Two Halloween Readalouds: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Great Ghost Rescue

Oct 28, 2016

Our readalouds took a little seasonal turn during the last month. I had planned to squeeze in one more Halloween-themed novel (this list of Erica's is loaded with good ideas), but the library didn't cooperate with me. So I've moved onto planning next month's reads and would love some recommendations if you have a favorite book that would fit into the cozy, melancholy, grateful mood of November. But in the meantime, here's a look at what we did end up reading:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
This one should come as no surprise given my recent post about our family's reading plan for Harry Potter. We don't own the entire series (yet), but luckily we had this one. I say luckily because, for a book that's approaching twenty years old, you'd be surprised how difficult it is to land (and then keep) a library copy.

I was fourteen when this book came out in the U.S. My interest in Harry Potter hadn't fizzled yet, and I read it soon after it was released (as I recall, Harry Potter hadn't caught on in my little town at that point and so I don't think I even had to wait for anyone to read it before me). But now, seventeen years later, my memory served me very little during this second reading.

I didn't remember that Harry and Ron arrive at Hogwarts by illegally flying a car. I didn't remember anything about a little house elf named Dobby and his warnings. I didn't remember that Hermione is in an incapacitated state for part of the book. I didn't even remember Tom Riddle's true identity.

Most of the time, having such a poor memory is rather depressing, but when it comes to reading a book, it's actually rather fantastic. Here I was reading this book to my kids, and it was like I was experiencing the entire story for the first time. I bet some of you wish you could repeat your first experience with Harry Potter because really, there's just nothing like that first time.

So instead of just my kids hiding their eyes and yelling out and bouncing up and down with anticipation because they didn't know what was going to happen, I was right there with them. It was so much fun.

Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley all listened to this one, and I will say that it got a little scary for them, especially Max. (At one point he admitted, "I am very concerned about this.") There were several times when he begged me to stop reading, but it was the kind of begging that happens when you're actually desperate to know what's going to happen but you don't know if you can handle it. It was the basilisk that really terrified him, and yet, when I got the audio for him after we'd finished the story, he listened to the last CD at least fifteen times and decided he wants to be a basilisk next year for Halloween, so I think it was the suspense of the unknown more than anything else that scared him (although we kept assuring him, "Max, this is just the second book, and there are five more after this, so we know Harry Potter doesn't die!").

One of the things that impressed me the most about this book was just how different it was from the first one. I think with a series like this where each book begins at the beginning of the school year and ends at the end, it would be easy for a lesser author to fall into a certain repetitiveness where some events stay the same between books. But as soon as Harry and Ron smash into the wall at Platform 9 3/4, you know not to expect anything. Of course, there are things that remain constant (Harry's friends and enemies, some professors, etc.), and this lends a continuity to the overall story, but there are many unexpected twists that keep the characters fresh and exciting. (At one point, my kids were just sure that Professor Lockhart was going to turn out to be the bad guy just like Professor Quirrel in the first book, but of course J.K. Rowling would never do such a thing, and they were delighted with where it actually ended up.)

It definitely doesn't have the kind of symbolism I love in The Chronicles of Narnia, but it still has some thought-provoking moments, like this wisdom from Professor Dumbledore at the end: "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."

Now we're all eagerly anticipating Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but in the meantime, we'll just relive and reread our favorite parts from the first two books.

The Great Ghost Rescue by Eva Ibbotson
I have wanted to read something by Eva Ibbotson for a long time. In fact, she was one of the authors who prompted me to make the goal, "Read a female author I've been meaning to read."

I always thought I'd start with one of her historical romances, like The Countess Below Stairs, but one day I was at our local thrift store and happened upon several children's fantasy books by her. Up until that moment, I didn't even realize she'd written for children. I read the backs of the books and they all sounded delightful, so I purchased a couple, this being one of them.

I thought it would be the perfect book to read to my kids in October, and it was, but it was not the perfect book for me.

Rick does not enjoy life at boarding school, but things perk up considerably when a family of ghosts think his dormitory looks like an inviting new home. You see, the ghosts all across England have a real problem: all their old, dilapidated houses are being torn down or "modernized." There are just getting to be fewer and fewer dwellings that are fit for ghosts. Rick decides to take up the cause of the ghosts and go see the prime minister of England, in the hopes that he will agree to set aside some land for a ghost sanctuary. But not everyone sees the situation as Rick does. In fact, one person in particular would like to see England completely purged of ghosts.

Okay, first of all, I have to tell you, my kids loved this book. The farther into it we got, the more I dreaded it and the more they wanted to read it. I would say things like, "I am so tired of this book" or "The sooner this book is over, the better," and they would respond with, "You can not stop reading it!!!"

