Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book #19 of 2012: "Scored" by Lauren McLaughlin

I have been wanting to read Lauren McLaughlin's Scored ever since I first heard about it, so I was thrilled to run across a copy of it in a shelf display at my local library.  This book tells the story of a dystopian society that doesn't seem too far out of the realm of modern possibility.

Imani LeMonde has lived her entire life in a "scored" society.  Aside from the very rich and social outcasts who choose to "opt out" of the program, every person is assigned a score, based on their intelligence, their behavior, and their social interactions.  Data for these scores is gathered from electronic "eyeballs" that provide constant surveillance of pretty much every public area.  New scores are posted every month for students.  Sometimes the changes are incremental, shifting just a point or two, but other times, they can be life-altering.  As students approach the end of their senior year, presssure to increase scores becomes even more intense, as score determines whether students are bound for college (scholarhips included), the work force, the military, or abject poverty.

Social life is based around "score gangs."  If your score changes, so does your gang, no questions asked.  Even speaking to students of a lower score can result in the lowering of your own, and socalizing with an unscored.... well, that's unthinkable.  Imani's score of a 92 is the result of a lifetime of hard work, but she does have one score-negative habit: continuing to socialize with her best friend, Cady, whose score is only in the 70s.  But years ago, they made a pact to stick together no matter what happened with their scores, and in spite of the fact that genuine friendship is pretty much an outdated concept.  But then Cady becomes romantically involved with an unscored, and her own score plummets.  In spite of the fact that Cady kept that relationship a secret from Imani in order to protect her, Imani's own score sinks 30 points, a hit from which she will likely not be able to recover before final scores are posted and her future is determined.  Her dreams of college are now an impossibility and her future seems dreadfully bleak.... unless she can find some way to quickly and dramatically raise her score.

At the same time, Imani's unorthodox history teacher tells his students about a brand-new scholarship opportunity and assigns them to write essays for it.  The unscored students will write in defense of the score; the scored students will argue against it.  An unscored student named Diego approaches Imani about collaborating on the project.  This leaves Imani with quite the conundrum: does she collaborate with Diego in order to increase her chances at the scholarship, since otherwise her college plans will be impossible?  Or will just talking to him lower her own score even further?  Or is there some kind of third option that can allow her to use the system to her own advantage?
As both a teacher and a parent, I find the concept of the "score" to be fascinating.  So much time in our own current school system is taken up with standardized testing, assigning students a myriad of various scores that will, in various ways, determine their futures.  A full month of Bryn's kindergarten year was taken up with days of full and partial testing, establishing baseline scores, and determining eligibility for various programs for first grade.  And that's in kindergarten.  And then there's the ISTEP, the SAT, No Child Left Behind, and the basic achievement and competition for classroom grades.  McLaughlin's novel discusses this legacy of scores.  Given what we subject our children to right now, it's not all that farfetched to think that "scoring" will continue to evolve until it reaches an even more life-determining level of power.

In the novel, the creators of the score argue that humans inherently want to be watched and evaluated--all the way up from the child on the playground who shouts, "Mommy, look at me!" to the people who volunteer to be on reality tv (and all of those of us who watch it).  They further argue that the score is an answer to many of the failures of modern society.  One creator states, "We saw the inability of social programs, including public education, to eradicate poverty, and we decided it was a failure of technology. . . . Here we had this incredible tool at our disposal with the Internet.  We had search.  We had wikis.  We had all the social networking tools.  We had micro-lending and personalized charity.  But poverty wasn't going away.  If anything, the Internet was widening the gap between rich and poor" (page 118).

The novel presents a lot of fascinating arguments both for and against a "scored" society, mostly developed in the ongoing debates between Imani and Diego.  Even though it's a young adult book with a somewhat basic storyline of friendship and romance, this one gave me a lot to think about.  I was left unsatisfied by the ending, as I felt like the story just stopped somewhat abruptly and relied on a short epilogue as its only closure.  But the ending doesn't answer many of the reader's burning questions about the book's characters, it does leave the reader to grapple with the essential questions raised in the text and reach their own conclusions about society's many hierarchies and systems of ranking.  I definitely recommend Scored as a fascinating (and quick) read.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

William David: Our GoodBoy

It always seems a little foreign to me when someone else refers to our little buddy as "William."  Although that's his full name, we've never called him anything but Liam.  He's now 2 years old (almost 27 months) and getting to be quite the big boy.  Whenever I ask him, "Who is Mommy's good boy?" he enthusiastically replies with "Limam!" (Lee-mum), which is his pronounciation of his own name.

In a lot of ways, I see both of his sisters' personalities in his, which isn't that surprising, since they are the superstars of his world.  In most ways, he is a lot like Bryn: he's serious and deliberate, and he loves to read, cuddle, and do puzzles.  But it's Shay who's his hero.  He follows her around all day long and willingly copies anything she does.  So it's not unusual to find the two of them dancing in the living room to songs that Shay has made up, or to need to pull Liam down from the furniture after he has climbed up there in pursuit of his adventurous sister.

