Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Review: Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Title: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them
Author: Francine Prose
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: I think that my friend Angela told me about this one
Source: It's been sitting on my shelf for a long time
Books I've read this year: 7

I really like the concept behind this book, which is basically that good readers can become good writers through emulating the characteristics they see in the (good) books they read. There are entirely too many goods in that sentence, and that's intentional. Because Prose's premise is based on the assumption that writers are "good" readers, close readers, thoughtful readers. I'm not one. If I'm not taking a class or writing a review, books go in one side of my brain and out the other like water. So the most essential thing for me, if I want to glean any skills from the great writers out there, is to be a better reader. Once you've got that down, it's easy to follow where Prose (isn't Prose the best name for a writer, by the way?) will go with the rest of the book-- she looks at various elements important in crafting fiction by taking examples from great books. It's not a revolutionary concept, and I think the book functions as a how-to book for people who might not necessarily see themselves as writers when they pick it up.

A Letter to Rose-- January 31st

Dear Rose-

This morning, fresh in from my run, I walked around the house in the darkness and pulled down the Chinese New Year decorations. The remains of the dragon went into the garbage last week, when I realized that I was the only one eating it. Tomorrow it will be February, the beginning of our last month without you in our lives. Heck, right now it is February in China, which means that our Article 5 will be picked up, at long last, TODAY, which means that we are now beginning our wait for the last step in the process, the Travel Approval! I feel like that needs more than an exclamation point, it needs an emoticon, a dancing banana or a panda shaking its booty or something like that.

Honestly, I never thought we'd get here. A year ago, when I was absolutely swamped with graduate school, driving down to Provo every single day, when Maren would cry every single morning when we dropped her off for preschool, the whole idea of adding a new baby to our family seemed, as your dad would say, completely crazy. I agree-- I was too busy to even take a deep breath, but every waking second I dreamed of you. I couldn't imagine that he would say yes, and I don't think that he could imagine it either, but since then, the whole adoption process has gone off without a hitch. Of course, I wish that I could have hopped on a plane and brought you home as soon as I saw your sweet face, but working within the constraints we've been given, it's gone off without a hitch.

And now, we're on the brink of going to get you. Your life is going to change-- oh, how it's going to change. I'll admit that I had a pretty (very) negative impression of what life was like for kids living in Chinese orphanages, but over the last year, I've realized that there are good orphanages and bad orphanages, good foster homes and bad foster homes, and that we've all been blessed because you've been in a good orphanage. I've seen the kids you used to live with come home, and they've done well in adjusting to life with their forever families. Even though we're a bundle of nerves around here (I think your dad wishes he could teleport to China, and your sister wants to fill her suitcase with chocolate and Febreeze), it is a huge reassurance to know that you're being cared for with competence and even love.

The bad news is that even though we're right on the brink of going to get you, we're entering back into the land of uncertainty. Most Travel Approvals take about three weeks. I think the average is 20 days. We know that most come somewhere between eight days and 28 days. I know we haven't met yet and you're a baby, but you should know me well enough by now to know that's problematic for someone like me. Because starting in eight days, I'm going to be a wreck, with a constant pit in my stomach, my phone in my hands at all times, ready to bite anyone's head off who calls me if they're not calling from my agency. It's not the waiting that gets me as much as it's the uncertainty. While this 26-day wait (that should have been 14) for the Article 5 has been annoying, I knew from the beginning how long it would be. I guess I can console myself with the fact that we waited 26 days for this step, and chances are very good that we won't wait longer than that for the next.

After we have our Travel Approval and get our Consulate Appointment scheduled, we can come get you. While I'm still hoping out a glimmer of hope that we'll leave on March 3rd (which would get us to you before you turn 11 months), it's more likely that we'll leave on the 10th or the 17th. I hope it's the 10th! Six more weeks, sweet Rose, six more weeks. We can do it! It's really going to happen! This is not a dream!



Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review: Chasing China by Kay Bratt

Title: Chasing China: A Daughter's Quest for Truth
Author: Kay Bratt
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: I read Kay Bratt's Silent Tears and heard about this book from her Facebook page
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 6

I've read a lot of romance novels for the Whitney Awards over the last few years, and even though Chasing China takes place in (wait for it) China and the protagonists aren't LDS, the book reminds me so much of an LDS romance novel. It's clean and innocent, and although the romance is prominent there are other plot elements that make the story interesting enough to keep reading.  Mia is a college student from the Pacific Northwest, adopted from China in the early 90s as a preschooler. She returns to Suzhou, where her orphanage was located, in order to find some answers about her past. But no one wants to answer her questions, and officials from the orphanage seem intent on blocking her ability to find those answers. Along the way, she meets up with another handsome Asian college student, Jax, who provides the romance and drives the escape moped.

While I was very interested in Mia's story, which was very heartfelt, the writing was overly dramatic at times, too didactic in some places, and shifted points of view inconsistently. I do think that stories like Mia's should be written, and I think that Bratt has the ideas and the knowledge she needs to write them, but I also think that she could benefit from working with an editor who can guide her on some of the details that get readers like me hung up.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: The Bridge by Kay Bratt

Title: The Bridge
Author: Kay Bratt
Enjoyment Rating: 5/10
Referral: I'm a fan of Kay Bratt's facebook page (based on her book Silent Tears) and saw that this book was on sale for $.99 or $1.99 or something
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 5

I feel bad even counting this book as a book since it took me about half an hour to read-- it's definitely more novella than novel, and I wonder if that plays a part in my slightly lower rating. Bratt tells the story of an old woman living in Suzhou, China who frequently finds abandoned children on the "lucky" bridge near her home. One morning, she finds a young blind boy waiting on the bridge, and although she tries to leave him at the orphanage like all of the other children she has found, she finds herself too attached to him to leave him.

When I read Silent Tears, I remember Bratt making the point that she did not want to reveal the name or the location of the orphanage she volunteered in, but reading The Bridge and Chasing China made it seem very likely that the orphanage was somewhere in southern Jiangsu province or in Shanghai. It hit very close to home for me since my daughter is also living in Jiangsu province. Bratt's novels are engaging, dramatic, simple, and very heartfelt. If you'd like to read a fictionalized account of a finder, I think this is the first one I've come across, and Bratt does a nice job getting into the head of that finder. Sometimes I felt like I was being taught or preached to, but overall nice work.

Book Review: Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang

Title: Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
Author: Leslie T. Chang
Enjoyment Rating: 9/10
Referral: This book came up in my Audible queue
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 4

I've read a whole bunch of books about China in the last year. Some have been instructive for what our experience might be like (many of the adoption memoirs, for example), and others have been less relevant (The Man Who Loved China). But Factory Girls is the first book that's given me some insight into what Rose's life might have been like if she'd stayed in China (if she'd stayed with her birth family). Chang originally started her project, following several girls working in the factories in Southern China, while working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She followed two girls over the course of years, from their first jobs on the factory floor, moving up the ranks and switching factories, always angling for a way to get ahead.

As an American of Chinese descent, Chang also took the opportunity to track her own family history in China. At first, these two storylines don't seem related enough to work together, and I listened to the first part of Chang's family history, which was interesting in and of itself, wondering if this was a gratuitous sidetrack, but eventually it felt that Chang's grandfather, who came to America to get trained as a mining engineer and then returned to China and was ultimately murdered by the communists served as both a guide and a counterpoint to the girls who are making it in the shoe and cell phone factories of Guangdong.

While we in America tend to look down on products made in China and on Chinese labor laws, one of the most interesting things that Chang shows is how migrants, especially young, single women, have gained a lot of power through their work experience. Yes, the hours are long and the conditions are inhumane by US standards, but one of the most poignant parts of the book for me was when Min goes home for her first Chinese New Year and she suddenly has enough clout to call the shots around the house. She requests that her parents purchase a hot water heater. She tells her younger sister to do well in school because Min is her support. Rather than receiving money in red envelopes from her elders (a Chinese New Year tradition) in recent years it's become customary for the young migrant girls to give money envelopes to their elders. It's interesting that hundreds of years of tradition is being completely turned around by the migrant economy. While the book didn't address adoption directly, it did show me a lot about what modern China is like, and showed a much more nuanced portrait of Chinese factories than I'd come to expect.


I'm testing out blog press before I go gallivanting off to China without a laptop. Does this work?

