Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My "Top Books of 2014" List

As I mentioned last year, I started compiling an annual "Best of" list a few years ago for my now-defunct Meridian column.  Whittling down to a manageable size the list of books that had a profound influence on me over the course of a year is difficult to say the least, but here I am, yet again, giving it a shot.

And again, a reminder that unlike other "Top of 2014" lists, the only limit on mine is that I read the books during 2014. Most of them were not published this year. I refuse to limit myself to 10 or 12 or any other random number. And I can't possibly rank them.

These books stuck with me long after I read the last page.  Many of them changed the way I view the world or challenged my preconceptions or shook me up a bit.  Some allowed me to relive happy memories, or find like-minded individuals and feel a little less alone.  And that's why I love them.

Best General Non-fiction
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
As You Wish by Cary Elwes

Best LDS Non-fiction
Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume 3, edited by Richard Turley and Brittany A. Chapman
The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl & Fiona Givens
Women at Church by Neylan McBaine

Best Spiritual/Religious (not LDS)
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans

Best Fiction
Purple Hibiscus and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Best Historical Fiction
Esther the Queen by Heather B. Moore
The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama
The Care & Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Best Children's
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Girls Who Choose God by McArthur Krishna & Bethany Spalding

Best YA
Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
John Cleaver series by Dan Wells

Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review: A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

History is endlessly fascinating to me.  Learning about how real people lived decades, centuries, even millennia ago - so different in so many ways to our lives today, yet so similar in others - makes me feel connected to those who have gone before.

I'm also fascinated by the process historians go through to better understand the past.  It seems obvious to me that whether in science or history or any other area of study, as new information is discovered, as new data is gathered, as new connections are made, as distance provides broader perspective, our understanding will change, sometimes radically.  I've seen the phrase "revisionist history" thrown around as a condescending epithet to describe new interpretations of historical events that challenge the traditional interpretation, but shouldn't we constantly be revising our understanding of history?  Shouldn't it be a goal to replace our mistaken assumptions or misunderstandings with a better picture of how it really was, or to try to fill in the gaps a little more, even if that challenges previous conclusions?

Early on in her introduction to the Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Midwife's Tale, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich mentions that several other historians have been aware of Martha Ballard's diary and even quoted parts of it in their histories of Augusta, Maine, but "those few historians who have known about the diary have not known quite what to do with it."  The repetitive structure, the rhythm of domestic chores and seasonal planting, growing, and harvesting cycles of life on a farm, were dismissed as unimportant "trivia".  "Yet," Ulrich claims, "it is in the vary dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard's book lies."  She goes on to explain :
The problem is not that the diary is trivial but that it introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed...Taken alone, such stories tell us too much and not enough, teasing us with glimpses of intimate life, repelling us with a reticence we cannot decode.  Yet, read in the broader context of the diary and in relation to larger themes in eighteenth-century history, they can be extraordinarily revealing.
Martha kept her diary for more than twenty-seven years, "9,965 days to be exact," a remarkable accomplishment itself in a time when it was not common for women of her station to be sufficiently educated to do so.  Ulrich extracted a wealth of information from the "trivia" of Martha's daily life and helps to complete the picture of what daily life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was like for people in New England, and particularly expanded our understanding of the practice of midwives at the time.

Her results alone demonstrate to her abilities as a midwife, aside from her deep devotion and care for her patients.  Her diary records 814 deliveries she attended; 768 of them were apparently uncomplicated deliveries notated as "delivered" or "safe delivered".  She recorded complications in only 5.6% of the births. Not a single mother died during delivery, and only five died during the "lying-in period" shortly after birth.  Of the 814 deliveries, 14 were stillbirths, and five newborns died within a couple of hours.  While that's still high compared to today's standards, it was remarkably low for the time compared to physicians and particularly hospitals in large cities.  "In some eighteenth-century London and Dublin hospitals, maternal mortality ranged for 30 to 200(!) per thousand births, compared with 5 per 1,000 for Martha."  

And the stories Ulrich mines!  Hasty weddings and babies born just three months later, a mass murder just up the lane of a family by the father, the politics of small town New England, the factions lining up for and against the new preacher, the worry over a son's imprudent actions, the marriages and "going to housekeeping" of two daughters, who goes to debtors' prison and why.  Using transcribed sections of Martha's diary, Ulrich reflects on not only Martha's life, but that of her family, her community, and her society at large.

Aside from her diary, Martha is almost completely absent from the records of the time.  Without her commitment to keeping a record of her daily tasks, and Ulrich's commitment almost two hundred years later to combing through the rich record to extract a sense of who this woman was, Martha Ballard's legacy would be lost.  If left up to previous historians, Martha's life and accomplishments would be almost entirely unknown.  Instead, she has been ensured a type of immortality rather than perpetual anonymity and obscurity.

This is the best kind of "revisionist history".

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
ISBN: 9780679733768
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook)
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 26, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 98


I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas holiday yesterday with family and friends (if you celebrate Christmas, of course), and a lovely day off otherwise!

Our family had a wonderful time together yesterday.  And then this morning the youngest woke us up warning he was about to puke.  Which he then did.

After the worst was over, I told him I was so sorry he was sick and he looked up at me with his adorable smile and said, "At least it's not Christmas!"

Way to look at the bright side, kiddo. :)


A BYU grad and former CIA and Homeland Security agent, Tim Ballard saw too many children in impossible, tragic situations because of sex trafficking.  He grew tired of the limitations he was under working for government agencies, and founded Operation Underground Rescue, a 501(c)3 dedicated to rescuing child sex slaves all over the world.

Here's a short CBS Evening News report on one of their operations.

Sitting in our comfortable middle-class homes, sex slavery can seem so foreign, so unreal, and therefore easy to ignore.  But it is the living reality for thousands of children both in the United States and elsewhere.  I can't think of a more noble cause than modern abolitionism.


On Monday, we took the boys shopping for Christmas presents for each other.  For the first time, we decided to take them to Santa Express, a fundraiser for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, a wonderful resource for our community.  According to its mission statement, "The Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery improves the lives of children by providing immediate refuge and safety and ongoing family support in an environment of unconditional love."

