Saturday, January 31, 2009

Flashback Friday: Jeremy on drugs

We spent the summers of 2006 and 2007 in Amman, Jordan (read all about it on My Adventures in Jordan, here). The first summer, Jeremy was the assistant director (read: glorified babysitter) of Brigham Young University's Arabic study abroad program, held at Jordan University. In 2007, he was the director, all by himself. That meant that he spent a lot of time on campus at JU:

(though not necessarily watching random military bands practice),

attending Iran-Iraq soccer games with students:

and other such intense responsibilities. He didn't spend nearly enough time hanging out with Miriam and the neighbor kids:

or sightseeing downtown:

or puzzling over bizarrely shaped eggplants at Carrefour:

or chilling with Miriam on a street corner in Jebel Webdeh, drinking Coke:

Really, though, he was very busy. Being in charge of a few dozen college-age human beings is not the most predictable job even in the best of circumstances. When it's in a foreign country and the students are doing their best to dive into the culture and experience it to the fullest, lots of things can happen. Fortunately, nothing too major did. He had to take a student to the hospital in the middle of the night for a bad case of food poisoning, and deal with the aftermath of a groping incident that took place on campus, but otherwise, it was the day-to-day details that kept him working hard and invariably exhausted by the end of the day.

There is such a thing as being too tired to sleep, so one night Jeremy decided to take a sleeping pill to help things along. I think it was an Ambien pill that had been left behind by someone who had come from the US to visit us and used it to combat jet lag. In any case, it wasn't your average Tylenol PM or whatever.

Jeremy had never taken a strong sleeping pill before, but he assumed it would work like its weaker, Tylenol-manufactured cousins. So he took the pill about half an hour before he was actually planning to go to bed. I remember him walking down the hall to the kitchen swallow it with a drink of water.

It couldn't have been more than three minutes later when he came staggering back down the hall, unsteady on his feet and mumbling about going to bed. I honestly thought he was just exaggerating - Jeremy is such a joker that sometimes it's hard to tell when he's really being serious. The sleeping pill couldn't possibly have worked so strongly and so quickly...right?

I decided to play along with his little act and so I followed him into the bedroom. He had managed to make it to the bed, but only barely. One arm and one leg were still hanging off the edge. Just to humor him in his ridiculous little act, I pushed him all the way onto the bed and then took off his glasses, which he had not removed before collapsing onto the pillow.

If this was a joke - and I thought it was - Jeremy was doing a great job of hamming it up. He was entirely dead weight as I tried to arrange the covers over him, and he didn't respond to me even though I was laughing at his little prank. Then he kicked it up another notch, and started to mumble in a very sleepy voice.

"These are my friends," he said, gesturing sloppily at the pillows on the bed. "They're aaaaaall my friends." He said a few more unintelligible things, and then: "At night, the black swan lady comes and visits the friends."

At that point, I was more scared than amused, but I really did think he was still joking. I laughed nervously and said something like, "OK, Jeremy, very funny. I get it. Can you stop kidding around now?" He didn't respond. He was already asleep.

The next morning, I told Jeremy he did a good job of freaking me right the heck out the night before, and would he please not do that again? Especially the part about the black swan lady.

He had no idea what I was talking about. The last thing he remembered was walking out of the kitchen and down the hall after taking the sleeping pill.

I'm really glad I wrote it all off at the time as just Jeremy goofing around, because if I had known he was seriously that impaired by taking a sleeping pill, I probably would have called a doctor, or at the very least, locked him in the room and slept somewhere else.

Because the black swan lady who visits her pillow friends sounds like one acquaintance I can afford not to make.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The day the music died

A few weeks ago, I made a mix tape for a friend. Not really a mix tape, actually, since it was just one artist (The Beautiful South), and also not really a mix tape since it was a CD. As I gave it to her, I realized that my effort to share some of my favorite music with her was probably totally futile since she's a mom, and we moms don't have a lot of opportunities to sit around, chill, and listen to music just to see if we like it.

Never has this been more clear to me than recently. Just like I said I would, I've been gradually transferring our home video mini DV tapes to our computer and making DVDs out of the footage. The program I use (iMovie/iDVD, if you must know) (Death to Apple! And blast them for producing superior photo/video editing software so I am left with no choice but to use its products!) has the option to add music to the menus and I've had a lot of fun choosing songs from our music library that evoke the time period of the DVD footage. So the videos of our time living in American Fork are heavy on Guster and The Corrs, and the DVDs of Syria have a lot of Amr Diab, Grace Deeb, and Kazem as-Saher.

Then I got to the DVDs after Miriam was born, and I hit a brick wall of silence. For the first year and a half after her birth, I apparently didn't listen to very much music. I remember being vaguely aware of it at the time, but there wasn't much I could do about it. All of a sudden I had to have my mom ears on all the time to listen for her waking up from a nap, or getting into trouble, or she wanted to listen to "Open Shut Them" on repeat, or whatever. So when it came time to add music to those DVDs, I had to pay attention to the footage itself to see if there was any music on in the background to give me some clues as to any songs I may have listened to, at all. In the end, all I came up with was one Depeche Mode song that she and Jeremy were dancing to one night. Nice.

Then, suddenly, the music came back again, somewhere around January 2007. What happened then, you might ask? Simple: I got an iPod Shuffle (curse Apple for making a superior mp3 player with its seamlessly integrated iTunes software!).

Actually, Jeremy got an iPod Shuffle. But I commandeered it and started to listen to music while I went running. It took me a while to convince myself that this was OK - there seemed to be something inherently unsafe about running around with one of my senses disabled. And maybe there is, if it's Smashing Pumpkins turned up full blast. But the soundtrack from Pride & Prejudice played at a volume so low that I could still hear my kid chattering away in the jogging stroller? Not so much, surely.

Another thing that helped is that I decided to carry pepper spray when I went running.

I was, and am, so glad to have the music back in my life, and back on our home video DVDs. I'm still hopelessly behind the current music scene, and I think too many years have gone by for me to ever catch up, but I have an iTunes library full of favorites to keep me going.

Like The Beautiful South, for example, which I hope my friend gets to listen to sometime in the next couple of years.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Please don't call CPS

Yes, Miriam has a black eye. But it was obtained legitimately, I swear.

Miriam was born with a dermoid cyst on her right browbone. At various times in her life, it has been very noticeable, moderately noticeable, or not noticeable at all. I don't know why. It seemed to show up more between the ages of 0 - 2, then it blended into her face pretty well until she was almost 3, at which time strangers started asking the same old "did you bump your head?" question again.

Here it is at age 3 months (while being tough-guyed by my cousin's baby, who is two weeks younger than Miriam):

and at age 1, after a visit to the opthamologist to make sure it wasn't affecting her actual eye at all:

It was a decision three years in the making, but we recently decided to have it surgically removed. The surgery took place on Thursday. The black eye showed up on Friday afternoon.

Sending your child into surgery is not a walk in the park, no matter how often the doctors involved tell you it's no big deal. General anesthesia is always a big deal. In fact, in Miriam's case, the fact that she would have to be put out for the surgery was a bigger worry to me than the procedure itself. Like I said, we've been thinking about doing this for three years, and so we went to the hospital on the morning of the surgery confident but not entirely without fear.