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Salt Lake City,United States

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Book Review: The Year of the Boar by Anneke Majors

Title: The Year of the Boar
Author: Anneke Majors
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: I saw that there will be a review in the upcoming issue of Irreantum and decided to read it
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 3

I was so excited to read The Year of the Boar because it combines my love of "serious" LDS literature with a bunch of stories about Chinese people. We always talk about how we're a world church, but so many of our stories take place in the mountain west, and I loved the idea that there was a book that didn't just take the story out of Utah, but it took much of it out of the United States. I was also intrigued when I heard that the book worked as sort of a fiction/nonfiction hybrid, because I'm really interested in genre-blending.

Majors has set an ambitious goal for herself in juggling the elements of story and a setting all over the world (there are scenes in Texas, Montana, China, Japan, France, and Africa, and I don't think that list is complete). I think her writing is clear and concise throughout, but I ultimately found the stories very hard to follow. If I'd read them as individual vignettes, I think my expectations would have been different, but I was expecting the stories to tie together, to be more novelistic, and I think there's enough evidence that there is supposed to be some kind of cohesive message from the piece as a whole, but it was hard for me to glean what it was. As a very well-written series of family stories, I think the piece succeeds (although I'm not sure the final chapter works, much as I would like to see Majors's vision come to fruition), but as a novel with appeal beyond a small audience, I think the connections between the sections need to be a little clearer. Even a list of characters on the opening pages would have helped me immensely.

I hope this isn't seen as a negative review, because I really, really applaud Majors for choosing to tackle a Mormon history that isn't a Utah history. I love the places that this book points in our shared future as Mormon writers, and for that reason I think it's an important book.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: Maui Revealed by Andrew Doughty

Title: Maui Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook
Author: Andrew Doughty
Usefulness Rating: 9/10
Referral: I can't remember
Source: Ordered from Amazon
Books I've read this year: 2

I recognize that reviewing a guidebook may be pushing the limits of what constitutes "books I've read" but I'm counting it anyway, since I read basically everything. I found the book very helpful in finding a snorkeling trip and in where to stop and what to do on the drive from the airport to Ka'anapali (we took the north lobe drive, which is rarely traveled, one lane, and pretty crazy). I was also gratified to see that the hotel I'd already booked was labeled "a real gem" (and it was one). The restaurant stuff was less helpful, mostly because I was traveling with four kids and we didn't eat out much. I think that if you had a long time to spend in Maui, this book would be even more insightful and helpful. I appreciate the authors' "cut the crap" approach.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Title: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Referral: This was considered one of the best nonfiction books of 2011
Source: I bought it for Eddie for his birthday and he finally finished it
Books I've read this year: 1

This book has been sitting on my bedside table or Eddie's bedside table, for the last nine months. I gave it to him for his birthday and expected both of us to read it. Reviewers were showering it with praise and I figured that since I'm a reading omnivore and he's a doctor, it's exactly the kind of book we would both really love.

But it sat and sat and sat on our bedside tables, and neither of us picked it up. It doesn't have a sexy cover, it's true, and the subject matter is inherently kind of depressing, but it wasn't the C-word that kept me from reading, it was the fact that the book is 608 pages and the book feels more like a doorstop than like something you want to curl up in bed with. Also, I knew that the book would take me a couple of weeks to read, and one of the downsides of keeping track of how many books I read is that I sometimes shy away from reading awesome books that might require more time and investment because I want to keep my numbers high. Shallow, much?

Then Eddie decided to read the book over the holidays and when he finished, several weeks later he told me that he didn't think I could get through it. I do like a challenge so I decided to start off 2012 by finally tackling The Emperor of All Maladies.

The book chronicles some of the historical highlights in the fight against cancer, as well as some of the more interesting personalities who played pivotal roles. Mukherjee, who began writing the book while he was an oncology fellow at one of the Harvard hospitals, is a fantastic writer who intersperses his own experiences with a roughly chronological account of the history of the disease. The stories he chooses to highlight really are interesting, and the medical terminology is accessible to a layperson. My enjoyment rating reflects the fact that since the story was more about disease, treatment and lab experiments, it's inherently less interesting than a story about people. But Mukherjee did an admirable job making the story less about history than about the significant players, challenges, and successes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A letter to Rose-- January 24

Dear Rose,

It's Chinese New Year. Your first. My 38th, but also my first. Last year at this time, we'd just started thinking about adoption, and we switched countries on a weekly basis (China? No, Korea. No, Ethiopia. Just kidding-- back to China). Chinese New Year must have passed when we were in an Ethiopia phase, because we certainly didn't celebrate. This year, whenever I thought about Chinese New Year, I only thought about the delays-- we'd have to wait an extra week for our Article 5 pickup because everyone over in your part of the world would be celebrating instead of working.

