Thursday, November 24, 2011

Be Thankful

Things I am thankful for today:

1. that the bag of rock hard brown sugar was only half full so it only raised an egg-sized lump and bruise when it fell on my foot from the top shelf in the pantry. (Nevermind that a friend of a friend is convinced I broke the stupid foot again.)

2. that Ocean Spray makes tasty cranberry sauce in a can so I don't have to make that in addition to everything else. (And they decorate it with those nice ridges too--so thoughtful.)

3. that I remembered to take the giblets and neck out of the turkey before I stuffed it. (And that it thawed in enough time to go in the oven this morning before I left to run the Turkey Trot.)

4. that I managed to (slowly) run the entire 5 miles of the Turkey Trot and still have control over my legs lo these many hours later.

5. that the kitchen shears that went missing long ago have somehow miraculously reappeared. (Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus. Oh wait... that's the next holiday.)

6. that some side dishes can survive being served at room temperature. (I'd ask for chafing dishes for Christmas but where the heck would I store them?)

7. that turkey contains tryptophan and therefore offers the perfect excuse for mid-afternoon napping.

8. that this year's yeast rolls were not like last year's inadvertent hockey pucks.

9. that no one argued with me about the timing of the meal based on their team's game time. (Going postal on Thanksgiving is not pretty.)

10. that all dishes and counters have been cleaned and the meal portion of the holiday is over for another year even if I did have to do it all myself. (The price of not listening to grumbling about the meal timing seems to be complete solitude in the kitchen after the meal while the rest of the family is glued to some dull as dirt football game.)

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and don't forget to count your many blessings today and every day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: A Watershed Year by Susan Schoenberger

When someone dies, it seems there are always things left to say. The ones left behind want to pick up a phone and tell their loved one something only to realize anew that the person is gone. But what if the same is true for the one who has died? What if there was more to say but there wasn't time to say it? What if those things that stayed unsaid could be said and could change the course of a life? A Watershed Year imagines just that scenario in a wonderful and credible way.

Lucy McVie has spent the past year of her life caring for her beloved friend Harlan as he fights cancer. Now a 38 year old college religion professor with an affinity for the saints, Lucy has known Harlan since they were in graduate school. She has also secretly been in love with him almost from the moment they met and so she thinks nothing of giving up time to care for him as he goes through treatment and then dies. After Harlan's death, Lucy must pick up the pieces of her neglected life. And then she receives an e-mail from Harlan that changes everything. He set up a program to send Lucy pre-written e-mails once a month starting several months after his death because he hasn't told her everything; he had more to say. The first e-mail hits on one of Lucy's unspoken, long-held wishes: to become a mother. Harlan tells her that he is certain that she will be a mother someday and that she will in fact be wonderful at it.

Once the e-mail opens Lucy to the possibility, she starts to make her way down the path to adopting. Things start to fall into place as she finds an agency specializing in Russian adoptions and is fast tracked to adopt 4 year old Mat whose eyes melt Lucy's heart when she sees his picture. At the same time, a colleague shows an interest in her romantically and her teaching career is only just hanging on by a thread. With so much going on in her life, it is not surprising that Lucy chooses to ignore the warning signs that everything may not be above board with the adoption. As in so much of her life, when she commits her heart, she does it fully and without reservation but also without understanding the emotional repercussions of such a commitment.

Lucy's year after losing Harlan is indeed a watershed year for her. She learns about herself and her capacity for love. She makes some tough decisions; some that bring her joy and some that bring her sadness. She might not yet be as strong as Harlan says she can be but she struggles through and comes out stronger for it. As a character, she is lovely and realistic. The secondary characters are less fleshed out but this is, after all, Lucy's watershed year and so the focus is fittingly on her. The monthly e-mails from Harlan act as the catalyst for her adopting Mat but they also help her to come to a better understanding of who she really is inside, the person for whom Harlan cared so deeply. And the flashbacks to her relationship with Harlan offer a sweet glimpse into the past, helping to round out and explain Lucy as a character but also offering insight into the core nature of their realtionship.

