Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng

IMG_3284I have spent a decent amount of time over the last few weeks considering which book I wanted to highlight for Mother’s Day.  Although there are plenty of books about parenting styles to choose from, these lectures have typically left me drained and feeling like a failure.  In fiction, however, I have found my people.  The less-than-perfect moms who implicitly love their kids without fear of judgment run wild in fiction; just waiting within their pages for someone like me to approach them with empathy.  With that said, one novel stands out in my mind as an incredible showcase of both the diversity and the solidarity of mothers; Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng (https://www.celesteng.com).    Mommy & Me Hand Pic

Celeste Ng’s novel is cited by many to be a statement on social class, privilege, and mothers.  I agree with that assessment.  This novel is a multifaceted social criticism which would appeal to a wide array of readers; however I admit I was fully focused on the message about motherhood and love.  Within the pages of this story, are four women who all walk very different paths because of motherhood.  Despite their differences, each is driven by a know-no-boundary desire to do what they feel is best for their kids.  Each unapologetically and repeatedly react to the circumstances with which they are presented and over which they often have little control; driven predominantly by love.  And, ultimately unable to escape the price of their choices; each endures their own personal list of sacrifices and indignities resulting from the depth of that love.  This is motherhood. 

Warning: Nightmares May Be Contagious

+ypyez10s6+qffvnlxc1xa_thumb_609dOver the past seven years my daughters have become experts at sneaking into my room, past their sleeping father and snoring dog, and waking me up.  Sometimes they are sick and sometimes mere annoyances lead to these nighttime interruptions.  Yet, there are those occasions where both my little one and I are are rocked by some truly inexplicable horror.  Prior to becoming a parent, no one warned me that their nightmares would undoubtedly become my own, but they often do.  So, my friends, if you have not already experienced this fun nighttime drama, be prepared.  

The contagious nightmare leaps from your child to you in the middle of the night and gets in your head.  This is the nightmare that cannot be described and, therefore, is difficult to expel.  The one where you have to hold your inconsolable child and rub their back and repeatedly tell them “it was just a dream” as they vibrate in your arms, soak your sleeve and sob.  And as you are holding your child, this nightmare travels from their little heads, through their little bodies, into your own. 

This is the nightmare that causes your head to spin and you to worry that you have failed to recognize or acknowledge some recently traumatic event in your child’s life.  It makes you wonder if something has happened that your little one does not want to talk about, if someone is picking on them and they are embarrassed to say so, or if someone is hurting them or has threatened them into keeping a secret.  

You see where this is going, right?  Before you know it, the parenting shame/fear spiral is in full effect.  It is downright terrifying.  You find yourself researching childhood anxiety and reading articles entitled “10 Signs your Child Might have Been Abused,” until your eyes bleed.  Then, the next morning when the blood has settled into dark circles under your eyes, your child wakes up happy and rested.  She tells you she was dreaming about Minnie Mouse…..and you are left tired and thankful for a hot cup of coffee.

You have been warned.  Good Luck.   

 

A Letter to My Slow Cooker

To My Oldest and Most Reliable Friend, My Slow Cooker:

You may have noticed two new kitchen gadgets on my counter recently.  It was quite a Christmas.  Apparently there is a nasty rumor going around that I am looking to replace you.  Not only did I receive a shiny new stainless steel instant pot, but also a beautiful unadjustednonraw_thumb_1027asleek air fryer.  They are trendy and mysterious and they are here, sitting in our kitchen, just waiting for me to cook with them instead of you. I can tell you are nervous.  With your scratches and burnt-on food, you are worried that you will no longer be useful to me.  But the truth is, my loyal friend, I could never replace you.  We have been through too much and our history runs deep.    

I survived my twenties because of you.  Professional life was tough.  We would spend the early morning hours together and I knew, when I got home late, late…late, that evening, you would have something hot and delicious waiting for me.  You saved me from an unhealthy relationship with cold cereal and, for that, I am eternally grateful.  Then, in my thirties, you excelled in cooking unimaginable combinations of protein, fruit and vegetables as I attempted to make my own baby food. Some of those combinations were truly disgusting, but you never judged me.   And now, my dear friend, you feed my entire family at least three nights a week.  You work your magic on pot roast, white chicken chili, and lentil soup while I am busy keeping up with an overloaded extra-curricular calendar.  Nevertheless, when we come home and our house smells wonderful, feels cozy, and our food is warm, I have you to thank.  

