Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My "Top Books of 2013" List

I started compiling an annual "Best of" list a few years ago for my Meridian column and the hardest part is always whittling down the list of books that had a profound influence on me over the course of a year to a manageable size. Torture!

Unlike other "Top of 2013" lists, the only limit on mine is that I read the books during 2013.  Most of them were not published this year. And I refuse to limit myself to 10 or 12 or any other random number.  And I can't possibly rank them.

The books on this list are the ones that stayed with me after I read them, that I still think about, that changed the way I view the world or challenged my preconceptions or shook me up a bit. And that's why I love them.

Best General Non-fiction
Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger
The Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
1491 by Charles C. Mann

Best LDS Non-fiction
Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide by Grant Hardy
David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince
Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald Walker, Richard Turley, Glen Leonard

Best Spiritual/Religious Non-fiction (not LDS)
Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott
A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Evans Held
Faitheist by Chris Stedman
Project Conversion by Andrew Bowen

Best Fiction
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Best Children's
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

Best Young Adult Fiction
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 46

Just a bit more Christmas music to finish off the season...

Aaaaand a gratuitous picture of my boys
in their new, matching Christmas (Avengers) pjs!


Honestly, the choreography in this video annoys me just a wee bit, but the music is beautiful.  This is one of those carols that makes me smile.  Here's "Ding Dong Merrily on High":


Sissel's voice is so pure and crystal clear, exactly right for "In the Bleak Midwinter", and how can you go wrong with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing backup?  I love the message of the last verse, one that President Monson has quoted several times.


I usually like my Mannheim Steamroller in small doses, but this version of "Still, Still, Still" is so peaceful and soothing, I can put it on an endless loop.


I'm partial to German carols, perhaps because 15 years ago I got to spend some time in Vienna, Austria, during the Christmas season. "Ihr Kinderlein, Kommet" is known as  "O Come, Little Children" in English, but I love the original German lyrics.  In this upbeat version, Placido Domingo sings with a children's choir:

Hope yours was a Merry Christmas and best wishes for a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas to All!

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him
should not perish,
but have everlasting life.

"For God sent not his Son into the world
 to condemn the world;
but that the world through him
might be saved."

(John 3:16-17)

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 45

It's Christmas time! I love Christmas music, so today I'm sharing some of my favorite pieces with you, with another four to follow next week (yes, it'll be after Christmas, but we can still enjoy beautiful music!).  
Gratuitous picture of our
eclectic Christmas tree.
I think it needs some garland...

First up, a Christmas country/gospel/Southern rock offering from Sawyer Brown: "Hallelujah, He Is Born!"  I just want to dance when I hear this song!


There are hundreds of wonderful arrangements and performances of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", but I love this instrumental version by The Piano Guys:


Boys' choirs just sound like Christmas to me.  Here's the King's College Choir with "Good Christian Men, Rejoice!"


Joan Baez's voice is perfect for this haunting Appalachian carol, "I Wonder As I Wonder"

Bonus Christmas song

Muppet Christmas Carol is my favorite Christmas movie, one that must be watched (and sung along with) every year.  This happy song always makes me smile: "One More Sleep Til Christmas".

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

It's been almost two months since I finished the book.  I shouldn't have waited this long to write this review.  At first I put it off hoping I'd come up with something interesting to say about it if I just let it percolate for a bit.  And then I put it off because I'd already put it off for a while and I had other books I'd rather read and review.  But it's been sitting in my drafts folder long enough, so for what it's worth, here are my almost-two-month-old thoughts on The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon.

First of all, it's incredibly unfair to saddle a debut novelist with a title like "the next J.K. Rowling." It puts her at a disadvantage right from the start and sets expectations so high that it is inevitable that she will not be able to live up to them in the eyes of many who will (unreasonably) expect the emotional engagement of the entire Harry Potter series, including the catharsis of a decade's worth of investment in the characters, to be crammed into a single book.

No pressure.

But The Bone Season suffers under more than outsized expectations.  It groans under the weight of the author's own broad ambitions.  There's something for everyone!  Fantasy and science fiction (which are not one and the same!), aliens and magic, dystopian future and social commentary, action, betrayal, intrigue, romance.  Did I leave anything out?

Set in London about 50 years in the future, the story throws the reader into the deep end immediately. I'm all for world-building, but Ms. Shannon overwhelms the reader from the get-go with complex, inter-related societies, social and governmental hierarchies, various classes of clairvoyants with a dizzying array of mental powers, and tons of new terminology.  And then, just a few chapters in, our young protagonist, Paige Mahoney, is captured and tossed into a completely new setting - Oxford this time - with a whole different set of rules.  Simply put, it was confusing and I spent more time trying to sort these two worlds out than getting into the characters and the story. As a result, I just couldn't care as much about Paige or any of the others as I knew I was supposed to.

Perhaps it would be better on a second reading with a bit of familiarity and if I hear good reports of the second book (out of a planned seven), I may give it another shot.

The Bone Season
by Samantha Shannon
ISBN: 9781408836422
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn

A charming, if somewhat flawed, story, The Autobiography of Santa Claus delves into the history of Saint Nicholas as it overlaps world history, from the perspective of the jolly old "elf" himself.

Santa's voice is intriguing, and hearing his story from his own perspective was a fun gimmick, as he uses the difference between illusion (which can be explained) and magic (which can't) to describe how his personae has grown and the legends around him grew over hundreds of years.

