Book Review: The Bean Trees

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Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees is possibly one of my favorite books of all time. The book deals with an incredible amount of life experience in a very short amount of time, and it does it with grace. The book follows Taylor Greer as she runs west, away from her small Southern town, and ends up taking care of an abused and shell-shocked toddler whose parents she’s never met.

The real appeal of The Bean Trees is in how well Kingsolver addresses pain. The story contains death, violence, irrational fear, child abuse, sexual abuse, disillusionment, divorce, deportation, blindness, loss of a child, kidnapping, “dirty war”, torture, guilt, and unrequited love – and yet, all of it is handled so carefully that I would recommend the book to anyone over twelve years old. The book opens wounds and then heals them so completely that the entire experience is uplifting, even when there are still loose ends. It makes you feel empty and full at the same time.

Five stars, and please go read this book. ♦

In Search of The “Duh”

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes of the “tao,” a universal sense of morality humans all seem to have naturally. Borrowing a term from taoism, Lewis argues that the core similarities in all human expectation of fairness shows that we have some absolutely morality. This is the tao.

I have discovered a more flexible extension of the tao. I call it the “duh.” I began noticing it when I was engaged, and I got a nasty cold. My fiancé stayed by my side for several days, even sometimes while I slept. When I woke up, he made sure I was taken care of. I thanked him, and he just looked at me and said, “Duh.”

He continued to say “duh” instead of “you’re welcome” for several months, until I finally pointed out to him that that wasn’t a valid response. He told me he was responding that way because I didn’t need to thank him for doing what anybody would do.

But, as I pointed out, he wasn’t doing what anybody would do. He was doing what anybody should do. Most people don’t have their act together all (or even most) of the time. I had dated guys before who would have just sent me a “get better” text and left me alone for a few days to recover. He was only doing what he should – but compared to most people, he was going above and beyond.

This is not to say that my husband is the only person who has achieved “duh” enlightenment. We all, through our own experiences and choices, develop our “duh” in different ways. I once emailed a professor to explain that I was helping a friend with emotional challenges through the night, and didn’t have time to do the homework for her class. She held me after class the next day – not to discuss my homework – but to make sure I had the phone number for the campus on-call counselor, and information about free services. An employer of mine once pulled me aside to talk when she noticed I was having a bad day. Both of these people thought this was the obvious thing to do; neither of them realized how rare it was for anyone else to do them.

In order to become good people, we need two things: priorities and practice. First, the priorities: people come first. If a person is in trouble, but your dinner might get cold, you choose the person. Duh. People over food. If your roommate’s having a seizure, but your homework is overdue, take care of your roommate. People over grades. If a person is in trouble, but it would inconvenience you, weigh it out. If you’ll do more good for them by helping than for yourself by not helping, do it.

Second, practice. 2+2 is a “duh” kind of question, once you’ve passed kindergarten, but for kindergartners, it’s a mind-blowing concept. If you realize your priorities have been off, figure out what you should do, and try. It doesn’t become the obvious solution until you’re in the habit, but once it’s habitual, it becomes easy.

I’m not saying the answer to all questions lies in doing the most obvious thing – but I think it’s a lot easier than we all think. Most of the time, when we eliminate all the obstacles we’re staring at, we know what the right thing is. We just need to do it. ♥

Nature Walk With a Tiny Bear

Last night, and the night before, Ethan volunteered to take care of Little John for a few hours while I had some time to myself. I took him up on it – I’m still not sure what to do with free time anymore, but I took him up on it. And by the time I “checked in” again with the men of the house, Ethan had decided we needed to get that backpack/baby carrier we’d been talking about. Immediately. We went to Target at midnight to pick one out.

Today, when baby John was being a little clingy, I decided to test the thing out. I fed him, changed his diaper, and fished around for his little bear suit. It’s so soft and fuzzy, I thought it would be a good excuse for a winter coat – and the Wasatch Mountains decided we needed a little surprise snow yesterday. He looked adorable, little fuzzy ears and all. And oddly enough, he seemed to enjoy being dressed up.

