This is middle schooler, Natalie’s, big question. Her botanist mom is suffering from depression. Natalie also has a big egg drop competition for Mr. Neely’s science class. Can she use the scientific method to solve both problems?
I really enjoyed this book. Keller does a great job nailing the voice of middle school days. Also, I love books that have girls thinking scientifically – and hopefully. Goodreads says: “Because when parents are breakable, it’s up to kids to save them, right?”
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (her father is Steve Jobs, you know, that Apple guy) is a terrifically-written memoir. From the start, Brennan-Jobs has a difficult task. She’s going to be judged by a higher standard. Is this a celebrity memoir or something else?
It’s something else.
Phillip Lopate’s review: “No other book or film has captured Steve Jobs as distinctly as this one has.”
It begins like this: Lisa is born to very young unmarried hippies who don’t mean to have a baby. Lisa’s mother keeps the baby while Steve travels and has no parenting responsibilities. Lisa’s mother is an artist with little business-savvy and can barely make rent. Steve invents the computer “the Lisa,” becomes very famous and rich and often publicly denies his paternity.
But he loves Lisa. He comes to roller skate with her sometimes. He gives money to Lisa’s mother (though she has to sue him for child support.) He sometimes has Lisa stay over at his mansion (which contains no furniture.) They eat salad and freshly squeezed juice. It is hard for him to relate to his child, yet he obviously wants to.
The characters are complex, like real life.
Lisa’s mother: Even though she’s moody, prone to rage for the life she’s saddled with, I admire her. Poverty and stress make for a hard life and I could easily understand the emotional hysteria. She raises Lisa with the world is on her shoulders and her art in the backseat. She’s mostly kind to Steve even when he’s cruel.
Steve alternates between creeping me out and making me angry, though in the end you think maybe he just didn’t know how to be a dad, didn’t know HOW. Wealth and stress? Well, that’s a combustible combo, too.
Lisa’s writing is both succinct and beautiful. On her mother:
“She pulled over, jammed on the brakes, and sobbed into her arms. Her back shook. Her sadness enveloped me, I could not escape it, nothing I could do would stop it…at the height of her hopelessness and noise, I’d felt a calm presence near us, even though I knew we were alone in the watery hell, the car jerking. Some benevolent presence that cared for us but could not interfere, maybe sitting in the back seat. The presence could not stop it, could not help it, only watch and note it. I wondered later if it was a ghostly version of me now, accompanying my younger self and my mother in that car.” (a memory at age 3)
“But it didn’t matter what she said, or how she explained. I saw us as a seesaw: when one of us had power or happiness or substantiality, the other must fade. When I was still young, she’d be old. She would smell like old people, like used flower water. I would be new and green and smell of freshly cut branches.” (a memory around age 4)
As a teenager, Lisa goes to live with Steve, who requires that she cut off contact with her mother for six months. Lisa writes:
“I would leave my mother – I’d said the words out loud. I felt giddy and guilty and numb. Maybe this was the origin of the guilt that seized me later and left me hardly able to walk sometimes, after I had moved in with them: having stolen her youth and energy, having driven her to a state of perpetual anxiety, without support or resources, now that I was flourishing in school and beloved by my teachers, I cast her out and picked him, the one who’d left. I chose the pretty place when she was the one who’d read me books of old stories with admonishments not to believe in the trick of facades.”
Oh, so good.
On her dad, whom she always calls “Steve,” after he’d been particularly cruel:
“We all made allowances for his eccentricities, the ways he attacked other people, because he was also brilliant, and sometimes kind and insightful. Now I felt he’d crush me if I let him. He would tell me how little I meant over and over until I believed it. What use was his genius to me?” (8th grade)
I found the ending to be cathartic and satisfying. Lisa’s mother says to Lisa:
“‘He’s following you around, your father,” she said, when she came to visit me after he died.
