl or a boy. (The rest of the story: they decided to stick with three children rather than chance it.)

I found myself facing the same kind of decision before this pregnancy, and I think most people are surprised to learn that it was actually the idea of a girl, rather than another boy, that made me hesitant to have another baby. But eventually, I came to terms with the possibility.

I'm not the type of person to get any sort of premonition about the gender of the baby when I'm pregnant. I never have any dreams or get any sort of feeling. I just always think I'm having a boy because that's all I know. (Maybe if I ever do end up having a girl, my pregnancy will be so different, I'll just know it right from the start.)

Anyway, as the date of our 20-week ultrasound approached, I found myself clutching possessively at my all-boy card while at the same time entertaining a thought here and there about pink clothes and hair bows and mommy-daughter dates.

It was a strange bag of emotions, and I kept thinking about how grateful I was that the decision was beyond my control. I constantly felt the pressure to produce a girl, and I think if it had actually been up to me, I wouldn't have been able to separate what I wanted from the opinions of everyone around me.

Before the doctor began the ultrasound, she asked about our family and found out about our four boys. We told her we thought this baby was probably another boy but that we wouldn't be shedding any tears either way because we were perfectly content with either a boy or a girl. She began her methodical exam, starting with the placenta and cervix. As she made her way to the actual baby, the answer was right there, loud and clear.

"Well that's definitely a boy," she said. "I actually was pretty sure you were going to have a girl, but I was wrong."

And Mike and I both looked at each other and laughed. Five boys. Who would've ever thought?

I knew I would be happy and relieved and just so content if I found out we were having another boy. And I was. All of those emotions were there, front and center. What I was unprepared for were the other feelings that immediately crowded in and clamored for my attention.

The one word that best describes them is, ironically, loss.

Here I was, gaining another child and another son, and I felt an overwhelming sense of loss.

It's hard for me to comprehend, let alone explain, which I think is the reason I felt compelled to write about it. (And I should probably insert that I think my feelings would have been just as complicated if we'd found out we were having a girl, and there would have been a sense of loss with that as well.)

As Mike and I were sitting in the lobby waiting for the ultrasound DVD to copy, I leaned over and whispered, "I'm sad for Aaron." It was an odd sentiment. Aaron hadn't ever even expressed a desire for a sister, and I knew he'd be thrilled when he heard he was getting another brother, but still I felt sad for him. He has always been the very sweetest of big brothers, and I imagined that would have only been multiplied if it had been a baby sister under his kind and protective wing. More than anything, I think it was the realization that I wouldn't get to see what he would have been like as the big brother of a little sister.

As the days passed, that wondering of what would have been seemed to haunt me at every turn. Because we've never had a girl, our experiences so far have followed a rather similar course. And knowing that this is our fifth child and that five children is a lot, it is quite possible that this will be our last and so I might very well never know what some of those things would feel like.

For example, how would I react if the ultrasound tech said, "And . . . it looks like it's a girl!" It's rather mind blowing.

Or what would it feel like to tell family and friends (particularly my mother-in-law) that we're having a girl? How would they respond?

What would I do to prepare for a girl? How would it be different than preparing for a boy? What books would I read? What conversations would I have? What clothes or baby gear would I buy?

What would it be like to choose a name for a girl? To look through lists of girl names and pay close attention to every unique or unusual name I heard?

How would Sunday mornings change if I had to actually fix a little girl's hair before church instead of making a pit stop at the drinking fountain on our way into the chapel to smooth down my boys' unruly tufts?

What would it be like to hold her for the first time? To see Mike hold her for the first time? To see my kids with her?

While I'm so happy to have another boy, everything I've been feeling is so familiar. I've done this all before. Five times actually. And there's a small part of me that wonders what, if anything, I'm missing.

However, traveling the well-traveled road comes with its own perks. I've done this before, and I know I'm in for a treat. I can't wait to snuggle and love another boy. (And I'm happy to retain my position of queen of the house without having to figure out how to share the role.)

And although much of this pregnancy is familiar, there have been some delightful surprises as well. For one, our kids are beyond excited. Like, you wouldn't believe how ecstatic they are about another brother. Every week, we have to look up his progress and growth. And every few days, Clark will randomly burst out, "You're going to have a baby! I'm going to be a big brother!" My kids have never been old enough before to truly enjoy the excitement and anticipation of a new baby, and it has brought a whole new level of joy that I wasn't expecting.

The other surprise is how everyone else has reacted to the news of another boy. In the past, people have offered condolences or half-hearted attempts at enthusiasm when we've shared the gender, so that's what I was expecting this time. But either people are getting better at lying or five boys is just so crazy that it carries its own wonder. I choose to think the latter because that's how I feel. Five boys is miraculously wonderful.