I carted my baby bear off to try out the carrier. After about ten minutes of finagling, I got him firmly strapped to my front, and we went out and up the mountain. The advantage to living on a mountainside is that “up the mountain” only entailed about three blocks of travel.

It was snowing, but still green as spring outside, and he just stared at everything. Every single thing. Look- a tree. And a bush. Ooh, another tree. What is this fluffy white stuff coming out of the sky? After a while, he just snuggled up in his fuzzy bear suit and calmly watched the world around us while I hiked around the neighborhood. It was good cuddling weather.  Oh, to be a baby. I think I’ll keep him. ♦

Book Review: Son

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So, just a warning. This book is a heart-wrenching trip through new-mother hormones. And by that, I mean the whole thing is about a mother who will do anything for her son, even though she hasn’t seen him since he was a baby. If you have a baby, don’t read this while you’re nursing said baby. It will make you cry. Just saying.

Of course, it might also make you appreciate said baby a little more, even when he kind of bites you. So, that’s good.

Anyways. As far as the book goes, it’s a page-turner, but I’m not sure how much I’d recommend it. The writing is great – like, the prose really gets you interested and keeps you interested. But I think I have the same problem with Son that I had with Messenger: it feels like Lois Lowry really, really wanted to find a way to get all of her characters into the same story, and she broke her own rules to do it.

In The Giver, Jonas and Gabe escape from a futuristic, sterile dystopia. In Gathering Blue, Kira and Matt discover an alternative to their primitive, organic dystopia. In Messenger, Matt brings Kira to the village Jonas and Gabe founded with the help of a great deal of magic that wasn’t really explained. And in Son, Gabriel’s birthmother escapes her futuristic, sterile dystopia, travels through a completely unrelated seaside village, and ends up in Jonas and Kira’s new village after trading her youth away to the devil, who made a cameo appearance as a normal guy in Messenger, and Gabe has to go challenge the forces of evil to a duel to save his dying mom.

Did you follow all that?

I actually feel like all of this would have worked really well if Lowry had left out only one book. If she’d connected the last three and left out The Giver, she could have used a mother whose child was stolen and explored the same themes without hurdling through so many different genres. But I think I just have a really hard time mixing the last three novels – which seem to fall under the fantasy genre to me – with the harsh, sterile science-fiction of The Giver. I have a really hard time reading about artificial insemenation in the same book where I’m expected to believe that Evil himself is a tall guy who wanders the forest at night and steals whatever souls people are willing to trade to him.

All in all, I don’t feel like I wasted my time reading the book. But I just feel like Lowry was trying too hard to tie things together, and it left me feeling more frustrated at the end than relieved. It felt like she’d broken so many of her own rules that I wanted an impossibly happy ending, because if she was willing to break a few rules, she might as well break them all. I’ll give the book three stars, and say it was well-worded, but the series was poorly constructed. ♦

Book Review: Messenger

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Okay. I loved The Giver. I loved Gathering Blue. I loved most of Messenger. But I kind of feel like Lois Lowry woke up one morning and thought, “What if I connected those other two books and put them in the same universe? And while I’m at it, the same neighborhood?”

Messenger is about a kid named Matt who grew up with Kira, from Gathering Blue. He finds a new village to live in, and lives with Kira’s father. But then really weird things start happening, and people get selfish and start acting like they’re losing touch with what really matters. And they want to bar outsiders from the village – which is the whole reason the village started in the first place. It was a haven for refugees. Anyway. Matt has the job of sending messages through the forest, because apparently the forest is a living thing and sometimes attacks people it doesn’t like.

That’s weird – but it’s well-written, and I was okay with it. To be honest, I expected some more rational explanation for it, but I figured it would be forthcoming.

It’s not, though. I mean, the entire book is about the fear of the forest, and at the end of the book (spoilers, people), there’s maybe a paragraph where Lowry explains that the problem with the forest was a thick knot of fear and selfishness. Like, the people made the forest sick? Or the forest made the people sick? Or was there just some cloud of evil hanging out, or what? I feel like there are some pretty deep Christian parallels I can draw here, but only after reading Son, the final book in the series. And even then, the explanation still doesn’t hold up as well as I’d expect.

