Saturday, June 30, 2012


Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

My middle-grade-writer husband read this amazing debut middle-grade novel last week, and he cried and cried and cried. While in the middle of reading the book, he asked me whether people stared at me or made fun of me for the way I looked when I was a child. (I had a cleft lip and palate, in addition to a severe overbite and horribly crooked teeth.) The answer was yes, they did...and sometimes I still find people staring at my cleft lip scar. Sometimes children ask me about it. But what I faced was nothing like what the main character in this book faced.

August (Auggie) had a series of birth defects that resulted in a face that is mashed up and unlike any other. The book starts with Auggie saying "I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid...I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."

Auggie has been homeschooled for the first ten years of his life because of all the surgeries he had to endure. (Like Auggie, I also had to have jaw surgery and an implant in my chin.) Finally, as he is entering fifth grade, his parents decide to send him to school. And so begins the story. We hear the story from Auggie's perspective, as well as from his older sister Via and a few of his friends.

My husband, in his own review, writes about why this book is different and has value as a middle-grade novel. I'll leave that to the expert to describe.

The first part that had me crying was on page 7. When Auggie was born, he was immediately rushed out of the room, and his mom got very upset. Finally, "She says that when she looked down into my tiny mushed-up face for the first time, all she could see was how pretty my eyes were." A similar thing happened at my birth: the nurse would not show me to my mom until she had braced herself...because of my cleft lip and palate. But my mom, too, thought I was beautiful and was just relieved that I was there and my defects could be repaired. I could live a normal life. Auggie's mom, too, only saw the beauty in him, and not the ugliness like the rest of the world did.

Auggie makes friends at school, eventually, and he also makes some enemies. People are horribly mean to him everywhere he goes...especially when they see him for the first time. He's a bright, funny, and sensitive kid, as people discover once they get past his face.

I loved this story of a boy who finds his place in the world, helped along by people who show him kindness.
"Shall we make a new rule of life...always to try to be a little kinder than necessary?" --J.M. Barrie

My Monastery Is a Minivan

My Monastery Is a Minivan: Where the Daily Is Divine and the Routine Becomes Prayer, by Denise Roy

I discovered this book when I read a review for one of Denise Roy's more recent books (Momfulness)...and being a chronological-type reader, I decided to start with this one. Plus as a new (initially reluctant) minivan parent, I liked the title, which comes from Roy's childhood desire to become a nun.

As you might guess, she didn't become a nun--instead she became a mom to three sons and one daughter. She also has an M.Div. and is a psychotherapist and spiritual director. This book is all about finding the divine in our everyday lives.

Roy begins her series of essays with a quote from Frederick Buechner, "There is no telling where God may turn up next--around what sudden bend of the path if you happen to have your eyes and ears open, your wits about you, in what odd, small moments almost too foolish to tell."

Each short essay in this collection is a gem and makes me think more mindfully about my own life and family. She uses wonderful quotes and poems to enhance her points, such as this one by Margaret L. Mitchell:

When it is all, finally,
Too much,
I climb into my car,
Roll the windows up,
And somewhere between backing out the driveway
And rounding the first corner
I let out a yell
That would topple Manhattan
How do you pray?"

Or this one, another by Frederick Buechner:

"The sacred moments, the moments of miracle,
are often the everyday moments."

And this one by Bapuji:

"Those who do not know how to sing and dance
will never reach God."

In one of my favorite essays, "Potato Stories," Roy shares four stories about was about the Korean custom for washing potatoes. When they want to wash a lot of dirty potatoes, they don't wash them one by one...instead they put them all in a tub of water, put a stick in the water, and move it up and down, and the potatoes bump into each other, helping to clean them. She compares this potato bumping/cleaning exercise to being in a community of faith, "When we join hands, our prayers and our lives bump up against one another, and something holy is made in the process."

One of the other potato stories can be found all over the Internet:

One of my teachers had each one of us bring a clear plastic bag and a sack of potatoes.  For every person we’d refuse to forgive in our life, we were told to choose a potato, write on it the name and date, and put it in the plastic bag.  Some of our bags, as you can imagine, were quite heavy.

We were then told to carry this bag with us everywhere for one week, putting it beside our bed at night, on the car seat when driving, next to our desk at work.

The hassle of lugging this around with us made it clear what a weight we were carrying spiritually, and how we had to pay attention to it all the time to not forget, and keep leaving it in embarrassing places.

Naturally, the condition of the potatoes deteriorated to a nasty slime.  This was a great metaphor for the price we pay for keeping our pain and heavy negativity!

Too often we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, and while that’s true, it clearly is also a gift for ourselves!

So the next time you decide you can’t forgive someone, ask yourself… Isn’t MY bag heavy enough?

