Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Reviews March 2018

My Story by Elizabeth Smart.  I have a lot of admiration for the work that Elizabeth Smart does today, so I finally got ahold of her first book and read it.  One has heard a lot of it already, of course, but it was fascinating to read her account of her horrible kidnapping and nine months of captivity.  Her ghostwriter is not the best — and I often thought it would be interesting to have her story paired with what her parents were doing to find her — but she is smart and sensible, and doesn’t shy away from delving into any and all aspects of the experience.  I often found her religion frustrating, too:  you get a lot of her feeling like god is looking out for her, while meanwhile she is being raped daily and near-starved.  With friends like that, who needs enemies, etc. etc.  But it is a powerful read and I do recommend it.

Sunburn by Laura Lippman.  I love Laura Lippman’s novels (even though I still have yet to read what she is most known for, her Tess Monaghan series), and was excited to read her latest.  And it didn’t disappoint, even though I found it a bit of a stressful read.  She’s a great writer, and this story is interesting right from the very beginning, but (although really I should say “and” since it is a thriller, and suspense is par for the course) the way it is set up, it is obvious something bad is going to happen, so I was all on edge throughout the whole book until it does.  The story begins with Polly, a woman on the run, who ends up in a small town in Delaware of all places.  She meets Adam in a bar, and both eventually end up working there.  Polly has several pasts which she is trying to hide, and she obviously has an agenda, but we also learn that Adam is a detective hired to keep an eye on her.  It’s a fun and sad and stressful book, superbly crafted by Lippman.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.  I had heard many wonderful things about this novel, Gyasi’s first, and there are ways in which it was excellent.  It’s an epic story that begins in the 1700’s with two women in Ghana, Effia and Esi.  One stays in Ghana, and one becomes a slave sent to America.  The interesting thing about the book is that each generation gets one chapter each, and then the next chapter is the next generation, so you speed through the centuries pretty quickly.  Gyasi is a really good story-teller and I was always excited to begin learning about the next person.  It was also fascinating to see how the two branches of the family diverged.  My criticisms are two:  first, I think it is really hard to write and read stories of slavery.  I feel like it has almost all been done, and thus when you read about the torture of slaves and the escapes that end in torture, and the slave owner’s young child having total power over the slaves — well it has all been done before, and it also comes to seem a bit like torture porn.  My other criticism is that because of the way the novel was set up, it can seem like an overview at times, as she tries to capture the general African American experience (and I’m assuming the same is true for the Ghana half).  However, I do recommend it:  she has talent.

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo.  I enjoyed reading this novel in the same way I enjoyed reading Nobody’s Fool last month.  Russo is such a fun, relaxed writer, and both books reminded me of a modern day Trollope novel, in that they easily depicted a whole community in a very particular window of time.  This book is definitely a continuation of Nobody’s Fool, except the main characters are a little different.  We get a lot of Sully still, and some of Rub, but Russo surprised me in focusing on Douglas Raymer, the policeman in the first book who Sully sucker punches.  There’s tension with Ruth’s horrible criminal son-in-law, and I certainly missed the presence of Miss Beryl, who is still mentioned quite often.  It is, undoubtedly, a romp.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware.  If you want a headache, then read this book.  Harrumph.  I do think Ware’s writing has improved with each thriller she writes:  In a Dark Dark Wood, her first, was okay, whereas The Woman in Cabin 10 was much better done.  For some reason with this one though, I just found the stress of it unpleasant.  It’s one of those situations where the characters do something stupid, and then how they handle that stupid things snowballs, and things get worse and worse, and if one character had just stepped back and confided in someone else, so much of what goes wrong could have been avoided.  This doesn’t make it a bad book; on the contrary, I think it could be argued that this is evidence of its success.  But it just made me very tense every time I read it, and it got so I was looking forward to being done with it, although there are things Ware does at the end of the book that I thought were good.  In a nutshell:  Isa, the main character, is a lawyer with a newborn, who gets a text from an old friend that she is needed.  Isa and two other women, Fatima and Thea, immediately travel to Salten, a beach town, where they all went to school for a year when they were 15.  Something happened that year, and how they covered it up is about to be exposed.  There are lies, and then lies upon lies upon lies.  

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Playing With Owen

Owen goes through phases when it comes to toys.  For a while it was the Thomas trains, and then it was matchbox cars, and then stuffed animals, and then Pokemon, and for a long time it has been Star Wars.  He's really only seen the 7th (I think?) movie and parts of the original three, but he loves reciting Star Wars facts ad nauseam, and then getting annoyed with me when I can't keep the facts straight.  (For the record, although I have nothing against Star Wars, I am a Star Trek TNG woman, and whereas I can tell you all sorts of interesting tidbits (oh yes, they are interesting!) about Data's neural net, I am rusty when it comes to droids and bounty hunters and millennium falcons and the like.)

