Saturday, February 28, 2015

February 2015 books

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and AlexandraThe Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Heartbreaking. I have read my share of Romanov books, most notably Nicholas and Alexandra, but Rappaport has stripped away the politics and posturing and supporting characters and left us with a tender portrait of a loving family. She never loses the father/mother/daughters/son thread, but carries it all the way through to the family's bitter end.

Really well done book, and different from any biography of the Romanovs I've read before. I grant that politics are very relevant to the Romanovs' story, but just once it was nice to read about a family whose fate was tied to Russia's, but not slog through the minutiae of said fact.

Plus, this book made more clear than ever that if you could go back in time and change one teensy little thing, making the Romanovs have a son instead of four daughters could have absolutely changed the way world events unfolded in the early 20th century.



All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a word, this book is pathetic. Not in the Adnan-said-to-Jay sense, but in the "related to emotions" sense. (Maybe the kids these days would say this book has "all the feels"?) I liked it, but now that it's over, I feel manipulated and used.

I can even pinpoint the moment when this book derailed for me: in the chapter that talks about the boiling frog. First of all, the thing about the frog not jumping out of water brought slowly to a boil is not even true. Second of all, the way it was used was not subtle at all, like the author was hitting me over the head with a sledgehammer made of pathos.

Then came the scene with the girl in Vienna and again, it was like PATHOS PATHOS PATHOS.

I don't know, there are far, far worse books out there, but I was drawn in by the Wait Until Dark + Guernsey Potato Peel Pie premise and interesting characters, so I expected more than heavy-handed tugs on the heartstrings brought on by Bad Things happening just for the sake of it.

But I still would recommend it. Like I said, I liked it.

Friday, February 27, 2015

February 27th, outsourced

I so, so much enjoyed this interview with a young girl who also happens to be an expert on presidential history.

Our Crown Prince (of Dubai) ran the Spartan Race last weekend. Did yours?

The time everyone "corrected" the world's smartest woman. [HT Josh] I have been turning over this riddle in my mind for almost a week now, and I allllmost get it. But then it slips away again. Kind of like...

...the color of this dress. I see it as white and gold. I can see it as blue and black if I look from a different angle, but then that slips away again, too. (Explained.) (And the actual dress is blue and black.)

If critics wrote about the male Best Director nominees the same way they write about Selma director Ava Duvernay.

So, a friend of mine redecorated another friend of mine's living room, and it made Good Housekeeping. As it does.

Popular baby names PSA. [HT Suzanne, I think?]

How a fourth-grade class Twitter account rekindled my faith in humanity. [HT Jessie]

I don't even care that this is an obvious publicity ploy. I still think there is value in the fact that three guys wore 33-lb, 9-month pregnant bodysuits (complete with breasts) for a month, just to see what it was like. [HT Sarah]

Shannon Hale articulates the argument in favor of boys reading books "for girls" so well. There are no girl books or boy books, ok? There are just books. This is why I gave my nephew The Princess in Black for Christmas.

The other thing that happened in America while I was asleep (besides the dress color palaver) is that two llamas went on the rampage in Arizona. My kids loved this video.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

California, UAE

Every time I go to Jumeirah (and to a lesser extent, Mirdif), I feel like I'm in California. There's the beach right there, and palm trees, and people are wearing shorts, and many of those people have blond hair, and the buildings are all low-slung and casual-cool.

Plus, there's Park 'n Shop, which I took the kids to today. Park 'n Shop is the place where we bought Cheerios a few months ago. Their main advertising angle is that they sell all your old favorites from your US or UK motherland (they have a radio commercial where a couple doesn't want to relocate to Dubai from the UK until they find out that Park 'n Shop sells Weetabix or something). So to be in Jumeirah, and then to be inside Park 'n Shop - well, it was like being in America for 30 minutes.

