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A few months ago, I asked for advice about kids’ books with an instructive element. I loved the comments on that post – they were so full of good ideas, and I have since requested many of your suggestions from the library.

THEN. After I published the post, I got an email from A Kind and Generous Person who just so happened to have an entire STACK of the Joy Berry books I fondly remember from my own childhood.

Her children had outgrown them, she said, and she was thinking about the best way to release them from her house. And would I want them?

WOULD I?!?!

She boxed them up and sent them to me, FOR FREE – AND DID NOT EVEN WANT ME TO COVER THE SHIPPING – and they now live in my daughter’s bedroom. (Can you even believe how KIND and GENEROUS and ALL-CAPS WONDERFUL that is?!?!)

Joy Berry Books 1

I get a little tingle of delight EVERY TIME I see this stack of books!

We have read them several times over. Carla was OBSESSED with them when they first arrived, so we read all 20 of them right away, two-at-a-time before naps or bedtime. And then she began asking for specific books. And now we work them in among the other, less-instructive books that crowd her bookcase.

The books, by the way, are as wonderful as I remember… PLUS they are better, because now I am the one trying to teach my own child certain concepts. And some concepts are HARD.

Joy Berry Books 4

The elephant is already very clear on the concept of disobedience.

Thank goodness for Joy Berry. She very clearly and simply lays out a term and what it means and then offers several clear, firm, no-nonsense examples, all accompanied by a cartoon that shows the concept in action.

Joy Berry Books 5

There’s always an animal along for comic relief/extra shaming.

Then she lists simple examples of what you should do and what you should not do in order to avoid the concept being taught.

Joy Berry Books 6

SO EASY to abstain from disobeying! Just follow the two steps! (Disclaimer: May not be quite as easy in practice as it seems in the book.)

It was such a wonderful, pleasing case of serendipity. That this Kind and Generous Person would not only have the Joy Berry books, and be done with them herself, and be looking to pass them on to someone else… but that she would also read my blog at the exact moment I posted about my longing for those very books.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me itch to pass along the kindness.

To that end, I happen to possess three books that a) I LOVE and b) I am no longer in need of and c) I would wholeheartedly recommend you buy anyway because they are soothing and easy to read and short. So I would like to give them away to you.

They are by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D., and they are slim “guidebooks,” if you will, to the inner workings of a two- and three-year-old.

Louise Bates Ames

I have no idea why these are not ordered CORRECTLY. It is driving me batty (although apparently not so batty as to retake the photo), so let’s just quickly look away, shall we?

The two-year-old book and one of the three-year-old books are gently used. The other arrived from Amazon as a surprise extra, and Amazon – which apparently has more money than it knows what to do with – just shrugged its shoulders and said, “keep it.” So the book is fresh as the day it arrived, more than a year and a half ago.

The books follow the same basic structure, outlining the characteristics of a child of that age, techniques for dealing with a child of that age, accomplishments and abilities typical for the age range, how the child sees the world, etc. There are “real life stories” sections in the back of each, where parents give a brief description of some problem they are encountering and the author responds.

I like these books for their cheery and matter-of-fact tone, for the “help with routines” sections, for the books/toys suggestions at the back, and for the short lists of “things to avoid” when interacting with your child. Sample, from the book on two-year-olds: “Avoid any expectation that all daily routines will go smoothly.” Second sample, same book: “Avoid any questions that can be answered by ‘no.'” I don’t know why, but these simple suggestions give me the giggles. And have I mentioned that they are short and very easy to read? Some parenting books are so dense. Others are so wordy. These books are so quick. Of course, that also means that they don’t really cover anything in-depth. But as an overview of what to expect from your kid at a specific age, they are top notch.

If you (or a loved one) are in possession of a nearly two-, or three-year-old, and if you don’t already own these books, let me know in the comments if you would like a) Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender, b) Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy, or c) both. I will do some sort of random number drawing on Friday.

Oh! And whether you want a copy of the Louise Bates Ames books or not, I would love to know what your favorite instructive-type children’s book is… and/or your favorite/most useful parenting book.

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We have reached the stage of life where I am constantly searching for books that have some sort of teaching component.

Carla loves to read. And I find that reading a book about a topic and then discussing that topic and whatever lessons are inside it really help secure them in her brain.

But I am picky about the books.

The Berenstain Bears series is okay.

We have Too Much TV and The Truth and both are all right. Not perfect – Papa Bear is (as many cartoon/children’s book fathers seem to be) kind of a dolt, who seems to have as much to work on as the cubs do. And that annoys me, for some reason. Not that parents in kids’ books shouldn’t be real and vulnerable and have their own struggles, but… I don’t know. There’s just something mildly irritating to me about how the Bear Family parents come across. They are SUPER CHEAP though, so that’s nice.

I love the Frances books.

We have A Birthday for Frances and Bread and Jam for Frances and we have checked out Bedtime for Frances from the library many, many times. They are not perfect either; I seem to recall that the father threatens to spank Frances in the bedtime story, and I am not a fan of that. But otherwise, I very much admire her parents’ calm, unflappable way of dealing with Frances’s antics. My biggest complaint about the Frances books, perhaps, is that there aren’t enough of them.

Last fall, we were getting some… feedback from Carla’s teachers that she may benefit from a refresher on listening and following directions. So I researched a bunch of books on the topic, looked them up at my  local library (NOT IN THE SYSTEM AT ALL), and ordered a few highly-rated books from Amazon.

We read them each once.

(In case it’s not clear, I did not like ANY of them. I Just Want to Do It My Way would have been better titled “Staying on Task” or “Asking for Help” or something. And, in that book and in That Rule Doesn’t Apply to Me, I found the inconsistent rhyming and use of different fonts very irritating. Plus, they seemed to be geared toward a kid a bit older than Carla is. Which I guess isn’t the BOOK’S fault so much as mine. They are destined to be donated, I think. [To be fair, Why Should I Listen was okay. It showed multiple examples of a child not listening, and the consequences. And it also showed a few examples of how bad the child felt when others didn’t listen to him.])

Now, I am looking for books about talking to strangers and being polite and keeping your hands to yourself. I have a bunch in my Amazon cart, and I just need to order them. But what I keep wishing for is these books that I had as a kid.

At first, I couldn’t remember anything about them except that they covered a wide range of topics. But then I found them on Amazon! They belonged to a series by Joy Wilt Berry, and when I was a kid, the series was called “Let’s Talk About…” Looks like the originals came out in the early-to-mid 1980s. Of course, they are long out of print. (It seems like they got revised and republished a few times, as recently as 2000. But even those aren’t sold directly by Amazon.) (I haven’t looked for them anywhere else. YET.)

