Friday, December 29, 2006

Three Weeks with My Brother--Audio

Nicholas Sparks is a well known and best selling novelist. I haven't read anything by him, but now know all about his life listening to the audio version of Three Weeks With My Brother. It was the perfect audio book--it wasn't complicated and the story was interesting enough to keep my attention. Previous to this, I had two aborted audio books. John Adams was a mammoth 21 cassettes, and I knew it would be hard to pay attention all the way through. And Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil just didn't capture my fancy after the first side of the first tape.

A few thoughts.

  1. Before T was born, we thought a lot about the name Micah for a boy. I like it now more than ever and would consider it in the future if the circumstance arose.
  2. The book toggles between the author's past and current, where he and his brother Micah take a 3 week trip around the world. I was attracted to it initially as a travel book, but it turns out the memoir of Sparks and his family was much more interesting to me than hearing about all the sights he and Micah visited. And really, the sights of Machu Pichu and Ayer's Rock and on and on served mostly to detail the relationship between the brothers and provide the framework to reflect on their past shared history. I didn't know much about it before starting, which heightened the suspense and uncertainty of what would happen to their family.
  3. There were a lot of things I couldn't believe in the description of themselves as children. The parents were very hands off letting them run around and discover things and get into a lot of trouble. I can't imagine a parent being able to raise children this way today. A lot of it was shocking.
  4. It is quite amazing to think of all these two brothers have been through. Over the period of about 10 years, both of their parents had dies in tragic accidents, and their sister suffered from a fatal brain tumor. It does seem like too much for one family to endure. The story evolves over time, and it is clear that the events have pulled the two brothers together. it made me wish that I had a closer relationship with my sisters. It's also interesting to see how they both responded to the tragic events.
  5. Sparks' wife Katherine (who he calls Kat) is amazing. She stays home with her 5 kids, while her husband goes on book tours and takes a three week vacation with his brother. I would have a hard time with that.

Read more . . .


I have posted a lot about the books I've read. I love to read, and always am in the middle of something. I often carry a book or a copy of the New Yorker around with me, because you never know when you might be stuck in a line, or in some other place waiting. And I usually read when I'm at the gym.

I have always loved to read. I started reading at a young age, and remember the stacks of library books I would check out from the local bookmobile. Making it through them was one of my favorite summer experiences.

For the first 20 or so years of my reading career, I mostly read fiction (although I do remember reading quite a few biographies as a kid). But, in the last 10 years, I have come to appreciate non-fiction much more and probably read more of it than fiction now. I think that the switch was fueled by the realization that I could learn so so much about (what I perceive as) the real world. (Not to say that I couldn't learn about the real world from reading fiction, but it's obviously quite a bit different.) However, I will never be one who doesn't have time to read fiction--and am quite happy to occasionally pick up some escapist novel.

Anyway, last month for our book group, we read the transcript of a BYU devotional talk given by Van Gessel, the dean of the humanities department. There were a lot of interesting ideas in it about culture and literature. He quotes Sven Birkets, and I've thought a lot about this since:

To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficienty either of one's life or of one's orientation toward it. When we read, we not only transplant ourselves to the place of the text, but we modify our natural angle of regard upon all things; we reposition the self in order to to see differently.

Gessel uses this to further his argument about how reading good literature (he mostly considers this the "classics") engenders empathy and understanding for people and situations that we could otherwise not gain to nearly the same extent. But for me, the impact of the quotation speaks more to my need to a window peering out of my very narrow life right now. I am home with my kids. I am physically in my home for a great deal of time each day. My daily concerns center on feeding, clothing, entertaining, and keeping peace (or physically restraining) my children. I get weary of it. But because at this moment there is not a lot of chance to have a substantial change in my circumstances, I turn to reading as an outlet. It give my mind something to chew on. And with my recent discovery of audio books (and my very exciting christmas present of an IPod Shuffle), I don't have to feel guilty (as I sometimes do) to sit down with a book while neglecting my home. Instead, I can listen to a book as I do the dishes and clean up.

