Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Guess what????

We're going to China!!! The last piece of paper just arrived!

Book Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Title: The Bonfire of the Vanities
Author: Tom Wolfe
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: R for language, sex, violence

Back when I was counting the number of books I read each year, I doubt I would have chosen to listen to The Bonfire of the Vanities. It's 27 hours long (almost 700 pages in print). It kept me company through all of my February runs so far, and I'm glad to say that I've finally come to the end of it.

Sherman McCoy is wealthy Wall Street bond trader who lives on Park Avenue with his wife and daughter. When he and his mistress get lost in the Bronx and accidentally hit an African American teenager who they thought was trying to rob them, it starts off a firestorm throughout the city. Everyone from the Al Sharpton-esque minister/community organizer to the DA running for re-election, to the mayor, to the press, wants to use the case to advance his or her position.

I've read most of Wolfe's novels, so I know what I'm getting myself into when I decide to descend into one of them. There will be lots of sex and lots of words. And Bonfire of the Vanities was no exception. But listening to Tom Wolfe is a different experience from reading Tom Wolfe. By the end of the 27 hours, there were certain catch phrases that I'd become so accustomed to hearing that I could say them along with the narrator. I think that if Bonfire of the Vanities had been 400 pages instead of almost 700, it would have been a better book, and maybe I would have felt more sympathy for the hapless McCoy after everyone took a piece of him at the end of the novel. Instead, I was just glad it was over. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Book Review: The Rent Collector by Camron Wright (Whitney Finalist)

Title: The Rent Collector
Author: Camron Wright
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG

I'll admit that over the last couple of years, I've had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the finalists in the general category for the Whitney Awards. On the whole, I haven't cared much for them, to put it politely. I've found that they preferred inspirational messages over good writing, and they were pretty cheesy.

So I wasn't expecting much when I started The Rent Collector. I was expecting it to be cheesy and inspirational. And the story is inspirational. Sang Ly and her husband Ki Lim live in a cardboard shack on the edge of a municipal dump in Phnom Phen, Cambodia. They subsist, just barely, by combing through the trash that arrives each day and selling what they find. Their infant son is constantly sick, and Sang Ly spends her days failing to keep her home clean and dodging the grumpy rent collector, Sopeap Sin, who's usually drunk when she stumbles over and threatens to throw the family out.

And then one day Ki Lim returns home with a book, the next day, Sopeap Sin spots the book when she comes to threaten the family, and Sang Ly sees her face change. That tiny crack in Sopeap Sin's armor sets off a series of events that changes all of their lives for the better.

So yes, the book is inspirational (and, in fact, inspired by real people living at Song Meaney, the dump). There are some problems that rankled me as I read (Sang Ly's voice, which sounds educated, even when she is an illiterate peasant, is the main one), but in general, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading the book. It's an easy read, which would make it perfect for book groups, and I think that they would find a lot to talk about-- Wright weaves in great literature, the history of the Khmer Rouge, and detailed pictures of real poverty. His characters, are complex and interesting, and I was thrilled to have a book in the general category that I might recommend to others rather than wanting to throw it against the wall when I finished it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: Byuck by Theric Jepson

Title: Byuck
Author: Theric Jepson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Review Copy
This book would be rated: PG, for kissing, mild expletives, and BYU hijinks

BYU is a weird place. Some people (myself included) love BYU, in spite of, or maybe even because of, its quirkiness. Others hate BYU with a passion. It's a place where singing hymns in tunnels is a legitimate way to pass a Sunday evening, where rule-abiding boys will never see the inside of a girl's bedroom in four years, where squeals can still be heard on the quad when a twenty-year-old girl flashes the diamond on her left hand for the first time. In 2013, it's definitely a weird place.

Theric Jepson's Byuck (which I read as B-yuck) takes place at our fair campus in 2000, when it was still a weird place. It was still a place where marriage reined as the social preoccupation, and where David Them and his roommate Curses set out to rebel against social norms. They were the boys who would "build fences" instead of getting hitched. The guys, along with David's best friend from back home Martha (aka Referee), work to write a BYU-themed rock opera in which they poke fun of the overriding marriage mentality.

But sometimes BYU, and its social pressures, can catch up with the best of them.

I had fun reading Byuck. Jepson includes lyrics from his opera, lists David writes, notes that David and Ref pass back and forth in church, and a whole bunch of other things along with the main narrative of the story. I feel like I recognize David and his roommates in people I've known at BYU (but not in myself-- I was always unabashedly marriage-minded, much to my utter shame). But these notes also feel a little too self-conscious at times. Ultimately, however, I really enjoyed reading what amounts to a romance novel (that starts as an anti-romance) from a male perspective. If the book is really the love note to his wife that I suspect it is, that makes it even more satisfying for me. 

