Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Title The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author: Rachel Joyce
Enjoyment Rating: ***
This book would be rated: PG
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 115

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has had a lot of buzz this summer and fall. When Harold Fry, recently retired from a career in a brewery on England's south coast, learns that his former colleague, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer in a hospice in the far north of England, he writes her a letter and walks to the mailbox to send it. But he doesn't mail the letter; he keeps walking. For 500 miles and 97 days. The book explores both the journey and the events in Harold's life that have led to his quiet war with his wife, as well as their attempts at reconciliation.

I enjoyed the book, but I couldn't help but compare it with The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty, which also deals with an epic journey, a physical transformation, and repairing past sins, but in a more thorough and engaging way. Still, I think that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry would be a fantastic great book group read-- it's relatively short, devoid of anything too offensive, and there would be plenty of material for good discussion. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Enjoyment Rating: *****
This book would be rated: R for sex, language, and violence
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 114

This is another book that sat at the bottom of my Audible pile for a long time, and while I know why it took me a long time to get to it (I'm generally not a fan of fantasy/sci fi, my mom started it and said it was nasty, and it's super long), it was like a great big, super tasty, greasy bacon cheeseburger. A book that was a delight to greedily plow through, but one that left me feeling a little bit guilty afterwards.

Shadow is nearing his final days in prison when he learns that he's going to be released early because his wife was killed in a car accident. On the way home for her funeral, he meets a mysterious man called Wednesday. At first, Shadow is repulsed by Wednesday, but within hours, he agrees to work for him-- to do his bidding, whatever it may be. It's apparent to the reader (although perhaps not to Shadow) that Wednesday has him under his spell. And Wednesday is no ordinary boss-- he's both a con artist and the Norse god Odin, and he's hired Shadow to help him prepare for a war between the old gods and the new ones, most of whom have moved to America.

For the next 500 pages, Shadow and Odin traverse the country, gathering the gods on their side, getting themselves into scrapes, and running into Shadow's dead wife. The first 400 pages throw out so many threads of a story that I wasn't sure if Gaiman was going to be able to wrap them up in a satisfying way, but he definitely did. I listened to most of the last seven hours in one furious session, sure to pop the earbuds in my ears whenever the kids were within listening range. The book is one part murder mystery, one part spy thriller, one part romance (although not a great part of the book, since the female lead is rotting), and all parts great writing. It's a dark story that really moves.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Steadman

Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author: M.L. Stedman
Enjoyment Rating: ***
This book would be rated: PG-13 for adult themes
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 113

Tom and Isabel have been living on Janus Rock, an island off Australia's western coast, where Tom is the lighthouse keeper, for half a decade. Their lives consist of watching the light, tending their goats, growing vegetables, visiting the mainland every two or three years, and losing babies. Just days after suffering a stillbirth, her third pregnancy loss over the course of their marriage, Isabel hears a baby crying. She thinks her mind is playing tricks on her, but eventually she and Tom discover a dinghy with a dead man and a living newborn. They have to make a decision-- do they report the death, or do they raise the child as their own? Isabel, awash in grief, can't imagine doing anything but raising the child.

Several years later, the family returns to the mainland for a visit home, where they hear about a woman who has fallen into madness after losing her husband and infant daughter. The dates match-- the daughter clearly belongs to the woman. And now what do Tom and Isabel do? What is the right choice for their daughter? For the woman? For them?

The Light Between Oceans has been well-reviewed, and I think that my frustration at the book is rooted more in my perspective as an adoptive parent. Like Tom and Isabel, I've had the experience of falling in love with a child who is not of my flesh, and also of watching my child have to readjust her entire worldview to adapt to life with different parents. One of my greatest fears is that we could somehow lose her or that she might not come to regard us as her parents. And Stedman shows that although Isabel may have been misguided in her choice, she was motivated by love and blossomed during the period that she was a mother. About 30 pages from the end it became evident that there was no way that there could be a happy ending for everyone in the book, and the last chapter, while nuanced and realistic, felt like a twist in the gut.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Title: Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures
Author: Emma Straub
Enjoyment Rating: ***
This book would be rated: PG-13 for some fairly mild sexual references, possibly some strong language
Source: Library copy
Books I've read this year: 112

It's been a little more than a week since I returned Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures to the library and I already feel like I've forgotten a lot of it. The story starts in Door County, Wisconsin in the 1920s, where Elsa Emerson's family runs a small theater. Tragedy, hard work, and bleak winters characterize her family life, and when she's seventeen she escapes to Hollywood with a zero who's good only for getting her out of Wisconsin, providing her with daughters, and putting her in a place where she can be signed with a studio.

