Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Student Mom: Making the Decision to Go

There are many reasons people go to grad school. Usually it's because a certain career path requires some level of graduate study. But for a stay-at-home-mom whose neglected back-up career (English teaching, in my case) doesn't require it, going to grad school is purely about passion. It's about life goals, about pushing myself to learn just because I love it. But it's also a luxury. It's an experience that requires both money, and more importantly, time-- both things likely to be of short supply to a young mother with a young family living off one income.

So how does a mother make the decision to go back to grad school? The answer is going to be different for every mother. All I can do is share my story and some of the factors that went in to my decision, and hope it helps someone else.

The Timing
So for any woman who wants to go to grad school (or start a career or anything along those lines) and be a mother, you have to think long and hard about timing. For me, figuring out the order in which to do these two huge but crucially important things in my life was absolutely a point of crisis for me. It occupied so much of my mental energy after I got married (at the tender age of 21, gah!) that I named this problem The Conundrum. Capital T, capital C. The Conundrum of my life.

The most popular path these days is for women to focus on school and starting their careers and put motherhood off until they are well established. I know many women who have made this choice, and I don't want to belittle that decision (it's a very logical choice), but it was not the right option for me. Spiritually and physically, I felt an overwhelming desire to become a mother sooner rather than later. My family and children will always be more important to me than anything else, and I wanted to give motherhood the best years of my life (and quite honestly, I don't know how older women have the energy for this, motherhood is hard).

But the desire to go to grad school was still strong and ever present, especially as I put my life on hold to follow my husband across the country and watch him attend Law School. However, once we had our first child (all of 19 months ago) I assumed that I would do what my mom had done and wait till all our kids were older and in school and I had more free time (ha! if ever). So we're talking, a decade away at the least. And I had kind of accepted that I would just have to wait and be patient and put that dream on hold. I didn't really think it could be any other way. I knew a couple of women who were crazy enough to go to grad school and be a mom, but normal people just don't do things like that, so I'd never really thought it was an option for me. Until...

The Supportive Husband

One day last November my husband and I were sitting down trying to hash through our five year plan. You know, how we were going to pay off the student loans, how we were going to save up for a house, what a realistic budget would look like, that kind of thing, when all of the sudden (and completely out of the blue) my husband asked, "What do you think about going back to grad school?"

I was like, "Um, yes, of course. Some day."

And he said, "No, what do you think about going back to grad school next year?"

Honestly, I didn't know what to think about it. It wasn't even really on the radar. But he did some quick crunching of the numbers on his spreadsheets, we did some fast research into available programs in our new city, and suddenly I saw a path. I saw how maybe, just maybe, we could make it work. It would require delaying paying off his student loans and would cause a bunch of headaches in the childcare and scheduling department, but the vision was there.

And it would not have been there without my husband. I will flat out admit that none of this would be happening if my husband were not so on board with this. Not just on board, he's practically masterminding this whole endeavor. I would not be doing this right now without that kind of support. So, this is the part of the story where I get to brag a little bit about what an awesome husband I have, how he totally understands what is important to me, and how my dreams are so important to him that he's willing to let things in our family structure be a little bit untraditional. He's willing to sacrifice for this to happen, and that is golden. This is a team effort, and I wouldn't be doing it any other way.

The Decision
So once I saw there was a way to make the timing work and I knew I had the support of my husband, I still had to decide that this was the right thing for me to do. We took a few months to think about it, pray about it, and weigh the pros and cons.

The cons were pretty obvious (cost, childcare, the craziness of our lives, etc.) but there were some logistical pros too:

-Location. We will be living close to the campus of the school I'm applying to, and as far as being able to attend class fairly close to home, this will probably be the most convenient situation we will ever be in (unless I ever do an online degree, which I probably won't).
-As far as childcare is concerned, right now is better timing than any time in the next decade or so. It's going to be much easier to find babysitters/nannies/daycare for one or two young kids, then to find babysitters for four or five older kids who have after school schedules and more demanding needs. (I understand other families might feel differently about this point, but it's true for our situation and support network at this time.)
-I'm only three years out from graduation, which is better than fifteen years out. I still keep in touch with a few of my professors, I still remember my favorite classes/papers. The more time that passes, the harder it's going to be to get back into it.