“Him. I don’t know how else to say it. I can feel him here. And you know what? He’s overjoyed to be with you. He wants to be with you so much he’s paddling behind you. I mean, he’s delighted just watching you butter a piece of toast.”
I didn’t believe it, but I liked thinking it anyway.'”
Like many memoirist, Brennan-Jobs writes from a place of sadness and reflection (though I did laugh out loud when she flushes her tights down the toilet.) She longs for what we all long for: to be loved by a mother and a father. I turned the pages greedily, at once enraged and empathetic. It’s a fascinating story. Also heartbreaking, but redemptive, all the same.
Reading gets me through the long month of January. Have any reading goals for 2019? I’m going to read 50 books this year (Lord willing and the river don’t rise). I’ll be keeping track in a leather journal and on Goodreads (why I keep both, I’m not sure). If you’re not on Goodreads, I highly recommend it. It’s easy to navigate and is somewhat like an accountability buddy. Once you finish one book, it sends you an email that says, Congratulations, what’s next? Me and my personality eat up this type of thing.
I’m quite pleased with the number of books I got through in January, though it’s a bit of a cheat as I started the first two in 2018, but never mind, I’m counting it. So here you go, all good books: Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Even if you’re not writing a screenplay, this a a worthy read for any writer. And who knows, you might be so inspired you become the next Matt Damon/Ben Affleck (of Goodwill Hunting) powerhouse.
Front Desk by Kelly Yang recently won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature – a very prestigious honor! If you like well-written middle grade with a smart and problem-solving protagonist, pick this one up. It’s great!
The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ. Following an invitation to finish this by the end of the year in 2018, I was a little late and finished in January. I love this book. You can see it’s worn from all the years of reading, marking up, moving, and handling. If you’re interested in religion, Jesus Christ, prophets, and history (think A LOT of bloody wars), here you go. This book has power; it’s changed my life.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King. Likely the tamest of the tame by King standards, I wanted to read a book that would teach me about suspense without giving me nightmares for twenty years (Hello, The Shining.) This is about a girl who gets lost in the New Hampshire woods for over a week. She gets bitten by a lot of black flies and as the sun sets, hears all the spooky sounds of the unknown… It was pretty good (and no nightmares.)
The Elizas by Sara Shepard (of Pretty Little Liars fame). I was looking for a psychological page turner and The Elizas showed up. Though originally turned off by the premise of a girl who can’t remember large chunks of her past due to drinking large amounts of alcohol (yawn), Shepard went in a different direction (brain tumor!? munscion syndrome!?) It was a page turner even if the ending was completely implausible 🙂
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. This is going to be made into a movie, I’m sure of it. If you like beautifully descriptive nature writing (reminiscent of the incomparable Pat Conroy) paired with love and a whodunnit mystery, here’s your book. I’m not quite finished, but I couldn’t wait to share! (Thanks for the rec, Annie!)
Dream Work by Mary Oliver. Oh Mary, I love her so. If you haven’t read the poetry of Mary Oliver, you simply must. In honor of her recent passing, I had to check this out. What a collection! A great NPR tribute HERE.
One of my favorites, “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver:
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
And now my friends, what ARE you going to do with your one wild and precious life? Does it include reading?
My Top 12 books include memoir, a literary thriller, middle grade, historical fiction, and even a graphic comic book (an unusual choice for me). Interestingly, only two of the twelve books were written by men.
My 2018 reading goal was 50. I made it to 40. Of the 40 books, nine were written by men, thirty-one by females. (What does this mean and does it matter? Do I need to diversify?) I keep track on Goodreads, which is super fun and a way to stay organized if you like that sort of thing. So here you go, my TOP 12:
Always looking for book recommendations so tell me your 2018 favorites! And do you have any 2019 goals? I’m determined to read more!