We loaded up on Cheerios. With us in the cereal aisle were two other parties of Western expats, also buying - wait for it - Cheerios! It was fun to share the joy with them...and also, not gonna lie, passive aggressively fight over/be polite about the last box. (Fortunately, an employee brought out a bunch more boxes before things got ugly, ha ha.) Down the aisle a little farther, in the candy area, I could hear a group of pre-teens exclaiming about some favorite treats they found. Then there were my own girls squealing about the Gushers on the endcap (I treated them each to a box. I got two for myself).

As we drove away from California, UAE, I told the girls that it felt like we'd just been to America. Magdalena piped up that "yeah, but it didn't take 17 hours to get there!" True.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The colored abaya slippery slope


The class I'm teaching now is Business English, and it's a class filled entirely with Emirati (from Sharjah) women. The dynamics are totally different from the classes I've taught at AUS before, and I find I quite like it.

In regular AUS classes, at least at the foundation level that I usually teach (freshmen, most of whom went to sex-segregated secondary schools), the young men and young women are often still ill at ease with each other. The first presentation of the semester is always a challenge, especially for the girls. To get up in front of a class is hard enough; to do so in front of boys when you're not even used to learning in the same room with them can be so daunting.

So to have all women in the class makes for an easier, more comfortable atmosphere. All of these women are veiled - in fact, probably 90% of them wear niqab (the veil where only the eyes show). A few even have the sheer black face cover that they put on whenever they leave the classroom. Inside the classroom, though, they feel comfortable unveiling their faces since the windows are opaque and their teacher (me) is female. This means that when they come into class in the morning, there are a few minutes where everyone is busily removing layers of black fabric from their faces and draping them carefully across the backs of their chairs.

For the first few weeks of class, the women all wore only black abayas and veils. Picture it: the first day of class and I have to learn the names of 24 women based on faces only - no hair color, hairstyle, or clothing style to set anyone apart from anyone else! Most of me loves being able to focus only on these women's expressive faces and not be distracted by the attributes I just listed, but the rest of me is aware that I will call a few wrong names more often as a result.

Anyway, last week, one woman wore an abaya with a few color highlights, and it's like that opened a door. Ever since then, more and more of the women are wearing black + color abayas. I actually asked them about it today - I feel comfortable doing that since it's an all-female class.

They told me that for the first few weeks, they were still scoping things out like their classmates, the AUS environment (they are not regular AUS students; most are married with several children), and me, their teacher. But as they felt more comfortable in the class, they felt more comfortable easing away from the ultra conservative, all-black abayas. One student joked that it was the liberal university atmosphere rubbing off on them, and that soon they wouldn't wear abayas at all!

It's true that you can see almost any style of dress on women at AUS - well, within reason. You'll probably never see bare leg above the knee, but you might see a bare shoulder once in a while. For these women, who come from the more rural areas of Sharjah, I can imagine that it's a bit of a shock to see "so much" skin. And I'm sure that student was just joking when she basically said that colored abayas were at the top of a slippery slope toward t-shirts and leggings. But in any case, it's been nice to see the colors come out and let these women's personalities shine through a little more.

(And by the way, I learned all of their names within the first class period, and now I can even tell who's who when they're wearing niqab. Like a boss.)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A few favorite hymns (and parts of hymns)

Here's a meditation on worship music for your Western Sabbath. Sometimes when I play the piano at church, I get to thinking about my favorite hymns, and my favorite parts of my favorite hymns.

Joseph Smith's First Prayer. I think this hymn is a gem and if you disagree, you are SOULLESS. Some of our quirky hymns get tired with repeat singings, but not this one. It is always fresh and meaningful to me. My favorite part is if you put a little pause in after the "Joseph" in the first line of the last verse, then run through until after "Hear him," then put in another slight pause. Perfection.

Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise. I heard this for the umpteenth time, but for the first real time, at the YW meeting of general conference in 2005. I have never forgotten it. My favorite part is that this song is a prime example of when tempo can make or a break a song. If you sing this song with gusto and speed, it is glorious. (See also: On This Day of Joy and Gladness.)