All three of our kids have been quick learners, but I really think that Liam is the quickest yet.  He loves numbers, and this week I heard him make it from 1 to 22 before getting stuck.  Now, I don't think that he could actually count 22 items; it's more that he just knows the order the numbers go in, but he can count and comprehend up to 5 or 6 or so.  He knows the ABC song, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Old McDonald, and a wide variety of camp songs by heart.  I swear the kid has a dictionary in his head, because he constantly surprises me (and everyone else who comes in contact with him) with all the words that he knows and can use in context.  He knows all his body parts and cracks me up with is impersonations of animal noises.  He loves to read books (preferably while snuggling with Mommy) and even has a few of his favorites memorized.  I think he's a little smartie-pants, but I also think that a great deal of his motivation in learning so much so quickly is an effort to keep up with his big sisters!

I've often heard the parenting stereotype that "little girls are more verbal and little boys are more physical."  As I said, Liam is ahead on the verbal curve, but he's also significantly more physical than his sisters were at comparable ages (although Shay was more of a daredevil than Bryn, and Liam is more than Shay.... so clearly we're going to need to watch out for this new baby!!).  He loves playgrounds, particularly swings and slides, and seems to fear no height.  He's the only one of our kids who will actually put his face in the water at the pool.  He jumps with both feet in the air, and he's got this adorable little run (really more of a scamper) that he constantly uses to get from place to place--walking is just too slow!  He's a rough-and-tumble boy already, constantly falling down and cutting or bruising himself, but he always refuses bandaids--just a kiss from Mommy is good enough to get him moving again.

In spite of all these big-boy developments, our Liam is still a sweet little cuddlebug.  There's nothing that he likes better than being held, hugged, and kissed, and his most common request is "hold you!" (which means that he wants me to pick him up so he can wrap his arms around me and give me a good squeeze).  Whenever he sees a picture of himself, he identifies it as "baby Limam," and when I ask him if he's a baby or a big boy, he always answers "baby."  Unlike his sisters, who were wild to become big siblings for the first time, he doesn't seem to understand the concept that there is a baby in my belly and is no hurry for his brother to arrive.  (Sorry, little dude, he's coming anyway.)

He has such a kind heart, and whenever I'm upset about anything (ahem, hormones), he comes over and cuddles me and asks, "Okay, Mommy?"  He has the greatest, most infectious giggle, and I can already predict that his big blue eyes with the super-long lashes will make him a heartthrob when he gets a bit older.  I'm happy to keep him as my baby for as long as he wants though!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Book #18 of 2012: "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie

I just finished reading my 18th book of 2012, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  Lest you be fooled by the title, though, it is not either a diary or "absolutely true;" it's a novel.  It has won all kinds of awards, including the National Book Award and the Eliot Rosewater Award (Indiana's best books for teens, voted by teens).  It's been recommended to me by tons of people, including both friends and library professors.

The book is the story of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit Jr., a Spokane Indian living on a reservation.  Arnold (aka Junior) has had a hard life ever since he was born with "water on the brain," otherwise known as brain damage.  He had surgery as an infant and has been left with all kinds of problems, including a lisp, a stutter, unbalanced glasses, 10 extra teeth, and a huge head.  He has been picked on and beaten up by other Indians for his entire life, but he has always been able to count on his best friend Rowdy to defend  him.

But on the first day of his freshman year, he is given a textbook that is over 30 years old... and he becomes overwhelmed by the extreme poverty and intense lack of hope suffered by his entire tribe.  He acts out against his white teacher, who reacts with more grace and compassion than he ever could have hoped for.  His teacher urges him to seek a better life and tells him, "Son, you're going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation."

So Arnold becomes the first member of his tribe to enroll in the public school in the "white" town, Reardon, 22 miles away.  The other Indians are angry with him for "leaving the rez."  They view him as a traitor and treat him terribly.  And in Reardon, he experiences alienation and racist attitudes.  And just getting to school and back every day is a struggle, since his parents often can't afford gas money, so he's often left either hitchhiking or walking the 22 miles.  All of this just to get an education.

This book is simply written, and I burned through it in about a day.  It's honest and raw, sometimes uncomfortably so.  It's terribly sad, illustrating the Indians' lives of poverty, alcoholism, suffering, and most of all, hopelessness.  The book was a punch to the gut in a lot of ways, especially in making me realize that I have pretty much never contemplated the plight of modern Native Americans.  Yet through all of the sad, sad things that happen to him, somehow Arnold keeps his humor intact, and as a reader, I was left with the hope that somehow, the terrible situation on the rez could improve, one person at a time.