It makes me laugh to scroll through all the titles. If you take a look at the ones that I remember CLEARLY from my childhood, you may get a sense of what a delightful child I must have been.

I like to think I really absorbed the lessons of the books and have transformed into a polite, honest, non-greedy, hardworking, non-bossy person. But let’s be honest, I’m still not the neatest.

It’s comforting to think of my mother seeking out books in the same way I am now seeking books for my own daughter.

I suppose I can order used copies of some of them. I wonder if they hold up to my memory of them?

Anyway, I am wondering if YOU have any books of an instructive nature – about anything, really, from using good judgment to table manners to making friends to using an indoor voice and everything beyond – that you loved, as a child or as a parent.

In the meantime, I am going to go order some books from the Cheri J. Meiners Learning to Get Along series.

And maybe a couple of other random books for good measure. (At around $3-$6 a book, why not?) (I may have a book buying problem.)

Note: All of the photos above came from Amazon.com. I think you can see that if you scroll over the photos themselves, but… who knows.

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I am dreading this recap this year, for some reason. Yet I am still doing it because TRADITION. I think I may start liberally tossing questions out the window. So BE PREPARED FOR THAT.

(This yearly recap originated with Linda of All & Sundry. If you’re so inclined, you can read past versions of my responses: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009.)

Oh! And if YOU do this yearly recap, always or for the first time this year, send me a link in the comments won’t you? I love reading these.

  • What did you do in 2016 that you’d never done before?

I quit my job to write a novel. (Which I have not yet completed, BLARGH.) (Prediction: I sense that the topic of the previous parenthetical may reappear below.)

  • Did you keep your New Year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

Last year, I said:

This year, I want to prioritize my husband, quality time with my kid, balance in my life… and I also want to really work on personal fulfillment. That sounds… vague and a little frou-frou and a lot privileged, but I think it will honestly help with the first three priorities. At least, I hope so. And I’m going to try.

I do think I have made solid steps on all fronts, and I attribute all progress to leaving my job at the end of March. I feel very fortunate that I have this little pocket of time during which I can be part-time novelist/part-time stay-at-home-mom. The reduction in stress has helped me be more present with my husband and daughter, and helped me really focus on contributing to my family in new ways. It has not been easy, for me, to give up on being a financial contributor. That has altered the identity I always felt I had, and it has been a challenge to adapt. But I do think I’m contributing in new and different ways, or at least contributing more in areas where I wasn’t before.

This year, I am going to finish the novel. That’s my primary goal. It’s taking so much longer than I anticipated just to eke out a first draft. I need to find some way to speed up the process. Because the first draft is only the beginning.

  • Did anyone close to you give birth?
  • Did anyone close to you die?
  • What countries did you visit?

Same as last year: Not really a big year for travel. I visited three states besides my own: Illinois, Florida, and my home state. All with Carla.

I can’t really imagine the answers changing in a big way anytime soon.

  • What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?

Better ability to prioritize my time. A fully drafted novel. Making my time with Carla richer, somehow, rather than making a bunch of slipshod and ultimately frustrating attempts at “activities.”

  • What dates from 2016 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

March 31, which was my last day of working in the office.

  • What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Taking a leap of faith and quitting my office job. (OMG, broken record much?)

  • What was your biggest failure?

Not getting enough words on the page each day! I can trot out a 7,000-word blog post of a morning, but I seem to spend hours and hours coming up with a measly 200 for my manuscript! What gives? If I can do it elsewhere, why can’t I blather and drivel my way through a first draft?

  • Did you suffer illness or injury?

I am currently enjoying a bout of asthmatic bronchitis, which is super fun. Other than that, nothing too crazy.

  • What was the best thing you bought?

Scrivener!!! It is a tool for writers and I loooooooove it.

  • Whose behavior merited celebration?

This goes 100% to my husband. He is a rockstar. I can’t even express all the ways he’s shown up this year without drowning my keyboard in tears, so let’s move on.

  • Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

I mean do you really have to ask, non-sentient Survey created years ago with no knowledge of our current times? I think I’m going to cross this one out because it makes me sad and bewildered and fearful and shaky.

  • Where did most of your money go?

This question sucks. I really want to say something fun like “a new ski lodge in Aspen!” or “a twelve-week trek around Europe!” I guess I could say my potential earnings went toward financing my lifelong dream but that makes me feel dizzy and sick to my stomach so MOVING ON.

  • What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Last year I said: The holidays this year. Carla is so excited about EVERYTHING, and it is so fun to see that.

As with last year, I didn’t even KNOW what excited was! She has been super over the moon about everything. And she gets stuff now. Like, she understood the little countdown-to-Christmas calendar I put in her room, and the last couple of days she switched the numbers all by herself before I even got to her room. She has been really gung-ho about Hanukkah, and has helped her dad light the menorah and say the prayers. She loved decorating the tree and every night for a week she would pick up a present that she knew was for her and squeeze it and hop up and down and say, “It’s so HARD to WAIT until Christmas to open my present!” I mean, a tree full of presents and she didn’t realize most of them were for her, and yet she got So Worked Up about this one tiny thing. She loved all the holiday books I pull out each year, and expressed interest in Santa and Baby Jesus and the Maccabees alike. She loved the stockings, and asked questions about how Santa could do such and such. She loved painting ornaments for her grandparents. She loved collecting the Amazon boxes from the front stoop and putting them in the guest room to await her grandmother’s arrival. She loved singing Christmas carols. Everything this year was just SO. MUCH. FUN. I hope we have at least a couple more years of this pure, unadulterated joy in the season. It’s a mood lifter for sure, and helps make all those I-want-them-to-be-fun-and-meaningful-but-are-really-kind-of-tedious projects seem worthwhile and enjoyable.

  • What song(s) will always remind you of 2016?

I have to say the Frozen soundtrack. Carla hadn’t seen a movie in her entire life until Christmas 2015, and once we started we couldn’t stop. As toddlers are wont to do, she fell in love with Frozen and we have watched it eleventy billion times. PLUS we bought the Frozen soundtrack (we call it “Carly Songs”) on CD (yes, I still use CDs in my car) and we have listened to THAT at least seventy gazillion times. Also: Justin Beiber’s “Sorry” and “Let Me Love You” by DJ Snake featuring The Beibs. “Waves” by Miguel (the Kacey Musgraves version). “One Dance” by Drake. Carla does a mean dance move to Drake, and sings along very sweetly to “Let Me Love You” and “Waves.” Also also, on the classical front, I have grown very attached to Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2. I have some fantasy that I will learn to play it. (HA.)

