Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Staring at the wall

I don't know why I try to keep up the appearance that everything is going well in my life. Or if not swimmingly exactly, that at least I can keep my sense of humor about this life with six kids, two of whom happen to be two years old. Most days aren't so bad, as long as you have a high capacity for disorder (I don't), nakedness (I do), poop (I can handle that too), and being hit by your daughter at least a hundred times a day.

I keep thinking about how many people I know who have big families. Here in Mormon central, it's not at all uncommon to have six kids or more. There are half a dozen families in my church congregation who fill their pew to bursting. My in-laws were both seventh children. My mom grew up in a house of six. I also have lots of friends with multiples, which is, for all intents and purposes, how I'm raising Rose and Eli. I have two friends who each had two sets of twins less than two years apart, and another friend with triplets. One of my mom's best friends has grandkids who are quintuplets. The other families on my adoption boards seem to have it all together, and that sometimes makes me wonder what the heck is wrong with me? It's not like I haven't done hard things in my life. In high school I juggled early morning seminary, AP classes, dance, swim team, work, and the school play one semester. I worked my way through college, taking 21 credits some semesters (and getting straight As). I finished one MA program while working full-time and carrying my first child. I did my MFA while juggling the schedules of four kids. I've had horrible bosses and heinous jobs. I've run marathons and ultra marathons. Why is this so hard?

Let's take tonight as a case in point. Today was a pretty normal day. I spent the morning running errands, and probably pushed it too far with the kids, buckling them in and out of their car seats too many times, expecting them to be good in stores and shopping carts for too long. Then I came home and fed them and basically ignored them while I rushed around getting ready for a little get-together I held while they were napping. It was so nice to see two of my old running buddies. We ran together for what I see now as a golden time in my life. Now one is retired due to a back injury and the other is 38 weeks pregnant with her fifth child (which is why we were getting together), and our lunch made me realize how much I benefited from their wisdom and their awesomeness, and how much I miss having them as a part of my life most mornings. Running is a lifeline for me, and a lot of times I feel like it's what's keeping my fingernails holding onto the edge of sanity, but it was so much better back in the days when I could look forward to an hour of adult conversation most mornings.

Anyway, back to tonight. The kids come home from school, unload their backpacks and their day's reports on me, and rush off to piano lessons. I know I should sit and read to the babies, or play with them at the very least, but since I've spent the last two hours talking with friends, instead of putting the sheets I washed back on four beds, or staring at the wall to recuperate from my morning, or taking a nap myself (I haven't been blogging very much because I NEED that nap time to decompress, and blogging, though fun, is not as rejuvenating as blissing out with a book, or my comfy blankie). So I did the sheets, whining at the babies the whole way for getting into the LEGOs in the boys room, and getting into the makeup in Annie's room (I don't go anywhere without them following me), and pulling the damn pillows off my couch for the eighteenth time today in my room. Then I had to iron my duvet, because part of keeping up the appearance that I'm keeping it all together is doing things like ironing duvet covers. I did this with the babies playing at my feet, running under the ironing board, and doing tricks in the laundry baskets. And then, because there were a dozen or so other things that needed to be ironed, and I really didn't feel like reading to the babies, who were annoying the hell out of me, I did that ironing too, and got progressively more annoyed as they worked harder and harder to get my attention.

Then the older kids got home, and they had an agenda-- we were going to carve their pumpkins. So instead of playing with Rose and Eli, like they usually do at this time of day, they all started to draw complicated designs on their pumpkins. Annie wanted eyes with pupils. Isaac wanted enormous antler horns. And Maren wanted her monogram until I got 2/3 of the way through it and she decided that she didn't like how it looked with the C for Camilla all the way off to the right side and started crying. Meanwhile, Rose and Eli kept climbing up onto the island. Every time someone would lift one of them off, the other would climb on, and when we managed to get them both down on the floor, they'd start moving the bar stools, scraping them all over the floor, so they could get themselves a better view, preferably one within reach of the knives.

By this time, it was 5:30, and I got a text from Ed saying that he wouldn't be home until 8, because he'd forgotten about a mandatory meeting at work. I'd already ditched plans to make a real dinner, and was in the process of doing Mac and Cheese and leftovers. The doorbell rang, and UPS delivered something I've been waiting for with great expectations-- a tool to change the lightbulbs in my staircase, which were all burned out. So I plopped the kids in their high chairs and stools, plunked out the Mac and Cheese (no sides, just a clamshell of raspberries tossed on the table) and got to work on the lightbulbs. After a few tries, a major screaming fit at the two kids who could both do their homework easily yet felt the need to whine to me about it, and one lightbulb that went sailing down half a flight of stairs, I finally met with great success (yay!) and now have light in my stairwell, but I came back to find that Eli had spilled his drink all over Annie's homework, and Rose had freed herself from her high chair and her clothes, and was smashing raspberries with her toes all over the floor. Instead of sitting with the babies, reading to them, and giving them a bath, I knew that it would be impossible to rest until I'd done the dishes, so I started the dishes.

