The Bone Clocks, Take 2


In my previous review, I suggested that The Bone Clocks would make a great book club selection.  I was right!  One of the book clubs I’m in chose the book for this month’s selection and we had a really excellent discussion.

I re-read the book to make sure I’d remember everything, and even on a second reading it didn’t disappoint.  The story-telling and themes are so complex and well done that even though I already knew how things turn out, I was still caught up in the plot and pacing.

The book club discussion was really illuminating.  I always get a lot out of hearing other perspectives on a book, and because I’m a verbal processor I find I understand books better when I’ve talked them over with other people.  After our discussion I think I understand the ending of the book and the structural design of the story and character arcs much better.

If you haven’t read The Bone Clocks I do recommend it.  It’s weird but worth it.  And if you have a book club, I can now say with the confidence of experience that it makes a great choice!


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The Writing Life

writing lifeThe Writing Life is a short but inspiring book about finding the motivation and follow-through for your writing.  It’s not about craft, but I think after a certain point you’ve probably read all of the craft how-tos you need.

I love Dillard’s intensity.  She writes with fierce observation.  Apparently she finds writing wildly dreadful, and yet does it anyway because that’s what she does.  Even if you’re not the sort who writes every sentence in sweat, blood, and tears, you can probably still find her experience instructive in some way.

Although this book is about writing, it’s really about life.  In fact, I think if you enjoy reading you’d like it, even if you don’t write as one of your callings.  One of Dillard’s strong metaphors is built on the most effective way to chop wood.  You can, apparently, hack away at the piece of wood, missing and splintering all over the place, or you can aim through the wood at the center of the chopping block.  This is helpful for writing, but even more so for life.  Dillard points out that focusing on momentary happiness is not the way to build a good life:

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.”

Another universally applicable concept from writing is Dillard’s admonition to give your best now rather than hoarding it.  You can pour your best effort and material into your writing, your parenting, your job, and so forth, and trust that the well will not run dry.

While not a long book, The Writing Life is full of thoughtful insights and I’d recommend it–whether to inspire your writing or your day-to-day life.


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The Organized Heart

heartI love reading books about organization, because I’m always looking for new ways to tweak and improve my schedule or environment to make life go more smoothly (I’d rather spend time accomplishing my callings than tackling the same sticky wicket over and over again).

The Organized Heart: A Woman’s Guide to Conquering Chaos starts with an interesting premise: you don’t need another system, you need to figure out what’s standing between your good intentions and actually getting stuff done.  The author walks readers through common roadblocks like perfectionism, busyness, and possessions, and…then the structure kind of trails off.

The book is quite short and a breeze to read, but I think it might have benefitted from greater length so that the author could have developed her conclusions more thoroughly.  On one hand, I think the author and I have different personality types, because her struggles and applications differed from mine, but even so I would have liked to see more deeply developed connections between the issues she raises and why those impact our outward organization.

I did appreciate the author’s emphasis on determining your own calling before jumping into yet another set of rules or techniques.  I’ve found it helpful to really own my priorities (my family, homeschooling, my work) so that I can just honestly accept the fact that a deep cleaned floor is not a daily reality in our household of soon-to-be seven.  Likewise, I know that I am stressed by visual clutter, so I do spend time keeping counters cleared and possessions minimized in our main living spaces.

The book, however, doesn’t really bridge the gap between understanding your roadblocks and working with those to get to a more organized environment that fosters your callings.  For that reason, I thought The Organized Heart read like the first third of a good book.

If you really haven’t thought much about the root causes of your clutter habit or disorganization, The Organized Heart could be helpful for you, at least to get you started.  It’s such a quick read that it wouldn’t be a waste of time at any rate!  But if you’re looking for a more comprehensive approach this might not be your best bet.

What is your favorite organizing/life management book?


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Here’s What You Don’t Want To Do

2I would not advise attempting to review a cookbook during your first trimester. I checked out Well Fed 2: More Paleo Recipes for People Who Love to Eat just as I fell pregnant, and thought it looked great.  Then, at around 5 weeks, morning (noon, night, overnight) sickness hit.  I tried several of the recipes I had marked, but couldn’t eat them.  My family enjoyed them though!  Then I wasn’t even able to handle the smells of cooking and the book sat on the shelf.

It had been slated for a review post for so long, however, that I really meant to get to it last week.  I’m in the second trimester now, and thought surely I could handle it.  However, even the thought of opening a cookbook with pictures of fragrant meals made me ill (surely soon this phase will pass!), so I avoided blogging last week.  I know, I know.

