The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Oct 20, 2017

One of my reading goals for the year was to read another mystery by Agatha Christie. Of course I saved this goal for October because, as I noted in the most recent episode of the Book Blab, autumn is the absolute best season in which to indulge in a good mystery.

I knew I wanted to read something by Agatha Christie because the two mysteries of hers I'd read previously (And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express) were impressively executed while being extremely engaging. In other words, I was pretty sure going with another Agatha Christie was a safe bet I wouldn't come away feeling disappointed.

But still, which one to choose? Faced with an overwhelming number of possibilities, I did the only sensible thing and sought a recommendation from an expert in the field: my cousin, Erin, who has read every single mystery written by Agatha Christie. I asked for three of her favorites, and she gave me: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Sleeping Murder, and Endless Night, with two runners-up, A Murder is Announced and After the Funeral. Seriously, if you don't have an Agatha Christie guru in your life, I feel sorry for you. 

Out of that now-manageable list, I went with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd because Erin had lavished it with especially high praise and because it cast Hercule Poirot as the detective. 

The mystery is narrated by James Sheppard, a country doctor living in the village of King's Abbot. When Mrs. Ferrars is found dead in her home, he is called in to determine the cause--an apparent suicide. Later that same day, his friend, Roger Ackroyd, insists on speaking with him. 

In the last year, following the death of her husband, Mrs. Ferrars had become quite close to Mr. Ackroyd. In fact, everyone in King's Abbot was sure they'd waste no time getting married after her period of mourning. So of course Dr. Sheppard is not surprised at Mr. Ackroyd's emotional distress. However, it's more than just sadness at her passing. In the privacy of his study, Roger Ackroyd confesses what Mrs. Ferrars had earlier confessed to him: she had poisoned her first husband after enduring awful abuse as his hands for many years. Besides keeping the secret, which has haunted her for the last year, Mrs. Ferrars admitted that one other person knew about her misdeed and had blackmailed her into giving large amounts of money in order to not be exposed. Although Mr. Ackroyd demands to know the identity of this individual, Mrs. Ferrars holds her tongue, saying that she'll tell him in twenty-four hours. Now of course, she's dead, which seemed to be her plan all along. Mr. Ackroyd doesn't know what to do.

Just as this conversation is going on, the butler comes in with the evening post. And there, in her own handwriting, is a letter from Mrs. Ferrars. Mr. Ackroyd knows that it must contain the name of her blackmailer, and he tells Dr. Sheppard that he will fill him in on it after he has read it in private. So Dr. Sheppard returns home, only to receive an anonymous phone call a couple of hours later saying that Roger Ackroyd is dead. 

It's obvious that Mr. Ackroyd's murderer must be the same person as Mrs. Ferrars' blackmailer. It's just too much of a coincidence otherwise that he would be holding the implicating letter in his hands that very night, right? 

Or maybe not. Because, as it goes with mysteries, as soon as one person's secret is out, it seems to have a domino effect on everyone else's secrets, and, it turns out, everyone (the butler, housekeeper, maid, stepson, sister-in-law, niece, secretary, friend) has a secret, whether it's actually connected with the murder or not. 

It's up to Hercule Poirot, who has just "retired" next door to Dr. Sheppard, to connect the clues. I tried my best to keep up with him, making my own guesses along the way, but the ending still caught me by total surprise. (I will say, without giving anything away, that the murderer was the person I originally suspected but had given up as totally impossible early on. Still, even thinking it at one point made me feel like a winner (although it probably shouldn't have since Agatha Christie does her best to make you suspect every single person at one point or another).)

This novel reminded me why I love mysteries and also why I don't read them very often. I finished listening to it right before bed one night, which was probably the worst idea ever. Not only was my head spinning after the grand reveal (which made me insist that Mike read it as soon as possible so I'd have someone to discuss it with), but I was also just a bit terrified. There's something about becoming so invested in another person's death, albeit fictional, that just leaves you feeling a bit off. 

But I can't deny that I was super interested the entire time and felt this heightened sense of observation and suspicion that gave me something of a reader's high. It was pretty thrilling to watch it all unfold, and I think it would be equally thrilling to go back and reread the whole thing knowing now how it ends.

I'd love to hear your take on mysteries. Do you like them? And, if so, tell me some of your favorites!

The Book Blab Episode 15: The Joys and Sorrows of Book Recommendations Plus Two Books for Fall Reading

Oct 17, 2017

It's been a few months since Suzanne and I last chatted, but I think you'll find this episode was worth the wait. We had a great time talking about allllllllllllll the emotions that go with both giving and receiving book recommendations. This was actually a topic suggested by one of our readers/viewers (thanks, Beth!), and we know we can't be the only ones who have awkward stories of book recommendations gone awry. We'd love for you to share your own experiences in the comments, as well as any book recommendations YOU have for US. Also, if you have any ideas for future topics of discussion, we'd love to hear those, too.

0:20 - Suzanne's new PhD program
1:35 - Today's topic: the perilous territory of making and receiving book recommendations
2:30 - Personal experiences with bad book recommendations
  • 3:00 - Suzanne's experience
  • 5:20 - Amy's experience
7:25 - How to handle a book recommendation that you didn't like
10:28 - The joy that comes from getting a good recommendation

  • 11:10 - Suzanne's experience
  • 11:50 - Amy's experience
13:25 - The anxiety of giving a book recommendation (but we love making recommendations anyway!)
15:40 - Suzanne's book recommendation gone wrong
18:20 - The times we've forced a book on someone, and it's gone over well
  • 19:00 - Amy's experience
  • 20:05 - Suzanne's experience
20:53 - The moral of this discussion
22:40 - Two seasonally appropriate reads for October
  • 23:30 - Suzanne's reccomendation
  • 24:50 - Amy's recommendation
28:08 - Conclusion

Books and links mentioned in the show:

Suzanne's recent post about time: Never Enough Time
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (Amy's review)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Suzanne's review) (PSA: there's currently a killer deal on the Kindle edition)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (Suzanne's review // Episode 6 of The Book Blab)
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman (Amy's review)
The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens (Suzanne's review)
Dracula by Bra Stoker (Suzanne's review

A Little of This and That in September

Oct 14, 2017

September was a beautiful and busy month. Highlights included . . .

