Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Parenting Mirror

Rosie is a thirty-seven inch, thirty-four month bundle of energy and muscle. She turns somersaults, jumps effortlessly to the ground from the fifth step, scales the fronts of cupboards, and throws and kicks with amazing accuracy. When she goes into the back yard, the first thing she wants to do is play basketball, much to the delight of her father. Ed was an All-State basketball player in high school, and although has half a dozen kids, Rose is the first one who has shown much interest or proficiency in throwing a basketball.

"She gets her athleticism from me," he says, deadpan, waiting for someone to come in and correct him.

We've also been known to joke that the only way Ed was going to get kids with dark hair and eyes like he has was to adopt them from China.

Parents seem quick to attribute their children's good qualities to their own genetic contributions; I've also been known to attribute some of the kids' less-than-stellar qualities to their dad. The boys' lack of interest in leaving the house once they've come home for the day, even for something fun, is so frequently seen among members of Ed's family that it even has a name-- Minertia.

Ten years ago, I was still finding my footing as the mom of my first child, Bryce. We'd spent the first three years of his life delighting over all of his superior qualities. As a baby, he had enormous blue eyes and a cue-ball bald head. When he walked at nine months and started talking shortly thereafter, I patted myself on the back, because I must have been doing something right, or at least contributed my superior genetics. We loved the way that he learned entire movie scripts verbatim and repeated them whenever he watched the films-- he'd grow up to have a mastery of standardized tests, just like his dad. We praised and praised and praised him, and saw ourselves reflected in that praise. The things that raised red flags for his preschool teachers (no interest in playing with other kids, having a hard time sitting during circle time, not making eye contact) were things that to us just showed a strong will that would serve him well later in life.

So when the teachers referred us to Early Intervention and he was diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, I was crushed. Yes, part of it was solely worry on Bryce's behalf-- would he ever go to mainstream school? Would he be smart? Would he be able to live on his own? Make friends? Have a fulfilling life? Whenever I asked these questions, the specialists were evasive. "It's too soon to tell," they said. But a large part of my anxiety at that time was also self-directed. Was there something I could have done to prevent this? Was it because he was so small when he was born? I'd followed What to Expect When You're Expecting to the letter, and the doctor had assured me that babies are sometimes small, but what if I did something wrong during my pregnancy that I didn't know about? Had I been too indulgent during his babyhood? Should I have forced a greater variety of foods on him? Were my genes bad? In some ways, I feel like the diagnosis tarnished how I saw him-- it took away my innocence and my joy-- the things that had made him special now just made him abberant. It took me a long time to get the joy back.

Bryce was almost eleven when Rose was born, half a world away in China. We did not contribute her genetic makeup, I did not grow her in my womb, but she has been our daughter in our hearts ever since she was five months old, and has been with us now for nearly two years. We brought her back to the hotel on the day she was placed in our arms, and looked her over from head to toe. Unlike with our biological kids, we didn't try to figure out, "your toes, my hair, your long body, my gentle personality." She was completely herself. And over the last few years, as the force of her personality has become evident (a force that likely kept her alive during the first few months living as a cleft baby in an orphanage), it's been freeing to attribute those personality traits only to herself. Her sense of fun, her determined will, her propensity to throw and hit and kick at everything in sight when she gets angry.

And while I've learned lots of lessons over the last several years of being an adoptive parent, one of the most surprising has been the way it has changed the way I see all of my children. I do my best to raise them, individually, according to their needs, but ultimately, they are all their own people, and not reflections of me. By divorcing my genetic contribution from the equation with Rose, I could see that the important factors in parenting all of my children were my actions as a parent and my children's actions, and not all of the complications of the mirror. I couldn't see that with my older kids, and in some ways it makes me wish that I'd adopted Rose and Eli first, because it would have taken some of the pressure off everyone else.

Last weekend, when Annie and I were out of town together, we were stopped several times on the street by people who said, "Wow, you must be mother and daughter, you look exactly alike." It was kind of fun (at least for me, Annie may have been mortified), and I know that Rose and I will never have that experience. People are more likely to say, "You're her mother?" with incredulity in their voices, or just to assume that I'm the nanny. But we both know that we're mother and daughter, and I think that in becoming her mother, I freed myself of some of the pressure that so many of us feel with parenthood, that our children will reflect us in a positive light. I will push this girl to be the best Rose she can be every day of her life, but it's for her, and not for me.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review: Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider

Title: Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World
Author: Tsh Oxenreider
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG

Tsh Oxenreider began blogging as an assignment. She was living with her family in Turkey, pregnant with her second child, trying to adapt to life in a new culture, when she found herself struggling with crushing depression. Her therapist told her to write, and her blog took off. These days, in addition to writing books (this is her third), she and her husband are the creative geniuses behind The Art of Simple, a blog dedicated to (guess what?) living simply.

Oxenreider's format here is pretty simple (ha, ha, get it?). She picks half a dozen things in her family's life that are priorities, and writes both about how they have managed to be intentional in those area of their lives, and how they plan to continue to live meaningful lives. She talks about food, travel, work and several other things I'm too lazy to go back and look up, and manages to weave in practical how-to with a memoir of sorts that spotlights everything from how she and her husband met (in the former Yugoslavia-- she was teaching English and he was building houses with a non-profit), to their time in Turkey, to their current life in Bend, Oregon.

