Thursday, November 29, 2012

thoughts on: The Big Burn

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved AmericaThe Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan

The Big Burn begins with a highly readable account of the founding of the National Forest Service in 1905. Fighting against political opponents allied with timber magnates, President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service, set aside as much western land as possible as Congress was passing a bill preventing the president from ever doing so again.

Their belief in conservation, unpopular though it was, never faltered, and the underfunded Forest Service soldiered on with young recruits who struggled against powerful business interests who wanted to profit from the resources on the newly declared public land.

In 1910, the Forest Service was dearly tested by a massive fire in the Bitterroot Mountains which ultimately burned 3.2 million acres of forest and several towns in its path. Many foresters fought bravely and lost their lives or suffered lifelong injuries from the fire.

The human drama of both the fire and political machinations makes The Big Burn a compelling story. Egan shows the fire, and its outcome, through the experience of foresters and volunteer firefighters on the ground, homesteaders in its path, townspeople in panic, and politicians thousands of miles away.

More than any other individual, however, this is the story of Gifford Pinchot, who tirelessly advocated for conservation of our nation's forests for fifty years.

thoughts on: Two Rings: A Story of Love and War

Two Rings: A Story of Love and WarTwo Rings: A Story of Love and War by Millie Werber

Millie Werber spent her teenaged years surviving slave labor camps and Auschwitz. She endured its brutality and witnessed more, but in the midst of it all, she fell in love. Her memoir is all the more poignant because she kept her first love and marriage a secret for most of her life, fearing that her own children would not understand how a fifteen year old girl could experience love while surrounded by such horror.

In sharing her story, Mrs. Werber shows us beautifully how that can be. Even living in constant fear could not diminish her desire to love and be loved, and the extreme danger of their circumstances, rather than holding back such feelings, gave them an urgent need to be expressed.

This first romance is only part of her story, but it is the heart of it. Although Werber says she lost her faith during the Holocaust, she never lost her capacity for love.

thoughts on: Expecting Adam

Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday MagicExpecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic by Martha N. Beck

Expecting Adam was not at all what I was expecting. Thinking this month's book club selection was a memoir of the emotional journey of a mother who learns the baby she is carrying has Downs' Syndrome, I eagerly began reading.

What followed was Martha Beck's account of supernatural experiences during and after her pregnancy. She describes out of body experiences, transporting her across the globe, and numerous encounters with beings whom she describes at times as bankuru puppeteers, angels, and as her unborn son.

Beck clings to the truth of her personal experiences, but resists ascribing any part of her own beliefs to her upbringing or religious affiliation or academic background. She seems especially determined to reinvent herself apart from her religion, and this makes her writing unwieldy at times as she attempts to describe her religious feelings and spiritual experiences without referencing her faith or beliefs.

thoughts on: Logavina Street

Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo NeighborhoodLogavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood by Barbara Demick

I remember the events of Sarajevo, but if I ever knew the causes, I had forgotten them. Barbara Demick, at the time a young foreign correspondent living and reporting from Sarajevo throughout its civil war, beautifully captures both the spirit of the people of Sarajevo and the nightmare they endured.

For centuries a city where religions coexisted peacefully (30% of marriages were of mixed religious backgrounds), fashionable and affluent Sarajevo became a war zone when Serbian nationalists besieged it in an attempt to expand Serbian territory.

Demick's reporting and book focused on the residents of Logavina Street, located in a predominantly but far from exclusively Muslim neighborhood. On Logavina lived imams, doctors, hairdressers, members of the Croatian military, orphans, etc. A microcosm of the residents of the city, rich and not, Muslim, Serb, Croatian, neighbors who before the war had seen their differences as minimal and were shocked that anyone would use religion as an impetus for war. Not in Sarajevo. Not their home.

The horrors of the war, the deaths, the deprivations, the dignity of those who endure - these are easy to remember, but they are not the most important lessons. We need to learn that no place is immune to such violence, that the hatred of even a small minority can destroy peace, that radicalism arises not from true religion but from avarice and lust for power.

thoughts on: Son

Son (The Giver, #4)Son by Lois Lowry

Many years have passed since I read The Giver, and I was concerned this might diminish my enjoyment of Son. I need not have worried. Lois Lowry includes just enough references to characters in the earlier books to jog the memory, without dragging the story down with excessive exposition.

This final installment was written in response to her many readers who have asked, "What happened to the baby from the Giver?" Son is his story, but more so, it is the story of his young mother.

Opening in the tightly controlled community of The Giver, young Claire, assigned to the occupation of birthmother, gives birth to baby #36, whom she later learns is assigned the name Gabe. Divided into three distinct parts, each set in a different society, we see the difficulties and pains in each community, as we watch Claire search for her son, and, in the final segment, watch Gabe search for his mother.

thoughts on: The Glitter and the Gold

The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess---in Her Own WordsThe Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess---in Her Own Words by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan

Consuelo Vanderbilt was part of the later wave of wealthy American debutantes who married English titles. Still in her teens, she married, against her wishes, the Duke of Marlborough in 1895, and was witness to the major events of the first half of the 20th century.

Her memoir, however, lacks the candor that would have made it fascinating to the modern reader. She is very discrete in speaking of her family, which is admirable, but not interesting. Although she is frank about having been forced into marriage by her ambitious mother, she refrains from discussing her marriage or any other relationships in depth.

