Two Recent WWII books: The War I Finally Won and Salt to the Sea

May 17, 2019

Not that anyone is looking for more World War II books to read, but if they were, these two are definitely topping my list right now.

The War I Finally Won by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

I loved The War That Saved My Life so much that I immediately put the sequel on hold (and if you know anything about me and my track record with sequels/series, then you'll know what high praise this is). I've heard some readers say they liked this one better than the first one, but if I was forced to choose, I think I'd put my vote with the first one.

That isn't to say there was anything wrong with this one. Just, to me, it seemed like the story kind of stalled out a bit. It still has most of the same characters: Ada, Jamie, Susan, Lady Thornton, and Maggie, with the addition of Ruth (a young Jewish woman who has come to study math with Susan). In many ways, Ada's story has come full circle as demonstrated in this scene where she is riding Maggie's brother's horse, Oben: "I kicked again. I whooped. His speed increased until his stride began to feel as smooth as rushing wind, as effortless as flowing water. I moved with him, effortlessly. On the day I was evacuated, I'd looked out the window of our train and seen a girl galloping a pony, racing the train. Now I was that girl, galloping, laughing, my head thrown back, the wind tugging my hair. I'd become the person I'd longed to be."

But "becoming the person she'd longed to be" came with a price, which was that Ada was gripped with an intense need to control everything and keep anything bad out of her life--a task that is impossible at the best of times, let alone during a war.

She was also confronted with the question of, "If I've already become who I want to be [the girl riding the horse], what comes next?"

It's those two things (Ada's internal anxieties and her hopes for the future) that really drive the plot of this book. But even though big things happened (the Thorntons experienced a tragedy, Susan became very ill, Ada helped warn the village about a bombing), the pacing itself felt slow. To be fair, it wasn't any slower than the first book, but I think the difference was that in the first one, I was getting to know the characters at the same time, but here I already knew the characters really well, so the quiet moments dragged.

That said, I think it's partly the slow pace that makes Ada's growth seem so authentic. Her problems are not solved overnight. She has opportunities where she gets the best of her demons and other times when they get the best of her, but her overall motion is upward and forward. This quote from the end might sum it up best:
"I'd known the right thing to do, and I'd done it. I'd helped take care of Lady Thornton the way she'd helped take care of me. I'd stood in the steeple while bombs and even an airplane had fallen past me out of the sky. I'd felt afraid but I hadn't come undone. My foot would never be all the way right, but I could walk and climb and run. My feelings might never be all the way right either but they were healed enough.
There were many things I liked about this book--it was definitely a worthy and satisfying sequel (and there is even a sweet moment of closure for Susan at the very end). But I guess what I'm trying to say is that it maybe matched the first one a little too well in tone and pacing and drama, so it didn't have quite the same impact on me.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

This book is evidence to my suspicion that no matter how many books are written about World War II, we will never run out of new material for another one. More than anything, I think that attests to the sad reality of how vast and all-encompassing that war really was.

This story centers around four characters: Emilia (a young Polish girl) Florian (a secretive Prussian), Joana (a Lithuanian nurse), and Alfred (a German private). As the war neared its end, thousands of Eastern Europeans fled before the Russians. These four characters boarded the infamous Wilhelm Gustloff for a short voyage across the Baltic Sea.

Infamous, except that I'd never heard of it before hearing about this book. If that's you too, then here are a few facts: the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed in the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945. It was carrying over 10,000 people, nearly 9,400 of whom perished in the frigid waters (and an unbelievable 5,000 of those losses were children). To give you some comparison, the Titanic lost 1,600 lives and the Lusitania lost 1,200. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff dwarfed these other tragedies in every way, but for some reason, it has not been given the same amount of attention.

Set against this horrific backdrop, the stories of these four people were fascinating and heartbreaking. I listened to this book, and the audio used four different narrators, which made it easy to differentiate between the characters right from the beginning. As is so often the case with stories told from multiple points of view, this one was rich and multi-layered as I witnessed the same event from different perspectives and pieced together all of the details.

The writing is exquisite. Even simple sentences like this one, "She held her breath in one hand and her suitcase in the other," vividly meshed together the physical and emotional details. I also loved this one, which gave a stark image of the effect of the war: "War had bled color from everything, leaving nothing but a storm of gray."

In the midst of this terrible tragedy, the writing had a way of bringing in little forgotten details that just made my heart twist. For example, as Emilia is traveling through the woods, she often sings a little nursery rhyme from her childhood: "All the little duckies with their heads in the water, heads in the water . . . " Later, as she looks over the water at the destruction all around her, the nursery rhyme, once innocent, comes back unbidden with frightening accuracy, only it is no longer referring to ducks.

Two characters deserve special mention: the shoe poet because I loved him so much and Alfred because he was so unbelievably awful.

The shoe poet, as everyone referred to him, might have been my very favorite. He was a man without guile who had a keen sense of observation and shared his wisdom through shoe metaphors (hence, the nickname). He was especially kind to the wandering boy, a young child who had come unmoored from his family. I loved their trusting and loving relationship in the midst of so much despair.

Then there was Alfred who was an egotistic narcissist but also a bumbling idiot (depending on the point of view at the time). I loved the other three main characters so much and felt a connection with each one. But even in his pathetic wretchedness, I couldn't drum up even the least bit of sympathy for Alfred. I had to wonder if this was what the author intended or if I was at least supposed to feel somewhat sorry for Alfred or if she purposely created an unlikeable character because she knew we would need someone to hate.

I'm always on the lookout for the title of the book to be embedded in the story somewhere. It usually sheds some light as to why the author chose it for the title and makes it more poignant. In this case, the title came from Joana as she drifted in the middle of the sea: "I wanted my mother. My mother loved Lithuania. She loved her family. The war had torn every last love from her life. Would she have to learn the grotesque details of our suffering? Would news make it to my hometown . . . ,  to the dark bunker in the woods where my father and brother were thought to be hiding? Joana Vilcus. Your daughter. Your sister. She is salt to the sea."

I'm grateful that I have yet another book to add to my list of worthwhile and appropriate young adult novels. Because even though the subject matter is dark and heavy, the actual content was quite clean and sensitive. I'll leave you with this final bit of wisdom from Emilia, which highlights the resiliency of the human spirit and that even in the darkest moments, we can find the good: "Nature. That was something the war couldn't take from me either. The Nazis couldn't stop the wind and the snow. The Russians couldn't take the sun or the stars."

A Little of This and That in April

May 11, 2019

There's just nothing like April. I think it will always be my favorite month. And it was a good one this time around. You might have found us . . .

Pruning . . . our fruit trees. We have three fruit trees in our backyard (apple, pear, and peach), and in the five years we have lived here, we have never given them a proper pruning. One of my friends offered to teach me how to prune them, and it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. She showed me what a proper cut looks like and taught me the correct shape for each type of tree (hint: they're different). I learned to look for branches that are crossing or overlapping and pay attention to the direction of the new growth. When we were done, they all had been pruned back quite a bit (especially the peach), and I am SO excited to see what they'll do this year.

