Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It's What We're Reading Wednesday


Love That Dog by Sharon Creech took me completely by surprise.  I haven't read any of her other books, but if they are anything like this one, I will.  Love That Dog is short,  but oh, so powerful.

It's the story of Jack who is studying poetry, and has to write poems.  The poems he writes actually tell the story.  (You knew that if it was told in free verse I would love it, didn't you Sharon?)  Unlike myself, Jack doesn't love poetry, at first.  His teacher, Miss Stretchberry, sees real talent in Jack and frequently posts Jack's poems on the school bulletin board for all to see, with Jack's permission, of course, and only anonymously.

With poetry, Jack cautiously reveals his love for his dog and the tragic story of his dog's passing.

The best part of the book is when Jack's class is introduced to the poetry of Mr. Walter Dean Myers.  I am only familiar with his novels, not his poems,  an error I will soon correct.  Jack is so moved by Mr. Walter Dean Myers' poetic work, that he writes a poem for him and sends it to Mr. Walter Dean Myer's publisher, asking Mr. Walter Dean Myers to visit the class.  Mr. Walter Dean Myers is never referred to as Myers or Mr. Myers, so Mr. Walter Dean Myers he will forever be in my mind.

I would love to hear this beautiful and brief story, done really well in audio, perhaps narrated by Mr. Walter Dean Myers. 


My sister, Mary, the one we're all praying for, recommended Uglies by Scott Westerfeld to me.  She actually recommended it to me years ago, but something about the description on the back of the book frightened me.  Well, I'd do anything for her now, so I read it.

It's much, much less frightening than Hunger Games or even Matched.

The setting is about 300 years in the future.  Everything recycles instantly.  Humans use no consumable energy sources, just solar power and magnets.  They ride hoverboards, which I'm guessing are like Luke Skywalker's landspeeder but shrunk down to skateboard size.  Buried metal throughout the cities, under hoverpaths, and in river beds provide the magnetic power for the hoverboards.

Everyone has an operation when they turn sixteen to make them pretty.  Well, not just pretty, but  biologically desirable.  Big eyes to project neediness will cause feelings of protection.  Fat removal, height adjustments, chin and cheek implants, fuller lips, longer necks, indestructible ceramic teeth, disease resistance, and more create desirability, confidence and more. 

Children are known as "littlies,"  tweens from ages 12 to 16 are "uglies," and once the operation has been done, age 16 to maybe 30 are the "pretties."  Pretties get to live in New Pretty Town and party all the time.  There are even "Pleasure Parks" where the reader will pass a few tangles of arms and legs, but that's as graphic as it gets.  After 30 or so, there is another operation for Middle Pretties, and a third one later in life for Late Pretties.

But what happens if an Ugly doesn't want the operation?

Tally Youngblood has waited her whole life for the operation, planning and re-planning her features.  Tally loses her best friend to New Pretty Town a few months before her own birthday, and befriends another Ugly named Shay.  To Tally's horror, she learns that some Uglies never get the operation.  They have banded together outside city limits and created a settlement called the Smoke, where they eat animals, wear animal skins, and even cut down trees.

When Shay runs away to join the Smoke, Tally is taken into Special Circumstances.  There, some surgically modified cop-like humans known as "Specials" give Tally an ultimatum.  If she wants the Pretty operation, she will have to find Shay and betray the Smoke community.

The first book in this four-part series was a real nail-biter.  Literally.  I have no nails left.  I read it in the car on the way home from St. Louis this weekend, even though reading in the car makes me nauseous and gives me a headache.  It was too good to put down.

It's also a great commentary on the issue of physical beauty.  Who determines what is beautiful and what is not?   Can a person be so surgically altered that he ceases to be himself?  Very intriguing stuff. 

And...according to the interweb...it's being made into a movie.   Dare I get excited? 


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's What We're Reading Wednesday



Peter loves Carl Hiassen books.  He was very excited to hear that there is a new one, Chomp.  He is going to be over the moon thrilled when he hears that it's about the son of animal wrangler, who gets a job working on the set of a very Survivorman-like show called, "Expedition:  Survival!"  Heck, Bear Grylls is even mentioned by name in the novel.  Yes, I know Bear Grylls is the star of Man vs. Wild, not Survivorman.  Everybody knows that.

Anyway, if you or your child likes Carl Hiassen books, this one is true to form.  Super fast paced adventure in nature, some good guys, some bad guys, some violence.

In Chomp, a girl is sporting a black eye, courtesy of her alcoholic father who tracks her down in the Everglades and shoots a few people too.   Our hero, Wahoo, is missing a thumb from an encounter with his family's alligator, Alice.  A python tries to eat Wahoo's dad.  Lots of animal encounters.  I think that's why the book is called "Chomp."  Get it?  Chomp.  heh-heh.

All in all, lots of likeable characters, some funny parts, and of course, some discourse on the proper treatment of animals and nature.



The Familiars by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson is mainly about Aldwyn, a black and white alley cat who is on the run for stealing a fish.  He ends up hiding in a pet shop, in a cage, and pretends to be just another pet for sale.  This is no ordinary pet shop, however.  This is a familiar shop, familiars are pets for wizards, and they all have different magical abilities to aid their wizard owners, aka loyals.  Poor Aldwyn gets immediately purchased for a nice young wizard boy named Jack.

Jack takes him back to the small wizard school where he lives with his professor, his fellow pupils, Marianne and Dalton, and their respective familiars, Gilbert the tree frog who can see the future in puddle readings, and Skylar the blue jay, who is adept at projecting illusions. They all look forward to seeing Aldwyn use his telekinetic powers.

Aldwyn conceals his inability to do magic and is thrown headfirst into an epic adventure when the queen of the land kills the professor and kidnaps the three loyals.  The familiars band together on a rescue mission.

There's a lot to like in this novel, that is sure to be a success with Harry Potter fans.  The writing and the story are a little clunky, for my taste.  I'm not certain if that's because the book has two authors or because the authors are screenwriters, and the book is already being made into a movie.  Either way, it's a cute story.


I checked out Zitface by Emily Howse, because it was listed on Lucy's Scholastic book order form.  With so many truly wonderful books out there, how does Scholastic keep publicizing the garbage?

Chapter One includes an interchange between the thirteen-year-old protagonist, Olivia Hughes, and her friend referring to "screwing" some one, but then she let's the reader know that she is actually a virgin.

I did skim some of the rest.  Young commercial star gets a serious career stopping case of acne and loses and all of her friends, as well as her boyfriend.   There is some kind of tension with her mother wanting her to keep acting, and her divorced-lives-far-away father not wanting her to act anymore.  Her mother takes her to a dermatologist who discusses many treatment options, including birth control pills, at which point Olivia once again brings up the fact that she is still a virgin. 

Yuck.  RE-turn.


The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows by Jacqueline West might seem like something you've read before.  Young Olive Dunwoody and her two mathematics professor parents have just purchased the old McMartin house.  Only Olive realizes that the old stone mansion, with it's spooky paintings that cannot be removed from the walls, holds some scary secrets.

Three talking cat guardians, one pair of spectacles that enables the wearer to enter paintings, one boy trapped in a painting, and one dead previous owner who wants to come back to life and rid the house of any newcomers, make for an exciting adventure. 

I love sweet Olive and her total lack of mathematical ability.  I love how every time she counts to one hundred, she skips the eighties.  I love that her parents still love her even though they don't understand each other very well.  I don't normally love cats,  but Horatio, Leopold, and Harvey are wonderful guardians.  And I love that the sequel to this book is due out this JULY!  I love sequels!


Friday, May 18, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday: Ascension Sunday


--- 1 ---



Edmund's third grade Battle of the Books team, The Reading Ninjas, won!  Out of six teams, from the entire school, these scrappy third graders took home the grand prize, which will be an outing of laser tag.  Their coach wins the questionable prize of getting to take seven third graders out for laser tag.  Their coach is yours truly.  I'm ridiculously proud!

--- 2 ---
Above is our team photo.  You are probably wondering, "Where did they get such awesome t-shirts?"

Well, I've been a little overwhelmed lately, what with life-threatening illnesses, plus regular life, laundry, groceries, etc.  So I had made an executive decision, that our team would not have matching t-shirts, but we would wear all black, like ninjas.  One mom offered to come up with some kind of bandana/headband thingy.  Good enough.

Then, I got the email on Tuesday that Thursday would be an out-of-uniform day for all Battle of the Books participants and they can all wear their team t-shirts to school.  crap.