  • Compared to this time last year, are you:
  1. a) happier or sadder? Happier but more fearful about the future, I think?
  2. b) thinner or fatter? Fatter. Which kind of sucks because I lost 12 pounds after I left my job. I have since gained it back. But I kind of hate this question because I just do. I am scowling at it.
  3. c) richer or poorer? I am skipping this question because math.

This is a question I don’t care to answer anymore, I think. Are these really the benchmarks by which I want to measure the year? No, no I don’t think so. MORE SCOWLING.

  • What do you wish you’d done more of?

Writing. (Always.) Submitting my work for publication. Figuring out a better time management system.

  • What do you wish you’d done less of?

Worrying. Yelling. Procrastinating. Writing poor-quality apocalyptic poetry. Wasting time on my phone. Feeling too hot or too cold; that’s really annoying when the house maintains a stable temperature.

  • How did you spend Christmas?

Here at home, with my husband and Carla, and my husband’s parents. It was lovely and fun. Also lovely and fun was adding my sister and niece the day after Christmas, but that amped up the freneticism by several degrees. How does adding ONE additional child to the mix make things exponentially more crazy?

  • Did you fall in love in 2016?

Ugh. Every year this one makes me gag a little, but I definitely fell more in love with my husband. He has been supportive of me and my dreams in a way that shatters me. I hope I make him feel even half as loved and understood and… seen as he makes me feel.

And, as we allow the tears to dry a bit, I fall newly in love with Carla with each new stage in her life. Three has been challenging, but it has also been utterly delightful as she becomes more independent and imaginative and curious and affectionate and funny and fun and inquisitive. I just adore her.

  • What was your favorite (new) TV program?

What a year for TV! Standouts from the year include the OJ Simpson mini-series, The Night Of, Westward, and the Gilmore Girls revival (even though I hated GG as much as I loved it – many flaws, no?). I also loved the latest seasons of The Americans, The Great British Baking Competition, Shark Tank, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, The Middle, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. What can I say? I like feel-good shows to balance out the gritty stuff slash real life. Oh! And two series my husband and I watched and loved that were new to us this year were Master of None and Catastrophe. God, I love TV.

  • Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

I can’t even. This question has got to go.

  • What was the best book you read?

I READ SO MANY BOOKS THIS YEAR! Contenders for best book include A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin. There have been others, but those are the standouts. For me, all had great stories with interesting, well-rounded characters, and truly beautiful language that enriched the story without getting in the way. Then sometime in November I fell into a Sue Grafton wormhole and have been reading my way through her Kinsey Millhone series (again) because it’s fun.

  • What did you want and get?

A chance to write a book. More time with my daughter. More time to exercise. More time in general, I guess. Less stress. And also this gorgeous green coat from Boden that unfortunately didn’t fit so BOO to that. My hips are not British enough, it seems. Oh! And I got the sheet music for Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2, and have been painstakingly picking out the right hand notes. That’s really all I’ve managed.

  • What did you want and not get?

A finished first draft of my manuscript because I am SLOW.

  • What was your favorite film of this year?

Let’s see. My husband and I took a break from watching TV to watch all of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. That was fun, but I wasn’t as… enamored of the most recent (last?) film as I was of the earlier ones. (To be fair, Daniel Craig seemed less enamored of it as well.) Did I watch anything else? Of the (many) kids’ movies I’ve seen this year, Brave is my favorite, followed by Wall-E and then probably a tie between Tangled and Frozen. I did not care for Zootopia, and Robin Hood – a childhood favorite – sadly did not live up to my memory version. (Robin Hood himself is still by far the foxiest cartoon I’ve ever encountered, though. No pun intended.)

EDITED TO ADD: My husband and I watched Sicario just last night, right under the 2016 wire, and it was really well done. Dark and disturbing but a heart-thumping, thought provoking film.

  • What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 35 this year, and I can’t really remember what I did. Which is a pattern at least a few years running, so I am getting rid of this question.

  • What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Same as every year (don’t I ever PROGRESS as a person?!?!):

Being able to just LET GO and not freak out about EVERYTHING.

  • How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2016?

Same as last year: I have full-on embraced the leggings-as-pants “style” that I used to disdain. COMFORT IS KEY. In your face, Past Me!

Also, this year I started doing Fabletics (I joined Fabletics? I am not sure of the proper verbiage here. It’s just a subscription service in the vein of Stitch Fix. Sort of. Third cousins.), and so have added some very cute workout ensembles to my wardrobe, which means that sometimes I switch up my leggings with legging-like yoga pants. You can spot the difference because I wear tennis shoes with the yoga pants version.

  • What kept you sane?

My husband. Exercise. Being able to write every day most days.

  • Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

I adore Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan of Catastrophe. The characters they play are adorable and funny and in-your-face in a way I find charming. Sterling K. Brown. Constance Wu (her and her character as Jessica Huang on Fresh Off the Boat) because she seems fearless and take-no-prisoners and also is hilarious and beautiful and talented. Kelly Bishop as Emily Gilmore. Okay, so maybe these are primarily TV CHARACTERS and not necessarily the actors themselves but whatever.

  • What political issue stirred you the most?

Nope. NOPE. Not even going to. CUT.

  • Who did you miss?

Same as last year, although – shocker – blogging more frequently myself has helped a teeny bit: I guess I most missed the bloggers I used to interact with regularly, back when I blogged frequently and they blogged frequently. I suppose I should figure out a way to do Twitter (which makes me uncomfortable for some reason).

  • Who was the best new person you met?

As last year, I don’t know that I met many new people this year. AM A HERMIT. Oh wait, that’s not true. I have made a couple of (tentative strides toward making) mom friends through Carla’s new school.

  • Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016.

Write it down, don’t write it right, for the love of all that is holey.

  • Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

(I don’t know if the following makes sense as a lyric or as the answer to this question, but it’s in my head, so I’m going with it.)

Don’t you give up, nah nah nah / Never give up, nah nah nah / Let me love you.

Happy New Year, Internet! I hope 2017 goes a hell of a lot better than we fear!

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Let’s talk about the books we have been reading. And NOT reading.

But before we do that – and before you give some suggestions for GOOD books to read, because, as will be perfectly clear in about 4,000 words, I have faced a real Dearth of Good Books lately – let us digress a little to discuss one of the major differences between me and my husband.

My husband and I both LOVE to read. We are both the type of person who buys a stack of books and then starts looking for the next book to buy while we’re not even done with the first book in the stack.

We are also both the type to read multiple books at a time.

But…

That’s where the similarities end.

Here is a photo of our bed and nightstands. See if you can spot the difference.

Welcome to our boudoir.

Welcome to our boudoir. The duvet cover always looks lumpy but at least the bed is made.

