Saturday, December 28, 2013

Books 27, 28, and 29

Book 27: Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwartz
This book was really good. I almost didn't pick it up because the description says that it jumps around in time and place, and I didn't think I could keep up with that so close to the end of the semester. I started it anyway, and it turns out that it wasn't difficult to follow at all. It's advertised as a thriller, but I wouldn't go quite that far. It's suspenseful for sure, and definitely a page turner. I recommend it when you want a book you can kind of get lost in and finish quickly.

Book 28: Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
I loved this book. It's touching and heart wrenching and funny and sweet. The protagonist and narrator is a fourteen year old boy named Will Tweedy. The book jacket describes him as a cross between Huck Finn and Holden Caulfied, and I find this to be sweetly accurate. The story takes place in Cold Sassy, Georgia, where Will spends a great deal of time with his grandfather. In the beginning of the story, Will's grandmother dies, but not before his grandfather lovingly cares for her in an attempt to nurse her back to health. This section of the book is just so beautiful. A character emerges after the grandmother's death who I didn't like. I have a hard time enjoying books centered around characters I don't like, but this time it did not detract from the overall story. Cold Sassy Tree is a great Southern tale.

Book 29: Room by Emma Donoghue
Wow. Room is weird and strange and engrossing. It's narrated by five year old Jack who was born in a 12x12 room and has never left. He believes that Room, his mother, and her captor are all that exists in the world. And just when Room starts to make you feel claustrophobic, something happens to expand Jack's world. This is much more a thriller than Drowning Ruth. It's an incredible page turner unlike anything I've read before.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

One more reason God gave us Keaton (and Tucker as his sidekick)

It's Advent.

I love the Christmas season. We got married during the holidays partly because we love the peace and joy that comes with December and the celebration of Christ's birth.

But this year I haven't quite felt ready. I had a cold a couple of weeks ago that I killed with crazy home remedies and sheer will, but the darn thing showed up again as soon as I was out of school for Thanksgiving break. When I look at my calendar for next week and all of the times I'm booked back to back or even double booked, I can feel my blood pressure go up. I guess my focus over the Thanksgiving holiday has been getting well and getting ahead for work so I can keep all the balls in the air and not let myself get overwhelmed.

Then we had a Sunday school lesson this morning about how overly commercialized Christmas has become, and how we've allowed it to become stressful and all about stuff. Our challenge as we left class was to focus on the miracle of Christmas and to allow ourselves to be a vessel through which God can do miracles even today. To be willing to sacrifice our selfishness for that. But, honestly, I didn't leave there all fired up about Christmas. I left with a list in my head.

We came home and cleaned, the boys did homework, and we started getting out the Christmas decorations. We immediately remembered how full of joy Keaton Hickman is (when he's not mad, that is) because he was dancing and singing Christmas songs and offering to help and talking about how we needed to do things a certain way because "that's how we always do it." We were completing a task, and then Keaton stepped in and we were making memories as a family.

As each boy put out his nativity scene, Keaton wondered aloud why we didn't have advent candles at home like we do at church. "We should have those here," he said, "Then we could light them and say the prayer and everything together as a family." (I'm sure there was a little "and we could play with fire by lighting candles over and over again" in there, too.)

Tucker jumped on his idea immediately, and they began scouring the house for candles. "We need four small ones and one tall one," Tucker said. But they could only come up with a hodgepodge of four random candles made up of various shapes and sizes and colors. Finally, Trey told them we could probably pick up some candles the next time we go to the store.

It was getting late, and I needed to do our grocery shopping for the week. I decided to go to Michaels first because I needed a couple of more wreaths for the bare spot above my windows. While I was there, I picked up four votives, four votive holders, and a pretty sparkly silver candle for the boys' advent aspirations.

When I got home, they asked for the candles first thing. They placed the votives in the holders, Trey found a platter and a wreath, and we set up our very own advent candle arrangement in the middle of the dining table. Tucker pulled up the reading that goes with the first candle on two ipads so that he and Keaton could each do a part. Keaton made up some rules about how each of us would get a turn being in charge of the week's candle, but when it's your turn you can choose an assistant to help you if you want. Then he announced he would go first (it was his idea, after all), and named Tucker his assistant.

Then this happened.

Keaton read to us about how the first candle of advent symbolizes hope.

"All the promises of God are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is our hope, today and forever!"

Then he said (I'm not making this up), "Let us pray."

And Tucker read an advent prayer about the hope we find in Christ. 

Trey and I just kind of sat there, stunned, until finally I dried my eyes enough to hug both boys and tell them how proud they make me. The whole thing was beautiful. I will never in my life forget it. 

People, it was our very own little miracle of Christmas, brought to us by the not-so-little-anymore Hickmans. 

Our tree isn't finished and my calendar still looks impossible, but I think I'm ready for the holidays now.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book 26 (for real): The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I cheated earlier and logged a book in twice (it wasn't even a good one), so this is actually my 26th book this year.

I am lucky to work in a high school with lots of people who love great books. I've picked my last couple of books by shopping on the bookshelf in my friend's office. That's where I found The God of Small Things. I'd heard great things about it, so I decided to give it a go.

Honestly, I almost put it down when I was about halfway through. I just didn't get into it. After some encouragement from a couple of friends, I decided to finish it, and I'm glad I did. I found myself needing closure for the characters.

This novel is beautifully written. The figurative language rivals just about anything I've ever read. People need to read it and write English papers over it. While it wasn't my favorite, I have a great appreciation for it. It definitely belongs in the literature section of Half Price Books.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Turns out I'm a murderer.

Caution! This post is rated PG-13 for violence against rodents and imaginary pets.

What you're about to read about happened several weeks ago. I was reminded of it tonight because of imaginary pets. Sometimes Keaton has the opportunity to play games on my phone, and sometimes in the games he creates imaginary pets called hatchies and names them very common names. The hatchies need to be electronically fed and played with and loved. Unfortunately, Keaton only plays on my phone when we're at baseball or some other such event, so his interest in these awesome e-pets is short lived. The hatchies are persistent little creatures, though, because they send notifications. Notifications that I get for about a week after Keaton's had my phone.

Madison misses you!
Madison is hungry!
Madison needs some water!
Madison is very sick!
Madison needs to see a doctor!
Madison is dying!

So throughout my week I get the pleasure of feeling responsible for the death of imaginary pets named Madison and Sarah and Julie. And I know it's my punishment for the real murder that happened in my back yard a few weeks ago.

More than once I've had the crap scared out of me when I open the grill to see a mouse scurrying across the grates. Over this past summer, I was always careful to bang on the outside of grill before I opened it in hopes that any mice would get on out of there without making me scream like a nine year old girl.

Mice on a cooking surface seems gross. I realize this, and that's why I turn the heat up very high and let it burn for a good long time before I put food anywhere near the grill. I'm certain this is a research based sanitation practice that would be acceptable in most university scientific labs. None of us have contracted mouse diseases, so don't judge me.

On The Day It Happened, I banged on the grill and opened and closed the lid a few times as is my standard practice. I emptied the trap at the bottom to make sure there wasn't any grass or twigs from the last time Trey mowed. Then I lit the grill and cranked it all the way up as high as it would go, closed the lid, and went in the house to season my steaks.

Keaton usually helps when I'm cooking, so the two of us were probably singing some Turnpike Troubadours and tossing up a salad while we waited for the grill to heat up. Suddenly I noticed smoke pouring out of the side vents in the grill. Lots of smoke. Lots and lots.

So Keaton and I went out to investigate. As soon as we got outside we noticed that the smoke had a distinctive smell, like something I'd never experienced before. I told Keaton to stay on the porch because I knew something was off. I mentally scolded myself for not having a fire extinguisher near the grill. I held my breath, stood as far back and I could, and opened the grill.

That's when I heard it.

The teeniest little shrieks of the teeniest little mouse babies that I was cremating in my back yard grill.

I was sick. Panicked. I slammed down the lid and started to run away, but as I came up the back steps I stopped cold. If they're shrieking, they're still alive.

Maybe I can save them.

So I ran back to the grill. A million thoughts ran through my mind. If I turn the heat off and douse the grill with water, will they drown? Maybe not. But I won't be able to move the grates to get to them because they're too hot. I headed back inside to get some towels to lift the grates.

But wait.

There would be no way to help them if they survived. No rodent burn unit. No mouse 911. Devastated, I walked back to the grill and told the little mice I was sorry, deciding the most humane thing to do would be to leave it on. Their tiny mouse pain would be over soon. I thought of Mr. Jangles from The Green Mile and wished them all an eternity in the mouse circus.

Keaton and I hurried back into the house, and I closed the blinds because I couldn't bear to see the smoke. Then I wished we had more snakes (the non-poisonous kind).

And so, I shall add to my resume electronic pet and mice murderer.

And halfway decent cooker of steaks. On the stove. Indoors.

And every time a hatchie named Julie dies on my phone, I'll remember.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Books 24, 25, and 26...