One of the most entertaining aspects is how Nicholas collects "helpers" throughout the years.  He simply stumbles upon famous people who happen to have skills he needs in order to fulfill his mission of providing gifts to children all around the world.  For example, he recruits Leonardo da Vinci when he needs help inventing and building new toys for his expanding list of boys and girls.  Then when several writers embellish the stories and attribute Santa's speedy transportation to flying reindeer, Santa relies on da Vinci to figure out how to make his sleigh and reindeer airborne.

Mr. Guinn seems to have a "thing" for historical name-dropping.  So many other famous figures show up and are drafted as Santa's Helpers: King Arthur, St. Patrick, Charlemagne, Francis of Assisi, Marco Polo, Benjamin Franklin.  Sarah Kemble Knight familiarizes the group with the New World.  Amelia Earhart uses her talents to organize worldwide flight plans.  Theodore Roosevelt smooths the way with other world leaders to allow Santa access to other countries. Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and many others publicize the story of Santa, increasing the anticipation surrounding the visit of St. Nick.

It's entertaining to see how Mr. Guinn incorporates various Christmas legends with historical events.  Virginia's famous letter to The Sun is included, as is Franz Gruber's writing "Silent Night."  The events surrounding the writing of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" and A Christmas Carol are explained, as are the reasons St. Nick visits different areas of the world on different days, and why Christmas wasn't always celebrated everywhere (for example, the Puritans banned it, and Santa loses his magic anytime he travels too close to wars or fighting).

The biggest disappointment is the lack of character development for anyone other than Nicholas, including the person I was most interested in: Mrs. Claus.  She started out a thousand years ago or more as a girl named Layla.  Inspired by the early stories of someone sneaking into the homes of poor families at night and leaving gifts and money for the children, she took up the task on her own until the night she and Nicholas happened to hit the same tent at the same time.  So much potential for rich character here!  But they decided to get married pretty much immediately and from then on she made fat jokes about her husband, needled him about his weight and little else.  The conversations Guinn wrote between characters were rushed, stilted and trite, and almost exclusively expository.

The Autobiography of Santa Claus is a fun, seasonal read, but it just didn't reach its full potential for me.

The Autobiography of Santa Claus
by Jeff Guinn
ISBN: 9781585422654
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

Every once in a while, a person comes along who seems to exist on a different, more fearless plane than the rest of us.  Malala Yousafzai is one of those.

Malala is remarkably self-possessed at the age of 16, but that makes sense when you consider that she's been giving interviews since she was 11 and participating in public speaking competitions even before that.  Speaking up and speaking out came naturally to her at an early age and that shows in I Am Malala.

Her father, an educator, is obviously a huge influence in her life.  He dreamed of opening a school and his determination to provide an education for all children, both boys and girls, regardless of their ability to pay, is admirable.  He taught Malala that "there was nothing more important than knowledge" and "If you want to resolve a dispute or come out from conflict, the very first thing is to speak the truth...You must speak the truth.  The truth will abolish fear."

It's impossible to know exactly where Malala's words end and her co-author Christina Lamb's begin.  They provide an outline of Pakistani history, and specifically of her home area, the Swat Valley.  She chronicles the devolution of their way of life as the Taliban took over.  "The Taliban became the enemy of fine arts, culture and our history...The Taliban destroyed everything old and brought nothing new...We felt like the Taliban saw us as little dolls to control, telling us what to do and how to dress.  I thought if God wanted us to be like that He wouldn't have made us all different."  They destroyed 400 schools, set a deadline for all girls' schools to close, attacked and murdered public figures they thought were "un-Islamic".  As the Taliban's influence expanded, "every day seemed like the worst day; every moment was the worst. The bad news was everywhere; this person's place bombed, this school blown up, public whippings. The stories were endless and overwhelming."

Despite threats and escalating violence from the Taliban, Malala was fearless.  "In my heart was the belief that God would protect me.  If I am speaking for my rights, for the rights of girls, I am not doing anything wrong.  It's my duty to do so.  God wants to see how we behave in such situations...If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can't one girl change it? I wondered."

She frequently points to the Quran for support of her views.  "In the Holy Quran it is not written that men should go outside and women should work all day in the home."  "The Quran says we should seek knowledge, study hard and learn the mysteries of our world."  "There is a saying in the Quran, 'The falsehood has to go and the truth will prevail.'"  She speaks of her love of God and her trust in Him, her confidence that she is following His plan for her.

For all that Malala is fearless, noble, and wise beyond her years, she also comes across as a pretty normal teenage girl.  She loves reading and mentions a wide range of reading material throughout the course of the book: Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, physics textbook, and Twilight.  Seriously, the vampires made it all the way to Pakistan.  She's also a pretty typical big sister, fighting with her little brother and smugly noting that even after she was shot and recovering in Britain, "my brother Khushal was as annoying as always...I quickly realized I could treat [my brothers] how I liked and I wouldn't get told off."

Malala mentioned something remarkable in her interview with Jon Stewart that she also said in her book.
Like my father I've always been a daydreamer, and sometimes in lessons my mind would drift and I'd imagine that on the way home a terrorist might jump out and shoot me on those steps.  I wondered what I would do.  Maybe I'd take off my shoes and hit him, but then I'd think if I did that there would be no difference between me and a terrorist.  It would be better to plead, 'OK, shoot me, but first listen to me.  What you are doing is wrong, I'm not against you personally, I just want every girl to go to school.'
She even wants to reason with her enemies, those who literally want to kill her.  No one is exempt from her drive to better the world.  "We human beings don't realize how great God is," she says, "I know God stopped me from going to the grave.  It feels like this life is a second life.  People prayed to God to spare me, and I was spared for a reason--to use my life for helping people." And she is.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
The Malala Fund
ISBN: 9780316322409
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 44


We're coming to the end of the Little House series.  We just wrapped up the eighth book, These Happy Golden Years, which ends with Laura and Almanzo's simple wedding in Reverend Brown's front parlor, and only have the very short The First Four Years left.