What comes after feels like a pretty typical story-- Hollywood transforms her (literally, changing her name and her appearance) from an innocent young wife to a starlet, with all of the benefits and problems that come with stardom. It's an engaging, readable story that would make a great beach or airplane read, but Laura's story feels, like many Hollywood stars of the studio era, to be not that different from what might be expected from someone whose life is lived in the crucible of wealth and fame.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Title: The Cat's Table: A Novel
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 111

The first two times I tried to listen to The Cat's Table I gave up in frustration. I had forgotten that Michael Ondaatje is not an author whose work I can listen to while the kids are talking to me or I'm multitasking. This ended up being a book that I great to appreciate only when I was listening to it out running by myself. I think part of this is because Ondaatje narrates the book himself. I've been to one of his readings, and while he has a lovely voice, it's also a little bit quiet and mumbly, and I remember wondering during his reading if he read like that because it forced his readers to really give themselves over to listening. When I did give myself over to listening to The Cat's Table, I finally found the experience rewarding.

The bulk of The Cat's Table takes place in 1952 on a journey from Sri Lanka to London. The eleven-year-old protagonist, Michael, his cousin, and several friends are all seated with an assortment of colorful characters at what they call "The Cat's Table," the one furthest, in both physical and psychic distance, from the captain's table on their ship. At first, the book seems to be a collection of spotlights on the characters at the table, interwoven with some travel narration. The boys find themselves in scrapes, the older passengers sleep together, steal, and spy on each other. But eventually, the book seems to turn into a bit of a mystery-- who is the prisoner in chains on the ship? Will he escape? What fallout will result? In the second half Ondaatje turns to the fallout in Michael's life after the journey as well.

One of the most unsettling aspects of The Cat's Table is the faux-memoir nature of the book. Like Ondaatje, the character was 11 in 1952, like Ondaatje the character moved from Colombo to London by ship, like Ondaatje the character was named Michael and grew up to be a writer living in Canada. But the book calls itself "a novel" and other biographical details do not hold. I'm sure it was some kind of artistic experiment, but as a Wikipedia-fingers kind of girl, it also bugged a little bit.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Book Review: Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Title: Yes, Chef: A Memoir
Author: Marcus Samuelsson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13, Marcus is kind of a straight arrow
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 110

Yes, Chef is a book in several parts. The first part, where Samuelsson talks about being adopted from Ethiopia, along with his biological sister, and placed with the Samuelssons in Sweden was lovely and moving to read as an adoptive mother. It sounds like the Samuelssons, who didn't have message boards or books for adoptive parents to rely on, really got things right with their three kids. That doesn't mean that everything was always easy for Marcus, but that his parents were there for him and tried their best to honor his heritage and pave the way for him to thrive in Sweden. If I had to rate the book after that section, I would have given it a five.

The next section talks about Samuelsson's training, which took place in kitchens all over Europe and America, as well as stints on cruise ships. It talks about his failure to become a father to the daughter who was born from a one-night-stand. It talks about losing friends and finding his identity, and eventually, coming to America.

The third part of the book, the one where Samuelsson becomes a celebrity chef, was the one that was least engaging for me. It was still startlingly well-written, lyrical and metaphorical, for a book penned by a nonwriter, but the whole "rise to the top of the NY culinary scene" wasn't as interesting. Still, a good book, even for someone who doesn't have aspirations to open a restaurant.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Dear Eli,

We got new pictures of you this morning. It's been such a blessing to have so many families picking up their babies from Xuzhou in the last few weeks, because we've gotten to see your smiling face three times-- which is enough time for you to recycle your outfit. You look happy and chubby, and oh so stinking cute.

And you know what makes today even better? We are DTC! That doesn't mean much to anyone who doesn't know their adoption lingo. So I'll fill you in. There are about a million little milestones in the adoption process, but there are three big milestones-- the day your dossier is sent to China (known as DTC), the day you get your Letter Seeking Confirmation, which is an official approval to adopt (known as LOA), and the day you get your travel approval (known as TA).

So now our official application is on its way to China. Within a week or two it should be logged in with the Chinese government, and then the very worst part of the process, the wait for the LOA, begins. The wait is somewhere between 10-150 days, which is what makes it hard. The average wait is about 65 days (it took 63 days with Rose), so I'll start getting antsy around the first of the year. Or, if the wait is like last time, around the first of December. Or, let's get real here, right now. I want you home right now. Seeing your smiling face doesn't make the waiting any easier.



Title: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Title: This is How You Lose Her
Author: Junot Diaz
Enjoyment Rating: *****
This book would be rated: R (sex and language)
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 109

There are some books that deserve to be reviewed while they're fresh in the reader's mind, and while I would definitely say that This is How You Lose Her falls into that category, I'm also pleased to discover that more that three weeks after I sent it back to the library, I still remember the individual stories well. It's a book with staying power.

Readers who loved Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao might be surprised, although not disappointed, by his return to short stories. In This is How You Lose Her Diaz writes mainly in the gritty voice of Yunior, who is in some stories a teenager watching how his brother (dying of cancer) treats women, and in others is a man mistreating women himself. The stories aren't chronological, and there is at least one told from a women's perspective, but there's a richness that comes from reading the entire collection and seeing Yunior's collection of failed relationships all laid out side by side. I also had to resist the urge to see the stories as Yunior = Junot-- the names are similar enough and the choice of professions are identical. I really wanted to get my hands on Wikipedia to see how parallel the stories were. But I resisted the urge.