After parents fill out a form detailing how much money the kids can spend, volunteer "elves" are matched with each child to take them shopping among the items available and then to help them wrap the presents.

All proceeds all go to benefit the Crisis Nursery, which provides a safe haven for at-risk children for anywhere from a few hours up to three days at a time.  Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, there is always a Family Support Specialist available to talk and refer families to other community services as well.  They also run free parenting classes.

The Nursery is always in need of supplies: diapers (especially larger sizes), formula (especially the specialty or allergen-free kind), craft supplies, toiletries, food.  (Read their current wish list here.)  And of course, monetary donations are always gratefully accepted as well.

The Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery is a wonderful organization that makes a tangible difference to vulnerable children and families in our community.  I'm glad to support them.


How many times have you averted your eyes rather than acknowledge the homeless person holding the cardboard sign next to you at the stop light?  I think we've all felt the discomfort that comes from ignoring another human being obviously in need, but wondered if handing out our change is really helping the situation.  That's why I was intrigued to learn about Brigid's Cloak, a small, local organization that arranges "outreach runs" on a weekly basis, distributing food, hand warmers, hats, gloves, and other supplies to the homeless in the Spokane area.  What a beautiful, humanizing action!

I was signed up to participate in a run last week, but unfortunately the organizer injured her foot and had to cancel.  I'm really looking forward to giving it a try in the new year!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey

As a pre-teen entering seventh grade Accelerated English, my oldest had his first ever summer assignment.

(Cue the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, please.)

We were actually pretty successful at helping him pace himself with the reading itself as well as the three assignments that went along with the reading and staved off the 11th-hour panic of completing everything before bedtime on Labor Day, the day before school started.  It required some frequent reminders and withholding of video game privileges to ensure the requisite number of pages were read each week, but it worked.  This time at least.

This being my first time as the parent of a middle-schooler, I was a bit surprised at the reading material.  The two options for summer reading were both pretty heavy.  Red-Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang is an autobiographical story of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution and how it affected a twelve-year-old girl's family and future.  Hiroshima by John Hersey is a non-fiction account of the destruction and havoc wreaked by the first atomic bomb.

Will chose Hiroshima.

The book follows a handful of individuals who were in and around Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.  They tell of the ordinariness of their mornings, the bright flash of light at 8:15 that signified their world had irrevocably changed, and the horrors that became commonplace afterwards.  Gruesome injuries from the initial bombing are described in great detail.  The radiation sickness that took lives decades later is not left out either.  The effects live on today, almost 70 years later.

The matter-of-fact reporting style of the book belies the horror of the eyewitness accounts and the inhuman suffering of civilians: children, doctors, laborers, office workers.  It's not an easy read, by any means, but I think it's an important one.  I'm definitely glad I read it so I could discuss it with Will as he went along.

Thanks to his Research Skills & Geography class, during which they watch CNN Student News almost every day, he's recently discovered an interest in current events.  Yesterday, when we were driving in the car, instead of asking me to change the station away from NPR, he even asked me to turn the radio up so he could hear the news better.  It wasn't happy news - they were talking about the two police officers shot and killed in Brooklyn - but he was listening and asking intelligent questions and making connections with other events and forming opinions, all vital skills in this day and age.

As unpleasant as it is to read about the effects of atomic bombs and the murder of police officers and as understandable as the impulse to avoid unpleasantness is, I think the consequences of ignoring horrors are far worse.  So it's time for my pre-teen to become a little more aware of the evils in the world, a little more mature, a little sadder, and a little wiser, too.

by John Hersey
ISBN: 9780679721031
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackaudiobook)
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 22, 2014

Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

In keeping with my fascination with seeing events from various perspectives, I enjoy reading stories that revisit classics from another point of view: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, March by Geraldine Brooks, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka to name a few.  And Jane Austen novels have inspired quite a few authors to write continuations of or variations on their stories.  (My favorite of those is Pamela Aidan's Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy.)

So you'd think a book like Death Comes to Pemberley would be right up my alley, especially with an author as acclaimed as P.D. James. But it just fell a bit flat for me.  In the opening Author's Note, P.D. James acknowledged the difficulty of the task she had set herself:
I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation, especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made her views plain: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest." No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.
It certainly wasn't a "bad" book by any means.  It had an interesting plot line, continuing relationship tensions from Pride and Prejudice, and satisfies the curiosity of those who have the desire to see how certain characters turned out.  But some of the characters are so different from their incarnation in the original (notably Colonel Fitzwilliam which James directly addresses, but also Charlotte, Georgiana and others) that it's hard to even feel the connection between this novel and the original at times.

Worst of all, dear Lizzie herself seems so different!  That's not entirely a fair complaint.  I was a certainly a different person as a teenager than I was ten years and two children later, and it's not reasonable to expect Lizzie to have remained stagnant for a decade, especially in light of the dramatic change in her circumstances.  With a character as iconic and beloved as the Elizabeth Bennett of Austen's pen, it's still a bit of an unwelcome shock to find her so mellowed.

Is it then too ironic that my greatest complaint about the book is the absence of Lizzie for a large portion of it?

(As a side note, I watched the two-part PBS miniseries of the novel online before reading the book and I will say that Lizzie plays a larger part on the screen than she does on the page, though there seemed to be a bit more marital angst and other liberties taken with the book's plotline in the miniseries.  But I digress.)

Suffice it to say that Death Comes to Pemberley left me conflicted.  If you love Austen and particularly Pride and Prejudice, you might just adore P.D. James's continuation.  And if you love Austen and particularly Pride and Prejudice, you might just absolute despise it.  Or if you love Austen and particularly Pride and Prejudice, it might have left you not at all sure what to think.  Do let me know which camp you fall into, because I'm decidedly in the last.