Our new friends may be capable of preparing some wonderful meals but they will never compare to you; they require more thought and supervision than I can offer on a weeknight.  Why does everything need so many buttons these days?  They may be fast and flashy but I can’t start them in the early morning hours and forget about them until it is time to eat; not like you.  So, despite the hype my low-maintenance friend, guess who I will continue to count on to keep my family fed this winter?  Yes, that would be you.    

 Your devoted friend,

This Tired Mom 

Confessions of a Christmas Slacker

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About a week ago, I was standing with three other parents watching our preschoolers play on the playground. The four of us were chatting and the conversation turned to Christmas.  Parents one through three eagerly discussed pictures with Santa, where they would be hiding the elf on the shelf, wrapping “date-nights” with their spouses (which this solo wrapper had no idea WAS AN ACTUAL THING), and baking.  I admit I was only half-listening, but when I was asked directly about my preparations, I was ready for the sideways looks.  This would not be the first time that I outed myself to a group of  cheery peers as a total Christmas slacker.  

Truthfully, I hate the crowds involved in pictures with Santa, I’m terrible at wrapping gifts and I  don’t like doing it.  The elf on the shelf is not welcome in my home.  I’d rather clean toilets than hang outdoor lights and I just don’t bake. Does this mean my kids are deprived of the Christmas spirit? Nope, not even a little bit.  Every year we put on our fur trimmed Santa hats with the best of them (without the side-order of cranky mommy) and here’s how:   

  1. Avoid the mall Santa.  One of my least favorite things to do is stand in line with my children for ANYTHING; especially indoors at a mall.  After the first two years of disastrous mall Santa experiences, I starting searching for alternatives.  YMCAs will often host a brunch with Santa where you can snap a few pictures while you eat.  Also, you can typically find Santa and Mrs. Claus wandering around the main street of many small towns during their annual winter celebrations.  While there may still be lines, it’s nothing compared to the stress, time, and claustrophobic air of your local mall.  Also, these smaller venues typically provide entertainment for the kids while waiting your turn.  For example, my childhood hometown brings in food vendors and a petting zoo to keep kids occupied as they wait their turn to sit on Santa’s lap.  
  1. Don’t give in to Elf-On-The-Shelf.  Assign the task of spying on your children to something else that is already in your home.  My children believe that Santa’s elves talk to animals and that their dog makes nightly presentations on their behavior.  As an added bonus, especially when they were younger, this effectively got them to stop harassing their dog.  
  1. Invest in a big, red bag.  Find a big, soft, red, fur trimmed sack and buy it.  Go ahead and spend money on this because you will never have to budget for Christmas wrapping paper again.  I bought one for each of my daughters and then put their names on it in glitter.  On Christmas morning they love seeing a sack full of toys under the Christmas tree and I love that I was not up all night wrapping them.  
  1. Shop on-line.  Put on your favorite sweatpants and t-shirt and do your Christmas shopping on line.  Do not spend your precious time driving to a store only to find out that the toy your child really wants is already sold out.  Then, when your item arrives, toss it into the sack you just bought and consider it wrapped.  
  1. Buy Pre-Baked Sugar Cookies.  Last year I discovered that my grocery store stocks pre-baked, undecorated holiday-shaped sugar cookies in their bakery section.  This was a total game-changer for me because, as I’ve mentioned, I hate baking.  Look for these cookies in your grocery store, buy them and some holiday icing.  Put it all out on your table on paper plates and let your kids go wild.  Because you are not already tired and hot from baking and washing cookie sheets, you can also join in the fun!
  1. Delegate the stuff you haven’t discovered short-cuts for yet.  My husband is in charge of outdoor lights or they just don’t happen.  I’m happy to put up a Christmas Tree and drive around to any and all light displays but outdoor decorations are just not my thing.  I get frustrated and angry and it seems the entire family would prefer to have no lights then to deal with me if I have to hang them.  So, if something makes you as angry as outdoor lights make me, delegate it.  
  1. Sit and watch movies.  Sit on the couch with your children and spend all of the time you did not spend, wrapping, baking, and hiding that unwelcome little elf, watching your favorite Christmas movies with your kids while decorating a special serving platter to display Santa’s cookies (see #5, above).  