Nor does she offer details of the events of her lifetime. The Glitter and the Gold contains glimpses of a fascinating life, touched by two world wars and at times dedicated to social issues. However, most of her memoir is mere name dropping and descriptions of many, many parties and dinners attended.

thoughts on: Fidelity

FidelityFidelity by Wendell Berry

A slender collection, Wendell Berry's Fidelity offers five short stories of life in rural Kentucky. Arranged chronologically, each episode explores a different facet of human relationships while depicting the progression of time on the rural community itself. Interweaving his characters throughout each others' stories enhances Berry's portrait of a small, but strong, interdependent community.

thoughts on: The Woman Who Died a Lot

The Woman Who Died a Lot (Thursday Next, #7)The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

I've never liked Thursday more than in The Woman Who Died a Lot.  Militant librarians, parenting teens, pain killers, clones in tupperware, and, of course, the end of the world = another brilliant Jasper Fforde novel.

The pace of this seventh installment is slower, and so is our aging heroine.  There's less action, but plenty of the humour ffans so dearly love, and a poignancy, too.

I could go on, but I don't want to spoil the pleasure of watching the story unfold.

thoughts on: World War II London Blitz Diary

World War II London Blitz DiaryWorld War II London Blitz Diary by Ruby Side Thompson

Ruby Side Thompson was a lifelong diarist.  She poured her heart out in her diaries, the one place she felt safe revealing her unhappiness with her life, and, primarily, her husband.

Her great-granddaughter has published the volumes from World War II.  Yes, they were written during the war.  Yet she writes infrequently of the effect of war, and usually, it is only to rail against men (as a sex), whom she blames for the war.  Men, in fact are blamed for all of society's ills.  Unhappily married, and the mother of seven sons, Ruby's view of men is quite hostile.

Women fair little better.  Ruby detests the silliness of her neighbors and complains relentlessly about them taking up her time by visiting her.  In fact, in her diary, Ruby shows very little kindness towards anyone.  She is entirely absorbed by her own unhappiness.

The diaries are interesting as a character study of Ruby, but they will disappoint if you are looking for a detailed account of life during the Blitz.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

thoughts on: Quiet: The Power of Introverts

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

As an introvert, it's not surprising that I would like Quiet, but I'd encourage extraverts to read it as well. Susan Cain devotes the first portion of her book to looking at how we, America, changed from a culture of character to a culture of personality. She then continues to approach the topic from a cultural perspective. Looking at the subject through this lens broadens our understanding of how our cultural bias affects all of us.

Quiet is not a self-help book for understanding introverts or thriving as one. It does point out ways that our schools, businesses, and society at large are impacted when society strongly favors extraverts, a bias that is not supported by research.

I would like to think that awareness alone would prompt change, especially change away from group-learning theories in our schools, but I suspect it will be as effective as the years of evidence that self esteem does not improve either the learning or the behavior of our students.

Friday, September 7, 2012

thoughts on: Happier at Home

Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday LifeHappier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life by Gretchen Rubin

When I read complaints about Gretchen Rubin's original Happiness Project or her new Happier at Home, they center around her having an ideal or enchanted life.  In some ways, this is true.  She is not writing about finding happiness amidst financial or marital struggles.  She is not trying to be happy in a career or location she hates.  She is not trying to overcome major adversities in her life.  However, she is not giving advice to people in those situations.

She is writing to those, like her, who know they have good lives, and want to feel it - people who find themselves grumbling about minor inconveniences or find their moods determined by perceived slights and difficulties, and know they should be happier than they currently feel.

Taken for what it is, Happier at Home is an engaging book.  I found Rubin much easier to relate to in this book than the last.  She is still a determined Type A, but she seems a bit more vulnerable, more real, more likable.  Her life is unlike my own, yet I appreciated reading about her efforts at enjoying the here and now, savoring these moments, not rushing to the next or romanticizing the past.  Even if her methods do not appeal to me, her goal does.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

thoughts on: Good Omens

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, WitchGood Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett

Entertaining and enjoyable and very, very nice. Nice as in nice, not precise, which Gaiman and Pratchett keep telling the reader is the original meaning of the word. That, to me, was the longest running joke in the book, but I will say no more for fear of spoiling someone else's fun.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

thoughts on: Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a PresidentDestiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

When you know perfectly well that the protagonist dies, and you still get teary eyed when it happens, that is a well told tale.  It's not only that James Garfield was thoroughly likable, but my heart ached for his devoted wife and children, two of whom were with him when he was shot.

Destiny of the Republic is more than a biography of James Garfield.  It is also an account of the life of his assassin, Charles Guiteau.  Candice Millard manages to portray Guiteau with neither sympathy nor antipathy.  Egotistical, and unlikable, he was clearly mentally ill.

However, it was not Guiteau's bullets that killed Garfield.  Lingering for months after being shot, Garfield was ultimately killed by infection caused by the aggressive and unsanitary medical care he received at the hands of the egotistical Dr. Bliss. 

