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Book Review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Do you believe in God? I know it’s a personal question. I do. And I think He was pretty awesome to make relativity a thing, don’t you? The faster you go, the less time you experience. It’s like He’s inviting us to explore the universe, you know?

Project hail maryI wasn’t sure, when I just started reading Andy Weir’s novel Project Hail Mary, if it would be the book for me. The voice of the main character, Ryland Grace, is pretty annoying at first. Chirpy and a sort of kindergarten tone and yeah: totally not what I sign up for in a book. But since I loved The Martian I decided to give it a chance anyway.

So glad I did!

The novel tells the story of a man who wakes up in a space ship, with no personal memories about himself (even his name takes awhile to come back to him) but a brain full of science. It takes him a while to figure out even that he’s on a space ship. As the story progresses, his memories slowly start coming back. This was one thing I loved much more about this book than The Martian. The science itself is much more integrated into the story, because the memories connect with the science he needs to figure out, whereas in The Martian it was more clunky (I flipped through the sciencey chunks on that one, I confess).

I feel like most of the reviews on this book don’t really mention the details of why Dr. Grace has to go to space, so I will keep my review similar. He has some grand adventures in space that I loved experiencing with him. His slightly childish tone gets less annoying (and maybe it goes away altogether, I’m not sure), and the other characters just bring the story to life.

Yesterday morning, when I had about 75 pages left, I read a bit before we left for our little Sunday-morning adventure. (Still can’t hike or walk any distance bigger than about a mile, so I’m severely limited in my capacity for adventure). I realized as we drove up the canyon that while I was loving the colors and the walk and our conversation, there was a part of me still stuck onboard the Hail Mary. The book isn’t fine literature by any means, but man. It was so much fun. And the worldbuilding is skilled enough that I wanted to get right back inside of it once we got home. Which really reminded me that reading can sometimes just be fun if I let it. (I don’t do fun books very often!)

I think Project Hail Mary will be one of my favorite books this year, but it did leave me wondering:

How do all of the various planetary beings on Star Trek all live together on one ship? Their atmosphere requirements must be vastly different.

Kind of an odd place to jump to, I know, but books can make you make unexpected connections.

(this is book #1 on my autumn reading challenge. It does not fit into any of the categories, alas.)

My 100 Day Exercise Challenge

This week my life got a little bit more normal: after six and a half weeks of being on crutches so my foot could heal, followed by three weeks of being in a boot, on Monday I was cleared to start wearing shoes.

This is a transitional period, wherein I can start going on short walks (10-15 minutes long) and building up slowly (add five minutes to my walking time every 5-7 days). If I need to be on my feet for a long time, like when I’m cooking dinner, I’ll still wear my boot at first. Not much time spent walking barefoot. I’m still very clumsy and slow, because my foot is learning how to bend and roll again. I’ll still go to physical therapy once a week.

But it feels like I am at least at the start of getting back to normal!

And let me tell you: I am so out of shape it’s ridiculous.

So here’s my plan.

Working around my limitations, and acknowledging that I have to start slowly and not push myself too hard, I’m challenging myself to exercise every day for the rest of the year, starting tomorrow. (Although I did go for a walk today.) September 23 is 100 days from December 31, so the challenge is to exercise for 100 days in a row.

What I’m counting as exercise:

  • Walking
  • Hiking (when I am able)
  • Beach Body workout (I haven’t decided which one for sure)
  • Weight lifting at the gym
  • Strength training and yoga
  • Running (when I am able)

Since my walk today was 15 minutes long and my foot felt OK, I’m going to start at 15 minutes and then go up in time as I can.

And, because my inner kindergartener requested it, I made a simple chart to keep track of my progress.

Download 100 day

I am also challenging myself to talk about this challenge on social media. I am also posting on Instagram (I’m @amylsorensen on Insta if you want to follow me!) and am going to update my progress on my blog every twenty days.

Finally, I’m assigning myself three sugar-free weeks during this challenge. I’m not sure when those will be, but will mark them on my chart when I do them. My first one will start as soon as the chocolate-frosted pumpkin cream cheese cake in my fridge is gone.

I’m not expecting huge results but I’m hoping by January first I will have built a solid base to start really building upon so I can train for a race or two next year.

And that, friends, is my plan for getting back to normal!

My Last Four Scrapbook Layouts #1

I have been thinking for awhile about how I might start sharing more scrapbook layouts on social media.

Because I have three adult children and one teenager, I am reluctant to share a ton of layout details online, especially on Instagram, because they are all at ages where maybe they don’t want complete strangers to be looking at their stories. Plus, I write a lot of journaling on my layouts, and some of it gets kind of deep or personal, and some of it scratches at sore spots or explores how and why I love a person, and some of it I would be OK if no one read until after I’m gone.

And some of it is just fun stories from our history.