Schoenberger has written a deeply moving tale, a wonderful and rich novel, one that packs many different emotional punches. Touching on grief and love and motherhood, she has created a true and touching story. Adoption is not easy. In fact, it is fraught with frustration, uncertainty, and hopelessness, even after Lucy brings Mat home. Grief is not simple. It is consuming and sneaky and constant. Love is not immediate or safe or perfect. It is hard won but all the sweeter for that. All of these things and more are true and Schoenberger has shown them to be so beautifully.

For more information about Susan Schoenberger and the book visit her webpage, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer

Interning Japanese-Americans in "relocation camps" during World War II is a shameful, and often ignored, part of US history. We imprisoned our own citizens based solely on their racial and cultural history and whether it was out of ignorance, fear, or greed, it was a terrible wrong. There are now increasing numbers of wonderful books, fiction and non-fiction, that have grown out of the internment experience but almost all of them are from the perspective of the Japanese-Americans. Schiffer has written the first book that I've come across that examines the effect of one of these camps on a young white girl in the area. I knew about the camps and have read extensively on the subject of them but I was unaware that such a camp was opened in the south where racial tensions were already simmering.

When the novel opens, Chess Morton is headed to the site of the former Camp Nine to meet David Matsui, a famous musician she knew 20 years prior when he was interned there as a boy with his family during the war. The intervening years separated them but his imminent return takes her back to that time when she was still so innocent and questioning. Then a 13 year old girl from the area's wealthiest family, she lived with her widowed mother just across from her paternal grandparents. Set apart from the community because of her family, her mother's progressiveness, and her own curiousity, Chess senses the underlying tensions swirling through tiny Rook, Arkansas. And when her grandfather, as her guardian, sells the land called Camp Nine to the government for a supposed prisoner of war camp, Chess will see the tensions come to a head and change her view of the world.

Rook is a farming community, traditional and strictly segregated, where interactions between whites and the blacks who serve them are rigidly codified and constrained. And it is into this world that the US government thrusts thousands of disenfranchised Japanese-Americans. Carolina March Morton, Chess's mother, is the daughter of Italian immigrants who married into the locally important Morton family but not before she went to college in California. When the Japanese-Americans arrive from California, Carolina sees in them not people who are enemies or suspect but simply people who lived where she was once so happy and with whom she can reminisce. She takes Chess with her to the camp, against Chess' wishes, so that she too can see the truth and shame of the situation, even at her young age. While Carolina teaches art classes at Camp Nine, Chess becomes friends with Henry and David Matsui. Henry is asked to answer yes to the "Loyalty Oath" and to go and fight for the country that has imprisoned him while David, slightly younger, sneaks out of camp to hone his musical skills with Uncle Willie, a blind blues player who lives in a cabin close to the camp.

There are many disparate plot lines threading through the narrative but their thematic similarity ties them together to form a coherent whole. Schiffer has a light touch when writing about very freighted topics and maintains the novel's tensions well but allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and judgements about the characters and their actions rather than heavy-handedly forcing an understanding. Her choice of Chess as narrator, an innocent who is nevertheless an insider by virtue of birth, is an interesting one and ultimately quite successful. That Chess doesn't fully understand the events of that time until her meeting twenty years later with David makes her narration just that much more authentic. As much as this novel is about the effects of the Japanese-American internment, it is equally about Chess' coming of age and the ways in which her understanding of the world, colored by the presence of the camp, matures and widens. Race, class, tolerance, and the prevailing power structure all play enormous roles in the novel. A different perspective on a shameful piece of our history, Schiffer has written a very readable and poignant tale.

For more information about Vivienne Schiffer and the book visit her webpage.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Savannah Rock and Roll Half Marathon

Remember how, I posted about my last 5K and mentioned that I was going to get serious about trying to train decently for my upcoming half marathons? Yeah, I lied. The two 5K's I did in the last couple of months are the farthest I've run since last January's Disney half. Yup, the same half where I vowed never to do an untrained half again. Apparently I am nothing but a big fat liar. Because this past weekend, I hopped in a car with two friends and headed to my parents' in Savannah to run yet another half for which I was woefully unprepared.

