Saturday, August 31, 2013

Book Review: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Title: The Orphan Master's Son
Author: Adam Johnson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: R for violence, sex, and language

The Orphan Master's Son is the kind of book I might assign if I were teaching a course on 21st century American fiction. And I wouldn't necessarily assign it because I think it's the best book ever-- it's more because I would want to hear what my students would have to say after reading it. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013, and as an educated reader, a writer, and someone who reviews books as an avocation, it's books like this that make me second-guess myself.

The premise of the novel is fascinating-- Pak Jun Do grew up in an orphanage in North Korea, where his father, the orphan master, tested his mettle at a young age by making Jun Do decide which jobs to assign to the orphans (essentially who would eat and who wouldn't). As a young man, Jun Do becomes a kidnapper-- one of the men who pulls up a boat in the middle of the night and steals people off beaches in Japan or South Korea or China. After several years of rising through the ranks (and sometimes falling), he eventually assumes the identity of a powerful general he met in prison, and also takes on the general's wife and children.

My main sensation while reading The Orphan Master's Son was confusion. Was his father really an orphan master or was Jun Do just another orphan? What qualified him to get chosen for his jobs? What really happened to the original general? How did he really get out of prison? Johnson does a wonderful job making a reader feel unsettled, and I don't this is accidental-- he's working to get us into the mindset of someone who might be living in North Korea, where lies stand in for the truth more often than not. But as a reader, it also had the effect of making me less interested in reading than I might otherwise be. While I believe that innovation in fiction is noteworthy and important, I also think that sometimes innovation comes at the expense of the narrative, and I definitely think that's true in The Orphan Master's Son. It was a difficult book to read not just because of the subject matter, but also because Johnson seemed intent on making it a difficult book to read. And while I respect that, I also think that I probably would have chosen a different book to win the Pulitzer.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Book Review: Heirs and Graces by Rhys Bowen

Title: Heirs and Graces (Her Royal Spyness Mysteries #7)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG

At the end of book six, Lady Georgiana seemed to have her life all planned out for her-- she was going to work for her mother, helping her write her memoirs, until the adorable Darcy O'Mara earned enough money to marry her. Three months later, Georgie's mum has given up on the idea of a memoir in order to run off to Switzerland, and Darcy is nowhere to be found. Georgie has less than a week to find a new place to live and a way to support herself. So she humbles herself and decides to ask her great-aunt, the Queen of England, to find her a place as a lady-in-waiting. Georgie is soon shipped off to the Kentish countryside, where she will teach Jack, the Australian sheepherder who is the newfound heir to a large fortune, the basics of good manners. And then the Duke is found dead.

If Heirs and Graces had been my introduction to the Her Royal Spyness mysteries, I'm pretty sure I would not be a fan of the series. It's not that the book is bad, it just wasn't great. I was surprised to see that Bowen had another book out already (it's only been a few months since #6 was published) and I think that this one shows some haste in publishing. It was quite a bit shorter than some of the other novels, and missed the developments from the secondary characters Bowen usually employs. This is the second time in a row that I figured out who the murderer (or the trick with the murders) relatively early in the novel. This feels like a book written by the book more than one written to keep fans of the series wanting more.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott

Title: Some Assembly Required: A Journal of my First Son's First Son
Author: Anne Lamott
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG with occasional f-bombs

Some Assembly Required opens with the shocking news that Sam Lamott is about to become a father at the age of nineteen. His mom, Anne, goes through the normal range of emotions when hearing this news-- shock, dismay, mourning, uncertainty, and finally, excitement. When Jax arrives, Anne is present for the birth, and she spends the next year chronicling Jax's life.

As a mother who is not yet a grandmother, it felt a little strange to me at first that Lamott was journaling the first year of her grandson's life. She seemed way too involved. And I thought that if I were Amy, Jax's mom, I would feel smothered by her. But I also recognized that my mom and mother-in-law probably had similar protective emotions for my kids when they first became grandparents, and I definitely see that impulse in my mom's relationship with my sister's kids, who live with her.

But I soon started to see that Lamott's overbearing nature, her desire to be involved with and analyze the minutest details of Jax's life, her hurt feelings, her slights, were all part of the persona she has created for herself in her writing. This was my entree into Lamott (I have since decided to read a few more of her books, and they're now waiting on my nightstand), so it took me a bit to see that she's willing to highlight her imperfections in order to show that imperfect people need God. She needs God. And since we are all very much like she is in our hearts (resentful, anxious, bitter), we all need God too. I found this "warts and all" approach to be really refreshing. There are things about the book I think she handled beautifully (Sam and Amy's sometimes tumultuous relationship, for example) but since the book is a journal, there are also elements that seemed merely tangential (like her trip to India) that seemed to detract from the overall narrative. But I am hooked on Lamott. I can't wait to read more. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When are no hands better than two hands?