In "Night," she writes about her neighbor Debbie, whose aging mother has become very ill. She asked her neighbor about the hardest part, and she said, "The middle of the night. Getting up at three in the morning to change Mom's diapers and having her look me in the eyes and ask "Where's Debbie?'" This resonated for me, as I was thinking about my cousin who has been caring for her ill mother (my aunt, who recently died of cancer) and father with Alzheimer's. I remember those night times when my sons would wake me up to nurse, and we were the only ones awake in the house. Roy shares this passage from Jane Ellen Mauldin, which I love:

"As I trudged alone through the night hallways, I staggered to a call as old as humankind. That night and every night, mothers and fathers around the world awaken to reassure restless children. That night and every night, grown children arise to calm fitful, aging parents. Those night hours are long and lonely. Our burdens and tired bones are ours alone to bear. There are, however, other people out there who are waking even as we are. There are other people who bear similar burdens--whether it is simply to reassure a child for one night, or to help a dying loved one be at peace, week after week, until the end.

We who rise do so because we choose to do it. It is an intense, physical demand; it is also an honor as ancient as human love. We are part of the circle of families and friends who nurture Life from its earthly beginning until its earthly conclusion."

In "Blessing One Another," she shares a story about shopping with her daughter and observing a horrible interaction between an assistant manager and a delightful young child, who had been twirling around and dancing with a butterfly on a stick, much to the assistant manager's horror. Roy is able to intervene on the mother's behalf (the mother is Hispanic, didn't see what happened, and is cowed by the situation) and share the story with the manager, since she observed the interaction. She starts out this chapter with this poem by Galway Kinnell:

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within,
of self-blessing.

She knows with certainty that the same incident would not have occurred with her own daughter because of the color of her skin. She discusses the effect of prejudice on a small child's ego, and how the mother was "saying words of kindness in the hopes of restoring to the child a sense of her goodness. But I also thought of how different it would be if she had help. What if she had all of us doing this with her, reminding her daughter of her beauty? How different this girl's life would be." She concludes the story by saying that this is how we help God out: "by telling one another in words and in touch that we are lovely and whole and worthy of blessing."

In "Hiding Places," Roy writes about the pain of miscarriage, and her own experiences of having three miscarriages...of which the cause was never determined. Then after letting go of their dream of having another child, suddenly she became pregnant again. In our case, my four miscarriages occurred between our oldest and middle child, and as much as we wanted another child, it was so heart-achingly painful to keep trying. Then finally, it worked--and I had Kieran, my middle son. Roy talks about people's tendency to hide away their pain and grief, deepening their sense of isolation, but "It is only when we have the courage to open the door to the hidden parts of our lives that our suffering can be transformed into wisdom and compassion." This I know is true. Without grieving for each baby I had lost, I never would have been able to be happy in the world.

Another gem I found in this book is a ritual that Denise Roy has in her family. When a boy reaches the age of 13, he goes on a camping trip with other men in the family as a rite of passage. In her appendix, Roy shares some of the questions they discuss:

"Who are my heroes?
What is my philosophy of life?
What do I feel about work?
What gives meaning to my life?
What are the qualities of my mother I admire? Of my father?
What qualities do I value in a relationship?
What does intimacy mean?
What are my dreams for myself?
What does success mean for me?
What brings me joy?
For what, or whom, would I sacrifice my time, energy, health, or life?
What is my idea of power? What is the source of my power?
What are my gifts?
What do I fear?
What is sacred?
Who are my people?
How do I most enjoy life?"

This is the best thing I got out of this book: in a family full of male children, I want to start this ritual. My oldest son (and the oldest grandson) turns 16 this summer, and I've asked my husband, dad, and brother-in-law if they would be willing to take him on such a trip. I love the idea of rites of passage, and this could be a truly meaningful one. They might even take some drums! :)

I really enjoyed this book and it gave me a lot to think about...good reminders of finding the sacred in everyday life, not taking things for granted, and remembering that prayer and meditation comes in many forms.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson 

I found this book to be very was described as similar to "Little Miss Sunshine" (which I loved) or "The Royal Tenenbaums," which is why I read it. Now I realize it's several days I will never get back.

It's the story of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang, who spent their adult lives creating performance pieces that they called art. When they had children (Annie and Buster), they engaged the kids in their offbeat, wild performances.

As Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B) grow up, they are completely screwed up, incapable of forming meaningful, trusting relationships or appreciating anything they have in their lives. When their careers go south and Buster gets shot in the face with a potato gun, they return home to Tennessee to their crazy mom and dad.