Kicking . . . off the month with a vacation in Ohio. Although maybe not your typical getaway
destination (but when you have family and a work class there, it gets elevated in importance), we found many, many things to love. From the apple orchards to Graeter's ice cream to an amazing book store in German village, we enjoyed every minute. (It also helped that we only brought the baby and left the rest of our kids with my mom, so it truly was a vacation.) We especially loved spending time with Mike's brother and his wife and darling little girl. They were so nice to host us and give us the Columbus tour.

Visiting . . . Kirtland. As part of our trip, we gave Mike's brother a break from us and drove up to Kirtland, home of many sites which hold special significance in our church. We were able to take our time and go on a bunch of tours (because, remember, no kids except for a perfect baby), and I was amazed at the incredible faith, sacrifice, and resiliency of these early members of the Church. On our drive back to Columbus, we passed through Amish country, which was lovely (except that we were driving for part of the time after dark, and I was terrified we were going to hit a buggy as we crested each hill at 60 mph).

Putting . . . the chili lime seasoning from Trader Joe's on everything. Zucchini, eggs, pasta, squash. Yum, yum, yum.

Training . . . Ian to sleep through the night. After our Ohio trip, and with the pediatrician's approval, we decided it was time to see if Ian could cut down on his middle of the night snacks. It was rough the first night (as it always is), but after that it's been pretty smooth (except that he also learned how to roll over this month, and so he sometimes wakes himself up doing that).

Regretting . . . my decision to not put Clark in preschool. All summer, I thought I had a preschool co-op all lined up, but then it didn't pan out quite the way I was hoping/expecting. The other moms all just wanted one morning a week. That suits me just fine on the weeks when it's my turn to teach, but really, Clark wants more than one day. He asks me every day if he gets to go to preschool, and it seems like an eternity to him in between Wednesdays (especially if, heaven forbid, it has to be cancelled until the next week). I really don't think three-year-olds need to go to preschool, but I think this three-year-old would have really loved it.

Buying . . . a zoo membership. It's been probably two years since we've had one (one can only go to the zoo so many times in a year without getting completely sick of it). But we went to the Columbus zoo while we were in Ohio, and being there with Ian made me realize that this was going to be a good year for it (with Bradley in half-day kindergarten, Clark in preschool only one morning a week, and Ian getting bigger and more observant every day), so we took the plunge and got one again.

Recognizing . . . the alphabet. One of Clark's summer goals was to learn the letters of the alphabet, and, after working on them with him for three solid months and seeing virtually no progress, I thought, Hmmmm, maybe he's not on the same academic trajectory as my other kids. And then, just as I was reminding myself that every child is different, with different strengths and gifts, yada yada yada, all of a sudden, the switch flipped, and he was ready to learn--in fact, was begging to learn. Now he seeks out opportunities to identify letters and sees them everywhere. It's really exciting. And the switch that made it happen? Letter Factory (cue hands over eyes).  

Anticipating . . . the arrival of a new baby. My brother and his wife just welcomed their first baby over the weekend, and so a few weeks ago, my mom, my sisters, and I took Meagan out for lunch and presents and lots of girl talk. So fun.

Loving . . . Maxwell's teacher, liking Bradley's teacher, and still deciding about Aaron's teacher. About that last one--we're trying to keep an open mind (and I avoid talking about my grievances in front of Aaron), but I can't help thinking his teacher would be better suited to teaching college kids instead of fourth graders. My main concern (and it's actually a pretty big one) is that he'll come away from this year hating school. That would be kind of a bummer.

Eating . . . the most delicious food at our Great British Baking Show Season Four finale date with our dear (and equally obsessed) friends. We learned our lesson when we had a similar date last year, and this time we brought a salad to cut through all the carbs from puff pastries and fougasse and sausage rolls and Viennese whirls (yes, everything was as good as it sounds). I love that show so much.

Listening . . . to an Agatha Christie mystery and the Lazy Genius podcast. The mystery was well done (but I wish I hadn't finished it right before bed), and the podcast is surprisingly helpful for being about fairly common sense stuff.

Celebrating . . . the newest six-year-old on the block. Bradley had been counting down the days (months, really) until his birthday, and it did not disappoint. He had a Lego cake, saw the new Lego Ninjago movie, and received a Snap Circuits set (which actually, all of the boys (including Mike) have been enjoying).

Hiring . . . someone to fertilize our lawn and spray for weeds. About midway through the summer, as our front lawn was slowly being overtaken by clover and our back lawn was getting thinner and thinner, Mike decided to just hire a lawn care company to do the fertilizing and weed control for us. And it's been awesome. We no longer have to think about when we should do it or what we should put on it. They just show up every month or so and know exactly what it needs. And we're already seeing positive results, which is making me so happy.

Cheering . . . on Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley at soccer games. So. many. soccer. games. Mike and I are both relieved soccer season is over.

Finding . . . my hair everywhere. Sorry if this grosses you out, but every time I hit three months postpartum, my hair starts falling out. And it drives me crazy. I'm just hoping it lets up soon and that I'm not bald by the end of it. Anyone else have this problem after having a baby?

Getting . . . festive with Christmas in September. Mike's parents were visiting from Germany and won't be back until next March, so they distributed presents a few months early. My kids thought it was the best thing ever. And of course, in addition to the presents, Mike's dad did a giveaway filled with unique and unusual items scored at the German flea market, including an accordion (which thankfully found a different home than ours).

Knitting . . . and planning new projects and buying new yarn. A recap of this month would not be complete without giving you a knitting update. I made myself a new hat out of the dreamiest yarn ever (which my mom saw and promptly claimed for herself), and I started a cardigan for myself. I also signed up for a class at my local yarn shop. It begins this week, and I am just so excited for it.

Planning . . . out our Halloween costumes. Stay tuned!

Now tell me about YOUR September!

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

Oct 10, 2017

I've always been a little wary of James and the Giant Peach. When I was still quite young, maybe six or seven, my mom read it aloud to me. She disliked it so much that she swore off Roald Dahl forever after, and I didn't read another Dahl novel during the rest of my childhood. (As a side note and in my mom's defense, she didn't ban any of my siblings and me from reading Dahl--in fact, we owned The BFG and maybe Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, too--but she certainly didn't encourage us.)