So, I said a little prayer, and ran to my local WalMart, which is undergoing some ridiculous transmogrification into a Super Mega WalMart of the World...world...world.  (Imagine I said that in my movie trailer voice.)  Nothing is where it should be.  The maps to find things during the renovation are always gone.  Nobody works there except three checkout clerks.  I can't figure out how to exit the building to get to the garden section.  But, I was just going to kill those hanging baskets for my front porch anyway.



MIRACULOUSLY, I found seven black t-shirts and the Avery dark fabric transfer paper within minutes.

Then I wandered around and found fifty dollars worth of stuff I didn't know I needed.  Those green price tags make everything look like a clearance item, so you know it's a good deal.  Plus, because it's the black hole of WalMart, if you ever at any time in the future really need something, you will never be able to find it again.  It will cease to exist.    Except in this one instance.  Miraculous.

And the t-shirts only cost a buck.

Bonus:   Baby J did not own ONE SINGLE piece of pink plastic garbage slathered with licensed images of Disney princesses, until now.  Cell phone and sand bucket:  check.  It's what all the cool toddlers have this summer.

--- 3 ---

 

In less than an hour, I was able to whip up seven matching t-shirts with the adorable, yet still fierce, reading ninja image that I found on the Internet.  Legal?  Probably not.  But I didn't sell the t-shirts, and these kids really were in need. 
--- 4 ---

Then, yesterday, my kids came home with a flyer that read, "Out-of-Uniform Day this Friday!  Wear your favorite movie t-shirt for only a quarter."  WHAT?!?!

Who has a t-shirt of their favorite movie anyway?

We have Pirates of the Carribean, Dad has a Mr. Incredible tee that he got for Father's Day one year, somewhere is that Finding Nemo tee with the seagulls saying "Mine! Mine!"  Any takers?

Silence.

Brainstorm!

I still had some dark fabric transfer paper left!

A few minutes, and a couple of illegal downloads later, we had favorite movie tees.  Lucy is wearing a mockingjay pin from The Hunger Games, and Edmund is sporting an Avengers movie poster image, which apparently includes a character not actually in the movie.   


One of the Reading Ninjas, Lucy, and Edmund sporting their new customized tee shirts.

--- 5 ---

I am very blessed in that my teens feel comfortable talking to me about all kinds of things.  I am convinced it's because I have mocked their angst by asking them if their hormones were bothering them, and repeatedly asked them if they are on drugs,  or if they want to talk about puberty.

Maybe that's not why, but anyway, when they talk, I listen.

I was delighted to hear Peter's story about Spanish class this week.  He was very excited to tell me all about it.  I even put down my book (Chomp by Carl Hiassen)  so as to give him eye contact.

He began by saying, "Know how you always say that sophomores are the most immature people on the planet?"

"Yes.  Sopho Mores.  Wise Fools.  Yes.  Go on..."

"Well, this week in Spanish, el Profesor asked "Que es el primer beneficio de matrimonio?"  or something that roughly means, "What is the number one benefit of marriage?"  And it wasn't me, Mom, I swear it wasn't me, but from the corner of the classroom, in a quiet voice, someone said, "el sexo."


The Teen Wailin' and Moanin' has commenced.  It's a right of passage for the men in The Chef's family.
That's what the attic is for.

--- 6 ---

Keep praying for my sister, Mary.  The radiation does seem to be helping somewhat, and the prayers definitely are.  We are so thankful to the hundreds of people all around the world who are asking the Lord to heal my sister.

I got an email from Peter's school yesterday.  Some teacher I've never met was notifying me that they had received Peter's registration for some summer seminars he will be taking, and he also let me know that he is offering his daily work for my family's intentions.  Brings tears to my eyes.

Also, the prayer card plea on Facebook went viral, in large part because of The Chef's siblings, and cousins, and my rock star friends.  Evangelicals and other non-Catholics were commenting how that they prayed the prayer card!  That is hard core grace at work.  Christ's Love is at work all around.  How blessed we are.


--- 7 ---


It's my favorite month, my birthday month, which happens to be Mary's month, for whom my sister happens to be named.  It also happens to be the most beautiful month of the year, so go outside and enjoy this beautiful weekend!  And slap on a mustache, because everybody knows, mustaches are funny.



For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's What We're Reading Wednesday



Captain Nobody by Dean Pitchford is about Newton Newman, who is the younger brother of the high-school star quarterback, Chris Newman. Newt is a nice kid, making breakfast for his workaholic parents and super-famous brother.  He gets picked on some at school, but he has two good friends. 

When Chris is injured in the Big Game and ends up hospitalized in a coma, Newt's friends insist he come out for trick-or-treating.  Wearing some of Chris's old clothes, Newt becomes Captain Nobody.  Captain Nobody becomes a permanent fixture as Newt continues to wear the costume, and even has some super-hero rescue moments. 

When his brother recovers, Newt finally gets the recognition he deserves and gets to share the limelight with his brother.

 Dean Pitchford is an award-winning screen writer and this is obvious in his writing style:  very fast-paced with tons of dialogue and action, light on the descriptive passages.  I think this book is fine for grade school kids.  Middle-schoolers and up will probably find it a bit young.



Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, author of one of my favorite books, Rules, sets her story on an island off the coast of Maine.  Tess Brooks' mother is the island's school teacher, her father a lobster fisherman, or lobsterman, I suppose.  The island's school is in danger of closing due to the loss of five students when the Hamilton family moved away.  The islanders decide to host foster children in order to keep the school open.

Tess and her little sister, Libby, are excited about meeting Aaron, the thirteen year old who has been assigned to them.  It becomes clear that Aaron isn't going to get too attached to "Home #3" and would much rather be with his mom.  He was taken from his mom at the age of five, because of her drug and alcohol use.  Five year old Aaron called 911 when she was unconscious.  He lived with his grandmother for six years after that, but when his grandmother passed away, he was put in foster care.

Tess and her family do their best to make Aaron feel welcome and part of their family.  Tess messes things up a bit when she writes to Aaron's mother and asks her to come to the island in disguise to see Aaron play the trumpet in the island talent show.  I'm not going to spoil the ending, but I will let you know that it's a happy one, my favorite kind.

Tess is compulsive about luck, good luck, bad luck, her lucky charms, things you don't say on a boat, "touch blue and your wish will come true," etc.  By the end of the book, she tosses out all of her lucky charms and realizes that her parents are right when they tell that we make our own luck.  Of course, I believe luck has another name, grace, and clovers, stars, and other tokens have nothing to do with the coincidences or twists life has for us.  I don't think it's problematic, just giving you a heads up.



Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes is set before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina in the ninth ward of New Orleans.  My sister-in-law is from New Orleans and she said that the ninth ward was the lowest part of the city and much of it will never be re-built.  She also said it was a notoriously poor and dangerous part of New Orleans.  The poor part figures into our story, but not the dangerous part.

Lanesha lives Mama Ya Ya, the elderly midwife who delivered her when her young, unwed mother showed up on her doorstep.  Lanesha's wealthy uptown folks have never acknowledged her existence, and her mother died in childbirth, but Mama Ya Ya loves her and cares for her, stretching her social security check to provide for both of them.

Mama Ya Ya and Lanesha have "the Sight."  Lanesha sees ghosts, she sees the ghost of her mother on Mama Ya Ya's bed, ghosts on the street, ghosts at school, but they do not speak to her.  She is something of an outcast with her light colored eyes and her ability to see ghosts.

Mama Ya Ya can see the future as well as ghosts.  She is always reminding Lanesha to read the signs.  Mama Ya Ya knows when someone is coming to visit, and the name of Lanesha's new friend before they even get to the door.  Mama Ya Ya has an altar with a rosary, Catholic saints and voodoo gods, and the old religions and gods of Africa are referred to as well.

Mama Ya Ya dreams of the coming storm, but it's not the hurricane that frightens her, it's the blackness that will follow.

Lanesha is a smart twelve year old girl, with an aptitude for math, and a desire to be a teacher or a bridge building engineer.  She reads the encyclopedias that Mama Ya Ya bought her, and studies diligently.  Her teacher loans her the seventh grade pre-algebra book for her to practice with while school is cancelled for the hurricane.  Lanesha uses math to help her in the crisis, figuring out where the safest place in the house is, how fast the water is rising, and eventually how to free a tangled boat from her rooftop perch in the aftermath.

What I Liked About This Book:  Before the hurricane, a Christian minister comes and offers Lanesha and Mama Ya Ya assistance and shelter at the local church, which Mama Ya Ya politely declines.  I was pleased to see a cleric represented in a positive light.  I also love the way Lanesha and Mama YaYa care for each other, especially Lanesha's tender care and concern for the elderly Mama YaYa.

