Sunday, May 01, 2016

Reading Roundup: April 2016

Eleanor and the Iron King by Julie Daines

This book surprised me because I expected it to be more cheesy than it was. It's a bit of a mishmash of a romance and supernatural thriller, but the medieval setting makes that work somehow. The main character got on my nerves sometimes because she really took a long time to stop being dumb and start trusting the right people, but the supporting characters were all great and I also loved the setting.

The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia by David Stuart MacLean

This was our book club choice for this month and I think that most of us would give it about three stars out of five. Some parts of it were very interesting and engaging, especially the first half of the book and the interludes about the science of malaria and anti-malarial medication. The second half of the book began to feel repetitive and loses momentum--in a memoir it can be hard to fully shape the story and give it the right amount of tension, and this book fell a little flat in the end.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

This book has a lot of different threads, and some come together in the end and some don't. I liked it more than some of the reviews of it that I've read on Amazon--I think some of those who were disappointed expected a more straightforward mystery story, and this is not it. It's a little more literary and not everything is wrapped up or explained. I enjoyed that aspect of it as well as the interesting choice to have some sections of the book narrated by a collective group of people. 

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

There are so many things I loved about this book, I'm not even sure where to start. The three main characters had the potential to just be stereotypes, but they were all well-developed and sympathetic. The book tackles a number of heavy themes in an even-handed way, and the presence of religion was particularly handled well. I also really liked the relationships between the characters and their parents because they were complicated and nuanced, just like most parent-teen relationships. Too many teen books I've read either have the parents completely clueless in the background, or the source of all problems. This book has a little of both, and one character has some major epiphanies through conversations with their parents. This was one of the better YA books I've read in a while and I would definitely recommend it (probably best for older teens based on the subject matter--the content is fairly free from swear words and sex).
 
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Picoult is really good at writing compelling plots with lots of crazy twists, and not so good at developing realistic characters or dialogue. This book kept me reading and I was surprised by many of the revelations of the plot (especially a big one that I did not see coming); I also like the information about elephants that was interspersed throughout the book. I probably won't remember much of this book in a few months, but it was a fun and quick read.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

As I was reading this book, I kept being reminded of the book Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; they both feature young adult protagonists in the upper Midwest during the 1960s. This is a very different book as far as plot and writing style go, but the mood was similar and so was the focus on the landscape and people. The descriptions of the town of New Berlin and all its different inhabitants were some of my favorite parts of this book, as well as the relationships between Frank and the different members of his family. There was a mystery to be solved at the heart of the book, and although I was happy to have everything figured out, I was also a little sad when things were are all resolved and the book ended because I know I will miss the people and the places described in it.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I wasn't very impressed with the first book I read by Kidd, so I was reluctant to read this book (it's our book club selection for May). This book covers a long time period and the plot feels a bit too drawn out because of that. None of the characters change very much either--the "good" ones are always good and the "bad" ones are always bad--they do a lot of things, but there isn't much change in their feelings or motivations. I didn't dislike the book and enjoyed reading it, but I didn't feel particularly moved by it in any way.

The Dressmaker's War by Mary Chamberlain

It's been a while since I last read a book I hated so much (I probably particularly hated this one because I read it after reading several amazing books in a row, so it was a big let-down). The main character is extremely arrogant and immature, and never changes throughout the entire book. Despite the fact that a number of things happen to her, she remains a self-absorbed victim who can't ever see a bigger picture or understand the motives of other people. The plot went in crazy directions and there were several unbelievable coincidences, and the last third of the book took things in a really unexpected direction that was not foreshadowed at all. I kept reading this book just to see if it would get better, but it never did.

Movies

Brooklyn

Although I'm glad I read the book first, I still totally loved this movie. The book is much richer and the characterization of the protagonist is a little different, but the movie does a beautiful job adapting the story. The main actors were both excellent in their roles and so was the rest of the supporting cast. The only thing that could have made it better would have been including some more of the little details from the book, but there's not always a good way to do that in an adaptation. I know that not everyone would like the book because Toibin's writing style is somewhat unique, but I think most people I know would love this movie.