Book 24 - The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I started this book while waiting for a plane in Mexico, and I finished it in late September. It was entertaining, but I had to set it aside to read some other books that were assigned to me in one way or another. The Sisters brothers are brothers in the Old West who work as hired killers. It's funny in places, but it's mostly the sad story of loneliness and life choices that are ultimately unchangeable.

Book 25 - How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiousity, and the Hidden Power of Character

This was mostly assigned to me, but I loved it.  It's all about brain functionality and how we can groom children to have tenacity and character. Ultimately it's not intelligence that makes successful adults, but the ability to persevere and problem solve when faced with difficulty. It encouraged me as a mom and as an educator. Some day when I get my doctoral degree I think I'll study brains, as I'm fascinated at the possibility that lies there for even the toughest kids.

Book 26 - Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman

I found this book by searching Amazon for Kent Haruf books and reading descriptions in the "you might also like" list it generated. The book wasn't necessarily what I expected, but I liked it anyway. I expected a quiet book, and it was more supernatural/violent/Stephen King-y. Thanks to a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon, I read about 75% of the book in one day. I didn't want to put it down.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Like a Ninja

At the Bryan vs. Consol game this year, some kids threw tortillas. This has some history because kids threw tortillas two years ago, so I guess we're always on the lookout for Mexican food at this particular game.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I love a good natured high school prank every once in a while. I look at it as kids making memories that they'll talk about at their 20 year reunion, and as long as no one is hurt and nothing is damaged, it's just kids being kids. But the tortillas made me mad. Really mad. For two reasons:

1) Tortilla tossing mimics a similar incident when students of Texas Tech threw tortillas. As a good Ag, I was quite unhappy that our kids were trying to be like Tech. The tortilla throwing was classless when they did it, and it wasn't better when it was us.

2) My first thought as I saw a tortilla fly through the air was that someone is going to have to clean those up. Further, it seemed like it could storm at any minute, so someone could potentially be cleaning up wet tortillas. This prank was no longer harmless.

I should note here that out of the almost 2000 kids who go to my school, probably ten were actually involved. Also, they didn't do this in a mean spirited way. They really thought it was funny. I just didn't.

As soon as the flying tortillas started, we administrators took our stance on the sideline facing the stands, trying to see from whence they came. I stood with my hands clasped behind my back, searching the crowd and giving the meanest face I could conjure. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a tortilla came at me. Well, not really at me, but next to me.

And I caught it. Like a ninja.

And the crowd of tortilla tossers cheered.

And I did my best to maintain my cool composure.

But I couldn't.

So I laughed.

See, I didn't mean to catch it. I live in a house where football is regularly played in the living room despite my protests, and wiffle balls don't really count as balls when you're bunting from the fireplace. It was instinct. Cat-like reflexes born of being surrounded by boys.

I tried so hard to get back to my mean face, but I had to turn my back to the stands because I could not believe I had done it. I had accidentally participated in this little game, and all I could do was laugh. And laugh. And laugh.

Eventually they ran out of tortillas, and next year we'll be extra vigilant in looking for them as they enter the stadium.

But I'll always be the lady who caught the tortilla.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book #23: Greater by Steven Furtick

Our Sunday school class finished a book study on Greater by Steven Furtick a few weeks ago. I really, really like this book.

It follows the Biblical story of Elisha, the prophet who was called to service by the more well known prophet Elijah. Elisha was plowing in a field when Elijah came to get him, and not only did he follow God's command but he burned his plow as a symbol that he would never return to the monotony of his previous life again. He committed to standing back and allowing God to do greater things through him.

The plow burning part made me a little  nervous at first, mostly because sometimes I'm afraid that Trey's going to come home and say something like "Hey! Let's move to Zimbabwe and minister to the people there," and I'm going to have to say, "Hold up there, mister. I've got me a big ol' mission field right here, as do you, plus the boys have football and gymnastics this week and my calendar is crazy." But that's not what this book is about. It's about knowing that whatever you are, whatever you do each day in your life, God wants to do extraordinary things through you. It's about not being okay with good enough because God is so much more than that.

The story from 2 Kings 3 is a powerful one, and I don't think I've ever heard it before this book. My lame summary goes this this: Elisha tells these Israelite kings that even though there has been a drought and their whole armies are about to die from thirst, God is going to make it rain. Like, tonight. He tells them to start digging ditches to catch all this water. Instead of thinking the prophet might be a little nuts, the people grab some shovels. Sure enough, God brings the rain and the people are saved.

The lesson here is one I love. Don't just sit around waiting for God to do great things through you - GRAB A SHOVEL AND GET BUSY! God has already promised to bless his people, but we have to do our part. We have to be willing to get our hands dirty. Furtick believes God tells us, "If you dig the ditches, I'll send the rain." Elisha commands the people to make the valley full of ditches. Plural. God is ready to send lots of rain if we only will do the work to get ready.

Furtick also writes about using the gifts you have. "It means giving up on what others can do that you wish you could do and what you would do if you had certain gifts that you, candidly, do not have and may never develop." God's greater is not about being the best at everything - or even anything - but instead it's about opening yourself up to let God use the gifts he gave you. As a super-competitive person, that really helps me take the pressure off myself. Furtick says, "Stop waiting for what you want and start working with what you have."

I want to write about this quote, and I don't have a clever way to introduce it. "Everything I have is a gift from Him to begin with. I didn't earn it, so why would I get in God's face, claiming to know what He should do with the blessings that don't belong to me in the first place?"

At the end of last year school year, I got a promotion I didn't ask for. Instead of just being appreciative about that, I wondered why I didn't get a different promotion or why I had to change jobs at all. I worried about the impact my new job would have on my family, and I truly couldn't get past the "why" of this new job. I feel called to work in schools with teachers and students. I believe God gave me the right combination of gifts to do that reasonably well, and I feel a heavy burden for kids in need emotionally, educationally, and physically, but I couldn't stop questioning why on earth I got the job I did. Don't misunderstand me. It's not that I didn't want it. It just wasn't anything I saw in my plan for myself. But as the school year started we were studying this book. I realized that it isn't up to me where my greater takes place. It's up to me to open myself up to doing God's greater wherever I am, even if it's not in my own long term plan. So I let go of my own plan, and I pray every morning that sometime during the day I will be a light...make someone's day someone who wouldn't get helped if I wasn't there. I can't tell you the fulfillment that brings.

But there's more.

"There comes a time in the life of every follower of Jesus when God asks us to do something that will deliver a deathblow to our pride...I'm talking about something different from the decisive step away from our old lives. This is about the moments when God reveals that even the good is worthless apart from Him. The acts that cause us to see that without Him we can do nothing. And none of this is intended to embarrass or shame us, but rather to make us deeply and desperately dependent on God as our one and only source."

I like to think I'm good at my job. I'm a pretty good mom. I'm a good wife. But my good is nothing. Nothing. Nothing without God's grace and peace and wisdom. With the responsibilities of my new job, it has never been more evident that unless I am utterly dependent on God for every second of every day I can't do a thing, personally or professionally.  When I start thinking I've got things covered all on my own, that's when they start crashing. Knowing I'm crazy if I go it alone takes some of the pressure off, too.

Later, Furtick nears the end of Elisha's story in the Bible and tells of the time that the bad king of Aram surrounded Dothan, where Elisha is living (2 Kings 6). One of Elisha's attendants notices the next morning that they are surrounded and sort of freaks out. Elisha tells him not to be afraid. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." Then he prays that God will open the man's eyes so he can see. In that moment, the attendant sees "the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha."

Cue up Chris Tomlin's new song, "Whom Shall I Fear." I know who goes before me. I know who goes behind. The God of angel armies is always by my side. The One who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine. The God of angel armies is always by my side. How can we ever be discouraged?  Furtick writes, "The key to victory is right in front of you -- if you open your eyes to see it. The world is against you, yes. But the One who has overcome the world is with you and for you." We are never alone. Heaven's army surrounds us. That is so exciting! Come on! Get excited!  The power of God is with us!

Sidenote: My favorite line from the book is "There's a fine line between confidence and Kanye." I'll not elaborate more because this is already too long. Sufficed to say, this is an awesome quote that I'll find a way to use at random times in my life.

Furtick ends the novel with prayers for his readers. These are the ones that spoke to me the most because I highlighted them:

"I pray that you won't settle for raising good boys and girls who don't get on your nerves or interfere with your dreams but who are world changers that chase after God's dream for them."

"I pray that every voice that has labeled you as anything other than a beloved son or daughter will be silenced and that you will believe only what your Father God has said about you."

So, if you've made it this far in this marathon post (and even if you didn't), I pray these things for you, too. I hope that you're ready for God to show you greater right where you are each and every day. Start small but dream big because we serve a big God.

Book #22: The Energy Bus by John Gordon

I don't read self-helpy kind of books. For the most part, I end up getting frustrated with the author and his I-am-so-smart-that-I-can-fix-everyone-in-the-world attitude. Also, this frustration comes before I ever actually start a self-helpy book.