Here are some beloved items you may consider for the Christmas season:
For the convenient, cool and earth-friendly:
Bamboo Travel Utensils – To-Go Ware Utensil Set with Carrying Case. Yep! This is the gift I’m MOST EXCITED about giving this year! When I saw these bamboo utensils in their cute carrying case hanging off a colleagues backpack (thank you, Lynn!) I knew the perfect person to give them to: my earth-conscious missionary daughter who doesn’t need “stuff.” THESE. I want a set for the whole family (suggestion met with blank looks). What’s the big deal, you ask? LESS PLASTIC. Everywhere you go, you can whip out your bamboo utensils instead of using plastic disposable utensils that are cluttering up the oceans and forests and killing our cod. Just recently, missionary Cope-headed-toTaiwn asked me to send some chopsticks. This set COMES WITH CHOPSTICKS. I cannot get over the cleverness. (My son demonstrated what this might look like at the lunch table were he to pull out his bamboo fork. Obviously only the mature can handle the cleverness.)
Silpat Baking Mat: Thank you, Glenn and Kim! I adore these baking mats because: no more pan scrubbing!
For your HEALTH:
Garmin Forerunner Watch: It’s not inexpensive, but on the other hand, a total bargain. One of the best things I own. No matter where you walk or run, this watch tracks total time run, pace, mile splits, and heart rate. It’s a huge bargain if you look at it from a health perspective. Look for sales at Groupon.com, Amazon, and Garmin.com.
I have a lot of favorite “things” (like pens and paper!) but these are just a couple I’ve recently thought of. My kids have been doing a lot of “no-sugar” challenges and so for stockings, Santa and I are collaborating on Lara Bars (3-5 natural ingredients), nuts, seeds, paleo-friendly beef sticks, gum, dark(er) chocolate, and perhaps some Seed and Sky earrings.
And now for BOOKS! You can find past book recommendations HERE, but below are the ones I’m especially fond of for Christmas.
My daughter writes home about the great JOY she is finding in serving others. She left most of her world behind. I’ve been contemplating that idea and how freeing and appealing it sounds. I would like to follow that example of JOY and SERVICE this month. I know what our family needs most is not more stuff. So I’m looking for those moments of when we can do a little good and feel a little better (and yes, part of that can most definitely include presents!)
P.S. If you’d like to write Sister Cope Makechnie (Mǎ Jiěmeì) for Christmas, she can get email and mail:
If you want to send a real letter, she will be at the missionary training center ONLY until the end of December: Sister Cope Makechnie JAN01 TAIW-TCG 2005 N 900 E Unit 88 Provo UT 84602
I’m taking a 7-day social media hiatus which is really nothing, but in one day I could feel the difference: greater peace and time. I found myself putting the phone down instead of feeling bored and scrolling. It’s been a tumultuous and upsetting news cycle (what else is new?) and I need to find the good – which is not out “there.” It’s right here at home, making eye contact with my children, having a daily conversation with my husband, and pondering deeper scriptural texts. This Saturday and Sunday we are immersing in two full days of General Conference. This event ALWAYS makes me so HAPPY.
Himalayan Salt Deodorant. Okay, this sounds strange – it’s JUST SALT! But I have this thing about putting chemicals straight into my pores after showering and shaving, and salt just feels so…natural. It works quite well! I picked it for cheap (just a few dollars) at a boutique, but I’ve seen them all over the web.
Alert Caffeine Gum as a running aid. Let me clarify: ONLY AS A RUNNING AID. I’m a little neurotic about not getting addicted to substances, and so I don’t allow myself to chew this piece of 40mg of caffeinated gum (a small cup of coffee has about 60mg of caffeine) except for early morning runs. Way easier and better than gels and GUs and Shot Blocks that have all that other sugary junk in it. It makes me feel motivated, helping me run faster and farther. You can buy 100mg/caffeine gum, but that’s “military grade,” and again, we don’t need any more addictions! Tired in the afternoon? May I suggest a 10-minute nap?
When Cope found it in my drawer she gasped and said, “Mom! WHAT IS THIS? I feel like I’ve discovered steroids in the house.”