What I Didn't Like About This Book:  As I mentioned above, there are many references to gods, idols, the ability to see the future, the ability to see and/or talk with ghosts etc.  Now, unlike Disney's The Frog Princess, no voodoo master conjures up curses with help from demons.  In fact, I have to see this book is way better than that movie on this front.  Are ya still with me?  I didn't think so.

Moving on...


Bounce by Natasha Friend was hard for me to start.  Evyn, the thirteen year old female protagonist, has such a whiny, bitchy voice, I had to force myself to keep reading.  Peter picked up this book during our recent road trip, and told me he didn't read very much because, "It was stupid."  Bounce was nominated for a Caudill however, so with due diligence, I persevered.  I love spelling "persevered."

Evyn and her older brother, Mackey, lost their mother when Evyn was one year old.  Their father, Albert, has recently met and fallen in love with a professor of Greek descent, Eleni, who has six children of her own, ages nineteen to six.  Albert and Eleni are getting married.  Evyn, Mackey, and Albert will move from Portland, Maine to Boston, to start their new lives with their new family.

What I Liked About This Book:  Large families are rarely represented well in literature (the Weasleys are a wonderful exception), but the author does a great job with this one.  The newly formed Gartos-Linney family members are all very kind to each other, with the occasional minor bickering.  They do outrageous and thoughtful things to demonstrate their familial ties, such as an incredible funeral for a dog, and wearing matching patchwork scarves to support Mackey's role in the high school musical, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

What I Didn't Like About This Book:  "Boobs" are mentioned dozens of times.  Evyn is small-chested, and notices everyone's "boob" size.

After nearly running away, Evyn is rescued by the eldest son, Linus.  She gets to go to his college dorm to spend the night before facing the family the next morning.  When she gets to his dorm, she meets Pamela, Linus's scantily clad, large breasted "friend," who also spends the night.  Later in the book, Linus has replaced Pamela with another girl.

At one point in the book, Evyn comes home from school and rushes to the bathroom, only to find her father and his new wife in the midst of a shower scene.  She chokes on the grape she is eating, and receives a bare breasted Heimlich maneuver from her new step-mom.

In my mind, there are too many adult situations for a kid's book.  My kids won't be reading this one.

They will be reading the next one though...



Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur is the bittersweet story of a girl, who with her mother, are the only survivors of the fatal car accident that took the lives of her father and sister.

The book begins with Aubrey, eating cheese and crackers and watching tv all day until the food runs out.  Her mother, suffering severe depression, has abandoned her.

You might think this book is nothing but gloom from here on out, but it gets better.  Much better.

Aubrey's grandmother shows up and takes her to Vermont to live with her.  Her grandmother also begins the search for Aubrey's mom.  Through tomato gardening, taking care of a couple of pets, a next door neighbor girl who never asks too many questions, and some meetings with a guidance counselor who asks all the right questions, Aubrey starts to have a normal life again.

After her mother has been found and treated for her illness, Aubrey is given the choice to move back to Virginia with her mom, or stay in Vermont with her grandmother.

What I Liked About This Book:  Everything.

What I Didn't Like About This Book:  Nothing.

This one's a keeper, and a tear-jerker.  And it's written by my cousin's wife's sister's high-school best friend.  I think Suzanne LaFleur could be my new best friend too.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Caling All Prayer Warriors

Many of you have already seen the call to prayer on FB or my sister Anne's blog, but please bear with me...


Hello Friends,

My sister, Mary, is in need of some serious prayer warriors. 

But she is also sensitive about her personal info, which is why I haven't blogged about this much or shared it as my FB status until recently.


 Mary's cancer (melanoma) returned after a six year hiatus. She is 32, Steubenville grad (what's up with that? We are a UD family, mostly.) married, no kids. 


Long story short, we're praying for a miracle. 
She is surrounded by love and family. 
We are driving to STL this weekend and most every weekend until further notice. 

Meanwhile, my parents are asking that everyone pray the prayer card for The Servant of God, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Prelate of Opus Dei that Mary be healed of all cancer, and live a long and happy life with many children, and they are asking that she be healed this Sunday, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. When asking for a miracle, they are very specific. 


Will you please join me in praying this prayer for her cure sometime before this Sunday? It would mean so much to me and my family. 
The prayer is as follows:

O God, merciful Father, you granted your servant Alvaro, Bishop, the grace of being an exemplary pastor in the service of the Church, and a most faithful son and successor of Saint Josemaria, the founder of Opus Dei. Grant that I too may respond faithfully to the demands of the Christian vocation, turning all the circumstances and events of my life into opportunities to love you and serve the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Deign to glorify your servant, Alvaro, and through his intercession grant me the favor I request…(here make your petition). Amen.

Our Father. Hail Mary. Glory be to the Father.

If you can spare a prayer, for her, for her husband, for my family, many, many, thanks.

And please pass this message on to any prayerful people you know.

I totally owe you.

Jessica

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Twelve Dancing Princesses: A Tale of Two Novels


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Young Adult novel with over 500 pages, three happily-ever-after romances, one undead shape-shifter, a re-told fairy tale or two, a cast of dozens (many of whom have names and descriptions, but no active role in the plot), and a boatload of daddy issues, must be in want of an editor.

That being said, Entwined by Heather Dixon is a harmless if lengthy YA book.


If you would like to read a much, much better and briefer re-telling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, check out Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball.

You can thank me later.

Friday, May 4, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday - It's the Chef's Birthday!



--- 1 ---

The Chef, co-starring many loins of pork.
Happy Birthday to the Chef!  I acknowledged his birthday on Facebook.  "Happy Birthday to my spouse," and I tagged him.  I agonized over what to say, because I knew in my heart of hearts that no matter what I wrote, he would say something sarcastic about it.  Actually, I know this so well, that I didn't really agonize.  But true to form, he said, "my spouse?  What's with the formal language?"

--- 2 ---

So I asked him, "What should I have said, "my hubby?" "

This led to a discussion of words we hate, like hubby and hubs and wifey and preggers.

Come on folks!  Leave the words you hate in the combox!  I will try to use each of them today as a  birthday gift for my hubby!

I'll kick it off with a word I know he hates, so I try to use it often in my blog, "Huzzah!"

--- 3 ---

 Back to those pork loins.

Pork loin has a special place in our marriage.  Several years ago, after a trip to Costco, on a night shortly before Christmas, I was wrapping presents, near midnight.  I was exhausted with all of the pre-holiday prep.  I was sitting on the floor, in my pajamas and robe, surrounded by paper and boxes and working my little fingers to the bone, when the Chef came in, also in pajamas and robe.  He had been cutting up the whole pork loin from Costco into roasts and freezing them.

He was clutching his shoulder and moaning.  He said two words, "My arm..."  and out slid...his arm!  And it fell on the floor with a sickening thud.

Mentally, I was wondering where the cooler was and if we had enough ice to keep the limb cool on the way to the ER, and I should probably wake up Peter to hold a tourniquet on the stump, etc.

Actually, I was screaming.  Out of control, bloody murder, screaming.


And he was laughing hysterically.  On the floor lay one vacuum sealed pork loin.

Then, I started sobbing.

Good times.
--- 4 ---

This is the picture Peter used when running for class office a long time ago.  He won, of course.
Today is also Star Wars Day.  May the Fourth be with you.  I had to save this one for Quick Take #4.

--- 5 ---

The Chef is very funny.  If you've ever read his blogposts over at CatholicVote, you already know that.




He also does a wicked impersonation of Steve Irwin.  He nails the Aussie accent when he says, "Look at my tight shorts!  Look at them!  Crikey! They're tight!"  (We are big fans of Steve Irwin and mean his memory no disrespect.)

--- 6 ---
The Chef is also very good at surprises.

Twice, he has surprised with getaway trips, just us, no kids.  He has arranged carpool pick ups, camp drop-offs, and even called my boss to take care of my work schedule.  He's a keeper.

Our last getaway was 2 years ago.  We went downtown to the big city, fine dining, museums, beach, shopping, everything I love.  The Chef had booked an evening cruise for us on one of those tall ships at Navy Pier.

We didn't know until we got a pre-board complimentary photo with a skeleton, that it was the Pirate Cruise.
 "Everybody say, "Aaargh!"
 "I can't hear you!"
Yep, a pirate cruise.  It was still super romantical and lots of fun.   It's always fun to watch over-served grown-ups pretending to be pirates.

  
--- 7 ---


Yes, it's a fish Friday, but you can eat meat if you make an alternate sacrifice or charitable act, so we will celebrate his birthday meatily.  Tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo!  I don't really know what the celebration is about, but I do love margaritas, so it's all good.
 
