The Darkest Evening of the Year

I had never read a novel by Dean Koontz before, so I was intrigued when I found The Darkest Evening of the Year in a pile left for me by my voracious reader- (I don’t know how she puts the books away like she does) soul sister- friend.  The image of the Golden Retriever on the cover sealed the deal as I am a dog lover, especially of Retrievers.

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So, reading through chapter one, Koontz had my attention, but not in the way I had hoped.  Tears were welling in my eyes at his description of dog abuse.  I was nearly “out,” so to speak, and onto the next novel, until my friend reassured me the novel does not focus on the abuse for long.  Whew!  Give me murders, natural disasters, disease, I can read on and on, but I cringe at even the mention of animal abuse.  Yes, I am the one who changes the channel when “that commercial” comes on because the one time I watched, I was wiping tears as I reached for the computer to search the inventory of our local humane society.  Ugh!

As for the book itself, its structure reveals each character’s perspective chapter by chapter which kept urging me to read further even into the wee hours of the night.  The protagonist Amy Redwing has such a passion for Golden Retrievers she has founded Golden Heart whose mission is to find forever homes for this particular breed.  Koontz detailed description of the behaviors of Redwing’s dogs is uncanny.  I laughed thinking of how my own Labrador Retriever acts in the same manner if not in a more untrained fashion.  Working on it!

The reader slowly learns along with her boyfriend Brian of her past which she has kept secret for nearly a decade.  As he reveals his own regrets, the truth of how the characters’ lives are entwined comes to fruition.

What made me sit up and take notice is that sprinkled throughout the novel, Koontz offers his outlook on life with some truly deep thoughts.  One such example comes at the conclusion of The Darkest Evening of the Year:

Too many dogs continue to be abused and abandoned- one is too many- and people continue to kill people for money and envy for no reason at all.  Bad people succeed and good people fail, but that’s not the end of the story.  Miracles happen that nobody sees, and among us walk heroes who are never recognized, and people live in loneliness because they cannot believe they are loved . . ..  (354)

The World’s Strongest Librarian

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Heartbroken with my mother’s dementia and busy with my two kiddos off of school for the summer, I have struggled lately with finding a book which captures my attention.  While on vacation in Salt Lake City, Utah, though, I discovered that book I had been searching for desperately.

When out of town, I always like to explore the local library with my family, especially a library located downtown.  All of those books housed right in the center of the hustle and bustle of a city causes the goosebumps to rise on my skin.  So, while in Salt Lake City, my girls and I sought out the local library.

While at lunch, we asked the waiter to point us in the right direction of the city library.  I was bummed when while rubbing his chin he repeated my question back to me with, “Hmmmm.  Where is the local library?”  Doesn’t everyone know where his/her local library is and frequent it on a daily if not weekly basis?  I know the answer is “no,” but always advocate for an eventual answer of “yes.”

After too long of a walk for my arthritic knees, we arrived at a beautiful glass building with multi-levels.  We could barely contain our excitement as we entered the structure.  What was interesting to note is that to the left of the main entrance was a row of small shops, one being the library’s gift shop.  My daughters and I agreed we would definitely peruse this shop once our exploration of the library as well as the FREE art class offered by an instructor from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts was complete.

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Two hours later we were looking at all of the literary offerings in the small shop.  What caught my attention was a book with the title The World’s Strongest Librarian with a subtitle of, A Book Lover’s Adventures.  Sold (!) even before the young woman working behind the counter said the author, Josh Hanagarne, was a librarian who worked in this very branch, the branch my girls and I had just explored.  If this wasn’t the perfect souvenir, I didn’t know what was.

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Immediately taken with the anecdote offered in the Introduction, I giggled, cried, and learned while feverishly reading this book.  Hanagarne has such a humorous take on life which comes shining through in his detailed descriptions.  I could smell the stench in the library, hear the man calling Hanagarne a “. . . tall bigot” (1), and feel his exasperation when young people didn’t think reading was “cool.”  When he described how in one of his college English classes, students nearly came to “. . . blows over the implications of a semicolon . . .” I couldn’t help but think of my own English studies full of uncomfortable arguments in class, which I had to sit through while watching the clock, and laugh out loud.

With his words, Hanagarne caused me to fall in love with his devout Mormon mother, the person responsible for the author’s love of reading and his constant cheerleader through life, and his wife Janette, who stood by him through years of educational and career failings due to his Tourette Syndrome.