There were times when I had to resist being annoyed with Notes from a Blue Bike (btw, the blue bike makes an appearance only in the intro and conclusion-- I would have liked to see it emerge more often as a unifying theme). For example, when she talks about food, I found myself getting my dander up because my kids, unlike hers, do know what the inside of a McDonald's looks like. But when I resisted the urge to feel judged and simply chalked it up to one person's simple and meaningful life not needing to look like someone else's, I realized that the judgey one was me, not Tsh. And while I enjoyed the book as a whole, there were times when I felt like her advice couldn't be applied practically in my life. For example, she goes on and on about how she and her husband work at home, together, and how this has led them to live meaningful lives. She then describes several other families who have achieved work/life balance, mostly in situations that sound amazing and fanciful to me, who does all of my blogging with at least one kid on my lap (two right now, watching The Incredibles), while my husband works 60+ hours a week. But I think what I really need is a primer on how to achieve work/life balance as a couple when one partner is in a job with high rewards but very little flexibility, and the other partner does the bulk of the "life" stuff at home with six kids. All in all, an interesting read, but I was left feeling that my life isn't in balance, and the book didn't give me any practical guidelines on how to dig myself out of that situation. My favorite takeaway is the lesson that she and her husband didn't stop traveling just because they had kids. Their kids have gone on overnight flights and to Europe. They've driven thousands of miles in the car. Sometimes I think that we take an easy out because we have a big family, but I try my best not to use my kids as an excuse for staying home and staring at each other. This summer I'm taking all six of them for a week in New England and New York. Ed is staying home, and I'll be staying with my best friend, Leslie, and her family, which is probably the only way that it's manageable. And after reading this book, instead of being scared, I'm really excited. About the whole thing. Yes, even about flying across the country with all of my babies.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

How to potty train your toddler in ten easy steps

1) Wait until she is staring down her third birthday, stays dry most nights, asks for underpants, and can pee on demand whenever you put her on the potty before a bath.

2) Buy a package of Pull Ups, and then decide you don't want to use them yet because your other two-year-old can't even say "potty" much less use it, and you really just want to endure this potty training misery one more time. Toddler is undeterred. She will insist on using them in the following order: all of the Mike and Sulley Pull Ups, followed by all of the Minnie Mouse Pull Ups. When she gets to the Ariel Pull Ups, she will turn up her nose and ask for underwear again. Agree with her-- Ariel is a brat.

3) Take her to Target with the intention of buying underwear. On the way to the toddler underwear, ask her what kind she wants. "Frozen," she says. There are no Frozen underwear. She does not want Tangled underwear. She does not want Disney Princess underwear. She does not want Monsters, Inc underwear from the boys section.

4) Get on eBay and pay $25, plus shipping, for seven pairs of Frozen underwear.

5) When the underwear arrive, hide them. You still aren't in the mental place to do this potty training thing again.

6) Older sister finds the underwear and wants them for herself. Tell her they are for your toddler, and you are not, under any circumstances, ordering more from eBay. Older sister throws them at your toddler in a huff.

7) Tell your toddler that she can wear the underwear under one condition: she cannot pee in them. If she pees on Olaf, he will melt. If she pees on Elsa, she might get her booty frozen. Start saving money for eventual therapy.

8) Toddler chooses to wear the Anna underpants.

9) Proceed with normal life. Occasionally remind toddler to go sit on the potty. After three days, she has had two accidents. On the third day, she tells you when she needs to poop.

10) Gloat over your child's genius and precocity. Pat yourself on the back-- this time it worked just like all of those "potty train your child in one day" books said it would. Or, rather, shake your head in amazement that this has been so easy. This is your fifth time on the potty train, and the first time it was relatively pain-free. She may sleep like a newborn and have the left hook of a prizefighter, but she's a dream to toilet train.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Book Review: The Son by Philipp Meyer

Title: The Son
Author: Phillip Meyer
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: R, for language, sex, violence

The McCulloughs consider themselves an old Texas family. Eli McCullough was the first child born in the republic in 1836, and in 1849, his family is murdered and he is kidnapped by Comanches. The narrative of The Son is split between Eli's story (his life among the Comanches and following with the Texas Rangers and Confederates), his son Peter's story (Peter feels guilt for Eli's power-hungry ways and his bloodlust), and Peter's granddaughter JA, who eventually takes over the family's ranch and oil empire.

While the McCulloughs may be an old family by American standards, one of the things Meyer does well is to show that Texas was a place with a history of conquest when the whites arrived. While Eli and JA seem intent on denying that others may have a claim to their lands and their riches, Peter can't approve of his father's decisions, or of the way he and his wife have chosen to raise their children. The three stories are fascinating, the characters rich, and the stories readable (it was a page-turner, despite it's length), but until the last few chapters, when a new voice is introduced, I had no idea how or if the three stories would come together. But Meyer doesn't disappoint, and the story is definitely worth reading, both for insights into the history of Texas and into human nature.

We interrupt these book reviews for inane talk about running shorts...

I've been a runner for more than a decade now, and while it's easy to find running tops that work (the technical t-shirts I get from races are great for all but the coldest or hottest weather, and Target has plenty of cheap stuff to fill in the gaps), I've had a harder time with bottoms.

My requirements:

1) One pair of shorts, one pair of capris, one pair of tights. Yeah, one pair of each is enough. I do laundry every day, and unlike a sweaty tank, I'll often wear a pair of shorts for a couple of days before I wash them. And no skirts-- minimalism is the name of the game here, and I don't need an extra layer of fabric or a pair of annoying sewn-in underpants that give me a wedgie when I'm trying to get my fast on.

2) Pockets! Despite what I said about minimalism above, it baffles me that so many running bottoms don't come with pockets. At a bare minimum, there needs to be one pocket big enough to fit my phone (I frequently run alone in the dark, and even if I weren't addicted to my Audible app, I'd still run with a phone for safety reasons), and another to hold a couple of gels and a car key. If I plan to race in the bottoms (which I do, because see #1 above), then I'd like enough pockets to carry five gels, chapstick, an emergency drug stash and my inhaler on race day.

3) A waist that doesn't emphasize my muffin top. While I am not at all self-conscious about my non-existent butt or my skinny legs, let's be realistic-- I am a 39-year-old mother of six, and no one, not even me, wants to see my love handles. While a pair of tights or shorts that hits at the waist is the runner's equivalent to Mom jeans, I'm usually out running in the dark when no one can see me anyway.