Revamping . . . the flower beds. We have been holding off planting anything in our front flower bed for a long time because we couldn't make a decision about what we actually wanted to do with it. But then Mike was at his favorite store (i.e., the NPS store), and they had a bunch of inexpensive plants, and so he just decided to buy them all (not really, but close). It's a hodgepodge of stuff, and we don't really know what we're doing, but for the moment, it looks way better, and at the very least, it's a starting place. Mike bought enough plants to also rip out one of the beds in the backyard and replant the whole thing with lower maintenance bushes. Sometimes I just have to remember Gretchen Rubin's adage: "Done is better than perfect."

Taking . . . notes during General Conference. I felt like we turned a corner this year because for the first time, Aaron and Maxwell took pages (literally pages) of notes during the talks. Yes, they were being bribed with candy, but they've been bribed with candy before and have only done the bare minimum required. This year, they listened attentively and wrote down lots of insights, and I just felt like I was seeing them grow up before my very eyes. (But then, there was also Bradley who told me probably a dozen times how much he hated conference and listening to talks, etc., so it wasn't all golden.)

Wielding . . . a medieval sword. Mike's parents came home for General Conference, and we had the overdue Christmas party that got postponed last October when my mother-in-law had a health scare and they couldn't fly home. Among the gifts, each family received a long broadsword (i.e., a "sword of truth") with the intent that it will be used to open future mission calls (a family tradition). The swords have actually been stored in our basement for the last eight months because Mike's dad had them shipped to us, so I'm glad to see them finally go to their real homes. (Sometime I'll have to share the story about when the first one arrived at our house before we knew my father-in-law was sending them to us. We got a mysterious package in the mail from, and when I opened it and found a full size, authentic (and yes, sharp!) sword in there, I might have freaked out a little.)

Going . . . on a shopping spree. At least, that's what it felt like. I had just been needing a lot of different things--a couple of pairs of shoes for me, some summer clothes for the boys, some new shirts for Mike--and I had just been letting it all pile up until Mike and I went on a date to the outlets  and just took care of it all. It kind of gives me some anxiety to spend a lot of money all at once, but it's so nice not to have to use up brain space researching running shoes anymore (because that's what I do, and research just paralyzes my decision-making abilities). Also, for the record, Mike is a fantastic person to go shopping with because he has no problem making decisions, he actually likes to give his opinion when I try on clothes, and he always encourages me to buy more than I would otherwise (which may or may not be a good idea . . . ).

Receiving . . . a lot of rain. This spring has been a wet one. Thankfully, most of it has come in the form of rain and not snow. (But I had to laugh when I was volunteering in Aaron's class on the last day of the month right during a little snowstorm; the kids were all very distracted by it until his teacher finally got fed up with it all and said, "Come on, you guys, you live in Utah! It snows in April! It's not anything special.") After the third or fourth day in a row of rain and no sunshine, I was pretty much over it, but I can't deny the results: our grass is maybe the greenest it has ever been.

Drawing . . . a picture of the allegory of the olive tree. Perhaps I better explain. One afternoon during my personal scripture study, I was reading the allegory of the olive tree, which is found in Jacob 5 in The Book of Mormon. It is a long, detailed allegory that involves planting and pruning and grafting and burning, and even though I have read this chapter many times, I was just feeling a little lost. So I decided to start over and attempt to illustrate what I was reading. Now, you have to understand that my artistic abilities are severely limited, but I made my best attempt in forty little pictures over six pages in my notebook. It's not something I would show to anyone else (hence, no photo), but it helped me visualize and understand this allegory like I never have before. It was a good exercise (and I can only imagine what it could have been in the hands of a different artist).

Finishing . . . the softest, coziest sweater. I finally finished another project (I have three others started . . . ), and I'm so glad we still had a couple of cold days in April so I could wear it. It is so warm and comfortable; I could live in it. It will be something to look forward to in the fall.

Seeing . . . the news about Notre Dame. Like probably so many of you, I was shocked to hear that Notre Dame had caught fire and that centuries of history and culture had been lost. It reminded me of when the Provo Tabernacle experienced similar destruction in 2010. It made me realize that even though buildings are not alive, they have the power to touch the lives of millions of people through their beauty and the events that happen inside and around them. I visited Notre Dame in 2016, and it wildly exceeded my expectations. I had seen photos of Notre Dame before, but photos couldn't capture the craftsmanship or scope or magnificence of that edifice. I remember standing right next to it and looking up in awe at its intricately carved walls and wondering about the hundreds of unknown, unrecognized people who worked so tirelessly for a lifetime to make it what it was. After the fire, the internet was flooded with photos--images of families and friends and individuals visiting the cathedral and basking in its beauty. I'm glad that I have my own photos to remind me of it.

Running . . . out of fabric. I dusted off my sewing machine this month and made myself a dress. In the process of cutting out the pieces for it, I realized I did not have enough fabric for the sleeves. So I went back to the fabric store, only to find out that they no longer had that fabric in stock. So I went to another (much larger) store and miraculously (seriously, it was a miracle) found the same fabric. I finished the dress (I even conquered the invisible zipper) before admitting that I had chosen the wrong fabric (it was very stiff and had absolutely no give). So I don't know that I will ever wear it in real life, but I've already bought more fabric to make it again (and this time, I made sure that I'll have enough).

Winning . . . first AND second place in the pinewood derby! We literally forgot about the pinewood derby until two days before the race whereupon Mike scrambled to help Aaron and Maxwell each make a car. Then on the day of the race, Mike came home from work and realized he had left the cars on his desk (he'd taken them there to make sure the wheels were aligned). Then when Aaron weighed in his car, they realized it was too heavy, so Mike hacked away pieces of it until it passed. So it might have seemed like the stars were not aligned for the boys, but then they ended up winning both first (Aaron) and second (Maxwell). In Aaron's words, "My car didn't look the nicest, but it was the fastest."

Hosting . . . our fourth annual neighborhood Easter egg hunt. I love this tradition so much, and we had a perfect day for it this year.

Observing . . . Easter. We always do Easter baskets and our neighborhood egg hunt on the Saturday before Easter, which keeps the actual day a little more focused on the Resurrection. This year we went to my parents' house for dinner and then had a little family egg hunt after that, and it was simple and perfect.

Studying . . . the scriptures as a family. Ever since our boys were very little, we have tried to read the scriptures daily and share scripture stories with them, but at the beginning of the year, we started doing it with a little more intention than before. That is because our church made a big change in January: the Sunday meeting schedule was cut down from three hours to two hours, and we were encouraged to use that extra hour to study together as a family in a home-centered, church-supported effort. In addition to this, gospel study was correlated throughout the Church with the Come Follow Me curriculum. The New Testament is our course of study, and it is broken down by week with which chapters to read, questions to discuss, and activities to do. The same material is also taught at church, and so we study it at home, and then we're ready to share insights when we meet together at church. It has been wonderful. Our weeknight study is still fairly short, but on Sunday afternoons, we put Ian down for a nap, and then study and learn together. Not only has it been a good experience for us in our home, but it has enriched our time at church as well. Rather than having family scripture study in one book of scripture and church classes in another, now we're all on the same page (literally), and I love it.