And finally, being the faithful Mormons we are, we took our decision to the Lord. Since our church is so big on family, there's a lot of cultural pressure for women to stay in the home, especially with young kids. If I was going to do something this big to our family, I wanted to make sure the Lord approved. So we prayed and we pondered and went to the temple and did a little soul searching. But it didn't take long at all to get an answer, and the answer was an overwhelming YES! I had the distinct impression that I will be of greater service in the kingdom of the Lord for furthering my education.

So there it was. The final cherry on top, and I was all set. Decision made. I was going to grad school. The next step was to actually apply...

Monday, July 29, 2013

Book Review: Graceling

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): In a world where people born with an extreme skill—called a Grace—are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even shedespises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing and torturing anyone who displeases him. When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po's friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away...a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

Another YA fantasy series. My summer reading list is becoming thoroughly predictable. I'm almost getting sick of this genre (but not quite yet) and will need to branch out soon.

Anyway, this one's been on my reading list for a while because of all the hype around it. And I liked it, but I didn't love it. A solid three stars, but no more.

So here's what I liked. Cashore's world was quite interesting. I really did like the concept of these graces, or special talents, and the way they were used and exploited by the various countries. I liked the political intrigue, and the story line was very engaging and well paced (except for that one part, when they were trudging through the cold and snow over the pass, and I just skimmed through it). I'm intrigued enough that I will probably be picking up the second book in this series just to see what Cashore does with a different set of characters.

Because here's where we get to the part I didn't like: the characters. Specifically, the main character. I get that Katsa is supposed to be this strong female role model, the type of character girls can look up to. I get that it's supposed to be great that she's not needy and clingy and is not going to change who she is just because some boy happens to fall in love with her. I mean, I hate the Bellas and the Ewards as much as the next self-respecting independent-minded woman, and Katsa is NOT a Bella. BUT, here is where I'm going to get on my soapbox for just a minute, because Katsa is not a good role model for young girls either. So yes, it's great to be strong and independent, but you can be strong and independent and still be in a committed relationship. I had SERIOUS issues with Katsa's anit-marriage (and anti-motherhood) stance, because I firmly believe this is the wrong message to send young girls today. Sure, it's great to teach girls to wish for more than a ring on their finger, I for one whole-heartedly agree that there is more to life for women than being some man's trophy wife. But teaching girls that uncommitted sexual relationships are the new ideal is potentially more harmful for women in the long run, not to mention society. So maybe my issue isn't with Katsa so much as it's with the messages she stands for.

Along those lines, I had some serious concerns with the portrayal of violence in this book. My issue isn't so much with the idea of a young teen girl killing people (The Hunger Games already broke me in to that idea), but with the physical fighting between Katsa and Po. So yes, it's cool that Katsa is physically stronger than Po. And it's very nice that Katsa is able to defend herself against all male predators so effectively. The message that girls should be strong and able to defend themselves against attackers was loud and clear. But Po was a good man that she genuinely liked (and *spoiler* came to love), so I found the amount of physical fighting between the two of them... bewildering. Cashore walked a fine line, and I'm not saying she crossed it at any point (she was very careful to show the amount of concern they took for each other's physical well-being, and the fact that Po never hit her outside of "training"), but I don't think it's ever a good idea to portray violence in a relationship as normal. Especially the one time their fighting episode turned *cough* amorous *cough*. That is just a bad association to teach young girls. Maybe others disagree, maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I did not like that aspect of their relationship (or really, any other aspect).

So, after those two long paragraphs of griping, you might think I hated the book. But remember, I really did enjoy it for the most part. It was a nicely developed story, and I really am interested in reading the next book. My only beef is with the messages being sent to young girls, so I don't actually recommend this book to young adults. To anyone else who enjoys this genre, go for it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Oh Where Do You Read in the Summertime?

Reading a good book is sometimes a magical experience. But for truly magical reading moments, environment and ambiance can contribute almost as much as the book itself. My personal favorite experience is a cold rainy day, hot chocolate in hand, wrapped in my favorite blanket with a book. However, blankets and hot chocolate are rarely comfortable in July, so recently I've been thinking about good summertime reading places.

Obviously, this is the ideal summertime place for a book, but as not all of us live near the beach, nor can afford vacations to the beach (at least for more than a week at a time), I've been looking for another good place a little closer to home.

Luckily, "home" for me this summer is my in-laws place, and they happen to have this huge gorgeous backyard with...

A tree house!

So, I grew up in the desert. The trees in my yard growing up were small, scraggly things that never could have supported a tree house, so forgive me if I'm a little overly excited about this place of childhood dreams. But really, it is quite magical.