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What We're Reading Now Wednesday

Except it's Thursday, and I started this post on Tuesday...



Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs by Ron Koertge is told in verse, and not just free verse either.  There are types of poems that I didn't even know, like pantoums.  Wait, back-up.  It's a novel told in first person about a middle school kid, an 8th grader, Kevin, who plays baseball and writes poetry.

He has a girlfriend, who "likes to make out in semi-public places."  I don't really have a problem with that because it seems Kevin does have a problem with it.  He gets that he's being used by a girl who's trying to irritate her parents, and he's not happy about it.

Kevin really likes Amy, the cool girl he met at a poetry reading.  Yes, this kid goes to poetry readings....with his DAD!  How cool is that?  Turns out his father is an author.  Kevin and his dad are both working through some stuff, like grief over his mom's death.  Apparently this book is a sequel to Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, which I will have to add to my enormous pile.  I'm not a big fan of middle-schoolers dating, but  I do like the poetry aspect.  I think it's okay for eighth graders and up, seeing as how it's about an eighth grader.



Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea.  A gem.  A real treasure.  I cannot express how much I love this book.  It's like Good-bye Mr. Chips, or the Dead Poets' Society, but better and about middle-schoolers.  Told in each of seven students' voices, the scene flips back and forth as the author shows us the same event multiple times from different perspectives. 

There are some mature themes running through the book.  Each of the seven students has some baggage.  Jessica has just moved to town with her mom, because her screenwriter dad dumped them for a starlet.  One child is ridiculed for her weight by the class mean girl.  One boy is grieving the loss of his older brother, who was born with Down Syndrome and died the year before.  He says that he was born to save his brother, as a bone marrow match.

Another girl, Anna, is cautious about making friends, because her mother was ostracized by the town when she became pregnant at sixteen.  Danielle is the granddaughter of one of the townspeople that treated  Anna's mother so badly.  Danielle is not allowed to play with Anna, as her mother and grandmother feel Anna may be a bad influence.  Danielle and her family are also shown to be practicing Christians, attending Church and praying regularly.  Danielle prays for her mother and grandmother to change their opinions of Anna and her mother, which seems to work. 

Mr. Terupt is the amazing new teacher, who comes in and makes magic with their hearts and minds, until an accident changes them all.  I want to read it again. 




Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, is also a jewel.  I really like this new trend in YA lit that features protagonists with special needs.  Lucy read this book first, even though I generally don't allow her to read books that I haven't read.  She was very insistent that I read it too.  She loved it, and convinced several of her classmates to buy it at the book fair last week.

It's about Melody, who has cerebral palsy, and cannot speak much beyond grunts and squeals.  She has very little control over her limbs, can move her head and thumbs, and can kick her legs.  She cannot stand or sit unassisted.  She is misdiagnosed as severely mentally retarded when she is five.  Her mother is told that she is incapable of learning.  Yet, she is the first person narrator of the novel, and she has a photographic memory, but no one knows that yet.

Fast forward to age eleven.  She is stuck in a remedial classroom. Her school begins the practice of inclusion with regular classes.  This is the catalyst that turns things around for her.  Eventually, she gets a computer that enables her to have a voice.  She blows away her classmates and teachers when she is the first place qualifier for the Whiz Kids National competition.  Melody experiences exclusion, ridicule and betrayal, but she also gets to experience positive things, like friendship and admiration. 

Gosh, this book was so deep.  I'm having a difficult time writing about it without making it seem trite and sugar-coated.  I'm not at all surprised it's a Caudill nominee.  I hope it wins.




Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Post about Money

When the Chef and I took our FOCUS test in our pre-cana class at the University of Dallas, we failed.

Well, we only failed one section, Finances.  We both laughed it off because the questions were like, "Which of you will balance the checkbook?"  "Where will you invest your savings?" and "Who will be responsible for paying the bills?"

We were still students with no jobs on the horizon, but lots of student loans on the horizon, and plenty of baggage in the form of credit cards.

Yup.  Credit Cards.  In college.  How else we were going to buy beer and cigarettes and ramen?  How else would I have funded my annual trip to the Gap outlet?

So, we failed finances and we kept failing them for approximately thirteen to fifteen years.  We did everything wrong.  We never budgeted.  We never talked about money or debts or bills.  I have no idea how we ever bought our house, but it had something to do with a new job, a substantial pay raise, and something called FHA financing.  We've refinanced this home a few times too.  We had to, to pay our ever-growing debt, largely made up of credit cards, student loans, and car payments. We zeroed out our credit card balances and then ran them right back up. 

We spent and justified and spent and felt guilty and made resolutions and spent and so the cycle continued.

Over the years, even though our income grew by leaps and bounds, our spending always kept up. 

Until, one day, I had a friend and her brood over to visit.  We sat outside on a beautiful, sunny day.  I think there were hot dogs and popsicles and water balloons, but what I remember most is that she told me about the money problems in her marriage, which were quite similar to mine.

She told me that they were climbing out of their giant pit of debt because she bought a book in a bookstore.  She was in a bookstore worrying about finances. She prayed for guidance, and she bought Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover.  She explained to me the principles in the book, how she and her spouse had applied them, and how things were really turning around for them financially.

Being a better steward, (ha-ha) I did not buy the book.  I requested it from the library.  I read it, was inspired and went and bought it so the Chef could read it too.  If you're already familiar with Dave's plan, skip the bullet points.

  • Dave Ramsey teaches the "debt snowball," which is paying everything you can to your smallest debt, and when that's paid off, you pay everything you can to the next smallest and so on...  Eventually, you've paid off some stuff that had minimum monthly payments so you add the money you would have spent on the payments to your debt snowball.  So you start hitting your debts one at a time with bigger and bigger amounts of money.  Then one magical day, you will be debt free, except for your house.  This is the day you can call The Dave Ramsey show and scream into the phone, "We're Debt Freeeee!"  
  • Dave also wants everyone to have an emergency fund.  One thousand dollars to start, as in, before you pay any debts.  
  • He's also a stickler for budgets.  Know where every cent is going before the month begins.

No, we did not immediately put into practice everything Dave Ramsey says.  We were still failing.

But, slowly, we began to see that we needed to change our lifestyle or our kids would never get braces, among other things.  We stopped our most expensive extra-curriculars.   We stopped using credit cards completely.  But we didn't budget, or start a snowball, or talk about the giant pile of debt sitting in the corner and collecting interest, yet.

That didn't really happen until we had what my friend calls, "the Come to Jesus moment."

That's the moment where we looked at all the numbers written down, debts from selfishness and laziness and greed, and realized that there was no way we could make this go away without each other and without Him.

It was an ugly moment, filled with fear and tears and mountains and mountains of guilt. But, it was a moment free of blame.  We stopped pointing fingers at each other, and we vowed never to do so again. We were left with the knowledge that it could only get better and it would never be that bad again.

 We owned the problem in that moment, and began to attack it together.  And we never looked back.  We stopped wagging our heads and lamenting the fact that we blew thousands and thousands of dollars on worthless crap.  We know we did that.  We don't need to remind ourselves of that ever, ever again.

It takes at least a year to wrestle out a working budget.  And it takes LOTS of COMMUNICATION.  Did I want to ask my spouse if I could get the $100 highlights? No.  But I love him and I wanted open lines of communication.  I needed to know how much was in the bank, and he needed to know if and when the money was being spent.  Now, we budget for the highlights. 

After a year, you can see where you screwed up last year and prepare in advance for the annual vet appointment, the baseball and camp registrations, pool passes, mandatory raffle ticket purchases, school uniforms and supplies, and have a realistic idea of how much you actually spend on Christmas.  

We use cash.  I use cash.  I, who never ever carried cash, carry cash.  We stick to the budget.  For the most part.  And we fight so much less.  There is so much less to fight about!

Now, after years of effort and back-sliding and renewed effort, we are finally getting somewhere.  Two kids have braces, and I was thrilled to pay in full on the first day of treatment.  We went to Walt Disney World with airline miles and Marriott points and did not put one dollar of the trip on a credit card.


The debts are disappearing.  We are not failing anymore.

Our kids know something of this journey.  They have heard enough Dave Ramsey podcasts to know that credit card debt is really stupid and that buying used cars is always a better deal.  They know why we quit Irish dance, and how we saved to get them braces.  And there is definitely going to be a big ole "credit cards are stupid" talk when they go to college.

And hopefully, if they find the right person and take the FOCUS test, they will pass all the sections with flying colors.





Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It's What We're Reading Wednesday


Love That Dog by Sharon Creech took me completely by surprise.  I haven't read any of her other books, but if they are anything like this one, I will.  Love That Dog is short,  but oh, so powerful.

It's the story of Jack who is studying poetry, and has to write poems.  The poems he writes actually tell the story.  (You knew that if it was told in free verse I would love it, didn't you Sharon?)  Unlike myself, Jack doesn't love poetry, at first.  His teacher, Miss Stretchberry, sees real talent in Jack and frequently posts Jack's poems on the school bulletin board for all to see, with Jack's permission, of course, and only anonymously.

With poetry, Jack cautiously reveals his love for his dog and the tragic story of his dog's passing.

The best part of the book is when Jack's class is introduced to the poetry of Mr. Walter Dean Myers.  I am only familiar with his novels, not his poems,  an error I will soon correct.  Jack is so moved by Mr. Walter Dean Myers' poetic work, that he writes a poem for him and sends it to Mr. Walter Dean Myer's publisher, asking Mr. Walter Dean Myers to visit the class.  Mr. Walter Dean Myers is never referred to as Myers or Mr. Myers, so Mr. Walter Dean Myers he will forever be in my mind.

I would love to hear this beautiful and brief story, done really well in audio, perhaps narrated by Mr. Walter Dean Myers. 


My sister, Mary, the one we're all praying for, recommended Uglies by Scott Westerfeld to me.  She actually recommended it to me years ago, but something about the description on the back of the book frightened me.  Well, I'd do anything for her now, so I read it.

It's much, much less frightening than Hunger Games or even Matched.

The setting is about 300 years in the future.  Everything recycles instantly.  Humans use no consumable energy sources, just solar power and magnets.  They ride hoverboards, which I'm guessing are like Luke Skywalker's landspeeder but shrunk down to skateboard size.  Buried metal throughout the cities, under hoverpaths, and in river beds provide the magnetic power for the hoverboards.

Everyone has an operation when they turn sixteen to make them pretty.  Well, not just pretty, but  biologically desirable.  Big eyes to project neediness will cause feelings of protection.  Fat removal, height adjustments, chin and cheek implants, fuller lips, longer necks, indestructible ceramic teeth, disease resistance, and more create desirability, confidence and more. 

Children are known as "littlies,"  tweens from ages 12 to 16 are "uglies," and once the operation has been done, age 16 to maybe 30 are the "pretties."  Pretties get to live in New Pretty Town and party all the time.  There are even "Pleasure Parks" where the reader will pass a few tangles of arms and legs, but that's as graphic as it gets.  After 30 or so, there is another operation for Middle Pretties, and a third one later in life for Late Pretties.

But what happens if an Ugly doesn't want the operation?

Tally Youngblood has waited her whole life for the operation, planning and re-planning her features.  Tally loses her best friend to New Pretty Town a few months before her own birthday, and befriends another Ugly named Shay.  To Tally's horror, she learns that some Uglies never get the operation.  They have banded together outside city limits and created a settlement called the Smoke, where they eat animals, wear animal skins, and even cut down trees.

When Shay runs away to join the Smoke, Tally is taken into Special Circumstances.  There, some surgically modified cop-like humans known as "Specials" give Tally an ultimatum.  If she wants the Pretty operation, she will have to find Shay and betray the Smoke community.

The first book in this four-part series was a real nail-biter.  Literally.  I have no nails left.  I read it in the car on the way home from St. Louis this weekend, even though reading in the car makes me nauseous and gives me a headache.  It was too good to put down.

It's also a great commentary on the issue of physical beauty.  Who determines what is beautiful and what is not?   Can a person be so surgically altered that he ceases to be himself?  Very intriguing stuff. 

And...according to the interweb...it's being made into a movie.   Dare I get excited? 


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It's What We're Reading Wednesday



Peter loves Carl Hiassen books.  He was very excited to hear that there is a new one, Chomp.  He is going to be over the moon thrilled when he hears that it's about the son of animal wrangler, who gets a job working on the set of a very Survivorman-like show called, "Expedition:  Survival!"  Heck, Bear Grylls is even mentioned by name in the novel.  Yes, I know Bear Grylls is the star of Man vs. Wild, not Survivorman.  Everybody knows that.

Anyway, if you or your child likes Carl Hiassen books, this one is true to form.  Super fast paced adventure in nature, some good guys, some bad guys, some violence.

In Chomp, a girl is sporting a black eye, courtesy of her alcoholic father who tracks her down in the Everglades and shoots a few people too.   Our hero, Wahoo, is missing a thumb from an encounter with his family's alligator, Alice.  A python tries to eat Wahoo's dad.  Lots of animal encounters.  I think that's why the book is called "Chomp."  Get it?  Chomp.  heh-heh.

All in all, lots of likeable characters, some funny parts, and of course, some discourse on the proper treatment of animals and nature.



The Familiars by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson is mainly about Aldwyn, a black and white alley cat who is on the run for stealing a fish.  He ends up hiding in a pet shop, in a cage, and pretends to be just another pet for sale.  This is no ordinary pet shop, however.  This is a familiar shop, familiars are pets for wizards, and they all have different magical abilities to aid their wizard owners, aka loyals.  Poor Aldwyn gets immediately purchased for a nice young wizard boy named Jack.

Jack takes him back to the small wizard school where he lives with his professor, his fellow pupils, Marianne and Dalton, and their respective familiars, Gilbert the tree frog who can see the future in puddle readings, and Skylar the blue jay, who is adept at projecting illusions. They all look forward to seeing Aldwyn use his telekinetic powers.

Aldwyn conceals his inability to do magic and is thrown headfirst into an epic adventure when the queen of the land kills the professor and kidnaps the three loyals.  The familiars band together on a rescue mission.

There's a lot to like in this novel, that is sure to be a success with Harry Potter fans.  The writing and the story are a little clunky, for my taste.  I'm not certain if that's because the book has two authors or because the authors are screenwriters, and the book is already being made into a movie.  Either way, it's a cute story.


I checked out Zitface by Emily Howse, because it was listed on Lucy's Scholastic book order form.  With so many truly wonderful books out there, how does Scholastic keep publicizing the garbage?

Chapter One includes an interchange between the thirteen-year-old protagonist, Olivia Hughes, and her friend referring to "screwing" some one, but then she let's the reader know that she is actually a virgin.

I did skim some of the rest.  Young commercial star gets a serious career stopping case of acne and loses and all of her friends, as well as her boyfriend.   There is some kind of tension with her mother wanting her to keep acting, and her divorced-lives-far-away father not wanting her to act anymore.  Her mother takes her to a dermatologist who discusses many treatment options, including birth control pills, at which point Olivia once again brings up the fact that she is still a virgin. 

Yuck.  RE-turn.


The Books of Elsewhere: The Shadows by Jacqueline West might seem like something you've read before.  Young Olive Dunwoody and her two mathematics professor parents have just purchased the old McMartin house.  Only Olive realizes that the old stone mansion, with it's spooky paintings that cannot be removed from the walls, holds some scary secrets.

Three talking cat guardians, one pair of spectacles that enables the wearer to enter paintings, one boy trapped in a painting, and one dead previous owner who wants to come back to life and rid the house of any newcomers, make for an exciting adventure. 

I love sweet Olive and her total lack of mathematical ability.  I love how every time she counts to one hundred, she skips the eighties.  I love that her parents still love her even though they don't understand each other very well.  I don't normally love cats,  but Horatio, Leopold, and Harvey are wonderful guardians.  And I love that the sequel to this book is due out this JULY!  I love sequels!


Friday, May 18, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday: Ascension Sunday


--- 1 ---



Edmund's third grade Battle of the Books team, The Reading Ninjas, won!  Out of six teams, from the entire school, these scrappy third graders took home the grand prize, which will be an outing of laser tag.  Their coach wins the questionable prize of getting to take seven third graders out for laser tag.  Their coach is yours truly.  I'm ridiculously proud!

--- 2 ---
Above is our team photo.  You are probably wondering, "Where did they get such awesome t-shirts?"

Well, I've been a little overwhelmed lately, what with life-threatening illnesses, plus regular life, laundry, groceries, etc.  So I had made an executive decision, that our team would not have matching t-shirts, but we would wear all black, like ninjas.  One mom offered to come up with some kind of bandana/headband thingy.  Good enough.

Then, I got the email on Tuesday that Thursday would be an out-of-uniform day for all Battle of the Books participants and they can all wear their team t-shirts to school.  crap.