Everything went well - the surgeon was able to remove the cyst without any problems and Miriam didn't have any trouble with the anesthesia. In the end, the most traumatic thing about the whole experience for Miriam was in the waiting room when a little boy grabbed a toy dinosaur right out of her hands. That made her cry. Several nurses wheeling her hospital-gown-clad self away from her mom into a brightly lit, sterile medical corridor did not.

I was hoping for a quiet day on Thursday afternoon, post-surgery, with Miriam recovering meekly on the papa-san in the living room, watching movies or reading books. Instead, she was back to normal in about 20 minutes. Typical.

The doctor had said we could expect some "bruising or bleeding," but I confess I was taken aback by the severity of the black eye as it took shape so ominously on Friday afternoon. We've gone out in public as normal and it's been interesting, funny, or unnerving to observe people's varying responses to a three-year-old with such a grotesque injury.

Some people shake their heads and smile in sympathy, or even volunteer to me the story about the time their kid got a black eye while [whatever]. Some people glance and then look away, and then sneak a few more peeks at Miriam (and me, possibly to assess my child abuse potential) when they think I don't notice. Other people flat-out glare at me, as if I had the audacity to beat my kid and then take her out in public. Very few people (strangers, at least) have actually asked me what happened, but I wish they would rather than assume the worst.

So far, it appears that no one has reported us to Child Protective Services. Hopefully that won't change. In the meantime, I'm considering digging out my copy of the doctor's post-surgery orders and pinning them to Miriam's shirt just as a preventative measure. Let's hope it works.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Flashback Friday: The most disgusting bathroom I've ever used

I've tried not to use too many travelogue stories for Flashback Friday, because they generally have neither a good story arc nor a punchy ending. I have made a few exceptions, though, and I'm making another one today to bring you an account of the most disgusting bathroom I've ever used. Note the distinction between "used" and "seen." The tale of the most disgusting bathroom I've ever seen will have to wait for another day.

Is anybody still reading?

To get to the story of the bathroom, you're going to have to wade through one of the more chaotic days of my life, near the end of 2004, just a few days after Christmas. You may remember from previous Flashback Fridays that at that time, we were traveling around the Middle East with Jeremy's brother (Dave) and sister (Sarah). On one particular morning, we woke up in our hotel room in Aqaba, Jordan, planning to take a ferry across the Red Sea to Nuweiba, Egypt, and then take a bus from there to Cairo, arriving in that city late at night. A day of traveling without sight-seeing, in other words, but it was a necessary evil.

Breakfast in our hotel was like being in the Twilight Zone. We were the only customers in the entire breakfast room, and the décor was a little outdated with lots of emphasis on teal and gold. Soft music was providing additional ambiance, but after a while we realized it was actually only one song: the theme from Love Story. Instead of just repeating the same version over and over, however, there were a dozen different versions that played in tireless rotation. There was original Love Story, saxophone Love Story, salsa Love Story, piano Love Story, Spanish guitar Love Story, New Age Love Story, etc. Finally it drove us so crazy that we just had to leave. We were due to be at the ferry station, anyway.

Two words sum up the entire ferry experience between Jordan and Egypt: Bureaucracy and Confusion. On the Jordan side, nobody seemed able to give us simple instructions on where to go and what to do. Instead, there were people on all sides of us alternately demanding money, giving us documents to fill out, giving us back too much money in the wrong currency, pointing out a dozen different lines to wait in, and urging us to hurry along. It was extremely stressful, and suddenly clear why our guidebook had recommended arriving at the ferry dock 90 minutes early. It took us that long to get everything straightened out, including paying a surprise exit tax in Jordanian dinars, when we had been so careful to spend our last ones the night before.

At last we made it onto the ferry and settled into our seats for the one-hour ride. For reasons which I can't quite recall (or choose not to), we thought it would be a good idea to send me to the ferry's service counter to buy bus tickets to Cairo (a 7-hour bus ride from Nuweiba, Egypt, where the ferry would land). I headed over to the ticket counter and submerged myself in the mob of shouting Egyptian men thrusting fistfuls of money towards the cashier. It was all very awkward. I did my best to hold my place in “line,” and thankfully, Jeremy came to my rescue a few minutes later. Together, we managed to secure bus tickets from Nuweiba to Cairo for the four of us.

Among all the stresses of figuring out where to go and what to do, we were directed to hand over our passports to an Egyptian immigration official so that he could expedite the entry process. As the ferry docked, immigration officials sequestered all us foreigners into one cabin room. To our surprise and dismay, before they would let us out of the room and onto the shore, the officials demanded our passports. The same passports we had handed over a few minutes earlier to another immigration official, who of course was now nowhere to be found. Explaining the situation to the officials resulted in confusion. It took Jeremy yelling in Arabic to finally get them to let us off the ferry.

We emerged into a mass of people and a sea of even more confusion. There were buses pulling up everywhere, and people were piling onto them. We had no idea what to do. Soon, more immigration officials were demanding to see our passports. With growing exasperation, we explained yet again that an official had taken them from us on the ferry. Eventually, we were let on to one of the buses, even though we had no idea where it was going. Everyone was getting on buses, so we did, too. Our bus drove for a few minutes and then pulled up to an even more crowded area of the ferry dock and let us off, with no direction as to what we were supposed to do.

Let me pause here and mention again the absolute chaos this place was in. It was as if we had caught the ferry terminal completely by surprise; as if no ferry had ever arrived at the port before, and even if one had, there had certainly been no foreigners on it. There were no signs, not even in Arabic, just a dozen concrete buildings holding various, unlabeled offices. In actuality, a ferry arrives at that dock at least twice a day, carrying hundreds of travelers from Jordan to Egypt. The lack of organization in spite of this was absolutely appalling.

Somehow, we managed to buy our visas for entry in to Egypt, which required a bit of effort since we still didn't have our passports. Then, we wandered from building to building before being told to wait at a specific concrete office. I cannot remember how many times we were asked for our passports in the process. I was beginning to think that they were already for sale on the black market, since every single worker seemed surprised that someone had taken them on the ferry.

Finally, to our great relief, some dude showed up with a bunch of American passports, including ours. Until that point, Jeremy may or may not have resorted to yelling “THERE IS NO ORDER HERE!!!!!” in Arabic.

But there was still customs to go through, and we wove our way through hordes of Arabs toting cumbersome, metal carts piled high with suitcases, boxes, crates, and bicycles, as if they were fleeing the country forever with all of their possessions, and the possessions of all their extended family. The customs officials noticed the souvenir Damascus steel knife Sarah had in her suitcase, and started to make a fuss about it, despite the fact that it wasn’t sharpened at all. Jeremy again came to the rescue and finally convinced them that it was safe to take into the country by repeatedly and exaggeratingly attempting to slash his hand with it (it didn’t even come close to breaking the skin). This was a hilarious sight, and they laughed and let her through with it after all.

Now we had at last reached the bus that would take us to Cairo. If I had been looking forward to a smooth, comfortable ride, I was about to be grossly disappointed. The bus had indeed at one time been a luxury bus, but those days were long gone. It was old and rickety, the seats were cramped and clunky, and the upholstery was smelly. Also, I found a knife concealed behind my tray-table, which was kind of freaky and also ironic considering the fuss the customs officials had made over Sarah's souvenier blade.