This is what things looked like around here for awhile:




And I can't forget the Chewbacca slippers:



A funny thing about Owen's Star Wars play is that he played Star Wars with Posy, whether or not she was aware of this fact.  She was, of course, Commander Posy, and he would go on missions and then check in with said Commander, who was busy sleeping in a nook.  It was very amusing, much more so than the times he started poking a pet with his lightsaber.

But this brings me to a related topic, and that is the topic of playing with one's children.  There are weekends when Owen is perfectly happy playing with his toys, and whereas he will check in with us every now and then, and get help here and there, he is content with solo play.  But then there are times when he cannot play by himself for more than a few minutes and is constantly begging Sean or me to join in a game.  And of course we do, although sometimes -- especially if it is the end of a day -- we do so rather grudgingly.  I don't remember my parents ever getting down on the floor and playing with me, but that is probably because I had two sisters.  If Owen had a sibling, I wouldn't at all feel guilty telling them to go play with each other, but since he doesn't, I do feel guilty in the moments when I just cannot continue with the "floor play," as my friend, Megan, terms it.

Part of the problem for me (although not for Sean, who loves Star Wars and battles and the like), is that playing with Owen usually means doing what he wants to do, and that often involves two bad guys fighting (I asked him once why we always had to be bad guys, and he replied that it was because he's a good guy in real life, so it is fun to pretend), or cars crashing, or bounty hunters looking for bounty -- all things I absolutely did not play as a child myself.  So sometimes I try to redirect:  I'll say I'll play if we can do something with legos, or color, or play with play dough, or do an arts project, or something like that.

But I still feel a bit guilty.  It's not Owen's fault that he is an only child. And I try to remind myself that someday quite soon he is going to want nothing to do with us, and I'll remember fondly and probably wistfully the days when he wanted me to chase him with a cardboard weapon.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Elephant Sweater

Back in the day pre-bulldogge puppy and pre-child, I had a lot of evenings in which to knit.  I went a bit crazy knitting sweaters, and my final sweater before I got Dorothy was a Rowan cape-y type sweater that looks like this:



I even purchased a special kilt-pin to close it with, although I'm not quite sure where I stashed said pin.  But then I got Dorothy, and since I was working all day, I needed to tire her out and give her my attention, so my knitting fell temporarily by the wayside.

But then I got pregnant and had Owen, and as you can imagine, my spare time for knitting did not increase.  Cut to the beginning of last summer when Owen found some of my knitting paraphernalia, and asked if I could knit him a sweater, preferably one with an elephant on it.

I said yes, and found a really cute free pattern (Stitch Nation by Debbie Stoller).  I thought I could easily do a kid-size sweater in a few months, but I ended up knitting a bit and then stopping for a bit, etc., so it wasn't until February when I finally finished.  Here it is:



And here is Owen wearing it and making the trunk look for a peanut:



I'm pleased with it and had fun doing it once I worked on it more regularly. I found another project I had half finished -- some sort of chocolate-brown sweater for me that I have no memory of buying the yarn for or starting -- and am finishing the final sleeve now.  If I can muster a bit more energy, I shall one day soon go through my way too large knitting stash and try to match yarn to knitting pattern.  I'm not sure it is possible!  But I am back from my hiatus, baby.  Or back from my baby hiatus.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Kindness Rocks

In January, when Owen and I were on a walk at Penn State Abington, Owen found a painted rock with a quotation on it and #kindnessrocks.  We looked it up when we got home, and read about how it was started a couple of years ago to spread a bit of joy.  People paint the rocks and then leave them all over the place to uplift and inspire.

We thought it would be a good January project and went on our own rock hunting expedition, found a few suitable specimens, got some paint at our local Michael's and set to work.  Owen did the painting, and then once they had dried, I added a few quotations with a sharpie.


Here is a picture of our handiwork before distribution:


We then walked back to campus and found good places for our own kindness rocks.  It's been a few months now and we still see a few where we put them, whereas others have made their way elsewhere.

At one point Owen was going to put one under a pricker bush, and I warned him off saying that it wouldn't be good if someone got pricked while picking up what was meant to be a bit of good fortune.  Which got us to thinking about how it would be funny if we made some #meannessrocks and put suitable quotations on them.  Owen at this point was having fits of giggles and came up with all sorts of meanness rock quotes in the fart genre, whereas I kept smirking at the notion of printing on a rock:  Die a spinster.

