and what we wish they were

The Giver by Lois Lowery

Originally posted on What Kids Are Reading:

From goodreads.com

From goodreads.com

The Giver is a dystopian novel set around the life of a young boy, Jonah, and his community.  In this community everything is regulated – careers, family size, emotion, even the temperature.  At the age  12, when all children are assigned to their life’s work, Jonah is given the job of The Giver.  The Giver is the one person entrusted with all the memories of humanity.  For decades all other citizens have been denied  knowledge of the pain, fear, and joy people experienced before the community was “perfected.”  They are given only “the sameness.” The job of The Giver is both beautiful and torturous.  It also gives Jonah an understanding that no one else in his community could possibly have – an understanding that makes it impossible to go back to the content, secure life he knew before.

The Giver is not exactly pop fiction.  It has been…

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Back-to-School – For the Less-Than-Perfect

Originally posted on Charming Farming:

Recently I wrote about how lousy it makes me feel when I read about all the ways other mothers are managing to feed their children absolutely nothing but organic, homemade, raw, freshly sprouted, GMO free, free-range, amazingly delicious, healthy food.  Seriously, it’s exhausting.  Well, now it’s back-to-school time and I am faced with the same kind of Pinterest-induced guilt.

For starters, there’s the Back-to-School Party.

Seriously? We are not having a party.  The week before school starts my children are practically wearing sack cloth and ashes.  We distract.  We indulge.  We don’t celebrate.  We are in mourning.

There’s Back-to-School redecorating.  Does making them make their beds count?  I mean, we spend a small fortune on backpacks, note books, pens, markers, clothes, and Kleenex.  Who has extra money to redecorate?

For the child studying to be the next Martha Stewart

For the child studying to be the next Martha Stewart

There’s back-to-school menu planning for the…

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We Were Liars

Cadence Sinclair is the oldest grandchild in an old-money, east coast family.  She spends her childhood summers on the family’s private island with her cousins, Mirren and Johnny and their dear friend Gat.  They are The Liars.

Amazon.com

Amazon.com

The cousins are extremely close and fiercely loyal to each other, despite the efforts of their mothers, the Sinclair sisters, to use their children to win the favor of the family patriarch.  Cadence, Johnny, and Mirren’s mothers are each paranoid that the biggest summer home and the bulk of their father’s fortune will be bestowed on another sister. They attempt to pit the cousins against one another, and each Sinclair sister urges her child to make a play for their grandfather’s  sympathy and favor. Their Grandfather seems to take some perverse pleasure in his daughters’ greed.  He enjoys the rivalry.

Ye even in the midst of all this dysfunction, the Liars spend magical summers, swimming, playing games, and growing up together.  But the summer Cadence is 15 she suffers a a terrible accident that leaves her with memory loss and debilitating headaches.  While she tries to put together the pieces of what happened, her family seems to be falling apart and her relationships with Gat and with her cousins takes a confusing turn.  What Cadence discovers about her accident and that mysterious summer is haunting.

We Were Liars may not be the book for everyone.  It is very engrossing – read in one sitting engrossing.  But it is disturbing.  The end left me a little shaken.  That said, a friend of mine who read it predicted the surprise ending (maybe I’m a little dense) and wasn’t blown away like I was.  Either way, we both had mixed feelings about the novel. Neither of us could put it down, but in the end, we weren’t sure liked it.  We Were Liars paints a rich portrait of childhood summers and takes the reader back to those care-free days.  Yet, I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted to see all of the characters redeemed, become better people.  That’s what supposed to happen when things go terribly wrong. But in the end, I’m not sure any the Sinclairs are better people – just damaged in a different way and for a more legitimate reason.

We Were Liars illustrates the devastating effects of unbridled greed and selfish ambition. Their mothers’ greed ultimately destroys the family and changes the Liars forever.

Overall, the subject matter might be a bit heavy for middle schoolers. I recommend We Were Liars for grades 9 and up.

LANGUAGE

Perhaps some mild four letter words.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Cadence and Gat fall in love.  They kiss and their is some hinting at additional physical contact, but there is nothing graphic.  Mirren’s lies about having “a lot of sexual intercourse” with her boyfriend but in the end admits there is no boyfriend and no sex.

VIOLENCE

I don’t want to give too much away.  The truth of Cadence’s accident is not so much violent as disturbing.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

None

QUOTES FROM THE NOVEL

“One day I looked at Gat, lying in the Clairmont hammock with a book, and he seemed, we’ll, like he was mine.  Like my particular person.

“Do not accept an evil you cN change.”

“A part of me died… And it was the best part.”

