Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: Elders by Ryan McIlvain

Title: Elders
Author: Ryan McIlvain
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: R for language and sexual situations

Elder McLeod has six months left in Brazil and he's still a junior companion. He's well known throughout the mission as a slacker, a complainer, and a general pain in the butt. So the mission president puts him with Elder Passos, a native Brazilian who is gunning to be the Assistant to the President, which he sees as a springboard for a scholarship to BYU and a life of plenty.

As you might imagine, it's not a match made in heaven.

After a day of fruitless knocking on doors, the Elders meet a couple who seems like they might be the golden converts all missionaries hope to find. But life, and soccer, intervenes, and threatens not only the relationship between the two companions, but also the way they see themselves as they enter adulthood.

I loved the early chapters of Elders. I've known many Elders like McLeod-- guys who go on missions because they genuinely want to serve, but belief in the gospel doesn't come easy. The conversations between McLeod and his father, a former doubter, were especially powerful for me. I think McIlvain also does a nice job presenting a mission in an unvarnished light-- the quirks of the other guys, the business-speak of many mission presidents, and the relentlessness of the daily grind. But after the early chapters, the story lost focus. And the ending seemed so hopeless, so nihilistic, and so unresolved that it was a satisfying insight into missionary life but not a satisfying story.

Book Review: Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

Title: Call the Midwife
Author: Jennifer Worth
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 for discussion of prostitution, STDs, and detailed descriptions of childbirth

When Jennifer Worth, a middle class London nurse, starts her midwife training at Nonnatus House in London's East End, she's not entirely prepared for what the experience would bring. Fifty years later she writes about these experiences through the lens of change.

In the 1950s, the East End of London was a place bound by morals and traditions. Most of the people were poor, but they were generally hardworking and proud. The women stayed chaste before marriage, then could expect to have a dozen children over the course of their childbearing. The families often lived in two-room tenements, with a single bathroom and a cold water tap at the end of the hall, shared by everyone on the floor. If all went well, the babies were born at home, under the direction of a trained midwife.

Worth tells fascinating stories about her career as a midwife. She captures the sounds and images of a bygone era. At times, I felt that she went into too much detail about certain stories, and she seemed to show unabashed praise for the rustic simplicity of certain characters (the Warrens, in particular), but she also showed how she grew as a human being, and her own understanding was expanded as she went through her training. I just started the PBS series, and I'm enjoying it too, but honestly, I like  the book a lot better.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Title: Orphan Train
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for adult situations

On the subject of ratings, sometimes I'm not quite sure what to rate a book. For example, I just wrote my review of Life After Life, which is a challenging book where the author takes lots of risks, but still tells an engaging story. I gave that book four stars, because I generally reserve five stars for books that completely knock my socks off (usually less than half a dozen per year). Orphan Train is a more straightforward, conventional story, but it's also an interesting story and even a moving story. The critic in me wants to give it three stars for not being edgy, but the reader in me wants to give it four stars for being so captivating. Reader wins.

Orphan Train is really two stories-- that of Molly, a teenager trying to make it in the foster system in Maine in the modern day, and Vivian, a young girl who travels from Ireland to New York with her parents, and after losing her family in a devastating fire, she travels with a group of orphans to Minnesota, where the children find placements with families. The two meet in the present day when Molly ends up doing service hours (to avoid a stint in juvie) cleaning up the attic of Vivian's oceanside mansion.

I didn't know about the Orphan Train phenomenon, in which orphans or street kids from New York were rounded up and shipped out west, where the families who took them in might treat them like slaves and might raise them as their own. Vivian spent time with two of the former kinds of families before she was placed with one of the latter. Molly has had similar experiences since her father died and her mother couldn't keep her. The parallels are fairly obvious, but make for good storytelling nonetheless. The book was particularly interesting from the point of view of an adoptive parent-- especially the scenes where the children where put on stage and chosen by prospective families, and the sense of loss that Vivian goes through when she joins these new families.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Title: Life After Life: A Novel
Author: Kate Atkinson
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for rape scene, infidelity, and some violence

The first time Ursula Todd is born, in a midwinter snowstorm in 1910, in the countryside near London, she dies without taking a breath. The second time she's born, also in a midwinter snowstorm in 1910, in the countryside near London, she manages to live for a couple of years. The third time, she makes it all the way to 1918. Each time she dies, she gets to do it over again.

Kate Atkinson's books almost always have a quirky twist on reality, some with more or less success. Based on the glowing jacket quotes on the back cover of Life After Life and the amount of advertising money that is being poured into it in the New Yorker alone, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the book itself. I mean, isn't it just like a grown up, British, more refined version of Groundhog Day? But I will say this, I like Groundhog Day, and I really, really liked Life After Life. It was a book that, for me at least, lived up to the hype.

