Friday, March 30, 2012

May the walls of this house be strong in the face of storms

A portion of our new backyard.
Taken today, after the settlement papers were signed.
March 30, 2012. 

One day last June (I think), this poem by Michael DeVernon Boblett that I share at the end of this post was offered as the Meditation Monday on the Unitarian Universalist Association's Facebook page. It spoke to me then (as these UU meditations tend to do) because we were in the midst of selling our previous home and going on our second month with nary a showing (much less an offer or potential buyer) in sight. I had been laid off from my job, a development that took me by surprise. The Husband was more than 300 miles away in our new state, while I was taking care of two kids, packing the house, and keeping the house pristine for the imaginary buyers.

It was a stressful, uncertain, scary time.

Windows in the family room of our previous home.
I sat in the family room of my dream house I was depressed to sell in an even more depressed market and read Michael DeVernon Boblett's words, read them over and over again, may the walls of this house be strong in the face of storms ... may the windows of this house be clear to the world's light whether of dawns or of daring, watching our dwindling finances, wondering if there would ever be a new home to go to. I knew that the only structure that mattered was the one that was in our hearts, the one that we built and were continuing to build as a family.

Still, the storms were surely at our walls.

If you are my Facebook friend, you know how stressful these last few weeks, this past year, have all been. I have not made my mother proud with my language used in my posts, and each time my laptop goes on the fritz, I believe it is my father saying he's still able to punish me, at almost 43, even from the great beyond.

And then, earlier this week, I again found these same words by the gifted Michael DeVernon Boblett, the same meditation I read in June, and I remembered: I had saved it to hit publish for when we bought a new house, because it seemed just so apropos.

I did not know, I could not know, how fitting it would still be.

Because as trying as this past year has been (and it has), as this mortgage process has come to a close, these last 36 hours have had me blindsided. My sense of balance and stability and confidence has been rocked, as it has so often this past year. This is the hand in the house of cards that we are dealt in life, I suppose. Beginnings and endings, sometimes in collusion, sometimes unexpected.

We bought a new house today. Signed the papers, sealed the deal, shook the hands.

Weatherwise, it was a day of every imaginable temperature: cold in the morning, then sunny and warm. Tonight, the rains pound and the storms are at our walls.

But what I have learned is that the walls of this house are strong, thanks to some special people we are lucky to have in our lives and because of how we've been tested this year.

I don't know you, Michael DeVernon Boblett, but I thank you for the gift of your words here below. They mean so very much tonight.

Our House
by Michael DeVernon Boblett

May the walls of this house be strong in the face of storms:
Whether of winds or of words,
whether of thunder or of tyranny.

May the windows of this house be clear to the world's light:
Whether of dawns or of daring,
whether of sunsets or of stillness.

May the foundations of this house be firm upon the good earth:
Whether of soil or of sharing,
whether of bedrock or of behavior.

May the doors of this house be wide to all that come from afar:
Whether poems or people,
whether songs or strangers.

May this house embrace, like a graceful chalice,
The flame it cannot define or limit,
as a heart enshrines hopes larger than its beating walls.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Take Their Hand

A street in Pittsburgh, PA
(just a block away from where this post took place)

Traffic was backing up on 6th Street. Four yellow school buses hugged the curb; a Port Authority bus squeezed between one of them and my suddenly Matchbox car-sized Chevy HHR.

The light turned green. We sat still.

Spilling out from every direction were the children - appearing in doorways, from the buses, from cars. All of a sudden they were everywhere and headed for Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts. They were being counted by adults, repeatedly; their small hands clasping each other's, a white hand holding a black hand. I wondered if anyone else on their way to work, on their way to a meeting like I was, on their way to ... where? noticed that.

A motorcycle zoomed up beside me, lights flashing. I thought of my out of state license plate, an easy target, hoping I didn't make any stupid traffic mistakes here in this city I'm still figuring out (although, when I do make a mistake on the road, I've found Pittsburgh drivers to be much nicer than those, say, in Philly. The other day, after I inadvertently ran a stop sign at the wild speed of 5 mph in a (different) traffic jam, a woman rolled down her window and politely as hell said, "Stop sign there, lady.")  Northeast Philly, this ain't.

