Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Feb 29, 2020

Just a heads up: In the course of this review, I mention a couple of things that might be considered spoilers, so continue at your own risk.

When I was a kid, I can remember seeing both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Cold Sassy Tree on our bookshelves. Not knowing anything about either of them, I kind of thought of them as the same book--probably because they both had the word "tree" in their titles.

As an adult, I eventually picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn almost ten years ago, and I fell in love with everything about it. But Cold Sassy Tree remained unread, even though it seemed to get tossed around quite often as a suggestion at various book clubs over the years. It finally landed when my book club planned out our reading for 2020 and voted to read it in February for the relationships genre.

And surprisingly, even though the protagonists, storylines, and settings are markedly different between the two books, there was something about the writing that actually did end up reminding me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Maybe it was just all in my head from my association with the two books in my childhood, but a certain quality under the surface seemed to resonate in each of these two books. Maybe it is just that both of them seem to exude that sharp and vibrant writing style that marks them as a modern classic. (Other books that have a similar feeling to me: Crossing to Safety, To Kill a Mockingbird, and East of Eden.)

The story is told from the 14-year-old perspective of Will Tweety in 1906. He lives in the town of Cold Sassy, Georgia with his mother, father, sister, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, and cousin. His grandfather, E. Rucker Blakeslee, owns the general store and is well respected in the community.

That is, well respected until his wife, Mattie Lou, passes away and, not three weeks after her funeral, he elopes with the milliner, Miss Love Simpson. Mary Willis and Loma (Will's mother and aunt) are so mortified and ashamed of their father. They'll have absolutely nothing to do with Miss Love.

But Will likes her. She is kind and young (more than 20 years Mr. Blakeslee's junior), and so pretty. Ostracized from the rest of the town, she takes Will into her confidence, explaining that the marriage was really a business arrangement. Mr. Blakeslee gets a housekeeper, and she gets deeded the house and the furniture after his death.

But regardless of what it started out as, it is soon clear to Will that his grandfather has strong feelings for Miss Love, and Miss Love is slowly but surely reciprocating.

I don't know what I was expecting exactly, but this story unfolded in the most surprising way. Remember, it was told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy; and while I didn't always enjoy being in the head of said 14-year-old (ahem, puberty), I have to admit that it cast the story in an interesting and compelling light. It felt so authentic and real that I couldn't quite fathom how a 60-year-old woman had written it.

Speaking of which, I enjoyed the writing style so much that I looked up Olive Ann Burns after I was finished to see what else she had written. Tragically, much like Harper Lee, it looks as though she was a one-book wonder. But I can't help but think that if her one and only book was this good, imagine what else she might have produced.

One of my favorite characters was Mr. Blakeslee. I loved the way he pushed against social constructs and laid aside conventionality in favor of what he deemed was right or proper . . . or just what he selfishly wanted. For example, when Miss Love is dismissed from being the Methodist pianist, he sees it as an opportunity to have a good time, just the two of them, singing and preaching together. (His religious views were rather unorthodox as well, but I loved them.) At another point, after Will's Uncle Campbell commits suicide, rather than making the whole affair feel shameful and unforgivable, Mr. Blakeslee pours out compassion and expects the whole town to come along with him in honoring the man. (It's quite possible that his actions were also a reflection of the guilt he felt, but it helped the town move forward in a positive way nonetheless.)

The most tender moment for me, and the one I'll probably always remember from this book, occurred when Will read the suicidal note from his uncle. The P.S. said, "I fixed the faucet," which alone about broke my heart since it was something his wife, Loma, had been nagging him to do for a long time. But then Will noticed that "even as I stood there holding his sweet and lonely words, I heard water going 'drip, drip, drip' into the bathtub." It was too much for me. It made me so sad to think that this man felt like he couldn't do anything right, and then, just before he took his own life, he tried to do something that would make his wife happy. But it hadn't worked; the faucet was still dripping. But then Will, in spite of all of his mischievous and naughty ways, picked up the wrench and changed the washer because, in his words, "nobody was going to say Campbell Williams was so sorry that he couldn't even fix a faucet." There were many heartbreaking moments in this story, but this one--this is the one that got to me.

