Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Books of 2014

The book count for this year was 45.  Less than my goal of 52, but I'm ok with it.  Because a)  most of the 45 I really enjoyed and b) I decided to add needlework back into my life just as I did with books a few years ago and I actually did stitch a few things. So yay me again!  I reread the entire Outlander series (which includes reading Book #8 twice, once when it first came out and then again at the end of the reread) to console myself for not having cable and seeing the physical manifestation of Book #1 onto the screen.   I still haven't decided whether cable is worth it, because DVDs have to be coming at some point, right?  And the books are always better, right?  Anyway.

These are the books that got 5 stars from me in 2014.

  • Journey by Aaron Becker.  I loved the illustrations in this children's book and the clever girl who uses her imagination and determination to create her own destiny and find friendship along the way.
  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.  This book stayed with me for a long time.  Lou Clark likes knowing what comes next.  She leads a relatively unexciting, safe life and she likes that just fine.  Will Traynor used to live an exciting, dangerous life and he liked that just fine.  He doesn't like the life he leads now as a quadriplegic.  When Lou takes a job as Will's caregiver, both their lives are turned upside down.  They push each other forward in unexpected ways.  This book got me thinking a lot about the boxes we put ourselves -- and others -- in.  Can we grow out of our boxes?  Do we want to?  What happens when we want to stay in our box and someone else wants us to come out?  
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  It would be fun if there really was a bookstore like Mr. Penumbra's.  Clay Jannon takes a job working the night shift at the bookstore after having been laid off from his web-design job.  The comings and goings of a lot of strange customers who never actually buy anything convinces Clay that there's got to be something else going on besides books.  And there is.  What follows is an adventure that is a lot of fun.  I loved the mystery and trying to figure it all out.
  • The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.  I loved this modern-day fairy tale.  Because I've lived in Alaska I understood both the loneliness the main characters feel and the exhilaration of living in such a wondrous place.  Jack and Mabel are homesteaders in 1920.  They are losing their way, both from the burden of trying to eke out a living in a harsh environment and from the sadness of not having children of their own.  In a moment of fun, they build a child out of snow.  The next morning they see a little girl running through the trees.  Faina hunts with a red fox at her side and seems to be part of the landscape.  Somehow she survives alone in the Alaskan wilderness.  Is she real or a figment of their imagination?

  • Little Bee by Chris Cleve.  Another book that stayed with me long after I finished it.  Little Bee is a Nigerian orphan whose fate is inexplicably tied to a well-off British couple, both journalists.  From Little Bee's perspective, our world is confusing and inexplicable just as hers is for Sarah, Andrew and their son Charlie.  And yet somehow they form a bond that is stronger than they expected.   I can't tell too much without giving it all away and the beauty of this book is its ability to surprise and yes, shock you.  It makes you think.  About your place in the world and who decides who gets what place and what advantage?  What is our obligation to others in the global community?  What is our obligation to ourselves and our families?  What makes a family?  
  • Written in My Own Heart's Blood by Diana Gabaldon.  My overwhelming feeling on finishing this book was "oh good, the story is not over yet!"  Even though it takes Gabaldon upwards of four years to write the next installment of Jamie & Claire Fraser's saga, I will wait patiently.  And if that patience wears thin, I will just go back to the beginning and enjoy the eight books there are so far again.  This book finds Jamie & Claire embroiled in the start of the American Revolution and all the attendant troubles that brings.  But at least they can take comfort  that their daughter Brianna and her family are safe in 20th century Scotland.  In reality, young Jemmy has been kidnapped and while Brianna searches for him in the present, Roger has gone back through the stones searching for him in the past.  And in true Gabaldon style, the ending only leaves you wanting more.  
  • The Sea House by Elizabeth Gifford.  Books that tell parallel stories from two time periods are among my favorites.  In 1860, Alexander Ferguson takes a post as the vicar of a parish on the remote Scottish island  of Harris.  He is an amateur evolutionary scientist and hopes to uncover the truth about the local tales of selkies (merdmaids or seal people).  In present day, Ruth and Michael buy a dilapidated home on the island and begin to renovate it with hopes of starting their own family soon.  The discovery of the bones of a tiny child buried underneath the house raise all kinds of questions.  The child's legs are fused together.  Is it a mermaid?  To move forward, Ruth must find the truth about the past and in so doing deals with her own past as well.  
  • Dear Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay.  Samantha Moore relates to literary characters more than those in her life.  When it is hard to make conversation, she quotes her beloved Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte heroines.  When an anonymous benefactor calling himself "Mr. Knightly" offers to put Sam through the prestigious Medill School of Journalism, she is afraid to accept and more afraid not to accept.  There is only one condition: Sam must write frequent letters to her benefactor.  At first the letters are short and to the point, but as time goes on Sam finds Mr. Knightly's anonymity allows her to share more personal information, which in turn gives her the courage to open up in real life.  The letters allow her to come to terms with her past and move forward into the future.  But how will she cope without letters to Mr. Knightly once she graduates from her program? 