The police officer got off his motorcycle and joined two other members of the law in the middle of the intersection that I and several other drivers were waiting to cross. We were to wait.

And we did.

They were helping the children cross the street, at the end of the rush hour in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Nobody leaned on their horn. Nobody got out of their car and yelled that they were going to be late for an important meeting that would be forgotten by noon. We just ... waited.

I don't know why this sight entranced me so, but it did. I wished I had my camera. I couldn't take my eyes off these kids crossing the street, heading towards what I imagined to be a performance of some kind, maybe a symphony. I just kept thinking what a different world this would be if we all could all show a little more caring and compassion toward children a little more often. Towards everyone, really. But especially the kids.

I thought about several of my friends who are dealing with issues with their kids caused by others - be it bullying on the bus or injustice at the hands of a crazy court system or ... whatever. You know what your issues are and who you are.

What a much better world this would be if more people just stopped.

Took a child's hand.

Made sure they got across the street.

It's really such a simple thing to do, isn't it?

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Checking In on My Climb Up Mount TBR

Over at My Reader's Block, Bev is hosting the Mount TBR Reading Challenge for 2012 and has asked those of us who are participating to check in with a progress report on our adventures thus far.

You'll recall (or, more likely, not) that back in December, I signed up to read a ridiculous number of 40 books from my personal shelves.

Yes, 40.

I'm well aware that is nearly the number of books I tend to read in a year. (My average total is usually around 70 or thereabouts.)

But I have also become extremely well aware - especially as I have packed up my books AGAIN for our move into our new house this coming Monday - that I own way too many books. (There have been several hundred of my books packed away in storage for nearly a year.) As daunting as reading 40 of my books sounds, it will barely make a dent in the number of books I own.

Sigh. Still, I must trudge on.

And trudge on I am.  Sadly, I have only read 6 of those 40 books so far ... but I plan to improve those numbers once I am reunited with my books next week.  (Believe me, I cannot wait.)

So far, here's what I've read (and hey, I've actually HELPED my TBR problem shelves because I wound up donating  3 of these to the library!)

1. Book of Days, Poems by Jennifer Hill-Kaucher
2. The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, by Kaye Gibbons
3. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
4. Night Swim, by Jessica Keener
5. This Beautiful Life, by Helen Schulman
6. Memoirs of a Geisha, by Arthur Golden

Favorite book: Night Swim

Book that has been on my TBR list the longest: Not sure ... either 
The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster or Memoirs of a Geisha 

Newest book on my TBR list: This Beautiful Life

The year is still young. Plenty of time to conquer that pesky Mt. TBR. 

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: Baker Towers, by Jennifer Haigh (audio)

Baker Towers
by Jennifer Haigh 
William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
7 CDs, 8 hrs. 36 minutes
Audiobook narrated by Anna Fields 

Baker Towers is the sort of novel that is often described as a "sweeping family saga," one spanning an entire generation in the life of a family. In this case, the reader follows the Novak clan  from 1944, beginning with the sudden death of patriarch Stanley Novak, into the 1970s.