"Today," would be Eli's answer.

Eli and I sat in the casting clinic at Primary Children's Medical Center for about an hour this morning. We watched kids come in with casts on their arms and legs, and worried looks on their faces. "Will it hurt?" they asked. The parents assured them that it might feel a little weird, but it wouldn't hurt. "And besides," more than one said, "when you're done, you'll be able to run and jump and everything." When they returned to the waiting room, plenty of parents had big smiles on their faces, but all of the kids looked stiff and uncomfortable. No one ran down the hall or jumped. "Darn it," I thought, "I forgot about this part."

I shouldn't have forgotten. Eli got out of his last cast only six weeks ago. He's been in nine freaking casts, for goodness' sake. Add to that the three the other kids have been in over the course of their lives (including TWO spica casts for Isaac) and I have plenty of cast experience as a parent. But I had been so focused on today, the day marked in red on the calendar as the end of the casting ordeal, that I had forgotten that, for Eli at least, today wasn't going to be any fun at all.

We finally got taken back to a room, and the medical assistant took off the outer layer. Eli screamed. Then she left and I soaked the bandages again. They've been smelling really funky for a few weeks, but I figured that was mainly because we'd gotten them a little wet a few times. When she came back to take off the inner layer, Eli screamed more, and within seconds, a putrid smell filled the room.

I am not a barfer or a gagger (30 years and counting!), but that smell was so horrible, I needed fresh air. But I couldn't act distressed, because Eli was in such a state. He's been a little bit upset when he's banged his left hand funny over the last few days, but he had a pin in one of the fingers, and I chalked it up to that. But unfortunately, the skin graft on that hand didn't take, and there was a whole bunch of nasty, dead skin covering his fingers.

The poor kid cried all the way home. He usually sucks his thumb to soothe himself, but there was no way he was going to put his fingers near his mouth. I plopped him and Rose in the tub when we got home, and he refused to put his hands in the water. Finally, I had to take them both out, put Rose down for a nap, and then hold his hands under the water to get them bathed like I was told I should. I took him down for lunch, and he wouldn't even try to touch the food. I should have remembered it would be like this-- for the next three or four days he's going to need me to do everything-- hold his bottle, feed him, and play defense with Rose. He sees a hand therapist next week to look at the grafts and see if they want to put him in a splint.

Today's experience reminds me a lot of what we went through on the day Eli joined our family back in March. I was so excited. It was a day I'd anticipated for almost a year. But it was tragic for Eli. He was so confused and unsettled and sad, and it was several more days before we saw glimpses of who our little guy really is. We also had our visit with our social worker this morning for our six-month post-placement interview. She remarked that things seemed to be going better than they were at the one-month visit, and while that's definitely true, I also feel like this is a similar sort of experience. Getting surgery on Eli's hands was absolutely the right thing to do, and the long-term consequences will be fantastic, but taking off the bandages was also painful. In much the same way, expanding our family has been and will continue to be one of the defining choices we made as a family, but I still feel like we're in the weeds of the experience.

Another thing I remember, when pressed to remember the hard things, is that it always takes a few  more days than I'd like (or a few more months, in Isaac's case) for the kids to make a full recovery and begin using the part that has been casted. I think that's also true of our family-- I'd like everything to be easy NOW, not in six months or a year. But just like Eli's foot is now awesome, and Isaac's leg and Bryce's arm look like nothing ever happened to them, his hands will one day be great too, and so will our family life with six kids. Or at least I'll keep telling myself that it will.

Book Review: The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig

Title: The Bartender's Tale
Author: Ivan Doig
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 for mild discussions of sex

It's sort of against my will that I like Ivan Doig's novels. They're all set in rural Montana, with male protagonists and (mostly) absent mothers. The characters can be rough, and no one is sophisticated. But I haven't read one yet that hasn't captivated me entirely. The Bartender's Tale is no exception. It's the story of Rusty Harry, a boy being raised by his father, Tom, who is the proprietor of a bar called the Medicine Lodge in Gros Ventre. The Medicine Lodge is an institution in northern Montana, and Tom is part of what makes the place so fine-- he listens to his customers, keeps the place spic and span, and knows how to keep control of the crowd. But the summer that Rusty turns twelve, their mundane life changes as people come into their world and complicate things.