And actually, I have a confession to make: In spite of telling the doctor that she wouldn't see any tears from me, I found myself quietly wiping them away. But it wasn't because I was having a boy. And it wasn't because I wasn't having a girl. As she looked at our baby's brain and his heart and his limbs and his face and his spine, she kept saying things like, "See this? That's exactly what we want to see. You have a perfectly healthy baby."

And that, beyond anything else, is the true wonder and miracle to me. Life is a such a gift, and I feel so incredibly blessed to watch another little one take shape. My heart is full and my tears catch me unawares, both then in that little exam room and every day since.

Photo credit goes to our good friend, James Gardner.

Review x 2: Edenbrooke and The Mistletoe Promise

Dec 14, 2016

And now for two completely fluffy reads. Don't judge me too harshly.

1. Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson

I read Edenbrooke soon after it was released in 2012. I loved it. At the time I remember thinking, If I'm reading with no other goals except relaxation and pleasure, then this is what I want to read.

Because I enjoyed it so much the first time, I've been meaning to read it again ever since. But I always found a reason why I couldn't or shouldn't read it: my to-read list is much too long to reread; it would just be for fun, so it can wait; it's not going to elevate or improve my life in any way; I have all these other (usually self-imposed) book deadlines, so they get first priority.

But even with all those completely valid reasons, I still wanted to read it, and that should count for something, right? After all, my first and foremost reason for reading is because I enjoy it, so it makes sense that I would want to read a book I already knew was enjoyable.

So because I knew it wouldn't happen any other way, I turned it into a reading goal for 2016: Reread Edenbrooke. Simple and straightforward, and because I take my goals very seriously, I knew it would happen.

The months passed, and I kept putting it off because there was always something more pressing to read. And suddenly, it was December, and, amid the pressure to finish all of my goals, I was so irritated that I had to somehow  squeeze in reading this book. I had to finish up some other goals, as well as read books for a couple of book clubs, and I absolutely did not want to read this book. It was going to be a disappointment. I knew I'd be more critical of it this time. It was going to be a big waste of reading time I did not have.

It's a testament to the Upholder in me that in spite of all of my kicking and screaming and protesting, I couldn't not read this book. It didn't matter that it was a personal goal--a personal, fun goal, no less. I had written it down. I couldn't ignore or disregard it. I had every part of my personality compelling, forcing, me to read it.

And so, I did. And oh my goodness, can you love a book more the second time? No one was more shocked than I was when I not only still liked it but absolutely adored it. I even saved the last thirty or so pages so that I could savor them, uninterrupted, during Clark's nap.

Set in Regency England, the story is ridiculously romantic. Marianne Daventry has always lived in the shadow of her twin sister, Cecily. When their mother dies in a tragic accident, their father sends Cecily to London with friends and Marianne to Bath to live with her grandmother. Marianne longs for the open air and countryside, and so, a year later, when Cecily invites her to their friends' grand estate, Edenbrooke, for the summer, Marianne doesn't have to think twice. On her way there, she meets a rude and obnoxious gentleman, Philip, at an inn (right after being held up by a highwayman), and she hopes to never see him again. But of course, she does. And, of course, she falls in love with him. It wouldn't be right if she didn't.

I'm well aware of the flaws in this book, but I have no desire to list them out because they honestly don't matter to me. I love the bantering and teasing dialogue, the characters, the setting, and seeing honor and virtue upheld. I love everything about this lovely story (except maybe the overuse of the word "odious").

And remember how I told myself it wasn't going to elevate or improve my life in any way? Well, I was wrong about that, too. In the last couple of months, I'd lost a lot of the joy of reading. I was reading because I had to, not because I wanted to. I outlined my reading schedule and followed it and didn't allow for last minute whims. But all of that disappeared the minute I cracked open this book. I fell into it headfirst, and just like that, my love of reading was rekindled. And if that's not elevating and improving my life, I don't know what is.

And now, I'm looking back at my reading goals and giving myself a giant pat on the back. I knew what I would need, and I knew the only way I'd give it to myself is if it was locked inside a goal. My 2016 reading is ending on a high note.

2. The Mistletoe Promise by Richard Paul Evans
This next review is to prove that not all fluffy books are created equal.

Most Decembers find me reading books I normally wouldn't even consider during the rest of the year. There's something about hot chocolate and twinkly lights that always makes me want to curl up with a sappy Christmas story. After finishing Edenbrooke earlier in the month, I was done with almost all of my content-specific goals and was just trying to make that final push to complete my numbers goal (I still don't know if I'm going to make it). So a short, easy read that I could just breeze through sounded like just the thing.