The Notebook

I've never seen this movie before, but I've seen references to it for years so I decided to watch it. I didn't have high expectations, so thankfully it did not disappoint me. I did not find it as romantic as many people seem to think it was--the female protagonist was a little too shrill for me to root for, and Ryan Gosling's character was surprisingly subdued given the depth of feeling he was supposed to possess. I probably won't watch it again, but at least I didn't hate it and now I know what everyone is talking about. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Death doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints

I've been a bit obsessed with Hamilton for the past month and I think I have most of the lyrics memorized. Don't be surprised if you see more posts with lyrics for titles--maybe someday I'll even write about my feelings and why I love the show so much.

Mr. Fob's mom died three weeks ago. When people ask if it was expected or not, I'm never quite sure what to say. Everyone thought she'd be around much longer, since her mother just died five years ago and was in her nineties, and her grandmother lived to be a hundred. With that kind of longevity in the family, seventy-three feels kind of young. But, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last summer and the fact that she made it nearly a year after diagnosis is quite remarkable, especially without undergoing any treatment. She had also been fairly stable until about a month or so before she died, and then the decline was swift. I feel a little bad because I haven't been very involved during the last year--I've been busy and Mr. Fob is married to someone else now. No one in his family has ever made me feel excluded in any way, but I'm also not really in the thick of things anymore. To be honest, I'm not sure I ever have been, and that's all right. He has five older sisters and I was the first sister-in-law, and that's a hard adjustment for everyone to make. Plus I tended to defer interactions with his family to Mr. Fob, since they're his family and not mine. I'm just glad Mr. Fob has a good relationship with his siblings and that they are all close to each other. 

As far as mother-in-laws go, she really was a great one. I first met her the day before our wedding--she and Mr. Fob came to meet me at work when I was finishing my shift. She had brought me an orchid lei fresh from Hawaii and gave me a big hug. I don't ever remember her criticizing me or saying anything unkind to me or my children; she was always generous and loving with us. The first seven years of our marriage she was still living in Hawaii and so I did not get to know her very well because we only saw each other on occasional visits. Every time we came to see her, though, she was always a wonderful hostess and happy to have us and our kids in her home. She moved to Utah in 2008 and we ended up spending several weeks living with her while moving from Washington to California. I still feel a little bad because that visit didn't go very smoothly. Little Dude was only two and having a very difficult time; I was having a hard time with the move and Mr. Fob's new part-time job and living in someone else's house. She also wasn't used to having small children around all the time and was adjusting to living in a new area, so we stepped on each other's toes a lot. That whole summer is one part of my life I'd like to go back and do over. 

Like I said, though, she was never really unkind or unloving to me, even after we got divorced. She never had much money and wasn't always in good health, but tried to give whatever gifts she could. We went to visit her in Hawaii in 2007 right after I had graduated with my master's degree. She wanted to host a special meal for us, but was using food stamps at the time. She saved up and bought some steaks to cook a fancy dinner for me, and fretted for a long time about the fact that people might see her buying steak and judge her for it. I thought it was really sweet--and the steak was delicious. For Christmas this past year she gave me a big bundle of holiday-themed paper goods. It was an excellent gift and made our Christmas breakfast festive and easy to clean up! Those are the kinds of little stories about her that I know I can share with the kids some day. She didn't live a big life or a fancy life in any way, but she did live a good life and I learned many lessons from her. I'm sad the kids won't get to know her more than they have and that we won't have more time with her here on earth.  