I listened to the audio version of this book, and I thought it was fantastic. I never even cracked the cover of the actual book, so I never saw what the text was like. To me, the southern accents just flowed easily and naturally. But after going to book club and hearing about the experiences of those who had chosen to read rather than listen, I felt like I made the right choice. Apparently, the dialogue, which had been so engaging for me, was a bit of a beast to read when written out.

I was surprised to find out that this book was published in 1984. For some reason, I expected it to be older than that. I think it has that timeless feel that makes it difficult to place in a certain decade. I can see why many people think of it as a modern classic. It is multi-layered and vivid and just so real. 

The Truth About Aaron's Numbers

Feb 22, 2020

If I talk to you in person and you ask how Aaron is doing, chances are I will say something like, "He's doing really well. His counts are looking good."

This is true.

His platelets have been in the normal range for months now. He hasn't needed a blood transfusion in twelve weeks. He has neutrophils.

But what I might not tell you is that there are some things we are "just going to keep watching," as the doctors say.

One of those things is Aaron's chimerism. (P.S., I am going to do my best to give an accurate explanation of medical terminology and data, but please be patient with my limited vocabulary and expertise.)

A chimerism, you might remember, is when a person has two sets of DNA in their body. Ever since his bone marrow transplant, Aaron has had both his own DNA and Maxwell's. About once a month, he gets a blood draw to check the ratio of Maxwell's DNA to his own.

The cells that his doctors are most interested in are the T-cells (one of the types of white blood cells). It was Aaron's T-cells that attacked his bone marrow and caused the problem in the first place, and we really don't want them to do that again.

Right now, Aaron has a mixture of his and Maxwell's T-cells in his blood. For the past several months, we've been tracking those T-cells with increasing interest. When they were first measured in October, the T-cells were 47% Maxwell's and 53% Aaron's. When they were measured in December, we were all happy to find out that Maxwell's cells had increased to 75%. But the next month, they unfortunately dropped back down to 66%.

Before I could panic too much, Aaron's doctor assured me of a few things:

  1. One lower value does not actually reveal anything. In fact, if the numbers were plotted on a graph, they would still indicate an upward trend. Without more data, it is best not to draw any premature conclusions. (And incidentally, when Aaron's chimerism was checked this month, Maxwell's T-cells were at 69%, so even though it wasn't a significant gain, at least it didn't drop again.)
  2. The T-cells are just one small component of bone marrow. And at this point, all of the other blood cells are 100% Maxwell's. To put that into perspective, even though the T-cells are only 69% Max's, when all of the other cells are accounted for, Aaron's bone marrow is now something like 95% Maxwell's, which is pretty darn close to 100%. (It's just that the T-cells are the most critical to Aaron's full recovery so that is why they get more than their fair share of attention.)
  3. The anti-rejection drug that Aaron is still on suppresses the T-cells. It's critical to suppress those cells so that Aaron's bone marrow has a chance to heal without his own cells attacking Maxwell's or vice versa. So we really can't get a clear interpretation of what's happening until he comes off of that medication and his immune system fully wakes back up. (They will begin the weaning process next month.)
  4. It is common for the T-cells in bone marrow transplant patients to never reach 100% donor. As long as the two different DNA's play nicely together, it really doesn't matter if there are still a few of Aaron's cells in the mix. In fact, our doctor said that having both DNA's can actually help protect against GVHD (Graft Versus Host Disease) in the future. 
So that is why we have to just watch and wait right now: we can't do anything until we know more, and we can't know more until more time has passed.

The other thing we're watching is Aaron's cellular activity. When he was originally diagnosed, his cellular activity was less than 5%. Although it is normal for cellular activity to decrease with age, our doctor said that typical cellularity for an 11-year-old is about 80%. 