Throughout, Millard places the story in the context of its day.  The relationships between Garfield and those around him, the political climate and intrigues, the state of medical knowledge and practice, the technology of the day.  She shows how Garfield's assassination and death led to changes in these various realms.

thoughts on: The Honest Truth About Dishonesty

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially OurselvesThe Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely's writing is engaging, so The Honest Truth About Dishonesty is a quick and enjoyable read about his research on cheating. I liked The Honest Truth most when Ariely was looking at real-life examples and the implications of his findings - in the pharmacy and medical communities, as well as banking. Those offered applications of a "buyer beware" nature.

I have read several similar books this year, and though I enjoyed the hours spent reading this one, I think I prefer books that look at the findings of multiple researchers.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

thoughts on: In Sheep's Clothing

In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative PeopleIn Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People by George K. Simon Jr.

I wish someone had given me this book 25 years ago, so I would not have had to learn how to deal with manipulators the hard way.  I think I will put a copy in my kids' Christmas stockings this year. 

Simon addresses manipulators for what they are - aggressors who care more about having their own way than anything else.  He encourages people to recognize them, to trust your intuition when you feel like something is not right, and to stand up to them in an effective manner.  He also advocates knowing your own weaknesses, so you can guard against those people who will use them to their advantage.  Good advice. 

(There were a number of errors that should have been caught by a good proof-reader, but the advice within is worth the little extra effort in reading.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

thoughts on: Up From HIstory

Up from History: The Life of Booker T. WashingtonUp from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington by Robert J. Norrell

As his title implies, Up From History, seeks to restore our understanding of Booker T. Washington by placing him firmly in the context of the post-reconstruction South. The misrepresentation of Washington began even during his life, as he was under constant attacks from both white supremacists in the south and northern black men who sought to replace him as the perceived leader of his race. Sadly, it was the latter who were most effective in tarnishing Washington's reputation for much of the 20th century.

Washington was a very private man, so there are no revelations here, no newly discovered papers to reveal his inner life. What is here is a careful analysis of the events the day and how Washington responded to them. In an era of rampant lynchings and disfranchisement, Washington carefully advocated for increased education and opportunities for African Americans. He worked unceasingly to raise money for Tuskegee and other schools, believing that education and economic success would lead to better race relations. He advised President T. Roosevelt, advocating for fair minded men to receive federal appointments. He worked tirelessly to promote the ideal of unity and fight the stereotypical images of blacks in popular culture. He financially supported lawsuits to forward equality and lobbied against disfranchisement. Because his actions were liable to provoke more lynchings and riots, he often hid his involvement in political matters from public view, at least in the south.

In his concluding chapter, Norrell explores the reasons Washington's achievements and contributions were so maligned by later generations, and offers a fair assessment of his legacy.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

thoughts on: The Anti-Romantic Child

The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected JoyThe Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy by Priscilla Gilman

Gilman laces her memoir with the Romantic poetry which both framed her expectations for family life and sustained her when those dreams seemed to be crashing down around her.  In doing so, she goes beyond recounting the realization that something is amiss, the frustrating process of evaluations and therapies, and the effects of it all on her marriage and career.  Through poetry, she reframes her own idea of a romantic childhood, of meaningful relationships, of her son and her self, and finds joy.

Lovingly written, The Anti-Romantic Child shows both the joys in parenting a child who is far outside developmental and cultural norms and the fears and frustrations she feels along the way.  Her son's condition, hyperlexia, affects every aspect of his development, creating ongoing challenges.  This is not a story of overcoming a diagnosis, or an instructional guide to advocating for your special needs child, or a tell-all tale of a family tragedy.  It is a story of the power of words - to afflict or to inspire.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Panda, a hybrid softie

Real pandas might not be hybrids, but this one is.  I made it using the hippo pattern from Susan B. Anderson's Itty Bitty Toys.  I modified the snout to be more bear-like, but the resulting head looked freakishly small for the body.  I don't know why this was, because I've made the hippo twice (once as a hippo and once as a rhino), and their heads look perfectly in scale.

So, I took that head off and knit a new one using the head from the baby bear pattern.  It fit perfectly.   Wondering why I didn't use the bear pattern to begin with?  Size.  I wanted a smaller bear than results from that pattern, which I'd made in blue for a different baby.

The eyes took a few tries, but I had an a-ha moment when I realized I could get a rounder shape using crocheted chain stitches. 

Because I was frustrated while trying to figure out the eyes, I decided to weave in all the ends.  Usually, I wait until I am completely finished before doing this.  Here, you can see why waiting is smarter:  his ears are crooked.

I considered cutting the ears off and trying to pick out all the black yarn, but decided against it.  I think his lovability will be unaffected in a child's eyes by his lopsided ears.

The panda was knit on size four needles with Caron Simply Soft yarns.  He used significantly less than half a skein.  I might knit a smaller body to go with the panda head that is now sitting in my work cart.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Baby Geek Onesies

These are the onesies I decorated for my friends' babies.
(Each set was for a different baby.  Both girls, born on Sunday and Monday this week.)
They were all done with the super easy freezer paper stencil technique.
I loved making these!
Star Wars
The one in the center is Boba Fett's symbol.
The rest you probably recognize.

Harry Potter
Fawkes, Snape's patronus,Hogwarts, snitch, HP
My daughter did the lettering for the Hogwarts and the pretty wings on the snitch.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Secret Baby Projects Revealed

One of my friends had her baby this morning.  I was rather sad I could not be there, both to cuddle baby a bit and to host the big sisters while their mommy is in hospital, but I went to the post office to mail my gift within an hour of hearing the news.  We do what we can.