So, I said a little prayer, and ran to my local WalMart, which is undergoing some ridiculous transmogrification into a Super Mega WalMart of the World...world...world.  (Imagine I said that in my movie trailer voice.)  Nothing is where it should be.  The maps to find things during the renovation are always gone.  Nobody works there except three checkout clerks.  I can't figure out how to exit the building to get to the garden section.  But, I was just going to kill those hanging baskets for my front porch anyway.



MIRACULOUSLY, I found seven black t-shirts and the Avery dark fabric transfer paper within minutes.

Then I wandered around and found fifty dollars worth of stuff I didn't know I needed.  Those green price tags make everything look like a clearance item, so you know it's a good deal.  Plus, because it's the black hole of WalMart, if you ever at any time in the future really need something, you will never be able to find it again.  It will cease to exist.    Except in this one instance.  Miraculous.

And the t-shirts only cost a buck.

Bonus:   Baby J did not own ONE SINGLE piece of pink plastic garbage slathered with licensed images of Disney princesses, until now.  Cell phone and sand bucket:  check.  It's what all the cool toddlers have this summer.

--- 3 ---

 

In less than an hour, I was able to whip up seven matching t-shirts with the adorable, yet still fierce, reading ninja image that I found on the Internet.  Legal?  Probably not.  But I didn't sell the t-shirts, and these kids really were in need. 
--- 4 ---

Then, yesterday, my kids came home with a flyer that read, "Out-of-Uniform Day this Friday!  Wear your favorite movie t-shirt for only a quarter."  WHAT?!?!

Who has a t-shirt of their favorite movie anyway?

We have Pirates of the Carribean, Dad has a Mr. Incredible tee that he got for Father's Day one year, somewhere is that Finding Nemo tee with the seagulls saying "Mine! Mine!"  Any takers?

Silence.

Brainstorm!

I still had some dark fabric transfer paper left!

A few minutes, and a couple of illegal downloads later, we had favorite movie tees.  Lucy is wearing a mockingjay pin from The Hunger Games, and Edmund is sporting an Avengers movie poster image, which apparently includes a character not actually in the movie.   


One of the Reading Ninjas, Lucy, and Edmund sporting their new customized tee shirts.

--- 5 ---

I am very blessed in that my teens feel comfortable talking to me about all kinds of things.  I am convinced it's because I have mocked their angst by asking them if their hormones were bothering them, and repeatedly asked them if they are on drugs,  or if they want to talk about puberty.

Maybe that's not why, but anyway, when they talk, I listen.

I was delighted to hear Peter's story about Spanish class this week.  He was very excited to tell me all about it.  I even put down my book (Chomp by Carl Hiassen)  so as to give him eye contact.

He began by saying, "Know how you always say that sophomores are the most immature people on the planet?"

"Yes.  Sopho Mores.  Wise Fools.  Yes.  Go on..."

"Well, this week in Spanish, el Profesor asked "Que es el primer beneficio de matrimonio?"  or something that roughly means, "What is the number one benefit of marriage?"  And it wasn't me, Mom, I swear it wasn't me, but from the corner of the classroom, in a quiet voice, someone said, "el sexo."


The Teen Wailin' and Moanin' has commenced.  It's a right of passage for the men in The Chef's family.
That's what the attic is for.

--- 6 ---

Keep praying for my sister, Mary.  The radiation does seem to be helping somewhat, and the prayers definitely are.  We are so thankful to the hundreds of people all around the world who are asking the Lord to heal my sister.

I got an email from Peter's school yesterday.  Some teacher I've never met was notifying me that they had received Peter's registration for some summer seminars he will be taking, and he also let me know that he is offering his daily work for my family's intentions.  Brings tears to my eyes.

Also, the prayer card plea on Facebook went viral, in large part because of The Chef's siblings, and cousins, and my rock star friends.  Evangelicals and other non-Catholics were commenting how that they prayed the prayer card!  That is hard core grace at work.  Christ's Love is at work all around.  How blessed we are.


--- 7 ---


It's my favorite month, my birthday month, which happens to be Mary's month, for whom my sister happens to be named.  It also happens to be the most beautiful month of the year, so go outside and enjoy this beautiful weekend!  And slap on a mustache, because everybody knows, mustaches are funny.



For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It's What We're Reading Wednesday



Captain Nobody by Dean Pitchford is about Newton Newman, who is the younger brother of the high-school star quarterback, Chris Newman. Newt is a nice kid, making breakfast for his workaholic parents and super-famous brother.  He gets picked on some at school, but he has two good friends. 

When Chris is injured in the Big Game and ends up hospitalized in a coma, Newt's friends insist he come out for trick-or-treating.  Wearing some of Chris's old clothes, Newt becomes Captain Nobody.  Captain Nobody becomes a permanent fixture as Newt continues to wear the costume, and even has some super-hero rescue moments. 

When his brother recovers, Newt finally gets the recognition he deserves and gets to share the limelight with his brother.

 Dean Pitchford is an award-winning screen writer and this is obvious in his writing style:  very fast-paced with tons of dialogue and action, light on the descriptive passages.  I think this book is fine for grade school kids.  Middle-schoolers and up will probably find it a bit young.



Touch Blue by Cynthia Lord, author of one of my favorite books, Rules, sets her story on an island off the coast of Maine.  Tess Brooks' mother is the island's school teacher, her father a lobster fisherman, or lobsterman, I suppose.  The island's school is in danger of closing due to the loss of five students when the Hamilton family moved away.  The islanders decide to host foster children in order to keep the school open.

Tess and her little sister, Libby, are excited about meeting Aaron, the thirteen year old who has been assigned to them.  It becomes clear that Aaron isn't going to get too attached to "Home #3" and would much rather be with his mom.  He was taken from his mom at the age of five, because of her drug and alcohol use.  Five year old Aaron called 911 when she was unconscious.  He lived with his grandmother for six years after that, but when his grandmother passed away, he was put in foster care.

Tess and her family do their best to make Aaron feel welcome and part of their family.  Tess messes things up a bit when she writes to Aaron's mother and asks her to come to the island in disguise to see Aaron play the trumpet in the island talent show.  I'm not going to spoil the ending, but I will let you know that it's a happy one, my favorite kind.

Tess is compulsive about luck, good luck, bad luck, her lucky charms, things you don't say on a boat, "touch blue and your wish will come true," etc.  By the end of the book, she tosses out all of her lucky charms and realizes that her parents are right when they tell that we make our own luck.  Of course, I believe luck has another name, grace, and clovers, stars, and other tokens have nothing to do with the coincidences or twists life has for us.  I don't think it's problematic, just giving you a heads up.



Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes is set before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina in the ninth ward of New Orleans.  My sister-in-law is from New Orleans and she said that the ninth ward was the lowest part of the city and much of it will never be re-built.  She also said it was a notoriously poor and dangerous part of New Orleans.  The poor part figures into our story, but not the dangerous part.

Lanesha lives Mama Ya Ya, the elderly midwife who delivered her when her young, unwed mother showed up on her doorstep.  Lanesha's wealthy uptown folks have never acknowledged her existence, and her mother died in childbirth, but Mama Ya Ya loves her and cares for her, stretching her social security check to provide for both of them.

Mama Ya Ya and Lanesha have "the Sight."  Lanesha sees ghosts, she sees the ghost of her mother on Mama Ya Ya's bed, ghosts on the street, ghosts at school, but they do not speak to her.  She is something of an outcast with her light colored eyes and her ability to see ghosts.

Mama Ya Ya can see the future as well as ghosts.  She is always reminding Lanesha to read the signs.  Mama Ya Ya knows when someone is coming to visit, and the name of Lanesha's new friend before they even get to the door.  Mama Ya Ya has an altar with a rosary, Catholic saints and voodoo gods, and the old religions and gods of Africa are referred to as well.

Mama Ya Ya dreams of the coming storm, but it's not the hurricane that frightens her, it's the blackness that will follow.

Lanesha is a smart twelve year old girl, with an aptitude for math, and a desire to be a teacher or a bridge building engineer.  She reads the encyclopedias that Mama Ya Ya bought her, and studies diligently.  Her teacher loans her the seventh grade pre-algebra book for her to practice with while school is cancelled for the hurricane.  Lanesha uses math to help her in the crisis, figuring out where the safest place in the house is, how fast the water is rising, and eventually how to free a tangled boat from her rooftop perch in the aftermath.

What I Liked About This Book:  Before the hurricane, a Christian minister comes and offers Lanesha and Mama Ya Ya assistance and shelter at the local church, which Mama Ya Ya politely declines.  I was pleased to see a cleric represented in a positive light.  I also love the way Lanesha and Mama YaYa care for each other, especially Lanesha's tender care and concern for the elderly Mama YaYa.

