Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book Review: Heaven is Here by Stephanie Nielson

Title: Heaven is Here: An Incredible Story of Hope, Triumph, and Everyday Joy
Author: Stephanie Nielson
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 90

I didn't want to read this book. I thought I already knew Stephanie Nielson, and knew her story. I've read her blog from time to time, and read her sister's blog, and while I felt bad for what she must have felt, as a mother, to suffer such terrible injuries, and admired the way she didn't shrink from putting herself back in the public spotlight after her accident, I wouldn't say I was her greatest fan. I found her blog by turns too Pollyannaish and too focused on the "things" in her life. I didn't think her family could possibly be as awesome and perfect as she made them out to be. I found myself cringing at they way she called her husband "Mr. Nielson."

But last week, this book somehow made its way into my Amazon shopping cart. And within two days, I'd read the whole thing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not someone who usually reads "inspirational" memoirs, especially I've they're published by Deseret Book. I always think I'm going to be preached to. In fact, I'd be much more likely to read and love something like Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, where the inspirational character isn't Mormon, than when the character is. I'm not sure why that is...

Anyway, Nielson is much more honest and real than I expected her to be in her memoir. The first few chapters, the "before" part, seemed to confirm all of my prejudices. Stephanie wasn't academically ambitious, she liked pretty things, and she seemed like so many of the Mormon girls I met in my wards when we lived in Minnesota and Saint Louis and Texas-- constantly pining for Utah and their families and their mommies.

And then came the tragic plane crash that burned 80% of her body and put her in a coma for three months. I expected the book to continue in much the same vein-- of course Stephanie wanted to live, and to get back with those babies, so she worked hard and never complained and within a few months she was doing better than ever-- she even had a baby! And that is what happened, but not how it happened. What surprised me is that Nielson doesn't shy away from talking about how hard it was for her, particularly how hard it was to look at herself in the mirror and to rebuild her relationship with her children, who didn't want to look at her. The fabulous Mr. Nielson and the extended family still come off as pretty darn perfect, but I'm more inclined now to think that maybe they are.

One of the things that I admired most is the way that Nielson lives the gospel. She doesn't just believe it-- it's part of her whole existence. It's the reason why she's so close to her extended family, who took over in the months when she and Christian were recovering. It's the reason why she was able to come out with a stronger relationship with her husband when 80% of couples in similar situations can't weather the strain. It's the reason why she fought for her relationship with her children. It's the reason why she lived and found herself on the top of a mountain one year later.

So I am, at long last, a NieNie convert. I can't promise that I'll read her blog every day, but I do admire her strength, and even more than that, her willingness to go to the hard places in telling her story.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Title: Sharp Objects
Author: Gillian Flynn
Enjoyment Rating: **** (probably more of 3 1/2)
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 88

Camille Preaker is trying to make it as a journalist in Chicago when her boss sends her back to her Missouri hometown to write about a string of murders. Camille is reluctant to go home, and even more reluctant to face her mother, Adora, whose enormous pig farm employs most of the small town. Camille is a delicate, profoundly damaged alcoholic, in recovery from cutting. She has words written all over her body, in any spot that could conceivably be hidden by clothing, and it seems that going home to Wind Gap might just put her over the edge, since she not only has to confront Adora and her past, but also her younger half-sister and the ghost of her other sister, the perfect Marian.

As a mystery, the story didn't really work for me. Maybe I already knew enough about the dark and devious ways that Flynn's mind works, but I had the murderer pegged almost immediately after Camille hit Wind Gap. That should have diminished my enjoyment of the novel, but it really didn't. Just like Flynn's Amy in Gone Girl captured my attention with her deviousness, Camille's damaged self kept me reading. I often thought she acted in reckless, self-destructive ways, but Flynn kept me rooting for her.

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Title: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 89

I read some of the reviews of The Night Circus before I bought it. It seems to be a fairly polarizing book-- some readers loved it, saying that they loved the magical world Morgenstern created, and others hated it, saying it was way too long and too detailed. I tend to like the weighty, verbose narratives that others think are bogged down (probably because I'm not a very good close reader), so I thought I'd really like The Night Circus.

The first night, I sat out on my front porch and read and read until the sky was dark and the sun-warmed concrete below had cooled. I was SO into the story of Celia and Marco, two young magicians who were called in early childhood to be opponents. Their mentors had made a sport of this over the years-- grooming their subjects and then pitting them against each other to the death. Together, Celia and Marco create the night circus, a traveling circus open only at night, which serves as the place where they display their fantastic skills. But over time, they realize that they're in love, which causes a problem (the whole "fight to the death" thing, you know).