So, today, I bite the bullet!  But not with an open book.  Instead, I’ll refer you to my un-pregnant review of the first Well Fed cookbook, and say that the recipes in the second book are different enough that you’ll get a lot out of it even if you already have the first book, and that there is so much variety you will certainly find plenty to try out, especially if your family likes to eat international meals. I will say that in my experience, I usually have to double the recipe and often double the spices as well, but we like our food extra-flavorful (usually!).

In short, I’d recommend both Well Fed cookbooks, but mostly if you are not pregnant or at least are out of the woods with sickness!


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On Queen Victoria (and Edward VII)

victoriaI spent the past month and a half slowly working my way through two overlapping biographies–Victoria: A Life and The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince–in between reading other things.  Both biographies are long and detailed, and give a substantial picture of the inner and outer lives of these larger-than-life monarchs.

Both books rest on exhaustive research of available private papers as well as public records, and paint a slightly different picture of Victorian England than I had previously had in mind.  Both Victoria and her son Bertie (who eventually became Edward VII) were self-indulgent and responsible for significant shifts in the English monarchy that had huge implications for the events of the 20th century and following.  I was surprised at how petulant and bizarre Victoria was, as well as what an astoundingly horrible mother she was, especially given the influence public perception of her large family had on family norms.

heirIn his early life and ridiculously prolonged adolescence (which, seemingly, lasted until he became King at around age 60!) Bertie was treated so shabbily by his mother and put down at every turn that he turned to a life of dissipation and indolence.  Reading about the foibles of Bertie and his set, as they went about using and discarding various women of all classes including each others wives, strewing STDs all over Europe and etc, one wonders how the monarchy survived at all.  However, once Bertie became King and his mother was no longer in the picture, he performed admirably and did a lot to reform the way the public viewed the royal family.  While he never did get around to treating his wife very well, at least Bertie ultimately did right by his country (for the most part–although he didn’t help the lead up to World War I, he certainly didn’t cause it single-handedly).

We’re currently studying the late 1800s in our homeschool, including Victorian England, and I plan to launch into the early 1900s before the summer break, so I am glad that I read these books to give me more background for our school discussions.  Both biographies gave more detail and a more complete picture than the histories we’re reading for school, and I like having that depth to draw on in case of questions.

But even if I wasn’t homeschooling I’d be glad to have readVictoria: A Life and The Heir Apparent–I’d recommend them for lovers of English history and royal biographies–and I think it was excellent to read them together as so much of the history overlapped but was told from different angles.

Do you ever read history or biography that overlaps?  Does it annoy you or do you enjoy the perspective shifts?


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Eliza’s Peter Rabbit Birthday

DSC_0372 Eliza turns two years old today!
DSC_0374She likes having her picture taken by phones so she can see herself. This is probably a generational thing. Since I was using the big camera instead, she preferred to hide under my desk.  DSC_0369To celebrate, we had a Peter Rabbit birthday party.  We love these classic stories, and in our family it makes sense to have a book-themed party!  When I was a baby, my nursery was decorated in Beatrix Potter theme, and our kids’ nursery is likewise adorned, so we have lots of Peter Rabbit accessories to decorate with!
IMG_2236The table was set with Peter Rabbit plates, bowls, and mugs for the children, and china in complementary colors for the adults.  DSC_0371My mom did sweet little flower arrangements in the Peter Rabbit tea pot and creamers.DSC_0401My parents were visiting for a few days to help celebrate–as an interesting aside, their last name is a variant of “wild rabbit” in German and Dutch. Josh’s parents also attended the family party.
We had carrot soup, rolls, and steak lovers salad for the meal, which seemed appropriately rabbit-like. However, as the children pointed out, rabbits don’t eat steak. That’s ok, it leaves more for the rest of us.
sampler 002I based the cake design on this piece of embroidery I made for Hannah when she was a baby. I had intentions of making one for each baby. Unfortunately that did not come to pass.IMG_2235Maybe Eliza’s cake makes up for it. I worked with a really helpful Etsy seller to convert Beatrix Potter images (public domain) to edible wafer paper, and affixed them to the fondant, then piped scrolls and text.DSC_0376At two, Eliza loves her babydoll Barbara, wearing hats, and reading books. Her favorite color appears to be yellow, and she likes to pick out her own outfits. She is a joyful girl and makes us laugh every day.DSC_0396 Me and the sisters. DSC_0415Two years old!  Hooray!