However, at work we were given a copy of The Energy Bus and asked to read it, so I did. I was pleasantly surprised by the way it's written. It's more of a self-help book in story clothing. A man is struggling with his personal and professional life and is mad at the world. His car breaks down, and he is forced to ride the bus to work. But this is no ordinary bus. It's --wait for it-- The Energy Bus driven by Joy herself. Over the course of the next few weeks, Joy and her passengers impart wisdom upon Bad Mood Guy (I don't remember his name), and as he applies their principles his entire life turns around.

I appreciate the idea that if you put out positivity, then you're a better person to be around. I also especially appreciated the part about energy vampires. Those people suck, and we should protect ourselves from them or try to influence them to be more positive.

Sidenote: "Positivity" is not a word that my blogger recognizes. I may have just made it up. Someone call Webster. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Book #21: Wonder by RJ Palacio

I just finished what might be the best book I've read all year. I want everyone in the whole world to read it. Wonder by RJ Palacio.

Because of a genetic defect, August Pullman was born with an abnormal face. "My name is August," he says, "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse."

He endured countless surgeries throughout his life. Because of his health concerns and because they were afraid of how others would react, August's parents home schooled him through the fourth grade. As fifth grade approached, they decided to send August to school.

The novel rotates through several narrators, including August's sister, Via (who loves her brother dearly but describes her family with August as the sun and her mom, dad, and herself just planets that rotate around him, protecting him), Summer (who's just a nice kid), Jack (who becomes August's friend), Justin (Via's boyfriend), and Miranda (Via's troubled teenage ex-friend). Each of the narrators explains their own private "abnormality" which the author expertly weaves into August's story.

I want Tucker to read this book (I offered him $20 if he finishes it before school starts). I want teachers and students and parents to read this book. It simply teaches life lessons that I want everyone I know to learn.

I don't read a lot of adolescent lit, but Wonder is fantastic.

I hope to always be kinder than is necessary.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Book #20: The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy

This book is also one "assigned" by new boss. We're going to do a book study with our leadership team this year, and she asked that we all read chapter one by our first September meeting. I'm not good at being in the middle of books, so I went on and finished it.

The book is a story about a man whose life is in shambles. His car breaks down, so he has to take the bus. Then he meets Joy, the driver of the bus, and over the course of the book she and her passengers give him ten rules for being an energetic leader. He then applies the rules, and -- wouldn't you know it -- his life gets better. 

I'm not a fan of self-help/leadership type books, but this one wasn't bad as far as they go. (I prefer to get my professional reading through my personal learning network on Twitter.) The life rules are good. The book was a quick read. That is all.

Book #19: From Good Schools to Great Schools: What Their Principals Do Well

My new principal asked us to read this book, so I did. It has many good ideas about how to lead a school, and I appreciated the comparisons and contrasts to how one would run a business. It was very research-y. That is all.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Book(ish) #18: Some of the Bible

Last summer I had  grand epiphany about the things I get really excited about and how most of them aren't really related to Jesus (unless I try really hard to make an argument for these exciting things being related to faith, because if I try really hard I'm sure I can do it!).  So I signed up to have a daily Bible reading delivered to my email every day from Bible in a Year. As of July 8, 2013, I have read all of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. I'm counting it as one of my books for the year.

I found that I did not read my email every single day, but sometimes I would catch up and read several days at a time. There were many passages that were comfortable in their familiarity, but others when I thought "How have I never heard this before?" It wasn't a study of the Bible, but a cursory reading. Sometimes I felt like I was doing it just to say that I had done it, and sometimes I found passages to be moving and appropriate to whatever was happening on that day in my life. I suppose the Bible can do that!

I loved the convenience of having the emailed delivered to me every day because it sort of added it to my "to do" list and I would not let myself off the hook until I had read each passage. However, I did miss the opportunity to highlight and make notes that I would have had if I had used a paper or electronic copy of the text.

I need to make my way through the Old Testament (with the exception of Psalms and Proverbs), but the site I used previously doesn't have an option for that. If you have any suggestions, please pass them along!

Book #17: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Several people I know recommended this book to me, and I am grateful for the suggestion because it was the perfect book for vacation.

Little Bee is the story of a Nigerian refugee (named Little Bee) in England. In Nigeria she met Andrew and Sarah, a British couple, only once and only for a few minutes, but their lives are forever linked after that day.  The back cover of the book and the description on Amazon all say pretty much the same thing - this is a good book but we really can't tell you what it's about. I find that to be accurate, so I won't attempt to describe it without describing it.

I liked the book. I liked the first 175-200 pages better than the last 75-100. I felt like the author had this amazing story, but then he didn't know what to do once the story was told. The ending was anticlimactic and, well, lame. Also, a character surfaces midway through the novel that I strongly dislike, and that character actually makes me dislike a character I previously really liked. (How's that for confusing?) The novel would have been better as a short story so that the author didn't feel a need to write about the aftereffects of the incident in Nigeria. Just tell the riveting, harrowing, moving part of the story and leave the rest to the imagination.

Would I recommend it to someone else?  Absolutely!  I enjoyed reading it, and at only 260 pages I think other readers would really like it, too.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book #16: The Son by Philipp Meyer

I really like westerns. Cowboys and Indians and an unreasonable love of the land make for a great book, in my opinion. The Son fit right into that mold, and it did not disappoint.

The novel details the lives of three generations of the McCullough family. Eli, also known as the Colonel, was born in 1836 and was part of that raw, restless generation that settled Texas, for all practical purposes stealing it from the Indians and the Mexicans in the process. His son Peter is the second character detailed in the novel, but Peter seems to be made of weaker stuff than his father, and the Colonel's obsession with land and wealth and success seem to have skipped Peter and been delivered in double dose to his son, Charles. The final main character is Jeanne, Charles's daughter, a woman who grew up under the wing of her great-grandfather and struggled her entire life to find the balance between loving people and loving Texas with its land, oil, and cattle.

I enjoyed reading of Jeanne's struggle with success. It's clear that for a woman in her day the definitions of success for a man and for a woman were drastically different. She is a cattle woman and an oil baron, but still she feels that she isn't good enough. Her narrative begins with her as an old woman in obvious distress, and we don't discover the cause of that distress until the very end of the novel. Honestly, it is much bigger than the predicament she is in at that moment.

Peter is awkward and uncomfortable, both courageous and cowardly. His storyline is the primary source of angst in the novel. He is burdened with being the child of a wildly popular, bigger-than-life father.

The Colonel's stories were my favorite, as he lived the classic cowboy and Indian life. It isn't romanticized here, but described as something painful, beautiful, unavoidable, yet inherently wrong. I don't want to give away too much, but even as a child Eli had a lust for the frontier.

The chapters alternate with the stories of each character, much like Meyer's novel American Rust. While it's long (561 pages), I was never bored. I am impressed that a novel of this length never dragged on.

(Sidebar: The Colonel often references "Old Scratch" which reminded me of The Devil and Tom Walker.)

The Son is a novel about 150 years of Texas -- the death and the life that brought the state from a wild untamed land to the Texas we know today. The characters are well-developed and real. It's was pretty darn amazing, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes that sort of thing.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


First, the background...
Our sermon series in church lately is the little books of the Bible nobody ever talks about. A few weeks ago the book was Obadiah. During the sermon, I opened to Obadiah and whispered to Tucker "It's really short. You could read it all right now." And he did.

Now the story...
Tucker came in from playing outside very upset and said, "Keaton just took off on MY bike and yelled 'See ya, loser!'" It was clear he was very distraught over this terrible slight. He melted onto the couch and Trey and I continued our conversation until Keaton returned from his renegade bike ride.

A few minutes later, Keaton came in and Trey began questioning him about the slander. Of course he started in with "I didn't do anything!  I don't know what you're talking about! He was pinging me with wiffle balls!"

(So, Keaton doesn't know what Trey is asking about, yet he already has a reason as to why the thing he didn't do was justifiable bike-a-cide. Nice.)

Trey sent them both to their rooms. When he went back a few minutes later to give them one final lecture and set them free, he found Tucker reading his Bible. Trey is impressed. Obviously, Tucker has seen the error of his ways.

Once free, Tucker marches into Keaton's room, brandishing said Bible. "See!  It says it right here in Obadiah!  'You should not gloat over your brother in the day of his misfortune!'"

Then they proceeded to argue about who was gloating over whom in whose misfortune.

See? They are listening in church.

(It's Obadiah 1:12 in case you know some brothers who could use it against each other.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book #15: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Love, love, love this book!

It was originally published in monthly installments in a magazine (I think), so each chapter is actually one monthly installment of the novel. Each begins with a recipe for a traditionally prepared Mexican dish - quail in rose petal sauce, champandongo, Three Kings' Day Bread, etc. The food serves as a jumping off point for the wildly entertaining, hilarious story.