So we made it all the way through, but it was a slog, no question. I'm still trying to figure out why I didn't like it. The writing itself was fine; the story was full of action and drama; and it definitely felt seasonal. But . . . I didn't like the ghosts. In fact, I found them rather repulsive and in possession of the most disgusting habits. To name a few: The mother of the family (the Hag) gives off the most offensive odors around the clock; and the daughter, Winifred, follows around a bowl of water to wash out her never-disappearing bloodstains; and also, Aunt Hortensia, who lost her head to one of Henry the Eighth's rages, now carries it around with her.

In small doses, all of these things might have been okay (I keep thinking back to Harry Potter and how I didn't mind Headless Nick or the other ghosts at all), but this book was saturated with ghosts. I mean, that's who the book is about! They're not sidekicks or secondary characters. Aside from Rick, they're it. If you can't champion the ghosts, you might as well not be reading the story.

So yes, I sound prejudiced and, sadly, not too different from the villain himself, but honestly, I can only handle reading about the smell of pig's intestines and eating maggot sandwiches for so long before I want to dry heave, and that's just not what I'm looking for in reading material, you know?

I'm not giving up on Eva Ibbotson, but this book was definitely not for me.

Did you read any seasonal novels with your kids this month? And do you have any recommendations for us for next month? Last year we read Farmer Boy, and it was such a perfect November book that I keep wanting to duplicate that experience. 

A Fun Weekend in St. George

Oct 26, 2016

On Sunday, we got back from a really top-notch family reunion in St. George, Utah. My brother, Ben and his wife, Meagan planned the entire thing, and it really was nearly perfect with just the right number of planned activities mixed together with a good amount of down time. We stayed in a condo with plenty of space (and Mike even found the perfect hidey-hole under the stairs for my brother, Christian, who needs his alone time away from all the little nieces and nephews). We were missing my sister, Anna, who had too many obligations at school to get away. (Everyone else was on fall break, but BYU doesn't take a fall break (WHY?!), so it couldn't be helped.) But all in all, it was a fantastic four days.

I'm not going to do a full recap on the weekend, but I wanted to share five of my favorite things from our time there. (If this list was created by my kids, it would almost certainly include playing on the Wii, which is rather embarrassing but I guess makes sense since we don't play video games at our house.)

In no particular order:

1. Snow Canyon
We did two short hikes, the sand dunes and Jenny's Canyon, both of which could be completed easily by all of my kids, even Clark, and had really fun attractions at the end--the sand dunes at the one (where they literally could have stayed and played all afternoon) and a slot canyon at the other. Mike and I had never been in Snow Canyon before, and we both wished we'd had more time to go back and hike some more. Next time . . .

2. Family book discussion
Every year, we choose a book ahead of time so we can have a little book club during the reunion. This year, my brother chose Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar Animation. It was a fascinating read (I already wrote a little bit about it here, and a full review of the book is still coming), so we had lots to discuss. It was so eye-opening to get everyone's very different perspectives: from my dad who has worked for the government for over thirty years . . . to my brother, Gordy, who works in a similarly creative environment to the one described in the book . . . to me who tries to foster creativity within the walls of my own home. The book was amazingly applicable to a variety of situations, and I just love having other people to discuss a book with. (Unfortunately, we started the book discussion too late in the evening for my mom, and so she only made it about halfway through before she fell asleep on the couch.)

3. The St. George Temple
My parents were married in the St. George temple nearly thirty-three years ago, and this weekend was the first time they'd been back. It was so special to walk around the grounds with them and imagine them as a young married couple right on the cusp of life. My dad had some family names ready for temple work, so my mom, two sisters-in-law, and I divided them up and performed the initiatories (one of the ordinances done in the temple) for all of them. I felt such a sweet unity and friendship as we sat together and waited for our turn. There were lots of fun and lively moments during the reunion, but that one was just simple and quiet and made me feel grateful for my wonderful family.

4. The St. George Children's Museum
Mike and I both agreed that this was one thing we thought we'd just tolerate for the sake of our kids, but then we both ended up really enjoying it. I get serious anxiety when I think about the children's museum in Salt Lake. It's big and crowded and almost has too many activities so that my kids end up running around like crazed maniacs instead of settling down and enjoying one thing. The children's museum in St. George was much smaller and consequently felt so much more manageable. It was still crowded (we were there over fall break, remember), but the kids just didn't seem as psychotic or out-of-control. Everything was organized, people took turns, and there were lots of opportunities for exploring and creative play.

5. Gordy's humor
This really has nothing to do with the St. George setting, but it is one of my favorite memories from the reunion, so I had to share it. My brother, Ben, is helping a friend of his create an alphabet-themed card game. They're currently in the testing phase, so he brought it to the reunion so we could play it and give feedback. I realize that trying to re-tell a funny moment rarely works, but at one point during the game, my brother, Gordy was trying to think of someone's name. He said, "Mary and . . . John? Peter?" and then he looked at me like I should know who he was thinking of. Turns out, it was Joseph (as in, Mary and Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus) he couldn't think of. Joseph! One of the most well-known figures in the New Testament! For some reason, this just cracked me up, and I couldn't stop laughing. Tears were rolling down my face, and he just kept making jokes about it and setting me off again. No one's ever been able to get me to laugh like him, and sometimes it just feels so good to laugh.

