Sunday, August 30, 2020

spring reads {march, april, may}

 once again, playing catch-up with what's been on my bookshelf! 

1) Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. since i read this book, Stevenson's story has been turned into an award-winning movie. a gripping account of a young lawyer's career spent pursuing justice for death-row inmates who were either wrongly accused or unjustly sentenced. it's difficult to read because it forces you to confront the inequities of our justice system -- and that's precisely why it's so important. 5/5.

“Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

So You Want to Talk About Race

2) So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. since reading this book in February, i've read other books by people of color who have a slightly different perspective, but i still think it's a worthwhile read especially for anyone who does not identify as a person of color. Oluo hammers home the point that the answer to our racial divide doesn't come from white people refusing to see color, but rather from each of us actually listening to each other's perspectives and acknowledging that a black or Latinx or Asian person often has a different experience of the world than a white person. 

“Disadvantaged white people are not erased by discussions of disadvantages facing people of color, just as brain cancer is not erased by talking about breast cancer. They are two different issues with two different treatments, and they require two different conversations.”


Small Fry

3) Small Fry: A Memoir, by Lisa Brennan-Jobs. a fascinating memoir written by the daughter of Steve Jobs. her father looms large in her life, even during the many years of his absence (and possibly more so because of that). she describes the sad dance between his reclusive, socially awkward personality and her desire to be a focal point of his life. my favourite thing about of the book is her knack for recreating vividly specific scenes from childhood. 5/5. 

Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers

4) The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, by Maxwell King. a thoroughly researched, somewhat slow-paced narrative of the life of Mister Rogers. i especially enjoyed learning about the Rogerses life in Pittsburgh, as well as gaining a more nuanced understanding of the man behind Mister Rogers. this is not to say that Mister Rogers was an act, but rather that Fred worked very hard at keeping his mind, spirit, and body healthy. 5/5. 

“It’s easy to convince people that children need to learn the alphabet and numbers. … How do we help people to realize that what matters even more than the superimposition of adult symbols is how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life? What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise -- his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.”


5) Conviction, by Denise Mina. an explosively plot-driven book that was an absolute delight to read. as the book unfolds, it becomes clear that the main character has hidden her true identity in order to create a textbook-perfect life with her husband and children. throughout the twists and turns, you keep changing your mind about who the good guys and bad guys actually are.  5/5. 

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid's Tale

6) The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. the riveting sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood is the master of creating a fantasy world that is still plausibly built from the framework of Biblical references and North American geography. the sequel's plot is a bit more gimmicky than the original, but i appreciated Atwood's use of multiple narrators to describe different generations' experience of Gilead. 5/5. 

Hannah Coulter

7) Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry. this is one of those books that is frequently lauded as a must-read in literary Catholic circles, so finally i decided to read it for myself. and oh, is it a balm for the soul. the main character recounts her life growing up in rural America. as you might imagine, there's not much excitement, per se; the drama is in the people and in the decisions of every day life in a farming community. 5/5. 

“The living can't quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can't because they don't. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.”

Tremendous Trifles

8) Tremendous Trifles, by G. K. Chesterton. a collection of vignettes, some more fanciful than others, but all featuring Chesterton's flair for the whimsical. 5/5. 

“Our civilization has decided, and very justly decided, that determining the guilt or innocence of men is a thing too important to be trusted to trained men. It wishes for light upon that awful matter, it asks men who know no more law than I know, but who can feel the thing that I felt in that jury box. When it wants a library catalogued, or the solar system discovered, or any trifle of that kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing round. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.”

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

9) Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, by Ronan Farrow. the tale of Farrow's dogged mission to research and expose Harvey Weinstein's pattern of harassment, despite Weinstein's unsurprising attempts to cut off Farrow's access to information. the book includes Farrow's interviews with many women who were harassed by Weinstein, as well as an insider look at the machine of journalism and how (shocker!) politics plays a role in what news becomes "fit to print". 5/5. 

Virgil Wander

10) Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger. an expansive book told from the point of view of a man who survives near-drowning only to be left with word-finding difficulty and some other neurologic deficits. Enger's unhurried prose left me bored sometimes, and some fanciful plot twists left my disbelief not-quite-suspended. but i get the feeling that that's exactly the sort of book Enger set out to write, so i'll forgive him for it. 4/5. 

“He had the heartening bulk of the aging athlete defeated by pastry. He delivered all news as though it were good.”

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage

11) Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, by Dani Shapiro. Shapiro has become one of my favourite authors for her precise, intimate writing style -- similar to Jodi Picoult's style, but Shapiro's stories are true. this book is a beautifully honest yet optimistic reflection on years of marriage. 5/5. 

