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Archive for January, 2014

It’s no secret I adore reading. I’ve been a book reviewer for a solid 15 years, for newspapers and, more recently, a book-review publication that has done print and e-versions. For a long time, I kept up a membership in the National Book Critics Circle. A few years ago, I just stopped sending in yearly membership checks; I intended to get around to it but never did. Oh well. But in all honesty, I don’t see myself as a critic. I’m just a reviewer.

Here’s the thing: I don’t read a ton of literary fiction. For those of you who aren’t really aware of the distinction among different genres, there’s “literary fiction” and there’s “popular fiction,” among other things. To put it simply, the literary version of fiction is highbrow. It’s what you’d read and dissect in an English 353 college class. It has Meaning. Popular fiction is fun and far more accessible.

Now, literary fiction can be fun, and pop fiction can have plenty of discuss-able elements. But I’m just keeping it simple here. And honestly, I often do not get the literary stuff. I’ll say it straight-up. I consider myself an intelligent person, one who enjoys dissecting and discussing. But when a book I’m reading requires heavy concentration and a professor to help me figure out what it’s supposed to be About, then I’m inclined to chuck it.

So while I do skim through the New York Times Book Review, I don’t read a lot of the books featured in its lofty pages. I don’t typically read many Nobel winners, either. Pulitzers, sometimes. What I do end up reading are the Newbery and Caldecott winners, though. I find those wonderful library awards to be right up my alley. The books honored are targeted at young readers, and they can be absolutely charming, insightful, and even Meaningful. But they’re still absolutely accessible. So I sit up and pay attention when those are announced, as they were today.

Nah, I’m not a snobby reader. I guess I’m just a middle-of-the-road reviewer. Yes, I have standards: if you’ve read my other book posts, you’ll know I do not like certain churn-’em-out writers, and I am still mostly wary of self-pubs. I like to feast my eyes and mind on books that give me something to consider, to ponder, to chew on. I like to be transported. I love to sink my mental teeth into some delicious metaphors and beautifully arranged words that describe a feeling or an experience to a T. I can be pretty picky. But I am not a Literature reader or critic.

I think, though, that’s a good thing, because most other readers aren’t, either. (Literature fans will likely bemoan the sorry state of the reading populace, but bah humbug on them.) What I can do as a mostly middle-of-the-road reader and reviewer who has standards is present some wonderful reading options (and with content ratings on my Rated Reads site, as an added bonus) that will satisfy most other middle-of-the-road readers with similar standards. As with anything, it’s always handy to find like-minded people when you’re looking for a recommendation, whether it’s for books, movies, TV or restaurants. I’m happy to offer up my mind to those who like it. Here’s to us non-critics.

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The Gilbert Arizona Temple, photo courtesy of lds.org

The Gilbert Arizona Temple, photo courtesy of lds.org

I just came across this brief article about a Jewish rabbi visiting a newly built temple of my faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “What I learned from visiting the new Mormon temple.” I am always interested to hear what others think about visiting our sacred sites, and I enjoy discussion and interaction with other people of faith, regardless of their doctrines or denominations. I heartily agree that we can all learn from each other, which is hardly a revelation, but a simple but important reminder. What struck me tonight was this sentence from his article: “My Jewish beliefs are strongly built on the Jewish idea of covenant (humans as partners with God) and Israel (humans wrestling with God).”

This really encapsulates what I’ve been experiencing myself, today alone, and the past weeks. I’ve been going back and forth, sometimes within minutes or hours, between the partnering with God and the wrestling with God. I have moments of clarity, of Spirit, of confidence that I can keep moving forward, of just-enough-hope, and then moments of frustration, anger, sadness, fear, and not-enough-hope. I’m seesawing.