All of which makes me push back against wanting to share much of what I scrapbook. But there’s also a huge part of me that wants to share, because—well. There are many reasons. Because much of what others share inspires me. Because I want to engage in the wider scrapbooking community. Because I don’t have any real-life scrappy friends who live close to me who I could have actual conversations with when I’m excited about how I used a piece of patterned paper.

A few weeks ago, I was photographing some of my recently-made layouts (I either scan or photograph every layout I make, so I have a digital copy just in case) and I was thinking about what I might say about the layout in particular. (It’s called “Savor these Days” and you can see it in my next post in this category.) I had fulfilled one of my ongoing goals, which is to stop myself from making my supplies precious by using them as soon as I can after I get them; I used the new line from Cocoa Vanilla, which matched really well with the August kit from Cocoa Daisy, and I just wanted to tell someone: Look how well these work together!

(Neither my husband nor my son still at home really care.)

I had this thought:

What if I share smaller pics of my layouts in Instagram as a collage in one image, so the journaling is harder to read? And then maybe make full-sized sketches of each layout to share.

And I started working on an idea, which I am calling My Last Four Layouts.

I’m going to try this: After I finish four layouts, I’ll make one image with a collage of them, and share that and sketches of the layouts on Instagram. (I am using “sketches” lightly…I’ve never tried to make a sketch so who knows if it’s a skill I have.)

But then link to my blog here, in case anyone wants more details.

And as I know that people rarely read blogs anymore, the easier access matters less on my blog.

For each layout, I’ll  include notes on these topics: layout notes (my general thoughts about the layout and where the layout goes), journaling notes (something about the technique I used, more about the story, or notes about the typography), my goal with this layout (design or story or photo-based or whatever the “spark” was), supplies (I will mostly only list the ones that I think are still available), new/old (because one of my current scrapbooking goals is to use my new stuff quickly so it doesn’t become too “special” to actually use, and by “new” I mean it came from the literal basket where I put my new things), what I learned (because I am still learning about this craft), what I would do different (there’s always something!), and techniques to repeat (I’ve long wanted to make a list of techniques I use, with the idea of having a source of inspiration to fall back on when I’m feeling stuck, so I’ll use this topic as a way to start that list).

It has taken me a little while to let myself feel comfortable with this. Posting about scrapbooking on my Instagram just always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, because most of my followers aren’t scrapbookers and deep down I’m still certain that scrapbooking is viewed with disdain.

But today I’m doing it: my first My Last Four Layouts post! (Technically these aren’t my actual last four layouts, but I have some catching up to do.)

Last four layouts 01

  1. Found.

2021 02 XX Haley 1997 to 2021 foundLayout notes: This is the first layout I made after my surgery. I’ve wanted to make it since February when Haley visited, but it finally felt like the right time. This layout will go in Haley’s album.

Journaling notes: A good three-column journaling block always makes me happy. Is this too raw? I’m not sure—but it was very healing for me to write.

My goal with this layout: relay the flood of emotion I had when I found that pic of me and Haley from 1997. Use something pink. Make a pretty layout that is unabashedly girly.

Supplies: patterned paper and embellishments by Maggie Holmes (they all came from one piece of patterned paper!) * title stamp and ink from Close to My Heart *  puffy camera stickers from Freckled Fawn

New/Old: alphabet stamps and ink are new, as are the Maggie Holmes supplies.

What I learned: at first I had the patterned paper running a different direction, but it hit me that more purple would be visible if I turned it this way. So, pay attention to how the stripes/colors go. Close to My Heart ink will dry on the edges of a photo but it takes at least an hour.

What I would do different: I don’t love that the “love this” embellishment kind of looks like a Christmas-tree ornament.

Techniques to repeat: patterned paper background, fussy-cut title.


Ml4l sketch found

  1. Adventure in Paradise

2017 05 22 Nathan Hawaii White Sands Beach with KendellLayout notes: The spark for this layout was that piece of dark-ish aqua cardstock. I found a whole pile of it during my recent room shuffle and determined to use it. This layout is for Nathan.

Journaling notes: I’m happy to have the story of the King Tide that nearly drowned my kids written down. Journaling strips take more time but I always love the outcome.

My goal for this layout: make a background with torn strips that mimics the sunset’s reflection on the ocean.

Supplies: “adventure” stamp by Citrus Twist * puffy stickers on date embellishment by Heidi Swapp

New/Old: the Citrus Twist stamp is new, but everything else is scraps.

What I learned: This layout is influenced by recent improv quilting squares I’ve made…I could feel my brain working in the exact same way. Also, you can smudge white foam alphas with stamping ink and it stays put.

What I would do different: Add a very thin mat in the dark aqua under the torn-paper mat.

Techniques to repeat: heat-embossed title, paper tearing, diagonal lines, journaling in strips.