It was just such a great weekend, and I'm glad my parents have made it a priority to spend time together as a family.

Review x 2: Charlotte's Web and Dory Dory Black Sheep

Oct 19, 2016

For probably the last year or so, Bradley has listened to every single one of our readalouds. (Before then, he was a bit hit and miss--sometimes he'd listen, sometimes he preferred Mike to read picture books to him while I read to the older boys.)

It's been a joy to have him along for the ride, especially since he's one of my best snugglers. But I have wondered about how to make sure he doesn't miss out on books that a) I've already read to the older two or b) seem too young or babyish to Aaron or Max.*

And then, soon after the beginning of school, I stumbled upon the perfect solution. I could read those books to Bradley in the afternoons while his older brothers were at school.

These are the two books we've read so far, and I have to tell you, it's been nothing but a treat (but then, most things are with Bradley).

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
We started with a classic--one that I would never be able to forgive myself for if I somehow omitted it in any of my children's childhoods. (Although, now that I've given it more thought, I'm pretty sure there's no way Max, who was two-and-a-half when I read it the first time, could possibly remember it, although he claims that he does. This is a grave oversight.)

I already wrote a thorough review of it when I read it to Aaron, but I wanted to add just a few things that made me dog-ear the pages this time:

First, this book feels so timeless . . . except when it doesn't. For instance, one morning Fern and Avery are rushing to catch the school bus. Mrs. Arable takes tiny Wilber out of Fern's hand and gives her a doughnut to eat on the way. Avery grabs his gun and another doughnut and runs out the door. Did you catch that? His gun! I'm still getting over the shock that Avery takes his gun to school, and its as natural a thing to take as another doughnut. Times have certainly changed.

Second, I find it so interesting that the only person who thinks it might be the spider, rather than the pig, who's extraordinary is Mrs. Zuckerman. Everyone else just believes the message in the web: "Look, it says 'Some Pig,' so he really must be some pig!" They don't even think that a spider might be capable of weaving words into her web. Rather, they're convinced it must be some supernatural miracle that just uses the web that's already there as its canvas. But the readers appreciate the silliness of all the adults because we know who the real truly brilliant character is.

Third, I think I felt more irritation with Wilbur than I have on previous readings. While his innocence and naivety are endearing, he's sometimes so self-centered in his wishes. For example, when Charlotte tells him that she can't go to the fair with him, he freaks out a little. Finally, after all his whining and begging and pleading, Charlotte agrees to try. Wilber says, "Oh, good! I knew you wouldn't forsake me just when I need you most," and I kind of just wanted to slap him up the side of the head. Charlotte has literally worn out her life in his service, and he is so completely blind to it. He is not unlike a small child. (Luckily, he redeems himself when he is willing to make great sacrifices to keep Charlotte's egg sac safe.)

Finally, this story just gets me, right here, every time. I was an emotional wreck during the second to last chapter. My voice tightened, and I could barely choke out the words. The tears just streamed down my cheeks. My heart was breaking. Bradley kept looking at me, totally dry-eyed himself. I asked him if he felt sad, and he said yes, but I think it's one of those things that, even though it's a children's novel, grows in poignancy with age and maturity. I have had amazing friends who have sacrificed a lot for me. I also know what it's like to lose someone I love. So this story touches an emotional soft place for me that Bradley doesn't have yet.

I just love this book so much. It will always be one of my favorites.

Dory Dory Black Sheep by Abby Hanlon
After loving the first two Dory Fantasmagory books so much, I actually pre-ordered the third one in the series. I gave it to Bradley for his fifth birthday, and although it's at just the right reading level for him to read on his own, I didn't want to miss out on it, so I read it to him.

In this installment, Dory's real and imaginary worlds continue to collide in fantastic and amusing ways. One day she sees her best friend, Rosabelle reading a big thick chapter book. Dory exclaims, "I love pretending to read chapter books, too!," not realizing that Rosabelle can, in fact, read it. When she finds out, Dory is mortified and frustrated--she is still struggling through the very simplest easy readers. When she tries to force herself to read these "baby books," she finds herself suddenly in the book, and her fairy godmother, Mr. Nuggy, is there too, and so is the evil Mrs. Gobble Gracker. Fighting off villains is way more fun than reading, at least until something finally starts to click and a whole new world opens up to Dory.