I was excited to find out what Aaron's cell activity is like now since it is obvious he is maintaining pretty consistent numbers (even if some of them are not in the normal range yet). When he got his central line removed last month, his doctor did a bone marrow biopsy to determine this.

The results were . . . disappointing. His cell activity came back at 20%, which seemed low to me. Dr. Boyer said at 100 days post transplant, they see that percentage anywhere from 10 to 50. So Aaron's results are not abnormal, but Dr. Boyer did admit that he's "on the low end." Knowing only a few other individuals with aplastic anemia, I have very little to compare to, but the ones I know all had a higher cellularity at this point, which makes it feel like Aaron is behind even if he is not. 

So that is why, even though Aaron's counts are looking good (they really are!), I feel like I have to keep the worst case scenario somewhere at the back of my mind. (I admit, this might not be the best idea for my mental health, but I can't seem to help myself.)

And what is the "worst case scenario," you ask? Well, that's the good news. 

If this bone marrow transplant doesn't end up working, then Aaron will have to do it again.

How could that possibly be good news? Because he gets a second chance (or even a third or fourth chance if necessary). This isn't cancer. A failed attempt does not mean some foreign cells are slowly taking over his body. Rather, his bone marrow just didn't figure things out on the first try and needs another pass at it. 

Of course, it would mean starting the process completely over, and that would really stink. Like, really truly. But we have a donor (although I shudder to think what said donor would do if we told him we needed his bone marrow once again), and we could do it.

But really, I'm getting ahead of myself. Even with the less-than-perfect numbers, all indicators still point to a full and complete recovery. 

And in the words of Dr. Boyer, "I can promise you we'll get this right. There's a slight chance we might have to do again, but in the end, we will get it. No question about it."

I'm banking on that and looking to the future with an eye of faith and hope. We have seen many miracles so far and trust that Aaron's healing will continue to go smoothly. Please continue to keep him in your prayers. 

A Little of This and That in January

Feb 9, 2020

We made it through January! This felt like a real accomplishment, especially because I didn't have a warm-weather trip to break it up this year. We managed to stay busy with . . .

Trying . . . to defy the school district. Following Christmas break, school resumed on Thursday, January 2nd. I felt like this was totally unreasonable for a number of reasons, so I told my kids that if they didn't want to go back to school until Monday, then they had my full permission to do so. Sadly, I guess I've instilled a love of rules into them because both Maxwell and Bradley did not want to miss a day. So they went back to school. Then I realized that the end of term was literally the end of the next week, and the Martin Luther King holiday was the week after that. I don't know who is signing off on these school calendars, but it doesn't seem like it could be that hard to rearrange the dates a little so that the breaks line up in a more convenient way. The other school districts somehow seem to be able to manage it.

Watching . . . the new Little Women. Oh, my heart. I loved this movie so much. I started to cry when the sisters chose to give up their Christmas breakfast for the Hummel family, and then my tears pretty much didn't stop for the rest of the movie. They streamed down my cheeks, and by the time it was done, the scarf around my neck was wet. I loved where they chose to start (and end) the story, the casting, and the intersection between Jo's past and present. It was told so beautifully and perfectly. Seeing this new adaptation fired up all of my love for Little Women, which inspired . . .

Starting . . . a marathon of Little Women adaptations. My sister and I discussed the new Little Women at length (we didn't see it together), reliving all of our favorite scenes and admitting a few of the minor flaws. We decided we needed to watch as many of the past adaptations as we could find in an ongoing movie marathon. We were going to start with the 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn, but after watching the trailer, we decided that even our great love for old movies couldn't stomach that much melodrama. So we watched the 2017 Masterpiece miniseries first instead. And then, the next weekend we watched the 1994 version, and my mom came, too. Next up will be the 1949 adaptation.