I'm not sure how to end this post--I have a lot of mixed feelings and it's been a hard month for this and many other reasons. The funeral was lovely and a great way to say goodbye to someone so special. It still feels a little unreal to me and might not for a while--and that's OK.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reading Roundup: March 2016

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

This book was a bit of a mess and I probably should not have finished reading it; the ending seemed to promise some kind of shocking twist, and yet I re-read it a few times before realizing that the author's idea of a 'surprise' and mine were quite different. Also, the first half seems to be making fun of a particular lifestyle that I know nothing about, and the author didn't do much to convince me as a reader that I should. If you are going to poke fun at something, you can't assume that your audience will always care about it in the same way you do. Also, all the characters in the book were annoying stereotypes and the plot had some major holes. Sometimes I can forgive that if the book is still fun, but this one certainly wasn't.

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although this shouldn't be a surprise since I already shared Deresiewicz's opinion that Austen is a brilliant novelist and that her books should not be dismissed because they are about domestic subjects (and they aren't romance novels!). It's been a while since I have read some of the works he discusses and I appreciated his insights into each one and the things he learned from it. I also thought the book did an excellent job weaving together the memoir parts and the literary criticism parts--it really made me think about some of the books I've read and how they've shaped my life. 

The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

Some parts of this book were fairly predictable and I guessed them early on, but there were a few major parts of the story that did surprise me. It was a fun, quick read for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

I enjoyed the title novella the most, but the other three short stories in this book were not bad either (I particularly liked the one about the nun). All of them are linked by themes of piling up details--noticing and remember little things that construct a narrative. Although none of the stories was 'happy' in any way, reading the book was a pleasure simply because the artistry of McCann's prose is amazing.

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

This was our book club pick for the month and was a book I had on my list to read eventually. I read a lot of historical fiction as a teen and I think I would have loved this if I had picked it up to read. The main character is smart and feisty, the supporting characters were also wonderful, and the plot was well-thought out with good pacing of the action and believable conflict. I particularly liked that it represents the diversity of people who settled the west in a natural way without resorting to tokenism or stereotypes.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I don't even know how to describe this book other than to say that it was really, really good. I had plenty of moments where I thought that the author was completely unlike most people I have ever met, but those were always balanced by her ability to write about herself in a way that helped me understand her and her life. Her writing is beautiful and this book is filled with fascinating insights about all kinds of things, like grief and birds of prey. I've seen this on many recent lists of book recommendations, and I will certainly add it to my list of books to recommend to people.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I've had this book on my list since I read another book by Toibin last year. I was tempted to see the movie first, but decided not to, and I'm glad I read the book first. It's a quiet book, and while it covers some fairly significant themes and major challenges in the life of the protagonist, the mood is always subdued. This makes it sound unexciting, but really what it means is that it's refreshing to read a book that feels realistic about life and the time it takes to understand oneself and others.

Miss Burton Unmasks a Prince by Jennifer Moore

This year I decided to only read and vote on the Whitney finalists in the romance category since I had already read three of them. This book was fun, but not particularly memorable. It didn't have much depth to it at all and I did not think the central conflict was very compelling or the characters very interesting.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Reading Roundup: February 2016

In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

A month after reading this book I can hardly remember anything about it. The author did a fine job describing the difficulty of being a Muslim immigrant family in the United States, as well as conveying the shattering aftermath of a tragedy that affects that entire family. However, the book didn't do as good a job with the characterization or with creating a well-paced plot with enough tension to sustain it.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This is a long, dense book that took about a month to read in little chunks interspersed with other chunks. There is so much interesting information in this book that it's hard to absorb and hard to read in larger quantities. I've been sharing bits of my insights from it with many of my friends over the last few months, and I think I need to buy my own copy so I can go back and find the parts I really liked it so I can reread them.

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

This book started slowly, and while I eventually got into the story, it never really grabbed me. The characters were interesting and the story took enough turns that I didn't put all the pieces together until the end. However, the mood was just a little too understated to make me want to read another book by the same author.