In my opinion, this book isn't quite as good as the first two in the series, but it comes close. The other two made me laugh out loud at some point, and this one, for whatever reason, never did. It could have been that the endearing six-year-old-humor is mixed together with the obnoxious six-year-old humor, and since I already live with my own six-year-old, who seems to get more obnoxious by the day, it hit a little closer to home than before. For example, one afternoon Dory gets home from school and starts jumping on a chair while swinging around two hammers and yelling at the top of her voice. Her mom rushes in and yells, "Dory, what are you doing? DON'T! STOP!" Dory says, "Okay . . . you said, 'Don't Stop,'" and she keeps on doing it. My resident six-year-old did and said something almost like that just yesterday (can someone please tell me how to stop the stupid Christmas songs with first grade lyrics? I'm about to go crazy).

But the very fact that Dory's so obnoxious at times is also the reason why these books are so good. Somehow Abby Hanlon has entered the six-year-old psyche and nailed it perfectly. And the clash between Dory's two worlds is so extremely clever. Dory is visited by Mary or Mr. Nuggy or Mrs. Gobble Gracker at wildly inappropriate times, which makes for some funny and awkward situations.

But I think my favorite moment was this one, when Dory is all alone, with no distractions from real or imaginary friends: "The next morning, I wake up extra early. One by one, I take my favorite books off the bookshelf. All alone, in the quiet of my room, I lie on the floor with my books. As the morning light slowly shines brighter and brighter through my window, I turn the pages and look carefully at the pictures. I look at the words carefully, too, and some of the words . . . I read."

I guess six-year-olds can be unbearably sweet sometimes, too.

*My kids will actually listen to just about anything, so this is probably not a truly legitimate concern. In fact, I might have thought Aaron would think Dory was too young for him, but he thinks she's hilarious and read this whole book one night before bed.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Oct 14, 2016

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to be a guest on one of my favorite podcasts, What Should I Read Next? The show, hosted by Anne Bogel (aka, Modern Mrs. Darcy) works like this: the guest shares three books she loves, one book she hates, and what she's currently reading, and then Anne comes up with three recommendations that hopefully fit the reader's bookish tastes.

When I was on the podcast, one of the books I shared as a favorite was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It's been nearly four years since I read it (so time for a reread, I think), and I still can't think of it without remembering the wide range of emotions I felt while reading it. It's one of the most visceral reading experiences I've ever had, and I specifically chose to mention it on the podcast because I wanted help finding something that would give me that same sort of reading experience again.

The book Anne came up with was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Before she revealed what it was, she said something like, "I have a great book to recommend, but I'm just sure you've already read it because it's so perfect for you." Well, I hadn't read it, but I was nonetheless very familiar with the title because many of my friends had read it, loved it, and then recommended it with a bunch of caveats. And it was those caveats that always held me back.

But after Anne recommended it, I decided to just read it and see for myself.

And now I get it. I see why everyone liked/loved it, and I also see why all the reviews came with reservations. I'll get to all that in a minute.

But first, the story itself. Margaret Lea is a quiet, solitary woman. She lives and works in her father's bookshop, which is also a quiet, solitary place, and that suits her just fine. As you might expect, she is quite fond of books and reads a lot. However, she sticks mainly with classics and biographies and has very little interest in popular fiction.

So of course she is very surprised when she receives a letter one day from Vida Winter, a famous authoress, who requests that Margaret write her biography. Ms. Winter is in her seventies and quite ill, and although everyone knows and loves her books, her actual life is cloaked in mystery. Many reporters have tried to get it out of her over the years, and she always obliges them with a fantastic and captivating story, but it's always just that . . . a story.

Margaret can't figure out why, after all these years, Vida Winter is requesting someone to write her biography, and why that someone should be her. But after reading (and rather embarrassingly, devouring) one of Vida Winter's books, she decides to accept the invitation. However, she goes in with her guard up. She is determined to sniff out the truth and not be pulled in by another one of Vida Winter's tales.

Before they begin, Margaret has one requirement: she asks for three facts from Vida Winter's life that she will be able to corroborate with outside sources. Ms. Winter gives those three facts and then sets down a rule of her own: "Beginnings, middles and endings, all in the correct order. No cheating. No looking ahead. No questions." In other words, she demands to tell her story in her own way.

A truce is reached, and the story begins. It is fascinating, captivating, mesmerizing. And, as it turns out, it is not just Vida Winter confronting the pain and secrets of her past, but Margaret, too.

I'll have to stop there because I'm trying to be very careful not to give away too much. So far, I've just laid the barest framework and haven't even hinted at the details or characters of the actual story, and I'm going to leave it that way. The essence of this story is its mystery. If I take that away, even in a small way, the life would just go out of it.

In the book, Margaret describes the excitement of discovery this way: "One element at a time, taking all the different angles separately, I reviewed everything I knew. Everything I had been told and everything I had discovered. Yes, I thought. And yes, again. That, and that, and that, too. My new knowledge blew life into the story. It began to breathe. And as it did so, it began to mend. The jagged edges smoothed themselves. The gaps filled themselves in. The missing parts were regenerated. Puzzles explained themselves, and mysteries were mysteries no longer."