The Novak family (widow Rose and her five children: George, Dorothy, Joyce, Sandy, and Lucy) live in Bakerton, Pennsylvania
"a company town built on coal, a town of church festivals and ethnic neighborhoods ..... Its children are raised in company houses - three rooms upstairs, three rooms downstairs, Its ball club leads the coal company league. The twelve Baker mines offer good union jobs, and the looming black piles of mine dirt don't bother anyone. Called Baker Towers, they are local landmarks, clear evidence that the mines are booming. Baker towers mean good wages and meat on the table, two weeks' paid vacation and presents under the Christmas tree." (from the book jacket)
Like the Towers themselves, the people in Bakerton are akin to local landmarks too. Many seldom leave - but when they do, there's something about Bakerton and the small town way of life there that calls them back. It's in your bones, in your blood, it's not unlike the black lung disease that would eventually claim many of the town's men who worked in the coal mines. It's the close-knit nature of the town, family, and the way everyone knows everybody else.
"You knew Randazzo from the Knights, Kukla and Stusick from St. Casimir's. You'd seen Quinn and Kelly playing cards at the Vets, the Yurkovich twins at the firehall dances, walking the Bakerton Circle. Kovac's wife ran a press iron at the dress factory. Angie's uncle had buried yours. You knew them from the Legion, the ball field.  There was no escaping all the ways you knew them. The ways they were just like you." (pg. 307)
I'll admit, Baker Towers started off a bit slow for me - but as the narrative delved more and more into the minds and lives of the individual characters, the choices they made and the consequences and sacrifices they faced, I found myself becoming more drawn into the story. (Jennifer Haigh's The Condition was a DNF book for me; I briefly thought Baker Towers might meet the same fate, but I was glad to be proven wrong.)

For the most part, Haigh gives her reader memorable and realistic characters, defining them well.  Of all of them, my absolute favorite was Joyce, one of the five Novak children. An academically promising student, Joyce enlists in the Air Force after high school. She's a woman born a generation too early, as one discovers while reading of her struggles to get a job after returning home to Bakerton after her voluntary discharge from the military. She knows she's being sexually discriminated against, but this was in an era where women's rights weren't what they are today. (Well, for now, anyway.) I would have liked to have seen Joyce become more involved in the women's rights movement of the day.  (The time that Haigh spent on the character of Sandy could have been used for this, as he didn't add much to the novel, in my opinion.)

Jennifer Haigh does an excellent job of taking her reader back to a different era, one that in many cases has been somewhat forgotten. It's easy to forget that there was a time not all that long ago when treatment for conditions such as diabetes and postpartum depression were simply not what they are today; we take this for granted now when that was very much not the case just a few decades ago. Baker Towers, then, looks at the question of how the era in which we live shapes us, but in what ways does the actual town where we grow up mold us too?  More importantly, what impact do the people of our hometown have on who we become and is it ever possible to truly "go home again"?

The setting of Baker Towers was one that was very much of interest to me, given that my work takes me into small rural communities like Bakerton, Pa. Indeed, there is an actual Bakerton, Pa (although I thought the Bakerton in the book was intended to be fictional, a stand-in, perhaps, for Jennifer Haigh's hometown of Barnesboro, Pa. which couldn't be located via Mapquest).  I haven't been to Bakerton, but I've been to towns damn close to it - and while I was listening to the first lines of the audiobook, I was driving through a county that runs through the very same mountainous terrain as the train.
"Six mornings a week the train runs westward from Altoona to Pittsburgh, a distance of a hundred miles. The route is indirect, tortuous; the earth is buckled, swollen with what lies beneath. Here and there, the lights of a town, rows of company houses, narrow and square; a main street of commercial buildings, quickly and cheaply built." (pg. 1)
(This also connects very, very well to the ending of Baker Towers ... but I'm not going to include that here because of giving away spoilers to the plot.)

As regular blog readers of mine know, I'm a Pittsburgh transplant from Philadelphia. In Baker Towers, the oldest son, George, marries a girl from Philadelphia's Main Line - so I loved that there were several delightful references to the City of Brotherly Love. George's betrothed is part of a wealthy family that owns a local department store, Quigley's, and I'm guessing that the iconic Philadelphia Strawbridge & Clothier was the model for that.  (Or perhaps John Wanamaker, but regardless, those parts of the novel were fun to listen to and brought back many memories.)

As an audiobook, I thought Baker Towers worked well.  I liked Anna Fields's narration and thought that she did a good job keeping all the multiple voices distinct and consistent.  (However, one of my pet peeves with audiobooks was evidenced here. I don't like when females lower their voices to portray male characters. It drives me crazy because it sounds so fake and I cannot stand it. There are quite a few male characters in Baker Towers so if you share this pet peeve of mine, you might be better served reading this one in print form.)