Someday when my circumstances are different, or when we make a change in the way we do things at home, then I hope to have other outlets and develop other interests and talent. But, for the moment, I am very grateful for books. (And, I must say, for our library system that allows me to order in any book I want and have it delivered to my local branch.)

Read more . . .

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

After Christmas Holiday Shopping

So my sister said that she can't imagine why anyone would go shopping the day after Christmas. I think it's my favorite day of the year to shop. While I really don't get excited about shopping the day after Thanksgiving, I love shopping the Christmas clearance aisles the day after Christmas. AJ's sister got me hooked a few years back. You just go out first thing in the morning (although I didn't go until the end of the morning yesterday) and go to the places where you want to look for Christmas stuff. I got quite a few ornaments at Cost Plus World Market 75% off. I got some stockings at Michaels, 50% off. I got a 2007 calendar, 50% off and some clearance items at Old Navy including slippers for Andy. I went to Pier One, which in the past has yielded great finds, but nothing from there this year. And my favorite purchase of this end of Christmas season were a couple of sets of simple red plates from Target. 50% off. I will use them for Christmas, but also other holidays like Valentines and 4th of July. Plus, I could really use them any time of the year with the yellow and red napkins and placemats from New Mexico that the in-laws got me a few years back. Yeah! I'm really happy about those. My tree is decorated almost entirely with ornaments collected in after Christmas sales, and I have Christmas tablecloths and napkins too from shopping at Foleys with AJ's mom. Although I had an absolutely spectacular Christmas in Italy last year, I felt a little sad to miss the post holiday clearance.

The one thing that made me a little sick in my stomach? Not the shoppers, although there were quite a few. But, it was looking at the stock for the next big commercial venture: Valentines Day stuff. Please, just give me a little break!
Read more . . .

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Children's Books at Christmas

Last year we started the tradition of opening a Christmas book each night until Christmas. When we went to Italy, we didn't keep it going 100%, but this year we have done a really good job. I wanted to write a list of all the books we've read this year (some from the library) and put a couple of notes about them here so that next year, I will remember what we liked and didn't like.

Two of Robert Sabuda's pop-up including The Night Before Christmas and The Twelve Days of Christmas. The kids especially love the first--probably because they associate it more with Christmas than the other.

This is the Star is a great one--different elements of the Christmas story are added on each page, until all are together. Drawings are beautiful, but T doesn't understand why the star, animals, etc are not on each page, even though it says, "here is the star in the sky" on each page.

You are Special and The Crippled Lamb are both by a Texas minister named Max Lucado. I used to think that he was Mormon, because these books are so popular among Church members. Just this afternoon, I was in a church bookstore, and saw several of his selections on their shelves, including Tu Eres Especial. When we started this tradition last year, my sister sent these two books as Christmas gifts. I didn’t like that the main characters were called Josh and Abigail, currently two of the most popular children’s names, in the Crippled Lamb. As if Lucado were trying to reach children by making the story feel more familiar and accessible to them. (Of course, in the other book, he uses the unheard of Punchinello and Lucia.) He also delivers the moral/spiritual message with quite a whomp on the head. It reminded me a bit of a Veggie Tales book that the kids found at the library. After reading it once with them, I quickly squirreled it away and returned it early. I wonder how to best teach children about spiritual things. Clearly, for children, subtle message often spin into oblivion with them. Maybe a clear, oft repeated, no fuzziness message helps them to internalize spiritual teachings. I want to think more on this: what is the best way to help children have authentic spiritual experiences and learn spiritual things.

Pop-Up Nativity This is a new one, a gift from my mom. I love it. The author's name is Italian (not sure where she lives), but the pictures are very Renaissance looking. MJ loves it and thinks Mary and the angels in it are beautiful.

One of my favorite author discoveries this year is Tomie DePaola. I knew him before from a variety of books, most notably Strega Nona. This year, reading about the Mexican tradition of Las Posadas and legend of the poinsettia took on special meaning since MJ is learning Spanish at school. I am also somewhat enthralled with the mystery of Catholic traditions ever since going to Italy last year. Plus, I just love DePaola's drawing. MJ has asked to read these ones over and over. The Miracle of Las Posadas and The Legend of the Poinsettia.