One of the most fascinating elements of the book is how Ursula was able to influence herself in different incarnations of her life. She suffers from crippling deja-vu, to the degree that her mother has her seeing a psychiatrist (in several of her lives), and sometimes these premonitions cause her to make choices for reasons she doesn't understand (for example, she pushes her maid down the stairs, preventing the maid from attending a parade where she contracts the Spanish Flu and brings it home to the family, resulting in Ursula's death). It's interesting to see where the elements of her life are the same and where they are different-- how tiny events or choices can make huge differences in how a life plays out. And, like Bill Murray, Ursula seems destined to repeat the events of her life again and again until she fulfills her ultimate destiny.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Title: The Burgess Boys
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language

Jim, Bob, and Susan grew up in a Maine mill town, where their father was a foreman until Bob ran him over with the family car when he was four years old. The kids grew up, and Jim and Bob left Maine in their rearview mirrors, both ending up as New York attorneys (but the most different kinds of New York attorneys imaginable-- Jim is a high-powered defense attorney modeled on F. Lee Bailey or Robert Kardashian and Bob works in Legal Aid). The boys are in their 50s when their sister calls to tell them that her son (who has always been socially awkward and painfully shy) has been arrested for throwing a pig's head through the door of a mosque in their town, which has become a gathering-place for Somali refugees.

And so the Burgess brothers go back to Maine, where they confront their pasts.

While it's obvious that The Burgess Boys has its roots in the same place as Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge (one of the best books I've read in years), I don't think it's quite as strong as Olive Kitteridge. The most fascinating part of the story for me was not the main plotline itself (what will happen to the nephew?) but the character portrait of Jim, who, like Olive, is prickly, although it seems that most of the people closest to him don't see it at the beginning of the novel. Jim is a powerful man, a man who is accustomed to getting or taking what he wants, and everyone seems to respect him for it. He's the kind of guy who everyone at work would think was a tremendous jerk, but who seems to have a wife and siblings who still adore him. And Strout does a wonderful job looking at this character, at these contradictions, and in making him a fully rounded individual.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Book Review: Macbeth by AJ Hartley and David Hewson

Title: Macbeth: A Novel
Authors: AJ Hartley and David Hewson
Enjoyment Rating: ***? ****?
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: R for sex and violence

Last summer when we decided to adopt Eli, I went into "retrenchment mode," and dropped my Audible account down from two books per month to one book per month. I told myself that I couldn't buy any extra books until I finally listened to all of the books that had been sitting there in my library but I hadn't gotten around to listening to yet. Macbeth was the last book in the queue.

It wasn't for lack of trying. The first three times I'd tried to listen to it, I got so distracted and sidetracked in the first or second chapter that I just couldn't listen any more. And it's not like I don't already know the story of Macbeth-- I've read it. I've studied it. I've taught it, for heck's sake. But for some reason, the book wasn't penetrating. I asked other people who had read it, and they said they enjoyed it and had no problem getting into the story. And it wasn't the narrator either-- Alan Cumming is one of the best narrators around. Finally, I decided to give it one more go. I told myself that I couldn't get lost in the story-- I know the story like the back of my hand.

Finally, after the long witch scene and the even longer battle scene, I had a breakthrough-- this was Macbeth at quarter speed, fleshed out, with a lot more detail. And it started to be beautiful. Eventually, I really enjoyed the story-- especially the humanizing of Lady Macbeth (who harbors a huge grudge against Duncan-- who is an evil king-- because Duncan ordered Macbeth to move to a new castle during the end of her pregnancy, which resulted in a disastrous labor, a dead baby, and no possibility of any more children).

While most of the story was enjoyable, I'm still not a fan of the huge battle scenes, and while the opening of the book was faithful to the storyline of the play, maybe it's a boring way to start a novel and a play. But I'm glad I stuck with it-- and I'll never look at the play the same way again.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Book Review: My Planet by Mary Roach

Title: My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places
Author: Mary Roach
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: PG

A few weeks ago, I was buying something on Amazon, and this book popped up in the "Recommended for You" category (I think I have singlehandedly paid for whatever kind of technology and manpower went into creating the "Recommended for You" category). So, yes, I bought it without really thinking about it, and certainly without analyzing the cover well enough to see that it was printed by Reader's Digest.

Apparently Mary Roach has been a monthly columnist for Reader's Digest for a long time. I didn't know that because I am under the age of 60, and the only time I ever see a Reader's Digest is when I'm at my in-laws' house, and I never take long enough in the bathroom to get beyond "Word Power." My Planet is pretty much exactly what I would have expected if I knew that Mary Roach was writing for Reader's Digest. It's a bunch of funny little anecdotes about her life-- all sanitized and not too provocative (apparently I like her dirty and provocative). I feel like I learned a lot about the character she has created for her husband, Ed, a man who washes his hands obsessively but is, in many ways, a clutterbug (an interesting combination).

I think this book would be great sitting on the back of a toilet seat, along with the Reader's Digest, where it could be read column by column. However, I'm the kind of girl who picks up a book and wrestles with it until it's done, and I got tired of the repetitiveness of the (very funny) columns long before the book was over. But not tired enough of them to stop reading, which is saying something, isn't it? If Gulp is too icky and Bonk too pervy, maybe you'll prefer this brand of Mary Roach.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Title: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Author: Michael Pollan
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Personal Copy

A few nights ago, Michael Pollan was here in Salt Lake. We weren't going, of course, because I don't do anything at night these days that doesn't involve lying on Eli's floor while he falls asleep, but I couldn't help fantasizing about what he would say if he showed up on our doorstep for dinner. We were eating taco salad, and as I got dinner ready, a commentary of what he would say kept running through my mind:

Lettuce (iceberg, ick-- no nutritional value and it's not organic)
Tomatoes (hothouse, or from Chile. Either way, your carbon footprint is too big)
Chili (meat from a factory farm)
Shredded Cheddar (cows were fed antibiotics, no flavor profile to speak of)
Guacamole (why did you use a seasoning packet instead of onion, limes, garlic and your own spices? That's not real cooking)
Salsa (Pace-- how lowbrow)
Tortillas (white flour, lots of preservatives)
Doritos (do you seriously expect me to eat this?)