Ml4l sketch adventure in paradise

  1. We Have Been Friends Together in Sunshine and in Shade

2021 05 01 Amy lunch with Becky and Chris friends together in sunshine and in shadeLayout notes: I printed this photo of me with my best friend and sister the first time we got together after our immunizations the day I took it! I didn’t want to let the moment slip past undocumented. The photo is 9x12, slightly trimmed, and was taken by a friendly stranger outside the restaurant we went to. This is for my book.

Journaling notes: I touched on a few things I am currently wrestling with, the outcome of the trump+pandemic shit show. Just a little touch of it. Wonder if it would be too dark to scrapbook how I really feel.

My goal for this layout: just to communicate how glad I am to have them in my life and to be able to spend time with them again.

Supplies: tile stamps by Heidi Swapp * “friends” and “together” stamp by Elle’s Studio * “sunshine” “and” and “shade” words, patterned paper strips, and die cut flowers by Felicity Jane

New/Old: I have accidentally subscribed to Heidi Swapp’s stamp kit, which I keep forgetting to cancel, and those tile alpha stamps are new from that. Everything else I’ve had for a while.

What I learned: you really can’t use a ton of embellishments with a great big photo. The font size of the journaling feels far too big to me.

What I would do different: center the half-circles on top of the journaling better.

Techniques to repeat: large photo, mixed-media title


Ml4l sketch friends in sunshine and shade

  1. Love These Faces

2018 09 24 Amy family photo shootLayout notes: I printed these photos from the family photo shoot we did in 2018 without really knowing where or how I would use them. I found them in a pile during my room reorg and put them near the top of my scrap-these-soon list just so that 6x6 photo, which is printed on metallic photo paper, didn’t get bent or scratched accidentally.

My goal for this layout: I didn’t really have one when I started it. Only when I started thinking about what I might write about them did I make the connection to use camera-themed embellishments to back up the journaling.

Supplies: “these faces” stamp and heart stencil by Felicity Jane * plum ink by Close to My Heart

New/Old: the alphabet stamps are about a year old I think, but this is just my second time using them. The patterned paper I fussy-cut all the cameras from is super old and the foam “love” is, too.

What I learned: I know this, but I remembered…journaling is sometimes a form of processing. I didn’t really consciously know I had these thoughts about photo shoots kicking around and I’m glad I got them out.

What I would do different: Nothing!

Techniques to repeat: fussy-cut embellishments, stencil + ink, labels on photos.


Ml4l sketch love these faces

What do you think? Is this a feature you’d like to see more often on my blog?

Autumn Reading Plan

I had so much success with my summer reading plan that I decided to make a new plan for autumn. I'm doing this a bit differently this season. For summer, I had a list of 20 books I wanted to read, but I only ended up reading two of them. (I read a total of 13 books in the summer.)  I still want to read the 18 I didn't get to; this speaks more to the fact that there are just so many books I want to read. How do you pick just one when there are 75 or 100 you would likely enjoy just as much?
So for this challenge, I thought I'd make a list of types of books to read. That way, I can consider my mood and what I've recently finished and what the weather is like when I pick what to read next. Some books might work for more than one category and they can count for both. I am also saying it is OK to read books that don't fall into the categories. 
I'm setting the goal of finishing ten books. It's lower than the summer total because I'll be back on two feet again and thus will have less time for reading. Just being realistic here! 
The dates for my challenge are September 15-November 30. (Technically autumn doesn't end until the winter solstice but December is winter in my mind!)  
A book about witches or witchcraft. I realized a few years ago that "witch" is one of my alternate personas, after years of trying to reject that concept. But after I wrote an essay for The Exponent II  titled "What it Means to Be a Witch" I decided to embrace my Amy witch (for context, my definition of a witch is a woman who upsets the patriarchy), and part of that is witches in October.
Possible titles:  Chris Bohjalian's Hour of the Witch, which is more about the persecution of supposed witches than actual witches • The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson, which I've been meaning to read since it came out • The Lighthouse Witches which seems like it is about actual witchcraft  • something else witchy I haven't discovered yet.
A book of poems. I don't know if I can blame it on the pandemic (can I blame it on the pandemic?) but recently I have fallen out of the habit of reading poetry. I'm not sure why, but it is unlike me and part of me misses it (even if a part of me is now so jaded and bitter that even poetry sometimes makes me think "yeah, whatever, belief in humanity blah blah blah") and I need to rectify it.
Possible Titles: The 2021 Best American Poetry, which comes out in September •  The Carrying by Ada Limon  • Dearly by Margaret Atwood • How To Fly (In 10,000 Easy Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver
A contemporary young adult novel. When I read YA (which I've done a lot less of in recent years, for reasons I should write about) I tend to go for fantasy. So I'm challenging myself to read a contemporary, realistic YA novel.
Possible Titles Not Here to Be Liked by Michelle Quach, maybe—budding feminism on the school newspaper staff. (I would've been an excellent person to have on the high school newspaper if I had been, you know. a functioning adolescent.)  •  One Great Lie by Deb Caletti (I mean...Italy and art and history!)  • They'll Never Catch Us by Jessica Goodman (sisters and a mystery and running)
Something from the Booker Short List. I almost always enjoy Booker award winners. The actual winner will be revealed on November 3, and I'm going to hope whichever one I read before then is the winner.
Possible Titles: A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam • The Promise by Damon Galgut • No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood • The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed • Bewilderment by Richard Powers • Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Something I didn't read from my summer reading list. As I only read two books from the list I made, I have plenty of options. And I still want to read all of them, so...
Possible Titles: You can see that list here