So, my husband may read as many as three books at a time. I think, right now, he’s reading the second in the Game of Thrones series (so we can get started on season two of the TV show FINALLY). He checked out some book from the library recently, which I think he may have started. I can’t remember if he’s started Wicked or if he’s saving it until after he finishes the other(s).

He may also be reading something on the Kindle, and, occasionally he “reads” a book on tape while he’s driving to and from work.

Anyway, my husband’s nightstand is neat and clean. Aside from the few books, it holds a picture of me as a child that he has deemed especially cute, a recent issue of Consumer Reports, and a book of puzzles.

My husband's top-of-nightstand contents: reasonable and not in danger of falling on a person in the night.

My husband’s top-of-nightstand contents: reasonable and not in danger of falling on a person in the night.

He keeps reference books (and the aforementioned Kindle) in the open cupboard portion of the nightstand.

There are also two books I've recommended to/bought for him that he hasn't yet begun.

There are also two books I’ve recommended to/bought for him that he hasn’t yet begun.

Two of my husband’s favorite things to do are to a) pick the next book he is/I am going to read and b) put away books that have just been finished.

It’s one of his most endearing quirks – in fact, I think I’ve mentioned it in this space before – that he loves the task of rearranging our bookshelves to accommodate new tomes.  I’m not sure why; the simple logic of alphabetization, perhaps? The chance to go through all the books he has and hasn’t read? A combination of both?

It’s nice for me. I never have to set foot in our (tiny) “library” – or even get out of bed if I need something new to read.

But he has been frustrated with me the last few months.

Because I have been collecting books atop my nightstand like it’s the only book storage space in our entire house.

(It’s not. The “library” has three bookshelves. The office has two and a half. One of the guest rooms has one.  While we could always use MORE bookshelves, we’re not out of room by any stretch of the imagination.)

Take a look at what I mean.

You can't even see the pictures on the nightstand, there are so many books in the way.

You can’t even see the pictures on the nightstand, there are so many books in the way.

So, Internet, it has been an off few months for books.

Sure, I’ve found a handful I really enjoyed.

But the majority of books I’ve started have been stinkers.

Yet… I can’t bring myself to just… quit.

Which is odd. Usually, I have no problem deciding that a book just isn’t working out for me, and closing it and putting it out of my mind.  Maybe my recent reluctance has to do with the high hopes I had for the books in question? Agent 6 is the perfect example. I devoured Tom Rob Smith’s first two books – Child 44 and The Secret Speech – and couldn’t WAIT to get my hands on Agent 6. And then it was just kind of… boring. So I’ve been halfway through it since… August? July? Who knows. But because I was so in love with the first two, and had such high hopes for this one, I just can’t GIVE UP, you know?

(The reluctance to give up on a book may also have to do with the book recommender, now that I think of it. Two of the books – Leaving the Atocha Station and The Orphan Master’s Son – on my unfinished pile were either purchased for me or recommended by my husband. And I think he also recommended that I read Await Your Reply, which I honestly can’t remember if I DID finish or not.)

I haven't finished a single one of these. Well, except Five Patients, which I've read several times. But couldn't finish on the last go-round.

I haven’t finished a single one of these. Well, except Five Patients, which I’ve read several times. But couldn’t finish on the last go-round.

(One of the books I haven’t finished – A Point in Time – was recommended by my father-in-law. So I can’t very well put THAT ONE back until I’ve good and finished the book, right?)

Let’s talk about the fact that there are four Patricia Cornwell books on my nightstand. (One in each pile, apparently. Way to represent, PCorn!)

I was a HUGE Patricia Cornwell fan my entire teenager- and college-hood. Her Scarpetta series was one of my all-time favorite mystery series. Until 2005. That was the year that she made an appearance at a St. Louis Barnes & Noble (or Borders?) and my then-boyfriend and I went to see her. She gave a little speech and then signed books, and we got our photo taken with her and I bought a copy of her newest book (signed) to give to my father.

Her newest book, at that time, was Blow Fly and it was a departure from her normal writing style. No longer first-person, but third-person omniscient.

And it was AWFUL.

I gave up reading her books until this past Christmas, when my husband’s aunt (my aunt-in-law?) gave me a Patricia Cornwell book that was a few books further down in the series. And I read it and enjoyed it! It wasn’t as good as I remember the original books to be.  But it was WAY better than Blow Fly. So I decided I needed to get back into the series, and to really do so PROPERLY, I had to read all of the books between Blow Fly and whatever book I got for Christmas; I can’t honestly remember.  It may be one of the ones on my nightstand WHO KNOWS.  Anyway, I read a couple of them – Book of the Dead and… something else – and now I’m trying to read Trace but it’s SO BAD.  The primary plot is dragging along like an overweight three-legged alligator and there are a couple of secondary storylines that haven’t intersected with the main plot yet… but you know they WILL, and there are only so many pages left in which they CAN, so I anticipate that there will be a sudden flurry of tying-togetherness that will seem haphazard and sloppy. Plus, one of the main characters of the series has morphed into someone fairly unlikable and I’m not really appreciative of that trend. Honestly, none of the main characters seem all that likable right now – like Cornwell is focusing so hard on making them flawed heroes that she forgot to make them relatable. And what else can I complain about? Oh yes, the WRITING. It’s as though Cornwell had an outline sketched on a cocktail napkin or something, but when she sat down to flesh it out, she didn’t have enough meat, so she’s filled in entire paragraphs with meaningless repetition and “character development” that makes me hate the characters.

Whew.

So that’s why I haven’t finished Trace. It’s still on my nightstand because I feel DRIVEN to finish it, though, and finish the other intervening books between the god-awful Blow Fly and whatever book I read in December. But feeling driven to finish a book and actually plowing through to the end are two wholly different things.

Let’s move away from what turned into some real bashing of one of my favorite authors. (She really IS one of my favorites. And I sympathize with what’s going on with her Scarpetta series. It must be exhausting to have to continue a series that may have begun to feel a little stale to you… and tremendously difficult to switch writing styles when you have been writing in one way for so long. I am cheered to know that she DOES settle into the new style and I have every reason to believe that the rest of the series will be GREAT.)

Anyway.

There are two Thursday Next books on my nightstand.  I started reading one a while ago and had the sinking feeling that I’d read it before. I couldn’t actually remember what HAPPENED in the books, thinking ahead… but as I would be reading along, I’d feel strongly that everything was happening as I knew it would.  Very odd sensation, to not know what was coming around the bend of the next page, but to know, when it happened, that you weren’t surprised in the least. I am explaining this very poorly. It was like book déjà vu. There.

The other Thursday Next book is – I think? – the most recent, and I had taken it with me to Montana last summer and who knows if I read it or not. I haven’t yet cracked the cover to see. (Although who knows if I would even REMEMBER if I HAD read it. Sheesh. Maybe I should give up reading all together.)