The absolutely perfect place to read, no? At least my nieces think so, and I must agree. Magical.

If the weather (and my 18 month old, who seems to have a fear of heights) cooperates, I plan to spend some quality time up here with my books this summer, with the soft dappled sunlight and the sound of leaves swishing lazily in the breeze. Perfection.

What are your favorite summertime reading places?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Student Mom

So, I'm in the process of applying to grad school right now. If all goes according to plan, I will be starting a master's program in English literature come January 2014 (of course, there's always the possibility that I won't get accepted to the program I'm applying to, which means I'll have to hang my head in shame and tell everyone, "Just kidding! Not going to grad school! Ha ha, funny joke!" except it won't be funny at all, it will be terribly humiliating, so let's just not think about that possibility right now).

Anyway, when I tell people that I'm going back to grad school, I get various responses, mostly along the lines of, "Are you crazy?"

Yep. Pretty much crazy. Because not only will my husband be starting a very demanding, 60+ hour a week job at roughly the same time, I'll still be a full time mom. And if all goes according to plan, I'll be starting grad school with baby #2 in the works, and my first trimesters are not pretty. So I may be an essentially-single full-time mom vomiting all over the place while trying to wrap my head around writing papers with citations all over again. Then there's always the financial compound, where we will be desperately trying to dig ourselves out of the huge mound of student loan debt we just accrued during my husband's stint in law school. So you know, throwing money at my schooling (plus childcare) is kind of nonsensical at this point.

But we've fully embraced the insanity of our approaching situation, and we're just going to deal with it.

So anyway, the second question I hear a lot when I tell people I'm going back to grad school is, "That's so brave! Let me know how the process goes for you, because I want to do that someday too." You see, I'm friends with a lot of smart, intelligent, wonderful women who could have done brilliant things in the world if they had decided to pursue careers or further education. But the majority of them chose to put first things first, start families, and focus all the best of their energies to raising their children. And yes, with all my heart I believe that my children and family will always come first (I will have no qualms about quitting grad school if it throws our family balance too far out of whack). But again, these moms are still intelligent women who sometime dream about that day when they can trade in diapers for diplomas.

The thing is, once you've been out of school for so long, it's REALLY HARD to get back into it. For you non-mothers out there, Mommy brain is a real thing. I've lost dozens of brain cells just from the sleep deprivation, let alone the mind-numbing monotony of reading "Goodnight Moon" for the fiftieth time in an hour. Seriously, the synapses just don't work like they used to. Plus, it's hard to know even where to begin. Thinking about stuff like the GRE, or brushing up a writing sample, or getting academic letters of recommendation, can seem so overwhelming when you've had no contact with the academic world for years. It's enough to discourage someone before they even start, so I thought I might use this little corner of the internet to document and share my process of going from full-time stay-at-home-mom, to becoming a full-time grad student/mom. I plan to call this series "A Student Mom" and cover everything from studying for the GRE to balancing student-life with the responsibilities of motherhood. I'll probably post to this series about once or twice a month, so look for the first post some time next week.

I hope this series is useful to someone out there. I also hope this doesn't devolve into a place where I vent and complain about how INSANE I am for making this decision to go back to grad school. But as this blog is likely to revolve around the books I read for class once I'm a student, I thought I might as well talk about all the other aspects of this process too.

Of course, I have to get in first. Wish me luck there!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: When Crickets Cry

When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): A man with a painful past. A child with a doubtful future. And a shared journey toward healing for both their hearts. It begins on the shaded town square in a sleepy Southern town. A spirited seven-year-old has a brisk business at her lemonade stand. But the little girl's pretty yellow dress can't quite hide the ugly scar on her chest. Her latest customer, a bearded stranger, drains his cup and heads to his car, his mind on a boat he's restoring at a nearby lake. The stranger understands more about the scar than he wants to admit. And the beat-up bread truck careening around the corner with its radio blaring is about to change the trajectory of both their lives. Before it's over, they'll both know there are painful reasons why crickets cry . . . and that miracles lurk around unexpected corners.

I don't think this is a book I ever would've picked up on my own. But, as I'm living with my in-laws for the summer, and as this was the July book for my mother-in-laws book club, and as the host of said book club was serving "transplant" sliders (a cheeseburger described in the book, involving bacon and caramelized onions and three kinds of cheese and baked beans and a special sauce, pretty incredible and indeed, heart-attack inducing), why not participate?