I love that description because I've had very similar experiences with stories before (this being one of them). Having all those questions and unknowns and twists and turns suddenly come into sharp focus is one of the things I loved most about Rebecca, and it's what made me enjoy this book as well. I wouldn't spoil that for anyone for the world.

So even though I'm not going to talk about the plot any further, there are still a couple of things I want to address.

First, when readers recommend this book with a good dose of caution, they're right to do so. As you might expect from a Gothic suspense novel, there are some dark, I would even say disturbing, themes. They're essential to the story, but that doesn't make them any easier to read about, especially when they come back to you at 2am, as one of them did to me.

It's really, really tricky to review a book with difficult or disturbing content because it's easy to over-focus on the uncomfortable parts. On one hand, this is good because it means future readers will go into the book with their eyes open. On the other hand, it can give a false representation of the actual story and the overall feeling and just how big those moments really are.

For my part, I always appreciate it when I know about mature content ahead of time, but it's also hard because, even with the warning, I still don't really know what its effect on me will be. Of course, if there's any doubt or hesitation, just don't read it (there are plenty of other good books to choose from), but I will say that in the case of this book, the disturbing acts are not gratuitous or glorified in any way. They are repulsive, as they should be. (And now, after that glowing recommendation, I'm sure you're all rushing out to read it--feel free to talk to me about it if you want more specifics.)

The second thing I wanted to mention is just that even though I liked this book and was completely immersed in it from the beginning, it was no match for Rebecca. There are similarities for sure, and I can definitely see why Anne would recommend this to someone who loved Rebecca, but it wasn't the same.

For example, both books are extremely well written, but I love the writing style of Rebecca more. Both books have dark themes, but Rebecca's are less disturbing (although feel free to debate me on that one). Both books have a strong sense of place, but I would much rather go to Manderley than Angelfield. Both books have striking and vibrant characters, but . . . this is the big one for me. With Rebecca, I felt deeply invested in the narrator as well as Maxim de Winter. But with The Thirteenth Tale, something was missing for me, even with Ms. Winter and Margaret, and especially with one character in particular--a character who seems well-loved by so many, and yet, I couldn't find anything lovable about her. I'm actually not convinced that the reader was supposed to love her in the same way that the characters in the book did, but still, it was a real problem for me and actually is the reason, more than anything else that I mentioned above, that I just didn't love this book as much as Rebecca.

There's so much to discuss with this book though, and so I'm dying to talk to someone who has read it. If you have, let's chat because I have some questions and issues to work through.

I'm sure this review has given you a mixed impression of the book, and that's probably kind of accurate because I honestly came away with rather mixed feelings. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I'm glad I read it, and it was a perfect read for this time of year, but is it going on my favorites list? That remains to be seen.

Have you read this book? What did you think about it? Actually, let's just go have lunch and talk about it! And what would be your recommendation for someone who loved Rebecca and wants to read something similar?

What We're Listening to Right Now #7

Oct 10, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, Tsh Oxenreider put up a post about the music they play in their home. She included twelve different playlists she's created for various moods and situations. For instance, there's a fall playlist (she's compiled playlists for the other seasons as well), one for dinner, and another for cleaning/working. I found the whole thing fascinating (not to mention, between the post and the comments, we have a lot of new music to try), but I also realized that I think I've made a total of one playlist in my entire life. And now I'm wondering, why? It sounds like so much fun to pull together music from different artists in order to achieve a kind of theme, however loose or vague it might be. So don't be surprised if sometime in the future, these music posts include some kind of personalized playlist.

However, when I'm listening to an artist for the first time, I prefer to check out an actual album because it gives me a much better impression of their style than a single track in a random playlist can do. (That post also made me realize that some people are much more serious and dedicated to their music than I am. Creating a bunch of playlists sounds a bit time consuming and overwhelming. I think I enjoy the convenience of popping in a CD from the library or letting Pandora create a playlist for me.)

Anyway, here are six albums we've been listening to a lot lately:

1. Make a Circle by Jennifer Paskow*
I think I have a fairly high tolerance for children's music (higher than Mike anyway), but lately that tolerance has plummeted. I can't even tell you how many children's albums I've checked out from the library over the last four months that have all been promptly returned on our next visit. They vacillated between being obnoxious and loud, stupid instead of funny, or just a copy of someone else, and I just couldn't handle any of them. That's why when I listened to Jennifer Paskow for the first time, it was like a breath of fresh air. Like, I think I may have actually sighed in relief because it was just so pleasant and such a welcome contrast to the other things we'd been listening to. Her voice hits on all the right tones, creating a combination that is at once easy and light-hearted and sweet. I could seriously listen to her all day. The message of this album is about loving yourself and loving others, two concepts that are so important for kids (and adults!) to internalize. Nothing about this album screams "kids' music" (which I love), and yet it feels like a safe and happy place to be, and that's exactly what a children's album should do.