“But I can no longer say to M. that we’re just beginning. Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. That solid yet light thing---our journey—is no longer new. He identified my mother’s body. We took turns holding our seizing child. We have watched his mother disappear in plain sight. We have raised Jacob together. We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have fathomed. Our shared vocabulary—our own language---will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made again and again.”

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: A Novel

12) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. another book that i'd heard so much about and for some reason never read. well, it was worth the wait. this book manages to be heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Eleanor doesn't see anything wrong with her routine of going in to the office, coming home every night to eat takeout and drink by herself, and doing it all again the next day. she resents the weekly phone calls with her mother but they also provide an anchor to her days. as we find out more about Eleanor's childhood and the real purpose of those phone calls, Eleanor's character becomes more tragically believable and complex. bring your Kleenex! 5/5. 

Turtles All the Way Down

13) Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green. Green has done it again: written a beautifully devastating book about teenage friendship and mental illness, couched in the mystery of a missing billionaire. Aza, the main character, suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, and throughout the whole book you can't help but root for her to battle her demons and also to learn to accept parts of herself that may never completely change. 5/5. 

Edgar and Lucy: A Novel

14) Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato. the story of a boy with albinism, being raised by his single mother (who has a penchant for partying) and his grandmother (who knows all the family secrets except perhaps the most important). the book hooked me right from the beginning with its strong characters, then lost me for a while with multiple strands of plot lines going forwards and backwards, then reeled me in again for the last nail-biting chapters. 4/5. 


15) Escape, by Carolyn Jessop. in the same vein as The Sound of Gravel and Educated, this memoir recounts the story of a woman who married one of the leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. her determination and self-awareness while living in this cult are absolutely inspiring. she had to find the balance between trying to improve her life situation and eventually escaping the cult without provoking retribution on herself or her children. not only did she do that, but she also won complete custody of her children after escaping, and continued to fight via the court system until the leader of the cult was arrested. 5/5. 

Three Little Words: A Memoir

16) Three Little Words, by Ashley Rhodes-Courter. another heartbreaking story of a girl who could have been completely traumatized by the foster case system, but instead worked hard to make the best of each situation in which she was placed. she doesn't diminish the trauma, but rather uses her experiences as a platform to speak about abuse. she finished the first draft of this book when she was only seventeen, which makes her insight even more compelling. 5/5. 

Charlotte's Web

17) Charlotte's Web, by E. B. White. my spring read-aloud to the girls. i'm not sure that a paragraph-long review could ever do justice to this classic. suffice it to say that the more times you read it, the better it gets. 5/5. 

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.”

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Cece says (vol. 6)


Cecilia’s vocabulary is an endless source of entertainment. Here are a few of the latest things that made me smile: 
“Can you help me search for Greta?”
“Mommy, mend this!”
“I can do it easily!”

While reading Make Way For Ducklings: “Ducks don’t eat peanuts! They eat roast toast!” 

“Do you know why we meed fingers? To gwab things!” 

When Nick cooked dinner for me when I was sick a few months ago: “Daddy, you’re the best hero in the ever!” 

While pointing to the empty back of her tricycle: “This is my pet bird. You can’t see him because he has camouflage.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

hello from the other side

um, hi.

we are on the last full day of our 14-day voluntary self-quarantine after returning to the US from Rome. and as we have spent the past two weeks hunkered down without stepping outside, relying on our fantastic friends and family to deliver groceries to us, we have watched the insanity continue to mount around us. it's hard to believe that my post about Lenten observances in Italy was written within this same month, let alone in the same year. like pretty much everybody else i know, our world has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 virus and it's difficult to imagine a time when we didn't know it was coming.

but we didn't. at least, we didn't anticipate how directly it would impact our lives. i remember specifically the day that i first heard the NPR Up First news summary podcast mentioning the outbreak in Wuhan. the podcast was released on January 21, and described "international concern" over this new virus. i listened to it on Friday, January 31 while going out on a solo expedition around Rome while Nick stayed home with the girls on his day off. i had quite an ambitious sightseeing list: first to visit the Catacombs of Priscilla, a burial place used by early Christians in the late second to early fourth century (no photos allowed, but it is incredible -- highly recommend). next i got some pizza al taglio (by the slice) at a little shop and, since the mood of the day was distinctively "treat yoself", i opted to wash it down with a... wait for it... Corona.

i can't remember whether i realized the irony of this at the time.

next, i took a bus over to Villa Torlonia, the estate and grounds built for the Torlonia family in the 19th century. in addition to the main villa, the property includes the whimsical Owl House, which was the main residence of the Prince Giovanni Torlonia until his death in 1938. the family donated the villa to Mussolini in 1925, for which he paid the symbolic rent of 1 lira per year. at one point during his residence, Mussolini hosted Gandhi here, a meeting for which i would have loved to be a fly on the wall. 