First off, yes, this is "Christian literature," and yes, the story is definitely sappy and sentimental enough to be a Lifetime movie, both strikes against this book as being considered "serious" literature, and both strong reasons as to why I probably never would've picked this book up of my own volition. But I must say, this was a really enjoyable read (insofar as you can say that about a book designed to make you cry).

Here are the things I liked:

-The ongoing metaphor with the heart. Yes, by the end of the book the metaphor did feel like it had been beaten dead, but it was a deep metaphor to work with, and maybe it's just me, but I liked the medical descriptions of how the heart works and the thoughts about how that compares to our figurative hearts.

-I liked the Christian culture aspect of it. Up to this point, I don't think I've ever read anything that counts as "Christian literature," at least not a fiction book. This is probably because I'm a Mormon and have read enough Mormon fiction to believe that contemporary religious literature is an oxymoron. However, I think Mormons should take a lesson from Charles Martin, because really, the religious aspect of this book was quite beautifully done. It felt so natural, like this was just a book where most of the characters happened to believe in God, because they live in a community where people do that, and it's normal, not something that needs to be explained, or would only make sense to insiders. There were only one or two parts that were remotely "preachy" and even then, I thought it was just a natural expression of who these characters were (I especially liked the metaphor about real love vs. pornography: "a banker doesn't learn to recognize real money by studying counterfeits, he studies the real thing to recognize the counterfeits.") So don't be scared of this one just because it's Christian lit. It's more like a book where the characters happen to be Christian, and it influences how they live. Is that really so strange?

-The language. Charles Martin had some really beautiful phrases and passages that I quite enjoyed. I admit, some of the medical jargon got over my head, but for the most part, I liked the way he wrote. And despite a few inconsistencies in the timeline (pointed out by my sister-in-law, who is also married to a doctor), I liked the way the story was constructed. I would read Martin again if I came across another of his books.

Is this the BEST BOOK EVER? No. But was it a decent read about good Christian people with solid values and a nice little story that will make you cry? Yes. If you happen across this one, go for it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

New J.K. Rowling Book? What?

I've been watching with interest the stories this week about the whole J.K. Rowling pseudonym debacle. For any of you not up to date on your minor news stories, here's a decent recap here, although more recent stories have revealed how the news was leaked by a partner at the law firm that represents Rowling to his wife's best friend who then tweeted it to the world. As the wife of a future lawyer, I found that part extremely interesting. I mean, what a juicy secret! I sure hope my husband never has to keep such juicy little tidbits from me. Although, really, who do I have to share such things with? All seven of the people who follow me on twitter? His secrets are all probably very safe with me. Not that he will ever be representing the likes of J.K. Rowling. His future firm is more in the line of representing oil companies, which I find far less intriguing (downright boring, if we're being honest).

Back to the point. I've been anxiously reading reviews of this book, The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, trying to decide if I want to read this one. Like most bookish nerds of my generation, I'm an avid Rowling fan and think she is a brilliant writer, but I'm not going to lie, The Casual Vacancy was a hard read for me. I mean, it was still brilliantly written, but the hardcore subject matter and generally depressing reality of it all made me wish Rowling had never strayed from the fantasy world she did so well. I mean, I can understand her desire to break out of a rather defining genre; she said herself she never intended to write young adult fiction. But The Casual Vacancy was just so difficult that I'm really pausing over this new one. My gut instinct is to jump on the bandwagon and snap up a copy of The Cuckoo's Calling because, for crying out loud, it's J.K. Rowling! And the book has some decent reviews (unlike The Casual Vacancy) and people seem to like it. But it's a detective/murder mystery, and that's never been my favorite genre. So I'm just not sure.

Anyone planning to read it? Anyone read it yet who can recommend?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Brief Defense of Fantasy

I have a very intelligent, very funny and witty aunt who can't stand to read fantasy books. During the height of the Harry Potter craze, I overheard her talking about how she just didn't get it. She had tried reading Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling, only to be very frustrated with the books. She just couldn't get over the fact that these worlds were NOT REAL, and how on earth could people, adults specifically, find this childish make believe interesting?

My gut instinct was to feel very, very sorry for my aunt, because how dull must life be if only lived in the real world? I thought she was particularly crazy for her inability to appreciate fantasy, but I've since learned that many people share her opinion. In fact, most of the adults I meet these days, even ones who are voracious readers, don't care much for fantasy. Apparently, I'm the crazy one for enjoying it like I do. "Normal" adults seem to believe that fantasy books belong in the realm of children's or young adult literature, and adult fantasy is written only for that nerdy subset of socially awkward people who never grew up and moved out of their parent's basements.