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. You are not allowed to grow up in Craig Walker's house without loving (or learning to love) this song. So, I do. My favorite thing about it is the truly beautiful lyrics.

Lord, Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing. It took me years to un-hear "Go Tell Aunt Rosie," but once I did, I fell in love with this song. I think a certain MoTab arrangement helped. My favorite part is the "Oh refresh us" refrain.

O God, the Eternal Father. I might have to write a separate post just about sacrament hymns, because there is so much to love. This one has my all-time favorite moment, though: "To walk upon his footstool/And be like man, almost-". The comma before almost is exquisite, and that line is possibly my favorite stretches of music in the entire hymnbook.

I don't remember who put me onto this, but another favorite sacrament hymn is if you take the words of Thy Will, O Lord, Be Done and sing them to the tune of In Memory of the Crucified. They fit together perfectly and the new tune sets off the "thy will, O Lord, be done"s better.

O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown. AKA the most difficult hymn to play in the entire hymnbook. Maybe that's why I love it! Also, because I feel a little bit Catholic when I sing it.

Brightly Beams Our Father's Mercy, but with the purer version of its melody from Should You Feel Inclined to Censure. The Lower Lights got me hooked on this song and every time I play it at church, I get a little lost in it.

O Home Beloved. I'm sad this song is stuck in the men's section, because it has such a touching melody and message that have held great meaning for me over the years. Bonus: 10 years ago or so, Russell M. Nelson wrote different, more spiritual lyrics for the tune. If they ever put together a new version of the hymnbook, I hope they include his version of the song, meant to be sung by the entire congregation.

Well, those aren't all my favorites, but they are some of them. I'll have to do a sacrament hymn edition sometime.

Friday, February 20, 2015

February 20th, outsourced

I hope you've seen this already - a woman in Australia re-paints the faces of dolls  (like Bratz) to look like normal girls' faces do! [HT Carolyn]

Perhaps you, like me, would enjoy ogling US vs. UK book covers. We generally get the UK covers over here, and it makes me want to buy a copy of both editions even if the innards are the same.

Some good news out of Syria (kind of!): unpaid, unarmed lifesavers. [HT Liz]

Speaking of Syria: the journey of a Syrian teenaged refugee, trying to avoid being processed as such in certain countries so he can get to Sweden, where there are more services for people like him.

Ithaca's tourism bureau gave up and directed everyone to go to Florida instead for now. Hahahahaha. [HT Cait]

OK, this is one of the coolest videos I've ever seen: Dubai Flow Motion. [HT Yvonne]

THIS. THIS IS MY LIFE RIGHT NOW. Why moms never get anything done.

THUNDERSNOW!!!!!!! [HT Jen]

The Presidents of the United States, in order of hotness. This made me laugh. [HT Liz]

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The baby names I didn't overlook

My blog friend Jessie pointed out to me recently that the Baby Name Wizard posted a list of "The Timeless Baby Names You've Overlooked"...and all three of my children's names are on the list. All of them. WEIRD. Also SO INTERESTING.

It's not entirely chance, of course - the BNW had a specific criteria for including the names that she did [(SQRT(maximum normalized frequency)/SQRT(minimum normalized frequency) ≤ 3)], and this criteria apparently lines up well with my own tastes. I just hadn't thought to write it down as such.

I think her description of names that have been given to at least five American babies every year since 1900, with no sharp peaks in popularity that would date them to a specific era, articulates what Jeremy and I were basically going for with our kids' names. A name that you might not have heard in a while, or only heard because it's your great-aunt's name, but it's not totally out there and will (hopefully) be just as nice in 20, 30, 40 years.

According to the BNW's calculations, we succeeded!

Now why is the boys' list so much more eccentric than the girls' list?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Plants and famous people

Tonight at dinner, Magdalena announced that at school today for Topic, they learned about "plants and famous people." Then she started telling us about the famous people. She didn't always know their names, though.