In the process, I climbed under the bar to get a plate off the floor, and fill it with discarded Mac and Cheese and smashed berries. I misjudged when standing up and smacked my head on the corner of our marble bar, and suddenly, I was crying hot tears, heaving, sighing. I don't cry-- I can't indulge in tears-- I just have to push through. But now I couldn't stop. Until.... I looked up and saw that Rose and Eli were now both naked, and dancing in the windows. I grabbed them, and took a second to rub the rapidly forming egg on my head, during which time Rose came over and proceeded to hit me, when Isaac pointed to the window. "What is that?" he said. I knew before I even looked. Of course it was poop. Back when I had one, two, or three kids, I would have disinfected the entire family room, but I just took a paper towel, grabbed the poop, squirted down the streak with antibacterial spray, and called it good.

The night went on like this-- babies doing their best to escape when it was time to dress them for bed, begging to watch Elmo for the millionth time in the car when I took Bryce to his clarinet lesson and crying when I said no, and so on. But then tonight, Rose gave me a kiss and a hug at bedtime and went right to sleep, and Eli gave me a million kisses and said "love you" and "night night." And I think it was worth the hell that was the rest of the afternoon. Or almost worth it, at least. And I know that in the long run, it will be worth it. Even if it's the hardest thing I've ever done. Even if I'm not up to the challenge. Even if it takes me another six months to learn to sit and be still and let them play instead of trotting them out to do a million errands every morning. Even if my kids mock me about writing a post in which I whine about my day. Even if I never develop the kind of stiff upper lip I might need to do this job I've signed up for. Even if it never gets easier.

So that was long and depressing and self-indulgent. And there's still laundry to fold and kids to tuck in and a husband to say hi to for the first time all day. But there are also clean sheets and tomorrow and the next day to look forward to. And the book reviews? I'll get to them, eventually.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review: On the Noodle Road by Jen Lin-Liu

Title: On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta
Author: Jen Lin-Liu
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG

Cooking school owner and author Jen Lin-Liu is an American expat living in Beijing. Like many of us, she has heard that pasta had its roots in China and was brought to Rome by the explorer Marco Polo. However, Lin-Liu discovers that pasta may have, in fact, traveled to Italy along the Silk Road. So she retraces the steps of the journey from Beijing to Rome, hitting Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and other stops along the way.

I think it's hard for someone who is writing a memoir about a subject (in this case, her journey, which feels like a bit of a flimsy vehicle for a book) to know how much of her personal life to infuse into the story. I know I complain a lot about Michael Pollan, but I think he's an example of someone who gets this right. Most people who have read his books remember scenes with his wife and son, but it's the food people who take center stage. In On the Noodle Road, it felt like there was a bit too much navel-gazing-- too much about Craig, Jen's husband, the state of their relationship, where they would move next, and when they would have a child. It seemed to relegate the story of the noodles to the back seat.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss

Title: Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Author: Michael Moss
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG

Don't trust prepared foods. They're full of fat, sugar, and salt. The people who work for these companies will stop at nothing to improve their profits, even if it comes at the expense of your health. That's basically what this book boils down to. And I don't think it's anything new to most educated Americans. We know that prepared foods are bad for us. We also know they taste good, they're inexpensive, and they're incredibly convenient. So many of us try to balance the convenience with the unintended consequences of eating them. While Moss does a great job going through many, many food companies and airing their dirty laundry, nothing feels particularly new in Salt, Sugar, Fat. Like Michael Pollan's most recent book, Moss doesn't seem to give us solutions for how we should incorporate this information into our daily lives (although he is much less insufferable than Pollan). The narrator of this book reads the whole thing like it's an expose in Star magazine, which made it tough to listen to.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Title: The Girl You Left Behind
Author: Jojo Moyes
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 to R for language, violence, and sex

 The Girl You Left Behind is actually two stories: first, there's Sophie, the wife of artist Edouard LeFevre, she's keeping the family tavern open in the French countryside in 1916 when it is taken over by the Germans. The Kommandant sees the painting of Sophie that Edouard painted before he left for the war, and he becomes entranced by her. Then there's the story of Liv Halston, a young widow whose late husband gave her the portrait of Sophie as a wedding gift. The problem? The LeFevre family, who never heard from Edouard or Sophie again after the war, want the valuable work returned to them.