On waiting

I feel like one of the recurring themes of this blog over the last two years has been how impatient I am. Waiting for Rose was one big long test of my patience, and as soon as we got her home we turned right around and started it again. We're almost at the end of our wait. Travel Approvals, the last step in our adoption process, usually arrive about two weeks after a family's paperwork is picked up at the consulate in Guangzhou. We knew that our paperwork would be delayed about a week by Chinese New Year. We've been waiting for 18 days.

Friday was the first day when I really thought it might come. I even jumped once when the phone rang. Yesterday and today have been easy, because the adoption agency is closed. But tomorrow-- tomorrow is going to be hard. And so will every day after that until the Travel Approval arrives.

Over the last few days, I've been thinking a lot about a story in the Book of Mormon. A prophet, Samuel, preached to the people of Zarahemla, telling them to expect signs of Christ's birth five years in the future. The time for the signs to appear was closing in, and the people were getting anxious. It seemed that the time had passed. Every day their agitation increased. The scriptures say: "But behold, they did watch steadfastly. . . that they might know that their faith had not been vain." If Samuel said they were going to wait five years, he meant five years, not four and a half.

For me, the early part of the wait is easy. I know that it's too soon to expect to hear, and so I can put it out of my mind and be happy for others. But as the time draws nearer, I find myself in a state of agitation. I'm the kind of girl who doesn't like to get things done on time-- I get them done early. I used to write my papers in college long before they were due. I'll drive late into the night to get somewhere so I don't have to make a two-day trip. My biological kids were all born at least two weeks early. I try to beat my previous records on the race course. I do not like to be late. If you've ever seen me racing down the freeway, screaming at my husband because we're going to be ten minutes late to his mother's house for dinner, you know what I'm talking about.

I have my heart set on leaving to get Eli on March 13, and one of my friends with the same agency got a message that if the approvals don't come soon (meaning tomorrow or the next day) they will try to make us wait another week.

So today, I see myself reflected so clearly in the people of Zarahemla. I would be one of the people who had faith to begin with, but I know myself well enough to know that my faith would be rocked at the eleventh hour. Because that would be the time when I would start to fear that the thing I wanted most wouldn't happen. 

On Friday, as I heard people on my message board get advance notice that their Travel Approvals were on the way, due to arrive in the early part of this week, I felt a little bit of excitement for myself. But more than anything, I was filled with doubt. What if mine didn't come? What if we were the ones left behind? What if something went wrong? What if we had to travel in three more weeks instead of two?

Ever since we started the process of adopting Rose, I've felt like there was an external force bringing our family together with this boy and this girl. It's not something I'd ever dreamed of for myself, but adopting Rose has been one of the greatest blessings, and certainly the greatest blessing I hadn't expected, of my life. I'm sure that Eli is supposed to be my son, and in calm moments, sure that the papers will come. If we have to wait an extra week, he will still be there, and we will still have a lifetime (minus seventeen months) together. But in that eleventh hour, it's sometimes hard to know and remember that my faith is not in vain. I've learned to grit my teeth and endure, but waiting with faith and grace? I'm still working on it.

Tomorrow, please, tomorrow.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The only thing that remains between me and you

Dear Eli,

One piece of paper. That's it. We've been waiting for this piece of paper for 16 days now, although Chinese New Year got our count all messed up. After the hundreds, maybe thousands of pieces of paper we've written and read and signed and waited for during this adoption (tens of thousands if you printed out all of my Facebook posts!), it all comes down to this last one. Last time we waited 16 days for the Travel Approval, but last time we were operating under a normal work schedule. I'm hoping and praying that we have it by next week at this time, and if there are any hopers and prayers out there reading this, we'd love yours too.

Last year at this time, we were all packed and ready to go. In fact, we'd been all packed and ready to go since right after Christmas. I was so excited that I couldn't help myself. The suitcases were all stacked up in a row in our closet, and I found that I needed the things inside them so often that eventually I just left them open so I could "shop" in them when I needed to. But every time I went to the bags, I was a little depressed because I was living my life without Rose instead of with her.

So I've saved up a whole bunch of little tasks for the last few weeks. I need to get my hair cut and Rose's hair cut. I need to brave the car dealership one more time to get an oil change and a tune up on the van. I need to install your carseat and write the babysitter bible and stock the fridge and freezer so Dad and the big kids don't starve while I'm gone. I need to pack our bags-- at least mine and Rose's. If I'm being truly honest, I'll admit that yours is all packed and ready to go. I'm delaying gratification, but I'm not that good. I'm even going to treat myself to a pedicure-- it's all in the name of making the days pass faster until you're mine.