Reader, we did not do it.  So if you find a meanness rock you cannot blame us for it.  We went high and spread good cheer.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Book Reviews February 2018

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld.  This was a very good read that was also slightly unusual in concept.  Naomi is a child-finder, a detective of sorts who specializes in finding missing children when no one else can.  When the book begins, she has been hired by the parents of Madison Culver, a girl who went missing in a snowstorm in Oregon three years ago and has not been seen since.  It has become a cold case and most presume she is dead, so Naomi is the parents’ last chance.  Naomi is good at finding missing children partly because her past is similar:  when she was 9 or so she escaped from some kind of captivity she has almost no memory of.  Bits and pieces of her horrific past come back to her, but most of what happened is unknown.  Naomi was raised by a beloved foster parent, who helped her heal by letting her run free.  Anyway, chapters of Naomi’s search are interspersed with chapters of Madison herself, who has been saved yet held captive by a kind of hermit.  She keeps herself sane by thinking of her plight like that of the Snow Girl in her favorite fairy tale.  It was all slightly odd, yet very well-conceived and hard to put down.  I will definitely read her next book.

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot.  I loved this book.  Amy Liptrot is in her early thirties and when the book begins has just returned to Orkney, an island off the coast of Scotland on which she grew up.  She spent the majority of her twenties becoming a partying alcoholic in London, and has just completed rehab and is embarking on a sober life.  She writes about her wild downward spiral in London, but the majority of the book is about her learning to live without alcohol, and doing so on Orkney and its surrounding, even smaller islands, which are all wind and sea and migrating birds.  She’s such a good writer:  there are no lectures or typical flashbacks or sobriety-speak.  Rather, she concentrates on the small things, and on really seeing and experiencing, and random and poignant lessons learned.  Part of what is so fascinating about it is the nature of those islands – they sounded to me like another planet, and one I would like to experience.  I will read again.

Before The Fall by Noah Hawley.  This was a wonderful read: there was nothing extraneous in the writing, the story was exciting, and the characters well-created.  There is a plane accident, and a painter from Martha’s Vineyard rescues someone and swims for eight hours to safety.  Hawley examines one by one the experiences of all the passengers in the days leading up to the plane crash.  Then he details the painter’s immediate post-crash life, as well as the investigation into what went wrong and whether it was an accident or a terrorist act.  It also ends up being an astute examination of our current 24-hour news cycle, and how the potential story is more important than the facts.  It was excellent!

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish.  I kept reading people say that this is one of the parenting books that they return to again and again, so finally got curious enough to procure myself a copy.  And it was interesting – although my problem with the parenting books I’ve read so far, is that you basically get all you need to know from the first chapter, and then are stuck reading and reading and reading all the examples and the reiterations.  If I were less OCD I would just, you know, read ONE chapter; but I can’t do that.  So I read the whole thing and learned some good techniques about how not to shut your child down when they speak, and how not to lecture, but rather to re-phrase what the child has just told you, so that s/he feels heard and understood.

The Martian by Andy Weir.  I read and reviewed this book a couple of years ago, so won’t write much again.  I started thinking about it a couple of weeks ago and decided it would be fun to read again.  And it was!  Just as good the second time around.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper.  The tag line for this new mystery by Jane Harper (her second) is:  “5 women go on a hike.  Only 4 return.”  Ha!  ‘Tis true, and it is up to Aaron Falk – the main character of her first mystery, The Dry, to figure out what happened.  Things are complicated by the fact that one of the women was helping them build a case against the employer that sent the women into the bush in the first place (it was a company character/trust-building mandatory trip).  Harper switches back and forth from current day and Falk and his partner’s work on the case, to the four days of the camping trip.  It was really well-done and a fun read.  Harper gets people right, and she focuses in on all the cross-currents between the women.  It was suspenseful.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O’Farrell.  This was a really wonderful memoir, conceived when O’Farrell’s middle child is diagnosed as a baby with horrible allergies.  They are always having to administer her shots and rush her to a hospital, and it got her thinking about her own “brushes with death” in her life, and how experiencing such moments in life really isn’t an unusual thing.  So she writes chapters of all different lengths and about moments as diverse as running into the street as a toddler to getting caught in a riptide to being mugged.  It’s a brilliant idea and her writing is excellent.  Her first story is about hiking to the top of a mountain by herself and encountering a lone man whom she immediately knew meant her extreme harm.  It was the most terrifying story I’ve ever read!!  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  O’Farrell doesn’t shy away from, well, anything, and her writing is as brave as she.  It’s a fascinating book and I now want to read her novels.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.  I had heard a lot about this book before I purchased it and then had it around for a while before reading it.  I was a little resistant to what she was doing when I first began – which is writing a book that is many genres wrapped into one, mainly memoir and theory – the theory part of my brain is rusty from lack of use and at first resisted being awakened.  However, I ended up really loving it and finding most of it quite interesting and very well done.  Nelson writes of becoming a mother for the first time at a late-ish age, and dives deep into family and gender, queer theory, and heteronormative restrictions.  While she was pregnant, her partner was having trans surgery, and she writes of the peculiars of that situation.  She brings in a lot of art theory and exhibits she visits that are about gender and family, and then also writes a lot about the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and perversions and marriage.  It’s much more cohesive than I’m making it out to be, and is very smart and thought-provoking.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Posy In Distress