The thing is that I really, really want to like Michael Pollan. I want to like Cooked. I want to be a devotee who bakes her own bread and uses up her CSA veggies every week. I want to feed my children healthy food and pay attention to things like how meat is raised and where my food comes from.

And for the first few weeks after I read a book like this, I can usually get into the spirit of things. But in Cooked, Pollan writes about how the amount of time people spend on preparing food has decreased, and I firmly believe that in order to feed my family in a Pollan-esque way, I would have to spend as much time thinking and working at it, and as much of our family income paying for it, as the hunter-gathers did. It would have to be my passion, and while I can feel passionate about baking a birthday cake or a killer pan of brownies, putting dinner on the table every night just doesn't get my juices flowing.

In Cooked, Pollan explores four different cooking methods. And he does it like a man. He even picks manly subjects like barbecue and beermaking. What I mean by "he does it like a man" is that he is able to explore these subjects like an ardent hobbyist, not like someone who has to put food on the table 21 times a week. He's making things like whole hogs and braises that take days to prepare, food where everyone will bow down and worship him when he sets it on the table (because he is, after all, a man who is cooking. When my husband makes rice and throws a little curry in it, we all act like he could get hired by Bobby Flay).

I understand the importance of cooking, but this book does little to communicate the everydayness of cooking. When Pollan wants to learn about bread, he bakes with the guy who just wrote a cookbook. When he wants to learn barbecue, he works with a pitmaster with a James Beard award. He is Michael Pollan, after all. But he doesn't seem to realize that the opportunities he has when he decides he wants to be a cook are not what most people have. What I'd love to see is how Pollan would feed my family-- six kids, one of whom eats only a dozen things, all running every which way after school, while also driving those six kids to the places they need to go. There's a scene in the book in which Pollan and his son visit one of the evil "middle aisles" of the grocery store (the freezer aisle, to be exact) and buy frozen dinners. Pollan buys an Amy's, which already feels a little out of touch with the 98%. Then they cook them and eat them, while he analyzes the nutritional qualities of each (and denigrates the microwave). I wonder how long Pollan would hold out against the microwave and the chicken nuggets if faced with my brood.

Defensive much? I guess so, but the book touched a nerve. I feel like it told me all the hundreds of ways that my kitchen (and therefore my children) were on the wrong track, but not much practical advice on how to fix it.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Two Months Home

It's been two months since Eli was placed in my arms, and it's been a whirlwind. If you saw my post last month, you many have spent the month worried about my mental health, and I am happy to say that although I am still very much in the trenches of this mothering thing, at least we're smiling at the end of two months.

The first big change is that Rose is starting to adapt to Eli's presence in the house. Instead of hitting him hundreds of times a day, she's down to a few, usually right after their naps when she's grumpy, or when he has taken something from her. She also likes to pinch him when they're sitting in the stroller together, but I feel like what we've got now is normal sibling behavior and not attempted murder.

When I first approached Ed about adopting again, it was because I felt strongly that Rose needed a buddy down at the end of the family, and while Eli is much more than just Rose's little buddy, I am happy to see that relationship emerging as well. Whenever she wakes up in the morning, she always goes looking for "Ly-ly" and if I'm not quick enough she'll often wake him up. Their favorite time of day is definitely "twin tickle time" when I lay them side-by-side on the floor and tickle them until they're out of breath. Then do it again and again until my hands fell like they'll fall off.

We've moved into a stage where I don't feel like I'm quick enough to manage them, but it doesn't feel like our world is imploding, either. This afternoon, the house was quiet for five minutes, so I enjoyed watching Sherlock while I folded laundry, and the reward for that solitude was a whole bottle of shampoo poured onto Eli's head and all of the bath toys, with the remainder dumped into the entire roll of toilet paper they unrolled. We had to fix our pantry door because they were getting in there multiple times a day and spilling food. Emptying the dishwasher while they're both grabbing things out and throwing them onto the floor feels like a challenge right out of The Amazing Race.

Eli doesn't seem to be gaining weight and growing big like Rose did last year, but it's always hard for me to tell since I'm with him day to day, and he didn't have as much to make up for as Rose did. He's a good eater, and he's sleeping well once we finally get him to sleep, but the bedtime routine can take anywhere from five minutes (if someone else is putting him to bed) to an hour and a freaking half (if I'm the one in there). He still isn't at the point where he can go to bed without someone in the room with him. Maybe by next month....

Eli had his first appointment at the Shriner's Hospital a week after we got home, and he's now on his fifth and final cast (blue, kelly green, purple, orange, lime green) for his club foot. He's also had a tendon release procedure. In two weeks, he'll trade in his cast for a brace, and he'll be able to resume his favorite pastime, taking a bath. We're waiting to hear when he'll go in for the first of his four hand surgeries-- we're hoping it happens soon.