Well, I mean no offense to all the intelligent readers out there who personally have no taste for fantasy, but I would like to take a moment to defend the genre against general snubbery. Here are a few of my points of defense:

1. Many dismiss fantasy as mere fluff, escapist literature with no greater value than to entertain. I take issue with this. After all, even Shakespeare wrote about fairies and magic, and his target audience was never children. Fairy tales themselves hardly originated as stories for children (have you read the original Brothers Grimm?). So our culture as a whole used to find some value in such fantastical stories for adults. Have we, as a scientific, modern society outgrown the need for such stories as adults? Or have we lost something valuable, if intangible, in rejecting this way of expanding our minds? You might guess I believe the latter.

2. Writers of fantasy are often snubbed by the literary canon and those scholars of literature who deign themselves wise enough to create such a canon. I have often reflected on why this is. While I agree that much fantasy is formulaic and poorly written, I believe this same feature is true of most genres. Truly well written fantasy actually requires an immense amount of work on the part of the author, for they must create an entirely new world with a history and often a language all their own (Tolkien, anyone?). They must create laws of magic, often as complex as the laws of physics in our own universe, and then they must craft a story and develop characters within this world, keeping everything straight and presenting the story clearly enough for the reader to understand. This ability to create a new world, and tell a story within it, is extremely difficult to do well. I feel these authors deserve more due for their extraordinary efforts.

3. While the worlds and magics may be NOT REAL, the story still resonates. What is it about the hero's journey, or the buldingsroman, the coming-of-age story, that speaks so directly to our cultural conscious? That is a question for academic consideration. And often I've found that questions of morality, of good vs. evil, of virtue and goodness, and of complex human emotion, affect me in deeper ways that influence my behavior in the real world when presented from the perspective of a not-so-real world. After all, I want to be that hero.

Maybe those arguments are not as eloquent or fleshed out as they might be, but the point is, I find a lot of value in fantasy. Or maybe it's just the value I find in stories in general. In my opinion, it is the well-told story that is the highest form of literature. The themes, the lessons, the language all hangs upon the story. There is power in stories, fantastical and otherwise.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review: Chime

Chime by Franny Billingsley

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): Before Briony's stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family's hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it's become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment. Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He's as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she's extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn't know.

So when I saw the cover of this one, I was a bit wary. Usually a really pretty cover means it contains an unsubstantial story, and I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover and all, but really. I tend to shy away from glamorous cover models. However, this one was recommended to me by a very reliable source (Liesl Shurtliff, actually) so I decided to withhold judgment until after reading it. And in the end, I found it to be a breath-taking, addicting, fantastic story that I didn't want to end.

I will caution, this book was disorienting at first. The narrative style is first person, but it's really unlike any other first person narration I've ever read. You get inside this girl's head, and it is very much a teenage girl's head: confused, insecure, full of undeserved self-loathing, jumbled, and barely coherent. It took me a few pages to wrap my head around this style that jumped from thought to thought with nary a segue in sight, but once I picked up on her voice, it was a totally enjoyable ride. It helped that Briony was such an interesting character in general, smart and witty (biting sarcasm) but deeply insecure and full of guilt. I'm not sure how Billingsley was able to so thoroughly capture the mind of a somewhat scarred teenager, but she did it brilliantly.

Which leads me to the other characters, and my only complaint of the book. Except for her sister (who I'll get to in a minute), every other character was disappointingly underdeveloped. This is possibly a byproduct of the strange first person narration, but I felt like I hardly got to know, much less understand, any of the other characters. Particularly Eldric. I never felt like I really had a clear picture of him or his personality. Briony's father was practically a nonentity. The other townspeople were little more than names mentioned in passing. The only character where this lack of development made sense was the step-mother, and that was on purpose for the pivotal plot twist. But, like I said, this neglect of other characters may have been on purpose, since everything is filtered through Briony's very inwardly-focused mind.

The one exception to this was Briony's sister, Rose. In modern medical terms, Rose would perhaps be labeled with some disorder on the autism spectrum, but in this time period (early 20th century) and setting (rural England) she is just a special, beautiful character whose tics and odd behaviors were simply presented and expected to be accepted. Briony's complicated relationship with Rose was also beautifully developed, with the deep love underlying the heavy sense of responsibility, guilt, and annoyance felt by Briony. It was a wonderful relationship.