Ms. Fields's narration is also a bit monotone, which takes some adjustment at first, but in a way it does kind of fit the tone of the novel. There were boom times in Bakerton, but overall, this isn't a cheerful tale. These people aren't overly happy with their lot in life. They're wishing for more - and those who do finally attain more wind up wishing for what was left behind in Bakerton all along.

I gave this 3 stars ("I liked it") on Goodreads, and if I could, I would have given it 3.5 for the excellent characterization of Joyce. I really thought Jennifer Haigh did such an excellent job with that character. She also made the town itself a character, which I also really liked. Still, there were other characters (like Sandy) who I thought were unnecessary to the plot and others who weren't as developed as they could have been. There was also the feeling that something was missing in this book, but that flatness might be intentional. It's a quick read (or listen, in my case) and could very well be the sort of book that grows on you as time passes.

What Other Bloggers Had to Say (let me know in the comments if I missed your review!)

A Book a Week
Everyday I Write the Book
Reflections of a Bookaholic

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Now, This is the Kind of Refrigerator Mom I'm Proud To Be. (So There, Bruno Bettelheim.)

Because how many other kids leave Post-It Noted quotes from Mahatma K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (my boy's two current obsessions) for you on the fridge?

Love is an emotion more powerful than the soul of hate.
Mahatma K. Gandhi
You cannot deny the power of friendship when it hits you.
Love lives forever.
Martin Luther King Jr. 1967

* Refrigerator mother theory: (From Wikipedia):  In the absence of any biomedical explanation for what causes autism after the telltale symptoms were first described by scientists, Bruno Bettelheim, a University of Chicago professor and child development specialist, and other leading psychoanalysts championed the notion that autism was the product of mothers who were cold, distant and rejecting, thus deprived of the chance to "bond properly". The theory was embraced by the medical establishment and went largely unchallenged into the mid-1960s, but its effects have lingered into the 21st century.

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Reduce, Recycle, Redux

Really, it is kind of unbelievable how much stuff a family can accumulate in just 8 months.  I mean, right up until the very day we moved here, I was practically a weekly visitor to our Goodwill location in Delaware. It got to the point that the guy at the donation drop off saw my car rounding the corner and knew it was going to be The Chick Who Was Moving to Pittsburgh.

Now that we're moving into our new house in just two weeks, history's repeating itself.

What I donated today. *
Don't. Give. Me. The. Look. Snoopy.



I'm sorry, didn't we just do this purging thing?

Why, yes, we apparently did.  On March 8, 2011.

Now back to the packing ... and making sure all felines are accounted for before sealing up the boxes.

An "everything but the kitchen sink" (obviously) box that I packed earlier this evening.

* Donated items .... because I lost ALL MY ITEMIZED DONATION LISTS when we went to do this year's taxes and lo and behold, I remember that I BLOGGED ALL MY DECLUTTERING SKILLZ and all of a sudden when the blog becomes the source of a POTENTIAL TAX DEDUCTION then The Husband has a newfound appreciation and love and respect for such trivial blog entries such as this. Yay me.

What I donated today:

Boys clothing:
28 shirts/t-shirts
16 tank tops
1 pair jeans
4 pairs of shorts
2 pairs of dress pants
2 dress shirts
2 winter coats
1 sweater vest
4 pairs of pants

Girls Clothing
2 dresses
1 pair of jeans
1 winter coat
1 light jacket
6 shirts/tops
2 pairs of shoes

Women's Clothing
3 shirts
2 jackets
1 skirt
1 suit
1 cardigan set
2 pairs of boots

1 Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal
1 Snoopy stuffed animal (yep, he made it into the store after all)
1 doll

1 Baby Einstein/Baby Van Gogh

1 children's book about Passover

Household items
1 Dora the Explorer vanity table

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Sunday Salon: On Salons Then and Now

I was saddened to hear this week of the March 6 death of Florence Wolfson Howitt, author of the diary that was the subject of Lily Koppel's wonderful book The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal. ("Florence Wolfson Howitt, Famed For Rediscovered Diary, Dies at 96" New York Times, March 7, 2012).