I got a fortune in my fortune cookie two months ago today. I'm not normally the superstitious sort but this one was too good to pass up. I'm not sure what the "good things" will be (Will your sister take a good nap? Will everyone else refrain from fighting?), but I know what I want. A single piece of paper with your picture and our names on it. The paper that means it's time to come get you.

Love, Mommy

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Review: Endlessly by Kiersten White (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Endlessly (Paranormalcy #3)
Author: Kiersten White
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG, for violence, kissing, and lots creative curse substitutions

When Endlessly opens, Evie has renounced her relationship with the IPCA (the International Paranormal Containment Agency) and is trying to live normal life, going to high school and spending time with her boyfriend. But this is Evie we're talking about, and as long as there are paranormals about, Evie isn't going to be able to fade into the woodwork (as if-- her hot pink, rhinestone-studded clothes aren't exactly the kind that blend). Pretty soon, everyone wants a piece of her, the IPCA, the fairies, and everyone in between. And if the world is going to avoid utter destruction, Evie is going to have to play a role in that too.

When I read Paranormalcy two years ago, one of the things I loved best about the book was Evie's voice. I know that some will say that she is annoying, but I find her glibness and enthusiasm and over-the-top teenage talk endearing (in small bursts). Evie is also funny, which is a refreshing characteristic, especially in the YA Speculative category, where characters tend to take themselves so seriously.

There's a lot of action in Endlessly, which isn't surprising in this category. It feels that many of the books are based a lot on external conflict, which is true in Endlessly. Things happen to Evie. She's not sure who to trust, and she makes a lot of the same mistakes (which feels like inner conflict), but she's not especially reflective, and she's making the same kinds of mistakes in book three that she was making in book one. Her situation has changed by the end of the trilogy, but I'm not convinced that Evie has changed in significant ways. I'm the kind of reader that really grooves on inner conflict, and when I see lots of inner conflict in a YA Speculative book, that's a book that is a winner for me.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Book Review: Everneath by Brodi Ashton (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Everneath
Author: Brodi Ashton
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG, maybe PG-13 for lots of kissing and general darkness

Although Everneath is not a sequel to something else, the opening pages of the book made it feel like it was. Nikki and Cole are emerging from a century of slumber in the underworld (which took six months of human time), and unlike nearly every human being who has ever been abducted into the underworld, Nikki manages to emerge alive. But she's weak and confused when she returns, and the narrative reflects that, jumping back and forth between the past and the present,

But in this case, a reader's persistence will pay off. Everneath turns into a story that draws heavily from the mythology of the underworld (Persephone and Hades, Orpheus and Eurydice). Although Nikki has escaped, she only has six months until she's claimed again, and this time, her journey to the underworld will be permanent. She has a few choices-- she be sucked into the tunnels and provide energy to the feeders, or she can return as Cole's companion and try to overthrow the queen, or she can try to beat her fate and separate herself once and for all from Cole. Of course, there's a love triangle-- Jake, the boyfriend she left behind and dreamed about every night for a hundred years, and Cole, in whose arms she slept while she was dreaming of Jake. Cole feels comfortable, and with Cole she might live forever, but Jake sustained her, and she loves him.

While I thought Ashton spun an interesting, complicated, literary, thoughtful story (enough good adjectives?) I'll admit that I was a little disappointed in the final chapter to discover that I was going to have to read another book (or three) to get some resolution to the whole Nikki/Cole/Jake saga. There were certain characters who felt a little underdeveloped (both the male and female sidekicks, for instance), and I was expecting more resolution in Nikki's feelings towards her dead mother, and now I'm seeing that Ashton is setting up a lot more drama in the future. If the next novel is as complicated and compelling as this one, I'm in-- even if it's not a Whitney finalist.

Book Review: Destined by Aprilynne Pike (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Destined (Wings #4)
Author: Aprilynne Pike
Enjoyment Rating: **
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG for lots of troll-fighting

I read and enjoyed the first book in Aprilynne Pike's Wings series three years ago for the Whitneys. And in the meantime, I forgot everything that happened. I mean, if pressed, I could probably tell you that there was a love triangle, and a girl who discovered, after years of thinking she was a human, that she was actually a plant-based life form, but that's it. I couldn't tell you her name, the guys' names, anything. I just remember lots of descriptions of trees and fairies.