I can't necessarily say that I "liked" this book, because it was both so sad and so real that I feel like that would be downplaying the actual situations that many modern Native Americans face.  But I can say that I am really glad that I read it, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Shaylee Grace: Our Sunshine

When Shay was about to turn 2, she and I took a Kindermusik class, and her very favorite song, which she sang over and over again for months, was "You Are My Sunshine."  She would tell me seriously, "Shaylee [is] Mommy's sunshine."  And it's true--she was then, and she still is now: my sunshine.

Shay is now 4 1/2 (half-birthday is actually tomorrow) and a bundle of energy.  This may be due, in part, to the vast amount of sugar she consumes.... I've heard her ask for candy at least 10 times today already!  (Disclaimer: no, she does not receive it every time she asks.)  First thing every morning, she asks for candy--before breakfast.  And then so on throughout the day.  She loves both hot dogs with ketchup, and peanut butter and honey toast, but she's pretty hit-or-miss about food other than that.  Some days she's a great eater; other days she's too busy running around to be bothered.

If Shay were a candy herself, I think she would be a SweetTart.  She is a unique mix of sweetness and sass, utterly distinctive.

On the sweet side: Shay only sleeps in her own bed once in a blue moon; on most nights, she bunks with me.  One of my very favorite parts of the day is always the first five minutes that she's awake.  I love seeing her stretch, gradually open her eyes, and then cuddle into me for another few minutes of rest.  And then, as she wakes up, she starts talking to me, telling me about her dreams or what she wants to do that day.  I love the utter sweetness, love, and trust that she displays in those few minutes each morning.

Also sweet: About once a day, Shay will say, "I want to give you something," and then she'll come over and give me a big kiss.  When I'm upset (as the pregnancy hormones dictate that I will be), she's always the first to comfort me.  She has an awesome childlike faith, love to read the Bible, and makes up songs in which she sings that she wants to "know God more."  She actually makes up songs of all kinds all the time--like whenever she gets upset, she goes in her room by herself and sings about it.  She hugs her brother and sister all the time.  She loves to tell jokes and utterly cracks herself up (even if no one else gets her punchlines).  She loves to cuddle and read stories, and her mischevious smile never fails to melt my heart (even when I have to play it tough to be a responsible parent).

And on the sassy side: Shay can throw a tantrum on command, and it sometimes doesn't take much to get her wails going.  She definitely has a mind of her own and has no problem with telling us "no."  She sticks out that lower lip, sets her eyes a-blazing, and uses her angry voice to tell us exactly what she thinks.  Where Bryn is mild, Shay is fierce.  She holds grudges when she thinks that someone has been "mean" to her.  There have been plenty of times when we've had to take her aside and explain situations to her in order to "talk her down" from being mad.  She knows what she likes, and often, it's her way or the highway.

I love my sweet, sassy, stubborn little girl so much.  Whereas Bryn is so much like me in so many ways, Shay is sometimes a mystery to me--a mystery that I love solving, day by day.  If Bryn is much of what I actually am, Shay is just as much what I have often wished to be.  She is strong, energetic, and confident.  She is not afraid to go after what she wants.  She makes friends easily, and every day is an adventure to her.  She is brave and beautiful.  She laughs easily and loves big.  She is confident and will be a strong leader someday.  I think there are great things in store for this vivacious little girl, and I'm so excited to get to watch her journey.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Bryn Elizabeth: Our Princess

With one thing and another, it has actually been quite a while since I have written any dedicated posts about the kids, which is kind of ridiculous, since I originally started this blog as a way to keep family and friends updated on their antics.  So in the next couple days, I'm going to do a post about each of them, just to bring you all up to speed on what they're up to these days.

First up is my sweet Bryn Elizabeth.  Ever since she was about a year old and developed a penchant for all things pink, she has been known as our Princess.  These days, she's grown out of a lot of the girliness (she even told me recently that pink is no longer her favorite color!), but the sweet heart of our princess remains.

Bryn is now 6 1/2 years old.  Wednesday was her last day of kindergarten, so I guess I officially now have a first grader on my hands.  Where does the time go?!?  She absolutely thrived during her year of kindergarten; she adored her teacher and was full of stories of school and everything they were learning.  She's reading like a champ, having mastered all of the kindergarten sight words and many others.  She also loves to write, and I've started her on keeping a "journal" of her summer, where she writes a few sentences every day to keep in practice.  She also loves to make crafts and do art projects, and she often starts into them with grandiose expectations, such as making an individual drawing for each kid in her class.  She's incredibly determined and hardworking.  In short, that apple didn't fall far from this tree.  It's so fun for me to see Bryn loving all the things that I loved as a kid, and she loves to hear stories about "when Mommy was little."

This summer, Bryn will again be participating in the community play, which happens to be "James and the Giant Peach," and is looking forward to various library programs, including a "Fancy Nancy" party and an "American Girl" club.  She'll also be attending a week of Tecumseh Day Camp at the end of July, and her best friend Hannah is coming up from Indy to do that with her.  Most of all, she's looking forward to "spending special time with Mommy," "playing at camp," and "my new baby brother getting born."

