So Cute! Don’t Buy Expensive Toys!

 Those baby belly laughs slay me! 

Review: And Sometimes Why by Rebecca Johnson

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From Publishers Weekly

Vogue contributing editor Johnson examines in her heartbreaking debut the ties that bind and break in the face of tragedy. Darius, a Shakespeare scholar and professor, and his wife, Sophia, head of membership at a local art museum, are mired in the banal ebb-and-flow of family life they share with their two teen daughters—bookish Miranda and imperious social butterfly Helen. A sisterly tussle over use of the family car ends with Miranda attending college orientation and finding herself attracted to fellow freshman-to-be Jason, and Helen, while riding on the back of her just-dumped boyfriend’s motorcycle, getting into a horrific traffic accident. As Helen lies in the ICU suspended between life and death, the author gives voice to the people Helen has touched: Darius and Sophia find little solace in each other; Harry Harlow, the game show host who was involved in Helen’s accident, witnesses his life falling apart; and Miranda awkwardly navigates the feelings Jason has stirred within her. While the wandering focus on disparate characters pulls the novel in unwieldy directions (as when Miranda drops out to follow her boyfriend to Alaska), Johnson’s portrayal of a family’s grieving is exquisitely crafted. (Jan.)

And Sometimes Why by Rebecca Johnson came out on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, but I was lucky enough to win an advance copy from ReadingGroupGuides.com.  I devoured this book in less than 48 hours.  I’m not sure if I can come up with the right words to do this novel justice.  

It is a gripping tale of what happens to a family after a tragic accident puts their lives into a state of suspended animation.  Watching this family fall apart reminded me in many ways of Jacqueline Michard’s The Deep End of the Ocean because in both cases, the parents are left to deal with a child who is not dead, but is in every other way gone.

Each family member comes to terms with the tragedy differently and in their own time.   The grieving parents’ relationship is torn apart as they disagree over their daughter’s care.  The distraught sister is the one who asks the hard questions and is the most realistic.  She moves from the family home in California to Alaska with her boyfriend. One day on a walk she encounters a fox in a trap, still alive but suffering.  She decides to put it out of it’s misery with her own hands.  Afterwards.. “Each time she glanced down at the body.. she felt her horror fade a tiny bit.  A body without life was an empty container.  Nothing to be afraid of.  Nothing to weep over.”

Ms. Johnson has done a great job of making her characters believable.  They seem so real to me.  It is a heartbreaking and compelling story, and so well written that it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel.

A book club would find much to discuss from And Sometimes Why (discussion questions can be found HERE).  The ending is open ended and I find myself wondering what the characters would do next.  This is a remarkable book and one I would highly recommend.

I’ve received an email from the author, and she is talking with the publisher to see if we can do a giveaway of this book here at Books on the Brain.  I’m hoping she will also agree to an interview.  Check back soon for details.  

 

My Funny Valentine

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At least my daughter remembered it was Valentine’s Day this morning!   (That’s more than I can say for her father!)  I was very touched by her little note and the massive hug and kiss she gave me before she went to school. 

Tonight the girls want to pretend that our dining room is a fancy restaurant complete with tablecloth and candles.  The menu is Bob’s favorite:  teriyaki steak, potatoes, corn, crescent rolls, and lemon meringue pie for dessert.  The girls will be the waitresses and serve dinner to Bob and me.   I still get to be the cook, though! 

Teddy’s Big Adventure

On Saturday there was a frantic search going on for Teddy, L.’s hamster. He got out of his cage overnight, and no one is sure how that happened. I was kind of numb knowing there was a rodent loose in my house. The girls consulted their Hamster Care book (their bible) and it said, do not panic, remain calm. Ha! It said put out food and it will probably come back. I was quite sure he was hiding in all the junk in her room. She had piles of stuff all over and all she could do was sit on the floor “remaining calm”. I told her to go through all her junk and stuffed animals, etc. under her chair and under her bed, but she prefered to not panic and remain calm, waiting with food in the middle of the floor. Grrrrrrrr.

