What I Read in October

Nov 23, 2018

It was another slow month of reading for me, but all three of these books were enjoyable, or at least un-put-down-able, in their own way.

1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
There was a point when I was reading this book that I thought, This story has become unmoored. Its downward spiral is completely out of control; it's on a trajectory that can't be stopped.

Up until that point, I had been loving the book: Leni's dad, Ernt, has just lost another job when he receives a letter saying that an old army buddy from his days in Vietnam has left him a tract of land in Alaska. It sounds perfect . . . to Ernt. He will be off the grid, living life his way, in a place where hopefully it won't matter that he has horrible nightmares that won't let go of him.

Leni and her mother are not thrilled by the prospect, but once Ernt has made up his mind, there's no changing it. They pack up their VW bus and drive north. They arrive in late spring, and even though it's the season of the midnight sun, they are completely ill-prepared for life in the Alaskan wilderness. Luckily, they have neighbors (Large Marge, Tom Walker, Mad Earl) who show them the ropes and chip in with help and supplies.

When winter comes, and it always comes early in Alaska, they're at least not going to starve (but everyone is quick to remind them that there are a million ways to die in Alaska). But as the cold and dark settle down over the land, Ernt's flashbacks and nightmares get worse. He becomes obsessed with planning for some future apocalyptic day. The littlest things will trigger him, and Leni's mom, Cora, always gets the worst of his anger. Leni realizes: "Mama could never leave Dad, and Leni would never leave Mama. And Dad could never let them go. In this terrible, toxic knot that was their family, there was no escape for any of them."

And that's when I couldn't handle this story anymore: the situation seemed so bleak and desperate, and then it got worse. Much worse. And there didn't seem to be any end to this chain of bad events. If you've read it, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

But I pushed through, partly because I was desperate for some sort of redemption to bring the story out of the black pit of despair it had fallen into, and partly because I wanted to discuss it with my friends, so I had to finish it.

And for me, the ending helped save it. One of my friends thought it was trite and cliche and wrapped up things a little too neatly. I have certainly thought that same thing about many endings (Before We Were Yours is a recent example), but in this case, I think I was so relieved for something (anything!) good to happen that it was this story's saving grace.

I won't give away any of the details in case you want to take yourself on this complete basket case of a journey, but I will say that one of my favorite parts of the story was Leni's relationship with her mom. There were times when it was frustrating because they stood by each other to a fault (how many times did I internally scream, "Run away! Get out of there!"), but their love was loyal and fierce: "In a breathtaking instant, Cora's life crashed into focus, became small. All of her fears and regrets and disappointments fell away. There was just one thing that mattered. How could she not have known it from the beginning? Why had she spent so much time searching for who she was? She should have known, always, from the very beginning: She was a mother. A mother."

Content note: a lot of swearing, but no F-words; one sexual scene (that I skipped over and that made me angry)

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
This was, without a doubt, a perfect book for October, but I don't think I quite understood what I was signing up for.

It was intensely dark and disturbing, and I made a strict rule for myself that I could not listen to it after 5:00 pm each day because I had to have a few hours to process it and let the details fade away. Even so, there was one night when my brain would not let go of it, and I went to bed with all sorts of irrational fears haunting me.

Part of what makes this story so much worse than other murder mysteries is that it really did happen. In November 1959, Mr. and Mrs. Clutter and their two teenage children were brutally murdered in their home in the middle of the night. With no readily apparent suspects or motives, detectives were puzzled by the complete randomness of the horrific act. And as the details slowly unfolded and the pieces were put together, the chilling aspect of this crime was not lessened but intensified.

There is no question that Truman Capote is a masterful storyteller. This book is something of a classic as it was one of the first true crime novels and set a high standard for the genre. It deserves every accolade it has received.

Once I had started, I couldn't not finish it. It was gripping. But it isn't a book I could stay in for long periods of time, and I breathed a small sigh of relief when it was finally, mercifully, over.