The premise was interesting enough: One day Elise Dutton is approached by Nicholas Derr in the food court of the office building where they both work. He's not a complete stranger--they bumped into each other in the elevator one day and they see each other often at lunchtime--but she's never really spoken to him before. He sits down and offers a proposal for the coming holiday season: He's tired of going to social events by himself, and he thinks she might be too, so why don't they just pretend to be in a relationship for the next six weeks so they won't be so lonely? All of the conditions will be written up in a contract (the Mistletoe Promise), so all expectations will be clear and there won't be any surprises.

The thing is, you don't just agree to be in a pretend relationship with someone you couldn't actually see yourself being in a real relationship with, and pretty soon Elise and Nick begin to develop real feelings for each other, which are only complicated by the dark and tragic secrets of their pasts.

So yes, the plot itself was exactly what I expected and wanted from a Hallmark-type holiday book. And I suppose the writing was exactly what I was expecting as well, but that doesn't mean it didn't irritate me. Everything just felt so generic: the conversations, the descriptions, the settings. It felt like anyone could have written it, including me . . . and that's not a compliment.

Maybe it's because the book takes place in Salt Lake, and so many of the places mentioned (Hale Center Theater, Abravanel Hall, City Creek, Olympus Cove, Sugar House park) are places I've actually been, but if I hadn't been, his descriptions would have done absolutely nothing to make me want to visit (and I've read many books where I'm desperate to see the real thing after reading and where the descriptions are so vivid, I almost feel like I've actually been there). The whole thing just felt like it was written in a hurry (which it probably was--deadlines are real).

I also really couldn't stand all of the expensive and extravagant presents Nick kept giving to Elise. I actually liked Nick's character quite a bit, except that he seemed to love spending ridiculous amounts of money. I get that he was trying to help Elise recognize her value, but to me it seemed really superficial, almost like the only way to show a person's value is with money. And then Elise decides to give Nick a really expensive gift too and basically has to drain her savings account to pay for it, and for what? For something Nick could have purchased with a snap of his fingers. I guess it shows a certain level of sacrifice from Elise, but still, I think a sentimental gift would have gone further show her feelings. The book even ended with Nick giving her a Lladró statue of Cinderella, which was supposed to be so sweet and symbolic but just felt like one more way to spend a lot of money. It just seemed like money was a much bigger part of the story than it needed to be, and every time Nick gave her another gift and talked about how much it cost and why it was so special, I rolled my eyes a little bit more.

 So yes, it left much to be desired, but did I stay up until midnight to finish it? Um, not telling . . .

And now, please share your favorite sappy Regency or Christmas books because there's no shame in admitting you read them. (Please tell me you read them, too, on occasion. )

The Stockings Were Hung...

Dec 12, 2016

After Aaron was born, I knew it was finally time to make a decision about our Christmas stockings. Mike and I had already enjoyed three Christmases as a married couple, but we'd spent all of them at my parents' house, so I just used my childhood stocking and Mike got some scrounged up substitution (he's not picky).

Growing up, my parents tag-teamed making our stockings. My mom sewed the actual stocking, and then my dad cross-stitched the name on the front (a labor of love, no question). With each new addition to our family, my parents would make a new stocking. I loved pulling out those stockings year after year and hanging them all in a row, anticipating what they would look like full and bulging on Christmas morning.

I knew I wanted our stockings to be similar to the ones from my childhood, so I used my mom's stocking pattern and had my dad chart out each of our names for me so I could cross-stitch them on the fronts.

The only real difference between the two groups of stockings was the choice of fabric. My mom selected a different pattern for each child: candy canes on one, little puppy dogs on another, etc. You could identify your stocking by the fabric as much as by the name on the front. But I wanted a more classic, minimalist look, so I decided to use the same green corduroy for all the boys and the same red corduroy for all the girls.

You see where this is going, don't you?

At the time, I only had one son, and I can remember standing in the fabric store, trying to mentally calculate how much fabric I needed to buy. It was tough because we didn't know how many children we wanted to have, so I felt like I had to go to my uppermost limit (well, I know we won't have more than 12 . . . I'm kidding, I'm kidding), and of course we also didn't know what our ratio of boys to girls would be. I knew I needed to get enough fabric of each color so that I wouldn't run out even if we ended up with all boys or mostly girls.

Over the years, as we've added one boy after another, the green fabric has been slowly whittled down while the red has remained virtually untouched. It turns out, I was much more serious about my minimalist look than I originally planned.

For the last couple of months, we've been anxious to find out if our new baby is a boy or a girl. My kids were all pulling for another boy, and I was just grateful that the decision was out of my hands because I didn't know which I would choose.

On December 8th, I went to the doctor's for my 20-week ultrasound. When I got home, I pulled out the corduroy and made another stocking and then wrapped it up. 