New goal for 2015?  To read the Book Club books in the month we're supposed to :-D

Monday, March 17, 2014

12 Things About You at Age Twelve

I know I say it every year, but 12?  How did that happen?

  1. You started taking archery lessons and you really really really like it.  The instructor really makes it fun by attaching things to the targets - dollar bills, balloons, turkeys at Thanksgiving, and everyone's favorite, apples. 
  2. It cracks me up that you walk around with a sword down the back of your shirt.  And there is another one by your bed.  Because as everyone knows, ork attacks, ninja surprises, and dragon raids could happen at any moment.
  3. When you get sick, even if it is a relatively minor illness, it hits you hard and it takes a long time for you to recover.  You do not like taking medicine.  You have to be cajoled and have a glass of water to hand and I keep having to tell you to take all of it.  I hate it when you're sick.
  4. You like to watch cooking shows and you're interested in how ingredients go together and want to make up your own recipes.  You thought Home & Careers would be boring this year but you are having a lot of fun in that class cooking and learning to use the sewing machine.  You made a fabulous pillow.
  5. You've got a knack for languages.  You wish school offered Norwegian, but had to settle for Spanish, which you are picking up fast.  We also have a calendar with a phrase in Latin for each day, which I put in your lunch box.
  6. You spend a lot of time on the computer.  Minecraft and other games, yes.  But you watch YouTube videos on how to construct things and music videos and movies too.
  7. You are interested in blacksmithing and wood carving and sword kata don't understand at all why all the lessons we have been able to find (if we can find them) state that you must be 14 or 18.  You feel you are totally capable of it and think all this liability/insurance/maturity argument is hooey.
  8. You came home one day and said you tried out for All County Chorus.  4000 kids try out!  You won a spot representing your school and will perform at the symphony hall in March.  We're all pretty excited and proud of you!  You are not even complaining (much) about getting up early for extra rehearsals.
  9. You are campaigning for a hedgehog.  They are only $200.  They are so cute!  You can teach them to do tricks!  And they are so cute! They are not expensive to take care of!  And they are so cute! They eat cat food!  And they are so cute!
  10. You are interested in architecture too.  You draw a lot of buildings and think about how they should be designed to be energy efficient.  You came up with a circular garage which is brilliant and I think we need to build right now.
  11. You have discovered Pinterest and are pinning and sending me pictures of dragons, gardens, cakes and things you'd like for your room.
  12. You have a renewed interest in your Magic cards.