I think my problem is that The Giver made complete sense, with only a few actual “magical” elements to it – like the transmission of memories. Everything else was just futuristic. They found a way to turn off the weather. And colors. And teenage hormones. There are assigned birthmothers, who are insemenated artificially. The food comes from local farms and fish hatcheries. But then Lowry throws a few characters from that universe into this new book, where the trees are literally attacking people.

I like the writing. But I don’t buy it. ♦

Book Review: Gathering Blue

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Lois Lowry is a fabulous writer – anyone who’s read The Giver will probably agree with me. But I think I like Gathering Blue just as much or even more than The Giver.

Gathering Blue is written as a companion novel to The Giver – not a sequel, but a book that goes side-by-side with it. The basic concept of the books is the same: each is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel. It tells about a society that’s rebuilt after failure, and despite how well it appears to be working, it’s not. The reason this works so well as a companion – and not a sequel – is that it’s almost as though Lowry has written two different books about the exact same thing, but with completely different results. The Giver is written about a society that escapes its past by erasing the organic nature of it and embracing technology instead of the human experience. Gathering Blue is about a society that’s lost almost all of its technology – but also a lot of its humanity.

I loved the book. It’s rare that I really appreciate a sequel, but this one really does Lowry justice. Five stars. ♦

Growth Spurt?!

My 3-month-old hasn’t figured out the whole “darkness means sleep” thing. Last week I got a cold because I didn’t sleep enough. Saturday night, Little John was up until 2am, squeaking and chirping and eating and being generally pleasant (as long as we didn’t put him down). At least he’s cute about it.

Sunday, we kept him up as much as we could during the day in hopes he’d go to sleep at night. Around 2am again, though, we were starting to think things were not working out that way. He was still up, just a little less cheerful. Same with us.

Eventually, he fell asleep. Yesterday was Ethan’s day off, so we went and did responsible, grown-up things. Picked up his check. Went to a thrift shop and bought some clothes (and books!) Went back to Pioneer Book and bought the fountain pen I’ve been looking at (and books!) We had a pretty good time just spending time together, actually, while John just slept in his carseat. Of course he did. He’d been up all night.

While we were driving around, we were brainstorming ways to get him onto a more normal sleep schedule. We’d already tried most of it, and we ended up deciding to feed him as much as possible just before bed, and then plan on me staying up all night and sleeping all day. Ethan has a job, so he can’t stay up all night. I can catnap during the day when the baby sleeps. And if I’m actually planning on staying up all night, it’s not nearly as irritating when I do.

Armed with newfound resolve, we faced the coming night. We were fairly confident that feeding him more would solve the problem, to be honest. He often falls asleep while eating. Last night, however, Little John experienced an 8-hour growth spurt that probably added at least 2 inches to his height. And by that, I mean he ate everything he could see. His hands. My arms. All the milk in my body. About 11 ounces of breast milk from the freezer. Sometime around 2am, when he had eaten twice and was still visibly chomping, we decided he was old enough for solid foods, and gave him some pureed oatmeal. He was the happiest kid in the world. He ate at least a dozen spoonfuls, then drank some more milk.

By this time, we had decided if we were up, we might as well be up and doing. We cleaned the entire baby’s room, organized the desk, washed some dishes, made food for ourselves (twice), cooked rice for Ethan’s lunches, organized most of the bedroom, and filed taxes. I told Ethan to go to bed. There was no point in the whole family staying up, and he had work in the morning.

John and I stayed up and played and ate and catnapped and woke up and ate and ate and fussed and played and made little squeaky noises and read books and ate some more. Sometime just a little before 6 in the morning, he finally conked out for good, and I could transfer him to his crib without waking him up. I climbed into bed and slept until Ethan woke up late for work.

John’s awake again, just lying on the floor behind me, contemplating his hands. I’ve turned around a few times to see him raising one fist triumphantly, just staring at it (or me). I’m actually alright with all this today. I’ll sleep when he does. In the meantime… I made a human. And he’s growing like nobody’s business. He’ll figure out that whole circadian rhythm in a while. In the meantime, I’ll do some free online classes and maybe do some writing. Or read all the books we have. I don’t know. I’ll find something. ♦