Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book review: "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger

So, I lied. At least to myself. When I started on this book review journey, I had intended to review books that I loved, books I wanted to savor and share with everyone else. And I meant that at the time. I mean, books that are that good are meant to be shared, and that’s the point of these reviews, right?

But there’s one book that I can’t stop thinking about. And it’s been almost a year since I read it. I suppose I’m hung up on the fact that I should have liked it. It was so close to being good but just wasn’t, and that bugs me.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger had all of the makings for a great read: an interesting plot, a timeless (literally) love story, the potential for compelling characters and well-placed red herrings along the way. But it fell short. Instead of being whisked away into a book where anything was possible, the reader instead is bogged down in details and stuck in a truly complicated story with tedious dates and ages of people to try to remember.

The story starts confusing. And maybe it’s supposed to. We are talking about time travel, of course, and that’s always a subject that’s tough to weave into any tale, regardless of what medium is being used to tell it. But this was so confusing that it took away from the characters, and for me – a truly character-driven reader – that meant the story was doomed from the beginning.

I’m okay with some mystery, which is I think what the author is trying to establish, to twist her readers into the folds of the plot, only to upend us with big revelations and “aha!” moments. Except there weren’t any. Instead, it only got more confusing.

One thing I can say, the book is aptly titled: The time traveler’s wife is the only constant. She is the stabilizing factor in the story, the reader’s anchor. Clare Abshire is married to librarian Henry DeTamble who can’t control his tendency to time travel. And the only way to keep track of where you are in time is by where Clare is in the story.

Henry was born with the ability to travel through time, and with this ability he has been able to see and experience more than any of us could imagine, including meeting with younger and older versions of himself throughout periods of his life. Unfortunately for Henry, he can’t control it, creating a nuisance out of something that could have been one heck of a beneficial gift. He is able to feel the episodes coming on and is usually able to escape somewhere private for his departure, but his landing can never be planned. He arrives at his destination nude and penniless and never knows when he’ll make it back to his present time.

All of these factors lend to a pretty intriguing love story with what should be curious questions for the reader: How does Clare cope? How does someone, who lives an otherwise normal, linear life love - not to mention keep track of - a time-traveling husband? What is the potential science involved in this theory?

The only problem is with the last question in this sequence: Who cares?

Even despite her more-than-adequate writing skills, Niffenegger doesn’t make me care about the characters or the plot or the outcome. As Henry DeTamble can attest, special gifts are usually both a blessing and a curse, much like time travel or good writing skills coupled with a huge imagination. Niffenegger’s blessing is that imagination, which is also her curse because of the befuddling details required to explain her ideas.

Based on the cumbersome and clunky read that was The Time Traveler’s Wife, I’d think twice before I picked up another of Niffenegger’s books.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Product Review: Melissa & Doug Puzzles

I've raved about this company before, here. And now I have evidence of how amazing Melissa & Doug products are. In the same way that I rush down every morning and head straight to the coffee maker, my boys rush down and pull their Melissa & Doug puzzles off the shelves and onto the kitchen counter to play with while we make breakfast.

Here's what they did this morning ...


Brock pieced together all 50 states, and Jack rearranged the alphabet to spell his own, his brother's and sister's names.

Brock (sitting on the counter after being told countless times to get down) and Jack show off their new passion, Melissa & Doug puzzles.
Brock gives us a closer look at his states. His favorite ones? Louisiana, Florida and Idaho (of course!).

Jack proudly displays his jumbled-up letters. Two seconds before taking this picture, he had spelled out "Joey" (notice her peeking up at us from below the counter. So cute!). When I said I wanted a picture, he quickly destroyed his work and smiled proudly. Little stinker.

This isn't the first time and certainly won't be the last time you'll hear me go on and on about this company. We are 100% sold on their products, and as a testament to that fact, we made a HUGE investment in them last year, stocking nearly their entire catalogue. You really should come check it out and grab a few of their amazing products for your kids or grandkids.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: "Run Like a Mother" by Dimity McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea

We all do it, and it makes sense. In fact, I believe it’s simply instinctual. And we do it so much, we just get used to it. We’re women, mothers, wives, personal chefs, personal shoppers, CEOs of our households, the list goes on and on, but the point is we wear several different hats. And they all fall under one job description: We’re mothers, and we almost always put ourselves last.