I remember reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth a few years ago and being blown away by how interconnected short stories sometimes presented a better picture of an individual than a novel does. I got the same sense with This is How You Lose Her. What stays with me is Yunior's voice-- a voice that sounds like it hasn't moved beyond the barrio until it slips in a word like prestidigitation, a voice that is at turns, both pained and capable of inflicting great pain.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review: Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick

Title: Ghost in the Wires
Authors: Kevin Mitnick and William Simon
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 108

When we decided to adopt and redo the backyard simultaneously, we knew we had to economize. In addition to firing up my library card again, I also decided that I would downgrade my Audible account to the "Gold" plan (one book a month), and listen to everything that I'd never quite gotten around. It's a really bad habit, but Audible has these great $4.95 book sales and these "buy three credits for $20 sales" and I am a sucker for them. Once I stopped driving to Provo regularly, I stopped listening to as many audiobooks, but I didn't stop buying them at the same rate, so I always listened to the ones I thought I'd like best, while books like Ghost in the Wires sunk to the bottom of the pile.

Anyway, I've found some gems while listening to the books in this pile, but Ghost in the Wires was not among them. Honestly, I think a lot of that is because a girl like me has no business spending 14 hours listening to a computer hacker and phone phreaker talk about how he manipulated every system he could get his hands on (just for the fun of it) and then whining about how he ended up in jail when he got caught. It might be a great book for the right kind of reader, because Mitnick's voice is engaging (if a little whiny and self-important-- this is a guy with an agenda, for sure) and his story, once I realized that the whole book would be about how he logged into systems and created back doors and then came back and downloaded secret information (not to do anything bad with it), wasn't all that boring. Okay, a little boring. I kept saying I was going to give it up, and I actually started this book last spring, but when I started it again, I kept waiting and waiting for it to get interesting, and then, about 2/3 of the way through, I felt too married to it to quit.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

waiting and landscaping

Dear Eli,

Having kids, whether they're abandoned toddlers with special needs living in a Chinese orphanage or babies grown in our own bellies, always requires a leap of faith and a little confidence. I think that Daddy and I gained some confidence that we would be able to be your parents (and your sister's parents) because we were familiar, not just with this parenting thing, but also with raising kids with special needs. When we learned that you might need surgery on your hands and your feet, I even knew a great orthopedic surgeon, a woman who has successfully gotten Isaac back up on his feet (literally). So there are some skills you learn as a parent that have direct applications to other aspects of parenting. And then there are some skills you learn as an adoptive parent that have other real-world applications.

I'm not a very assertive person. I get a lot of work done and set my own personal goals high, but that's different from being assertive. When I was a kid, my best friend was always the mom when we played house, always the teacher when we played school. I desperately wanted to be the mom or the teacher sometimes, but I didn't want to upset the balance of our friendship, so I kept quiet. I'm a great person to have around when someone needs work done, but not such a great person when someone needs me to have a hard conversation with someone. I hate conflict and want people to think I'm nice and pleasant.

But when we were adopting Rose, I learned to be a little bit assertive. About halfway through our wait, I found a great website that laid out exactly how to navigate the adoption process as quickly as possible. That required emailing people and asking them to send PDFs in addition to paper copies, which shaved off several days in the process each time. It required me to follow up with people, to make sure things hadn't fallen through the cracks, to ask hard questions, and to push a little bit. It was hard, but it brought results-- I think we probably traveled at least a week earlier than we would have if I hadn't learned to be assertive.

This time around, I was pushy from the start. Last time I let our social worker do her thing and only emailed her when she contacted me first. Last time I got in touch with our adoption agency only as a last resort. Last time it took us seven months from our initial application to getting our dossier to China.

This time, I followed up regularly with the social worker. I emailed the adoption agency whenever I had a question. We walked in early for our fingerprints with USCIS, which I wouldn't have dreamed of doing last time (it's a government agency! they gave us an appointment on a paper with an official seal!). We only had to do about 80% of the work this time that we did last time to get our dossier to China (we were able to reuse some of the state background clearances and some of the official documents, like birth certificates), we're hoping to have our dossier on its way in less than a week, about two and a half months after we decided to add you to our family.

A week after we started on our paperwork for you, we started another big project around here-- redoing our backyard. It started out innocently enough (just like you-- I was just "maybe thinking about" adopting again "sometime in the future" when we found you). We needed to have the trees in our front yard pruned. But we asked the tree guys if they could take out the forest of trees in our back yard, and they said yes. They said they could also demolish the old fish pond, a falling down shed, and the old stone fireplace, remove about ten tons of rock, level the yard, put in new sprinklers, build us a mulched area for the playhouse and the swing set, and put in new grass to make the whole yard beautiful. And while we were doing that, we decided to finish our fence, but in order to do that, we needed to have a retaining wall built. And then we discovered that the ancient pool heater didn't work, so we replaced it. And then we decided we needed a new pool shed to go with the new pool heater. But the new pool shed needed a vent, which required an HVAC person. And since our old nasty pool cover was destroyed in the process, we needed a new pool cover.

