Book Report 2013 - First Half

Yes, I realize that it's not quite the half way point in the year yet but I'm pretty sure that if I wait until the kids are out of school, I will never write this post. So. Here's how it goes: as always I write only what I remember about a book, so if there are any inaccuracies, I apologize but I'm grasping at what few straws are left in my brain.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom - Just the synopsis of this novel packs an emotional punch. Lavinia, an orphaned white girl comes to live on a Virginia plantation as an indentured servant working in the kitchen house alongside the plantation's slaves who include Belle, the plantation master's illegitimate biracial child. Belle and Lavinia alternate telling this gripping, tear-jerker of a story, and their voices ring true, or as true as I can imagine sitting in my kitchen in 2013. Even now, six months later, memory-challenged me can remember the names and major plot points of this book. I cared about these people and cried with them. Highly recommended.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman - One day, a childless couple living in a remote lighthouse find a boat drifting to shore containing a dead man and a live baby. The wife, grieving for all the babies she has lost, considers this beautiful healthy baby a miracle, an answered prayer. What would you do? I struggled with the ending of this novel, but I think that only speaks to the power of its storytelling, I believed in the story and there was no perfectly happy ending possible that would ring true. Highly recommended, though it might be tough for those who've struggled with the loss of a pregnancy/child.

Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis - In this novel, we follow the sad life of Hattie, the matriarch of a large African American family, as she loses her children in many different ways. The writing flowed nicely and I loved having different narrators for each chapter.  Hattie is tough and imperfect and beaten down, in the end the sadness got a little too heavy for me, I think because I was reading this around the time of my dad's decline. Recommended if you don't mind the sadness.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green - Oh! Let's weep so more! Yeah, I didn't do so good a job this year picking uplifting books after sad books. But this book just goes to show you that sad can be done well! And leave me feeling sort of cleansed and almost even joyful afterwards! I adored this YA love story about two cancer-stricken teens who meet at a support group. The dialogue made me remember what being a teenager felt like and, dude, I'm old AND have a bad memory. And, yes, I wept like a baby after turning the last page. Highly recommended for YA lovers or anyone with a heart.

May the Road Rise Up to Meet You by Peter Troy - This was a book group book that I enjoyed thoroughly once I got into it. Four different characters, with four completely different voices, narrate the (eventually) intertwining stories of slavery, immigration and - of course! - lurvvve. It took me awhile to get into this book - the narration styles were so different, the dialect was challenging and the stories take a while to converge - but once I did, I LOVED it. Highly recommended for you historical fiction types.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes - Let's just call this the year of weeping, shall we? I cried like a little baby whose pacifier's been taken away when this book ended. Just sobbed. A young woman is hired as an aide to a young, prickly quadriplegic. She is different, quirky, fun and they fall in love. I just didn't want this to end. Highly recommend for those who love love stories and are financially invested in Kleenex stock.

Set Loose, No Other Love and Tempt Me by Isabel Morin - Okay! Here's a couple of palette cleansers! Phew! My friend wrote these erotic novels and BOY HOWDY did I enjoy reading them, and they didn't make me cry once! "Set Loose" and "Tempt Me" are both set in present day while "No Other Love" is a historical romance. All are fun romps. My favorite? "Set Loose," about a ballet dancer whose car breaks down in Las Vegas. To pay for the needed car repairs, she tries her (inexperienced) hand at stripping and winds up falling for a strip club bouncer.  Recommended for the erotica lover.