RX and Lara Bars. 3-5 ingredients in them and that’s it! (The carrot cake bar above has 9 ingredients but all are “natural” and words I can pronounce.)
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Cope raced through the whole trilogy. I’m all set after Book #1. It was entertaining, and I adore reading of other cultures and languages, but I thought the book too long and lacking in substance (which might be just the thing you’re looking for!)
My friend Kate brought us the most beautiful bouquet of flowers “just because.” Patty sent my daughter a bouquet of flowers when she got her mission call Taiwan. Such a small – but big – gesture that makes me happy every time I enter the house. Happiness tip: Send the Flowers!
Two of my girls are using matching planners from BAM, because, like their mother, they cannot survive life for one day without a physical, hand-written calendar (Google calendar is great for sharing schedules, but I also gotta write!) It makes me a bit giddy to see them planning and organizing their lives. Check.
Also: these pens with the planner. Goodness, I love them.
Wasn’t I going to post books more often? Well, here you go – 8 books I read this summer and into fall as I try to hit 50 reads for the Goodreads Reading Challenge (I’ve always loved reading challenges 🙂 )
Love and Ruin by Paula McClain: Historical fiction. McClain (The Paris Wife) writes the story of Martha Gellhorn and her infamous relationship with Ernest Hemingway. Gellhorn was one of the first and most well-known female war correspondents. RESPECT.
Where There’s Hope by Elizabeth Smart: Nonfiction, adult. I took notes upon notes reading this book. We know Smart’s kidnapping story, but here she offers more: hope moving forward. I’ve become a huge fan of this woman, watching her take control of her life and empowering women of every age. One of the most powerful stories is her father bringing Elizabeth and her little sister into his study to practice, “screaming” after a woman cornered Elizabeth in the bathroom at church (after she was returned from the kidnapping she still didn’t know how to fight back!) Elizabeth froze, not knowing what to do or react. It’s wonderful to be polite and have manners when the occasion calls for it – but do our children (esp our girls!?) know how and when to scream and bite and kick when needed? Really great book.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine: Middle grade, fiction. Take it from Paige: the movie does not do this book justice! Read the book! My girls read it over and over and over, especially when they need to curl up with an old favorite. I loved it, too.
Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin: Middle grade, fiction. Baldwin makes a lovely debut with her middle grade read about Della, the ups and downs of family and farm life, and a mother’s mental illness. Really well done! Just thinking about this book makes my mouth water and my body break out into the damp sweat of summer (that’s a compliment – Cindy brings great voice and language to this story.)
Calypso by David Sedaris: Memoir, adult. I’ve never read memoirist Sedaris before. He’s really funny, even when writing about family tragedy. He’s also extremely irreverent. Geez. You read a sentence and think did he really just write THAT? But no doubt, I get what all the fuss is about. He’s a great writer and I want to learn from him.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone Young Adult, fiction. This was my freshman daughter’s summer reading. She read it fast and said, “you should read this.” I casually picked it up and couldn’t put it back down. Real, sad, important. Justyce, a young black scholar is trying to balance two worlds – his old neighborhood and an elite prep school. It’s present-day, but he writes letters to the great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, trying to figure out his place in a racist America. Head’s up: language.
I ADORE a complex medical dilemma coupled with lots of family drama. And Genova is an actual neuroscientist – as well as a superb writer. Richard, the main character, is a brilliant and world-renowned pianist. He’s also a terrible family man. So what happens when you suddenly start noticing a funny weakness in your hand and are diagnosed with ALS? It’s the family who steps up. This hit very close to home as I lost a dear friend to this horrible disease. For me, an informative tear-jerker.
What do you know? Carrie Rubin is also a doctor in real life, and a superb writer. THE BONE CURSE is book #1 in an exciting new series: a medical thriller with a supernatural element! I also kindof know Carrie through the internet and it’s always so thrilling to see your writer friends pave the way and do it SO WELL! Great job, Carrie.