Something I have checked out right now, today, at this moment I am writing this blog post. Because I do far too often check out something and then take it back three (or four!) weeks later without even having opened it up.
Possible Titles: You can see them all in this photo!
Something with an autumn color in the title. So, red, orange, yellow, gold (or golden), brown, or black.
Possible Titles: I don't have any ideas for this one yet!
A book from the non-fiction section. Because I like to be well-rounded.
Possible Titles: Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo Long Player: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them edited byTom Gatti • The Soul of a Woman by Isabelle Allende 
A book recommended to me by someone I care about. Because I feel guilty for not loving a book Becky recommended to me, but mostly because I love talking about books with friends. 
Possible Titles:  I'll Be Your Blue Sky by Marisa de los Santos (recommended by Julie) • A book you recommend! Let me know in the comments something you've read recently and loved. 
And as always, I continue with my goal of blogging about every book I read.
Happy reading! Happy fall!

Summer 2021 Reading Challenge Recap

Back in June, I decided to do the “Twenty Books of Summer” challenge with 746 Books. I wrapped my summer challenge up on Sunday, September 12, which is a few days later than I originally planned because I had one book I still wanted to finish and count for summer. There are no summer reading challenge police so I’ll just go with that random date, even though I’d planned on starting my autumn reading challenge on September 7, the Tuesday after Labor Day. Plus it took me a few days to write my reviews of the last three books. 

Summer reading collage 2021Tomorrow I will post my plans for fall reading, but I wanted to wrap up how my summer reading went, just to give myself the feeling of being done. Here’s how it went:

My goal was to read twenty books, with full accompanying skepticism that I would actually accomplish that. I am proud of the fact that I read thirteen books, listed here with my rating (you can click on the link in each book’s title if you want to read my review).

The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser   **.5
Burn by Patrick Ness  **.5
Burning Roses by S. L. Huang. ****
The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff   **.5
The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs by Tristan Gooley   ***.5
The One Hundred Years of Margot and Lenni by Marianne Cronin ****
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn   ****
The Sisters Grimm by Mena van Praag
The Star-Crossed Lovers of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Spielman ***.5
The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin   *****
Summer Days and Summer Nights: 12 Love Stories edited by Stephanie Perkins
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood   ***.5
The World that We Knew by Alice Hoffman   ****

The overarching goal of the challenge was to read books that were already on your TBR by picking out specific titles. I kind of failed at reading many books from my list. You can click HERE to see the original list, but here are TWO (lol) books I did read from it:

Sharks in the Time of Saviors
The Stone Sky

What I learned from this challenge: I was surprised at how it motivated me to keep reading. I loved the feeling of the number of books I’d read getting larger and all of the book reviews existing on my blog. I’m certain I couldn’t have read 13 books in roughly three months if I wasn’t recuperating from foot surgery for almost all of that time, but regardless, I still feel a sense of accomplishment. I am the first to confess that I check out and/or buy far more books than I actually finish. I’m not sure if all readers do this or if it’s just my voraciously bibliophiliac self. Sometimes I’ll have as many as ten books checked out (ok, sometimes even more) and I end up reading the first 15 pages and then abandoning. Not because I don’t like the book, really (or at least not very often), but because my Squirrel! brain thinks “oh, that’s nice but what about this book?” Finishing so many books in a season helped me remember that I can stick with an entire novel, even at the expense of not having time to read all the other novels I want, and just how satisfying it is.

I’m glad I did this challenge!