It's farcical and whimsical. A tall tale. A romance. The author often solves plot problems by making something unrealistic and fantastic happen, and I loved every minute of it. Emotions magically turn into things, and people are impacted physically by them. My personal favorite was the sister with the intense gas problems. If I say more I'll give it away. (I'm not a ten year old boy, but I have one!)

At the center of the love affairs and mean mother and repressed daughters, there is always the food.

Now that I'm finished with the book, I think I'm hungry.

Book #14: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a novella that recounts the details of the hours leading up to the death of Santiago Nasar.

Bayardo San Roman came to the town as a handsome stranger and decided to marry Angela Vicario, but on their wedding night he discovered she was not pure and so he returned her back to her mother's home. Angela claims that Santiago is the man who caused her dishonor, and so, disgraced, her twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo, seek out Santiago to kill him.

But they didn't really want to kill him. Killing someone is pretty bad, and they were generally good guys. The story describes all of the people who had ample opportunity to step in and stop the murder, yet because they were busy or distracted or didn't believe the brothers really would kill someone, they didn't.

Main thoughts:
1) The book can be a little mature at times, with topics like sex being discussed like talking about going to lunch. It's not that bad, but I thought I should warn you. Most Latin American literature I've read is very uninhibited compared to traditional American lit. I like it, but if you've never read Latin American literature you should know it could be a little shocking at first.

2) I wish you hear the accent I have (in my head) when I read this book. I say the characters' names (in my head) with such amazing Spanish flair. My college Spanish professors would be amazed. Even the author's name is fun  - Gabriel Jose de la Concordia Garcia Marquez. Makes Stormy Hickman seem dull. Maybe I'll work this summer on developing my Latina name.

3) At first the large cast of characters was a little difficult to follow, but once I realized the premise of the book it didn't bother me as much. If you've never read Marquez, this is a good "starter book" because it reflects the writing style of one of his most famous novels, Love in the Time of Cholera, but it is shorter and can be read in just a few hours.

4) English teachers!  This would be a great book for a timed writing for lit analysis. The concept of moral obligations is played out in just over 100 pages (ala Of Mice and Men). There's even a religious aspect as during the course of the book the town is waiting for the Bishop to arrive on a special visit to bless them. Make kids read this book and write papers. :)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book #13: American Rust by Philipp Meyer

Oh my goodness.

Seriously. Oh my goodness.

Let me just say that while reading the first 15 pages or so I was bored. In fact, I bought or was gifted this book two years ago, started it then, and then put it down because I didn't get into it quickly enough.

Then, before page 20, it happened.

And the rest was awesome.

American Rust takes place in Pennsylvania after recession closed many steel mills in the state. Buell, Pennsylvania, is a recently run-down town inhabited by the unemployed and underemployed. People who in recent memory worked hard and provided for their families find themselves scraping by or not getting by at all.

The story centers around Isaac English, a genius-boy whose intelligence is unappreciated in his small, blue collar town, and Billy Poe, a high school football star who passes up opportunities to play college ball in favor of staying in Buell. The two are unlikely friends, but their friendship may be the one thing in each boy's life that truly shows his character. Secondary characters include Isaac's disabled father and older sister, along with Billy's mother and her on-again-of-again love interest.

Each chapter tells the story from a different character's viewpoint, and it is done very well. Isaac's chapters were a little confusing for me at first because his intelligence is revealed through a sort of stream of consciousness ramble, but once I got used to it I enjoyed his chapters as well as the others.

I have borrowed another of Meyer's books, The Son (which I've heard is fantastic), but I'm planning to pick up a few shorter novels before I read it so that I can dwell on American Rust a little longer. It's the kind of book that will stay with you for a while. You should read it.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Cuts Like a Knife

We were Father's Day shopping at Academy, and Keaton found the pocket knives. He had asked for a pocket knife for his birthday, but I forgot. Don't feel bad for him. We celebrated like 47 times over the course of a week and a half and he got lots of gifts. He'll recover from no pocket knife.

However, at Academy he found them, and he's got money. This is because he only likes to spend our money and saves all of his. He's sort of rich for an eight year old. So, when he asked to spend his own money on a pocket knife I gave him the only appropriate answer -- "I'll talk to Dad."

Academy was a zoo, so I wasn't even sure where Trey was, and in the ten minutes it took me to find him Keaton asked me about one hundred thousand more times if he could get a pocket knife. When I finally found Trey, I just told him, "I'm about to let your son spend his own money on a pocket knife." Whatever. He's eight. Let him make his own decisions about weapons.

I think Trey responded with a shrug, Keaton got the knife, and we escaped the seventh level of hell Academy.

This knife thing sounds very easy (for Keaton, anyway), but in the midst of it all Tucker got really, really upset. You see, about a month ago, Tucker dropped his ipad face first onto concrete and shattered the screen. Shattered. Sometimes Tucker is careless with things, but in this case it was truly, seriously an accident. He was crushed. It also happened right during the time that he was leaving elementary school, one of his best friends was moving away, and I was changing jobs. It was a stressful time for a ten year old boy, and then his ipad crashed and burned. I wanted to cry for him.

There is a place in town that could fix it in two hours (Sour Apple Repair -- they were awesome and will solve your ipad/iphone screen problems). It was expensive, though. More than Tucker had saved up.

So Trey and and I talked. I didn't want to rescue him. It was a life lesson in the making. But I wanted his ipad fixed. So we made a deal.

We told him we'd pay half, but he had to give us every cent he had until it was paid off. He was happy to oblige - he wanted that thing fixed more than I did. I started by taking his $47, and then his allowance every week. He also started picking up little jobs around the house for extra money -- washing windows and planting flowers. Honestly, I don't think I've ever seen Tucker work so hard doing chores. It was pretty impressive and not terribly painful for him.

Until Keaton found the pocket knife.

And Tucker still owed us eleven bucks.

It almost got ugly in Academy, but Tucker asked if I would take him to the car, and I did. It got ugly there, but it was just us, so no big deal. It was a life lesson -- this is why it's no fun to owe money. Because you'd like to buy something, but you can't because you still have a loan to pay off. I encouraged him to learn now that it sucks.

Back to the knife. Keaton owned it about two hours before there was blood.

Trey and I were both in the kitchen cooking for Father's Day brunch tomorrow - him frying bacon and me making cinnamon roll cupcakes -- when Tucker came running into the room.

"BLOOD!  Keaton is bleeding!!  He's trying to come in here but he's dripping blood everywhere!  It's all over the floor!  BLOOD!"

Keaton came walking hurriedly around the corner, holding his finger and looking decidedly scared/in pain. "I wasn't doing anything!  It just cut me. I wasn't doing anything!"

I knew immediately that he was pretty sure he was in big bad nasty trouble.

"Keaton," I said, "you are not in trouble when you're bleeding. You might be in trouble later, but while you're bleeding you are not in trouble. Let me see."

Only I couldn't see because of all the blood. It was pouring out of his finger. Pouring, I tell you!  I grabbed a paper towel and squeezed. Check the wound. Still too much blood. Squeeze some more. Repeat. Blood. Blood. Blood.

Finally, I decided that the drips were drying on my floor, so I showed Keaton how to hold pressure and raise his hand above his heart and grabbed my cleaner and a paper towel.

I should mention here that Trey never, ever stopped frying bacon. Never. When I said under my breath (so as not to alarm the child bleeding out in my kitchen), "There sure is a lot of blood. You might want to look at this," he actually put more bacon in the skillet.

Keaton may have a future as a medical professional because once I cleaned up the floor and checked the wound, I could actually see it. There was a good bit of flesh showing, but it was a clean cut and on the joint, so I decided that some stitches tonight were probably not essential. I asked Trey to concur, so he said, "Keaton, come over here," and he glanced at it while flipping bacon. We decided if it was still bleeding tomorrow, maybe we would seek medical attention. The kid's probably got lots of blood, right? At least twelve hours worth until Urgent Care opens in the morning.

I put on the tightest band aid I could and instructed him to stay off the furniture until we were sure the blood wasn't going to seep through the band aid. Without me even asking, Safety Man Tucker delivered the evil pocket knife to me. We had a quick conversation with Keaton about only using the knife with permission, and he went on about his furniture-less merry way.

About an hour later Keaton came in from playing outside because blood was coming out of the band aid, and Trey suggested he should think about staying inside for a little while. He said, "Nah. It doesn't even really hurt anymore." I guess it was bleeding less profusely than before, so it was probably time to get a little dirt in it.

And so, two life milestones in one afternoon...Keaton's first pocket knife and Keaton's first time to cut himself with a pocket knife. He seems to have lived, so I hope the memory he has is of pain instead of recovering quickly so that he will be a little more careful next time. But let's be honest. He's probably whittling a clubhouse out of our coffee table right now.

Remember the Mediocre Mommy?  I think she's back.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book #12: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

"I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish was not good to that person. You will never think that."

I love Khaled Hosseini's books. This is his third, and I love all three of them.