That night, the boys tore off the wrapping . . .

. . . and the room erupted in chaos: yelling and screaming and running around and jumping on and off the couch and snatching the stocking out of each other's hands.

I turned to Mike and, my words edged with sarcasm, said, "I'm soooo glad we're getting another boy."

But really, I am.

Review x 3: Tuck Everlasting, Ribsy, and Eight Cousins

Dec 8, 2016

I'm determined to get caught up on my reviews, even if it means making them a little shorter and combining them together. So here I go with three recent reads: one that I read with Aaron, another that I read aloud to the boys, and another that I listened to by myself.

1. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
So far this year, Aaron and I have read a nonfiction book about WWI, a graphic novel, a fictional story set in current times, a fantasy, and now, a modern classic.

Although published in 1975, Tuck Everlasting takes place in 1881. Winnie Foster imagines what life might be like beyond her white picket fence, and one day she gets her wish, although it's not anything like what she imagines. She meets the Tuck family in the woods that borders her home. Every ten years they come back to this spot, to a hidden spring that burbles from a large tree. When Winnie attempts to drink some of the water, they adamantly discourage her, and they're forced to tell her the reason why: they drank from that spring eighty-seven years ago . . . and they haven't aged a day since.

Aaron is such an easy going kid and will read pretty much anything I hand to him without complaint. Because of that, we've really been able to explore a variety of genres together, and I've been able to get a little better feel for his reading tastes. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes was definitely his favorite out of the group I mentioned above (and he has since read the sequel and branched into other fantasy series on his own), and Tuck Everlasting, I'm sorry to say, was probably his least favorite.

I wasn't expecting that. After all, it's short, introduces interesting characters, and has a totally unique premise. The length was definitely a blessing. But in retrospect, although I found the characters interesting, they weren't actually very relatable to an eight-year-old boy. Winnie is the only child in the story; the others are all adults and kind of old-fashioned adults at that. And then, those deep, moral questions, which I found so fascinating and thought-provoking, actually didn't interest Aaron very much at all. There's a big difference between how you view your own mortality when you're eight versus thirty-one, and at this stage in his life, it probably already feels like he's going to live forever, so he doesn't need a magic fountain to help him out (Aaron didn't actually tell me any of this--I'm making my own inferences based on his reaction).

The book picked up a little for him at the end: clubbing someone over the head, going to jail, and then busting out went a long way to perk up his attention, but I don't think it made the story rocket to the top of his favorites list by any means. Although technically middle-grade, this is a story that definitely seems to grow in depth and meaning with age, so hopefully he'll revisit it when he's a little older.

2. Ribsy by Beverly Cleary
Oh, this is bittersweet. So, so bittersweet. We read Henry Huggins over three years ago and have slowly, one perfect book at a time, worked our way through the series, ending with this final installment. Since I never read this series as a child, each book, each adventure, each funny little mishap has been new for me as well, and I have treasured, absolutely treasured, reading these books with my boys. Anytime we've been in a readaloud rut or just finished a really long book, we've turned to Henry for some reprieve, and he's always been exactly the sort of pick-me-up we needed. I don't know what we'll do without him to fall back on.

This one is slightly different than the other ones in the series because Ribsy, always a lively character, takes center stage when he gets lost on a rainy Saturday in the mall parking lot. Each chapter finds him in a new place (with a large family, with a sweet old woman, with a lonely little boy). Everyone can't help but like Ribsy--he's such an agreeable dog--but he is desperate to get home to Henry, and Henry, on the other side, is desperate to find him.

Somehow Beverly Cleary always knows how to make things come full circle, and the end of this series is no exception. You might remember that Henry found and adopted Ribsy in the very first book, and the climax of that particular story happened when Ribsy's previous owner turned up and wanted him back. The boys let Ribsy choose, and Ribsy chose Henry.

But a part of me has always wondered, Did Ribsy really like Henry more than that other boy, or had he just gotten used to the new kid who fed him and played with him? This book is the answer to that question because, again and again, Ribsy is given the chance to forget about Henry and get settled into a new home (he finds many good ones to choose from), but he won't do it. In spite of food, shelter, and friendship, he wants his boy. The truth is, he really does love Henry best.

My only consolation with this series ending is that at least we still have three Ramona books left, and we like her just as much as Henry (that, and we can always reread, which is its own kind of delight). 

3. Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott
At the beginning of this year, I made the goal to read a book by Louisa May Alcott. It was one of my more specific reading goals for sure, but it came about because Little Men was one of the best books I read last year, and so exploring more of Louisa May Alcott's works was a high priority for me. After a lot debating back and forth, I decided to leave Jo and her boys for awhile and meet some new characters, and they did not disappoint.