It was a lot of work-- you get the picture? In fact, it reminded me a lot of adoption paperwork

I found that I was a lot more assertive with the men who worked so hard on our yard than I might have been if I'd never had the experience of wading through mountains of adoption paperwork. When they didn't show up when I thought they would-- I called and asked rather than waiting for them to show. There were times when things when slower than I'd hoped (one step that should have taken a few days held the whole project up for several weeks), and since I knew there was nothing to be done about it, we just kind of rolled with it (another skill you and Rose have taught me). When I was unhappy with how things were done (which only happened once), I let the person know and requested that they fix it. When I felt we were being overcharged, I let Daddy deal with it.

With any luck, the yard should be finished just about the same time your paperwork is logged in in China and the real wait, the hard, unpredictable LOA wait, begins. But at least we know what we're getting ourselves into this time, and we know that at the end, we'll have you. We've gotten a couple dozen pictures of you over the last few days and you are chubby and adorable and we can't wait to get to be your parents.



Friday, October 12, 2012

They say it's your birthday...

Dear Eli,

You turned one yesterday. It was probably just like any other day to you, right? I keep telling myself that parties for one-year-olds are really for the parents, and that babies have no concept of what it means to turn one. When I say that, it makes it a little bit easier.

When we were waiting for Rose, her first birthday was a psychological milestone for me. While we were waiting for our official approval, I just kept telling myself, "it needs to come so we can get her home for her first birthday." And then when it looked like it might take longer, I revised that strategy, "Please, just let us have her with us by the time she turns one." As it turns out, she was home for two weeks before her birthday.

But we first learned about Rose when she was five months old, and our paperwork was already in China, so the "approximately six month wait" clock started ticking right away. You were ten months when asked the Chinese government if we could become your parents, and our paperwork still has two or three weeks before it will be done. And then that six month clock starts ticking. There was no way we would have your first birthday-- we knew that when we started all of this.

Since first birthdays are for the parents and siblings, we decided we'd still party in your honor. You weren't here to blow out your candles, so your five older brothers and sisters each blew out a candle for you. You weren't here to open your presents, so everyone else in the family opened a present as your proxy.

You got some clothes and some baby toys, and if we can keep Rose out of the toys, they'll be here when you get home.

You weren't here with us, sweet Eli, but you've definitely worked your way into our hearts. Sometimes I think that the pain of waiting for you is part of what binds us to you.

And when you turn two, we'll celebrate. In a big way.



Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: Incognito by David Eagleman

Title: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain
Author: David Eagleman
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year 107

I've read a lot of books about neuroscience over the last five years. For some reason, they always find a way into my shopping cart at Audible when books go into the $4.95 discount bin. And I feel like I could write one now-- marsmallow test, check. Synesthesia? Check. Phineas Gage? Check.Runaway train experiment? Check. Parkinson's patients with gambling addictions? Check. While Incognito was an enjoyable listen and I think it might be a good place for someone to start reading who hasn't read a lot of the popular neuroscience in the last half decade, it ultimately felt like a rehashing of lots of things I already knew.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Title: The Dog Stars
Author: Peter Heller
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 106

We decided to adopt a baby about two weeks before undertaking an enormous landscaping project. Consequently, I've spent the fall economizing almost all other aspects of my life.  I told Ed that I'd do my part by giving up my habit of buying books with reckless abandon, and started reserving them at the library instead. Most of the time, it's a great solution (except I miss reading myself to sleep by the light of my iPad), but I will admit that I get a rush of panic when the library alerts me that I have (another) hold waiting for me. You may have noticed that my reading pace has slowed considerably this summer and especially this fall since I started teaching. And when four reserves, four books I know I won't be able to renew, all come in at the same time, it makes me read really fast.

Unfortunately, The Dog Stars is the kind of book that isn't mean to be read fast. Oh yes, it's possible to quickly plow through this tale of a man, Hig, who survived an apocalyptic flu and now lives in what used to be Denver with only his dog and a gun-crazed neighbor for company. But that isn't how it's meant to be read. Heller's MFA is in both fiction and poetry, and it shows. His language is poetic, and we really get into Hig's head and feel what he feels as he flies his plane above the ravaged American west, both looking for survivors and afraid of what he'll find.

I know, the summary of this book may make it seem like something you don't want to read, but there are no zombies in The Dog Stars, unless you count the survivors, afraid of embracing life. I'm glad I gave up my much-needed nap last Monday to finish it in a quiet house. I'm still thinking about it.

Book Review: Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe

Title: Stories I Only Tell My Friends
Author: Rob Lowe
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 105

We've been overhauling our yard. That is to say, we have been staying inside and watching while other people have come in to overhaul our yard. It's been a big project-- we bought the house to the east of ours last winter, but there were renters living in it, so we had to wait to do anything to it until they left at the beginning of September. Then we had to spend a certain amount of money on the house so we didn't lose our rent money to taxes. So we decided to landscape the back yard, which involved pulling out more than a dozen trees and more than a hundred big boulders, tearing out a wall and a fireplace, building a new wall, moving a swing set and the chicken coop, installing several truckloads of sod, and spending way, way, way too much money on the pool. We haven't even started the shed/fence/garage part of the project, but suffice it to say that we are in no danger of losing the rent to taxes any more.