"The richest man in the world. He made computers and Microsoft." (Bill Gates)

"The smartest man in the world. He has crazy poofy white hair and his head is big because there are so much brains in there." (Einstein)

"She helped people in India." (Mother Teresa)

"He got in trouble for doing things a young boy shouldn't do, and he's a singer, and he has a funny haircut that almost covers his eyes. Jenny...something?" (This one took a while, but it turned out to be Justin Bieber)

"He's an artist, and he has a white beard, and he invented telephones and electricity like 5000 years ago." (We are still stumped on this one. Benjamin Franklin? Alexander Graham Bell? Thomas Edison? Michelangelo?? Some British version of Bell or Edison? Except Bell was born Scottish, so I bet it was him. I just checked Wikipedia and he has a big white beard, so I'm betting on Bell, even though he wasn't an artist.)

"Queen Elizabeth Two."

"Sheikh Khalifa and Sheikh Mohammed." (The rulers of the UAE.)

Then came the best one. Keep in mind that she goes to a British school.

"He has black skin. He's the President of the United States and sometimes he thinks he's the President of the world."

Ah, it's so fun seeing how the world sees the US from the outside.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Reasons why saying goodbye is stupid and I hate it.

1. It's stupid.

2. And I hate it.

3. I will most likely see you again. This applies even to Goodbyes with a capital G. This is not Little House on the Big Woods, after all. We have airplanes.

4. Even if I don't see you again, I actually will, on facebook or whatever. Again, this is not Ma pining after a single letter from her family.

5. Crying is just the worst.

Can you tell my mom left yesterday, after a three-week visit? I think it ended up being quite a workcation for her, since she spent a lot of time helping me with kids. But we had a great time.

I hate saying goodbye so much that I actually turn off my emotions 12-24 hours before the final meeting. That way, I'm able to just say "bye, thanks, see you later!" with a smile on my face (possibly while tears threaten to stream down my cheeks). If I let myself get sucked into a big show of farewells, I can't function.

It is a fact (that I have perhaps mentioned before on this blog) that when my brother left on his TWO YEAR Mormon mission, I wanted to stay in the car rather than go in and say goodbye to him. But my family made me come.

So those of you who have ever had to say Goodbye to me, now you know why I got all squirrelly and dead-faced in the day or two before we parted. Jeremy makes fun of my goodbye avoidance behaviors, but it's how I deal.

In conclusion, saying goodbye is stupid and I hate it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

February 13th, outsourced

I have absolutely no intention of making these fabulous Valentine's Day cookies, but I was mesmerized by the how-to video.

The Emperor of All Maladies will be a movie. A Ken Burns movie. AWESOME. [HT Kaylee]

"When suits become a stumbling block: a plea to my brothers in Christ." This is my new favorite modesty (satire...or is it????) diatribe. [HT Jill]

I keep reading/posting these articles about how hard it is to go back to work after having a baby. I don't even know what to say about them, other than SOLIDARITY.

How to tell if you are in a Victor Hugo novel. ("You frequently make puns, but they are never funny. They are multilingual, serious, and full of multiple levels of meaning, and include at least two pieces of poignant social commentary.")

The story of Kayla Mueller, the last American hostage held by ISIS in Syria who was recently killed (it's unclear exactly when), breaks my heart. (Autoplay video on this site.)

Krasnoyarsk (Russia) time-lapse video! My husband lived there for a year, and I visited the city with him in 2002. [HT Jeremy]

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Global Village has taken it up a notch

My mom and the kids and I went to Global Village last night. I've gone every year we've been here, except for last year. (There are a lot of "except for last year"s in my life, thanks to Sterling.) I've always enjoyed it, even as I recognized some of its shortcomings. At times, it was just wads of loud people and long lines for food and never knowing quite where you were.

In 2013, someone died at Global Village in the amusement park area, and they closed down that portion of the park immediately. I don't know if that led to a greater overhaul of the park in general, or if it was already in the works, but what a different place it is now!