I loved the first half of the book, when Celia and Marco are young and figuring out where they belong in Victorian society. I didn't feel that the world-building was overwrought or too detailed. In fact, I felt a little bit unprepared for the ways that Celia and Marco work to subvert and bend the rules in the second half of the book in an attempt to both keep the circus alive and outsmart the rules that their mentors set forth.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Title: One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd 
Author: Jim Fergus
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 86

May Dodd is living in a mental institution in Chicago in 1875 when she hears of a way out of the asylum-- all she has to do is commit to marrying an Indian, bearing his children, and staying with him for at least two years. Then she'll be free to rejoin society and be reunited with her son and daughter, who she hasn't seen since her parents committed her for "promiscuity" after she had two children out of wedlock with the foreman at her father's factory.

May joins a group of outcasts and damaged women, all of whom have their individual reasons for joining the project, part of a promise by President Cleveland to provide a thousand white women to the Indian Nations in exchange for peace between the whites and the Indians. What ensues is part travelogue, part story of awakening as May travels west and joins the Cherokee Nation as a bride.

One Thousand White Women has been roundly criticized for May's "modern voice" (which I didn't see-- she says LOTS of things which would not be considered PC today). What bugged me more than her forward-thinking ways (which I've come to expect in many of these kinds of historical novels) was the way that May overused adjectives and descriptions. If I read once more about her friend, a former slave, was "queenly" or "noble" I might have screamed. The story itself was pretty interesting (if a bit predictable) although it turned on my least favorite convention in fiction writing (anyone remember what that is? The end was sad, although that was to be expected.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Book Review: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

Title: The Invisible Bridge
Author: Julie Orringer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 85

When Eddie and I were newlyweds, one summer he took a Great Russian Novels class. I had just graduated from college and hadn't started teaching yet, so I read all of the books he read. It was a great summer. We'd read and then talk about Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy. In particular, I remember two things about Tolstoy-- Anna Karenina captured me in a way that I hadn't been swept away since reading Anne of Green Gables as a kid, and I had a love-hate relationship with War and Peace. I loved the Peace parts-- the romance and the dresses and everything, and found myself skimming through the war parts.

Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge reminds me a lot of War and Peace. In the first half of the novel, Andras Levi, a young Hungarian Jew, travels to Paris in 1937 to go to architecture school. He falls in love with the city, and also falls in love with Klara, a ballet dancer in her early thirties with a teenage daughter and a complicated past. Because the story centers on European Jews in the late 1930s, readers know what's coming, and a sense of foreboding hangs over the whole beautiful love story of the first half of the novel. But I loved the romance anyway, even though I knew where it would lead.

The second half of the novel is a live stripped down to its essences. Can a family, a love, a life survive when all of the trappings of school and romance and comforts are stripped away? How much pain and privations can one man stand? I found that I enjoyed the "war" parts of The Invisible Bridge more than I did in War and Peace, but it was the love story that made this book a great read.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Review: Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller

Title: Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil
Author: Tom Mueller
Enjoyment Rating: ** (2 1/2?)
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 87

I used to read a lot of books about food. I used to cook a lot. I used to take cooking classes. I used to consider myself a foodie.

These days, I cook as little as humanly possible. Can a family of seven live on cheese quesadillas and diet coke? I think we're the test-case family. Somewhere between kid three and four, when I realized that kid one would only eat five things for the rest of his life and Ed really didn't care what we ate for dinner, I gave up. Sure, I still buy the cookbooks and thumb through them. I hide in the bathroom with Cooking Light every month and salivate over foods I'm not going to make. Then I come back to the kitchen and whip up a batch of spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese for dinner, with bread on the side for Bryce, who doesn't eat spaghetti. I'm mostly okay with it, at least until my mom visits and I decide I have to cook every once in a while, just to save face.

So how did I end up with Extra Virginity in my Audible queue? I'm not sure. I think it must have been a 2-for-1 sale. What did I gain from reading the book? A gigantic sense of inadequacy-- I can't tell a peppery oil from a mild one, and I'm pretty sure that the oil in my cupboard would be considered "lampante" oil not really fit for human consumption by oil connoisseurs. Mueller explores the history of olive oil, back to the birthplace of civilization, through biblical times, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and into the modern era. He interviews dozens of (to me, indistinguishable) oil producers, and looks at the problems of living as an olive oil farmer, the scandals within the industry, and the benefits of using high quality oils.