So all in all, things are going well. Life is slowly returning to normal. And we are so delighted to have this little guy in our lives.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Book Review: The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

Title: The Blood of Flowers
Author: Anita Amirrezvani
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: R for some very adult sex scenes

When I started this audiobook I only knew a couple of things about it-- that it takes place in 17th-century Iran, and that it drew heavily on the Arabian Nights tales. So the early chapters, in which the nameless protagonist loses her father, travels with her mother to the city of Isfahan, and takes shelter with the family of her uncle, who is a rug-maker for the shah, seemed pretty much like I was expecting. She is also a rug maker, so she learns some valuable lessons in the household, but her impetuousness irritates her aunt. Then the girl, at the ripe old age of sixteen, is sold into a concubinage with a horse trader. At the time, it was legal (and okay in the eyes of God) for a man and a woman to have sex as long as they were contracted to each other. The girl's contract was renewable every three months, which meant that the end of the time period he could renew the contract (and pay her family more money), let the contract expire, or marry the girl. As she spends time with her husband, she learns a lot about herself-- both as a sexual being and as a self-respecting individual. And then, for a time, everything in her life seems to fall apart, until it comes back together.

The language of The Blood of Flowers is beautiful, and Amirrezvani does a wonderful job tying together the girl's story with folk tales that mirror or support the events in the narrative. It was also a delight to find the inner workings of the mind of a girl who, on the street, would have been covered from head to toe in a dark cloth. In much of the book, the girl suggests that her life has been difficult because of a comet that passed through the sky in the opening pages, and for a modern reader, that feels awfully capricious. When the girl's life is in a downward spiral, it seemed that her fate turned around in a similarly random way. All in all, though, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. For audiobook listeners-- don't be put off by the narrator's voice in the early chapters. She has a very strong accent, which makes her a little bit hard to understand until you get into the rhythms of the reading, and then she feels like the perfect choice as a narrator.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Their first Mamas

I wish they could see them, these two beautiful babies. The babies that we share.

I wish they knew that they're not just alive, not just safe, but thriving. That beauty has come from ashes.

I wish they knew that Rose and Eli are loved. Fiercely, protectively, and completely. And not just by their parents, but by their brothers and sisters, their grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

I wish they knew that their tears are wiped dry, their booboos kissed, and their bad dreams chased away.

I wish I could ask them questions about their pregnancies, their lives, their family histories, and the wishes and dreams they have for these children.

I wish they could know that they're honored. We don't talk about how Rose and Eli were found without qualifying those finding stories by talking about the taboos against special needs, with the lack of affordable health care, with the unforgiving nature of the one-child policy, with all that we don't know that went into why I am now their mother.

I wish they could know that they're whole in every way. That Eli's foot is straight enough for him to walk on, and that soon he will have ten fingers that move independently of each other. But that even with his hands the way they are, that he can pound on the piano, throw a ball, and feed himself with a fork. That the scar on Rose's lip is the last thing most people see, because they're so taken with her shining eyes and the little ball of fire that's always climbing, jumping, and striving.

I wish they could see how smart these two are. How Eli mimics everything his big sister does. How hard he's trying to talk. How Rose knows exactly how to get whatever she wants out of her smitten parents.

I wish they could know that their children have a future. That they will never be limited by their disabilities. That they will go to preschool and high school and college. That they'll go to Disneyland and the top of the Eiffel Tower and back to the land of their birth.

I wish they could know how their children have made everyone in our family better people. How I finally had to learn to be patient and relinquish control while I was waiting for them, and how that has served me my fifth and sixth times around as a mother. How they've allowed Ed the hands-on fatherhood time he missed when our older children were born during his medical training. How Bryce, Annie, Isaac and Maren no longer shrink when they see people who are different from them. How adopting children from China has pulled us, just a little bit, outside of our own privileged lives.

I wish they, these first Mamas, could know how grateful I am that they carried and bore Rose and Eli, that they had the grace and bravery to share them with us.

I wish I could wrap my arms around them and say "thank you."  But since I can't, I'll snuggle the children they bore just a little bit tighter today.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Running and Racing

One of the highlights of my year for the last five or six years has been my spring marathon. I love shaking off the winter sloth and getting myself back into racing shape. For the last two years, I've been lucky enough to do that by racing down Ogden Canyon in what has got to be the most beautiful course in Utah marathons (I know, all the canyon marathons are gorgeous, but this one has my heart). Last fall, I entered into the lottery for this year's race, knowing that life would be crazy, but also confident that it would be manageable enough for me to be able to get away for one morning and run the race.

The truth is, I could get away for a morning and run the race. I could probably clock a respectable time, too. And it would probably be fun.

But I'm not going to run.

It's true that Annie has a dance competition that day. I thought the competition would be early in the day, which would require me to find a ride up to Lagoon for her, then drive directly from the race to the amusement park, where I'd sit all day in my filth (at least until I went on Rattlesnake Rapids and got soaked). But I just found out that we don't even have to be at the park until 3:15, which would have given me plenty of time to get home, shower, take a quick nap, kiss my babies, and head out.

And it's not because I don't want to burden Ed with the kids all day. In fact, he has told me repeatedly that I should run the race.

I think it all comes back to my motivations for running marathons. I used to get a lot out of being one of the fastest girls on the road. I used to want to push myself harder and harder. I used to get upset when I didn't PR. I used to have a lot of my identity wrapped up in my speed. It was a way for me to distinguish myself-- to be more than "just" a mom of a bunch of little kids. And it really worked for me for a long time.