As convenient as it was to be able to stay at mom and dad's house, not being downtown in a hotel meant that we had to catch a shuttle to the race. This was a bit of a problem. We arrived at Savannah Mall, the shuttle location, at just past 6am. The race was scheduled to start at 7:30am. You'd have thought that surely that was enough time. Unfortunately it was not. We stood in lines at the mall, freezing our poor tail ends off waiting for buses for an inordinate amount of time. K., C., and I considered tackling some guys near us who were smart enough to be dressed for the weather in sweat pants. We figured that they could probably take us though, especially given that our hands had frozen into clenched up claws. At least the buses were heated but the shuttle location meant we had a lengthy drive into the city to the race. At 7:30, when the gun was ostensibly sounding at Bull and Bay Streets, we were still on the highway making our way into the city. For those of us with late starting corrals (ie the really slow pokes like me), this was not a big deal at all but it led to us being passed by much faster runners who had missed their scheduled start for more miles than we would have expected.

I really lucked out in that K. also fell down on the job as far as training was concerned so we were equally unprepared and could run together the entire way. Since I had gone 3 miles and she had gone 6, my big goal was to get past those two mile markers still running. I'm probably a colossal pain in the butt to run with because it's like I'm people watching at the mall. Poor K. had to endure me pointing out every oddity, every entertaining shirt, and every fun poster that passed us or that we passed. We had a good old time pointing out people who clearly tried to wear clothing that was 3 or more sizes too small for them. K. found one woman who had shorts so far up her bum it looked almost as if she was running in a thong. I pointed out the woman whose running skirt was so short that it was really more a scarf around her waist. I thought about taking some pictures of people from the rear (and not just these two) to show the incredible variety of shapes of people who run marathons and half marathons but then realized that I'd be highly annoyed if some stranger snapped a picture of my jiggly butt on a run without my permission. I'd probably think they were a bit of a pervert. So I refrained. (You should all breathe a sigh of relief since I had intended to post those pictures here too.)

Some of the most entertaining sights during the race were the backs of people's t-shirts. Now, the mass produced ones can be quite entertaining and pithy but my personal favorites are the homemade shirts. An older man ran past us at one point and he had a laminated card pinned to the back of his shirt. It said, "Estimated finish time: Tuesday around noon." The fact that I was seeing this from behind and watching it get smaller and smaller in the distance tells you a little bit about how fast untrained runners run a half marathon. Another one that made me chuckle was ironed on to the back of a woman (also going faster than us) which said "If a marathon was easy, it'd be called Yo Mama." There was the "I could be wearing that" kind of shirt that said "Muffin Tops 13.1." And then there was the truly inspirational: "Proof that all things are possible, -160 lbs." It does not need to be said that all of these people were running faster than we poky little puppies were since I was reading their backs.

The other place you find entertainment during a long and painful run you haven't trained for (are you sensing how important this training thing is yet?) is looking at the signs along the route. People make lots of encouraging signs for their loved ones. My family doesn't but hey, I only hold that slightly against them. Since I never get signs specifically encouraging me (and co-opting any encouragement intended for other Kristens doesn't count, especially when so many of them spell our name incorrectly--it's an EN, not an IN at the end), I love the funny ones. There was a guy under an overpass holding a sign that said "GO COMPLETE STRANGER GO." I think I fell a little bit in love with him when I saw it. The best was that some anonymous voice behind me shouted to him "Thanks complete stranger!" Another one I poked K. to check out said "Do it longer. Do it faster. Do it harder. (That's what she said.)" Yes, sexual humor is never out of place during an endurance run.

Pointing shirts and posters and people out to K. as we ran helped keep my mind off the fact that we were actually stupid enough to try to run that 13.1 miles. Because, in case you are under the impression that it's not far, you're wrong. Map out some of the routes you normally drive and you'll be shocked at how far 13 miles will actually get you. In any case, marathons always seem to bring out some interesting characters. There are, of course, the folks in costume. We had wonder woman on our bus to the race. And I saw 4 Where's Waldos posing for a picture after the race. But it's the characters you stumble across during the run who divert your attention best.

