December 29, 2011

5 Minutes of Openness

It's 5-minute Friday in this final week of December 2011.  After a year of profound changes globally and profound loss in my own family, I suspect that I am fresh out of profundity.  However, with a prompt word like "Open," maybe I can at least manage some honest self-examination as a year draws to a close.  I begin at 11:25 p.m.

What do you do when only one path is left open to you, and following it means you've officially voted with your feet?

Sometimes, when we feel we have to distance ourselves from something, we use gentle-sounding phrases like, "Don't worry; the door is always open."  And yet, Robert Frost said that in life, "way leads on to way," and each of us in such a moment "doubted if I should ever come back."

A new year open before us.  New opportunities.  A time to reaffirm that to which we must cling as sacred, and to reexamine precisely what fits into that category.  It is a smaller collection of non-negotiables, perhaps, than I have ever before in my life believed it to be.

I don't know what comes next.  I want to be open to it.  I don't want to be without anchors, without boundaries or limits.

I just don't want to be closed off.  I need "the wisdom to know the difference."  Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

11:30 on the dot.

December 28, 2011

Review of "The Magic Room"

First off, I would like to thank BlogHer and the Penguin Group for allowing me to be a part of the blog tour for this very enjoyable book.  I was given a free ARC of The Magic Room by Jeffrey Zaslow, and a small monetary compensation for the time I invested in reading and reviewing the work.  However, if you know my blog at all, you know I pull no punches, so if I say I enjoyed the book, I did.  My reviews are not for sale.

In a bridal shop that is virtually the only remaining industry in its small mid-Western town, there is a room with soft lighting, deep, footstep-hushing carpet, and a pedestal.  Women step onto that pedestal as prospective brides hoping for something extraordinary.  They leave it, usually in tears, as brides who have found "the dress."  Jeffrey Zaslow takes us on that journey not just with one, but through the true and sometimes heart-rending stories of numerous brides in search of their dreams.  As we quickly learn, in many ways the dress is just the final symbol of that complete fairytale ending that all brides hope for and some never find.

There are stories in The Magic Room of women from so many different ages and walks of life that any reader is bound to identify with one of them.  Yes, I do mean any reader, because men are as integral a part of each of these stories as the blushing brides.  Loving fathers, supportive brothers, husbands amazing or alcoholic--virtually every type of man is present in the interwoven tales, as well.  Moreover, Zaslow has grasped what the dress hunt means to women in a way that may clear up some of the mystery for any man willing to read this book.

Only one aspect of the book requires some advance notice.  Many of these stories are full of very gritty realism.  There is little in the work that the conservative reader would find offensive, but an account in which an individual is gravely injured may prove overpowering to some, as the author describes the person's wounds in gruesome detail.  There was nothing gratuitous about Zaslow's handling of the event; it was a true story, and only with such grim specifics could Zaslow give the reader a complete picture of what the character was facing.  Still, anyone who faints easily may wish to skim those few pages.  I honestly nearly lost consciousness myself.

Leaving aside those of us who can never look at the fake blood on medical dramas, however, this was a genuinely interesting and heartwarming read.  I quickly grew to care about each of Jeffrey Zaslow's subjects, felt that he had sketched each of them as a fully-fledged individual in a way that kept me reading their personal sagas and cheering them on.  The Magic Room reaches below the exterior, the potentially frivolous elements of wedding plans, and leaves us with a deeper examination of why these things matter to us.  I would recommend it to anyone who is in any way connected to an upcoming wedding, to anybody who enjoys a good romance, and for all those who just appreciate a well-written, entertaining book in which they might learn something.

Post-Christmas Nightstand

So, now that everything has been unwrapped and a giant, garden-sized trash bag full of once-beautiful wrapping paper carried out to the can on the curb, what has this Christmas added to my nightstand reading?  I'm willing to bet that pretty much ALL of us book bloggers have more books on our nightstands every December 26th than we had on December 24th.  I got enough new books that some of them are still scattered throughout the house, and another, though on the nightstand, is so cool that it's going to get a post of its own.  Here is a quick peek at the new arrivals important enough to immediately land themselves beside my bed.

Library Borrowings:

Ms. Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs--I've finished this one, and it is just hovering, waiting to be reviewed when I've completely recovered from a nasty cold.
13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson


Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone--Imported all the way from merry old England, and performed by Stephen Fry. I still haven't made up my mind if I prefer it or the American version, though, which is performed very impressively by Jim Dale.

And my favorite, a Christmas gift I bought for myself:

I just adore Demi's gorgeous books, and have been absolutely obsessed with Egyptology since I was in elementary school, so there's nothing not to love about THIS beauty!

December 27, 2011

Purl Along


I did it, everybody!  Using a life-saving combination of books and YouTube--thank you to everyone who posted such helpful videos--I conquered the dreaded knitting needles.  Obviously, I'm only a beginner, but I did actually figure out what I had been doing wrong in my previous attempts, and am well on my way to making my first scarf that actually lies flat.  Hurrah!  So far, I can create the garter and stockinette stitches without difficulty, and this scarf is coming together with the extremely simple rib K1P1.  Still, it makes me ridiculously happy to think that I can now actually KNIT!

Meanwhile, the Christmas blanket is coming along beautifully.  Granted, it's now December 27th, but throughout my childhood, we always left everything decorated until New Year's Day, and now that the Good Man and I have established our own household and family, we stick to the old tradition of the full Twelve Days of Christmas, so I'm hoping to have the blanket basically finished by Epiphany (January 6th).