It costs 15dhs instead of 10dhs to get in now, but there are clean, free, plentiful bathrooms that you don't have to walk down a dark alley to get to! The amusement park area is on a nice boardwalk now, instead of in the middle of a dusty lot. They've cleared out the inefficient food/restaurant area, so there is now a beautiful, open central plaza with a nicer stage. The food area has its own lane now, and each outlet has proper indoor (tent) seating instead of plastic table/lawn chair sprawl by the stage.


There are also some peripheral attractions now. We only went to one since they require a separate ticket, and it was one of those times where you eat the entrance fee (5dhs) and call it a cultural experience because otherwise, you'd get mad and want your money back. It was called "Animal Land" and it was filled with...animatronic animals. You may never see a weirder picture than this, of an animatronic gorilla with a weirdly long arm, in front of a giant pavilion that says IRAN:


Oh yeah, some of the pavilions have finally rejuvenated their previously sad, tired exteriors, and tidied up the interiors as well. Also, there is an Americas pavilion (for the first time, at least that I've noticed), which is nice, even if it was filled with junk and also sweatshirts that said London (FYI, not in the Americas).

(The new exteriors led to an exchange between my mom and me that so, so weirdly echoed a moment on The Simpsons - we were trying to name the Persian king featured on the facade, but neither of us could quite get it off the tip of our tongues. I said Ahaseurus, she said Darius, and then, before I could beat her to it, she blurted out "Artaxerxes!" JUST like Todd did during that game of Bible Bombardment. SO WEIRD.)

Anyway, Global Village is kind of awesome now, and I'm glad! And it's still good for a cute pair of shoes. That and scarves is all I ever end up buying there, but it's fun to have a look at everything else on offer. Even the animatronic gorillas.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Wadi Bih 72km Relay

Jeremy and I ran the Wadi Bih Relay on Saturday. Our team of five ran 72km up and down a wadi. It was around 1000m elevation gain (and then loss, since it was an out-and-back), and it took us a little over seven hours. We each ran six legs of about 3km each. I know that adds up to more than 72km, but four of the five of us ran the first and last legs together (the fifth person drove the car).

This was our first time doing Wadi Bih, though we have run other relays. I ran the Portland to Coast Relay for four years in the late 90s, and Jeremy and I did the Lake Canandaigua Relay in 2009. I was about to choose a favorite just now, but I can't. I have loved all of these relays. There is a special kind of fun to be had running in bursts of enthusiasm and them folding yourself into a cramped car as you leapfrog from checkpoint to checkpoint with your teammates.

The challenges of this particular relay included a border crossing, dust, and some misinformation (or unclear information) in the race packet.

Wadi Bih is in Musandam (Little Oman), and is normally off-limits to non-GCCers since the southern border to Musandam is closed. Racers had special documentation to cross, but the process still took about 45 minutes in addition to the 90 minute+ drive. Fortunately, we left Sharjah at 4.30a - by the time we were in Oman at the starting line, ready to go, it was a little before 8a.

We'd heard legends of the horrible dust in the wadi - there's only the one road in and out, and with the support vehicles and the runners and the normal wadi traffic from people who live in there, quite a bit of dust got kicked up. But this was where our relatively late start (teams could choose their own starting time between 5.30a and 8.30a) worked in our favor - by the time we were running, most of the teams were ahead of us. We ran into the worst congestion around Checkpoint 9 (of 12, where the turnaround is), because teams were coming back down the wadi. The dust was worse, and we were afraid our runner would beat us to the next checkpoint. That came closest to happening on one of Jeremy's legs - that's him in red, and us stuck in traffic:

but we made it just in time.

The only other mishap was when the most super, mega, ultra hard leg came one slot earlier than we expected, according to what we'd read in the race packet. This leg had slightly more than 300m elevation gain in 3.8km - seemingly straight up through a series of hairpin turns. It went on for so long that we, in the car, stopped twice, thinking we must have missed the checkpoint. Fortunately, we had a strong runner on it, even if he didn't know that was THE hard leg until he was smack in the middle of it. (And of course, the runner who was bracing himself for that leg ended up with a gentler one.) I wish the race organizers could put together detailed leg elevation profiles, like I've seen in other relay races. But maybe there is more involved in that process than I understand. In any case, now we know for future years which legs are killer and which are more moderate.