As far as stories go, this is a quiet one. Rusty tells the story with the perspective of fifty years distance, and he refers to the summer as "the one that changed everything," and while I guess that's true, the changes also seem smaller somehow than you might expect from that buildup. But I guess that's what I like about Ivan Doig's novels-- his characters are so everyday, yet so real, that you care about them and want to know more even when the things that are happening to them might not be all that recountable. Also, the narration of this audiobook is absolutely perfect. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Summer-- goodbye or good riddance?

When school got out in June, I'll admit that I was not looking forward to summer. I know there are moms out there who can't wait to have all their chicks in the nest, but that is not me. I think it goes back to when we lived in Texas. Houston is always hot, but the months of June, July, and August are absolutely unbearable. We were too poor to cool our house below about 80 degrees, so school got out, and I'd have four little kids at home with me all day, cooped up and red-faced and sweaty, squabbling in their discomfort. When we lived in Houston, I had one objective for the summer-- get the heck out of Houston.

But this summer, getting out of town was not on the radar. Eli was having two surgeries, and with dance camps and swim team and the general ruckus that six create, we had only one summer trip planned. Ed justified this by saying that it was also the first year we had a pool, but the pool just exemplifies my mixed feelings about summer:

I hate worrying that someone will wander into it and drown. It keeps me up at night, and when the cover is off, my brain obsesses over the dang pool.

I hate buying chemicals and feeling like we're being fleeced by our pool guy, who always manages to find something (expensive) wrong with our pump, heater, filter, etc...

I hate sweltering on the pool deck while refereeing the loud arguments that always seem to break out when a bunch of boys start tackling each other in the water.

I love listening to the kids when they're not fighting.

I love watching Rose learn to do somersaults into the pool, Annie do cartwheels, and Maren perfect a back dive.

I love that even when Eli's hand situation seemed intolerable, I could stick some silicone mittens on him, pop him in the pool, and he'd be a happy camper again.

I even love gliding through the water myself, when it's just the right temperature and no one is splashing me.

And just like my feelings about the pool are complicated, my feelings about the whole season are complicated:

I love running in the canyon, and being able to throw on a tank and a pair of shorts (no reflective gear, even!) and dashing out the door.

I hate that I can only run before 9am, or else it's too hot.

In fact, I hate the hot summer days-- anything over 85 is insufferable.

But I love the nights-- there is nothing better than sitting on my front porch, concrete warming my back, watching the sun set over the mountains.

I hate feeling like I am a warden all summer-- enforcing the no-screens during the day rule, getting after people to clean up their messes, and trying to get people to practice, read a book or do anything good for their brains (I used to make them do workbooks every day, and Rose and Eli will be glad their older siblings broke me of that).

I love having the kids home. Now that they're older, they really are delightful to hang out with. It's not having the kids around that makes summer hard for me.

I hate having some of their friends over, but I love it when others come to play.

I hate the fact that no one goes to bed at a decent hour, but I love the more relaxed pace of summer days.

I love going on vacation, but hate the aftermath of laundry and suitcases to put away and kids to get back on a regular sleep schedule (which we're still working on after our trip a month ago).

I love that our family and friends come to visit us, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed by it too. And I hate when they go back home and we won't see them again for months or years.

This summer, our social worker urged me to make sure that I had some time out of the house. She said I should hire a nanny, just because the intensity of raising my two toddlers could prove to be too much if it were unabated. So I hired my favorite teenage babysitter to come three times a week. On one hand, it was heaven-- I got out to run and didn't have to wake up at the crack of dawn. But there was only one day the entire summer when I didn't have to return sometime during her four-hour stint to drive an older child somewhere.

I hate when the kids are bored. I hate being bored myself. But I've found, especially as we've added Rose and Eli to our family, that the line between bored and overwhelmed is a hair's breath, and I haven't quite figured out how to keep us all from being bored without allowing myself to get overwhelmed.

Fall seems so much less complicated than summer. The kids are back in school, and next week we'll be back to the daily taxi service to and from the junior high, the dance school, the church, and the music lessons. The days will get cooler, and the leaves will change, and pretty soon, I'll be lamenting that I can't send the kids outside to play, and will be eager for summer to come again. And it will. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Book Review: The Tree House by Douglas Thayer

Title: The Tree House
Author: Douglas Thayer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Personal (signed!) copy
This book would be rated: PG-13

I come to reviewing this book with a certain amount of trepidation. Doug Thayer was my professor a couple of years ago, in his final semester teaching creative writing at BYU. I feel like I have to get that out of the way right away, before I start talking about the novel.