I am all too aware of my firm belief that we lived as spirit beings with God before coming to this life. We knew we were coming here, and it was part of a plan for us to grow from spiritual toddlers to at least spiritual adolescents (that last bit is my little twist). I believe that I accepted and understood, at least in some measure, that life would be challenging, most of the time. But for some reason, right now, with whatever mixture of things that are working on me (a series of particularly challenging events, my particular chemical balances or imbalances, my background, my expectations, my hopes for my own future and those of my children …), I’m finding it difficult to feel consistently optimistic about my ability to just keep up, to keep pushing forward, “enduring to the end,” as scripture puts it. I’m wondering just how much faith I had in myself back in that time I can’t remember right now, when I was eager to come to this life, even knowing some degree of how difficult it would be. The question always is: how much did I really know then? How could I really know without having experienced it yet?

I’m really digging down deep to try to change some ingrained mental habits, and they’re fighting back hard. I know that my faith is both getting me through/should be getting me through. I’m trying to figure out how to truly rely on God at a level I most surely have not yet attained. I am all too aware that I’m trying to do too much on my own without being yoked with the Savior. But getting from point A, where I am, to point B, where I know I could/should be, is a bit of a mystery to me at this very moment.

My spirit soars when I experience those moments of covenant, of successfully partnering with God to do something good, to serve and uplift someone else, to create, to make something or someone better. But I’m still struggling mightily. I’m coming to appreciate more fully the concept of wrestling.

So this evening, I thank this good rabbi for his simple words. He probably had no idea what sharing a brief blurb about his beliefs would do for my thinking. I’m still going to be wrestling for a while, but it’s a mitzvah to have new insights.

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Thanks to the magic of WordPress, I just found out (a couple of weeks into the party) about the 2014 Blog for Mental Health. How nifty! I began this blog nearly two years ago because I wanted to share my own experiences with mental health, among other things. I’m happy to see others speaking out about their own experiences with quirks of the mind, or with those of loved ones.

Yes, there is most certainly a stigma surrounding the topic of mental health/mental illness. Our culture is making progress but we still have a long way to go. If someone were to “go public” with their diagnosis of cancer or diabetes, for instance, pretty much everyone else around them would know what it meant, how it was going to affect the person, and maybe even how to be of support. But use the same scenario but with the diagnosis one of a mental illness, then far fewer people would know what that diagnosis entailed, how it was affecting the person, or how to be of support.

I will concede that mental health is a little trickier to diagnose or pin down with such clarity or certainty as other physical diseases or conditions. But that does not mean it doesn’t exist or that it’s a person’s “fault” or some sign of weakness. There are still many people, even in 2014, an age where we have pretty much eradicated polio and can easily and cheaply treat other diseases that used to decimate communities, who consider mental illness either “all in someone’s head” or something that could easily be defeated if someone just tried hard enough. That’s simply not OK. Too many people are suffering without proper help because of too much misunderstanding and not enough support. I admit that I feel a tad nervous sharing what I experience (despite my being a fairly outspoken person) because I know what others’ misconceptions can be, and life is tough enough already, folks.

So I say, Kudos to the people at A Canvas of the Minds who began this project two years ago. I repeat the words they share from the founder: “I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  

Blog for Mental Health 2014 badge

 

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The past months have just seemed nonstop stressful (well, to be completely honest and accurate, they’ve been nearly-nonstop stressful; I’ve had a few days here and there that weren’t). With the holidays and some big projects wrapped up, I now stand at the beginning of a new year.

While I’m not striving for a “new year, new me” (I cringe every time I see that in any media source the first few weeks of any January), I really have been searching within to figure out what I can do a bit better for myself, so I can feel less stressed even as life is most definitely going to continue to be hectic. After all, I’m launching an adult into the world in mere months, to provide just one example of the life experiences I’m going through. (Giving birth is a big job and one that launches a new person into the world after nine months of gestation; at this stage, I’ve been actively parenting for 18 years to make sure this person can be a full-fledged independent being. It’s exhilarating and all of a sudden terrifying.)