I found myself reading portions of the book to my hub and then later catching him reading The World’s Strongest Librarian on his own in our hotel room.

Besides a fascinating look into the life of a Mormon, a young boy suffering with Tourette’s, and a young man struggling to find his way in life, it is also a list of recommended readings as Hanagarne highlights books which have touched his life throughout the years. . . a definite must-read.

 

 

 

What I Told My Daughter

Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something when a dear friend gifts me Nina Tassler’s What I Told My Daughter, and I also receive a copy in the mail to review.  So, read I did.  A work of nonfiction, Tassler along with Cythia Littleton act as editors to more than fifty essays written for their daughters by women who have created success in their lives.

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The essay which initially drew me in was “Dear Eva” written by Rabbi Sharon Brous.  She was told at her daughter’s birth that “. . . having a child is like wearing your heart outside your chest”  (19), and I can completely relate times two.  Rabbi Brous continues with the importance of her daughter knowing “. . . one nearly universal thread, across ethnic, cultural, and geographical boundaries, is the oppression of girls and women”  (20).  Thus, having the knowledge which may not be so apparent in one’s own community is key to creating an inner need to want to somehow make a difference, even a little, in the world.

Author Ayelet Waldman in her essay, “Be Nice to Fat Girls,” further instills in her daughter the need to speak up for not only herself, but for others as well.  Because of hollering moral advice while running alongside her daughter Sophie’s bus years ago, Waldman’s daughter remembers to always be kind, inclusive, and generous.  When as a teenager, a group of boys in Sophie’s high school create a competition on social media to find the “ugliest” girl in their eyes to ask out on a date, Sophie heads straight to the administration “. . . demanding justice on behalf of this girl and all girls subject to this environment”  (37).

Most like to shy away from any controversy even if it is at the cost of a child’s well-being.  As Dr. Juliet Garcia discusses in “The Wall,” many people during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing chose to run for safety as quickly as they could.  However, some chose to run towards the explosions in order to see how they could help others.  Dr. Garcia notes, “There is always much to learn from these moments, but chief among them is that the toughest battles in our lives are those we learn from the most.  They are the ones that make us surface our courage”  (72).  Amen, Sistah!

Dr. Madeline Albright in her essay “Role Reversals,” writes how the balancing act between work and home became more difficult as her career advanced, but “. . . the worst pressure . . . came not from my daughters but from other women”  (83).  In the same manner, I have felt pressure for choosing to stay home with my daughters.  After taking nearly four years to conceive and then spending time in the hospital both before and after the births of both of my daughters, I knew I wanted to savor every minute with my girls if given the opportunity.  While doctors still attempted to adjust my medications in order to control my blood pressure postpartum, I had people asking me, “When are you going back to work?”  My thought to myself was always, “Well, my baby just left the neonatal unit, and I need to make sure I’m not going to croak first.”

Further passages I have marked with Post-Its come from Sharon Osbourne in “Privileges,” with ” . . .  never have a sense of entitlement, [do] not judge others, be accepting, tolerant, and always open-minded”  (150).  Michelle King In “Simply Irresistible,” tells how her daughter stood up to a bully and what she learned from the experience, we “. . . need tough, self-confident young women willing to smack the bullies when they get out of hand”  (161).  And, Roma Downey’s “Love Is a Verb,” brought tears to my eyes while reading.  Downey summarizes her offerings:

The lessons learned are at times painful.  Loss is real, parents pass away, and hearts break, but the truth is that love never dies, not really.  Love lives on through us.  Not just in our memories but through our actions and the choices we make.  In the way we live our lives we can make a difference.  (212)

A thoughtful gift for any woman, not simply a woman with a daughter, or man, Nina Tassler’s What I Told My Daughter is a must read.

 

 

Invisible Monsters

When your BFF ends up reading two or three books a week, one ends up with stacks and stacks of books in his/her family room, bedroom, bathroom, etc.  In an attempt to work through my own spillage of generously donated books, I picked the top book on the pile, Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters.  The cover was intriguing, an ambigram, and this is the same author of the Fight Club, so I thought it would be a good read.  I had no idea what I was in for . . .

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In the opening scene, I am introduced to Evie whose blond/brown hair has been burned off, and all the clothing that remains on her body are the wire hoops from her wedding dress.  Visual imagery at its best.  What ensues is a complex, often vulgar and absolutely dysfunctional, tale of a brother, sister, her boyfriend, and her best friend.