After supper the night before Laura and Almanzo got married, Laura brought Pa his fiddle and asked him to play.  He rosined his bow and started with Mary's song, "Highland Mary" (which I linked to in my Friday Four a couple of weeks ago, so you can go listen to it again here if you'd like) and then "he played all the old tunes that Laura had known ever since she could remember."
The fiddle sang on in the twilight.  It sang the songs that Laura knew in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, and the tunes that Pa had played by the campfires all across the plains of Kanses.  It repeated the nightingale's song in the moonlight on the banks of the Verdigris River, then it remembered the days in the dugout on the banks of Plum Creek, and the winter evenings in the new house that Pa had built there.  It sang of the Christmas on Silver Lake, and of springtime after the long, Hard winter.
Reading this scene aloud to the boys I started to get all choked up and had to stop for a bit to collect myself before continuing on.  There are precious moments in your life when you know change is coming - big change - and even though you know it's a good kind of change, it still means leaving behind something you love.  Laura loved Almanzo and wanted to marry him, but it meant she would no longer live with her family, and quiet evenings listening to Pa play the fiddle would be a rare occurrence.  

Pa ended the evening with "Love's Old Sweet Song":


I saw this one on tumblr a while ago, but it's stuck with me so I thought I'd share.  Students at Cambridge University in England, both women and men, were asked why we still need feminism.  The answers were thought-provoking, pointed, and personal, including:

I need feminism because...
* there are still no famous female economists.
* 1/3 of 10 year old girls' biggest worry is their body.
* people still ask what the victim was wearing.
* I used to think calling my brother a girl was a legit insult.
* I considered not getting this photo taken because I'm not wearing makeup.

Of course, there are several other similar lists on tumblr: here, here, and here for starters.  (Better slap a language warning on here, some of the statements include profanity.)


Netflix is both a blessing and a curse.  It's great to have such a wide catalog of films and TV series to choose from, but it's sure easy to get sucked into a many-hundreds-of-hours commitment.  Over the past year, Gene and I have watched six seasons of Burn Notice and all five seasons of Alias, and the entire twelve seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Gene finished out Battlestar Galactica, and I'm now working my way through The West Wing.  Great shows, but man, I'm a little embarrassed when I think about just how much time it's taken up...


I printed out several of these Christmas coloring pages for the kids at my church to color at the ward party tonight.  Nice, simple activity to keep them busy.  I'm thinking I'll print some out for my own kids, too!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I'm Famous! Or, Mormons & Interfaith Involvement

Back in July, the official magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The Ensign, posted a request on their facebook page for pictures of Latter-day Saints involved in interfaith activities.  A friend gave me a heads-up and I sent in a picture of me, my mom, and my sister at the Faith Feast this past April.  I'd pretty much forgotten about it until my facebook page was bombarded last week by friends commenting that they'd seen my picture in The Ensign and so I clicked on over to read the article they'd wanted these interfaith pictures for.

"Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement" is a stand-out article by Betsy VanDenBerghe (here's a link to a pdf of the article if you'd like to see all the pictures).  It contains wonderful counsel and great examples of Latter-day Saints working with those of other faiths to improve their communities, strengthen friendships and relationships, and serve others.

We are unashamedly a proselytizing faith. However, I'm afraid that in our missionary zeal we forget that other approaches are sometimes necessary and far more effective when building relationships with others and working toward a common goal.  The final aim isn't always - and shouldn't always be - conversion.  Sr. VanDenBerghe says:
I gratefully follow up on anyone’s interest in learning about the Church, but I also know that we Latter-day Saints take Jesus’s charge seriously to love our neighbor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned (see Matthew 25:34–36) without expecting the conversion of the recipient or those who serve with us. Sincere and respectful interfaith engagement never requires any group, including ours, to disavow its beliefs. Rather, it encourages participants to “contend against no church” (D&C 18:20) and “clothe [themselves] with the bond of charity” (D&C 88:125)...My experiences in community and educational causes have convinced me that the Spirit is strong when diverse people unite in a worthy mission. Brotherly love and pure motives propel service forward even more than the hard work involved.
Among other things, Sr. VanDenBerghe draws on some comments Elder Jeffrey R. Holland made when he spoke to a group of national Christian leaders in 2011, and adds her own experiences to his:
In his address to Christian leaders, Elder Holland acknowledged the “risk associated with learning something new about someone else. New insights always affect old perspectives, and thus some rethinking, rearranging, and restructuring of our worldviews is inevitable.” In befriending people of other faiths, I often find myself analyzing our differences, trying to distinguish the cultural divides from the doctrinal ones, all the while trying to appreciate everything virtuous and lovely they have to offer. Indeed, the effort sometimes feels risky, but it is always worth it. In the process of restructuring my paradigm, I find myself shedding more of my superficial cultural tendencies and coming closer to the essence of the gospel.
I appreciate Elder Holland's acknowledgement of the "risk associated with learning something new" and that "rethinking, rearranging, and restructuring of our worldviews is inevitable."  That's a good thing!  As scary and "risky" as it feels, "it is always worth it."  I whole-heartedly agree.  