And then your brothers and sisters realized that Chinese New Year was just around the corner and they decided we needed to have a party. They've been reading all about the holiday in their bedtime stories and wondered if we had enough people in the family to wear a lion dance costume. I needed something to take my mind off the fact that we could be in line for our travel approval already if not for all the holidays, so it didn't take much convincing. You also had a party at your orphanage. We saw pictures of all of the bigger kids with cakes and piles of candy. You and your besties must have been napping because you weren't in any of the pictures, but next year we're going to go crazy snapping pictures of you in a shiny red Chinese dress.

On Saturday, I showed Annie a picture of a dragon cake and she got all excited. One thing you need to know about the women in this family is that we're extremely determined and goal-oriented. Annie decided she was going to make that cake, and there was no stopping her. She baked both cakes, made the frosting, and decorated the whole thing. Now that she's got it down, I suppose she'll let you help.

And then, yesterday, the power went out and threatened to darken our party. It was dark all afternoon and when the sun went down, your mom and siblings sat in the cold, dark house and thought we might all have to sleep in the same bed. And then, just when our stomachs started growling for some food, the power came back on. Within minutes, Daddy came home bearing dumplings, wonton soup, beef with broccoli, sesame chicken and kung pao chicken. We ate with chopsticks and laughed over our terrible skills. For some reason I just can't figure it out. Everyone says to hold the bottom chopstick just like a pen, but I hold my pen weird, so that doesn't help. I'm going to need to bring those baby chopstick helpers with me to China. We figured out what Chinese year we're born in (tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, monkey, dog, rabbit) and got ready to cut into the cake when the doorbell rang, and it was my friend Emily, recently returned from Taiwan, bearing Chinese New Year decorations.

So here I sit, eating leftover dragon cake among the red and gold banners. I hope I hung them right side up. I realized how pitifully underprepared I am to be your teacher about Chinese culture, but I hope you don't mind too much. We'll do our best, and from now on, we'll always celebrate Chinese New Year.



Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Letter to Rose-- January 17

Dear Rose,

I'm writing this letter sitting on the lanai of our hotel in Ka'anapali Beach, looking out at the Pacific Ocean. It's lovely. We planned this trip way back before we knew you were YOU, and we've been having a great time. On Saturday we drove around the island, on Monday we went out for a fancy seafood dinner, yesterday we woke up at 3am and stood in the driving, freezing rain as we waited in vain for the sun to wow us, and today we went on a snorkeling and whale watching trip. When we haven't been climbing mountains and hitting the waves, we've been lying around, eating lots of chips and gelato, and lazing around the pool. Sounds like heaven, unless you're nine months old.

This trip may have started out as just another family vacation, but it's turned into a valediction to this stage of our lives. We're traveling without a stroller, snacks or sippy cups. Everyone carried her own bag and I enjoyed a six hour flight with no one sitting on my lap. It's also been a dry run for China-- we used the same bags we plan to use in china, and traveled without a computer to see if we could get by. I haven't figured out how to post pictures on my blog from the phone, which will be absolutely essential for our next trip, but I think we're getting more and more ready.

But you managed to assert your presence on this baby moon. As we were speeding across the water this morning, I pulled out my phone and saw that Elizabeth at WACAP had called. Pretty soon I had an email with an update, including four new totally adorable pictures. So instead of focusing on the fishes, I looked at your beautiful face about a million times I can hardly believe how lucky I am to be your Mom, even of it means no more vacations in paradise-- at least for a while.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

You know that little sprinting stretch we've been in?

It just came to a crawl. Our I800 approval and NVC cable happened just about as quickly as possible (thanks USCIS!), but now I just got in the line behind an 85-year-old lady with a full cart who needs a price check on cat food, uses a hundred coupons, and then pays with a check, at least figuratively speaking. You see, the embassy in Guangzhou takes both the Chinese and American holidays. All of them. I knew my paperwork would sit on someone's desk through Chinese New Year. I thought that the embassy would be closed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, which is what the website says, which would delay my pickup by three days (four, if you count the fact that it couldn't be dropped off until today because they don't accept Monday dropoffs). But I found out tonight that they're actually closed the WHOLE week and they're closed for Martin Luther King day too, so our pickup will be delayed not by the three days we were thinking, but by EIGHT days.