But this spring, I'm just trying to keep afloat. While I write this, Rose and Eli are emptying my dirty laundry basket, which at this time of day is stocked with everything I need to take downstairs-- laundry, cookbooks, dirty cups, and probably a few poopy diapers. When I go into the next room, I'll find another mess. We'll clean those up, run an errand, make lunch, start the laundry, put the babies down for a nap just as Bryce is coming home from school, and so on. In terms of the mental challenge of my life experience, feel like I'm running a marathon every day of my life. I can know see that there's no "just" about being a mom. Although I've been clocking 60 mile weeks and somehow got in all my 20 milers even with China and Ed's crazy work schedule, my head is not in the racing game right now. Running is a lifeline, a sanity, a much-needed escape to be with friends or just by myself. And although a good speed workout still gives me a rush, I'm not pushing myself like I did in the past. As a result, I doubt I'd run a fast race, and then there would be just one more thing to feel guilty about (as if the toddler battles and the lack of piano practice and my inability to just generally keep my life together like I used to weren't enough). I do feel like I'm starting to get my groove back, but I don't need a race to either a) prove I'm there, or b) show me that I'm not.

But I did train. I did work hard. And so, when everyone is getting up at their hotels in Ogden, I'm going to be heading out my door, to embark on my own little solo marathon. I've mapped out a route from here to the Capitol and back. I'll plant Gatorade and leave my Garmin at home. I already know where all the portapotties and bathrooms are. It won't be as scenic as Ogden, but it will do. And, as a bonus, I'll come in first!

And after that race is done, I'm sure that Rose and Eli will be waiting for me at the door. They'll probably even leave me some surprise messes around the house. The next week, I'll start to train hard. Because it's only four months until my fall marathon, and I'm going to be ready.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: 14 by Peter Clines

Title: 14
Author: Peter Clines
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: R for language, sex, and violence

Nate is in his thirties, but still hasn't found his groove. He's working a dead-end job and living with roommates who all seem to be going places. He needs to find a new job, a purpose in life, and maybe a girl to share it with, but first he needs a new place to live. When he finds an apartment that's almost too good to be true, (in Hollywood, with a view of the Observatory, for $500/mo, including utilities), he jumps on the chance to make a move, and maybe get his life in gear.

But Nate's new apartment building is decidedly weird. At first it's just little stuff-- the black light in his kitchen, the strange hole in his closet, the apartment without the doorknob, but then he finds bigger things that don't make sense and starts talking with the neighbors about it. This starts him off on a quest to discover the secrets of the building.

See it right there on the cover? The comparison with LOST? At first, I felt like I was listening to the first few seasons of LOST, where everything is shiny and new and plenty confusing. I felt like I was trying to figure out a puzzle. It felt like the most satisfying book I'd read in a very long time. And then, as the book started to wind to a close, just like in LOST, things got decidedly weird (and I'm not talking about the final episode). I would rate the first 80% of the novel five stars, the next 19% two stars, and then the last few pages redeemed the story. The book also reminded me of Stephen King's 1963 book, but it was a less satisfying read for me.

2012 Whitney Finalist Wrap up

This weekend authors, editors, publishers, bloggers, and their fans will convene at the Provo Marriott for the announcement of the 2012 Whitney Awards. Which means that, for me at least, my work is done for another nine months. Despite the trip to China, the two toddlers demanding my days and the four bigger kids demanding my evenings, I somehow managed to finish all forty books. The Whitney reading always falls during the Academy Awards, and I'll admit that sometimes I'm a little jealous of those judges-- they can just watch movies! But this year, I was really impressed by the quality of the finalists, and now that I'm four years into this endeavor, I can definitely see progress in the work that is being chosen as finalists. So congratulations to all of the authors-- you are doing great work.

In the spirit of a wrap up, here are my thoughts about the books nominated in all eleven categories:

General: Although the General category is where my heart is as a reader (and a writer-- if I ever have a novel published, I am sure it would be a "General"), I didn't have very high hopes for the General books this year. Over the last couple of years, the books have seemed a lot more like Inspirational fiction than contemporary fiction for a general audience (which is how I would define "General"), but I was pleasantly surprised that only one of the books felt overtly Inspirational (The 13th Day of Christmas), while the others all felt more like true Generals. Both Paige and The Night on Moon Hill were engaging but somewhat uneven. I found myself completely caught up in the story of The Rent Collector but had some issues with the narrative voice. But I was delighted by Ka Hancock's Dancing on Broken Glass. I read it late in the contest, when I'm not above skimming a bit when the stories drag, and this was a book that I just couldn't skim. In fact, I was sad when the book ended. It was a tearjerker, but the story felt organic and not designed just to give readers a good cry.

Historical: When I read the Whitney finalists, I do it with a bunch of readers from Segullah. We vote as a group, and therefore always have lively discussions about our choices. This year, we felt equally drawn to two books in the Historical category, but for very different reasons. I loved Carla Kelly's finalists in the Romance category last year, and her Historical finalist, My Loving Vigil Keeping, was just as rich as those books were. I found the book nearly impossible to put down, and since I was not familiar with the mine disaster that inspired the story, I felt that I was learning a lot about both the history of Utah and the melting pot culture of a mining town. We also really enjoyed James Goldberg's The Five Books of Jesus, which was poetic and a little bit mystical as it retold the events in Christ's ministry. It was probably the most ambitious book in the contest, and I'm always happy to see Mormon writers gently pushing against the boundaries of our comfort zones as readers.

