Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Advent: General Christmas Interest Books

Our family loves books, and years ago I stumbled upon the idea to wrap up holiday books before the start of advent, and mark the countdown to Christmas by opening up a book each day. We've done this several years now, and it's a tradition that both of my girls love - as soon as they awake in the morning, they are making their selection for the day and tearing into it.

There are some books that I know are only in our home temporarily (especially board books, which will age out as my youngest develops a longer attention span), but I thought it would be fun to share what is currently in our collection. Please feel free to contribute suggestions; there are several titles on my wishlist, and each year I try to add at least one new book to the rotation.

If you are interested in starting your own tradition but don't have many Christmas books on hand and are intimidated by the cost of buying dozens of books, I recommend you collect all year, keeping an eye out at garage sales and library sales (my library is kind enough to have a holiday section, which I go straight to each year). Then I enhance my collection via Amazon (the Amazon links here are affiliate links, meaning that should you make any purchase via these links, Amazon will give me a small percentage, at no additional cost to you).

As our pile is pretty diverse, I'm going to do this in installments. This first (and largest) installment focuses on the general interest Christmas books. Later I'll show you our winter-themed books, our nativity books, and our board books.

Also, one suggestion (that I have yet to implement myself): when you're packing away the books for the year, I suggest taking the time to wrap them then, so you're not rushing yourself once Advent rolls around again (one year I was wrapping some books every few days, as I didn't have enough time to do them all before we began). Otherwise, I'm hoping to sew reusable bags to easily insert them in, so as to save time and eliminate the wrapping paper waste.

Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson
This is a new addition to my library. I'm aware there are other Bear books (including one where he sleeps through winter, Bear Snores On), but they aren't (yet) in our home library.

It's well known that bears hibernate through the winter, so this story shows how hard the bear fights his desire to sleep so that he can celebrate the holiday with his friends.

The Berenstain Bears Meet Santa Bear by Stan and Jan Berenstain
We have quite the collection of Berenstain Bear books, and I try to keep the holiday-themed ones out of circulation until the corresponding holiday is near. This is the Christmas book, where Sister Bear especially struggles with greed.

The Biggest, Most Beautiful Christmas Tree by Amye Rosenberg
We meet forest animals that live in a large evergreen tree. At Christmas time, they grow sad that Santa never fills their stockings or brings them gifts, but they realize they must be hard to find in the middle of the forest. They decorate their tree; Christmas Day arrives, and there are gifts for the first time.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, Pop-Up Edition by Charles M. Schulz
I have fond memories watching this Christmas special every year - in high school, I put the soundtrack on my Christmas list, so that music is in regular rotation during the holidays. As I was tweaking my holiday book offerings for this advent activity, I knew I wanted to include this volume. The pop-up feature charms my girls, and it's regularly in rotation.

A Christmas Carol illustrated by Joe Boddy
The classic Dickens tale is re-imagined with animal characters, although the storyline is unchanged. I've had this book awhile, but it's pretty long, so the girls flip through the pages for the pictures, but they default to shorter variations to be read aloud (a la Mickey's Christmas Carol, detailed later on this page). With Brennan becoming an avid reader, though, this may be the year I get to read it in its entirety.

The Christmas Crocodile by Bonny Becker
This was an accidental discovery for me, found when I was digging through the holiday offerings at the local library book sale. I bought it after only a cursory glance (there's a lot of competition at those sales - no time to linger!), but it has become one of our favorites to read.

A crocodile is delivered as a gift to the family, and they're coming to terms with him eating everything in sight. At the end, there is regret when they learn the gift was delivered to them by mistake. The illustrations are charming, the family members are distinct in their personalities and reactions, and it's just a fun story overall.

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
This book contains highly detailed illustrations and is more serious in nature. The title character is an older man who is sullen and withdrawn. He is a woodcarver. Early on it's revealed that his wife and baby became quite sick and died. He has retreated into himself, and this story details his heart thawing and him finding peace.

The Christmas Tree That Grew by Phyllis Krasilovsky
This story shines a spotlight at how easy it is to live around neighbors but have no interaction with them. We see an apartment building where people kept to themselves. However, one year when the family on the ground floor gets a Christmas tree, it grows at record speeds, forcing them to initiate contact with the neighbors above them. A new community of friends is forged through the experience.

An Early American Christmas by Tomie dePaola
The author sets the scene in New England in the early 1800s around Christmas time, when holiday traditions weren't practiced, and he imagines how a German family moving into town could begin to influence others to begin lighting candles in the windows, decorating trees, and so on.

This is a harder book to come across compared to some of dePaola's other work, but it has his characteristic illustrations and can be a good conversation starter about how (and why) various traditions came to be.

Find the Nutcracker in His Christmas Ballet
This is an interactive book. Think back to the days when you'd pore over the Where's Waldo books, but replace Waldo with the nutcracker, and you have this book. Each page spotlights a part of the ballet with a key of items to find hidden in the pages.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss
I have fond memories watching the video of How the Grinch Stole Christmas every year, so I bought this classic story.

Just Right for Christmas by Birdie Black and Rosalind Beardshaw
This book is reminiscent of Mr Willowby's Christmas Tree, detailed below. A king purchases a bolt of beautiful red cloth and has a cloak made for the princess. The scraps are left outside the castle, where they are discovered by a maid, who makes a jacket out of it for her mother. Then she leaves her scraps out for another, and the generosity continues, each recipient creating a gift from it.