The driver loaded our bags onto the bus with great urgency, as the bus was due to leave any minute. We dashed to a nearby kiosk to buy some snacks, and we each downed a can of pop - before being informed that the bus would be delaying its departure for 90 minutes to wait for another ferry passenger. There were no bathrooms in the area of the ferry terminal we were sequestered in, so I was powerless to do anything about the can of pop already working its way through my system. I was cursing Egypt already, and we still had a 7-hour bus ride to go.

I made it all the way to the halfway point of the trip without peeing my pants, at which time the bus pulled into a rest stop, our only break for the whole bus ride. I was grateful for the rest stop and rushed in to use the bathroom. In the Middle East, you almost always have to pay to use the facilities – nothing much, just a few cents to cover the cost of toilet paper and cleaning. As I entered the building, I noticed they were only charging for the men’s bathroom, but not the women’s. My lucky day! – or so I thought.

Once inside, I realized why they weren’t charging the women any money: surely no one had ever, ever cleaned this bathroom since its creation, and the lack of toilet paper was certainly the least of my worries. There were (or had once been, underneath all the (literal) crap) western sit-down toilets instead of Turkish squatters, which was usually a welcome sight, but in this case, a squatter would have been easier to deal with.

There were already a few women and a child from our bus in the bathroom, staring at the ramshackle, door-less, filth-smeared stalls with similar horror, and I asked them what we should do. With the typical Arab female fortitude, they straightened up, squared their shoulders, and explained to Sarah and me that there was nothing else to do but use the toilets as they were. We had no other alternative.

With my bladder relieved but my mood even more dampened, we boarded the bus again for the remainder of the drive to Cairo. Jeremy cheered me up a little when he shared with me some fake but delicious Oreos (called Borios) he'd found for sale at a nearby kiosk. Still, I was terrified of drinking anything for fear of what the next bathroom would look like, so I endured the rest of the trip with fuzzy Borio residue in my mouth.

Anyway, we did eventually arrive in Cairo, dehydrated and somewhat demoralized. We said goodbye to our bus friends and found a place to stay. We then ordered some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted – delivery from Pizza Hut. Throughout our journey from Jordan, Egypt had sunk very, very low in my favor. This hot, cheesy, western-style pizza was its first step toward making it up to me.

As for the bathroom, looking back, I do believe it is the most disgusting one I've ever used. The worst part is that I found out later that the place where Jeremy bought the Borios a few doors down had a perfectly usable, tolerably clean women's bathroom. I have no idea why all us women headed for the rest area facilities. I guess now I know better for the next time I'm making the trip between Nuweiba and Cairo on a public bus.

Which will be, oh I don't know, approximately never.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obamicon Me

Yes, you can: Obamicon Me.

If anyone can figure out how to display images in a comment, please do so we can see your poster. Maybe img src="url"?

(Also, the site requires registration in order to save your image, but my registration email never came through so I just did Print Screen.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Miriam is reading

I'm always blabbing on and on about what I'm reading. Here are some books that Miriam is really into lately.

The Sound of Colors, by Jimmy Liao. I don't know who decided this would be a good idea for a children's book, but it works. The prose is waaaaay over Miriam's head, but the pictures are fascinating in a fever-dream kind of way, and she likes the contradiction inherent in the title. Her other favorite lines talk about smelling the shapes and tasting the light and dark. I guess it's about a blind girl, and the author is a cancer survivor, but if you don't want to get into all that, it's just a fun book.

Another fun book is this collection of nursery rhymes we brought home from the library last week. I'd forgotten how ridiculous they can be. I know there are different versions of these old poems (did you learn that the old woman in the shoe kissed her children softly, or spanked them soundly?), but this one caught me off guard:

The version I grew up with was something like:

Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,
And all of them gone to sea."

I would have also accepted "Turn them out, knaves all three" for the last line. But I had never heard of this rotten potato nonsense.

Miriam also chose a book from the library about what happens to children when they die (!). I guess the cover was appealing to her. We read it at the library before checking it out. Before too many pages had passed, however, it started talking about how we are shapeless spirit fluff after we die, without gender or families, and you had better believe we didn't bring that one home.

What are your kids reading? And what is the correct version of Rub-a-dub-dub? If there can be a "correct" version of a nursery rhyme about three men in a tub, that is.

The Birth Survey

Back in November when I reviewed the book Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care, I mentioned that childbirth seems to be the last great frontier of feminism, and one that has not yet been taken on in full force. For some reason, many women activists insist on expending tremendous amounts of energy protecting a woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.

I won't take issue with that crusade, at least not in this post. What irritates me is that these same feminists seem to devote little to no energy protecting a woman's right to birth a baby the way she wants to. I hope it's only a matter of time before the hardliners sink their teeth into that cause, because something needs to be done to make sure women are completely informed about the options available to them when giving birth. Before you stop reading because you think this doesn't apply to you, please note that it doesn't matter whether you are pro-intervention, a home birther, or somewhere in between. In order to make an informed choice to have the birth she wants, a woman should have access to information.

A project called The Birth Survey is setting out to do just that: put specific, pertinent information in the hands of women who are planning to give birth. At this time, it is difficult for an expectant mother to find out about a certain birthing facility's C-section rates, epidural administration rates, fetal monitoring methods, or even the facility's policies on food and drink during labor or level of breastfeeding support. The Birth Survey is collecting details of women's pregnancy care and birth experiences to compile reports that will detail this information and make it easily accessible to any woman who wants it. Reports for New York area hospitals are already available. In order to expand the data, they need you to take the survey, too.

Take the survey. Tell other people about your experience. Share information, so that what you liked, didn't like, loved, or hated about your birthing facility can be passed on to any woman who is investigating her birth options.

If for no other reason, do it as a matter of courtesy. As the wife of a PhD candidate, I know how much researchers rely on the kindness of strangers to take their much-labored-upon surveys to help them in their studies.

Do it!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Jeremy was out of town last week, traveling to a different part of the country for a job interview. He took the camera with him so he could do a little reconnaissance work and bring back pictures and video clips of a possible future hometown for our family.

That was the plan, anyway. What he actually came back with was one (1) 30-second video clip of... [drumroll]:

The inside of his hotel room. At night. And a quick glimpse out the window at the snow-covered parking lot.

Reconnaissance FAIL.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Movie Review: Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Masterpiece)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if all you've ever read of Thomas Hardy is Jude the Obscure, you're missing out. I don't know why many high schools insist on choosing Jude over all of Hardy's other books for an introduction to his work, but it's a mistake. Hardy wrote 18 books and approximately all of them are better than Jude the Obscure.

That includes Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a book that catches almost as much flak as Jude the Obscure does for being an overwhelmingly negative, bleak bit of drudgery that sucks the life out of anyone who dares to go near it. And you know what? They're mostly right. It is a terrible story. I'm sure Hardy knew it was terrible. I have to believe, though, that he thought he was making a point by writing it (something I'm not sure I can say for Jude).

I found out from Miss Nemesis that PBS' Masterpiece Theatre recently featured a new miniseries adaptation of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I finished watching it online (legitimately available at last night and could hardly go to sleep afterward, I was so moved. I dislike many elements of the plot of Tess as much as the next person, but for me, this was clearly a case of "hate the story, LOVE the adaptation."

