Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reading Roundup: September and October 2014

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

It's been a few years since I last read this book and I was craving something more serious after my last fluffy book binge. The more I read Stegner, the more I love his writing. It was also interesting to re-read this book after being divorced--it's a book about marriage and relationships, and I felt like I noticed different things this time around.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Another excellent book about marriages, although written in a very different style from Stegner. I felt like this book combined the best aspects of the two books by Moriarty that I've read previously. It had the hilarious social satire of What Alice Forgot along with the gripping mystery of The Husband's Secret (but without the awkward ending). Sure, the ending of this book was just a bit too tidy, but overall I thought it was really well-done.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I've had this book on my list for years and never got around to reading it. I feel bad that I hesitated for so long--I loved the historical mystery aspects of it, and found the story to be just creepy enough to scare me without preventing me from reading further.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

This book was hilarious--it's completely over-the-top ridiculous and a lot of fun to read. It probably helps that I lived in Seattle for a few years and recognized some of the particularly bizarre characters that present themselves, but I think it would still be hilarious even if you've never lived in the Pacific Northwest. 

A Long Time Gone by Karen White

Despite a slow start and some confusion in keeping straight the many different characters, I did finally get into this book and enjoyed it quite a lot. The mystery wasn't hard to figure out and there were a lot of stereotypes (a wise old black woman, cranky teenaged stepdaughter, evil ex-husband, nice old flame who is still available, etc), but it was a fun read once I decided to put up all those things.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This book is long and dense, and parts of it were more interesting to me than others were. The main thing I realized as I read it was that I thought I knew a fair amount about cancer and its treatment, and I didn't really know anything at all. Even though Mukherjee is generally good at describing complex concepts in simple terms, there were a still a few sections of the book I felt I didn't understand as well as others. This is still a book I would recommend to anyone looking for a good nonfiction read.

This is How We Grow by Christina Hibbert

I thought this was the perfect book for me at this point in my life, but at the same time I could see how someone else might not get as much out of it. I loved reading about how Dr. Hibbert changed and grew after major trauma in her life, and many of the things she went through mirrored things that I am working on right now. However, the book is a fairly personal, journal-style book that has been lightly edited and sometimes gets bogged down in personal minutiae. She also has a fairly high level of privilege in her life, with a large supportive family, flexible work schedule, and apparently a fairly high income--sometimes that made it hard to relate to some parts of the book. I still really enjoyed it and found it very useful, but it might not be as applicable to other readers.

Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

This book has been compared to Gone Girl in a number of reviews that I've read, and while I think that it has similar themes, it really doesn't compare in the style of writing at all. It's a fairly straightforward suspense book where someone's fairly simple life rapidly falls apart into terror. I thought it was a quick read and it certainly kept me guessing, but the ending felt rushed and the main character wasn't really fleshed out enough for me to totally root for her. The book felt like it could have used a bit more narrative padding and better pacing.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reading Roundup: August 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

I don't normally read a lot of science fiction, but this book was recommended to me by several people I trust and I thought the premise was intriguing. It was quite a lot of fun to read and rather suspenseful; nice to read something a little out of my usual comfort zone and enjoy it.

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

This was our book club pick for the month and I honestly didn't think it was all that exciting. The writing style was a bit dry and it was hard to get into the first few chapters. I think I also didn't enjoy it that much because I've never had strong feelings about the Mona Lisa, and the book didn't do much to convince me that I should.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This was a book that I'd read many good things about, but didn't really care for much at all. I'm usually more willing to suspend disbelief for a plot when the characters are sympathetic, but the main character in this book really wasn't. I had a hard time suspending my disbelief to like her or even relate to her, and the plot was kind of crazy too. 

Hidden by Catherine McKenzie

I read this book and the next three books all within a week--I had some time off before my classes started again and thought it would be fun to binge a little on fluffy reading. I enjoyed this book more than I expected too; the plot is fairly typical domestic fiction about a troubled marriage, but the characters were complex. It has the kind of alternating narrative structure that sometimes can be annoying, but that worked well for this book by adding a bit of suspense as the story works its way deeper into the lives of the main characters.

That Summer by Lauren Willig

This book was fun and fluffy, if you're willing to go along with the idea of someone inheriting a house that just happens to have a rare painting linked to a historic mystery hidden the attic. Oh, and a handsome art historian just happens to come along to save the day and fall in love with the protagonist. It's the kind of book that makes for great escapist fiction and adds a veneer of respectability by including some historical intrigue to go along with the contemporary romance.

