Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Reviews, Part II (American historical fiction)

Along with several classics, I read a lot of historical fiction over the past year.  In fact, that's pretty much all I read.  I know, a well-rounded person would read more non-fiction or some biographies or something, but I read to escape, so historical fiction is my thing.

Several of the books I read are set in America and while I'm more of a European history buff, I found these books to be quite fascinating.

"One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd" is set in pioneer times in the Colorado/Wyoming area.  It follows the life of May Dodd, a forward-thinking woman who breaks out of an insane asylum and is sent west to become the wife of a Native American.  She, along with about twenty other women, "marry" Native American men so that the United States can uphold its end of a treaty with an uncivilized tribe.  This novel was very interesting and while the author may have taken some liberties with actual historical events, the events that take place seem very realistic; very sad, but realistic.  **** (four stars)

"The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane" is one of those "story within a story" novels.  The outer story surrounds a young woman who is pursuing her Ph.D. in history while restoring her recently deceased grandmother's home in Salem, Massachusetts.  Based on that, you can probably figure out that the inner story revolves around the Salem witch trials of the 1690s.  This one reminded me a bit of the Dan Brown novels with its web of clues and semi-predictable mystery.  If you like reading about the witch trials, this one's definitely worth checking out.  *** (three stars)

"Prayers for Sale" takes place in late 1800's/early 1900's Colorado mining territory.  The main character is an elderly widow who spends her last summer in her high-altitude home teaching and telling stories to a young woman whose husband recently dragged her to the area so that he could work in one of the many gold mines.  The elderly woman is a sweet, yet tough, old lady who not only withstands the harshness of high-altitude Colorado winters, but the heartbreak that comes with having and losing both husbands and children.  I thoroughly enjoyed this one, even though the last couple of pages didn't seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the novel.  **** (four stars)

I picked up "A Touch of Grace" on a whim one day while searching the library shelves for something new.  I didn't realize that it was one in a series of books surrounding a particular family until I was a couple of chapters into it, so I probably didn't get as much out of it as I could have.  However, the story stood on it's own, without my having read the other books in the series.  It's set in the Midwest in the early 1900's and follows a family of Scandinavian origin who makes their living farming and semi-ranching.  The main character is a young woman in her 20's who is deaf and trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  She travels to the east coast with a young man who happened to work on her family's farm as an intern of sorts to interview with a prestigious school for the deaf.  It's a very sweet story and someday when I have the time (ha, ha), I'd like to read the other books in the series.  *** (three stars)

I read "A Reliable Wife" for one of my book clubs and I hesitate to review it here because none of us liked it, which is a very rare occurrence.  The concept of the novel is great:  a single woman in her 30's becomes a mail order bride to a 50-something man after answering an advertisement in a newspaper.  It is set in the midwest in the early 1900's.  We all agreed that the author (a man) failed dismally in his attempts to write from a woman's point of view.  All of us pretty much had to force ourselves to finish this one.  Not a good sign.  * (one star)

"The Help" was my pick for book club one month and it was a real winner.  Every single one of us loved it!  It probably helps that I live in the South (yes, I consider Texas, at least East Texas, to be The South, not The West) and we can relate to many of the main character's experiences with race relations.  The main character is a single, college-educated girl in her early 20's who returns home to find that no one cares about her fancy degree; they only care about getting her married off to the first guy who finds her attractive.  Did I mention it takes place in the 1960's, a time when women were supposed to go to college to get their Mrs. degrees?  Anyway, she finds the way that her (former) high school friends treat their "help" to be absolutely deplorable and with the aid of the African-American maids, housekeepers and nannies, writes a tell-all book revealing the cruelty of Southern women when it comes to their hired help.  Everyone I know who has read this book has loved it, even though most of us are ashamed to admit that we know people who have acted like the bullies/enemies in the novel.  We all found ourselves cheering for the main character and the brave women who lent their stories to her tell-all book.  ***** (five stars)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Brotherly Something

Sorry for the lack of posting lately.  We spent last weekend in San Antonio with my parents and sister's family for three days of swimming, eating and more swimming.  And this week, I taught a class of first graders (including Sydney) at our church's Vacation Bible School.  So to say I haven't had time to post would be an understatement.

Anyway, I'll post more about those events in a few days when I've had a full night's sleep.  For now, I'll leave you with some of my favorite pictures from our swim-a-thon weekend.