I don't want to say too much about the (depressing beyond belief) plot, because I think that the less you know ahead of time, the more you will be affected by this movie. I'll say only that it is the story of Tess, a poor girl from a small village who leaves home to "claim kin" with a wealthy family. The rest of the movie deals with the consequences of that action, particularly the struggles of Tess to remain the "pure woman" of the book's original subtitle despite the best efforts of her rich relations, religious leaders, and even her own parents.

Thomas Hardy's books all have a certain sameness to them. Themes of purity, deception, and familial obligation are present in many of them. He is also a master of the love triangle, though he usually constructs his with a twist. Often, that twist is the passage of time - one woman has two lovers, but at different periods of her life. The crux of his stories is often that however hard the woman tries to keep them separate, those two different periods of time - and her two nonconcurrent lovers - inevitably find a way to intersect. For Tess, she is caught between the manipulative Alec D'Urberville and the wholesome Angel Clare.

Both men are misogynists (in my opinion), which the movie is not afraid to show. I loved how the movie made the supposed villain Alec D'Urberville shamelessly handsome and generally well mannered, while at the same time setting off Angel Clare's willfull blindness and startling hypocrisy. Throughout the movie, we are able to see each man through Tess' eyes, even when those eyes see a rapist as a potential husband and a soul mate as a vile betrayer.

The actress who plays Tess (Gemma Arterton) was apparently in the newest Bond movie, which I'm glad I didn't know until now because I think it would have distracted me. She does a fantastic job of portraying Tess, all the way from innocent girl to jaded mistress. I appreciated the way even her way of speaking changed as the movie progressed.

Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne) was perfect for the character - so gentlemanly that we see how Tess could fall in love with him, and yet so morally...simple that we tell ourselves we should have known he'd betray her.

By far the best part of the movie was Alec D'Urberville. The actor, Hans Matheson, was the über good guy in Dr. Zhivago a few years back, but in this movie, he shows us that he could just as easily have played the smarmy Komarovsky. His performance alone convinced me that they need to start showing this movie in high school health classes to show women what a predator acts like, and what he will do to cultivate a victim (the social impact of what happened to Tess is also a great discussion point for that setting). In Alec's very first interaction with Tess, he tests her will with something as simple as a strawberry, and what he finds out from that encounter informs all the rest of his dealings with her. Matheson shows us that all of this is going on in Alec's mind without even saying a word about it.

The only weak points in the movie are the same weak points that are present in the book. The last 20 minutes or so of the movie are portrayed well, but the story is slightly ridiculous at that point so I suppose there wasn't much they could do with it. Really, Thomas Hardy, Stonehenge? The first time I read the book I could hardly believe he was serious.

But the last scenes! Oh, the last scenes. So good. So effective. So moving.

A few months ago, I wrote this about Dr. Zhivago, and I think the same applies to Tess of the D'Urbervilles:

When I realized that was the ending, I could hardly believe it. I had endured three [in Tess it's four] hours of non-stop bleakness for that?

But now I realize that I wouldn't have it any other way. Having Lara and Yuri reunited at the end wouldn't have redeemed either of them. More death, more misery, and more suffering is the only way to end a story that has been about death, misery, and suffering all along the way. To do it any other way would ruin it.

Yes, Tess is a story seemingly meant to instill despair and misery in the human soul. But at least this new adaptation does an inspiring job of it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Flashback Friday: I know why the caged head sings

Come with me once again to the Middle East for Flashback Friday. Today's story has neither a poetic ending nor a television falling off the wall. It is a tale of making new friends in a foreign city, of drinking warm orange pop on a hot day in an apartment without AC. It is a tale, my friends, of dolls' heads in birdcages.

It begins in early July 2004, in the afternoon of my very first day in Damascus, Syria. Jeremy and I had arrived at the airport just after dawn, checked into our room in a backpacker hostel with a shared bathroom and cold showers in the basement, and then headed out to see the city. I'll spare you the bulk of my thoughts on that day save these: it was extremely hot and I was feeling like I'd made a huge mistake in going there. I am not a magical fairy person who acclimatizes immediately to foreign surroundings while wearing a happy smiley face. Damascus was a huge adjustment and after only a few hours in the country, I was feeling rather shell-shocked. (If you read even one post of my Syria blog, you will realize that I grew to love that country, but it took more than one day.)

We were lucky to arrive on a day when the local (well, country-wide) Mormon branch was having a Fourth of July party at a member couple's apartment. Jeremy and I headed over there early and were loitering outside in the shade when we met an elderly Syrian man, also loitering outside. He struck up an enthusiastic conversation and immediately invited us into his nearby apartment. In many parts of the world, this would be strange behavior. In Syria, we would have reason to be offended if he didn't invite us to his home after two minutes' acquaintance.

Inside his small apartment, we met his wife and very aged mother. His mother was supposedly a veiled woman, but her very advanced age combined with the extreme heat and lack of AC meant that she was lounging on a sofa wearing a thin housedress, and her "veil" was a wet washcloth on top of her head. She made a cursory effort to leave the room to cover up when Jeremy walked in but the rest of us prevented her from troubling herself.

We had a nice chat. Nahel (that was not the man's name, but that's what I'll call him) played some songs for us on a neat little whistle. It was all very jovial and light and fun - good times for all. After a little while, we left his apartment to go to our church social and that was that.

A few weeks later, Jeremy and I stopped in to see Nahel and found him at home by himself. He invited us in and served us biscuits (cookies - whatever they're called) with warm orange pop. We chatted as before. It wasn't quite as fun and carefree as our previous visit, but we were still enjoying the polite conversation. Our host left the room at one point, possibly to refill our drinks, and I happened to glance up at the ceiling. There, I saw one of the more bizarre things I've encountered in my life: a doll's head sitting in a birdcage, suspended from a corner of the ceiling. It wasn't a tiny Barbie doll head, either - it was like a life-sized baby doll head with the bristly plastic eyelashes and eyes that open and shut as you tip the head forward and back. This doll's eyes were wide open, possibly from the shock of having its head removed from its doll body and placed in a birdcage.

Jeremy saw it, too, and we had just enough time to exchange a "wow, that was one of the freakiest things I've ever seen" look before Nahel was back in the room with more warm orange pop.

It may have just been time to leave; it may have been because of the severed head in a birdcage. Whatever it was, it was time to go. We started making our excuses to leave when I noticed another doll's head, in another birdcage, in another corner of the room, also suspended from the ceiling.

While saying our goodbyes to Nahel, we walked through the front room. As we passed towards the door, I mustered my courage and looked up: more dolls' heads in still more birdcages, hanging from the ceiling, all of their eyes glaring wide open in what could have been a silent, collective scream for help. Jeremy and I exchanged another look of bewildered, semi-amused alarm as we inched our way out the door, down the stairs, and finally onto the street.

I'm pretty sure we laughed about it almost immediately, but it was still vaguely unsettling. To this day I have absolutely no idea why an old Syrian guy living with his wife and mother in a regular old apartment would choose to decorate it with dismembered doll heads in birdcages. I kind of hope there's some famous movie I haven't seen or book I haven't read in which this was an accepted form of decoration and I just am not with the times. Please let me know if that's the case. Otherwise, I'm open to your theories.