The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients' Lives by Theresa Brown

I love to read nonfiction about medicine and I'd read a number of positive reviews about Brown's new book. It was an interesting read and I can tell from her writing that she was once an English professor, but it still felt a little flat. There didn't seem to be a lot of tension or deeper meaning to the book, which might have made it a bit more interesting to read.

The Longest Night by Andria Williams

Mid-twentieth-century America seems to be a hot new setting for historical fiction, based on the number of new books I've seen examining this time period. This book is set during the early 1960s, in Idaho Falls, and it's interesting to read a book about the region that has nothing to do with Mormons (well, they are mentioned briefly, but none of the characters interact with them since they mostly stick with other military families instead). The author doesn't just

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

This was our book club pick for the month, and I'm not sure I would have read it otherwise. I love The Princess Bride, but maybe not enough to read a whole book about it. This book, however, was a lot of fun--and it was funny and sweet (just like the movie). It was great to get a glimpse into the process of making movies and to read about a group of people that had a fabulous time making a film together. I've heard good things about the audiobook, if you're into those.

Movies

Spotlight

I was a bit surprised when this one the Academy Award simply because I expected something flashier to get the prize. I was also delighted that this movie won because it is an excellent example of film at its finest. I especially appreciated how the director did not artificially create tension in the story or exaggerate the evil in an attempt to create 'villains' and 'heroes'--instead, tension emerges slowly and it snuck up on me before I even realized that I was anxiously awaiting the end of the movie. The acting is all excellent, the story is powerful, and this movie definitely deserved the award. I think I need to watch it again.

Testament of Youth

This movie is beautiful; I wanted to wear all the costumes and inhabit all the gorgeous scenery myself. On the other hand, England during the First World War is a place that no one wants to ever revisit. This story is tragic, and even though I knew what was coming, each death was wrenching. Vera Brittain's memoirs are famous for their anti-war stance, and this movie certainly does them justice.

Sense and Sensibility

When Alan Rickman died and everyone was talking about him, I suddenly started craving this movie again. I've seen it a number of times, but not recently, and it was delightful to remember it again. In fact, this movie was my first exposure to Jane Austen in book or film form. I can still picture the first time we watched it, on VHS, the summer after I graduated from high school. Then I went to BYU and they had a Jane Austen week at International Cinema so I got caught up on other films and started reading books--and now I'm a firmly converted Janeite. The film still holds up well after twenty years--although for some reason the massive age difference between Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet bothered me more this time around. They are both excellent actors and do well in their roles, but they never seem to quite mesh as believable sisters who should be close in age. Oh well, I still love this movie and need to watch it next time I get a craving for Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Too Tired to Leap

I really can't let leap day pass by without writing a post about it, since it only happens every four years. I'm curious to see what my life will be like four years from now--hopefully I'll still have a blog, and even if I don't I'll be able to go back and read this and reflect. In four years I'll have kids that are 16, 13, and 10! That feels old to me. I wrote a post in 2008 that reflected on what my life had been like in 2004, and in some ways it wasn't all that different four years later. We were still in school, still didn't have a lot of money, and probably spent too much time waiting for 'real life' to happen (well, I know I did). Really, 2008 was mostly a good year and a lot of nice things happened. 

I did write again in 2012, but it wasn't consciously a leap day post. In fact, it was more processing a lot of feelings about the divorce. I feel a little weird going back and reading it now, but it had only been about six months out and things were still adjusting. I was also feeling nervous about the future since I still hadn't gotten a job yet, and the kids were pretty little. Four years later, things are better in some ways. I can honestly say that emotionally I'm doing a lot better. I feel like I've mostly moved on and that Mr. Fob and I are mostly successfully co-parenting; sometimes I get a little bogged down in my mind going back over the past and all the things that could have gone better, but at this point there's not much I can do about it. I've also found a good job (finally) and have a career path in sight, which helps a lot. Four years later I'm still not that excited about working full-time, especially not for the next 30 years until I can retire, but I always feel weird feeling that way since staying at home basically meant I spent a lot of time reading and cooking and was kind of lazy. I do miss having more time to spend with the kids, especially in the summer. But, again, I can waste time on getting upset about the ways my life isn't the way I planned, or I can just live with it. At least if I have to work I have a steady, secure job with a decent paycheck and great coworkers--and I'm doing something fun and personally fulfilling. 