2018 Picks for Best Autumn Picture Books

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I admit I am an autumn fanatic:  pumpkins, sweatshirts, and falling leaves, oh my!  By the time summer ends, I am ready for the cooler weather.  My family and I embrace fall traditions whole-heartedly and the crisp incoming air seems to imbue each of us with renewed energy, kick-starting lazy summer imaginations as we prepare for the colder days ahead and increased time indoors.  Our favorite fall-themed picture books also play a large role in our cold-weather routine; making appearances at bedtime and during imaginary play.  The following is a list of our perennial favorites:     

Sneeze, Big Bear, Sneeze! – Maureen Wright (illustrated, by Will Hillenbrand)  

A family favorite for nearly seven years, this book personifies the autumn breeze as it follows Big Bear through the woods, tickling his nose, and making him sneeze.  As Big UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1004dBear walks through the woods sneezing, he is convinced he is the cause of several common autumn events actually caused by the breeze.  The interplay between the two characters explores the concept of cause and effect and the simple rhyming language makes this book fun to read again and again.  

Otis and the Scarecrow – Loren Long

A couple of years ago, a neighbor introduced my youngest daughter to the friendly little tractor, Otis.  He and his farm animal friends star in a series of books written and illustrated by Loren Long.  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1004aThis particular book is about Otis’ attempt to befriend an unhappy and lonely looking scarecrow (a newcomer to the farm).  Illustrated with vibrant colors depicting the expected abundance of an autumn farm, this book is simply about being kind.  As Otis attempts to befriend the scarecrow, he demonstrates what it means to empathize with others as he worries about how the scarecrow must feel. 

 

 

Flora’s Very Windy Day – Jeanne Birdsall (illustrated by Matt Phelan)

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This book is about sibling rivalry.  Flora gets frustrated when her younger brother Crispin spills her paints.  So, when their mother sends them outside to play, Flora delights herself with the thought that her special red boots will save her from the wind as Crispin gets whisked away; because it is a very windy day and his boots are nothing special.  When it turns out she is correct, however, Flora quickly sheds her boots and saves her brother, admitting she wants him home.  In the end they go home together, having had an adventure together, to share some warm homemade cookies, together.  I love the lesson of this book and the realistic depiction of the way young siblings interact. Also, as you read the story, you can feel the chill in the air simply by looking at the pictures; cool blues, deep greens and browns, and every shade of orange all placed on the page with sweeping windy strokes.  

Pumpkin Soup – Helen Cooper

This is a book that promotes teamwork and taking turns.  Every night Cat, Squirrel and Duck make pumpkin soup the same way with each character seemingly happy with their assigned jobs.  However, one night Duck decides he wants to do a different job and his friends are not happy with the change.  They fight, Duck leaves and Cat and Squirrel realize they have made a mistake and go out into the autumn forest looking for their friend.  Eventually Duck returns and the friends make soup again, but this time happily taking turns at each of the tasks required. 

zB2NopePRGC1KFspwn2GSA_thumb_1005cFancy Nancy and the Fall Foliage –  Jane O’Conner and Robin Preiss Glasser

Fancy Nancy is getting into the fall spirit with her family.  My daughters like this little book because it is simply a fun celebration of autumn.  We are huge Fancy Nancy fans and we will pretty much follow her adventures wherever they may lead.  This one, for example, led to lots off autumn leaves in my kitchen as we also attempted to make an autumn wreath.  

Ladybug Girl and the Dress-Up Dilemma – David Soman and Jacky Davis

The Ladybug Girl series is an irrefutable family favorite.  In Ladybug Girl and the Dress-Up Dilemma, Lulu (Ladybug Girl) feels pressure to dress up as something other than a ladybug for halloween.  However, after spending a beautiful fall day apple picking with her family she realizes the decision was never really that difficult and that she was going to dress as Ladybug Girl, again, after all.  This story is a cute statement on self-confidence and individuality.     

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Confessions of an Unlikely Runner: A Guide to Racing and Obstacle Courses for the Averagely Fit and Halfway Dedicated – Dana L. Ayers

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Ayers, D. L. (2015). Confessions of an Unlikely Runner:  A Guide to Racing and Obstacle Courses for the Averagely Fit and Halfway Dedicated. Difference Press. 