Okay, that whole paragraph had absolutely nothing to do with Rob Lowe. Here it comes. Last week I looked out at the yard and my heart sunk. Yeah, we had new sod and our swing set looked great in its new box, but everything was so junky. There were tons of soda cans lying all over the place, and every time the kids came into the house they tracked mud everywhere. It was time for an intervention. So Rob Lowe and I went outside. I filled our whole trash can with trash. I swept and swept until the concrete looked great. I even swept down the steps of the house next door so I could keep listening.

I've always thought Rob Lowe was a handsome guy, and even a smart guy. I was a huge fan of The West Wing back in the day, so he will always be Sam Shepherd to me. But he's also a great writer, and a man who has had ten lifetimes of experiences. As an avid People reader, I will admit to enjoying hearing all of the behind the scenes stories that Lowe lived, but I also feel like the book presents him as a grounded, deliberate person, a person who faced his demons early on in life and learned to rise above them. It's both a good read and a really fun read. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Book Review: The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo

Title: The Roots of the Olive Tree: A Novel
Author: Courtney Miller Santo
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Personal Copy
Books I've read this year: 104

I've been working on the periphery of the Mormon Lit world for long enough that when I heard that Courtney Miller Santo was having a novel published by William Morrow, my arms got all flappy and I did a little happy dance. Yay! Courtney Miller Santo! She who has been published in the journal where I work as an editor! Whose name is on the contributor page of the current issue of Irreantum right near mine! Maybe we are getting our Mormon moment in writing too! So yeah, I was a little excited.

And being excited often sets a reader up for disappointment, but Santo (Miller Santo? Courtney? I feel like she's a friend-- I want to call her Courtney) doesn't disappoint in her tale of the five generations of the Keller family. My great-grandma died when she was 95, just a month before my son was born. If she had held out one more month, I was going to make a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh to get the picture of all five generations. But the Keller women have serious longevity. When the book opens Anna, the oldest Keller, is 112 and she looks like she's about 70. She bends and stoops and walks and picks olives in her grove to make a special lunch for the doctor who is coming to talk with members of her family about their secrets to a long life.

The story spans eleven years and we hear the voices of every generation, down to the sixth. Santo's prose is beautiful and evocative-- I felt like I could have imagined Anna among the olive groves even if I hadn't been to Northern California a few months ago. The stories tie together well, but not too neatly. I always battle within myself because as a reader I want to know exactly what happened and why, and Santo doesn't always tell us that, but I feel that she's holding back on some details so the readers have a chance to pick at them and either work them out for ourselves or become comfortable with not knowing. I also felt like the book was incredibly readable-- I read it in just a few days of intense bursts.

So close, and yet so far

This was the fifth and final post from the secret Eli blog. It was written on September 13th.

Dear Eli,

Before we went to China, I knew that our visit to the orphanage would be an unforgettable experience for us. I wasn't sure if it would be fantastic, or scary, or a little bit of both. I wasn't sure if Annie or Daddy would get freaked out by it, or if Rose would be traumatized by us taking her back there. But I knew that no matter what happened that day, it would remain imprinted on our minds for a long time.

There were some things about the visit that were pretty great (meeting the women who took care of Rose, seeing the other babies who were waiting for families, watching the orphanage director interact with the kids) and other things that were harder (going to Rose's finding place, seeing some of the kids with more serious special needs, walking through enormous puddles of freezing cold water to see the new orphanage site). Of everything we did, my favorite part was walking from room to room and taking pictures of the babies. This was probably because my very favorite thing while we were waiting for Rose (and now what I love about waiting for you) is getting pictures from families when they visit Xuzhou. Last week we got TWO DOZEN pictures of you, and you look fantastic. You're putting good weight on your arms, making eye contact with your ayis, and smiling. You have a little girlfriend too- you're peeking into her crib or she's peeking into yours in almost all of the photos. It melts my heart. And that's the hard part too, you're so adorable, and you're so far away.

But you weren't always far from us.It gives me chills every time I think about it, but you were in the orphanage when we went to visit. We didn't see you, because we were focused only on the babies on our list, but you were there. We even went into the room where I expect you were at the time. You were five months, and when Rose was five months, she was in the room with the green duvets. We went into that room to take a picture of a little boy, but I only remember looking at the list, following Ms. Tang to his crib, and taking his photo before we walked right out the door again. But you were there. If I had only known....

Perhaps it's better that I didn't know. I can't write about it without crying, so I can only imagine that if someone had said to me, "Shelah, this one right here, this cute little guy, he's going to be yours too, but you have to wait at least a year to get him," that would have been unendurable. This whole process is more of an endurance test than any marathon or ultramarathon I've ever run, but it will be worth it. You, Eli, are worth it.

In other news, I talked with Isaac's orthopedist, and she said she'd be happy to be the doctor to work with your lower extremities. She also recommended a partner who can work with your hands. They'll work together to make sure you have the best motor function you can. I'm gaining confidence that you're going to be just fine. I've joined a few groups and started following a few facebook pages related to limb differences, and I have a feeling that there will be no stopping you once we get you home.