So it looks like travel the first week of March is out. The second week is better for Eddie, but man, I want that baby ASAP. If we'd traveled that first week, we could have had her at ten months instead of eleven. We'll take her at eleven months, but every day counts here.

A letter to Rose-- January 10th

Dear Rose,

This having a baby thing is going to be a big change for all of us, including you. It was a huge change when your biggest brother, Bryce, was born. I was in graduate school and working, and Daddy was in medical school, and we were completely, totally clueless when it came to being parents. But we worked hard at it. Bryce was our "trial by fire" baby. He wanted to be held all the time, cried whenever we went in the car, had to be nursed with the water running, and once he started walking, he was running-- off like a shot with so much energy that I couldn't keep up with him.

Of course, part of the reason why I couldn't keep up with him was that I was already pregnant with Annie. I knew two things-- I wanted a big family, and I needed to get started on that big family before Bryce was old enough to scare me off of it. So we had Annie three months before Bryce turned two. Then Isaac was born two years later, and Maren two years after that. We always had one in diapers when the next baby was born, and when Maren finally potty trained, I had a party. Not a real party, but I was partying on the inside-- I'd gone through a whole decade of non-stop diapering.

Over the last few years, we've slowly adjusted to not having a baby around the house. I got rid of all of our baby gear. We started going on actual dates-- even with the kids awake. We can do things like take the whole family out to dinner or go skiing together or even go on family vacations without a stroller.

And then, at just about this time last year, I got this wonderful, crazy, undeniable feeling that wouldn't go away. We needed you. Over the last year we bought all the baby gear (again), baby proofed the house (again), and planned one final last hurrah babymoon for the family (more on that next week). But even as we've been getting the house ready physically, I've worried that we wouldn't be up to the challenge mentally or emotionally. It's a big job to have a baby, and I'm 12 years older now than I was when your brother was born. Are we ready to stay up at night and change diapers and deal with temper tantrums? And those are just the normal, everyday sorts of things everyone goes through-- are we ready to help you through your surgeries and your speech therapy and make sure you're firmly connected to our family? Of course, we believe we are, but I do feel a little tingle of nervousness from time to time.

At Christmas, your Aunt Jilly and Uncle Carl brought baby Sammy to spend his first Christmas with us. The kids were all so excited-- for the first day they swarmed him and got in his face and made him cry. And then, something happened. It clicked-- they remembered how to treat a baby. And it warmed my heart to see them with him, because I could see them falling in love with him, and I know that they'll fall in love with you just as quickly.
So maybe I shouldn't worry. I hope that this mothering thing is just like riding a bike and I won't be too tired and worn out for another ride around the block. And if I falter, your brothers and sisters will show me how it's done. 



P.S. We've done the math and it looks like the latest we'll be leaving for China is sixty days from now. We could have you in our arms in two months. Maybe less if the paperwork fairies grace us with quick approvals from here on out. I actually just mistyped "from" as "form." I haven't had to pee in a cup to get you here (well, just once), but I have had to fill out a whole lot of forms!

Friday, January 6, 2012

NVC Cable!

This morning I came back from my run and an email from the National Visa Center was waiting in my inbox. Our petition has been forwarded to the US Embassy/Consulate General in Guangzhou! This step, called the NVC cable, only took seven days, which is pretty quick, and even quicker when you consider we had a holiday weekend thrown in there. A copy of the letter, along with some other official visa-related forms, will be dropped off at the embassy in Guangzhou on Tuesday. It will stay at the embassy for 10 working days. Usually this is the most predictable part of the process-- if you had it dropped off on a Tuesday, you'd have it picked up two weeks later on a Tuesday and brought directly to the CCCWA for Travel Approval. However, MLK Day and Chinese New Year will throw a wrinkle in those plans, so it will take three weeks for the approved paperwork to get to the CCCWA instead of the normal two.

After the paperwork goes back to the CCCWA, we'll wait for Travel Approval. This usually takes about three weeks, but I've seen it take as few as 12 days and as long as 35 lately. Families generally travel two or three weeks after TA, depending on the availability of consulate appointments.