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

This book was also fun and romantic, while managing to be much less fluffy. The plot is a bit absurd, but the characters are sweet and relatable and they all learn valuable lessons in the end. I also felt like Moyes really got the romance right in this book--the main characters are flawed and make mistakes, but they own up to their mistakes and act like grownups. They actually have to negotiate around a lot of issues and the author is not afraid to address some things, like class and money differences, that tend to get glossed over in other books.

China Dolls by Lisa See

I've had mixed experiences with books by Lisa See--some are wonderful and some are not so great. This book was a bit of a dud--the idea for the plot and the historic setting had the potential to be really fascinating. But the novel is told in alternating points-of-view from the three main characters and, unfortunately, none of them has a distinct voice. I had a hard time keeping them straight and remembering who was who. There also was not a clear story arc or sense of conflict and resolution--a lot of stuff happened over a number of years, but too often it felt like the book was just moving through events and ticking things off a list, rather than propelling the story or the characters forward.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mental Health Day

I took the day off work today--I've had a few sick days saved up for a while and thought it would be good to use one. I had planned on taking the afternoon off, since I had a phone appointment with the counseling center at noon and the kids had their back-to-school thing this afternoon (it used to be back-to-school night, but now for some reason it's in the afternoon). Then when I got up this morning, I just didn't feel like going in to work for only a few hours. So I got dressed and went to the temple instead; it was nice to be there and I felt good afterwards. Then I came home and had my phone appointment with the counseling center on campus--they will call in a few weeks and set up an appointment with me. I get to be some grad student's project for the semester, but at least it is cheap and easy to get to since it is on campus. I think things will be OK--I'm also going to work on getting more sleep and taking better care of myself too.

This afternoon I had a few free hours while the kids were busy, so I cleaned the house and finished reading a book I started last night. I also had another book that I started on Saturday night and finished Sunday evening. I realized a few months ago that I tend to read instead of doing pretty much anything else, including exercising, sleeping, and cleaning my house. I think it is time to cut back a little. But then last week I had four library holds come in at once, and I have a week until my new semester starts, so I'm letting myself have one more binge. Then I'm going to start making a list of interesting books to read sometime rather than putting them on hold at the library right away. I can handle it; I didn't read 'fun' stuff for quite a while when I was in school before. I've gotten a glimpse at next semester's classes and it's going to be a busy few months. 

The kids are all starting school tomorrow--P.Bibby is the most excited and has been counting down for weeks. I hope she has a good time at her new preschool and that it is a positive experience for her. She's the one I'm most worried about, just because the whole experience is so new. Little Dude and S-Boogie are excited to get back to school too; it was weird to me to visit S-Boogie's class and realize that I recognize most of the other kids and that she has gone to the same school for first through sixth grades. That was not my elementary experience at all (I went to three different schools). I think we will all be glad to get back into a good routine again. 

And something funny to end--tonight when we were trying to say family prayer I was a bit annoyed because it was late since Little Dude had been stubborn about getting in the shower. I was grumpy and trying to get everyone to be reverent when P.Bibby suddenly curled her hands up in front of her and started stumbling around saying "I'm a zombie!" It was so funny--I've never seen her do that before! We all just burst out laughing, and it was probably irreverent but Little Dude wondered what zombie family prayer would be like ("we are thankful for these brains, please bless them to nourish us"). Nothing like a good laugh to get everyone relaxed and happy again, even if we were a bit late to bed.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Reading Roundup: July 2014

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

I picked up this book because it sounded like a good, escapist read for vacation. It got a bit too melodramatic for my taste, especially since none of the main characters were very likeable and I didn't feel like I cared about what happened to them. It wasn't bad, but I just wasn't expecting it to get quite so gothic in the end.

Beautiful Unbroken by Mary Jane Nealon

Nealon is a poet as well as a nurse, and this really shows in her writing. This memoir was beautiful and touching and made me think a lot about my life and what choices I have made. At the same time, sometimes I feel a bit disconnected when I read about women who have no children--the choices I can make or will make are constrained in different ways. I still enjoyed the book and thought she had some great insights about grief and compassion. 