It started with some brotherly affection:


Morphed into some brotherly discomfort:


And ended with some brotherly choking and screaming:


On the positive side, the nursery ladies at church told me that Liam was very protective of Evan on our VBS workday; he showed Evan how to play with some toys, he insisted on eating his lunch next to him and he defended Evan against some other kids who were trying to take away one of his toys.  In other words, only Liam is allowed to pick on his little brother.

From what Ryan tells me, that's the definition of brotherly love.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Reads, Part I (Classics)

I thought I'd make book recommendations a regular thing around here.  Last year, I listed everything I'd read over the course of the year and believe it or not, I've actually read more books this year than I did last year.  I seriously have no idea how I accomplished that.

Instead of listing all 41 books at once, I'm going to break it up over several posts and from now on, instead of making one (or several) huge book posts a year, I'll probably update it more perodically.

Between the two book clubs and my own personal "just for fun" reading, I've read several classics which I'll review in this post.  And yes, you'll notice that I've included links to Amazon.  I'm most definitely a library kinda girl, but if you like to buy books, I've conveniently included links for you.  

I'm not a big fan of science fiction, but Ray Bradbury's "Farenheit 451" was really interesting.  The story revolves around a fireman who has the terrible job of burning books and his struggle to hide his distaste for the job, the culture that supports the burning of books and his love for the books he's stolen and hidden in his home.  I found it that it spoke to modern times even though it was written fifty years ago and set over a hundred years into the future.  It's a fairly short read and I'd definitely recommend it over the movie (which I found to be both weird and terrible).

"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley is another classic science fiction (is that an oxymoron?) that I read this past year.  It was written by a British author, but is supposedly about American society and the blandness and/or mindlessness of our culture.   One character bucks the system and is punished with banishment and another character, an "outsider", is granted his wish of living alone after being forced into the limelight for his differentness.  While the other readers in my book club liked this one more than "Farenheit 451", I did not.  I don't know if there is a movie of this one or not...I didn't like it enough to bother looking for one.

I couldn't find a stand-alone copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" so I read a book of his short stories.  In the short story (seriously short - like a twenty minute read), Benjamin Button is born an old man and ages backwards.  It's a very interesting concept and it lead to a lively discussion at one of my book club meetings (we ate our meal backwards, too - dessert first, appetizers last!).  You may have seen the movie starring Brad Pitt, but from what others in my book club said, the short story is a bit different.  I really liked it and I enjoyed several of the other stories in the book.  Like "The Great Gatsby", he focuses on the east coast upper class and despite his attempts to show that their character flaws are due to their circumstances, I didn't find myself feeling very sorry for them at all.

"A Wrinkle in Time" is another science fiction classic on my list.  I went on and read the sequels to it as well and enjoyed them all.  The series revolves around the Murry family who travels in time and space to fight evil (the "darkness") with their goodness (the "light").  I liked the third and fourth books in the series more than the first two simply because they involved more history and less science, but I'm a history buff so that's no surprise.  I know that this book is usually on the list of required books for kids in middle school or junior high (I think I read it in sixth or seventh grade), but honestly, I don't know how they get all the concepts included in it.  I barely got some of them and I'm definitely older than thirteen!  But then again, I don't know that I read the book all that carefully since it was not a "fun" read for me back then.

For fun, I read J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."  It wasn't for one of my book clubs, but it's been on my list of books to read for several years now.  In it, angst-ridden teenager Holden Caulfield recounts the details of a very memorable weekend in his young life.  Several times I wanted to reach into the book and shake some sense into the little punk.  What a whiner!  Now I know why I don't particularly want to go back to teaching high school...sheesh.  But, I can say I've read it and while I didn't like the main character, I did like the way it was written and the overall plot.

Next up....historical fiction!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mean Mom

I have a friend that went on a cooking strike. When her kids became overly critical of her cooking (which is fabulous, I have to say) and just whiney in general at dinnertime, she called it quits. For a week, she didn't cook one meal for them. Her husband and boys, then ages 5 and 8 (the boys, that is, I think the husband is forty-something), had to fend for themselves for three meals a day. Eventually, the boys apologized and she went back to preparing their meals. She claims that the whine factor at dinnertime has diminished drastically thanks to her little experiment.

Well, I am really close to implementing it myself. At least four out of every seven nights, neither of my boys eats dinner. They squirm in their chairs, poke at their food and complain. Once Liam declares that he's not eating whatever it is, Evan follows suit. The both pull off their bibs and become general disruptions while the other three of us try to eat.  We have a rule that you have to stay at the table until everyone is done eating, so letting them down to go play is not an option.