It's true, it won't be easy to get you here. Rose was almost exactly the same age you are now when we adopted her, and we have at least six more months to wait for you, probably seven or eight if I'm being realistic. But you will get here eventually. We can't wait to have you as part of our family.



Saturday, October 6, 2012

All the things I said I wouldn't do

The fourth Eli post-- originally written September 4th. 

Dear Eli,

I said we would wait to set up your bedroom. You won't be here for months and months, and I'm still struggling with how much of my heart I can afford to send to China right now. But you have big brothers and big sisters. And I'll tell you this right now-- they are loud. Your brothers kick and wrestle and yell and play video games at high volumes. And your sisters laugh and shriek and call for me when they know I'm two floors away. And there are two empty bedrooms in the basement, or at least empty 95% of the time, when we don't have visitors.

So, the short story is, you're getting a bedroom. A bedroom you won't be here to sleep in for a good long while. We're moving up the recliner that I bought and loaded into the minivan when I was four months pregnant with Maren, and then I sat in it each night and did my best to think about her and relax. We're taking out the beds and shuttling them downstairs, where your brothers can kick and jump and wrestle to their hearts' content. And we're moving in the crib from the girls' room, since Rosie doesn't sleep in it anyway.

One of those fortuitous things that happens sometimes happened to me last week. All of your older brothers and sisters have these big, soft blankets that they got when they were babies. I got the first two as gifts, and then ordered the others from the company, Boogie Baby. They're expensive, but in our family, they're also a tradition. Last week, I popped onto their website to check out the current designs. I clicked on the "overstocks" link, where they put all of the blankets that were made in error or returned. There were a dozen or so, and one of them said "Elias." Not only that, but it was predominantly in the same browns and caramels that Mimi used when she painted the walls of your safari bedroom. So I ordered it, and now that it's here, it needs to be displayed. I need to be able to snuggle up with it and think of you all the way over there in China, even though it makes me mist up a little bit every time I think about it.

About seven years ago, I went through a phase where I wrote poems. They weren't particularly good poems, but they made me feel good. At the time, your big brother Isaac was about one, and I was thinking about trying to have another baby. I wrote this poem:

The Final Plunge

I’m standing at the edge of the lake
Steeling myself, preparing to jump in.
Peering into the murky coldness of the water,
And readjusting my eyes until I see myself, reflected.
I’ve been here three times before:

Once as a couple, excited and nervous,
I grabbed Eddie’s hand and plunged in.

The second time we brought our baby,
And I jumped quickly
Surprised by the chest-numbing shock as I hit the water.

The third time Eddie and the kids
Splashed on the shore
And I dangled my legs in the water
Letting them warm up
Until I knew I was ready.

I’ve looked forward to coming back here
For the last year.
Planned, begged, mapped out my route.

But finding my feet on the greening planks
Of the rickety dock
Is a bit of a surprise.

Because I know that this is my last visit to this beach,
My very own, favorite spot.

And I haven’t quite wrapped my head around the idea
That I’ll only come back
In memories,
And glimpses of others packing their bags,
Loading their cars,
And heading for the lake.

So even though I’m ready
For the ear-popping, icy darkness,
As I dive to the bottom of the lake,
I wonder if I should go back to the cabin
Grab a book
And put off the deliciousness
Of the last dive
For one more day.

Last year, I found myself on the dock again, with Rose on the way. And I was elated-- I felt like I'd been given another chance at doing my very favorite thing in the entire world. I jumped into that water with both feet, and found myself with water up my nose and in my ears. I finally got to the short, coughing and spluttering, but yes, oh yes, it was worth it. The sweetest dive I never thought I'd have.

But this time, I still remember how cold and dark and scary that water was before I came back up to the surface. I still remember all of those days of waiting for Rose, all of the time when I thought I was going insane, willing the phone to ring. I know that as soon as I fully let you in, when I put on my swimsuit and stand on the dock, I'm going to have to plunge in. And as much as I love the dive, love coming back up to the surface, this time I know enough about it that the whole idea scares me.

But when Rose wakes up from her nap, we're going to try to fit in a grocery store run, and if we do, I have cork tiles for the kitchen wall on my list. We're going to start the Eli shrine.

I sound reluctant, I know I do. But I also have six or nine months to adjust to the idea. Actually, I think the six or nine months is the hard part-- you, my sweet little Eli, you are the reward that is worth waiting for. No matter how hard the dive or cold the water.



Friday, October 5, 2012

Book Review: Broken Harbor by Tana French

Title: Broken Harbor
Author: Tana French
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 103

A few weeks ago, Ed and I decided to move my boys down to a bedroom in the basement. It was a big job that required multiple IKEA visits, innumerable trips up and down the stairs, and several recharges of our drill. My friend Blue was kind enough to give up all of one day to help me put together beds, which was a lifesaver. But even when she wasn't there, I enjoyed my time in the basement, screwing furniture together, because I had Broken Harbor to keep me company. I believe that Broken Harbor is French's fourth novel, and I keep waiting for her to write one that doesn't resonate with me. It hasn't happened so far.