Celebrating . . . our two April birthdays--Mike's and Ian's. One of Ian's favorite songs is Happy Birthday, so I knew he would be thrilled when it was actually his turn to open presents and blow out a candle. The evening before, after Ian went to bed, the rest of us all gathered in the living room to wrap presents and get everything ready for the birthday boy. I thought it was the perfect representation of how much we all love and adore little Ian. He loved his presents and his Chicka Chicka Boom Boom cake, and he even blew out the candle all by himself.

Weaning . . . Ian. A few days after Ian's birthday, Mike and I went to New York, and I knew that was going to be the perfect time to finish weaning Ian. But to be perfectly honest, I didn't feel ready for it. He is my baby, and nursing has always been one of my favorite parts of being a mom. I will miss hearing him ask for "Mommy's milk" or "a little bit of milk." (As of right now, he still hasn't stopped asking him for it, but I just keep reminding him that it is all gone.) Luckily, our nighttime cuddles and conversations and songs have not stopped, and I'm grateful I still get to rock him before bed.

Visiting . . . New York for the first time. To celebrate our fourteenth wedding anniversary, we decided to take a trip to the Big Apple. Neither of us had ever been, and we spent the weeks leading up to it gathering recommendations from all of our more sophisticated and well-traveled friends and then editing our itinerary again and again as we tried to squeeze in more things before being realistic and trimming it back down. The trip exceeded all of my expectations. I will write a whole post about it soon, but I'm so glad we got to go, and I can't wait to go back.

Missing . . . the wax museum. While Mike and I were in New York, Maxwell's class put together their own wax museum. Max was Benedict Arnold, and in the days leading up to it, he loved to wear his costume and say his part (in fact, you can see him in it in the birthday prep photo above, ha!). I was so sad to miss the actual event, but luckily my mom was able to go see him, and she said he did great!

Loving . . . every little detail of spring: the forsythia bushes that burst into brilliant light before resuming their incognito status; the sweet star magnolias that I never noticed until this year; the changing hues of green--sharp and new, then darkening into something more mature; the parades of butterflies returning from their migration south; the pungent smell of lilac; and of course, my beloved flowering cherry in all its frothy pink glory. I have loved everything about this spring (except for maybe my allergies, but it's a small price to pay for all of this beauty).

What has this spring looked like for you? Tell me about it!

Three Recent Re-reads: Princess Academy, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

May 3, 2019

I've had the pleasure of re-reading a few excellent books over the last couple of months. Rereading is so great, especially when you have a horrible memory like I do and can basically enjoy it like the first time all over again!

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

When I suggested this as our next readaloud, my boys balked a little at the title. With the word "princess" in the title, it does tend to come across as a little bit girly. But having already read it twice myself, I assured them they had nothing to fear.

But . . . it turns out . . . I had forgotten how slow-paced this book is. It didn't seem slow when I was reading it to myself. But when I was reading it to three boys who just couldn't wait for the bandits to arrive, suddenly Miri's repetitive thoughts on whether she would rather stay on Mount Eskel or move to the palace and become a princess seemed rather dull and boring. I caught myself thinking, Oh no, Miri, not again. Do you have to agonize over your feelings for Peder one more time? 

Over the years of reading aloud to my boys, I haven't shied away from books that might be seen as being more traditionally for girls. Consequently, some of our favorite books have starred female protagonists, such as The Penderwicks, Ramona, and Pippi Longstocking. But I can also recognize that there are certain themes and subjects and plots that my boys are just more naturally drawn to. And daydreaming about what it might be like to be a princess isn't one of them. (In all fairness though, it isn't really a matter of girl vs. boy as much as just a matter of taste. For example, I don't enjoy books with fantasy creatures in them; that doesn't have anything to do with the fact that I'm a girl, but rather, that's just my personal preference.)

But we held out for the promised siege, and it was worth the wait (although, I have to say, I don't remember being so incredulous about Dan's demise when I read it the first two times . . . tiny Miri was able to hold onto a root with huge Dan hanging onto one of her legs???? No way. I'm sorry, but no way.)

So all's told, it was a bit of a let down. It pains me to say it, but it was. I still liked the writing (how about this wisdom from Doter: "Unhappiness can't stick in a person's soul when it's slick with tears"), but the story was a bit of a drag. This is why I'm sometimes afraid to reread a book I loved in the past. You just never know how it's going to strike you on a reread.

(For a more positive review, read the one I wrote back in 2012.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I read this book for the first time in 2013, but when it was selected for my book club's "classic" month, I knew I would need to reread it as I could remember almost nothing from before.

I purposely held off reading my review of it because I wanted to be able to experience it this time without being influenced by my 2013 self. (I will probably finally go back and read it after I finish writing this review.)

What I found was that bits of the story immediately came back to me as soon as I began listening. I remembered Janie's three husbands (Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake) before I was re-introduced to them. I knew each one would be flawed but that the last one would be the best. And Janie saved her best self for the end as well. According to Tea Cake, "God made it so you spent your old age first with somebody else and saved up your young girl days to spend with me." I thought that was so sweet.

This time I was struck by the characters of the three men: Logan's biggest fault was that he was old and boring, something that wasn't exactly under his control. Jody's was that he wanted all good things to be credited back to him, no matter the cost. And Tea Cake's was that, for all of his love, he was still a bit immature. (I had forgotten the two big scenes that really highlight this weakness: the time he spends all of Janie's money having fun while she is home worrying; and the night he physically hurts her to prove to the world how much he loves her. Tea Cake was so likeable, and it was hard to see him make stupid choices, but they made him more real.)

Incredibly, I had forgotten how the book ends until I was literally right there, in the room with Tea Cake and Janie, both of them with a gun in their hands. Sometimes I am annoyed with my poor memory, but in moments like this, it means I get the full emotional impact all over again.

The other thing that surprised me was how little phrases from the book pinged with recognition inside me, like this one: "She stood there until something fell of the shelf inside her." I couldn't have quoted it, but once I heard it again, it registered as something I'd heard (and loved) before. The writing is just so good.

I'm guessing I shared this in my review the first time because I think it's one of the most beloved quotes from the book, but it's worth sharing again because it sums up the theme so beautifully: "Love is like the sea; it's a moving thing. But still and all, it takes its shape from the shore and changes with every shore it meets."