The Legend of the Poinsettia retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
Tomie dePaola has a distinctive illustrating style, one that I'm drawn to. This book tells the traditional Mexican legend of the poinsettia.

There's a beautiful line when Lucida is anxious about attending the Christmas service since she has no gift to offer after her mother becomes ill and cannot finish her woven blanket that was to cover Jesus in the annual procession. An older woman tells her, "Any gift is beautiful because it is given." In this spirit, Lucida gather up tall green weeds nearby, and a transformation happens.

Madeline's Christmas by Ludwig Bemelmans
This book opens on Christmas Eve. Madeline is carrying for everyone, as she is the only one not suffering from a cold.  A knock at the door provides her opportunity to purchase gifts for her peers, and a little magic happens along the way.

Merry Christmas, Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey
A certain curious monkey and the man with the yellow hat go to a tree lot. While there, Curious George has climbed to the top of the perfect tree, only to have it cut down beneath him. He is whisked away to the tree's new home: the children's hospital. George, in an attempt to be helpful, creates some trouble, but as we all have learned to expect, things are smoothed out in the end.

Merry Christmas, Everybody!
Grover keeps turning down various fun winter activities with his Sesame Street friends because he is in a hurry to complete a task. On the last page, his mission is revealed, to much amusement.

Merry Christmas Mom and Dad by Mercer Mayer
We have a relatively extensive collection of Little Critter books. This is a fun book in the Christmas rotation. The earnest words of Little Critter don't exactly match up with the visuals, so my girls giggle over his less-than-helpful antics.

Merry Christmas, Mouse! by Laura Numeroff
This is the mouse of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie fame. It's a numerical book, detailing all of the ornaments Mouse is using to decorate his tree.

The Merry Christmas Mystery by Betty Birney
Winnie the Pooh wakes up on Christmas Day, excited to check his stocking. He's puzzled when he sees thistles instead of honey. As he encounters his friends, they, also, are confused about their gift from Santa. At the end, all is revealed and made right.

Mickey's Christmas Carol: A Little Golden Book
There are several holiday videos that make me very nostalgic. Every Thanksgiving, my maternal grandparents would help transition us to Christmas time; my grandma would bring a toy magazine that we would pore over to give her gift ideas, and my grandpa would pull out a VCR tape of Mickey's Christmas Carol. It was a given that I wanted this book in my collection (we also have a longer version of this story, but the toddler doesn't yet sit through that reading).

The Mole Family's Christmas by Russell Hoban
A mole family is learning about Christmas and Santa for the first time, and they hope to receive a telescope from Santa so they can see the stars (being near-sighted, they've never had that opportunity before).

Mr Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry
When Mr Willowby's Christmas tree is delivered, he is delighted by its size, only to learn it won't fit in the corner. He instructs his butler to chop off the very top. The butler gives that remnant to the maid. The maid adores it, but it's a smidge too tall, so she snips off the top and the gardener ends up with it. On and on it goes, even making its way through the animal kingdom; each new recipient needs to alter the size of the tree, until many are blessed by the offering.

The Muppet Christmas Carol
Clearly there's a theme here - I like to include books whose stories I first knew in movie form. The Muppet Christmas Carol movie is actually one I didn't see until having children (my husband was the one who was familiar with it growing up), but now it's in regular rotation during the Christmas season and I really enjoy it.

The Muppets: The Gift of the Magi
This is at least our third Christmas with this charming advent calendar, and it's a favorite. Many are familiar with O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. This is slightly altered to star Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. When you open the cover of this book, there are 24 little books that break up the story day by day, and each mini book doubles as an ornament. This isn't one of the books we wrap up in our advent pile, but we keep it near our tree and read each daily installment before hanging it up. I suspect our newly blossoming reader will take over the reading duties this Christmas.

Noel by Romeo Muller
If you've ever wondered about the emotions of your Christmas tree ornaments, look no further! This book opens with a glassblower making globe ornaments when he learns he has become a grandfather. A tear of joy falls upon the ornament he was making, embodying that ornament with a special happiness. The rest of the story is from the ornament;s perspective: being purchased, annually decorating the tree, and so on.

Not Enough Beds! A Christmas Alphabet Book by Lisa Bullard
This was another delightful surprise. It's a rhyming alphabet book detailing the troubles fitting a large extended family into one house for the holidays ("Aunt Alison snores in an overstuffed chair, while my young brother Ben stretches out on a stair"). The illustrations are amusing and this has become one of my favorites.

The Nutcracker based on the classic story by E.T.A. Hoffmann
The Nutcracker story was written by Hoffmann, and after its publication, Tchaikovsky was approached to translate it for a ballet; some of the darker elements were softened or eliminated in the production we know today. This book does describe the original story, giving background as to why the nutcracker was ugly and it details his only hope for transforming back into a prince.

It's an interesting read, but if you're looking for an account that will more closely match the ballet, check out something like this Little Golden Book, which we also have. This retelling of the story closely matches the popular ballet. I love the music and the dancing and have been waiting patiently until my oldest daughter was old enough to enjoy the production, and this was the year. After I bought the tickets, I pulled out these two books and we read them both so she would have the story fresh in mind. Just as I'd hoped, she was on the edge of her seat.