When I first became a mom, it seemed the saying “take care of yourself” was almost a buzzword of sorts, a phrase that was casually thrown around. But it seemed to be the first thing I tossed out the proverbial window. It felt right at the time, which I guess were my maternal instincts kicking in, focusing only on my children. But by doing so, I was wearing down far too quickly. So I started to take the saying seriously.

I got my act together, I exercised when I could, and I watched what I ate, and after a year had lost the whopping 80 pounds I gained while pregnant with my twin sons. Then to my surprise and utter joy, I found out I was pregnant again. The next nine months came and went, and I found myself back in the same position as two years before, 55 pounds heavier and never finding time to exercise or eat right.

Until I discovered running.

Discovering this newfound passion took root through one simple yet powerful human emotion: pride. Pride, and the accountability that it provides. I set a goal of running a half marathon and simply told other people my plans. Thanks to the power of pride, I HAD to do it. Too many people knew and were actually interested. It turned out to be one of the best things I ever did for my physical well-being and emotional health, which as we all know, become increasingly more important as we have children.

But it wasn’t all grit and ego that got me to complete the half-marathon and get to where I am now. I had help along the way … from a book.

Run Like a Mother: How to Get Moving – and Not Lose Your Family, Job, or Sanity  by Dimity McDowell and Sarah Bowen Shea got me off the couch and into my running shoes more times than I can count. The book was essentially developed throughout email correspondence between McDowell and Shea. They had originally envisioned it as a magazine series for Runner’s World that detailed the highs and lows of balancing motherhood and marathon training but quickly realized that it was much more. And I’m glad they did, because it is.

Aside from having a clever name, this book is chalk full of motivation and - perhaps even more important – a sense of camaraderie. It’s very well written, with a “hey you, you’re a mom, I’m a mom, we’re in this together” type of feel. It’s often funny and always inspirational. My favorite chapter – and the one I turn to most often – is written by Dimity. It deals with motherhood being a life of nonnegotiables, that there are things that we, as mothers, have to do for our children and our family’s well-being. She makes a point that we should include ourselves in that category by making our health and fitness a nonnegotiable factor in our lives.

It was this thought, conveyed in Chapter Two that profoundly changed my outlook and, inevitably, my life. Now, like the puke-soaked sheets that need changed in the middle of the night, my bathroom slippers get tossed aside for my running shoes nearly every morning.

Running and motherhood are a lot alike. They both take infinite amounts of patience, dedication and stamina. Rest days help too. Running used to be something I despised, but now it’s my lifeline, my escape. It fuels me and makes me a better mom, wife and woman. Run Like a Mother is more than just a book, it’s a training partner, a confidant, a friend.

So, go. Run like the mothers you are, to your nearest bookstore (preferably to The Paperhouse) and buy a couple copies, one for you and one to give away to other mothers. The great thing about this book is that it’s for everyone, for mothers who don’t run or runners who aren’t mothers. We can all gain something by owning and reading it.

A quick photo journey of my first half marathon, October 10, 2010 in Spokane, Washington.
Making my way to the starting line. I was so excited and nervous ... and proud.

 Yep, this is exactly what you think it is. My twins, Brock and Jack, dropping trou near the finish line. I guess this kinda sums up the book and shows how motherhood and marathon training (whether it's for a half, full or ultra) require the same amount of dedication and patience.
 And this is why we do it. 
Our kids see everything we do, the good and the bad. So let's show them more of the good stuff.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Review: Stieg Larsson's Milennium Trilogy: "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "Girl .. Fire" and "Girl .. Hornet's Nest"

I love getting caught up in a good book. Losing myself in the story - even for as little as 20 minutes - can help revive me; it almost makes me feel like I’ve been on vacation. (The only thing that tops that is actually being on said vacation while getting lost in a book). I find that it’s easier and easier for me to get emotionally involved with the characters and intrigued by the plot. Perhaps it’s the book selections I’m making nowadays … I’m not trying to read what I think I should be reading; I just read what I enjoy. I suppose getting older has its perks: no more trying to impress anyone.

And no books have made me feel as utterly engrossed as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. The second I read the first word, I was interested. By the time I completed the first paragraph, I was gone, being pulled further and further into his character’s worlds. My boys were running naked through the yard (sorry 9th street), and I barely even noticed. These books made me get more than just caught up and involved … they made me downright negligent.