In Broken Harbor, Scorcher Kennedy is a detective who has always followed the rules. His past has taught him that messing up, stepping into the gray area, just isn't an option for him. When he and his new partner are called to a murder case in Brian's Town, an hour from Dublin, Kennedy immediately remembers the place as Broken Harbor, where he summered with his family as a child. Now it's a rundown housing development, a casualty of the downtrodden economy. And it's just about the grayest place in all of Ireland.

Kennedy finds a husband and two children dead, and a wife at death's door. And he's forced to confront his own demons as he tries to unravel what really happened in this house where life, to all outside observers, appeared to be picture perfect.

How it's different this time

The third of five Eli posts, originally written on August 27th.

Last time, as soon as we were matched, I ordered up a big batch of every picture of Rose that came with her referral. We taped them up over the desk in the kitchen, partly because I wanted the kids to get used to looking at her cleft, but also because I was so excited I wanted to shout out her existence from the rooftops. And in my way, with my blog and facebook, I did just that. We added to that photo wall every time families from our Xuzhou Yahoo group visited the orphanage to adopt their kids and took pictures of the waiting children.

This time, I printed pictures of Eli, but I haven't put them up yet. I haven't made a public announcement on my blog, or on facebook, or even told my best girlfriends on the message board I've been on for more than ten years. If you know about it, it's because I needed something, like a reference letter, from you. Annie, in particular, is desperate to tell her friends, but I keep putting her off. "Tell them when our dossier goes to China, or better yet, when we have LOA," I say to her.

We set up the crib in the girls' room the weekend after our match, mostly because I wanted the room to represent Rose. We bought bedding, and gave Rose her own space, even though it would be almost six more months before she'd start living in it.

This time, I specifically told the boys that we wouldn't be moving them down to the basement until after Christmas. I can't start turning their upstairs bedroom into Eli's room until they're out of it.

I know all of this makes it sound like I'm not excited about the adoption, but I am. I can't wait to have Eli join our family. But it hasn't been long enough for me to forget how hard the wait was. It was agonizing to know that our daughter was waiting in China, receiving just enough care and attention to keep her going, when she could have been home with us. Last time, all of our paperwork was already in China when we were matched, and we waited six months from the time we first saw her face-- she grew from a five-month-old to an eleven-month-old. She didn't learn to roll, didn't learn to sit, didn't learn to crawl, didn't have her lip or palate closed-- all things that would have happened if she'd been home with us. I know that every "I" has to be dotted and every "T" has to be crossed, but that doesn't make the wait any easier.

This time, we decided to be matched with Eli before our paperwork was in China. We still need to get a pre-approval from USCIS in order to send our dossier to China, and in order to send our file to USCIS, we need to get background checks and home study updates and all that good stuff. We are working hard to get it done as quickly as possible, but chances are that we will wait nine months for Eli. He may be nineteen months instead of ten by the time he's in our arms.

This time, I know exactly how hard it is to wait. I know that when other families visit the orphanage, I'll feel a mix of delight and dread-- delight that I'll get to see his face, and dread that he's still lying on his back, dread that those four or five images are all I'll have to sustain me until the next time. I'll print them off,  put them on the wall, and examine every inch of them, just like I did with Rose.

Telling people opens us up to all kinds of scrutiny. You only brought home Rose five months ago, isn't it too soon? Are you going to be able to meet Eli's needs? Wow, six kids is a huge family! Do you think you'll be able to be there for your "own" kids when you've added two more? (btw, Rose and Eli are my "own" kids).

And once we tell people, it's fair game for them to want to talk to us about it. On the one hand, I'm excited to talk. But on the other hand, I usually have so little to report. I'll be waiting, not very patiently. We may get something in the mail and run to the notary to get it off for the next step, but mostly we're waiting, and our son is growing up without us.

So the pictures of Eli stay in their envelope, where I pull them out a couple of times a day, peek at them, and blow him a little kiss. I hope it reaches him, all the way in China.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Book Review: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Title: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Author: Jung Chang
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Personal Copy
Books I've read this year: 102

This book came highly recommended. So highly recommended that after letting it fall into the part of my nightstand pile that I never quite manage to get to, I plucked it out and forced myself to read. Last year at this time, all I wanted to read was books about China. Now that we're preparing to bring another kid home, reading books about China feels more like eating my vegetables. That's probably because I read so many adorable, fun memoirs last year, which leaves me to read things like histories, which are important and necessary reading, but I don't necessarily enjoy them. Wild Swans tells the story of Jung Chang, born in the early 1950s in China to parents who were provincial leaders in the Communist Party, as well as her mother and grandmother.

The story itself is remarkable-- the women in this family experienced everything from foot binding and concubinage, to Civil War, World War, the Great Leap Forward, famine, imprisonment, work camps, and finally, moving to the west for higher education. The family's story is really worth hearing, because it humanizes the big events of the 20th century and makes them painfully real.