As I was listening to it, I found myself thinking about another book I read earlier this year, Just Mercywhich was about our flawed justice system, particularly in the area of corporal punishment. After reading that book, I became convinced that the death penalty was wrong and inhumane. But oh how quickly my opinion changed when, instead of reading about those who had been falsely condemned under our justice system, I was reading about two men who were so cold and merciless that they couldn't receive their death sentence fast enough for me.

Lucky for me, I read it for my book club in October, which meant I wasn't left hanging with a bunch of unresolved and complicated feelings but could talk through them with my friends who were feeling just as conflicted as I was. And the truth is that even though part of me wants to say, "Run from this book!," I can't deny that as soon as I finished it, I told Mike that he should read it, too.

Content note: This story is intensely disturbing, and Truman Capote is not really sparse on details, if you get my meaning. 

3. Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace
I still needed to read one book for my goal to "read three older (pre-1970) young adult novels," and I decided to return to an old favorite of mine. As a teenager, I fell in love with the Betsy-Tacy series. I think many people are familiar with the first couple of books (Betsy-Tacy and Betsy, Tacy, and Tib) and consequently think of this as a children's series because Betsy is so young in the first books. What they don't realize is that by continuing on in the series, Betsy grows up and reaches adolescence and young adulthood, and I remember being deeply invested in Betsy Ray's love life.

I chose this book at random from the later books in the series, and it turns out that it's the book in her high school years where there's very little boy drama: She's moved beyond her childhood crush of Tony Markham and her silly infatuation with Phil Brandish and hasn't yet developed her more mature friendship with Joe Willard (although she'd like to . . . ). Instead, this book holds a different sort of drama: one of inclusion and exclusion and the consequences that go along with such choices.

After hearing about the sororities at the university where Betsy's sister, Julia, is attending her freshman year, Betsy and her friends decide to form their own sorority. At first, the fun all seems innocent, but it doesn't take long before all of the secrecy and special invitations takes their toll on Betsy's other relationships. Later in the book, Betsy realizes, "Perhaps . . . she and Hazel might have had a friendship independent of the Crowd. After all, you couldn't go through life rolling your friendships into one gigantic snowball. You wanted different kinds of friendships, with different kinds of people. She might like someone awfully well whom Tacy wouldn't care for at all. You ought not to go through life, even a small section of life like high school or college, with your friendships fenced in by snobbish artificial barriers."

One thing I had forgotten about with these books is how much I love Mr. Ray. He is very much an involved father and dotes on his three daughters in the sweetest ways. I love this image of him on Christmas Day: "Theoretically each one unwrapped a gift in turn but it didn't work out that way. Mr. Ray always forgot to open his; he cared more about watching other people open theirs and sat with crossed legs, smiling benevolently, or moved about, gathering up the discarded paper and ribbons, folding what was usable and burning what wasn't. He handed out the larger boxes which were piled under the Christmas tree and kept going to the table to replenish breakfast plates."

For being an old book from an earlier, supposedly less complicated time, I found it surprisingly relevant. Part of my desire to return to this series as an adult was to see if it held up to modern scrutiny and would be worth recommending to today's teen. And the answer was unquestionably a yes. I loved it so much, and, maybe I'm naive to think it, but I think teenagers would, too. Upon finishing, I wanted to immediately pick up the next one in the series, but unfortunately, all of my reading time right now is dedicated to finishing up my reading goals.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

A Little of This and That in September and October

Nov 16, 2018

So far, this fall has been full of school work, sports, crunchy leaves, pumpkins, crisp air, holiday festivities, and warm sunshine. It has been a good mix of the daily grind and the out of the ordinary. I'm grateful for it.

Now for a little more detail. September and October saw us . . .

Cashing . . . in on the final prize for summer goals with a family trip to the bowling alley. We played two games, which turned out to be too much except for the die-hard bowlers (Aaron and Mike). Ian had only recently learned to walk and tested out his new legs walking all over the arcade. Also, he actually loved sending the ball down the lane and happily took Clark's turn any chance he could.