“Our kiss turns the world to dust.  There is only us and nothing else matters.”

“He cried like a man, not like a boy. Not like he was frustrated or hadn’t gotten his way, but like life was bitter.  Like his wounds couldn’t be healed.”

 

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

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When I took my daughters to see The Fault in Our Stars, we saw the preview for the upcoming film, If I Stay, based on the book by Gayle Forman.  And while I was hoping the TFIOS would fulfill our rip-your-heart-out movie quota for the year , I knew as soon as this preview started that there was to be yet another traumatic movie going experience in our future.  And I’ll admit I was intrigued too.

Of course I had to read the book.  One, because I know my girls will want to read it.   And two, because I cannot resist the opportunity to feel superior to all the people in the theater who have not read the book.

If I Stay is the story of Mia Hall, a classical cellist and the daughter of former punk rock parents.  From the beginning of the novel , we see that Mia’s is a happy, close-knit family.   Her relationship with her parents is easy and laid back, and she adores her nine year old brother Teddy.  When her school calls a snow day, the entire family decides to take advantage of the day off and enjoy a family outing.  Unfortunately, the outing turns tragic when their car is hit by an oncoming truck.

It takes Mia a few minutes to realize what has happened.  Her parents are dead.  She and Teddy are horribly injured.  And she is watching the entire scene unfold from outside her own body.   This is of course confusing to Mia.  How can she be lying in a hospital bed unconscious and at the same time fully aware of what is going on around her?  It is in this state that Mia realizes that the decision to live or to die is up to her.    The chapters that follow alternate from Mia watching what is happening at the hospital  to flashbacks of her life before the accident.

In these flashbacks we learn about Mia’s life.  Her parents are cool – permissive yes, but loving and devoted to their children.  This is a refreshing change from so many YA novels in which the parents are detached, selfish, clueless and more messed up than any teenager,  Still,  some parents of  teenage readers might want to discuss the Hall’s lax parenting style.  For example Mia’s parents seem to be fine with her sexual encounters in her upstairs bedroom. And when Mia gets her first boyfriend, her mother is quick to offer to take her to Planned Parenthood and to give her money for condoms.

But the real story of Mia and her parents is their deep love for each other.  In fact, their deaths are the main reason Mia considers giving up the struggle to live.  She can’t imagine a life without the family she loves.  But there are other people Mia loves too.  Her best friend Kim comes to the hospital and reminds comatose Mia that she still has a lot of people left who love her and want her to stay – aunts, uncles, cousins.  There is a particularly moving passage in which Mia’s grandfather talks to Mia about her decision to live or die.

And of course there is Adam, Mia’s boyfriend.  Her flashbacks detail their romance, one her mother describes as real but inconvenient at 17.  Adam is the lead singer in a punk rock band.  In a lot of ways, he is more like Mia’s parents than she is.   Her impending admission to Julliard and his rising singing career are a source of difficulty for the young couple.  As far as teenage romance novels go, the relationship between Mia and Adam is in some ways easier to take than others.  It is more mature, less desperate.   One version of the novel’s cover (see above) contains a review stating this story will appeal to TWILIGHT fans.  Perhaps, but unlike Bella Swan, Mia is accomplished and self-possessed.  She does suffer from the same unfortunate “why me”  response when Adam first notices her, but her entire existence and self-worth are not dependent on him.  If that were true, his love would make her decision about staying or leaving easy.  But it isn’t.  In fact in spite of his love, the thought of staying behind without her parents is almost unbearable for Mia.  Bella Swan, on the other hand, was willing to ditch her parents in a heartbeat to follow Edward into immortality.  So yes, Mia is a much stronger character than Bella, but I’m still waiting for the YA novel in which the girls knows how awesome she is before the boy falls in love with her.

The thing that is conspicuously absent from this novel is Mia’s concern for what will happen, where she’ll go, if she decides to die.  At one point she wonders if death will be just like a deep sleep, but other than that she spends little time contemplating eternity – Heaven, Hell, judgement, abyss, God, or an afterlife.  Hers is not a religious family, but they are not atheists, and they do sometimes go to church.  Her grandmother’s beliefs about the afterlife – people becoming angels in the form of an animals – crosses her mind, but in general, Mia seems more concerned about what living will be like than what being dead will be like.  This novel is not anti-religion or void of spirituality.  Rather, these things are only alluded to and not explored.  Perhaps this type of temporal thinking is realistically typical for a 17 year old.  But still, in a novel that tackles the subject of choosing life or death, one would hope the main character might wrestle with these questions.  However, even though Mia doesn’t, the reader of  If I Stay certainly might be inspired to do so.

