Books

Books: Year of Wonders

I just posted a book review a few days ago, but I finished Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks over Memorial Day weekend and it was so amazing I could not wait to share. The book is nearly 20 years old, but I had not heard of it until recently when I was listening to an NPR interview with three authors who wrote fiction based on times of plague and pandemic. I was blown away by this book.

In the past month, I have tried to be more intentional about the amount of time I spend reading, watching, or listening to news of COVID-19. I seek to stay informed through reputable sources without falling down a rabbit hole of continual negative speculation. It is a difficult balance.

So it might seem strange that I chose to read this work of fiction, based on an English village in the 1660s, ravaged by the bubonic plague. However, it was just so interesting I could not put it down. There was just enough hope and gloriously written dialogue to keep the grim subject matter from becoming too much.

Brooks wrote Year of Wonders after hiking in rural England and coming upon an old sign that said “plague village.” She was intrigued and her research lead her to the true story of a small village not far from London, where villagers made a pact, lead by their local clergyman, to isolate in their village for a length of time to contain the plague. The characters were richly developed.

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(Image from amazon.com)

Anna, the main character, is modest, resourceful, and extremely hard-working. She undergoes epic hardship, yet still seeks to help others. The social aspect of this book hits home in this time of precaution, fear, and loss, and how people in the village cope with those topics over the course of a year.

Human reaction is an interesting thing, and Brooks writes of it so well. So much of the villagers’ reaction to the plague and the quarantine nearly mirrors what is happening in our society today. There are people who immediately jump in to take care of others. Then there are people who judge, demean, and condemn one another.

In one scene, several customers of an ill tailor refuse to burn the garments they purchased despite certainty that the items are infected with bubonic plague. Only Anna throws her beautiful dress into the fire to avoid spreading the plague in her home. It is not a cheerful read, but it does show how Anna comes to appreciate the minute details in life. In the end, Brooks does leave us with some hope for humankind.

Custer friends, this book is available at our local library in E-book and Audio Book forms.

Books

Books: The Most Fun We Ever Had

I really loved The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. The story spans several decades in the lives of David and Marilyn, a happily married couple with four daughters, each with strong personalities and as different as can be. I am fascinated by relationships of sisters, partly because I do not have a sister of my own, and also because I am raising two young daughters.

Lombardo, who is only 30, is a former social worker, and that experience is evident in her riveting description of her characters’ emotions and responses. From the arrival of a teenage son one of the daughters gave up for adoption at birth, to the tragic death of one of their husbands, there is no shortage of family drama. Lombardo tells these stories with a realness that reminds the reader that no one is perfect, even if they seem that way on the surface.

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(Image from amazon.com)

David and Claire are nearly perfect parents. They are loving and kind, yet their children, though successful in many ways, are also kind of messes. It is a somewhat painful reminder that even if it was possible to do everything right as a parent, a child is her own person in the end. Still, love and kindness always matter most, especially when parenting.

Overall, it is just a really good read about family dynamics and unconditional love. The characters are flawed in relatable ways and Lombardo is a gifted storyteller. This is her debut novel and I look forward to reading more from her.

In My House

Putting Away the Backpacks

Confession: I have left my daughters’ backpacks on their hooks in our entryway since March 13. That was the day school was abruptly closed throughout our state due to COVID-19. First it was closed for one week, then two, then the remainder of the school year. The presence of the backpacks made life seem somewhat normal, almost as if my five-year-old and three-year-old could return to their school and pre-school classrooms at a moment’s notice.

For many reasons, I just could not bring myself to put away the backpacks. It felt like admitting defeat. I did not want to accept the fact that my daughter would not set foot in her kindergarten classroom again. I would no longer volunteer in that room on Monday afternoons, or pick her up at the end of a day filled with learning and discovery.

Finally, yesterday, I took the backpacks down. My oldest daughter’s kindergarten year ends next week. What would’ve been a pint-size graduation ceremony at the high school theater filled with a lot of hugs, will instead be a Zoom pajama party with stories read by their amazingly dedicated teacher. I am grateful for the supportive adults who have found ways to make something special out of a difficult time.