Romance: While it's often easy for the Segullah readers to come to a consensus, our opinions diverged the most in the Romance category this year. We were almost evenly divided in our admiration for Krista Lynne Jensen's Of Grace and Chocolate, which might be more aptly named a Romantic Thriller, Melanie Jacobson's Smart Move (I love how both books make the Mormon part of the story feel organic), and Julianne Donaldson's Regency Romance, Edenbrooke. Once again, the Romance category was full of strong contenders and delightful to read.

Mystery/Suspense: I would bet that the authors in the Mystery/Suspense category were just a little bit happy when Josi Kilpack was president of the Whitney Academy and her books were not able to be considered for awards. But her reign is over, and for me, the category was clearly Kilpack v. Kilpack. I felt that there was a lot more interesting interior tension in Banana Split, the Hawaiian installment of Kilpack's culinary mysteries, and it was the obvious choice for me. However, I'd also like to give a shout out to Traci Hunter Abramson-- I believe she has had a finalist in this category for each of the last four years (an impressive accomplishment in and of itself) and Code Word was definitely the strongest Saint Squad novel I've read yet.

Speculative: Oh the Speculatives, always my Achilles' Heel. They're long. They're a little weird. They usually require readers to jump into the middle of a series and to care about some kind of alternate world. But Mormon writers have typically been known for accomplishment in two genres: Science Fiction (Speculative) and Young Adult. This year, I was surprised by how weak the category felt. I read Dan Wells's The Hollow City several months before I started reading the finalists and was underwhelmed by the turn it took in the second half of the novel (I wanted it to be a different story in a very bad way), but it was clearly the best of the bunch. The Mormon vampires and Mormon steampunk were cool ideas, but nothing else in this category hit its mark.

Young Adult: When the YA novels broke into Young Adult and Youth Speculative a few years ago, I was excited, because we've typically had such strong YA offerings that I always wondered what great books I was not getting to read. This year the books were further split into YA, Youth Speculative, and Middle Grade, and I'm not sure I like the change, because this year's YA novels, with a single exception, felt a lot like teen romances, and I'm not sure a whole category should be devoted to that genre. After a while all of the romance books blended together in my mind, so the standout for me was Jessica Martinez's The Space Between Us which had great interior tension and a really fantastic sense of place.

Youth Speculative: I learned a lot about writing books in a series by reading the Youth Speculative category this year. All of the books in the category were part of multi-book series, and in most cases I had not read all of the prior books. This fact really alerted me as a reader to how authors bring readers up to speed in a story when they haven't read the previous books. I wonder if it's a coincidence that my favorite book in the category, Brodi Ashton's Everneath, is also the only one that was the first book in the series. I don't think so, because Ashton does a great job weaving in Greek Mythology and classic literature into a story with really strong characters.

Middle Grade: I enjoyed many of the books in the middle grade category this year, but Jennifer A. Nielsen's The False Prince was such a great story, with such interesting characters and such fascinating plot twists that it really outshone the others. However, Sage, the protagonist, was a teenager wise beyond his years, which made us as readers wonder what was Middle Grade about this novel? It felt much more like a YA novel to us. It almost seems as if Middle Grade is code for fairy tale, since both False Prince and Shannon Hale's novel had a fairy tale feel (as do the books of Jessica Day George, who will probably have nominees in this category in future years).

Adult Novel of the Year: The book I enjoyed reading most was Ka Hancock's Dancing on Broken Glass.
Youth Novel of the Year: Definitely False Prince.
Best Novel by a New Author: I'm going to pull what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did with Ben Affleck and Argo this year. Although Ka Hancock's Dancing on Broken Glass would be eligible to win both Adult Novel of the Year and Best Novel by a New Author, I admire the lyrical quality of James Goldberg's writing so much that his Five Books of Jesus gets my vote. Not completely consistent, I know, but I'm doing it anyway.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Eli's blessing

When my great-grandmother made a christening dress for me to use for my future children, I was a preteen who would rather have gotten $20 than some weird crocheted dress.

My grandma passed away a month before Bryce was born, and by that time, I recognized the wonderful gift she had given me. He wore it for his blessing, followed by Annie, Isaac, and Maren. When we adopted Rose, I didn't think it would fit a one-year-old, but somehow we squeezed her into it.

This time, I bought an outfit that would do double duty as a blessing and sealing outfit. But last Sunday morning, I pulled out the dress. I really wanted Eli to wear it, even though I was sure it wouldn't fit. My godmother, who made the slip for the dress, has embroidered the names and birthdates of each child who has worn the dress into its hem, and I wanted Eli to be able to claim his right to it too. So I tried it.

After the blessing, we cooked hamburgers and hot dogs and ate on our patio with the people we love best.

Eli's sealing

Last year, we had a baby wedding.

I spent days perusing websites for the perfect dress for Rose to wear.

I spent more days scouring the internet for all-white clothes for the rest of us to wear.

I had Rose's picture taken ahead of time and sent out invitations.

I encouraged friends to attend, and secured the temple months in advance for a prime Saturday afternoon sealing appointment.

I hired a photographer and filled an entire wall with photos from the blessed event.

The whole family went out to dinner at a fancy restaurant after the sealing.

