Books of the Year

Best Fiction
Room by Emma Donoghue
Jack is 5 and the room he was born in is his whole world; it’s a soundproof, escape-proof garden shed in which he and his mother are held captive. Jack narrates the book, and although he’s definitely precocious his thoughts and views are spot-on five. And the relationship between Jack and his mom is wonderfully drawn; it captures perfectly how a mother can love her child beyond measure (and go to extraordinary lengths to keep him safe and nurtured in spite of difficult circumstances) but still be irritated and worn down by the never-ending demands of motherhood. As soon as I finished this book the first time I immediately started reading it again from the beginning.

More really good fiction:
Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato
Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Guilty Pleasure
Faithful Place by Tana French
This doesn’t quite fit into the category of “well-written literary fiction” like the above books; it’s more of a “can’t put down” kind of book. This is French’s third novel about detectives in Dublin. In each of the novels, there comes a point where you have to decide to suspend your disbelief in order to stick with the story; I suppose that’s a flaw, but she’s good enough at drawing characters and building suspense that it doesn’t matter in the end.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann
This is a collection of essays (many of which, I realized after buying the book, I’d already read in The New Yorker) about murder, madness, and obsession. The best one is about a man who was executed in Texas for a crime he almost certainly did not commit. My second-favorite one, weirdly enough, is about the series of tunnels and mains that supply water to New York City (one stretches all the way from the city to Albany – did you know that?) and the looming crisis that the city faces if these tunnels aren’t repaired.

The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins
I generally dislike apocalyptic/dystopian fiction, but it’s hard not to care about Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to survive as a tribute in the Hunger Games.

Favorite re-reads
Harry Potter
Just finished re-reading this series and love it as much as ever.

Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
Probably the funniest books I’ve ever read. The savages and demons of the titles are Jackson’s four children, and she writes about being a mother with a perfect blend of exasperation and bewilderment and affection.

Worst book of the year
Honestly, I feel like I read a bunch of stinkers this year. The worst among the worst was Mr Peanut by Adam Ross. It starts out okay – a man is arrested on suspicion of force-feeding peanuts to his highly allergic wife, resulting in her death – but no, typing that out, I see it didn’t really start out okay at all. The problem with this book – and what some call its “genius” – is that you never really know what “actually” happened and what is the projection of the main character, who is himself writing a book about things that happened to him. And then in the middle there’s a long, long, long side story about Sam Shepherd (you know, from The Fugitive), which honestly might have been all right had it been a completely separate book, but which I couldn’t enjoy because I kept thinking, wait, was does this have to do with the peanut guy? I hated this book, but I kept plugging along because I wanted to figure out “what happened” – and the final straw was that, about ten pages toward the end, there’s another digression about the films of Hitchcock. WTH? Oh, the agony. Hated this book.

Worst re-read of the year
Last week I suddenly felt the urge to re-visit The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, which I remember loving beyond reason when I was in college. I couldn’t find my original copy, so I downloaded it onto my nook (for cheap!) and dove in. And good grief – let’s just put it this way – the book is 1074 pages and I think she could’ve gotten the job done in 350. She never uses one sentence when three paragraphs would suffice. The story itself is not terrible, but I don’t know if I’m going to have the fortitude to make it all the way to the end. I guess it’s good to know that my tastes have matured a bit in 20 years.

What are the best and worst books you read this year?


Aunt Fran

Chris's great aunt Fran lives in Indiana and has never met our kids. But not a single birthday or holiday (major or minor) goes by without the girls receiving a card from Fran, and each card has a dollar bill inside, folded to look like a bowtie. Mallory and Phoebe get so excited when they see Aunt Fran's handwriting on an envelope (on Halloween she makes her letters squiggly, to spooky effect). Thanks, Aunt Fran, for thinking of them.

Mallory herself almost never lets a day go by without drawing a picture or writing a letter to someone, so I think she's preparing herself to step into Aunt Fran's shoes in a few decades' time. That thought makes me smile.


Christmas Past

I don't know what I miss more tonight -- the people in this picture, or being young enough to be on the receiving end of all the work that goes into Christmas.