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

I picked up this book solely based on the high number of positive recommendations I've received from people. The topic didn't sound hugely interesting to me, and I've had a hard time explaining to people why it is so good. It really was one of the best books I've read this year--it's a story of achievement, but it's not highly suspenseful or sensationalistic at all. I think one of the things that makes it such a good book is the way the writing delves into both the characters and the setting so thoroughly.

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

I picked this book up for free at ALA and thought it was only somewhat mediocre. First of all there were a number of little errors that just bugged me (like there are no fireflies in California). Second, the main characters seemed more like caricatures than real people, and I didn't care much for any of them. It was also fairly easy to figure out the central mystery of the book fairly early on. Not the worst book I've read this year, but certainly not the best.

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

This is the book I can't stop telling people about. I really want to discuss it with someone else because it is a book about ideas and observations. Even though it is a book about parents, it is not a parenting book. Instead, it is a conversation about trends in the way middle-class families work today and why so many parents seem to struggle with certain issues. Not everything in the book corresponded with my experience, but it still gave me a lot to think about. 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

 This was a beautiful book, both the story itself and the writing. It's also the kind of book that builds slowly and carefully, until suddenly you realize that all the pieces of the story are coming together in a magical way. I love reading books that bring the beauty and power of writing to the forefront, while still telling a compelling story.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

This book was so much fun to read. Definitely different from most of my usual fare, and bit gory in parts, but still a great read for a summertime Saturday. It made me feel grateful that I'm not living on an eighteenth-century sailing ship.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Tired

Yesterday I was going to write a blog post about how tired I have been feeling this summer. Physically tired, emotionally tired, mentally tired. Just tired. My yard has giant brown spots on it and my flowerbeds are sprouting weeds that are taller than I am. The garden has been a total bust due to my neglect and the only things still surviving are the pumpkin vines and the tomato plants. I haven't cleaned the bathrooms for about two months, there are piles of papers and books all over the house, and I'm at least four weeks behind on the reading for my class (at least all my assignments have been turned in on time). I have 10 shirts in my closet that haven't been worn for 2 months because I can't bring myself to iron them. I've been in a slump for a while--as evidenced by the dark circles under my eyes, the massive amounts of books I've been reading, and my inability to make simple decisions or to email people back about things. 

When I was on my trip to Portland I didn't sleep well, and for a few days after I got back I felt bad. I'm not sure how to explain it--I just felt tired and awful and like I didn't want to do anything other than to curl up in a ball on my bed and hide. I eventually got over it, but things have been up and down ever since. I get in a bad cycle of not getting enough sleep, then staying up too late avoiding bed because I feel awful, then feeling awful because I didn't get to sleep on time. As I mentioned in my last post, this summer has been a lot of fun. It's also been stressful--just because my brain is stupid and gets anxious about dumb things. I also realized the other day that asking people for help is unduly stressful to me and I need to figure out a way to calm the heck down about it. My life wasn't any less crazy when my kids were littler, but I was home to be in charge of things myself and to handle the chaos myself. Now I spend every week sending emails and messages to various people about piano lessons and other kid issues, and I feel bad about things being so crazy and having to get other people to work around us. I need to figure out how to get over the added layer of stress that comes with dealing with other people. I spend a lot of my day at work fixing problems, training people, answering questions, and asking people to do stuff. Then I spend the rest of my time telling kids what to do, asking them to help with stuff, and arranging things for their care with family and friends. It's been a fun summer for the kids, but not without a lot of work on my part to deal with arrangements and rearrangements. 

Like I said, I was going to write this whole post yesterday, but I didn't. Instead, I went outside for a while and pulled up a whole bunch of weeds. Then I came in and took care of a most of the papers and things piled around my room. I did several loads of laundry and cleaned the bathroom. I also finished up my last major assignment for the class I've been taking. It felt really good to just get stuff done, and it was a reminder of something I keep forgetting and re-learning. When I spend too much time avoiding, stressing about, and hiding from stuff, I just feel worse. It doesn't help the problem. Instead, when I just use a bit of willpower to get moving and take care of something, no matter how little, I generally have the momentum to keep going and get more done. Turning the nervous energy of anxiety into productive energy is so much better than sitting and worrying--I really should do it more often. Maybe I'll finally start remembering this lesson since this feels like the hundredth time or so I've learned it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

4 More Weeks of Summer Break

Yes, I'm counting down the days until school is back in session. I think the kids are too, even though it's been a pretty fun summer so far. The other day I was talking to a friend who works full-time and she agreed with me that it feels better to go to work during the school year when we know the kids are happily involved in their routine and busy at school. At the same time, though, it's nice to have seasons in life and I remember just two months ago how ready for change I was. I will say that summer mornings are so much simpler for me since I only have to get myself ready and out the door. 