Fast forward three years, and I'm supposed to read Destined. So I turn the first page, and I'm lost. I figure, there will be some back story, just give it some time. But no, there is no back story. Pike picks up exactly where she left off with the previous book. As I'm reading along, I don't know who's a human and who's a fairy, or who is bad or who is good, or why they're fighting. But fight they do, until the book mercifully ended 300 pages later.

And that's the problem with the YA Speculative category for the Whitney Awards. So many YA Speculative books are part of a three or four or five book series. This year, four of the five books are later books in a series, and in several cases I haven't read the previous books. So what's a girl to do? I'm already reading 40 books in two months-- it's unrealistic to read additional books to fill myself in. But it would be nice if the finalists who had books in series were allowed to give us sort of a cheat sheet so we could understand what's going on. As it stands, I do my best to glean what's going on, but in a case like Destined, I find myself lost and frustrated, which is sad, because my friends on Goodreads who have read the entire series say it's fantastic, and I feel like I'm doing a disservice to Pike (whose first book was excellent) to discount her because I was so lost, but I also don't know what else to do.

Book Review: Tres Leches Cupcakes by Josi Kilpack (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Tres Leches Cupcakes
Author: Josi Kilpack
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13 for violence, murder

In Tres Leches Cupcakes, book 8 in Josi Kilpack's Culinary Mysteries, Sadie Hoffmiller is still hiding from whoever and whatever happened to her in Boston (I didn't read that one). She's spent the last two months in Santa Fe, where she's living with some friends and working for the BLM to make sure what's going on at archaeological digs is legit. Short story is that it isn't legit, and soon Sadie finds herself in trouble again. She's in a bar fight, and gets arrested, and a friend disappears, but for most of the book she's not sure what happened to the friend or if there's something in New Mexico she needs to fear.

And that's where the problem lay for me with Tres Leches Cupcakes. In Banana Split, it was clear from the very beginning that Sadie was solving the murder of a specific person, but in Tres Leches Cupcakes, she seemed to be spinning her wheels. She knew there were sinister deeds going on, but she wasn't sure what they were or who was involved. In fact, it wasn't until the very end of the book that she knew she was working towards solving more recent murders instead of murders that had happened in the more distant past.

But I think there's more wheel spinning going on in the series than just what I saw in the plot of this particular story. Sadie and her boyfriend, Pete, have now been in love for eight books. While there were some cute interactions between them in Banana Split, it felt in Tres Leches Cupcakes that he was back to being her protector instead of her partner. I'd like to see some significant moves forward in their relationship, because if it stays basically platonic like it is right now, it stops being interesting. If I were Sadie's girlfriend, I'd tell her to get back to Colorado, take some time with Pete, and either move forward with the relationship or cut the guy loose. I hope that Kilpack resolves the issue of Sadie's safety and the Boston crew soon so Sadie is able to do this.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Line of Fire by Rachel Ann Nunes (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Line of Fire
Author: Rachel Ann Nunes
Enjoyment Rating: **
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13 for violence, drugs, veiled discussion of sexual slavery

Line of Fire is the fourth book in the Autumn Rain series, which means that fans of the series have had three books to appreciate quirky, barefoot hippie Autumn Rain, to understand the complexities of her budding relationship with police detective Shannon, to learn the history of her birth mother and her adoptive parents and the protectiveness she feels for her twin sister, Tawnia, and to process how difficult it is to confront her birth father, Cody Beckett, who is considered the prime suspect in the disappearance of a young girl in Salem, Oregon. Readers of the series have also come to see Autumn's gift as someone who can receive impressions from objects that people have handled in the past as believable and intrinsic to her character.

But I picked up the series in the fourth book, and while Nunes gives us a skeleton outline of all of these relevant facts, it's hardly more than a few paragraphs before she plunges into the story, where Autumn and Shannon travel from Portland to Salem to help find this missing teenager. On the way they interrupt a robbery at a convenience store, then find themselves getting shot at, then they realize that the whole situation is a lot more complicated than it appears, and someone from the police seems to be informing the bad guys about what's going to happen.

And what happens next is a lot of fighting. They shoot at each other in one place, manage to escape, then shoot at each other in another place, then Autumn eats some meat, then it repeats all over again. The whole book takes places in about 24 hours, and I bet that the characters shot most of the bullets in the state of Oregon during that time frame. I am the kind of girl who falls asleep as soon as the opening montage is done in any James Bond movie. I've always said that bullets are like lullabies to me, and apparently bullets in print do the same thing. They lose their ability to scare me when everyone gets shot and no one dies. While the book is well-written and I could see fans of the series liking it, it wasn't the book to read as an entree to Autumn Rain. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Book Review: Code Word by Traci Hunter Abramson (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Code Word
Author: Traci Hunter Abramson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG for violence and intense situations

Code Word is the sixth book in Traci Hunter Abramson's Saint Squad series-- novels about a group of LDS Navy Seals. Each book typically focuses on one member of the squad and his conversion to the gospel and/or courtship, all set against the backdrop of a dangerous and intense situation.