K. searched everywhere, L. was paralyzed, and I was just pissed off. Dad got involved at that point and started pulling things out, vacuuming up hamster bedding and dust, moving things around, looking in the closet, etc. while L. just curled up in a ball and cried. On the plus side, her room has never been so clean.

We finally gave up and went about our day (it was Bob’s birthday and he didn’t want to spend all day searching for Teddy). We figured he was sleeping in some little nook somewhere, burrowed into L.’s stuff, and would reappear at night, nocturnal creature that he is. At least that’s what I told her. I really thought we’d smell something in a few days and would follow our noses to a dead hamster.

Later on, after we got home from the birthday dinner, L. went up to go to bed, when she heard a scampering sound. She used superhuman strength to move her bed away from the wall by herself (the kid only weighs 58 lbs,). It reminded me of stories you hear about people who get a rush of adrenaline and are able to lift a car to save a life. Anyway, there was Teddy. He ran right to her. She is one happy girl, but judging from the way Teddy was furiously biting at the bars of his cage last night, I suspect he’d rather be loose in the house, having a big adventure.

1st Band Recital

Last fall, in a moment of weakness, I agreed to let my daughter L. play the trumpet in the school district’s brand new beginning band, provided she promised she would practice in her room, with the door closed, somewhat out of earshot. Does that sound mean? Hmm. Well, last year in 4th grade she drove my positively INSANE practicing the recorder day and night, and while I’m all for a musical education, I really do enjoy my sanity. Anyway, it was a condition she agreed to, so we both got what we wanted.

When we went to the music store, I had to sign a one year rental agreement for the trumpet. I was a bit reluctant to sign it, worrying that L. would grow tired of it and not want to play it after a couple of months. She’s had a tendency towards flakiness with other things in the past (piano, dance) but she assured me that she “always” wanted to play the trumpet and be in band. When did this come about?

In September the band sounded more like a dying bird, or a roomful of dying birds, or birds being tortured with hot pointy sticks screaming in protest, or-well, you get the idea. They didn’t bear much of an auditory resemblance to an actual band. Flash forward a few weeks and, what have we here? A real band!

They held a winter concert last night and played several songs, including Au Claire de la Lune, Ode to Joy, and Lightly Row, and they actually sounded really good. The audience, consisting of mostly parents, grandparents, and siblings, would have clapped at anything, but the applause was practically thunderous. These kids worked hard, and it showed.

L. practices her trumpet almost every day. I never have to ask or remind her. She loves band, loves her teacher, loves the band kids. It makes her so happy and it seems it’s not just a whim. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy to say yes to this noisy instrument after all!

Weekend Update: From Girl Scout Cookies to Laser Tag

Happy MLK Day!  I hope you all had a wonderful weekend.

72 hours with nothing special planned turned out to be very nice.  On Friday we made tacos for dinner and then the girls and I curled up on my bed to watch Little Women (the version with Susan Sarandon as Marmee and Winona Ryder as Jo).  L. read the book last year, in 4th grade, and loved it.  She was so excited to learn that a movie had been made from the book.  The girls laughed at my tears when Beth died, but I saw them wiping their eyes, too.

K.’s best friend turned 9 on Saturday, and she was invited to go with her friend’s family and another friend to the American Girl Store in Los Angeles for their Broadway-style show and tea.  The kids brought their dolls and had decided in advance to all wear hats and boots.  They looked so darn cute, as you can see from this teeny tiny picture. For some reason, since I got my new iMac, I can’t get the pictures to be the right size on the blog. They are either tiny or super huge, nothing in between.

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L. and I went to the book store after dropping off her sister.  I needed to pick up The Jane Austen Book Club for my book club, and L. needed the next couple of books in the series she is reading (The Five Ancestors series by Jeff Stone). We then headed over to Starbucks where the two of us sipped chocolate yumminess and read our books.  I must say my little girl looked very grown up hanging out in Starbucks with her nose in a book. My mind fast-forwarded 10 years or so and I could see my girl as a young adult.  I wish there was a way to slow down the growing up process.  I’m not ready for the teen years.