If you're a reader at all, you've probably read (or at least heard of) The Kite Runner. His second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was also pretty fantastic. I read both of these books while teaching junior English, and I had many students in my classes who moved to the US from countries in the Middle East. Several of these awesome kids became my book buddies, letting me ask questions about culture and tradition and religion, even translating Farsi for me when it was used in the book and I wasn't confident in my context-clue-decoding ability. It connected me to them, which made my experience with the books so much richer than just the text.

And the Mountains Echoed is filled with raw humanity, much like the previous two books. Unlike the other books, it ventures outside of the backdrop of Afganistan, following characters to Paris and Greece and the United States. The book starts with a simple, sad story of a brother and sister who are lost from each other, but then Hosseini weaves an intricate story which follows the major and minor characters throughout their lives. We see how a single event changed the course of life for many people -- generations of people.

My only wish is that I had taken notes as I read. I kept thinking I needed a chart to keep track of the characters and how their lives were intertwined. Had I been reading a paper book I likely would have done this in the front cover, but I read it on my Kindle and so only highlighted. A character diagram (like the one I used to draw on my classroom white board when I introduced Gatsby) would have kept me from having to flip back to past chapters to make sure I had things straight.

Perhaps my favorite character was a single mom and teacher, Odie. She cares for a child who has a shocking facial deformity, and when she first enrolled the child in school she stood on a bench and held up the child. "'This is Thalia Gianakos,' Mama cried, 'As of today...' She paused. 'Whoever is crying, shut your mouth before I give you a reason to. Now, as of today, Thalia is a student at this school. I expect all of you to treat her with decency and good manners. If I hear rumors of taunting, I will find you and I will make you sorry. You know I will. I have no more to say about this business.'" Odie is my new hero!

Critics of Hosseini's other books comment that his work can be overly poetic or predictable. I can see where they're coming from, but I find very little of that in Mountains. Honestly, I don't mind these moments of direct life lessons because I find them appropriate in their placement. One such case is when a plastic surgeon explains his calling to correct the deformities that a "disgraceful" world uses to judge people. It's preachy, yes, but it's also a darn good point.

And the Mountains Echoed made my reader's heart happy. As long as Khaled Hosseini keeps writing books, I'll keep reading them.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

I Need a Vacation from my Vacation, part two

I'm changing schools, but that's for another post.

On my very last day at Greens Prairie, my last day to work at the school where both of my kids go, we got out early. I decided that we should go get the boys passports to open up our vacation options. I didn't know if they would come in before our vacation this summer, but even if they didn't, we'd have them for next year. After a very sad day of goodbyes, prepping for vacation seemed like a perfect plan.

Several people asked what our plans were for the afternoon, and when I shared my passport idea I was met with skepticism. "Do you have an appointment?" No, I was just going to go to the passport office where their job is to order passports. "Have you called ahead?" No, surely they will know when I walk into the passport office that I'm there to get a passport. These people obviously had negative passport-obtaining experiences, but I figured that was probably out of the norm. I'd be fine.

Since both parents have to be there to get a kid's passport, I convinced Trey to meet me at the College Station Post Office, home of the Passport Obtaining Place, even though it is quite difficult for him to get away from work during the day at all, much less on a Friday. The boys and I were waiting patiently in line when he arrived. When I got to the front, a very nice postal worker lady said, "We only do passports by appointment, but I can make you an appointment if you like." the hours posted that indicate when passport getting is available are really just hours during which I can make an appointment?  Interesting. No big deal. I'll just make an appointment.

(Remember, I had a day of pretending not to be overwhelmingly sad about getting a promotion, which in and of itself is absurd at best, and I was determined to be positive about this.)

"Yes, ma'am. I'd like to go ahead and make an appointment."

"Okay," she says, as she flips through a paper calendar. "The next appointment we have is June 26th."

"What? As in, one month from now? That June 26th?" In my head I am telling myself over and over that this is just the lady with the calendar. She doesn't make the rules. It's not her fault. It's not her fault. It's not her fault.

"Yes,would you like an appointment on June 26th?" she replies.

I'm working very hard to keep a smile on my face with the woman (whose fault it isn't). "Seriously. Is that truly the soonest I can get one? Is there anything else I can do?"

"Well, the Department of Study Abroad at A&M does passports, and I have their number right here if you'd like to call them."

Yes, I would like to call them. And I did call them. And they said to come on over because they could let us order passports for the boys anytime before three. Score.

Trey mumbled incomprehensibly under his breath about government redundancies and scheduling and poor service, but he did agree to follow me over to campus to get the passports. It was already pretty close to two o'clock. We decided we needed to hustle a little bit so he could get back to his office. I checked the campus map on my phone, realized we needed to be near the MSC, and asked him which way to go. He didn't care, and he decided he'd just follow me.

So, hurriedly, we trekked over to campus.

Once we parked in the garage, I pulled up my campus map and told Trey which way I thought we should go. In my defense, I did tell him he might want to double check me, but for some reason unbeknownst to me, he decided to trust me with directions on this hot May afternoon. Let me state again. He trusted me with directions. Big. Mistake. 

When we got about halfway around the MSC, I realized that we had gone the opposite way from what we should have done. Meaning, we should have just walked straight to the front door of the Department of Study Abroad, but instead we walked all the way around the famous (and large) Memorial Student Center of Texas A&M University. It was also about halfway around that I realized Trey was looking hot (yes, that kind of hot AND temperature hot) in his Friday banker garb -- nice boots, dark jeans, black shirt embroidered with the bank's logo. Clothes made for a busy day of handling people's banking business. Not made for hiking miles across the humid landscape of Central Texas in the middle of the afternoon in late May.

I swear when I spotted the sign in the distance, it was like an oasis in the desert. Sweat dripping into unmentionable crevices (see sweaty bra post from 2009), my family of four entered the Study Abroad office.

The people there were so nice. They handed us forms, gave us desks to work at while filling them out, took the boys' photos one at a time. This was all going to be worth it.

Until we realized we needed a check. An actual paper check. Which we did not have.

Trey thought he had a checkbook in his truck, so I offered to run back to it (the shorter way this time) so he wouldn't have to be in the heat again. When I got to the truck, no check book. No check. Nothing. I looked everywhere short of under the hood, and there was no check to be found.

"He's going to kill me for dragging him through all this for nothing," was all I could think. Not that he would kill me for real, or even that he would be mad at me, but he would be sweaty and hot for no good reason AND he would have to leave work again the next week in order to make another passport attempt.  This would not make him jump for joy, my fault or not. Cautiously, I called to inform him of the no checkbook situation. "Just come on back," he said.

As I walked back to meet them, I noticed them from a great distance because they were all but running toward me. I thought something must have been wrong. When I got to them, Trey said, "I'm going to my office to get the checkbook. I think I have time." The he sprinted away in his good boots and black shirt in the Texas sun.

I think the time then was 2:42. I decided that he was, indeed, insane, and that this was an impossible task, but that I would humor him and wait around until 3:00 when the office closed and he wasn't back.

While he was gone on his futile effort, the boys and I hopped in my car to move it to closer parking that we'd found on our hike, but when we got to that parking we realized it was all taken. I decided to go ahead and park in "service vehicle only" parking since I didn't figure I'd even be getting out of the car. I had given up.

Then at 2:57, straight out of a movie script, Trey's truck came flying around the corner on two wheels and slammed on the breaks in the middle of the bike lane. It wasn't an illegal parking spot - it wasn't a parking spot at all - and there was Trey Hickman jumping out of the truck and sliding across the hood just like Bo Duke!

(I made up the sliding across the hood part, but he could totally pull it off.)

I jumped out of my car, and Trey and I ran into the passport office and made the boys stand watch on our two illegally parked vehicles lest a bored tow truck driver appear from the sky. We wrote some checks, took the oath that says we're really citizens and really Tucker and Keaton's parents, and we got those blasted passports ordered. It was a miracle. A Trey-Hickman-Can-Get-Anything-Done-When-He-Decides-To miracle!

Immediately, Trey rushed off to work, and as the boys and I strolled toward my car in the service vehicle space I noticed a lady on a moped approaching my car. Ugh! After all of this I was going to get (a well-deserved) parking ticket.

"That's my car," I told her as we approached.

"You're parked in a service vehicle only spot," she replied without looking at me.

"I know," was all I could say.

Then there was a good long minute of silence while she tapped away on her little ticket making machine. Finally, unable to stand the quiet, I asked, "So will I get my ticket in the mail or do I need to wait for it?"

She scowled at me. "Lady, if I was going to give you a ticket I would have done it already."

Score again!

"Quick!  Get in the car, boys! We're getting ice cream to celebrate the last day of school!'

And after all of the tears and sadness and goodbyes of the day, we got ourselves a win.

Friday, May 31, 2013

I may need a vacation from my vacation..., Part One

Vacation. I'm obsessed with it. I think it's a mental vacation for me to think about and plan for an actual vacation, so I've been spending too much time thinking about what we'll do this summer.