I could not send the gift, or show it to you, before now, because my friends did not want to know ahead of time if baby number four was a boy or a girl. I did. I wanted to know with baby number three, too, but had to impatiently wait. This time, since they do not live nearby anymore, they let me keep the secret! Their ultrasound technician wrote it down, sealed it in an envelope, and they mailed it to me. Do I have amazing friends or what???? I felt so honored that they both loved me enough to indulge me and trusted me enough to keep the secret from the - literally - hundreds of other people who were playing the guessing game.

Baby is a girl.

I must be honest. If they had been having a boy, I would have gone all out with blues and dinosaurs. However, this is their fourth girl. I have seen the abundance of pink and purple and girlie motifs they already have. So I mostly kept the pink to one blanket.

I am thrilled that they had another girl, though!  As much as I love being a mom to boys, I love the idea that their four daughters make two pairs of sisters with a few years gap between.  I love my sister, and I know their mom and her sister are best of friends.

The little panda stands a good chance of being confiscated by a toddler sister, but that is half of why I included him.  I will post more of him later.

I also sent a soft green blanket, lighter in weight than the pink one.  I shared this blanket a few months ago.  I meant to show you this blanket a few months ago, but did not.  I think the green will go well with all the pinks and purples and yellows that are awaiting this baby at home.
The fourth item was a set of Baby Geek onesies, because my friend is a big Harry Potter fan.  I'm giving them their own post, so no photo here.

thoughts on: The Rescue Artist

The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing MasterpieceThe Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick

I expected to like The Rescue Artist more than I did.  Drawn in by the opening story, the 1994 theft of Munch's The Scream, I was set for a meandering narrative about the hunt for it and its thieves.  However, about half way through the book I began to lose interest in the side stories about detective Charley Hill's past exploits.  Since the book was more about Hill than The Scream, I should have set the book aside.  Instead I plodded through, genuinely wanting to find out about this particular crime.  By the last section, I was skimming through, reading only the parts relevent to the Scream.  I think I would have enjoyed a nice magazine article about the crime more.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Did you think I'd abandoned my chemo hats?

If you did, you were almost correct. I haven't knit any new hats in months. These two were knit back in March, but I didn't photograph them until yesterday, when I turned them in to our knitting ministry.

We've found a home for our hats at a local chemo center, so I wanted these two to go for summer.  The blue one is yet another Odessa in Sirdar's Silky Look.  

The peach one (which looks cream in the photos) is another Boardwalk, this time in peach cotton.  A discontinued yarn, Cajun Cotton, I think it was a poor choice for the pattern.  I did not realize how the textured yarn would look knit up, having never used anything like it.  I'm not a fan, but it is cotton, which should be welcome in the warmer months.  (Although, in this heat wave, it is hard to imagine anyone would want a hat at all.)

My daughter's beautiful long hair doesn't really go with the chemo theme, does it?

Monday, June 25, 2012

thoughts on: Guest of Honor

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a NationGuest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis

I must be drawn to this type of history writing - one event in an eventful life used to illustrate the character of those involved as well as the significance of that moment in time. Deborah Davis uses the White House dinner of Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington as the climax of her narrative. Although lost in history, this casual dinner in 1901 was so shocking to the South that it remained an issue for many years to come.

If she had only written of the dinner and its aftermath, Guest of Honor would have been a very interesting article for a history journal. Instead, Davis writes parallel biographies of the two great men, drawing similarities between the two. Although I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these two men, I felt that there was a bit too much effort made to parallel their lives. Losing a young first wife was not so rare in the late 19th century, nor has it ever been rare for a strong willed girl to become a trying adolescent. Coming back to these topics repeatedly, it seemed that Davis was implying a deeper connection between the men, one that was not supported in any way by the historical record.

However, the historical record itself is quite interesting, and Davis adeptly presented both men's views on the racial issues and tensions of their day. With Roosevelt, she looks at both his words and actions, the latter being far more revealing of his progressive and fair nature than the former. In writing of Booker T. Washington, she shows the philosophy behind his often-criticized efforts to teach former slaves self sufficiency and technical skills. Upon finishing Guest of Honor, I immediately added to my queue a biography of Booker T. Washington which Davis recommends.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

thoughts on: Breasts, a Natural and Unnatural History

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural HistoryBreasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence   Williams

Every year in my elementary school, there was a lesson about head lice, either a filmstrip or a weekly reader article, and, I would spend the entire lesson trying not to scratch my head at the thought of lice.  Florence Williams' book is like that.  Informative, interesting, even entertaining, but it made me itch. 

Breasts begins with the laughable evolutionary theories of why humans alone have breasts, all of which center on men liking them.  She gives us a peak into the world of breast implants - the history and the how-to and the why - and discusses how our obsession with how they look has distracted us from real scientific inquiry.  She says, "By insisting that breasts are sexually evolved and relegated to a sexual destiny, we have encouraged women not to value breast-feeding, and sadly, often not to value their normal, natural bodies.  Breasts have only slowly offered up their secrets, and we have been too distracted by their beauty to look very hard."