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple - This was a fun, laugh riot of a book and I've heard that if you're from the Pacific Northwest, it's even funnier. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about Benadette, an acclaimed architect-turned stay-at-home mom and all the people in her orbit. I loved how the book was told in many different formats- emails, forms, letters, etc..  Recommended for those who could use a laugh or three.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz - I chose this because Mr. Diaz is a big literary deal and I like to read big literary deals from time to time to see what all the fuss is about. The writing style of these short stories about a complex dude with lady troubles was appealing, the words felt fresh and compelling, but I didn't love the book because the emotional world it painted felt so foreign, so....masculine.  Truthfully, the stories felt really aggressively male and I struggled to finish the book. I don't think I like what that says about me.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown - I was ready for a pick-me-up after that last book, so I turned to this self-help, up-with-people book. I really, really wanted to love this book but it struck me as .... odd. Brown, a "vulnerability researcher" spends quite a bit of time talking about her credentials and academic research in what feels like an attempt at intellectual legitimacy and prestige. But then she uses words like "Wholehearted," which is always capitalized, and talks extensively about her own issues with shame and this felt discordant.  I fully applaud her desire to release people from the binds of shame and to change the cultural standing of vulnerability but yeah, I just keep feeling put off. I felt like I had to read it while squinting past the annoying parts so that I could focus on the cheer leading it did for us sensitive-types. Recommended only if you love self-help.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich- My mom gave me this novel and told me I HAD to read it, and she's not exactly the pushy type. But I found the going SO SLOW at first. A woman's rape in the vicinity of a Native American round house provides the catalyst that sends the plot into motion. Our narrator, her teenage son, tries to help solve the mystery of his mother's rape. His character felt so immediate and SO REAL, and the descriptive writing was beautiful but I kept being put to sleep by this book. The plot makes it seems like it should be a who-done-it page-turner but I NEVER stayed up too late to read it and I had to treat it like an assignment for the first half of the book. I know lots of people who loved it and I did wind up enjoying it a great deal as it came to a deftly-handled close but I can't say I was ever riveted.

Come Back to Me by Melissa Foster - The characters in this novel were thinly drawn but the action was compelling enough to get me engaged in the beginning:  a newly pregnant wife finds out her military husband has gone missing and is presumed dead in the Middle East. We follow both her story, and her husband's as he is found and nursed by two refugee women. I was totally WITH this book until the second half where it took a turn I couldn't stand and then I was just pissed. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book.

Schroder by Amity Gage - All my book recommendations come from Twitter, my book group or, like this one, Catherine Newman. I picked it because I was interested in the true story that inspired it: that of "Clark Rockefeller", a conman who created a fictitious identity in an attempt at living like American royalty. I really enjoyed this story, partially because of and despite the limitations of our singular narrator: the conman himself. Recommended.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey - Oh this book. I loved this book. It felt like a magical little snowflake and I was scared to hold it too tightly because it might melt away.  A childless couple (WHAT IS WITH THE CHILDLESS COUPLES IN ALL MY BOOKS?) creates a child out of snow one wintry night, topping it with a knitted scarf and hat. The next day the snow child has disappeared and the knitted items are spotted on a spritely figure who dashes through the woods. Have they conjured an actual child out of nothing but snow and heartbreaking desire, just like an old story the woman remembers from a childhood fairytale? A fantastic premise handled with loving care. Highly recommended.

Stranger Here: How Weight Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed With My Head by Jen Larsen - Linda raved this on twitter and I liked it. Ms. Larsen is bracingly honest about her failings (she doesn't follow pretty much any of her doctor's recommendations before or after weight loss surgery) and she's damn funny at the same time. I kind of loved the ending, too, now that I think about it, so, yeah, sure, recommended.

Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen - This book has so much potential! But I ultimately found it frustrating and fantasized about PAYING for a tougher editor for this author. The book follows both her personal family dysfunction (We are told repeatedly that they never spoke! About feelings! Or what they did at the plant! Or ANYTHING! GOT. IT.) and the story of her next door neighbor, Rocky Flats, a plutonium bomb trigger factory. There is an interesting story hidden there but it was repetitive in more than a few places and the whole thing could have been much tighter, like 150 pages chopped off tighter. Oh well.


Okay, your turn! What have you been reading lately and what should I read next?


Update - S E X and Summer is coming!

Update on S E X-

At dinner with friends last week, Z asked how exactly a woman's egg is fertilized by a man's seed and she kept at it. "I just don't get it!" she said as we grownups all stared bug-eyed at each other before busting out laughing. I think I eventually mumbled something lame about talking about it later.

It seems she is ready to hear about how babies are made. Furthermore, it seems I am not quite up to the task as much as I hoped.