As with Sr. VanDenBerghe, this has been one of the most valuable aspects of interfaith interactions for me, too.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have a monopoly on the truth, and recognizing the good and beautiful, the virtuous and lovely, truths in every faith helps me feel closer to others and closer to my Heavenly Parents.  We, as Their children, have far more in common than we do in conflict:
Serving alongside others not only helps them to understand us, but it also motivates us to learn from them and become more aware that God is “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:35). He assists good people in all faiths and cultures in their efforts to improve the lives of His children.
This recognition of the good in others helps us remain humble—as opposed to the Pharisees Jesus condemned for their spiritual pride (see Matthew 23) or the Zoramites, whom the Book of Alma portrays as exclusive and arrogant (see Alma 31). Openness to the good in others enables us to become better people.
That's what we're working for, isn't it?  We want to become better people.  So I'll learn all the good I can from Muslims, Sikhs, Presbyterians, Evangelicals, Buddhists, Jews, atheists and every other person I come in contact with.  And hopefully, they'll be able to learn something good from me as well.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 43


Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday.  He was the most universally admired man I can think of and, as the Onion put it in their obituary: "Certainly people have felt a sense of sorrow at the deaths of politicians in the past, but Nelson Mandela’s death is the only one on record that people everywhere unanimously agree has left the world notably worse off."

A couple of years ago, I read Playing with the Enemy, later renamed Invictus to match the movie made based on it and starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.  If you have some time and would like to learn more about this amazing man, I highly recommend it.  Read my goodreads review to get a taste of it.


I enjoyed this heart-warming story of people paying it forward in small-town Idaho restaurant.  Emmett is actually pretty close to where my in-laws live, so maybe I'll have to go check it out some day.


Rosalee Ramer is the newest person on my list of people to watch.  Rosalee is 16 years old, a professional monster truck driver - yes, you read that right - and got a 2160 on her SATs, including a near-perfect 780 on the math portion. You can watch a video of Rosalee driving her monster truck here.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu worked alongside Nelson Mandela in South Africa, fighting apartheid and speaking out for equality.  (You can read Archbishop Tutu's beautiful eulogy of Mandela here.) I loved his recent book God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations (read my goodreads review, which consists mostly of amazing quotes from the book, here).  Recently, I ran across another quote by him that struck me with its optimism and infinite possibilities:

"Do your little bit of good where you are;
it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."

Little bits of good are manageable.  I can do little bits of good.  You can do little bits of good.  And maybe that's enough to affect some change for good in this world.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

While there were humorous moments, I admit to being a bit disappointed in Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns.  I chuckled occasionally, but I never felt the need to roll on the floor laughing or even read a bit out loud to my husband, which I usually do when I find a passage amusing.

The waitlist for the print edition was long, so I checked the audiobook version out of the library - read by the author herself, of course - and listening in bits and pieces while driving my kids to tae kwon do or cub scouts or preschool may have made the book seem more disjointed than it really was.  (There is one chapter that is comprised of pictures from Ms. Kaling's phone, though, so when my place in the queue came up I checked out the book as well just to get the full impact of Ms. Kaling's effort, and to make sure I quoted her accurately below.)

Ms. Kaling does get in some poignant social commentary, particularly about body image and bullying.  Describing her childhood struggles with weight and the meanness of some of her classmates, she shares some brief scenes of bullying she endured both before and after some radical weight loss and notes, "Bullies have no code of conduct."  True dat.

She offers hope to the "quiet, observant kids" in high school who were never the lead in the school play, the star of the football team, or the class clown and points out the "wasteful frivolity" of a high school life modeled after Beverly Hills 90210 or John Cougar Mellancamp singing "Jack and Diane".  "Are you kidding me?  The thrill of living was high school? Come on, Mr. Cougar Mellancamp.  Get a life."

Her description of romantic comedies gave me a new lens through which to view the genre and may just increase my appreciation for these films.  She considers romcoms to be "a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world."  Her listing of the romcom stock characters - or "many specimens of women who I do not think exist in real life" - is spot-on and highlights the ridiculous caricatures found repeatedly in the genre.

I'm not a huge fan of The Office, but I enjoyed reading (hearing) about her exploits as both an actress and a writer for the hit NBC show.  I also appreciated the humility she showed in including some stories that don't show her in the best light, such as the fight she had with her agreeable and mild-mannered boss, Greg Daniels, which ended with him inviting her to leave if she couldn't get on board.  After stomping out with her wounded pride, she eventually returned when she realized how foolish she'd been to walk out on her dream job.

I loved her description of her parents' marriage - they're "pals" - and her plea to all those who are married. "Married people, it's up to you.  It's entirely on your shoulders to keep this sinking institution afloat  It's a stately old ship, and a lot of people, like me, want to get on board.  Please be psyched and convey that psychedness to us.  And always remember: so many many people are envious of what you have."

With that, I've pretty much exhausted the highlights of this book for me.  (Except for the brief shout-out to Mormons on page 158.)  And that's not many highlights for a 200+ page book written by a funny woman whom I admire. Maybe you'll find it funnier than I did.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
by Mindy Kaling
ISBN: 9780307939807
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 42


I hope everyone had a fabulous Thanksgiving with lots of yummy food and time with friends and family! We sure did!

Setting the table and filling plates for the kids...
So much yummy food!!!!!!!

(Random tidbit: Did you know that yesterday was a very rare occurrence? Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah haven't coincided since 1888, and won't again in our lifetimes! Nifty!)