As an adult, I decided it was time to give him another try. I think I started with The Witches (loved it), then moved onto Matilda (loved it), followed by The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Danny the Champion of the World. I loved all of them. But always, I avoided James and the Giant Peach.

Finally though, I decided it was time. My love for Roald Dahl was secure, and I felt like I could handle a high level of weirdness. (Plus, we were running out of new Dahl novels to read aloud.)

I stepped cautiously into the first sentence: "Here is James Trotter when he was about four years old." It wasn't scary at all. I moved onto the next one: "Up until this time, he had had a happy life, living peacefully with his mother and father in a beautiful house beside the sea." That didn't seem bad either. In fact, I was already deeply intrigued.

With growing confidence, I finished the first chapter--all about how James' parents were tragically eaten up by an angry rhinoceros, and he was sent to live with his despicable Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker who never let him do anything except chop wood.

It was weird and bizarre and slightly morbid . . . exactly what I'd come to expect and love from Roald Dahl.

We flew through the rest of the story: James meets an old man. The old man gives James a white paper bag with little green things in it. James trips on his way home. The green things go flying. The green things wriggle into the ground. The next day, a peach is growing to ginormous proportions. James goes inside the giant peach. The peach breaks off the tree. The peach rolls down the hill and over the two horrible aunts. James is off on an adventure with a handful of giant bugs.

The giant bugs were immediately endearing to my kids (have the words "giant bugs" and "endearing" ever been used in the same sentence before?), who have a soft spot for all things creepy crawly, and even though I'm not as much of a bug lover, their personalities were all so unique (and I got to do fun voices) that I loved them, too.

I'm glad I was finally brave enough to revisit this book. I didn't dislike it. I wasn't weirded out by it. I actually loved it. So I guess the thing I took away from it is that my mom and I have different senses of humor and different tastes in books. And that's something I can totally appreciate and respect.

Do you have a favorite Roald Dahl novel? Or are you like my mom and would rather avoid him?

Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls

Oct 5, 2017

Summer was made for reading, and this book was made for summer. Out of everything we read over the break, this one was our favorite.

Jay Berry Lee has always dreamed of owning his own horse and gun, but his chances of getting either are pretty slim; the farm he lives on with his mother, father, and sister just barely makes enough for them to live on. But then one day, he thinks he sees a monkey in the bottoms by his home, which seems crazy given that this is Missouri, but his grandpa confirms that it's true. A large group of monkeys escaped from a traveling circus, and the owners are offering a big reward to anyone who can capture and safely return them: two dollars for each monkey and one hundred dollars for the chimpanzee.

Suddenly, Jay Berry's dream of a horse and gun doesn't seem so outlandish at all. He expects to pocket the money within the week, but he doesn't take into account the intelligence of those monkeys, and time after time, they outsmart him and send him crawling shamefaced back to his grandpa for another idea.

Ever optimistic and persistent, Jay Berry's grandpa is a fountain of good ideas: "If this doesn't work, we'll try something else." Their relationship is sweet and funny and respectful. He's exactly the kind of role model and mentor you'd want for your child--doesn't take life too seriously while still being honest and hard working and encouraging. At one point, Jay Berry says, "Grandpa, we sure have a lot of fun together, don't we?" And Grandpa smiles and replies, "We surely do. You know, an old man like me can teach a young boy like you all the good things in life. But it takes a young boy like you to teach an old man like me to appreciate all the good things in life. I guess that's what life's all about." Seeing the way they interacted with each other was one of my favorite parts of the story.

Several weeks into the monkey hunting adventure, Jay Berry and his family find what looks like a fairy ring. They decide not to let it go to waste, and each one takes a turn stepping inside it and making a wish. Afterwards, Jay Berry asks his papa if he thinks those wishes will come true, and he says,
"Son, that's a pretty hard question to answer. But I do believe that any wish you make can come true if you help the wish. I don't think that the Lord meant for our lives to be so simple and easy that every time we wanted something, all we had to do was wish for it and we'd get it. I don't believe that at all. If that were true, there would be a lot of lazy people in this old world. No one would be working. Everyone would be wishing for what they needed or wanted."

And you definitely see that idea in action during the course of the story. Jay Berry is persistent and determined, and he doesn't let his failures get him down. 

I've thought often about what makes a five-star book for me, and quite often, it's very arbitrary--does it make me feel like a five-star book should make me feel? But at least one criterion I have is whether or not the ending matches the rest of the story because I can't tell you how many books I've read where I love the whole book, and then the ending completely ruins it.

But you don't need to worry about that happening with this book. If making me cry is any indicator, then Wilson Rawls nailed the ending. I won't spoil anything here, but I will leave you with this shining moment:
"'Son . . . You grew ten feet tall today. I'm proud of you. I'd like to shake your hand.'
"I shook hands with Papa for the first time in my life. It felt like all his strength came right up my arm and spread through my body."
So I guess this was a five-star book.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Oct 2, 2017

Nothing gets me in an October mood faster than a good Gothic mystery. Only, I didn't read this book in October but in the height (and heat) of summer.

Even though it had been on my to-read list for years, it wasn't my choice to read this book when I did. Naturally, I would have waited until autumn, the appropriate season in which to read it. But a friend in my neighborhood read it and then offered to lend me her copy, and since it was something I actually wanted to read at some future point, I agreed.

But I've discovered that I actually really dislike borrowing books from people for three reasons: 1) it forces me to read the book right then (or makes me feel guilty if I don't), and I like reading books on my own timetable (unless it's for book club) 2) if I don't end up liking the book, then I stress about what I'll say when they ask me what I thought about it, and 3) I spend the whole time worrying that I'm going to bend or scuff up or damage their book in some way.

Basically, I can't handle the pressure that comes with borrowing a book. I know people lend books to be nice, but give me the library and its hold lists and due dates and sturdy copies any day.

It actually felt a little wrong to read such a deliciously creepy and suspenseful read while the air conditioner was blowing and the sun was shining. I would have like to hide under a blanket, but it was too warm for that.