What I Didn't Like About This Book:  As I mentioned above, there are many references to gods, idols, the ability to see the future, the ability to see and/or talk with ghosts etc.  Now, unlike Disney's The Frog Princess, no voodoo master conjures up curses with help from demons.  In fact, I have to see this book is way better than that movie on this front.  Are ya still with me?  I didn't think so.

Moving on...


Bounce by Natasha Friend was hard for me to start.  Evyn, the thirteen year old female protagonist, has such a whiny, bitchy voice, I had to force myself to keep reading.  Peter picked up this book during our recent road trip, and told me he didn't read very much because, "It was stupid."  Bounce was nominated for a Caudill however, so with due diligence, I persevered.  I love spelling "persevered."

Evyn and her older brother, Mackey, lost their mother when Evyn was one year old.  Their father, Albert, has recently met and fallen in love with a professor of Greek descent, Eleni, who has six children of her own, ages nineteen to six.  Albert and Eleni are getting married.  Evyn, Mackey, and Albert will move from Portland, Maine to Boston, to start their new lives with their new family.

What I Liked About This Book:  Large families are rarely represented well in literature (the Weasleys are a wonderful exception), but the author does a great job with this one.  The newly formed Gartos-Linney family members are all very kind to each other, with the occasional minor bickering.  They do outrageous and thoughtful things to demonstrate their familial ties, such as an incredible funeral for a dog, and wearing matching patchwork scarves to support Mackey's role in the high school musical, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

What I Didn't Like About This Book:  "Boobs" are mentioned dozens of times.  Evyn is small-chested, and notices everyone's "boob" size.

After nearly running away, Evyn is rescued by the eldest son, Linus.  She gets to go to his college dorm to spend the night before facing the family the next morning.  When she gets to his dorm, she meets Pamela, Linus's scantily clad, large breasted "friend," who also spends the night.  Later in the book, Linus has replaced Pamela with another girl.

At one point in the book, Evyn comes home from school and rushes to the bathroom, only to find her father and his new wife in the midst of a shower scene.  She chokes on the grape she is eating, and receives a bare breasted Heimlich maneuver from her new step-mom.

In my mind, there are too many adult situations for a kid's book.  My kids won't be reading this one.

They will be reading the next one though...



Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur is the bittersweet story of a girl, who with her mother, are the only survivors of the fatal car accident that took the lives of her father and sister.

The book begins with Aubrey, eating cheese and crackers and watching tv all day until the food runs out.  Her mother, suffering severe depression, has abandoned her.

You might think this book is nothing but gloom from here on out, but it gets better.  Much better.

Aubrey's grandmother shows up and takes her to Vermont to live with her.  Her grandmother also begins the search for Aubrey's mom.  Through tomato gardening, taking care of a couple of pets, a next door neighbor girl who never asks too many questions, and some meetings with a guidance counselor who asks all the right questions, Aubrey starts to have a normal life again.

After her mother has been found and treated for her illness, Aubrey is given the choice to move back to Virginia with her mom, or stay in Vermont with her grandmother.

What I Liked About This Book:  Everything.

What I Didn't Like About This Book:  Nothing.

This one's a keeper, and a tear-jerker.  And it's written by my cousin's wife's sister's high-school best friend.  I think Suzanne LaFleur could be my new best friend too.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Caling All Prayer Warriors

Many of you have already seen the call to prayer on FB or my sister Anne's blog, but please bear with me...


Hello Friends,

My sister, Mary, is in need of some serious prayer warriors. 

But she is also sensitive about her personal info, which is why I haven't blogged about this much or shared it as my FB status until recently.


 Mary's cancer (melanoma) returned after a six year hiatus. She is 32, Steubenville grad (what's up with that? We are a UD family, mostly.) married, no kids. 


Long story short, we're praying for a miracle. 
She is surrounded by love and family. 
We are driving to STL this weekend and most every weekend until further notice. 

Meanwhile, my parents are asking that everyone pray the prayer card for The Servant of God, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Prelate of Opus Dei that Mary be healed of all cancer, and live a long and happy life with many children, and they are asking that she be healed this Sunday, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. When asking for a miracle, they are very specific. 


Will you please join me in praying this prayer for her cure sometime before this Sunday? It would mean so much to me and my family. 
The prayer is as follows:

O God, merciful Father, you granted your servant Alvaro, Bishop, the grace of being an exemplary pastor in the service of the Church, and a most faithful son and successor of Saint Josemaria, the founder of Opus Dei. Grant that I too may respond faithfully to the demands of the Christian vocation, turning all the circumstances and events of my life into opportunities to love you and serve the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Deign to glorify your servant, Alvaro, and through his intercession grant me the favor I request…(here make your petition). Amen.

Our Father. Hail Mary. Glory be to the Father.

If you can spare a prayer, for her, for her husband, for my family, many, many, thanks.

And please pass this message on to any prayerful people you know.

I totally owe you.

Jessica

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Twelve Dancing Princesses: A Tale of Two Novels


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Young Adult novel with over 500 pages, three happily-ever-after romances, one undead shape-shifter, a re-told fairy tale or two, a cast of dozens (many of whom have names and descriptions, but no active role in the plot), and a boatload of daddy issues, must be in want of an editor.

That being said, Entwined by Heather Dixon is a harmless if lengthy YA book.


If you would like to read a much, much better and briefer re-telling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, check out Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball.

You can thank me later.

Friday, May 4, 2012

7 Quick Takes Friday - It's the Chef's Birthday!



--- 1 ---

The Chef, co-starring many loins of pork.
Happy Birthday to the Chef!  I acknowledged his birthday on Facebook.  "Happy Birthday to my spouse," and I tagged him.  I agonized over what to say, because I knew in my heart of hearts that no matter what I wrote, he would say something sarcastic about it.  Actually, I know this so well, that I didn't really agonize.  But true to form, he said, "my spouse?  What's with the formal language?"

--- 2 ---

So I asked him, "What should I have said, "my hubby?" "

This led to a discussion of words we hate, like hubby and hubs and wifey and preggers.

Come on folks!  Leave the words you hate in the combox!  I will try to use each of them today as a  birthday gift for my hubby!

I'll kick it off with a word I know he hates, so I try to use it often in my blog, "Huzzah!"

--- 3 ---

 Back to those pork loins.

Pork loin has a special place in our marriage.  Several years ago, after a trip to Costco, on a night shortly before Christmas, I was wrapping presents, near midnight.  I was exhausted with all of the pre-holiday prep.  I was sitting on the floor, in my pajamas and robe, surrounded by paper and boxes and working my little fingers to the bone, when the Chef came in, also in pajamas and robe.  He had been cutting up the whole pork loin from Costco into roasts and freezing them.

He was clutching his shoulder and moaning.  He said two words, "My arm..."  and out slid...his arm!  And it fell on the floor with a sickening thud.

Mentally, I was wondering where the cooler was and if we had enough ice to keep the limb cool on the way to the ER, and I should probably wake up Peter to hold a tourniquet on the stump, etc.

Actually, I was screaming.  Out of control, bloody murder, screaming.


And he was laughing hysterically.  On the floor lay one vacuum sealed pork loin.

Then, I started sobbing.

Good times.
--- 4 ---

This is the picture Peter used when running for class office a long time ago.  He won, of course.
Today is also Star Wars Day.  May the Fourth be with you.  I had to save this one for Quick Take #4.

--- 5 ---

The Chef is very funny.  If you've ever read his blogposts over at CatholicVote, you already know that.




He also does a wicked impersonation of Steve Irwin.  He nails the Aussie accent when he says, "Look at my tight shorts!  Look at them!  Crikey! They're tight!"  (We are big fans of Steve Irwin and mean his memory no disrespect.)

--- 6 ---
The Chef is also very good at surprises.

Twice, he has surprised with getaway trips, just us, no kids.  He has arranged carpool pick ups, camp drop-offs, and even called my boss to take care of my work schedule.  He's a keeper.

Our last getaway was 2 years ago.  We went downtown to the big city, fine dining, museums, beach, shopping, everything I love.  The Chef had booked an evening cruise for us on one of those tall ships at Navy Pier.

We didn't know until we got a pre-board complimentary photo with a skeleton, that it was the Pirate Cruise.
 "Everybody say, "Aaargh!"
 "I can't hear you!"
Yep, a pirate cruise.  It was still super romantical and lots of fun.   It's always fun to watch over-served grown-ups pretending to be pirates.

  
--- 7 ---


Yes, it's a fish Friday, but you can eat meat if you make an alternate sacrifice or charitable act, so we will celebrate his birthday meatily.  Tomorrow is Cinco de Mayo!  I don't really know what the celebration is about, but I do love margaritas, so it's all good.
 