There was a guy just ahead of us who had a doggie squeak toy in his pocket. Any time there were people cheering on the course, he squeaked that toy for all he was worth. There was a barefoot runner. (Given the bloody stumps and blisters I generally have at the end of the race, barefoot running appeals to me not at all.) There was the young guy wearing a pink race shirt, pink knee high socks, and a black running skirt. I asked K. if she thought he'd lost a bet. She said she thought it was a choice and I suspect she was correct. In any case, he had the good sense to get a skirt that was the proper size, unlike the woman I'd seen earlier. There was a woman who must be a religious fundamentalist of some stripe as she was wearing a long black skirt to mid shin, stripey rainbow socks pulled up to cover what the skirt didn't, a long sleeved blouse type shirt, and had her hair in a braid that stretched below her bottom. There was a Marine running with a full pack, the Marine flag, and an American flag. Oo-rah to him! Personally I carry my extra 50 pounds around daily, evenly distributed over my entire body so I don't know what the big deal was but everyone else seemed impressed. ;-) One guy zipped past us singing at the top of his lungs to his music. A woman running beside us shouted to him, "That's right! You go! You'll never see us again." It's kind of hard to giggle and run at the same time. One guy was running with his girlfriend/wife and he was obviously trying to encourage her. She was just as obviously pretty much out of gas. If she hadn't been and I'd been her, I think I might have run faster for a minute just so I could catch him and kick him. He would run ahead of her a ways and then turn around and run backwards trying to convince her to catch him. I told K. that I thought that was incredibly annoying and I'd want to strangle him. Apparently I was a bit louder than I realized as a woman running next to them turned around and yelled back to me "I would too." Good to know I can be a judgmental big mouth even in the midst of a run. The worst person we saw though was a woman who had pooped her pants. She was running just slightly faster than we were so we had the benefit of the hideous smell (and unpleasant sight) for longer than we would have liked. I should add that each and every one of these people I mentioned was running faster than we were. Although we did pass the annoying boyfriend/husband and his clearly wiped out significant other walking towards the end of the race and she hadn't given him a black eye yet so she really must have loved him.

Although I hope I won't do another race so unprepared, I was really pleased that K. and I managed to run the entire 13.1 miles. We crossed the finish with a chip time of 2:39:29. Definitely slow but upright and running the whole way! Once we were finished, I needed a porta-potty rather desperately. A big greasy hamburger the night before the race was yet another of my poorer decisions and my body was about to extract revenge. You know it's a sad day when you look with pleasure on a porta-john. It's even sadder when your thigh muscles are incapable of allowing you to hover over the grungy seat but you don't care and only let out a moan of pleasure at finally sitting down. The moment of truth comes, of course, when you are finished and should really leave the john but find that standing up is last on your list of friendly options. Knees protesting madly, I made my way back to K. where we heard the overall awards being given out. When they started off by saying that third place in the women's half marathon went to someone from Charlotte, NC, I just knew they meant me. I'm just a bit older and slower than Alana Hadley. But only a bit. (And my son, hearing about her amazing performance, said "Our track team is dead!")

Since I wasn't going to be getting any awards, we headed back to the shuttle line to catch a bus back to the mall. I swear we walked another mile to get the shuttle ("How best should we mess with these runners who've just run a gajillion miles? Let's make the shuttle stops be forever away from the finish and see how long it takes them to hobble over to them. Yeah, that sounds like fun!") And once back to the mall, we had to make the equally long trek to my car. Being smarter than the average bear, we cut through the mall in all our stinky glory instead of going around the outside. K. needed a bathroom break on our way so I loitered outside near several other people who obviously had also just finished the run. As one girl came out of the bathroom, her waiting friend told her that she'd found out what the word they didn't know meant. Word geek that I am, I leaned in to hear her ask which word it was. Apparently the word "inaugural," as in "The Inaugural Savannah Rock and Roll Marathon" had stumped all three girls. I swear I weep for the youth of today.