Overall, though, we had a fantastic time. It was great to be out exercising with Jeremy and friends, without our kids. Sorry to put it bluntly, but it's true: I was happy every time I thought of the fact that I did not have Sterling with me. He is still nursing, but just this once he missed his precious breakfast feed and then kept my mom company (she's here visiting) for the rest of the day. And I was so grateful.

I wish I could have trained more - 18km overall isn't that much, but I was really struggling by the final two legs. But now I am all the more happy of myself for having finished and not given up (or volunteered to be the driver for that last leg, which I considered a few times). My weakest moment came when I encountered a steep uphill on my last solo leg and I didn't think I could do it. Just then, AC/DC's Back in Black came on my Shuffle, and I was back in business. It was seriously the perfect git'r'done song at that moment.




Until next year!

Friday, February 06, 2015

February 6th, outsourced

The last acceptable prejudice: accents. Very interesting.

What can a pregnant photojournalist cover? [HT Cait]

A story of drinkers, genocide, and unborn girls: gender imbalances around the world, and the stories behind the data. [HT David]

Why you should care that [the NYT] asked Jennifer Aniston about Brangelina. "When journalists focus so much on the personal in their coverage of female celebrities, they are doing it at the expense of hearing more about the women's work."

I know Left Shark is old news by now, but still: Right Shark had crisp, coordinated moves. Left Shark is drunk. [HT Ashi]

There are two types of kids in school.

When bread bags weren't funny. LOVED this article. [HT Lili]

So, yes, there's going to be a sequel to TKAM, but maybe this news isn't quite what it seems.

Inversion immersion - a beautiful sunset in Portland. [HT Kathy]

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Sterling stories

Last week in a group email, my grandpa accidentally referred to Sterling as Sultan. He apologized for the mistake. Then my mom reminded him that it wasn't really a mistake, because Sterling's middle name is Sultan.

Then my aunt (my grandpa's daughter) asked him how he could forget the name Sterling, since that was the name of a previous boyfriend/crush of my grandma. Then my other aunt said maybe that's why he had blocked it out in the first place!

I found this combination of middle/high schoolish drama + octo/nonagenarians fascinating. So I was glad when my grandma decided to elaborate on the story of her Sterling! In her words:

Two brothers moved into our ward at church when I was about 14 years old [in 1939]. One, Richard, was [my older sister] Marilyn’s age and Sterling was a year older than me. We did our age-group activities at church and of course Richard and Sterling were the popular boys. 
Their mom had a car with a rumble seat which made them more desirable to get to know and ride in that rumble seat. Well, it turned out that Richard liked Marilyn a lot and I think maybe Sterling liked me a little. But I had a big “crush” on him. In those days , though, you did not want a boy to know you liked him. (Last year when Marilyn saw Sterling and told him that I liked him, he was surprised. He didn’t even realize that.) When in high school, we double-dated and hiked on the hill, went to the beach and mountains, etc. 
Then, of course he left to fly planes in Italy during the war. When he came back he did date me but I was interested in another flier I liked who was in Italy when Sterling was there and I talked about him to Sterling. I had even written to Sterling to look that flyer up in Italy. And then he left for college at BYU and I only saw him at church occasionally when home on visits. 
After I got married and left [California] I never saw him again but Richard still sees Marilyn and we hear that Sterling got married and went on to be a psychology professor at a college in Oregon and he joined the Buddhist religion. I was surprised when Bridget named her boy Sterling because I had only heard of one other person with that name.