Death Comes to Pemberley
by P.D. James
ISBN: 9780307959850
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 97


You know the Milgram experiment?  This was back in 1961, shortly after Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann's trial started in Jerusalem.  Test subjects were instructed to push a button that delivered an electric shock to someone else - someone they couldn't see - when they answered a question incorrectly.  It wasn't a real electric shock, but the subjects didn't know that.  They were also told that the shocks increased in strength with each incorrect answer.  As the experiment went on, most test subjects continued pushing the button, despite screams of pain and pleas for them to stop from the other person.  They followed the orders of the experimenter to continue even when they didn't want to, even when they believed they were causing another human being extreme pain, possibly to the point of death.

Pretty disturbing implications there on humans' willingness to follow orders from authority figures, even when they contradict our individual consciences.  Obedience is not always a virtue.

Earlier this year a study was published in the Journal of Personality that looked at this concept in terms of individuals' personality traits
Those who are described as "agreeable, conscientious personalities" are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while "more contrarian, less agreeable personalities" are more likely to refuse to hurt others...
Kenneth Worthy links this to willingness to make choices that are against the societal norm but less harmful to the environment.
The irony is that a personality disposition normally seen as antisocial—disagreeableness—may actually be linked to “prosocial” behavior. This connection seems to arise from a willingness to sacrifice one’s popularity a bit to act in a moral and just way toward other people, animals, or the environment at large.
When the priority is not rocking the boat, being seen as agreeable, and avoiding any hint of disagreement or conflict despite the consequences, maybe being "nice" isn't all that "nice" after all.  Give me "contrarian...personalities" any day!


Global Neighborhood is a local non-profit organization in Spokane, Washington, focused on helping refugees adjust to life in the United States and become self-sufficient, integrated members of society through "employment, education, and empowerment".  They employ refugees at a thrift store down on Indiana (which I have patronized many times), at a cleaning service they started earlier this year, and at a screen printing business.  Global Neighborhood provides support for refugees from dozens of countries including Afghanistan, Burma, Vietnam, Eritrea, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, among others.

Coming to a new country, particularly after the upheaval of war, tragedy or disaster in your homeland, must be incredibly disorienting.  I'm glad this organization - overtly and unashamedly Christian - is reaching out to those in need of a friendly helping hand.

I love the focus on empowering refugees to provide for themselves and their families by earning a paycheck and learning valuable job and life skills.  Of course, monetary donations are helpful, but you could also volunteer to sort donated items at the thrift store or donate clothes, shoes, or household items yourself - they'll even schedule a pick up if you'd like.  You could consider hiring Blue Button Apparel to make (environmentally friendly!) t-shirts for your next family reunion, or check out GN Clean if you're in the market for cleaning services.


The Liahona Children's Foundation "is a grass-roots organization dedicated to nurturing the potential of children to lead healthy and productive lives."  Malnutrition during the first few formative years can lead to life-long deleterious effects.  LCF targets those children ages six months to five years in resource-poor countries who meet the World Health Organization's criteria for malnutrition, and provides nutritional supplements for them and education regarding the benefits of breastfeeding, hygiene and healthy food to their parents.  LCF is making a difference to some of the most poor and needy in the world.

While the LCF uses the already-established structure of LDS stakes in Africa, Latin America, the South Pacific, and Asia to efficiently gather information and resources and spread the word, no children in need are turned away.  Dozens of stakes are available for adoption, or you can join the efforts of one LDS blog to assist the Ta Khamu stake in Cambodia, as I did.


Since my oldest started preschool seven years ago, I've blocked out a couple hours every week during the school year to help out in the classroom.  Nowadays I alternate weeks between my two youngest boys' classes.  Some days I grade quizzes; some days I work with individual kids on reading or writing or match; some days I decorate bulletin boards or make copies.  Whatever will make the teacher's life a little easier, I'll do it!  (Sharpening pencils is my least favorite task, but if that's what's needed, I'll even do that!)

Of course, working in your own child's classroom brings the benefits of seeing your child in a different environment, getting to know their friends, and building a relationship with the teacher.  I especially admire those who give of their time without the motivation of those benefits.  There's one older woman - easily a grandma - who volunteers as a reading tutor every week at my kids' elementary school.  She consistently works one-on-one with the children who need the most help and loves and encourages them through the rough patches.

Even if your children are grown, perhaps the local elementary school needs just what you can offer.  Even if you still have other small children at home, perhaps you can find another mom to swap babysitting with so you can each help out for an hour or two.  Even if you can't commit to an ongoing regular schedule, perhaps you have a free hour this week you can offer.  These young kids, at the very beginning of their education, deserve the best start we can give them and an hour or two can make a huge difference.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Book Review: The Hero's Journey of the Gay and Lesbian Mormon by Carol Lynn Pearson

In The Hero's Journey of the Gay and Lesbian Mormon, with her own unique, yet quintessentially Mormon style, Carol Lynn Pearson expresses the struggle of gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints to find their place in a community that is just beginning to figure out how to welcome and embrace them.  Knowing some of Carol Lynn's history makes her words all the more meaningful.

Drawing heavily on Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, Carol Lynn uses powerful poetic language to illustrate the steps in this hero's journey and reframe the experiences of gay and lesbian Mormons in a positive, uplifting, and affirming way that eventually has the power to elevate the entire community.  Some may find this very short allegory - I read it completely through twice in less than an hour, taking my time on the second go-around - trite or hokey.  I found it moving and emotionally potent.

So many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters face isolation, stigmatization, pain, and fear within their own "Tribe."  Despite efforts to ignore, repress, or change this integral part of themselves, as part of this hero's journey they often "continue to feel different and a strong force pulls them] to the new path."  Fellow Tribe members don't always know how to act and their reactions hurt deeply sometimes:
Some members of the Tribe send you off with an embrace, but many in the Tribe turn away, sad or angry or confused or repulsed.  Even your own family is divided. You can hardly bear to see the pain on faces that you have loved so dearly.
"You are giving up your eternal exaltation!" says your father.
"Leave, before you pollute my children!" cries your sister.
Your mother holds you tight and says, "I don't understand, my child. But I believe in you. Believe in yourself."...
As you go to pack your knapsack with a few precious things, one of the Elders quietly approaches you and says, "You are not the first. We have lost too many like you. There are many great and important things that we have yet to understand. Please help us." He gives you an embrace and you set off on your journey.
Carol Lynn also uses the imagery of our common pioneer history as Mormons: "Your ancestors set out for a new land.  They sailed oceans, and then step by step they traveled plains. They were reviled, but they pressed on to create a new life. The talisman of their blood is within you. Their courage can be your guide. And you have been assured since you were small that the Spirit of God abandons no one."