We never went back to Nahel's place. I hope he realized in time that it was nothing personal.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It a gril

About 18 months ago, my mom forwarded me an email from her cousin about a cake that was messed up by a Wal*Mart bakery. The person who ordered the cake asked for the decorator to write "Best Wishes Suzanne" and underneath that "We Will Miss You." This is what they got:

Well, someone turned that cake into a blog, and that blog is Cake Wrecks ("When professional cakes go horribly, hilariously wrong"). My friends, prepare to die laughing. The cakes she features on her blog, and her concise commentary to accompany the photos, are some of the funniest things I've ever read on the internet (the comments aren't, so you can waste slightly less time by skipping those).

Please click over to Cake Wrecks. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Notes on how to paint a door

Back in October, Jeremy's parents came to visit, and Jeremy's dad installed a door to our den. "Installed" makes it sound so simple, and in some ways it probably was. This was one project that I, for once, stayed the heck far away from so I can't really tell you much about the process. It looked complicated to me and it made a lot of noise and dust.

But once it was finished, it was fabulous. The idea of a den is so wonderful until you realize that without a door, the sanctuary of quiet study and concentrated work is wide open to the rest of the house, where food is being cooked, washers and dryers are running, and little kids are running around making noise. With a door, the den is now pretty much a soundproof chamber of productivity.

Even though the door was installed, we still had to paint it. Between all the sickness and holidays, January was basically here and the door was still plain, unfinished wood with plastic wrapping over the glass panes. A couple of Saturdays ago, we finally went into "project mode" and decided to paint the door once and for all. I figured it would take all of an afternoon.

A week later, our door still looked something like this:

I'm reminded of that line from Finding Nemo where Nemo's dad says, "You think you can do these things, but you can't, Nemo!" Sometimes, we think we can do these things, but we can't! And then we do anyway.

For future reference:
  • Be sure to factor in drying times between coats of paint into your schedule. The can of paint or finish might say it gives brilliant coverage in just one coat, but that is a lie.
  • Do not, do NOT decide to use aerosol spray stain. This was our single biggest mistake. I'm sure you're all laughing at us and saying how obvious it should have been, but neither of us realized that the spray residue would float all over the house and coat everything in a thin, sticky layer of varnish. Weeks later, I am still scrubbing it off my tile floors and if you walk around in socks long enough, you get a nice red mahogany sheen on the bottoms of your feet.
  • Taping is a big pain and I hate it. I guess I'm just not one for precision jobs.
  • OK, really, it's just easiest if you paint the door before you attach it to any part of your house. Take it outside, lay it down on an old sheet, and paint away. I think that's what the aerosol spray stain is for.
  • Believe the instructions on the finish when it says to sand down the first coat before you apply the second one. With just one coat on, unsanded, it looked like the door was dripping in bumpy corn syrup. Still, sanding just didn't seem logical. We took a leap of faith, sanded - and still thought we had made a big mistake. Our precious door was covered in white, sawdusty scratches. But magically, after applying the second coat of finish, everything came together and it looked perfect. Phew!

Through the whole thing, there was one thought I just couldn't get out of my mind, much like Hugh Nibley couldn't stop thinking about elephants in the Book of Mormon even as he prepared to hit the beaches in Normandy on D-Day. In my childhood I read a novel about a girl whose new pet kitten gets loose in the house during the night and walks all over the family's newly finished wood floor, which had been left to dry overnight. To fetch the cat, the girl in the novel lays down sheets of newspaper to walk on and of course, they stick to the floor. For some reason, this stupid scene kept replaying itself over and over again in my mind as I scrubbed the floors with paint thinner to try to get the finish off. (If anyone knows what book that is, let me know. I thought it was Oh Honestly, Angela but I looked at a plot description and now I'm not sure.)

When we were done, our den door looked like this:

Lovely! I think it was worth all the effort, don't you?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Barnes & Noble loses to Amazon, every time

So. There's this book that just came out and it may or may not feature some pictures that I took (the author saw them here - just scroll down to see the photo albums). The author asked permission to use them, but I suppose that doesn't necessarily mean she actually did. In any case, the book is finally out now and I wanted to see a copy to look for the pictures.

I don't know why I even tried to give Barnes & Noble a chance. I guess it was because I wasn't sure I wanted to buy the book, so by calling the physical store and ordering it in to arrive there, I could look at it and then still decide not to buy it.

I did call it in, a few weeks ago, and although they were supposed to call me when it arrived, they never did. I finally called them this morning and they said it was there, just waiting for me. Strike one.

So I packed up Miriam (Magdalena was sleeping at home while Jeremy worked in the den) and drove to the Barnes & Noble way the heck across town in this stupid city without a useful freeway and it took forever. The whole way there, Miriam kept asking me to interpret the lyrics of the song we were listening to, on repeat, by her request. I tried to explain to her that it was just a song, and it was by Guster, and sometimes I don't understand what, exactly, they're singing about, but the message just wasn't getting through to her.

Anyway, we made it to Barnes & Noble and went straight to the cash register to pick up the book. We waited in line for a few minutes and when it was my turn, they handed me the book. I took it and walked away so I could find somewhere to peruse it at my leisure, perhaps while Miriam played with the trains in the children's section.

As soon as I left the desk, however, I realized that they'd given me the wrong book. The author was correct, but the book was a totally different one. Strike two.

So I got back in line (strike three), and when it was my turn (again), I explained to the cashier what the problem was. She told me to go to customer service. When I asked where that was, she said, with a hint of snark in her voice, "It's right over there, under the big lighted sign that says, 'Customer Service.'" Strike four, for pure insouciance. Meanwhile, Miriam was wondering about those trains I promised she could play with.

The customer service lady perkily walked me through my options, which comprised:

1. Re-ordering the book into the store.
2. Purchasing the book and having it shipped to my home, except they wouldn't charge me shipping to make up for their incompetence.
3. Calling the other store to see if they had it in stock.

I opted for #3, and after a long time on hold, they said they didn't have it. This, despite the fact that the computer said they did. Whatever. Strike five.

I ended up just re-ordering the book into the store, and I'll tell you why. Even with Barnes & Noble not charging me shipping, it was still going to cost almost 50% more than it would on Strike six.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Why do we even bother with brick and mortar bookstores anymore, when online service, selection, price, and efficiency are superior in every way? The only exception I can think of is if we're doing our best to patronize local, independent bookstores, in which case I will leave your worthy motives alone. Barnes & Noble or Borders, on the other hand, may die a little inside each time customers turn to to fill their book-purchasing needs, but I die a little inside each time I am subjected to crappy service without sufficient reparation being offered to me.

If Miriam hadn't been so darn focused on those trains, I would have mentioned to the customer service lady the magic words - - and I would like to believe that she would have tried a little harder to make up for Barnes & Noble's mistake. Maybe I'm just hard to please, but free shipping just wasn't going to do it for me, especially since I was avoiding paying shipping in the first place by having the book ordered into the store.

My negative experience was compounded by the fact that Miriam didn't get to play with the trains anyway since there were already a few non-sharey kids there with parents who didn't seem to care.

The moral of the story, which I will repeat for Google's benefit, is: Barnes & Noble customer service was not helpful, and I wish I would have bought the book on

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Flashback Friday: Visa #1559

Today's Flashback Friday story is a poetic tale of an oppressed people rising up to shake off the burden of occupation. It is also the story of men with guns telling jokes, and of us laughing at those jokes, nervously.