On the reading front, I actually read an entire book since last week's Yarn Along.  I picked up Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and could not lay it down until I finished it (review coming as soon as I finish recovering from this plague I've caught).  Now I've moved on to Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber, but it is in my Kindle, and a picture of that wouldn't be terribly exciting if you've ever seen a Kindle, so here's the cover image for you to enjoy.

Happy Yarning, and Happy New Year!

Return from the Undead

My gosh! This is the longest I've gone without putting up a post in MONTHS!  That's what catching some kind of heinous plague will do for you.  Tests have remained inconclusive as to what we all have; theories seem to focus on strep and the more nebulous force that my Good Man refers to as "the creeping crud."  (I know; he always uses such impenetrably technical language.) 

Anyway, whatever it is, we all caught it from the SuperToddler--naturally!--who proceeded to have more energy than the rest of us combined by her second day of antibiotics.  The entire adult population of the family is still tearing through boxes of kleenex and hacking up internal organs, but we're all on anitbiotics now, also, and are slowly coming back to life.  And a good thing, too--I have a LOT of blogging to catch up on!

December 20, 2011

Yarn A Loooonnngggg

Well, my little Christmas blanket from last week's post is coming along much better than I thought it would be at this stage, proving once again that I need to have more faith in myself.  Visual Aid 1 will demonstrate the current overall size of my current crochet project.

(And I apologize for the image quality I am able to coax out of my cell phone's camera function.)  Visual Aid 2 will provide you with a cover image of a book which, I'm sad to say, I am not enjoying nearly as much as I am my latest crochet adventure. 

My review, when I manage to finally slog my way through the book, will probably be short, operating on the "if you can't say something nice" policy.  BUT, I'm only 30 pages in, so I won't offer any more words now that I may be forced to eat later.  Either way, at least the blanket is coming along nicely.  My SuperToddler, Brigid, gave it the ultimate ringing endorsement.  "Christmas blanket!  It's so beautiful, Mommy!"  A mother's heart can ask for no more than that.

December 19, 2011

Top 10 Xmas Wishlist

This week, in the final countdown to Christmas, we join the gang at The Broke and The Bookish in declaring the 10 books we would most like Santa to leave in our stockings.  To be perfectly honest, this isn't so much a "hope" list as a "wish" list for me, because Christmas present buying is a rather odd arrangement in this family.  As the mommy and appointed chancellor of the exchequer, I buy the Christmas presents for everybody, including myself, so I already know which books "Santa" has in store for me, books being relatively inexpensive enough items that I tend to buy my own.  The only real surprises I get for Christmas come from my wonderful mother-in-law, who is excellent at picking out gifts for me, let me tell you, but when she asks me for a list of things from which she can choose and surprise me, I don't often put books on it.  I've asked her for a couple, but not many.

Neither is this list my ULTIMATE book wishlist, a mental list I keep with me always, as I'm sure we all do, of the books I would love to own but would never spend that much money at one time on myself.  This list includes a few Egyptology tomes that cost around $100 each, an encyclopedia of British royal history that's about $90, and a gorgeous book about ecclesiastical heraldry that costs $130.  I'd love to have all of them.  Unless we somehow win a lottery even though we don't normally play, it'll be a cold day in Hell before I actually plunk down that kind of cash to get any of them!  So, what follows is just a list of books I hope to buy for myself in the New Year, I suppose, though Santa or any other kind spirit who is listening is more than welcome to make them show up on my doorstep for Christmas.

10. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs--It just looks fascinating, if rather creepy.

9.  Cake Wrecks: When Professional Cakes Go Hilariously Wrong by Jen Yates

8.  Wreck the Halls: Cake Wrecks Gets "Festive" (also) by Jen Yates--All hail my beloved Jen Yates, Queen of the Geek Peoples!

7.  The Legend of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching by Demi--I love the Tao Te Ching, and I REALLY love Demi's indescribably gorgeous picture books.  These book are not just intended for kids, in my opinion, though I hope to get her entire corpus eventually and read them to the SuperToddler regularly, once she becomes a SuperSomethingElse (still haven't figured out what I'm going to call her when she gets older).

6.  Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh--I like Simon Singh's explanatory scientific writing.  He makes me feel like I'm learning something valid without also making me feel stupid.  And if you're a ST:TNG fan, I don't have to tell you why I'd be interested in Fermat--or what ST:TNG stands for.

5.  Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn--I've spotted this one on several blogs and on Goodreads, it looks interesting, and I'm still not sure whether I can lay my hands on a copy of it here in the US.

4.  Penguin By Design: A Cover Story by Phil Baines--Ooo, I've been dying to read this one for ages.  I hope it lives up to my expectations of it when I finally do!

3.  The Blue Shoe: A Tale of Thievery, Villainy, Sorcery and Shoes by Roderick Townley and Illustrated by Mary GrandPre--This book just LOOKS gorgeous!  Anything with that much blue on the cover belongs in my library.  Besides, Townley's The Great Good Thing was pretty good, so I expect this one will be, too.

2.  Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary--Late as it may be to start these now, I want to finally be able to say that I've read them.  At least, I want to give them a try.

1.  The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall--I can't BELIEVE I still haven't gotten around to this book yet, especially considering that I absolutely adore the Penderwicks, even the animals that would make my allergies go insane if they were real.  I MUST read this book!

