Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Title: The Children Act
Author: Ian McEwan
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Kindle
Content Alert: swearing and sex, but not much of either one

Now that she's in her fifties, Fiona Maye's life seems to bear the fruits of years of hard work, routine, and restraint. Her job as a family court judge in London is both satisfying and demanding, and she and her husband Jack know what to expect from each other. That is, until Jack surprises her by telling her that he wants to have an affair and wants her permission to carry it out. As Fiona works to regain a sense of balance in her personal life, she finds  herself struggling with the emotional demands of case involving a seventeen-year-old Jehovah's Witness boy who doesn't want the medical procedures that will cure him of leukemia.

I love Ian McEwan. Atonement, Solar, On Chesil Beach and Saturday are some of my favorite books. One of the things I like best about McEwan's novels is that he creates such interesting, complex characters. There isn't a lot that "happens" in some of his books-- rather, it's the interior life of what's going on in the minds of the characters that propels the novels forward. This is definitely true in The Children Act. It has barely any dialogue and takes place in only a handful of episodes. What's interesting here is to see Fiona work through her feelings toward Jack and her feelings about this perplexing case, and to see how they unexpectedly intersect.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review: Think Like a Freak by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Title: Think Like a Freak
Author: Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Nothing I remember

One of the first audiobooks I ever listened to was the original Freakonomics. I remember painting Annie's bedroom right after we moved to Texas while I listened to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner expound on everything from the relationship between abortion and the drop in violent crime twenty years later to what your child's name says about them. Mind you, this was more than ten years ago, and I still remember crouching on the floor, smelling the paint, and hearing those voices. I was hooked.

It's been more than a decade and I've listened to hundreds of audiobooks in the intervening years, but when I learned that the Freakonomics guys had a new book out, I put it in my Audible cart right away. Now, the concept isn't that new. Guys like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer (before the plagiarism thing) and dozens of others have written about how looking at things in new ways yields surprising results. The book isn't revolutionary-- it's basically more of the same entertaining mythbusting two have been at for years, but it's geared slightly differently-- how you, personally, can retrain your brain to do what they're doing (look at the same old problems in new ways). But really, that concept serves as a scaffolding for them to tell entertaining stories. Apparently, the book is basically a "best of" their podcast, so if you're a dedicated podcast listener, I wouldn't recommend buying the book (as the hordes of angry Audible reviews attest), but I thought it was an enjoyable way to pass a few of the torturous post-marathon treadmill hours I endured after St. George this year.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Title: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban
Author: Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: lots of violence

A couple of weeks ago, the Nobel Committee announced that Malala Yousafzai had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2014. While I knew that she was the Pakistani student who had been shot by the Taliban, if I hadn't recently finished I Am Malala, I think I would have thought she had been awarded the prize primarily for publicity or for sympathy because of the accident. However, after reading I Am Malala, I was cheering for this courageous young woman who has campaigned tirelessly for the rights of girls in the Muslim world.

I Am Malala is probably the most inspiring book I've read this year. Yousafzai and Lamb did a great job situating Malala's story within the larger story of what the Taliban has done in Pakistan, and the political climate in which she was raised. She tells about both her interior life and the life of her family, and never comes across as a do-gooder, but rather as a real person with faults and problems who happens to have done extraordinary things. It's a book that I hope to listen to with my kids, to inspire them and to open their eyes to what is going on in other parts of the world.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Title: The Orchardist
Author: Amanda Coplin
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Sexual abuse (not described in detail), some threats of violence

It's the turn of the twentieth century, and Talmadge has been living alone on an apple orchard in Washington State for more than forty years. Then Jane and Della, two feral teenage sisters who are both hugely pregnant and who escaped from a violent brothel owner, appear on the land. Talmadge begins to feed them, and eventually they become like a family. However, the scars of their childhood run deep for the girls, and continue to challenge the family for years to come.

I think a lot of readers would probably find The Orchardist pretty slow, even a little boring. I'll admit that I bought it months ago, and put off reading it because I knew it was the kind of book that required a commitment. But if you know anything about me as a reader, it's that I love epics. I love the books that other people think are too slow, or too detailed. And Amanda Coplin's genius lies in transporting her readers to the turn-of-the-century orchard. This is a book where isolation and trauma and the natural world play heavily into the shaping of the characters, and it's definitely a book worth reading for people who love a slow, meandering, and ultimately rewarding kind of story.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Books, Blogging, Bloat

About six weeks ago, Eli and Rose started preschool. I did something totally self-indulgent this year: I put them both in full-day preschool one day a week. That's right, between the hours of 9:30-3:30, I have no children with me. I did this because I'm planning to teach at BYU Salt Lake on Thursday afternoons this winter, but it felt absolutely decadent to have six hours all to myself each week. I had such big plans-- I was going to write essays. I was going to start one of the book ideas I have percolating through my head. I was going to get pedicures. I was going to read. I was never, ever going to get behind on blogging.

Obviously, things haven't turned out that way. I've spent most of my free time building cabinets for the kitchen project I've been working on. Between fall break and doctor appointments and everything else that encroaches on life, the only truly indulgent thing I've done during that time was the one time I went running. It was about a zillion degrees and I didn't take water and I thought I might expire on the trail before I got back to the car.