Philip Ashley leads a solitary life with his cousin (and guardian), Ambrose Ashley. Both bachelors, they understand each other perfectly and couldn't be more content. Because of ill health, Ambrose leaves the estate for Italy during the winter months. There, he meets the irrepressible Rachel and marries her, much to Philip's dismay. He knows having a woman around will disrupt the peaceful symmetry of their lives and holds a grudge against Rachel before he even meets her. He anticipates their return to England with dread, but it never happens. Ambrose gets violently ill and dies suddenly, but not before sending a couple of cryptic letters home that leave Philip very suspicious of Rachel.

Within a few weeks, Rachel makes her way to the estate with Ambrose's belongings. Philip is determined to show as little hospitality as possible, but then Rachel turns out to be just so darn likeable. In fact, it only takes a couple of days before he can see exactly why Ambrose wanted to marry her. And yet, how can he reconcile this picture of Rachel with the one he'd already conjured up?

Daphne du Maurier weaves a masterful tale that kept me guessing the entire time. One minute I loved Rachel, and then the next, I hated her, and always always the lingering question of whether or not to trust her. But it turns out that reading almost 400 pages with that heightened suspicion is actually rather exhausting, and my enthusiasm ran out well before the end of the story.

Plus, I rather detested Philip. He was rude, incredibly awkward, and just plain witless. By the end, I didn't care what happened to him, just so long as I didn't have to read about him anymore. I loved the writing in this one just as much as Rebecca, but Philip as the main character couldn't hold a candle to Mrs. de Winter, and so ultimately the story fell a little flat for me.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Sep 29, 2017

I read A Man Called Ove last year, and my feelings toward that book have only grown fonder with time. So I was excited to dive into another of Backman's novels, especially one with a title as endearing as this one (although, I really think it should have been My Granny . . .  since Elsa never refers to her as Grandmother, but nobody asked my opinion).

The story starts out charming enough. Seven-year-old Elsa and her granny are sitting in the police station after breaking into a zoo and then dodging the police. Oh, and Elsa's granny had to actually break out of the hospital in order to break in to the zoo. With an opening scene like that, you realize pretty quickly that this is not your sit-on-the-porch-and-knit kind of granny.

She and Elsa have a strong bond, made only stronger by their secret language and the fantasy world of Miamas, a magical kingdom that they travel to almost every night. But the whole reason Granny is in the hospital is because she has cancer. It's terminal, and when she passes away (soon after the zoo incident), Elsa is devastated. Granny is her only friend, and she feels the void like only a seven-year-old can.

But before she dies, Granny gives Elsa the first in a series of letters to be delivered to various neighbors and friends. In each letter, she apologizes for something, and along the way, Elsa learns about her granny's past, the mistakes her granny made, and how the people in her world fit together.

Even though I loved the opening scene, the story soon bogged down for me because of the aforementioned fantasy world. The line between fantasy and reality is quite blurred for Elsa, which made it quite confusing for me: Was that really a wurse Elsa was feeding cookies to or just a really big dog?

I found myself desperate to get through the stories from Miamas so I could get back to the real world and try to make sense of what was going on.

And finally, finally, things did begin to come together; the two worlds lined up and came into focus, and when they did, well, then I started to think Fredrik Backman might be something of a genius. Because isn't that how seven-year-olds see the world? As a mix of truth and fiction? So even though Elsa is an extremely bright, precocious seven-year-old, she's still at a very impressionable age, and it was pretty amazing to see the world through her eyes and make the connections right along with her.

That said, the characters maybe all fit together a little too perfectly for my tastes. In a turn of events rivaling a Dickens novel, everyone was related to or in love with or enemies with everyone else. It was both brilliant and totally unbelievable, and yet, there again, from a seven-year-old's perspective, sometimes everything really does connect in rapid succession just like that.

I know some reviewers have criticized this book, saying that Elsa acts too mature for her age. But actually, for me, it was just the opposite. Elsa saved the book. Because she was only seven years old, she could get away with so many things and made the unbelievable much more believable.

Even though I didn't love it as much as A Man Called Ove, I can't deny that Fredrik Backman knows how to tell a darn good story.

Content note: There's some strong language in this one, especially from Granny and Alf. 

A Little of This and That in July and August

Sep 15, 2017

This summer was so, so good to us. I'm wishing it a fond farewell today by sharing a few of the highlights. July and August found us . . .

Walking . . . through the Light of the World garden at Thanksgiving Point. Someone had mentioned this new garden a few months ago and described it as "the best spiritual experience money can buy." Mike and I scoffed a little at that, but I still really wanted to see it, so I planned it for one of our dates in July. It is made up of larger-than-life bronzed statues displaying scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. The setting is beautiful and you're able to walk right among the statues and look into their eyes and touch their hands. I was surprised by how deeply I was touched. It was one of the most sacred, transformative experiences I've had in a long, long time.

Agonizing . . . over whether or not to change Ian's name. Yes, you read that right. At two months old, I came this close to changing my baby's name. I alluded to my lukewarm feelings about his name in this post, and when they still hadn't gone away several weeks after that, I panicked just a little. It just didn't seem right to not be completely in love with my baby's name. Ten days before he was going to be blessed at church, I tentatively mentioned how I was feeling to Mike, and he surprised me by saying, "You know what, I kind of feel the same way." So we looked into what it would take to legally changed his name, we talked about what name we would give him instead, we mentioned it to our kids, we sought advice from a few trusted friends, we called him by a couple of other names to see how they fit, and we did a LOT of praying. I was willing to go through the pain and hassle and stress and embarrassment if that's what we were supposed to do, but I had to know that it was right. It actually brought me a lot of peace to really throw myself completely into the process for ten days and open up my mind and heart to other possibilities because, in the end, it didn't feel right to change it. I think if I hadn't put in all that work, I would have always wondered if we'd made a mistake. But this way, I am confident that we didn't. For whatever reason, his name is supposed to be Ian Scott. And Ian Scott it shall remain.