I started the summer with a very quick trip up to Portland for my sister's graduation with a doctorate in nursing practice. I flew up Sunday afternoon and came home on Tuesday afternoon--I think I was only gone for about 48 hours. It was a lot of fun; the agenda was basically eating lots of delicious food, hanging out, and attending the graduation. We accomplished all those things quite well, and on Tuesday morning my sister and I also took a bike tour around downtown. I was worried I would be too out of shape for it to be fun. Instead, it was a nice time and a good ending to my trip (I made up for the calories burned by eating lunch at Burgerville after the bike tour). 

My summer term started the day I got back from my Oregon trip. I had a bit of a freak-out during that week because it seemed like I had a lot of work to get done and my school switched class websites so everything was really unfamiliar. After three semesters I've realized that I'm probably always going to have a first-week freakout, so I'll plan accordingly for the fall. Taking a class summer term has actually turned out to be not too difficult. I'm a bit behind on reading and need to catch up. Otherwise, the assignments haven't been that hard and the content is really interesting. There are a just a few weeks left, then I get a few weeks off before I take two classes this fall. 

Little Dude got baptized the weekend after I went to Portland. I had been stressing about the baptism quite a bit, and thankfully it went smoothly. Plenty of friends and family came and we all enjoyed the day. Little Dude also started Cub Scouts and has really had a great time so far. He got to go to day camp and couldn't decide if shooting BB guns or arrows was more fun. The last weekend in June we drove down to Las Vegas for the kids to do "Grandma Camp" while I went to a conference (my dad was there too, but for some reason it's "Grandma" camp and not "Grandma and Grandpa"). The ride down was a bit stressful due to some technology issues. I thought I had downloaded an audiobook from the library on the iPod, but when we were getting in the car to drive away I could not find it. We listened to CDs for a while, and at our first rest stop I downloaded Overdrive onto my phone so we could listen to a different book. Then, once that was done, I discovered that my iPhone doesn't want to cooperate with the audio system in my car. It was frustrating, but really just a first-world problem. Our road trips now are much more comfortable than road trips ever were when I was a kid. 

The first few days we were in Las Vegas I stayed at a hotel on the Strip so I could attend the American Library Association annual Conference (or ALA). It was pretty overwhelming--just what I heard from a lot of people who had attended before. It was also a lot of fun; I hung out with friends from work, attended interesting sessions (some more interesting than others), and browsed the giant Exhibit Hall. Three days of conference were a nice little break. The conference ended on Monday afternoon and Friday was the Fourth, so took the whole week off and spent the rest of the time hanging out at my parents' house. There was plenty of swimming time, a trip to the children's museum and the state history museum, a trip to M&M World on the strip (probably won't do that again), and a day at the indoor amusement park at Circus Circus. I didn't wear my watch, ate a lot of good food, relaxed in the pool, and generally had a good time. Las Vegas is a bit too hot for my taste, though. Coming back to Utah was a relief. The last few days I was there, my older brother came down from Utah. One night my parents took us out to eat at a super delicious Spanish restaurant; I'm still craving the apple/fennel salad with Manchego and the flan. We had a little adventure on the Fourth when we climbed up on the roof to watch the fireworks, only to get dumped on by a massive desert thunderstorm. The kids were a bit traumatized, but we all survived. 

The rest of July has been busy too. The kids did swimming lessons for the past two weeks; this week S-Boogie is gone to a summer science camp run by the school district; and next week S-Boogie and Little Dude get Grandma Camp 2 when they go to Yellowstone for a few days with my mom and her friend. The day after they get back is going to be S-Boogie's birthday party, then the next week S-Boogie is attending a half-day creative writing camp for a week. It's funny that just a few months ago I was looking forward to summer as a break from our crazy schedule, and now we can't wait for school to start so things calm down a little. Actually, they won't really calm down--I'm discovering that older kids mean more lessons, school programs, and busy schedules. This fall we'll have P-Bibby in a music class, the older two kids doing piano lessons, Activity Days, and Cub Scouts--all on top of school activities too. It doesn't seem like a lot compared to some families I know, but it feels like plenty to me!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Reading Roundup: May and June 2014

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This was our book club choice for the month of May, and I'm glad I got a head start on it because it took a long time to read. It was a fun experience because it's been a long time since I had read a book this long--thankfully it's a fairly easy read for such an epic book. I did not expect to enjoy it was much as I did and I felt like it gave me a lot to think about.