The Perfect Christmas Tree by Rita Walsh
This is a small book, both in size and length. It's a simple story about animals mourning their beloved tree having fallen over. They all individually go on a search through the forest to find a new tree, and at the close, they learn they all found the same tree.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a Little Golden Book
Yet another holiday classic.

One thing we sometimes do, after opening a book that also has a movie, is make a point to watch the corresponding show that night (easy to do for something like the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Mickey's Christmas Carol, and A Charlie Brown Christmas, but the movie-length ones usually have to wait for the nearest weekend, what with our oldest in school).

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Book Log: November 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

52) 11/14: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
This was the November read for my book club, and somehow it became my only completed book for the month; although progress was being made in other books, I had some crafting commitments that were chart-heavy, not allowing me to knit and read like I sometimes do. Instead, I made great progress on streaming Gilmore Girls while I knit - I never made it through the series when it originally aired, and I still have my work cut out for me before I can watch the reboot that became available at the end of November.

Anyway, this was a beautiful read. In it, we meet John Ames, an elderly pastor in Gilead, Iowa, who is about to die. His wife is much younger, and they have a seven-year-old son. Ames is writing to his son the account of his life, knowing that he won't be present to let these stories be told in situations where they might organically come up.

Gilead reads as stream of consciousness, but there are themes that resonate throughout: the idea of the prodigal son, the importance of water (especially as it relates to baptism), the Eucharist, small-town life as a blessing or a crutch. It's a book that can't be rushed. I also dog-eared so many pages because there were numerous times I was struck with the beauty of the language.

Take this following line:
There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.
So perfect.

There are stories that made me laugh (the account of what happened after a man was riding a large horse into town), stories that were touching (Ames sharing how he would walk the streets for many years when he couldn't sleep, praying for everyone as he passed their houses), and stories that were complicated (his relationship with his namesake, and that own character's struggles to find meaning and happiness).

I couldn't help but appreciate the skill of Marilynne Robinson. The book is vivid, and it flows so naturally that you could believe it to be an actual letter to a loved one, but it's clear that there's great intentionality that made it seem so effortless. It's easy to understand how it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

In September 2015, The New York Review of Books published a two-piece interview between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson; Obama cites Gilead as one of his favorite books, and he asked to sit down for a conversation with the author during one of his stops to Iowa (here is part one, and at the end of that piece is a link to part two for those who are interested).

The conversation is long, but it's enjoyable to read; here's one excerpt from Obama:
When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I've learned I think I've learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there's still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it's possible to connect with some[one] else even though they're very different from you.
And another that seemed particularly timely given the growing polarization in our society and our most recent election:
Part of the challenge is -- and I see this in our politics -- is a common conversation. It's not so much, I think, that people don't read at all; it's that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they're reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don't have that phenomenon of here's a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.

If you like strong literary works, Gilead is a great piece to pick up, but know that you have to savor it -- this is not a book you can speed through. Yet it's worth the time, and I see myself returning to it again down the road.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Book Log: October 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

47) 10/17: A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller
This was an audiobook listen. I had read Blue Like Jazz early in 2006 (I remember because I brought it along as airport reading when Eric was checking out grad schools). The book had been interesting but nothing special for the first half or so, but it took a turn for the better during our travels. I wasn't sure if it was because airplanes make me more introspective and reflective, but when reading it again in a group setting a couple years later, my experience was the same.

This book of his was closely tied to his experiences after writing Blue Like Jazz. The story follows him working with a couple individuals to make a movie of that book. As they undergo the project and work on the screenplay, he spends a lot of time learning about what makes a good story. And this leads him to reflect on how those same steps can lead to living a better life (thus the subtitle).

I remember once reading an article about a man who had to regularly change his work password. He decided to become intentional about selecting a password, making it be a phrase of a goal he hoped to accomplish. The act of repeatedly typing it in helped it to be on his mind and did, in fact, help him to change in most instances (here's the piece, if you're curious). This came to mind as I listened to Miller's book - with his regular research on what makes a good story, he began to look at his life and see what changes he could make to improve his life.

48) 10/20: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
This was the selection for my neighborhood book group this month. This book was just released last month, but you may recognize the author from Bel Canto. I haven't read any of her other works, but I keep adding various titles to my wishlist as different people rave about them (most recently, State of Wonder and Truth & Beauty have been mentioned favorably, and after hearing excerpts from an essay of hers at the book club, I've now added her book of essays This is the Story of a Happy Marriage to my list).

The story begins at a gathering to celebrate a child's christening and an impulsive act between two adults there. Then we learn a couple years have gone by, and that action led to the dissolution of two marriages and the six children affected regularly cross paths.

The book jumps around in the timeline and we hear from several different characters. I'm always impressed by authors who can get me so invested in a character's storyline, only to jump into similar depth and interest for another character in the following chapter, and Patchett is gifted at this. Without going into specifics, one storyline is very meta.

There's much time spent with the six children, both in their youth and adulthood and as a unit as well as individuals, and since I was one of five siblings, it was interesting to read about each of the book's characters and reflect on the relationships that I and my siblings all have had with each other through the years.