Williams goes on to interview the handful of scientists around the world who are interested in how breasts grow and function.  With them, she explores the anatomy of this unique organ throughout the lifespan, its primary function - feeding babies, and the threat of cancer.  This is fascinating stuff.  Our breasts are amazing, the only organ in our body that rewires itself when needed, as many times as needed.  However, it is because of this ability to change at a cellular level that they are so vulnerable.  Scientists are just beginning to understand them.

Throughout, Williams discusses research into the impact of our environment on our breasts.  It is this topic that made me itch.  Our exposure to environmental toxins influences every aspect of the development of our breasts, from when we get them to the contents of our milk to the cancer we fear.  Like a sponge, our breasts seem to store particles of everything they touch, including the pollutants in our food and air.  I wish the solution were as easy as replacing my plastic tupperware with glass, but the abundance of chemicals in our modern lives makes contact with these substances unavoidable. 

Williams realizes that.  She sees no easy answers, no quick solutions, but in writing this book, she has brought these issues to the general public, made us itch, and begun a conversation, and that is a good start.

Friday, June 15, 2012

thoughts on: Clara's War

Clara's War: A Young Girl's True Story of Miraculous Survival Under the NazisClara's War: A Young Girl's True Story of Miraculous Survival Under the Nazis by Clara Kramer

Clara's War, which is based on the diaries Clara Kramer kept as a teen, is more than a memoir of how she survived the Holocaust.  One of the fifty Jewish survivors from a Jewish community of 5,000 people in Zolkiew, Poland, Clara's book is a tribute to the family who hid eighteen people under their house while working with and housing Nazi soldiers.

Valentin and Julia Beck, and their teenaged daughter Ala, risked their lives every day of the eighteen months they lived in the former house of the Jewish family who, with their friends, were hiding in a dirt bunker their children had dug out in the crawl space.  Julia had been a maid to several of the families hiding, and one of the women was her closest friend.  Her husband, however, was known as an avowed anti-Semite, as well as an alcoholic and womanizer.  Both of the latter were true, but his dedication to the protection of the four families under his floor belied the former.  Again and again, he used and cultivated friendships with those in positions of power to deflect the rumors that he was hiding Jews.  The Beck's unwavering force of will kept her alive throughout the German occupation of Poland, and Clara states that she has lived her life to be worthy of the risks and sacrifices the Becks made for her.

She wrote, "When I was a child in our backyard watching Julia beat our rugs, I had no idea how strong her faith was.  I didn't know if it gave her courage to save us or if it gave her the strength to resist her fear.  What I witnessed every day in her was the remarkable sight of a woman doing what the saints and her savior did without hesitation and without compromise.  I knew that Julia would find her reward in heaven.  I hoped she would also find it on this earth."

Timothy, the Elephant's Child

I imagine that when Dumbo grew up, married, and started a family of his own, he named his first son Timothy, after his very first friend and mentor, Timothy Mouse.  After that, it became tradition, to have a Timothy in every family, to keep the memory alive.  So this is my Timothy, the elephant child.  

He is the first toy I designed for myself.  I couldn't find an elephant pattern I loved for my safari, so I used what I've learned knitting the other animals to make my own.  He knit up quickly until I got to the ears.  It took me three tries to get the look I wanted, and poor Timothy sat earless for a few weeks while I worked on a different project and thought about his ears.

I tried to keep accurate notes about making him, and would like to write the pattern up one day, but at the moment I am working on Secret Baby Gifts.  So it will have to wait.

I'm including a photo with Trixie, so you can get an idea of how big Timothy is.  He is bigger than a newborn baby.  I think he would be a great size to play with a toddler or preschool child.

thoughts on: Hard Times

Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great DepressionHard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Terkel

In the 1960's, Studs Terkel asked Americans from all walks of life about their experiences during the Great Depression.  Grouped by type of experiences - labor movement recollections, for example - the individual recollections give a broader view of the issues people faced during the depression.  We hear the voices of day laborers as well as heads of industry, people whose fortunes fell and those whose rose.

It is this juxtaposition of views that makes Hard Times both vibrant and relevant, reminding us that every issue, every event is experienced through multiple lenses and it is not always the obvious one.  The circumstances we find ourselves in is only part of our story.  Much of what is experienced and remembered and believed comes from within us.

Monday, June 11, 2012

thoughts on: The Price of Privilege

The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy KidsThe Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine

A friend asked me to read this book, so I did.  If it had not been for her wanting to discuss it, I would never have picked it up, much less done any more than a quick skim.

Levine begins by describing a mental health "epidemic" among affluent teens, arguing that mental health disorders in these children of privilege and power - the future powerful of our society - has an impact on society at large, and should be addressed as a public health issue.  Then she writes a parenting book.  Her parenting advise is mostly sound (with a few notable exceptions -  I don't agree that drug usage should be considered a normal, healthy part of development), but it is just a parenting book.  She never addresses this epidemic as a public health issue.

Although I liked what she had to say about parenting in general, and thought her writing style was encouraging, I found that not being her target audience made the book a tedious read.  I kept wondering when she was going to get back to the public health discussion, because, frankly, I could not see why anyone in this highly competitive affluent class of parents would care in the least what I think of their parenting or how I could help their children.  Since she did not return to that angle, I assume she doesn't either.