Soon Caleb and Camille go missing, and Annie and Buster have the sneaking suspicion that this is all an act and part of their parents' "art." The saddest part about this story is that these dysfunctional parents believe that art trumps everything else, even family and even love. 

It was a clever debut novel (Wilson was mentored by Ann Patchett), but just not my cup of tea.  

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, by Peggy Orenstein

I loved Peggy Orenstein's Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother, so as soon as I heard about this book, I knew I would read it. Even though I do not have daughters, I am greatly concerned about the heightened stereotypes both genders face while they are growing up.

I must admit that I enjoyed playing dress-up with my sister and friends when I was a child. We had a dress-up trunk with cast-off long dresses with full skirts, and we made up a game where we imagined we were princesses with the power to do magic when we waved our antique hankerchiefs. But nowadays girls do not need to improvise: with the accessibility of inexpensive toys, most young girls have far more pink princess items than anyone would have dreamed of when I was a girl. In fact, anyone with a girl must feel like pink princesses are exploding all over. I actually have an active dislike of the color pink for this reason.

Orenstein, whose writing style reminds me a bit of Anne Lamott, begins by telling us how she really did not expect or want a daughter...she wanted a son. I could relate in a way, because in my case, I always thought I would have a daughter. Of course, Mike often teased me that if I were to have a daughter, I'd be force-feeding her copies of Ms. while she hid her Seventeen and Glamour mags under her mattress. He's probably right. I'd probably have had a prissy princess and would have been dumbstruck.

Orenstein decided to write this book when, to her horror, her own daughter became princess obsessed. What harm does a little pink princess love do? Well, "according to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture's emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls' vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior." We've all read the studies showing how many young girls are overly concerned with their weight and their appearance and how that affects their self-esteem. Orenstein struggled to see these risks in her own capable, self-confident daughter, but study after study show that "girls can be derailed by stereotypes."

I learned why it seemed that Disney princesses began popping up everywhere I looked: they were created by a Disney executive who attended a "Disney on Ice" show and saw all the little girls in their cheap, handmade Disney princess costume. Eureka: a marketing extravaganza is born!

She looks at the transformation of Barbie, who in the beginning not only had unrealistic proportions but also was a career woman, into the cute, princess Barbie she has become today.
"The astronauts, surgeons, and presidents of her glory days have been largely replaced by fairies, butterflies, ballerinas, mermaids, and princesses whose wardrobes are almost exclusively pink and lavender...Original Barbie would have been appalled: her palette was never so narrow--even her tutu was silver lame."
Now girls can choose from pink ouija boards, pink cell phones, pink laptops, Monopoly Pink Boutique edition, Pink Yahtzee, and ad nauseum. When Orenstein visits a toy fair, she is told that pink is the way to sell toys. How many girls do you know who do not profess to have pink as their favorite color (and are brave enough to admit it)?

Orenstein shares many of her internal battles, such as how to handle her daughter Daisy's request for a blue Fairytopia Barbie or a pink gun. She is noncommittal about the gun (leaning toward purchasing it) until discussing it with her husband, who reminds her, "No war toys." She visits the American Girl palace, but sans Daisy, trying to postpone her daughter's immersion in the need for expensive, unnecessary doll toys that are completely inaccessible to anyone without scads of money.

She explores the history of fairy tales (actually reading the original ones unedited to her daughter) and decides she doesn't like the modern version of some of those fairy tales much better. For example, she doesn't like The Paper Bag Princess (a story I rather like) because the prince rejects the princess for wearing a paper bag. She doesn't like the end (in fact compares it to "Thelma & Louise"), in which the princess dumps the prince and skips off into the sunset. Is that such a bad thing, teaching our daughters that they don't have to have a man to be happy? Sometimes I think she's being a bit too picky. She realizes, when she shares some stories from Free to Be You and Me that she's actually introducing some stereotypes to her daughter rather than teaching her lessons (for example, her daughter asks her what the word "sissy" means). I think it's good for children to be aware of how people do have the tendency to stereotype, but I understand her concern.

Then she takes on Twilight, and you all know what I think about Twilight (if you don't, read all about my opinions here). "Compared with Stephenie Meyer, the Grimms come off like Andrea Dworkin." Good line. "It is Bella, not the supernaturals she falls in love with, who is the true horror show here, at least as a female role model. She lives solely for her man; when he leaves her in New Moon...she is willing to die for him as well...Oh yeah, I want my daughter to be that girl." And that, my friends, is also why you will not find this voracious reader diving into 50 Shades of Grey, which started out as Twilight fan fiction! No thank you.

Orenstein also explores the trajectories of various girl celebrities--Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, etc.--and their bizarre virgin/whore dances. Later she discusses the Scholastic Publishers' tendency to publish books full of sexist stereotypes, which I recently wrote about in my other blog.