Blessing . . . sweet little Ian Scott on the first Sunday in July. Although there was a lot of drama leading up to the blessing (see above paragraph), the actual ordinance was quite peaceful and special. We were lucky to have lots of family there (including Mike's parents, who were visiting from Germany at the time). Ian was an angel for the blessing and looked quite dapper in his bow tie and suspenders, but he couldn't abide wearing the hat.

Sending . . . an iPod through the washer. Overall, Mike and I have a pretty conflict-free marriage. But one thing we've disagreed about from the beginning is whether or not you should check the pockets before you toss the clothes into the washer. Mike's of the mind that you waste more time checking pockets and finding nothing than you do cleaning up after a stray tissue once in awhile that goes through and gets stuck all over everything. At least that's what he thought until one day he was doing the laundry and accidentally sent Max's iPod through a cycle. And it never recovered. I may have said, "I told you so." Just once or twice.

Ending . . . the Fourth of July on a scary note. After spending a delightful day at the family cabin, we came back to our neighborhood to set off a few fireworks with neighbors. Clark is not a fan of fireworks, so I almost stayed home with him but then convinced him at the last minute to go. He tolerated a few little fireworks while being distracted by an otter pop. Then Mike set off an aerial firework, and when it did its first pop, the box jumped and tipped over. The firework was designed to have several blasts, and with each one, it spun around and shot off in another sideways direction. One of the sparks landed right on the blanket Clark was sitting on, burning a hole in the blanket and getting Clark on the leg. We doused it in cold water right away, and it ended up being a fairly superficial wound, but it was still so terrifying and just made me sick to my stomach about the what ifs. Needless to say, Clark hates fireworks more than ever (and I do, too).

Listening . . . to a couple of new podcasts: The Daily and Awesome with Alison. When it comes to the news, I am not always the most well informed, and I rely a great deal on Mike to make sure I actually know about the important things. But The Daily is perfect for me because it's only twenty minutes long, it's reported in a more narrative style, and it focuses on just one or two of the really important stories from that day. It probably leans a little more left than me, but I don't mind. As for Awesome with Alison, I'd been hearing about that podcast from everyone, and I was staunchly avoiding it because I had looked at The Alison Show on Instagram and could tell we had nothing in common. But then, my friend Sarah, told me to just give it a try and suggested a good episode to start with (#12: "9 Things We've Learned From Being Married For 9 Years!"). I listened, and just like that, I was hooked. In fact, on our California trip, I binge listened to most of the back episodes. I was right that Alison and I are very different, but she co-hosts the podcast with her husband, Eric, and he's pretty mellow compared to her, and the balance between the two is perfect. It is really a positive and uplifting podcast.

Knitting . . . up a storm. In the course of two months, I knitted a hat for my mom, two baby bonnets, a cowl (which is still in progress), and a little cardigan (my favorite). Oh, and I swatched for a cardigan for me, but I've been too intimidated to actually cast it on. I'm not worried about the actual knitting or construction, just about the fit after it's done. I just want to want to wear it.

Making . . . guesses about where my brother, Blaine, was going to go on his mission. He received the call at the end of August and was assigned to the Kentucky Louisville Mission. He's been preparing for many years for this, and I'm really proud of him.

Cutting . . . Ian's hair. Not me. Mike. Without my permission. I was upstairs recording Episode 14 of The Book Blab with Suzanne, and he was downstairs making Ian look like a shorn sheep. It's probably true that Ian was looking a bit scraggly (and Mike can't stand hair hanging over the ears), but it aged him really quickly.

Going . . . to family reunions and spending time with family. That really defined our summer, and although I'm not going to take the time to detail every event and get together here, we absolutely loved it.

Celebrating . . . Aaron's ninth birthday. He asked for pecan pie instead of cake, which was just one of the signs that he's growing up. Another one? He had woefully outgrown his bike, so he got a bigger one for his birthday and has been cruising all around the neighborhood on it.

Hosting . . . a friend birthday party for Aaron. This is worth mentioning because it was the first friend birthday party I've done for any of my kids. And before you get too excited and think I've completely lost my identity, it was only two friends, and it consisted of the pool, cake and nerf guns. (And I didn't even provide the nerf guns.)

Taking . . . a road trip to California and the redwoods. I wrote about all of the details here, but it really was a pretty perfect trip for our family at this stage of life.

Reading . . . so many fun books. Our summer reading program was a huge success (I think Max read something like 170 hours), and we discovered many new books to love. Our favorite readaloud was Summer of the Monkeys, which I still need to review.

Being . . . in totality for the solar eclipse. For eighteen months, Mike had been talking up the solar eclipse. He had ordered eclipse glasses, a nice set of binoculars, solar filters (for the binoculars), a tripod (to hold the binoculars), and extra gas cans for the drive home. He had also reserved a spot for us at his brother's house in Rexburg, Idaho. And I was kind of like, What's the big deal? He would tell people, "You have to see the solar eclipse," and I would whisper behind his back, "No, you don't." Salt Lake was going to get 91% coverage, so I wondered if the hassle of driving to and from Rexburg and making the boys miss their first day of school would be worth it. But then I saw the eclipse, and I was like, Oh my goodness, why didn't I force all my family and friends to come see it?!?! Because it was amazing. Not 9% more amazing but 1000% more amazing. The things that happened in the final seconds leading up to it and then the couple of minutes in totality itself cannot be described. But it was absolutely incredible. And being there with the two biggest nerds on the planet (Mike and his brother, Jon) made it that much more spectacular. (Oh, and did I mention that we didn't have Clark with us? We traded him for our two teenage nephews, who appreciated the eclipse so much more than he would have and who didn't complain on the EIGHT hour drive home.)

Finishing . . . up our summer goals. We still have a couple more to check off (we had to hold off hiking Mt. Grandeur because it got too hot), but overall, the boys did really well. My personal favorite was helping them memorize several paragraphs of The Living Christ.

Sending . . . the boys off to the first day of school. Aaron is in fourth grade, Maxwell is in second grade, and Bradley is (FINALLY!) in kindergarten.

Swimming . . . as much as possible. We love our little neighborhood pool, and we took full advantage of it all summer. Ian even took a little dip in it for the first time at the end of the season.

Tell me about the highlights of your summer!