However, the narrative style made the book difficult to read. The author constantly refers to her mother as "my mother" instead of by name, which made it hard to keep track of who was who. I also found myself skimming toward the end, possibly because I had reached a saturation point with the events of the story. But it's still an important story to read and one that definitely broadened my understanding of Chinese history. 

What's in a name?

This is the second Eli post, originally published on August 22nd. 

I don't know what his mother called him when he was growing in her belly, but undoubtedly she called him something. Whether he was her "peanut" or her "little guy" or she called him what she planned to name him, he was called something.

And then he was born with a special need that was beyond his family's ability to provide for. That first name is lost to us forever, just like that first mama.

In the orphanage they named him Han Leman. All of the kids who found their way to Xuzhou SWI in 2011 are Hans, including Rose. All of the boys have "Le" as the first part of their first name. But the kids there, if they're called anything at all, go by nicknames.

Then his paperwork got sent to our agency. At most adoption agencies, they assign kids a name, because apparently the kids who have names, even if they're just dummy names, get adopted more quickly. In the week we were waiting to decide if he would be ours, our agency named him "Louis" for advocacy purposes.

And then there was Hugo, the nickname we gave him. I guess we could have named him Hugo. Actually, I probably would have been fine naming him Hugo, but Ed said we needed to find something else.

The day we sent in our LOI, I sat down at the computer with the Social Security list of baby names from 2011. I wrote down every name I liked, and packed it in the bag I was carrying on our trip.  As we zipped through the farm towns of Eastern Idaho on our way to Yellowstone, I pulled it out.

Five minutes later, we had a name.

Maybe I should say that thirteen years later, we had a name.

When I was pregnant with Bryce, we narrowed down our list to three names. We used the first one with our first son, another with our second, and now we're using the third.

So the baby whose first name was lost, who then became Han Leman, Louis, and Hugo, will soon be known as Elias Leman Miner. We'll call him Eli.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Title: An Abundance of Katherines
Author: John Green
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
Books I've read this year: 101

When I was in my MFA program, lots of people did the Chuck Klosterman footnoting thing. I believe that Chuck Klosterman said he ripped it off of David Foster Wallace, who undoubtedly ripped it off of someone else. Regardless of its origins, it's sort of a popular thing these days to write a footnoted essay, or in John Green's case, a footnoted novel. In An Abundance of Katherines, Colin Singleton, a former child prodigy on the brink of going to college, takes it hard when his girlfriend, Katherine IXX, dumps him. So Colin and his friend Hasan get the heck of out Dodge (Chicago) and head south, where they end up in Rural Tennessee. Adventure, hilarity, and coming of age ensues.

If John Green's name weren't on the title of this novel, I probably would not have picked it up, and that would have been fine. His novel The Fault in Our Stars was so good that I set a goal of reading his other novels, and this one is probably my least favorite. Just like I hated the gimmicky footnotes after about ten minutes in graduate school (despite my love of the parenthesis), it quickly wore me down here too. And when Green started adding math to the footnotes? I was a goner. But it's more than just that-- his other books had characters I cared about, plots that threw me for a loop, and in this one, it was mostly about teenagers just hanging out and getting over breakups. There's a place for that kind of writing, but now that I'm approaching my late 30s, probably not a place for me to be reading it.

The first Eli post

When we first decided to adopt Eli, I knew I needed to write about it, but I also knew that we weren't ready to tell everyone yet. So I started a new blog, called "One Seat Left in the Minivan" and posted there exactly five times before I spilled the beans. I'm not the kind of person who can maintain two personal blogs, so I'm going to move over the posts from the other blog here, just so I can have them all in the same place.

This post was originally published on August 9. 

In the back of my mind, I think I always knew that adopting Rose wasn't going to be the end of our story. She's so much younger than the other kids, and let's face it, it's not too hard to pick out which "one of these things is not like the other." I didn't want her growing up feeling like the odd girl out. But last year when I was broaching the topic of adoption with Eddie was not the time to bring it up. Sure, I joked about it with my mom and my sister. We even came up with a name for our future boy, since he'd have to be a boy to even the score. We called him Hugo, because in the afterword to the last Harry Potter book, Ron and Hermione have a daughter named Rose and a son named Hugo. Pretty soon, Hugo was a frequent topic of conversation at our house. "When we get Hugo..." and "Hugo will sleep upstairs but the big boys will move to the basement." Ed's immediate answer was, There will be no Hugo."

But as we've had such an easy transition home with Rose, Hugo started to weigh on my mind. I figured that he was older than Rose, a toddler, living with a foster family somewhere in China. A few weeks ago, I contacted the case manager at our adoption agency, just to let her know that I might be interested in seeing some files sometime. I started scouring waiting child websites, looking at the toddler boys, figuring I'd recognize him when I saw him.

Then, last week, our case manager sent us a file. He was younger than Rose by six months, which surprised me. He had needs I hadn't really considered before (for some reason I always thought that Rose or Hugo would be a heart baby). But he was from Rose's SWI, and he had the most adorable gummy smile. I wanted him to be mine.

This morning, we filed our letter of intent to adopt Han Leman.