If you've somehow missed reading this classic, I highly recommend it.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

When Mike and I decided to go to New York for our anniversary, I had a sudden longing to revisit Claudia and Jamie's adventures. Originally, the Met was on our itinerary, and I thought it would be so fun to have this story in my head while we walked through the museum (even though many of the referenced landmarks are no longer there). Even though we ended up needing to cut it due to lack of time, this story still made an excellent companion on the flight there and back. I had forgotten how much I loved it.

I actually never read this book as a child. I know we owned a copy, but frankly, the cover did absolutely nothing to make me want to read it. (I actually just looked it up to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It was the 1976 edition, and yes, it was.) I had no idea what I was missing, but finally as an adult in 2009, I read it for the first time, and it was marvelous.

Claudia Kincaid feels unappreciated at home and decides it would be best to run away so her family realizes how much they would suffer without her. She carefully and methodically makes plans: She settles on a place (the Metropolitan Museum of Art), a time (on her way to school), and a companion (her middle brother Jamie--mostly because he has enough money to fund the entire grand scheme). Once they are well settled in a 16th-century bed, Claudia decides she can't go home until she has done something noteworthy, and figuring out if the Museum's newly acquired angel statue is really an early work of Michelangelo seems like just the thing.

One of the best parts of this book is the relationship between Claudia and Jamie. They start out as two normal siblings with plenty of arguing and bickering and not a lot of shared goals. But gradually, things come into alignment until something clicks. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler explained it this way:
"What happened was they had become a team--a family of two . . . Becoming a team didn't mean the end of their arguments, but it did mean that the arguments became a part of the adventure, became discussions not threats. To an outsider, the arguments would appear to be the same because feeling like part of a team is something that happens invisibly. You might call it "caring." You could even call it "love." And it is very rarely indeed that it happens to two people at the same time, especially a brother and a sister who had always spent more time with activities than they had with each other."
The other really masterful part of this story is Claudia's subtle, almost invisible, transformation. When she runs away, she really gives no thought to her parents. She wants them to be sorry she's gone, but she doesn't have any idea about the mental and emotional anguish she will put her parents through when she and Jamie suddenly vanish without a trace (and, as a side note, I couldn't help thinking that even in 1967, this story was probably somewhat unbelievable. But in 2019? It could never happen. Those two kids would have been found within hours of leaving). But then it becomes more about making some sort of impact or contribution before she goes home so her time will be well spent. But eventually, she realizes that she can go home and still be plain, sensible Claudia Kincaid and that that will enough (especially once she has the secret of the statue secured). In the words of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: "Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place."

Even though we didn't get to visit the Met, there was still something about being in New York with this story bumping around in my brain that just made it so much more special and fun. Also, it put me in an E.L. Konigsburg sort of mood. I need to read some of her other books.

What have been some of your recent rereads? Did your opinions change or stay the same?


Apr 28, 2019

Today Mike and I have been married for fourteen years.

I've spent the last year or so noticing, with some humor, the many ways that Mike and I differ. It seems I often have a very high tolerance for the very things he has a low tolerance for and vice versa.

Some might say these many things make us incompatible, but I like to think it's just the opposite. By having different strengths and weakness, contrasting points of view, and a wide array of interests, we make up for what the other lacks, and consequently, we are becoming something that is truly whole.

Some of those things are big, some are small, and some are just plain silly and don't matter in the slightest. Here's a little sampling:

Microwave popcorn: I feel like I've nailed the time on microwave popcorn if I have just a few burnt kernels but no old maids. Mike would prefer the opposite.

Softened butter: Mike has the art of softening a stick of butter down to a science--seven seconds on this side, five seconds on that side, etc. That takes entirely too long for me. I would rather it was a little (or even a lot) melted rather than spend all that time babying it.

Leftovers in the microwave: Similar to the butter example, Mike carefully warms up leftovers, stirring or rotating them frequently so that everything is evenly heated. I almost always eat food that has a mixture of hot and cold spots in it. It's not a big deal.

Parking spaces: I would rather find a wide open parking space and have to hike two miles in than back into a tight parallel parking spot. Mike doesn't even realize this is something to be anxious about and does it with one hand, in the dark, with a line of cars stacked up behind him.

Temperature: I cry with the first cold front of the fall; Mike cries with the first warm spell of spring. I park myself in front of my space heater; he does the same with his portable fan. (There is maybe even a slight chance we have done this at the same time before, on opposite sides of the bed.) On the rare golden days where we are both comfortable, we know that must be the temperature in heaven.

Dishes: We don't own a dishwasher and have never owned one during our fourteen years of marriage (technically, we had one for three months when we house-sat for someone the summer after we got married, but I think that doesn't really count). Neither one of us minds washing the dishes, but Mike doesn't like washing utensils, and I don't like washing pots and pans, so we often save those things for the other person.

Fizzy drinks: Neither of us are big soda drinkers, but Mike loves carbonation. As such, his go to drink is a can of sparkling water (his favorite brand is Bubly). There are times when I want one too, but I can only drink about fifteen percent of it before the carbonation gets to me. So now, anytime Mike cracks one open, he pours about an inch of it into my cup and downs the rest in ten seconds while I spend the next five minutes slowly sipping mine. It works out great.

Plastic grocery bags: Every time Mike goes to the grocery store, he saves every single plastic grocery bag. Even if the holder is already stuffed and the bags are spilling over the sides into our pantry, he still tries to add a few more. To balance this out, I often have to throw away a couple of handfuls just to hold the stockpile at bay. (Lest you think this has anything to do with Mike's concern for the environment, and my lack thereof, think again. In general, I pay more attention to environmental issues and concerns than Mike does.)

Meal Planning: My version of this consists of sitting down at the beginning of the week, planning out what we want to eat, rotating through meals we like, while adding in a couple new recipes for the sake of variety. Mike's version looks more like running to the grocery store, wandering the aisles looking for something that is on sale, and then bringing everything home and throwing it all together in a culinary masterpiece.

Damp clothes: I do not pull the clothes out of the dryer until they are dry. I do not like folding damp clothes at all. Mike, on the other hand, would rather just get through the laundry. Of course I'm always grateful for his help, but inevitably, if he's switching out the laundry, there are bound to be baskets of damp jeans.

Test scores: When Mike and I were in college, we approached studying for tests very differently. I was aiming for 100 percent. Always. He was sad if he ever got anything above a 94 because it meant he had studied too hard.

Shopping with kids: I say, "Now that you're home, I'm going to run to the store so that I don't have to bring the kids." He says, "Hey guys, I'm home! Who wants to run to the store with me?"

Going out for breakfast: I love going out for breakfast. It feels super indulgent and special to me. In contrast, Mike feels like paying for breakfast is a waste of money. Our marriage became a lot happier when I realized I should stop taking Mike out for breakfast on his birthdays, and he realized he should start taking me out for breakfast on mine.

Observations: I tend to pay attention to names and faces, Mike to landmarks and directions--a fact that was very obvious this past week while we were on a little anniversary trip to New York City.

If anything, the past fourteen years have taught us that some differences are assets, others can be worked through, and most don't matter. But I'm so grateful I get to figure it all out with someone who knows me so well and loves me in spite of everything.

Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis

Apr 12, 2019

Before my book club decided to read this book, I'd never even heard of Rachel Hollis. (Since she has 1.3 million followers on Instagram, maybe that means I've been living under a rock; it wouldn't be the first time.)

But even not knowing a thing about her, I made assumptions about the book. And those assumptions made me less than excited about reading it.

And now comes the part where I say, "But I was wrong! This book changed my life!"

Except . . .

I was right.

The book was basically exactly what I thought it was going to be. The general gist? Be true to yourself. Pursue your passion. Achieve your dreams. You've got this, girl.

I am not above reading motivational self-help books. In fact, there are times when it's a genre I quite enjoy. But in this case, there were a couple of overarching things that I just couldn't get past.

First, Rachel Hollis came across as a bit full of herself. I don't know how many times she mentioned her self-made company, wide recognition, and devoted tribe, but it was more than enough for me. Also, there was something about the way she touted her many years of experience and wisdom that just rubbed me the wrong way. For example, she wrote about being named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top thirty entrepreneurs under the age of thirty. This initiated a slew of speaking engagements at various colleges, and she said that every time, she would get some variation of the same question (my snide comments and observations are in the [ ]): "'Hi, Rachel,' they'd always begin (because apparently we call adults by their first names now like we're a bunch of hippies! [last time I checked, college students were also adults]). 'Can you tell us the secret of your success? Like, what's the one thing that truly gives you an advantage over others?' First of all, God bless our youth [that are, at most, ten years younger than she is]. God bless these wee infants who believe that a lifetime [29 years] of hustling and working and sweating and stressing and building, building, building a company could be summarized with one single answer."

Do you see what I'm talking about? If she was named one of the top entrepreneurs under the age of thirty, then that means that the very oldest she could be was twenty-nine, right? And here she is, talking about a lifetime of hard work like she's eighty or something! Granted, she has worked really hard and accomplished as much or more than some people do in an entire lifetime, but still, it was presumptuous of her to act like she had all of the answers at the ripe old age of twenty-nine.

Second, our dreams did not match up. Like, at all. Of course it's not her fault that I don't want to be an entrepreneur or run my own company or give advice to millions of people or plan large-scale events. And she's quick to say that your dreams don't have to be the same as her dreams--you just need to identify what your dreams are and then go for them. The funny thing is, you might think we have some things in common since she is also a Type A/Upholder personality, a wife, a mom, and religious--just like me. But even within those categories, we're actually really, extremely different. So yeah, it just wasn't the greatest fit for me. Not her fault.

I will say that in Rachel's defense (I'm thirty-four, so does that make me enough of an adult to call her by her first name?), I read a paper copy of the first two-thirds of the book and then switched to the audio (which Rachel reads herself) for the last third. And I liked it much better. Somehow, hearing her interpretation of the words made them sound more genuine and authentic. Given the fact that she does do a lot of public speaking, I guess this makes sense--maybe this book is a little like poetry: it makes more sense when it is read aloud.

Also, for all of my cynicism, I was actually incredibly impressed with her own vulnerability and the way she opened up and shared some very personal stories, some of which did not always put her in the best light. She has gone through some extremely difficult and challenging and heart wrenching things, and I respect her for being honest and open in the hopes that by so doing, she will help others through their own hard things.

The book wasn't all for naught. Besides finding some of her stories really captivating and interesting, I also had a couple of takeaways.

The first was when she was talking about goals and developing habits. She said, "It's much easier to add a habit than to take one away." Even though I kind of pride myself on being able to make and achieve goals, when she said that, a little light bulb clicked on for me. Suddenly I could see why I was having a hard time eating more healthily. It sounds a little bit stupid when I write it out, but I was trying to cut the junk food out of my life without filling it in with nutritious foods. I was trying to break a habit of bad eating instead of creating a new habit of healthy eating.

The second thing I really loved was when she quoted Tony Robbins, who said, "If you're going to blame your hard times for all the things that are wrong in your life, you better also blame them for the good stuff, too." Without getting into the details because I think that's Rachel's story to tell, she shared the traumatic experience of losing her brother and then acknowledging that some positive things came out of that horrible event. This was a little bit mind-blowing to me. While I definitely believe that God can turn all experiences for our good, I've always been hesitant to acknowledge that good because it feels wrong to be at all grateful for something bad. But this insight gave me a new perspective.

I feel a little like a jerk for criticizing certain aspects of this book, but I always try to give as honest of a review as possible. And the truth is, I wasn't in love with this one. (And thankfully, I know Rachel won't be reading this review because "my opinion isn't any of her business anyway.")

I have a feeling this might be somewhat of a polarizing book. What did you think of it?

A Little of This and That in March

Apr 5, 2019

I was a fan of March. There was still a fair amount of snow, but the weather cooperated when it mattered (and we can always use more snow . . . or so I'm told). We enjoyed time together as a family and made some good memories, such as . . . 

Celebrating . . . a shiny new nine-year-old. We kicked off the month with Maxwell's birthday. Every year, I am always so grateful that he ended up being born ten days late, which put his birthday in March instead of February. March just sounds like spring. Max was pretty easy to please for this birthday because he just wanted the last three Hazardous Tales books so that he would have the complete series. He received a few other things as well (including tickets to a Vocal Point concert--see below). He invited a couple of friends to go bowling that night (which was infinitely less stressful than planning a huge friend party). And we had my parents over for a dragonfly cake a couple of days later.

Growing . . . out of their clothes. All of my boys suddenly seem to be wearing pants that are too short for them. I feel like this happens every spring. And I always want to hold out just a couple more months so that they can just switch to shorts for the summer before we go up to the next size in the fall.

Cheering . . . on my brother, Christian, at his church basketball game. It was quite entertaining. Christian has endless energy and darts around the court popping up in front of opposing players to block and distract them. I think you'd have to watch it to really get the full impact. I should probably mention that my brother is developmentally delayed but he is extremely loyal and committed, and his teammates are so supportive and kind to him. And my kids were all convinced that Christian was the most valuable member on the team. The opposing team didn't have any subs, so Christian literally wore them out, and his team ended up winning (their first and only win this season!).

Debating . . . when to have our neighborhood pie party. We usually try to hold it as close to March 14th (Pi Day) as possible. So when the week of Pi Day rolled around, we looked at the forecast. We could see a storm on Wednesday, but Saturday looked beautiful. We decided to take a gamble and plan it. We started telling our neighbors, Mike requested Friday off of work, and we cancelled other weekend plans. And then, we woke up on Wednesday morning to snow. This wasn't exactly a surprise, but what we weren't expecting was for it to snow all day long and accumulate several inches on the ground. We figured Saturday would be nice, as predicted, but would there still be snow on the ground? We moved forward with the preparations, and as late as Friday afternoon, I was still thinking we might have made a mistake because that snow just refused to melt! But then, the sun came out, the temperature inched up a few more degrees, and the snow magically disappeared. And that was a good thing because by that point, we had crossed the point of no return.