  1. You have been trying a lot of new foods lately.  Tacos, gummy lifesavers, cookies, asparagus, green beans... You don't like all of them, but at least you are willing to give it a try.
  2. You still love hats!  Your current favorite is a top hat with a plaid ribbon and some felt holly that N gave you for Christmas.
  3. Continuing in the opposite-of-your-brother vein, you almost never get sick.  But when you tell me something hurts, like an ear, then I know it really hurts.  You've probably had antibiotics 3 or 4 times in your life, and that's including your heart surgery.  You're usually back to your old self in 24 hours, 48 at the most.  You used the iPad to tell the doctor "I'm grumpy! My ear hurts!  Give me medicine!"  You don't complain about taking medicine, you just do it.
  4. Since bunnies came to live in our yard last summer, you are all about the bunnies.  You look for their tracks in the snow, you want to leave carrots in the yard and you are always pretending to be a bunny and hopping around.
  5. You are doing a really great job brushing your teeth and getting dressed by yourself.  I might have to adjust your socks a bit and occasionally something is backwards, but in the mornings you get ready for school on your own and in the evenings you get ready for bed on your own.
  6. You like to take pictures.  Lots of pictures.  Last time I synced the iPad it had 20,000 pictures on it.  (yes, you read that right).  You use your camera, my camera, the iPad, your brother's iPod, my phone, if it takes pictures you are using it.  Mostly they are pictures of your friends on the tv - the Wiggles, Dorothy and everyone in Oz, Snoopy, etc.  But you also take these still lifes - the shelves in the refrigerator, the bathroom counter, the coffee cups on the table, the clothes in the hamper, the contents of your backpack, the insides of a drawer.  And sometimes I find one of your brother (see above) or Daddy or me that I didn't even know you took.  I love these little insights into what is important to you and unusual snapshots of our daily life.
  7. You are very happy when K comes back to Buffalo to visit and you grudgingly accept that baby she keeps bringing with her. You are equally happy that J is back in town and comes to spend time with you.  You were a little bit mean to him at first until you realized he was staying.
  8. This winter you have actually wanted to go out to play in the snow!  You put on snowpants and boots and gloves and a winter hat and a scarf and you actually yelled at the other kids to hurry up and come on!  
  9. It takes you an hour to eat a bowl of soup because you don't really scoop enough onto your spoon.  But if you're happy to sit there for that long, who am I to argue?  You even used chopsticks to eat the noodles after watching your brother do it.  You got some too!
  10. Swimming is still your best thing!  Coach Snoopy is really proud of your progress!  You are participating in your first swim meet in March.
  11. You love the iPad and the fact that you can carry it around with you.  You can swipe with the best of them and watching Netflix from any room in the house is the coolest thing ever.
  12. I love that when you are eating spaghetti or something you really like, you close your eyes and smile beatifically.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

