My top books of 2012

Since 2012 is winding down very quickly, I thought I would jump on the bandwagon of “top of the year” lists with my top reads this year. Most are books that were also published this year. I’m not making it a top 10, just a top whatever. (I don’t want to give a couple of extra books kudos they don’t necessarily deserve just to make it an even 10. So there!)

So here goes:

  1. outlanderThe Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. (This is actually the only entry on this list that wasn’t published this year.) Another blogger mentioned these books, and I decided to try them out. I got hooked just as thoroughly as many other readers. Normally, I would say they’re too long and full of far too much detail, but the characters and the interesting premise kept me reading. I read four, dying to know what would happen next, and then did get slowed down in the fifth, (finally coming to a point that I felt I knew enough about what had happened to them) so I’ve put it aside in favor of other books. The only downside is the sex: there’s a lot and it’s described in a lot of detail.¬†
  2. Goodbye for Now, by Laurie Frankel. I just read this book and found it utterly charming and funny at turns and at other times sweetly poignant and heartbreaking. Frankel describes so perfectly how it feels to lose someone you love dearly. She balances grief and new love all in one lovely book that made me both cry and laugh out loud. Plus, it has a very clever premise.
  3. EdenbrookeEdenbrooke, by Julianne Donaldson. The first in a new “series” of books called “proper romances,” this book takes readers into Regency England and brings it to life with a sweet, clean romance almost as well as Austen herself. A really fine work that aspires to grand heights of Jane-dom and doesn’t disappoint.
  4. The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton. I’ve become a Morton fan over the past few years she’s been writing her Gothic stories full of family secrets, and this newest novel just cemented my fanaticism. Always a pleasure.
  5. On the note of further books by authors I’ve come to appreciate is also the latest middle-grade book by Rebecca Stead, Liar & Spy. She was rightly awarded a Newbery for her fantastic book When You Reach Me (the plot revolves around A Wrinkle in Time: she got my attention right away), and this newest, though not so cleverly plotted, was still poignant in just the right dose and a charming read for young readers and adults alike.
  6. Then there are the books that came next in series that lived up to the hype of the previous books. First, there’s UnWholly, an unexpected sequel to Unwind, a YA book with an incredibly thought-provoking premise that was packed with action to boot. I’ve already written in detail about these books, so just click here to read that post.
  7. Pandemonium was a great sequel to Delirium, another YA dystopian series, in which society has decided that love is a disease that can be eradicated. I thought that the sequel was just as entertaining and interesting as the first book, perhaps even better. I am now chomping at the bit to read the conclusion.
  8. Clockwork-PrinceClockwork Prince was one of two new books this year by Cassandra Clare. It was the second in her Infernal Devices series, and I enjoyed it even more than the first in the series, and definitely more than the fifth book in her Mortal Instruments series, City of Lost Souls, which was really disappointing. I love her combination of hot romance, supernatural demon-fighters, and wit. I just wish someone had made her take some time to make City of Lost Souls better. I hope that the last in the Infernal Devices series doesn’t disappoint.

Christmas: Saturday Night versus Sunday morning live

I’m not a HUGE Christmas nut. I don’t start fantasizing about the holiday in July; I don’t listen to carols in October; I don’t decorate before Thanksgiving. (My husband’s the one chomping at the bit about those things before Thanksgiving rolls around.) But that doesn’t mean Christmas doesn’t mean something to me. I have good memories of the holiday growing up, involving family, gifts, and treats, among many other things. Especially, I like to remember the significance of why we celebrate: Christ. I’m a Christian, and I love the spiritual messages that remind me of Him during this season. At the same time, I have nothing against Santa and the commercial stuff that’s not exclusively centered on Christ. It’s fine to enjoy all the other trappings of the holiday, too.

I don’t even have a problem with people who aren’t Christian celebrating the holidays in general, all the trappings but not Christ. That’s fine.

martin shortBut I’ll draw the line at what I saw last night on TV: I happened to have the set on when Saturday Night Live came on, and it showed Martin Short hosting. That, I thought, was worth my time watching for a while to see what he would say and do. He’s done and said some very funny things in the past, so it was fun to see him again.