For the last two steps (the I800 and the NVC cable) we could encourage the process along a little bit by emailing and requesting PDFs. It felt good to think that I could put some nice, gentle pressure on the people at the other end of the approval process. But from here on out, there's nothing for us to do but wait, enjoy the little milestones, wait a little more, chew our fingernails, wait, eat chocolate, and eventually, work ourselves into a frenzy of nesting, packing, and buying plane tickets.

If we work according to the law of averages, here's what our timeline might look like:

Article 5 Drop-Off: January 10th
Article 5 Pick Up: January 26th
Paperwork to CCCWA: January 30th
TA: February 20th
Leave for China: March 10th
Gotcha Day: March 12th
Home: March 23rd

I'm eager to see if my predictions are on target. Of course, maybe I'm too optimistic, but this is a case where I can't be blamed for wanting things to happen quickly!

And yes, I am trucking away at the novel. I think one more chapter might do it. Then revise, revise, revise, defend, go get Rose!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A letter to Rose-- January 3

Dear Rose,

The kids went back to school today, and I spent all day thinking it was Monday, which is why it's taken most of the day to get around to writing this letter to you. I've also been filling out Visa paperwork this afternoon (seriously-- does this paperwork ever end?). With any luck, I'll be off to get my lovely picture taken (again) tomorrow morning, get a money order, then send a whole packet of papers and our passports off to get the visas.

Anyway, visas are boring. But you know what's fun? Baby showers. Baby showers are super fun. I'd almost forgotten how much fun since I haven't had one in ten years.

And since a picture is worth a thousand words, here are some pictures!

Your Aunt Patience made these dolls and sent them from Alaska. They're to give to your friends at the orphanage, but they're so stinking adorable that we had to keep one. We also used them as a party decoration.

The tower of cupcakes. Mimi made chocolate, peppermint, and gingerbread, in honor of you, our gingerbread baby. We'll be coming to catch you as soon as we can!

The dining room (with some decorations repurposed from Maren's birthday party a few days earlier).

Your big sister Annie painted this on the afternoon of the party. She even looked up the Chinese characters for your name!
Mimi numbering the "Hundred Wishes Quilt" in the laundry room
Mommy (notice the Rose sweater I got for Christmas) with the Jie-Jies and Grannie, who came from Nashville to party with us!
Roses for Rose
Did you see that? A Jane Eyre counting book? Just about the cutest dang thing this English-major mama has ever seen!
Grannie had no idea you were born in the year of the rabbit when she ordered this plate for you. Serendipity!

We put down the camera when all the guests came and somehow managed not to get pictures of any of the people who came to share the night with us (Actually, I think we did get some pictures, but they're on the camera that flew back to Nashville). Anyway, I was delighted to see so many friends and family make the trek. I know it's not easy to make time for a baby shower during the Christmas holidays, so it was really special to see people turn up, and even more special to see the quilt after it had everyone's wishes for you written on it. I hope that people will send us their wishes (in the comments of this blog post or by email) so we can fill up the rest of the quilt-- I think it's about halfway full now. I'm very pleased that we now have a bursting-at-the-seams suitcase full of Band-Aids and markers and the four other dolls Aunt Patience and your cousins made and a whole bunch of good stuff to take to your orphanage, as well generous monetary donations to give to your orphanage director.

All in all, a great night. The only thing that would have been better would be having you here to celebrate with us, but I'm beginning to wrap my head around the idea that we've waited a long time, but we're in the home stretch. In less than three months, we should have you home with us!



Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 Reading Recap

In 2011 I read 160 books. Yep, 160. Although I've been keeping track the whole way through, I'll admit that it surprised me a little bit. It's a significant increase over last year when I read 138, and I think I can attribute it to being in school for the entire year. For one thing, I had to read school books in addition to books for fun, and I also had two hours in the car to listen to books every time I went to Provo (I probably should have listened to the news or my NPR podcasts-- I felt spectacularly uninformed about current events in 2011). Although I only read 23 of the 35 Whitney finalists this year, that also boosted my total.

Best Nonfiction: There is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene. Back when we were deciding to adopt, this book stole my heart and took it to a place that has changed it forever. I never thought I'd have five kids and certainly never thought one of them would be an abandoned infant from China, but here we are, and Greene can take some of the blame and some of the credit.