Celebrating . . . my 35th birthday. My mom took me out for lunch and a pedicure. Mike got me big, soft cookies in place of a cake (a good decision!). And I got a serger, which I've been wanting for awhile even though I have no room for it. I've already used it to make the comfiest sweatshirt I've ever owned. It was a good day.

Finishing . . . Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We started our annual Harry Potter reading in August. Mike read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with Bradley and Clark, and I read the fifth book with Maxwell and Aaron. Clocking in at 870 pages, it felt like a true marathon. We didn’t read much during the month Aaron was in the hospital, and we took a little break in December so that we could do one Christmassy readaloud, but we finally finished this month. We enjoyed it very much, but man, it was a tough one to read. That Dolores Umbridge has to be one of the worst characters in all of literature. I felt an actual hatred towards her.

Saying . . . goodbye to his central line. I already wrote about this, but Aaron's central line was removed on January 10th, and we haven't missed it once (well, maybe Aaron has just a little on the days when he has to have a blood draw).

Playing . . . Pictionary. January was full of a lot of quiet evenings at home where we said, “Well, what should we do tonight?” On one of those nights, Mike said, “How about a game of Pictionary?” We divided up into two teams of three each with Ian acting as the time keeper, and we had the best time. I don’t usually like Pictionary because I don’t have any artistic skills and consequently feel quite self-conscious, but I didn’t mind one bit if my kids made fun of my bad drawings. They all liked it so much that we had to play a couple more matches during the rest of the month. We mixed up the teams each time, and I managed to go undefeated.

Wondering . . . if Ian has a personal mission against his parents’ eyesight. In the past few months he has: broken a pair of Mike’s glasses, washed my contacts down the sink, put soap into Mike’s contact case (and Mike then put those contacts into his eyes . . . ouch), lost multiple contact cases, and (most recently) lost my glasses, which we didn’t find for two days. For all of his sweetness, he is a mischievous one.

Beginning . . . family history classes. Before the end of the year, a friend of mine (Jill) asked if there was something she could teach Aaron. I was so grateful that she reached out about it. Even though homeschooling has been going great with him, the days get a little long. I thought it would do him good to have some interaction with another adult and learn something in the process. After tossing around several ideas, we settled on family history because it is something Jill has a particular passion for, and it is not something Aaron was already getting. It turns out family history is a rich, multi-layered subject with all sorts of different avenues to explore (religious, cultural, geographical, historical, etc.) So far, they have been looking at Mike's family line, tracing it back to the first ancestors who joined the Church and learning about where they came from and who they were. It's fascinating, and I have to admit it, has sparked my interest as well. Mostly though, I'm just grateful that Jill offered a skill she had and gave some of her time to us. It really touched my heart.

Receiving . . . the Aaronic Priesthood. With his twelfth birthday coming up later this year, Aaron was old enough to receive the Aaronic Priesthood and be ordained to the office of deacon. He hadn’t been to church since early September (but had participated with his class via FaceTime), but on the Sunday he was ordained, he donned a mask and came back to church for the first time. So it was a big day all around. We were grateful to have grandparents there to support him, and we are proud of Aaron for accepting greater responsibility and moving forward with faith.

Gallivanting . . . with friends. Clark is by far the most social of any of my kids (at least right now--don't want to prematurely label anyone!), and luckily he has a whole posse of neighborhood friends to keep him entertained. Every day when he gets home from school, he doesn't even pause long enough to take his backpack inside before he is knocking on doors and rounding up anyone who wants to play. I usually don't see him until dinnertime. And on Saturdays, he often spends the whole afternoon running back and forth between yards in an elaborate game of dinosaur hunt or icicle peddlers.

Agonizing . . . over whether my mom and I should visit my grandma in Nebraska. Early in the month, we decided to go, and we purchased plane tickets for the end of the month. But then Lincoln was hit was some pretty serious winter weather, and my grandma was convinced that the weather pattern would continue, so she asked us to cancel our trip. That was easier said than done since we couldn't get a refund on our tickets. So we just watched the weather for the week leading up to it and then finally decided the day before that it was good enough to go. In the end, our trip went so smoothly (I'll share more about it in my February update), but it caused a lot of anxiety and indecisiveness as we tried to figure out what to do.