Starting . . . preschool. It seemed like an eternity between the beginning of school for the older boys and the first day of preschool for Clark. But it finally arrived, and he has been happy ever since. I'm pretty sure he would go to preschool all day every day if that was an option (but I'm guessing Ms. Sara is grateful for the reprieve on the off days!).

Going . . . to a high school football game. We have lived close to Olympus High for almost five years, and all of our neighbors are loyal Titan fans, so I thought it was finally time to go to a home game. I have never been much of a football fan (I still don't understand the rules . . . or the appeal?), but even I thought the evening was pretty perfect. It happened to be the homecoming game, and we were all caught up in the rush of school spirit. It was fun to hear the school band and watch the cheer squad. We saw many neighborhood friends and especially loved seeing one of the teenagers in our ward dressed up as the school mascot.

Missing . . . Autumn Aloft. But lest you think we did everything I wanted to this fall, we didn't. For months, I have had a hot air balloon festival (i.e. Autumn Aloft) marked on the calendar. But as the date approached, the weekend filled up with other activities, and I realized it was going to be a huge hassle to get up early and drive to Park City for the balloon launch. But still, I held tightly to it because it was on the calendar. It had taken up valuable brain space for an entire year, and by golly, we were going to go! It wasn't until Mike said, "I know the Upholder in you doesn't want to let this go, but it really doesn't matter." And he was right. So we didn't go. And then I found out after the fact that it had been too windy for them to launch the balloons anyway, and that made me feel better.

Walking . . . lap after lap after lap during the school Blockwalk. Maxwell and Bradley both walked for the better part of four hours (Bradley took a couple of short breaks to play some carnival games), and ended with 22 and 21 laps respectively, which was about seven miles. Bradley found out later that he walked the most laps for first grade and won a brand new razor scooter. (And if you look closely in the picture above, you can see that he ditched his shoes at some point during the evening. His socks were completely trashed when he finally finished!)

Joining . . . a local women's choir. Actually, I guess you could say I helped found it. Back in the spring, one of my friends approached me and asked if I would be interested in organizing a women's choir with her. It finally all came together in September, and we have been feverishly rehearsing for our first concert in December (I'm on the piano for most of the pieces). It is an amazing and talented group of women, and I feel honored to be a part of it (although it's turning into a bit more of a time commitment than I initially anticipated, so I'm still trying to decide if it's going to work for me to continue with it).

Training . . . for a 5K. My brother convinced almost everyone in my family to sign up for a 5K on Thanksgiving morning. Mike and I are running it, as well as Aaron, Maxwell, and Bradley. I wanted the boys to feel confident and prepared for it, and I didn't want to train for it all alone, so we've been running together for the past eight weeks. It's been so much fun, and they've totally been pushing me to go faster and for longer distances. We're all going to rock it on Thanksgiving!

Introducing . . . our kids to "Charlie Bit Me" on YouTube. Do you remember that viral video from 2007 where the older brother sticks his finger into his baby brother's mouth and suffers the painful consequences? Turns out, it's still funny eleven years later. My kids watched it over and over again and almost passed out, they were laughing so hard.

Competing . . . in his first real swim meet. In August, I wrote about Aaron making the swim team, and in September, he participated in four events in his first real meet. Aside from completely missing one of his races, it was a good first experience. But maybe we should talk about how this first swim meet went for me because it was kind of exciting. Our swim team requires families to provide 36 volunteer hours each year. One way to get those volunteer hours is by helping out at swim meets. So I thought I might as well jump right in and start ticking off a few of those hours. I signed up to be a "runner," which sounded safe enough, but when I got there, the volunteer coordinator said that she actually didn't have enough timers so she was going to put me there. Outwardly, I said, "Okay! Sure!" Inwardly, I freaked out. "Timer" sounded very official, and I didn't want the pressure of potentially messing up someone's race time. But there I was, out on deck, and luckily, after the meet started, I realized it wasn't so bad and definitely not scary at all. They basically have three time checks in place for each lane, and I was the third one (essentially, the backup to the backup), so it didn't really matter if I messed up, and it was so fun being right down with the swimmers and feeling their excitement and anticipation with each race.