Considering how limited the audience for this book is, I can't think of anyone to whom I would recommend this.  I found Leonard Sax's books Girls on the Edge and Boys Adrift covered similar issues in a way more meaningful to a broader group of parents and kids.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

thoughts on: Unbroken

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

In a book describing the horrific treatments of American POWs held by Japan, the most startling realization it holds is: why do we so quickly forget? I do not mean, why do we not hold a grudge longer. I mean, why do we forget that men have endured horrors beyond our imaginings? Why are we so unwilling to hear and believe the stories of our veterans, and remember them.

Like Holocaust memoirs, Unbroken takes us to the point where a person has been stripped of every thing possible. Even the flesh on their bones has been starved away. They are left with nothing except what they can muster from within their souls. We see both the very best and the very worst of mankind, and we ponder our own hearts, our own untested strength, in light of it.

Zamperini was one of our best. In his story, we recognize, as he did, both the sheer will to survive, and the divine at work in his life. The former may have been sufficient for his physical survival, but not for his ultimate healing.

Laura Hillenbrand deserves every bit of praise she has received for Unbroken. A vivid storyteller, she interweaves background on the state of aviation without interrupting the narrative flow. She describes the living terror of being a POW without overwhelming the reader with overly graphic details. She treats her subjects with the dignity which was deprived of them by their captors.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

thoughts on: Our Supreme Task

Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War AllianceOur Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance by Philip  White

How did one of the most important speeches of Churchill's career come to be delivered at a small college in Missouri?  Philip White answers this, and shows us the people involved in this landmark event.  In doing so, Our Supreme Task is part history, part human interest story, as he alternates between Winston Churchill's search for a platform to warn the world of the coming perils of Stalinist Russian expansion, and the bold president of Fulton College who invited the world's most preeminent statesman to speak at his school.

Following the political defeat that stunned many, Churchill continued to look for ways to alert the world to the inherit threat to democracy he saw in communist totalitarianism.  Much like his early years of speaking out against the rise of Hitler, his was a voice that refused to be silenced.  Here we see Churchill as he works to unite England and America on a diplomatic course to stand firm in their opposition to Russia, which was already annexing neighboring nations and forcibly installing puppet governments.  To a war weary world, his words were not welcome, but they came to both define the cold war and to influence foreign policy for decades to come.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tiffany Bear

At last I can share one of my baby projects!

This afternoon was the baby shower for one of my sweetest and craftiest friends.  She loves this color, which she is trendy enough to call Tiffany Blue.  I would call it Robin's Egg blue myself, but either way, it is a bright shade of light blue.

Since this is a summer baby, I decided not to knit a blanket or sweater - the things I usually make for babies.  I am so glad I did!  I have never been to a shower where so many handmade gifts were given.  It was lovely.  Handmade blankets, changing pads, burp cloths (beautiful ones!), clothes, swaddling cloths, etc.   This baby is already so well loved.

As to my Tiffany Bear, I used a pattern by Susan B. Anderson in her Itty Bitty Toys book.  The pattern was written for sock yarn, and I used worsted, so he is considerably bigger than the bear in the book.  I didn't measure him, but he is a nice huggable size.  I used Red Heart Soft Baby Steps yarn.  It took one full skein.  I bought two, so you'll probably be seeing this color again.

Lumpy is sniffing his baby head.

thoughts on: Outliers

Outliers: The Story of SuccessOutliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell challenges our concept of the born-genuis and the self-made man.  He shows us that nobody rises to the top of their field unless they are helped along the way - by others, by timing, by opportunity, by cultural legacy, and by many, many hours of hard work. 

In looking at the combination of factors that leads to success, he argues for creating those conditions for more people.  No, we can't predict the timing of the next as-yet-unknown revolution.  We cannot replicate the peculiar conditions which have led to past success. 

We could, however, prepare more of our children to grasp hold of opportunities and succeed with improved educational methods, by extending the school year, by not relying so heavily on testing in the early grades, and by letting go of the notion that some people just aren't naturally good at math, reading, etc.  Imagine less emphasis on self esteem and more on working hard and not giving up.  Imagine that every child is capable; some just need more time to learn.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Things other than reading and knitting

Despite the looming due dates, I have not been knitting away at baby gifts, as I had intended to spend much of May. I've been sidetracked by this:

I got a new bike!  I've been riding more mornings than not, and occasional evenings, leading to being more tired.  I thought I lived in a flat area until I got my bike.  My thighs tell me that this is not true. 

Being that time of year, I've been gardening.  Weeding, weeding, weeding, but I also planted (meaning I asked my husband to dig the holes, and I put the plants in them) two new roses and some daisies in my front garden.  None of my pink tulips reappeared this spring, which was a great disappointment.  I'd never experienced that before, but after googling, I learned it is not uncommon.  I'm still disappointed.  The whole reason I plant bulbs is so they will be there forever.  It is not worth the effort for only one year of blooms.  This fall, grape hyacinths and daffodils.

Last week I painted a table.  I did not take pictures.  It is a round end table I bought last winter on Craigslist for $20.  It was creamy yellow, and I painted it white. 