Best Series AND Best Audiobooks: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. I wish there were more than eight books. I also wish that Winspear would allow Maisie to see that love and career don't have to be incompatible with each other. Orlagh Cassidy is the perfect running companion-- she is a pitch perfect Maisie. I was shocked to learn that she's an American!

Best Book by an LDS author: The Scholar of Moab by Steven Peck. This book was both ambitious and entertaining. I hope to see more work by Peck and similarly strong female characters coming from LDS authors.

Best YA: Wolves, Boys and Other Things that Might Kill Me by Kristen Chandler (ok, I know Chandler is LDS too, but the book is not overtly LDS). My biggest disappointment with the Whitneys this year is that Chandler did not walk away with a prize. I wanted it to sweep all three categories it was eligible for (best YA, best new author, and best overall). I'm excited to read her newest book.

Best Memoir: Bossypants by Tina Fey. I know, it was light and I feel like I should pick Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris or Jana Riess's Flunking Sainthood (both of which are more earnest) but no book made me laugh harder in 2011 than Bossypants.

Top Five Fiction Reads: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig.

Favorite Book of the Year: I doubt this will be a surprise to anyone who knows me because I've been singing its praises all year, but I absolutely loved Ann Patchett's State of Wonder. Yes, it may possibly break my cardinal rule of fiction, but by the time I got to that point, I was so in love with Marina Singh and with the Brazilian jungle that I just didn't care.

Book Review: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Title: The Family Fang
Author: Kevin Wilson
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: This kept popping up in "recommended for you" in Amazon and Audible
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 159

I know that every child feels that their parents messed up in some way or another. My daughter, sitting at the piano right this minute, just cursed me for making her practice. My son has been in tears working with his dad on a Christmas break science project (now who thought that was a good idea?) due at school tomorrow. But Caleb and Camille Fang messed up their kids more than most, and The Family Fang is basically the book of their therapy, of coming to terms with their childhood and deciding how it will or won't affect the rest of their lives.

Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists (because visual art is dead and boring, Caleb would say). They set up elaborate events in public places (sort of like Improv Everywhere, a group who famously cheered on a band for what they thought would be the best gig of their lives on a 2005 episode of This American Life). Anyway, Caleb and Camille feared that their art was dead when Camille unexpectedly got pregnant, but they soon learned that Child A and Child B (aka Annie and Buster) were actually their secret weapons. Their involvement in all of the art made Caleb and Camille famous and successful artists. However, Annie and Buster tired of their work, and after C&C set up a scenario in which the two would have to kiss in front of their whole school, Annie decided she'd had enough of her parents. She became an actress, and Buster became a writer, and the two floundered through their twenties. Then, going through rough times in their lives, they returned home, and soon after that, Caleb and Camille disappeared.

The book includes a forward-moving narrative (as Annie and Buster decide whether or not to try to find their parents and how to go about it) and a series of flashbacks highlighting the art they grew up participating in. I think the book is well written, and all of the weird extraneous little details come together well, but it was uncomfortable to listen to at times. Caleb and Camille were too cruel, too clueless and ultimately too heartless to be parents. So while I think the book may deserve a higher rating based on the writing skills, the story was too weird and sad to be enjoyable.

Book Review: Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess

Title: Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor
Author: Jana Riess
Enjoyment Rating: 7/10
Source: Ordered new from Amazon
Referral: I've heard about this all over the Bloggernacle
Books I've read this year: 158

I've read a lot of books over the last few years where an author devotes a year to a goal, breaks it down into twelve month-long mini-goals, and then writes a memoir about he or she did or did not reach those goals, on both a micro and a macro level. Gretchen Rubin did this in The Happiness Project, and AJ Jacobs has done it multiple times, most notably in his book The Year of Living Biblically, which resembles Flunking Sainthood in many respects. In fact, I couldn't help but compare the two books almost constantly as I read Flunking Sainthood.