When 12-year-old Rose Campbell is orphaned, she is welcomed into her large and close-knit extended family. Her chief guardian is Uncle Alec, but they live with her two elderly aunts and are surrounded on all sides by more aunts and uncles and eight boisterous cousins (all boys). At first Rose, who is somewhat sickly, is overwhelmed, but Uncle Alec soon gets some color back into her cheeks and strength back into her bones as he encourages a healthy appetite, lots of outdoor activities, and plenty of hands-on experiences. Even though her cousins are wild and obnoxious, they are also surprisingly sweet and absolutely adore Rose. Luckily, she uses her power and influence over them for good, and along with Uncle Alec's parenting methods, which are rather unorthodox for the times, she blossoms into a lovely young woman.

Some parts of this story are charmingly old-fashioned (and you can't help but be aware that it was published in 1874), but then there are other little gems scattered here and there that are surprisingly current and ahead of their times. There was one scene where Rose is wearing a tight belt around her little waist, and Uncle Alec insists that she loosen it so that she can breathe deeply and fill it out with a nice, healthy figure. He says: "If you dear little girls would only learn what real beauty is and not pinch and starve and bleach yourselves out so, you'd save an immense deal of time and money and pain. A happy soul in a healthy body makes the best sort of beauty for man or woman." Such wise advice, but something I sometimes struggle to remember myself and that many little girls are getting mixed messages of today.

If you can't already tell from the above quote, Uncle Alec is an all-around wonderful character and probably my favorite one in the book. He is adored and deeply respected by everyone, is experienced and intelligent, and is just so incredibly kind. No mention is ever made about a love interest, but I just wondered again and again how he couldn't be married. And yet, I think one of the reasons he was such a perfect guardian for Rose was because he was single. There was a quote in the book that I just loved, and this was it: "Fatherly and motherly hearts often beat warm and wise in the breasts of bachelor uncles and maiden aunts, and it is my private opinion that these worthy creatures are a beautiful provision of nature, for the cherishing of other people's children." I believe that, and as much as I want my younger siblings to find the person of their dreams and get married, there's a part of me that wishes they would just stay single so that they'll continue to love and adore my children.

Speaking of Rose's uncle and the rest of her family though, there was one thing about the story that I didn't really understand: for being such a sweet and close family, how could it be that Rose didn't really know any of them until after her father died? There isn't ever a hint of a falling out or any other type of quarrel that would have kept them apart, and yet, Rose doesn't seem to know any of her aunts, uncles, or cousins until she comes to live on Aunt Hill.

I'm so glad I had the goal this year to read something else by Louisa May Alcott. I think, just because of my love of Little Women, I always would have counted her among my favorite authors, but now I'm getting a much better feel for her books, and consequently, I love her even more. It's interesting because I think many people would think of her as an author who writes about little girls (because Little Women is her most well-known work), but now that I've read a couple more of her books, I would say that little boys factor into her writing very prominently. It's obvious from the way she writes about them that she loves little boys, and I feel a deep kinship with her because of that.

Without meaning to, I kind of put three classic children's authors into the same post! I'd love to hear your thoughts about and experiences with them and their books.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Dec 2, 2016

My book club selected My Brilliant Friend for our November meeting, and, I'm ashamed to say, I almost didn't read it. Ashamed because it was such a good book, and it pains me to think about how I almost missed out on one of our best discussions of the year. But yes, I almost skipped it because reading has been stressing me out something serious over the last few weeks, and I didn't know if I could possibly add one more book to the teetering stack. (This is all stress I've brought on myself, by the way, and I just need to devote an entire post to it so I can remember not to do this same thing next year.)

Originally published in Italian, My Brilliant Friend is a coming-of-age novel about two young women growing up in Naples during the 1950's. Lila is smart, confident, manipulative, and fearless. Lenù (the one telling the story) is also smart but a little more timid and unsure of herself. She seems to rely a great deal on Lila for her self-esteem.

But therein lies the intrigue of the whole story for me. Their friendship is extremely complicated, and I spent the whole book wondering, Who is really the dependent one here? Or are they both dependent on each other but since we're getting it from Lenù's perspective, we don't realize how much Lila is really dependent on her?

I was reminded of one of my best friends who I roomed with during my freshman year of college. That first semester, I was extremely homesick--like, losing weight, begging my parents to let me come home, failing my classes kind of homesick. Beth was one of the reasons why I actually survived that semester and, by extension, college. She was really the only one who knew I was having such a hard time, and I was so grateful for her. The next semester, my homesickness was completely gone, and I was thriving when all of a sudden, the same kind of homesickness hit Beth like a wave. Then it was my turn to be the shoulder and support until she made it through. I've always thought it was so ironic that we didn't both get homesick at the same time but rather took turns so we could help each other.