I have also been spending probably too much time entering contests on Pinterest.  Choosing twenty images when I know they will be judged is quite different from pinning things when I happen to see them, only so I can remember them later.  As of today, I have not won anything, but hope springs eternal.   If I win a Vespa, you will hear all about it.

thoughts on: Midnight Rising

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil WarMidnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz

Unlike Horwitz's other books, Midnight Rising is a straight biography, no humorous modern day excursions as Horwitz follows a historic trail, and I admit that I picked it up thinking it would be like his earlier books.  I was familiar with John Brown and the raid on Harper's Ferry, and it was not the topic that drew me to the book.  It was Horwitz's name on the cover.

Once I began reading it, however, I found Brown a compelling subject.  Horwitz neither demonizes nor glorifies Brown.  Drawing on primary sources, using many of John Brown's own words, we see a complex man fixated on the greatest social injustice of his day.  Brown's radical views on equality were rooted in his conservative Calvinist Christianity and were much more liberal than even the outspoken, secularly driven abolitionists of his day.  This combination of deeply held orthodoxy leading to extreme liberality of thought so contradicts the mainstream bias of today, that the exploration of it fascinates.  I hope it challenges readers to confront their own assumptions about the interaction of religious faith and progressive thought.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

thoughts on: Almost French

Almost French: Love and a New Life in ParisAlmost French: Love and a New Life in Paris by Sarah Turnbull

After reading Bringing Up Be'be', I wanted a more balanced look at adjusting to life in Paris, and I saw Almost French mentioned in another Goodreads review.  Fortunately, my library had a copy just waiting for me, so I was able to read it right away. 

Sarah Turnbull, an Australian journalist, shares the joys and perils of adjusting to life in Paris.  Primarily, she focuses on the differences in social interactions, and her own frustration as she slowly figures out the rules as she unwittingly breaks them.  Throughout, she gives the reader a glimpse into the mindset of the Parisians - what they value, what they don't, and a little bit of why. 

Being able to see the beauty of her adopted culture even while she struggled to adapt to it makes Turnbull's memoir a likable read.  It was also refreshing to read an Anglo-in-Paris memoir that occasionally steps outside of upper middle class Paris.  Seeing the differences, and similarities, between rural France and Paris, added a depth of understanding to the culture and its people, as did her descriptions of her quartier, which was on the cusp of gentrification as she wrote.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

thoughts on: Bringing Up Be'be'

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French ParentingBringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman

The popularity of books like this give the impression that today's American parents are willing to take advice from anyone other than their own relatives.  The most helpful advice the French have about child rearing is very traditional, the sorts of things people everywhere have said for generations:  don't pick the baby up the moment it fusses, No means no, you have to try a bite of everything, children and parents are happier when the parents are in charge.  Excellent advice, and worth reading if these are unfamiliar concepts to you.  A grandparent could give this book as a gift, and thus sneakily impart their own child rearing wisdom to the next generation.

What truly interested me about this book was its insights into a monolithic culture.  Druckerman tells us that her French counterparts are more relaxed about parenting, and it is easy to see why.  Unlike the USA, France does issue handbooks when babies are born.  There is, like so many other things in their nation, one approved way of parenting, and everyone agrees to it.  Child care workers, grandparents, teachers, everyone you meet on the street shares the same child rearing philosophy, so French parents have a support system which does not exist in America.  Imagine if everyone who came into contact with your children was going to reinforce the very same standards you were trying to teach them.  That alone would make parenting easier.

However, this does not mean they are not under pressure.  They may accept the pressures of their society, which are very different from ours, but that is not the same as not feeling them.  For example, weight control is a national obsession among the French.  Not having regained your figure three months after giving birth is considered shameful.  Literally.  French husbands, doctors, relatives, friends, all feel that a woman who has not lost her pregnancy weight by three months is failing her duty as a wife and woman and will tell her so.

Gender roles are more rigid in France, with women accepting that they will be paid less, and do more child rearing, more housework.  Druckerman is impressed that despite this, they complain less.    However, her Parisian friends admit that one of the reasons they return to work so soon, keep trim, etc is because "men leave."  (France has divorce rates similar to the US, around 50%, and is much more accepting of infidelity.)  Druckerman doesn't investigate these comments, but I wish she had.  There were just enough of them sprinkled throughout for me to wonder if the French women were not so much happy as resigned.  (France is the only nation among 18 recently studied with depression rates higher than the US.)

The other main point that struck me as I read is that, no matter what a parent chooses, it will always be "for the good of the child."  In France, it is considered to be good for the children to enter childcare before a year old (France has highly trained childcare workers.).  It is good for them to be autonomous, which translates to spending a lot of time away from their parents.  It is good for them to have parents who have their own lives. 

I have never met a parent who said, "Well, I don't think this is the best thing for my son, but it is what I want, so he'll have to deal with it."  No.  Nobody says that.  Whether we are talking about sending a child to summer camp, taking a higher paying job with more hours, having a family game night, a parent's alone time, or getting - or not getting - a divorce, we say it is for our child's benefit.  That the French also believe this is no surprise, but neither is it proof that their practices are superior. 