Right now, I am reading Canada, which I am thoroughly enjoying. (After all, it does take place in a part of the world very near to where I grew up.) The plot – while elongated – is engaging and most of the book is contemplative in a way that makes me actually THINK about what the author is getting at, and there’s a lot of nice description and character development of interesting, flawed-yet-relatable (mostly) characters and, well, it keeps me awake far longer than most books have of late. So that’s SOMETHING.

A good book, a bad book, and a terrifying book.

A good book, a bad book, and a terrifying book.

So that’s on top and nearest to the bed, which means I am less likely to plop it down as my eyes are growing heavy and tip a entire pile of books off the edge of the nightstand, which has happened oh about twenty times in the past few months.

Most of the other books on the nightstand are not really the kind of books you read all in one go.

Kind of a random assortment, isn't it?

Kind of a random assortment, isn’t it?

You pick them up on a night when you’re not in the mood for serial killers (although, when am I not in the mood for serial killers????) or literary fiction, and read a poem or a chapter until your mind is either settled by soothing rhythms and sounds or set a-racing by the terrors of child birth/rearing so that you must turn, instead, to Trace, which puts you asleep almost immediately.

The last pile on the nightstand has NO REASON to exist.

I did NOT like Everything Asian. But by golly I FINISHED IT!

I did NOT like Everything Asian. But by golly I FINISHED IT!

Well, to exist on my nightstand, that is.

It’s a pile of books I have actually finished. (And I enjoyed some of them! In a couple of cases – the Rob Lowe memoir and The Boy in the Suitcase and the Sophie Hannah book and maybe that’s it – immensely!)

Are they still there to remind me that a) I AM capable of finishing books and b) good, readable books DO exist?

Who knows, Internet. Who knows.

Now is your chance to shake yourself out of the stupor that this long and ridiculous post has undoubtedly forced upon you, and recommend some other books for me to read. And, while you’re at it, books I should NOT read. I’d rather not ADD to the pile, you know.

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So I was on vacation. It was wonderful but now I am tired. Here, have an alligator:

A small gator is still a gator.

I really miss blogging. As in, writing blog posts. And reading OTHER PEOPLE’S blog posts. Especially yours.

Anyway. Randomosity is a good re-entry into posting. For me, at least. For you, probably not so much. But I GAVE YOU AN ALLIGATOR so get off my back already.

* During my vacation, I somehow fell into a wormhole of books about Russia. It started with Child 44 which I got from my husband for my birthday. It was soooo dark and horrible and fascinating that I had to IMMEDIATELY, while I was in Florida at my in-laws’ house, Amazon Prime myself the next book in the series. (The Secret Speech.) And I really really REALLY wish I had also ordered Agent 6, which is the THIRD book in the series. But instead I also Amazon Primed myself the second in ANOTHER mystery/crime/thriller series (the Sweden-based Henning Mankell series starring Kurt Wallander) called The Dogs of Riga which, well, it didn’t have do with RUSSIA but it did have to do with LATVIA and continued the theme of Stalinist-era culture. And THEN I read Snowdrops, which was about modern-day Russia and the lasting effects of the Stalinist era.

Of the four, Child 44  was the best. Closely followed by The Secret Speech and then Snowdrops. I was disappointed in The Dogs of Riga. Namely because the author/translator felt the need to keep talking about how “the dogs” (in Riga, obvs) were after the main character and other characters, as though to really drive home the fact that the title was chosen for a Serious Reason.  Seriously. Every chapter after Wallander got to Riga mentioned the dogs. Sometimes there were dog mentions multiple times per page.  I GET IT. These are the Dogs of Riga. STOP BASHING ME OVER THE HEAD WITH IT.

(The dogs are not actual canines, you know. They are the villains in the book.)

* Is it clear that I spent large portions of my vacation reading?

But I have a problem, Internet. When I want to read a book, I want to read it NOW. I was about 100 pages from being done with Child 44 when I noticed that it was nearly over (WOE!) and I’d be out of fascinating Stalinist-era reading before I knew it. So my husband and I went to Barnes & Noble.

Listen, I could write 10 bazillion words about the GLARING differences between my husband and me when it comes to books and book buying and book choosing and book reading. But I will spare you all that and just say: he is a price comparison kind of guy where I am an “if I want it and the price isn’t unreasonable, I will buy it” kind of gal. I guess this isn’t specific to books. But what I’m saying is, I wanted to buy The Secret Speech. At Barnes & Noble. Which is why we went there.

But my husband – who knew all this, and still drove me to Barnes & Noble for the PURPOSE of buying The Secret Speech – did not allow me to buy The Secret Speech at Barnes & Noble. (Note: I don’t mean “did not allow” as in he FORBADE me to do things. He’s not so much into forbidding me to do stuff.  I mean it as, he advocated against buying it there and, partly in the name of marital harmony, but mostly in the name of I hadn’t yet finished Child 44, I went along with his plan instead of just buying the damn book. At the Barnes & Noble. In which we were standing. BECAUSE WE’D GONE THERE TO BUY THE BOOK IN QUESTION.) Instead, he pointed out that we could order it much more cheaply online, and with Amazon Prime, not only would we get free shipping, we’d also get the book in two days.

Fine. I get it. Saving a buck blah blah blah. BUT WHY DID WE HAVE TO GO TO BARNES & NOBLE THEN?

* We went to the beach one night to see the sun set over the ocean. I unwisely decided I needed to dip my toes in the ocean while my husband took photos with his camera (mostly amazing) and I took photos with my camera (mostly blurry) of the beautiful clouds rolling in.

It rained, so we sat in the car for most of the pre-sunset time. (I mainly spent that time trying vainly to brush sand off my feet so I wouldn’t get sand in my father-in-law’s car. I failed. Which is why I am very thankful for dustbusters.)

Anyway, it was raining and I had my camera all dressed up with nowhere to go, so I took a photo of the raindrops on the car window with the macro setting of my camera. See?

Ooh. Aaaah.

And another raindrop photo – this one with a palm tree in the background:

The rain did let up right in time for the sun to slip into the ocean in a wonderful photo-op-tastic way.

* What’s the opposite of the beach at sunset? Snow and fog in the mountains!

* That Zooey Deschanel show on Fox, The New Girl? I find it quite charming. But the theme song will NOT get out of my head.

And it’s not the whole theme song, either. It’s just the beginning. The “Hey, girl… Whatcha doin’?” part. Over and over and over. It is making me want to punch things.

Also, whenever I watch that show I feel an uncontrollable urge to get bangs.