I laughed out loud when I saw the title of this book.  It was definitely calling to me.  You don’t get more averagely fit or halfway dedicated than I am at this moment in my life.  As I’ve mentioned previously on my blog, I recently ran a ten-mile race with less than average results having only half-trained for it, but I digress.  This blurb is about Dana Ayers and her fantastically funny, light-hearted book about running for fun, for camaraderie, and an overall sense of personal well-being.  Like Ayers, I have also been known to wonder why I am not home in my slippers rather than waiting to begin another race.  Ayers’ book is not a “how-to” filled with heavy-handed, preachy advice, but instead a simple illustration as to why one might want to run even if they will always be in the back-of-the-pack.

Ten Miles for Ten Years

collage“I can’t breathe!”

“Cut it out,  you are stuck in your head…get out of your head…keep moving.”  

“No really, my lungs aren’t filling with air; I can’t breathe!”  

“Put your hands over your head, walk for a minute, and pull it together.  We are finishing this race!”  

“Go ahead of me.  I’ll meet you at the end.”  

“No way, we are doing this together.  Can you breathe now?”

“Yes, but my right hand is still swollen and I can’t feel my left foot.”

“Can you move it?”

“Yes.”

“Good; let’s start running.”  

If you happened to be running near my husband and me at the six-mile mark of the 34th Annual Army Ten-Miler this year, you probably overheard this dramatic conversation.  I was in tears and convinced my lungs and body had decided to revolt.  My husband was exasperated, but trying his best to motivate me.  This was how we decided we were going to celebrate ten years of marriage.  We thought it would be a fun challenge and we (mostly me) thought we were so clever with our catch phrase: Ten Miles for Ten Years.  I liked it so much that I even put it on a  t-shirt.  

The race had a predictable start.  We registered using my average pace, placing us in the last wave to begin. So, forty-five minutes after arriving at the Pentagon, one potty stop (minus toilet paper), three sneaker adjustments, lots of stretching, and several motivational speeches later, we finally began to run.   Miles one through three were everything I thought they would be.  I felt like a machine, jogging along next to my husband without a care in the world.  Much like the first three years of our marriage, we seemed to have this thing locked down and were cruising right along: get married, buy a home, get a puppy and have a beautiful baby girl (check, check, check and check).  

Per our plan, we walked the fourth mile.  The weather was perfect and as the course skirted along the National Mall, we were able to catch glimpses of the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the Washington Monument.  At mile-five, we picked up the pace again and began to run.  I surprised myself, by being able to maintain a decent pace.  Five miles was the longest I had ever run and I knew I’d be pushing my limits for the rest of the race.  Yet, even after my significantly faster husband took off towards the port-o-potties, instructing me to keep running and that he’d catch up, my now-slightly-aching body seemed to move on its own as I reflected on our fifth year of marriage; a year spent excitedly anticipating and systematically preparing for  the arrival of our second daughter.  

Mile six was where things got interesting and both my body and mind began to betray me.  As my husband chattered on about the Smithsonian Buildings and various other notable sights, my right hand began to swell.  It was as if the skin itself was going to split open like a well-cooked hot dog.  This is also where I inexplicably lost all feeling in my left foot.  Noting the discomfort loudly, but receiving no reaction, I kept running until I felt what I was certain could only be my right lung collapsing. I slowed to a walk, started gasping for breath and broke out into a complete panic.  Apparently, although my body was still working (mostly), my brain decided we were done.  I felt terrible, which didn’t make things better.  I knew my husband was holding back for me and I was not about to let him watch me quit and be the reason he didn’t finish.  I urged him to finish the race without me, but he was not having any of it.  So, sobbing and gulping for air, I continued to half-walk/half-run as he slowly jogged next to me until I regained my composure and my ability to breathe. 

After that, I never actually picked up the pace again to anything resembling a respectable jog.  Miles seven through ten were a sad display of run-walk-limping on my part.  Shockingly, I did not fall over into heap when we crossed the finish line and after about fifteen minutes my hand returned to its normal size and the sensation in my foot returned.  Meanwhile, we made our way through a city of tents grabbing water, cookies, muffins, bananas, fruit cups and whatever else was being offered and I continued to compare the race to our marriage.  