Hope yours is merry and bright.


Santa Claus came to town

Last night I took the girls to the Chamber of Commerce to see Santa Claus. (Santa had originally planned to come to the park gazebo, but it hasn't hit 50 degrees here since December 1, so the town decided that the Chamber office would be more comfortable.) He was a very nice Santa and spent a long time with each child; which was nice for the child of the moment but not so nice for those standing in line. However, we were the the third family to show up so we didn't really have to wait that long.

He and Mrs. Claus, who was sitting beside him in a gingham bonnet, were both a bit judgey when it came to wish lists, though. The girl ahead of us asked for a cell phone. "A cell phone? How old are you?" Santa asked. The girl said she was 10. "I'll have to think hard about that one," Santa said. Mrs. Claus interjected: "Honey, you don't need a cell phone until you start to drive." The girl looked a bit upset. Mrs. Claus leaned over and said to her mom in a loud whisper: "She really doesn't need a cell phone, you know!"

(Let me say that in theory I agree with the Clauses about the cell phone business, but you're supposed to be able to ask Santa for anything! That's the point of Santa!)

So when Mallory asked Santa for an ipod, he frowned a little bit. "I'd also like a webkinz," she said hastily. "Now that I can do!" he said.

Santa had no reservations about Phoebe's wishes: Girl legos and Polly Pockets. Mrs. Claus told me that she loved Phoebe's name.

I think both my good little girls will be satisfied on Christmas morning.


Missed Manners

Both of my Girl Scout troops celebrated the holidays with a gift exchange, so I picked up two packs of Squinkies for Mallory and Phoebe's contributions. "What if the person who gets this already has Squinkies?" Mallory asked.

"Well, that's what gift receipts are for," I said; but then I saw the opportunity for a Teachable Moment. "Actually, though, what DO you do when someone gives you a gift you already have?"

"You say, 'I have this at home!'" Phoebe said.

"Well, no. You should just smile and say 'Thank you!' The person doesn't need to know that you already have it; that might make them feel bad."

"Oh, and then you can take it back to the store and get something else?" Mallory said.

"Yes, you could do that," I said. "But you shouldn't tell the person you're going to do that."

"Yeah, but remember last year? When I got that High School Musical doll from Sarah at my party?" Mallory said. "And I don't like High School Musical so you let me take it back to Target?"


"That wasn't because I already had it, that was because I just didn't LIKE it. So that's okay too, right?"

"Yes, but the important thing is that you're not rude about it. As long as you said thank you to Sarah for the doll, and she didn't KNOW you didn't like it--"

"So as long as you don't tell the truth, right?" Phoebe said.

"Well." I had the distinct feeling that my Teachable Moment was getting away from me. "You should always tell the truth, of course. It's just that sometimes it's more important to be polite."

"Being polite is more important than not lying? Is that what you're saying?" Mallory demanded.

"There's a kind of lie called a little white lie," I said. "And yes, it's something you say when you don't want someone's feelings to be hurt. Like if someone gives you a present you don't like, you should go ahead and say thank you and that you like it very much. That's not a bad lie."

"But what if you go to a priest, and you have to confess your sins, do you have to confess that lie?" Mallory said. "Or do you say that you did tell a lie, but it was a good kind of lie, will the priest understand that?"

"God will understand, and that's all that matters," I said, a bit desperately.

"But what if the person comes to your house after you take the gift back," Phoebe said, "and they want to know where it is? And you don't have it anymore?"

"Yeah," Mallory said, "then you'll have to tell another lie to cover up for the fact that you took it back."

"The point is," I said, "that it's very important to say thank you when you receive a gift. Because when someone gives you a gift, it's because they like you and want you to be happy, and that matters much more than what the gift actually is."

"Okay, Mom, we get it," Mallory said. "You don't have to have that face on."

"What face?"

"Your leader face. Right now you're just our mom."


You would've thought, after the disastrous turn this conversation took, that I would've learned my lesson. But no -- when my Daisy troop met for our Christmas party, and I could legitimately wear my leader face, which I did not even know I had, by the way, I tried again. "What do we say when someone gives us a present?" I asked the girls before we passed out the gifts.