Eight Months Into 2017

Aug 31, 2017

Here we are at the end of August, eight months into the year with four months left to go. I've managed to not forget about the goals I made at the beginning of the year, which is a small victory in and of itself, and I have even made slow, incremental progress on each one.

Back in March, I talked about my overarching theme for the year (based on a quote by Marjorie Pay Hinckley), my five project goals, and my smaller weekly goals.

As a refresher, Sister Hinckley's quote can be summed up as follows: live simply and fully, always think of others, and don't be pretentious.

I still love that quote, and I'm still inspired by it, but here's the thing: I am not Marjorie Pay Hinckley. I wish I was, but I'm not. And perhaps, when she was thirty-two years old, she wasn't that person either. I have to hope that age and experience and perspective really are all they're cracked up to be.

This quote has been a good way for me to acknowledge some things about myself, such as: I will probably never be the house in the neighborhood that welcomes all children into my kitchen for a snack and a chat; I am uncomfortable talking to family and friends about hard things because I'm afraid of saying the wrong thing; I have a hard time being flexible, which means I like giving service on a schedule rather than on a whim.

Marjorie Hinckley's words have made me take a good, hard look at myself and celebrate my strengths and accept my weaknesses. More than anything, this quote has made me try to become a better me rather than a different me. I have more to say on this, but it'll keep for another post. The short answer is I think about these words often, and I'm attempting to internalize them while still being true to myself.

It's easier to see progress with my project goals because they're much more physical and tangible. So far, I haven't completed any of them, but I've made headway on all of them. So that's a win, right?

Here they are again:
  • Improve my photo editing skills by learning to use a new program. I purchased the class, "The Essential Guide to Lightroom" on Craftsy. Mike and I have been watching the lessons together. It's been fun. Have I edited a single photo yet? No, but it will come.
  • Set up a filing system and file the last fifteen years of papers. I'm chipping away at this one. It's something I can easily work on for a half hour here and a half hour there. I've found some fun things (I forgot I wrote my own personal history for a college class!), and I'm also amazed at all the things I thought were worth saving (letters from "friends" I can't even remember). I probably still have at least fifteen hours' worth of work, but I'm just happy to have the end in sight.
  • Submit an article to a magazine. I have three drafts sitting on my computer. It's just a short article for one of our church magazines. I should just submit it already, but I just don't feel happy with it yet. I'm trying to decide if I'm going to have Mike read it first or just send it in. I'm feeling a little bit like a closet writer (even though I'm telling all of you about it here).
  • Complete my reading goals. I already did my mid-year report here. I'm feeling good about all of them except the housecleaning book. I've done the math, and it would take me 40+ hours to finish it, and honestly, I don't think it's worth my time. I'll skip around and read some of the relevant sections and call it good.
  • Take a knitting class. I bought the "Modern Stranded Knitting" class on Craftsy. I'm about halfway through the cowl sampler, and it's been so much fun learning how to do two-color knitting. I was so scared to use my left hand, but it's been a piece of cake (I am left handed, so I guess it shouldn't be too surprising). I still would love to take a class at one of my local yarn stores, but this has been fun in the meantime, and it's so convenient. 

But I think my smaller weekly goals are probably my favorite thing I've implemented in 2017. Every Sunday evening, I write down a few goals (usually between five and ten) for the upcoming week. These goals seem to run the gamut--anything from character improvements to house projects to using my free time more productively.

One of my favorite goals has been to "memorize a hymn," so it gets added fairly regularly to my weekly lists. In some ways, it doesn't seem like it really belongs on a to-do list, but I'll tell you, it has done wonders to improve my mood, fill up my soul, and make me actually want to accomplish other things.

A sampling of some of my other recent goals:
  • Be in bed by 10:30 one night
  • Read two Mercy Watsons with Clark (I realized some of my favorite children's books were being woefully overlooked with my fourth child, plus sometimes it's really liberating for me to have to sit down and do something with him because I let other things take precedence otherwise.)
  • Exercise one day (it's rather pitiful that I was exercising so infrequently that one day was actually an accomplishment) 
  • Do thirty minutes of filing
  • Have a heart-to-heart with Aaron, Max, and Bradley
  • Buy new flour/sugar containers
  • Reply to all blog comments (have you noticed I'm often very tardy in my replies?!)
  • Decide on a theme for the 2017-2018 school year

I've always been a checklist type of gal, but for my current stage of life, a weekly, rather than a daily, checklist seems to be much more effective. These lists have helped me tackle some things I've been avoiding for a long time, but they've also given me permission to do the things that really bring me joy. And they've helped me make more meaningful connections with the people I love. They're effective because I keep the list short enough to be manageable, and it's always a good mix of fun and work.

So that's where I'm at right now. I still have a long way to go, but it feels good to look back and realize I'm moving in a general forward direction.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Aug 28, 2017

I had kind of been wanting to read this book ever since Anne Bogel recommended it to several guests on her podcast. Yes, I'd been wanting to read it . . . but I didn't really expect to like it. It was being touted as a Great Gatsby knock off (even though the two stories are set a decade apart), and that comparison told me three things: there would be loose morals, lots of drinking, and a bunch of bad decisions.

And yes, yes, and yes, it was all of those things. But . . . I found myself really loving the characters and the story and being drawn into an intricate web of choices and consequences that was much more compelling to me than anything in The Great Gatsby.