the main villa

the ballroom of the main villa

the owl house

owl motifs abound throughout the entire house

the next stop on my list was what had been billed as the closest thing to an American-style thrift store in Rome: Affare Fatto Mercatino Usato, near the Colosseum. prior to this, the only "thrift" stores i had found were more along the lines of vintage consignment. this was a veritable treasure trove.

be still my heart!

i limited myself to these three items that would be easy enough to transport back home:
an adorable decorative Mokapot, an actual travel mug so Nick wouldn't have to carry ceramic
mugs back and forth to his office, and these fat little salt and pepper shakers.
 all for a grand total of €10!

Segway tours will never not be hilarious to me
my next stop was something that's been on my to-do list practically since we arrived in Rome: visit the library! i specifically wanted to check out the children's library in central Rome, near Campo de' Fiori, to see if they had any English books. first of all, look at how perfectly Roman this building is, from the ivy crawling over the balcony to the ape truck parked out front.

lingua straniera - that's what i want! they had a decent selection of books in English,
German, Spanish and French. 

my last stop of the day was to the Galleria Spada, a small collection of art housed in a 16th-century palace, which was bought by Cardinal Spada in 1632. Cardinal Spada then commissioned Borromini to make various improvements to the palace, most famously an optical illusion in the garden in which a gallery lined by columns appears to be more than one hundred feet long with a lifesize sculpture at the far end. in reality, the gallery is only 26 feet long and the sculpture stands two feet high.

the courtyard of the palazzo

Borromini's optical illusion
 leaving the palace, i was greeted by this master of the house who seemed none too pleased with my intrusion.

 then finally, on the way back, i had to stop for gelato. much to my dismay, Frigidarium was closed for the off-season, so i settled for the gelateria across the street. i mean, there's really no such thing as bad gelato.

looking back over these pictures, i am hit with so many feelings at once that it's almost impossible to pick them apart: nostalgia, grief, thankfulness, disbelief, resignation. in a way, i'm glad i didn't know exactly what was coming. remembering that day also means remembering a time when the impact of this virus hadn't hit yet. we knew it was out there and that likely it would spread, but we had no idea that less than a month later, it would be wreaking havoc in northern Italy.

i'm so grateful for the incredible visit we had with Mom and Auntie Kris during the last two weeks in February; just hours after they left Rome, on February 29, the US state department raised the travel advisory for Italy to Level 3 (reconsider travel). i'm so sad for our friends who had already purchased tickets and arranged time off work to visit us this spring.

i'm grateful for the foresight Nick had to already be working on a contingency plan for the girls and i to return to the US, for the seminary faculty who were so understanding of our situation and for the flight we were able to board just shy of 24 hours after learning that all of Italy would be locked down. i'm sad that we had to leave most of our things behind (including my box of nonperishable food and supplies of toiletries, toothpaste, and oh, yes, toilet paper!).

the moon rising over the chapel on March 10, the night before we left.
i took this picture standing on our terrace. 

i'm grateful for the technology that allows us to stay in contact with Greta's teacher and classmates. i'm sad that she and Cecilia are missing the last few months of their Italian immersion education, and especially for Greta missing her beloved ballet class with her incredible instructor.

i'm beyond grateful for the time we had in Rome. it would have been amazing had it lasted for only a month, or a year. i'm still sad that we can't enjoy the last few months there to the fullest, as we had planned.

i'm grateful for the seminarians, deacons, fifth-year priests, sisters, and faculty at the college. i'm sad especially for the deacons set to be ordained later this spring, who are missing these last months of fellowship with their fellow seminarians and whose plans for these celebrations may need to be modified or postponed.

i'm grateful that we have a place to live, an entire garage full of stuff, everything to cover our material needs. i still get anxious thinking about what fresh hell we may all encounter next month as the economic ramifications of this really start to kick in. (here's an excellent article my friend Khai shared addressing the sense of anticipatory grief many of us currently feel.)

i'm grateful for my friends and family who are on the front lines of medicine. i'm sad that i can't actively practice again here myself yet (although hoping that will change soon!). and i'm saddened and angered by the inadequate preparation and response by hospital and government administrators to provide the required PPE and testing materials.

i'm incredibly grateful for creative priests who come up with ways for us to safely join in worship, both through technology and through drive-up confessions and Eucharistic adoration. i'm so sad not to be worshiping in person with the seminarians or at our home parish here, and so sad not to be receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.

i'm grateful that all four of us have been feeling completely fine. i'm sad for my friends both locally and in Italy who have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and for those who have suspected cases but can't get tested.