First, I was on cruises. Cruises are great because there is something for everyone to do every minute of the day (like my kids) and other family members are free to relax by the pool with a book and a Purple Bird of West Green Bananas cocktail.  Yes, I realize that this sounds like I'm planning a vacation where we don't have to spend every second of every day together, and yes, I will leave that off my Mom of the Year application. Also, the all inclusive makes it much easier to make and stick to a budget. Perfect for a cheap frugal person like me.

So, cruise. Bahamas or Jamaica?  Grand Cayman or Belize?  Honduras?

Definitely no Mexico - we went there last year. On that trip we learned our kids are NOT adventurous. One of them who shall not be named (*ahem* Tucker *ahem*) is just flat out not a risk taker in any way. He likes routine. The same. No surprises. For this reason, I've determined that we need to put the boys into situations where they feel uncomfortable so they can be be comfortable with their discomfort. Travel is the perfect way to do this! Makes perfect sense, right?  I thought so.

When we couldn't decide on a cruise, Trey suggested we just wait to book something and see if we can get a deal at the last minute. We really don't have a preference on where to go, so let's decide not to decide. I was totally on board with this. But, of course, I continued to obsess on vacations.

I discovered that cruises out of Florida are cheap  very inexpensive. In fact, we could fly to Florida and go on a cruise to the Bahamas and spend about the same amount as a cruise from Galveston or New Orleans. The boys have never been on a plane before, so there's the added adventure I'm wanting. Strangely, Keaton has decided that his dream vacation is to go to Miami (I have no idea why, and I don't think he does either). So this is my next plan -- fly to Miami, cruise to the Bahamas. One of the boys who shall not be named (*ahem Tucker ahem*) might need a kiddie xanax, but we'll cross that runway when we get to it.

But wait!  If we're going to fly, we may as well look into all inclusive resorts and forgo the cruise altogether. This has all the same benefits of a cruise (activities, food and drink included), without the ship. It may actually be less expensive according to my calculations. THIS is our plan!

But the boys don't have passports. They don't have them because their mother is cheap frugal and doesn't want to spend the money on them. I have, however, finally come to realize that once they have passports, we are free to choose any of the vacation options previously listed for years to come.

We got out of school early today, so off to the post office we went. And thus began the Great Passport Debacle of 2013.

Book #11: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

I really enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl, and I needed a book to fill the gap until Khaled Hosseini's new book came out, so I read The White Queen.

It was fine. Not great. Fine.

It was good enough that I wanted to finish it, but boring enough that I paid seventeen bucks (thanks to an Amazon gift card from my friend Sally) to download the audio version and finish it in the car when I took a one day road trip to to Rice. Mainly so I could start the Hosseini book.

The End.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Book #10: Bossypants by Tina Fey

I love this book both for its hilarity and its wisdom. Tina Fey discusses what it's like to be a woman in charge in the workplace, along with the fact that being a woman in charge in the workplace is something we would even have a discussion about (there aren't any books about being a man in charge in the workplace, to my knowledge). She's also a mother and wife and regular normal daughter of Republicans. I want to have a margarita with her.

Some gems from the book:
"'Bloft' is an adjective I just made up that means 'completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.' I have been 'blorft' for the past seven years."

"Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? 'I'm not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I'm just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I'd like to cut your chest open.' The crowd cheers."

Note that there are plenty of f-bombs, and Fey was a writer for SNL so she's not afraid of offending people with comedy. As one who is not easily offended and often reads at gymnastics practice and baseball games, I laughed out loud...a a crazy person.

This book is especially recommended when you want to read something but are feeling too blorft to pick up something too heavy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book #9 Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

This is one of the best  books I've read in a long, long time.

Here's the first paragraph:
"Henry and I dug the hole seven feet deep. Any shallower and the corpse was liable to come rising up during the next big flood: Howdy boys! Remember me? The thought of it kept us digging even after the blisters on our palms had burst, re-formed and burst again. Every shovelful was an agony -- the old man, getting in his last licks. Still, I was glad of the pain. It shoved away thought and memory."

Now, how's that for an opener!

The story takes place after WWII in the Mississippi Delta. Two of the characters return from fighting in the war, one white and one black. The story centers around the families of both men, but it is so much more than that.

If I were still teaching, I would make kids read this book and then write a paper about morality as defined by society (ahh...the power!). In Mudbound, the good people believe strongly in ideals that go against everything we now view as basic human right. The bad people are, well, really bad, yet their behavior is allowed to continue because those around them are fearful of standing up to them or simply uncomfortable with the subject of race. We see how far evil and violence will go if good people choose to look the other way.  The chapter where Ronsel comes upon a concentration camp while fighting for the US during WWII will haunt me for a good long time. Through this painful scene, the author artfully ties in the injustices of Nazi Germany to the injustices of race prejudice in the Deep South.

Mudbound is told through several different narrators, which not only kept me glued to the pages but also shows Hillary Jordan's great craft as an author. There is tragedy and love and intrigue and even a laugh or two. In short, this is a fantastic book, and you should read it.

Addendum: This description makes the book seem very dense, and it's not at all. I would even call it a quick read. The voices of the various characters are quite conversational, so the book is actually pretty easy. I finished it in less than a week.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Cupcake Crazy

Approximately five weeks ago, I came home from work on Friday and decided to make cupcakes. Things have gone a little crazy since then.

Now, people often comment, "I don't know how you have time for things like that!"  The truth is, I don't. My house is messy. I often bring home paperwork from school on the weekends that needs to be done. There is laundry to wash and there are groceries to purchase. I should be working out. (I cancelled my gym membership because I was paying $45 a month and spending time chauffeuring kids to baseball and gymnastics and never making it to the gym. I am a quitter. I need a new exercise plan, but before I can plan I need time to actually implement the plan, and the aforementioned chauffeuring and other mom duties take up all of the time. Poor me. Did I mention I'm a quitter?)

I've never in my life been a procrastinator, but I think baking has become my form of procrastination. If I share the cupcakes with other people, then it's a random act of kindness instead of a random act of not-doing-what-I-really-should-be-doing-right-now.

Anyway, I got the idea from this link I found on Pinterest. It includes 31 unique cupcake recipes -- one for each day of the month. Now, if I made cupcakes every day for a month, I would have to do some shopping because none of my clothes would fit (and did I mention I quit the gym?). I could, however, make cupcakes on Friday nights, right?  On Friday nights I take time off from being the iPad Nazi, and my kids usually watch TV and play on their iPads uninterrupted for a good long while. Trey will come home and sit at the bar while I bake, and we have more conversation than we've had all week. There's something therapeutic at the end of the week about putting on my pajamas, blasting the Norah Jones Pandora station, opening a bottle of wine, and baking. Happy Friday to me.

My first Friday cupcake was a peanut butter cupcake with peanut butter frosting and chocolate ganache. I feel like "sinful" is an appropriate word. Sometimes peanut butter cupcakes are dry, but this one was moist and delicious. I also can't get over the genius of TWO frostings. Seriously. Frost a cupcake and then put some chocolate on top of it. It's like whoever came up with this recipe is as smart as the inventor of double stuff oreos.

The next batch, made on March 8th, was Irish Car Bomb cupcakes. Now, I've never had an Irish car bomb, but this cupcake sounded creative and exotic and I wanted to make it. It's a Guinness cupcake (made with the beer) with Bailey's Irish Cream filling and Bailey's frosting. Trey said it was "strong" which makes me think he could taste the Bailey's. I think this is awesome because I really hate when you make something with a superstar ingredient and then you can't taste said ingredient. These were quite unique and yummy. 

Then came my father-in-law's birthday which also happens to be on St. Patrick's Day. Each year I make him an Italian cream cake, but since it's St. Patty's Day it has to be green. I don't know if he really wants this each year or if it's just tradition now, but this is what he gets. Some years it turns out a little dry, and other years it's perfect. I think think this was a good year. 

Then I needed to take something to our family Easter celebration. I've been dying to make this cake, but it seems silly to make it for just our family. I mean, I would EAT IT ALL a little at a time, and then I would have this terrible food remorse whenever I went to grab one more bite and realized the pan was empty. So I made it for Easter, and it was pretty darn good. The cake was decent, but the praline topping was the best part. I cooked it a little too long and the consistency was a little too thick when I put it on the cake. It should have oozed down the sides more, and it would have been prettier if that had happened, but it still tasted great!  I think I'd like to try this gooey chocolate cake recipe I have and then add the praline topping to it. It would be even richer and creamier. It's called New Orleans Double Chocolate Praline Fudge Cake

The first cupcake of April was sort of at Trey's request. He saw a recipe somewhere for cupcakes that are like those old school Hostess cupcakes with cream filling, chocolate frosting, and that little white squiggle on top. I've had this recipe for a while (it came from the 31 days of cupcakes list), and I decided to give it a shot. It wasn't too pretty on top, but when I broke it open and dug in, it looked like it should - creamy and delicious!  