The path requires faith and courage and great reservoirs of strength. And eventually, a return to the original Tribe to share the lessons learned.  "No learning is for yourself alone.  It is for all."  The allegory also includes assurance that everyone's journey is his or her own and finding the answers is a personal experience that allows for individual variation. "You have all traveled much the same terrain, but you have arrived at different points with different experiences and different decisions."

The ultimate answer, the goal of the journey - the Elixir - is, of course, Love.

While this short book is written directly to gay and lesbian Mormons - the use of the second person "you" throughout makes that clear - it is also carries pointed lessons for the rest of us.

We have lost too many.

There are many great and important things that we have yet to understand.

We need to acknowledge and understand the sacrifices that are asked of our brothers and sisters and do what we can to embrace them whole-heartedly with love and support.  The Hero's Journey of the Gay and Lesbian Mormon outlines their noble and difficult journey, but not all the work is theirs to do. We must do our part, as well.

The Hero's Journey of the Gay and Lesbian Mormon
by Carol Lynn Pearson
ISBN: 9780963885272
Buy it from Amazon here: (ebook)
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Book Review: Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume Three

As with the first two volumes of this series, Women of Faith in the Latter Days: Volume Three, provides a window into the lives of women in the early church, both those who are well-known and those who are relatively obscure.  The format has changed slightly; instead of splitting each chapter into two sections (a brief biographical sketch and then a more in-depth "life experiences" portion), each chapter is now a single continuous piece, seamlessly blending the woman's life experiences with the overarching narrative of her life.

It's impossible to describe the full scope of this remarkable book in a brief review.  All I can do is give a few glimpses into the discoveries I made in the hopes that you will be intrigued enough to get to know these women yourself.

Many of the women in this volume - Emily Sophia Tanner Richards (who is described as "a progressive through and through"), Lucy Emily Woodruff Smith, Clarissa Smith Williams, Louisa Lula Greene Richards, to name a few - were active suffragists who rubbed elbows with famous women's rights activists and attended national and international women's rights conferences.  Quite a few women were involved in theatre.  Several were career women, including Ellis Reynolds Shipp who earned a medical degree and practiced medicine for 50 years, delivering 6000 babies.

Mary Elizabeth Woolley Chamberlain received her temple endowment at the age of 12!  Martha Maria Hughes Cannon ran for state senate as a Democrat against her Republican husband and won!  Maud May Babcock's smiling face greets the reader at the beginning of the first chapter and stands out against the other mostly dour photographs, more standard for the time.  Kirsten Marie Sorensen Jensen was called into her local Primary presidency in Orderville at the ripe old age of 12 and died in 1973, the year my parents married.

Three women of color are profiled: Tsune Ishida Nachie, the first Japanese convert to enter the temple; Mere Mete Whaanga, who wore the traditional blue Maori facial tattoos and was the first Maori to travel to Utah; and Cohn Shoshonitz Zundel of the Northwestern Shoshone tribe, who served as a counselor in her ward's Relief Society for 35 years.

While polygamy was definitely mentioned in both of the previous volumes,  it is a constant theme in this third volume because of the time frame covered, and the wide variety of responses from these women emphasizes that polygamy was not a one-size-fits-all experience.  Some of the women struggled mightily with polygamy, with feeling abandoned or ignored by their husbands, with loneliness and a lack of close companionship.  One left her husband when he took a second wife, another received a divorce for "nonsupport".  Other women spoke of their love for their husbands' other wives, the support they provided to each other, and their devastation and "palpable loss" when the Manifesto seemed to make their "great sacrifices" meaningless.  Some women even entered into polygamy after the Manifesto and lived apart from their husbands for their entire married life in order to prevent their imprisonment.  It's fascinating to hear about the living reality of polygamy from these women in their own words.

Mormon women are anything but monolithic.

Women of Faith in the Latter Days: Volume Three, 1846-1870
Edited by Richard E. Turley, Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman
ISBN: 9781609075880
Buy it on Amazon: (hardcoverebook)
Or from Deseret Book: (hardcover)
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 96


Below are more worthy organizations both local to the Inland Northwest and further afield to help you make this holiday season a season of giving!

As I mentioned before, all of these organizations I'm posting about are ones that I have either donated to or volunteered for, or that someone close to me has, but that doesn't mean that I'm actively contributing to all of them at this very moment.  Just like you, I have to make hard decisions about how to allocate my limited resources and time.  I draw comfort from Elder Holland's words in his recent (amazing!) General Conference talk, "Are We Not All Beggars?":
I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves. But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again.
So please don't feel bad if you are not able to give to every cause that tugs on your heartstrings.  Make the best decisions you can based on the information you have and on what speaks to your soul and move forward.  There's a time and a season for everything.


The non-profit Mobius Spokane runs two science museums in the heart of downtown Spokane: Mobius Children's Museum for little kids and Mobius Science Center for the slightly older crowd.

Back when it was only Mobius Children's Museum and Will was really young, we bought an annual family membership and went frequently.  With lots of hands-on activities available Will was never bored, flitting from the water table to the Filipino market to Cooper's Corner where he could drive a plasma car and learn about traffic safety to the dress-ups and musical instruments on stage.  When Josh came along, I'd sit with him in the Enchanted Forest - an area especially for kids three and under - and with the open layout felt confident letting Will explore on his own as I could always see him.

Eventually, though, they both aged out of being interested in all the "little kid" activities.  They just weren't that fun anymore.  So I'd just take Evan on his days off from preschool and let him explore just like his older brothers used to.

And then they opened Mobius Science Center across the street.  We finally went just last weekend and the boys had so much fun watching the turtles and snakes and other creatures and exploring magnets, prisms, sound, centrifugal force, hydropower, circuits, and of course Sue, the most complete T-Rex skeleton ever discovered!