Saturday was the official kick-off for Girl Scout cookie sales in our area.  It’s funny how Girl Scout cookies just sell themselves.  People have their favorites and know what they want.  The kids don’t have to do much work because looking cute and being polite is all it takes to make a sale.  L., 10 years old and in her second year of Junior Girl Scouts, sold 100 boxes of cookies while K. was away at her friend’s party.  Then on Sunday K., 9 years old and a third year Brownie Girl Scout, worked just as hard but only sold a mere 28 boxes.  The neighborhood had been canvassed by competitors, so we didn’t have as much luck on day 2.

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L. had homework to finish up on Sunday, which she did without a fuss or complaint, woo hoo. Homework over the weekend sucks, and I do feel bad for her, but after last weekend’s white-out incident, I was preparing myself for another scene.  I guess if you take a girl’s iPod, tv privileges, computer use, phone use, and Nintendo DS away for a week, she thinks twice about freaking out over a little homework.

On Sunday night I caught my first Jane Austen movie ever on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, Northanger Abbey, and I LOVED IT!  I want to see them all!   The acting was superb and the story was funny and sweet.  I missed Persuasion last week, but my mom Tivo’d it, so I’m going to watch that soon in an effort to prepare for my book club meeting in February.  The Jane Austen Book Club movie comes out on dvd February 5th, and I plan to rent it before our meeting on the 10th.

Today we got a slow start, sleeping in just because we could and then hanging out in pajamas until 10am.  Dad and the girls made waffles and sausage for breakfast while I read the paper.  The weather was cold and rainy.  We brainstormed ideas on how to spend the afternoon, and I hit on one that brought screams and squeals of delight… laser tag!  L. played once before, at a friend’s birthday party, and has been wanting to go back ever since.  So it was decided.

Laser tag is part hide and seek, part tag, part “GI Joe”, and all fun!  There were 20 players, about evenly divided between adults/extra large children and little kids.  We split into two teams, big people vs. little people, donned our day-glo vests and phaser guns, and cut loose in the dark, stalking our victims, hiding from our enemies, and claiming their headquarters as our own.   It was a total blast, and something we’ll definitely do again!  When we finished, everyone was starving, so we voted on where to go for dinner (Chili’s).

How did you spend your MLK weekend?        

Weekend Update: From a Hormonal Preteen to Pinewood Derby Cars

Well, the weekend is over. Time to kick back with a glass of wine and reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It started out well enough. After school, I asked L. and K. if they had any homework. K. said no, and L. said “a little”. “Great!,” I said. Sounds like we’ll have a good weekend.K. had a playmate over after school, and they were STARVING, so I quickly fixed them a snack, which they scarfed down in 5 minutes. Then the girls cleaned out the hamster cages in the front yard (bet that’s the last time that friend will want to come over!!) They barely had time to play a game on the Wii before her mom picked her up. .

We made this pork chop recipe for dinner (a family favorite-even my pickiest eater loves it!) and played a few more Wii games before the kids went to bed. I kick ass at Wii bowling, but tennis gave me a pain in the neck that is still there 48 hours later. L. cried a little at bedtime, because it just isn’t FAIR that K. got to have a friend over after school and she didn’t. My little drama queen. .

On Saturday we attended a performance of The Princess and the Pea that a local youth theater group is putting on. L.’s very talented friend (and one of my girl scouts) was in the play. She was terrific and we were so proud of her. The entire cast did a spectacular job, and afterwards my girls got backstage passes. They had their programs signed by the actors and got to see what goes on behind the scenes (a lot of hard work). .

That night I went through the girls’ backpacks. I couldn’t believe how much homework L. had. From the looks of it, I figured it would take her about 2 hours. Even though it was late and she was tired, I asked her to spend 30 minutes on her math before getting ready for bed. She grumbled about it, but did it anyway, with headphones on (she says it helps, but I’m not so sure). 30 minutes barely put a dent in it, so I told her that before she did anything else on Sunday, she needed to get it done. .