This week I had a difficult time deciding between nutella madness cupcakes and caramel macchiato cupcakes. In the end, I went with lemon cupcakes with raspberry filling and lemon frosting. It's a cupcake that tastes like summer! It's also one of my prettiest creations to date. This one is especially fancy because I actually bought and used cake flour for the first time. I think the cake is a little lighter than it would have been had I used my normal all purpose flour, and the cupcakes didn't rise as much as some of my others. I think I've learned what end result I can accomplish with the cake flour, and I may or may not use it in future recipes. 

What's up next?  It's so hard to decide!  I really want to try these Elvis cupcakes, mostly because they seem like something Trey would really like. But I still haven't made the nutella madness or caramel macchiato. These decisions may just start keeping me up at night.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Book #8: Killing Kennedy by Bill O'Reilly

I keep saying I don't read much non-fiction, but I think this is my second one this year. I really loved O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln, so I decided to read his similar book about the assassination of President Kennedy. It was good as I expected.

Before reading the book, I felt like the Kennedy family's reign over US politics was riddled with mystery. There is just so much that the general public will never know about JFK's election, Bobby Kennedy's role in his presidency, and the apparently dysfunctional relationship that JFK had with his father. The book sheds light into some of these mysteries, but when the evidence reaches a dead end, O'Reilly recognizes this and moves on.

I may have wanted more scandal than the book provided, but I did learn a great deal. Killing Lincoln reads like fiction to me -- the stories of Lincoln and Booth intertwined as the reader anxiously awaits the crossing of their paths. Killing Kennedy has some of that; however, it reads much more like I would expect from nonfiction.

I liked Killing Lincoln better, but this one was interesting, too. I think Mudbound by Hillary Jordan is up next.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book #7: Benediction by Kent Haruf

I tried so hard not to read this book too quickly because I knew when it was over it would be...over. And now I don't have it to read anymore. Yes, it was that good.

If I've ever recommended a book to you, it's likely that I recommended Plainsong, also by Haruf. It's one of my top five favorite books. Benediction is the last book in a "loosely related trilogy" about the people in the town of Holt, Colorado. Plainsong is the first, and Eventide is the second. The third book is so loosely related that you do not need to read the other two in order to understand and appreciate it.

Benediction is the story of Dad Lewis, the proprietor of the town's hardware store, as he lives the last days of his life. But this isn't just Dad's story. It's the story of Mary and Lorraine, his wife and daughter; Willa and Alene Johnson, a mother and daughter who live together in Holt; Berta May and her granddaughter Alice, whose own mother recently died of cancer; Rob Lyle, the town minister, and his troubled wife and son. But it's not their individual stories that make this book so moving -- it's their collective story of life and death and joy and peace. Like our own stories don't belong to just us, neither do the stories in the book belong to just one character.

I am once again amazed at Haruf's ability to weave together characters so beautifully without ever turning toward the over-poetic or over-complicated plot lines that some authors simply cannot avoid. His dialogue is sparse but incredibly authentic. The characters -- especially the women in the novel -- see a need and simply help as it is in their nature to do. They remind me of so many women I know who are never recognized for simply doing what should be done. One of my many favorite moments is when they decide to go swimming. The women realize they will always hold some piece of their youth, and they choose to revel in it.

Dad Lewis himself is a fantastic character. He did not live a perfect life, but he was a good man who knew his own faults and failures. I hope that when my own time comes, people will not remember as someone who was perfect, but as someone who did her very best with what she knew. That's how I feel about Dad Lewis.

The scenes where Mary cares for Dad near his death are both heartbreaking and beautiful. Haruf paints those moments as a gift, and Mary honors them as such.

If you're looking to be moved, to see the good in the world around you, then read this book. But keep some tissues handy.

I can't close this without the prayer that Rev. Lyle offers for Dad because I love it:
"May we be at peace together with Dad Lewis here, Lyle said softly. May there be peace and love and harmony in this room. May there be the same in all the difficult and conflicted world outside this house. May this man -- he stopped and spoke directly to Dad in the bed -- may you leave this physical world without any more pain or regrets or unhappiness or remorse or self-doubt or worry and may you let all your trials and troubles and cares pass away. May you simply be at peace. May each of us here in this room be at peace as well. Now we ask all of these blessings in the name of Jesus, who himself was the Prince of Peace. Amen.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Book #6: A Painted House by John Grisham

I like John Grisham novels. I've read several - I don't know how many - and I always enjoy them. I also like novels about small towns. Since this is a Grisham novel about a small town, I found it very enjoyable 

A Painted House is narrated by a seven year old boy and tells the story of his family one summer and fall during the cotton harvest. It's the mid 50s, 1954, I think, and Luke lives on a small farm with his mother father, grandmother, and grandfather. Laborers come to help pick the cotton, and their presence enriches and complicates young Luke's life. Grisham does a nice job with the child narrator, and I felt as if young adult Luke was telling the story exactly as seven year old Luke remembered it. I got to hear his thoughts as he began to learn about love and sin and faith.

When I just want to read a book I know I'll get into and like but I don't want to be too emotionally disturbed by the characters or the situation, I often pick up John Grisham. As usual, this book did not disappoint. I read a paper copy, so it is available to borrow if you're interested!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Book #5: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

My friend and boss recommended this book to me several times, but I never really took interest. Then, when it was at our church's garage sale for twenty five cents I decided I would give it a shot. The story is about a family with two very different daughters, a kind father, and a mysteriously distant mother. The father dies early in the book and leaves the sisters with the task of getting to know their mother so that they can understand her better and have a relationship with her. One moment at a time, the mother reveals her younger years to her children through fairy tales about a princess in Russia. The storyline is predictable but enjoyable. My only real complaint is that the ending was disappointing. It took the book from an interesting piece of historical fiction to a book you'd buy at a garage sale for a quarter.

I started book six of the year, The Red Tent by Anita Diamont. It is Christian fiction with a story centered around women's monthly visits to the red tent. It took me about two chapters to realize I just couldn't read a story about Bible women centered around their time of the month.  I started a John Grisham novel instead (also from the church garage sale, I might add).

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentines Day 2013

First, I am spoiled. This simply means that my family does a very good job of making me feel loved all the time, and on Valentines Day it's even better. Every year, Trey gets up extra early and makes us breakfast. This year it was heart shaped French toast and bacon. When I woke Keaton up, I asked him if he could smell the bacon. Before he even opened his eyes, he said, "No, I small Valentines Day."

My boys also surprised me with a gift this morning. Trey said when he and Tucker were in the store he asked if Tucker had a girl he wanted to buy a Valentine for. "Yes," Tucker said, "Mom."

The sweetest thing ever, right?  The boys spent their own money on flowers and chocolates for their dear old mom.

Then, I received my annual Valentines tulips. We had tulips in our wedding, so when Trey sends me flowers that's what I get. He sends them from the same place every year, and they are always beautiful and last a long time. Only this year there was a problem. It looked like the flowers had frozen or something. We had a good laugh about them at work.  I hated to call Trey and tell him that the flowers were a bust, but I wanted him to get his money back! It truly is the thought that counts, and he remembered. I hate to expect that I'll get flowers on Valentines Day, but I would probably be disappointed if I didn't them, so he did good!

Finally, after Keaton went to bed he called me into his room. "Open my binder and look in the front pocket. You'll find something," he said. It was a sweet Valentine card he made for me today.

So let it be known that in this Hickman family, we have boys who are very good at making their wife and mother feel loved and special and appreciated. I'm grateful every day of the example Trey sets for my kids to love constantly and never keep it a secret. They'll be good husbands and dads some day because of him.

Happy Valentines Day!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book #5: Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White by Adam Hamilton

ALERT!  Possible controversy ahead!

This is a long and risky post, but I hope you'll read it. I especially hope you'll read it if you've ever made fun of, yelled at, or wanted to yell at someone who believes differently than you on important political issues of our day. If you've ever posted something on Facebook or forwarded an email that ridiculed someone because you thinks it's ridiculous that they believe the way they do (liberal or conservative), you should read this post and this book.

Our Sunday school class decided to do a series of lessons Seeing Gray, which is what made me pick it up in the first place. I'm working on reading the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs over a year (I have 164 days left), and one of my goals this year is to read more faith-based books to grow and stretch my own faith. This book certainly accomplished that.

The premise of the book is that the world is a really gray place. Many people believe that there are only two sides to each controversial issue that faces our society today, but in actuality there is a good bit of gray and a good number of people whose understanding of Christ and Christianity make them very comfortable there.

It doesn't make them popular, though.

Early in the book, Hamilton states, "My own approach to controversial that any issue about which thinking Christians disagree likely has important truth on each side of the debate." (I would give a citation, but I'd have to look up how to cite my Kindle and I just don't want to.)