The Tree House is the story of Harris Thatcher, a boy who grows up in south Provo during World War II. He's a nice boy, a good boy, who enjoys swimming and fishing with his best friend Luke, and eating malts on Saturday night with his father. And then tragedy strikes-- his father, the rock of Harris's teenage existence, dies. At first, it seems impossible that Harris will be able to move on, but he finds a job making pies at a cafe in town, starts dating girls, and eventually finds joy in life again. But then tragedy strikes, again and again. Harris does the things good Provo boys his age do-- he goes on a mission to Germany, he gets drafted and sent to Korea, and although he wants to have the pure faith Luke does, he finds that it comes hard for him. And then there's more tragedy.

I found the darkness of The Tree House to be a little hard to take. Harris felt like a Job character, but without Job's perfect faith. But Harris's lack of pure faith was the thing I liked best about the novel. He wants to know and has a particle of belief, but finds it hard to turn that desire to believe into a full-blown testimony. This feels like so many people I know, and often like myself-- wanting to believe, but not being able to surrender completely to belief. There were times that I found Thayer's writing style, with lots of short, Hemingwayesque sentences, and lots of non sequiturs, a little affected. I also wondered if the story tried to cover too much, but maybe I only felt that way because it was so sad (although ultimately redeeming).

All in all, I think The Tree House is a story worth reading, and an important work. It's definitely a serious piece of Mormon fiction, written from the point of view of a Mormon boy becoming a Mormon man who is working out his issues of faith and life right in the thick of Mormonism instead of at the edges, which is where we often find great Mormon writing. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Snuggles and injustice

My younger sister, Jillian, was here for the last two weeks. I love it when she visits, and it's even more fun now that she has kids. Her son, Sam, splits the difference between Rose and Eli (they were the triple threat), and Emmy is two months old and a little bundle of love.

A two-month-old is a full-time job. She eats every two or three hours, and when she's not eating, she wants to be held. And when you set her down, you can barely resist picking her up again because she is just so darn cute-- so tiny and adorable and smiley. She fit just perfectly up on my shoulder, and since she only weighs ten pounds, she was pretty easy to cart around everywhere. Between my mom and my godmother and my grandma and the kids, I don't think she got set down much the entire time she was here.

But for me, holding her was a little bittersweet. It reminded me of holding my own babies, which was wonderful, and which I miss (although I do not miss being woken up in the middle of the night, but that might be because my two-year-old still likes to keep that memory fresh for me).

Every time she cried, and I held her, or someone else rushed to pick her up and walk with her, it made me think about Rose and Eli. When they cried, who held them? Was there a nanny who walked the halls with them at 11:30 at night and they were fussing? Was there someone who burped them and wiped up their spit up? Was there someone who changed them into cute outfits and cooed over how adorable they were? In my revisionist mama heart, I hope that there was, but I doubt it. I can tell from the way that Eli still doesn't cry when he wakes up-- we have to go into his room and get him, even when he's awake. I can tell from the way that Rose holds on to me so fiercely, and pushes me away with just as much strength.

And there's nothing I can do to change that. There is no way to go back and fill up every empty place that grew inside them when they cried and no one answered. As much as I would love to turn back time and hold their two-month-old selves, the reality is that I didn't even know them in pictures at that age. Rose was five months the first time we saw her, and we had to wait six more, knowing she was lying in a crib all day, until we could clear the red tape to become her parents. Eli was six months older than that. And that's so unfair. Those babies were just as sweet, precious, and deserving of being held, adored and loved as Emmy, and as their mom, I feel guilty for not being able to protect them from the times they cried and wanted love.

I wish I could say that the love they have now would make everything all better. Maybe it will. I do love these babies fiercely. We all do. But sometimes I'm tired, busy, lazy and don't give them my all. And that makes me feel even worse than when I occasionally ignored my bigger kids, because even though I've failed them time and again as they grew, I was there for them every moment when they were infants. I only hope that somehow, some way, Rose and Eli will be able to heal and overcome the lonely and isolating first few months, and that love and family and effort will make up the difference.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Book Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Title: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Author: Ben Fountain
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle for iPad
This book would be rated: R for language, sexual situations

It's Thanksgiving 2004, and Billy Lynn is on a victory tour of sorts. He's a nineteen-year-old from rural Texas, and along with seven other soldiers, a handler, and a movie producer, he has spent the last two weeks touring the country as the face of victory in the war in Iraq (a battle in which they engaged was caught on film by their embedded reporter and has been the rallying cry of the country for the last month). Today, they're at Texas Stadium for the Cowboys game, getting themselves drunk of Jack and Cokes, and hoping for a chance to meet Beyonce.