The boys with Sue!

I love how kids are able to self-direct learning in both of these fantastic museums.  They can spend as much or as little time at each activity as they want and they're learning actively at each stop.  This is exactly how to get kids interested in and not intimidated by science.


When I heard about THRIVEGulu a few years ago, I was immediately entranced.  The horror stories out of northern Uganda broke my heart and this organization, hyperfocused on this one area, this one place to do good and make a significant difference, caught my attention.

THRIVEGulu "operates a center for community gathering and learning in Gulu, Uganda, to support the emotional healing and rehabilitation of trauma victims of the Ugandan civil war through educational programs." Their mission is to "assist the communities of Northern Uganda heal from the traumatic events of war, sexual enslavement, extreme poverty and lost opportunities."

What I love about THRIVEGulu is that, unlike organizations that swoop in with a well-meaning "white knight" complex, THRIVEGulu has cultivated relationships with local leaders, hired local Ugandans to run the programs, do the accounting and bookkeeping, maintain the community center, teach computer literacy, and partnered with a Ugandan NGO.  Nothing is done without the input and direct involvement of the local Ugandans.  This is truly an effort to empower the Ugandan people with dignity and self-reliance while letting them know they are not alone.


American Childhood Cancer Organization Inland Northwest (ACCOIN) does amazing work in this area to support children with cancer and their families.

Inland Northwest

They distribute family comfort kits and information to families with children who have been recently diagnosed.  Recognizing the added expenses that come with travel for treatment, the possible loss of a job in order to care for the sick child, and other financial pressures on these families, they provide emergency financial assistance, including gas cards, grocery cards, parking validation, etc.  They run support groups and fun events for the children with cancer and for family members.  Basically, they do anything and everything to support families through an incredibly difficult time.

Both of my two older sons had hospital experiences when they were very young, Will stayed in the Pediatric ICU for a week for his central apnea right after he was born and then spent a few days in the hospital for RSV when he was a toddler.  Josh had outpatient surgery for double inguinal hernias when he was about three months old.  I remember feeling so lost and alone and scared, and these were relatively minor issues.  I can't imagine how much more intense and prolonged those feelings would be if my children had cancer.  I'm so glad there's an organization like ACCOIN that provides these families with financial and emotional support in every possible way.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: As You Wish by Cary Elwes

One summer during college my cousin Mike and I traveled home together when school was done.  It's three long days of driving from Utah to Virginia and by that third day we'd covered an impressive array of topics of conversation.  One of us, I can't remember which, had the brilliant idea that recounting the entire movie of The Princess Bride would take at least an hour or so and help pass the time.

And it was truly brilliant.

From the opening video game sound effects to the closing credits song, we did everything: every voice, every facial expression, every hand gesture.  We took turns playing different roles and rarely stopped to quibble over getting the wording exactly right. As we finished out the final verse of "Storybook Love" our sides ached from laughing so hard, we were another hour closer to home, and we'd made a fun memory together while reliving other fun memories.

Having seen and read a few interviews with Cary Elwes about this book, I knew it wasn't going to be an expose' airing dirty laundry.  But I love how much this book gushes and oozes love and friendship and joy.  Ok, so that sounded hokey, but really!  The fact that my favorite movie of all time, which has brought me so much joy and happiness and laughter, was a highlight of the actors' lives only enhances the film for me.  Everyone got along and had a good time.  Everyone admired each other and worked hard to make the best movie possible.  Everyone was supportive and helpful.  No "diva" behavior, no tantrums, just fun and talent and work.

Peeking "behind the curtain" of a movie set is always fun, but I loved the little tidbits Cary shared about learning to fence with Mandy Patinkin, breaking his toe goofing around on an ATV (that's why he sits down so oddly at the top of the ravine!), getting knocked unconscious by Christopher Guest bonking him on the head with the butt of his sword, his first meeting with Robin Wright, the insane amount of food and drink Andre the Giant could put away, the multiple unnecessary takes of that final kiss, Andre's earth-shaking flatulence, and so much more.

Many other people involved in the film contributed to the book, too, with brief "sidebars" recounting their perspective on events.  Rob Reiner, William Goldman, Andy Scheinman, Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, and Carol Kane all had their own bits to add to telling the story.

It's not at all unusual for me to "inhale" a book.  Finishing an entire novel in one sitting, aided by an ability to read quickly as well as block out extraneous stimuli like a dirty house in need of cleaning or children in need of attention, is not unheard of.  But it is extremely rare for me to do so while grinning from ear to ear the entire time, pausing only to either chuckle mildly or laugh hysterically.

It was recently brought to my attention that my children have not seen The Princess Bride.  I will be remedying that oversight immediately so that another generation can enjoy the perfect telling of the perfect story.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride
by Cary Elwes
with Joe Layden
ISBN: 9781476764023
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 5, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 95


Several friends sent me this interesting piece on how fiction readers are different. A short excerpt:
It may sound hooey hooey, but it's true: Fiction readers make great friends as they tend to be more aware of others' emotions...Literary fiction [rather than popular fiction] enhanced participants' empathy because they had to work harder at fleshing out the characters. The process of trying to understand what those characters are feelings and the motives behind them is the same in our relationships with other people.
So what works of fiction have you read that you feel have enhanced your empathy?


Continuing my efforts from last week to highlight some worthy organizations during this season of giving, I have to mention SpokaneFAVS.


The mission statement sums it up nicely: "SpokaneFAVS provides non-sectarian coverage of religion, spirituality and ethics in the Inland Northwest. We promote dialogue through online journalism and community engagement opportunities."  Tracy, the Executive Director, and my sister Meredith, the Board President, put together this video for #GivingTuesday.

I believe in what SpokaneFAVS is and does.  It promotes education and dialogue and community.  My life has been enriched and my perspective widened by the intelligent, compassionate, interesting people I've met through SpokaneFAVS.

I write for SpokaneFAVS, I volunteer for SpokaneFAVS, and I donate to SpokaneFAVS.  These conversations and relationships are important for our community and I want to see them continue.  Will you help?