LANGUAGE

Yes.  Mia’s mother in particular is a big cusser – the F word included.

SEXUAL CONTENT

There is a scene that takes place in Mia’s bedroom that is not graphic (in fact it’s not entirely clear how far they go), but it is very sensual.  There are also references to making out and to Adam sleeping over.  Still, Mia and Adam’s sexual relationship is not a major part of the novel or even of their relationship.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Mia’s grandmother does believe that some of her relatives have returned in the form of animals, but Mia does not seem to take this too seriously.

VIOLENCE

None.  We do not get any details of the accident; however, Mia does describe how her parents look lying dead in the snow.  Very sensitive readers might find this disturbing.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.  Do you think Mia’s relationship with her parents might be different if they were less permissive?  Less cool?

2.  Do you agree with Mia’s mother that sometimes you can fall truly in love too soon?

3. Mia doesn’t give a great deal of thought to the afterlife.  Do you think this is realistic or do you think someone facing her own death would be more apt to consider the afterlife?

4.  What is Mia’s relationship like with her brother, Teddy?  Why do they share the bond that they do?

5.  Do you think people in a situation like Mia’s can will themselves to live or to die?

6.  Do you think people in a coma can hear people talking to them?

7.  Like Bella in Twilight, Mia can’t quite believe that Adam really likes her.  She feels unworthy.  Do you think it is common for girls to base their worth on the  boys who like them?  Do you think that Mia is ultimately a stronger character than Bella?

QUOTES FROM THE NOVEL

“And even though they don’t know who we are or what has happened, they pray for us.  I can feel them praying.”

“But the you who you are tonight is the same you I was in love with yesterday, the same you I’ll be in love with tomorrow…Hell, you’re the punkest girl I know no matter who you listen to or what you wear.”

“I shouldn’t have to care.  I shouldn’t have to work this hard.  I realize now that dying is easy.  Living is hard.”

“Sometimes you make your choices in life.  Sometimes your choices make you.”

“…seventeen is an inconvenient time to be in love.”

“Either way you win.  And either way you lose.  What can I tell you?  Love’s a bitch.” (Mia’s mom)

“I’ll let you go.  If you stay.”  (Adam talking to comatose Mia)

 

 

 

To My Son as You Graduate: Words of Wisdom I hope You Ignore…

The time is short now. Your cap and gown have been hanging in the closet for weeks. Your announcements have been sent, and today you finished your final exam. High school is almost over.   Even though 18 years is a lifetime for you, for me it has been a vapor. Suddenly I’m scrambling to think of last minutes lessons I might have forgotten or words of wisdom I’ve failed to impart. There’s still time, right? But the thing is, I’m blank. We are proud of you and we love you. I’m not sure what else to say. So maybe I’ll skip the last minute advice – except (you knew it was coming) to say there will be some well-meaning friends, relatives, teachers, and greeting cards offering you words of wisdom traditionally given to the young as they set out into the world. I’m asking you to ignore these.

DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY
This sounds good. Who doesn’t want to be happy? The thing is (my apologies to our founding fathers) pursuing happiness rarely makes you happy – at least not for long. Happiness isn’t a bad thing, but it should be a byproduct of a life well-lived, not the goal of life. Making happiness your goal is intrinsically selfish. Pursue goodness. Pursue peace. Pursue holiness. These are higher goals and the only way to be truly happy.

JUST BE YOURSELF
I’ve found this to be bad advice for me. This isn’t to say I don’t like myself. I’m actually quite fond of me. I try to be a good person. But I know myself well enough to know that at my core, I am selfish. I tend to stew. I can be a little scatter-brained. And I sometimes dominate conversations. That’s me. In a lot of situations, I have to reign myself in. I see a lot of people, especially young people, shrug off glaring faults and bad behavior by declaring proudly, “That’s just who I am.”  That’s a cop out. Don’t just be yourself.  Be your best self. I love you all the time, but your best self is easier to take.

FOLLOW YOUR HEART
What does that even mean? It’s stupid advice. The Bible tells us“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?”. Ouch. But the truth is,  following your heart or your gut or your feelings is far more likely to lead you down the wrong path than following your head or better yet, your conscience. Feelings change, but you can’t go wrong with good sense and good morals.