Last week, as I was coming home from a Christmas concert, The Story with Dick Gordon was on NPR. He had a charming converstion with Tomie DePaola--half Irish, half Italian, and grew up in Connecticut. He reminisced with many Christmas stories from his youth and childhood and it was just delightful to listen to. Maybe next year, we will try this book of his--a chapter book for older children: Christmas Remembered

We got this one last year. The Legend of the Christmas Rose. It is the story of the little sister of some of the shepherds. She desparately wants to meet the baby King, but is told she cannot come. Instead of being left at home though, she trails behind her brothers only to discover when they are almost there that she has no gift to give. I love that it injects a new female into the traditional story. And the drawings are exquisite.

I also got Snowmen at Christmas last year. It is the whimsical story of the snowpeople (and animals) coming to life to celebrate their own Christmas in the night. I don't love it though. The rhyme seems forced. And the CTR on the hat of one of the snowman is a little weird in my opinion--a symbol to insiders, but meaningless for everyone else. Maybe it is meant as joke to those in the know. That said, the pictures are fun and the kids like looking at it.

One of the things I noticed this year is that we have a lot of longer stories and not much that T wanted to sit through. This was one exception: Touch and Feel First Christmas. Although it gets old the 10th time through, there are lots of interesting things to look at and we have enjoyed looking for new things each time through.

Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey is another Mormon favorite. This is one of AJ's favorites, and he has read it through in its lengthy entirity several times with MJ. I like this story much more than Lucado's.

You Can Do It Sam was a recommendation from a friend. It is a simple story that T could appreciate about a small bear delivering Christmas cakes with his mother to their friends.

Tale of Three Trees is not really a Christmas book. Three trees each play a part in the life of Jesus: manger, sailing boat, cross. MJ liked it, I thought it was ok.

A Certain Small Shepherd
We checked this one out from the library, but then didn't read it. It is a longer story, Maybe we can try this another year.

I got How The Grinch Stole Christmas this year too. Old favorite, of course. We haven't been able to catch it on tv yet.

Another favorite: The Polar Express. We watched the film last night as a family, and I was surprised by the language that MJ remembered from the book: "here's the part where they scrape the moon."

We didn't read these this year, but they were on our list last year.
Why Christmas Trees aren't Perfect is the story of a tree who gave of him/herself to others (a fox, a bird), yet was chosen to adorn the palace precisely because of the selflessness. I didn't love this one, but it was a big hit at the ward party last year when AJ read it.
Mr Willowby's Christmas Tree is the story of how one tree was used to give joy to many families. Fun--MJ liked it a lot.
Read more . . .

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Rebecca on audio

I have loved discovering books on tape. Thanks Harry Potter and Jim Dale! After listening to all seven of these, I turned to Rebecca which I borrowed from S when we drove from New Jersey to Minnesota. I loved the narrator of the book--she had such a nice English accent. She didn't do as well as Jim Dale changing her voice for the different characters, but it was still great. I like a review on Amazon: "Read in wonderfully British cadences by Anna Massey, all the mysterious and oppressive nuances are made immediate and chilling. We even feel some sympathy for the absurdly timid and cowering heroine; it is, after all, easy to imagine feeling woefully inferior to the predecessor and desperately eager to please."

It has been a long time since I read Rebecca. I kept wondering if the book's narrator would ever be named, but she never was, in comparison with the larger than life Rebecca. I love the way DuMarier portrays her wild imagination--the vivid scenarios that she imagines will happen in this or that situation. An especially memorable scene is when the narrator is imagining that she is Rebecca at dinner and Max catches her at it, wondering at the glint in her eye and her strange gestures. he can almost reconstruct what is going on in her mind.