Although my experience is on a smaller, far less complicated, scale, that's kind of what Lila and Lenù's friendship is like. Lenù herself senses this give and take and says: "In that period it became a daily exercise: the better off I had been in Ischia, the worse off Lila had been in the desolation of the neighborhood; the more I had suffered upon leaving the island, the happier she had become. It was as if, because of an evil spell, the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other."

However, in spite of their close connection, there's also this deep-seated animosity (or, perhaps that's too strong a word--jealousy, competitiveness?) that underlies it all. One moment they're helping each other, even to the point of making great personal sacrifices, and the next, they're silent and resentful and avoid each other.

There's one scene that still baffles me but that I feel holds some sort of clue to understanding their friendship. It happens early in the story, when they're both still fairly young. Lila suggests that they skip school so that they can walk to the ocean and see it for the first time. Lila is usually the one to come up with fantastic, dangerous plans, but Lenù agrees. They make the necessary plans to deceive their parents so that they can be gone the whole day without anyone noticing, and they set off. It's a long, hot walk, and after they've been going for several hours, they notice a storm on the horizon. Even though they're close to their destination, Lila, usually the fearless one, insists that they turn back while Lenù wants to keep going.

Lenù says, "A mysterious inversion of attitudes had occurred: I, despite the rain, would have continued on the road, I felt far from everything and everyone, and distance--I discovered for the first time--extinguished in me every tie and every worry; Lila had abruptly repented of her own plan, she had given up the sea, she had wanted to return to the confines of the neighborhood. I couldn't figure it out."

I couldn't figure it out either. Was Lila really, inexplicably, afraid? Or was she trying to get Lenù into trouble (remember, I told you their relationship was complicated)? Or was it actually a foreshadowing of things to come: Lila was more comfortable at home where things were far from perfect but at least she knew how to deal with them while Lenù was more content with the new and unknown (but didn't really realize it yet).

The story reminded me a lot of Betty Smith's, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Maybe not so much in terms of the plot (I don't remember Francie being in the middle of a volatile friendship), but more in the tone and setting. The slums of Brooklyn and the slums of Naples seem to have a lot in common. They're dangerous and dirty and just so, so violent. People are murdered by their neighbors, weapons and threats are flashed about, and fights erupt at the least provocation. Abuse is rampant. Lenù describes it this way: "Life was like that, that's all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us."

And of course, there are some rather frightening characters behind all that violence. But the thing I couldn't stop thinking about was this cycle that seems miserably common in poverty-stricken cities: the sins of the fathers become the sins of the children. Occasionally, the cycle hits a bump, as when a child tries to leave those things behind or when, alternatively, the child actually sinks lower than the parents, but generally the cycle just spins over and over, a seamless circle from one generation to the next.

The book "ends" without really ending at all, and now I don't know what to do. You know I'm not usually a binge reader, but especially not when I'm trying to finish all my reading goals by the end of the year. However, I want to know what's going to happen, and I know that if I wait too long, I'm going to forget who everyone is (there are a lot of characters, and even though they're all very well-developed, they have similar enough sounding names that I'll never be able to remember who's who). Most of the other women in my book club had already put in their requests at the library for the second book, but I think I'm going to have to hold out until at least the first of the year. That, or I might have a mental breakdown. Over books. How pathetic.

Content note: the aforementioned violence and abuse as well as some foul language (including the f-word) and a few brief sexual scenes. I didn't say the subject matter was easy.

The "I Would Buy That Again" Gift Guide

Nov 29, 2016

In the four-and-a-half years of my blog's existence, I have never published an official "gift guide." I've shared favorite things here and there in random posts, but never compiled a conscientious list.

But over the last few months, I've had a number of friends ask if certain toys that we own are "worth it," and I've also had the thought cross my mind on more than one occasion and about more than one toy, That was one of the best things we ever invested money on.

I also realized how much I love recommendations from trusted friends and sources (Mel's gift guides are among my very, very favorite), and so I thought I could maybe do the same for you.

We are not huge consumers, and so this list is going to be relatively short, as well as random. I'm including outdoor toys, building toys, games, crafts, books, etc. These are gifts that have gotten heavy, sometimes daily, use at our house (some of them for years) and are still going strong. These are all things that I would really and truly buy again if I were given the choice and that I've never experienced even the slightest twinge of buyers' remorse over.

(Disclaimer: Many of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase anything through that link, I earn a small commission without changing the cost for you. But please, feel free to shop around for a better deal!)