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

What We're Reading Now Wednesday

Except it's Thursday, and I started this post on Tuesday...



Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs by Ron Koertge is told in verse, and not just free verse either.  There are types of poems that I didn't even know, like pantoums.  Wait, back-up.  It's a novel told in first person about a middle school kid, an 8th grader, Kevin, who plays baseball and writes poetry.

He has a girlfriend, who "likes to make out in semi-public places."  I don't really have a problem with that because it seems Kevin does have a problem with it.  He gets that he's being used by a girl who's trying to irritate her parents, and he's not happy about it.

Kevin really likes Amy, the cool girl he met at a poetry reading.  Yes, this kid goes to poetry readings....with his DAD!  How cool is that?  Turns out his father is an author.  Kevin and his dad are both working through some stuff, like grief over his mom's death.  Apparently this book is a sequel to Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, which I will have to add to my enormous pile.  I'm not a big fan of middle-schoolers dating, but  I do like the poetry aspect.  I think it's okay for eighth graders and up, seeing as how it's about an eighth grader.



Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea.  A gem.  A real treasure.  I cannot express how much I love this book.  It's like Good-bye Mr. Chips, or the Dead Poets' Society, but better and about middle-schoolers.  Told in each of seven students' voices, the scene flips back and forth as the author shows us the same event multiple times from different perspectives. 

There are some mature themes running through the book.  Each of the seven students has some baggage.  Jessica has just moved to town with her mom, because her screenwriter dad dumped them for a starlet.  One child is ridiculed for her weight by the class mean girl.  One boy is grieving the loss of his older brother, who was born with Down Syndrome and died the year before.  He says that he was born to save his brother, as a bone marrow match.

Another girl, Anna, is cautious about making friends, because her mother was ostracized by the town when she became pregnant at sixteen.  Danielle is the granddaughter of one of the townspeople that treated  Anna's mother so badly.  Danielle is not allowed to play with Anna, as her mother and grandmother feel Anna may be a bad influence.  Danielle and her family are also shown to be practicing Christians, attending Church and praying regularly.  Danielle prays for her mother and grandmother to change their opinions of Anna and her mother, which seems to work. 

Mr. Terupt is the amazing new teacher, who comes in and makes magic with their hearts and minds, until an accident changes them all.  I want to read it again. 




Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, is also a jewel.  I really like this new trend in YA lit that features protagonists with special needs.  Lucy read this book first, even though I generally don't allow her to read books that I haven't read.  She was very insistent that I read it too.  She loved it, and convinced several of her classmates to buy it at the book fair last week.

It's about Melody, who has cerebral palsy, and cannot speak much beyond grunts and squeals.  She has very little control over her limbs, can move her head and thumbs, and can kick her legs.  She cannot stand or sit unassisted.  She is misdiagnosed as severely mentally retarded when she is five.  Her mother is told that she is incapable of learning.  Yet, she is the first person narrator of the novel, and she has a photographic memory, but no one knows that yet.

Fast forward to age eleven.  She is stuck in a remedial classroom. Her school begins the practice of inclusion with regular classes.  This is the catalyst that turns things around for her.  Eventually, she gets a computer that enables her to have a voice.  She blows away her classmates and teachers when she is the first place qualifier for the Whiz Kids National competition.  Melody experiences exclusion, ridicule and betrayal, but she also gets to experience positive things, like friendship and admiration. 

Gosh, this book was so deep.  I'm having a difficult time writing about it without making it seem trite and sugar-coated.  I'm not at all surprised it's a Caudill nominee.  I hope it wins.




Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Post about Money

When the Chef and I took our FOCUS test in our pre-cana class at the University of Dallas, we failed.

Well, we only failed one section, Finances.  We both laughed it off because the questions were like, "Which of you will balance the checkbook?"  "Where will you invest your savings?" and "Who will be responsible for paying the bills?"

We were still students with no jobs on the horizon, but lots of student loans on the horizon, and plenty of baggage in the form of credit cards.

Yup.  Credit Cards.  In college.  How else we were going to buy beer and cigarettes and ramen?  How else would I have funded my annual trip to the Gap outlet?

So, we failed finances and we kept failing them for approximately thirteen to fifteen years.  We did everything wrong.  We never budgeted.  We never talked about money or debts or bills.  I have no idea how we ever bought our house, but it had something to do with a new job, a substantial pay raise, and something called FHA financing.  We've refinanced this home a few times too.  We had to, to pay our ever-growing debt, largely made up of credit cards, student loans, and car payments. We zeroed out our credit card balances and then ran them right back up. 

We spent and justified and spent and felt guilty and made resolutions and spent and so the cycle continued.

Over the years, even though our income grew by leaps and bounds, our spending always kept up. 

Until, one day, I had a friend and her brood over to visit.  We sat outside on a beautiful, sunny day.  I think there were hot dogs and popsicles and water balloons, but what I remember most is that she told me about the money problems in her marriage, which were quite similar to mine.

She told me that they were climbing out of their giant pit of debt because she bought a book in a bookstore.  She was in a bookstore worrying about finances. She prayed for guidance, and she bought Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover.  She explained to me the principles in the book, how she and her spouse had applied them, and how things were really turning around for them financially.

Being a better steward, (ha-ha) I did not buy the book.  I requested it from the library.  I read it, was inspired and went and bought it so the Chef could read it too.  If you're already familiar with Dave's plan, skip the bullet points.

  • Dave Ramsey teaches the "debt snowball," which is paying everything you can to your smallest debt, and when that's paid off, you pay everything you can to the next smallest and so on...  Eventually, you've paid off some stuff that had minimum monthly payments so you add the money you would have spent on the payments to your debt snowball.  So you start hitting your debts one at a time with bigger and bigger amounts of money.  Then one magical day, you will be debt free, except for your house.  This is the day you can call The Dave Ramsey show and scream into the phone, "We're Debt Freeeee!"  
  • Dave also wants everyone to have an emergency fund.  One thousand dollars to start, as in, before you pay any debts.  
  • He's also a stickler for budgets.  Know where every cent is going before the month begins.

No, we did not immediately put into practice everything Dave Ramsey says.  We were still failing.

But, slowly, we began to see that we needed to change our lifestyle or our kids would never get braces, among other things.  We stopped our most expensive extra-curriculars.   We stopped using credit cards completely.  But we didn't budget, or start a snowball, or talk about the giant pile of debt sitting in the corner and collecting interest, yet.

That didn't really happen until we had what my friend calls, "the Come to Jesus moment."

That's the moment where we looked at all the numbers written down, debts from selfishness and laziness and greed, and realized that there was no way we could make this go away without each other and without Him.

It was an ugly moment, filled with fear and tears and mountains and mountains of guilt. But, it was a moment free of blame.  We stopped pointing fingers at each other, and we vowed never to do so again. We were left with the knowledge that it could only get better and it would never be that bad again.

 We owned the problem in that moment, and began to attack it together.  And we never looked back.  We stopped wagging our heads and lamenting the fact that we blew thousands and thousands of dollars on worthless crap.  We know we did that.  We don't need to remind ourselves of that ever, ever again.

It takes at least a year to wrestle out a working budget.  And it takes LOTS of COMMUNICATION.  Did I want to ask my spouse if I could get the $100 highlights? No.  But I love him and I wanted open lines of communication.  I needed to know how much was in the bank, and he needed to know if and when the money was being spent.  Now, we budget for the highlights. 

After a year, you can see where you screwed up last year and prepare in advance for the annual vet appointment, the baseball and camp registrations, pool passes, mandatory raffle ticket purchases, school uniforms and supplies, and have a realistic idea of how much you actually spend on Christmas.  

We use cash.  I use cash.  I, who never ever carried cash, carry cash.  We stick to the budget.  For the most part.  And we fight so much less.  There is so much less to fight about!

Now, after years of effort and back-sliding and renewed effort, we are finally getting somewhere.  Two kids have braces, and I was thrilled to pay in full on the first day of treatment.  We went to Walt Disney World with airline miles and Marriott points and did not put one dollar of the trip on a credit card.


The debts are disappearing.  We are not failing anymore.

Our kids know something of this journey.  They have heard enough Dave Ramsey podcasts to know that credit card debt is really stupid and that buying used cars is always a better deal.  They know why we quit Irish dance, and how we saved to get them braces.  And there is definitely going to be a big ole "credit cards are stupid" talk when they go to college.

And hopefully, if they find the right person and take the FOCUS test, they will pass all the sections with flying colors.