Now this BFF Sarah mentioned above has introduced me to many a book I would never have picked up on my own, but loved at first read such as the Merry Gentry series by Laurell K. Hamilton (I love me some Frost).  When I asked her her thoughts on Invisible Monsters, she replied she had abandoned the read after a few chapters.  Ugh!  I wish I had known . . .  For me, though, I am unable to let a read go until completion.  I must see it through to the end as I always tell my students because you can learn from books you both like and dislike, and you never know how it’s going to end until it ends.

After wincing through several portions of Invisible Monsters and learning from others, Palahniuk definitely introduces his readers to cultures of people not necessarily readily known.  Likewise Palahniuk’s message about the emptiness of striving for idealized beauty and sacrificing all in the name of love came through loud and clear after a continuous roller coaster of plot twists.  A definite thriller of a ride which I now need some time from which to recover.

 

The Survival of the Gingerbread Girl

My girls and I were looking forward to reading Illana Barran’s The Survival of the Gingerbread Girl since we had only read tales of a gingerbread male in the past.  We quickly huddled together on the couch once our copy arrived in the mail.

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The girls at once enjoyed looking at the colorful childlike drawings throughout.  The pop of colors, especially the shade of blue, scattered throughout the pages led the eye from one page to the next.

My oldest chose to read the book aloud to my youngest, but initially was having a difficult time finding a rhythm.  Since the title’s subtitle is “a Lullaby,” my oldest was hoping for some additional sheet music included at the end in order to read along to the author’s desired beat.

All three of us were more than pleased with the unexpected ending, and I will leave it at that in order to prevent a spoiler.

Having a love for baking, I was overjoyed to find the addition of two gingerbread-themed recipes in the back of the book.  So, I decided to try the Gingerbread Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins.  Gathering my ingredients, though, I realized that there was no pumpkin required for the batter even though the title would assume otherwise.  Stumped, I reviewed the recipe again and again to ensure I was reading it correctly.  I then prepared one cupcake pan as the recipe claims to yield 8-12  muffins.  Twenty-seven muffins later, I had concluded my baking.  In addition, the recipe called for a cook time of 45 minutes, but hockey pucks I did not want.  My muffins were ready after 15-20 minutes and were quite tasty.

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Overall, a good story with beautiful grammar, but the muffin recipe needs to be revised, and an addition of sheet music or hint to the melody as in “sung to the tune of . . .”  would be more than helpful.

Five Minute Friday: Forget

Forget.  This past week I filled in for the hub as an assistant to one amazeballs coach of my daughter’s basketball team.  The players were engaged and genuinely having the time of their lives.  One player begged for even more Ups and Downs (running of the stairs) after they had already completed Killers (line runs).  His enthusiasm was contagious, and I couldn’t help but join him in the running of the stairs.

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At the end of practice, the team scrimmaged.  Short a few players, Coach Sarah put me in, and I was pumped.  Running from one end of the court to the other seemed anything but work.  I wasn’t worried about counting my steps or wondering the number of calories I was burning;  I was plain and simple having fun.  With the busyness of life and adulthood, it’s easy to forget the joys of play.  Because of that one practice, I am planning a women’s basketball pick-up game in an effort not to ever forget again.  Thank you, Coach Sarah.

Standing in the Rainbow

When an avid reader and dear friend recommends a novel, her favorite one at that, I gladly agree to read the loaner.  In this case, Fannie Flagg’s Standing in the Rainbow does not disappoint.

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Following the lives of residents from the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, through generations, the reader becomes emotionally engaged, and, in essence, a member of middle America.  Visualizing Bobby Smith, the only son of the Smith family, overcome his fear in order to climb the water tower as a young boy and his coming to the realization of his smallness in this vast universe offered the reader his raw humanity:

Could it really be possible that . . . [I] was nothing but just another small dot among a bunch of other small dots? . . . always thought . . . [I] was something different, something special.  Now . . . [I] was thrown for a complete loop.  (21)

Furthermore, reading of Bobby’s school work struggles which resulted in the repeat of sixth grade allowed me to bond with this young man, and I found myself silently cheering him on.  His eventual enlistment in the Korean War caused me great tension because I was so invested, fearful he may not return, so I proceeded slowly and with caution while reading as my buddy who had given me the loaner has probably been wondering when I was planning to return her novel.