Honestly, though, he did almost nothing to make me laugh. He was straining. Then he mentioned that “a lot of babies are conceived at Christmas.” OK. Fine. But then, rather than moving on, he and the SNL cast turned that into a huge production number. The tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was turned into a crass and completely tasteless number about sex, and Short used lots and lots and lots of synonyms: lascivious, lusty, … well, I don’t really care to think about it anymore. But it went on for four or five minutes, probably. I kept thinking it would end quickly. It didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t turn off the TV sooner than I did. Perhaps it was like a train wreck.

I can’t express how tacky and tasteless and offensive it was. Sure, I expect there to be lots of that kind of thing on SNL. That’s part of why I haven’t watched it regularly since, well … ever. But to hijack Christmas, a day on which as a believer, I do try to remember the Savior of the world, well, I just found this one particularly bad.

It’s all been said before, so nothing I can say here will be new. I just hate to see it happen: the insensitivity of others who would call me intolerant if I were to express my views on subjects they wouldn’t agree with me about, but who have no problem taking a subject I consider deserving of some reverence and respect and just dashing it to pieces with, yes, blasphemy.

Needless to say, I didn’t watch any more of that show. I’m sure the SNL folks won’t care that they missed me. Yes, they have a right to do and sing and say everything they did, but was it right? Was it respectful? Was it tolerant? Me, I’m thinking no.

Contrast that “holiday” scene with the one I encountered today during our church service. Two young men sang, one played cello, a friend played her flute, and another woman played piano, coming together on a simply divine arrangement of “Away in a Manger.” For five minutes, I was entranced, transported, absolutely enchanted. The music truly focused on everything that’s best and most important about Christmas, and it was done so well and with such reverence and care. The feeling in the room was of rapt attention and holiness. I wanted it to go on and on. That was absolutely the spirit of Christmas, and I’ll keep it in my heart a good long while. The several minutes I was held captive (somehow) by Martin Short’s completely non-funny routine are minutes I’m trying to scrub from my memory.

I love to laugh, I love to feel reverence, I love to appreciate talent. Today gave me the opportunity for the second and third, and there will be some other wonderful opportunities in coming days with friends and family to experience the first. I am just sorry that SNL insulted me rather than allowing me to laugh.

Here’s to all the wonderful gifts of the season.

Building bridges to others’ islands

bridgeStill thinking about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. Not just for itself, but for all the implications of the tragedy and what our society should take away from it to improve. I’ve also had some family issues that have played into this topic that have weighed on my mind quite heavily. Again, as I wrote about the other day, I am not going to go into issues of gun control versus unfettered gun availability. It’s an incredibly divisive topic and one that both can’t be solved (most likely) and can’t solve all the problems we’ve been seeing in our society.

Individuals’ mental health and happiness is what either makes our society better for everyone or, conversely, makes it more difficult for everyone, if it’s not tended carefully enough. I firmly believe that families are the central unit of society, and I don’t think that there would be too much argument with me when I say that the family is breaking down. We have many single-parent families and many children who simply are not getting the nurturing they need for a LOT of reasons. Families provide an automatic place of refuge and help when any member has a need of any kind. So what happens when families throughout society are broken? Many individuals have no one to go to for help. Fortunately, some have friends and other caring people in their lives who can be a second line of “defense,” but many others do not have that. What’s left is either no one or the government. Neither is an adequate source of complete help. As much as we try to shore up and improve government programs, they simply cannot replace or do as good a job as families, in most cases.

Yeah, yeah, I’m being an idealist here. But what’s wrong with trying to reach for the best, with trying to get our society back to a place where it truly could make people better and happier? Why can’t we improve those lines of defense and help, and shore up families? It would help so much more than anything stopgap we could create through government (and no, I am NOT saying there should be no government programs; I am saying they cannot replace the ideal).

The truth of the matter is that each of us needs a group of people who care for us and about us and who can be depended on in times of need. Sadly (and please, if you are my friends or family, do not take this as an indictment or rebuke but maybe just a little hint of encouragement), there have been times I’ve felt alone and misunderstood, particularly when I’ve been in my worst places mental-health-wise. I know that it can be difficult to understand and really help me at those times, but it’s still worth a try. (I think I’m worth it! ūüôā ) I so appreciate family members and close friends who have reached out at those times to just talk, listen, or do something encouraging and supportive. Every little gesture means a lot.