Switching . . . choir practice to Thursday evenings. I've been accompanying my ward choir for the past five years, and during that time, we've almost always rehearsed either before or after church on Sundays. But this year, we decided to try Thursday evenings instead, and I'm so glad we did because it means that Mike can come and sing now, too. (However, after completely spacing it one Thursday, I realized it hasn't become a routine part of my schedule yet.)

Sledding . . . down Neff's Canyon. Mike and I got adventurous for our weekly date and went sledding . . . alone . . . in the dark . . . in the canyon. It was wild and crazy and fun, and we felt like we were college students again. (And yes, I was a little worried a cougar was going to eat us.)

Learning . . . how to do a back handspring. Bradley is still in gymnastics, and this month they began working on back handsprings. Bradley figured out the rhythm of it really quickly and was doing them on the floor without a spotter by the second class. I think watching him do it for the first time and seeing him look up at me in the bleachers with the proudest grin on his face will probably be one of those memories that will always be a favorite. Unfortunately, the back handspring led to . . .

Injuring . . . his neck. The day after Bradley learned how to do a back handspring, he was doing them at home (I mean, how could he let a skill like that grow cold?!). He didn't have a solid landing, and his neck took the brunt of the mishap. He had a very stiff neck for over a week and even a little trip to the emergency room just to make sure it wasn't anything more serious (it wasn't). We learned that it's probably best to really solidify skills before trying them at home.

Going . . . to weekly storytime at the library. When my big kids were little, it was rare for us to miss storytime, but in a case of true youngest child neglect, Ian has probably only been a couple of times during his entire life. So when one of my friends asked if we'd like to join them each week, I readily agreed. And it's been so great. Ian is past the age of wanting to run away from me (which was one of the things keeping me away) and just contentedly sits on my lap for the entire thirty minutes. (He's actually been a bit shy and hasn't even wanted to do any of the actions to the songs or finger stories yet, but he has still enjoyed it a lot.)

Getting . . . the sweetest note from Clark. One day, Clark and Ian were driving me crazy. They were mercilessly teasing and bothering each other, and after hearing one scream too many, I finally lost it. A little while later, Clark brought me a note, and my bad mood immediately vanished. Clark is so sensitive and loving, and the note was one of the most heartfelt things I've ever received.

Competing . . . in a chess tournament. One of Max's friends invited him to go to a chess tournament. Even though Max loves chess, we've always avoided tournaments in the past because they are all-day affairs, and it's hard to give up an entire Saturday for chess. But since his friend offered to take him, we let him go. He loved it so much that we might not be able to avoid it anymore in the future.

Celebrating . . . my Grandma Lois' birthday. She has been gone for almost twenty years, but she would have been 114, so we decided to honor her at a family party. My mom made one of my great-grandma's signature dishes. She also displayed some old photographs and knickknacks. She even filled up the cream colored candy dish with spice drops, just like Grandma Lois always did. I just thought it was so fun to share memories of her life and spend some time thinking about her.

I think that's a wrap on January! Tell me about something you did to chase away the winter blues.

Lovely War by Julie Berry

Feb 3, 2020

The last book review I wrote was at the end of July, over six months ago.

I can't believe it has been so long since I have graced this blog with my deep thoughts after finishing a book.

But this is a book worth breaking my silence for. It is difficult to write a review of a book I hated (or had mixed feelings about). But it is exhilarating to talk about a book where I loved every single page. And that's what I get to do this time.
The basic premise of the book might sound a little strange at first, but stay with me. I promise it works beautifully.

The story begins in 1942 in a hotel room in New York City. Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love) has just been caught by her husband, Hephaestus, having an affair with his brother, Ares (the Greek god of war).