While AJ Jacobs sets out to accomplish his goal of growing his beard or not having sex or whatever he had to do for a month, I always felt as a reader that Jacobs was looking for the weird and quirky things that happened to him so he could tell funny stories about it. He wanted to entertain us. Riess is also funny, but it's a wry sort of funniness. The humor comes out of her analysis of the situation, not out of the weirdness of the situation itself. Most of all, Riess is earnest-- almost painfully so at times. I found the title of the book, Flunking Sainthood, to be a little bit disingenuous. Riess sets the bar too high for herself at times. If she only prays the matins 40% of the time, she considers that a failure. At one point, while she's trying to keep the orthodox Jewish sabbath, she comments that she's broken it twice in the first three minutes of her morning and is therefore a failure. By the end of the year, Riess has established lasting spiritual practices and had some important epiphanies, but she chooses to see the experience as a failure because she hasn't accomplished all that she hoped to. Jacobs, on the other hand, would have called the experience an unqualified success if he'd been the one writing about it.

Flunking Sainthood is also a book that I think would have benefited from an introduction. Just a few basic things like-- I'm Jana, I live in Cincinnati with my husband and daughter, and we decided to embark on this experiment for _____ reason. Instead, I had to intuit some of that information in the first few chapters and I felt a little bit unmoored as I worked to figure everything out.

As a Mormon reader, possibly the most interesting and curious part of the book is that Riess doesn't own up to her own Mormonism. I can understand why she would do this-- the book has a larger reach if she doesn't pigeonhole herself as a Mormon, and some readers might feel that she has more credibility if she doesn't self-identify. Furthermore, as a convert with degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD from Columbia, she might not be the person you'd pick out of a lineup and say "She's the Mormon." But it was interesting to read a book written by a Mormon that doesn't allude to that fact, especially since she talks about attending church and fasting with her congregation and all that stuff, and we as Mormons tend to be publicly proclaiming our Mormonness from billboards lately. I kept wondering how her experiments were colored by her specific faith, but the book was written to address faith more generally.

Overall, Flunking Sainthood was an interesting read, and a thoughtful approach to a format I generally don't like in books (the one goal per month memoir). At times, I found myself wishing that her chapters were longer, and I definitely wanted her to go give herself more credit for the things she did accomplish, but the end result is a thoughtful and thought-provoking read that has made me want to test out certain facets of spirituality in my own life.

Book Review: The Kingdom of Childhood by Rebecca Coleman

Title: The Kingdom of Childhood
Author: Rebecca Coleman
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Source: Kindle for iPad
Referral: My friend Sara/crazywomancreek said it was a must read
Books I've read this year: 160!

There are a lot of things I want to say about The Kingdom of Childhood, but if I talk about the thing that is most interesting about this novel, then I'll ruin it for anyone who wants to read it. I'll just say that we generally start off with certain assumptions about a narrator-- that the narrator is a decent, stable sort of person who is trying to tell a story honestly, and when that gets twisted around, like it does in The Kingdom of Childhood, that provides some potential conflicts that can be really interesting.

I'm getting ahead of myself. The Kingdom of Childhood is the story of Judy, a kindergarten teacher at a Waldorf School in the DC suburbs. The story takes place in 1999, in the waning months of the Bill Clinton scandals. Judy looks like everything you'd expect from a kindergarten teacher-- she wears jumpers and talks in a gentle voice, but she's also experiencing a deep malaise-- her kids don't like her much, her husband is outright hostile to her when he's around, and her best friend recently died of cancer. So she copes with the problems in her life by seeking out sex, first in a one-night stand with another choir trip chaperone, and later with a junior in the upper school, one of her son's friends.

While the story itself is uncomfortable (as we see Judy and Zach's relationship get more and more dysfunctional), I found myself torn between enjoying the richness of the details of the story and being put off by the style of the narration. Most of the book is Judy in the first person (which has its own problematic elements and requires some reading between the lines on the part of the reader) but we also get Zach's actions in the third person, and it feels like Judy is observing Zach in these scenes, although it's evident that she couldn't actually be observing him, despite her stalkerish tendencies. Furthermore, we also get a third-person view of Judy as a child, and some of those passages are unclear-- was she abused by Rudy? Did she develop pyromania? Is she as troubled as her mother was? I feel that while the book is supposed to feel unsettling, the narrative strategy reflected that unsettled feeling a little too well.

Overall, I feel that The Kingdom of Childhood was a rich, multi-layered, interesting story about a difficult subject. Coleman knows her stuff. But the book was too troubling for it to be an enjoyable read.