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(Photo by Alyssa Crawford Photography)

In all honesty, taking down their backpacks, unpacking them, and putting them away in the closet made me sad. I looked at the blue glitter adorning my daughter’s backpack, indicative of her innocence and excitement, and I felt disappointment for her. She has continued to be her happy, enthusiastic self through the changes of the past two months. She has completed her school work with fervor, and has looked forward to the weekly Zoom meetings with her teacher and classmates. Yet she has started to ask more frequently when she gets to see her friends again. She misses going to the grocery store with me and attending church on Sundays.

I am not here to wallow in what feels like the loss of something important, but I do want to acknowledge how many of us are feeling as we close out the school year. College athletes are missing their spring seasons. High school seniors are missing prom and graduation. Kindergarteners won’t get to hug their first teachers good-bye, and every age in-between is missing out on the last day excitement that always fills the air.

We can be a little sad, but we should also be proud. We should be proud of our students for being so brave when their worlds have been turned upside down. We should be proud of parents for taking on roles of educators in ways most of us haven’t before. We should be proud of teachers for adapting to the situation and supporting students and families in an extraordinary way.

In the end, we will be better after all of this. I pray it will be safe for our students to return to their classrooms this fall. When they do, it will be a joyful occasion. Hopefully some good has come out of this challenging time in the form of newfound gratitude for our teachers, our communities, and our health.

As for my soon-to-be first-grader and me, we have started looking online at options for a backpack for next school year, partially in an effort to remain optimistic, and maybe to remind ourselves that this time of isolation will not last forever. Backpacks will once again find a place on the hooks in my entryway. When they do, I will appreciate the sight of them with all my heart.

 

 

 

Books

Books: The Female Persuasion

Women who hate women are the worst women of all. That’s the theory of Greer, the main character of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. It isn’t as simple as that, though, as Greer finds out as she navigates life newly out of college.

She eventually encounters feminist icon Faith Frank, a fictional sort of Gloria Steinem, and goes to work at Faith’s feminist publication and supporting organization. We follow Greer as she finds love, struggles financially, loses love, betrays a friend, finds career success, and repeats the cycle again. She seeks to find her voice, and that journey is somewhat interesting, and at least relatable.

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(Image from amazon.com)

Through Greer’s struggles and decisions, I pondered that question again and again. I like the theme of the book and the writing was good, yet The Female Persuasion was not as riveting as I had hoped it would be. In fact, I kind of struggled through it. The characters were interesting and the feminist themes inspiring, but the plot kind of went all over the place. There were too many story lines without clear connections to one another.

The over-arching theme of the book is “what really makes a feminist?” Can you be a feminist and still betray your best female friend? Or does that make you a woman hating women, thus the worst kind of woman of all?

In My House

What I Hope They Remember

While driving today, I listened to a psychologist on NPR talking about how although we as parents might be stressed right now with all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, we would be surprised what our kids will remember from this time. She said the odds are actually quite high that their memories will be good ones. She said one of her teenage clients told her via a Zoom visit that he was enjoying his time at home because his parents had sat down and played board games with him.

Could it be that our kids actually like a little simplicity? For the past month, I have been so focused on the upheaval of our usual routines and the loss of the remainder of my oldest daughter’s kindergarten year that I have struggled to recognize the blessings that have come our way. Yes, I recognize the really big blessings like the health of my family and my continued employment, but I often struggle to recognize and appreciate the simple blessings of day-to-day life.

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(Photo by Alyssa Crawford Photography)

Vacations have been canceled. School is taking place at home. I miss a lot of things. I miss picking my daughters up from school and daycare. I miss taking my oldest to ballet class. I miss lunch dates with friends and making travel plans.

Still my young daughters seem to find excitement in the simple things. When they’re not arguing over which color of cup they want, children are exceptionally good at finding the positive in life. They are able to remind us to make time for joy, even in the face of uncertainty.

So when we look back on this time of social distancing, wearing masks, home-schooling, and oh-so-many Zoom meetings, I hope my daughters remember the good. I hope they remember our nature walks around the neighborhood, breathing fresh Black Hills air and collecting pine cones to make homemade bird-feeders. I hope they remember extra snuggles and movie nights with homemade popcorn and M&Ms.