All in all, a fun time. New things I learned from this run: I learned that stashing your phone up your sleeve during a long run is a bad plan. It now makes a sound like I am getting a text every minute or so even though I'm not. I thinking having it bang against my elbow for so long short-circuited something in it. It makes me sound really popular though! I also learned that stiffness sets in in different ways depending on your lack of training. For instance, having gone to the bathroom while out for dinner that night, I found that there was no way on God's green Earth than I was going to be able to raise my leg high enough to flush the toilet. Just another little indignity I never knew about before. And I learned that there are very good reasons to flash your father a rude gesture in church. I went with mom and dad to the Saturday night service after the race while K. and C. napped or rested back at their house. I'm pretty sure I moaned audibly when we had to stand to sing and again when we sat back down. I know I had to grab the chair in front of me for balance since I felt like someone had knee-capped me. It was at this point that dad pointed out an older gentleman in the row across from us who had also run the half that morning. This man was rising and sitting without any apparent discomfort. Show-off! And yes, I made a rather rude gesture in dad's general direction. The people behind us were probably horrified but I figure they were already distracted by my moaning and groaning so they weren't surprised when I turned out to be an impertinent and rude piece of baggage too.

Now we need to see if I have learned the most important lesson of all: TRAIN FOR THE BLASTED RACES! (But not until after the state tennis tournament is over as I wouldn't want to over train for that. ::grin::)

Review: Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett

As a mother, I can't begin to imagine the terror of hearing that your child has a terminal illness of ideopathic (unknown) origin and that you will most certainly lose him no matter what lengths you go to to save him. I do, however, know the terror of having your child collapse as we are a family riddled with vasovagal syncope problems and my two oldest have had EMS called for them at school. I would say there's nothing worse than running into a building past an ambulance with flashing lights to find your sweet child surrounded by medical personnel. But, of course, there is something far worse as the plot of this novel makes clear.

Cathleen Magee is a single mother who has spent all but the first six months of her precious son Colm's life trying to find out the underlying cause of Colm's collapses. Terrifyingly, during his collapses, he stops breathing and his heart stops. When the book opens, Colm has another of his episodes and he and his mother end up in the office of the doctor who finally diagnoses what is causing the problem. And it's not harmless. Although Colm has thus far always come back from the empty blackness he experiences when he is technically dead, Dr. Basu has to tell Cathleen that what Colm is suffering from is in fact a progressive and ultimately terminal illness. But such a diagnosis does not deter Cathleen, a devout Catholic, from her continued quest to find a cure for Colm, whether by means of medicine or miracle.

While Cathleen prays for a miracle, even taking Colm to Assisi, Italy in search of a miracle healing, Colm himself, although only 7, recognizes that his time is short and that there will be no miracle. He also knows that there is no heaven because when he collapses, he descends into a dark nothingness. Reluctant to destroy his mother's hope, he confides in Dr. Basu, who has fallen hard for Cathleen and her small doomed son, despite the terrible tragedy in his own background. What Colm most wants, once he is assured that Dr. Basu and his uncle Sean will be there to support his mother when he is gone, is to find the father who abandoned him before he was born. Although wise beyond his years in so many ways, Colm is still searching for a complete family, in spite of the family he has gathered to himself and who all love him desperately.

The characters here are all lost and searching. They are searching for family, for completeness, for a sense of peace, for love, for faith, and for the certainty of an afterlife. Cathleen's need for hope and her desperate search for it anywhere she sees a glimmer is well done. She has wrapped her whole being into Colm's small failing body and if strength of will alone could keep him alive, she would be able to ensure he lives forever. Colm, while certainly more prescient than most children his age, comes across as too old. There is little about him of a child, making his character feel less authentic than his mother's. The additional storyline of uncle Sean's alcoholism is perhaps a bit too much. Obviously Sean is searching just as much as any of the other characters here but because he is not the focus of the story, his struggle and addiction take a backseat to the rest, almost minimizing the terrible toll alcoholism has on a family.