YOU CAN DO ANYTHING AS LONG AS YOU BELIEVE 

Ummmmmm.  No, you can’t.  That is also stupid advice.  You can do anything within reason as long as you believe  – and work hard and the timing is right and as long as other factors (other people, your health, the global economy, the weather, etc.) do not stand in your way.  I hate to break it to you, but you will probaby never be an Olympic swimmer.  Nor will you be the king of a small island nation.  And really, I wouldn’t hold your breath about winning the lottery.  But I think you have an amazing future ahead of you.   Believe you can and will work hard in school and in your future career and be a success.  Believe you can find a wonderful, Godly wife someday and make a life together.  Believe in living a life of service.  Believe in God’s mercy.  This is not to say you should not set goals.  But remember that life is not about reaching some far off goal just to prove you can.  The best success is a life lived in love and devotion to God others.  Believe in that.

LIVE FOR THE MOMENT
Don’t fret. Don’t worry. But by all means think beyond the moment. Because when the fun of the moment is over, you are stuck with the consequences.

TAKE THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Okay, maybe sometimes.  But sometimes the road is well traveled because it’s the best way, especially when it comes to our faith Enter through the narrow gate, but you don’t necessarily have to blaze a trail. The Church is full of saints and scholars who have blazed that trail for you.  Stay on it.

Okay, so while I was writing this I did think of some last minute words of advice:  Always be kind. Say your prayers. Call your mother.  I love you.

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Mommy’s Favorite

Originally posted on Charming Farming:

Every year on Mothers Day, my children are forced to battle it out for the title of Mommy’s Favorite. That might sound a little twisted, but it is actually really fun. Well, at least it’s fun for me, and it’s my day, so everyone has to do what I want.  Mommy Trivia! In the spirit of this wonderful holiday dedicated to the appreciation of mothers, I will pit child against child in a test of their love for (or at least their knowledge of) me. The older they get the more difficult it is to come up with questions, but there are still a lot of things my kiddos don’t know about me. Here are last years’s questions.

1. What is Mommy’s current favorite song?

2. If Mommy could only eat one dessert for the rest of her life what would it be?

3. What is my dream dog?

4…

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Kristen Lavransdatter: The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset

Note:  I try to to give too much away in this review.  In fact, since I am currently reading the second novel in the trilogy, The Mistress of Husaby, I wasn’t even able to finish some of the links posted below.  If you don’t want to have any clue what will happen in the first novel, The Bridal Wreath, you better skip this post.  But again, I tried to keep my spoilers to a minimum.

KRISTEN LAVRANSDATTER

Recently I added the phrase “and what we wish they were reading” to my blog because I can no longer tolerate a full-time diet of YA literature. Yes, there is a great deal to entertain within this genre and even some literary gems.  But a steady diet of YA books is much like a steady diet of junk food – pretty tasty, but not much substance. Lately, I have been starving for some nutritionally dense reading – mentally and spiritually.  So when I read 10 Books You Must Read With Your Daughter (Or How to Keep Your Daughter From Turning Out Like That horrid Girl FromTwilight), I decided to dig out and dust off out my never-before-read copy of Kristen Lavransdatter and give it another try.

This novel and the two subsequent novels in the series are considered master works of historical fiction. That is why I am embarrassed to say that this was my second run at reading Kristen Lavransdatter, despite its stellar reputation and regardless of the fact that it was recommended by both my sister-in-law and one of my dearest and smartest friends, both of whom have impeccable taste.  For some reason, the first time I tried to read this novel, I gave up quickly.  Perhaps it was because I initially approached it as a beach read.  This novel, set in medieval Norway, definitely lends itself more to a cozy fireside than a lawn chair. Maybe I lost interest because the second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy came out about the time I first started reading Kristen Lavransdatter.  (Oh, how embarrassing!) Maybe it was because I was intimidated by the book’s reputation. I don’t really know, but I always intended to get back to it one day.  Well, recently that day came!  Within a few pages, I was hooked.   I began to feel that every free moment that I wasn’t reading Kristen Lavransdatter was being wasted.  I began to understand what all the hubbub is about.

The first book in the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy, The Bridal Wreath, begins when Kristen is a young girl.  She is the only child of pious Norwegian nobility.  Her parents adore her – especially her father.  Her mother who has suffered the loss of several other children is at times distant and sad.  Her father, on the other hand delights in her.  Both of her parents try to bring her up to be devout and virtuous and little Kristen is given nearly every spiritual advantage – example, education, and love.

While traveling with her father, Kristen meets Brother Edvin, a wise and kindly monk who is one of the novel’s most notable and lovable characters.  He makes a great impression on Kristen (and on the reader) with his insights.