Review of "The Cricket on the Hearth"

by Charles Dickens

This is the third and final Dickens Christmas Book that I read this Christmas season, which means I have finished the Christmas Spirit Challenge!  Hurray!  Yes, well, I'll try to compose myself now and write a dignified review of the book.

Those of you who have read my reviews of A Christmas Carol and The Chimes know that Mr. Dickens' Christmas works are kind of a mixed bag, but I enjoyed this one quite a bit.  The stars of our show are a married couple who are a sort of May-December romance.  They are not wealthy, but they have a cozy home, they are very kind, and they have the obligatory adorable baby, and a daft teenaged nursemaid who is definitely the comic relief.  Naturally, the plot develops around the much ado about nothing that always threatens such blissful domestic tranquility in these tales.  Having finally read this, I understand much better the origin of many Christmas cliches, especially the character of the villainous toymaker.  I don't know if that one was already old news in Dickens' time, or if we got that strange archetype from him, but either way, his version is pretty entertaining.

Unlike the other two Christmas Books, the supernatural element, though definitely present, is not quite as strong in this one.  Let's just say that of the three, this is the only one in which the "miraculous" elements could easily have just been the good agency of the hero's own mind.  With a surprise ending that I think must have inspired O'Henry, The Cricket on the Hearth is a sweet enjoyable read that ends on an unexpectedly fun note.

December 18, 2011

My Mailbox Monday

Mailbox Monday is a traveling meme, of all things, originally founded by Marcia from A Girl and Her Books and now on a permanent blog tour.  Different book bloggers host Mailbox Monday each month throughout the year, and as I jump on this bandwagon for the first time, it is currently being brought to us at Let Them Read Books.  The delightful point of the exercise is to share your latest acquisitions with an audience who can understand and appreciate your enthusiasm, not to mention that you can occasionally arouse just a tad of envy.  Library books don't count, but audiobooks and e-reads are welcome.

All my incoming this week consisted of e-books.  First, I received Surprised by Oxford through Booksneeze. It is a highly cerebral "coming of faith" spiritual memoir by Carolyn Weber, and I'm anxious to read it in large part because I'm looking forward to getting an inside view of the famous university.
The other two books I received this week were from Netgalley.  It was the first time I've ever had a request approved there, so I was pretty excited about it.  The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau is a historical novel set during the insanity of Cromwell's England.  I am always a sucker for good historical fiction, especially when set in the Sceptered Isle, so let's hope this one turns out to match that description.

Finally, House of Stone is a book which I hope will be a powerful if saddening read.  Here is its blurb for your consideration.

Last spring, when Anthony Shadid—one of four New York Times reporters captured in Libya as the region erupted—was freed, he went home. Not to Boston, Beirut, or Oklahoma where he was raised by his Lebanese-American family, but to an ancient estate built by his great-grandfather, a place filled with memories of a lost era when the Middle East was a world of grace, grandeur, and unexpected departures. For two years previous, Shadid had worked to reconstruct the house and restore his spirit after both had weathered war. Now the author of the award-winning Night Draws Near (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize) tells the story of the house's re-creation, revealing its mysteries and recovering the lives that have passed through it. Shadid juxtaposes past and present as he traces the house’s renewal along with his family’s flight from Lebanon and resettlement in America. House of Stone is an unforgettable memoir of the world’s most volatile landscape and the universal yearning for home.

Have you ever taken a university degree with which you then proceeded to do virtually nothing?  Thus far, that very accurately describes the Master of Arts I hold in Middle Eastern studies.  Be that as it may, I gained an untold wealth of information and made life-long friends, and ultimately would not have converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church without becoming better acquainted with the Near East.  I watch current events in that region closely, and there certainly have been some extraordinary events to watch in the past few years!  With the death of Muamar Qaddhafi, the once tightly-closed country of Libya is undergoing exciting but unnerving upheaval.  I look forward to reading Anthony Shadid's take on recent developments, especially since they strike so deeply personally for him.

That's my haul for the past week.  May your holiday mailbox be merry, bright, and full of lovely books!

December 16, 2011

Review of "The Chimes"

by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens wrote a brief series of stories, of which A Christmas Carol was one, that were originally serialized in newspapers and have come to be known simply as The Christmas Books. None of the others achieved anything like the phenomenal fame of Scrooge's tale, however.  One of my favorite characters in fiction, Anne Shirley, once said she couldn't forgive her big liberal arts college for not being the small, local teacher's training school that she attended first.  I think some of my response to The Chimes is simply an inability to forgive the book for NOT being A Christmas Carol.

Basically, this book is the original "It's a Wonderful Life."  Dickens seemed to feel that the intervention of the supernatural into the affairs of men was one of the required elements for his Christmas Books, so like the Jimmy Stewart film, The Chimes takes us on an unexpected metaphysical adventure.  Our guides, however, are not angels, but spirits who have a somewhat more sinister feel.

One aspect of this book that surprised and, I must confess, annoyed me, was the intended target of Dickens' morality tale.  The wealth, greed, callous behavior and blissful unconsciousness of the world around them often displayed by the well-to-do in Dickens are simply a backdrop in this tale, a fact of life that must be accepted and expected in this uncaring world.  Dickens' lesson is intended for the poor, and it is simply that any moment of losing faith and hope is every bit as wicked as Scrooge's years of grinding usury.  No matter what crushing experiences we may face in life, we must carry on, believing that life will not always be so dark; refusing to do so, at least for Dickens' characters, can lead to dire consequences.