Ensnared in an incriminating golden net, Aphrodite pleads guilty but begs for a chance to explain. She says, "Do you want to see what real love looks like? Do you want to hear about my favorites? Some of my finest work?"

When Hephaestus relents, Aphrodite begins, "I'll tell you the story of an ordinary girl and an ordinary boy--a true story. No, I'll do one better; I'll tell you two."

And with that, she takes her audience back in time to London in 1917 where Hazel Windercott meets James Aldridge at a parish dance, and it is as close to love at first sight as one can get. Their romance is adorably sweet and innocent but lasts only a few days before James reports for duty in the Great War.

The second love story involves Colette Fournier (a Belgian who lost her entire family when her village was massacred) and Aubrey Edwards (an African-American pianist/soldier).

There are so many things I could tell you about this book and why I loved it so much, but I’ll just share three.

First, it was eye opening to learn more about the Great War, especially how black American soldiers were treated by their fellow countrymen. This paragraph, told in Apollo’s voice, sums up the tragedy of it:
"Another week, and tensions will overflow. The army, hoping to prevent a race riot, will decide there's no good place in the states to put them [black American soldiers], and no English-speaking outfit anywhere along the Western front that will serve beside them. So they'll hand them off to the French army like a goodwill offering. No, toss them like a hot potato. No, lob them . . . like a hand grenade."
I often feel proud of the sacrifice made by my country to bring about the end of both world wars, but learning more about the prejudices and violence within the American army because white soldiers weren’t willing to fight with black soldiers was so disheartening, it made me feel sick. It’s so easy to focus on the unity that is felt when a country comes together in the same cause, but this is one time where differences were not overlooked, and the army suffered greatly because of it.

Second, I loved both romances so much, and, if pressed, I don’t think I could choose a favorite between the two couples. The writing was gorgeous and never seemed trite or cheesy (which was such a relief since I had tried another World War I book a few weeks before but gave up on it because the writing seemed so mediocre). Also, this is a book I would feel comfortable recommending to anyone—the romances were so sweet and innocent.

Third, I loved seeing this story through the perspective of the gods. Some friends I talked to said they didn’t really feel like the gods added much to the story, but I felt like they helped me see love and war and talent and beauty and heartache and death in a completely different light.

Here’s one favorite example of this (but be warned that it contains spoilers).

Spoilers ahead . . .

Aphrodite calls Hades as one of her witnesses, and hegives his own accounts of a few of the characters. I always tensed up a little when it was his turn, knowing that someone was probably going to die.

During one scene, Hazel and Collette were on a train together traveling to meet James when it is hit by an explosion. Hazel is killed when she throws herself over Collette to save her friend’s life. When this happened, I actually had to turn off the book (P.S., I listened to this, and the audio is excellent). I was in shock, and I said to myself, “No. No, no, no, no. That did not just happen.” When I finally drummed up the courage to turn it back on, Hazel was having a conversation with Hades (not a good sign). She asked to go back, and, surprisingly, Hades agreed to let her.

Some might say that this was too happy (and unrealistic) to have happened, but for me, it made the gods not only an entertaining part of the story but an essential one. It made sense that one of them would work out a deal with Hades, and I loved that that person was Hazel.

End of spoilers.

One of the big themes in the book is that everyone is broken by war, and because of that, everyone has some grief that they are carrying. At one point, Aubrey and Collette are talking, and Aubrey is apologizing because he is so torn up and devastated by the death of one of his friends (and feels quite a bit of survivor’s guilt because of it), but he knows Collette has suffered so much more loss than he has. Collette quiets him and says, “Grief is not a contest,” and I thought about how easy it is for us to compare our grief when really, grief is grief; a loss is a loss; heartache is heartache. It is all real and painful, and it’s okay to feel it.

I'm trying to remember when the last time was that I read a book where I got so much pleasure from the actual reading and also felt so incredibly satisfied when it was over. It’s been a long time, and I’m glad I can now add this book to that small and very exclusive list.
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