Patchett admits this is an autobiographical novel (excerpt taken from her essay, cited above):

I loved my father, and I wished for him every minute of life that his body could afford him. He did not want to die. Still, after he did, I wrote with an openness I had not previously known. I was 51 years old. I wrote about California and divorce and police officers, second marriages and stepchildren. I wrote about people who were like my family and nothing like my family. It was time to pull down the fences and let my story go wherever it wanted to go. I had been a good daughter, and my father had been a good father. He had helped me in every in every way he knew how. I will miss his advice, even the advice that had irritated me. His death marked my growth as a writer, but if I were able to choose -- the book or my father -- I would have him back.

I delved into reading several interviews with Ann Patchett after I finished, and in one of them I learned she dedicated this book to her stepfather; she had this to say:

The book is dedicated to my stepfather, who was always my champion, always the person who wanted me to be a writer. He was the person who sent me to college. He believed in me unquestioningly from hello. He was also a person who was heavily armed and made a lot of bad choices, but he used to say to me when I was 10 years old, "Someday I'm going to open up one of your books and the dedication is going to say, 'To Mike Glasscock.'"
I could never dedicate a book to him while my father was alive. But my father died, and the first thing I did was dedicate a book to my stepfather. When I got the galleys, I drove to North Carolina and gave one to him, and he just sobbed. You want to know what's good about being a writer? That's what's good about being a writer.

49) 10/23: Chocolat by Joanne Harris
I appear to have become a joiner this year, several of which activities require reading (my neighborhood book club, a couple different book studies, and this event).

There's a local cinema that does monthly Book and a Movie events (they screen a movie made from a book, then there's a brief discussion afterwards). I had been wanting to check it out for months, but this is the first one that worked with my schedule. While reading the book is not a requirement beforehand, I thought it wouldn't hurt (and hey, I like to read).

I had seen this movie years ago, and I had essentially no memory of it. As I read the book, I kept asking myself, "Was this in the movie, too?!" In short, probably not. First I'll cover my impressions of the book, then I'll make a quick statement on the movie.

The book reflects on the search for community and belonging and even what true religion is. There's also a powerful reflection on the importance of staying and facing your fears instead of running away (there's a compelling case made that if you run, you'll never truly face your fears and will forever let them control you and cloud your judgment; if you face them, they're never as powerful as you initially believe).

I found the book much more compelling than the movie. The movie is quite forgettable. The changes made for a less powerful movie, in my estimation. The book is told from two different viewpoints, one the chocolatier and the other the priest. In the movie, while there is a priest, the antagonist is switched to the role of mayor, and much was sacrificed by this decision. Plus, altering the timeline of events led to a less cohesive whole. And the relationships Vianne the chocolatier built steadily with the townspeople in the book weren't as clearly conveyed on the screen.

50) 10/31: Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt

This was a pleasant read, but nothing spectacular...at first. Much in the vein of Dear Mr Henshaw and other young adult epistolary books, the protagonist doesn't even really need a response from the recipient - the act of writing helps them develop and mature, both in their technique and in life. As someone who processes by writing, these types of books resonate with me. I appreciated reading Tate's letters, but it wasn't until the climax that I was bowled over. I didn't see it coming and it added a new depth to the book (maybe others would be more astute). I had read this on my Kindle, so I was able to do a couple word searches once finished to better appreciate how the author pulled it off.

I taught a year of seventh-grade English forever ago, and I was reflecting on how much fun this book would be to discuss when students finished it, were I still teaching. The payoff is at the end, although it's no chore to read up until the twist.

51) 10/31: Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This is the Book and a Movie selection for November - I've learned these books are in high demand at the library, so as soon as I heard of the decision, I was able to nab a copy before the holds list was created, even as I don't yet know if I will be able to attend.

I started reading this book shortly after it was published in 2009, and I actually got about halfway through it before I set it aside because it seemed a little too real and depressing; the protagonist develops early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, and we follow her through the diagnosis and her steadily decreasing mental acuity.

The author did her research and clearly conveyed how Alzheimer's can present. The perspective plays out in a clever way - Alice may not realize what she's doing, but we grow anxious as we understand what's truly happening. I was able to detach my emotions more this go-around, but diseases that affect the brain seem especially heartbreaking for all involved, and the reactions of her family are certainly believable.

There's an account in the book that resonated with me; this is after informing her colleagues of her diagnosis and her need to step aside from teaching responsibilities and travel demands, and what followed after their expressions of regret that she is suffering with Alzheimer's:

Then they left her alone as quickly as possible. They were politely kind to her when they ran into her, but they didn't run into her very often. This was largely because of their busy schedules and Alice's now rather empty one. But a not so insignificant reason was because they chose not to. Facing her meant facing her mental frailty and the unavoidable thought that, in the blink of an eye, it could happen to them. Facing her was scary. So for the most part, except for meetings and seminars, they didn't.

This stood out to me as accurately conveying the natural responses for many when faced with grief. I can so easily call to mind the early days of returning to work after losing Katherine. My boss insisted I start with three half days, knowing better than I how emotionally draining it would be. The department was large and I knew many of the members of it, so when I returned, the days were a blend of resuming work responsibilities as well as frequent tears as others shared their condolences and hugs. Yet there were some that were caught off guard with my return and didn't know how to talk or act around me. I didn't hold it against them, but it was telling to see some quickly turn around in the hall to avoid crossing paths, or act very stilted and forced, ignoring the elephant in the room and trying to leave as soon as possible. Those were not frequent occurrences, but it cemented in me how important it is to acknowledge loss instead of dancing around the obvious.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Book Log: September 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

41) 9/4: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
This was the September selection for my book club. Initially it was chosen to meet the "thriller" requirement. While this book was engaging to read, I wouldn't call it a thriller, even though it's classified as such; that wasn't exactly a disappointment to me, though.