I almost quit this book several times in the first half. It seemed pretty repetitive, and I felt that I was going to be preached to the entire time. And my assumptions were pretty much spot on. But I found that once I put the book on 1 1/2 speed, the book became much more entertaining. It almost convinced me to visit the local olive oil store, which is just down the street. Maybe. When my huge bottle of lampante is gone.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Book Review: Millstone City by S.P. Bailey

Title: Millstone City
Author: S.P. Bailey
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Electronic Copy
Books I've read this year: 84

I feel bad that I've let so much time pass since finishing this book and sitting down to write the review. I hate it when I do that, especially with a book that deserves a thoughtful review. Anyway, I'll do my best.

The best way I can describe Millstone City is a cross between The Best Two Years and Witness (not the Amish part, but the "I've seen too much and now I've got to hide" part). Yes, seriously. Elder Carson is a good missionary who is working hard to baptize new members in Olinda, Brazil, and who genuinely likes his companion, Elder Nordgren. And even though he's doing his best to put missionary work at the center of his life, when it gets late and Nordgren is snoring in the bed beside him, Carson can't help but think of how his family is falling apart back home. So one night he sneaks out of the apartment and heads for the corner store, where he can make an international phone call to his girlfriend. He knows that if he can just hear her voice, everything will be okay.

Carson isn't a rulebreaker, and after he finishes his call, he steps into the bathroom to collect his thoughts before sneaking back home. And then he hears shots. He steps out into the store, and sees the proprietor being murdered by two men. One of whom happens to be Heitor, a recently-baptized member of the ward, a young man who is the pride of his family, a young man who is preparing for a mission himself.

And now Carson has a problem. Nordgren has a problem. Hector has a problem. The elders need to get out of Brazil. Hector needs to get rid of the eyewitness, and his companion. What begins as an exploration of missionary relationships and missionary desires quickly becomes a nailbiting thriller. As a thriller, the story definitely works. Bailey adopts the short, clipped sentences of modern noir. But the whole story feels a little short and clipped too. I think I'm accustomed to reading thrillers in the 300+ page range, where the plot has lots of twists and turns and the baddies leave a trail of bodies in their wake. In this case, there are twists and turns, but the whole story is compact, and the body count is relatively few.

Where I think Millstone City really succeeds is as an exploration of character. In Carson and Nordgren, Bailey creates missionary characters who are both flawed and sympathetic, in interesting ways. They're motivated to do good, but they're not angels. They're also pretty darn scared. But I thought that the most interesting portrayal of character was Heitor. Yes, the guy is a killer. Yes, he's wrapped up in some pretty serious stuff. Yes, his first instinct is self-preservation. But he's also a boy who loves his family. A boy who probably believed, when he was hearing the missionary discussions, that there might be a chance that he too, could someday serve. The novel doesn't draw overt conclusions about Heitor's eternal state, but it does show Heitor struggling with the consequences of his actions.

The thing I like best about Millstone City is that it's eminently readable. I've read a lot of "Mormon" mysteries in the last year, and none of them holds a candle to this. I want to recommend it to my friends, push it into my husband's hands, and tell them all to go escape to Brazil for a few hours.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


When Rose came home, I committed to writing every Wednesday. If you look back over the last few weeks, you can see I've fallen off the wagon.

I blame naptime. My naptime.

As many of you know, I'm an up before dawn kind of girl. And in the summer, after I've gotten everyone up and dressed and off to camp and swim team and dance, and then fed them all lunch, I'm fried. And I know that I'll probably have 10 more hours of this parenting thing before they're all asleep in bed. So when Rose goes down for a nap, I threaten all of the big kids within an inch of their lives and take at least 30 minutes for myself. On a good day, I'll actually get a little sleep myself, but this is always chancy-- invariably the phone rings or someone texts me even if the kids are leaving me alone. But I always get some reading time in. Today, for example, I read at least two pages of my book before I dozed off, and I slept for at least ten before the phone rang. That's pretty typical for my quiet time-- it's usually underwhelming. But disappointing or not, I guard it fiercely-- it's often the only time of day when someone isn't hanging on me, begging for (another) glass of chocolate milk.

So blogging has fallen by the wayside in favor of naptime.

Want to know what else has fallen by the wayside?

Rose's beautiful sleep habits.

When Rose came home four months ago, we were amazed at how well she slept. We put her in her crib, and within seconds her finger was in her mouth, and minutes later she was sound asleep. We joked (probably tastelessly) that we wished all of our kids could have been sleep trained in an orphanage. There was none of the standing in the crib and wailing that my other one-year-olds pulled. None of the hours spent outside the bedroom door, willing them to lie down and just fall asleep.