"Thank you!" the girls chorused.

"Right! But what if someone gives you a gift you don't really like? What do you say then?"

"No thank you!" they said.

"Well, that's not quite --" I began. And then I stopped. And let it go.


Have yourself a marshmallowy Christmas

If loving this ornament -- Baby Jesus and his parents, as marshmallows, on a graham cracker -- is wrong, I don't want to be right.


Nothing is ever easy

Last night I sang the extended lyric version of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer to the girls -- they'd never heard it that way, amazingly; although I admit they were more perplexed than amused. "Like Monopoly? What does that mean?" Mallory asked halfway through. I soldiered on and gave it the big finish: "You'll go down in history! Like Columbus!"

Phoebe said: "What's a klumpus?"

"Yeah," Mallory said, "I've never heard of a klumpus at Christmas time."

"Columbus," I said. "Like Columbus, like Christopher Columbus."

"Who's that?" Phoebe asked.

"You know," Mallory said. "He was with the Mayflower, and all that."


The rest of the story

So we called lights out at 12:30; Mallory and one friend went right to sleep in the guest room, but the three other girls had to be gently reminded at 1:15 to stay in bed; reprimanded at 2:15 for playing a board game on the bunk bed; and yelled at at 3:10 for doing heaven knows what but it was making a lot of noise. Finally all were asleep; they woke up at 8:00 asking to make friendship bracelets. I fed them doughnuts and went to Phoebe's Daisy Scout meeting at 9:30, for which I felt totally unprepared (Phoebe had spent the night at my in-laws, btw). Got home around 12:30 to Mallory asking me to help her with her new Easy Bake oven and Phoebe asking me to set up the Christmas tree.

All I wanted to do was take a nap.

But I didn't. Chris helped Mallory easy-bake; I got down the tree. And then we got a freak snowstorm. All in all, it was a pretty exciting weekend for my birthday girl.

Now the birthday has been celebrated, the tree has been trimmed, and the snow has melted (although it's still extremely cold here). And I'm still in need of a nap.


T minus 39 minutes...

11:22 p.m.

Mallory announced halfway through the movie that she was tired and going straight to bed when it was finished. "That means everyone she has to go to bed," she announced. I was foolish enough to hope this would come to fruition. Instead, she got the dreaded second wind. They played a game; they danced and sang to Miranda Cosgrove. Just now they demanded that Chris draw portraits of all of them. Alternately, they'd like to make friendship bracelets. I heard one girl tell Mallory to set her alarm for 3 a.m. so they can sneak downstairs and watch our Elf on the Shelf change positions. (I'll explain that one later.)

Mallory's happy and having a good time and I'm glad about that. But man, I'd really like to go to bed now.

Just heard ominous crashing noise from upstairs. Not sure if I really want to investigate. So tired.

9:25 p.m.

Four girls arrived on time. There was much screaming and giggling and attempting cartwheeling. Pizza, cake, pinata dispatched. Young girls are very noisy. Fifth girl arrives late; said parents got lost. Feel guilty; forgot to notify parents of road construction around neighborhood. Presents opened, goody bags distributed. One girl has to go home early, not allowed to stay all night because has whooping cough. (No longer contagious.) Fingernails painted, pillowcases decorated. I (brilliantly) try to plan tomorrow's Girl Scout meeting around the chaos. Mallory stubs toe, has headache (not related). Popped popcorn. Girls now in living room watching Coraline. Requested total darkness. Hoping it makes them sleepy.

5:21 p.m.

Mallory's sleepover guests will arrive any minute now. The house is clean, the juice boxes are chilled, the candles are on the cake, the pinata is filled. On the agenda: pillowcase decorating, pizza eating, pinata smashing, present opening, game playing, friendship bracelet making, and, apparently, staying up until at least 2 a.m. I'm sure there will also be a lot of high-pitched screaming and discussions of iCarly episodes.

If I have the chance I'll live blog the experience for you. Why shouldn't you suffer right along with me?

Wish me luck.









Happy birthday to one of the two most beautiful girls in the world. I love you!