Learning . . . to play the ukulele. My dad has played the ukulele for years (among many other instruments) and several of my siblings followed in his footsteps and learned too. I was beginning to feel left out of family gatherings without this vital skill, so I asked my dad for lessons. It's been fun (and humbling) to learn a new instrument. My kids like to make fun of me when I'm practicing because it takes me so long to change from one chord to another that the song comes to a grinding halt. But I'm getting better, and I hope to be able to join the family ukulele band during the Christmas season.

Visiting . . . Bradley's classroom for his birthday celebration. He made a power point all about himself and then shared some show-and-tell items with his class. My favorite moment was when he pulled out a ziploc bag with his three missing baby teeth and proceeded to give the exact date for when he lost each one. It was such a Bradley thing to do.

Taking . . . the boys to the driving range. We didn't have any plans on one early-out Friday, so Mike suggested a trip to the driving range. We endured a little complaining from one unnamed child, but everyone else loved it, and even I hit a few balls.

Celebrating . . . Bradley's seventh birthday. He asked for a hula hoop, a strawberry pie, and an evening at Fat Cats, and we were happy to grant all of his wishes. Bradley is talented, smart, and friendly. His teachers always tell me how much the other kids just love him and flock to him because he has fun ideas and is extremely inclusive. I also joke that everything he touches turns to gold because he seems to have success with almost anything he tries.

Switching  . . . jobs. Mike was asked to temporarily fill a project manager position at work while they went through the process of hiring someone new. His life became full of meetings and answering emails, and I've never seen anyone so happy to go back to his regular job a couple of months later.

Experiencing . . . one of the best concerts of my life. Mike and I made a last minute decision to go to a Leonard Bernstein concert by the Utah Symphony, and, as sometimes happens with spur of the moment choices, Mike found someone selling their very good seats for a very decent price. I knew I liked Bernstein's music before, but this concert increased that love by tenfold. It was amazing. And the soloist was phenomenal. I've been heartbroken ever since that I can't buy a recording of the performance.

Turning . . . the stairs blue. Max almost fell down the stairs one day, but saved himself instead and, in the process, discovered a way to slide down the stairs on his knees. He did this over and over again for several days until one day, as I was walking (not sliding) down the stairs, I noticed that the edges were all tinged blue. Turns out, the repeated rubbing from his jeans over the carpet had dyed it blue.

Going . . . to the women's session of General Conference with two sisters-in-law and three nieces. I felt uplifted and motivated afterwards and completely enjoyed being in the company of some of my favorite people. Afterwards, we went out to eat, and I ate what was possibly the best macaroni and cheese of my life (and I've tried a lot!).

Starting . . . The Book of Mormon. Speaking of General Conference, President Nelson challenged all of the sisters to read The Book of Mormon by the end of the year. At the time, I was almost to the end of Alma, which is about two-thirds of the way through, and at first, I tried to convince myself that I could just continue where I was. But then I realized that there had to be some reason why President Nelson wanted all of the women of the Church to read The Book of Mormon in such a short amount of time. So I went back to 1 Nephi and determined to dedicate a significant portion of each day to reading a certain number of pages. It has been one of the most amazing and rewarding and spiritual experiences I've ever had. I hope to write an entire blog post about all of the blessings that have come into my life as I've studied the word of God. It has been time well spent.

Finishing . . . The Book of Mormon. The same month that I started The Book of Mormon, Aaron finished it. He has been reading a little bit every night for the last two years, and he finally finished! I was so proud of him, and I think he felt quite the sense of accomplishment.

Learning . . . to ride a bike. One day, Clark said, "Dad, take off my training wheels. I'm ready to ride my bike without them." And I thought, Oh dear, this is not going to go as smoothly as your four-year-old confidence seems to think it's going to. But then, much to my surprise, it did. And now he takes his two wheels out for a spin almost every day.