Flagg writes with such humor as in her depiction of the Oatmans crammed in their car travelling cross country to their next singing gig.  With the older brothers and daughter, Betty Raye, in the back, and the chaos and noise from the front seat, the reader learns, “Chester the dummy was out of his box, yammering away at Ferris and complaining because Floyd had also wanted to stop at the gas station and get himself a cold Dr. Pepper”  (100).

Flagg, in her writing, is able to capture such a simpler time, bringing forth a sense of nostalgia for the reader.  When Bobby’s Cub Scout field trip is canceled due to rain, he is not bothered or unable to entertain himself.  Instead, he spends the day on the porch watching the rain and listening “to the sounds of the cars swishing up and down the wet streets” (102), no cell phone or computer needed.  Later, when his grandmother joins him on the porch, and he inquires about life when she was a child and whether she was bored with no electricity, movies, or radio,  Mother Smith explains, “We had books and we played games and sang and went to parties.  You know, you don’t miss what you don’t know”  (103).  This brought to mind my many weekends spent with my own grandparents feeding the geese, helping grind meat, and walking around their farmhouse in the ice and snow pretending I was on quite the explorer’s adventure.

Just a friendly suggestion, but towards the end of Standing in the Rainbow, be sure and keep the tissues within an arm’s reach.  As the reader concludes following roughly four decades of life, there is the inevitable end of life and reflection on what has been, what could have been, and what inevitably remains.  Thus, take the time to meet Tot, Macky, Neighbor Dorothy along with the other residents of Elmwood Springs and really listen to their stories.

Tricky Twenty-Two

You know your hub loves you when he comes home from a business trip bearing the latest novel in the Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich’s Tricky Twenty-One.  Not even knowing Evanovich’s latest installment of Mmmmmorelli and Ranger was out, I was beyond elated.

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Always hoping Stephanie Plum, the protagonist of this series, makes a final choice between the two hotties in her life, I must continue to read until there is a resolution.  By book twenty-two, again, I was hoping for resolution, but (spoiler alert!) I’m not convinced with the “finality.”  I wonder how many more I have to read until I finally, once and for all, know with whom Plum chooses.

Entertaining as always with a mystery and much humor involving Grandma Mazur and Lula, for the love of humanity, please Evanovich put an end to my desire to know:  Ranger or Morelli?

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

As mentioned earlier, my youngest is hooked on Brian Selznick novels.  So, I went to the library and picked up Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, winner of The Caldecott Medal in 2008.  After she finished reading The Invention of Huge Cabret, she passed it on to me so that we could then watch the movie, Hugo Cabret together.

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Again, Selznick’s drawings do not disappoint, but help draw me into the story.  What differs in this book than from Wonderstruck is how the drawings follow the plot versus the pictures creating a storyline of their own.

What I appreciate is how Selznick weaves historical truth into his fiction, so I learned a great deal about early films and specifically about Georges Melies and his collection of automata.

More than anything, though, is my joy at how these novels mesmerize my seven-year-old reader.  In fact, tomorrow I am being sent back to the library in order to find more Selznick novels.

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Although hesitant at first to watch the movie Hugo Cabret due to a friend saying how scary it was when Hugo turns into a robot (spoiler alert: it was a dream), my seven-year-old and I snuggled and watched with much anticipation.  We enjoyed how the majority of the movie followed the book, but felt bad when we realized Etienne never made an appearance.  Personally, I preferred the overall pace of the movie as compared to the book, but as always, I do believe the book was better.

Five Minute Friday: Dwell

Dwell.  When I think of the word dwell, what immediately comes to mind is Dwell Magazine, an American magazine which explores the interiors and exteriors of modern design.  The glossy pictures within this magazine show clean lines and a place for everything, and while reading, I think how soothing it must be living in such an existence.

Then, I peer over the pages of the magazine and see a game of Monopoly in mid-play strewn all over the game table in our family room.  I see a shredded bra and socks lying on the floor which our adorable Labrador Retriever fetched from the dirty clothes.  I see dining room chairs splattered with grape juice stains, children’s artwork strung across the fireplace, and deep scratches in the hardwood where the girls rode their Plasma Cars in circles time and time again.

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I think to my myself;  I wouldn’t want it any other wayDwell.