You may recall that in April 2005, relations between Syria and Lebanon were strained. Tensions were running high over the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in Feburary. Evidence was mounting that Syria was behind the attack, and UN Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of occupying Syrian troops from Lebanon and which had been enacted months before the assassination, was gaining new prominence as many Lebanese people expressed strong anti-Syrian sentiment. Syria's days as an influential force in Lebanon were numbered, and Resolution 1559 meant that the Syrian army would pull out of Lebanon, probably very soon.

Beirut in the evening (this picture and the ones below taken by my parents).

What better time to visit Beirut? At least that seemed to be the thinking of my parents and brother and me as we were traveling on the northern Syrian coast. After a few days in Tartous and Lattakia, we headed down to Beirut through Tripoli for a short visit.

The well-used border crossing between the east/west Damascus to Beirut route was not necessarily a model of efficiency, but it got a lot more traffic than the northern border crossing did. I was a little nervous about trying the northern route since you just never knew if they'd let you through or not. It all seemed to depend far too much on the individual border official's mood.

My worries were not assuaged by the realization that this northern border consisted of a few concrete buildings in the middle of nowhere. The bustling relative order of the other international crossings I was familiar with was entirely absent. More than ever before, our ability to obtain a visa to leave one country and enter the other rested entirely on the whim of the immigration officials on both sides.

Remnants of the Lebanese civil war in Beirut.

We passed through the Syrian side with no problem. I took a small breath of relief and then geared up to take my family through the Lebanese side. The small building was empty of any other travelers besides my family and me, which meant we got all the attention of the border officials, almost all of whom were carrying guns.

We hit a small snag early on when I filled out my Lebanese immigration card using a green pen. The border official taking my paperwork frowned and directed me to use a tamer color such as blue or black. I complied, and realized just how lightly we would have to tread to get through successfully.

Suddenly, one of the border officials called out my brother's name and beckoned him over to his desk. I panicked. What could we have done wrong? Was something out of order on his passport? Were we going to have to turn around and go back into Syria? This was my family's only chance to visit Lebanon and I could already see the opportunity slipping away.

As soon as he had our attention, and the attention of all the other guards in the building, the official called out in a stern voice, "Your visa number is 1559." Then, his face broke into a wide grin. Same with all the other guards. Since they were all holding guns, and we weren't, we all started smiling, too.

Aaaaaah, sweet, sweet American food at the Subway in Beirut, like mannah from heaven for pregnant me.

Quickly, I realized what was going on: 1559, the UN Resolution that would kick Syria out of Lebanon at last. That's what the number meant to all those Lebanese guards. I explained it as well as I could to my family so we could all laugh along with them, because that's what they were doing. The previously stuffy, tense atmosphere of the remote border station had become absolutely jovial and hopeful. "This means good luck in Lebanon," the official said as he handed back my brother's passport. We were free to go, with all the smiles and best wishes from the Lebanese border guards.

We had a nice time in Lebanon and left the country late at night to go back to Syria, this time on the well-traveled east/west road. It was 10 or 11 in the evening and there wasn't much traffic driving along with us. Close to the border, however, we passed a long convoy of tanks, missiles on trailers, and trucks carrying hundreds of troops - all marked with the Syrian flag, or wearing Syrian uniforms. We passed that convoy and others several more times on the way back to Damascus as we each went through our separate border stops.

It was Resolution 1559 in action, happening right before our eyes: the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Damascus had caved at last.

I don't know that it was good luck, necessarily, as the border guard had told us, but 1559 turned out to be a fitting theme for that short trip to Lebanon.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Here's one more "2008: Best Of" post, if you can handle it. I don't know what is so appealing to me about compartmentalizing things into lists and likes and didn't-likes. It's just so organized and is helping me file away 2008 into the past. So take a walk with me through 2008 on My Adventures in Tucson as we look at a few of my favorite blog moments.

In January, we opened Pandora's proverbial box of germs discussing parents dropping off their sick kids at the church's nursery every week.

In February, Jeremy and I cowered in fear before a PF Chang's server, and then inadvertently got that server fired. We also sent my brother a stuffed toy pig wearing bright red satin shoes and a pink fuzzy coat through the mail, enduring public humiliation in the process.

In March, I announced that I was pregnant, but not before the bulletin board in my church building broke the news by accident. I demonstrated solidarity with my Belgian blogging sisters and debated whether or not this is a girly blog during Wijvenweek.

April was a busy month. Miriam made her photo art debut, we said farewell to two beloved suitcases, and we started teaching English and basic American survival skills to an Iraqi refugee family. Also, we found out there was some dude at the BYU wearing Victoria's Secret lotion and not washing his hands after he used the bathroom.

In May, Royal Jordanian gave me back my $800. There was much rejoicing. There was also much rejoicing when I got my first author comment on a book review I wrote. Pandora's Box o'Germs was re-opened when there was a measles epidemic in Tucson. Also, my brother was an extra in Twilight and fans from all over the world descended on my blog to read all about it.

June found us in Middlebury, Vermont, ready to live in pseudo-Arabia for the summer. There was also the strange incident of the diarrhea box. Also, my fat tummy was too fat for Miriam.

In July, I was still pregnant and considering all the reasons why the labor of childbirth does not seem like such a horrible prospect after 8.5 months of pregnancy. In other events, I hacked my way through the tangled underbrush behind a local grocery store with my 2-year-old in tow.

August brought with it the birth of Magdalena Sonora. Then a lady on an airplane made me cry.

In September, I mourned the loss of our family's little exclusive club of three members, then got over it.

In October, I pondered whether one had to be cosmopolitan to appreciate an Eid stamp, bought a Woombie, and allowed my children to single-handedly ruin a baptism ceremony. The unthinkable happened when the dictionary reached the letter Z and so my job of editing it came to an end.

November was National Blog Post Month. I wrote 32 posts in 30 days. Here's a rundown of that month's programming.

In December, I felt like I was the only blogger left blogging on the planet, since traffic and comments slowed waaaaay down. Are you guys all coming back to life yet? Even though hardly anyone was reading, stuff was still happening. I was picking out my coffin and headstone, being a terrible mother, stepping on used condoms, and becoming a Presbyterian for Christmas Eve.

Welcome back to the blog world, and I hope 2009 is as interesting as 2008 was.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Movies of note from 2008

Just like last year, I'm not regurgitating the entire list of everything I watched in 2008. These are just movies of note - films that were especially enjoyable, or old movies that I re-watched or watched for the first time in 2008, or perhaps they're just films I think you may not have heard of before that are worth checking out.

Man On Wire (documentary)*. In 1974, a crazy Frenchman walked a tightrope strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Seriously.

Cranford (miniseries). Masterpiece Theatre at its best. I think every single actor in this series had appeared in another adaptation of an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, or a Jane Austen novel, or perhaps two different adaptations of the same Jane Austen novel.

Dresden (miniseries, German TV)*. I don't know if I would have liked this one so much if it hadn't been in German. It's the story of the town of Dresden in the days before, during, and after its bombing in World War II. It's not often that we Americans get to read or watch a dramatic narrative of WWII from behind enemy lines. This was not a fantastic movie, but it was a unique, interesting one.

Edward Scissorhands. This movie informed my early adolescent years, even though I had never seen it until now. What a strange little movie. Tim Burton is clinically insane, right? And Johnny Depp? And Winona Ryder, for that matter?

Touching the Void. Reviewed here.

