Europe Top Ten, Part One

Jul 18, 2016

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that Mike and I are currently in Europe. We flew into Amsterdam on Tuesday, spent Wednesday in Haarlem and Rotterdam, Thursday and Friday in Belgium and Paris, and Saturday in Normandy. Now we're in Germany, and I'm looking forward to relaxing a bit more and not trying to cram as much as we can into every single day.

I know I briefly mentioned this trip in a previous post, but I don't think I really went into detail about how it came about. Our two previous big trips (Chile in 2008 and Australia in 2014) came about because we had family living there. Last summer, Mike's parents moved to Frankfurt, Germany, and we knew we couldn't pass up the opportunity to see another part of the world, so we started planning almost immediately.

This trip has proven to be quite a bit more complex logistically than either of the other two. First of all, since it's Europe, we knew we wanted to see several other countries besides just Germany, but it was so hard to narrow it down. What ended up really helping us decide was finding out that my in-laws would be in the Netherlands and France for an assignment in the middle of July and Mike's sister and husband were planning on going to Norway at the end of July. That left Germany for the middle, and voila, our itinerary was planned.

Okay, not really. But at least we'd decided where we wanted to go while we were there. Mike worked on all the logistics in Europe (transportation, hotels, sightseeing, etc.), and I focused on what to do with our kids while we were gone. Oh my goodness, that was stressful. At first I thought my parents were going to be able to watch them for the entire duration of the trip (that would have been so easy!), but you might remember, my parents are moving soon, and I didn't really think I could say, "I'm really happy you're moving to Utah and all, but could you wait until after I've had my fun in Europe?"

No one else was in a position to be able to take four rambunctious boys for the entire two weeks, so we started dividing up the trip: a few days here, a few days there, first with one aunt and uncle, then with another, etc. I have to say, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for this army of family and friends who volunteered to help with our kids. We know they are in good hands, and we know this trip would not have been possible without so many.

Since we're now about a third of the way into our trip, I wanted to share a few of the highlights so far:

1. The 10-hour plane ride to Amsterdam

You think I'm joking, but I'm not. I haven't been on a plane without kids for so long. It was so incredibly relaxing to read my book, watch a movie, eat dinner, chat with Mike, and sleep (ha! not really) without having to worry about keeping my kids happy and quiet and comfortable. So luxurious.

2. Corrie ten Boom's home

If I had to list the five books that have made the most profound impact on my life, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom would surely be among them. Our first morning in Europe, we took a bus to Haarlem and found Corrie ten Boom's house. While we waited in the alley for the tour to start, I almost expected to see Corrie herself step out of the house and pedal away on her bike over the cobblestone streets. And then I glanced up at the window and saw the triangular Alpina watch sign that was used as an all-clear signal, and I got chills. It was so amazing to see the home of one of my heroes.

3. The Mormon Tabernacle Concert in Rotterdam

I know, we're from Salt Lake--we can listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir anytime, but there was something special about hearing them in a new city among people who'd never heard them before. It kind of made me realize how awesome they really are.

4. Boat tour of Bruges, Belgium (i.e., Venice of the North)

Bruges is this charming little town with a canal that runs all the way through it. Our guide was an Englishman who could have been straight out of a Roald Dahl novel: snarky, with a wry sense of humor and just the right amount of quirk. Seriously, I wish I could have recorded the entire thing. (And talk about gorgeous--I want to live in that city!)

5. Notre Dame Cathedral

I think this has been the biggest surprise of the trip so far. I actually was going to be fine if we ended up having to skip the cathedral. But then we got there, and I was like, Oh my goodness! This place is amazing! Why is no one getting credit for these statues and reliefs and this architecture?!?! How did they build something like this in the 12th century? It was a perfect example of why a picture never ever ever does justice to the real thing. (But here's a picture anyway.)