Baking . . . and eating ALL the pies! Our fifth annual Pie Day was a huge success. Mike baked 44 pies, which included eleven different kinds: cherry, pumpkin, pecan, caramel apple, strawberry, pumpkin custard, coconut creme, key lime, lemon sour cream, Reese's peanut butter, and chocolate. He began his pie-baking marathon on Thursday night and finished 36 hours later on Saturday morning. It was intense. We had more than 180 family, friends, and neighbors drop by for a piece. The weather was sunny and gorgeous. It felt like everyone was coming out of hibernation and we were finally welcoming spring!

Competing . . . in state Future Problem Solvers (FPS). One afternoon, Aaron came home from school with a packet of papers explaining that his FPS group had moved onto the state level of competition and that he and his team members would need to get together to create a skit they could perform at the award ceremony later in the month. I . . . had no idea what any of this was about. Luckily, one of the other moms had already had several children compete in FPS, and so she gathered the group together and helped them plan their skit. Over the course of the week, they got together four times, both to write the script, make the props, and rehearse. As part of the skit, they had to present both a problem and demonstrate a solution. They did a parody on High School Musical. There were sixteen groups competing, and many of the skits were difficult to hear and understand, but Aaron's group spoke loudly and with great diction, and the whole performance was quite polished. His group ended up winning first place in the skit competition (and the two other groups from his class won second and third). It was a pretty fun evening, and on the way home, Aaron told me, "I was ELATED when we won!" (And now I know what Future Problem Solvers is in case any of my other kids do it in future years.)

Watching . . . High School Musical. When Aaron's FPS group decided to base their skit around High School Musical, I asked Aaron if he had ever even seen the movie. He hadn't. So we had to do an emergency viewing pronto. Meanwhile, Aaron and Maxwell's classes were going on a field trip to a nearby junior high to see their production of High School Musical 2. So Maxwell also had to do an emergency viewing so that he would know the basic story before seeing the sequel (and he had to do it on another evening since he wasn't home when Aaron watched it). And then, after they saw the play, they all wanted to see the actual movie of High School Musical 2. Max has also asked to listen to the music several times. Mike and I were also going to see the junior high production because our niece happened to be in the ensemble. But she ended up getting sick on the night we were going to go, so we skipped out because by that point I was feeling a little sick of High School Musical. It was so bizarre how so much of our everyday lives revolved around this story for the month of March. I never could have predicted it.

Speaking . . . in exclamatory sentences. No one loves an exclamation as much as Ian does, and now he has a large repertoire of phrases to choose from: "Oh, darn it!" "What the heck!" "Oh my gosh!" "Oh boy!" "Oh my goodness!" "Guess what?!" "Oh dear!" "Oh man!" There is something about hearing those words in his sweet little voice that makes them infinitely cuter.

Listening . . . to this episode from the This is the Gospel podcast. I love to hear individual stories about journeys of faith, but Dusty's story took it to another level. He joined the Church as a young man, but after a few years, he left it. And he didn't just leave but vocally opposed and criticized the Church and sought to convince others to leave as well. But then, after many years and a series of miraculous events, he came back. His story had me openly weeping, and it went straight onto my list of things to listen to if my own faith ever needs a pick-me-up. Highly, highly recommend.

Treating . . . Maxwell to a Vocal Point concert for his birthday. Mike and I took Max on a little afternoon date to see BYU's male a cappella group. It was fantastic. And Maxwell has been beatboxing ever since.

Taking . . . a spring break trip down to southern Utah. Our main objective was to visit Mike's grandma and a couple of his aunts and uncles, but we managed to squeeze in a bunch of other activities as well (see below).

Hiking . . . around Hovenweep National Monument and Arches National Park. This was the first time I'd been to Hovenweep, and I loved it. The hike took us around a bunch of ancient Puebloan ruins, and it was totally different than anything we'd ever seen before. Also, it was just really cool to think about how long these buildings have survived and imagine the people that used to live in them. Although we've been to Arches many times, we went on the hike to Landscape Arch, which we haven't done in years, and we continued the hike beyond it, which we haven't done before. And on both days, we enjoyed the most gorgeous weather and very minimal crowds (especially at Hovenweep).

Standing . . . in four states at once. I have wanted to visit Four Corners for a long time, but it always just felt so far out of the way. But this time, we made it happen. And, turns out, it really is in the middle of nowhere, and there really isn't much to do except strike a pose on the four corners spot, but we all still thought it was really cool. There was a line to take photos, and we ended up standing in line three times because I kept wanting to get different pictures but I didn't want to hog the spot for too long. So our time looked a little like: take photos, order Navajo tacos from the fry bread truck, eat lunch, take photos, walk around and look at everything being sold by the vendors, take more photos, leave.

Playing . . . with cousins. We went on our spring break trip with Mike's sister, Sonja, her husband, Rob, and their kids. It made the trip at least three times, probably more like ten times, as fun as it would have been otherwise. Steven, Andrew, Addie, and Laura are so kind and helpful and creative. I always hope their good examples will rub off on my kids, and I think they did at least a little bit on this trip because my kids had good attitudes during all of our activities, even when they got tired or hot or hungry. We'll go on a trip with them anytime (although I don't know if they feel the same . . . ).

Finding . . . out at the last possible minute that Aaron was competing at the district debate tournament in the informational speech category. Okay, I exaggerate . . . slightly. His teacher sent out an email with details about the debate tournament, and I only gave it a passing glance until I caught Aaron's name in the list of competitors. It was literally the day before the competition. And Aaron had said nary a word about it. I have no idea when he was planning to tell me. Maybe he was just going to phone me from the school the next afternoon and say, "Hey, Mom! I need a ride to Magna right now." Luckily, it all worked out. He had his speech all memorized and ready to go, so even if he left his mom in the dark, I was proud of him for being prepared. And now he's going onto state! (But at least he told me about that.) 

Rooting . . . for Aaron (silently, of course, because this was serious, academic business) at the State Geography Bee. It was nerve wracking, but he kept his cool and did great. He finished in the top third of the competitors, and, considering that he was up against sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, I'd say that's something to be proud of! As you can see, it was a very busy month for Aaron.

Starting . . . but not finishing several knitting projects. I currently have a sweater with one sleeve and most of the body, one slipper, and about a fourth of a lace cowl. The slippers and the cowl have been put on hold for the moment as I try to finish up the sweater (and start another top . . . oops). Maybe I'll have something to show off next month.

Catching . . . our first few signs of spring. They're slow in coming this year, but at the end of the month, the trees were just getting ready to unfurl. My favorite.

There's always more I could share, but I think that's a good place to end for this month. What were you up to?


All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

Mar 30, 2019

This book. I had a friend recommend it to me a couple of years ago. I hadn't heard anything about it before, and I didn't hear anything else about it after that. But something made me keep it on my to-read list, and I kept circling back around to it until I finally had time (thank you, no reading goals!) to listen to it.