* Have I blathered on sufficiently long enough to talk about the bug now? We have had a few of these bugs in our house:

OMG IT IS SO GROSS. (Picture not to scale, dear god no.)

Do you know what kind of bug that is? It’s horrifying, obviously. But, like, its name? Or how to make sure I never see another one ever again?

* Speaking of bugs, a giant, pudgy brown flying thing just helicoptered past my window. Outside, at least. But dude: What the eff is that?

And now there is a big swarm of bugs circling the tree in the back yard. I AM NOT READY FOR THIS. IT IS MARCH.

* You know what eats bugs? A turtle.

That is totally a turtle. I promise.

I could really use a turtle around here right now.

* It’s possible I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a tendency to get hooked on specific foods. As in, I get so obsessed with them, I eat them every day and I crave them constantly. My current addiction is wedge salads. There is something so intoxicating about a half-head of cool iceberg lettuce luxuriating in a lazy river of creamy parmesan ranch dressing, bejeweled with rings of soft pink shallot and squares of crisp, salty bacon. I have been eating about five heads of lettuce a week. And much bacon. MUCH BACON.

* Did my use of the word “luxuriating” make you think of Toddlers and Tiaras? No? Just me, then?

* The second best thing about the wedge salads (the first best thing being the salads themselves) is that I now have a nice steady supply of bacon fat in my fridge.

Do you think that’s weird? I mentioned it in the company of several people a few weeks ago, and some of them gave me the “she needs to be institutionalized” face.

I don’t think it’s weird. I think it’s WONDERFUL. Bacon fat can enrich so many things! I get all drool-faced when I think about how rich and velvety my onion soup is going to be. Once I get over my wedge salad fixation long enough to make some onion soup, that is.

I have used the bacon fat to make lentil soup, however.   I’ve been recently obsessed with lentil soup, too. Lentil soup and wedge salads. I think that’s all I ate for a couple of weeks.

* I have finally found a reliable makeup remover. I don’t really wear a lot of makeup.  Just a little blush and some mascara; eyeliner and lip gloss if I’m feeling fancy. But I have the HARDEST time getting the mascara off my stupid lashes. For pale stumpy things, they sure get a good grip on the mascara.

The makeup remover in question? Those Neutrogena face wipes that Jennifer Garner is promoting all over the teevee. I didn’t hear about them from JGarn, though. I am pretty sure I heard about them from the Internet – maybe from you? – because I get about 98% of my info from the Internet.

Anyway: these suckers work. At least on stubborn mascara.

* Last week, for the first time ever, I went snow shoeing.

(Those are snow shoe tracks.) (And a tree.)


I don’t know what I expected, but it was a lot like walking.

* I suppose I should clarify that my vacation was two weeks long. We spent the first week in Florida. We spent the second in Montana. Probably I should have mentioned that earlier.

* If you are a) married or b) not married, you will likely already know this. But going on vacation can be really good for a marriage. It was SO FUN to just… hang out with my husband. I mean, our parents were around for a lot of the hanging out, which was great. But we also got to do fun stuff alone together. And eat delicious food together. And brave far too many flights together. And go skiing and snow shoeing and alligatoring together. And just enjoy each other without the specter of Work and The Hospital and Household Chores looming over us. My husband is pretty fun to hang out with, you know.

* Also, we watched the entire first season of Downton Abbey and most of the first season of Game of Thrones together. There is really nothing that brings a couple together like World-War-I-era British society drama and some fantastical intrigue.

* Can we talk about the gators?  My in-laws live in a gated community on a golf course. And the golf course abuts a pond of some sort. And there are LIVE WILD GATORS in the pondthing. GatorS as in Multiple Carnivorous Reptiles.

If you look closely at the left side of the water, you'll see TWO GATORS. They may look lazy, but they will bite you.

This is crazy, Internet. And yet, my in-laws have all these gators that just lounge near the golf course. Within simple slithering distance of golfers’ legs.

See! The top one is ACTIVELY BITING YOU! (Or cooling himself. Whatever. I'm not a scientist.)

The reason I have these photos? Is because we took our daily constitutional on a path that goes right next to the gator pondthing.  And I had my camera because the gators were there EVERY DAY and I knew to expect them.

How is this… okay? How do the people in my in-laws’ development not constantly fall victim to hungry gators? HOW?

* My husband and his parents were very nonchalant about the gators. TOO nonchalant, in my opinion.  Yes, I come from a part of the country where bears and wolves and cougars roam wild. So I get that The Wild is full of Wild Creatures, and that humans can totally co-exist with scary vicious animals who will for the most part leave you alone if you leave them alone.

But it’s not like there’s a field near my parents’ house that just has BEARS MILLING AROUND or anything. It’s not like my dad goes out to water the lawn and there are wolves taking a nap behind the shrubbery and he’s all “lah dee dah, wolves, whatever.” My mom doesn’t hear about a copse of trees that’s hosting a cougar family and purposely walk past it each day in order to get some sunshine and exercise.

No. If there are bears or wolves or cougars anywhere in the vicinity, they STEER CLEAR.

Are gators that different from bears and wolves and cougars? NOT TO MY KNOWLEDGE.

* I told Kristina about these the other day.

They have lemon curd INSIDE them!

They are the beautiful and delicious lemon-filled cupcakes I made for the Super Bowl. Yes, I realize the Super Bowl took place over a month ago.  Errr… nearly two months ago. Nonetheless.

We had about ten people over for the Super Bowl party. Not a single person ate a cupcake.

Which means that I ate them all.

(Not ALL. There are four sitting in a container in the freezer, waiting for me to remember to take one out to defrost it BEFORE I am in the mood for a cupcake.)

(To be fair, we had a LOT of food at our Super Bowl party. And we had a LOT of desserts. As in, my husband made brownies and two flavors of homemade ice cream AND one of our guests brought an ice cream cake. So my beautiful cupcakes didn’t really stand a chance.)

* Have you seen those toilet paper commercials about the “backup roll”? The whole point of the commercial – other than to sell toilet paper, I imagine – is to push this little decorative toilet paper cozy (cosie? cozie?) that holds the backup roll. Or may the commercial is selling the decorative cozy? I don’t really know. I just know that backup rolls are important. Not important enough for me to buy or want a toilet paper cozy, mind you. But important. There is NOTHING WORSE than not having a backup roll. It’s either a problem NOW or it’s a problem LATER when you’ve skipped into the bathroom without remembering that you ran out last time.

That’s why I try to convince my husband that we need more toilet paper every time we go to Target. My goal is to have 50 rolls under every cabinet in every bathroom at all times. A sort of Extreme Couponers stockpile under all my sinks.

Yep. I think I’m ending there. On backup toilet paper.