Now, a word about the setting. Early 20th century England where the Old Ones are real, magic exists alongside religion and industrial technology, and witches are still hanged? I loved it! Very creative and interesting place to put this story. Even though I didn't understand everything about how the Old Ones worked, I liked the world and the magical realism elements.

And what is there to say about the plot? It is complicated, and deals with Briony working through issues relating to her step-mother's death a few months before, and trying to save the children of the village from the  swamp cough, and maybe perhaps falling in love, although that only happens to normal girls and not witch girls like Briony. I don't want to say too much more about it, because I don't want to spoil anything for anyone. I want all my friends to go out and read this one because I think (hope) they will love it as much as I did.

Yes, sure, it might be just another YA fantasy with a love triangle, but no, it's not just that. The way this character is presented, the way she thinks and feels, is so different for this genre that it makes this book stand out among the crowd. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, found it completely addicting (in a can't-put-down-this-book kind of way), and highly recommend this book to anyone who likes a good YA fantasy.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Dream Home Library

We do not own a home. We don't even rent a home. Right now, we are in the pathetic position of crashing with my in-laws for the summer before we move into a two-bedroom apartment where we are just excited that the front door will open to the outside (as opposed to our last high-rise apartment, where the front door opened to a dimly lit interior hallway that always smelled of smoke and other questionable fumes). We likely won't own a home for several years yet (we need to dig ourselves out of some major student loan debt before we tackle mortgage debt).

But! That doesn't stop a girl from dreaming.

Yes, we have big plans for this future/hypothetical/dream home of ours. Is it some fancy kitchen? Some spacious game room? A walk-in closet just for my shoes? Nope! I have no idea what the rest of this someday house will look like, but the husband and I have definite visions for one room in particular: the library.

Here's the idea board:

Dark wood, I think. I don't always like dark wood, but it feels fitting in a library. Dark wood paneled walls and shelves, with a big old fireplace and a bunch of cozy chairs (may or may not be leather, I'm not sold on the leather) and little reading lamps tucked away in nooks. Sounds super cozy.

Hm, I love the idea of a cross-beamed ceiling. Makes it feel rich or something. Also, a big solid desk, necessary if this room is going to double as our home-office. Haven't decided that one yet, we'll just have to see how many rooms this dream house of ours has. But I also love the idea of a few display shelves for all of the artifacts we pick up from our (also future/theoretical/dream) world travels. A few framed maps on the walls (of the places we've been). Our large silk rug from India on the floor. A nice globe in the corner. That kind of thing.

And then, something special, just for fun. Like a spiral staircase. I mean, if this is a two-story library (which I wouldn't mind at all if it were), we're going to need a staircase. This is obviously going to be the most awesome room in the house.

And I mean, as long as we're talking dream libraries, there's always this one:

A girl can dream...

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Book a Week

I was one of those nerdy kids who always had my nose stuck in a book. I had the uncanny ability to get so lost in a book that I would completely ignore everything going on around me, which really was a feat in my house (six people in a small house, it was generally crowded and noisy and hard to get away from each other). Often I would look up at the end of a chapter to find that someone had been trying to get my attention for several minutes or more. My parents used to take my books away as punishment. Cruel and unusual, if you ask me.

Anyway, when I had a really good book going and would get into my "zone," my mom used to warn me, "You won't be able to read like that when you become a mother. When you have kids, you have to pay attention to them and take care of your house and family. You can't be lost in a book all day." She offered this cautionary threat often enough that when I found myself as a new young mother (all of 18 months ago), that was the voice in my head. You can't read anymore, you need to pay attention and be responsible! You need to take care of your baby.

Here's the thing though. When you have a newborn who sleeps for eighteen hours a day and breastfeeds for approximately 90% of the rest of his waking hours, you actually have quite a bit of time on your hands for activities like reading (and crappy daytime television, but that was a short-lived affair, the stuff is just too awful). I got pretty good at balancing a nursing babe in one had and a book in the other (and also gained an entirely new appreciation for audio books). So my reading habits continued.

But so did the guilt. Because babies grow, and wean themselves, and become walking climbing terrors always getting into mischief. And then somehow having a kid means the laundry piles up and the dishes never get done and greasy hand prints show up mysteriously all over the house, and your husband starts dropping hints about the general disorder going on, and thoughts like maybe I should stop reading and start cleaning up this place start running through your head.