My life is way too full. I'm sure yours is too. And if you're like me, it's probably full of lots of good things. I love each and every one of my kids. I love that they're involved in a lot of things that help them feel fulfilled, but it's go-go-go around here all day long. Somehow writing always takes a back burner to folding laundry or driving Annie a million places during a day (and the other kids too, but mostly Annie). I haven't written a word so far. 

One of the things that this exercise of having "free time" has taught me is that I'm not very good at curating my life. Purging my closets? Yes, absolutely. But choosing to do the things that are meaningful or necessary or bring me joy and not doing other things? Not so much. I guess I just love too many things. 

That brings me to books and blogging. From the very first time I got my hands on Little House on the Prairie in first grade, reading has been the greatest escape of my life. When I started blogging about books (probably about eight years ago), I loved sharing what I was reading, and also doing a little bit of analysis about how the books applied to my experience. But lately, I'm wondering if I'd really rather spend time writing about books, or if I'd rather spend time actually writing books. 

The answer is, at least for right now, that I don't know. I do know that the sixteen books I have read that I haven't blogged about yet are weighing heavily on me, yet I keep procrastinating writing about them. I've set an informal deadline to get them all blogged before we leave town (in 48 hours). Writing that down may actually make me stick to it. But is writing about books a meaningful way to share my voice? Is it a talent or merely an exercise that grew out of a blogging meme way back at a time in my life when I really needed it? Should I keep writing about what I read, or is the weight of feeling responsible for writing about books taking the joy out of reading? 

Meanwhile, if you need me, I will either be in the car, at the dance concert, at a band concert, or stealing away to my bedroom to try to crank out those book reviews before my girls and I hop on a plane to Disneyland.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Book Review: How to Raise the Perfect Dog by Cesar Milan

Title: How to Raise the Perfect Dog: Through Puppyhood and Beyond
Author: Cesar Millan
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy

In addition to the Monks of New Skete, I turned to Cesar Millan, aka "The Dog Whisperer" to help us get ready for the arrival of Miles. Although I know Millan is like a household name for dog owners, and his methods can be controversial, I had no previous exposure to his work. While much of the material was similar in the two books, I think I preferred The Art of Raising a Puppy. However, How to Raise the Perfect Dog is a great story for someone who wants to read an opinionated, informed memoir about raising four puppies written by someone with a lot of experience. For the purposes of the story, Millan takes on four new puppies of different breeds and backgrounds (schnauzer, pit bull, lab, and bulldog), and writes about how to raise a puppy. The book is more memoir and less instruction manual. But it's a good introduction for a first-time dog owner (except that I'm doing everything wrong and our house is totally set up wrong for a new puppy because it's so open). It has also made me want to start watching his tv show for practical pointers. It sounds like Supernanny for dogs, and I need all the help I can get.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: The Art of Raising a Puppy by The Monks of New Skete

Title: The Art of Raising a Puppy
Author: The Monks of New Skete
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy

I've been feeling the fog of having two toddlers beginning to lift for a month or two (maybe I'm deluding myself). They seem to be on the counters less often. It's been at least a few months since the last paint mishap. Eli isn't making a break for the road twenty times a day. They're both (mostly) potty trained, and we can sometimes get a night or two of sleep a week when no one wants to share our bed with us. But I am a masochist, so when the kids started up a puppy campaign about three weeks ago, I didn't say no. I'm allergic to dogs, so they researched the "hypoallergenic" breeds. We visited a friend's goldendoodle puppy and I wasn't wheezing after twenty minutes, so we called up the breeder and there were still seven puppies from the litter available for adoption.

Miles has now been a part of our family for a little more than two weeks. We had four days from the time we decided to add him to the family until we picked him up. I have literally ZERO experience with dogs. I hate dogs. I'm afraid of them. In fact, I like to say that my fears while running by myself in the dark are: 1) dogs, 2) skunks, 3) cars, 4) rapists. I certainly never thought I'd cuddle with one or bathe one or clean up poop from one or pull one voluntarily onto my lap. Long story short: we needed help. And quick.

I have a friend from high school who has a mature goldendoodle, and I asked her for advice, and she said that the best books I could read were by the Monks of New Skete, who breed and raise German Shepherds in Upstate New York. I knew nothing about dog psychology and still know very little, but this book was an excellent crash course. The Monks go into detail about how to become the leader of the dogs' pack, how to understand them, and how to be a gentle but firm "master" to them. Furthermore, I loved the insight I got into both breeding and raising puppies and into the contemplative live at New Skete. But only a glimpse, because any opportunity for a contemplative life for me has now been put off a little bit while I help raise this sweet puppy of ours.

My only critique of the book is that it reads so much like a novel that I wanted to read it from cover to cover before we got the puppy, and now that he's here I don't have the time to go back to it like I should.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Book Review: Girls Who Choose God by McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding

Girls_Who_Choose_God
Title: Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Courageous Women from the Bible
Authors: McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Hardcover Copy

Daniel and the lions' den. Noah's ark. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fiery furnace. Nephi and the broken bow. What do these stories (and hundreds more like them) have in common? Well, for one thing, they all feature men who are faced with a moral dilemma. Children in Primary and Sunday School classes learn to emulate them. But as the mother of three young daughters, I often wish we knew the stories of women in the scriptures as well as we do the stories of their male counterparts.