This is certainly a fine and very necessary moral, one of which I need to be reminded periodically as regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware.  Still, it was as if Dickens had slapped Bob Cratchett for crying when Tiny Tim died.

Having said all that, however, I do not wish to leave you with a false impression.  This is a decent read, interesting enough to keep me asking "what happens next" until the very end, which is the most basic criterion for reading a book, isn't it?  I simply felt that the plot moved a little slowly at times, and did not always hang together as coherently as I would have expected.  If you enjoy Dickens, you need to add this one to your TBR pile.  If he's not usually your cup of tea, you're quite safe skipping The Chimes.

Connecting with Friday

Another week gone, and another 5-minute Friday is upon me.  We faithful visitors to The Gypsy Mama's weekly meme pause the rest of life, and our own self-criticism, for 5 minutes out of our week, and let the words flow.  Or hope they flow, anyway.  I begin at 12:55 a.m. (of all unholy hours of the night to still be up and writing) to discuss "Connected".

Two weeks from now, I will arrive at the one-year anniversary of my mother's death.  A fortnight ago, HER mother, my grandmother, died.  And for the first time in nearly a year, I picked up my crochet hook this week.  My mother taught me to crochet, and her grandmother taught her.  She was left-handed, and I am not, so we had our challenges, but eventually we figured it out.  For some reason, though, she could never convey to me how to accomplish a "granny square".  She said it was the easiest thing in crochet that actually involved a pattern, but I could never seem to master it.

This week I dived in, determined to get it right.  The picture above is my handiwork thus far, and now I finally see what Mom meant.  It really is easy, you really can just disengage your mind and enjoy the peaceful rhythm of wrapping, looping, stitching, yarn over, slip stitch, 1, 2, 3.  Every stitch connected.  Every time I loop the yarn around my hook and twist it once again into the piece I'm making, it becomes something new.  And it can be unmade at 1,000 times the speed at which it came together.  If pulled on, the entire thing can vanish so quickly.  Where once was solid fabric, just one long string, like the peace after a tornado miraculously blows itself out.  Life is fragile.  I am fragile.  And with every twist of string, I reconnect myself to my past, hone my skills to teach them to my daughter in the future, and keep the thread of the family running through my hands.

December 14, 2011

Words I Got for Christmas

You can always rely on Dickens for some extraordinary words, and since I just finished reading The Cricket on the Hearth, my third and final Dickens Christmas Book for the 2011 holiday season, all of my words for Wondrous Words Wednesday this week will be courtesy of good old Charles.

1.  water-butt: Sounds a bit rude, but it's just a rain barrel.

2.  pattens: These are basically the rest of northwestern Europe's version of the Dutch wooden shoes.  They don't cover your feet particularly well; instead, they are platform shoes, keeping your feet above the mud.

3.  pertinacious: This ACTUALLY means what I USED to think "pernicious" meant, i.e. stubborn.

4.  fingerpost: I didn't know there was a specific term for those old-fashioned wooden mile marker posts that used to sit in major intersections, and still inhabit some more rural intersections.  But there is, and this is it.

5.  gaiters: Basically a larger type of spats.  These protect not just the shoes themselves, but run a fair way up the lower portion of each trouser leg.  I'd heard this word many times, and had a feeling it was a garment, but I couldn't have told you what type.

Happy holiday reading!

December 13, 2011

My Very First Yarn Along!

I  must admit, I'm pretty excited about this for several reasons.  First of all, I discovered Yarn Along, a regular feature hosted by Ginny of Small Things, months ago.  I've been wanting ever since to dig my yarn back out and dive into a project, but life...  Need I even try to finish that sentence?  Of course, the biggest life event that stood in my way was my mother's death in January.  She was the one who taught me to crochet, just as her grandmother taught her, and picking my hook back up again was an extremely bittersweet thought.  I've only now worked up the courage go back to it, not to mention the interest.  But it's winter now, (even if I can't get the weather to cooperate and give me some snow).  It's almost Christmas; I sit in my living room every evening in my recliner and enjoy the glow coming from our tree in the corner of the adjacent dining room.  Can there be a better set up for crocheting on a long winter's evening, with baby and husband safely tucked away in their beds for the night and Jim Dale reading Harry Potter to me through my earbuds?  Yes, it's definitely time to crochet again.

In my own defense, I'd like to point out that I'm a better crocheter than a photographer.  I did find out a couple of nights ago, however, exactly how rusty I was even at crochet, when I had to restart this project four times before I finally figured out what the pattern was saying AND remembered how to execute said instructions.  Pretty sad, considering that this is a very simple pattern.  The grey matter is warming up again, though, and believe it or not, that little green and white lump has aspirations of becoming a lovely afghan in various Christmas colors when it grows up.  You're going to be seeing this project develop for a few weeks, I'm afraid; the book of the moment will change much more quickly in the weekly photographs than the crochet will, because an afghan takes me a little while.  Anyway, I'm back at it again, and that's the important thing.

As for this book, you'll notice it says "Etc." at the end of the title.  I have finished the "A Christmas Carol" portion, and am now working on "Etc.," namely The Cricket on the Hearth.  Naturally, a review will be forthcoming here on the blog when I have finished it.  Happy Yarning/Reading!

Top 10 Giftable Books

I've been playing catch-up all week, since my wonderful Good Man Michael and I took a weekend trip together (post coming as soon as I get some pictures pulled together).  Meanwhile, though it is barely still Tuesday--and isn't still Tuesday at all in some parts of the world--here is my contribution to this week's Top 10 Most Giftable Books on The Broke and the Bookish.