This may be the most random thing I’ve ever written.

[Do I have to say this? I bought all the Neutrogena wipes/Stalinist-era novels/toilet paper/cupcake materials/Amazon Prime memberships mentioned in this post with my own money because I wanted to. I am not being compensated for talking about them. And all the opinions expressed here are my own. But please: feel free to send me all the makeup removal products or mystery books or cupcake paraphernalia you want. I would totally love that.]

[Also, you should probably know that the best photos in this post were taken by my husband.]

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Good morning, Internet! I am going to make a studious attempt at not talking about food in this post!

* I woke up at 5:55 this morning to the sound of howling wind and shrieking rain. (Rain doesn’t technically shriek, but I felt like it needed a descriptor so as not to feel left out.) I drifted back to sleep only to be re-awakened at 6:20ish by a suspicious chair-tumbling-over-in-the-wind sound. My husband peered out the window and saw nothing. Once I woke up (considerably later, though under perplexing circumstances STAY TUNED), I checked out all of the windows and couldn’t see anything that would have made such a noise. The two chairs on our front porch were upright. So were the 10,000 chairs on the back deck. I didn’t spot any rogue chairs that had blown over from the neighbors’ either. So WHAT MADE THE NOISE?

* Remember a long time ago (or 60-odd words ago) when I told you I woke up for good under perplexing circumstances? I was jostled out of sleep about 10 minutes before my alarm went off (fist of anger!) by the sound of two people talking. It seemed like they were standing right below my window, in the space between my house and the neighbor’s. I listened very closely but I could not make out what they were saying. Never one to pass up an opportunity to eavesdrop on stinky pre-alarm wakers (Word really wants to correct “wakers” to “wankers,” which I appreciate, but no), I crept over to the window and peered out the side of the shade.

Nothing. No one was standing below my window, having a Seriously Early Conversation.

But I could still hear the voices: a strident, whining woman and a calmer man. So I looked out the front window, straining to see down the street on either side.

Nothing.

What was it, Internet? Was my neighbor having a Very Loud Discussion with a lady friend in the room directly opposite my bedroom? Was he listening to an annoying morning talk show at top blast while he showered? Was someone hiding under the eaves of my porch, trying to torment me into waking up before I wanted to? WAS IT GHOSTS?

* Speaking of my neighborhood. The house across the street and one to the right has frequent visitors. Or, if not visitors, frequent Car Overflow. A white pickup or a brown sedan or both are regularly parked along the curb in front of this house. Right in front of the sign that says “No Parking This Side of Street.”

It must be terrible to deal with BOTH Car Overflow AND sign illiteracy.

* As you know, I’ve been pretty terrible about showing you pictures of my house. There are two reasons for this: 1. I haven’t really DONE anything to the house. There’s one room (coincidentally, the smallest room in the house next to the powder room) that’s NEARLY finished… And yet we just can’t seem to hang the picture that will complete the thing. (Also, the longer it sits there, nearly finished, the more I think that we need to do some rearranging of book shelves.) Anyway, it’s hard to get excited about writing a House Post when the rooms still look half- or un-finished.

2. The only room I seem to be able to write about is the master bathroom. Which is perfectly functional and which we will not redecorate in ANY WAY for many years. It’s perfectly fine and while we may replace the toilet sooner rather than later (who wants to see a toilet before and after?!?!), the rest of it is going to Stay The Same until we have enough money to replace the tile and the shower. Which may be never, if I’m being honest.

So WHY is that the room that I want to discuss at great length? Why not the dining room, which we are going to redo in February? Why not the kitchen, which ALREADY has some nice before-and-afters? Why not the basement, which is STILL painted in primary colors? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?

* We – much like most of the country, I’d guess – are having Wackadoo Weather. It snows… then it rains and the snow melts. Then it’s sunny and feels like spring. Then there’s a Thunderstorm Warning. Then it snows again and everything gets a thick, six-inch coat of white.

I’m not complaining. I’d take this wacky changeableness ANY DAY over Constant Grey. But it is perplexing.

* I spent part of this weekend scouring the internet for two books I couldn’t remember. I found them BOTH, so I am going to tell you about it so that I NEVER FORGET THEM AGAIN.

Both are books from my childhood. In both cases, all I remembered about the books were two key details.  (Full disclosure: I have ALREADY forgotten the name of one of them. So I need to pop over to GoodReads to check.)

The first book was a ghost story. I remembered that the main character’s name was Zoe and she had an imaginary friend. That is ALL. (Why did I want to find this book about which I remember next to nothing? Well, I think I liked it, back when I was a kid. Plus, it is aggravating when one’s memory fails.)

For a long time, I tried looking up other ghost stories I read as a kid (man, I loved Betty Ren Wright) and using Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature to look for the Forgotten Book.

This did not work. Although it did fill me with nostalgia for the time when I could spend hours reading ghost stories.

So I Googled “book imaginary friend Zoe” and TADA! Google showed me exactly what I was looking for: Stonewords: A Ghost Story by Pam Conrad.

The other book is one I’ve been trying to remember for YEARS. I distinctly remember wanting to track it down in grad school, when one of my colleagues did a paper on Dare Wright. Dare Wright wrote a book called The Lonely Doll, and it sounded ever so slightly like a book I’d read as a kid.

The book I’d read as a kid was about a wooden doll who bought a human at the human store and mistreated her much in the way a human owner would abuse a doll. I’ve idly searched Amazon off and on for keywords like “doll buys human,” “doll owns girl,” “wooden doll,” “mean doll,” etc. No luck!

Finally, this weekend, I had a niggling little memory that the doll’s name was Gert. Or Gertrude. Typing “Gertrude doll” into Amazon’s search field yielding the book Gertrude’s Child by Richard Hughes. SUCCESS!!

Now I need to re-read these books.

 

* We have some flowering shrubbery outside our front door. I mean, it’s not flowering NOW. But I know it DOES flower, since we first saw this house last summer. One of the plants is DEFINITELY a hydrangea. I know this for sure, because I love hydrangeas.

But… I have no idea what the other plants are. Worse? I have no idea how to FIND OUT what the other plants are.

* We really need to get some curtains. I am quite certain our neighbors would agree.

* Blogger has been eating a LOT of my comments recently. I promise I have been better (not GREAT, but better) about commenting lately. But if your blog is on blogger and has a word verification? More often than not, my comments are not posting. I have typed in up to TEN word verifications in an attempt to get ONE comment to post to NO AVAIL.

I don’t think my comments are going to be life changing, or anything. But I do appreciate comments so I like to leave them when I can and MAN IS IT FRUSTRATING for them not to post.

* A cat ran through our backyard the other day. That makes him OUR cat, right?