Fortune Cookie by Josi Kilpack

This is the second-to-last of Kilpack's Sadie Hofmiller mysteries. . When I found out that this was not the last book in the series, I was worried that it would feel like the author was just trying to stretch things out too much by suddenly having Sadie's long-lost sister appear. Instead, I liked that the story really delved into family issues and problems from the past that can crop up at inconvenient times. I have also appreciated how Kilpack has often included characters who aren't very friendly, and don't get more friendly or understandable with time. Sometimes life and people are just unpredictable like that.

My Name is Resolute by Nancy Turner

I'm a big fan of Nancy Turner and was really excited to find out that she had a new book out. At the same time, I was nervous that it just wouldn't be as good as These Is My Words. Thankfully it was just as good and perhaps even a bit better. This was another big, epic, historical read and a lot of fun to just sink into for a few hours. I think this was one of my favorite books so far this year.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I wasn't sure about this book since I haven't enjoyed much of Gilbert's nonfiction that I've read. However, I read enough positive reviews that convinced me to give this one a try and I'm glad I did. I took it with me on my trip up to Portland and it was a good book for a relaxing trip. For some reason I sometimes end up reading a bunch of similar books all at the same time, and this was the third epic historical book that I'd read in a month. I love historical fiction and it was nice to just have a mini binge during my break between school semesters.

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

In contrast to the last book where my low expectations were exceeded, I had higher expectations for this book that were not really met. I'm still not sure why I didn't like the book that much; I might have been reading it too fast. It jumps around in time a lot and that seemed to bother me more than it usually does in books. I also felt like the ages of the protagonists and the amount of time elapsed since their estrangement didn't really give the story enough weight and had a hard time taking their love seriously. It wasn't a terrible book, but it just didn't do much for me.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

I checked out this book because the premise was interesting--I liked the plot quite a bit and liked the interweaving of the contemporary story line with the one from the past. There were a few narrative threads that wrapped up a bit too neatly for my taste and I noticed a few small editing errors, but it was still a nice little read.

Hope Springs by Sarah Eden

This book has a somewhat awkward title, and I'm still a little unclear about whether it's supposed to be a sequel or the second half of the first book, or whether that distinction even matters. I just thought the titling was a little strange. I had some issues with the first book and wasn't sure I'd like this one, but I was pleasantly surprised. This book was more action-oriented and felt like it had a better plot arc, with more events moving things along and less talking and dithering. There was a twist at the end that I really didn't see coming and I thought that was handled well, though I felt like there were a few plot elements and characters' stories that weren't resolved as much as I would have liked them to be.

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

A friend of mine summed up Gladwell's books as "you thought this, but it's actually that"--and it's just as true of this book as his others. It wasn't a bad book at all--I learned a lot of very interesting little tidbits from it--but it was a typical Gladwell book. If you liked his other books, you will like this one a lot. If you haven't read one yet, give this one a try some time.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This was our book club pick for June and it sparked another excellent discussion. It was a surprising read; I actually hated the first few chapters and was about to give up on it. Then, it suddenly got much better and I couldn't put it down. Finally, the ending was a bit shocking and wrapped things up in an interesting way. I love books that are a little crazy like this one--I think the mark of a good writer is the ability to lead readers through a variety of emotions and to really make them stop and think about their lives and the world around them. 

Movies

The Impossible

I had read mixed reviews of this movie before watching it, but the trailer was compelling and I thought I'd give it a try. I'm still trying to decide if I liked it--the directing and acting were excellent. The special effects were also fabulous--the entire movie is pretty much two straight hours of chaos and terror. That can be a little wearying, especially since I felt like it was thin on plot. Obviously I appreciate the director staying fairly true to the family's experience he based the movie on, but some of the pacing felt a little off and the way the movie ended left me feeling let down. It had potential, but just didn't work for me.