The premise, disclosed very early on, is that a private plane crashes, and there are only two survivors - a painter, unexpectedly on the plane, and a young boy.

As there is uncertainty surrounding why the plane crashed, the rest of the book is filled with flashbacks for each of the individuals on the plane, building up to the crash, as well as following the painter in the present day as he faces much speculation in the media (ah, too true, as we regularly see media fixate on tragedies beyond what seems appropriate or meaningful).

The four-year-old boy who survives stops talking after the crash (although he will open up to Scott, as the two of them forged a strong bond because of the rescue). I appreciated reflecting on this excerpt from Scott, the painter who saved the boy's life, as to why he believes the boy has shut down verbally after losing his entire family:
"The day I sobered up, I stopped talking," he says. "What was there to say? You need hope to form a thought. It takes -- I don't know -- optimism to speak, to engage in conversation. Because, really, what's the point of all this communicating? What difference does it really make what we say to each other? Or what we do, for that matter?"
This made me pause, as it feels like there's a lot of truth to this. I can even channel my hormonal teenage self, wallowing in self pity about whatever issue - those were the times I went silent. When I talk with friends or loved ones, even if it's about something inconsequential, I share because I have the belief that they are interested. Even in times when I've struggled coming to terms with the loss of my brother or my daughter, I could still find those special souls to open up to or turn to writing down my thoughts. Subconsciously, there must have been some hope that these things wouldn't always hold me down and control every moment, that I would find peace and contentment again, even joy.

All that to say, the quotation above isn't an epiphany that was pivotal in the book - it's glossed over, but I appreciated it all the same as I paused to consider it.

Now back to my overall impressions. It was no surprise to learn the author has worked on screenplays and television show scripts - the movie rights have already been secured. The book is engaging, and much as a television series (and/or a movie) has individual episodes/scenes that keep interest and move the plot forward, steadily building to the overarching culmination, so the book is structured to intentionally reveal some information while still keeping the cards close until the final moments, when it all comes together. My library had such interest in this title that they limited checkouts to only 7 days to try to get it in as many hands as quickly as possible. It's a fun read, but I don't anticipate it having staying power -- it's a blip, but an entertaining one.

42) 9/11: The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
My toddler and I went to Iowa for a short weekend in order to attend a reception for my youngest sister and her husband and daughter while they were all here visiting from the Czech Republic. I wanted something to entertain me during the drive, so I checked out this audiobook.

First off, the reader was exceptional. Second, the premise was interesting: a man imprisoned for murdering a girl serves his sentence without complaint, only released at the end to hospice, as he is dying from cancer. The protagonist has to write someone's biography for his college class, and he ends up paired with this dying man.

There were times I had trouble suspending my disbelief. For starters, who gets to college without knowing what an opening statement is in a trial, especially with the types of shows so often on the air these days? And there were other scenes that happened because a character jumps to a false conclusion and acts unwisely. All the same, it kept me engaged while driving, so I'll give it a pass. After all, nothing exciting happens if protagonists make wise decisions all the time ("When I learned this pivotal detail, I called the police and they took care of it, apprehending the bad guy with absolutely no drama. The End").

The title was apt - I found myself reflecting on the power of secrets to control our lives as we learn about the secrets kept by the various characters and how they have dictated their life decisions. We try to hide the parts of ourselves that cripple and control us; the darkness whispers to us that our failings make us shameful, that we would be viewed differently by loved ones if only they knew, that they wouldn't care for us the same way were they to truly saw us as we are. Kept inside, they can consume us. There is power in releasing these secrets to the world, taking back the control and realizing that we all struggle, we all fail, but in sharing our stories, we are stronger. [Sidenote: Brene Brown articulates these ideas so well in Rising Strong (reviewed in my March book log).]

43) 9/14: Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair by Anne Lamott
Here was another audiobook selection, listened to while cooking, baking and cleaning. I've been wanting to read Anne Lamott for a while now, and this text is a short one, only running a couple hours long in audio format.

I don't have a lot to say (some of the issue may be my distraction while multitasking), but what really touched me was the story of the two boys, the wildfire, and the town's response.

And I jotted down this gem as well:
The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in the wind and stay warm?
44) 9/20: Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy
In high school, I had a friend who was an exceptional singer. Truly a natural, with a wide range. Beginning as a freshman, she was regularly cast in lead roles for school productions. We were all in awe of her voice. Once in a while, she would come down with a cold, compromising her natural ability. She would attempt to sing a scale, and shake her head, disappointed with the results. Those of us who heard her, though, would scoff at her -- we told her she sounded better than us on her off days than we sounded on our best.

So now let's turn to Minding Frankie and find out why my singing friend would come to mind.

I would suggest that, while Binchy is a talented author with a skill for developing various characters and interwoven storylines, this book is akin to what was produced while having a cold. There seemed to be more characters than normal; I mostly appreciated the various story lines, but I often had to pause when transitioning to remind myself who we were now following; surely one or two could have been eliminated. I'd read what I thought was the denouement, only to be surprised to learn the book wasn't wrapped up yet. I expected a more explicit epilogue for the character that plagued me most (and yes, this tedious character might have soured my enjoyment of the storyline).