I suppose that’s why I feel so sensitive to those around me. I can just feel their pain and loneliness and helplessness sometimes, and I want to be able to help. Sometimes I can do something useful; other times I can’t. But I try and I pray.

Each of us needs help, and those in our circles need help, at one time or another. The people who have done the most heinous crimes in society (particularly who have histories of mental illness that’s unchecked/untreated) have needed someone to pay attention and do something. As I wrote before, sometimes even with our best help, because of society’s lack of understanding of mental illness and the current regulations and laws that are in place, the family members and friends of those who are struggling simply have their hands tied and can’t do a darn thing. But in other cases, something could change if a few more people just listened and saw a few signs.

No man is an island. No child, no woman. We’re all connected, and while we can’t possibly help everyone out there (I’ve written about that too!), we can each do a little better to pay attention and be sensitive. We can’t solve others’ problems, but we can provide an idea or two if appropriate or we can simply listen or say something kind or encouraging. We can reach out. Build a bridge to someone else’s island.

That can begin in our families. No doubt that if we are related somehow, we should be there for a family member in need, if at all possible. And those in our other circles can benefit from our improved “radar.”

Just do a little better. Keep your eyes open and your ears listening a bit more. Say something, do something. It’ll benefit our whole society.

Yes, guns are an issue in shootings, but what about mental health?

After a horrific mass shooting that took the lives of primarily young children, many people’s thoughts turned to the inevitable questions of “why” and “how.” I also noticed, unsurprisingly, many people discussing in social media and analysts addressing on news outlets the issue of gun control. I’ll save my opinions on that topic and address what actually came to my mind immediately after or right before the gun issue: mental health in America.

I read a fine article by a psychiatrist on CNN that was written after school shootings in Ohio, and he made some fine points about major mental illness and how it is handled here in the U.S. He briefly alluded to the changes that occurred in mental health care in the past decades. Basically, people with serious issues were once confined for life to institutions, usually far from home and their families. In trying to change this system, many of these institutions were closed and their inmates sent home for treatment. While this was certainly a more compassionate and family-centered way of helping, it created many holes in the care of those with serious problems.

I want to tread carefully here. As with so many other issues, this is a complex one, with many facets that need to be considered and weighed. I suppose I should backtrack a bit and talk about why mental illness came to mind after these latest shootings: honestly, with most of these events, it is discovered during investigation that the shooter had major problems. Often, these mental problems were insufficiently addressed. I do believe that evil exists and that crimes are committed by evil people and those who are extremely selfish to the point of disregard for others’ lives. But I also have seen in the news just how often these kinds of horrific crimes are committed by people who have major mental illnesses. This isn’t to say that mental illness can’t overlap with evil, but people with mental illness can do some horrible things while basically not in possession of their “right minds.” This is why we have an “insanity defense” in our legal system, and for good reason. Those who truly experience times they are essentially just not themselves or their minds are completely not their own, once treated with medication and therapy, can experience horrible grief and remorse at what they did while under that “alternate influence,” one could say. My heart goes out to not just their victims but themselves because of what they have to live with.

Our society is still not nearly where it could be in not just treating and caring for the mentally ill, but in just understanding it and accepting it as another illness that some encounter in the course of life. I’ve often said it would be a lot easier for others to understand what I go through if I just had diabetes or cancer or something more “straightforward” or strictly “physiological,” rather than something that affects the mind. Too many people simply don’t appreciate what it’s like to experience mental issues, and too many just write them off as something kind of made-up or “all in our head” (that one’s a bit ironic). That creates a society in which those with mental illness don’t really care to admit to themselves that they have problems that could improve with proper treatment, and in which there just isn’t enough support and help for them among the general population and in health care or other parts of society. All too often, those with mental illness fall through the cracks, even more than those with other more “understandable” illnesses (heart disease, diabetes, what have you) don’t get sufficient treatment if they can’t afford it, etc.