Oooh…this one was kindof a guilty pleasure (in the tamest of ways!) The moral of this story is: it’s time get stone-cold sober. At least for Cassandra Bowden, who woke up next to a dead man. Did she do it? SHE CAN’T REMEMBER! She really doesn’t think she has it in her, but…SHE CAN’T REMEMBER! After flying through this book (ha), I said to self: GO FIND ALL THE BOHJILIAN BOOKS NOW.
This book is getting all the rave reviews for good reason. I LOVED it. I could not put it down. In the same vein as THE GLASS CASTLE: a family, a brilliant but mentally ill father, a child with no formal schooling who is schooled in survival and using her own smarts. After listening to the audiobook, my dad commented, “I knew a few people like that in Idaho.” Wide eyes.
After reading EDUCATED, I must have been on a survivalist kick, which is what Hannah’s written. The setting is the wild, beautiful, and dangerous Alaska. I enjoyed this book, but the mother’s horrible enabling DROVE ME CRAZY the entire book. Obviously I lack empathy. Or something.
This book is pretty astounding in its writing and its research. Bohjalian is really really good. I have so much more respect for what midwives do – and what they risk. A medical thriller with lots of family drama and ethical questions that are terribly hard to answer – right up my ally! A GREAT READ. Jodi Picoult fans will love Bohjalian (but you probably already knew that.) Also, he’s lives in Vermont! Think he’d mind if I knocked on his door?
YAY FOR DEBUT AUTHORS! I’ve known Melissa for years. How fun it was to both have debut books in June. This was a very sweet, yet realistic look at child homelessness. Sad, but hopeful. I loved all of the images of trees, throughout. Themes of hardship, sisterhood, and home run through this novel. Melissa has more books on the way and I look forward to more from this huge talent!
This book was not at all what I expected – in a really fun and surprising way! There’s this boy who doesn’t know where he is. What’s his name? Where are all the people? Why won’t his inner bully leave him be? With only one character throughout, Clark does a fantastic job of keeping the reader engaged. It’s somewhat heartbreaking but somewhat not…I don’t know. I’ll be thinking of this book for a long time. “Once upon a time there was a boy…” So good!
Okay, that’s it for me. What’s kept you up at night? Do tell! I love hearing what you’re reading and yes – I’m ready for a new book!
In honor of kids everywhere, I’m back with one of my favorite posts: Real Quotes from Real Kids. They say the best things. I give them credit for every funny thing you think I’ve ever said and since it’s Children’s Book Week, it’s only fair to out my darlings as they’ve inspired every book I’ve written and am in the process of writing.
Here are some latest gems:
1. “Mom, I don’t know that I have an hour a week to schedule you in.” (when asked if we could possibly spend some time together.)
2. “I’m NEVER going to dye my hair! (condescending look my way) Anyway, it’s good to look old in my future profession.” (medieval history.) (hmmm…wonder who that was?)
3. “If I ever run an orphanage we’re going to have fun! And I’ll have Daddy cook!”
4. “I’m marking my territory.” (In response to strewing clothes and personal items allllll over the house.)
5. “When I’m at the pinnacle of success, I’m buying myself a Rolex.”
6. “How do you NOT KNOW HOW TO MAKE NACHOS??!!!? It’s a LIFE SKILL!”
7. “WAIT! Don’t leave me at my darkest hour!” (bedtime stalling tactics)
8. “Take the book away! The temptation is just too great!” (more bedtime stalling tactics)
9. “Mommy, (great worried brow) can you get pneumonia from an ice pack?”
10. “Mom. We’re not there yet.” (when asked to reveal love life secrets.)
11. “I loved your book, Mom…I’m just sad I didn’t get my own personal dedication.” (but they did in the acknowledgements!)
The secret to great writing? I think it’s eavesdropping on the children 🙂 Everything is copy.