1. Wiggle Car
When Aaron was eighteen months old, we bought him a blue and red wiggle car with some Christmas money Mike's grandma had given us. At the time, these were still relatively new toys, and so we actually went to a swing set store to buy it because they were a distributor of them. I can still remember the sales guy sitting down on one and riding it around the show room to demonstrate its weight capacity. In the years since, we've acquired two more (one yellow, one green), and, except for extremely cold winter days, all three of them are driven around every single day. My kids race around the driveway and ride them up and down the street over and over and over. I keep expecting a wheel to break or a handle to fall off, but even the blue one (which is now seven years old) is still going strong. There are so many riding toys that get quickly outgrown (we keep having to buy new bikes because my kids just keep getting taller), but wiggle cars work for toddlers all the way up through teenagers (and yes, we have some older neighbor kids who love to ride them around). There are two brands (wiggle and plasma) and they look almost identical, but I believe that all three of ours are wiggle cars.

2. Legos
Ah, Legos. We entered the world of Legos the Christmas when Aaron was four-and-a-half, and I think they've been a part of our Christmases ever since. Prior to that Christmas, Mike scoured the classifieds and finally found a decent collection of bricks for a good price. That was definitely a nice way to start because it gave them a good foundation of basic pieces, but since then, my kids have loved saving up for and asking for actual sets (their favorites, and the ones they dream about the most, are from the Star Wars collection and the Creator collection). People have asked me before what we do with those built sets (do they display them? play with them? take them apart and build the same set over again? take them apart and build something completely new?), and the answer is: all of the above. This year I'm giving Aaron this book of Lego designs to inspire him to try new projects, but honestly, he seems to be plenty creative on his own.  In fact, it is not unusual for him to go directly from the car to the Lego bin in the basement when he gets home from school. They're beastly to step on in the middle of the night and I find that I always seem to have a random collection of them in my pocket because I find them all over the house, but oh, my kids love them.

3. Magformers
There are dozens of building toys out there, but this is where we've chosen to spend our money (along with Legos--see above). Why? Oh, for so many reasons. First of all, they're durable and well-made. We've had them for three years, and during that time, I think we've had two pieces break (and I blame my kids entirely for both breakages--they're hard on toys). Second, they appeal to a wide age range: Clark and his friends play with them as do our teenage nephews. Even adults find them impossible to resist. Because they're magnetic, they go together easily, almost without trying, and there is no end to the creative possibilities. And third, they are a breeze to clean up. This is where they trump Legos; instead of little random pieces scattered all over, they just all sort of clump together, making it super easy to gather them up and throw them in the bin. These are by far one of the more expensive toys we've invested in, and at the time, I really wondered if it would be worth it. But it has been. Again and again and again it's been worth it. Originally we bought the largest set we could find (and we've never felt like we had "too many" Magformers) and then later added one of the construction sets because it came with a couple of shapes we didn't have as well as a few specialty pieces. When I've been tempted to buy other building toys, I always ask myself, Will we like them more than Magformers? And the answer is almost always, Mostly likely not.

4. Q-Bitz
I probably could make an entire gift guide entirely out of games because my kids love games and play them all the time, but I'll restrain myself, mostly because most of the games we own I haven't actually played with them (guilty confession, but that's why they have each other, right?). But this one, I have. And what's more, I actually enjoy playing it with them. Each person gets a board with sixteen little cubes. The cubes each have six different sides. A card is turned over in the middle of the table with a design on it, and players have to race against each other to be the first one to duplicate the design. I have had just as much fun playing this game with adults as with kids, and the great thing is, if you're not really a competitive person, you can just play by yourself--it's just fun to turn the cubes and create the designs.

5. Rush Hour Jr.
This is a fun single-player game that challenges logical thinking and reasoning. The player picks a card from the deck and sets up the grid board according to the picture. The goal is to get the ice cream truck out of a traffic jam by sliding the other vehicles in and out of their places until you've created a clear path. Check out this video if you want a more visual idea for how it works. The puzzles get gradually harder as you work your way through the deck. So far we've only tried the junior version, although Aaron could definitely move up to the regular version. (This is the perfect game for afternoon quiet time or just when your kids need some time away from each other . . . or is that just my kids?) (Oh also, if your kids really like these kinds of logic puzzles, another favorite of ours is Castle Logix.)

6. Round metal pencil sharpener
I know, you're probably thinking, One of these things is not like the other. How did a pencil sharpener end up on this list? But stay with me. Anne Bogel calls this "the holy grail of pencil sharpeners," and with good reason. For years, we have dealt with the most inadequate pencil sharpeners (probably because we bought them for less than a dollar at Wal-Mart). They never gripped the pencils, and when they did, they sharpened them up one side but not the other. My kids are constantly drawing and coloring and doing projects, and the lack of a good pencil sharpener was so frustrating. I considered getting an electric sharpener, but as a last resort, decided to try this one first. Lo and behold, it only took three turns of the pencil, and it had a beautifully sharp point. I was sold (and so were my kids). I'm considering getting one for each of them for their stockings because I'm so worried about losing the only one we have.