Favorite Song: "The I Love You Song" (it's just so catchy!)

2. My Heart by Sissel
When we got back from Europe, I longed for something to listen to that would remind me of where we'd been. The only Norwegian singer I knew was Sissel--my father-in-law has always been a fan of hers--but I had never really listened to much of her music. (This could be due, in part, to the fact that when she sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at their 2006 Christmas concert, Mike and I had tickets, but we didn't make it into the hall until twenty minutes before the concert started (the tickets said you had to be in your seats a half hour before show time), and by then they were already letting in the standby lines. The ushers shuffled us from section to section and finally told us we'd have to watch it in the overflow theater on the screen. Ever since then, I think I've always associated Sissel with extreme disappointment.) But after we got back, I checked out one of her albums, and I fell in love. Her voice, while classically trained, is not overbearing but crystal clear and gorgeous. And as an added bonus, it feels perfect for fall (so if I ever make a seasonal playlist . . . ). She's probably not my kids' favorite, but sometimes I get to listen to what I want to.

Favorite song: "Tristezze" (the lyrics are set to Chopin's Etude in E major, which was a favorite of my piano teacher growing up, and Sissel's voice just fits the melody so well)

3.  A Celebration by John Williams & The Boston Pops Orchestra
My dad has always loved the Boston Pops. That love has carried over to me, and it was time to pass it on to my kids. I kind of cheated: this album has the Star Wars Theme on it, so it was bound to get their attention, but they've enjoyed the other songs, too. I don't see how you couldn't enjoy them actually--that big band sound is so invigorating (if I were making a cleaning playlist, some Boston Pops would surely find their way on it). It makes me want to dance, and not just because my dad used to spin me around the room to, "In the Mood."

Favorite song: "Star Wars--Main Theme" (obviously), but my favorite is actually "New York,  New York"

4. Senior Piano Recital by Anna Nielsen
It's completely unfair of me to put this on the list because there are only a very limited number of copies in circulation. My younger sister, Anna, graduated with her bachelor's in piano performance last spring, and this is the recording of her senior recital. I went to the actual performance and was completely blown away. I mean, I knew she was good, but this was beyond good. This was emotionally moving, powerful, gorgeous. After the performance, I begged for a copy of the recording, and she kindly obliged. It's been so fun to listen to it over and over again and think, That's my little sister! (My kids love to tell me that she can play the piano better than I can; they don't realize we're not even in the same league anymore--she surpassed me a long time ago.)

Favorite piece: When I heard her perform live, it was "Nocturne in B-flat Major" by Gabriel Faure, but now that we've been listening to it in the car, it's "Novelette no. 2 in B-flat Minor" by Francis Poulenc.

5. Songs from the Neighborhood: The Music of Mister Rogers by various artists
Okay, this is totally nerdy so forgive me. I've been a fan of Mister Rogers all my life.  His was a unique, one-of-a-kind show. The combination of songs, an ongoing story enacted by puppets, a field trip to somewhere fascinating (anyone else remember the dominos episode?), and heart-to-heart chats with the man himself have not been duplicated in children's television before or since. I was thinking about it recently (probably because my kids were watching the spin-off show, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood), and I wondered if any other artists had ever recorded the songs of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. A quick search led me to find this album, which has some of the best-loved songs from the show, including "Won't You Be My Neighbor?," "It's You I Like," and "It's Such a Good Feeling." They're performed by various famous artists (although, if I'm being honest, most of the names are unfamiliar to me). Some I like better than others, but the thing I love is the nostalgia that washes over me whenever I listen to them. Even though it's not Mister Rogers himself singing, the melodies and the lyrics are the same, and it's kind of fun to hear some different arrangements. (Oh, and as I was writing this up, I discovered that several of the original seasons are free on Amazon Prime, so I guess you know what I'll be brainwashing my kids with over the next few weeks.)

Favorite song: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" (there are two versions, but I like the one sung by Jon Secada

6. Superhero by Laurie Berkner*
Out of all the music mentioned today, there is only one album that my kids love so much, they move it around from their room to the car to the family room, and this is it. As you know, we are huge Laurie Berkner fans (in fact, she's probably had more than her fair share of mentions on this blog), so of course we were thrilled when we heard she was coming out with a new album filled to the brim with brand-new, never-before-heard songs. This hasn't happened since 2008, so it's kind of a big deal. Even though I knew my kids loved Laurie Berkner ("We are the Dinosaurs" and "Rocket Ship Run" are some of our favorite kids' songs of all time), even I was surprised with how quickly they gravitated towards this music. Usually I'm the one to put it on for the first time, but they saw it sitting on the table and snatched it up. And ever since then, it's been on constant repeat. They have dance parties with it in the basement, they listen to it as they go to sleep at night, and they belt out the words when we're driving in the car. They love every single song on this album, and I do, too. Laurie Berkner has created another winner.