L. started her homework around 10am. At 11am, her friend came over wanting to rollerskate. I had to say no, because L. had a Girl Scout meeting at 1pm, and a movie date with a friend at 4pm, which was not going to happen if she didn’t finish her homework. She was very upset that she couldn’t go outside and skate, but I had to put my foot down. I told her to just hurry and get it done and she might have time to skate before Girl Scouts, but she just seemed to drag her feet even more. What followed will be known forever in our family history as “The White Out Incident”. .

L. declared that her work couldn’t be finished without White Out. She was working on a final draft of a persuasive letter that’s due on Tuesday. It has to be written in pen, all in cursive, and it’s 6 pages long. Less than 2 pages were written at this point. I sent B. to the store to get it for her, and he came back with the wrong kind (although it was perfectly fine and she easily could have gotten by with it). L. got upset because he wouldn’t go back to the store. He was watching a football game and it seemed silly to go back when she could use what she had. L. through such a major fit, the likes of which haven’t been seen since age 4. She literally threw herself on her bed, screaming that nobody loves her, and how is she to be expected to do her work when she doesn’t have the right supplies? If anyone truly CARED about her, they would go back to the store. WHY can’t she be in a family where people love her? WHY won’t anyone take her needs seriously? NO ONE KNOWS what kind of stress and pressure she is under in 5th grade! SHE CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE! .

Well, hmmm. What to do with this kid. I took away her iPod, which made her sob even more. “You HATE me, don’t you Mom?” she screamed, as I rolled my eyes and calmly walked out of the room. When the sobbing subsided, I told her that, once she apologized for the outburst, she could get back to work. I reminded her that there would be no movie date if she didn’t finish. There was more crying, more, “It’s not FAIR!” Finally, after wasting more than an hour, she sat and got it done, but what a whopping headache I had by that time. .

“Do you think she’s hormonal?” I asked my husband. Could she possibly be entering puberty at barely 10 years old? She’s the tiniest thing, weighing less than 60 lbs. She’s the smallest kid in her class. I really don’t think she’ll be hitting puberty for a couple more years, but damn if she doesn’t act premenstrual. Oh, I just had a pleasant thought. If she and I time it perfectly, she could be getting her period at about the same time I’ll be hitting menopause. What fun, for everyone! .

At 1pm it was time for Girl Scouts. Thankfully L. and I were both calm and relatively happy by the time the meeting started. She still had puffy eyes from crying, but her attitude was better. .

The girls and a few dads made pinewood derby cars, which they will race with the local boy scout troop. It was weird having so much testosterone at our meeting. That song from Two and a Half Men, the tv show with Charlie Sheen, kept running through my head (”Men, men, men, men, manly men, men, men”). The girls decided what shape their cars should be, drew the shape on the cars, and then the dads manned the saw, the router and the sander. I’m not sure who had more fun, dads or girls. The girls sanded their cars to smooth out rough edges and painted them. We didn’t realize how long it would all take and how much time paint takes to dry, especially when it’s globbed on (our urgings to “use thin layers of paint” fell on deaf ears) so we’ll have to have another emergency meeting before the big race to attach the wheels and weights. After Girl Scouts (by the way, for those who don’t know, COOKIE TIME starts next Saturday, 1/19, so get your orders in!) it was time for Daddy to take over with the girls so I could go to my book club. .

Ahhhhhh how relaxing to be in a beautiful home, with a wonderful meal and a glass of wine, and no child in sight! Only a room full of vibrant, intelligent women who love books and love to talk about them! We discussed Summer People by Brian Groh. If you read my review, you know I didn’t love the book. I was a little worried about the meeting because we had set up an author chat with Mr Groh by speaker phone. We came up with questions for him before we called, and we made sure to start off with a compliment (because it’s poor manners to start off an author chat with “Your book sucks”). But he was great! He’s a really personable, likable guy, and he thoroughly answered all our questions. It was truly a pleasure speaking with him. I found I appreciated the book a whole lot more after our conversation. Our club also decided on our spring reading list.. after some discussion and voting we came up with The Time Traveler’s Wife for March, Eat, Pray, Love for April, and The Next Thing on My List for May. .