Book Review: The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

But I've never thought about what it would be like if they were there all the time and...wondered what they'd think about all my favorite places. Or read things and thought I must speak to them about this, or wondered if they've read that. Or worried or been concerned because they're sad...and I want them to be happy. Wished they were with me when I have to go away. 
I used to be in the habit of saying that I just needed some unknown relative—one who admires me from afar—to pass away and leave me $100,000. That's all I needed to be able to move. I stopped saying that when I actually started looking at housing prices and realized it would be closer to, oh...half a million dollars. From an unknown relative who loved me from afar. 
But when I did say that often (it's a joke, by the way; I don't want anyone to die in the service of my beautiful house dream), Kendell asked me once why I said that. "That kind of thing doesn't happen in real life," he said.
Which is true, but it does happen in romance novels!
Bookshop of second chancesTo fulfill my goal of at least once a year reading outside of my preferred genres, I read The Bookshop of Second Chances, which is based on a very similar scenario: a few weeks after she's discovered that her husband has been having an affair with one of her friends, Thea Mottrom finds out that her great uncle, who lives in Scotland, has left his house and antique book collection to her.
And despite my little joke, I had such a hard time suspending my disbelief to get on board with this book.
As far as romance novels go, this one was pretty good. It entertained me, even if  did have some objections. Thea travels to Scotland, where she discovers that being away from her husband helps her grieve and process the loss of her marriage. She makes friends in the small village that's close to the house her uncle left her, and gets a job at the local used bookshop. She meets Edward, who everyone in the village thinks is a grump but who she can just joke around with (he owns the bookshop).
As I read the book, I thought about how some books are about the reading experience, and that that is what reading is for some readers. People who love and only read mystery novels, or suspense novels, or westerns: that kind of experience is what some readers want, and that is OK. For me, the reading of a romance is about seeing which genre trope the story works with and how it deviates/stays true to it. This book has that rescued-by-the-death-of-someone-I-hardly-know trope. It's also kind of playing with the Pride-and-Prejudice idea of a man who everyone thinks is grumpy, distant, mean, or stand-offish actually being not too bad once you get to know him better. 
All of which is fine. Not exactly what I want from a book, but fine.
But as the romance progresses, Thea's issues with Edward (namely, will he cheat on her based on his history of sleeping with his brother's wives/girlfriends?) just kind of...he says he won't. And then it's resolved, or maybe her concern goes away in the time that happens between the story we actually get to read. Just like...a conversation? That's all it took to resolve it?
Also, I would like to tell Thea that while she might find Edward's grumpiness kind of charming, it will grow old quickly. (From someone also married to a grump. I love him but damn sometimes the grumpiness is just too much.) 
At any rate, I am likely not the best reader to give an objective review of The Bookshop of Second Chances. I can say that I didn't hate it, which is actually, now that I think about it, pretty high praise from a person who just doesn't really love reading about romance and other people's happy endings.
(Am I the curmudgeon in my own life???)
This is book #6 in my Summer Reading Challenge (and the review is numerically out of order because I forgot to post the draft!)

Book Review: The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot

Somewhere, out in the world, are the people who touched us, or loved us, or ran from us. In that way we live on. If you go to the places we have been, you might meet someone who passed us once in a corridor but forgot us before we were even gone. We are in the back of hundreds of people's photographs—moving, talking, blurring into the background of a picture two strangers have framed on their living room mantelpiece. And in that way, we will live on too. But it isn't enough. It isn't enough to have been a particle in the great extant of existence. I want, we want, more. We want for people to know us, to know our story, to know who we are and who we will be. And after we've gone, to know who we were.

One hundred years of lenni and margotBooks about authentic, healthy friendships between women (and by "authentic" I mean "friendships that aren't battered and bruised from too much mean-girling" even though I suppose that friendships based on mean-girl behavior are also real) are some of my favorites, and I think there just aren't enough good ones. The 100 Days of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin is one of the good ones.

It tells the story of Lenni, who is a teenager living in a hospital wing for long-term and terminally-ill patients in England. Her voice is immediately engaging, sarcastic and wry and also full of self-protection and still wanting to be loved and cared for, even if she has terminal cancer. One day, she witnesses something very strange: an old woman, also a patient, who has climbed up onto a garbage can and is trying to fish out something. Lenni creates a scene so the other nurses don't notice the woman, giving her time to get what she needs out of the can (a letter whose origins and importance you will discover later in the story).

A few weeks later, Lenni attends the new art class the hospital offers and finds that same patient already drawing. They form a friendship; the other patient's name is Margot. Margot tells Lenni a story about her childhood in Glasgow, and then another, and as time passes and they attend more art classes, they realize that if you add up their ages, you get 100. They decide to paint pictures about each of their 100 years. So you get some of Lenni's history, some of Margot's, all of it mixed with their experiences in the hospital.

I adored this book. 

Yes, it is about people in a hospital, many of whom are terminally ill. But it is also about sharing stories and how our stories can influence other people. Margot’s story is also about friendship, and marriage, and loss, and choice. It is a book with a bit of history. And art. (One of my favorite quotes: There are some words in the Lord's Prayer that I don't know. But I do know the wart art. It's a necessary inclusion, I think. We should all be artists. Especially if God is doing art in heave; we should follow his example.)  And astronomy. It examines faith and religion and all of the oldest questions—why do some people live and some die? It makes you wonder what sacrifices you are willing to let others make for you. It isn’t necessarily a happy story, but it is one that makes you feel hopeful.

[Sidenote: it also made me think about the differences between the US healthcare system and Great Britain’s. Margot and Lenni both are in the hospital for months, and before that Margot was in a place for elderly people who need a little assistance, and her husband goes to a memory care facility. None of that would happen in the United States unless they were very wealthy or very lucky to have amazing health insurance.]