4) All that for a price that won't make me rethink the necessity of buying a new pair of tights even when the old ones are full of holes and have been worn so transparent that you might be able to see my stretch marks through them.

That's only four things, and there are hundreds of pairs of shorts and tights out there, it shouldn't be too much of a challenge, right? Wrong. The really hard one is #2-- most pairs of shorts and tights come with a single pocket, either inside the waistband to hold the key or a zipper pocket at the small of the back that barely fits my iPhone 4.

For a long time, I was a reluctant fan of the Race Ready brand. As you can see in the photo to the left, the tights met all of my criteria. And $60 for a pair of running tights is a downright steal, especially since I wear my favorite pair of tights from October to May, basically every morning. I call the Race Ready tights my rickshaw tights, because I always feel like it looks like I'm carrying an enormous load on my back when I wear them. And cute, well, they are not cute at all. I see people staring at my behind when I wear them, and not in a checking-her-out kind of way, but more in a what-the-heck-is-on-her-butt kind of way. But still, these have been my go-to staple for years. This winter, I bought a second pair of winter tights since the first were losing their stretch after three or four winters. But the stitching on the new pair came apart almost immediately, and shortly thereafter, my phone went crashing out of the back pocket of the other pair and onto the ground one morning when a gigantic hole wore its way through the mesh pocket.

I have a bunch of their shorts too, and felt similarly ambivalent about them. Yeah, they're high-waisted enough to prevent a muffin top, but there is such a thing as too high waisted, and these are it. Besides, everyone else who wears them seems to be quite a bit older than I am. And while you might think that I've been pretty restrained by sticking with this one, fairly inexpensive brand, let me disabuse you of this notion-- I have bought PLENTY of other pairs of tights and shorts over the years, and I have decided that I hated most of them after wearing them two or three times. Either they were too tight at the waist, or the legs were too long/short/loose/tight or I spent the whole run pulling them up and driving myself nuts in the process.

While we're talking about shopping, I need to make a confession-- if I can't buy it online, I probably won't buy it at all. Ever since I've birthed and adopted a permanent entourage, there's not much that is more stressful and less rewarding than trying on clothes in a store, with my kids in tow (except maybe trying to write this blog post with both of my two-year-olds on my lap or going to the post office). So I'd buy online, hate whatever I bought, then not return it (because of how much I hate going to the post office). And I'd only buy from places that were for "real runners" because that's how I see myself.

This weekend, Annie and I went to Las Vegas. Long story, but she was stressed out by the idea of a birthday party, so I told her to scrap the party and we'd go stay in a hotel and eat dinner somewhere fancy one night. Mostly, she wanted to spend the money she'd gotten for her birthday at the mall. I wanted to do something spa-y, but didn't want to pay to go to the spa, so we decided to take a yoga class at the Lululemon at the mall.

Until this weekend, I'd never stepped foot in a Lululemon. I was a real runner, after all, and based on making totally judgey assumptions about the women I saw wearing Lululemon, I decided the brand was the ski bunny version of workout clothes (when you want to look cute but don't want to work out that hard). Besides, I knew they were blisteringly expensive.

I don't know if it was the fact that Annie and I had a wonderful, free class at Lululemon, or it was the happy endorphins that were coursing through my system after doing yoga, but I decided to look at their running tights on the way out of the store (shopping with one kid is actually kind of fun!). And lo and behold, I found a pair that had a mid-rise, and FIVE pockets! Better still, when I tried them on, they didn't make me look like a camel! Yes, I balked at the price tag, but again, remember that a good pair of tights will last me three or four years of daily use for six months at a time. And they're soft, and they feel so amazing on that I bought a pair of shorts (three pockets!) too. Didn't spring for capris though-- a minimalist can live without capris.

So what's the point of this blog post, other than that I'm bragging on my new bottoms? Not much, other than, I guess, not to judge your workout wear until you've run twenty miles in it. And to retire the bottoms that make me look like I have an extra butt ASAP.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Book Review: The House at Rose Creek by Jenny Proctor (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: The House at Rose Creek (Whitney Finalist 2013)
Author: Jenny Proctor
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG

Kate Sinclair was content with her life in Atlanta. Her job was busy, but satisfying, and her boyfriend helped her pass the time. But when the aunt who raised her dies and Kate inherits the family farm, she has to take a temporary leave from her life in Atlanta to get things settled in the small town in North Carolina where she grew up. Unfortunately, Kate soon learns that the home is slated for demolition, and it becomes her personal mission to prevent that from happening, while righting some wrongs in her personal life. As she searches more deeply into her family's story, she finds herself completely enthralled with family history, which leads her to the Mormons (and away from life in Atlanta), which leads her to make some big changes in her life.

I think that Proctor is a good writer who knows how to create characters, keep readers interested, and work with conflicts. I really thought that the story of Kate's family history was fascinating. However, I'm not sure about how I feel about this turning into a conversion narrative. If the book is written for a general, non-LDS audience, would they feel manipulated by the turn the story takes? If the book is written for an LDS audience, then would the conversion narrative be interesting to someone who is, theoretically, already converted? I thought that part of the story was less compelling than the rest of the story.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Review: Road to Bountiful by Donald Smurthwaite (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Road to Bountiful (Whitney Finalist 2013)
Author: Donald Smurthwaite
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG

Loyal is an old man. He buried his wife some time ago, and now he's doing the responsible thing-- leaving his home in South Dakota to live in a retirement community near his daughter in Utah.

Levi is a young man, a college student who has spent the summer bagging groceries with precious little to show for it. So when his aunt offers to pay him to drive her father from South Dakota to Utah, he plots the quickest route to the cash.

But over the course of the journey, Loyal's slow pace begins to rub off on Levi, who starts to see the journey as an adventure rather than a job.