Doctor Zhivago. Reviewed here.

The Italian (Russian)*. It took me a while to recover from watching this movie, which is about a Russian orphan's search for his birth mother. It is pure, raw humanity, exposed - very moving, but not without taking its toll.

Son of Rambow. Reviewed here.

Penelope. Reviewed here.

Far and Away. Remember this movie? It is dang good. They don't make films like this anymore. Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned American epic?

To wrap up, here are the movies I saw in the theater this year:

1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
2. Twilight

What were your favorites and least favorites? Did I miss anything good, or loved something you hated?

*may require editing for some objectionable content.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Flashback Friday: A TV falls in Cairo

January 1st, 2005: Turkey chopped no fewer than six zeroes off their currency in a revaluation move welcomed by perpetually ripped-off tourists throughout the country. The world continued to mourn the tens of thousands of casualties of the 26 December tsunamis. Luxembourg stepped up to take its turn as the President of the Council of the European Union.

Jeremy and I were in Egypt, just days away from concluding a travel extravaganza with his brother and sister. We had left Turkey a week or two before and foolishly not traded in our lira to the shady money changers in Antioch. The tsunami was not really on our minds - if we even knew about it at all - since we'd been traveling and had little access to news or internet. We had no formed opinions on Luxembourg.

But we were in Cairo, one of the most populous cities on earth, and were spending the day at the Egyptian Museum after a fun, if unorthodox, New Year's Eve. Not wanting to ring in the new year in a 5-star hotel lobby with rich people wanting to meet foreigners, we'd ventured out into the city to catch a midnight movie with the rank and file. National Treasure was the best film on offer, and I really enjoyed it, even with the odd, unexpected ten-minute smoking intermission in the middle.

The four of us at the Pyramids. Yes, they are that big.

The first day of the New Year passed uneventfully, if you can call viewing thousands-of-years-old mummies at the Egyptian Museum "uneventful." I confess that Jeremy and I were all museum-ed out after just a few hours. Dave held out for a while longer. Sarah was already on her way back to the States.

Sarah and I with a flock of veiled schoolgirls. Each one of them had a camera and requested their own picture, so you can guess how long we stood there smiling awkwardly. Sometimes the owner of the camera whose turn it was to take a picture insisted on switching places to actually be the one standing by me or Sarah. Ah, the joys of being a blonde foreigner!

That night at the hotel, none of us were feeling very good. The pollution in Cairo had been absolutely terrible during our entire visit, and it was finally taking its toll on our respiratory systems. We turned in early for the night, but Jeremy stayed up for a while after I went to sleep. In fact, he ended up leaving the hotel a few hours later to venture to a pharmacy to get some medicine. Being left alone in the hotel in the middle of the night put me on edge, and I was glad when he got back, having stocked up on Egyptian NyQuill knock-offs.

By 3 o'clock in the morning, I had fallen asleep again and was resting fairly soundly. As far as hotels went, this one wasn't half bad. We hadn't seen any cockroaches in the room since the day we arrived and we also hadn't gotten sick from eating the hotel's complimentary buffet breakfast.

Suddenly, I was awoken by a loud crash and a bang. My first instinct was to throw the covers over my head and burrow underneath them. Fortunately, Jeremy was still awake and could calm my fears and tell me without any hesitation that it wasn't a bomb or anything dangerous. I don't know if he actually said "bomb," but he seemed to know that I thought it was an explosion.

What it actually was, was the hotel room's TV set falling from its mounting high on the wall in the corner, crashing to the floor, and smashing into pieces. By the sheer fortuity of the room's design, the place where it fell was next to, not directly over, our bed.

Even though it was the middle of the night, we called the front desk and they sent someone up to help us. The employee briskly swept away the debris and cleaned up the larger chunks. He displayed no concern for our disrupted sleep, nor for how close we had come to being smashed to death in our bed. Instead, he expressed his deepest apologies for our not being able to watch TV. This sentiment was repeated to us the next morning by the hotel staff at the front desk.

If anything, they should have been upset about the TV itself. I'm sure it was a total loss. I hope they were able to replace it so that our room's next resident wasn't deprived of precious TV-watching time in one of the greatest cities on earth.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Children, and the lies we tell them

I enjoyed almost an hour of peace and quiet today while shopping at Fry's. Not literally, of course - the grocery store was just as bustling and noisy as usual, but my ears were almost ringing from the personal "silence" I experienced because Miriam was not with me. She and Jeremy stayed at home to watch a movie about Tinkerbell.

Bless her heart, Miriam is 3 years old and she loves to talk. Half the time, I find that I'm answering her questions and responding to her observations without even really processing what she's saying. It's all part of an unending stream of toddler commentary that forms the soundtrack of my life. I really should pay more attention, though, because when I don't, I find myself blindsided with gems like:

"Mama, is our house going to burn down soon, or not?"

In the quiet of the grocery store this evening, I overheard another mom with kids in the same aisle as me. It was the cereal/toy aisle (grocery stores are smart like that), and the mom's 2-year-oldish boy was making it very obvious that he wanted some of those toys. She waved her hand dismissively at the whole wall of toys and said, "they're all broken, sweetie." I knew exactly what she was trying to do, and it worked - the boy quieted right down and didn't make any more fuss about the toys.

Don't we all lie to our children, at least on occasion? Perhaps "lie" isn't the best word. We just represent the truth creatively in order to accomplish a certain end. I think the grocery store lady's tactic was a little extreme - those toys really aren't broken, not by any stretch of the imagination - but I can understand why she said that.

With Miriam, I tend to just tell her that whatever unreasonable item she wants is not on a good sale, and it really works. The best part is that it's usually true, too, though I'm occasionally held accountable if she sees the Fry's ad and notices a big red SALE icon by, say, Lucky Charms.

Do you lie to your children?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2008: Books I loved, and read

On this, the last day of the year, I bring you a list of all the books I read during 2008. I will highlight my favorites and put the rest in a list for you to peruse according to your interest. Based on my records (not kept very meticulously, so there might be a few titles missing), I read 65 books this year, compared to 57 last year. Three of those books I didn't finish (they're marked with an asterisk). If you recommended a book to me, and I read it, I've tried to give you credit. Let me know if I missed any. The links are to reviews I posted on my blog throughout the year.

My Favorite 10 Books of 2008 (in no particular order):

The Six Wives of Henry VIII
(Alison Weir).Forget all those Philippa Gregory historical fiction novels - the real thing is even more fascinating.
This book has the added distinction of being the last one I finished reading before Magdalena was born.

Cold Mountain
(Charles Frazier). Reviewed here. Orson Scott Card and I have yet to reconcile.

Breaking Dawn
(Stephenie Meyer). Last year, I cited the collected works of Jane Austen as one book. Can I do the same here for all the Twilight novels and maybe even The Host?
Breaking Dawn is also notable for being the book I read while in early labor with Magdalena.

Desperate Passage
(Ethan Rarick). The best book I've ever read about the Donner Party - and believe me, I've read a few.
The story of the ill-fated wagon train is already gripping, and this book manages to tell it without being sensational or lurid. There is so much more going on here than (alleged) cannibalism. Recommended by my mom and sister.

The Israel Lobby
(John J. Mearsheimer & Stephen N. Walt). Words cannot describe how this book affected my outlook on all things Israel. If you think you know your Middle Eastern stuff, think again. And again. And again. This remains the most erudite/difficult/metaphorically thick book I've read to date.