More about that flier in Italy, this time in my dad's words, according to a follow-up conversation he had with my grandma after the above email:

"I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that my mother had a semi-serious boyfriend when she was approaching age 19 [in 1944]. [There was an Air Force base near where she lived], so she went to dances and events where she met lots of military guys and fliers. This guy (name was Jerry) was a navigator on B24s, and was transferred to combat flying in Italy in early 1944. He arranged for my mother to come see him off in San Francisco, but my grandmother [her mother] said she couldn’t go. My mom said she was going anyway, so my grandmother went with her. She accompanied them to the movie, dinner, and other dates. They exchanged letters (she still has them) while he was in Italy, but a few months later she got her letter back with “deceased” stamped on it. She found out later he was killed by flak in an air raid."

My grandma told me more about trying to find out what had happened to Jerry:

[Sterling] and Jerry both flew in B24’s during the war and both went to Italy the same month and were on different but close to each others' air bases. Jerry’s plane was not shot down but he was hit with German flak and killed after only flying over there for two months. I wrote a letter to Sterling and asked him to talk to Jerry’s pilot and let me know what happened since my returned letters were just marked 'deceased.' I even wrote to the Houston, Texas paper for an obituary and they sent back the articles and an address of his Aunt who I wrote and she and his father wrote to me and sent pictures, etc. I was young (not quite 19) and it was quite traumatic but after the shock of it, life went on. Luckily, I met Charles, another Texas boy, and fell in love. But, you know, you never forget your first love.

Charles is my Grandpa, obviously. And that's how I learned so much more about my Grandma, all thanks to naming my baby Sterling!

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Al Noor Mosque, lit up

The Sharjah Light Festival starts tomorrow. I have a weird affection for the Light Festival. On its face, it's just a bunch of lights projected onto buildings, and the occasional animated light show projected onto buildings at Al Qasba, but I love it. We've gone every year we've been here, even last year when the festival was weirdly kind of a dud. (And in 2013 when the "light festival" ended up being the fantastic show of red brake lights we enjoyed for over an hour in an epic traffic jam on the way there.)

This year looks like it's going to be great. Last night, they had Al Noor mosque lit up ahead of the beginning of the festival tomorrow, and it looked fantastic.


Magdalena came home and drew/colored a picture of it (I took this photo before she was finished filling in the sky).


Even if this is all we catch of this year's light festival, I will consider it worth it! Seeing that mosque lit up, up close and in person, was amazing.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Downton Abbey 5.5 (SPOILERS)

Oh, I had forgotten that Edith already stole little Marigold away from one adoptive mother. And now she's trying to do it again to that farmer lady. There is no happy way for this to end. So sad.

Branson and Miss Bunting "calling it a day" (love the euphemism) is possibly my favorite thing to happen this season so far. Praise be! Branson, the reason you never felt like a lunatic around Miss Bunting is that SHE is the lunatic.

It makes me nervous having those inspectors from Scotland Yard in the house. How cool would it have been, though, if it were a young Christopher Foyle who showed up in the library to interrogate Mary? So cool.

Look me in the face and tell me you still want Mary to marry Tony Gillingham. It's not possible.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

January 2015 Books

Salt & StormSalt & Storm by Kendall Kulper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. There are a lot of good things about this book, but in the end it just wasn't for me. I was thrilled to see that it was set in the 1860s in a community based on the whaling industry - so unusual, with a lot of interesting potential! But the story as a whole didn't carry a great sense of time and place with it - I felt like it could have been anywhere, at any time, really.

The book did get better during the last third, though. Some issues that I thought were being dealt with in a really heavy-handed way ended up being more nuanced than I expected. I also kept thinking of this book as an alternate to The Witch of Blackbird Pond, except set two centuries later and the girl actually IS a witch.

I think the right reader would LOVE this book. That reader is just not me.


Bringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed AmericaBringing Adam Home: The Abduction That Changed America by Les Standiford

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I know this is weird, but I actually wish this book had been LESS about the case of Adam Walsh in particular, and more about its impact on the investigations of child abductions in America in general. What happened to Adam Walsh is just so chilling that I had a really hard time reading about it. It's that awful, perfect storm that all parents worry about - turning our back on a child for a moment in an ostensibly safe place and having the worst happen.