How to Navigate the First Circle of Hell

Also known as Middle School Pickup

  • Dismissal is at 3:35, but do not make the mistake of thinking you can pull up to the school at 3:35.  No, no, no, no, no, my newbie friend.  Therein lies folly and the interminable waiting through 6 cycles of traffic light just to be allowed into the school driveway.
  • An acceptable time to arrive is between 3:05 and 3:15.  And even then the Prime Parking Spots will be gone.
  • The two Primest of the Prime Parking Spots are the two adjacent to the exit doors, one at each side.  Parking in either of these spots will allow your child to enter your car immediately and allow you a quick and secure getaway.  Securing these spots most likely involves bribery.  At the very least you probably have to arrive at drop-off in the a.m. armed with a cooler of food, a gas can, lots of reading material, car charges for multiple electronic devices and an empty bottle to pee in.
  • Always, and this cannot be emphasized enough, always always back into the parking space so you can face the exit doors.  This will allow you to see your child as they emerge and gun your car into action.  If you are not a good backer-upper, then you must practice up and down your driveway until you become proficient.
  • The next level of Prime Parking Spots is the outer perimeter.  If you are on the far side, you can still see your child emerge and pull into the traffic loop with Relative Ease.  Relative Ease in this case is playing hardball chicken with the cars already in the traffic loop, while simultaneously making Severe Hand Motions to your child to STAY WHERE YOU ARE UNTIL I PULL UP.  NO, SERIOUSLY.  I MEAN IT.  STAY WHERE YOU ARE.  AND ZIP UP THAT COAT MISTER, YOU WERE HOME SICK FOR FOUR DAYS LAST WEEK.
  • If you must be in the Inner Perimeter of Parking Spot, try at all costs to be in the Front Row.  You will have to play hardball chicken 3 times.  Twice on foot when you leave your car to gather your child up and again as you cross the traffic lane to escort them back safely into your car.  Do not rely on the staff there to help you negotiate this.  They have been at this for many years and they want to live another day.  Make Eye Contact.  People have a harder time running you over if they have looked you in the eye and you are clinging to a child.  But it is a fine line.  Dawdle and All Bets are Off.  You will have to play hardball chicken again when you attempt to pull out into the traffic loop, but you are facing the right way and you have a large amount of steel and airbags to protect you.
  • If you are in the Second Row of the Inner Perimeter, you will have to do all of the above, except you will be trapped when you get back into your vehicle.  Do not attempt to back out of the space.  That way also lies folly, my friend.  No one will leave you room to back out.  They have to Get Their Kid.  You will have to wait until the person in front of you, or possibly the persons adjacent to them, if you have a small car and can maneuver on two wheels, to pull out first so you can take their place in the Front Row.
  • Slightly preferable (or not) to the Second Row of the Inner Perimeter is the endless circling around the traffic loop until your child appears (where are they, dammit!?).  You do not have to leave your car but you have to play hardball chicken every time you attempt to enter the far side of the loop again because you have Failed in Your Mission to Get Your Kid and all the other drivers pity you and call you a Loser from the safety of their cars.
  • At all times beware of the Rogues who ignore the line of traffic and make their own lane because they are Picking Up Their Kid and/or They Have Their Kid and Now They Have Somewhere To Be.
  • Trying to be kind and let someone in to the traffic loop is the right thing to do, but will generally earn you at least one WTF?! hand motion or a flashing of headlights or a not-so-subtle horn beep from one or more cars behind you.  Sometimes all three.  Because They Have to Get Their Kid and They Have Somewhere To Be.
  • You, yourself, will make at least one WTF?! hand motion during this whole process.  Personally I let at least one car in and sometimes even school bus full of children with sane parents pull out into the main road from the other driveway.  Because I am a Bitch That Way.
  • Do not attempt to park in the front lot and walk to the back door to pick up your child.  Bad idea, my friend.  You will have to navigate large areas of the parking lot Unprotected. Twice. Rogues get extra points for hitting you.
  • If you are fortunate, you only have to navigate this hell once a week.  If you have to do it twice, you have no doubt fortifed yourself with chocolate and caffeine. If you find yourself doing this daily, then there is nothing I can do for you but keep you in my prayers.  Perhaps you need to rethink your child's activity schedule.  Soldier on, Brave One.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Book Post 2013