Smurthwaite is a gifted writer. His sentence structure and pacing are excellent, and he knows how to say what he wants to say in order to get a reaction. I was delighted by the early chapters of the book. However, as the narrative continued, I found myself less enamored with the story, which felt sentimental and simplistic. I can see how readers who read to be uplifted or to have their emotions stirred would like this story, but I felt that Smurthwaite had the writing chops to make it better and more complicated with less overt motivations.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Title: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Author: Charles Duhigg
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG

Every morning at 4:50 the alarm goes off and I check my email and Instagram, then head to the closet to get dressed for my run. Every afternoon around 2pm, I have a hankering for a Diet Coke. I fall asleep most nights with a book in my hand. These are habits that I've developed over the years, and in The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg writes about how we create habits, how we change them, and how habits work to help or hinder us in our personal lives and at work.

If you're interested in a how-to book about changing your habits, this might not be the book for you, although I would recommend reading the epilogue first (where he lays out some concrete ideas for changing habits) and then the rest of the book with that epilogue in mind. However, if you want to know why you do what you do, or why the people in your lives keep making the same crazy choices, or if you want some insight into why your body wants a Diet Coke at 2pm every afternoon, this is a fascinating read. Lots of examples and stories, and good analysis by the author. It's also engaging and readable. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Author: Helene Wecker
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13, I guess. Plenty of salty language, a little bit of sex

Chava is a golem: a woman made of clay and intended to serve her master, who awakens her on their journey from Poland to New York City and then speedily dies. She's not supposed to be able to live without a master, and just before she gets herself in trouble, a rabbi recognizes what she is and takes her in, hoping to give her a semblance of a normal life-- hoping he doesn't have to destroy her.

Ahmad is a jinni: a man of fire and spirit who had been trapped inside a copper flask for more than a thousand years, awakened only when a New York tinsmith attempts to repair the flask. But Ahmad has been trapped by a former master in human form, and he too has to find a way to blend in to life in New York City at the turn of the century.

Both go through life, struggling to find their way. Chava gets a job at a bakery and a man falls in love with her (much to her horror). The rabbi who cares for her dies. Ahmad hates being bound, hates the mundaneness of the human life. Eventually, the two meet. Neither sleeps, so they go on long rambles around the city, and they find their lives being bound together in ways they could not have predicted.

Wecker does a wonderful job recreating New York City in 1899, and makes her characters rich, complicated, and fanciful. The audio recording of the book is excellent, with George Guidall providing the perfect, haunting narrator. The story, with its flashbacks to Syria in the 800s and its range of magical characters, definitely keeps a reader interested and entertained. It's one of those books that is entertaining and enlightening, and a complete joy to read.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book Review: Ruby's Secret by H.B. Moore (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Ruby's Secret (A Newport Ladies Book Club Novel) (Whitney Finalist 2013)
Author: H.B. Moore
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG

Ruby Crenshaw is newly-widowed when she has the idea to form The Newport Ladies Book Club. She's the kind of woman that everyone thinks is perfect. Her house is immaculate, and her clothes are stylish. She knows about the world, and she's interested in other people. But she's also been carrying the secret that her husband was repeatedly unfaithful during their marriage. It makes her believe that her future will be a solitary one, filled with friends and extended family, yes, but never with a partner.

At the urging of her daugher-in-law, and not because she feels like a senior citizen, Ruby starts attending the local senior center, and soon finds herself signing up for a trip to Greece with a group from the center. Soon she finds herself second-guessing her resolve to stay single, while questioning whether or not she wants to let someone new in. Moore's writing is smooth and the story is very readable. Ruby is an engaging character and I think many readers will identify with her struggle. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book Review: Daughters for a Time by Jennifer Handford

Title: Daughters for a Time
Author: Jennifer Handford
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: PG-13 for adult situations, language, unsexy sex

More than anything else, Helen Francis wants to be a mother. She lost her own mother to ovarian cancer when was a teenager (and her father abandoned Helen and her sister, Claire, shortly after that), and she thinks that more than her marriage or her successful career as a pastry chef, becoming a mother will show that she has overcome the challenges of her early life. The only problem? She can't have a baby. Helen has tried everything, and her husband Tim, seems eager to move on to the next logical step-- adopting a baby. But it's not that easy for Helen, who feels like she's giving up on herself if she chooses adoption.

Eventually, Helen and Tim adopt a baby girl, Samantha, from China. Helen believes that now her life will be perfect. She and Claire can raise their daughters together, and they will both have the strong families they were deprived as children. However, Claire is soon diagnosed with the same cancer that killed their mother, and Helen has to readjust her life's path.

I listened to this book on audio, and it was eminently listenable. I found myself listening in the shower and the car and everywhere else I went. But that doesn't mean I necessarily liked it. As an adoptive mom, I really enjoy reading stories about adoption, and particularly like reading stories where the motivations to adopt are different from my own, sort of nebulous ones. For me, choosing to adopt a child didn't have the same emotional implications as it has for many families who turn to adoption after experiencing infertility. So I found that part of the story quite interesting. It was obvious to me that Handford, or someone she knows well, adopted from China sometime before 2007. The problem for me is that the adoption portion of the book seemed to be set in 2011 or 2012, and by then the process was very different. So the nitpicky side of me wanted her to get that right. But she did a great job capturing the details, the smells, and the sights of China. I could even pinpoint the hotel she stayed in when she was in Guangzhou (Holiday Inn Shifu?). After Helen, Tim, and Samantha return from China, I wanted the story to go do different places than it did. I loved the side-story of her reconciliation with her father, but I hated that Claire soon got sick with incurable cancer. Even though I knew it was coming, it felt manipulative. And while I enjoyed the way Handford handled the struggle the family went through in the ensuing year, I felt like the final events of the story (which I won't give away) were implausible based on some of the actions the characters took early in the novel. Overall, it was a book I'm glad I listened to, and one that I enjoyed, but I was left with a lingering feeling of emotional manipulation, like I've felt after reading Jodi Picoult novels.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Title: The Luminaries
Author: Eleanor Catton
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: It's funny, it takes place during the Victorian Era and is very Victorian in many ways-- the bad language is abbreviated, for example. I guess I'd say PG-13, mostly because most of the characters are crooks in one way or another