One of the many awesome things about Bryn is how much she loves to learn.  She constantly wants to be doing worksheets out of her "learning books" (skill workbooks for her grade level and beyond), and one of my favorite things is how she loves to play "school" with Shay as her student, often writing out her "lessons" on the white board in the kitchen.  Shay just eats this up and has actually learned a lot this year from her big sister (but more on Shay tomorrow....).  Bryn still loves to cuddle up next to me and read book after book, which I find to be an ideal activity while I'm on bedrest.  She has been invited to participate in the high-ability cluster for her grade next year at school, and Ben and I couldn't be prouder.

Of course, she's not perfect--no one is.  She has a deep love of television, which she watches with an intensity that is hard to interrupt.  She has also mastered the arts of whining and tantruming, which makes me fear for her days as a teenager.  But for the most part, she has a sunny disposition (especially when she's around people other than her immediate family... ahem).  She has actually been an awesome helper to me while I've been on bedrest, often volunteering to pick things up for me or get things for me, and I love seeing her kind heart in action.  She is tender and sweet and gets her feelings hurt easily, but she is also quick to forgive and doesn't hold grudges.  Even at 6, she still says that I'm her very best friend, and I can't help but hope that we stay this close forever.  I missed my sweet girl during the school year, when the evenings just didn't seem to be long enough to cram in everything we wanted to do (especially with me feeling so cruddy).  I'm so looking forward to having her with us this summer and having her share in the excitement of the baby's arrival, although I'm sure that will all seem to go too fast too.

Sometimes I look at Bryn still see her as my baby, and I can't imagine how she got to be 6 1/2 already.  And then other times, I get these glimpes of the person that she's growing up to be, and I again marvel at how fast the time is slipping by.  I'm so proud of my little girl and love being with her.  I count myself as very blessed!

Book #17 of 2012: "Someone Like You" by Sarah Dessen

Note: I still haven't posted about books #14 and #16, Shiver and Linger by Maggie Stiefvater, because I've been waiting to finish the trilogy and review it all at once.  My library has the third book, Forever, on order, and I can't wait to get my hands on it!

I just finished reading my 17th book of the year, Someone Like You.  I've been pretty heavy on the Sarah Dessen lately, partially because my friend Andrea loaned me three books by her and partially because I tend to get stuck on an author until I read everything s/he has written.  But one down side of reading multiple books by the same author in a short time period is that I end up comparing the books to each other, rather than just enjoying each for what it is.

And if I'm comparing Someone Like You to other books by Sarah Dessen (I've now read 5 of hers total), then I don't like it as much.  It was still a good read and I enjoyed it, but I didn't find it to be as strong as What Happened to Goodbye or This Lullaby, which are my favorites (so far) by her.  So if you're looking to start your own voyage into Dessen-land, I'd recommend one of those as your starter instead.

A brief summary of Someone Like You: As the story begins, best friends Halley and Scarlett are about to start their junior year of high school.  Scarlett has been dating a boy named Michael all summer, and as the story begins, he is killed in a car accident.  From there, the girls develop more and more problems: Halley's close relationship with her mother falls apart, Scarlett discovers that she is pregnant with Michael's baby, and Halley starts dating bad boy Macon.  While Halley's relationship with Macon definitely impacts her relationship with her mother, Scarlett's pregnancy seems oddly compartmentalized in its effects on Halley's life, in spite of the gossip at school and the fact that Halley is Scarlett's labor coach and only supporter.  The book seems to tie itself up pretty neatly, with Halley giving cthe boot and restoring her relationship with her mother, then Scarlett giving birth to a perfect baby girl (on prom night, no less), and everything ending on a note of happiness.  Obviously there will still be hard times ahead (especially for Scarlett), but they seem to be kind of glossed over.  Again, I found the endings of Dessen's other books to be more realistic.  All in all, I'd give this one maybe 3 starts out of 5.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book #15 of 2012: Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

Or, a post alternately titled: "A Book Review and a Diatribe."

SIDE NOTE: No, you didn't just miss it--I have not yet posted a review of Book #14 of 2012: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater.  It's the first in a trilogy, so I'm going to post about the entire trilogy all at one time.

Okay, so Dreamland by Sarah Dessen.  As usual, I love her writing.  And as usual, it's the story of a dysfunctional family, particularly the teenage daughter.  But while I usually love Sarah Dessen's books and come out feeling vaguely hopeful and contemplative, this one was like a train wreck: the story was horrifying, but I just couldn't seem to look away.