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April 2015 Read Alouds

In April we finished our average number of read-alouds (currently defined as longer chapter books of at least 100 pages), and a couple of books that Hannah, Jack, and I read for a discussion, but I decided to make that a separate post for later.  Two of our books were for school reading and two were our family bedtime read-alouds.
TGE-CoverThe Green Ember has been much discussed in the read aloud pool, and so when it was free on Kindle one day I snagged it.  We found the book engaging, adventurous, and funny in parts.  Jack wanted his own copy so he could read it again.  I thought the book was good for reading aloud, with a story and topics that appealed to both boys and girls and could be good for multiple ages.  I do think the book has been overhyped a bit (at least among the people I follow online) and I don’t think it’s the next Narnia or Lord of the Rings.  Had I not seen the superlatives, I would have still said that although I doubt this book is destined as a lifetime favorite for our family, it’s a solid choice either for a read-aloud or individual reading for kids and I do recommend it.

ratsKidnapped by River Rats is a fictional book about two orphaned kids in London who are rescued by the Salvation Army.  It’s the sort of book that aims at a little bit of history while telling a story, which I normally like, but there were some flaws.  First, the dialog is dreadful for reading aloud.  It’s anachronistic and clumsy.  I found myself changing it every time there was a direct quote.  If you’re ok with in-process editing as you read, that might be ok, but although I can change wording as I read aloud, I found it annoying that I had to do that throughout the book.  Also the illustrations are really third-rate.  I didn’t bother mentioning to the kids that there were illustrations, because they were really that bad.  The kids didn’t strongly dislike the story, and we did pick up some information about the Salvation Army that we used in a later history discussion.  To warn you, the book does deal with human trafficking and child prostitution–it’s glossed but be aware that you’ll probably need to have a discussion about it if your kids notice.

soulHeart and Soul: The Story of Florence Nightingale is a fairly long but nuanced biography. We read it aloud for school and I found it a little long, but the kids liked it. The book does a good job of balancing between the popular ideal of Florence Nightingale–the angel with the lamp, etc–and the reality that as a person Nightingale was critical and demanding and self-absorbed. We had some interesting talks about this, with the kids speculating about whether or not Nightingale would have gotten as much done if she had been kinder.

bears of blue riverWe have probably read The Bears of Blue River aloud five or six times and we keep coming back to it. The book is a great story of the adventures pioneer kids in Indiana had–including brave rescues, daring deeds, and the sort of independence that is probably illegal in Indiana these days.  I like the subtle emphasis on keeping a cool head, being brave, and standing up for your friends. The kids like the action, particularly the stand-offs with huge wild animals.  If you’re looking for a great read-aloud for boys, this is your ticket.  But girls love it too, and it’s an overall awesome pick for family read-aloud time.

What were your favorite read-alouds this month?


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Death By Living

deathIn Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent
–a series of essays collecting his thoughts about his grandparents’ end of life and the implications for his own decisions–ND Wilson contemplates the meaning of a life well lived.

Along the way, Wilson tackles subjects like the  nature of life as a story, modern ideas about youth and value, and what really gives life meaning.  I thought the book was a good reminder about the illusion of control and the true meaning of legacy as the impact you have on other people’s stories.

“Lives and generations are there for the tipping.  You have hands.  You have words.  You have something.  Touch the scales.”

It took me a while to get into this book.  Wilson’s style is a bit more flowery than I usually prefer, and sometimes it felt like he was trying too hard.  However, I did get used to it for the most part and really found the second half of the book meaningful so if you’re also someone who is put off by style issues, it might still be worth pushing through for this one.  I haven’t read any of Wilson’s fiction, but I wonder how his voice comes through in that genre.  We do have a copy of 100 Cupboards around somewhere, and reading Wilson’s non-fiction made me curious to try his other books, which are stories geared toward children (I’m not sure if they are YA or middle grade).  If you’ve read both his fiction and non-fiction, what did you think?

Overall, I found Death by Living inspiring and thought-provoking.  It’s a good reminder about attitudes and the purpose of serving others and what we’re here to do.  If you’ve lost sight of the big picture vision for a life well lived, or if you just like to have a different way of looking at things every now and then, I’d recommend this book.


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The Last Time I Saw You

the last time i saw youI loved the premise of The Last Time I Saw You–characters approaching their 40th high school reunion take stock of their lives and who they really are, regardless of how their perceived roles in school limited or enabled them before.

Some of the plot seemed contrived.  One character has a heart attack, one is divorced, one is diagnosed with cancer, etc.  People overcome their limitations and really change.  People get honest and tell what they really think and take whole new directions in life.  It’s a little bit like the way you think about a major reunion and think “you know what would be awesome?  If so-and-so wasn’t too cool to have a conversation, if that jerk would just apologize, if I could get closure on this one painful episode…”

Or maybe that’s just me.  :)  I wouldn’t go back to a high school reunion, since I attended two high schools, one of which was in Europe and the other of which was larger than my college and not really a place I ever plugged in.  I don’t have the experience of growing up with the same kids from kindergarten to college.  But my college does reunions in a big way, so I connected with the narrative there.

