Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

Goodreads Summary:

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously--and at great risk--documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

My Take:

This book captivated me from the first page to the last (I read it in a day).  I've read of Hitler's atrocities, but Stalin's are equally horrifying.  Based on interviews with survivors, as well as writings and artwork buried by those who didn't survive in hopes that it would one day be found to tell the stories of the dead, this book is heartwrenching yet somehow heartwarming at the same time.  It illustrates, one poignant page after another, the remarkable strength of the human spirit.

Highly Recommend! 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Courageous walk through a grocery store parking lot

Published for Motherhood Matters/ -- HERE's the link
Published for Cross Timbers Gazette -- HERE's the link

DALLAS — Since my brush with death while walking through a grocery store parking lot seven weeks ago, I’ve hit a few rough patches.
Besides navigating my way through lots of aches and even more pains, I struggle with what’s called “diminished capacity.” In other words, my brain can process only so much activity or stimulation before it decides that it’s had enough and starts to shut down.
I’m never quite sure when this might occur, so it’s proven quite problematic — especially when I’m out in public or trying to have an extended conversation.
My doctors say that my brain will eventually recalibrate and return to its normal state. As time wears on, I can see why they use the term “eventually” — it’s nice and vague. I’m beginning to wonder if patience, for all its virtues, might be a bit overrated. At this point, I would choose full pre-accident brain capacity over patience in a heartbeat.
As tough as these issues have been, at least the doctors prepared me for them. The one thing that caught me completely off guard, though, is that I couldn’t get myself to go back to the scene of the accident. Every time I would pass the store, the thought of walking through the parking lot was paralyzing.

For someone like me, who isn’t nervous or panicky by nature, that feeling of dread was foreign and somewhat frightening. It wasn’t rational, but it was very real.
At the five-week point, I decided that I’d had enough of my own wimpiness. I was going to show my kids what being brave looks like. So in a burst of confidence, I put on the shirt I had worn on the day of the accident (sadly, my jeans were rendered unwearable by a zealous paramedic wielding a giant pair of scissors) and drove to the store with my two youngest kids.
Once I parked, I realized that my confidence had been short-lived and I came very close to turning around. But my kids — who understood why we had come — were with me, and the whole idea was for me to show them how to be brave. I climbed out, held tightly to my 7-year-old son’s hand, and we slowly retraced my steps through the parking lot.
Without my son’s smile and my 10-year-old daughter’s enthusiastic words of encouragement, I couldn’t have done it. As it turned out, my kids helped me be brave.
As we entered the store, there were no cheers or balloons or even a cookie to acknowledge my feat. We simply walked through the aisles, filled our cart and went to a checkout line. As he was scanning our groceries, the teenage cashier smiled and said, “How’s it going?”

I smiled back and said, “Fine, thanks.” He didn’t know my full story, and would have been pretty overwhelmed with my real answer. But he was both genuine and friendly, which was enough.
Almost everyone I know has tackled, or is currently tackling, significant challenges: health issues, death or disability of a loved one, divorce, struggles with children, huge disappointments, depression. In other words, we all suffer a form of “diminished capacity” at some point.
When we’re in this diminished state, it can seem almost impossible to walk into a store, or even get out of bed in the morning. It can be so very hard to be brave — especially without help.
I tell myself to make more of an effort to smile, to give words of encouragement, and to hold someone’s hand when they need it. And even though I will rarely know anyone’s full story, I remind myself how important it is to simply be genuine and friendly.
It may not be everything, but there's a good chance that it will be enough.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Book Review: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

My sincerest thanks go to my friend Stephanie Y for alerting me to the existence of this book.  Words fail to describe how much I enjoyed it.  Like Stephanie, I would give this 4.5 stars (out of 5).  Plus.

My two favorite "What Readers Say" quotes from the back of the book jacket:

"There is such humor and mischief in these pages.  The characters sparkle and Sophy herself is a triumph."

"Heyer's brilliant wit and intelligent humor make her work stand head and shoulders above the rest."

I guffawed and chuckled and outright snorted my way through this book.  Since I primarily read it in the car on a road trip, family members were (understandably) startled and sometimes alarmed with my outbursts.

Think Jane Austen with added hilarity. And, like with all good chick lit, there's a delightfully happy ending.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Spring break trip shows process of raising children just as valuable as product

Published for KSL -- HERE's the link

DALLAS — I woke up before daylight and hurried to our station wagon, begging the rest of my family to hurry up. I was 14 and it was Saturday, so this behavior was highly unusual. But I wanted desperately to be done and back home before anyone I knew might wake up and decide to go grocery shopping — Or even drive past the store.
Because this was no ordinary trip to the grocery store, the potential for utter humiliation was enormous. My dad had finagled a deal with the store owner that he was pretty excited about: our family would fill in for the regular parking lot maintenance workers that morning. In a nutshell, we were to be the trash picker-uppers.
As difficult as this may be to believe, not a single one of us kids shared dad’s enthusiasm.
What we did share, however, was our interest in the carrot that my parents had dangled in front of us to get our buy-in on waking up before dawn on a Saturday morning. The carrot was a spring break vacation. With a large family and a small budget, there would be no vacation unless someone figured out how to earn extra cash.
My parents understood something important about raising kids: The process is every bit as valuable, if not more so, as the product.
My parents had gone and figured it out — without any regard whatsoever to how their kids might feel about it. But here’s the thing: We really wanted that carrot, and knew it was impossible unless we subjected ourselves to alarming conditions like hard work and the real possibility of social annihilation.
So we did what had to be done, sulking around for a few hours that morning, mostly in the dark, throwing away litter and moving grocery carts back to their designated areas.
I’m guessing that the parking lot gig didn’t result in a huge financial windfall, because Dad landed us another job a week or so later. A business owner had a few thousand brochures to mail out, and our dad happily volunteered us. Our tasks were to fold the fliers into three equal sections — not as easy as it may seem — stuff them into envelopes, seal and stamp the envelopes.
After the first hundred or so mailers, we developed a strong dislike for the job. Maybe it was the paper cuts and muscle cramps in our hands and fingers; or it could have been our dry, gluey tongues after licking so many stamps.
In any case, our memories of racing shopping carts through an empty parking lot grew fonder and fonder as the day wore on. By the end, if given the choice between parking lot maintenance and envelope stuffing, we would have chosen the parking lot — hands down.
Thanks in large part to our parents’ resourcefulness and in small part to us — since I’m pretty sure whining on the job significantly reduces the credit one is allowed to take for completing it — we had our vacation. It was a fantastic trip consisting of a visit to Six Flags and eating out, mostly at McDonald’s. I mention the eating out because we never went to restaurants — and I mean this literally — unless my grandparents were in town.
This may sound cliché, but it’s true: The blood, sweat and whines we had expended to make the trip happen made it that much more meaningful to us.
In fact, my memories of the work are just as powerful as my memories of the trip itself. It could be argued that this is due to the emotional trauma brought on by so much drudgery, but that would be the 14-year-old in me talking.
My parents understood something important about raising kids: The process is every bit as valuable, if not more so, as the product.
So, as a parent, I do my best to focus on the process. I’m far from perfect, but I give it my best shot. What’s great, at least in my experience, is that the product generally takes care of itself — and it’s usually not half bad.
In this matter, I’m thankful to my parents on two fronts.
One, they gave me multiple opportunities to experience the process so that I could truly appreciate the product.
Two, these experiences resulted in stories that are fraught with just enough angst and peril to be highly effective in motivating kids who complain about chores.
It’s remarkable how a simple story about a grocery store parking lot can suddenly stop all whining.