When the story opens, Katey and her husband are at a ritzy art show, viewing a photographic montage of the normal, average people who traveled on the subway over the last three decades. Suddenly she locks eyes with one portrait. She knows that man. It's Tinker Grey. In an instant, she is propelled back to New York City in 1938. She is young and single and very determined. She remembers her tiny room in a boarding house and her irrepressible best friend and roommate, Eve. She remembers that fateful New Year's Eve when the two of them meet the dashing Tinker Grey. She remembers the complicated way their lives get entangled even as she scales the social and professional ladders that will eventually land her at a ritzy art show thirty years later:

The story is full of strong, independent women who all get what they want but go about it in a variety of ways. There's Katey, of course, who basically talks herself into a job which leads to another, better job which leads to another, better job after that. There's Eve who can manipulate a conversation or an outing just the way she wants so she ends up with the guy and the diamond earrings. There's also Anne Grandyn, a sophisticated middle aged woman who has no shortage of money and is not afraid to use it for her own selfish wants. At one point, Anne says to Katey:
"You see that thirty-year-old blonde next to Jake? That's his fiancee, Carrie Clapboard. Carrie moved all manner of heaven and earth to get into that chair. And soon she will happily oversee scullery maids and table settings and the reupholstering of antique chairs at three different houses; which is all well and good. But if I were your age, I wouldn't be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie's shoes--I'd be trying to figure out how to get into Jake's."
But the general idea, and the one that all of these women seem to subscribe to, is that nothing is out of their reach and that with a little ingenuity and execution of their natural talents and abilities, they can have whatever they want. And I have to admit, it was rather thrilling (and terrifying) to see these women do their thing.

Another theme in the book was that simple choices and actions can have far reaching consequences. Towards the end of the book, Katey makes this observation:
"It is a bit of a cliche to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time--by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?
"In that sense, life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions --we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come."
I have seen this in my own life, and it's sometimes why I feel a little panicked because I can see how being in the right place at the right time with the right people can make all the difference in the world. And in this book, it does. (And I kind of love it that the man Katey ends up marrying is really just a very minor character in her life in 1938 (he's there, but you have to watch very carefully for him), but their interaction ends up being just enough when they reconnect later on.) I'm always worried that I'll say no to something when I should have said yes or vice verse and tha,t because of that, I'll miss out on a treasured friendship or an awesome job or the experience of a lifetime.

But then I also really loved this thought from Katey's father, which basically says that if you make time every day for the simple things that bring you joy, you'll live a happy, fulfilled life no matter what else you're doing:
"Whatever setbacks he had faced in his life, he said, however daunting or dispiriting the unfolding of events, he always knew that he would make it through, as long as when he woke in the morning he was looking forward to his first cup of coffee. . . One must be prepared to fight for one's simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements."
This review is starting to feel like it's getting a little deep, but the book never felt that way. In fact, it wasn't until I was going back through my bookmarked pages that I realized just how many life lessons were tucked among the other happenings.

That's because this book is so well written--not in a flowery, over the top way, but in a snappy, vivid, to-the-point way.

Like this:
"On the morning of Friday, July first, I had a low-paying job at a waning publisher and a dwindling circle of semi-acquaintances. On Friday, July eighth, I had one foot in the door of Conde Nast and the other in the door of the Knickerbocker Club--the professional and social circles that would define the next thirty years of my life. That's how quickly New York City comes about--like a weather vane--or the head of a cobra. Time tells which."
But it was the dialogue, oh the dialogue!, that really got me. In fact, after I finished it, I told people that I would recommend it for the dialogue alone.

Here's a taste:
[From a conversation between Wallace and Katey]:
"You've got a . . . lot of books," he said at last.
"It's a sickness."
"Are you . . . seeing anyone for it?"
"I'm afraid it's untreatable."
Which, speaking of Wallace, he's a top-notch guy and one of my favorite characters in the book.

Or this:
[From a conversation between Katey and Anne]:
"You're very good with the closing remark, Anne.
"Yes," she said. "It's one of my specialties."
I specifically remember when I read that one because, as it turns out, Amor Towles is actually very good at the closing remark; almost every chapter ends with just the right little punch or jab to hit its mark.

Amor Towles' most recent novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, has received a lot of attention this year, but I had very little interest in it because I thought the title sounded boring. However, after reading this book, I'm pretty sure I'll read anything Amor Towles writes. I'm convinced he can make just about any subject absolutely compelling.

Content note: immorality (most of it off stage; there was one brief scene I skimmed over), some language (including the f-word by one character), and an absurd amount of drinking

A Vacation in the Redwoods

Aug 19, 2017

As we made plans at the beginning of the summer, one of the things that was high on my priority list was a family vacation. A few months before, Mike's sister had tossed around the idea of a possible road trip to California, but when it didn't work out for them, we decided to go anyway and invite my brother and his family along instead.

Mike made at least three different plans/routes for the trip, but he always kept the redwoods in northern California as our central focus. Mike and I had driven through them when we were first married, and we knew we wanted to show them to our kids.

We knew from the get go that this trip would require a LOT of driving. It was a road trip, so almost every day would be spent traveling to somewhere new. Much of the driving would be through really beautiful country, but we dreaded the long stretches through Nevada. So because of that, a few weeks before the trip, Mike installed a DVD player into our van. I have always prided myself somewhat on not being dependent on a DVD player (and the last few shorter trips we'd been on, we hadn't even brought the little portable player because it caused more fights and frustration than it was worth). But somehow, I had a sense that on this trip, being able to turn on a show would be our salvation, and it was.

Mike wrangled with the logistics of the itinerary, trying out both northern and southern routes, before finally settling on something that looked like this:

Day 1: Drive to Lake Tahoe
Day 2: Drive to Livermore, California
Day 3: Drive through San Francisco, end up in Fort Bragg, California
Day 4: Drive to Eureka, California
Day 5: Stay in Eureka
Day 6: Stay in Eureka
Day 7: Drive to Winnemucca, Nevada
Day 8: Drive home

Overall, our kids did amazingly well in the car. Of course we had moments where the baby was crying inconsolably or the older ones couldn't keep their hands away from each other, but on the whole, it was far better than I expected. My kids literally had to be dragged away from everything we did because they were having so much fun (except for the Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, which they were only too happy to leave).

Here are a few of the highlights from the trip:

Cousin (and sibling) time
This deserves mention first because it really colored the whole trip and made it so much better. My brother (Gordy), his wife (Brooke), and their three kids (Charlie (almost 5), Rose (3), and Lyda (1)) came with us, and we had the best time with them. (If you follow me on Instagram, you might recognize Rosie as Flit of #flitandbarrel fame.) It's always nice to have other adults to talk to, other kids to play with, and other people to share the memories with. They were always up for an adventure and stayed positive even when things were not what we expected (the motel in Fort Bragg was something special. . .). My brother always makes a music video when his family goes on a vacation, so we were excited to get to be in this one and have it to remember the trip by.