Girls Who Choose God, a new picture book written by McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding, illustrated by Kathleen Peterson, and published by Deseret Book, goes a long way to filling the gap. The picture book, which features a dozen women from the Bible, including Eve, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the prophet Deborah, and other, lesser-known women, follows a particularly effective format. On the first page spread, each woman's story is introduced, including the moral dilemma she faces. For example, we learn that "Esther had a choice to make. She could keep her luxurious like as the queen, or she could try to save her people by telling the king she was also a Jew." On the second page spread, Krishna and Spalding recount the choices the women make, then they ask readers to apply the story to their own lives. The Esther story concludes with the question, "When have you made a choice to stand up for others?" This allows readers to see that each woman faced a choice, and that it's possible to make courages choices like they did.

The book is also beautifully illustrated. Peterson's drawings brought me to tears at times-- I particularly loved the Mary Magdalene and Eve drawings. The Miriam story features an Egyptian-style border that's incredibly beautiful. Peterson's work is currently featured in the "Practicing Charity" exhibit at the Church History Museum, and the illustrations are a real asset to the book.

I can envision myself using this book in family scripture study, for Family Home Evening lessons and for Sharing Time lessons. It would have appeal to non-LDS Christians too, since the source material is from the Bible. My third-grade daughter made off with it the night we got our copy, and read the whole thing from cover to cover before bedtime. It's a book our sons and our daughters should read, because all readers, regardless of gender will benefit from the stories of these women.

As an added bonus, all proceeds from the book will benefit Interweave Solutions, a nonprofit dedicated to support educational and employment opportunities for LDS women around the world.

(This review was originally published at Segullah).

Friday, September 5, 2014

Book Review: Relax, I'm a Ninja by Natalie Whipple

Title: Relax, I'm a Ninja
Author: Natalie Whipple
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: mild language, kissing, sharing a bed but no sex, violence

Tosh is a nerd at a San Francisco prep school by day, flying under the radar. But by night, he's the best young ninja in the city, trained by his father (who runs a karate studio as a front). Amy is a fellow student, both at the prep school and at the dojo, and Tosh's father invites her to train to become a ninja just as a serial killer starts killing people all around the city, leaving behind the unmistakable mark of the ninja poison Dragon Bile. As Tosh and Amy work to uncover who's behind the murders, they also discover that they have feelings for each other.

Relax, I'm a Ninja is a really fun read. It has just the right amount of action, well-drawn rounded characters in Tosh and Amy, a fun, smart mystery, and a little romance. In fact, the romance was one thing that made this book hard to classify. On the one hand, it's got the kind of action I think my teenage son would totally dig. I'd put it in the Hunger Games/Divergent- strong girl camp, except that the narrator is a guy. On the other hand, Tosh talks A LOT about what he's feeling about Amy, which made it feel a little girly (sorry, gross generalization, I know).  And then theres the fact that about halfway through the novel, it shifts from our everyday world to a speculative world where ninjas can steal souls and have superpowers and stuff like that. I liked that surprise and thinks it works here, but that ordinarily would be a strike against the narrative for me.

So I guess I'll give this book to both of my teenagers and suggest they read it. I think they'll both love it, for different reasons. And yes, there will be a sequel or two. It feels written to be a movie or three.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Review: All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

Title: All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood
Author: Jennifer Senior
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle

It's been a few weeks since I finished All Joy and No Fun, and some of the details seem to be slipping through my mind. But Senior's premise remains clear-- parenting is a more complicated proposition than it used to be. A hundred years ago, children worked for us. Fifty years ago, we ignored them as much as possible. Now parents are the servants to their children, and it makes parenting a much more fraught experience.

The format of Senior's book is interesting and effective-- in each of about six chapters, she follows individual families to highlight a different facet of parenthood (parents with babies and toddlers, parents with school-age kids, parents of adolescents, grandparents functioning as parents). One thing that was interesting to me, personally, is that the book was inspired by the ECFE classes I took with Bryce and Annie when we lived in Minnesota, where kids and parents gather for a two-hour class, they play collaboratively for a while, then the parents separate with a parent educator to talk about parenting issues. In fact, nearly all of the families she follows live either in Minnesota (where I got my parenting footing with Bryce, Annie and Isaac) or in Houston, Texas (where we lived when my kids started school).

While the case studies were enjoyable to read and Senior did a good job analyzing those studies and bringing in support from other sources, I think that most parents will gain the most from looking at their own lives through the lens of the book. I often wonder why I, as a stay-at-home mom, constantly feel run ragged, why I find it so hard to motivate people to help me around the house, why I'm always in the car. And I've come to decide that it's because I have six kids like my grandmother did two generations ago, but I'm trying to raise them in the intensive parenting style that most people do today with far fewer children. Will that change things for me? Probably not, but it's nice to have a little bit of insight into my own mania.