But deep down, at its core, it’s simply a book about friendship. About how sometimes we find it when we are least expecting it. And how friendships sustain you just as much as romantic relationships. And how it doesn’t have to be bound by gender or age or race, but transcends those things.

I loved Lenni and Margot’s story and am so glad I read it. (Even if I did finish it at almost midnight bawling my eyes out in my hotel room.)

(This is book #13 in my summer reading challenge.)

Book Review: The World that We Knew by Alice Hoffman

That was how evil spoke. It made its own corrupt sense; it swore that the good were evil, and that evil had come to save mankind. It brought up ancient fears and scattered them on the street like pearls. To fight what was wicked, magic and faith were needed. This was what one must turn to when there was no other option.

World that we knewSince I first discovered the author Alice Hoffman, I have been smitten with her writing. She adds just a touch of magic to her realistic stories, just enough that they sparkle. No matter the topic, her books always give me a sense of hope. I had been wanting to read The World that We Knew since it came out, but hadn’t picked it up yet. Then, on my last day in Pittsburg, I had to run into a Target (the only store that sold books and was open early enough for the time that I had) because I had finished my other travel book the night before. There were several good paperbacks on the shelf, but I grabbed the Alice Hoffman one without hesitation. She is always reliable.

The World that We Knew begins with Hanni and her daughter Lea, living in Berlin in the spring of 1941. Hanni’s husband has died, and she has her mother, who is bed-bound, to take care of. They survive by Hanni’s thieving, until one night Lea is nearly raped by a soldier in the street. This helps Hanni know she must do something to get her daughter out of Berlin. Eventually she finds herself talking in hushed tones with the wife of a Jewish rabbi, who she has learned has the skill to make a golem. The wife refuses, but her oldest daughter, Ettie, who has listened at doors all of her life, knows how. She makes a bargain: in exchange for train tickets and new papers, she will make a golem to protect Lea. Of course this is forbidden work for women to do, but they do it anyway, along with Ettie’s sister Marta. The golem is a woman, who they name Ava, and here Lea’s story begins truly. She leaves Berlin and her mother and grandmother reluctantly, against her will, with Ava, Ettie, and Marta, headed for Paris.

As the story progresses, so do the war and the atrocities against Jewish people. Lea and Ava make temporary homes, again and again, as does Ettie, each of them impacted in different ways by the war. They each also begin forming relationships that will sustain them. Other characters enter the story, a farmer’s daughter, the sons of a Jewish mathematician, a village doctor. And always there is Ava, who Lea both loves and resents, keeping her safe but beginning to become more than the self she was created to be.

I think that all books about World War II should teach me something I didn’t know before, and this book did that. In France, the Jewish children were at first separated from their parents. The parents were sent to the camps, but the children were put into orphanages, many of them run by nuns. Eventually, of course, the Nazis overthrew those agreements as well, and took the children, but for a little while they were a bit safer.

I know that many people don’t enjoy novels about this time, but I am drawn to them. Especially stories that focus on women’s experiences in the war. Every time I read one that is well-written, though, I always have a hard time finding words to explain my reaction. I loved this novel—but how can you love a story that is about so much loss, pain, violence, and evil? But I did love it. The characters and the way their decisions and actions impacted other characters, often though they didn’t know it. The way that family stories and memories sustained them, even though they knew their family members had been killed. The examinations the story makes about women’s relationships and ways of creating and nurturing each other. The setting, small villages in the French countryside, forests out of fairy tales, the high peaks and winter snows of the Alps. The characters’ struggles and their sacrifices and courage, and Ava continuing to ask herself what makes someone human, what gives them a soul, what the worth of a life is. Also, the magical realism fits perfectly within the scope of the atrocities of the war, because I see it as a time that is very much like speculative fiction: suspension of disbelief is required.

One of the overarching themes of the novel is the idea that those we love stay near us after they are gone, a comforting thought for me, so that is what I will end with:

When she walked, Bobeshi walked with her. When she made her way through the forest, her mother was by her side. She had once heard the ancient story from the Torah of how Rachel heard her son’s grief when he came to her grave, for her love for him had never died. If you are loved, you never lose the person who loved you. You carry them with you all your life. They were with her as she ran.

(This is book #11 for my Summer Reading Challenge.)

Book Review: The Sisters Grimm by Meena van Praag

Love weighs less than fury—silver against lead on the chemical scale—but they might yet balance one day.

Sisters grimm
The hardest blog posts for me to write are about books I loved, adored, admired, and gave a bajillion starts to—and the ones that I would give only 1 star to. The latter is because I know there is a person behind the book, and because I know that all books are not for all readers and so maybe my negative response is not because of the book itself, but just because it’s not the book for me.

The Sisters Grimm by Menna van Praag seems like it should absolutely be a book for me. First, it came as a recommendation from my sister, who knows my reading tastes pretty well. Second, it’s a contemporary fairy-tell reimagining, one of my favorite sub-genres. Third, it’s about sisters. Fourth, it’s set in England. Fifth, England in October.