Beach time
All told, we went to five different beaches (Lake Tahoe, Crissy Fields, Bodega Bay, Glass Beach, and Trinidad Bay). Each one was unique, from the water to the sand to the coastline to the view to the temperature, but we enjoyed all of them (and my kids always needed a thorough washing afterwards, which is a sign of a good time). Our time at Lake Tahoe was much too short, and we vowed to return next summer and spend our whole vacation there rather than just have it be a stop along the way.

Glass Beach
This one deserves its own mention because, when the whole trip was said and done, this was my kids' very favorite thing we did. It's called Glass Beach because, rather than traditional sand, its beach is made up of little bits of smooth glass (washed up from a bottle dump site from many years ago). I thought it was cool to look for unique shapes of colored glass, but my kids loved it for the tide pools, where they found crabs and minnows and anemones. We went in the evening at sunset, but then the next morning, they begged and pleaded to go again before hitting the road. I think they would have stayed all day if we'd let them. When we were there in the morning, there were two couples who were diving for abalone. We waited around until they came back in, and they showed them to the boys and let them hold them.

Visiting my grandparents
My mom's dad and stepmom live in Livermore, California. When I was growing up, we only visited them twice, but they came to see us almost every summer in their motor home. In recent years though, they haven't been able to make the trip, so it had been probably twelve years since I'd seen my grandpa, and six years since I'd seen my grandma (she came to Salt Lake for a convention when Max was a baby). As such, my grandpa had never met any of my kids or Gordy's kids, and so we knew we wanted to stop in to see them. Luckily, they weren't busy the evening we were available, and we had a lovely time eating dinner, chatting, and just generally catching up on life. (My Uncle Doug, and his daughter, Halia (whom I had never met) were also there.) Although, I will say, descending on anyone with eight children generally makes me a bit of a stress case, and that I was.

San Francisco
San Francisco was less of a destination and more of just a stop along the way, but it was still fun to catch a glimpse of the city. It was really the only thing we did on the trip that was not entirely kid-friendly. We went to Chinatown one afternoon (where we ate at the aforementioned Chinese restaurant) and then drove to, and then across, the Golden Gate bridge the next morning. Mainly what San Francisco did was make me want to go back someday with Mike . . . without kids.

Big trees
We planned the whole trip around the redwoods, and they did not disappoint. It's hard to really fathom how big they truly are until you're right up next to them, and then they're pretty jaw dropping. We drove through the Avenue of the Giants, making stops along the way, and everywhere we went, our kids found trees to climb on and through and in. We drove through Chandelier Tree (one of the few drive through trees left), and even though it was totally a tourist trap, it was so much fun to drive through a tree. (Later in the trip, we happened to drive through another one, not because we wanted to (it was more expensive and less cool) but because our kids needed to use the bathroom in the gift shop, and so we felt a little obligated). But really, these trees were the stars of the show, and we didn't get tired of them.

Sequoia Park
This was my favorite spot on the trip, partly because it was drop dead gorgeous, but also because it was so unexpected. We stayed for three nights in Eureka, California--not because Eureka itself is any great city, but after packing and unpacking and packing for several days in a row, we were ready to stop in one spot for more than one night. Plus, it was relatively close to some of the other things we wanted to see so it made sense to just stay there. One of Gordy's good friends grew up in Eureka, and so he asked him what we should do while we were there. He told us not to miss Sequoia Park. And he was right. It's something we never would have known about otherwise, but it was so amazing. We started out at the playground, which was pretty cool in and of itself because the play equipment is built right into the giant trees, but then we went into the forest part of the park, and it seemed like we'd been transported to another world. The one mile loop showcased ferns and flowers, a small waterfall, a little pond, and, of course, trees. It was quiet and uncrowded, and more than any other place on the trip, I felt like I was in an outdoor cathedral.

Finding creatures
No matter where we went, beach or forest, my kids were on the lookout for bugs or reptiles or animals. They were both patient and thorough, and their efforts were often, but not always, rewarded. (Max was quite disappointed when we were in Fern Canyon (a beautiful hike through little streams with ferns covering the canyon walls) because he'd heard mention that there might be red tree frogs, and he was determined not to leave until he found one--but he never did.) This trip seemed to be designed for boys just like mine because there was never any shortage of things to explore.

Eureka boat tour
We went on a 75-minute tour on a hundred year old boat around the harbor. It was fairly cold and windy, and it wasn't all that beautiful (but it did help explain some of the things we'd been noticing about the city of Eureka, which has a distinctly hippie/redneck vibe to it), but it was very different from anything else we did on the trip, and for that reason alone, it was a highlight (and we also really enjoyed the all-female crew).


A night out
While we were in Eureka, Gordy/Brooke and Mike/I swapped babysitting so each couple could go on a date. Gordy and Brooke went out the first night, and when they got home, Gordy asked, "How much could we pay you to let us go out again tomorrow night?" But no amount of money would have been enough because there's just something about being on vacation with your kids but going out and doing something without them. It's absolutely rejuvenating. When it was our turn, we did a bit of restaurant hopping, ending with ice cream and hot chocolate, which would have made our kids insanely jealous.

 Horseback riding
Before we even left on our trip, we knew that Day 7 was going to be the worst. It was tied with another day for the longest driving time (10+ hours), but it was at the end of the trip when we were all getting a little tired of the car. Luckily though, it had a bright spot at the end of it. Mike's cousin, Katie, lives on a ranch outside of Winnemucca, Nevada with her husband and four sons, and throughout the whole miserable day of driving, we kept saying, "But you'll get to run around and play and ride horses at the end of it!" And it was truly a sweet reward. Katie has always been one of my favorite people because she is so kind and makes you feel like you're her favorite person. We loved spending a couple of hours with them and my boys were a little in awe of her boys who are true cowboys (but not so in awe that they didn't get in some good running and wrestling).

Before we left on this trip, I wondered if it would be worth it (and indeed, the day before we left, I threatened to call the whole thing off because I was getting a lot more complaining from my kids than helping). But it totally was. And out of all the places we could have gone, I somehow think this was the most perfect place we could have gone for the stage of life we're in right now. 

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