So last weekend, when her sister was otherwise occupied, I pulled out our previously hidden copy of It's Not The Stork! and read it to her, cover to cover. When we got to the extremely brief description of s e x, she exclaimed "Did YOU ever do that?" and I replied with a simple "yes."

When I finished reading, I asked her if she had any questions and I told her the book would be on her shelf for her to look at whenever she wants. She had no questions and hasn't mentioned it since. The information in the book is very basic (it's actually meant for kids ages 4 and up) but she is a pretty sheltered, emotionally immature 7 year old so I thought we'd start with this one before moving on to the next book.

I don't know if she really grasped any information but I guess that doesn't matter so much. What matters is that we've started the dialogue and she has resources she knows she can turn to if she has further questions.



Update on Summer is coming!-

Friends, I am panicking. We have just a small sampling of summer camps scheduled and a whole lot of open ended summer days.

I feel like I need a game plan.

Here's what I've got so far:

1. Every night after dinner, the kids and I will sit down and write out a plan for the following day. That way we aren't just fumbling around in the morning in our pjs until someone gets inspired/stir crazy. We can, of course, have mornings where we stay in our pjs all morning but I'd like it to be a purposeful choice.

2. Z will do her school summer reading challenge and we will schedule in reading time every week day.

3. Z will also write something every day, whether it's the grocery list, a letter, a story, a journal entry, anything.

4. Both girls are going to learn how to do some more chores around the house this summer. They've chosen to learn how to do their laundry from start to finish and how to load and unload the dishwasher.  (I think I will need to reward us ALL with treats after working on these.)

5. We'll have an adventure every week, of my choosing.

6. I'm going to ask the girls to pick a personal goal for the summer and then make a plan to reach that goal.

That's all I got so far.



Summer is coming (dunh dunh DUNH)

We've been watching "Game of Thrones," but I have to admit that I'm totally lost and need an annotated flow chart of some kind to made sense of all the plotlines. I keep thinking I've got it all figured out and then all of a sudden, they flash to yet another storyline that I've forgotten about and I am lost again. I may be close to giving up on it entirely, but I do love me some John Snow and there's something enticing about the often uttered phrase "Winter is coming."  It's vague and forboding and with summer break approaching, I completely understand what it means.

It means: get ready because your world is about to be rocked and, as surely as the earth goes around the sun, you can do nothing to stop it.

Every summer is a rough transition for all of us here at Casa de Clueless But Hopeful. Turns out we are a mentally inflexible bunch of panty twisters who hate change.

(Come party! But leave by bedtime and don't move our stuff!)

Each year, I struggle to find the right balance of summer camp and free time. I vacillate between desparately wanting my kids to have a predictable schedule so that I get things done in some fashion that vaguely resembles the school year schedule and wanting them to have an idealized summer of opened ended play in the backyard and endless time to read and craft and play pretend. Both are important and valid. I think it's healthy to have some predictability and structure for our general sanity but I feel this strong desire to let them be free! And just play!

The reality: when they are free to just play, they destroy the house, bicker endlessly and fray what's left of my last nerve.

So. I need some Summer Sanity Savers pronto because Summer is coming. *dunh dunh DUNH!*

What are your Summer Sanity Savers?


To My Daughters, On Mother's Day

Dear Z and E,

Before I became your mother, I was worried about so many things.

I was worried that I might not fall in love with you. I should have been worried that I would fall in love with you so completely that I would never sleep, watch the news, think about my life, or walk through the world the same way ever again.

I was worried that you would one day say you hate me and I would feel so mortally wounded by your words that I would crumble inward. I didn't know that I would crumble, not from my own wounds, but from the wounds in you that your words reveal.

I was worried that as a lifelong conflict-avoider, I would never be able to set the boundaries necessary for a healthy parent/child relationship. I didn't know that setting boundaries would be the easy part, keeping them and explaining them and owning them would be the hard part.

I was worried that having daughters would reveal my ineptitude with femininity and womanhood. I didn't know that having daughters would give me an expansive opportunity to reexamine and explore what it means to be female.