LDS Charities is the humanitarian arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I'm proud that my church is involved in doing good around the world, partnering with other great organizations like the Red Cross, International Relief and Development, Catholic Relief Services, and Islamic Relief.  Whether it's providing wheelchairs for disabled individuals, helping a community build a well so they have access to clean water, training medical professionals in neo-natal resuscitation, or responding to a natural disaster, these projects change and improve lives literally across the globe.

And what's really cool - overhead costs are covered by the Church, so 100% of your donation - every single penny - goes directly to support those in need.  There aren't a whole lot of charities that can claim that.


Food banks provide the necessities of life to people in some of the most vulnerable situations.  Every time my kids come home from school with a flyer announcing a food drive, I dutifully send cans of tuna or beans or peas or olives in their backpacks the next day, happy to share some of what we have with those who have less.

2nd Harvest

Our local food bank here is Second Harvest.  I took my group of Laurels (young women ages 16 and 17) to volunteer there once a year ago and we processed something like 14,000 pounds of apples in a couple hours.  They have tons of opportunities for volunteers and they offer regular "family nights" where families can sign up to serve together.

A few weeks ago, I happened to be over on the other side of the state and had the chance to help out for several hours at the Bonney Lake Food Bank with a friend.  We sorted donations into categories to be shelved later and turned some chaos into order, ready and waiting for people to help.  It felt really good to actively participate in something I knew would materially help children and families.

So if you're looking for a way to make a difference in your area, research your local food bank, the place people in your community can go when they are hungry.  Ask what they are most in need of, what foods they can't accept, and when you can volunteer, and then act on that knowledge.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

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

When this book first came out, I snagged a copy to give my niece for her birthday, only to find out that her mom had the same idea and had already purchased one for her.

I was thrilled.  Because that meant I got to keep it!

Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Courageous Women from the Bible is exquisite.  I love how each woman's story is given full attention, from well-known women like Eve and Mary to unnamed women like the Samaritan woman at the well.  For each woman, the authors lay out her dilemma, and present the reader with the same options as the woman faced.  The next page explains what the woman chose and again asks the reader to consider how he or she can be like this admirable woman.

Deborah has long been a heroine of mine, but too often in Sunday School she is presented as little more than Barak's sidekick which annoys me to no end, so I'm including her story here.
Deborah was a prophetess and powerful judge, and people in Israel traveled long distances to hear her wise counsel.  Sitting beneath a shady palm tree, Deborah settled conflicts and worked for justice.  She worried about the hardships her people suffered under the rule of a cruel Canaanite king.  Deborah wanted to free her people, but they had lost their faith in God's power to deliver them from bondage.
Deborah had a choice to make.  She could watch her people suffer,
she could teach them to trust in God...
(next page)
Deborah knew she must lead her people to freedom.  She inspired the Israelites to change their hearts and trust in God.  Then Deborah gathered an army of 10,000 soldiers and prepared them for battle.  Her soldiers had only simple weapons, while the Canaanites had 900 chariots.  But God revealed to Deborah how and when to fight, and the mountains and clouds defended the Israelites.  Working in partnership with God, Deborah led her people to victory.
When have you chosen to be a leader?
Everything about this book entices the reader to feel a connection with these remarkable women, many of whom we hear far too little about.  They are depicted as agents unto themselves, rather than as supporting characters in other people's stories, which is unfortunately often the default position for women in the scriptures.  The thought-provoking questions invite introspection.  The illustrations are warm, unique and stunning.  All three of my boys have voluntarily opened this book, read the stories on their own, and asked questions about these women and their choices.

I can't help but think that having more children, both boys and girls, as well as more adults become familiar with these stories will broaden our perspectives on the wide range of good things that women can accomplish when working with God.

Girls Who Choose God: Stories of Courageous Women from the Bible
by McArthur Krishna and Bethany Brady Spalding
illustrated by Kathleen Peterson
ISBN: 9781609078829
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, ebook)
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 1, 2014

Book Review: My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

As the first Hispanic and only the third woman to be appointed to the US Supreme Court, I was excited to dig in to Sonia Sotomayor's story, particularly as told in her own words, and it did not disappoint.

She sets the stage in her preface:
I have ventured to write more intimately about my personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court, and with that candor comes a measure of vulnerability.  I will be judged as a human being by what readers find here.  There are hazards to openness, but they seem minor compared with the possibility that some readers may find comfort, perhaps even inspiration, from a close examination of how an ordinary person, with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, has managed an extraordinary journey.
Though she describes herself as "an ordinary person", I found Sonia Sotomayor to be anything but.

Diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of seven, and at a time when the diagnosis came with a prognosis of a shortened life full of major, painful medical issues, she learned self-discipline, self-reliance, and a "habit of internal awareness" in order to manage her disease.  A natural optimism and resilience helped her navigate an unstable home life, including parents who spoke limited English, an alcoholic father and persistently low income, despite her mother's constant work as a nurse.  Her hard work and persistence led to amazing educational opportunities (Princeton! Yale Law School!) and career advancement.  However, she insists:
I would never claim to be self-made--quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I've drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.
Sotomayor sprinkles advice throughout the pages of her memoir, tidbits that directed her life in positive ways, like "don't be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing".  Or stressing the importance of "a good lesson in the value of learning to express your basic needs and trusting you will be heard."  Or "Success is its own reward, but failure is a great teacher too, and not to be feared."  Or "the key is always to watch and listen."

Small, seemingly insignificant events translated into life lessons for Sotomayor.  When some friends made prank calls to random numbers, telling each women who answered that they were having an affair with her husband, she "couldn't understand how anyone could be so cruel--so arbitrarily, pointlessly cruel.  What was the pleasure in it?"  When friend defended the practice as "just a joke", Sotomayor came to a realization.
How could she not imagine?...Was it so hard to see [yourself] in the other [person]'s shoes? I was fifteen years old when I understood how it is that things break down: people can't imagine someone else's point of view.
Of course, as a lawyer and later a judge, this ability to view events from a different perspective is incredibly valuable.  Sotomayor used this gift to improve her arguments and courtroom skills, to listen carefully to what others are saying in order to better understand where they're coming from.  As a woman of Puerto Rican descent, she became deeply involved in organizations that worked to increase the number of Latinos/Latinas in higher education and in the legal profession, while asserting that "no group is an island" and "to do good ultimately meant seeing any particular interests in a larger civic context, a broader sense of community."