10. Big Bang by Simon Singh--I bought this book as a Christmas present for myself this year.  In many ways, my science education throughout all my years of schooling was WOEFULLY inadequate, due in large part to the fact that I was raised in a fire-breathing Pentecostal household, and most Pentecostals are terrified of science, all its pomp and all its works.  Ergo, I am attempting to educate myself by filling in the gaps I missed.  I wish I could buy copies of it for all my family members who are still Pentecostal.  But then, I don't really see a point in giving all my relatives something with which they would immediately build one giant, communal bonfire.

9. Olivia Claus by Kama Einhorn and illustrated by Jared Osterhold--This isn't exactly a long-beloved children's classic or anything, but my SuperToddler LOVES Olivia and the book is very cute, so I got it for her.  She was thrilled with it when I surprised her with it the morning after I bought it.  I believe that Christmas-themed gifts should be given BEFORE Christmas, don't you?  Otherwise, you don't have any time to really enjoy them before the season is over for another year!

8. If I could, I would buy my brother the entire Harry Potter series in the most beautiful collector's edition available.  There are two reasons why I can't.  First, those special editions cost a fortune per book, let alone buying them all in one go.  Second, he firmly believes that Harry Potter is of the devil and is a satanic plot to surreptitiously teach children witchcraft under their parents' very noses.  (I can't judge him too harshly; I used to believe exactly the same thing.)  However, I think he could really get into them and we could have some AWESOME conversations together, if he'd just read them, especially since he's completely nuts for some video games that happen to use magic heavily.

7.  Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach and illustrated by Ricardo Cortes--I would buy this book for anyone I know who can tolerate the full range of the English language and has a child anywhere between ages 2 and 10.  I LOVE the fact that this book is a fully-illustrated, hardback picture book, just like any juvenile literature you see in the library, with the one major exception that it is written to be read ONLY by parents (or those who babysit a lot).  This book is hilarious, and I cannot recommend it highly enough for those days when you feel like you are slipping slowly into toddler-induced madness.

6. The Bible--If I sat down and figured it for a while, I'd probably find very few years during which I didn't either give or receive a Bible.  What type of Bible depends on a number of factors; one year, Mom wanted a really reliable translation.  Another, she wanted to examine the Septuagint more thoroughly.  This year, I would be buying for a young friend of mine, a girl my mother and I used to babysit and practically helped raise for the first few years of her life.  She's half American and half Brazilian, and is headed to spend a year of her teen-aged life in the South American paradise.  She's trying to learn Portuguese in preparation, and I can only say that whenever I've been studying a language, I've always found a Bible to be an ideal study tool--a text with which I am already familiar helps me catch important vocabulary points and idiomatic expressions.

5. The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall--For years, my mom read to me and my brother when we were kids, and around the time I started college, my parents and I began to experience a role reversal.  My dad's advancing diabetes and heart disease, overall deteriorating health, led to his partial blindness.  When he could no longer read for himself, I began occasionally reading books aloud to both of them when I was home on vacations.  Mom and I were still working our way through the first Penderwicks book when she died.  I'd love to be able to read the latest one to her.

4. Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF by April Winchell--In the world of handmade crafts, I guess I'm an all-around traitor.  I crochet, I'm trying to learn to knit, I make jewelry, I make rosaries--and yet, I love both Etsy AND Regretsy.  Apparently, that paradox demonstrates some heinous flaw in my character, but there it is.  I was browsing on Amazon one night a few months ago, when I stumbled across this book and laughed so hard I nearly fainted.  I'd love to buy copies of it for all my crafty friends, except I'm not sure they would all take it in the spirit in which it was intended.  I would give it for fun, but some of them might think I was insinuating something.  (For the ones who still crochet toilet paper covers, that's exactly what I'd been doing.  Which is why I won't be giving these as gifts, though I really want to.)

3. The Unknown Book--Did you ever read a book in childhood, LOVE it, promptly forget what the title was when you returned it to the library or lost it while moving house, and long to own a new copy of it or give it to someone else as a gift for basically the rest of your life?  I have several of these.  One was a boardbook I owned and simply adored when I was really young, about a kid looking outside his window to watch the seasons changing outside.  Another was a library book about a family who got conned into buying some swamp land, only to find out it was the most magically fertile farming land on Earth, and would grow entire forests overnight and crazy stuff like that.  My greatest loss, though, was a children's book about a boy who took a simple cardboard box and piece of string and created forts and castles and all sorts of amazing, imaginary adventures for himself.  If you can identify any of these books by the snips I've been able to remember about them, you'll make one book blogger very happy this Christmas!

2. Wreck the Halls: Cake Wrecks Gets "Festive" by Jen Yates--Okay, I think purchasing this book as a Christmas gift definitely wins me the daughter-in-law of the year award.  For about two years now, Michael and I have been sharing tidbits from the riotously catastrophic world of Cake Wrecks with his parents, but they've never actually visited the website themselves and still have only a vague idea who we're talking about when we mention Jen and John Yates.  How timely, then, that Jen released a book of winter holiday wreckage in time for the Christmas shopping season this year.  My in-laws are getting a copy of this book, and whether they enjoy it or not, I think they'll be finer people just for owning such awesome geekery.  (In case you're wondering, they don't read my blog, though it would be my luck if they finally start reading it today!)

1. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien--This isn't a book I'm giving or would like to give this year, but is instead an account of my greatest book-giving Christmas triumph to date.  By miraculous good fortune, I managed to find the above photograph of the actual edition in question on Goodreads, so when I tell you that a decade ago, I bought my brother a beautiful, slip-covered copy of The Hobbit with runes embossed on the cover, you can see exactly what I'm talking about.  My brother has loved Tolkien's Middle Earth for years.  He also has the well-deserved reputation of being the best in our entire family and circle of friends at picking exactly the right gift for people.  You can imagine my sense of gratification, then, when he was thrilled and floored when he opened THIS present!  He was even more shocked when I read the runes on the cover to him.  He thought they were one of Tolkien's invented languages, like Quenya.  Turns out, Tolkien used the good old Futhark (or actually, the Anglo-Saxon "Futhorc") for his dwarvish written language.  I shouldn't have said so, though; to outsiders it would just make one a bigger dork, but among fellow geeks, it practically gives you geek god status if you actually read and speak artificial languages!  Qapla'!

December 12, 2011

Review of "Sherman: The Ruthless Victor"

Sherman: The Ruthless Victor
by Agostino von Hasell and Ed Breslin

When I finished reading my last book through Thomas Nelson's Booksneeze program, I decided I would choose another in their series of short biographies on American generals.  I enjoyed the first of them I'd read, so this seemed a pretty safe bet for a decent read.  And yet, there should perhaps have been warning bells going off in my head from the moment I read the subtitle.  Perjorative terms like "ruthless" aren't usually whipped out THAT early in the game!  Still, I knew to what the authors were referring--Sherman's infamous "burning of Atlanta" and "march to the sea," which were the 19th-century equivalent of the "firebombing of Dresden" during World War II.  Everyone pretty much agrees that Sherman's actions were short on military justification and long on overkill, so I just figured the authors were making clear up front that this book was not going to glorify Sherman for those events.  Well, it certainly doesn't glorify him!

Those belated alarm bells did start *bonging* quite stridently as soon as I turned to the first page of the Introduction.  One of the primary things upon which a good biography depends is creating some sort of rapport between the reader and the biographer's subject.  Since the writer is recounting historical events, some attempt at objectivity is expected, but books of this type usually have some shards of sympathy in dealing with the person under study.  Not this one.  The authors' primary goal seems to be to unite readers with them in loathing and disdaining William Tecumseh Sherman.

I have known of Sherman's exploits in the deep South during the Civil War for many years, so I was never very fond of the man.  By the time I finished this book, however, I had become so weary with hearing him denigrated that I found myself becoming one of his most vocal defenders!  Page after exhausting page of insults, insinuations and diatribes against him left me with far greater distaste for the authors than for the general.

Time and again, words like "white supremacist" are bandied about, with seemingly no recognition that Sherman simply held the views typical of his time and place, repugnant though they are to a modern reader.  The biographers imply more than once that Sherman was mentally unbalanced and descended from a long line of insanity.  He is accused of "gratuitous pyromania," being a man of "shallow" "emotional depth," "acute misanthropy," "elitist contempt for 'commoners'," and of "feeling ... sorry for himself" after a Union loss in battle and thinking solely of how the setback would affect his career.  He was supposedly "calculating," "[e]gotistical and narcissistic," "wallowing in self-pity" when suffering from depression and anxiety issues, "incapable of withstanding any criticism," "self-congratulatory," "petulant," and given to outbursts of "despotic absolutism".  If that list felt unnecessarily long, and you were thinking to yourself halfway through it, "Ok! We get the point!  Get on with it already," then I have done my job as a reviewer in giving you the exact experience of reading this book without you having to do so.  You can now make up your mind whether or not you think it's worth the time, effort and money to acquire it.

With all that having been said, you may be wondering why I didn't give this book the lowest possible rating.  The answer is simple.  During the section when the authors were discussing historical events of the Civil War, taking a break from belittling Sherman, I actually learned some interesting things.  If there had been a great deal more emphasis on the great conflict throughout the book, it would have been a fascinating read.  Also, I always feel that a book has had some merit in my life if it instills curiosity in me to read other books.  This one certainly made me want to read some other biographies of Sherman, to see how he fares under another's pen.

December 11, 2011

Virtual Advent Tour: Finding Santa Claus

7 years ago today, I embarked on a brand new life, almost a complete departure from everything I had ever known or been taught to believe.  After 25 years spent as an extremely fundamentalist and conservative Pentecostal, and after almost a decade of college, the views I had been taught by those two experiences could no longer be reconciled.  I believed in Christ, but I did not believe in Pentecostalism, and after a long, hard search fraught with fear and doubt, I found a church where I could belong, and became an Eastern Orthodox Christian.  As Christmas had always been my favorite time of year, when my priest asked me on what date I would like to be received into the Church, I said I wanted sometime close to Christmas, and we settled on Sunday, December 12, 2004.

My parents pastored various fundamentalist Pentecostal churches over several decades, and though I didn't know it when I was very small, they firmly believed that Santa Claus had no business sticking his whiskers into Christmas.  Vaguely aware that St. Nicholas had been an early Christian bishop, they respected the actual historical figure in so far as they could, but they "didn't believe in bishops," feeling that an episcopal hierarchy smacked of papism.  They didn't accept the concept of saints as many Christians embrace them.  St. Nicholas was just an all-round problematic figure.  They didn't speak of him to me one way or the other when I was very young, not wanting to teach me about "Santa Claus," and yet knowing I had already absorbed the information from the culture around me, so they didn't want to hurt my feelings by digging into the matter too deeply.