I was worried I wouldn't understand your challenges or know everything I needed to know to meet them. Instead, I've struggled to fight my assumption that I know everything about you, to not try to own your challenges for you, to let them be yours and yours alone, and to walk beside you as we figure them out together.

I was worried, somewhere deep down, that I wouldn't be a good mother, that motherhood would reveal my messy, imperfect self, that I would screw you up entirely.

I'm beginning to realize that owning those messy, imperfect parts of me are part of being a good mother.

One day, I hope you become mothers, not just because I can clearly see the benefits of grandparenthood, but also because I see the privelage of being your mother as a highlight of my life.

And if your life path doesn't include motherhood, I hope I am strong enough to let that be your choice, and to keep my damn mouth shut.


Your Clueless But Hopeful Mama


Dress Rehearsal/Opening Night/Aftermath

Tuesday April 30

Dress Rehearsal.

I am walking with my daughter, faking comfort and confidence as I enter the high school (it seems this is the only way I know how to enter a high school, no matter what my age.)  My oldest girl's steps still have the jazzy cadence of a young child and as we draw nearer to the clusters of high schoolers by the front door, she bounces closer to me, takes my hand, and loudly calls me Mommy.

After we enter the auditorium, she drops my hand and rushes into the open arms of a tall Sound of Music cast member whose name I don't know, who nonetheless looks after her like a sister.

And just like that, she is gone.

I find a seat in the darkened theater and watch. She is by the far the youngest on the stage, a little bobbed head two feet below a sea of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift lookalikes. I look on her with unending love but judgements aggressively push their way into my consciousness. The light is bright on her up on that stage and I see where her bangs are not quite straight and I notice that she has a smudge of yogurt on her cheek and I can tell every time her mind wanders somewhere else.

Hours pass. Her eyes now have that exhausted glazed look I have come to know all too well these past seven years. A pit in my stomach starts its usual fearful gnawing. She yawns. It's nearing 9 pm, an hour past her bedtime. I tense and fight the urge to stride up to the stage, grab her around the waist and take her home.

On the way home in the car she says sleepily, "Mom? Isn't this so, SO fun?"


Thursday May 2

Opening night.

I crouch beside her backstage, reluctantly smearing makeup on her perfect poreless face. She just turned 7 and is about to perform for a lot of people and she's bouncing-off-the-walls excited. I tell her to sit still, to save her energy. I swipe a licked finger across her cheek. I ask her if she needs to go potty.

She brushes me away as, of course, she must.

Her makeup applied, her costume on, it quickly becomes clear that I am in the way. As I take my place in the audience, I feel as if I'm tumbling down a hill away from her. She is on her own on that stage for the next few hours. I can do nothing to help her except sit and watch.

And tense at every cue I fear she'll miss. 

And berate myself for letting her do this in the first place. 

And grimace at every yawn/error/wedgie pick.

And clap.



She is 7 now and sometimes when I say that to her cursing cast members -"Language please! She's only 7!" - she sounds so young and sometimes when I say that to her - "You're 7 now! SEVEN." - she sounds so impossibly old.

She goes to the cast party with a bunch of posturing high schoolers who want only to talk about sex and impress each other.  After the party, she curls up with her stuffed animals and asks for a bedtime story about a silly dragon named Snapdragon. She is so big and so little.

We worry about the post performance let down for her, the end of all that attention. She is a little snarky and tired these days but the big surprise is we have our own emotional aftermath to deal with, too. We let her go a little more during this process and it hurts, like the opposite of growing pains. Or, I guess, growing pains for parents.

I choose a card for her, one for her father and me to write a little something in to congratulate her on her hard work. I write about how proud I am of her, how impressed I am with her commitment and hard work. My mind rushes through all the bumps along the way, the late nights, the times I had to remind her to practice her lines, the missed cues and on-stage yawns during the performances. I push  down those unhelpful thoughts.

And I celebrate her in her bigness, her smallness, her onstage and her backstage and her signing autographs for a crowd of girls and her curled up in her bed with her stuffed animals while I rub her back just like I did when she was a baby.

I'm proud of it all.


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