I loved Jojo Moyes's novel Me Without You, and I was really excited to read this one, too. But the first hundred pages or so (the story of Sophie) weren't as engrossing as I hoped they would be. It seemed to be a fairly standard, depressing story of a young girl who is missing her husband during World War I and is willing to put herself in compromising situations if it might ensure his safety. However, Liv's story is fascinating. Both of the female characters are richly drawn, but I especially liked Liv's story of how the chance she might lose the painting forces her out of her four years of mourning and makes her fight to live again. I'm also pleased to say that there's a rewarding payoff with the Sophie character later in the novel. So be patient with this one-- it will be worth it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

Title: The Daughters of Mars
Author: Thomas Keneally
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence, also a little bit of sex, some bad language

Naomi and Sally Durrance are sisters, both nurses, living in Australia at the outbreak of World War I. Their mother has recently died, and the sisters decide independently to join the war effort. They've never been close, and suddenly they're on the same ship, going through the same types of new and unbearably difficult experiences. Their lives in Australia haven't prepared them for the blood and carnage, the shipwrecks, the politics, and the other atrocities of the war. 

Have you ever read a book you know you should like, but you just didn't? That's how I feel about The Daughters of Mars. The three-star rating is because I know in my mind that the book is worthy of at least three stars, but getting through it was agonizing. It felt like eating nasty vegetables, but because it was a library book and I had other library books due back at the same time that I wanted to read, I pushed through. The characters are complex and well-drawn, and the story was epic, so I can't exactly put my finger on what it was that made the book so difficult for me, but I think it was the narrative voice-- there was just a little bit too much emotional reserve and distance in it, which seems to make sense because Naomi and Sally aren't the kind of girls to open their hearts to anyone, but that distance also held me as a reader at bay.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Book Review: Murder as a Fine Art by David Morrell

Title: Murder as a Fine Art
Author: David Morrell
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 or R for violence

Former English majors may know Thomas de Quincey as the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, or as a second-tier romanticist, a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge. In Murder as a Fine Art, David Morrell draws on one of Thomas de Quincey's lesser-known works, "On Murder as Considered one of the Fine Arts," which examines, in great detail a series of multiple murders that took place in London in the early 1800s. The story, set in 1854, shows what happens when someone tries to recreate and outdo the early murders. de Quincey, who recently moved to London with his daughter, Emily, is immediately considered a suspect, because the details of the original murders are so vividly described in his work. However, the novel quickly shifts gears from a whodunit to a thriller.

I'm a sucker for a good historical thriller, and Murder as a Fine Art definitely fits the bill. Morrell knows his Victorian London. He's able to convey the darkness of the streets at night and the fear people feel as the murderer is out on the loose. He also does a great job developing strong characters in de Quincey, Emily, the murderer, and several detectives (although I thought the implied romance between Emily and one of the detectives was a bit superfluous). The book was a ghoulish pleasure to read from start to finish, although the murders were also very vividly described, which may make it unpalatable for some readers.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Book Review: The Yonahlosseee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton diSclafani

Title: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
Author: Anton diSclafani
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 or R for sort of creepy sexual themes

At sixteen, Thea Atwell shows up in the mountains of North Carolina to spend the summer at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. The camp is actually a kind of finishing school, and while it's luxurious and her fellow students are friendly, she is fully aware that she's sent there as punishment. As the year (yes, she's there for a year, not the summer as she originally thought) unfolds, the reason for her banishment becomes clear-- her family holds her responsible for a fight between her brother and their cousin that resulted in a serious brain injury for her cousin.

The book is set in the 1930s, and while the main narrative of Thea growing into herself and building relationships with her classmates is very readable and entertaining, what makes this book interesting is Thea's sense of sexuality. It's her budding sexuality that gets her sent to the school in the first place, and she seems to realize that sex is power. However, she's also very young and immature in many ways, and sometimes seems misguided on how to use this sexual power. I was worried that it would be a kind of morality play-- bad girl seduces people and pays; however, the final chapters don't seem to support this. It's the kind of book I wish my friends would read so I'd be able to talk about it with them.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Title: The Other Typist
Author: Suzanne Rindell
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence and general darkness

Rose Baker is plain and competent. An orphan raised by nuns, she's good at her job-- working as a typist at a police precinct in New York City in the 1920s, but other than that, she doesn't have a lot going on in her life. Then Odalie joins the typing pool, and Rose's life is turned upside down. Odalie is beautiful, wealthy, and comfortable with men. She also seems to genuinely like Rose, taking her in to live in her hotel suite when things go south at Rose's boardinghouse. Rose loves her new lifestyle-- she wears Odalie's clothes, eats in fancy restaurants, and parties in speakeasies. And life suddenly seems a lot less black and white. This seeps into her work life-- she changes small things in defendants' testimonies when it suits her. And as life gets more and more gray, she starts to see that Odalie isn't who she seemed to be at first.