I don’t want to see our country go back to institutionalizing everyone with major mental issues far away from society, away from their families and support systems. But I am positive that we need more real help locally, and more firm but compassionate laws that would help those who might be a danger to themselves or others. It just seems that so many who commit crimes that become publicized were schizophrenic or bipolar and weren’t taking medication at the time of the crime. And yes, in these diseases, even those who are receiving care tend to want to quit taking their meds. I hate to say that we should force medication on these people, but sometimes that seems to be one of the best ways to prevent these kinds of crimes. How we do that or at least make tighter regulations on this is, yes, complex and needs to be carefully considered and applied.

My church congregation experienced our own violent crime a mere two years ago, in which a man came into our church building after services and ended up shooting and killing our bishop. It was a horrific tragedy, and one that again showed that these kinds of things can happen anywhere, even safe places like schools and churches. We were all comforted by our faith and pulled together in this event, but it left its mark. And yes, the shooter ended up forcing a confrontation with the police in which he was killed by them, and I’m fairly confident that was his aim, to end up dead. And yes, he had mental illness for which he wasn’t taking medication at the time.

We don’t yet know if this latest mass shooting was tied to a shooter with mental illness. But I’m willing to bet it will be. And while we can rightly discuss gun control, we as a society and government would be very misguided to skip over a well-needed discussion about mental illness in America. This protester may have been addressing guns, but let’s please, please, please apply this to mental illness as well. The fate of more people hangs in the balance.

sandy hook shooting


Finding the right gift can be so fun

Well, here it is the holiday season, and I’ve been working hard to get my shopping done a couple weeks before Christmas so I can maybe sit and breathe and just enjoy the actual holiday. With four kids and a bunch of interests and projects, I’m always busy, so the holidays can really turbo-charge my busy-ness. I’ve found myself going to bed at 9:00 at night several times because my days have worn me out so thoroughly.

Now THAT's the kind of face I like to see when I give a gift.
Now THAT’s the kind of face I like to see when I give a gift.

Even though the selecting and buying/preparation of gifts can be exhausting, particularly when it’s so many all at once, I still find myself reflecting on how much fun it is to find just the right ones. It’s so satisfying to know someone well enough to match them with a cool present that will make him or her smile. Even better is if that gift becomes something they talk about for months or years to come.

I was thinking about the year I sent a pregnant friend a box of Omaha steaks. We’d been talking about how she was at that point of the pregnancy where she was just wanting meat. I’d been there myself, so I knew that right around the midway point, I always wanted steak. Meat, meat, meat. I guess that is also when the baby’s brain is really growing, so it probably needs lots of protein. So I craved steak. I thought it would just be fun to ship her a box of meat. Sure enough, even her family remembered it for ages. One sister told me some years later that she thought it was a great idea. And how often does someone get a box of meat in the mail?

My dad was generally very enthusiastic about the gifts I got him. He got into a smoothie groove one year, so I sent him a ¬†personal smoothie maker. He loved it. When he died and I had to clear out his apartment, his freezer was still stocked with smoothie ingredients: sherbet and yogurt and frozen fruit. I brought the little smoothie maker home and now use it myself. It makes me smile to think about Dad and his smoothies. Another time, I got him a peanut butter maker. I happened to run across it in a kitchen store, and knowing Dad’s dedication to natural peanut butter, I snatched that right up and gave it to him for Father’s Day. He ran that thing ragged, making a lot more peanut butter than that gadget was probably designed for. Over the course of a few years, he got great mileage out of it until it died. We were both very sad I couldn’t find another one by that point.

One young friend who enjoyed my fresh waffles received a waffle iron for a wedding gift, along with my recipes for waffles. He tells me now that he and his wife are now famous for making waffles for young missionaries they have over for dinner, just as we fed him when he was a missionary for our church. It’s really satisfying to know that a tradition we started now has carried over into another family.

My oldest daughter decorated this wrapping paper herself. That was even cooler than the gift inside!
My oldest daughter decorated this wrapping paper herself. That was even cooler than the gift inside!