L. and I got home around the same time, me from book club, and she from her movie date with her “friend who’s a boy”, Michael, and his mom. They saw Alvin and the Chipmunks (two thumbs up, apparently). At bedtime, she cried that her head was pounding, her stomach hurt, and could she have a heating pad. Oh, boy. .

How was your weekend?

Weekend Update: Spreading Some Cheer

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Living in California, it isn’t always easy to get into the holiday spirit. Some days we really have to work at it. Today I put on a cheery red tshirt and flip flops to finish up the last of my shopping. I know what you’re thinking.. flip flops in December? Well, it was 78 degrees outside. “Oh the weather outside is frightful..” somewhere else!

My kids asked if they could do a little caroling Friday night with a few of their friends. My mental knee-jerk reaction was, “No! I don’t have time! I have too much to do! I have to wrap, bake, clean, etc. etc.” But, instead, I surprised myself (and them) and said, “What a great idea! And then we’ll have hot chocolate when we come home!” The excited chatter and smiles I got back were well worth the inconvenience, and my neighbors were very pleasantly surprised to have carollers come to their doors. Even though the kids flubbed the words to Rudolph and Jingle Bells more than once, they were awfully cute (awful and cute?) and got several little treats, including gingerbread men and Hershey’s kisses. One neighbor offered singing lessons, which we politely declined 🙂

(The picture above is courtesy of the hysterical blog Loldogs ‘n’ Cute Puppy Pictures – I Has A Hotdog)

Beastmomma did a fun Pay it Forward post this past week that inspired me to do something nice for some underappreciated people at my daughters’ school (the janitor, the speech teacher, etc.). It was fun sharing with them and spreading a little cheer, but it occurred to me that I really didn’t do the Pay it Forward thing correctly. I never saw that movie, but I guess when you do something nice for someone else, you’re supposed to instruct them to “pay it forward” and continue the chain of kindness by doing something nice for another person. I just passed out homemade peppermint bark, with no instructions but to enjoy it and have a Happy Holiday. So I did it wrong.

To remedy that mistake, I’d like to Pay it Forward by sending the first 3 commenters to this post a little surprise in the mail, just like Beastmomma did (I was the lucky 3rd commenter on her post), and I ask those 3 to please pay it forward to someone else. Let’s keep spreading that holiday cheer.

I borrowed an idea from a fellow blogger, who I would happily credit if only I could remember who it was.. anyway, I thought it was such a nice idea. I filled a big red basket with all the Christmas books we’ve accumulated over the years and set it by the tree. Each night this week, my girls and I have read a couple of books from the basket and enjoyed a snack while admiring the tree. It’s such a simple way to slow down and enjoy the season with my kids. One of our favorite holiday books is How Murray Saved Christmas by Mike Reiss. It’s very witty, it rhymes, and the illustrations are great. We get some major laughs from this book year after year. 51xe4snfv6l_bo2204203200_pisitb-dp-500-arrowtopright45-64_ou01_aa240_sh20_.jpg

It’s so easy to get caught up in the chaos and craziness of the holidays. My kids have long wishlists but I know what they really want most is more time with me. I also know that will not always be the case. My baby turned 9 this week, and my other baby is 10. I’m making an effort this year to really appreciate my children and their sweetness, because before long they will be (gasp) teenagers.

So tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I get to play Santa. Sadly, it might be the last time, since my kids are questioning and wondering and probably not really believing. They’re growing up fast. I’ll miss their innocence.

Merry Christmas, fellow Santas. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is the fictional account of the implosion of a family after their almost-16 year old son goes on a calculated rampage and kills nine people in the high school gymnasium.