Well, that’s all the random I have for you today.

How are you, Internet? Did you have a nice weekend? Any random things you need to discuss with me?

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One of my husband’s favorite pastimes is wandering through bookstore stacks (or library stacks – he isn’t picky) and adding to the enormous running list of books he needs to read. Sometimes he buys a book right then and there; other times he waits a few days to order online. But he buys multiple books a month. (It’s one of the [many] reasons I love him.)

If I’m with him – and I will state right here for the record that while I LOVE to read and I ADORE buying new books, I HATE browsing through bookstores/libraries – he’ll inevitably hand me a book and direct me to read the back cover.

I don’t like reading the back cover. More often than not, the person who read the copy seems to not have read the book at all. (I just finished a book where the cover copy MISSPELLED the name of a character in the book.) (Deep breaths. We will all get through this.) But even if the person who wrote the cover copy DID read the book, even LOVED the book, well, it’s just too small a space to always convey a book’s awesomeness.

Of course, there is always the misleading cover copy, the kind that tricks you into believing a book will be crazy good… when it is NOT GOOD AT ALL. (Cough cough, Voluntary Madness, My Sister’s Keeper, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter cough.)

That was a long-winded way of telling you that I don’t put much stock in cover copy. If a book woos me with a beautiful title (which is how I judge a book, while my husband literally picks up books based on their covers), I will read a page or two. Sometimes I will flip to a random page and read a few paragraphs. If I’m not won over by these methods, I’m not buying.

Gah, that’s scary. As someone who would like to WRITE and PUBLISH a novel someday, it is pretty terrifying that a reader takes so little time to discard a book from her list of possibilities.

Anyway, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht was one of the books my husband pulled off the shelf at some point last year. First point against it: It’s got one of those “The [Something] Wife” titles that are far too popular these days. Second point against it: The cover copy was kind of boring. Third point against it: The cover is a mainly black field, topped by the bottom half of a slinking tiger. As in, nothing to write home about.

I did the old flip-open-and-read-a-passage-at-random thing, but I handed it back to my husband. Not for me.

But after it started appearing on all sorts of “Best of 2011” lists… When it made the list of finalists for the National Book Award… And won the Orange Prize… My husband decided I should read it.

So he bought it for me for Christmas.

And I had to read it. For one thing, my dear beloved husband had purchased it for me as a gift. So I had to at least TRY it. For another, I’d managed to fly all the way to Florida for a WEEK without a SINGLE BOOK in my possession.

Internet.

This is the book I want to write.

There. Is that enough to make you buy it?

Because I can’t give it higher praise.

Now, I’m not saying it’s the best book I’ve read EVER. (In fact, I’d give the same high praise to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. And The History of Love. And The Time Traveler’s Wife. Everything Is Illuminated. Lolita. Song of Solomon. Love in the Time of Cholera.)

But it’s up there.

Mini-NO-SPOILER-plot summary:

This story is about Natalia, who is either a med student or a resident or a fairly-new physician, I didn’t pay attention to the details. She and a friend/fellow doctor are journeying across the border to inoculate some orphans who are living at a monastery.

The book is only slightly about that journey. It’s more about other types of journeying. Primarily the journeys that Natalia and her grandfather make in search of answers.

Natalia has a very close bond with her grandfather, and the book is, in part, about their relationship. Like any love, theirs is not a straight line. It has hooks and crags and peaks and valleys.

The book is also about love, in a global sense. Love between parent and child, grandfather and granddaughter. Love between spouses. Love from afar. Love of ritual. Love of countrymen. Love of humanity.

And, perhaps even more so, this book is about the opposite of love: pain.

The pain of love, unrequited and realized. The pain of disrespect. The pain of abuse. The pain of escape. The pain of life. The pain of fear. The pain of knowledge. The pain of uncertainty. The pain of an ending. The pain of war. The pain of peace. The pain of loss. The pain of discovery.

It’s also about mythology, and the role it plays in our lives and behavior and thought-processes. In fact, the bleak reality of the book – which takes place in an unnamed war-torn area of Eastern Europe – is off-set by legend and superstition, both of which are so important a part of the characters’ lives that they become real in their own way: A man becomes a bear. A tiger becomes a husband. Death becomes a human being.

But these wild, fantastical elements are not absurd in the way of much magical realism, nor do they seem out of place or artificial. They are woven so tightly into the fabric of the book’s world that they are almost indistinguishable from fact.

It’s about all of these things and about that single thing we all have in common: death.

So much in this world is horrible. There’s heartbreak and war and murder and indifference and illness and cruelty. And all the struggling just leads us closer to the day when Death will reach out his hand and guide us into his home.

But there’s beauty, too. In the most unexpected places: the brush of tiger fur against skin; a childhood book tucked inside your pocket; boot-legged music played on a car stereo.

And there’s love. Complicated, inexplicable, tangled-up love.

This is the story I want to write.

Should you read it? You know, I recognize that every person reading this post right now has her own idea of what The Perfect Book is. Maybe you won’t think this book is perfect. Maybe you won’t like it one bit. If you don’t, I promise I won’t love you any less.

But oh, Internet.

The prose is lovely, vivid. This is the kind of story told to children in hushed voices as they’re drifting off to sleep. The kind of tale that comes alive in the brain, as real as if you were watching it happen in person.

And it was satisfying in the way only a great book can be. For instance, the plot is twisty and full of mysteries. But there ARE answers. Some, at least. Or at least semi-answers that are complete enough that you can fill in the rest for yourself.

The themes are universal, which means – I think – you will relate to the main characters and their journeys. But even though this is a love story, a death story, a story of loss like so many, many stories are and have been and will be, it plays out in a truly fresh, interesting way.

Will this help persuade you? I got to the end and I wanted to start right over and read it through again. I read every word in the book, from the author bio to the reader questions to the (overall dull, although at times very interesting) conversation between Obreht and Jennifer Egan of Goon Squad fame. I recommended it to my book club – just so I could talk about it with someone, anyone! And I have been thinking about it non-stop since reading the first chapter on Christmas Day.

Now, the book isn’t perfect. I have unanswered questions. I see loose threads wafting in the breeze made by the cover falling shut. Perhaps Obreht intended them to float there, unfinished. Perhaps she couldn’t find a way to do so without tying too neat a bow on the whole thing. Perhaps she recognized that loose ends are part of life.  In any event, I wasn’t frustrated by the loose ends. I didn’t feel let down, the way I did after reading, say, Life of Pi. I felt glad to have read it. And certain that I would read it again.

It’s a great book, Internet. Beautifully written, beautifully told.

Give it a try, won’t you?

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Anybody else read this book? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Warning: May contain spoilers.

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