In the past, I've been outspoken about how I feel about the formulaic nature of these books. Does every courtship have to take place with bullets flying? But I'm going to set aside my quibbles with the form for this review, because after six books, I've decided that the formula isn't going to change.

Anyway, Code Word, opens with the Saint Squad taking out Bin Laden. I read that and groaned-- it felt somehow off to have them involved in such an important historical event. After the successful completion of their mission, the guys are sent on a two-week leave, and new guy (and the only non-LDS guy in the squad-- you can see where this is going), Jay Wellman goes home to Miami, where he soon meets Carina Channing, a beautiful girl whose defenses are up, way up. Jay sees this as a challenge. But Carina, whose recently deceased grandfather is the head of the Mafia in Chicago, is in grave danger. And it's up to Jay to save her.

I enjoyed this novel more than other books in the Saint Squad series. Carina's story was interesting, and Jay was a believable character. The climax of the book seemed to come sort of suddenly, and seemed rather, well, anticlimactic after some of the events leading up to it. Jay's conversion also happened rather quickly and conveniently. But all in all, an enjoyable escapist read.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Book Review: Deadly Undertakings by Gregg Luke

Title: Deadly Undertakings
Author: Gregg Luke
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG (violence)

The life expectancy for centenarians is pretty short, so it's not surprising when they die. What is surprising is when they're murdered. So when detective Josh Logan and his girlfriend, Rebekah Smith (the assistant to the state medical examiner), start working a case involving a serial killer going after people with AB blood over the age of 100, they know they've run into a unique situation, one that could end up endangering their own lives.

I've been pretty tough on Gregg Luke's books in the past, but Deadly Undertakings is probably the most interesting and cohesive of his books that I've read. The premise of the story is interesting, and he does a great job capturing Salt Lake City in the book, and of making the medical examiner's office come to life.

However, I feel that the characters in Deadly Undertakings don't feel consistent. Although Rebekah and Josh have been dating for several years, they don't seem like they're really in love. And it's more than just the fact that they both have issues in their past they're trying to work through. She's constantly on him for his food choices and his cleaning and decorating, and it feels like they might not be good for each other. Luke always reveals his villain early on in his novels, and this one felt like a stock baddie. In fact, he reminded me a lot of the bumbling Hal Stewart in Megamind, a poor fool who turns to evil. But the least consistent characters were the second baddie and someone who turned out to be good, both moves felt underdeveloped and came out of the blue to me.

I read the book in less than 24 hours (I'm on a schedule-- trying to read a book every day before we get Eli), and I'm not sure that I would have felt the impetus to push on if I hadn't been on the clock. Nevertheless, it's an interesting read.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Book Review: Banana Split by Josi Kilpack (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Banana Split
Author: Josi Kilpack
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG (references to drugs and a murder)

For the last two years, when Josi Kilpack was the president of the Whitney Committee (and therefore ineligible to receive awards for her books), I missed her Sadie Hoffmiller culinary mysteries. When I read Lemon Tart, the first book in the series, several years ago, I enjoyed the way that I could get lost for a few hours in an entertaining story that was cute and well-written. Banana Split is the seventh book in the series, is even better than the first. In this novel, Sadie Hoffmiller has fled to Hawaii, where she's suffering from anxiety and depression after her life was threatened in a previous case. For several months she hides out and wallows in Kauai, until she falls into the water during a rare outing with the Blue Muumuus (kind of like the Red Hat Society, Hawaiian style), and discovers the dead boy of Noelani, a young recovering drug addict, a single mother who had been trying to get her life back together.

Suddenly, Sadie's life has a purpose again. She's not sure if she should throw herself into the investigation, but when Noelani's son Charlie seeks her out, she finds herself returning to her own habits. But can the new, damaged, anxiety-ridden Sadie handle the challenge?