Favorite song: Of course we can't choose just one, but the three that sometimes get put on repeat because the kids love them so much are "Superhero," "Bicycle," and "Elephant in There."

That's it for this roundup, but of course I'm dying to know what you've been listening to lately. Please share in the comments!

*I received copies of Make a Circle and Superhero, and I was only too happy to review them. All opinions are my own--two thumbs up for both albums.

A Little of This and That in September

Oct 5, 2016

September was a blur. As I sat down to write this post, I couldn't remember anything we did. Good thing I wrote in my journal and took a (very) few pictures so I knew we did do something. A few of those somethings were:

Teaching . . . piano lessons. I took a break over the summer, and when it was time to come back, I realized that I couldn't manage twelve students again. So I cut down my studio by half, and now I'm just teaching one afternoon a week, and it is heavenly. Definitely the right move for our family. Now if I could just get back on a meal planning schedule . . . 

Starting . . . preschool. Once he got over the disappointment that he couldn't go to kindergarten, Bradley was so excited for preschool. For the first time in the history of our family, I'm paying real money for preschool . . . and I don't regret it in the least. He goes three days a week, loves the kids in his class, and loves his sweet teacher even more. It has been perfect for him (and for me too!). It's been another reminder that it's so important to be flexible. I loved participating in a preschool co-op so much . . . . until I didn't, and I'm glad I recognized that and was okay with finding another solution.
Coming . . . to a standstill on our "simple" fireplace project. Last month, Mike took out the brick wall, re-bricked around the fireplace, framed the rest of the wall, and put up insulation and drywall. Our plan has always been to put up shelves and cabinets on either side of the fireplace with a mantel in between. But if you know anything about old houses, it is that they are not regular or standard in any way, and our fireplace is no exception. The main problem is that the wall on the left side of the fireplace is eight inches longer than the wall on the right. This means that our original plan to put two cabinet doors on each side is not going to work because the left side is too long. So now we have to decide: do we add something to the left side (cubbies? drawers? another door?), and then do we do the same thing to the other side (except narrower) so it sort of looks symmetrical or do we just embrace the fact that they're not symmetrical and make the two sides look completely different? Help!

Finding . . . myself in a total photo-taking slump. I'm blaming my camera. Clark dropped one of the lenses, and now 85% of the pictures it takes are out of focus. The other lens is for portraits, and since a lot of the pictures I take are not portraits, the results are more blurry photos. And if there's one thing I can't stand, it's blurry photos (my apologies for the ones that are in this blog post--my pickings were severely limited). I really would love to take a photography class . . . and a new camera wouldn't hurt either.

Cheering . . . on Aaron at his school's blockwalk fundraiser. He ran/walked a total of 29 laps from 4:00--8:00pm. We calculated it afterwards, and that translated to 14.5 miles! I had no idea he had that kind of stamina in him. His friend, Ezra, beat him by one lap, and sadly, there wasn't a prize for second place, but I think he still felt like he'd accomplished something significant.

Feasting . . . on the fall colors. We went up into the canyon a few weeks ago to check out the changing leaves. Sadly, I think we were about a week too early. The leaves had changed on one side of the road but not on the other, so we didn't see as many colors as we would have liked. We haven't had a chance to get back into the mountains. However, just watching the mountain slowly change color from our front window has been gorgeous enough.

Cozying . . . up during some rainy weather. After two months of virtually no rain, September has had quite a few storms, and I've loved it. Everything just looks and smells so good. The rain is melancholy and matches my current mood as I watch summer fade away. One rainy night, Mike and I had our bedroom window open as we went to sleep, and we could hear the steady drizzle coming down. I was reading The Thirteenth Tale, and this was literally the last thing I read before I closed my book for the night: "I left the window ajar so that I could listen to the rain as it continued to fall with an even, muffled softness . . . It accompanied my dreams like a poorly tuned radio left on through the night, broadcasting a fuzzy white noise beneath which were the barely audible whispers of foreign languages and snatches of unfamiliar tunes." I'm not making that up, and it was a little too perfect for me.

Celebrating . . . the sweetest of five-year-olds. Bradley had been planning and anticipating his birthday for months. Every week he came up with new ideas for activities, cakes, presents, and meals. But one thing always stayed the same: he wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese's. I was not keen on it but decided if he could be that unwavering for so long, we better go. Luckily, it met all of his expectations and hopefully he'll move onto something else for next year. Later in the day, we had a traditional party with cake and family.