When I go on vacation, I use the travel time to read (are you surprised by that?). In fact, my favorite days on family vacations are the days when we're in the car most of the day. Ed drives, we talk, the kids are all strapped in the back, and there's always a book on my lap. When we left for Miami a few weeks ago, I had my Kindle all stocked up with a bunch of books. I cracked this one (metaphorically), on the flight out. If we're flying for six hours and have a two-hour layover, like we did on this trip, I will usually read an entire book. Last year when we flew to China, I read four books on the way over. Those books were not The Luminaries. Despite reading most of the flight to and from Miami, one day sitting at the pool, and any time I had down time in the hotel, I wasn't able to finish The Luminaries on vacation. I was feeling kind of bad about it on the trip home, until Ed and I stopped in a bookstore in the airport in Dallas. I saw the book sitting on a shelf, and it looked like a dictionary. It was tall and wide, and the text inside was dense. Reading on my Kindle, I just kept thinking I was slow, or the story was too difficult for me to understand.

My high school must have bought the entire collection of Charles Dickens, because it seemed that we spent a lot of time reading Dickens. Other than a novel or two in college, I haven't read any Dickens since. Once I learned that he was paid by the word and that verbosity wasn't necessary to his stories, I kind of lost interest in the guy. More than anything The Luminaries, despite being published in 2013, reminded me of something Dickens might have written, if he had hopped on a ship and traveled to New Zealand.

The story starts on a dark and stormy night (at least that's how I pictured it), when English lawyer Walter Moody lands in a New Zealand goldrush town in the 1860s. He stumbles into the private back  room of a pub, where twelve men are discussing their roles in some strange events around town: one man is dead, another has gone missing, and one of the prostitutes was found nearly dead in the street. These three plus the twelve men, plus Moody, a few others form the central characters of the novel (a 900 pager can have 20 main characters, I'm pretty sure). It's a long, rambling book, full of lies, stories that don't quite check out, intrigues, selfishness and greed. It's also quite readable, once a 21st century reader takes the opportunity to read at a 19th century pace.

It won the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and I'm glad I read it (I didn't even know there was a gold rush in New Zealand until I read this novel), but I probably could have read half a dozen other things in the time it took me to finish it. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Book Review: Love Letters of the Angel of Death by Jennifer Quist (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Love Letters of the Angel of Death (Whitney Finalist 2013)
Author: Jennifer Quist
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for some adult situations

In the opening scene of the novel, Briggs and his young wife discover the body of his mother at her trailer. It's not pretty. She's been dead several days, the end of a life of potential unfulfilled. As Briggs and his wife and boys navigate the funeral and the boxing up of her possessions, readers begin to see that he has a true love and passion for the woman he has chosen to spend his life with.

Over the course of this eminently readable novel, we get more vignettes. Briggs speaks to his wife, addressing her as "you" as he seems to touch on some of the highlights of their courtship and dozen-year (or so) marriage. He jumps back and forth from early dating to recent past to some of the tough early years living way up north in Canada while he established himself in his career. And it seems like a lot of the stories deal in some way with death. They go to a relative's funeral. Their son has an accident. They walk in the woods. She really hates big bugs.

It sounds like a lot of simple things, but Quist shows (without being sentimental or heavy-handed) that it's simple moments like these that make up a relationship, that cement a love affair. The writing is beautiful and a little bit haunting (I think it has to do with the perspective), and I found myself riveted. Since a book that focuses so much on death is ultimately a book that also focuses on faith, I was very impressed with the way that Quist handled issues of faith. I think that in books written by Mormons, we often see characters who are overtly Mormon and then seem to be characterized as "Mormon" characters, or we see authors who stay away from issues of religion and faith at all, so they don't have to address it and possibly limit their audience. To a Mormon reader, Briggs and his wife are obviously LDS, but Quist seems to stick to looking at issues of faith and not necessarily of Mormon culture (and honestly, I'm not sure how Mormon culture looks different in Canada). Quist's characters are faithful and mature, but their faith is undefined.

Finally, and I'm reluctant to say this, because putting together one of the pieces of the puzzle of this story as it unfolded was a sheer pleasure for this reader, I was delighted to see that in a year where we had many, many books about death in the pool of books to read for the Whitneys, this is one that managed to tell the story in an artful way. I'm delighted that the Whitneys brought it to my attention, but it will be a book that I recommend to many people.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Basically, this whole post is TMI

An hour or so ago, the kids and I arrived home from our swimming lessons/McDonalds routine. They like to follow up the routine by pretending to drive my car, which usually involves moving the seat and the mirrors, turning on the hazard lights, and sticking stuff in the CD player. So I let them play in the driveway for a minute while I ran into the kitchen to empty the swim bag and change the laundry. Pretty soon I realized that I was rushing around the house at breakneck speed, for no reason my conscious brain could understand. I stopped for just a second and figured out that I had to go to the bathroom, urgently. And my pace was frantic because my phone was in the car with the kids, and for some reason, over the last few years, it has become nearly impossible for me to pee without checking Instagram.

Gross, I know, right? But it began innocently enough. I usually keep my phone in the back pocket of my jeans, and when I finally switched over from a basic flip phone to an iPhone, I developed a fear that I would drop it in the toilet when I was pulling my pants down. So as long as it was in my hand already when I was using the bathroom, I might as well put it to good use. If you've ever sent me an email and not gotten a response right away, chances are I read it while I was going to the bathroom. If I've liked your picture on Instagram or your status update on Facebook, chances are I clicked on that "like" button while warming the throne.