And, friends, this book. I loved it so much. I think it might end up being like Navigating Early for me where you might not love it as much, but then please don't tell me about it because it will make my heart hurt if you don't.

The story grabbed me right away because it was so wildly different from anything I'd ever read before: Perry Cook has lived all twelve years of his life at the Blue River Co-Ed Correctional Facility. It's an unusual arrangement to be sure, but Warden Daugherty is one to think outside the box, and it has worked out quite well for everyone. And now his mom is about to get paroled, which means the two of them are making plans for life outside Blue River.

But then everything comes grinding to a halt. The district attorney, Thomas Van Lear, looks over Perry's mom's case and is disturbed to discover that Perry has been living at a jail for all of these years. Not only is he concerned for Perry's safety and well-being, but he also wonders if Jessica has truly served out her sentence by being granted special treatment to raise her son. In a quick turn of events, Jessica's hearing is put on hold and Perry is removed from the facility and placed in the Van Lear home temporarily. It rocks Perry's world and feels unjust. Even realizing that his best friend, Zoe, is Van Lear's stepdaughter doesn't make things better. He misses his mom and his many mentors and the life he has always known.

But he tries to remember Big Ed's advice: "'Win-win.' That's Big Ed's . . . motto for being a successful resident. The first win means you count all small, good things that happen to you every day . . . The second win means you do things that bring victories to others. I've heard Big Ed say it at least a hundred times: No matter where you live, you have a community of some kind, and you can be a contributor." And so that's exactly what Perry does. And as he looks for the good and listens to the experiences of the residents for a school assignment, he realizes that there's always more to someone's story than you might think at first glance, and if he can help others to see that, then maybe, just maybe, he can use that to reunite with his mom on the outside.

See? Different, right? And you might think that a boy living in a correctional facility wouldn't be believable, but it totally was, and I just loved Perry so much from the get-go. And I liked that he was who he was because of the environment he was raised in: people had made mistakes but they were trying turn around their lives and make things right, and they passed on a lot of wisdom in the process.

One of the things I really appreciated in this book was that Mr. Van Lear was not a clear-cut bad guy. You kind of wanted to hate him because he was so insensitive and rigid, but at the same time, he was doing what he truly thought was right, and you couldn't blame him for that. I think it takes real talent to create a believable character you can be sympathetic towards even as he continues to hurt the main character.

I also really liked that there were a few short, infrequent chapters told from Jessica's point of view. It's fairly unusual to get an adult's perspective in a middle grade novel, but it worked and added just a little more depth to the story.

In the midst of all of Perry's anxiety about his mom and his new situation, there was a little secondary plot between Perry and the school bully, Brian Morris. And again, just like with Mr. Van Lear, Brian wasn't one-dimensional. Even as he was being mean to Perry, he was showing another side of himself, and when things finally resolved between them, it wasn't hard to accept.

I did end up having one issue with the plot, and it was fairly significant because it involved Jessica's sentence and Perry's father. I won't go into detail here because there was a bit of a mystery that I wouldn't want to ruin. But I will say that in spite of some rather gaping holes, I still loved this book. I can't explain myself. I don't know why with some stories, a similar oversight would have been unforgivable, but here I was completely willing to turn a blind eye and extend my belief. It doesn't make sense, but I think it must have something to do with the characters. I loved them all so much that I guess I was fine with an unresolved issue here and there. Reading is like that sometimes. In this case, I connected with the characters, and it made all the difference.

Content note: There is some mild swearing. And also, some of the subject matter might initiate some mature questions.

15 of Ian's Favorite Board Books Right Now

Mar 22, 2019

In my last monthly update, I shared the good news that Ian has finally joined the literary ranks in our family. He is happy listening to books for long amounts of time (we actually don't know what his limit is because we always seem to give up before he does). Luckily, he has six people willing to read to him, so he can usually find someone available for a book (or ten).

Here are fifteen of his most recent favorites. Some will undoubtedly be familiar to you; I wasn't necessarily going for a new and original list--instead, I was trying to give a pretty solid representation of his favorite books at this moment in time. But I hope there will be at least a few on here that you haven't heard of before that you'll want to share with your own little one.

Dinosaur Dance by Sandra Boynton
Sandra Boynton's Barnyard Dance has long been a favorite of our family's. If you feel similarly, then you will most certainly love this companion hoe-down, especially the tiny little dino who loves to cha-cha-cha!

Bird, Fly High! by Petr Horáček
One of Mike's cousins recommended this to me as one of her all-time favorite board books (and that's saying something because she has ten children . . . can you imagine how many times she has probably read this one???). It is no longer in print, but I ordered a used copy. I love the simple cutouts and repetitive text, and I will always, always enjoy Petr Horáček's illustrations.

Where's the Dog? by Ingela P. Arrhenius
I just have two words for you: felt flaps. Little hands can't bend, tear, or rip them, which means this book is basically indestructible. There is a whole series of these sweet, felt-flap books, and if I'd discovered them two years ago, I think I would have bought them all. As it is, we only have this one because the text is very simplistic, and Ian has almost outgrown it.

Peck, Peck, Peck by Lucy Cousins
When Daddy Woodpecker teaches his young son the vital skill of pecking, Junior Woodpecker takes it to a whole new level. He pecks everything in sight: the tennis racket, the sink, the clock, and seventeen jelly beans. And each thing he pecks becomes a hole in the book. This is one of Lucy Cousins' lesser known books but very clever nonetheless.

If You See a Cow by Ana Larranaga
This is a simple board book that encourages lots of interaction (beyond just lifting up the flaps): "If you see a cow, say MOO!" The companion book, If You See a Tiger, invites even greater participation, including stamping feet and whispering "Shhhhh."

Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
A classic board book, but one that wasn't a part of our home until Clark was a baby. Now our whole family loves it, and Ian can get just about anyone to read it to him. He has now heard it enough times that he has memorized most of the different adjectives and can decisively close up each flap while declaring: "He was too fierce!" or "He was too naughty!"

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle
I hadn't made a point of pulling out this book for Ian. But he found it one day and instantly fell head over heels for it. I am repeatedly amazed at the universal appeal of this book. It continues to delight the newest generation of littles.

Pelican's Bill by Kathy Knight and Kate Stone
I bought this book purely because of its unique construction. On each page, you slide up Pelican's head to reveal what is inside his bill. Even though one of my kids somehow managed to slide the piece beyond its stopper and pull it all the way out, we were able to put it back in, and it has held up remarkably well.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambalt, illus. Lois Ehlert
I wish I could peek inside Ian's mind and see what he's actually thinking about when we read this book. He is too young to understand what letters are or what they can do. Does he just think they're cool shapes trying to get up a coconut tree? Regardless, he loves this book, and I can't think of anything cuter than hearing him say, "Chicka chicka boom boom" and "Flip flap flee."