With three pets, there seems to always be something going on with one of them, health-wise, and this winter it is Posy’s turn in the spotlight.  For most of the past few months she has looked like this:



Or this:


Basically at the beginning of January I slowly noticed that Posy – who cleans herself constantly on a normal day – was paying way too much attention to cleaning the tip of her tail.  I felt it and could feel some bumps that I thought were scabs, and figured she must have a skin condition that she gets from time to time, which is scabby in nature and tends to go away relatively quickly.  But the slurping of the tail continued, and the next time I looked a few days later, it was all bloody, so off to the vet we went!

It was determined that perhaps in response to an injury, Posy had practically licked off the tip of her tail;  ick, I know – the wound wasn’t pretty.  We didn’t see our usual vet, and the guy we did see suggested I get a blow-up e-collar, that would allegedly be more comfortable than the usual e-collar.  I ordered one and when it came I realized it wouldn’t work for Posy, who is a tiny cat, but has a thick neck and very constricted airways.  So I tried a soft e-collar (the blue one in the picture above), but when I first put it on, she looked at me and commenced licking the tip of her tail with the e-collar on, all challenging-like.

I was taking Plum to the vet for a check-up, so brought Posy along for the ride, and our usual vet thought she could bandage the tail.  This was a Saturday morning and actually worked beautifully until Sunday night when Posy decided she had had enough of the bandage, thank you very much.  So I put the blue cone of shame back on, and this time Posy seemed to have forgotten that she could technically still reach her tail from it.

Since then, she’s worn the collar for five or so days, and then I’ve taken it off and she’s been fine for a few days, until the wound starts to itch again and she returns to licking and then I find pools of blood on the floor and the collar goes back on.  The wound is definitely healing – it’s about a third the size it was originally, but she has real problems leaving it alone.

The obvious solution is that I need to leave the collar on longer than five or so days, but she gets so dejected with it on!  And she follows me around and purrs and is all around very needy, poor thing.  The vet shaved the end of her tail, too, so it looks like a deflating balloon now. 

She is really such a sweet cat, on the whole.  She lets me put the collar on, and she is very, very tolerant with Owen, who gives her a little too much lovin’.  Owen will now imitate the voice I give Posy and will make her talk back to him, which makes me very proud, like my work here is done [brushes off hands].


Monday, February 12, 2018

Star Wars Valentines

Owen is all about Star Wars right now, so when I saw Star Wars valentines in the store a couple of weeks ago, I bought them without examining them too closely.  Yesterday we got them out so that he could address them to his friends, and I realized that they didn’t have envelopes, and the spot where he had to write the names was a relatively small circle. 

I talked him into not attempting to write his classmates’ names (they are up to letter Q in pre-K so he can mostly write A-Q, but a) not small and b) if he forgets how a letter goes he tends to just make it up with a few extra squiggles), and to just concentrate on writing O-W-E-N in the small “from” circle allotted.

Luckily we had a lot of extras so there was room for error.  He can write a respectable OWEN when he is in the mood, but this was the first time he had to write twenty Owens in a row.  He did a good job, despite all my nagging (he doesn’t yet understand that he really has to write the four letters in a particular order, and thus didn’t understand why O-E-N with a W fit in randomly underneath or on top or on the side might be a little cryptic to a beginning reader; he also likes to experiment with new ways of “holding” the pen.  Sigh.)

Here are some of the outtakes that didn't make the cut:


And then since we had extra, he wanted to write a valentine to his favorite cat, Posy.  He brought it upstairs and put it on her main bed on the sink, so that she could find it next time she settled there:

 

I’m sure Posy was pleased.