I really, really like this idea as I believe (and often say) that I live in gray. Primarily I talk about this when it comes to disciplining/helping students. A black and white approach does very little to change behavior (particularly negative behavior), so I feel like I have to be comfortable without absolutes. If you know me at all, you know that I was raised in an exceedingly conservative church (that I love), and you would also know that as an adult I like to think I'm very comfortable with questioning and struggling with just about anything. I have no trouble entertaining the possibility that I might be wrong about something or that my perspective is limited. I understand that some people see this as wishy-washy or cowardly, but I don't. In this way, I really appreciate the concept of this book.

The first section of the book deals with the ideas of liberals and conservatives. The author notes that very few people are truly either. No matter who you are, someone is likely more conservative than you; likewise, no matter how liberal you are someone is likely more liberal. He notes that on different issues we may find ourselves at different points of the liberal-conservative spectrum, and he calls for a movement in our churches to make that okay -- for people to be comfortable with the fact that they may see some issues as gray areas.

Section two primarily discusses the Bible and the opposing viewpoints of it being either the literal word of God or a message from God presented through man, including the humanity of its authors and the traditions and norms of the times in which it was written. In my upbringing, I believed that the Bible was the literal, infallible word of God. Then I took a lit class in college about the Bible, and we learned about its authors and the historical context behind it. (This is also when I learned that the Bible has some extra books that got cut before the King James Version. I was very troubled by this. Who knew?) Many of our conversations today about controversial issues truly rest in the belief system one holds about the Bible. The section has chapters about evolution, whether or not people of other religions will go to heaven, if hell exists, and why bad things happen. I loved the explanations of how science can be a part of faith instead of working against it. More people need to talk about that.

I really, really loved the chapter titled "Where is God When Bad Things Happen?" In it, the author asserts that God doesn't cause bad things to happen to teach us lessons or make us better people, but that the world and its humans are flawed, and accidents happen. God can certainly work through tragedy, but our loving God does not today single out people to harm in order to prove a point. I like that idea a whole lot.

Not surprisingly, I had the most difficulty with the section titled "Politics and Ethics in the Center." Chapters include the topics of abortion, homosexuality, war, and presidential elections.

I have a very strong feeling about abortion which I believe was truly cemented when I miscarried many years ago. I understand that other people disagree with my pro life view, but I'm not going to change my mind. I am very conservative on that issue, and I found it difficult to read both sides of the issue without wanting to argue with the book. However, I do believe that we should love and nurture those people who have been impacted by abortion and that God's grace is sufficient. I also understand that smart, educated people disagree with me and feel as strongly about their views as I do of mine. We disagree. I can be okay with that.

The homosexuality chapter was very intriguing to me because as an adult my viewpoint on this issue has developed from that of my youth. I learned as a child that homosexuality is wrong. Now I know and love many people who are gay, and I truly believe that they were born to be so. It is difficult for me to believe that these good and kind people were created with some sort of error, and so my perspective has really challenged my faith and, in my opinion, caused it to grow. I know that the more conservative of you will think I've gone all crazy liberal, and the more liberal of you will think I've committed some sort of crime for even discussing the issue as an issue. That's okay. I'm on my faith journey and you're on yours. I love you anyway, and you probably still love me, too.

The chapters on war and presidential elections were, well, a little annoying to me. I felt like the author tried to present both the far left and far right of issues in every other chapter, but in these he just presented his view and explained why he's right. I disagreed with him in many areas and did not feel "the other side" of the issues was well represented.

The bottom line of the book, and something I agree with wholeheartedly, is that Jesus is our Savior and the guide for how we should live our lives. I appreciated the author's perspective on what is non-negotiable in Christianity and what is open to interpretation and discussion and guidance by the Holy Spirit. Overall, this book challenged and stretched my faith, and I'm glad I read it.

Hamilton says of the opposing viewpoints among Christians:
"The truth is that all of the branches in this tree called Christianity are a bit defective. But each adds to the beauty of the whole. What a tragedy if we were to cut off all but one of the limbs. But what riches are to be found if we can humbly listen and learn from one another, appreciating our differences, while together seeking to follow Jesus Christ."

I know people who do not believe in God but instead believe in what they see as facts and science and common sense. I struggle with this because I love and respect these people, and sometimes I want to be mad at them for violently disagreeing with my faith, or even making fun of it indirectly. This book seeks to reconcile faith, science, common sense, and differing perspectives. I hope some of these friends of mine will, with open mind, read this book and know that Christians are not all Jerry Falwell. And maybe find a little faith along the way.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book #4: A Paradise Called Texas by Janice Jordan Shefelman

I read this book because our fourth graders read it in Texas history with Mr. Parr. I remember last year's fourth graders talking about it, and since I have a fourth grader of my own this year I heard A LOT about it. I had to see what all the excitement was about.

The story is about Mina, a little girl (I think she's 11) who immigrates to the Texas from Germany in the 1800s. Her family purchases passage and land from a company that is starting a German settlement in Texas. The settlement turns out to be New Braunfels and then also Fredricksburg. Mina is the narrator, so this adventure is narrated by a child about the age of the kids who read the book at my school. Her family suffers great hardships and tragedy, and Mina is a brave girl who appreciates what is truly important.

I can see why the kids love it. It's a great book with adventure and such an excellent tie-in to the history of our state. If you haven't read it, you should.

(If you have read it, I'll answer your question. Yes, I cried.)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book #3: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

This was a good one!

In The 19th Wife, two stories are told concurrently. The first introduced is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young (yes, THE Brigham Young who helped establish Utah as a territory, was an early leader of the Mormon church, and has a university named for him). The reader knows from the beginning that Ann Eliza is famous because of her apostasy from the LDS church and divorce from Brigham, but the story begins with that of her parents and how they came to follow Joseph Smith after knowing him personally. There is much background information regarding the beginnings of the Mormon church and Joseph's establishing himself as the church's prophet. The beginnings include the church doctrine of polygamy, including its origination in the church as a supposed holy calling from God. Clearly the author thinks polygamy is a bad idea (I'm with him on that - just ask Trey), so even the well-intentioned bright spots of the doctrine are tinged with bitterness. I felt as if I watched people being indoctrinated into a religious cult, and I totally understood why they accepted many things as fact even though they seemed far-fetched and against everything they had ever known.

Ann Eliza is a rebel whom I cheered for, but she is neither without fault nor of perfect character, which is what makes her story so compelling.

(Sidebar/Disclaimer: I love a lot of Mormons. I do not believe in their religion, but some of the most special people in the world to me (students, mostly) are Mormon. I have visited a Mormon church as a guest of my students. Nothing in this review should be considered in any way as Mormon-bashing. The church has publicly denounced polygamy, and all religions have skeletons in their closets, so please don't leave here thinking I hate Mormons. I try to make a point not to trash other people's religions, as I find it kind of rude and also ineffective in converting others to my own religion if I choose to try.)

The second story is that of Jordan Scott, a modern day young man who was cast out of a polygamous compound when he was fourteen. Jordan is the anti-Mormon: a gay, cursing, angry man who hates the church for all it has done to him. Even though the modern day compound is actually run by a religious sect known as the Firsts (it, too, is decidedly un-Mormon), Jordan is violently against all religions and finds them to be downright offensive.

Early on in the novel, he sees a news report that his mother, the 19th wife of a Firsts prophet, has been arrested for killing her husband. Even though she allowed Jordan to be thrown out like trash years before, he must go to his mother and see her one last time. That is, of course, where his adventure begins.

I thought that the two stories told together would be confusing and difficult to read, but I was wrong. It was actually refreshing because just when one story began to lull, the next chapter would switch to the other story. The connections between the two were obvious, but the stories didn't seem to be stretched just so they could be connected.

This is my favorite kind of fiction because of its historical nature, and I found myself right away wanting to research Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young, and the Firsts. I put it off as long as possible (I didn't want to spoil the mystery of it), but finally looked it up. I found this conversation with the author to be particularly enlightening. Ann Eliza's story in the book is his fictional account of her life, but much of what he includes is from his research. To add to the non-fiction/fiction feel of the book, the author actually includes Wikipedia articles, requests for access to the LDS church's archives, and other relevant historical documents at appropriate times during the story. I found this element of Ebershoff's novel to be terribly interesting and liked it much more than I thought I would.

The only real negative is that the details after Ann Eliza's apostasy seem to drag out. While I appreciate their relevance to the novel, they could have been condensed. Her life before her escape is more exciting, and because of the chronological nature of the novel her not-as-exciting activities after she left the church made the end of the novel sort of fizzle out. Jordan's story, on the other hand, ends as a novel should, with the denouement near enough to the end that the reader is left with some level of excitement about the story. (Yes, I could have said "final outcome" instead of "denouement," but sometimes being pretentious is fun.)

The two stories in the novel certainly have a common theme. Today is the same as 100 years ago and 100 years before in that people are searching for love, acceptance, and assurance about their future after our small time on earth is over. Sadly, there are also those ready and willing to take advantage of the most desperate of us.

Overall, this book was great. I definitely recommend it!