Doggies by Sandra Boynton
Just going to be honest here that this might be my least favorite Sandra Boynton book of all time. The text is made up almost entirely of different dog sounds that build on each other and are repeated over and over again. It's a pain to read, especially when I don't know what things like "nnn...nnn...nnn" or "Rrowff" are even supposed to really sound like. But I've obliged and read this to Ian probably at least fifty times because it makes him so happy. Maybe I could get him to take over with the sounds?

Little Cloud by Eric Carle
Not one of Eric Carle's most popular books but still a sweet and simple story about a little cloud who gets separated from his family and spends the day turning into all sorts of random shapes. For some reason, I'm always surprised that Ian likes this one, but he continues to ask for it.

Run Home, Little Mouse by Britta Teckentrup
This is not a new book, but it is a recent discovery for us. A little mouse has to hurry home through the dark forest. On every page, he encounters a pair of menacing eyes that he has to run away from. A little bit scary, but don't worry, he makes it home safe and sound.

Pizza by Lotta Nieminen
If you have not yet been introduced to these interactive recipe board books, allow me to be the first to do so! In this one, the reader gets to pour in the ingredients (I love sliding out the salt and sugar tab and watching them sprinkle into the bowl), stir up the dough, knead it, and finally take out a slice of pizza and enjoy. Other books in the series are Pancakes, Cookies, and Tacos.

Faster! Faster! by Leslie Patricelli
What kid doesn't love to get a ride on Daddy's back and say, "Giddy up, Horsie!" In this book, a little girl urges her dad to faster and faster speeds--first a dog, then a cheetah, even a falcon--until he just runs out of steam and turns into a turtle. Such a cute story and one that I have loved for many years.

Go Away, Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley
As far as I know, there is not a board book edition of this book, but I wish there was. Each page has intricate cutouts that gradually build the monster up before shouting "You don't scare me!" and then breaking him back down. I am always fearful that overeager hands are going to tear the pages, so a sturdy board book would be a winner. But Ian cares nothing about that. The only thing that matters to him is saying, "And don't come back! Until I say so."

Are any of these favorites at your house, too? Do you have any others to share with me? (I can only read Brown Bear Brown Bear so many times . . . )

Where the Wind Leads by Vinh Chung

Mar 15, 2019

If I know you personally, chances are I've already recommended this book to you. For the rest of you, that's what this review is for.

Vinh Chung, the fifth child in a wealthy family, was born in Vietnam just months before America pulled out of the war and the country fell to the communists. In a matter of days, his family lost everything they had worked for years to build and accumulate--their home, their business, their savings. For three years, they eked out a living before deciding it was too dangerous and crippling to raise a family under such circumstances. They risked everything to leave Vietnam.

But in leaving, they traded one danger for another: they found themselves on a Malaysian beach where no one wanted them, then abandoned in the middle of the ocean, then very nearly capsized by pirates. Eventually, miraculously, they made it to America (Arkansas, to be exact) where Vinh's father took menial jobs to support his family. He ended up foregoing his own dreams so his children (who numbered eleven by the time it was all said and done) could have a chance. And they took that chance and ran with it.

I haven't read a story that inspired me this much in a long time.

I had three realizations while reading it:

First, I guess I knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War. And because this story largely takes place after the war, I still know almost nothing about it. But now I know that I don't know anything about it. And I can also see why it was such a controversial war.

Second, refugees must be in the top tier of brave, heroic, determined individuals. I mean, right? Vinh's family's situation was impossible. They couldn't stay in Vietnam, but they couldn't leave either. And when they finally did leave, they put themselves at the mercy of other individuals and governments and countries, and no one wanted them. At one point, Vinh said, "Once again we were powerless, unable to control our direction or destiny. The Malaysians had the big ship, and we were consigned to the tiny boats; we danced behind them like wooden puppets on strings. They could take us anywhere they wanted, at any speed they wanted, for as long as they wanted and we had no way to stop until they allowed us to." That must be such a terrifying feeling--to know that you have no control over your own life and yet realizing that the only way you can possibly make it to the other side is by giving it everything you have. And I'm not even talking about when they actually finally make it to America. That's a whole other endeavor--finding a job, supporting a family, learning a new language and culture and customs, missing family members who were left behind, encountering racial prejudices, and being relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Third, hard things are somewhat easier to handle when seen through the lens of a young child. Vinh was a very young child when all of this was happening (I think he was three years old when they left Vietnam). His memories of the hardships and tragedies they faced are very dim. He said, "I have no memory of Bac Lieu or Soc Trang or our little farm with its ducks and geese and pigs. My very first memory in life is the moment I was dropped into that warm ocean water on the beach in Malaysia." Of course, he fills in those details with memories from his parents and older siblings, but because of this emotional distance, some of the atrocities aren't as soul-sucking as they might be otherwise. And I wonder if he kept this innocent filter over the top on purpose so that the story sounded of hope rather than misery. (But still, no matter how you spin it, there are some things, like towing 293 people out into the middle of the ocean and then abandoning them with no supplies, that can't be given much of a silver lining.)

Beyond those things, the book surprised me in two ways.

First, Vinh Chung was quite funny. At first, I thought it was a little cheesy, but after just a few chapters, I found it completely endearing. Also, I was kind of amazed that he could find anything to joke about in such a dark, hopeless situation. Granted, this was written almost forty years after the fact, but still. Some might look at it and think that his humor was inappropriate given the gravity of the topic, but I think it helped ease some of the tension, and also, I think you can't overestimate the strength that having a sense of humor can give you both in the present moment and also after it's all over while you're still dealing with the repercussions. Here are a couple of examples to give you a little taste:"
"One night my mother dreamed she was in the marketplace in Soc Trang along with our entire family. Grandmother Chung wasn't there--it was a dream, not a nightmare--nor was my uncle or his family." (Grandmother Chung may have ruled the family with a bit of an iron fist.)
The humor was a mixture of slap-stick, dry, and sarcastic:
"My father couldn't wait to try out his brand-new rice cooker, but when he went to plug it in, he discovered that Singapore used a different voltage and his rice cooker would not work in America--a fact the merchants back in Singapore had somehow forgotten to mention. Oh well. At least he could listen to his boom box. Oops." 
And second, I was not expecting Vinh's story to have a deeply spiritual undertone. But it did. His whole family converted to Christianity after arriving in America as a result of some miracles they experienced on their journey, as well as a dream his mother received and also the community they found in the church they joined.

Vinh said, "There are times when an apparent coincidence is so incredible and so perfectly coordinated that it forces us to wonder whether there must have been purpose behind it." And it may have been this, more than his humor or innocence, that made this story feel so hopeful. Vinh's family was able to see God's hand in their lives, and they expressed their gratitude for it. They worked hard, they didn't complain about the unfairness of their lives, and they rose above it all in a beautiful, miraculous way.

I hope you'll give this book a try.
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