The Pew Research Center recently released a study about the reading habits of teens and young adults, as well as their opinions regarding libraries.  And it gives me great hope for the future!  One section in particular, regarding ebooks, caught my attention:
As with other age groups, younger Americans were significantly more likely to have read an e-book during 2012 than a year earlier. Among all those ages 16-29, 19% read an e-book during 2011, while 25% did so in 2012. At the same time, however, print reading among younger Americans has remained steady: When asked if they had read at least one print book in the past year, the same proportion (75%) of Americans under age 30 said they had both in 2011 and in 2012.
In fact, younger Americans under age 30 are now significantly more likely than older adults to have read a book in print in the past year (75% of all Americans ages 16-29 say this, compared with 64% of those ages 30 and older). And more than eight in ten (85%) older teens ages 16-17 read a print book in the past year, making them significantly more likely to have done so than any other age group.
I love my Kindle and you can't beat it for convenience, but nothing can quite compare to holding a print book in your hands.  It's almost cliche to talk about the way a book smells, but reading has always been a sensory experience for me.  I love the sound of pages turning, the feel of the paper between my fingers, and yes, the scent of paper and glue and ink and dust.  Glad to know that the younger generation recognizes the charms of old-fashioned books, too.


The New York Film Academy released a fascinating infographic titled "Gender Inequality in Film."  It points out in stark visuals the disparity between roles for men and women both in front of and behind the camera.  The graphic is pretty big, so I won't embed it here, but check it out on the NYFA website.

Just a few of the startling stats:
* In the top 500 films of 2007-2012, only 30.8% of the speaking characters are women.
* Likewise, only 10.7% feature a balanced cast where half of the characters are female.
* Roughly a third of female speaking characters are shown in sexually revealing attire or are partially naked.
* There is a 5:1 ratio of men working on films to women.
* In this year's Academy Awards, across the 19 major categories, only 35 women were nominated compared to 140 men.

C'mon, Hollywood, you can do better than that!  Those of us who, at least occasionally, go out and pay money to see movies can, too.  Hollywood will continue to make movies that make money; it's supply and demand, folks. (Yes, I know that's an extreme simplification, but there's still quite a bit of truth to it.)  Take a minute to think about what you want the future of filmmaking to look like, and choose movies today that will help send that message to the industry.


We're almost to the end of These Happy Golden Years, the second to last book of the Little House series.  Here are a couple more songs I found:

"Highland Mary" is, not surprisingly, Mary's song. The family sang it one night when they were missing Mary away at college:

And singing one Scottish song brought another one to Pa's mind.  Here's "My Heart Is Sair":

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Allegiant is the third book of a trilogy that definitely improved as it went along.  This final installment offered the strongest characters and the most interesting, complex and believable relationships, without losing any of the page-turning action and breath-taking surprises of Divergent and Insurgent.

For those who haven't started the series yet, you can read a plot outline on wikipedia, if you'd like.  I won't retell the whole story here, but to set the stage very basically, it's another young adult trilogy set in a dystopian future.  The population of Chicago is divided based on their primary character trait into five factions: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (courage), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), and Candor (honesty).  There are some people who for one reason or another are rejected from their faction and they become the faction-less.  And some few special people show aptitude for more than one faction and they are called Divergent.  Because the existence of Divergents threatens this well-ordered system, certain elements of the leadership find them to be a threat and are determined to exterminate them.  [spoiler alert if you haven't read the first book!] Our two protagonists, Tris and Four, are members of Dauntless and both are discovered to be Divergent.  And, of course, romance blossoms.

In contrast to the first two books, which were both told exclusively from Tris's perspective, the first person narrator duties in Allegiant switch off between the two main characters Tris and Four.  Of course, this allowed Ms. Roth greater flexibility in telling the story from different angles and I completely understand why she chose this route, but I found it extremely confusing.  Even though it's clearly marked at the beginning of the chapter which character is speaking, I can't count the number of times I had to flip back a page or two to make sure I knew which point of view I was reading.  Perhaps using a different font for the characters would have been a better cue for readers?

In my reviews for the first two books, I mentioned that the romance between Tris and Four simply wasn't very believable for me.  I didn't care for their lopsided relationship and didn't sense any chemistry between them at all.  Allegiant turned it around.  The relationship became much more real, not to mention more equitable, when Tris called Four on his hypocrisy, demanding that she share all her secrets with him but refusing to reveal anything to her, and they both actually started working at being together.  After a series of betrayals on both sides, Tris comes to a realization:
I used to think that when people fell in love, they just landed where they landed, and they had no choice in the matter afterward.  and maybe that's true of beginnings, but it's not true of this, now.
I fell in love with him.  But I don't just stay with him by default as if there's no one else available to me.  I stay with him because I choose to, every day that I wake up, every day that we fight or lie to each other or disappoint each other. I choose him over and over again, and he chooses me.
Choice is a recurring theme throughout the series, but especially as the story wraps up.  Not only is the choice to love and to continue to love vital to who these characters are, but the ability to make choices that substantive affect their own lives becomes paramount.  Four argues that the system of factions that some are fighting to save is deceptive, but that forcing any way of life on others is just as wrong:
The reason the factions were evil is because there was no way out of them...They gave us the illusion of choice without actually giving us a choice. That's the same thing you're doing here, by abolishing them.  You're saying, go make choices. But make sure they aren't factions or I'll grind you to bits!
Of course, it's the final book in a series, so there are some emotional moments.  Without getting too spoilery, I'll tell you that it wasn't the moments regarding the Tris-Four relationship that got me teary-eyed.  It was the moments when damaged family connections were healed.  For example, there's a scene between Tris and her brother Caleb who betrayed her in an earlier book that brought me to tears.
When I look at him, I don't see the cowardly young man who sold me out to Jeanine Matthews, and I don't hear the excuses he gave afterward.
When I look at him, I see the boy who held my hand in the hospital when our mother broke her wrist and told me it would be all right.  I see the brother who told me to make my own choices, the night before the Choosing Ceremony.  I think of all the remarkable things he is--smart and enthusiastic and observant, quiet and earnest and kind.
He is a part of me, always will be, and I am a part of him, too.  I don't belong to Abnegation, or Dauntless, or even the Divergent.  I don't belong to the Bureau or the experiment or the fringe.  I belong to the people I love, and they belong to me--they, and the love and loyalty I give them, form my identify far more than any word or group ever could.
In the end, Allegiant proposes that two factors demonstrate who we are: our choices and our family.  Denying people either of those factors causes deep damage, and restoring those elements can be the catalyst for healing and growth.