Rose is comfortable with us now. She seems to be attaching beautifully. She's also catching up on all of her developmental milestones-- crawling around the house and, yesterday, taking a single tentative step. She likes nothing better than holding on to someone's hand and doing her adorable little Frankenstein walk around the house.

Comfort and attachment are all good. The loss of the institutional behaviors is exactly what we want to see happening. She's starting to look more and more like a healthy, well-adjusted, fifteen-month-old.

And I guess I should have predicted this, but she's sleeping more and more like my other kids too-- waking up at night, demanding to sleep with me, refusing to go to bed unless I sit with her.

I'm so tired. Naptime is even more of a sacred time of day than it was before this phase (oh, please tell me it's just a phase) started.

One-year-olds are exhausting. Four kids home from school for the summer, also exhausting. And summer, in and of itself, makes me tired.

So don't hold it against me if I'm not blogging, if I'm behind by half a dozen books. With any luck, I'm sneaking in a little nap.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cousin, Cousine

 Rose's cousin Sam left last week, after staying with us for two weeks. The most entertaining part of their entire visit was watching the two babies play. They played in the pool and in the tub, they shared their food. Rose started butt scooting around as quickly as possible to catch up with Sam, who started walking in earnest a few days before he celebrated his first birthday with us. Sam taught her how to climb stairs too, which means we now have to keep an eagle eye on her at every possible second.

This is how their time together looked.
Here is a balloon from my birthday, would you like to play with it?
On second thought...
I'd rather bash you in the face with it.
Neener, neener, neener, you can't catch me.

Two babies each with his or her own veggie straw.
Why don't you try one of mine?
Yes, you DO want it!
 We all miss Sammy, especially Rose. He sure did teach her a thing or two.

Book Review: Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Title: Midnight in Austenland
Author: Shannon Hale
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 82

One of the things I find interesting about Shannon Hale is that her young adult fiction feels much more highbrow than her fiction for adults. All of the adult-market novels she's written have been escapist romances (two set in Austenland and one where Brad Pitt falls in love with a housewife, basically) while her middle grade/YA books (like The Goose Girl) are rich in symbolism and descriptive language. Because I knew this about Hale's books going into reading Midnight in Austenland, I was expecting escapist romance, and not anything nuanced or complicated. I was not expecting the heroine of the story, recently divorced Charlotte Kinder, to turn into Angela Lansbury and start solving a murder. But that's what happened. The book deviated from being a romance and became a mystery-cum-romance.

I don't know if it was the company at my house or the book, but I had a really hard time getting caught up in Midnight in Austenland. I know that Shannon Hale's Austenland wasn't all that well-received when it was published in 2008, but I thought the book was kind of sweet; it was definitely a page-turner. But this time I found myself skimming. For at least a hundred pages I wasn't even sure who Charlotte's romantic interest would be. I think that move was purposeful on Hale's part-- Charlotte needed to know herself and become comfortable with herself as a single person before she could open her eyes and fall in love again, but that made the love story, when it did happen, feel a bit rushed.

Maybe if this book had caught me in a different, less rushed, time of my life, I could have gotten wrapped up in the story, but I felt that this was one where the reader really had to work at enjoying the romance of the story.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


More than twenty years ago, the summer I was fifteen, I sat in the nursery at the Washington DC LDS temple, waiting for my parents to get married. That isn't true, exactly, since they'd been married for nearly twenty years at the time, but a year after we joined the LDS church, they had the opportunity to be "sealed" to each other "for time and all eternity," to covenant to each other that they wanted their relationship to extend beyond the bounds of death.

After they were sealed to each other, they brought the kids into the room, and we were sealed together as a family. I'd heard that temple sealing rooms had mirrors facing each other where you could stand together and "look into eternity" but I was so caught up by the solemnity of the service and the whiteness of the room and being overwhelmed by this moment in my life that I don't remember looking in the mirrors.

Seven years later, in a sealing room in the Salt Lake Temple, Ed and I were married. When Bryce, Annie, Isaac, and Maren were born, they were "born in the covenant," sealed to us upon the moment of their births because we were married in the temple prior to their arrival.

But Rose was born on the other side of the world, and we had the blessing of becoming her family when she was eleven months old. So last Saturday, we found ourselves once again in a temple sealing room, with all of our five children gathered around us, as Rose became our daughter, not just for this life, but for eternity. It was a sweet moment for all of us, and here are a few pictures, courtesy of my talented friend Scott Morris.