6. Climbing the stairs up the Eiffel Tower

We decided to go the route of climbing the stairs to the second level and then taking the elevator the rest of the way. I'm glad we chose to do it this way for four reasons: 1. There was no line for tickets to the stairs, 2. It was a little bit cheaper to climb and then ride instead of ride and then ride again, 3. It gave us such a sense of accomplishment (it was a lot of stairs!!), and 4. I loved the inside view of the Eiffel Tower.

7. The most delicious sandwich of my life

Honestly, the food was a bit hit and miss in Paris. Probably because we were touring the city alone without a local guide who could direct us to the right cafes and bakeries and crepe stands. But this sandwich? It was not a miss. Pastrami and sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese pressed between soft and crackly bread. I thought I might pass out from the pure enjoyment of it.

8. Normandy

Before we left on our trip, Mike insisted that I watch The Longest Day (the 1962 movie about the Normandy invasion). Although it should probably be re-titled The Longest Movie, it went a long way in helping me understand the key players and places that made Normandy an ultimately triumphant mission. As we visited the different beaches and saw the cliffs and drove through the little villages, I was so overcome with gratitude for these soldiers, many of them still boys, who turned the tide of the war. I think that's the place that has made the biggest emotional impact on me so far.

9. Hydrangeas

I've seen hydrangea in Utah before, but not like this. Here, the blossoms are the size of my head, and they are lush and thick along every fence and cute little house. I want to stop and take a picture of every single one of them.

10. Sunday

After five full days of traveling, Sunday's respite was both welcome and necessary. I have made it a habit all my life to honor the Sabbath Day, and never is it easier to recognize the wisdom in this commandment than when I'm traveling. It's so nice to be forced to slow down and focus on the most important things.

Although this trip hasn't felt quite as lighthearted as our trip to Australia (we've been seeing some darker, heavier things, and there have also been some tragic world events that have occurred while we've been here), it has still been so amazing. The more I see of the world, the more I realize how much I haven't seen. (For more of our adventures, follow me right here on Instagram.)

The Book Blab Episode 7: Travel Reading Plus Two Books We Loved Reading on Vacation

Jul 11, 2016

I prefer face-to-face conversations. Phone calls, facetime, or emails just can't compare to actually sitting down with a friend in the same room and having a good old-fashioned chat. And that's why this episode of The Book Blab was so fun. Suzanne was in Utah with her family for a family reunion and wedding, and she found a free hour when we could sit down in my living room and chat about books. It was THE BEST (and I may have gotten a little hyper about it on the video, so forgive me for that, but sometimes it just can't be helped). We had a great time and will definitely make it happen again if the opportunity presents itself. Enjoy! (Show notes are below the video.)

0:35 - Why Suzanne came to Utah
1:10 - Today's topic: Reading during travel
2:12 - How Suzanne and Amy plan their travel reading
4:09 - How travel converted both Amy and Suzanne to e-readers
5:30 - Suzanne's audiobook catastrophe!
6:45 - Tips for e-books deals
8:50 - Amy and Suzanne's favorite genres for travel
11:40 - Place-sensitive reading (reading books that are related to the place you're traveling to)
13:48 - Travel reading . . . with kids!
17:45 - Suzanne's fun tradition when she's traveling
19:05 - One more tip for traveling light even if you don't have an e-reader
20:30 - Quick poll: In general (not travel specific), do you prefer an e-reader or the hard copy?
22:10 - Two books that remind Amy and Suzanne of trips they went on (and that you'll enjoy whether you go on the same trip or not!)
  • 22:50 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 24:45 - Amy's recommendation
27:00 - Conclusion

Links and books mentioned in the show:

Modern Mrs. Darcy's Kindle Deals (5-7 new titles every day, usually ranging between $0.99 and $4.99)
Goodreads Deals (If you have a Goodreads account, you should already be getting handpicked deals in your inbox.)
BookBub (lots of free and really inexpensive e-books)
On Such Stuff: A random, free e-book that Suzanne took a chance on and really liked
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
The Monuments Men by  Robert M. Edsel
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
On Sunlit Pages: Review of The BFG by Roald Dahl
On Of Books and Blooms: Review of Watership Down by Richard Adams
On Such Stuff: Review of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
On Sunlit Pages: Review of Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

I'm interested to know how YOU plan YOUR travel reading? What types of books do you like to bring on vacation? What's a favorite book of yours that is inseparably connected with a trip? And of course, the most burning question of all: do you use an e-reader?