by Veronica Roth
ISBN: 9780062024060
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Review: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

The Invisible Bridge takes us through a dark part of world history.  In the late 1930s, Europe is starting to see changes wrought by the insidiously spreading influence of Hitler's Nazi government.  Andras Levi is a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student. His brother is studying medicine in Modena, his younger brother has run away from home to become a performer and his parents are at home back in Budapest.  New laws are passed on an almost weekly basis limiting what Jews can do, where they can travel, study, work, live.  Miraculously Andras is able to secure a spot at a prestigious architecture school in Paris, France, despite the obstacles and for a short time all seems to be falling into place for him.

Unfortunately, his good luck doesn't last long as he is forced to abandon his schooling and return to Budapest, and eventually called up to join the work service Munkaszolgalat, building roads and clearing forests for the military.  I can't chronicle the whole almost 600-page story here, but of course there's a love interest.  A tragedy in her past complicates their desire for a peaceful life, but they are finally able to be together and start a family.  As with most stories set during this time period, they have more than their share of trouble and pain, but they are able to find joy even in the most desperate of situations.

Every character is so well-drawn.  They are so human, so real.  They are well-intentioned and flawed and deep, and show different facets of who they are.  "Good" people do questionable things.  "Bad" people sometimes surprise you with unexpected kindness.

A single, brief exchange between one of the main characters, Andras, and his teacher, Vago, succinctly sums up the theme of the book:
Vago himself leaned back in his swivel chair, his fingers laced behind his head.
"So," he said to Andras. "Here you are, fresh from Budapest.  I'm glad you came. I didn't know if you'd be able to make it on such short notice.  But I had to try.  It's barbarous, those prejudices about who can study what, and when, and how  It's not a country for men like us."
"But--forgive me--are you Jewish, Professor?"
"No.  I'm a Catholic.  Educated in Rome." He gave his R a deep Italianate roll.
"Then why do you care, sir?"
"Shouldn't I care?"
"Many don't."
Vago shrugged. "Some do."
Over and over again, in the midst of the unspeakable cruelty committed by "many," the kindness of "some" shines brightly.  Characters like Vago, who is not Jewish, speak out against this "stain upon humanity, this Jew-hating dressed up as nationalism.  It's a sickness."  While being brutally used on work teams doing excruciating manual labor far from home on little food and in terrible conditions, Andras and his friends find small ways to fight back, such as creating a newspaper mocking their officers in the work service.

Andras finds compassion in unexpected places.  When he receives an emergency telegram informing him that his wife has delivered their child five weeks early and both she and the baby are ill, he approaches the company commander during dinner. The commander mocks him in front of the other officers, taunts him with the image of his loved ones dying, and refuses his request to return home. A General Merton, visiting for an inspection, stands up and with anger and disgust in his voice, dresses the commander down ordering him to apologize, and personally escorts Andras to Budapest hospital where his wife and son are that very night.

Another recurring theme is that of responsibility.  Who was responsible for the tragedies and the pain caused?  How far back does the chain of cause and effect reach and who bears the ultimate responsibility for what happens?  Most interesting to me was some characters' insistence on claiming responsibility for events out of their control, with a "novel kind of desperation, a brand of desire," simply as a way to assert their humanity, their existence.  "Why would a man not argue his own shameful culpability, why would he not crave responsibility for disaster, when the alternative was to feel himself to be nothing more than a speck of human dust?"

The Holocaust provided ample opportunities to view humankind's almost inexhaustible capacity for both cruelty and kindness and The Invisible Bridge follows suit, leaving us ultimately hopeful in spite of the horror.

The Invisible Bridge
by Julie Orringer
ISBN: 9781400041169
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 41


Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has released the next installment of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series! This one deconstructs the Ms. Male Character trope and the related Smurfette Principle.

Ms. Sarkeesian names and discusses something that has annoyed me in several of the (few) video games I've played.  She calls it "Personality Female Syndrome":
wherein female characters are reduced to a one dimensional personality type consisting of nothing more than a collection of shallow stereotypes about women.  She's vain, spoiled bratty, and quick to anger...When female characters are marked by obligatory stereotypical identifiers, it actively limits the range of available options by enforcing a narrow, restrictive, and monolithic model for the portrayal of femininity.  Meanwhile, since male characters are allowed to be unmarked, it permits a much wider array of possibilities for their designs.
While this series speaks specifically to video games, I've noticed this tendency in movies as well:
In a male-identified society like ours, men are associated and become synonymous with human beings in general.  In other words, male tends to be seen as the default for the entire species.  In video games, male identification manifests as a tendency for all characters to be male by default unless there's some special reason or specific justification for women to be present in the story...Both the Smurfette principle and the Ms. Male Character tropes breed scenarios that reinforce a false dichotomy wherein male is associated with the norm, and female is associated with the deviation from the norm.
The reason this series focuses on tropes is because they help us recognize larger recurring patterns. Both the Ms. Male Character and the Smurfette principle have been normalized in gaming and mass media more broadly, so much so that the two tropes usually pass under the radar and are often reproduced unconsciously, which is part of what makes the myths they perpetuate about women so powerful and insidious in our culture.  The truth of the matter is that there's really no need to define women as derivative copies of men or to automatically resort to lazy, stereotypical, or limiting gendered signifiers when designing video game characters.
I always feel so much smarter after watching her videos.