Similar to The Mama Boy's Myth, this is an important book about what we are exposing our girls to and the risks they face by being pressured to be princesses instead of heroes. Yes, they all grow out of the princess phase, but what fallout remains as they move into adolescence?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

Louis Zamperini with his brother Pete
My sister and husband both read Unbroken for their respective book groups and loved it. I was looking forward to diving in, and it did not disappoint.

Unbroken is the true story of Louis Zamperini, destined to be the world's fastest miler. He spent his childhood getting into one scrape after another and seemed destined to be a failure until he discovered running. He participated in the 1936 Olympics (presided over by Hitler) but would be in his prime at the 1940 and 1944 Olympics. Sadly, the 1940 Games were cancelled, and he was otherwise occupied in 1944.
The photo that made me cry!
Zamperini greeting his mother
after returning from the war

When World War II broke out, Zamperini enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was stationed in Hawaii. While flying in a plane over the Pacific to rescue another plane that had not returned from a mission, Zamperini and his crewmates crash-landed in the ocean. Amazingly, he and the two other survivors floated on a life raft for 47 days--drinking rain water, eating raw fish and birds they caught with their hands, and telling stories to keep themselves sanee--before drifting to one of the Marshall islands, where they were captured by the Japanese.

This is nonfiction at its best: I learned about running, life in the army during World War II (and how many planes went down when they were not in combat), and survival in a brutal Japanese POW camp. Heavy on narrative and light on dialogue, the book drags for some readers (especially during the descriptions of the airplanes and combat flights), but I found the book to be completely gripping.

When Zamperini returns to the U.S., he suffers from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder, which in those days was not talked about much less treated.

Of course, the most fascinating thing about the book is knowing that it's a true story and Louis Zamperini survived what seemed humanly impossible to endure...first while being lost at sea without food or water, somehow missing the circling and lunging sharks, and then while enduring brutal, horrific treatment at the hands of the Japanese guards, who believed it was shameful to be a POW and so took out their scorn in violent, inhumane ways.

After living in Japan and being welcomed by the Japanese people, it's hard to read about the brutality during the war. But Zamperini was able to forgive his Japanese captors and eventually returned to Japan, once to see his guards and extend an olive branch, and again to carry the torch at the Nagano Olympics.

Zamperini is in fact still alive and kicking, at age 95. Here is a short video about Zamperini:

Go read this book!! It will make you look at your life in new ways and stop you from taking things for granted.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The 100 Thing Challenge

The 100 Thing Challenge, by Dave Bruno
I picked this up at the Garden Home Library because it looked appealing, but it was a huge let down. I knew the book would be disappointing when I got to the page where he began talking about the "doll plan" he and his wife had for both of their daughters. I literally laughed out loud. A "doll plan" for someone who espouses simple living? He then went on ad nauseum about how fabulous American Girl dolls are...before then asking his young daughters to downsize their doll collection, and then realizing that this project was about him and not about his family.

Bruno developed this book based on his blog, and he really did not have enough content for a book. In a word: BORING. I also found it truly bizarre that he got rid of so many things only to replace them with more expensive things (e.g., jackets). He had bizarre rules such as counting all of his books as one item (library) yet counting separately three bibles. What is with that? And why would you keep three bibles if you could only have 100 things?

Technically, he didn't really have 100 things, because he didn't count everything he shared with his wife or family.

In short, what might have been an interesting experiment was just a really boring book with not very good writing and a lot of brand names thrown in. The man has a huge love of brand names, such as Patagonia. I finally gave up before finishing the book.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Glow, by Jessica Maria Tuccelli

This is a tough book to review. I found the writing to be absolutely exquisite. At first, I thought this would be a four- or five-star book for sure. The story starts with Ella McGee, daughter of NAACP activist Amelia McGee, who is put on a bus down south to Georgia in 1941. Unfortunately, the bus breaks down and she is left stranded--and soon beat up by two strangers--on the side of the road. She's rescued by former slave Willie Mae Cotton and her partner, Mary-Mary Freeborn. Starts on an intriguing note, right?

Ella is part Cherokee and part African-American. The book description promises that it traverses Ella's family history. It does indeed do that, in the form of beautiful individual stories of various people closely or distantly related to her or Willie Mae. Tuccelli deftly tells each story in a distinctly different voice based on her character. The descriptions and language were colorful and vivid.
Mother love is a strong theme throughout the book.

Where the book fell short for me, though, was that it never adequately circled back to Amelia and Ella. Rather it was almost a book of interwoven short stories...and I'm no fan of short stories in general.

I loved so much about this book, but I wanted more out of it, and it fell short of what I was expecting it to be.