The funny thing is that even though I'm a reader, I was never the kind of person who stacked the back of the toilet with books or magazines. That was like advertising that I liked to linger on the pot, reading, and that the books that stayed in there were likely contaminated. I came of age in the Seinfeld era, and I guess I was worried that I'd be shunned like George Costanza was for having a toilet book.  And look, I know it's gross. I know that if I'm holding the phone when I'm using the bathroom, unless I wash the phone when I wash my hands, if I wash my hands (insert evil laugh), then the phone is basically contaminated too. Whatever. That's what bathroom doors are for. You don't necessarily want to know what goes on behind them when they're closed (not that mine usually are).

This morning I was out for a run, and I was listening to the end of Tsh Oxenreider's book Notes from a Blue Bike. She has lots of advice about how to live intentionally in our busy modern world, and toward the end she talked about the importance of time for quiet reflection. She said that good ideas and promptings from God are much more likely to come to her when she has moments when her brain can decompress. With six kids, I don't feel like I get that very often. I like to listen to books when I run, which is the logical alone time, and I usually have an audience when I take a shower. I'm asleep within a minute of my head hitting the pillow pretty much every night. So when I was standing there in the kitchen today, breathing heavy and crossing my legs, I had an epiphany-- I might not be able to carve out large chunks of alone time, and I might not get to go to the bathroom alone every time, but there are times every day when I am alone in the bathroom. And I can give up my frenetic email and Facebook and Instagram checking for the thirty seconds it takes for me to pee.

So if I like fewer status updates or don't "<3 and="" barging="" bathroom.="" because="" been="" does.="" don="" else="" god="" house="" i="" if="" in="" insight="" it="" listening="" m="" me="" mind="" nbsp="" need="" no="" on="" one="" p="" peace.="" pictures="" quickly="" re="" revelation="" s="" speak="" t="" the="" using="" ve="" warned:="" when="" you="" your="">

Book Review: Shannon's Hope by Josi Kilpack

Title: Shannon's Hope (The Newport Ladies Book Club)
Author: Josi Kilpack
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for subject matter

A couple of years ago, several LDS authors got together and decided to write a series of books, each based on a character in a fictional book club in Newport, California. Last year, several of the books where Whitney contenders, and this year we got another batch. In Shannon's Hope, we get a more in-depth look into the life of Shannon, a pharmacist who is a wife, a mother to a son, and a stepmother to a daughter. Her stepdaughter, Keisha, is addicted to drugs, and the family's struggle to help Keisha becomes the central conflict for the story. 

Keisha has been in and out of rehab, has been homeless, and has probably been working on and off as a prostitute when the story opens and Shannon and her husband invite Keisha to live with them. Things seem to go well for a while, but then Keisha's behaviors and lies create a wedge between Shannon and her husband, as well as some of the other people in her life. Shannon seems kind of reluctantly engaged with the book club, but eventually some of the members, particularly her Aunt Ruby, help her see that she can't force someone else to change.

I applaud Kilpack for taking on a challenging topic and for showing how difficult it can be when someone you love struggles with addiction. Ultimately, for me, the book felt more like an after-school special or a Lifetime movie than it would have if it had been more about characters and interactions and less about a subject matter.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book Review: Murphy's Law by Rhys Bowen

Title: Murphy's Law (Molly Murphy #1)
Author: Rhys Bowen
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for threatened sexual assaults

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know I'm a big fan of Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness mysteries. Yes, they're silly, and they can be predicable, and the last one was really, truly awful, but for some reason they're like caramel corn for me. I'm not sure I really like caramel corn, and I'd probably never seek it out as a dessert, but put a bowl of it in front of me and I will gladly inhale the whole thing.

There hasn't been a Her Royal Spyness book out in a while (which is probably a good thing, since it seems like the last one needed a little extra time to simmer), and a few weeks ago I was in need of a Rhys Bowen fix (okay, I lied, sometimes I do make caramel corn when I'm having a craving for it). I knew that Bowen also wrote another series (in fact, it was being widely "recommended for me" ever dang time I opened my Kindle). So score one for you,, because I bought the book.

Murphy's Law is the first in the Molly Murphy series. And if I had to characterize the two series, then Her Royal Spyness would be Ally McBeal, while Molly Murphy would be Private Practice. It's more straightforward, more serious, not nearly as silly. Just before the novel opens, Molly kills a man who is trying to rape her. She manages to escape from Ireland, where she is basically a peasant on this guy's estate, and when she arrives in England, through a serendipitous turn of events, soon finds herself on her way to American in charge of two small children who need to be brought to their father. Once they reach Ellis Island, Murphy witnesses a crime, and once she gets into NYC, she works to solve that crime. I see all sorts of predictable relationships set up in this first novel (the detective she ends up partnering with, for example, will definitely be a love interest). The book wasn't challenging or gritty, but it was a quick, entertaining read, and when I don't have anything on the top of my to-read pile, or I need a bit of escapism, I can definitely see myself turning to other books in this series.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Book Review: Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Title: Some Kind of Fairy Tale
Author: Graham Joyce
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: R for language and sex

Back in the day when I publicized how many books I was reading each year, I used to shy away from buying long books on Audible. They took too long to listen to, which would decrease my numbers for the year. But one thing I've learned is that I like epic stories-- I like the ones that twist and turn and keep me guessing where they're going (or even if they're going somewhere, I'm enjoying the journey). I like stories that are long and detailed, and even kind of weird. I've decided that maybe these books wouldn't mess with my numbers, after all, because they're the kinds of books that keep me listening long after my run is done.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale is the kind of epic story that I love. The story opens on Christmas Day, when Tara Martin shows up on her parents' doorstep after an absence of more than twenty years. At first (if you don't pay attention to the title), it seems like a pretty straightforward story-- Tara was a pregnant teen who had a fight with her boyfriend and was presumed murdered, and when she returns, her family, particularly her older brother Peter, want to fill in the gap of where she'd been. The only problem is that Tara is extremely reluctant to share her story, and to make matters stranger, she doesn't look like she has aged at all in the twenty years she was gone.