I should’ve totally loved this book.

The four sisters in question are Goldie, Bea, Liliyana, and Scarlett, each of whom are trying to figure out their lives as they approach their 18th birthdays. Each chapter is a day in October, from the 1st to the 31st, and each sister (half-sisters, technically; same father, different mothers) has a section in each chapter. The story starts with them each living their fairly-ordinary lives, beset by challenges, and then as October progresses they begin to have dreams and to meet people who start to make them question whether this is the only reality. Then there start to be chapters set in “Everwhere,” a place not of this world, where the four sisters went nightly as children. There, they each have a unique power or strength. They can no longer remember their experiences in Everwhere, but it is something that starts to fill their dreams. All of this is building to the day when they are each 18 (their birthdays are all on Halloween), when they will have a confrontation in Everwhere with their father and be forced to choose between lightness and darkness, good and evil.

I so wanted to love this book. If only to honor my sister’s recommendation. But, alas, I did not love it. I think it is a cool concept, but the execution just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t keep Liliyana and Bea separate and kept having to flip back and forth to pin down who was who. (It helped that Scarlet and Goldie both have hair that match their names.) It felt muddy and confusing, and much was left unanswered. (Like, what was even happening with Scarlett’s mom? How and when are the Grimm girls conceived? Why was Wilhem Grimm such an evil bastard? What happens to the Grimm girls who choose the dark?) It sets up a conflict between good and evil, but the way it ends is not as climactic as those clashing ideals might suggest. As each girl had a male love interest enter her life during the month, it felt forced in some situations (I did like Goldie and Leo’s relationship, at least initially, but then it devolves into the he’s-a-murdering-asshole-but-I-can’t-stop-loving-him trope and I just, yeah…no.) And the pacing was problematic, a very long drawn out October but then everything happens all at once on November first.

And then—the last page is a retelling of the Goldilocks fairy tale, but with a very different bear involved. It strives to be a piece that encourages women to be loud, to take up space, to be who they want to be, which is great, but it does so by sacrificing kindness and helping others. I think there is room for both and it’s a false dichotomy.

The writing itself was good, and there are some images that will stay with me, but overall, this wasn’t the book for me. I pushed myself to finish it simply because I’d put so much time into it.4

There is a sequel coming but I will not be reading it.

(This is book #11 in my summer reading challenge.)

Twenty Years Later, Maybe I Can Start Writing about 9-11

Almost exactly 21 years ago, my family’s life took a turn. At that point, I was a stay-at-home mom, loving my days with my little ones. Haley was five and thriving in kindergarten, Jake was two and loved going to play with his friend Ben, and Nathan was almost one, a happy, chubby baby who made me laugh with delight every day. I had a big circle of friends who also had littles, so we took our kids on outings together to the park and to community events. Kendell and I were starting to talk about maybe selling our house and moving to something larger in an area with better schools. I had started running that summer. My parents were healthy, my kids were learning and growing, we were doing OK financially. It felt like we had been given a happy, good life. (Did I think, deep down, even though I would’ve never said it, that we deserved this good, happy life? Because we were good people, because we went to church, because, I don’t know, we paid our taxes and voted in elections and kept our yard pretty? I did. It is uncomfortable for me to admit to, but it is a part of this story. I thought I had somehow earned the good things in my life, that they were rewards for me trying to be a good person.)

And then, on the Tuesday after Labor Day when he was driving his mom to a funeral in Idaho, Kendell got a phone call from his job, letting him know he’d been laid off.

I didn’t really understand, at first, how sharp a turn in the road that would be for us. Kendell immediately started looking for jobs, of course, but discovered that his lack of a degree was a hinderance. (The tech world can be a bounteous industry to work in, but it can also be brutal, and twenty years ago, aside from several big companies, Utah County was just starting to become the tech-rich place it is now.) So he went to work for a friend who had just opened a start-up company, all of them with big dreams about creating a company that would thrive. He worked there for 15 months and was paid four times. We didn’t have health insurance. I stopped buying orange juice. The severance package he had received from his old company dwindled rapidly. My group of friends dwindled, too, as it grew harder for me to go and do things with them. I’d listen to them talking about their new Dooney & Burke purses and Ugg boots and upcoming trips to Tahiti and then think about the panic I had every time I went to the grocery store; there was too much contrast. I’m not sure if I pulled away or they didn’t want to be friends with a poor person, or if it was a combination of both, but almost all of those friendships faded.