I read this book the same weekend I saw The Great Gatsby, and while Rindell talks in her afterword about how Gatsby is one of her favorite books, I was struck while reading it how similar the books are. Rose is very much like a female version of Nick Carraway, and Odalie is similar to Gatsby, and in both cases, wealth and power and intrigue seem to corrupt the innocent characters. The book was a really fascinating read, and I read it quickly and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: Help, Thanks, Wow: by Anne Lamott

Title: Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers
Author: Anne Lamott
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG (there may be a few bad words)

I feel like reviewing this book is a little bit unfair, and actually calling this book a book is a little bit unfair. At 112 short pages, this feels more like a pamphlet than a book (and it cracks me up that there is a 30-minute abridged read of the book since I think I read it in less than an hour). I know I'm prejudiced because the book comes in the much-detested "Mitch Albom format" (narrower and shorter than an actual hardback book, but just as expensive at $17.95). That said, once I delved into the book, I actually liked it. Lamott believes that all prayers can be distilled to three essential types: 1) Help, 2) Thanks, and 3) Wow. The first two are pretty self-explanatory, the third is expressing wonder. The book resonated with me in the way a good church talk would, and Lamott provides interesting examples to support her thesis, but after reading her two memoirs, I wanted more meat and more story out of this one. 

Book Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Title: The Bone Season
Author: Samantha Shannon
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language, violence and a couple of sexy scenes

Sometimes I find myself really enjoying a book while I'm reading or listening to it, and then in the span of time in between finishing the book and writing the book review, I forget nearly everything about the book, that is a sign to me that it wasn't a great book in the first place.

The Bone Season was getting tons of hype a month or so ago. I must have gotten half a dozen emails from Amazon and Audible and Goodreads about it (yes, I realize they are all the same company), and eventually I found myself suckered into buying it, even though I know that I'm not a huge fan of dystopian novels and I'm also not a huge fan of trilogies.

Paige Mahoney is living in London in 2059. Her father thinks she works at an oxygen bar in the city, but she's really a voyant (someone with supernatural powers), and she works as part of an underground syndicate with other voyants. She's able to enter into the dreams and minds of other people, and she accidentally uses this power to kill several people on a train. This blows her cover and she's rounded up and shipped off to Oxford, a city where voyants can live out in the open, but they are controlled by Rephaim, an alien species.

Paige, being a feisty girl, has no patience for her situation and wants to escape. She's put under the control of Warden, the fiance of the really creepy woman in charge of the whole place. Warden seems tough and cold, but eventually Paige learns that he also wants to be free of the rules of the place. But can a small group of fighters go up against all of the Rephaim?

 I felt that Paige was a fairly flat character-- she's a stock feisty girl, and Warden is pretty much exactly like Edward Cullen or Matthew Clairmont from Discovery of Witches. I didn't want them to get together, but it felt inevitable that they would.  And reading about fighting bores me, but overall the book is engaging and easy to listen to. But that doesn't mean that I'm on board with books two and three in the series.

Book Review: Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

Title: Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year
Author: Anne Lamott
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for language

After reading Some Assembly Required, a journal of Anne Lamott's first year as a grandmother, I knew I needed to go back and read the source on which it was based, Operating Instructions, which is a journal of her first year as a mother.  The books are similar in many ways-- in both cases Lamott is completely wrapped up in this baby in her life, but she also manages to weave in the non-baby stories of that year, all in her characteristic confessional, self-deprecating style.

When I was a first-time mom, at 25, I thought that I knew everything. I'd read a whole bunch of books, and I'd wanted to be a mom ever since I could remember, and it wasn't until Bryce was actually here that I realized that it was harder than I thought it would be. Lamott, on the other hand, had a decade's worth of experience on me, and had already attained a measure of success in her life (unlike me), yet she seemed to approach motherhood with a sense of trepidation. Maybe it's because of that that she was able to see every fantastic moment with a bit of wonder. I expected all moments to be fantastic and was frustrated when they weren't.

I'm also happy to know that I'm not the only mom who has said bad words to her baby, thought he was evil and out to ruin my life, or wanted to escape completely some times. I think this would be a great book for all new moms to read, but it resonated equally well with me. I just wish she'd written about Sam's toddler years. I need to find someone else who is suffering through those years with as much humor and intelligence as Lamott shows here.