What unfolds is a story of family life, the fairy world (which is nothing like most readers would expect), psychological analysis, trust, and belief. I loved the way that Joyce created complex characters, and the way that the side stories ended up being integral to the plot as a whole. Perhaps my favorite interactions were those with her psychiatrist. It's a really fascinating read-- not for kids (despite the title). The fairies are pretty randy! The story definitely kept me listening (and blushing, from time to time).

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Book Review: Added Upon by Nephi Anderson

Title: Added Upon
Author: Nephi Anderson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: G or PG

When our family was investigating the LDS church, one of the first pieces of media we were introduced to was the film Saturday's Warrior, which was based on a play that features a family's journey from the preexistence to after death. I LOVED it (I was fourteen at the time), and I got all sorts of romantic notions about how I had already met my husband in the preexistence and I would recognize him when I saw him.

Apparently, Nephi Anderson's Added Upon was the inspiration for Saturday's Warrior. It follows the story of one man (and a bunch of side stories about other people) from his time in the preexistence (and his premortal attachment to a certain woman), to his time on earth (when he marries that woman), to spirit paradise, the millennium, and eventually eternal judgment.

The book was written in 1898 and is one of the first examples of Mormon fiction. Anderson's life story (born in Norway, a frequent missionary for the LDS church) figures into the novel, which was the first of many he wrote, and the book was popular enough to be in print continually from 1898 until the early 2000s. However, the story is extremely didactic and preachy and Anderson basically goes on giving sermons for page after page at times. Despite the limitations of the story, it's an important book for Mormons, especially from a cultural standpoint.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

Title: The Absolutist
Author: John Boyne
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
This book would be rated: R for language and violence

It's 1919 and Tristan Sadler is one of the few who returned to England after the Great War. He's on a train on his way to Norwich to visit the sister of a a deceased soldier who had been in his training group, and deliver the letters she had written her brother. It becomes evident very quickly that Sadler is uncomfortable about the journey, about how Will died, and about himself. The story alternates between present-day (1919) reminiscences and flashbacks to the times Tristan and Will were together.

Readers quickly pick up on the fact that Tristan feels responsible for Will's death in some way, and that Will died in shame. Boyne keeps readers interested in both figuring out the puzzle of Will's death, and in the story happening in Norwich between Tristan and Will's sister. Clues to Tristan's secret seem fairly obvious in retrospect, but Boyne does an excellent job with his characters, with the pacing, and with creating the world of 1919. I especially enjoyed the final chapters, which took the story into the 1980s and created a plausible explanation for the existence of the novel. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Book Review: The Accidental Marriage by Annette Haws

Title: The Accidental Marriage
Author: Annette Haws
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13

When Nina and Elliot meet for the first time in Edinburgh in the 1970s, the members the branch they attend in Scotland (he's a missionary, she's studying abroad), probably think that they've got more in common with each other than they do with anyone else in their congregation. And on the surface of things, that's true. They're the same age, they're both from Utah, they're both LDS. And that's pretty much where the similarities end. Nina lives in Salt Lake City, probably in Federal Heights or Yalecrest or the Avenues, where her dad is a lawyer, her mom is involved in the country club and fundraising, and church is a good way to make social connections on Sunday. Elliot shares a bedroom in his tiny three-bedroom ranch house in Logan with two of his six younger siblings. His family's life revolves around attending church meetings, holding Family Home Evening, and working together, but not always with a smile.

I'm not giving away any surprises to say that Nina and Elliot fall in love in Scotland and return to Utah, where they quickly see that they don't fit in with their prospective in-laws. However, they're determined to marry, and they also have determination in common, so they're married in quick order. And then, predictably, the whole thing starts to fall apart. Nina hates her job teaching English at a rural high school outside Logan, where the men are inbred misogynists, Elliot doesn't understand why cooking and cleaning doesn't come as naturally to her as it did to her mother. She's secretly thinking about law school; he's secretly wondering if she really has faith in his ability to be the provider of their family. They fight. A lot.

I know the last paragraph probably sounds like I didn't like the book, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I loved it. I loved seeing Mormon culture at work, and seeing the way that people's interpretation of what it means to be Mormon can rub up against other people's interpretations. I loved seeing self-righteousness and hypocrisy at work. I loved seeing Nina resisting the boxes she found herself put in. I'm delighted to see authors who aren't afraid to present the complications of Mormon culture.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review: Band of Sisters: Coming Home by Annette Lyon

Book Review: Band of Sisters: Coming Home
Author: Annette Lyon
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG

I am the first person to admit that my review of Annette Lyon's first Band of Sister's book was not as generous as it could have been (although, for some reason, I can't find it in my archive to link it). I think it's possible that my comment about how the Utah County setting of the novel didn't seem the most natural fit for a novel about military wives was addressed directly in the second book (they were in the National Guard! that's what I get for not reading closely!). But I started this book with what I hoped was an open mind, and I'm happy to report that I found it much more interesting and complex and less sentimental than the first novel.

The books follow the lives of five women whose husbands have been deployed with the same National Guard unit. At the beginning of Coming Home, the men, you guessed it, come home (or at least four of them do, the fifth was tragically killed in the first book). And while the wives are filled with starry-eyed excitement for their husbands' return, they all find that reentry is not as easy as they expected it would be.