The story begins on the morning of Caitlin O'Koren's 16th birthday.... the day that her 18-year-old sister, Cass, chooses to run away from home, abandoning her promising future at Yale in favor of running of to New York to live with her boyfriend.  Why would Cass, the perfect child, do such a thing?  Well, she never explains it herself, but after meeting the parents through Caitlin's narration, it's pretty clear that the father is largely checked-out and the mother's over-involvement with every facet of Cass's life has left her feeling stifled, like she can't make any choices in her own life.  Without her sister around, Caitlin isn't quite sure what to do with herself.  She basically decides that in order to deal with the pain of Cass leaving, she wants to live her own life as far from Cass's shadow as possible.

This leads to Caitlin dating an enigma named Rogerson (seriously? not a great name for the "bad boy").  Rogerson is nothing that Caitlin's parents or sister would ever approve of--but Cass is gone, and her parents don't seem to notice anything about Caitlin these days.  Rogerson is a drug dealer, and soon Caitlin is spending most of her days stoned on pot.  She cuts classes to be with him, her grades slip, she gets kicked off the cheerleading squad, alienates herself from her friends, etc.... yet her parents do not seem to notice.  And then he starts beating her.  Regularly.  Until her entire body is a mass of bruises.  Yet she never once stands up to him or defends herself, and yep, you guessed it, her parents do not notice whatsoever.

With most YA books that I read, I have no problem getting into the main character's storyline and sympathizing with his/her emotions.  In this book, though, I guess I really showed my age, because I could not stop thinking about the mom.  I mean, what kind of parent was she?  Her daughter went through all of these horrible things right under her nose and she DIDN'T EVEN NOTICE?!?

And then I started thinking about all the kids that I went to high school with who got into drugs, or who had horrible things happen in their relationships, or who were anorexic or cutters or had abortions or any of a million other things.... with, as far as I could see, no fallout from their parents whatsoever.  And then I thought about all the kids I used to teach, and of all the drinking parties and drug use and relationships gone bad, and how if the parents knew about it, they sure didn't seem to be reacting at all.

Now, I know that there's a lot that goes on between parents and their children behind closed doors, and maybe many of those parents, both from my own teen years and my teaching years, were more with it than I might have thought.  But the fact is, there are so, so many teeangers who get into destructive things or actions or relationships without their parents ever seeming to know or intervene.  Which leaves me with the burning question: How do I ensure that I will be a parent who notices?  How do I make sure that when my kid faces a crisis, I at least know that something is happening?  How do I ensure that the dialogue between me and my children is always so open and honest that they will feel comfortable coming to me with anything, even if they know it will disappoint me?

I think there's more to this than just being just a "good parent."  I have known plenty of kids with great, caring, involved parents who have still made bad choices or had bad experiences and have been unwilling to talk to their parents about it.  I think that part of it is the "shame" factor, that kids don't want to admit that they might not be able to handle everything alone.  And then there's the fear that their parents "won't understand" or will judge them.  I mean, let's face it, even the best of kids sometimes find themselves in over their heads--it's part of growing up.  So again, how do I, as parent, make myself accessible to my kids in those hard times, to provide support without judgment, to give both gentle guidance and unconditional love?

I don't have the answers here, but I do know that I love my kids more than anything in the world and always want to be there for them, whatever the situation.  That I never want them to feel like they "can't talk to" me or that I "won't understand."  I imagine that most parents feel that way.  So how do we make that a reality?

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Village

You know that old saying, "It takes a village to raise a child"?  It's definitely true.  And in my case, it has also taken a village to get me through this pregnancy.

I am so, so incredibly grateful for all of the dear family and friends that have come alongside us in this journey to Baby #4.  What with the bedrest and all the other medical struggles that have come up, we have asked for a lot of help.... and received it generously from a huge number of sources.  So even though this baby's arrival is still 6 weeks away and I'm sure that more wonderful angels will bless us before then, I wanted to just take a moment to thank everyone that has kept our family functioning for the last 34 weeks.  HUGE "thank yous" to:

* Andrea, Carrie, and Kristen, each of whom willingly drove 1-2 hours with their own kids in tow, to take care of my kids while I sat on the couch (and have even repeatedly offered to do it again!).

* Katrina, Jamie, Amie, and Mary Anne, all part of my "camp family," who have watched my kids and shown them way more fun than I am capable of right now.

* Nana Helen and Grammy Tina, for clearing their schedules to stay with us for multiple days, taking care of the kids, uncomplainingly bunking with Bryn, cooking us meals, and cleaning my house.

* Grandpa Dave and Grandma Diane, for help from a distance.

* Theresa, Lisa, Beth, Sara, Amanda, Mel, and countless others, for passing the word about our babysitting needs and giving us great recommendations.  Special thanks to Carrie, who helped us make the connection that let to us finding a summer sitter.

* Lisa, Paige, Danielle, Emily, Meg, Jamie, Samantha, and Liz, for being AMAZING babysitters, loving on my kids, and making life all-around easier for me.

* Larinda, for agreeing to take on our craziness for the summer.