Her love of continuous learning comes through frequently.  When asked what she hoped her legacy would be as a Supreme Court justice, she responded, "My highest aspiration for my work on the Court is to grow in understanding beyond what I can foresee, beyond any borders visible from this vantage."  She describes constantly watching, listening, asking questions to more fully understand other people, their motivations, their actions, their hopes and dreams, the context in which they live their lives.

Linked to that love of learning is an optimistic belief in other people.  "I'd always believed people can change; very few are carved in stone or beyond redemption."  She also believes in the power of connecting with others and working together.  "There are no bystanders in this life," she shares. "Our humanity makes us each a part of something greater than ourselves."

I felt a kinship with her worldview in these final passages where she describes an exchange with a debate opponent in high school, who became increasingly hostile over the course of  a weekend conference:
"It's because you can't just take a stand," she said, looking at me with such earnest disdain that it startled me.  "Everything depends on context with you.  If you are always open to persuasion, how can anybody predict your position? How can they tell if you're friend or foe? The problem with people like you is you have no principles." 
Surely, I thought, what she described was preferable to its opposite.  If you held to principle so passionately, so inflexibly, indifferent to the particulars of circumstance--the full range of what human beings, with all their flaws and foibles, might endure or create--if you enthroned principle above even reason, weren't you then abdicating the responsibilities of a thinking person?... 
...I have spent the rest of my life grappling with her accusation... There is indeed something deeply wrong with a person who lacks principles, who has no moral core.  There are, likewise, certainly values that brook no compromise, and I would count among them integrity, fairness, and the avoidance of cruelty.  But I have never accepted the argument that principle is compromised by judging each situation on its own merits, with due appreciation of the idiosyncrasy of human motivation and fallibility.  Concern for individuals, the imperative of treating them with dignity and respect for their ideas and needs, regardless of one's own views--these too are surely principles and as worthy as any of being deemed inviolable.  To remain open to understandings--perhaps even to principles--as yet not determined is the least that learning requires, its barest threshold.
As someone who has been accused of a similar failing, I appreciate her defense of context and individual situations, and the use of our God-given reason above the intractable application of absolutes.  Striving to understand the world from another person's point of view helps create a better community and, ultimately, a better "beloved" world.

My Beloved World
by Sonia Sotomayor
ISBN: 9780345804839
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).

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: Gulp by Mary Roach

It's alarmingly appropriate to review this book at Thanksgiving time.

Mary Roach has yet again approached a topic considered by many (most?) people to be, well, pretty gross and through her trademark sparkling wit and groan-worthy puns transformed it into an intriguing and hilarious read.

Starting with our sense of smell and traveling through every aspect of digestion to the *ahem* end, Roach consults with varied experts in each field, observes experiments, participates in unique experiences, and brings a child-like fascination with her wherever she goes.  From taste-testing dozens of olive oils to reverse-engineering flatulence, every chapter contained some new revelation.

Roach takes great delight in meeting people whose names match their professions to perfection.  For example, her glee at discovering two individuals employed at the Soap and Detergent Association named Dr. Spitz and Mr. Grime practically jumped off the page.  A man named Colin Leakey carried out a "flatus research project" in the 1970s.  A physician named Dr. Crapo identified that the fumes that exist in manure pits and sewage tanks can cause paralysis and suffocation and coined the phrase "dung lung".  It goes on and on.  And her despair when someone named Alvine ("of or relating to the belly or intestines") missed his calling - well, I'll let her tell it in her own words:
With crushing disappointment, I learned that Dr. Gregory Alvine is an orthopedist.  Staff at the oxymoronic Alvine Foot & Ankle Center did not respond to a request for comment...In a more perfect world, Whitehead would be a dermatologist, just as my gastroenterologist is Dr. Terdiman, and the author of the journal article "Gastrointestinal Gas" is J. Fardy, and the headquarters of the International Academy of Proctology was Flushing, New York.
Don't let all the potty humor obscure the fact that Roach is a fantastic science writer.  She distills complex biological processes into layman's terms that are easy to understand and follow and the reader puts the book down feeling both smarter and amused.  You learn without even really realizing it.

And she makes the reading so compelling, too!  Roach is a master of ending a chapter in such a way that you find yourself almost unconsciously turning the page for another few paragraphs - or more - even when it's past your bedtime and your suppressed laughter is shaking the bed and keeping your husband awake.

I don't know of many higher compliments for non-fiction writers than this: she makes learning fun.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
by Mary Roach
ISBN: 9780393348743
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).

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 94


I hope you have all recovered from your turkey-stuffing-and-pie-induced coma of yesterday!  We had a wonderful Thanksgiving, from the kindergarten feast with Evan's class on Tuesday, to the family-and-friends feast yesterday.

Adorable, no? :)

Now it's time to look ahead...only 26 days until Christmas!!!  I'm one of those who never thinks about Christmas until after Thanksgiving, so I'd better get busy! First thing's first...where's my Christmas music??


Lately we've been trying to focus our Christmas gift-giving, especially to our kids, less on "stuff" and more on experiences.  In past years we've given tickets to concerts or events, art supplies, a month of some kind of lessons.  We've also stuck a gift card for in their stockings each of the last two years.

Kiva Logo

Kiva is, in their own words:
a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.  
Basically, you scroll through hundreds of profiles - a chicken farmer in Uganda, a taxi driver in Uzbekistan, a seamstress in Bolivia, a shop owner in Cambodia - and select one to lend your $25 to.

Of course, behind the scenes, it's a little more complicated than that.  Kiva partners with microfinance institutions all over the world who do the actual lending and our $25 is used to backfill the loans to those institutions so they can continue to lend.  Read more about the process here.  The entire $25 goes to the lending institution and is paid back to you as the loanee pays back their loan.  When your $25 is paid back you can withdraw it, or lend it again and again and again.