i'm so grateful that friends and family have generously given us tons (i mean, literally, probably close to one thousand pounds) of books, DVDs, games, books, art supplies, craft projects, and toys to help occupy the girls. i'm sad that we can't take them to the zoo or to the playground or to Phipps or to the library.

bonus: lots of those toys turn out to be great fun in the tub

i'm grateful for our journalists and the technology that makes it possible for us to stay up to date with breaking news reports and all the statistics for affected countries. i'm frustrated by the clickbait headlines and sensationalism that drive mass hysteria and can worsen anxiety and counterproductive behavior.

i'm grateful for FaceTime and other technology enabling video calls with family all around the country, remote play dates, and even a fantastic virtual double date last night with Amelia and Ryan. i'm sad that we're back in the US and yet we still have to rely on screens to connect with the people we love.

the screen on the top right shows James giving us a virtual tour
of his machine shop, which is still open as an essential business!

well, i could go on, but that's about enough for one afternoon. we're taking this one day at a time because, literally who knows what tomorrow will bring? right now, i'm just grateful to have made it through to day 13.

made by one of Cecilia's preschool classmates

Monday, March 16, 2020

february reads

well, now that the world has gone completely crazy over COVID-19, i'd imagine a lot more of us are looking for some good books to read! here's what i read in February.

 I Capture the Castle: Young Adult Edition

1) I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. never have i read a book that so perfectly aligns with my own somewhat whimsical, naive writing style as a teenager. the book grows out of the protagonist's series of notebooks that she uses as her own journal, growing up in the 1930s. imagine the Anne of Green Gables books told in the first person and you'll have a good sense of the book. 5/5.

“When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it - or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don't suppose many people try to do it.” 


2) The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo. i picked this up to read prior to our trip to Paris over Valentine's Day weekend, hoping that Hugo's novel would allow me to immerse myself in the milieu of the city just as much as my all-time favourite Hugo work, Les Miserables. i was not disappointed! the plot is fast-paced, the characters are skillfully drawn, and the setting drives the story forward. also, i'm now fascinated to know the Disney adaptation of the story (which i've never seen), because the original is definitely not child-friendly!  5/5.

The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel

3) The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George. this book tells the tale of Monsieur Perdu, a Parisian bookseller who runs his shop like a pharmacy, often refusing to give his customers the books they walk in requesting but instead choosing a tome from his eclectic collection that he knows will soothe their secret worries. it's far fetched, witty, and delightful. 5/5. 


4) The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir, by Ruth Wariner. similar to the bestselling Educated, this book is the autobiographical account of a girl raised in a polygamist cult, the 39th of 42 children born to her father. the physical neglect and sexual and emotional abuse she suffered is heart-wrenching, and it's precisely because of that that her resilience and determination are so incredible. a tough read that will infuriate you that children suffer in this way -- consider yourself warned. 5/5. 

“Mom couldn’t teach me that because she didn’t know herself. She couldn’t show me how to be happy, only how to barely survive.”

American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent

5) American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent, by Tamer Elnoury. an absolutely fascinating account of a Muslim FBI agent who is recruited to do undercover work investigating terrorists linked with al Qaeda on Canadian and American soil. (he uses his previous undercover name as his pen name to protect his real identity.) i appreciated learning more about all that goes into the FBI undercover process, as well as more about the Muslim faith. 

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

6) Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, by Roxane Gay. ugh. it's atrocious that a book like this needs to exist, but it does. this is an anthology of essays written by women who, at one point at another (like all of us have), told themselves, "it wasn't that bad." some of them address rape; some of them address other forms of sexual harassment, from catcalling to mansplaining to gas-lighting. i appreciated the diversity of viewpoints and experiences highlighted. 

"Because slightly more than half of the population is regularly told that what happens doesn’t or that it isn’t the big deal we’re making it into. Because your mothers, sisters, and daughters are routinely second-guessed, blown off, discredited, denigrated, besmirched, belittled, patronized, mocked, shamed, gaslit, insulted, bullied, harassed, threatened, punished, propositioned, and groped, and challenged on what they say. Because when a woman challenges a man, then the facts are automatically in dispute, as is the speaker, and the speaker’s license to speak. Because as women we are told to view and value ourselves in terms of how men view and value us, which is to say, for our sexuality and agreeability. Because it was drilled in until it turned subconscious and became unbearable need: don’t make it about you; put yourself second or last; disregard your feelings but not another’s; disbelieve your perceptions whenever the opportunity presents itself; run and rerun everything by yourself before verbalizing it—put it in perspective, interrogate it: Do you sound nuts? Does this make you look bad? Are you holding his interest? Are you being considerate? Fair? Sweet? Because stifling trauma is just good manners."