Blazing . . . through the first season of The Great British Baking Show with Mike. Some of our dear friends recommended it to us, and we were hooked from the beginning (we even signed up for Netflix just so we could watch it, and we have never had a Netflix subscription). The season begins with twelve amateur contestants. Each episode focus on a different baking technique (pastries, breads, sponges, etc.). There are three rounds each week: a signature dish (which the contestants have perfected at home ahead of time), a technical challenge (where they each make the exact same recipe without any previous heads up or instructions), and a showstopper (where they create something that both looks and tastes spectacular). It is so different from the similar American shows. The contestants are polite and kind and very good sports. The judges offer positive feedback and constructive criticism. And Mike and I felt like we learned so much and had so many things we wanted to try just by watching and listening. It was so fun. Unfortunately, the first season was the only one on Netflix, so now we don't know how to watch the other two. Any ideas? Also, is anyone else obsessed with this show?

Reading . . . a lot more than listening. I can't seem to get through audiobooks anymore. I guess audiobooks just aren't conducive to my current phase of life, which is frustrating because they're such a great way for me to "read" nonfiction and classics.

Meeting . . . my blogging friend, Linnae. She's been one of my loyal readers for several years and even guest posted here awhile ago. She and her family travel to Utah rather regularly to visit family, but this was the first time we coordinated our schedules so we could meet. It was absolutely delightful. In spite of being no help when trying to offer her directions, she didn't hold it against me and was just as nice as nice can be. She was easy to talk to, and if we'd had more time, we definitely could have filled it with more talk about books and our families and life. Linnae started her own blog at the beginning of this year, and if she was my next door neighbor, I would definitely have her help me landscape my yard. I love it that she's not just a virtual friend anymore, but a real friend, too. 

Realizing . . . that I don't enjoy shopping for baby girls. Weird, right? Two of my sisters-in-law are expecting baby girls, and we had a double shower for them last week. I was looking forward to actually buying something ruffled and pink, but once I was standing in the store, I was overcome with anxiety. I didn't trust myself to know the difference between what was cute and what was hideous. I don't enjoy shopping in general, and both moms-to-be have very particular tastes, so I'm sure those things contributed to my general misery, but I decided it's a good thing I only have boys because I just could not handle that kind of stress on a daily basis.

Spending . . . time with Mike's parents who came home for General Conference. We always pack these two weeks with tons of family time (this time: a birthday party, family Christmas party, baby shower, couples dinner, Sunday dinner, General Conference, a special family home evening, and our very own one-on-one time), and by the end, I think we're all a little sick of each other. But we just can't help but make the most of this time together.

What fun and exciting things did you do in September?

The Book Blab Episode 9: Reading as a Means to Learning Plus Two Books That Helped Us Learn Something New

Oct 1, 2016

Suzanne and I got together a couple of days ago and recorded another episode of The Book Blab, and I'm so happy to share it with you today! As mentioned in our last episode, we had to switch to Google Hangout. It doesn't use a split screen but instead shows the person who is talking at that moment. I didn't love it last month, but this month was even more annoying. I've had a cough for a couple of weeks, and every time I gave even a little cough, the screen switched to me hacking away. Sorry about that! Other than that, this platform seems to be working for us, so I think we'll continue with it.

And now, onto the show! Enjoy!

0:20 - September marks the beginning of a new school year
1:36 - Today's topic: Reading for educational purposes
2:06 - Reading for pleasure vs. reading for information
3:39 - Pew survey says parents of small children do the most informational reading
5:35 - If presented in the right way, nonfiction can be just as riveting as fiction
6:15 - A few examples of books that satisfied a specific educational need
7:30 - Biographies vs. memoirs
8:58 - Self-help books
9:52 - Fictional reading can be educational, too
11:10 - Classic and historical fiction novels are a great way to learn about history
12:52 - The value of writing about literature in a critical way
16:28 - Why there can be educational value to "cotton candy" books
17:45 - The subtle way fiction can actually help you be a better parent, spouse, human etc. and expand your perspective
19:45 - Use reading goals to tackle topics you want to learn more about
21:47 - Two books that helped us learn something new
  • 22:06 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 25:38 - Amy's recommendation
28:27 - Conclusion

Books and links mentioned in the show:

A Disciple's Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell by Bruce C. Hafen (Amy's review)
Beethoven by Maynard Solomon (Amy's review)
Baby-led Weaning by Gill Rapley (Amy's review
Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin (Amy's review; Suzanne's review)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (Amy's review)
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Suzanne's mentions it in this post)
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
Little Men by Louisa May Alcott (Amy's review)
Middlemarch by George Elliot (Amy's review)
Reading goals (Amy's; Suzanne's)
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (Suzanne's review; Amy's review)
Honey for a Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt (Amy's review)

What about you? Do you read for information or pleasure or both? What is one of the most memorable things you've learned through reading? 
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