All that to say, there's something relaxing about reading a book by Maeve Binchy, so while it wasn't her strongest work, it's still better than most.

We have characters who are foils of other characters, which naturally led to comparisons of how we balance responsibility and expectations of those around us and the need for meaningful human connection.

There are plenty of questions to wrestle with in this book: What should you do when you can provide help, but doing so might sacrifice too much of yourself? How can you come alongside and encourage them to face the struggle to see if they can rise to the challenge? How do you instill confidence in those who haven't demonstrated that they are reliable? How do you find the internal strength to stop being manipulated and recognize the situation as it truly is, and to bloom in spite of the struggles? When and how do you step back and admit when you've gone too far?

45) 9/21: The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
My older sister Heather loaned me a book of Jane Hamilton's that she had read and thought I'd really enjoy. Those of you who have read even a small sampling of these book logs will notice that I default to reading e-books (they're so portable! I can read on my Paperwhite in the dark!), so you won't be surprised that I've shamefully neglected the loaned copy of The Book of Ruth. However, when I discovered that Jane Hamilton was going to be in town at a local bookstore, I put the event on my calendar.

The author was here to discuss her newest book, The Excellent Lombards. I thought it was perfect timing to pick up a signed copy for my sister's birthday.

I should note that I lost most of the month of August to a brutal sinus infection, and this book talk fell after a couple long days early on when I thought it was still a rough cold (PBS Kids was helping to raise my children for two days while I napped on the couch nearby, leading my older daughter to say, "Mom, I love when you're sick -- we get to watch SO MUCH TV!" You're welcome, kid).

Anyway. Under the false assumption that I had just turned the corner of my illness, I set out for the reading. I loved the Q&A with the author. The commentator had done her homework and asked interesting questions. I was out of my element, insofar as I hadn't yet read the book as many had and was clearly the youngest in the audience (come on, millennials, we can do better than this), and I'd even forgotten my trusty mindless knitting project, but I found Jane Hamilton engaging. She was so comfortable in her skin and, unlike other stilted readings that some authors do of their own work, Jane Hamilton had no difficulty capturing interest when reading an excerpt.

I queued up to get a book signed afterwards, sucking down lozenges so that I might have opportunity to complete an entire sentence before Jane Hamilton drew back in horror, fearing my potentially infectious state. She seemed ready to chat with me ("You're the youngest one here! How do you know about me? Where did you grow up?"), but I tried to keep it brief, knowing that the previous attendee had monopolized a fair bit of time and there were plenty more behind me.

Here's what I communicated: My older sister had initially recommended a book of hers to me (I left out the part where I hadn't yet read it). I continued to explain that when I was younger, I once gifted my older sister a book at Christmas. There happened to be a bookmark inside when she opened it. And then I did the sort of thing that only a sister would dare do...I asked if I could have it back for a little while, as that bookmark was actually marking my place. It took a moment for Heather to realize I was totally serious, and I have no doubt she was miffed at me.

I asked if Jane Hamilton could sign something like, "To Heather - Please forgive your sister for selfishly reading this book before you, yet again."

Jane Hamilton was amused and began to write. Here is what she wrote:

"For the most excellent Heather--
who is forgiven by the sister..."

Oops. She had already gotten everything switched around backwards, but it seemed ridiculous to point out Jane's error and be forced to buy TWO copies of a book so that it could be straightened out. And there was the pressing matter of the long queue behind me. So when she said, "Is this okay?", I played along, gratefully affirming the inscription, all the while wondering how to explain this to Heather.

So this is my solution. I trust Heather will get a kick out of having a signed copy of a book that suggests there has been this spat between us that is now finally forgiven, now that I have graciously forgiven HER, when truly it is I who should be begging forgiveness.

So did I read it? Indeed. Her birthday gift was delayed a couple weeks so that I could accomplish the task, but by the time you read this, the book will be happily ensconced in Heather's hands.

The Excellent Lombards has a lot of crossover to Jane Hamilton's own life (the protagonist is reminiscent of her daughter, and Jane does live on a Wisconsin apple orchard that her husband tends). The story centers around the family apple orchard and wrestles with issues of who gets to stay and who gets to leave (or, perhaps, who should stay and who should leave).

This coming-of-age piece was easy to read, and the last few chapters I finished while listening to the audiobook (I'd placed it on hold at my library once I heard of the book reading, but my copy didn't come up until recently). I wished I had avoided the audiobook - the reader has a range of voices, but after hearing Jane Hamilton read some of it, the substitute grated on me, being so different from Jane's. That likely colored my perception of the last few chapters, but I don't regret having picked up the copy to read...as long as Heather sees fit to forgive me for my blatant disregard of protocol.

46) 9/30: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
I first read this book in high school. I returned to it as it was a selected text on the CraftLit podcast. As such, my listening was spread out over months, often while multitasking with knitting, cleaning, or food prep, which means there's strong muscle memory ("Hey, when I last mowed, this is what was going on in the story..."), but it also means my attention can be distracted.