Like I said, a baby wedding. And it was a perfect day.

This year, my parents decided to visit a couple of weeks ago, and Ed and I looked at each other and said, "Maybe we should have Eli sealed to us while they're here."

I reserved the temple for a weeknight and told my friends they were under no obligation to attend. We changed the date a few days before when we thought he might be able to get in for surgery at the last minute.

Except for Eli, we all wore the same things as last year.

My mom was the photographer.

The whole family went to Cold Stone and got ice cream after the sealing.

When Ed and I got in bed that night, I said, "If last year we had a baby wedding, this year we had a baby elopement."

And it was still a perfect day.

Book Review: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Title: The Art Forger
Author: B.A. Shapiro
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 for adult themes, sexual references, and language

There are reliable narrators and unreliable narrators, and then there are narrators like Claire Roth, who you want to believe is reliable and stable, but who does such stupid things sometimes that it's hard to know what the author thinks of her. Claire earns her living by copying the works of master artists so rich people can hang them above their couches. She has an MFA and serious skills, but she also has baggage which has led her to be blackballed by the art scene. When Aiden Markel approaches her and wants her to copy a painting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum during the 1990s heist, she reluctantly agrees, despite the illegality of the whole situation. Markel assures her that she will be protected.

While the story of what happens during the painting of the forgery, and what happens in its aftermath is compelling in and of itself, the story of what is going on in Claire's head is a lot more interesting. It's ironic that this is a book that talks so much about color, but the narrative is all shades of gray. It's a fascinating read.

Book Review: The Penitent by C. David Belt (Whitney Finalist)

Title: The Penitent
Author: C. David Belt
Enjoyment Rating: **
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG-13 for adult themes, violence, and creepiness

Vampire professors at BYU? Vampire doctors at University Hospital? Vampires teaching your child's Primary class? These are all possibilities in the world C. David Belt creates in The Penitent, where "good" vampires have freed themselves from their power to Lilith. Word of this accomplishment has spread, and now Moira and Carl Morgan, the first vampires to be sealed in the temple, must face the power of their enemies.

I thought this was an ingenious concept for a book, and I was impressed with the way Belt allowed readers to jump into the second book in the novel, but the story soon seemed like it favored outer conflict rather than the inner conflict I found so compelling in the early chapters.

Book Review: Flight from Blithmore by Jacob Gowans (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Flight from Blithmore
Author: Jacob Gowans
Enjoyment Rating: **
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG

Flight from Blithmore tells the story of Henry, a carpenter, who wishes to marry Isabelle, the only girl he's ever loved. Unfortunately, Isabelle's family considers Henry beneath their daughter, so he has to do something to prove his worthiness. When Isabelle's father gets in trouble with the law, Henry has the perfect opportunity. The story is kind of an epic fairy tale, and feels like a cross between The Odyssey and The Canterbury Tales, with some of The Princess Bride thrown in. This might sound like an engaging combination, but it's long and somewhat convoluted, and feels out of place in this category.

Book Review: City of the Saints by D.J. Butler

Title: City of the Saints
Author: D.J. Butler
Enjoyment Rating: **
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG

Once again, I'm rounding out my reading (and reviewing) of the Whitney finalists with the adult speculative novels.  Of the eight categories, this is the one that is always the most challenging for me, both in terms of the genre and the length of the novels, but I just can't get smart and read these books first, and save something I want to read for the end. Oh well, maybe next year.

That said, City of the Saints has an interesting premise-- Mormon Steampunk set in the 1850s, with Orson Pratt, Edgar Allan Poe, and Porter Rockwell figuring prominently, but not in any form you might recognize them. The book reminded me a bit of last year's A Night of Blacker Darkness, but it was less zany and ultimately less successful for me. But I may have been prejudiced from the first line-- a book that begins "'This is insubordination, Dick!' the man in the tall top hat and cravat hissed" is just not going to be my kind of book. But it may be yours?

Book Review: The Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez (Whitney Finalist)

Title: The Space Between Us
Author: Jessica Martinez
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG-13 for mature subject matter

Amelia is stable, hardworking, and a credit to her father, a pastor of a conservative congregation in Florida. Her younger sister, Charly, is wild and impulsive, and often needs Amelia to help her get out of scrapes. But when Charly learns that she's pregnant, Amelia has to make a sacrifice she's not sure she's willing to make. Their grandmother ships the girls off to Canada, where their deceased mother grew up, so Charly can deliver her baby in secret. Amelia is her beard-- if Charly went to Canada by herself it would look suspicious, so Amelia gives up field hockey, her friends, and her senior year of high school to spend the winter in Banff.

This was definitely the strongest of the YA novels this year. It reminded me of a good Carol Lynch Williams story-- where the conflict is more in Amelia's head (Can she forgive Charly? Are some secrets good? What will she do with her own life? Is she her sister's keeper?). This is the kind of book that I would have considered a gem even outside the context of the awards reading.

As an aside, I hadn't thought of this before starting this review, but there are some interesting parallels betwee The Space Between Us and Of Grace and Chocolate, even down to the dead mother.