* Amanda, for bringing over an amazing homemade meal.  The Camp Tecumseh kitchen staff, for "family style" dining that keeps me from having to cook.  Michelle and many others for offers of meals (which I plan to take you up on soon!).

* Katrina, for doing my grocery shopping (and scolding me when I attempt to do it myself).

* Christine and Jeff, for rolling with the punches, listening to my rants, trusting me with their sweet little girl, and fulfilling my "Glee" cravings.

* Andrea and Carrie, for keeping me connected to the outside world, and a myriad of messages that make me laugh out loud.

* Andrea again, for introducing me to my new "Gilmore Girls" obsession, and for keeping me well-stocked with books and reading recommendations to alieviate the boredom.  Also Sara and Beth, for generous offers to be my own personal book delivery service.

* Bryn, Shay, and Liam, for being the best kids in the world.  For putting up with having to obey someone different every single day (although admittedly, sometimes they do this with more grace than other days), for all the kisses and cuddles, and for still being excited about the baby's arrival, even though it has turned their worlds upside down.

* Ben, for doing double-duty on household chores, cooking, cleaning, and childcare ever since the hideous migraines of my first trimester.  For nights when he brings me dinner in bed, for watching cheesy girl movies with me, and for reassuring me that everything is going to be okay.

* The countless friends and family members, both near and far, who have prayed with us and for us, for safety and health for both the baby and me.

We love you, dear friends.  Thank you so much for lifting us up these past 34 weeks!

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Book #13 of 2012: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

I just finished reading my 13th book of 2012, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  If you haven't heard of him yet, that's likely because this is his first novel... but I predict wild popularity for him in the near future.  I will admit that I would probably have never picked this one out myself, as the front and back covers just screamed "creepy" to me (which is a genre that I usually studiously avoid, as I am prone to nightmares), but it was recommended by some friends as "the best book I've read this year," so I decided to check it out.  And wow, am I glad that I did.  While there were "creepy" moments, it was not a scary book, and it did a beautiful job straddling the line between realism and fantasy.  The story was fascinating, and I eagerly await the sequel in the spring of 2013.  Let me give you a little taste of the goodness that's in store for you if you read this book:

Jacob Portman grew up listening to the fantastic stories of his grandfather, Abraham.  Abe was born in Poland but spent much of his childhood in a home for refugee children in Wales.  He claimed that he'd had to leave Poland because "the monsters were after him."  And "more fantastic still were his stories about life in the Welsh children's home.  It was an enchanted place, he said, designed to keep kids safe from the monsters, on an island where the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died.  Everyone lived together in a house that was protected by a wise old bird--or so the story went" (page 9).

As a child, Jacob believed his grandfather's stories.  But as he got older, his parents' explanation sounded far more reasonable: the stories "weren't lies, exactly, but exaggerated versions of the truth--because the story of Grandpa Portman's childhood wasn't a fairy story at all.  It was a horror story.  My grandfather was the only member of his family to escape Poland before the Second World War broke out.  He was twelve years old when his parents sent him into the arms of strangers, putting their youngest son on a train to Britain with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes on his back.  It was a one-way ticket.  He never saw his mother or father again, or his older brothers, his cousins, his aunts and uncles.  Each one would be dead before his sixteenth birthday, killed by the monsters he had so narrowly escaped.  But these weren't the kind of monsters that had tentacles and rotting skin, the kind a seven-year-old might be able to wrap his mind around--they were monsters with human faces, in crisp uniforms, marching in lockstep, so banal you don't recognize them for what they are until it's too late. 

"Like the monsters, the enchanted-island story was also a truth in disguise.  Compared to the horrors of mainland Europe, the children's home that had taken in my grandfather must've seemed like a paradise, and so in his stories it had become one: a safe haven of endless summers and guardian angels and magical children, who couldn't really fly or turn invisible or lift boulders, of course.  The peculiarity for which they'd been hunted was simply their Jewishness.  They were orphans or war, washed up on that little island in a tide of blood.  What made them amazing wasn't that they had miraculous powers; that they had escaped the ghettos and gas chambers was miraculous enough" (page 17).

This explanation from his parents kept Jacob from asking any questions until he was 16.... when his grandfather is killed under strange and traumatizing circumstances.  As Jacob holds his dying grandfather in his arms, he is certain that he sees one of the horrifying monsters that his grandfather described during his childhood.  And then there are his grandfather's mysterious last words:

"Go to the island.  You'll be safe there.  Promise me" (page 32).
"I thought I could protect you.  I should've told you a long time ago...." (page 32).
"There's no time.  Find the bird.  In the loop.  On the other side of the old man's grave.  September third, 1940" (page 33).
"Emerson--the letter.  Tell them what happened" (page 33).