This list came out a month or so ago on Buzzfeed and I had to smile since just about every single one of the "22 Signs You Were a Theatre Major" apply to yours truly.  Except #17.  Though there are a few times I probably should have put a sign like that up, just to save other people the worry and confusion...


I found this graphic to be shocking and disturbing.  We generally think of human trafficking and sex slavery as something that happens in third world countries, but this graphic shows the location of 72,000 reports (phone calls, email, online tips) the National Human Trafficking Resource Center had from individuals concerning human trafficking in the United States from 2007 to 2012.

Read more about the numbers associated with the graphic here.  To get involved with the Polaris Project, click here.  And if you haven't read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, pick up a copy at your local library and brace yourself for the removal of the blinders.


We're getting toward the end of These Happy Golden Years, and here's another piece of music that's came up recently.  Laura started singing it to Almanzo while they were out riding in Almanzo's buggy one night.  My boys are more into the romance part of the story than I thought they would be.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book Review: The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

It's not often that a book that was so highly recommended to me by a good friend, and with such a high rating on Goodreads (4.15 out of 5 at the moment I hit "Publish" on this post), falls so flat for me. But I guess The Tea Rose just wasn't my *ahem* cup of tea.

Full disclosure: I only read the first 150 or so pages of this 600+ page book.  I've been berated before for posting a review about a book I hadn't finished, but really, if the first 150 pages just weren't doing it for me, how likely is it that the next 500 would change my mind?  Just how many hours am I obligated to invest in a book I don't like before I can decide that enough is enough?  And why on earth should that negate my opinion about the part I actually read? But I digress...

I'm having trouble putting my finger on why I just couldn't get into the story or the characters.  Historical fiction is usually a genre I enjoy, but this time the characters seemed a bit too modern in their speech patterns, mannerisms, reactions.  And even when they were acting in a period-appropriate way, it came across as if the author was just trying too hard.  For example, when describing a meal time, Ms. Donnelly was careful to point out in an expository aside that the menfolk got larger portions than the women, and that all the meat in the meal went to the men as well, while the women and children made do with the gravy or broth and vegetables, but it didn't even occur to the women to object because that's just how things were done.  But instead of providing context and serving as background to the world of the story, it acted as a commentary on the time and pulled me out of the world rather than drawing me in.

Another factor: I'm just not a fan of sex scenes and there were several in the first 150 pages.  Of course I know people had sex in the 19th century.  There were prostitutes and extramarital affairs and sexually transmitted diseases were rampant and babies were born out of wedlock, I know, but I don't want to read about gasping breaths and throbbing this or aching that.  Again, they way they were described just seemed so anachronistic.

Life in London in the late 1800s was hard, there's no dispute there.  But Ms. Donnelly was determined to fit every possible contemporary event into the story.  It's such an easy way to "set the scene" and ramp up the devastating emotional impact. So we have Jack the Ripper, the creation of unions on the docks and the violence that surrounded that, death by tuberculosis, the threat of workhouses, and dozens of others.  And I think that she exerted so much of her energy on the "historical" aspect of the genre that the "fiction" part, especially her characterizations, suffered as a result. Fiona, Joe, Nicholas, all of the characters were largely one-dimensional cut-outs, either good or evil with nothing in between. And the plot suffers, too.  It's pretty far-fetched for two impoverished Brits to work their way out of poverty into relative wealth in an incredibly short time.  Melodramatic soap operas definitely have their fans, and I'll even admit to enjoying a period soap opera or two (Hello, Downton Abbey!) but this one just fell flat for me.

This was Ms. Donnelly's first novel, published in 2002, and she's written several more successful stories since this one, including two sequels to The Tea Rose.  So I'm sure she's honed her craft and improved on the weaknesses of this book.  But I'm not interested enough to actually find out for myself.

The Tea Rose
by Jennifer Donnelly
ISBN: 9780312288358
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Book Review: My Story by Elizabeth Smart

Like pretty much everyone else I knew in 2002, I was riveted by the story of Elizabeth Smart, the cute, blond, harp-playing, horseback-riding Mormon girl who was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home in the middle of the night. And I was stunned and thrilled when she was found alive nine months later and returned to her family.  I hoped she would somehow find a measure of peace and normality again, but didn't think much more about her.

A few years later I remember watching a brief interview with Elizabeth when she was 18. Nancy Grace started asking probing questions about Elizabeth's feelings while she was being held captive, questions designed to extract salacious details, to manipulate Elizabeth and exploit her trauma. I was disgusted.  And then I watched as, on live television, Elizabeth held her own against a persistent and experienced media professional, shutting her interviewer down with a reminder that she was there to talk about pending legislation she wanted passed and a simple, "to be frankly honest, I don't appreciate you bringing all this up."  My respect for her skyrocketed that day.

Elizabeth Smart is her own person, and speaks on her own terms.

And My Story is told on her terms.  Elizabeth takes us through her nine months of hell, honestly describing her experiences and feelings, but showing restraint and pulling back from the worst details that might traumatize others. She explains the foundation that was laid for her by her parents and her faith, which allowed her to maintain a core sense of self.  She recalls a conversation with her mom after a difficult day of junior-high.  Her mom told her:
Elizabeth, you're going to meet lots of people in this life.  Some of them will like you.  Some of them won't. But of all the people you'll have to deal with, there are only a few people that matter. God. And your dad and me. God will always love you. You are his daughter.  He will never turn his back on you.  The same thing is true for me.  It doesn't matter where you go, or what you do, or whatever else might happen, I will always love you.  You will always be my daughter. Nothing can change that.
Elizabeth goes on, "The realization that my family would still love me proved to be the turning point.  In fact, it proved to be the most important moment throughout my entire nine-month ordeal."  She realized that she had a purpose and reason to stay alive.  "It was at this moment that I decided that no matter what happened, I was going to find a way to survive.  The conviction was crystal clear.  I would do whatever it took to live.  No matter what it took, no matter what I had to do, I was going to survive."