I’ve noted, not for the first time, that I compare myself, my strengths, weaknesses, abilities, energies, visible-to-others “products” (children, writing and editing projects, volunteering efforts), etc., to those of others all the time. Social media is a blessing in many ways, connecting me at least in small part with far-flung friends who bring various gifts into my life, but it can also be a nasty tool for comparison. Day in and day out, I see photos of friends my age who still have the same figure (at least what I can see) they had 20 years ago; I see perfect family portraits; I see kids of these friends who are doing unbelievably impressive things in music or sports. It’s easy to look askance at my own figure, which is now no longer the one I had even a decade ago; to briefly (and, honestly, selfishly) wish I’d put my kids in more activities and lessons so they could do more with their own talents; to wonder why I cannot get just four kids to smile normally all at the same time.

Even worse, I compare my current self, at age 43 years and 8 months, to the self I was (or at least imagined I was, which might be more accurate) a decade or two ago. This body is 50 pounds heavier than it was at those times, when I wore a size-6 dress and had a great figure and pretty, shapely calves. To be honest, my habits aren’t much different. I have exercised an hour every day for 20 years. I have generally eaten healthy. But I now struggle mightily with my weight. (I emotionally eat and always have, and at times it’s worse than others, but it hits me harder now.)

In examining myself, I feel weak, impatient, tired, not nearly as capable as I used to be. I almost felt I had the parenting thing down somewhere in the middle of this 18-year mothering journey I’ve been on so far: I had fewer worries for my girls and felt I’d hit my stride. Now that they’re older and the stakes feel higher somehow, it’s a whole new world and I once again feel inadequate more than I’d like.

I mostly pinpointed maybe 10 years ago the kinds of mental challenges that are my particular “cross to bear” and have been on medication pretty much ever since, have consistently gone to counseling, have tried to stay aware of where I am so I can stay or get balanced. But even with the awareness, the knowing, I am honestly terrible at balancing out my capacity to give and do with what I think I need to do and be. My mental mouth is always bigger than my emotional stomach: I put so much on my plate and live to regret it. (I either metaphorically stuff myself or throw the plate against the wall…)

I guess I feel frustrated with myself because I still somehow don’t get it yet. I don’t feel a whole heck of a lot different, stronger, wiser, than I did when I was younger. I’m just older and tireder and flabbier.

I see people around me who have double the number of kids I do. I see peers who have experienced the death of a child or a spouse, who have gone through cancer, who have what I’d term other real crises or catastrophic events. One part of me thinks when considering those things, “I should feel more appreciative of what I have” (and I really am appreciative and grateful), and another part speaks up: “I can barely handle the challenges I have, and they don’t seem nearly as ‘big’ or ‘bad’ as those others’ challenges. Man, I’m a mess if I fall apart at stupid little things.” I compare my trials to others’ trials and come up feeling inadequate! Now that’s pretty ridiculous.

So that’s where I’m at. At least part of me is an optimist, someone who’s very grateful and happy for all I have and get to experience in life. I readily smile; it truly is the natural and comfortable way for my facial muscles to arrange themselves. Even so, I can easily feel disappointed in myself for just not “getting it,” even after what should be plenty of opportunities to do so.

I guess the truth is that I really have grown stronger and more resilient as life has thrown me the same kinds of trials, just constantly tweaked, over and over. I just can’t tell. It’s not obvious. Maybe if I were able to put my current self back into what I thought was a difficult time 15 or 20 years ago, I’d sail right through without batting an eyelash. But life doesn’t usually give us that kind of opportunity. It keeps upping the ante, tightening the screws, adding on five pounds of weight to the stack as we lift.

Meantime, I keep lifting. I will also keep working on rewording my thoughts and inner instantaneous reactions so I don’t compare my right-now self to my earlier self or anyone else. I suspect I won’t be completely successful in this life, but I’ll edge ever so closer.

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As I pulled the peanut butter muffins from the oven the other night at 9 p.m., I thought, “Now, this is the kind of mom I am.”

Yes, I am that mom who bakes. I’m also the mom who cooks dinner every night. I “spoil” my family a bit by making them breakfast, too. Sometimes.

muffins

Yes, I bake. A lot. Muffins are a breakfast favorite.