A Little of This and That in June

Jul 8, 2016

June has been everything June should be: lazy mornings, late evenings, trips to the pool and library, and plenty of time for reading. I wish June could have been twice as long. We spent our days:

Eating . . . our fill of doughnuts on National Doughnut Day--Banbury Cross doughnuts, no less. We go all out for this holiday.

Celebrating . . . Maxwell's last day of school. It felt like a long time coming, but it eventually did, and we were all thrilled.

Catching . . . not one, not two, not three, but FOUR fish!!! It was the perfect kick-off to summer.

Kicking . . . off our summer goals. They've been so good for us. I think the summer may prove too short to complete all of them, but we've been working on them very diligently and consistently, and that's the point. (You can read more about them here.)

Introducing . . . Clark to my brother, Steve. Steve just returned home after serving a two-year church mission in Modesto, California. When he left, Clark was still one week away from being born. Now he's an energetic, talkative, mischievous two-year-old. They took to each other almost immediately (as soon as Clark got over the shock of there being two Blaines).

Roasting . . . hotdogs in the canyon. We bought a year pass this summer and have been trying to take advantage of our close proximity. That said, we only went twice this past month, so we could still be doing better.

Spending . . . Father's Day with my dad. We went to Colorado for Steve's homecoming talk, and it happened to be over Father's Day weekend. It was so much fun spending time with him and the rest of my family.

Swimming . . . more times than I can count. We're so lucky to have our little neighborhood pool that is just the right size for my kids and where there are almost always friends to play with. They also took two weeks of swimming lessons, which improved their skills immensely.

Attending . . . my sister's senior piano recital at BYU and having my breath taken away by the Chopin nocturne she played. Gorgeous.

Setting . . . up a drip system for our garden. Okay, not me, but handyman Mike. It's pretty magical to watch the plants grow without doing a thing to help them along.

Feeling . . . sentimental about my little home town. My parents are moving to Utah later this summer (I am completely overjoyed!), but there's always something a little bittersweet about closing one chapter and embarking on another (for me, it's probably more sweet than bitter, but for my mom, it's the other way around).

Creating . . . my own summer reading program for my kids. The one done by the library seems to get lamer each year (this year's didn't even require them to read--can you believe it?!). I wanted one that would actually encourage my kids to read more, so I patterned it after the awesome summer library program my library did when I was a kid. I keep meaning to write an entire post about it, but the summer is getting away from me!

Admiring . . . Bradley's blonde hair. It always darkens in the winter, and then as soon as the summer sun hits it, it brightens right up again. I might be a little partial to it (shhhhh).

Purchasing . . . a high volume of books. I'm blaming it on the summer reading program. In my defense, I have been using ThriftBooks quite a bit (which tends to be a bit hit and miss for me but has great customer service), so I've been able to keep my spending to a fairly reasonable amount.

Disagreeing . . . with Maxwell. Heaven help me, that kid has one fierce and stubborn personality. 

Reading . . . comic books. Lots and lots and lots of comic books. Mike introduced Aaron and Maxwell to Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes, and they're addicted (as in, when we were at the library a couple of days ago, they wanted to check out eighteen of them--I made them cut it down to eight). I've been trying to balance it out with other books, but even I have to admit it's pretty cute to hear them laughing in their beds at night.

Writing . . . two guest posts: one on What Do We Do All Day about nine quiet activities my kids do when I'm reading aloud to them and the other on Tee and Penguin about my reading life and some of my favorite picture books. Feel free to check them out!

Making . . . Mike take a bunch of pictures of me for date night. I wanted a new portrait for the Tee and Penguin guest post. I felt a little silly, but Mike was a good sport about it, and it's been nice to have some updated pictures.