The book count for this year was 60.  I started more than that, but have come to the realization that if a book doesn't grab me in the first 100 pages, it probably isn't going to and I've learned to let it go and move on to something else that I will enjoy.  These are the books I really loved in 2013.
  • Secret Santa by Anne Osborn Poelman.  I have a collection of Christmas books that I drag out every year and revisit.  Short little stories that inspire and exemplify the spirit of the season.  This is one of my favorites. It's 1933 and Tom von Sloten is 16 years old.  His family of 7, like many others, is struggling to survive through the Depression.  Tom works two jobs to help support the family and save a little bit for college.  He comes on the idea of being Santa this year and overcomes his parents' objections.  Will his savings be enough?  What presents will be worthy enough?  A tragedy strikes that throw his Christmas plans and possibly his future into disarray.  But the kindness of his fellow man save the day.  I love this story because it shows the true spirit of Christmas and that one perfect gift can be better than a whole pile of them.  It showcases a time when families had it hard but everyone had to pull together and look out for each other.  I should actually read this again before I start my Christmas shopping...
  • The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman.  This book is hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking as well.  Tom Sherbourne has survived WWI and returns to his native Australia to work as a lighthouse keeper on an isolated island half a day's journey from the coast.  On his rare shore leave he meets Isabel, a woman who gives him reason to hope for happiness again.  Years later, a boat is washed up on their remote island, carrying a dead man and a live baby.  Tom, honest to a fault and meticulous with his record keeping, wants to report it right away.  But Isabel, grieving over the recent stillbirth of their son as well as several previous miscarriages, has put the baby to her breast.  Against Tom's better judgement, they keep the baby and name her Lucy.  And on their next shore leave two years later, they discover who Lucy really is and the family that has always wondered what happened to her and grieved for her.  What will they do?  Can things ever be made right? The language is lyrical yet sparing.  In just a few words Stedman gives you the measure of Tom and Isabel and you get them immediately.  This is one of my favorite passages: "It occurs to him that there are different versions of himself to farewell -- the abandoned eight-year-old; the delusional soldier who hovered somewhere in hell; the lightkeeper who dared to leave his heart undefended.  Like Russian dolls, these lives sit within him." This is M. L. Stedman's debut novel and I'll definitely be looking for the next one.
  • The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.  I have loved this author since I read her first book, Girl With a Pearl Earring.  This latest book follows Honor Bright, a Quaker woman who emigrates to Ohio from her native England.  Quilts figure prominently in the book, both as a reflection of society & women's work at the time as well as an insight into Honor's interior life.  A family tragedy finds her in a very different place than she imagined when she left home, relying on strangers and struggling to find her way in a new and alien world.  While Quakers are philosophically opposed to slavery, she has never seen a Negro, much less talked to one.  Her new home seems to be full of contradictions.  A new friend seems to be a conductor on the Underground Railway (though for safety such things are never acknowledged) but her brother is a slave hunter.  Runaway slaves often lose their way near her husband's farm.  Will she follow her conscience or obey her new family's edict that she stop aiding the runaways?  
  • Illuminations a novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt.  I first heard the music composed by St. Hildegard von Bingen 25 years ago and it brought me to tears.  I wanted to know more about the woman who composed these songs of religious praise and light in the 12th century.  Who was she?  How did a woman in that time period not only compose music, write books about her heavenly visions and preach sermons and yet manage to escape condemnation as a heretic?  Hildegard was a cloistered Benedictine nun, later an Abbess of her own religious order.  She had visions since childhood which formed the basis of her first book Scivias (a second book was on medicinal plants and the healing arts of the time period).  The monk Guibert of Gembloux Abby was sent to write her biography, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, while she was in her 80's, presumably to get everything scribed correctly before she died.  While I have read a few biographies of Hildegard, this novel brought some new facts to life.  At the age of eight, Hildegard was given to the Abbey of Disibodenberg as an anchorite, a companion to Jutta of Sponheim, a noblewoman who wished to live the life of an ascetic.  Anchorites were literally living corpses, bricked into the church walls and allowed to view the mass through a screen and receiving food and other necessities through a hatch.  Jutta and Hildegard (and later two more anchorites) lived in  two extremely narrow rooms and a narrow courtyard that received only a few hours of sunlight a day for over 30 years until Jutta's death.  Imagining that life is painful and incomprehensible to our modern sensibilities.  And yet from that life, emerged some of the most beautiful religious text and art of all time.  Hildegard is a continuing inspiration and I continue to enjoy learning more about her life.