The book, which takes place almost entirely on Thanksgiving Day, is pretty wonderful. Many would consider it serious literary fiction (it's a finalist for the National Book Award and Fountain's short stories have won gobs of lit fiction awards), but it's also entertaining and hyped up and jangly in a way that literary fiction often isn't. Of course, there are some pretensions (Fountain likes embedding little prose poems of background noise a little too much), but Fountain really captures the ambivalence, fear, and excitement of Billy Lynn as he's thrust into the unreal situation of war, and then the even stranger situation of becoming an overnight sensation who still must go back to the battlefront when the cameras go away.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Book Review: Five Fingers Ten Toes by Katie Kolberg Memmel

Title: Five Fingers Ten Toes: A Mother's Story of Raising a Child Born with a Limb Difference
Author: Katie Kolberg Memmel
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle for iPad
This book would be rated: G

Most of the time, it's hard for me as a reader to separate the writer's craft with the story itself. I think this is because I read a lot of fiction, and the manner of telling the story is often integral to that story. However, Five Fingers Ten Toes is an example of a book where the information presented is fascinating (to me, as the parent of a child with limb differences) but the craft of Memmel's storytelling detracted from the story itself.

I have to give Katie Memmel a lot of props for writing the story of raising her son Tony, who was born without a left forearm and hand. Tony, now a musician and an accomplished guitarist, has certainly lived a remarkable life, and his mother's experiences undoubtedly helped shape that life. But this is a book written by a mom with a story, not by a writer. For example, she starts the book with an extended discussion of why she decided not to attend college, which is something that doesn't seem to have much relevance to the rest of the story. She goes on to talk at length about family vacations, etc... These details, while possibly interesting to someone who knows the family, was not interesting to an average reader. That said, there is such a dearth of stories written by parents of kids with limb differences that I do feel that reading about Memmel's experience was useful. She talked a lot about the community of parents of children with birth defects, and she's definitely contributing to that community in a meaningful way. But reading this book also gave me some indication that I might be able to do something similar and to do it well. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Book Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Title: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle for iPad
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language and brief sexual references

When I first started blogging, nearly a decade ago, I remember the pleasure of putting my little ones down for a nap and sitting at my computer to write a post. This was back in the day when your average everyday mommy blog post might get 20 or 30 comments, especially if it was shocking or funny in some way. And I was hungry for every one of those comments, so I exploited my children, posting pictures of them doing embarrassing things. I pointed out the faults of my husband and my mother, laughing all the way to the comment section. And yes, there were times when I'd get a phone call from my mom, or Eddie would read my post when he got home from work that night and they would be bugged by what I'd said about them. But I was quick to point out that I was creating a persona, and emphasizing details that would resonate with readers, and that it really had very little to do with them, and I was going to do what I wanted to do for the sake of my ART! I'll come to this later in my review.

Nora is a third-grade teacher teaching in Cambridge. She used to have dreams of becoming an artist, of becoming a mother, but instead, at 38, she has become a woman upstairs-- well-behaved, quiet, doing what people expect of her. She didn't go to art school because her parents thought it impractical. She didn't marry the guy who was perfect for her in every way except that she didn't love him. She dedicated her early thirties to caring for her dying mother. And now, her life is small, circumscribed, and predictable.

And then Reza Shahid becomes her student. His family has come to the US for one year for his father's visiting professorship at Harvard. Reza's a beautiful boy with a French accent, and immediately becomes a target for bullying. Nora reaches out to Reza's parents, and soon finds herself sharing an artist studio with Sirena, and discussing politics and the world on nightly walks with Skandar. Suddenly, Nora's life isn't so small. But exciting that small room upstairs also makes Nora vulnerable, capable of both love and exploitation.

The prose of The Woman Upstairs is clear and precise, the characters well-drawn, and the relationships between Nora and all three of the Shahids, all of whom she has fallen in love with, is touching and believable. But Nora tells the story in retrospect, with several years distance from that perfect year. She alludes throughout the story to a horrible even which changed how she saw the actions of the year when she looked back on it, and here's where the story is most interesting to me, because when I look at this "horrible event," it does feel shocking, but perhaps not as terrible and life-altering as Nora sees it, so I'm unsure if I'm just an exploitative person myself, or if Messud is trying to further show how hemmed in Nora's life is-- that is is, despite this one year, truly a woman upstairs.