Stressing . . . about our upcoming trip (which I alluded to last month but didn't share any details). Mike and I are going to the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Norway, and at this point, we're just days away from departure. Sometimes I catch myself discussing details of the trip with Mike, like, "There's a library in Stuttgart I really want to see" or "Both Kirsten and Meagan said their favorite spot in Paris was the Saint Chapelle, so we should definitely go there," and all of a sudden I realize, This is happening!!! So on one hand, I'm very excited. How could I not be? But the thought of leaving my kids for a couple of weeks is causing me major anxiety.

Going . . . to Silver Lake. Apparently, it's becoming our new favorite spot. We went at the beginning of the month and caught the aforementioned fish and then later on in the month with Mike's brother and family (and we saw four moose!).

Recording . . . a podcast episode for one of my very favorite podcasts. I'll let you know when it goes live!

For more of our daily activities, follow along on Instagram. What were YOU up to in June?

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Jul 7, 2016

Chances are, this is not the first you've seen or heard of this book. Although it's still fairly new (published at the beginning of this year), it has been getting a lot of attention, all well-deserved, in my opinion.

Paul Kalanathi, a neurosurgeon/neuroscientist, was in his last year of residency when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. He was in his mid-30's, married, and had never smoked. With decades of school behind him, he was right on the cusp of all he had planned and worked and hoped for. But suddenly he found himself in the unfamiliar position of patient, redefining his life as he faced his own death.

He wrote, "The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I'd spend time with family. Tell me one year, I'd write a book. Give me ten years, I'd get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn't help: What was I supposed to do with that day?"

Not knowing how much time he had left, Paul chose to write (among other things), and this book is the result. I suppose it's classified as a memoir, but that doesn't seem like quite the right genre for it. It's about Paul's life, yes--his upbringing in a little Arizona town with a cardiologist father, his decision not to go into medicine followed by the reversal of that decision several years later, meeting his wife, etc.--but rather than being the point of the book (as is the case in most memoirs), these life facts are merely the framework upon which Paul hangs his musings and insights and discoveries. Truthfully, Paul's story felt much more profound than any other memoir I've ever read.

I'm not sure if that's because the book itself is cut short by Paul's own death, and death tends to lend a certain gravity and depth to any story, or if it was because Paul had an insider's perspective unlike anyone else and knew how to distill those insights into words, or if it was the way parts of his story resonated and felt so familiar because of my sister-in-law, Alisa's death last year. I guess it was probably a combination of all of those things.

Cancer is heartbreaking no matter who it inflicts, but Paul's story feels particularly tragic, or even, more selfishly, unfair, because of the huge amount of good he would have done in the world. There were times in the book where Paul came across as maybe a little too self-assured, but never egotistical. He decided to go into neurosurgery because that was the very top of the medical totem pole. He did it for the right reasons ("The call to protect life--and not merely life but another's identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another's soul--was obvious in its sacredness."), but he was well aware of the sacrifices he was making for others and said, "Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job--not a calling."

And as if that wasn't elite enough, he also decided to delve into neurological research and become a scientist. Most people are not up to the rigors of such a combination (and, in fact, when Paul was diagnosed, his own marriage was in a rough patch, so he was not immune to the emotional and physical toll either), and that is why it was so devastating to see that life come to a much-too-early end. Paul was one of the few who was up to the task.

Paul said,  "My life had been building potential, potential that would now go unrealized. I had planned to do so much, and I had come so close. I was physically debilitated, my imagined future and my personal identity collapsed, and I faced the same existential quandaries my patients faced.  The lung cancer diagnosis was confirmed. My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit."