Larsson’s trilogy includes “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl who Played with Fire” and “The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” The first tells the stories of Lisbeth Salander, a troubled yet brilliant young woman with a mysterious past, and Michael Blomkvist, an award-winning investigative journalist who works to clear his name after losing a libel suit and spending three months in prison. Their lives intersect as Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger, CEO of successful Swedish company Vanger Enterprises, for a freelance assignment. Although commissioned as a family biography, the assignment is only a cover. Vanger’s real hope is that Blomkvist can use the information in the family history to solve a decades-old missing persons case, that of Vanger’s beloved niece Harriet. During his research, Blomkvist stumbles upon a dark family secret and, with Lisbeth’s help, solves the 40-year-old case.

The next two books reveal more of Lisbeth’s character and past, which includes her witnessing the horrific abuse of her mother by that of an international criminal. In an effort to protect her mother, she unwittingly becomes caught in a government cover up and a lifetime of abuses that lead to her being the top suspect in a double murder. The protagonists’ lives intersect once more as Blomkvist works to clear Lisbeth’s name of the murder charges.

The second book in the series, “Fire,” was my favorite. There were several “wow” moments, revelations that I didn’t see coming and that stunned me even more than the fact that my two naked boys were now hollering to the neighbors, attracting more attention to their lack of clothing and apparent lack of parental control.

But the redeeming and revenge-seeking nature of the “Hornet’s Nest” storyline is equally enthralling. You can’t help but cheer for Lisbeth in her pursuit to clear her name and the unconventional methods she uses to do so.

I liked Lisbeth and even admired her at times. I was endeared by Blomkvist’s intelligence and righteousness. The best compliment I imagine a writer could receive would be that their characters meant something to the reader, and that is definitely true of Larsson’s work. Combine that with an intriguing plot, great twists and even a little romance, and you have the makings of a pack of books that lends itself as a mini-vacation for a very weary reader who could use an escape from naked children and the other distractions of motherhood.

My only suggestion: Buy all three.

At once.

Because you will read all three at once.

Review: "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak

The only concern I have about reviewing this book is that I won't do it any justice. Nobody could. What I can say, though, is that "The Book Thief" is more than a bound collection of words on paper, it's an experience. The characters consume you and will break your heart.

I suppose I can be a bit of a crier. Sure, I like to think I'm tough, but I'm not. And I certainly wasn't while reading Zusak's work. The story is set during the Holocaust, and there's some debate as to whether this is a twist that shouldn't be revealed, but the narrator is not who you would expect.

The writing is spectacular, of course, and character development is precise and haunting, but the beauty of the book is in its narrator. You instantly trust him, and although he is a neutral commentator throughout the book, you grow to love him and feel for him during what he occasionally describes as one of his busiest periods in history. The other character of note (although I believe they all are developed equally well, she just happens to be the heroine) is Liesel.

In one act of thievery, Liesel Meminger changes the path of her life and that of the unseen narrator's who takes an interest in the girl. The stolen item is a book, "The Grave Digger's Handbook," found near her brother's graveside. With the help of her foster father, she uses the manual to learn to read. With book burnings commonplace in Nazi Germany, she has to risk her life at times in order to fuel her desire to learn.

Through Liesel, the reader experiences life and the good and bad it has to offer. Through our narrator, the reader experiences death and the good and bad it has to offer. And - most importantly - between our heroine and storyteller, the reader experiences something that we all look for in a book, a collection of characters -- some who are friends, some who are not -- who you will remember for a lifetime and pull from your bookshelf again and again.

A couple thank-yous and shout-outs to get things started

This is a fun and exciting new venture for me and my family business, and I've had a lot of help even just to get here, to this post.

A big thank you to my friend Tessa of Shopper Gal for her inspiration to get this thing started and great advice along the way. I have an absolute blast reading Shopper Gal's posts! Tessa is a little ball of energy and is full of motivation and fun new ideas.

And another huge thank you for the use of her FABULOUS photos to Colette of Coco Photography She came to St. Maries in October and did our family portrait. We had a wonderful time, and she got some amazing shots of us. She did so much more for us than just take our pictures, she helped us make memories. Thank you, Colette.