She fills in details on where they camped, why they went to California and why they came back to Utah, the deprivations she was subjected to, her kidnappers' selfish and odd choices and the disdain in which she held both of them. While she cooperated as much as necessary to protect herself and her family, which her captors constantly threatened to kill if she displeased them, she held on to her defiance whenever possible, learning how to carefully manipulate him with apparent religious fervor and obedience.

After the heart-warming homecoming scene, there is a brief coda where Elizabeth describes the trial in 2010 and her recovery from everything that happened to her.  I was completely shocked when she said that she has not received any professional counseling and was immediately concerned that others might try to follow her example, but she is very careful to stress that "every survivor must create their own pathway to recovery."
What works for one might not work for another.  Therapy, medicine, and counseling might be the right path for some people, but not for others.  The fact that I chose a pathway to recovery that worked for me is not to suggest that it's the best path, or that it's the only path.  The only thing it suggests is that I found the path that worked for me.
Elizabeth path to recovery includes her strong and loving family, a perspective on suffering as a constant human experience, horseback riding with her Grandpa Smart, throwing herself into her music, holding on to gratitude, and reaching out to help others. She's the president of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation which works "to prevent and stop predatory crimes." Her primary focus is on "empower[ing] children through education and understanding of choices and options."

Elizabeth Smart has repeatedly demonstrated incredible strength, poise, courage, and determination. Her resilience is admirable, and her willingness to use her experiences to change the world for the better is inspiring.

My Story
by Elizabeth Smart with Chris Stewart
ISBN: 9781250040152
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 40


Back in February, in my very first Friday Four, I highlighted a new web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  That series finished up several months ago and the same team is now producing a new version of Jane Austen's Emma called Emma Approved (check out the youtube videos and website).  I'll admit it's taken me a little longer to warm up to this one - Emma is my least favorite of Ms. Austen's works, the titular character just gets on my nerves! - but it's growing on me. There are only twelve short episodes so far.  Take a look and let me know what you think!


I miss Calvin & Hobbes.


Forget that whole sleep-while-the-baby-sleeps thing, what this mother has done while her adorable baby slept is amazing!  I'm not remotely creative in this way, but I can truly appreciate her genius.  The trapeze artist and Tarzan swinging on a vine are my favorites.


I'm 35 and, as ridiculous as it sounds, I sometimes worry that life has passed me by, that I haven't done enough with my time and talents.  And then I read about Phyllis Sues, who started a fashion label at the age of 50, learned French and Italian in her 70s, and took up yoga at 85.  Or Sister Madonna Buder who holds the record for the oldest woman to ever complete an Ironman competition last year at age 82 - and she didn't even start running until she was 48.  Maybe life isn't over quite yet...

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Friday Four, Part 39


There were three "feel-good" stories I saw this week that I wanted to share.  It's easy to focus on the depressing, upsetting, disturbing news, and there's definitely plenty of that going around.  But there is also plenty of good in the world, too.

A simple act of service:

Isaac Theil, the man on the right, allowed his shoulder to be a pillow for a stranger on the New York subway for almost an hour. After the picture had gone viral, he said this in an interview with the Jewish magazine Tablet: “Maybe the photo wouldn't have become so popular if people weren't seeing a Jewish man with a yarmulke and a black man in a hood, and because they might not necessarily correlate the two, but there is only one reason that I didn't move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him...I would love for people to use this as a lesson to just be good to each other.”

The Olivet Middle School football team in Olivet, Michigan, did something extraordinary.  Without informing their coaches, these twelve- to fourteen-year-old boys at the top of the middle-school "pecking order" planned a special play to include Keith Orr, a special needs student on the team. Rather than scoring a touchdown himself, player Sheridan Henrick took a knee on the one-yard line.  On the next play, the ball was handed to Keith and the team surrounded him, protecting him from the other team and ensuring that Keith would be the one to score the touchdown.

One of his teammates explained: "We really wanted to prove that he was part of our team, and he meant a lot to us." The last minute or so of the new report focuses on how these boys were affected by their choice to include and embrace Keith, and it is heart-warming.  I don't think it's hyperbolic to say that it changed lives.


This story is old news, since it happened in 1996, but I just became aware of it recently, so it's new to me.

In her senior year of high school Keshia Thomas gathered with others to protest a Ku Klux Klan rally in her home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tensions were high and, at one point, someone in the crowd identified a white man wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt as a KKK supporter.  He tried to run, but a group surrounded him, knocking him to the ground, kicking and hitting him.

Keshia Thomas didn't know this man, didn't know whether he really was a KKK supporter or not, but she knew what the mob was doing was wrong, so she stepped in.  She covered his body with hers, blocking blows and shielding him.  Why did she put herself at risk?  "I knew what it was like to be hurt," she says. "The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me."  Today, more than 15 years later, she says, "The biggest thing you can do is just be kind to another human being. It can come down to eye contact, or a smile. It doesn't have to be a huge monumental act."


It's a little early to be hauling out the Christmas posts, but I couldn't resist this one, and it just might take me all the way to Christmas to perfect them anyway.

Anthony Herrara has dozens of templates you can choose from including Darth Vader, the Death Star, TIE fighters, and Chewbacca. My favorites are Yoda and Han Solo in Carbonite (see below).  I can't believe the detail on these!