So . . . heartrending? Yes. But also so much hope and joy. After his diagnosis, Paul and his wife, Lucy, think long and hard about whether or not they want to have a child. They've always wanted a family, but the uncertainty of Paul's prognosis makes it difficult to plan. Lucy knows that at some point she will most likely be a single parent, but she also wonders about how a child will affect their marriage and whether it will make Paul's final days even harder. She asked him, "Don't you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?" Paul's answer struck me to the core, "Wouldn't it be great if it did?" I think in my own life, I'm always worried about being hurt. I've never really thought about the fact that being able to be hurt is actually a blessing because it means my life has been filled with opportunities to love and be loved.

I also loved the religious undertone of the book because it was never overbearing. Paul alludes to his own religious journey only briefly. His parents were devout Christians, but once he went to school, atheism made more sense to him. However, after a point, the pendulum swung back the other way as he considered life and meaning and realized how God could (and needed to) fit into the big picture. This definitely was not the point of Paul's story, but it was there, providing some foundation, and it made an impact on me.

I finished the book on the morning after the 4th of July. I was experiencing some post-reunion/holiday laziness and didn't want to get out of bed. So instead, I cried my way through the last twenty pages of this book. The epilogue is written by Paul's wife, and it made me weep far more than the rest of the book put together. Lucy has her own gift with words, and reading about Paul's final days and the way they loved and supported each other and also how she coped with her grief after he died touched my heart. This was one of my favorite moments: "At home in bed a few weeks before he died, I asked him, 'Can you breathe okay with my head on your chest like this?" His answer was 'It's the only way I know how to breathe.'"

After Paul was initially diagnosed and went through the first line of treatment (a pill called Tarceva), he wondered what he should do with his life. He was extremely weak and tired from everything he'd been through, but he decided to do whatever it took to return to being a neurosurgeon. "Why?" he asked, "Because I could. Because that's who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I'm dying, until I actually die, I am still living."

He did exactly that, returning to surgery, graduating, being offered his dream job, having a child, and writing a book, all in the space of 22 months from the time he was diagnosed until he passed away. He made me realize that death is not something to be feared as long as you live the life you have in the best way you possibly can.

Have you read this book? What are the things you'll remember from it? What sort of an impact, if any, did it make on you? 

P.S. Episode 7 of The Book Blab will air tomorrow, July 8th, at 1:00pm MST. You might want to tune into this one because Suzanne is here in Utah, so we'll be recording it in person! We're going to try out Facebook Live to film it, so click here to watch it. 

A Few of the Nonfiction Books We've Been Reading Lately (and a Giveaway!)

Jul 1, 2016

Animal Atlas is a great book for any animal- or fact-loving child!

When it comes to books, six-year-old Maxwell can be a little bit difficult to please. Remember how Aaron will read anything I put into his hands (which sounds awesome but comes with its own set of problems)? Well, Max will read almost nothing I recommend. He's pretty independent, first of all, and likes to make his own decisions, but he also has this contrary streak in him that intentionally dislikes anything I like. So I have to be very careful with the way I present a new book to him. If I dare say, "Hey, Max, I found an awesome book I know you'll love," he won't deign to even look at it.

I've been doing a little reading program with my kids this summer (I'll write more about it soon), but the basic idea is that if they read two hours, they earn a small prize, and when they get to twenty hours, they earn a book. It's been so much fun, and I've especially been enjoying the excuse to buy really amazing, high quality books to offer for the twenty-hour prize. Except in Maxwell's case. It's been such a challenge to find books that will be tantalizing and exciting without him thinking, It's my mom giving me this prize so she must want me to read this book. Therefore (and he would totally use the word "therefore"), I am not going to choose this book. 

At the beginning of summer, I just point-blank asked him, "Max, what kinds of books are you hoping to see for the summer reading program? What would make you so excited?" His answer was, "Anything with facts about animals."

And it's true. Out of all my kids, Max is my one who just loves non-fiction. When Alysa guest-posted a few months ago, she talked about the difference between narrative and non-narrative fiction, and for Max, it's all about the facts, so he's definitely a non-narrative kind of reader. 

And so, it almost seemed providential when I was contacted a couple of months ago, wondering if I would be interested in reviewing a few animal fact books: the Animal Planet Animal Atlas and a couple of the Animals Bites books. It was just a little too perfect.