When I first encountered this book, Newland Archer annoyed me, and that impression still remained. We see a society where things are rarely spoken outright, and people fall in line so as not to rock the boat, but in enters Countess Olenska, a family member who has left a bad marriage and intends to start over. Her unconventional life and her refusal to regret her decision make her a difficult read for the family. There's melancholy, regret, and wrestling with expectations and societal conventions throughout.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Book Log: August 2016

My youngest sister has been doing an annual post of books completed, and I always enjoy looking through it. I do keep a log of my finished books, so I thought cataloging my completed books at the close of every month would be a good way to dust off this blog and encourage me to jot down a few lines -- or a few paragraphs -- with my impressions (a compiled list will appear at the close of the year). I don't like spoilers, so while I put some initial thoughts after each title, when possible I'm purposely vague regarding plot specifics so as not to dissuade any of you from reading them.

The included Amazon links are affiliate links; many of these titles I check out from the library or already own, but should you be inclined to purchase one, these links only mean Amazon will give me a small percentage of the cost, at no additional expense to you.

38) 8/8: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Confession: I had requested several books through interlibrary loan since my library didn't own copies. Just my luck, three came in all at once, while I was also trying to finish a couple other books with nearing due dates and long wait lists. While I had every intention of reading them in the order that they were due (three consecutive dates), I began to realize I would have to triage. Alas, Sarah Bessey's books got the boot and this took precedence (I still hope to return to Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts down the road, though).

As you learned in my June book log, Nadia struck a chord with me. Her writing style flows easily (although her language can be a bit salty, so if that will be a huge distraction for you, perhaps it's better to pass). This book is a powerful memoir of how this woman found herself a tattooed pastor of a Lutheran church. She also highlights different members of her congregation, being frank with her misgivings and judgmental attitudes and how she has been transformed by being sensitive and willing to admit her failures; through this, we see growth in the midst of her vulnerability.

I love stories like this. Here we see Nadia having emerged from addition, finding meaning and purpose, and turning around to reach out to other misfits. In her church, she creates an environment where those who are struggling to find a place where they are welcome and not judged are entering and finding community.

39) 8/20: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
This was chosen as the selection for my neighborhood book club to fulfill the classics category.

I've read Age of Innocence a couple times, so I was interested in seeing how this one would compare. Wharton likes taking on high society and examining the behavior of those members.

This book centers on Lily Bart. She is a sympathetic character to a point, insofar as we learn she is an orphan whose mother has only trained her to capitalize on her beauty - Lily has no skills or use outside of being desirable. However, while she needs to marry well in order to maintain her preferred manner of living, subconsciously she appears to be self-sabotaging relationships just when success seems imminent. We get to witness Lily's motivations and see what she's made of. This book is an interesting character study, and it led to good conversations when we met to discuss it.

40) 8/29: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This book was so tough to read, in the sense that it reveals the gritty underside of cities and I'm trying to figure out what to do now - how to process all this information and have it lead to action, in whatever small way. It's enlightening and I highly recommend it. I'll try to flesh it out more, but I'm still processing, so forgive me if it seems jumbled.

The author uses Milwaukee as an Every City, of sorts. With that city as his lens to the greater issues across the country, Desmond reveals how evictions play a huge role in the lives of lower income individuals and families.

That might make it sound dry and clinical, and while the author is a researcher with over 50 pages of notes, you get invested in individual stories. We follow several different individuals/families facing evictions as well as two different landlords interacting with and evicting various tenants. We learn what has led to the evictions, the sorts of places they're being forced to rent - properties that can have serious issues but which are essentially equivalent in rent to better kept places in other parts of town - the percentage of their income dedicated to rent, how drastically the likelihood of eviction goes up if there are children or if someone reports domestic assault, how your race and sex increase the chances of eviction as well:
"If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out."
It's not surprising to see how evictions can lead other areas of your life to spiral out of control. If you're consumed with juggling an eviction, you might be more distracted on the job as you contest it or worry about what the future holds, or you might miss more work trying to find another place. Relocating farther away can lead to additional problems, especially if your transportation is unreliable. Then you lose your job, which means you lose your next home -- it's a downward spiral. While you're homeless or transitioning between places, you may also be paying high rates for your possessions in storage, only to have to weigh keeping ownership over your few belongings or making a rent or utility payment.

The book is written in third person, and as I was reading, I kept wondering how he gained access. He does answer this in the follow-up information, but I will allow you to remain in the dark until you read it for yourself.

You may recall how struck I was by Just Mercy (review in my May book log). One difference this book has is that, while Just Mercy reveals injustice, there is also hope in the accounts of some people who were released after being shown to have been wrongly convicted or finding justice when it's discovered they received harsh sentences that didn't line up with their crime; we see changes in the courts that should lessen future disparity. This book isn't as uplifting at the end, although Desmond does offer some possible solutions. And that's what this is - a rallying cry. Desmond is bringing attention to how serious evictions are, how important home security is to so many areas of our lives. He makes a strong, convicting case for universal housing vouchers, as well as other possible solutions. It's worth a read -- I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A List: Podcast Recommendations

I first discovered podcasts in the summer of 2005; the term showed up as a category in iTunes after an update, so I looked into it, intrigued by the option of downloading some favorite programs onto my iPod for free. I loaded some up before I tagged along with Eric for his three-week seminar in Boulder, Colorado, and I listened on the airplane and as I explored Boulder on foot while Eric was in class.

Since then, my podcast list has evolved, but I continue to listen while driving (now that I can plug into my car's speakers via USB or Bluetooth), exercising, gardening, cleaning, or while enjoying a quiet night of knitting or sewing.