Three years ago, when I read the first Sadie Hoffmiller mystery, the whole cozy mystery genre was new to me. I'd read a lot of police procedurals, all of the Dragon Tattoo books, and every single thing PD James had ever written, and I'd come to expect violence and dramatic, scary scenes when I was reading mystery novels. Consequently, I think I misjudged where Kilpack was coming from in her novels. I made fun of her recipes and nitpicked about Sadie's character. But now that I've seen that what she's doing is intentional, and enjoyable, and getting better after seven books, I'm convinced. Three  years ago I said that Lemon Tart was the kind of book I'd pass on to my mom and she'd love, but Banana Split is a book that I really enjoyed too.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Be Mine

Dear Eli,

Today is Valentine's Day. Here in our house, this traditional day honoring romantic love is more of a family day. The kids woke up to homemade muffins and little gifts. I sent them off to school with valentines for their friends and boxes for their treats that they'd made out of shoe boxes and mod podge. Rose and I spent the morning volunteering at elementary school parties. And when the big kids got home, they dumped the valentines out of their boxes and poured through all their candy, separating it into piles. And tonight we're having heart-shaped pizza and fondue for dinner. Dad and I will celebrate later in the week by ourselves, but today is all about the kids.

After all of the other kids took their presents off the breakfast table, there was something left behind-- a little package of lacing cards I'd bought for you. Although we miss you every day, there's something about a day of celebration that makes it even more evident that you aren't here with us. If you were here, it would probably be just like any other day for you, just with more candy. Your big sister has taken the opportunity to raid everyone's candy and will probably be sick from chocolate before the day is over. But for me, on this day when we celebrate love, I just keep thinking about the piece of my heart that is on the other side of the world.

Today is significant for another reason-- if our Travel Approval happens relatively quickly, then we will be arriving in Beijing a month from today, and a few days after that, on St. Patrick's Day, you'll be our boy. You know what that means? This is the last holiday we'll celebrate apart.

I love you, my baby valentine.



Book Review: After Hello by Lisa Mangum (Whitney Finalist)

Title: After Hello
Author: Lisa Mangum
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Whitney Review
This book would be rated: G

When I was in grad school, I read Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist as part of a class assignment looking at point of view. I loved the book-- it was hilarious and touching and edgy, and Nick and Norah (who told the story of the night they met in New York city in alternating chapters) were vibrant and distinctive characters. But it definitely fell into the category of YA novels I wouldn't hand over to my twelve-year-old (you know, full of bad language and underage drinking and sexual innuendo).

What Lisa Mangum does in her novel After Hello feels a lot like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. The idea is the same-- Sam and Sara (see, alliteration in both sets of names?) spot each other on a NYC street one day just before lunch. She likes his hoodie, so she follows him, and they spend the next twenty-four hours having adventures and talking about the deepest, darkest parts of themselves. Like N&N, After Hello also uses alternating POV in each chapter, although the voices are less distinctive (and the whole book is third-person, rather than first). This is definitely the kind of book I'd hand over to my twelve-year-old, but even though it's well-written and sweet, it lacks the spark that makes Nick and Norah something great.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Title: The Middlesteins: A Novel
Author: Jami Attenberg
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for sexual references

Edie Middlestein eats. For as long as she can remember, food has been the way she has coped with hardship or stress. And now, in her sixties, it's catching up with her. She weighs more than 300 lbs. She has diabetes. She's had two medical procedures, and her doctors keep threatening her with bypass surgery. It's cost her her marriage. And yet, she can't stop. She doesn't want to stop eating three hot dogs, entire bags of chips, dinners at Chinese restaurants intended to serve entire families. Food tastes good. It fills her.

But the rest of her family-- her estranged husband, her son and his wife and children, her daughter, all worry about Edie. And in The Middlesteins, we see not just the portrait of a woman, but the portrait of an entire family as they react to that woman's problems. The book reminds me a lot of Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum-- with a tragic and funny character at the center. Sometimes the way that Attenberg tells us what's going to happen to characters ten years in the future bugs me (it feels irrelevant), and the characters are redeemed by being just a shade less unsympathetic than those in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Book Review: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Title: Flight Behavior
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle for iPad
This book would be rated: PG or PG-13

 There's nothing I like better in a novel than a complicated character. If it's a young, complicated, female whose character unfolds gradually, as the reader gets to know her, even better. And in that respect, I loved Flight Behavior. Dellarobia Turnbow is a twenty-eight year-old mother of two, married to her shotgun groom for nearly a dozen years, and about to throw it all away for the cute telephone guy who has agreed to meet her in the deer blind above her East Tennessee farm one November morning. And then she sees the butterflies-- millions of monarchs, whose traditional winter home in Mexico was destroyed in a landslide, and who have lost their way.