When Max completed his first twenty hours and was ready to select his first book prize, I set out the options and then held my breath, all while trying to look very nonchalant about it. I was so afraid he would say, in his lofty sort of way, "There isn't anything here that interests me." But he didn't. He immediately gravitated toward the Animal Atlas and read the whole thing, cover to cover, in three days.
Animal Atlas is a great book for animal- or fact-loving kids!

The book is divided by continent and then further by topography. For example, Africa is divided into the Desert, Savanna, Tropical Rainforest, and Marine, with short blurbs about a dozen or so animals in each one.

Even though Max devoured the whole thing in one go, you definitely don't have to. In fact, my other kids prefer just paging through it and reading about the animals that grab their attention (usually snakes, spiders, or lizards). The photographs are eye-catching, and the illustrated maps of each region are really helpful. Since the day Max earned it, I have been inundated with animal facts: "The rhino's horn is made out of keratin, just like our fingernails," "The mosquito is the world's deadliest animal," "Did you know there are saltwater crocodiles?"

There's also a really great curriculum guide that goes along with the book (it can be downloaded here). Although I don't think we'll use everything in it, I did print off the scavenger hunt pages and gave them to Max. Whether he will actually go through the book and fill them out remains to be seen (I may have acted too excited when I handed them over).

The four books in the Animal Bites series are great for any animal- or fact-loving kid!

The Animal Bites books are organized in much the same way as the Animal Atlas, except that they're a little bit shorter and grouped by types of animals rather than area of the world. I especially love the "Info Bites" section on each page that gives basic information about a specific animal and also compares it in size to some random object, like an alpaca to a guitar or a regal jumping spider to a gummy bear. Max has his eye on the Wild Animals one for his next prize. (And keep reading because there's a fun giveaway at the end of all four Animal Bites books!)

Awesome America is filled with easy-to-read facts about what makes America so great.

Unrelated to all this talk about animals but definitely still in the non-narrative, nonfiction genre is Awesome America by Katy Steinmetz, an encyclopedia of sorts about all of the things that make America so great, from its government to its people to its beautiful and varied landscape. With Independence Day this weekend, it has been the perfect book to get us in a patriotic mood, and we've been reading bits from it here and there all week.

Just like the Animal Atlas, it contains lots of photographs and keeps the information contained to short, readable passages.  Even though it doesn't have any kind of narrative drive pulling you through it, because each section is so short and looks so interesting, it's really easy to say, "Just one more. And okay, just one more..." and then finally come up for air a half hour later.

I love seasonal reading, but I'll admit that in the past when I've checked out books specifically about America's founding, my kids and I have had a hard time getting through them. This one though is the perfect mix of history and geography and cool, random facts, so you can read about "really important pieces of paper" (i.e., the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and then you can skip over to "purple mountain majesties" (i.e., the tallest mountains in the U.S.) and then find out what soda is called in various parts of the country. (But I have to say, we felt like Utah was woefully underrepresented!)

I also love the spread that shows portraits of all forty-four presidents and the timeline at the back of the book. It's nice to be able to focus on a specific topic sometimes, but it's also nice to be able to get a big picture view, and this book is exactly that. I'm so happy to have it on our shelves so we can look at it again and again.

And now for that awesome giveaway I promised you about. The publicist has generously offered to send one reader a set of the four books in the Animal Bites series: Polar Animals, Farm Animals, Wild Animals, and Ocean Animals. To enter, simply leave a comment (and make sure you include your email so you can be contacted if you win). Giveaway open to U.S. residents only and closes Friday, July 7th, at 11:59pm MST.

Update: Thanks so much to everyone who entered! Emily + Eric was our winner! Congrats!

All of these books will keep Maxwell going for a few weeks, but then I'm going to need more ideas. So if you have any, please share!

I received complimentary copies of Animal Atlas, Wild Animals, Farm Animals, and Awesome America in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
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