The story is told in a sequence of letters from Eva, Kevin’s mother, to her estranged husband Franklin.  Eva’s letters are filled with raw emotion and brutal honestly.  She dissects her marriage and her parenting skills, or lack thereof, in great detail on a quest to answer the big question.. why?

The reader is given a glimpse into Eva’s sad life in the wake of the killings, which we know about from the beginning, and then leads us back in time to before Kevin was born. We see Eva and Franklin as a happy childless couple, how their decision to have children is made, and on through the birth of Kevin and, years later, his sister, Celia. We see Kevin become increasingly more disturbed and dangerous until the shocking conclusion and his eventual incarceration in a juvenile detention center.

Nature vs. nurture is the complex issue here. What role does parenting play in the making of a killer? Kevin, it seems, was born evil. A listless baby who rejects his mother’s milk, a toddler who doesn’t learn to talk or play on schedule, refusing even to potty train until he is 6 years old, a child who finds joy in nothing, Eva fails to bond with him.

Franklin faults her for working too much, for always seeing the bad in Kevin. Eva takes a leave from her business to be a full time at-home parent, but the behavior she witnesses on a daily basis from her son is alarming. Kevin takes pleasure in the pain of others, and does nothing to hide his sadistic nature from his mother. He seems to enjoy tormenting Eva from a very early age, while playing “Gee, Dad, you’re swell” with the oblivious Franklin.

It’s hard to imagine why, having given birth to the ‘bad seed’ and having such a miserable parenting experience, Eva would then go on to intentionally become pregnant and have a 2nd child. Celia, born 7 years after Kevin, is everything he is not. She is light, he is dark. She is good, he is sinister. . two extremes with no shades of gray. Is anyone all good, or all bad? This, to me, is the biggest flaw in the book.

Kevin does not take well to being a big brother, and Franklin, duped into parenthood the 2nd time around, sees Celia’s passive nature as weak. Eva, on the other hand, is somewhat vindicated by the birth of Celia. She sees that she really can love a child she has given birth to, and that she’s not a horrible parent after all. Kevin’s behavior gets increasingly worse. Franklin has an explanation for everything Kevin does, painting him as a follower and a victim. Whenever Eva tries to talk with Franklin about Kevin’s true nature, he becomes defensive and treats her as if she is a tattletale who can only see the worst in her son. I can’t conceive of a more clueless parent than Franklin.

The last 1/3rd of the book was riveting. The tension builds to a twist at the end so shocking that I actually gasped. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horrible, amazing, disturbing, fantastic, imperfect book. I highly recommend it for a reading experience you will not soon forget.

Middle School Birth Control

Do parents have no rights at all? As the mother of (almost) preteens, I find this extremely upsetting.

Parents, how do you feel about this? Do schools have the right or the responsiblity to give your 11-13 year old child birth control pills or the patch without your consent???

From Foxnews.com:
FOXNEWS.COM HOME > HEALTH
School Board Approves Birth Control Prescriptions at Maine Middle School

Thursday, October 18, 2007
PORTLAND, Maine — Pupils at a city middle school will be able to get birth control pills and patches at their student health center after the local school board approved the proposal Wednesday evening.
The plan, offered by city health officials, makes King Middle School the first middle school in Maine to make a full range of contraception available to students in grades 6 through 8, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
There are no national figures on how many middle schools, where most students range in age from 11 to 13, provide such services.
“It’s very rare that middle schools do this,” said Divya Mohan, a spokeswoman for the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care.
The Portland School Committee voted 5-2 for the measure.
Chairman John Coynie voted against it, saying he felt providing the birth control was a parental responsibility. The other no vote came from Ben Meiklejohn, who said the consent form does not clearly define the services being offered.
Opponents cited religious and health objections.
Diane Miller, who said she has worked as a school nurse in another district for eight years, called the proposal “tragic” and asked “What would God have us do?”
Read the rest of the story HERE