So how was leap day today in 2016? Very, very normal, at least for my life as it is now. I was pretty tired because for some reason I had trouble falling asleep last night, which is frustrating. I generally get up at around 6:30 and get right in the shower. The two older kids wake themselves up, get dressed, and get their own breakfast, and are usually by the time I come in the kitchen to get my food. I tend to eat in my room while on the computer reading blog posts and news. After I've eaten, I wake up P.Bibby and help her with breakfast; while she's eating, I go blow dry my hair, get my clothes on, and do my makeup. S. Boogie leaves earlier than the other two since she has to catch the bus to the middle school. At about 8:15, the two younger kids walk out the door to school and then I get in the car and drive to work. Work today was pretty normal--I cataloged some books, opened some boxes and checked things in (we got a cool bible from 1526 that was pretty exciting to hold in my hands for a little while before passing it on), chatted with friends at work, created some invoices, etc. That's how most of my work days go. I got a new chair on Friday and my back was very grateful today. After work I came home, changed my clothes, and made dinner with Little Dude as my helper since it was his turn. Then P. Bibby got in the bath while I cleaned up the kitchen. I have to help her with lotion and brushing her hair after the bath, but the older two kids are self-sufficient. After P. Bibby was ready, we ate some treats from last night's FHE while I read Harry Potter. Then scriptures, family prayer, and tucking the littlest in bed before the other two went off to shower. I got on the computer to check in on my homework, read some Facebook, and write this blog post. And now I'm going to go to bed. It feels like a lot when I type it up, and in some ways it really is. On the other hand, it's just life--eating, and cleaning, and working, and spending time together. Sometimes I wish we had a little more time to just relax and hang out, but I'll be grateful for a boring, ordinary day. I wonder how much will change in four more years? I'll have to check in then and let you know.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Some Days


 I started this post a few weeks ago when I had a pretty crappy day. I got in an argument on Facebook, which I almost never do. I usually avoid commenting on anything controversial, but this time I jumped right in and fired off something without really thinking about it. It was the kind of issue where knee-jerk reactions are common, but it's complex enough that it probably shouldn't be a subject for Facebook discussion. I immediately felt bad about that, and then some other crappy things happened that day that I can't even remember. The next day, however, was great.

Then a few days later I had another crappy day--I didn't sleep well the night before and there was heavy snow when I left for work, making my commute twice as long and much more stressful.The rest of the day didn't go so well either. That's pretty much how things have been for the month since my last post--some days are good, some not so good. My baby step goal of writing a little in a journal every day has been working. I haven't been perfect at it and some days I don't write very much. I've missed some days, but I've been forcing myself to work past the "I messed up so now I'll give up" mindset, and I think it's working. In February I had planned to start reading scriptures every night before bed instead of another book, and again I didn't get started for the first week of the month (my excuse is that school started again and my class this semester is pretty reading and writing intensive). Instead of giving up, I'm trying, even if I'm not doing it perfectly every day. It feels good. 