I hope they remember the countless books we have read together when there’s nowhere to go and nothing much to do. I hope they remember riding bikes in the driveway in the afternoons. I hope they remember laughing at the little chipmunk that likes to hang out in the bushes outside the dining room window.

I hope they remember feeling safe and happy in our home. I hope they remember to keep appreciating the simple things, long after they’re grown. More than anything I hope they remember how much they are and always will be loved.

In My House

Lost, Have, Do

Like almost everyone in the world right now, I feel like 2020 has been a year of loss. I lost my two grandmothers in January and February. I barely had a moment to pick myself off the ground before major changes started happening due to COVID-19. It is difficult to process everything that is happening, and I certainly have almost no answers about anything. Still, I’m sharing what I have been doing to cope. I am mourning what I lost, appreciating what I have, and doing what I can do. I hope that when we are on the other side of all this, we will have a newfound grateful spirit and our priorities better in line.

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Lost…
I think it is important to keep a positive outlook, but I find it impossible to do that without first acknowledging the pain of this ordeal. It’s OK to be scared, angry, and disappointed. Sometimes the losses are super major and painful, like that of a beloved grandparent. Sometimes they’re more on the petty-side like canceled travel plans. Acknowledging the disappointment of the minor losses is important, too. It’s OK that high school seniors are bummed out about missing prom and graduation, and they don’t need older generations diminishing that feeling.

Have…
For many of us, what we do still have has tremendous capability to overshadow the painful part. I have an amazing husband, two wonderful daughters, and a schnauzer who sleeps on my legs every night. I have books and now more time to read them. I work with tremendously smart, brave, and caring people in the health care field. We all still have sunsets, the smell of rain, fresh-brewed coffee (if that’s your thing), and heavy metal music (that’s mine).

Do…
There are few things I feel in control of right now, but I have a short list of positive actions to keep me in the right frame of mind in the coming weeks. They are:

• Send at least two hand-written notes a week.
• Try to laugh every day.
• Spend at least 15 minutes a day reading something positive, funny, or enlightening.
• Remind myself daily that this won’t be forever.
• Find ways to continue regular runs despite the gym being closed and weather being questionable.
• Pray, pray, pray.
• Hydrate.
• Love my husband and daughters with a new-found appreciation.
• Stop all media after 7 p.m. (Advice from one of the aforementioned super smart doctors with whom I work.) Instead of scrolling through CNN right before bed, watch a movie with my husband, read to my children, or even catch up on DVR’d Jeopardy episodes.

Books

Books: Becoming

Michelle Obama describes herself as an “ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” I enjoyed her book Becoming, because it was really about her with just a small amount of politics thrown in to add context. Michelle is an ambitious person, but not necessarily in the political realm.

She was a reluctant first lady, but was, and continues to be a fierce promoter of women’s rights, education for girls throughout the world, and childhood nutrition. I related to her stories of being a working mom of two young daughters, trying to balance career and motherhood. Whether you’re a former first lady or not, we all just want safety, love, and opportunity for our children.

She had a simple childhood in a lower class Chicago neighborhood with hardworking parents who did everything they could for Michelle and her older brother. She was a good student who worked hard and got into Princeton with a scholarship. She writes of her childhood “I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”

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(Image from amazon.com)

In Becoming, Michelle does not shy away from the challenges of being married to a politician who eventually would be president. There were many missed dinners while she was alone at home with two young children. She was thrown into being publicly criticized about superficial topics like a sleeveless dress she once wore. There was exhaustion to the point of tears.

She writes of trying to give her daughters some level of normalcy during their time in the White House. She shares stories of stressing out about finding a warm hat for Sasha before the inaugural address, and of her and Barack (both barefooted) greeting Malia’s prom date in the White House with Malia begging her dad not to embarrass her. She writes of the Secret Service accompanying her to Target.

At the end of the day, we all face our various challenges. Becoming does not seem like a cry for pity or political support, but rather a heartfelt reminder that we are all works in progress. Becoming is never giving up on the idea that there’s more growing to be done.