Other than that, I get so infuriated with her weakness, fraility, and timidity. Why doesn't she stand up to Mrs Danvers? Why doesn't she take a bit of control of Manderly? Why doesn't she assert that she is the new lady of the house? Why doesn't she have a frank conversation with Max about her fears and that Mrs Danvers was the one that put her up to the costume for the fancy ball? She is portrayed in typical female tones--dependent on her husband, won't drive the car, is relegated to household organization and flower arranging. I wonder what time period DuMarier was trying to portray. There were no outside references that I could place it.

But, DuMarier has created a wonderful story. The way it unravels bit by bit. The way she starts with the narrator's dream return to Manderly, and then takes us back. It was wonderful to listen to it and remember the story and it has made me anxious to listen to other audio books. Such a great way to do the dishes. Thank you mom for sending me that old school cassette walkman that I can just put in my pocket and listen as I go about the dreary household chores and also when I'm in the car and the kids are asking to listen to their cd's yet again.
Read more . . .

Year of Wonders

I just finished Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It is the story of a village in England where the plague hit and which voluntarily isolated itself to prevent the disease from spreading to other locations. The narrator is a young woman who loses her two children and witnesses the demise of 2/3 of the village's residents.

It was a pretty good read, but I don't have too much to say about it. Her descriptions of the plague's toll and the number of villagers that it touched are horrific. She explores whether people can retain humanity in the middle of such terrible circumstances. And she describes how Anna's life is altered through the experience. It does seem like Anna is a bit ananchronistic, with modern sensibilities--it does make her more likable to me.
Read more . . .

Another book by Mary Roach

I recently read Mary Roach's newest book called Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. I really liked Stiff, her book about how human cadavars are used. But, I didn't like this book as much. Yes, the research she described was cooky, interesting, and crazy to read about. The scientific experiments she writes about that were and are actually being conducted to look for evidence of life after death included: weighing a person directly before and after death with the hypothesis that a slight decrease in weight suggests the departing of the soul; placing a computer facing the ceiling in a hospital room where a person undergoing a procedure that momentarily stops the heart (and thus causes the person to "die" for a very short time) to determine if the person can remember seeing the items on the screen, suggesting an out-of-body experience; she goes with a reincarnation specialist to investigate claims of life in another body; scientific explanations for ghost sitings; and on and on. In the end, she finds very little hard evidence that life exists beyond the here and now of earth.

She didn't attempt to answer questions of a spiritual nature about post-mortal existence. She was examining age old questions in a new light, and that makes her book novel and interesting. But, despite this, the age old answers are ultimately more satisifying. Even though we may be able to find scientific evidence for life after death, the true answers aren't to be found in such methods as these. Faith and personal revelation given by the Holy Ghost are in the end really the only way to find satisfactorily convincing understanding of these issues.
Read more . . .

Body Worlds

The day after Thanksgiving, AJ and I went to the Minnesota Science Museum to see the BodyWorlds exhibit, leaving the kids in the care of nana and papa. I was a little distressed getting there, since there was no parking. Shopping, a hockey game, and Hmong New Year all in the same part of St Paul resulted in large numbers of cars. I finally dropped AJ off and drove into a residential area 10 minutes walk from the museum to park. Ugh.

BodyWorlds exhibits plasticized human bodies. Prior to death, people donated their bodies to science and some of them ended up plasticized, a process of polymerization. (This was described in Mary Roach's book Stiff, which I wrote a bit about earlier.) Depending on the display, certain parts of the body were plasticized and other removed. I alternated between being totally fascinated by the human organ systems that were shown in such a remarkable fashion (I especially loved the circulatory system), and then remembering that these used to be real people. I felt that the most with the 8 month pregnant woman--but it was so incredible to see the baby in utero too. For the majority of the time, I thought of them as really amazing displays of the human body, and then every once in a while, something would jolt me to remember that they had former lives. The toenails especially did this for me.

I didn't like the human body as art take. I felt like it was disrespectful and that if I had donated my body to be plasticized, I wouldn't mind being displayed to show my organs, but I would mind if my muscles had been cut and shaped to look like a mane.

All in all, though, it was very intersting and I'm glad we went. And I really want to go back to see the whole science museum.
Read more . . .