When I was four, however, some bright spark who was two or three years older than me saved my parents the trouble, when he got the idea to tell me, "Santa Claus is dead!"  I still remember going to my mother in tears, asking her if this was true, and she did her best to explain to a 4-year-old mind the historical facts behind the legend of Santa.  It didn't work out too well.  Mostly I just remember continuing to cry.  A lot.  Mom pointed out that I should remember how this felt, so that I wouldn't go around telling other little ones things they weren't yet ready to hear.  That message, at least, did sink in--I didn't want to ever do this to anyone else!  I spent the next twenty years firmly putting Santa out of my mind, feeling toward him and anyone who taught their kids to believe in him the intense anger that only the betrayed can muster.

Detail of a photo by Michell Zappa
In December 2004, however, Santa Claus and I made peace with each other.  My heart melted, and the wound mended.  In Orthodox parishes, "Saint Nicholas"--played by a relatively thin male member of the Church dressed in the long robe and pointed miter of a Western bishop--visits the parish children at the church every year.  He talks for a few minutes about the love of God in Christ, about the need to be obedient to one's parents and kind to everyone, and then perhaps he will give each child a small treat.  During one Sunday morning service, the priest reminded us all that Saint Nicholas would be meeting with the children in the nave (the central area of the church) after service, while the adults were welcome to enjoy coffee in the social hall as always.  Unable to help myself, I asked my godmother (the woman who stood with me as I was received into the Church) if it would be alright for me to sneak in the back and watch Saint Nicholas speak to the children.  She assured me that would be fine.

What I saw was nothing short of magical.  In the small nave, with candles still lit in the vigil lamps before the icons of Christ and His Mother, a figure in red robes entered, his staff in his hand and his miter adding several inches to his height.  I knew who he was.  I was well aware that he was someone I saw at church every week, wearing a long-used costume.  None of that mattered to me in the slightest.  A four-year-old girl inside me got Santa Claus back that day, got to meet him, to venerate a great saint of the Church and a bishop who served his people long and faithfully, a man so compassionate and kind that children around the world have loved him, their patron saint, for over 1,700 years.  Santa Claus came to visit me.  My Church gave me back St. Nicholas.  It was one of the happiest, most magical moments of my life.

Photo by Elmar Ersch

Merry Christmas.

December 08, 2011

5 Colorful Minutes

(Disclosure: This actually turned out to be 9 minutes worth of writing. I had a lot to say on this one!)

5-Minute Friday is here again ALREADY!  My, doesn't the old globe spin round.  And our prompt word for today is a personal favorite of mine--color.  I love beautiful colors.  My SuperToddler loves to color, as much as I ever did, and still do, for that matter.  My definitions of colors are still set by the box of Crayolas I used to have, whether they're politically correct or not--Indian red, burnt orange, cadet blue.  So, with a word I can truly enjoy to guide me, I dive into today's five minutes of unbroken writing.  And...start.

Photo by Shawn Alton

The Christmas we had the year I was four is the first one that I can remember.  But then, that Christmas stands out in EVERYONE'S mind in my family.  We often refer to it simply as "THE Christmas," the one when everybody managed to have a good fiscal year at once, and the presents stood out so far around the tree that a grown man couldn't REACH the tree without clearing a path through them first!  But of course, that was the Christmas at Grandma's house, the big family gathering.  It was the smaller Christmas at the parsonage, owned by the church where my dad was the pastor, that established for me the idea that Christmas has a color.

I don't know why or whose idea it was originally, but my parents decided that year that they would have an entirely red Christmas.  Red on the tree, red decorating the outside of the house and the big bay window.  I remember so clearly, standing in the living room, listening to Dad grunting and tugging and fixing until he got those lights strung and working properly.  The whole house seemed red!  I even got a beautiful red toybox that year.  It seemed like a warm, inviting color, a Christmas atmosphere that conveyed love and merriment and all the things I loved about the season.  I wore a red wool dress to Grandma's house for the meal with the extended family, a pretty little dress with green and white stripes and accents.  It was a red Christmas all the way around.

Anyone who has had a 15-minute conversation with me can probably tell you that blue is my favorite color, to the point that it might be called a passion or even an obsession.  But the other night, as I was driving home from the grocery store, I saw some houses with mostly or all blue Christmas lights on them, and I felt repelled by them somehow.  Suddenly I realized--Christmas has a color!  At least, it does for me.  Christmas should be red, with green and yellow and white and a host of other colors shaded in, but mostly, Christmas is red.  That lifelong memory is so indelibly set in my brain that everything about my Christmas feels warmer, brighter and happier with plenty of red attached.  Memories like that are the best bridge across miles, decades, and even the gap between Heaven and Earth, to draw your loved ones near to you, no matter how far away they are.

Another Day, Another Reading Challenge

You know, I think I'm starting to get the hang of this reading challenge thing!  The trick is to find the challenges that reward you for doing things you were already going to do, and have always done on a regular basis, anyway!  It's like having the tooth fairy leave you gold coins for things like breathing consistently and blinking a lot.