So I couldn't stomach the middle chapters of this book. I recommend that anyone especially sensitive to violence against children skip over them as well. The final chapters do a good job summing up what happened and showing the results of the hard work of Adam Walsh's parents.


The American HeiressThe American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I kept wanting this book to go full-on horror (or at least Gothic), instead of just being vaguely, lazily creepy. Then I realized that I don't think the book is even supposed to BE creepy. It's too bad, because it definitely has "Mrs. Rochester in the attic" potential.

Instead, I'm left frustrated with men who want to make out instead of have important conversations with their significant others. I mean, I get doing that once or twice, but literally EVERY time your wife comes to you with a vital topic of discussion? All the men in this book are both boors, and bores. (Yes, I thought of that myself, late the other night and I am quite proud of it.) Even the man we're supposed to root for (out of nowhere, at about the 85% mark) is SO weak-sauce. I just cannot be bothered with him or anyone else in this book. Let alone the actual husband, who I think is just the worst, and also emotionally abusive.

I think I need to go read The Age of Innocence again as a palate-cleanser.


The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna BannisterThe Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister by Nonna Bannister

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With a more heavy-handed editor, I think this book could have been outstanding. As it is, it's only pretty dang good. I understand the editors' wish to leave the source material alone as much as possible (these are literally scraps of diaries written by a young Russian girl during WWII, plus later recollections written by her over her lifetime), but it made for a sometimes confusing read. This issue of not quite knowing what/when/who I was reading was compounded by the fact that in my Kindle version, the voice of the editors and the voice of the author were not distinguished at all - same typeface, same size, same spacing. I wonder if it's made more clear in the hard copy version.

BUT. This is a truly amazing and heart-wrenching story, and I think it's one that we don't get to hear very often. Nonna was a Russian girl who happened to be in the wrong social class when the dust of the Russian Revolution settled. So when WWII started and the Germans moved in, she and her family knew they were in danger from both sides - and thus had nowhere to seek refuge. It was an impossible choice and it was so sad to read of her fall from a lovely childhood into a frantic, violent, hand-to-mouth existence.

It was especially moving to realize that one of the concentration camps that plays a major role in the story is the one we visited this summer (Flossenburg). So sad.


The Secret Rooms: A True Gothic MysteryThe Secret Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery by Catherine Bailey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars. Ostensibly, the central mystery(s) of this story could have been explained in a few chapters. But thankfully, the author makes herself part of the story, so we investigate the mystery alongside her and see it unfold as she does. That made the book for me. I thought the author was smart, industrious, and logical in the way that she approached the mystery, and it was fascinating to be sitting there in Room 1 with her thinking, "what do I do now? Where could those letters be? What is even going on here?"

I wouldn't really call this a "true Gothic mystery" - my copy of the book had a different subtitle. However, the author and I share an imagination style. She shares one moment about looking at an old photograph of two of the protagonists as children (I think it's the one on the cover of this edition, but it wasn't on mine). She describes it as being kind of spooky, knowing what we now know about those two people. One side of me was rolling my eyes like, come on, it's just a photograph. But the other, stronger, more genuine side of me was right there with her, registering a similarly high rating on the spooky scale.

Speaking of photographs, this book includes tons. I am so glad! Sometimes people write books like these and then do not include photographs!

Speaking of Downton Abbey, except we weren't, except every book set in that time period seems to be "speaking of" DA - there are so many DA plot threads running through this story I could hardly believe it! I have to wonder if Fellowes knew this family's story and borrowed a few elements.

Highly recommend, even if it gets a little muddy toward the end. I think a few chapters belong in the book the author intended to write when she set out on her research, and she couldn't bear to part with them so she included them in this, the book she ended up writing.


Dad Is FatDad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Audiobook, read by the author. I love it when they do that.

There is something here for everyone. I laughed a lot, especially at his depiction of life with a toddler (goals: 1. find poison; 2. destroy things) and the ordeal of leaving the house with children.

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