Book Review: Dancing on Broken Glass by Ka Hancock (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Dancing on Broken Glass
Author: Ka Hancock
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG-13 for some language, sexual references and adult themes

Some people might consider Lucy and Mickey to be unlucky souls. She was orphaned as a teenager and had breast cancer in her twenties. He has bipolar disorder. But they both feel lucky to have found each other. That doesn't mean that they'd do something as reckless as bring a child with their genetic time bombs into the world. But after ten years of marriage and a tubal ligation, Lucy learns that she's pregnant, and their whole lives shift.

Dancing on Broken Glass is what I want Jodi Picoult's novels to be. Yes, it's heart-wrenching, a story that's too painful to be believed in places, but Hancock manages to tell the story in a way that doesn't feel overdone or manipulative. Her experience as a nurse seems to have prepared her well to write a story where characters suffer from debilitating physical and mental illnesses, and to do it with compassion and strength. This was one of my favorite reads of the Whitney finalists, and I look forward to reading more of Hancock's work.

Book Review: V is for Virgin by Kelly Oram (Whitney Finalist)

Title: V is for Virgin
Author: Kelly Oram
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language and subject matter

The downside of posting with a baby by your side is that he might delete your entire review, which is what just happened here, probably resulting in a shorter, less generous review than I would have written if I weren't so annoyed right now.

Val is a virgin. She has her reasons. But she doesn't share those reasons or that fact with her boyfriend of many months. When he wows her with a romantic dinner and then dumps her when she doesn't want to reward him for his hard work, she knows the whole school will hear about it. When a popular girl confronts Val in the cafeteria, Val gives her a dressing down she won't soon forget, especially since someone captures it and puts it on YouTube, where it gets hundreds of thousands of views. Then Val rebuffs the advances of Kyle, a rock star, and she becomes even more famous when he writes a song chronicling his attempts to seduce her. Pretty soon she's the face of abstinence, but at what cost?

V is for Virgin is an entertaining story. Val is a great character, and I like the way Oram includes a Mormon character in her story (Val's new boyfriend-- not the lecherous rock star). However, the story would have been much better at 260 pages than at 360-- my attention waned after a while and I felt that Oram included too many details (like the jewelry design side story) that could easily have been cut. Parents should be aware that the story does not restrain itself with teenage language or frank discussions of sex-- this is definitely a book for high school students, not precocious sixth-graders.

Book Review: Lady Outlaw by Stacy Henrie (Whitney Finalist)

Title: Lady Outlaw
Author: Stacy Henrie
Enjoyment Rating: **
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG

Rounding out the romance category is Stacy Henrie's Lady Outlaw. It was the last book I read in the category, and although an entertaining read, probably the weakest of the bunch. 

Jennie Jones is trying to hold on to the family ranch in Central Utah, but it seems that everything is conspiring against her. Her father is dead, and she feels the burden of caring for her younger brother and her grandmother. The bank keeps changing the terms of the mortgage, decreasing the amount of time she has to pay back the loan. If she doesn't have the full amount paid in a few months, she will have to turn the ranch over. And so she does what any girl in her situation would do-- she robs stagecoach robbers.

Shortly after Jennie embarks on her life of crime, Caleb enters her life as a ranch hand. Caleb is kind and good, and still mourning the loss of his fiancee in, you guessed it, a stagecoach robbery. Caleb and Jennie fall in love, but how will Caleb respond when he learns what Jennie has been doing?

The resolution of Lady Outlaw felt awfully convenient to me-- I had a hard time believing that Caleb would forgive and forget so easily. Furthermore, some of the book seems to center on Jennie's spiritual crisis-- members of her church treated her mother unfairly and Jennie has harbored resentment. It seems that most people living in her town are part of this congregation, and the town is a central Utah town in the 1800s, but there is no mention of Mormons, which seemed odd to me.

Book Review: Of Grace and Chocolate by Krista Lynne Jensen

Title: Of Grace and Chocolate
Author: Krista Lynne Jensen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: PG

I apologize that the remainder of my Whitney reviews will be brief; I'm trying to get them all published before the awards banquet on Saturday, when they become irrelevant, and my time is limited to nap time these days. Because I know that people are waiting with baited breath to see what I have to say. Or not, but I still feel compelled to get this done.

That disclaimer out of the way, I really enjoyed Krista Lynne Jensen's Of Grace and Chocolate, a contender in the Romance category, but which would have worked equally well in mystery/suspense or general, since it seemed to go beyond the bounds of romance. One of the things I've really come to appreciate about the Romance category this year is the way that several of the books (this one, and both of Melanie Jacobson's novels) work within the framework of LDS culture. In Of Grace and Chocolate, Jill is an aspiring novelist and grunt worker at a publishing house. But she's okay with that, because she's finally freed herself of the burdens of her alcoholic mother and her unstable younger sister. She seems unwilling to let herself get too entangled with anyone, especially with Scott, who can't even remember that he snubbed her half a lifetime ago when they were both in high school. But then her sister shows up on her door with a baby, a suitcase full of money, and a group of violent drug dealers hot on her tail. Jill must rely on her faith, her ward members, and unfortunately, Scott Gentry, to help her through the situation.

This year, there were many gems in the Whitney Finalists, and I felt that Of Grace and Chocolate was one of them. It combined well-drawn, complicated characters with an engaging plot line, told from the perspective of LDS culture. I also appreciated that these weren't cookie-cutter Mormons-- Jill felt a lot more like the Mormons I know than the Mormons I often see represented in print. I hope to read more of Jensen's work in the future, but wouldn't be surprised to see her nominated in different categories.