Because Druckerman is only looking at the parenting of very young children (and, again, I think a lot of the parenting specific advice she received in France is excellent) we really cannot fairly judge whether the French are wiser parents, because, in the end, it is not about whose baby slept through the night earlier.  It is about the adults they become, how they handle themselves in adversity and success, their integrity and humility and compassion for others.  At least, it always has been to me.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

thoughts on: Still Alice

Still AliceStill Alice by Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova gives us excellent insight into the deteriorating mind of someone with Alzheimer's Disease.  She combines the latest research findings with the story of one woman, and her family, dealing with early onset of the disease.  Strongest when she slips into the first person voice of Alice, a 50 year old psychology professor at Harvard, Genova captures the fear and confusion, as well as the rapid pace of the disease.  At what point, she asks, does Alice cease to be herself? 

I wish the novel had been written entirely in the first person.  However, Genova writes also to inform her reader about the latest (at the time it was written) research and treatment options.  So Alice's husband, a biologist, has pointed conversations with her neurologist about what causes the disease, as well as both conventional and experimental treatments.  I feel this will date the book in a few years.  At least, I hope it will, as our understanding of Alzheimer's grows.  Although informative, these read as interruptions to the narrative, and could have been included as an appendix rather than inserted into the novel.  I would have preferred to hear more of Alice's own voice.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

thoughts on: The Unseen Guest

The Unseen Guest (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, #3)The Unseen Guest by Maryrose Wood

Why did I think The Incorrigible Children would only be a trilogy? Wishful thinking? The pacing is so tedious that I want it to end, but the story is so charming that I keep reading it anyway. I want to see Penelope finally solve the mystery, but it is frustrating me that she is so obtuse.

I do think these would be fun to read aloud to young children, but since my thoughts on this book are essentially the same as the other books in the series, I will just refer you to those reviews.

The Hidden Gallery
The Mysterious Howling

thoughts on: Hedy's Folly

Hedy's Folly: The Life And Breakthrough Inventions Of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman In The WorldHedy's Folly: The Life And Breakthrough Inventions Of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman In The World by Richard Rhodes

What we now call spread-spectrum radio, the technology behind cell phones, gps, and a host of other technologies was originally patented by Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheim.  Then called frequency hopping, Hedy developed the concept hoping the US military would use it in torpedo guidance systems during WWII.  Hedy, an Austrian, despised Nazi Germany and wanted to do whatever she could to help the Allied cause.

Hedy's Folly is poorly subtitled.  Richard Rhodes does share some of Hedy's life, but this is not a biography of the most beautiful girl in the world.  He gives background information on both Hedy and her partner in inventing spread spectrum radio, Antheim, but primarily to show where they acquired the desire, knowledge, and skills to successfully invent and receive a patent for Hedy's idea as well as how they came to work together. Rhodes also explains the science of their invention and the patent process.  A more apt subtitle might have been "How the Most Beautiful Woman of the World Invented the Most Ubiquitous Technology of the 21st Century."

Hedy famously said, "Any girl can be glamorous.  All she has to do is stand still and look stupid."  Hedy's Folly reveals the keen intellect that was ignored for far too long.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

thoughts on Let's Kill Uncle

Let's Kill Uncle: A NovelLet's Kill Uncle: A Novel by Rohan O'Grady

Two high spirited children thrown together on an idyllic island populated by benign adults would be typical children's fare, but Rohan O'Grady's children spend their summer vacation plotting the murder of a homicidal maniac. The juxtaposition of descriptions of the island and its eccentric inhabitants with the practical matter of how to get away with murder are delicious: sweet and salty.

Barnaby, heir to millions who has been terrorized by his murderous uncle all his life, and Christie, who is more strong willed adult than innocent little girl, begin their summer squabbling with each other and disrupting island life with their antics, but soon fall into a routine of mealtimes, chores, and attempts to tame a one eared cougar. That is, until Uncle arrives on the island. Then it is kill or be killed. Far from macabre, Let's Kill Uncle retains its sly wit throughout.

In a sense, Let's Kill Uncle is a coming of age story, but not for the children, despite charming lines like this one: "It was the end of innocence, for they knew now that One-Ear would never, never like cinnamon buns."

Monday, April 9, 2012

thoughts on: All But My Life

All But My Life: A MemoirAll But My Life: A Memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein

Gerda Weissmann Klein's writing sets her memoir, All But My Life, apart from many of the holocaust survivor stories I have read.  Often, although the stories are compelling, the writing is not.  I do not say this as a criticism; I am grateful that anyone who lived through such terror is willing to put their memories on paper.  Every individual's story is valuable.  Klein, though, writes in such a winsome manner that her experiences transcend even the nightmare through which she lived.  She speaks not only of enduring and surviving, but of dreaming and hoping as only a lively young woman can dream.

Klein, who spent the war as a slave laborer in her native Poland, and survived the death march to Czechoslovakia, is surrounded not only by profound evil, but by the profound love in her friends.  She encounters depravity, but also remarkable acts of sympathy.  Yes, the former outnumber the latter, but she clings to the good wherever she finds it.

Throughout her book, she shares the stories of the young women whom she knew during the holocaust, the ones who did not survive.  At one point, she says, "I cannot help but want to tell her story, for I might be the only one left in the world who knows it."

For me, that is the reason why I continue to read holocaust memoirs.  There are so few people left who remember it.  So few who survived.  They deserve to be remembered - not just what they went through, but who they were:  individuals with hopes and dreams, faults and foibles, just like us.