My youngest daughter was born just one week shy of our six-year wedding anniversary and the following year was surprisingly difficult. Life was louder, messier, and significantly less organized with two children than it had been with only one.  I’m sure I can speak for both of us when I say that my husband and I experienced many “limp-through-the-finish-line” kind of days that year and throughout the years that followed.  Nevertheless, we faced those days together.  We may be older and a little more beaten up then when we started, but  just as we crossed that finish line, we also arrived at the ten year anniversary of our marriage together, as partners, as planned and already making plans to return next October.

(I later discovered that our official finishing time was 2 hours, 19 minutes and 23 seconds.  I was 1,464 out of 1,641 in my age group and 9,919 out of 10,962 women overall. I’ll take it.  I’m simply thrilled to have finished.  My husband, however, is a different story.  Even though they are public, we don’t discuss his statistics.)  

We the Kids: The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, illustrations and foreword by David Catrow

rB+8NFc5RZK23ReYiAVtAg_thumb_10046NY:  Puffin Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2005

I recently took my children to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate for the day.  We had a great time touring the estate and learning about Washington’s life at home, role as an officer in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and as our first President.  Admittedly, my young children only absorbed so much, but enough sunk in for my older daughter to begin asking questions about the role of a president, government, and voting.   At the end of the day we went to the gift shop and I found a hidden gem:  “We the Kids:  The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States.”  As illustrator David Catrow explains in the foreward, the purpose of this picture book is to get kids thinking about the Constitution as “a list of rules and promises written down by people just like you and me.”  The entertaining illustrations help explain each line of the preamble through the eyes of children (and their dog) on a camping trip.  This is a fantastic idea and a great book for parents who want to start having conversations about history with their young children but don’t quite know how to begin.  

 

“Room on the Broom” and “The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid Of Anything”

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_fff3Room on the Broom, by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, is the reigning champion of Halloween picture books in my house every October.  It is the story of a UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_ffedhappy witch who flies around on her broomstick losing her possessions, but picking up friends along the way.  The author skillfully uses rhyme and word repetition to entrance young readers.  Like her older sister before her, my preschooler has the book memorized and takes any opportunity to “read” it to me.  In addition to the language, the pictures are vibrant and fun.  This book has inspired many hours of imaginary play and inevitably influences my daughters’ halloween costumes each year.

Another family favorite is, The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, by Linda Williams and illustrated by Megan Lloyd.  This is the story of a little old lady who is walking home to her cottage at dusk and is followed by shoes,taeLfvS5QSiXk4OwZBRxFA_thumb_ffec pants, a shirt, gloves, a tall black hat, and a pumpkin head.  Each object moves on its own and makes a very specific sound or movement as it follows her home.  This is another great picture book for word recognition and memorization.  Also, the story is simply fun to read aloud; inspiring lots of laughs depending on how silly you want to get with the sounds.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Washington Irving

0%nhkuApQVuoxa+20neXvg_thumb_ffb6Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories (Illustrated Junior Library). NY: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers, 1999.

Most people think they know the story of Ichabod Crane, but unless you have actually read the text, you may be missing quite a bit. It is the tale of an esteemed, but awkward, school teacher who attempts to court the town coquette and fails.  One evening, he rides back to his lodging after being rejected only to disappear leaving his hat near the shattered remains of a pumpkin and a superstitious town to draw their own conclusions.  If that is all you know, you have barely scratched the surface of this amazing piece of literature.  

Every step Ichabod Crane takes is precisely outlined with incredibly vivid language.  He is described in such detail that you feel as if he is in the room with you.  Known as a man who enjoys tales of ghosts and goblins, each time his imagination starts to run wild, you are taken along for the ride, right up until the final terrifying encounter with the headless horseman.  The prose will have you listening to the stillness for every errant creak and howl.  You will smell the winter air, hear footsteps in the snow, revel in the abundance of the Van Tassel farm, feel the warmth of the winter hearth, and crave roasted apples.

I may have a special place in my heart for this story because I grew up so close to the Hudson Valley and, in fact, purchased this volume at Washington Irving’s estate, Sunnyside.  However, I would recommend reading this spooky legend to anyone looking for a short but wonderful piece of classic American literature to bolster their Halloween mood.