Taking . . . family photos. This might be one of my kids' least favorite things to do, but we only had one complete breakdown moment, which is probably a new record. Much thanks to our amazing photographer (my sister-in-law, Kari).

Growing . . . sixteen pumpkins. Our garden was generous this year, and our one little pumpkin plant produced sixteen pumpkins. It's amazing what a seed can do with consistent water and sunlight.

Going . . . to the pumpkin patch. Even though we grew plenty of pumpkins on our own, we couldn't resist a trip to the pumpkin patch. We didn't buy any pumpkins, but we enjoyed walking through the fields, going on a wagon ride, launching apples, playing in the corn pit, sliding down the hay bale slide, and sampling apple cider.

Driving . . . up the canyon. I always like to take at least one drive in the mountains to look at the fall colors. We don't get very many reds or oranges here, but the yellows were on full display and were so bright they almost seemed to be lit from within.

Working . . . on Halloween costumes. The boys decided what they were going to be for Halloween way back in January, but we still waited until the weekend right before to pull them all together. Mike put in a lot of time, especially on Aaron's helmet, which you'll see later looked very authentic.

Knitting . . . a very special gift. I found out in September that my dear friend who taught me how to knit has lung cancer. I immediately knew that I had to knit something for her and that time was of the essence. I pored over patterns, trying to find one that would complement her graceful style but that also wouldn't take me two years to knit. I finally settled on a half-pi shawl in a beautiful shade of dusky pink, and then I went to work. I knitted at a feverish pace, dedicating every spare minute to it and finished it almost exactly a month to the day of when I started it. It turned out exactly like I wanted it to, and when I presented it to my friend, she was extremely surprised and delighted. I hope it will keep her cozy all winter long!

Watching . . . my little sister, Angela, open up her mission call. She's going to the Maryland Baltimore Mission! She leaves in February 2019. My kids will be soooooooo sad to lose their favorite aunt for eighteen months, but we're all so excited and happy for her.

Taking . . . in the sights of San Francisco. Mike and I went on a weekend trip to San Francisco with our friends, Tim and Ashley, and we had the best time. We ate delicious food, enjoyed beyond perfect weather, and experienced a host of new things. My very favorite thing we did was biking across the Golden Gate Bridge, but the whole vacation was amazing, and I don't think I would change a thing about it.

Hosting . . . cousins overnight. My kids were thrilled to get to have Josh, Will, and Charlotte stay with us for the weekend while their parents and baby sister were at a conference. In fact, I hardly saw my kids at all the entire time because they were so busy playing. An outing to the park and a game of Flimsee was a solid ending to the fun.

Eating . . . too many doughnuts at our neighbors' annual spudnut festival. Every year, they make hundreds of doughtnuts and invite the entire neighborhood over for the event. My kids literally eat themselves sick, going over and eat a couple, then back home to let it settle before heading back over for round two (and three . . . and four). But in my opinion, the star of this year's festival was  the homemade apple cider made by our neighbors' son. Oh my word. Scrumptious.

Doing . . . a trial run of our Halloween costumes. With nowhere to go, we dressed up on the Sunday evening before Halloween just to make sure we had all of the needed pieces and to snap a few preliminary photos. I always knew my kids would insist on a Star Wars theme at some point, and this turned out to be the year for it. We had a Han Solo, Rey, Luke Skywalker, C3PO, BB8, Darth Vader, and Yoda, and, unlike last year, there was no doubt in anyone's mind about who we were.

Tricking . . . and treating. And finally, October ended with its usual bang of knocking on doors and coming home with too much candy. It was fairly chilly this year (although, thankfully, no rain), so Ian and I opted to go home before the rest of the family, but still, it was a very pleasant night.

 If you made it to the end of this epic post, you earn the award of "Most Faithful Blog Reader." Your prize is to tell me about one of the highlights from your fall!

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