Today was Valentine's Day and I really enjoyed spending it with the kids. We had church in the morning and the Primary kids sang the song "I'll Walk With You" in sacrament meeting today. I'm the pianist right now and I was just glad I didn't make too many mistakes. I thought it was a great song for the holiday. We spent the afternoon hanging out--getting through the afternoon without people getting too antsy and bothering each other has been a bit of a challenge this year. Some weeks go better than others. Today Little Dude was having trouble finding things to do besides bothering his sisters, and the fact that S-Boogie only wanted to read a book instead of playing games with him didn't help. We survived the afternoon without too much hassle and had a festive dinner with decorations, homemade tomato soup with heart-shaped croutons, and strawberry-spinach salad. We like to do FHE on Sundays, so for our lesson tonight we passed around papers and had everyone write something they loved about each person in our family. It was a lot of fun. Some days with the kids aren't great and I go to bed feeling like a total failure; thankfully we have good days like today to add a little perspective. Hopefully my kids will remember all the fun times. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Reading Roundup: January 2016

Kisses in the Rain by Krista Lynne Jensen

The part of this book I enjoyed the most was the setting. It takes place on an island in Washington and the characters both work in the kitchen of a restaurant. I had a major craving to take a vacation to Puget Sound after reading this. It was an enjoyable little romance, but like too many LDS fiction books I read, it felt a bit thin and superficial to me. I wanted deeper conversations between the characters, more time spent developing and resolving the conflicts, and richer language. This book touched on some great themes, but it just didn't quite do enough with them for me.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown

I have really loved Brown's other books, so it's not a surprise that this was a hit for me. It's meant as a follow-up to Daring Greatly, so you should read that one first in order for this one to make more sense. I particularly liked her emphasis on narrative and how we see ourselves. I just need to buy a copy so I can go back and re-read some parts a few more times to get them to really sink in.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

A month after reading this book, I can't remember most of the details other than those about the setting. This is the first book I've read that is set in the Falkland Islands, and the author makes good use of the unique aspects of that setting to drive the story. However, I didn't feel that interested in any of the three main characters and I thought that the main conflicts in the plot were too formulaic to hold my interest.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I've been hearing about this book for nearly two years, but didn't get around to reading it until my book club picked it this month. It was a beautifully written story that really drew me in. The setting and the plot are its strongest aspects; the main characters all felt a little distant too me and I had hard time rooting for them. Also, the book jumps around in time quite a bit, so you probably want to read this in print. 

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Asne Seierstad

This is a long book, and I took my time reading it. I also had to put it aside a few times because it was simply overwhelming. I'd seen this book mentioned on several "best of 2015" lists and thought it sounded intriguing (the English translation was published last year; it was published in Norway in 2013). This is probably one of the most powerful books I've ever read, but I would only recommend it with the caution that it is very graphic in its descriptions of a massacre of teenagers. Equally disturbing are the chapters that delve into the thinking of Breivik himself. It's not an easy read by any means. However, I was incredibly moved by Seierstad's writing--this is not a polemic and it is not an attempt to psychoanalyze Breivik, either to agree with or condemn him. Seierstad is surprisingly neutral in her assessments of perpetrator and victims; however, you can tell that she deeply loves her country and is deeply concerned about what happened.  I've read a few things that complain about the feel of the translation, but I liked the fact that it stays close to Norwegian and feels a bit rough in places. I like a book that still feels like the place and language that it came from, even when it's disconcerting at times. If you think you can handle it, I recommend this book. There is a chapter near the end that is one of the most beautiful pieces about grief that I have ever read.

The Splendour Falls by Susanna Kearsley

This was the third book I read this month that had a setting that was more interesting than the characters and the plot. I needed a quick, easy read to pass some time while waiting for a car repair and this was the perfect book for that. The plot required major suspension of disbelief, which got harder and harder to do as the book went on. 

Movies

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

This is the sort of movie that makes me feel really old, because I'm definitely not a teenager anymore. Even when I was a teen, I wasn't much like the ones in this movie. That aside, I still enjoyed it and would probably even watch it again.

The Last Five Years

If you are a hard-core fan of the musical you will probably enjoy this movie like I did. If you don't like musicals or this one in particular, this movie will probably make no sense and annoy you. Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan do a great job with the music, and the director keeps things simple in way that doesn't detract from the story, but there is no real good way to translate this musical to film. This is a pretty decent attempt, at least.