Since each of the characters' internal dialogues are revealed, the reader can see just what is driving each of them individually. This has benefits but it also has the drawback of sometimes being too easily laid out for the reader. Just as the existence of heaven and even faith itself is a mystery, the characters should not have explained all of their actions, leaving the actions themselves to speak for them. There was a lot of emotion packed into the pages here, as you would expect from a book that addresses the death (or potential death) or a child. The tension of wondering if Colm was going to finish his quest or if Cathleen would come to terms with his disagnosis ran consistently throughout the narrative. And yet when the end of the novel came, it was somehow a letdown, and left me feeling confused. I certainly understand what happened at the end but there were so many unfinished threads that I was astonished to find there was nothing further to read. It felt more like a full stop ending than a resolution, even one that deliberately left things unexplained. An interesting premise about facing the unknowable and unthinkable, sometimes with grace and other times with rage, it fell just slightly short of the promise for me.

For more information about Mary Curran Hackett and the book visit her webpage, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

Everyone judges a book by the cover, whether they consciously admit it or not. This simple but startling black and red cover drew me from the start. It is powerful and clean and haunting. And so I admired it aesthetically but gave the book itself a wide berth. After all, it was too science-fictiony for my tastes. But the raves for this novel, a retelling of The Scarlet Letter possessing elements of The Handmaid's Tale, continued to pour in. And the cover continued to be oddly compelling to me. Finally giving in to this superficial appeal, I rationalized that I had liked both the Hawthorne and Atwood books. Not the best reason to read a book but I am so glad that everything combined to drive me to this amazing, chilling story.

In the dystopian future, the United States is a fundamentalist theocracy. Freedoms have been strictly curtailed and transgressions are punished harshly. Hannah Payne wakes up in the first pages of the book not wearing a scarlet letter but dyed entirely and completely scarlet aside from the whites of her eyes and her teeth. She has been thus "chromed" to brand her with the generic details of her crime: murder. Chroming is the new regime's solution to prison crowding. Rather than incarcerate any but the most violent criminals, the powers that be change the very appearance of criminals and release them to live as best they can in normal society. Although Hannah's crime of murder is indeed violent, the murder she has committed is of her unborn baby, rendering her safe to be released to the general public. She has terminated her pregnancy rather than implicate in adultery or politically destroy her beloved minister, Reverend Dale, now the national Minister of Faith.

After her initial and brief imprisonment to adjust to her chroming, Hannah is released back into an unforgiving public rife with zealous Christian vigilantes to make her way as best she can. Although her father and Reverend Dale try to ease her way a bit from afar, and in the latter's case, without implicating himself in her crime, she is quickly exposed to the worst that a rigid, unbending fundamentalist society offers. Before her crime she questioned the strictures by which her society required her to live as a woman, uneducated, and with an uncritical acceptance of religion as taught to her. But after her crime, out of self-preservation as much as anything, she comes to reject her naive, unquestioning self and starts to rely on critical thinking in order to survive. Her new situation challenges her previously blind belief in religion, the place of women in society, and love. But what place does a society which would chrome someone for an abortion and condemn her more harshly for withholding the name of her unborn baby's father have for a woman such as Hannah is becoming?

Jordan writes skillfully in creating her terrifying vision of the future. The panic Hannah, newly red, feels is beautifully conveyed to the reader and the threads of this panic combined with a determined resiliency weave throughout the narrative, draws the reader along in Hannah's extended ordeal. The pacing of the novel is incredibly well balanced, never allowing the reader to relax, forcing vigilance with each turn of the page. The novel addresses many controversial topics, abortion, religion, homosexuality, politics, etc. and may (will?) cause some readers outrage. But in truth, it should cause all readers outrage. Because the curtailing of rights is something that should never be taken lightly. A cautionary tale retaining the morality issues of Hawthorne and the political issues of the Atwood, this is its own worthy entry into the ranks of the terrifying dystopian tale.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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