Shadow Divers
(Robert Kurson). I am interested in neither deep-sea diving nor shipwrecks, but I could not put this book down. Recommended by my brother-in-law Dave.

(Jennifer Block). Reviewed here. Gentlemen, if you're ever in the mood for a book about childbirth, give this one a try.
Ladies, this one is a must if you're looking for an unemotional, fact-based look at modern childbirth options.

The Hunger Games
(Suzanne Collins). So novel. So brutal. So compelling. So good.
Recommended by Stephenie Meyer.

Lone Survivor
(Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson). You may recall my feelings on this one.
Recommended by my brother-in-law Scott.

Our Mutual Friend
(Charles Dickens). I love Dickens. I really do.
Also uncommonly good is the 1998 miniseries based on this book.

The rest, divided into categories for your convenience:

Young Adult/Juvenile Literature

Tamar (Mal Peet). A World War II mystery is solved by characters in present-day England. It could have been better, but it was still a very good, moderately creepy story. I've always liked the name Tamar for a girl, but this book put an end to that (to say any more would constitute a spoiler).

(Stephenie Meyer)

New Moon
(Stephenie Meyer)

Eclipse (Stephenie Meyer)

(Polly Shulman). Yes, I read this one last year, too. Recommended by Shannon Hale.

Book of a Thousand Days
. Shannon Hale is at it again, writing books that I love.

Keturah and Lord Death (Martine Leavitt). Recommended by Nancy.

(Margaret Pearson Haddix). I love multi-volume book series because if I like the first, I know there are a few more books out there just waiting for me to read. This one is particularly intriguing - 13 years ago, an airplane pulled up to its gate at the airport with no crew, just a baby in each seat. What the?!? Recommended by Orson Scott Card.

The Princess and the Hound (Mette Ivie Harrison). Shannon Hale does it better. I might have loved this book if I hadn't read anything by her before. As it was, I only liked it. Recommended by Laura.

Bloody Jack : being an account of the curious adventures of Mary "Jacky" Faber, Ship's Boy (Louis A. Meyer). This generation's Charlotte Doyle, yet disturbingly PG-13 for a YA book. Recommended by Sharon.

Stargirl (Jerry Spinelli). Face it - we all knew, or were, a Stargirl in high school. Recommended by Laura.

I Am David (Anne Holm)

The Sweet Far Thing (Libba Bray)

Popular Fiction

The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory). I had started this one a year or two ago and didn't finish it. It improved upon re-reading. Recommended by Mikael.

The Queen's Fool (Philippa Gregory)

A Flaw in the Blood (Stephanie Barron)

The Host
(Stephenie Meyer)

The English Patient* (Michael Ondaatje). If you read this book and liked it, I don't know if we can be friends anymore. Though perhaps it would have helped if I finished it.

Rhett Butler’s People (Donald McCaig)

Duty and Desire (Pamela Aidan). Dumbest. Title. Ever. It's one of those Pride & Prejudice, continued books (but not a trashy one).

These Three Remain (Pamela Aidan)

An Assembly Such as This
(Pamela Aidan)

Moscow Rules (Daniel Silva). The thinking man's Dan Brown. In fact, I don't know if he even deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence. This one was all the more interesting for having lived there.

Christy (Catherine Marshall). I love this book beyond all reason. There are only three characters in fiction that are impressive enough to me that I want to emulate them in real life, and Christy is one of them (Melanie Hamilton Wilkes from Gone With the Wind and Tena from Papa Married a Mormon are the other two).

NPR-type Books (Either I actually heard about them on NPR, or I could have)

The Last Princess
: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter (Matthew Dennison). In case you haven't noticed already, I went through a British royalty phase in my reading.

Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History* (Laurel Thatcher Ulrich). I guess I'm not a real feminist because I started and failed to finish this book on three non-consecutive occasions. Sorry, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Loved A Midwife's Tale. This one, not so much.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s green zone
(Rajiv Chandrasekaran). Recommended by Jeremy.

Chalked Up: Inside elite gymnastics’ merciless coaching, overzealous parents, eating disorders, and elusive Olympic dreams
(Jennifer Sey). There was a good NPR segment about this one.

Legacy of Ashes: the history of the CIA* (Tim Weiner). I tried to finish this one but the library recalled it. Recommended by Jeremy.

Little girls in pretty boxes: the making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters (John Ryan)

The Great Mortality: an intimate history of the black death, the most devastating plague of all time (John Kelly). Recommended by my mom.

The Heartless Stone (Tom Zoellner). Mr. Zoellner wrote me a nice email thanking me for my review of his book. I told him I hoped I hadn't scared anyone away from reading it. Recommended by BIL Dave.

Parenting, Inc. (Pamela Paul)
. Ms. Paul herself commented on my review, which goes to show that you just never know who is reading your blog.

Fair Game (Valerie Plame Wilson)

The doctors' plague : germs, childbed fever, and the strange story of Ignac Semmelweis (Sherwin B. Nuland)

Pandora’s Baby
(Robin Marantz Henig). Who knew test-tube babies were so controversial?

LDS Fiction (a new category this year! I read these over Thanksgiving break in Oregon. All of these were recommended by my sister.)

Our Sacred Honor
(Ron Carter). I confess I skipped over all the Revolutionary War stuff and just read the fictional character story parts. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of historical fiction?

Children of the Promise 1: Rumors of War
(Dean Hughes). Surprisingly good - that goes for all of the books in the series.

Children of the Promise 2: Since You Went Away
(Dean Hughes)

Children of the Promise 3: Far From Home
(Dean Hughes)

Children of the Promise 4: When We Meet Again
(Dean Hughes)

Children of the Promise 5: As Long As I Have You (Dean Hughes)

The Woman in White
(Wilkie Collins). Spooky! Better than The Moonstone.

A Christmas Carol
(Charles Dickens). I never realized A Muppet Christmas Carol was so true to the original (except for that stupid "The Love is Gone" scene).

The Portrait of a Lady
(Henry James)

Small House at Allington
(Anthony Trollop). Don't think I'll be reading more of his books anytime soon. All his characters are like dim-witted versions of Austen's in some kind of bizarre parallel universe where everything is boring and turns out badly.

Pregnancy and Childbirth

Giving Birth (Catherine Taylor)

Baby catcher (Peggy Vincent)

The Pilates Pregnancy


Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver). Recommended by Miss Nemesis and Liz.

(Carolyn Jessop with Laura Palmer). This is one of those true "escape from a polygamist commune" books. But you know what? I liked it, as much as one can "like" a book about the oppression of women and children. It could have been sensational and lewd. It wasn't.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A story of violent faith (Jon Krakauer)

Touching the Void
(Joe Simpson). The book the movie was based on. I found the story hard to visualize from the book alone, so I'm glad I had seen the movie. Also, it's not really fair that one man can be so talented in two things: mountain climbing and writing.

How the States got their Shapes
(Mark Stein). What can I say? Sometimes my life in Middlebury was kind of boring.

Queen Bees & Wannabees
(Rosalind Wiseman). Maybe this book will be more interesting to me in about ten years.

If you made it to the end of this post, thanks for reading! I would love to see your favorites from 2008. Please feel free to post your own list - or highlights therefrom - in the comments.


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