Suddenly, nothing in Dellarobia's life is the same. She's lived in the same town her whole life, and put up with a marriage to a good man who is a bad fit for her, but once people start coming to see the butterflies and get interested in Dellarobia's story, she starts to see herself differently. In the beginning, I saw a young girl who smoked around her kids, fought with her mother-in-law, did her Christmas shopping at the dollar store, and probably spoke in an accent as thick the groundcover of butterflies. But over the course of the novel, Dellarobia's transformation is as inevitable as that of the butterflies she grows to both love and fear.

But on the other hand, one of the things I hate most in novels is when they're didactic. And when Kingsolver isn't doing great things with Dellarobia's character, she's spending page after page preaching to her audience about the perils of global warming. I'm not one of the global warming naysayers, but even still, I don't like preaching in my fiction. At times, the pages of "instruction" almost made me put the novel down. And if I had, it would have been a shame, because Dellarobia is really one of the great characters of contemporary fiction.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Half a lifetime

In the adoption world, we talk quite a bit about a child's "family age," which basically means the amount of time that a child has been with his or her forever family. Since adopted kids have to deal with a lot of upheaval in their early lives, we're often advised to treat a child according to their family age instead of their actual age. For example, when Rose stopped sleeping a few months after she came home, I worked hard to see her as a seven-month-old instead of an eighteen-month-old when I was meeting her needs at night. When I was preparing for Rose to join our family, I read that an important milestone in an adopted child's life was when they had spent more time with their adoptive family than they had before they were adopted. Apparently, this is a time when a child really begins to feel secure in the permanence of their family life.

Well, friends, Rose was eleven months and five days when she was placed in our arms last March 12. This week, she will be twenty-two months and ten days. We've almost reached the point where she's been with us longer than she was in the SWI.

And while we've seen her grow (literally-- she's double the weight she was a year ago) and progress since she became our daughter, we're also seeing more and more personality emerging every day. At twenty-two months, we have a baby who loves nothing more than roughhousing with her daddy, running around with her brothers and sisters, getting herself into dangerous physical situations (she has no fear!), and kissing us all on the lips until we pull away and wipe our mouths. She usually has a smile on her face, and often a pair of forbidden scissors or a pen in her hand. She empties garbage cans and drawers with great regularity. Her favorite thing to drink is Coke Zero, so I've taken to drinking it only when she's asleep. She's not a snuggler, unless it's the middle of the night. She hears "no" a lot. I have a feeling that this child will barrel through life, charming everyone along the way.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

It won't be long now!

Dear Eli,

We've entered the official wait for your travel approval! What that means is that sometime in the next few weeks (but not next week because it's Chinese New Year) we will get a call from our adoption agency. I will cry and laugh when Lindsey calls, and then I'll scream and jump up and down and call everyone I know. It will finally be time to come get you. Back in August when we started this process, it seemed like we would never be standing here, on the cusp of travel. But, time passes, as it always does. And it won't be long now. Only six more weeks, if things go as planned.

But first, Chinese New Year. I feel the need to warn you in advance-- I am a dud when it comes to holidays, and as the mom of two Chinese children, I should not feel intimidated by the big Asian grocery store down in Sandy, but I do. I need to go down there this week and get some decorations, and a few treats, but I feel hopelessly out of my league when it comes to knowing how to celebrate.

It doesn't make sense to go all out like they would in China. There's no 10-day vacation here. Our family isn't gathering in from all over the country.

On the other hand, my attempts feel a little bit pitiful. We'll pull the decorations we bought last year out of storage and hang our dragon and our zodiac thing. Annie might make a "Year of the Snake" cake. We'll read a book or two about the holiday and eat some Chinese food. The girls will probably wear their silks. If I'm feeling really ambitious, I may put some money in red envelopes for the kids. And that will be it. It's a holiday that falls right near Valentine's Day this year, and I'll probably put about as much effort into it as I would into Valentine's Day.

I feel guilty about that, because I think it symbolizes that even though I'll always love you, and always do my best to be your mother, there will be times where I just won't know what to do, or how to do it. Sometimes, my best might not be enough.

And you might read this when you're older and think that I'm just referring to the fact that you're adopted-- that I'm a white woman with too many kids, and you're an Asian child whose parents never fully understood your struggles with identity and family. Maybe you won't even have struggles with identity and family. But I'm talking about more than just that-- there will be times when my best won't be enough. But my ears are open, and so is my heart. And this Chinese New Year thing, I hope we'll be able to figure it out together.



Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book Review: Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Title: Snow White Must Die
Author: Nele Neuhaus
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: R- for violence, sex, language, infidelity, murder

When thirty-year-old Tobias Sartorius is released from prison in November 2008, after serving an eleven-year sentence for the murders of two young girls, he doesn't know where to go other than back home to the small German town where he was raised and where the girls disappeared. But other than his father, no one in town is happy to see him. They want to keep the events of the past buried. But Amelie, a seventeen-year-old who has recently come to town, is fascinated by Tobias's story, and his protestations of innocence. She starts researching the events of the past, and within days, she disappears. Is Tobias unable to control his urges now that he's out of prison? Or is the story more complicated?

This is a book that is hard to talk about without giving too much away. For a small-town police procedural, there are a LOT of characters. A couple dozen townspeople, another dozen relevant police people. And since the book is a German translation, lazy American readers like me might get confused. But confusion aside, the book is engrossing. I finished it in one long stretch this morning, while my toddler emptied every drawer in the bathroom and watched way too much Franklin. Honestly, while I found that the story kept me guessing, the complications of the story sometimes seemed a little farfetched. Every time you thought you knew where it was going, the plot twisted. Still, great characters, and a very entertaining read.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Title: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Author: Stephen Greenblatt
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG

I knew nothing about this book other than what you can see on the cover when I put it in my Audible cart a few weeks ago. Well, that's not true-- I also knew that it rang vague bells-- I must have heard about it somewhere. But based on the Greco-Roman sculpture and the Renaissance painting on the cover, and the subtitle "How the World Became Modern," I was expecting the book to be a series of vignettes, possibly starting in the Hellenic period or the Roman Empire, that showed pivotal moments in history that led to our modern era. A logical assumption, right?

Well, no. I was disappointed to discover that The Swerve was really the story of Poggio Braccolini, a scribe to several popes in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, who worked on the side as a book finder. What that means is that he traveled to monasteries across Europe to try to rediscover manuscripts from the Greek and Roman periods-- texts that had been lost to the dark ages. One of the things he found was a poem by Lucretius (99-55 BCE) called "On the Nature of Things." This rediscovery sparked humanism and atomism and a whole bunch of other -isms that have helped shape the modern world. But the cute little vignettes and stories I was expecting? Nope. This is a book that takes place firmly at the turn of the Renaissance. If it had been titled differently and I had gone into it with different expectations, I think I would have enjoyed it more-- as it was, I just kept waiting for the real story to start.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Book Review: The Smitten Kitchen by Deb Perelman

Title: The Smitten Kitchen
Author: Deb Perelman
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Personal Copy

I am not one of Deb Perelman's regular readers. In fact, although I used to read lots of food and design blogs, I quit reading both when I started grad school and haven't picked up the habit again now that I've returned to the indulged and privileged role of the SAHM. But really, I think food blogs and I were on the outs before then-- I'd look at the blogs and get all excited and then turn away from the computer to the realities of my kitchen and feel depressed.

I used to be a good cook. When I got married, I had a cookbook shower. I've subscribed to Cooking Light for years (although I don't really read the recipes). I adore baking. But that's because my kids will eat the food I bake. In fact, the book came on my radar when I was looking for a recipe for rice krispie treats that don't taste like cardboard (and she delivered). But dinner? If at least half of them are going to turn up their noses at the food (including the one who eats four things), then it feels like too much work. We have late afternoon activities every dang day. I hardly ever know when Ed is going to be home until he calls and says he's on his way. And now I have a toddler (soon to be TWO toddlers) who is at my knees when I make dinner.

See all of those excuses? Deb Perelman made me reconsider each one. Her book is gorgeous-- beautiful, simple photography of food made in her closet, which is approximately the size of my pantry. If she can cook this kind of food in there, I certainly don't have excuses related to the size or functionality of my kitchen. I know bloggers thrive on enthusiasm and hyperbole, and this often bugs me, but I think the book hit me at a time in my life where I can be prodded back into the kitchen with a little cheerleading.

I read every story in the book, dropped it in the snow to christen it, then let Rose run around on its pages to make it look well worn, but I still hadn't cooked anything from it, and therefore wouldn't let myself review it. But this morning Rose and I baked brownie cookies and granola (where I substituted chocolate covered dried cherries for the dried cherries and just about swooned when I sat down to a bowl or three for lunch). So yeah, she's legit. It's not just the stories and the photography, the food rocks too.

I'm taking baby steps back to the kitchen. If there are foods I can start in the morning, that works best for everyone in the family (especially me-- it saves me from being truly harried on the 14 drives to and from the dance studio each week) and there are plenty of recipes in the book that would allow me to prep/marinate/slow cook early in the day. Maybe the kids will expand their palates. Maybe I will forget the phone numbers to all the takeout places within a two-mile radius (which makes dinner so easy). Who knows? Maybe we'll even start having people over for dinner again.