  • The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony.  I love lace and have collected a bit and have even tried to make it.  This story of France's obsession with Flemish lace in the 1600s, made me look at it differently.  Because Flemish lace was forbidden in France at the time (in an effort to beef up their own lace industry), demand naturally went up.  This book tells the story of lace from many perspectives: the smuggler, the lacemaker who must hide her failing eyesight or be thrown out on the street to face prostitution or death, and the noblewoman who cannot repay a debt.  I really enjoyed this book and because of it I have looked at lace differently.  Though I still want it :-D
  • Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn.  If you know me, you know I am a royal watcher.  So I always enjoy books about QEII or books about her imagined life.  In this one, HM is feeling a little blue and so goes on an adventure by herself to visit HMS Britannia, now decommissioned and in drydock in Edinburgh.  The resulting panic as the courtiers try to find her before anyone knows she's missing and the hilarious cases of mistaken identity (the cleaner come to do the washing up - Britannia is now rented out for posh parties or a homeless woman needing a ride) made for a great fun read.
  • A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy.  Binchy is one of a handful of writers that I will immediately and unreservedly read their latest novel.  In this one, Chicky Starr returns from her prosperous (or so her family believes) life in America to her hometown of Stoneybridge and turns a decaying mansion into a restful B&B.  Needless to say, everyone thinks she is nuts.  Why would anyone want to vacation here?  She is helped along by a ragtag band that starts out with not a lot in common and ends up as family.  One of the reasons I love Binchy's books is that her voice is so authentically Irish, and if you have been there, you will immediately know what I mean.  Her characters are so fully fleshed out, you feel you know them well and have had tea with them (and often wish you could!).  She weaves seemingly unrelated stories and disparate people into a lovely whole.
  • An Irish Country Wedding by Patrick Taylor. Taylor is another Irish writer whose voice is singularly Irish, though quite different from Binchy's (Taylor is from Northern Ireland and his novels are set around Belfast).  This book continues the saga of apprentice doctor Barry Laverty and his gruff boss Dr. Fingal O'Reilly.  In this installment, Fingal is marrying his long-lost love Kitty O'Halleran and the eccentric residents of Ballybucklebo turn out in full force to wish them well.  Great fun!
  • The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani.  Trigiani has said this book is a homage to her immigrant grandparents and it reads so true that it must be based on their lives or those very like theirs.  Enza and Ciro live in neighboring villages in the Italian Alps, but only meet briefly before Ciro is forced to emigrate to America.  Enza's family faces their own tragedy and she too emigrates.  They meet again by accident but World War I intervenes.  While Ciro is at war, Enza begins a career as a seamstress for the Metropolitan Opera House.  Will they be reunited or will other loves take precedence?  I cried my way through this book and believe me, that is high praise.  
  • The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper.  A friend lent us this series thinking my son would enjoy it.  Guess who got sucked in and guess who never turned a page?  Will Stanton discovers that he is immortal on his 11th birthday.  He is the last of the Old Ones and must go on a quest to collect six signs of The Light in order to help the other immortals push back the Dark, which is once again making a bid to take over the world and turn mankind to its will.  In the other books he is helped in his quest by the three Drew children, their great-uncle Lyon Merriman (himself an Old One), and a Welsh boy named Bran.  This series weaves together Arthurian legends, myths and other stories we all know in a fresh way.  Personally, I couldn't help but also find some parallels to Highlander and Harry Potter.  I really enjoyed this series of 5 books and I think a lot of kids would like it too.  I'm still hoping to convince my son to read them.
  • Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella.  Sophie Kinsella is an author who can always be counted on for a fun, lively read.  In this one, heroine Lottie is tired of waiting for her boyfriend to propose.  When old flame Ben reappears and reminds her of their pact to marry each other if they find themselves still single at age 30, she goes for it.  They'll have a quick wedding and then honeymoon on the Greek island where they met.  But friends and family don't love the idea and try to intervene.  Will the wedding happen or not?  
  • The Guardians Series by William Joyce.  Last year's movie "Rise of the Guardians" caused us to seek out this book series that gives the backstories of childhood  icons the Man in the Moon, the Sandman, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Mother Goose, Jack Frost and the Bogeyman.  I have true admiration for authors who can take well-known stories and figures and turn them on their heads and somehow make them seem new again.  Joyce's whimsical artwork is a beautiful complement to the stories as well.
  • A Little House Christmas Treasury by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Coming full circle back to Christmas, this collection of Christmas vignettes from multiple "Little House" books takes me right back to childhood. The Little House books were the first series I ever read (the B is for Betsy books were the second).  Wilder had such a gift for portraying childhood in that time and place and making it real to her readers.  You feel Laura & Mary's excitement  over a tin cup and a cake made with white sugar and it makes you long for a simpler time and a family-centered holiday.