One of the things I loved about this novel is watching how all five women grew so much while their husbands were gone, but might not have recognized that growth until they had them back. They learned to rely on themselves, and they almost universally found themselves bristling when they had to answer to someone else on a regular basis. One of the wives is struggling not just with her husband's return, but his retirement, and the way he seems intent on keeping her on a much shorter leash than she's accustomed. Another finds her husband struggling with unemployment and PTSD, a third has trouble trusting her husband with the baby who was born in his absence, a fourth must decide whether or not to leave her husband, who was abusive before he left and continues his abuse when he returns. The fifth, of course, has to adjust to her new life as a permanent single mom to her kids. I liked seeing the very real struggles of these women and felt that Lyon added depth to their characters. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

More is more

A few weeks ago, my kids had a sleepover at their cousins' house. They had a great time, and came home full of things to report. Annie, in particular, had a bone to pick with me:

"Aunt Alison always does such fun things with us when we sleep over. She had all of the ingredients for us to make smoothies and brownies. They made a huge breakfast. They even got Bryce to drink a smoothie. Why don't you do fun stuff like that?'

Ouch. The truth of it hit, and hit hard. Because when my kids' cousins come to sleep over, I figure that everyone is entertained. Since my niece and nephew can't get enough of our babies, sometimes I'm even successful in getting them to watch the little ones, which allows me to do something totally indulgent, like, you know, clean out the coat closet.

When we get together with my sister-in-law and her family, I always end up feeling a little frenzied, a little jealous, and a little bit like I'm not pulling my share. She helps her mom in the kitchen, she goes on walks with Maren. She does the things I'd like to do if I didn't feel stretched so thin. Ed sometimes looks at their family, who can all go to the movies together and who spent three weeks in Europe last summer and says to me, "You know, that life could have been ours."

My brother and his wife, Patience, also have six kids. But when I visited them at their home in Alaska a few years back, I noticed differences between their house and ours: the kids all ate lunch at the same time, and sat at the table for snack time (not the free-for-all snacking that happens here). My sister-in-law knows how to keep things simple. Her kids come home from school and read or jump on the tramp. Part of it is her personality, since I know she'd rather stay home than run around, and part of it, to be sure is geographic, there is no mall or nickelcade for her kids to beg to be taken to. Their home had a sense of calm that is absent in ours, and that I wish I could provide.

When Annie, my second child, was a baby, I was a leader in the Young Women's organization for teenage girls at our church. I was preparing a lesson one Sunday, and a story in the manual really struck me. It was about a girl who was the oldest daughter in a large family and her mom was often overwhelmed (at least they got that part right). I can't remember the details, but the takeaway of the story was that the girl should have been more willing to help out with the little kids instead of hanging out with her friends or doing things that were important to her. Blatant sexism aside, I found myself dying inside a little bit as I read the story and looked at my sweet baby, who would probably one day be the big sister of the house. I promised myself and her that day that she would never have to make sacrifices by being in a large family-- she is not the mother of these kids, I am.

My sisters-in-law both have great lives. They have great kids who are nice and successful and all the good things you'd want kids to be. I also have a great life and, I think, pretty darn good kids. But I feel like I spend a good part of each day with my little ones, refereeing fights and willing the hours to pass smoothly, and the rest of the day running around like a crazy person. Tuesdays, for example, go like this: I go grocery store and swimming lessons with the little ones in the morning. Then I try to get dinner made and laundry done and work on writing projects while they nap (if they nap). When the big kids get home, we have piano practice times four, clarinet practice. I drive to and from the dance studio four times, and to and from church the same. By the time they're all quiet and settled in for the night, I feel like I've been run over by a truck.

I read an article that's been floating around Facebook about why it's really not that hard to have six kids. The author, Julie Cole, talks about things I've seen in my own family (like how her kid with an ASD benefits from having siblings, which is something I've definitely seen play out at our house) but also how her kids are learning to work hard, and she passes clothes down from kid to kid. A lightbulb went off in my head-- I have six kids, but I'm trying (and failing) at raising them like I have two. All four of the older kids have private piano lessons that require daily practice. Bryce also has clarinet lessons, scouts, and church activities. Annie dances upwards of 12 hours a week, Maren puts in three. Isaac also has scouts and basketball. They all play regularly with friends. Heck, even my babies go to swimming lessons and story time and mornings out at the children's museum. And while I welcome the busyness more than the times when I feel idle and tied down, sometimes I feel like I can't even take a deep breath. But I also don't think my kids should have to sacrifice their enriching activities because their parents chose to have a big family.

Ed and I grew up in houses that quite different approaches to work. At his house, the kids' primary responsibility was to do well in school, and then to be successful in extracurricular activities. He got his first paying job after we were married, but he learned hard work every afternoon on the piano bench with his mother. On the other hand, I started working at a softball concession stand when I was eleven, babysat my way through junior high school, and had after-school and summer jobs all throughout high school. Between early morning seminary and AP classes and extracurriculars and waiting tables, I was familiar with going-going-going from before sunup until I fell into an exhausted heap at night.

My kids have chores, but they're pretty easy, and truthfully, often go undone. They don't have to scrub toilets on the weekends like I did as a kid, because we're fortunate to be able to pay someone to do that. My mother-in-law spent every afternoon making sure that her kids got their practice done, but I'm often driving to dance or breaking up toddler fights or carrying Eli around or helping someone study for something while my kids are practicing, and I know it's not the quality it should be. I worry that because hard physical labor isn't expected, and hard mental effort is difficult for me to monitor, it means they won't learn to work hard and won't have the grit they need to be successful.

And I'm stretched too thin. I think I used to be fun and friendly, like Aunt Alison. I thought I'd be a natural at managing a large family, like Aunt Patience. Now I just worry about what needs to be done next. 

So what's the answer? I know that part of it is to be as engaged as possible in the late afternoon, to put away my phone, to stay off the computer. We have family dinner and check in on what is done and what still needs to be. Simplify isn't really part of my vocabulary. But I'm starting to realize that throwing activities and experiences at my kids can't totally make up for the times I'm stretched too thin to help them. I do my best, really I do, but most days I feel like it's not enough.

And I've been writing long enough that Rose and Eli have taken all of the cushions off the couch, covered the bathroom floor with q-tips, toothpaste, and Ritz cracker crumbs, and had at least five "nooooo" screaming matches. But that's life, and I have to run-- it's time for swimming lessons.