Most of the time, Sydney eats her dinner. She may pick around the vegetables, but she eats everything else. However, last night she was just as bad as her brothers. It's not like I fixed something gross (slow cooker cranberry pork chops, pasta, green beans). She was just in a mood, I suppose.

So after dinner, they asked to go to the pool, which has become our nightly summer ritual. We said "no" since we went in the morning. Then they asked to play Wii. And I just snapped. I told them that children who don't eat their dinners don't get rewarded with fun things and I forced them to go grocery shopping with me after the dishes were cleaned up.

My three children had to march through the grocery store with empty stomachs and I didn't give in to a single one of their pleas for samples or "yummy" (preservative-filled) foods.

Was that mean?  Was it mean enough?  And what do I do now when they pull their "I don't like this...I don't want to eat this...This is yucky...I want something else" routine?  Any ideas?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Rite of Passage

It's a rite of passage that women don't often talk about. Ask a woman about the first time she shaved her legs, the day she bought her first bra or the day she "became a woman" and she could probably give you every detail. Walk into a room of women, like at a baby shower, and you'll hear birth story after birth story with details that will make you cringe (episiotimies! scar tissue! excess bodily fluids!). Ask a woman about her first mammogram and ever asks about those, at least not women my age. Why is that? Don't you think it's kind of an important topic? And it's a lot less messy than childbirth, that's for sure.

* Fair warning for my male readers - stop reading now if talk of boobs from a completely clinical perspective weirds you out.

So I found a lump. After nursing three kids, I'd felt weird things before, but since my breast-feeding days ended well over a year ago, I knew this was a not a normal thing. The thing is, it popped up over a weekend: not there on a Friday, but there on a Sunday morning. It was so big it was visible.

When it hadn't gone down by Tuesday, I called Dr. OBGYN, even though I'd just seen him a few weeks ago for my annual checkup and he didn't notice a lump then. The nurse immediately fit me into that day's schedule and long story short, he recommended a mammogram.

Okay, so I knew it was coming eventually. Thirty five is the magic age for having a "baseline" mammogram so I knew I'd have to have one next year (yes, I'm 34 - yikes!). But now I really needed it. Dr. OBYGYN didn't seem to be too worried, since the lump literally just popped up and cancer is usually very slow in growing, but still, y'all, a mammogram. Something only old women have to have done. Well, only old or sick women.

So there I was, sitting in a small waiting room wearing this pastel-colored half poncho thing with one measly snap at the neck. Luckily, I'm petite, so although I had to cross my arms over my chest to retain a bit of dignity, at least the poncho extended the length of my torso. Several of the other women in the room were not as lucky and had to decide whether to cross their arms (which revealed a good portion of their abdomen) or to put their arms down by their sides (which made the poncho open up in the front). Decisions, decisions.

Despite our discomfort, we all tried to make the best of the situation. I'd been told that "diagnostic" or "there's possibly something wrong with you" mammograms were only done on certain days at certain times, therefore, all of us were there for similar reasons and facing the unknown. Some looked more worried than others. Of course, I can't imagine that women who are there for their "routine" or "annual squish job" mammograms are too thrilled to be there, either, but there was a certain level of anxiety in the room.

I was finally called in for my turn and while the (thankfully female) technician was as nice as could be, it still wasn't much fun. It wasn't as bad as a root canal, but it was no trip to the beach, either. After I'd been squished eight different ways, I was sent back to the little waiting room for more waiting. Apparently, my scans weren't thorough enough, so I got the added pleasure of having an ultrasound done, too. To heighten my anxiety, the ultrasound tech seemed puzzled by what she saw so she called in Dr. Radiologist to see what he could make of the images on the screen. He didn't seem too worried about what he saw so I was released and allowed to put my clothes back on. I was never so happy to see a bra in my life.

Overall, it wasn't a terrible experience. It was uncomfortable, but not painful. Actually, the most painful part was having to lock up all of my possessions (including the book I'd brought) and being forced to watch "The View" in the tiny waiting room. there anything worse than four shrill, B-list celebrity women, each of whom think they know everything, arguing over dumb topics and "interviewing" completely irrelevant people for an entire hour?