There is no man nor woman, Kristen who does not love and fear God, but tis because our hearts are divided twixt love of God and fear of the devil and fondness for the world and the flesh, that we are unhappy in this life and in death.  For if man had no yearning after God and God’s being, then he should thrive in Hell…For there the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, nor would he feel the torment of the serpents bite if he knew not the yearning for peace… T’was God’s loving-kindness toward us that seeing how our hearts are drawn asunder, He came down and dwelt among us that He might taste in the flesh the lures of the devil when he decoys us with power and splendor, as well as the menace of the world when if offers us blows and scorn and sharp nails in the hands and feet.  In such wise did He show us the way and make manifest His love.

And yet, even with passages like this, this novel in not overly religious in tone.  It is not preaching to the choir.  All the characters are painfully real – both in their virtue and their flaws.  As a teenager, Kristen is innocent and devout, eager to honor her parents and to live up to the expectations of her culture.  Yet when temptation presents itself, as the handsome and charming Ereland Nikulausson, Kristen is easily led astray.  Readers find Kristen’s selfishness and foolishness frustrating (I remember thinking, “Wait.  What? How could she be so stupid.  No Kristin. Noooo!).  And we yet can’t help but hope she will escape the bitter consequences of her actions

Many of Undset’s characters are complex in this way.  We see in them both flaw and hope.  We relate to them and root for them.  Ereland’s pride and his constant excuses for his behavior are maddening, yet we want to believe that in the end he will prove honorable.  We want to believe that he really is as great as Kristen believes him to be. Even Kristen’s parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid are, for all their love and devotion, not perfect, and they bare their own secrets, griefs and struggles.  We to ache for them.

In addition to providing complex characters, Undset portrays life in medieval Norway with richness, beauty, and accuracy.  Life for these characters, and indeed for entire Western world in those days, centers around the Church and her traditions and around the conventions of their society.  While some of these conventions might rub the modern reader the wrong way (like a father’s absolute power over his daughter), a life so fully centered on and entrenched in the Christian calendar seems not only orderly and disciplined but also festive and meaningful.

Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature no doubt by creating an epic saga that combines a stunning portrayal of life in medieval Norway with complex, sympathetic characters. And without being heavy-handed or overly-simple, she manages to communicate beauty and truth.

Again, these characters are not perfect.  There are some pretty grown-up situations in this book and some complex issues.  But this is exactly the kind of book I want my kids to read – impressive and engrossing from a literary standpoint and beautiful and inspiring in it’s portrayal of eternal truths.

So, to recap.  Why should your teen (this is not a book for tweens) and you read Kristen Lavransdatter?

  • It is great historical fiction – a rich and accurate portrayal of life in medieval Norway.
  • It won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • It illustrates how the rhythm and seasons of life used to be lived in accordance with the Christian calendar and how this brought both times of fasting and feasting, all in honor of Christ and the Saints.
  • It shows the power of sin and deceit and there devastating effects.
  • The novel contains sympathetic characters – not perfectly good nor purely evil.  They are easy to relate to.
  • Kristen Lavransdatter contains nuggets of spiritual truth, beauty, and wisdom without being simplistic or preachy.
  • Reading Kristen Lavransdatter allows you to enter into a great conversation with  your child and with others who have loved this trilogy.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Yes, but no descriptive or graphic passages.  In fact, some younger readers (okay and me) might miss the initial sex scene all together and not realize what has happened until a few pages later.

LANGUAGE

None

VIOLENCE

Very mild.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Not in the creepy way that I’m usually looking out for in YA lit.  Kristen Lavransdatter is steeped in Christianity.  However, as was common in medieval times, superstitions are also influential in the lives of Undset’s characters.

FOR DISCUSSION

  • Why do you think Kristen falls so quickly and easily from what her faith and her parents have taught her?  Were you surprised by this?
  • Does she truly love Ereland?  Does he love her?
  • What do you think prevent Kristen from confessing her sins?
  • In the end is Lavrans too unyielding?  Why do you think he comes to the decision that he does about Kristen’s marriage to Ereland?
  • What is Kristen’s greatest virtue?  What is her greatest flaw?  What about Ereland?  Lavrans?  Ragnfrid?
  • In what way are the themes of love, sin, forgiveness, and despair played out in this  novel?

IMPORTANT QUOTES

“I’ve done many things that I thought I would never dare to do because they were sins. But I didn’t realize then that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people.”

“No one and nothing can harm us, child, except what we fear and love.”

“It’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.”
OTHER ARTICLES AND REVIEWS 

Re-reading Kristen Lavransdatter

Penguin Group Book Club (with discussion questions for all three novels)

I Can’t Believe You Haven’t Read Kristen Lavransdatter

Love and Trespasses in Kristen Lavransdatter

Amazon has some great reviews.

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