I find myself with a mental list of favorites that I share when the topic comes up, and a friend asked if I would do a post on them. As it will be handy to link to this when someone next asks for a referral, I was happy to comply.

A disclaimer: I opt for things that will entertain more than edify me (I am trying to keep interest up while undergoing mundane tasks; I'm more likely to seek edification when reading, as heady podcasts can be hard to digest when I'm partly distracted with the task at hand).

With that note, there are two general themes that these podcasts can fall into: 1) literary, and 2) personal narratives. This is no surprise for those of you who know me. I was an English major (and briefly an English teacher), and as can be seen by my book log, I still enjoy losing myself in books. Also, it's not unusual for people to open up to me, disclosing secrets and struggles; I believe facing those things can help us to learn about ourselves and grow, and hearing personal insights on podcasts helps me to appreciate the universal struggles we face. If these themes don't interest you, my podcast recommendations will fall flat for you.

I've linked to the specific websites below, but the easiest way I have found to listen is to subscribe to the audio feeds via iTunes (if you have an Apple device) or Podcast Republic (for Android).

LITERARY PODCASTS in alphabetical order
CraftLit A former Enough teacher talks about what crafts she's working on, then helps listeners through a book - she chooses open domain texts so she can talk shop, then she plays the audio, either from Librovox or by enlisting some talented listeners to read; at one time she had a feed called Just the Books for those who liked literary and not crafty talk, but she couldn't keep up with both feeds; if you don't want the crafty talk but are still interested in the books, there's apparently a time stamp somewhere on the CraftLit feed so you can skip straight to the book. I appreciate this podcast because, although I was an English teacher, I didn't feel the most adept at helping students reflect on the important points. Heather Ordover switches between short stories and longer works, including Pride and Prejudice, North and South, The Count of Monte Cristo, Age of Innocence, A Tale of Two Cities, and much more.

New Yorker: Fiction In this monthly podcast, the fiction editor invites a contributor to read one of their favorite fiction pieces from the magazine's archives (not their own work), and they discuss its significance together. This can be more uneven, both in reading performance and selection, but I like more than I dislike, so I mention it here as a nice second-tier pick.

Selected Shorts If you appreciate short stories, check this one out. The creators understand authors are not always the best at reading their own work, so they get actors to perform them at public performances. Each episode centers on a specific theme.

Modern Love This is a newer podcast where actors read essays from The New York Times column of the same name. Then they interview the author of the piece to learn more. The submissions focus on some aspect of love, whether that of amorous love, parental love, or somewhere in between. This is a second-tier podcast of mine; something I'll listen to if I'm caught up with my favorites, but not an immediate download for me.

    The Moth This has become my favorite podcast. The podcasts fall into two categories: the Moth Radio Hour, where individuals have worked with coaches to polish a personal story in their lives that they will deliver without notes, and Story Slam favorites, where attendees throw their name in a hat if they want a chance to come on stage and share a five-minute story that meets that night's theme. They run the gamut of emotions, and I've been brought to tears when listening to stories. And it just reinforces my belief that everyone is so fascinating -- one of the first stories I heard was a doctor in the USA getting a call out of the blue to treat Mother Teresa (as you do).

    Radio Diaries Here's another new one for me,
    so it's relatively untested. Individuals are given tape recorders and editors put together a segment; the one I listened to was a segment from a Saudi girl who had recorded for two years, and This American Life has used episode segments in a couple of their shows.

    Reply All Here's a second-tier one for me. I believe Ira Glass (from This American Life) brought it to my attention, or used one of these segments in one of their shows. It's a similar vein to This American Life, where a story is explored in more depth, but it's more hit or miss as far as my interest is concerned and not as long.

     Serial  This podcast went viral last year when it debuted. Sarah Koenig, from This American Life -- sense a theme here? -- left the show to explore stories in more depth. In Serial, an entire season is spent on one story. The first season was about Adnan Syed, convicted of murder, although there were many questions throughout the investigation and trial. It's fascinating. There is a second season as well, but I can't speak to that one yet; I'm a couple episodes in and I'm undecided - it's nowhere near as gripping as the first season.
      StoryCorps I'm woefully behind on these, which is silly given they're relatively short, but I do enjoy them all the same. They take place in a recording booth where individuals are invited to come and share a story, and selections from some of those stories are aired -- you might have a couple family members or close friends interview each other, or you might have two near strangers come together to reflect on a pivotal moment when their lives crossed (for instance, one story had a bank robber, who served time for the robbery, interviewing someone who had been in the bank at the time). These can also bring me to tears, as people tend to dwell on monumental moments in their lives (one that stuck with me was from a doctor sharing about a family whose child died while waiting for an organ donor; the family then chose to donate their child's healthy organs so as to spare another family the grief of losing a child, and there are many moving accounts).

      This American Life In the world of podcasts/radio programs, this is one of the best in my estimation, and from my list above, it's clear they've inspired or spun-off several other programs. Each episode focuses on a single theme, with stories that fit the theme 
      (sometimes one story is consuming enough to fill an entire show, like one fascinating episode about a woman learning she had been switched at birth). They are so good at tying everything together and keeping interest, no matter the topic. It's one of my favorites (vying for first with The Moth). 

        So there you go, my current list (minus some recent recommendations that I haven't had opportunity to listen to yet). What are you listening to? Any recommendations that I should check out, even if they don't fall into the above categories?