But I don’t make breakfast every day, at least on school days. And I do NOT get up early so it can be fresh. No, if I feel like making breakfast on a school day for my husband and kids, I make it the night before so I can sleep in. Muffins will still be tasty but not hot from the oven, guys. Either you eat them cold, or you can have them warm if you give ’em 12 seconds in the microwave.

I’m the kind of mom who does things on my own schedule, at least when it’s possible.

I’m not the kind of mom who does everything I find on Pinterest. It’s fun to browse and get ideas for cool projects or decoration or holidays or … whatever. But I’m not fool enough to think I need to actually DO all that stuff. Honestly, I think Pinterest has just upped the ante yet another 10 notches on what seems to have become competitive parenting.

I am the kind of mom who reads to my kids, or has read to them for much of their young lives. I can’t help it; I love books. I have shelves and shelves of them. There are bookshelves in all the bedrooms, as well as the living room and office.

I’m not the kind who schleps my kids to all kinds of activities and lessons. Two of my girls take piano lessons. And that’s it on the scheduled stuff. My philosophy is the old-school one that holds that kids need plenty of free time to find their own way, be creative, play, figure things out on their own. Plus, I just don’t have the money to pay for gymnastics, dance, etc., and I don’t have time and energy to taxi them around nonstop after 3 p.m. They don’t play organized sports, either. I love to exercise, and I want them to be active, but I admit I’m personally not very good at sports. So, yeah, that’s kind of influenced my parenting. But my girls have plenty of opportunity to play and be active. We have a pool in the back yard, a swingset and slide, a basketball hoop, and other outdoor play stuff.

I’m a mama bear when I need to be. Some things that happen to my kids (at school, primarily) make me instantaneously morph into werebear. But the rest of the time, I try to let them figure things out themselves. I am not going to step in and take care of little details. I don’t have time and energy for that, and they need to learn. Simple as that.

I’m the kind of mom who still spends plenty of time reading. If dinner’s half an hour later than our “usual” time sometimes, so be it. If I’m sitting at the computer writing or doing my freelance editing, they know they will not get a welcoming response if they ask me something that isn’t truly urgent. And it almost never is, believe me.

It’s difficult to have a “life of my own” (which is still a fluid concept, open for definition and tricky to pin down) with four daughters, from a high school senior down to a first-grader. But I certainly do try. If I don’t get some free time, some quiet time, some space to myself to regenerate and let my mind wander and my body rest, I am a prickly, mean mom. So for the happiness of everyone, I need that time to myself. Balancing the right amounts of that is, again, tricky. But they know that I need it and I know they feel the difference in the atmosphere when I haven’t had “me” time.

I’m that kind of mom. I nearly wear myself out for my family much of the time. I’d do whatever is necessary to do what’s best for them. I absolutely ADORE my girls. I am in awe of them. They are beautiful inside and out and amazing and talented and funny and sweet.

But I’m the kind of mom who will never say “my children are my life.”

Right now, of necessity for their well being, their needs take up much of my time and energy, but I am still ME and have a SELF that’s not defined by being their mom. I have a life, and my children are a big part of it. I love that. I chose that. It’s seriously hard work. But I’m the kind of mom who values my individuality and still has goals that don’t directly involve my kids.

Yep, I’m all kinds of things. On some fronts, I’m the kind of mom who “does it all.” On others, I might seem to do too little. But I’m a great kind of mom.

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So it’s time to jump on that bandwagon and share what I enjoyed the most in 2013. Of course, since I didn’t read all the new and hyped books of the year, I can only include my opinions on what I did read, but I think it’s a pretty good list nonetheless. So let’s get right to it:

The best

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, by Chris Grabenstein. A friend who really knows her YA/middle-grade stuff loved this, so I thought I’d check it out for myself and my 11-year-old. I got it from the library, handed it over to my young book-devourer, then enjoyed it after she did. It’s everything you’d want from a book for young readers: fun, clever, kind of adventurous, and highly imaginative. It made me and my daughter both wish there was a real library as amazing as the one imagined by Grabenstein. Every town needs a Mr. Lemoncello with deep pockets and a desire to give back to the community via a well-appointed library.