Of course, it’s also a nice thing to give people gifts that aren’t necessarily things, but services. If someone never has time to cook, make them some homemade meals that freeze easily and can be popped in the oven. I am a fan of baking homemade bread or cookies because a lot of people don’t bake anymore. I just invest in a lot of flour, sugar, and butter. Or if a friend is particularly busy (or pregnant), give a gift of a month of maid service. Just be sure to remind them not to feel compelled to clean their house before the maid comes over.

I’ve kept a file on my computer with a list of all the Christmas gifts I’ve given family members over the years. It lets me ensure I don’t repeat years, and it just helps me keep track of what ideas I’ve come up with in the past and even can help spark new ideas. The Word document I’m using now has gifts all the way back to 2002.¬†This year, I think I’ve come up with some really neat, personalized gifts, some of which I’ve made myself, but I can’t yet write what they are because my recipients might read this!

I just love gift-giving occasions. Christmas can be overwhelming with the sheer number of items and people to shop for, so I particularly enjoy birthdays and other celebrations like weddings or baby showers. (Now that my girls are getting big, it’s really fun to buy tiny little clothes and other items for someone else’s babies.)

Yep, giving can be lots more fun than receiving. (But it is nice to get a really great gift sometimes, too, particularly from my husband.)

Live life like a potluck

Photo courtesy of Google Images
Photo courtesy of Google Images

Most people have probably at one time or another been to a potluck: a delicious event in which there are tables full of food brought by all the participants. The variety of gustatory pleasures can be almost overwhelming. If done right, there’s plenty for everyone. The basic rule is this: bring enough for yourself (or your family/group) and a few more.

What a great rule! Lots of people can eat as long as pretty much everyone who comes brings just a little more than they need. This can take care of those who can’t bring something for one reason or another.

What if everyone lived life by this philosophy? Take care of yourself and your immediate family and then reach out to help just a few others. Watch out for them and their needs; check in on them regularly, be friends, make sure they have food and shelter and someone to lean on. I’ve already written about how it can be overwhelming to think about all the needy “out there” and how it’s simply not possible to help them all. But it is possible to just help one at a time, starfish-style. I’ve also written about my church’s home- and visiting-teaching programs, in which pairs of people are assigned to take care of a few others. It’s just a few. When ‘most everyone steps in and takes a list of people to help, everyone has an automatic pair of friends to turn to when some need arises, whether it’s more “practical” or just a listening ear. It’s a simple but beautiful system.

I’m not discounting the work of a lot of great organizations in the world that help those who are needy in one way or another, but life would certainly be happier and more comfortable for everyone if all who were able did their share plus just a little bit more. Yes, let’s all adopt the potluck philosophy.

The Victoria’s Secret people have fallen to a new low

Given my views on our society and the feminine “ideal,” it should be fairly clear at this point what I think about Victoria’s Secret. The whole way that brand markets its products just makes me shake a little with indignation. I haven’t set foot in one of those stores in years. I just won’t support that company with my dollars. And let’s be clear: the “fashion show” that VS puts on on television once a year is just soft porn that’s received a stamp of cultural acceptability.

Victoria's SecretBut here’s the thing: the show is now being marketed to families. Yes, somehow this spectacle of impossibly thin, tall models with unnaturally large breasts who are showcased in sexy bras and angel wings (really?) is now somehow becoming a family event. Wha?¬†Even though most rational people would not consider this family entertainment, it’s hard to ignore how the show is being packaged and advertised. The runway models wearing itty-bitty push-up bras and panties adorned with bling galore (can someone say Bedazzler?) are being accompanied by musical entertainment. This year, it’s Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars. Just who is Justin Bieber’s audience? Teen and tween girls. And Rihanna’s? Same. The producers are clearly aiming to snag the eyes of young girls and prepubescent boys, not just the obvious men of all ages and teen boys.

Is anyone else outraged by this? It’s bad enough that men are going to watch this “acceptable” porn on network television and just reinforce the feminine body ideal. And it’s bad enough that women are going to see it as well and have yet another opportunity to compare themselves unfavorably to what’s honestly a runway full of genetic aberrations. Now, young girls and boys are being indoctrinated into the religion that worships the female body ideal as well.

Just turn off the TV or switch the channel.