After his grandfather dies, Jacob is certain that the trauma is making him crazy--a theory supported by his psychiatrist, Dr. Golan.  But then he finds the mysterious letter that his grandfather was referring to, which leads him to Cairnholm, a remote island off the coast of Wales, in search of what remains of his grandfather's long-ago children's home.  Nothing is what he expected, and he learns that there was far more to his grandfather--and to him--than met the eye.

Another facet of this book that makes it so fabulous is the photgraphs.  It is illustrated by vintage photographs, which the author found through 10 different collectors.  Many of the black and white photographs left me staring, thinking, "But that's not possible!"  They add so much to the story, and their use makes the story incredibly unique.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for something new.  It takes the realm of reality and twists it into one of those "loops" Abraham referred to, showing another reality existing alongside our own.  Very creative, very well-written.  I found a copy of this book in the teen section of my library, but I believe the YA designation is largely because of the ages of the characters.  This story could easily be enjoyed even by those who don't venture into young adult literature otherwise.  Both the story and the photographs are definitely worth checking out!

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Book #12 of 2012: What Happened to Goodbye

I just finished my 12th book of the year: What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen.  I had previously read her That Summer and This Lullaby.  She writes young adult fiction of the "chick lit" genre.  All of the books that I've read by her could also be described as "coming of age" stories, as the main character is always going through a large transition.

This book was no exception.  17-year-old Mclean Sweet has been on the move for two years, ever since her parents got divorced.  She and her restaurant-consultant father have lived in four towns in two years.... which also means four different high schools for Mclean, and consequently, four completely different personallitites.  Since her parents split up, Mclean just isn't sure who she is, and she has developed a different persona in each town.... mostly to keep wiping the slate clean, forgetting her painful past.  She's been Eliza the popular cheerleader, Lizbet the drama queen, and Beth the student council good-girl.  But when she and her dad land in Lakeview (the setting of most of Dessen's books), she can't seem to figure out who to be.  Without meaning to, she shifts back into Mclean and actually starts to develop some real relationships, both with the kids at her school and the staff of her dad's failing restaurant.

The blurb on the back of my copy of the book (borrowed from my friend Andrea) reads: "Another town, another school, another role to play--even Mclean doesn't know who she is anymore.  But maybe Dave can help her find out..."  I actually thought that this was a serious oversimplification of the book.  While her friendship (and the possibility of something more?) with her neighbor Dave does help her to grow and re-form her identity, she also develops real friendships with the unlikely combination of Heather, Riley, Ellis, and Deb (who I found to be particularly interesting and wish had been developed further).

At its core, though, the story centers around Mclean's parents' divorce, her attempts to reconcile her present life to her childhood memories, and the current complicated state of her relationships with her parents.  I thought the book would focus on anecdotes of each of her personalities; instead, it demonstrated a longing for a simpler time.

While this book was more than the simple teenage love story that the cover seemed to indicate, it was also a lot lighter than the other books I've read lately.  I do love Sarah Dessen and plan to read more of her this year, and her stories of complicated family relationships always tug at my hearstrings.  Thumbs up for a lighter but still bittersweet read.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

33 Weeks

I am huge.  Huger than huge.  Uncomfortably huge.  "Hey strangers, look out for my stomach, because I can't control it and will likely bump into you" huge.

Not to sound dense, but this actually just occurred to me.  You would think that I would have noticed it sooner, but since I'm on bedrest, my stomach really doesn't get in my way very much.  But a couple of days ago, I took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror.  And I realized that all those people who have stared at me with their eyes bugging out in public, who have asked if I'm carrying twins, who have declared that my due date must be wrong, who have annoyed me to no end.... well, they're kind of right.  There is a LOT of baby there.

I'm going to show you what I'm talking about.  But first, a disclaimer.  While I have often thought that those expectant mama photographs of the burgeoning bellies are cute, I have never actually taken one myself.  Not even during my first pregnancy, before the stretch marks settled in.  These days, my stomach looks like a war zone.  My stretch marks have stretch marks.  You will also have the opportunity to admire the stretch-pants-and-tank-top ensemble that I wear under my clothes every day--very classy.  So please, be gentle with your assessments of this picture:

Yeah, I told you.  I'm huge.  And I still have seven weeks left.

I had a doctor's appointment today, and as if to prove all of my recent observations of hugeness, I had a delightful conversation with the nurse while she took my basic stats.  We were chatting perfectly pleasantly until she pulled up my chart and said, "Oh my gosh, you're 33 weeks."  Um, yes, I am.  "Wow," she said, "I would have guessed at least 37 from looking at you."  Yeah, that's right, the obstetric nurse, who sees pregnant ladies day in and day out, every single day, as her profession, guessed me to be at least a month further along than I actually am.

Yet the appointment itself proved that the baby is measuring perfectly normal, so I guess looks can be deceiving.

As usual, there were very few new developments from the appointment.  The baby is healthy; I am not.  Hang in there.