Just One YearJust One Year, the follow-up to Just One Day, by Gayle Forman. Forman can do no wrong when it comes to young adult/new adult books. They are utterly real and honest, with characters who are just as real. The stories are moving and touching without cheaply playing on heartstrings. This latest pair of books focus first on the young woman who falls for a guy during a trip to Europe and the one day they have together, then the guy. We get each of their perspectives and see how they come together initially, but, more importantly, how they grow individually so they could stay together.

Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox. Knox proved she has solid writing talent with this first new book since her YA “duet” of Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. I can’t recommend her enough. The stories are mysterious and fascinating while delivering big on setting. Like Forman’s books, there is poignancy and sweetness without overdoing it. I gobbled them up. I wrote a whole post about Knox.

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. This British book was actually published earlier but hit it big this year through word of mouth in the U.S. — and rightly so. It’s a sweet story of two unlikely people falling for each other: a formerly successful businessman-turned-quadriplegic and the woman who’s hired to care for him and lift his spirits. It really tugs on the heartstrings and makes you think. Get a box of Kleenex ready.

Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. Here’s another that sparked lots of word of mouth, months before it was published. I was forced to wait to read it closer to its pub date, and let me say it was worth the wait. This was another story of unlikely love, this time between a man with Asperger’s and a girl who is definitely not the type of woman he’d expected to fall for. Clever, sweet, funny, insightful. I laughed, I read cute segments out loud to my daughter. When I feels the need to read passages out loud to family members, you know it’s good. Only drawback: a couple dozen f-words.

The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley. I ran across the gothic-y The Shadowy Horses on my library’s e-book website and gave it a try. Definitely enjoyed it. Then when I saw this new book would be following one character from that book later in life, I felt I must read it as well. After being caught up in the two parallel stories in this newest book for a very enjoyable 500 pages or so, I wished there was more. Luckily, Kearsley has plenty of other books for me to enjoy in the same genre, and I got extra-lucky a few days ago to get some e-copies for a special $1.99 on Amazon. Life is good. If you like clean gothic tales, Kearsley is a must-read. And read a bit more about her and other fave authors on this post.

Now for some nonfiction:

The World’s Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne. I laughed, I was fascinated, I learned. This memoir took me inside the head and life of a really cool and smart guy who happens to wrestle with Tourette syndrome. It was so interesting and entertaining that I introduced it to my book club, and it made for a great discussion. Read more on my post about it.

Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill. I already wrote a long post about this book on our health care system and what we deem to be “health insurance,” but what should be more precisely termed “health coverage.” In short, this book is what I think EVERYONE should read when talking about health care in the United States and the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. It might take a little concentration for some readers, but this is another I read out loud from a bunch and dog-eared and underlined a ton. Just a must-read.

The most disappointing:

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. I have seen this on a number of “best-of” lists this past couple of weeks and still am stymied as to why that is. I sometimes think that editors and critics jump on bandwagons just because everyone else seems to think the book “should be” good. I thought the premise of this book was fascinating but that its execution wasn’t so hot. It just didn’t seem to “mean” anything. If everyone supposedly loved it because the premise was great but thought they were the only ones who didn’t “get” the bigger meaning and didn’t want to admit it, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you’d like to read more about my disappointment with this book, look at my original post.

Bellman and BlackBellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield. Dang it, this was so disappointing. I guess it was almost inevitable. I count her first book, The Thirteenth Tale, as probably my favorite gothic book. So that’s a lot to have to live up to. But this second book just didn’t deliver any big twists or messages. It kind of just went along, told its story, and said goodbye. Ah, well. Maybe she can write a third somewhere down the road and redeem herself just a bit.

There you have it, folks. I’m eager to see what 2014 brings in the way of great new books. Happy reading.

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