The lump is gone now. No one has any idea what it was or if it will come back. I'm supposed to "keep an eye on it" and promise to go back in if it shows up again. I hope it won't. But if it does, at least I'll know what to expect.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

All Camped Out

Over Memorial weekend, we all went camping at a state park about an hour west of San Antonio. While Ryan has taken Sydney camping several times over the past year, this was the first time that all five of us went. Let's just say I'm glad that I only have to go once a year because camping is so not for me. (I didn't mind sleeping on an air mattress in a tent, but the heat, the bugs and the lack of clean bathrooms about did me in. And yes, I will readily admit I'm spoiled when it comes to air conditioning and restroom accommodations.)

However, we all had fun playing the river:




And, despite a gnat infestation, we had a good time watching millions of bats emerge from a nearby cave:


(Here are the kids in front of the cave. Sorry, no pictures of the bats themselves - they came out too blurry. And no, I didn't teach Liam the "Loser" sign, but obviously someone did.)

I will admit that I really enjoyed not having to cook or clean for three days in a row. The men of the group we went with (about a hundred people in all), did all of the barbecuing and we may have contributed to the demise of the planet, but it sure was nice being able to throw away paper plates rather than having to wash dishes.

The trip to this particular state park is an annual event, so I'm sure we'll go back next year. Ryan has promised to look into getting a portable air conditioner for our tent so I think that promise along with the knowledge that the kids had so much fun will convince me to go back.

Besides, I certainly can't deny my kids the opportunity to do fun things like this again:


That's my daredevil, Sydney!

Friday, June 4, 2010

This, That and the Other

1a. Due to a communication mishap at my last bookclub meeting, I ate something with olive oil (to which I'm allergic) and had a terrible reaction that included trouble breathing and a mad dash to find an antihistamine. One trip to the allergist later, I am now the proud owner of a couple of EpiPens to prevent my throat from completely closing up if I accidentally ingest olives or olive oil again.

1b. Sadly, I think my dream of spending a week or two in Greece has just been shattered since, according to my doctor who is of Greek ancestry, everyone there practically bathes in olive oil. :(

2. I had a general medical checkup last week. My cholesterol levels are great considering my family history. However, I'm slightly anemic. The doctor's solution? Eat more than one serving of red meat a week. Hello? Won't that raise my cholesterol?

3. Sydney is officially a second grader! She received awards for All A Honor Roll, Excellent Behavior and Track Club. She was the 19th fastest girl in the entire first grade for running a half mile in just over 5 minutes. She most definitely gets the running skills from Ryan.

4. Ryan worked from home one morning while I went to a doctor's appointment (see number 2 above) and got a little taste of what I deal with all day. He left the boys with a snack and Sesame Street and a few minutes later, heard Liam in the backyard. A quick peek into the living room revealed that Liam had opened all the windows, pushed out all the screens and climbed out of a window and into the backyard. I think Liam had his longest time-out ever over that one!

5. While perusing the bargain bins at Target (the most dangerous part of the store!), I found a copy of Pride & Prejudice for $2.50. I never buy books because I'm too cheap I love supporting the public library, but I figured that the low price was a sign that I was meant to buy it and to finally read it. So that's one of my goals for this summer - to read P&P without using Cliff's Notes (which is the only way I passed that particular unit in high school junior English).

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Out of the Mouth of Babes...

It's the end of the school year, and as expected, Sydney has been hauling all kinds of things home from school: her spelling test spiral, a stack of artwork about a mile deep, her weekly reader log, etc. One of the funniest things she brought home (and probably the only thing that won't wind up in the recycle bin), is her journal. Throughout the year, the teacher had the students write 1-2 sentences on various topics and then illustrate them. Some of Sydney's cracked me up.

Here they are, with her own little misspellings and a few hints from me in italics. I think she did a great job for being six years old!

9/3: This summer I went to Galveston S. (for Schlitterbahn). I had so much fun! I went down a slide. Wheeeeee!

9/21: In my nabhood (neighborhood), there is a house that looks like mine. All the houses are the same.

11/30: My christmas tree is fake. I decorate my christmas tree every year.

1/12: On a snowy day I like to go ouside and have a snowball fight, biuld a snowman and make snow agagls (angels) then I go inside and take a warm bath.

5/19: On Feld (Field) day there are water slides, Tug o war, tattoos, movies, snow cones.

5/26: After school it's going to be fun because it's SUMMER! In summer my whole family is going to Sanantonio. H. and S. (the first initials of her two little best friends) we are having a camping sleep over we're going to have marshmloes. At last we're going to Flodira (Florida).

Hopefully, it will be a great summer. As for Florida.....I haven't had the heart to tell her yet that we may not get to go due to the oil spill. Oh well, we'll have a fun time no matter what!