So anyway, last year some time I decided to make a compromise with myself. I set a goal to read one book a week, because somehow when I labeled it as a "goal" it changed from a vice to a virtue. It became something I "had" to do for this noble cause of meeting a goal. But it also set a cap on it, only one book a week. One book a week that I don't have to feel guilty about because it's working toward my noble goal (any books on top of that and I do feel guilty, it happens).

Sometimes, when I look at my to-read list, I get impatient thinking about all the books I still need to read and how am I ever going to get through them all when I only get 52 a year? But it's all about balance, this motherhood thing. And one book a week is the balance I need right now.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Book Review: The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her. His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble. But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little. For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

I was very excited for this book, mostly because I've heard so many good things about Maggie Stiefvater but hadn't read any of her books yet. Maybe I should've started with The Scorpio Races, because I'm just not sure about this one. It left me feeling very conflicted.

I'll start with what I liked about this book. It was creepy and mysterious in a good Edgar Allen Poe sort of way, and I enjoyed that. Between the graveyard scenes, the psychic fortune telling, dead bodies, ghosts, magic, and ancient Welsh folklore, there was lots of creepy ambiance that would make this a fun read around Halloween. There was also plenty of mystery and suspense. I really quite enjoyed the quest aspect of the storyline, the search for the magic lay lines and the tomb of an ancient Welsh king, and that is the storyline that I kept reading for. I wanted to find out what was going to happen with all that paranormal stuff.

I will hand it to Stiefvater, she's good at developing complex characters. Each of these characters had such different personalities, such detailed personality traits and complex backgrounds, and they came together and fit so well as a group, it was quite impressive. But this is also where the book lost me, because it felt like the back story and character development came to over run the plot. It was like this book couldn't decide if it was going to be a contemporary coming-of-age novel, or a contemporary fantasy novel. Maybe she was trying to make it be both, but I kind of wanted it to just be one or the other. There was just so much of what felt like interruption where Adam had to deal with his abusive father, or Ronan had to work out his issues with his past and/or older brother (who seemed like he was going to play a big role in the book at first, but then just disappeared half-way through the book), and while all of these issues made for some really deep character conflict, I just wanted them to get back to the paranormal stuff. Not to mention that some of the issues were just really disturbing, and would make me hesitant to recommend this book to actual young adult readers (but that's a rant for another post).

Also, the construction of the novel itself was very meandering. While I was fine with the story being told from multiple points of view, the conflict development was just not tight. Parts of the book were incredibly slow with way too much descriptive detail, and other parts were almost frantic in pace with everything happening all at once and not enough explanation. It was just a strange ride through this story, and I felt like it could've been reworked to build more steadily to a more fleshed out climax, instead of jolting and hobbling along to a rushed and inconclusive end.

Also, this is a "cycle", meaning there are four books in this series. Ugh. I don't know if I have it in me to read the next one, much as I am dying to know what happens with the magic stuff. So, in conclusion, I can see how Maggie Stiefvater is a good writer, but I'm hoping one of her other books is better.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Where's the Revolutionary War Literature?

So, I thought it would be nice to write up a post recommending a few holiday appropriate reads for this Independence Day, but when I sat down to make a list of good, patriotic, Revolutionary War books, I drew a blank. Seriously. I can come up with roughly 100,000 WWII books, and at least half a dozen Civil War books, but the Revolutionary War? This appears to be a sadly neglected war for literary purposes. Either that, or I'm completely out of the loop.

Here's what I did come up with:

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. I read this one a long, long time ago. Probably elementary school. But I still remember loving it. I'm not so hot on the details, but I have vague memories of silver smithing, Paul Revere, a little action, a little romance, and some good life lessons. Anyway, this is some great historical fiction, and I really want to reread this one again some time soon.

1776 by David McCullough. Okay, I haven't actually read this one yet, but I want to so badly. I love David McCullough. I heard him speak once, and he was just so brilliant, and thoughtful, and inspirational. You could just feel his love for our country oozing out of every corner of him, and it was so refreshing to listen to that kind of historian. This one has been on my to-read list for a while, and I just need to sit down and read it. No better time than now.

"The Declaration of Independence," by Thomas Jefferson (and a bunch of other really brilliant guys). When the literary world fails you, may as well go to the original source for some patriotic reading material. Besides, Jefferson was a pretty powerful writer. And it's not that long. I'm thinking it could be a fun tradition to read this every year around this time. Not a bad idea.