A year later, in September of 2001, I was a much different person. I had started trying to find a job and discovered that having an English degree was fairly useless unless I wanted to teach, so I was figuring out how to go back to school to get my teaching credentials. I had an intermittent gig with a scrapbooking magazine, which meant sometimes I could write an article and earn a bit of money. Kendell grew angrier and angrier over our situation. We had registered for CHIP, the free insurance through the state, and WIC, which was a way to get some groceries for free. We had started considering selling our house and downsizing. We fought every time I spent any money. One time a friend left groceries on my porch, and that Christmas my sister-in-law played Santa for us. It was a horrible, horrible time. Not only because of the constant thread of “what will we do, what will we do?” always running through my mind. But because I had been thoroughly stripped of any sense of value. That beautiful, happy life I had had was taken away from me, and all I could feel was self-hatred. I combed through my memories of everything I had done in my life, trying to understand what bad thing I had done to make God take so much away from me.

On the second Tuesday in September I had an 8:00 a.m. appointment. Kendell stayed home from his job (could we even call it a job at that point? After all the promises continued to fall through, after so much time of working as an “investment in the future” that never actually put food on the table or paid our mortgage?) that morning with the kids so I could go alone. Everyone was still asleep when I left at 7:30 to drive to Provo, where I would do something I had so far been far too proud to do. I drove in silence, with the radio off, and cried the whole way. My appointment was with the Department of Workforce Services and I went there to apply for food stamps. I had told literally no one that I was doing this, except my husband. I was so humiliated.

When I walked into the office, the TV over the receptionist’s desk was on. And that was the moment I found out about the attack.

Like everyone else, I watched in horror and couldn’t make sense of what was happening. I stood watching until they called me back for my appointment, when hearing my name brought me back to my little part of the world with a jolt. Isn’t that strange—New York City and the Pentagon were exploding but I still went into a cubicle to talk to a person about getting food stamps. I went through the motions, filling out the application and waiting for the woman helping me to look at it. I found out that I didn’t qualify, because we had too many assets: we still owned a car, we still had a mortgage rather than renting the place we lived, we still had a bit of money in the bank left from the severance. Once all of those things were gone (she said this like a fact, like it was a thing that would happen, not that might), I could come back and apply again. All of this conversation felt muffled and far away, my thoughts still in a city I had never actually stepped foot in.

Before I drove home, I sat in my car. I tried to name the emotion I was feeling. I didn’t have one word for it then, and I still don’t, and it took me a long time to understand it. Partly this is because I don’t feel like 9-11 was my thing to write about. I mourned for the strangers who died that day, but I didn’t know anyone personally who was lost. Me sharing my emotions about it felt like grief appropriation. The people who lost people are the ones who own the grief, and my sadness and mourning felt like an offering to them rather than my own trauma.

I have thought about that day so many times over the past twenty years. I do still feel reluctant to write about my response, but I also understand that this was an American tragedy, even for those of us who didn’t lose people we loved. What we lost as a nation was similar to what I lost during those long two years of rebuilding from Kendell’s unemployment: the sense that because our nation was “good” (freedom-loving, built on democratic ideals, a place where anyone can  succeed if they try hard enough), truly bad things wouldn’t happen here. We didn’t deserve it.

I have learned, changed, and grown so much since I was that 29-year-old woman crying in the Workforce Services parking lot, in both good and negative ways. I had no idea how many more difficult things I would go through. I have never fully regained my belief that good things happen to people simply because they are good, nor that sense of confidence and hope I used to have. My inherent belief that the Universe rewards goodness is very, very dented. I now understand that good things happen because they just do, same as difficult things. There is hatred, greed, resentment, violence, and anger inside of people, racism and sexism and ignorance, and these sometimes drive people to make destructive choices. Some people who do negative things still thrive financially and seem to have an abundance, while many, many good people struggle their whole lives. The same goes for nations; the United States does good things and horrible things and is no more immune from the violence of others than any other country in the world.

These are wounds that perhaps never heal. Even as I write this I have tears streaming down my cheeks, feeling again what I felt at 29, the desperate hope that if I just did something better, prayed more or read more scriptures or served others better, I could get back what I had so briefly, my perfect few utopian years before everything changed. (I did not get it back.) The World Trade Center attacks are not about me, but in a sense they are because they mirrored, very largely, what my small life was also experiencing. An innocence was lost, along with all of those lives, that day for this country where I live at the same time I was losing a similar innocence of my own.

Fifteen years after 9-11, I finally made it to New York City. I visited the 9-11 Memorial Museum, and as I walked through, I again found myself crying. I’m a museum crier no matter what, but this was different. Being so close to the actual iron and steel that was brought down by airplanes and hatred, I again mourned for those who died. My husband just moved away from me and left me to my crying, and I’m not sure anyone else noticed or cared, one weeping woman in the crowded memorial obviously not the point of anyone’s experience. I also mourned for myself and for how I have changed, for how hard it is to move through this life and not have parts of yourself decimated along the way.

And just as I am not the same, the United States has changed. There is more hatred and division now. That unity we had for a few brief days after the attacks is long gone. We have all had to learn to live with difficult truths. What will happen in the next twenty years? I wouldn’t begin to hazard a guess, not for myself or for the country. I can only continue forward, trying to find the goodness that is also here, even if I can never be free of the sadness.