My kids LOVE it.  They really take their time considering the options, the payback schedule, the risk ratings, whether the person has kids their age...  We look at the map to see where their potential choices live and talk about what they see in the pictures, how their lives might be different from or the same as ours.  It's opened their eyes to the world a little bit more, and that's a good thing.


There are so many ways to give back to the community and to the world, I'm going to start highlighting a couple every Friday Four for the next month or so.  All of them will be organizations that either I or people close to me have had personal, direct dealings with, that we have contributed to with either time or money or both because we believe in the work they do.

I've been a Meals on Wheels delivery driver for Mid-city Concerns for three years now.  Every other Monday I pick up a cooler and hot pack from a local church and stop by anywhere from 6 to 12 houses in my assigned area to hand them a hot meal, a drink of juice or milk, a roll and butter, and to chat for a minute or two.  It only takes about an hour most days, and less than a gallon of gas, but it makes a real difference in people's lives in our community.  When my kids aren't in school they come along and the "grandmas and grandpas" love to see them helping!

Here's what Mid-City Concerns is about in their own words:
Mission Statement
To promote independent living of Spokane's senior citizens and home bound through outreach in: Nutrition, Advocacy, Education and Recreational services through the Meals On Wheels Program and the Mid-City Senior Center.
Mid-City Concerns is the "Center" of these senior's lives. When their apartments are poorly heated and they haven't enough money for food, they come in to get warm and to socialize with their peers in a safe wholesome environment. They receive assistance from a caring staff, trained to help them with problem solving and to make appropriate referrals for other needed services. We continue our advocacy program to further promote this cause for independence. Most important, they are treated with respect and kindness---and encouraged to treat each other in the same way.

When I was in college in Utah, I'd travel up to Smithfield to visit my grandpa a couple times a semester.  The Meals on Wheels program there helped him stay in his own home and ensured he'd have a hot meal and - more importantly - human contact at least once a day.  Now, my grandfather was relatively well off and he had nurses come in daily and a young couple that lived in the basement so he wasn't often alone.  I appreciate the program for what it did for him and even more for what it does for those less fortunate than he was.


To dip into consumerism just a little on this black Friday, I discovered a company called  Litographs yesterday and now I want


Love The Great Gatsby?  How about a t-shirt with the entire novel printed on it?  Big fan of Thoreau?  Take a look at this beautiful poster containing all of Walden!  Want to declare your passion for all things Austen?  This Pride and Prejudice tote is for you!  You can even get temporary tattoos quoting Mary Shelley, Jack London, James Joyce...  I love the brilliant person(s) who came up with this!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Review: I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

More than 15 years ago, I stood in the middle of the massive ruins of Circus Maximus, awed by the age of the stones, by the incontrovertible proof that people like me had lived and raced, cheered and entertained, and sometimes died there two thousand years ago.  My semester abroad in Europe opened my eyes in many ways, but in particular I started to feel a connection with earlier, even ancient, generations.  They seemed more real, more human, more three-dimensional than the shallow stereotypes I had gleaned from history textbooks.

In I Am Livia, Phyllis T. Smith has created a compelling titular character based on the most sympathetic interpretation possible from the scant historical record.  Not saying it's inaccurate, necessarily, but it's clear that she admires Livia and wants her readers to do the same, and in large part she succeeds.  As she mentions in her author's note at the end, "Livia has gotten bad press.  Rumor has a way even now of attaching to women who break the conventional mold, and it certainly did in ancient Rome."

Livia is the eldest daughter of a well-to-do family of Roman citizens.  She is married off at a young age to Tiberius Nero, one of her father's colleagues, in an effort to strengthen their bonds during a perilous period of political intrigue, widespread suspicion and conspiracies.  Despite a strong grasp on politics, almost a prescience, her opinions and input are routinely ignored and she has a devastating glimpse into her future.  "I saw my fate. I would not be fifteen forever, but I always would be a woman.  I imagine spending all my years having my words discounted."

I knew vaguely of the limitations on women during ancient Rome, but seeing the effects on Livia's life made them very real.  For example, women had no hope of gaining custody of their children if they divorced.  Children belonged to their father automatically, meaning that Livia had no choice but to leave her children behind when she left her first husband to marry Octavianus.  Fortunately, they remained on good terms (likely because Tiberius Nero didn't want to irritate such a powerful man as his ex-wife's new husband) and she was able to still visit and spend a great deal of time with her children, but this would not have been the case for most women.

Over and over again, the only way for Livia - and other women in the story - to affect real change on her environment is to influence the powerful men around her.  It's that awful old saying in action: "the man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck and can move the head wherever she wants".  Blech.

As time goes on, however, Livia proves her worth to Octavianus and she begins to amass real power.  In a brilliant move, she offers to supervise his mail and distribute it appropriately, delegating smaller tasks to others and bringing only the most important matters to him directly.  This one "unofficial role of authority in his government" gives Livia the ability to streamline his daily tasks, help determine his priorities, and demonstrate her value.
"Suppose the gods decided what I needed now was to marry an extraordinarily intelligent wife?  I think they're fully capable of arranging that, don't you?" He spoke earnestly, not as if he meant to flatter me but almost as if her were talking to himself.
If he had written me a dozen poems rhapsodizing about my eyes, my hair, and my dulcet voice, it would have meant far less to me.  It is a joy to be appreciated for the thing you want to be appreciated for.  To be appreciated as a woman, and also to be appreciated as a creature with a mind--what more could I have wanted?
I found in Livia a woman who used her significant gifts and talents to the best advantage possible in a time when they easily could have gone unused and unrecognized.  She suffered deprivations and enjoyed luxuries as her fortunes turned; she lost dear friends and faced down dangerous enemies.  She exercised the power she had to protect her loved ones and for the good of Rome.

Now that my sympathies for this remarkable woman have been awakened by this fictionalized account of her life, it's time to go read some non-fiction and learn more about her.

I Am Livia
by Phyllis T. Smith
ISBN: 9781477848821
Buy it from Amazon here: (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).