Book Review: Naughty in Nice by Rhys Bowen

Title: Naughty in Nice (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries #5)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible for iTunes
Books I've read this year: 81

Once I finished Royal Blood, I looked in my audible account and realized that I was almost done with the Her Royal Spyness books. Boo. These books have been so much fun to listen to this summer. In fact, I think they're a perfect summer read/listen. Katherine Kellgren does a fantastic job with the narration-- easily switching from Georgie's high class tones to her grandfather's Cockney to the snooty French inspector's exasperated accent. Furthermore, you know what you're going to get with a Royal Spyness book-- it follows a comfortable formula, although each story deviates just enough to make it interesting.

In this book, the Queen sends Georgie off to Nice to reclaim a snuffbox that was stolen from her several months earlier. The only problem? Before Georgie can sneak the snuffbox away from the house, the "gentleman" robber first tries to rape her, then he turns up dead in his swimming pool, with Georgie as the prime suspect. Is she able to clear her royal name? Does she get the snuffbox back? Does she finally get Darcy into bed? Which evil murderer puts her life in danger this time? Read the book, and you'll soon find out.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Title: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle for iPad
Books I've read this year: 80

I think the highest praise I can give this book is that once I started reading it, I could hardly put it down. We had company here, and every afternoon I put Rosie down for a nap and promptly sneaked off to my bedroom to read for an hour or so. When I finished it, I told Eddie he HAD to read it, and he spent the next weekend our company was here holed up in the bedroom reading. I've already bought Flynn's first book (she wrote two other suspense/thrillers before Gone Girl).

Before you get too excited, and before I figure out a way to talk about the story without giving any spoilers, let me say that if you're at all squeamish about murder, sex, violence, foul language, or just plain evil, this might not be the book for you. I'd say that Flynn definitely leans toward the gratuitous when it comes to the vices. In fact, at one point in the novel, one of the characters proclaims the protagonists to be the two most screwed up people he's ever met.

Gone Girl opens with Amy Dunne disappearing on her fifth wedding anniversary. Her husband, Nick, becomes the immediate suspect. Over the next 432 pages, we hear Nick tell his side of the story, as he sees it fit to tell us (he freely admits that he omits certain details). But we also hear from Amy through her journal, a chronicle of their five-year marriage that makes it quite evident that all was not well behind the closed doors of their Carthage, Missouri home.

I can't say more. I'd love to say more, but I can't. You just have to go read it yourself and watch how Flynn unfolds her story. Just be prepared to have a messy house and unfed children while you hole up reading.

Book Review: Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen

Title: Royal Blood (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries #4)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 79

After a while, Rhys Bowen's books tend to blend together. Is this the story where someone tries to kill Georgie in Scotland or France? It's been several weeks since I finished Royal Blood, and despite the somewhat formulaic nature of all of the books in the series (the Queen sends Georgie off to do some covert operation for her-- something like spying on her son's girlfriend, Georgie gets herself involved in a situation, someone gets killed, she almost gets killed by the killer, she gets rescued by Darcy, etc...), I remember this book very well, and I think it's my favorite of the Her Royal Spyness Mysteries so far.

In this incarnation, the Queen sends Georgie off to Transylvania, to be the representative of the English royal family at a wedding of a Hungarian princess to a Romanian prince (or vice versa). But when Georgie arrives in Transylvania, nothing is what she expected it to be-- the chubby old school chum who will be the bride has become a svelte, beautiful woman. The castle seems to be haunted. And then there's the creepy man who Georgie found standing over her bed at night. He has to be a vampire, right?

If you've read the other Royal Spyness Mysteries, you're in for more of the same, executed deftly. Georgie's character gets more endearing as the series progresses, and she manages to pick up a maid who provides excellent comic relief in this novel.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sesame Street Party Gone Very, Very Wrong

My family is in town for Rosie's sealing (more on that later), and today was my nephew Sam's first birthday. In typical fashion (for my mom) the birthday cupcakes were extreme-- in this case, they were extremely red, as in an entire bottle of the highly-pigmented fancy food coloring red. And they turned our cute little babies into, well, vampire babies.

Check it out:
In the beginning, there was a sweet, adorable little Elmo cupcake.
Mmm. I'm eating Elmo. His blood is very tasty.
Nice fangs.
I'll eat you up I love you so....
The kiddie coven.
My arms and legs are out of control! I must be turning into a bat!
I vant to suck your blood.