Anyway, I am REALLY excited about this latest challenge.  To use a disgusting cliche from some annoying macho movie, the name of which now escapes me, this is the challenge I was BORN to do!  As most of you know, it is just possible that I am a wee bit of a raging, hard-core ANGLOPHILE!  *composing myself*  So, when I discovered the British Books Challenge 2012, I could just have died and gone to Heaven right then.  I mean, the abbreviation for this challenge is BBC!!  Does anything in a book blogger's life get any more awesome than that?  And it turns out, the answer is YES.

For you see, our delightful host at The Overflowing Library assures me that double-dipping is absolutely permitted in this challenge, and let me tell you, I have a LOT of British reads mixed into the pile of my already-overcommitted 2012 challenges!  Now, someone is going to let me enter all sorts of awesome giveaways and give me a bunch of pretty challenge buttons just for indulging in one of my favorite strange obsessions--Brit-O-Mania!  Life is good.

Here is the list of books I have ALREADY committed to reading next year that were written by British authors.

1. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging
2. On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God
3. Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas
4. Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants
5. Away Laughing on a Fast Camel
(all the above by Louise Rennison)
6. The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
7. Mansfield Park
8. Northanger Abbey
(both by Jane Austen, obviously)
9. Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede
10. Beowulf
11. History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
12. Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory
13. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
14. King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard
15. Dracula by Bram Stoker
16. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
(Both of the authors immediately above were Irish, but during their lifetimes, Ireland was still a part of the United Kingdom, rather than a separate Republic.)
17. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
(Stevenson was Scottish, but however much I might bemoan the Act of Union, it occurred long before he was born, meaning that while he was not English, he WAS British.)
18. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
19. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(also Scottish)
20. Arabella by Georgette Heyer
21. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
22. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
23. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
24. They Came to Baghdad
25. The Sittaford Mystery
26. Why Didn't They Ask Evans?
27. Death Comes as the End
28. Crooked House
29. Destination Unknown
30. Ordeal by Innocence
31. The Listerdale Mystery
(all by Agatha Christie)
32. Whose Body?
33. Cloud of Witness
34. Unnatural Death
35. Lord Peter Views the Body
36. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
37. Strong Poison
38. The Five Red Herrings
39. Have His Carcase
(all by Dorothy L. Sayers)

I told you I was a bona fide, certifiable Anglophile, didn't I?  If we include Harry Potter, which I usually re-read at least once a year, I'm very close to the ultimate 50-book level on this challenge.  We'll see if I make it to that point, but either way, that's a LOT of British reading.  It warms the cockles of my heart just looking at that list.

Photo by Graeme Mclean

December 07, 2011

Reading for Entertainment?

Now that's just crazy talk!  I know, reading is supposed to be a HOBBY practiced for ENJOYMENT, and yet, somewhere along the way--I suspect college was the prime influence--reading became a means to better one's self, to expand intellectual horizons, and grow as a person, and a whole bunch of other pretentious twaddle that they teach you as a grad student.  Reading definitely CAN expand your horizons, and I wish more people in this country would occasionally educate themselves on topics they prefer to simply rant about instead.  That doesn't change the fact that everybody needs a little fun in their day; otherwise, we'll all just become pontificating "talking heads."

Photo by Agencia Brasil
Was Noam Chomsky EVER young?

Now, having attempted to justify my own insanity, let me tell you about the latest reading challenges that have sucked me in.  Ah, the things we do for the Bonds of Bloggerhood!  Or at least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.  What actually happened was that I found out a friend of mine is hosting two challenges, and in reading over her requirements, I realized that I've signed up to read a LOT of very ponderous, heavy, serious material next year, and could use an injection of FUN in my reading.  Enter the 2012 Just Contemporary Reading Challenge!


"But wait, there's more!"  (A moment of silence, please, in memory of Billy Mays.  Ok, done with that now.)


Ashley at Basically Amazing Books is hosting the Just Contemporary Challenge, and is co-hosting the 2012 Award-Winning Reads Challenge along with Jasmine and Jacinda, The Reading Housewives of Indiana.  (GO HOOSIERS!)  (Sorry; that occasionally pops out of my brain when I'm not looking.  My husband swears he may have to shoot himself if IU ever actually gets into the Final Four of March Madness again.  But I digress...)

Once upon a time, when I was a rabid fundamentalist, I discovered a wonderful series of YA books by Louise Rennison known as "The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson".  If I were to tell you that the first volume of the series is entitled Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, I think you could understand why I might choose this series as my fun read for 2012!  There was only one small problem with my last attempt to read them: something (I'm not even sure what now) offended my delicate fundamentalist sensibilities, and I gave up on it.  Now that I am no longer so easily "spooked," I mean to go back to that series and have some fun.

And just in case you were thinking to yourself, "That's all well and good, but what about the other challenge?  'Award-winners' are usually pretty somber reading"--would you believe that Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging actually counts for that challenge, too?  It was a Printz honoree.  Who said "critically-acclaimed" had to mean "boring"!  But, since the sequels were not inducted into such august company, I'll be reading a few other award favorites.  The list is as follows:

Just Contemporary Challenge

1.  Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging
2.  On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God
3.  Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas
4.  Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants
(in other words, books #1-4 of "The Confessions of Georgia Nicolson")
5.  13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

Award-Winning Challenge

1.  Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (Hurray for double-dipping!)
2.  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (which will be a Victory Garden win!)
3.  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
4.  Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
5.  The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

So, 10 more books?  Yep, I'll never get all these books read, will I?  Oh, well.  I'm just having too much fun choosing books with pretty covers and intriguing titles!
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