So yep, that's all I got. Anyone else know of any good Revolutionary War era books that I could look in to?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

All The World's a Stage

Ah Shakespeare.

As any respectable English loving person should, I hold the Bard in high esteem. My Shakespeare class in college was one of the most influential and intellectually stimulating experiences of my life, and I consider him a philosophical and comedic genius.

But I must confess, I tend to like the Bard much more in short pieces, quotes, and sound bites, than in full length glory. I mean, reading through a Shakespeare play is a slog, isn't it? (Although I don't fault the Bard personally for that; it's just I have a distaste for reading scripts in general). I must confess that I have never in my life looked forward to the opportunity of sitting down to read a Shakespeare play from beginning to end.

But watching them? Oh yes, please!

As genius as Shakespeare was with words, he never meant for them to be read. They are meant to be heard, seen and experienced. Give me the chance to see a Shakespeare play, and my enthusiasm is through the roof. Combine the experience with family, good food, and zero cost? Recipe for my dream evening.

I can't remember what the festival is actually called. "Shakespeare in the Park" or "Free Will" or something like that, but my in-laws go every year. We spread out a blanket, pull out the fired chicken and potato salad, and get our dose of culture for the summer. It's a lovely time.

Forgive the blurriness. My poor camera does not do low light. And yes, this is a shot of an empty stage during intermission, because you can't actually take pictures of the performance, don't you know?

This year's play was As You Like It (thus the forest stage scene), which I had never seen nor read before. It's definitely not one of his most popular plays, and there's a reason for that. It's heavily formulaic, not incredibly imaginative, and rather cliche. But it does have the famous "all the world's a stage" speech, plus some pretty nasty hilarious insults. And I must say, the reinterpretation of the play by this company into a 60's-hippie-flower-child-forest-orgy was pretty ingenious. The image of Hymen (the God of Marriage (?), this random character that makes an appearance in the last scene) decked out in a golden loin cloth with a flower garland gyrating his hips to some psychedelic tune during the finale is an image that will probably be burned into my mind forever. I will never be able to think of anything else when I see this play again. So at least it was memorable.

Yes William, I liked it quite a bit.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review: Rump

Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): In a magical kingdom where your name is your destiny, 12-year-old Rump is the butt of everyone's joke. But when he finds an old spinning wheel, his luck seems to change. Rump discovers he has a gift for spinning straw into gold. His best friend, Red Riding Hood, warns him that magic is dangerous, and she’s right. With each thread he spins, he weaves himself deeper into a curse. To break the spell, Rump must go on a perilous quest, fighting off pixies, trolls, poison apples, and a wickedly foolish queen. The odds are against him, but with courage and friendship—and a cheeky sense of humor—he just might triumph in the end.

So before starting my review, I must confess that I might be a bit biased on this one because I happen to know the author personally. Liesl is one of the dear friends we left behind in Chicago, and she is just one of those deep, thoughtful, sweet, lovely people with interesting ideas pouring out of her, so when I heard she was a published author with her first book coming out last April, I thought, "Well, that just makes sense." And of course I also thought, "How cool! I know a published author! And I own a signed copy of her book!" It's little things like that that just get me all star struck excited. So anyway, I will try to be as unbiased as possible.

First off, I love me a good fairy tale retelling (Ella Enchanted, all time favorite), but it often feels like the same fairy tales get rehashed over and over again, so it was completely refreshing to see this one was about Rumpelstiltskin, a lesser known but still fantastic fairy tale. And telling it from Rump's point of view was sheer genius (akin to the "True Story of the Three Little Pigs" told from the innocent wolf's point of view). I mean, how many male protagonists do you see in fairy tales? Especially of the non-prince variety?

Second, I thought Liesl nailed the middle-grade genre. The language is simple, descriptions are not overly-flowery, but the world is still rich with imaginative detail and the little moral messages (ideas about why some people are mean to others, what it's like to be different, and finding inner strength) are powerfully expressed. And it was funny! Of course, there are lots of jokes to be made when the main character's name is "Rump," but it was nice to see the protagonist himself poke fun at his own name. Beyond "rump" jokes, the humor in the rest of the book is subtle and clever. Also, I loved the little rhymes sprinkled throughout the story. All in all, this was a simply delightful little read.

I recommend this one in full to any middle-grade readers out there (especially the boys), their parents, or anyone who loves a good fairy-tale retelling.