My appointment today was with the nurse practitioner (although I will see my actual OB for every appointmenht after this), and she got me pretty excited by saying that she thought that, given my condition, we could go in after this baby 2 or 3 weeks early.  Of course, then I realized that she actually has no authority to make that decision, so my excitement quickly dissipated.

Today's urine analysis revealed that my glucose levels are a little high--a fact which would be more worrisome if I hadn't had to shamefully admit to having drunk a huge Coke for lunch directly before coming to my appointment.  I've been having to take Ambien (half a pill) to sleep through my pain at night, which works pretty well, except that I find it really hard to shake the after-effects of that sleepiness during the day.  Thus my caffeine craving.

My weight check showed that I have actually lost little bit of weight (like a pound or less) since my last appointment two weeks ago.  I was considering this to be a good thing... until the nurse said that my urine analysis also showed that I have a large amount of ketones, which are indicative of weight loss, but also can also indicate other problems, so therefore I should eat more.  I actually feel like I eat all the time, but as I think about it, I guess I am eating less than I had been earlier in the pregnancy.  I'm just not really very hungry (probably because the baby is taking up all my stomach space), plus my acid reflux is so bad that it makes food pretty unappealing.  But I will try.

The nurse offered to refer me for physical therapy to help with my sciatic nerve pain, but I said no.  I did that during my pregnancies with both Bryn and Shay, and it honestly didn't help at all, so I don't really feel the need to drag myself out to further appointments for it.  Plus the sciatic pain is really just a drop in the bucket compared to my vein pain, so I'll just keep on keeping on.

In other baby-related news, we are still utterly failing at finding a summer babysitter to help out while I'm on bedrest and immediately after this baby comes.  We're mostly covered for the month of May, thanks to having so many wonderful summer camp counselors at our disposal before staff training starts in the last week of May.  However, June is downright discouraging.  Four different times, we've thought that we've found a sitter, only to have it fall through.  So please say some prayers for us to be able to find a good sitter to love on our kids (and also to ease my stressed-out state).

Seven more weeks (or thereabouts).  I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.....

Book #11 of 2012: Pandemonium

I finished Lauren Oliver's Pandemonium last weekend.  It's the sequel to her Delirium, which was the first book I read this year.  The books are set in a dystopian world where all citizens are "cured" of amor delirium nervosa, aka love, at age 18.  In Delirium, Lena's lifelong view of the world is completely shaken, first by her friend Hana, who introduces her to illicit parties and music where boys and girls actually interact with each other.  Then Lena meets Alex, an Invalid who has never been cured, and becomes infected with the deliria herself.  In the book's thrilling conclusion, Alex helps Lena escape from her society, over an electrocuted fence into the Wilds, where the Invalids live free.

Pandemonium picks up where Delirium left off, with Lena alone and injured in the Wilds, mourning the loss of Alex.  It then follows her journey from slow recovery to joining the Resistance.  Once again, everything that Lena thinks she understands about the world is challenged, and she is left to search within herself to decide what kind of person she wants to be.

This book also introduces 18-year-old Julian Fineman, the son of president of the DFA  (Deliria-Free Association).  Julian is about to undergo the procedure to be "cured," but due to a history of brain hemorhages, there's a good chance that the procedure will kill him.  Yet what other choice does he have?  He lives in "a world where children crack their heads on stone fireplaces and nearly gnaw off their tongues and the parents are concerned.  Not heartbroken, frantic, desperate.  Concerned, as they are when you fail mathematics, as they are when they are late to pay their taxes."  (page 55)

We also meet Raven, Tack, Blue, Hunter, and other Invalids, struggling to survive in the Wilds.  And then there are the Scavengers, who are also uncured but have barely managed to retain their humanity.

I absolutely loved this story, as I have loved both of Lauren Oliver's other books (Delirium and Before I Fall).  My only complaint is that it took me a while to get into the story, based on the setup of the narration.  The chapters alternate between "Then" (when Lena first escaped to the Wilds) and "Now" (6 months later, when she begins her work as a member of the Resistance).  I'm usually a fan of the flashback technique, but with the two storylines being so close to each other chronologically, I think it would have made a lot more sense to just tell it in order.  I liked the "Now" chapters much better than the "Then," so I got impatient with the story every other chapter.

The ending held two big surprises (one of which I saw coming, and the other of which I did not) which definitely set the stage for the third book in the trilogy, Requiem, which will be published in February 2013.  How will I wait??  For starters, I'm hoping to read Hana, which is a novella that tells the story of Lena's best friend.  (Unfortunately, it's only available in ebook format, and I don't have an eReader, so I'm still trying to puzzle that one out.)

I've become a big fan of Lauren Oliver this year, as I have loved everything that I've read by her.  Her books are definitely aimed to the female audience (unlike a lot of other dystopian fiction, which can be enjoyed equally by both sexes), but I highly recommend her!