Although at times the plot seemed like a daydream, it was really, really satisfying.  If you’re a person who believes that people can change, and who believes that there is still a lot of life left to live at 58, you’ll like this book.  I thought Berg did a great job of showing how the characters were older, but still felt young, and still could look forward to rewarding new phases of life.  I think 58 seems like the beginning of middle age, not like the beginning of old age, but I think it’s probably all in your perspective and what you take to heart about your age.  I don’t personally plan to be elderly until I am 89.  And even then, I will still be kicking.

I was impressed with how Berg handled chapter endings.  Really, if you’re a writer and study these things, you should read the chapter transitions in this book–they are excellent.  Each chapter winds up with a philosophical  bent that doesn’t feel tacked on, but just satisfying and engaging, so you’re simultaneously happy if you get to read more, or content if you have to put the book down just then.

Overall, I really enjoyedThe Last Time I Saw You and would recommend it.  It’s not too taxing, so it would make a good summer read, but it’s not fluffy so you won’t feel bad about reading it nor suffer from sugar shock.

Have you ever been to a major school reunion?  Was it great or a let-down?


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Playing Big

bigLike many self-help books for women, Playing Big covers topics like dealing with your inner critic, figuring out a way to break out of your self-protection to take big steps in your life and career, and so forth.  You’ve probably read a lot of similar stuff.  Mohr’s main difference is in her application of vaguely spiritual angles on familiar subjects.  If you’re the sort of person who likes vaguely spiritual stuff, that might work for you.  As someone who’s spiritual life is more defined by specific faith and beliefs, it seemed silly to me.

For example, it’s common for this type of book to suggest getting perspective by considering yourself 20 years from now.  Thinking in terms of your 20 years down the road self, what will seem most important?  What will you be glad you did, or sorry you missed?  It’s a helpful point of view.  Mohr takes this further by suggesting you do a guided meditation into the 20 years from now you and see what her/your hairstyle is, what you/she eats for breakfast, and what her name is.  Wait, what her name is?  Isn’t this me, 20 years from now?  Why would I have changed my name?  Maybe I read too many Frank E. Peretti novels as a kid, but that is veering a little weird.

However, that said, I did find some extremely helpful advice in the book about how I communicate.  Mohr points out that, as a woman, you will not be liked or trusted if you don’t seem warm.  Seem too clever or competent without balancing it with warmth and people will dislike you or brand you as abrasive or worse.  I have seen this over and over again in many contexts.  The key, Mohr says, is to watch your wording and walk a fine line between warmth and competence.  And in my experience this a really, really fine line–I need clients to think of me as a competent expert because I don’t work for cheap, but I also need them to really like me so they want to keep working with me over the long-term.  Mohr lists ways women dumb down or try to soften their competence in what they say.  Several that stuck out to me as things I often do, especially in work emails include:

  • Use qualifiers like “just” and “almost” as in, “I just wanted to ask if you think you might be able to get me those files by Thursday” or “I almost think we need a different graphic here.”  I thought about it, and decided that I use qualifiers to try not to offend someone I’m disagreeing with, especially when I’m actually telling him how to do his job.  But in collaborative, creative work like I do, that’s really part of the process. I should just own it.
  • Over apologize.  I can’t tell you how many emails I end with some version of “sorry” in another bid to make myself seem less intimidating.  I’ve been told about a million times that I’m intimidating, so somehow I think that saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” or “I’m sorry if I missed it, but…” or “I’m sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner” makes it more palatable that I’m asking for information I need or pointing out a missing piece or turning something in early.
  • Ask “does that make sense?” or “do you see what I mean?”  This sort of question is a bid for connected response when you know you’ve been giving a lot of information.  But that type of question does tend to diminish your authority on the subject.  So it’s better, Mohr says, to ask, “what do you think?” to get the other people involved.

After reading the book, I was inspired to get into different work email habits, adding in more warmth by softening openings and closings so that I don’t have to play down my main points.  For me, this is primarily an email problem, but if you also have these issues in person, the book contains ideas for that too.

Overall I’m not sorry that I read Playing Big because I did get such a helpful take-away for my work life.  Other aspects of the book may appeal more to others, and self-help books are such different products for different types of people that it’s hard to know whether to recommend something else.  Personally, I got a lot more out of Make it Happen for things like goal setting and callings and taking big next steps, and Lean In resonated more with me on the women-succeeding-in-spite-of-being-women front.  But again, these books are personal, so the tone and focus of this one might be just what you need to hear.

What do you think about the email language idea?  Do you find yourself using those words and phrases too much?


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