7. Ramona Quimby collection
You knew books had to show up somewhere on this list, right? And although it pains me to have to pick favorites, I will say that these books (along with the Henry Huggins series) are probably the most read and re-read series in our house. Alternatively, they also love listening to the audio versions, and if you're an audible member, you're not going to find a better deal for your monthly credit than these collections. Eight books in the Ramona series or six books in the Henry series for one credit (which ends up being about $15, depending on your subscription)?! That's incredible.

8. Thinking Putty
A friend recommended this high-end silly putty earlier this year and said that it's one of her kids' favorite ways to occupy their hands when she's reading aloud to them. I bought a small tin for each of my kids for Easter, and it has been played with countless times since then (and yes, usually when I'm reading to them). At five times the price of old-school silly putty, you're probably wondering if it's worth it. And since I'm including it here, you can probably guess that my opinion is yes, I'd take this over silly putty any day (and pay for it, too). It comes in the most amazing assortment of colors and the texture is less rubbery, more smooth, than silly putty. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that the other day I asked Mike if he would buy it again and he said no. And it's true that even though we have pretty strict rules about when they can play with it and where it goes when they're done, they've still managed to smash it into the carpet. But a little vinegar has taken it right up without any problem. So buy it at your own risk. (Also, there's quite a range in price. This four-pack is one of the best prices I've seen, even with paying for the shipping.) A perfect stocking stuffer. 

9. Perler beads
I saw that--a few of you cringed when you saw this on the list, didn't you? And I totally get that. Perler beads are either a dream come true (your kids will sit for hours and painstakingly fill up a pegboard with little beads) or your worst nightmare (you spend most of your time sweeping up all those little beads while your kids wail because they accidentally bumped the pegboard when they were almost done). We happen to fall into the first camp, which is why they made it on the list, but I totally have some things that are like the second (rainbow loom! kinetic sand! ugh!). I've tried to figure out why perler beads have worked so well for us, and I think the main reason is just that we happened on a really good system right from the start: all of the supplies (beads, boards, even their finished creations) go in one big tub that gets put on a high shelf in their closet. They're only allowed to do them at the kitchen table (never in their room) and usually only during quiet time (so that Clark can't work his destruction magic). It just works for us. So there's that, but also, my kids just really love putting them together and somehow become miraculously focused and concentrated when they're working on them.

10. Ravensburger puzzles
We are a family of puzzle addicts. Mike claims that he doesn't love doing puzzles, but it sure seems like anytime we have one out, he somehow ends up being sucked into it, so the evidence would speak otherwise. At this point, Clark's interest is probably more of an adversarial one, if you know what I mean (nothing like having the power to make an older brother scream and chase you), but he loves doing wooden ones, so I think he'll come around. Our favorite brand is Ravensburger because the pieces are sturdy and fit together securely, the pictures are colorful and kid-friendly (even as you move up to more pieces), and they've got a wide range of sizes (even breaking it down into the 200- and 300-piece sizes, which are sometimes difficult to find). We have even ordered one of their custom puzzles, and it was the same great quality we've come to expect from their other puzzles but with a picture of our family on it. We still haven't braved anything beyond 500-pieces, but I think this might be the year for it.

11. Shrinky Dinks
These simple craft sheets literally kept my kids busy the entire Christmas break last year. Have you seen them? You simply draw a picture on one of the clear plastic sheets, cut it out, and put it in the oven where it miraculously shrinks down and turns into a hard thick plastic in the process--perfect for Christmas ornaments or key chains or necklace pendants. There are lots of specialized packs out there, but I just bought my kids one of the regular packs with ten sheets in it (and no extra gadgets). Then I printed out coloring pages for them, which they traced over with a sharpie and colored in with sharpies or colored pencils, and then they kept an eye on them through the oven window until they reached the perfect size. So many hours of fun.

12. Magazine subscription
Last but not least, how about a gift that keeps on giving? My parents gave Maxwell a Ranger Rick subscription for his birthday, and it has been one of his favorite things this year. Of course he loves it for all the animal facts and the jokes, but mostly he thinks it is wildly exciting to get something in the mail every month that's just for him (he does end up sharing it with his brothers but only after he's read it cover to cover). There are so many fun magazines to choose from. Ranger Rick is a good fit for Max because he's such an animal enthusiast, but search around because there's bound to be the perfect magazine for whatever your child enjoys.

Are any of these your favorites, too? Tell me about the toys YOU would buy again. Also, I'm happy to try to answer any questions you might have about anything I've mentioned. 
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