I absolutely loved The Red Leather Diary, which you can read my review of it here. During the summer of 2009, when I read it, this was a book that I was recommending to everyone. In fact, it was one of those readers (who then recommended it to her boss; I think Florence herself would have liked that) who emailed me with Florence's obituary, knowing that I am an avid reader of the obituaries but making sure I didn't miss this one - which I did.

On July 26, 2009, I wrote this post for The Sunday Salon.  It seems a fitting tribute to Florence for me to rerun these words once more:

This week I've been reading The Red Leather Diary, by Lily Koppel. It's not Lily's diary, however; it is that of Florence Wolfson, a teenager living in New York during the early 1930s. If you haven't read it, it is a fascinating glimpse of that time period. Lily Koppel combines extensive interviews and Florence's diary entries to create an exquisite book. There's been a lot of positive buzz about this among book bloggers, to whom I am grateful - I might have missed out on this had it not been for all your reviews. Hopefully I will finish this today (only 70 pages left) as I have a little more time than usual to read.
I'm at the part of the diary (page 237-238) where Florence, a 19 year old graduate student at Columbia University, starts a literary salon.
"As Florence bent to light the fire in the fireplace, she unpinned her long hair and let it cascade seductively onto her shoulders as her guests pondered Aristotle's Art of Poetry and the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas. These were their heroes. Her first year at Columbia, Florence began a salon in the Wolfsons' living room, assembling an avant-garde group hungry for ideas and as passionate about words as she was. Ideas were their aphrodisiacs, the intellectual lifeblood of their being. Each member's day-to-day existence was driven by discussions of Socrates and Plato, relating lofty truths to daily acts like riding the subway. The circle was their real life. They were bohemians, wandering along Riverside Park on a Sunday afternoon, stopping for a thirty-five cent Chinese banquet or rounds of beers. 'Eccentric' or 'unusual personality' described just about everyone in the circle.
"The salon members were flamboyant, shrewd, artistic exiles from immigrant families. The American dream, for their parents, had been to get rich at whatever cost, no matter what labor was involved. Their parents were craftsmen, tradesmen, and merchants. Their life's work was work. Florence and her friends wanted to be recognized for their artistic genius. They read The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Atlantic. They despised the bourgeois ethics perpetrated by magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. They read aloud from Hound & Horn, a literary quarterly founded by Harvard undergrads Lincoln Kirstien and Varian Fry in 1927, devoted to writers they idolized, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.
"Florence served white wine on a silver tray at the group's midnight sessions. Her friends stayed until early morning, talking philosophy, getting drunk, having little orgies in Florence's bedroom, seeking physical as well as intellectual pleasure, all in pursuit of 'the Socratic quest.' 'Know thyself - gnothi seauton,' reminded their hostess. They meditated on Socrates's famous line, 'The unexamined life is not worth living."
How I would have loved to have been part of Florence Wolfson's literary salons, I thought, as I read that passage. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Discussing literature and exchanging ideas, escaping from one's everyday life for the time it takes to write a blog post and being something more than what we do as a profession or a career or however we pay the bills, striving for something more than materialism from getting rich at any cost?
And then it struck me.
I am part of such a salon, just in a different form than what was in the 1930s. If you think about it, it's really not all that different than what we are doing here, online, on our blogs and in communities like The Sunday Salon.
I love this whole notion of blogging, of coming together to discuss books, current events, and ideas - be they highbrow ones or the things people do to express their inexplicable adoration of The Jonas Brothers.
I hope you're having a great Sunday and that your week ahead is filled with great books, a great exchange of ideas, camaraderie with people you love and admire, chances to escape from your everyday self, discovering and recovering your soul.
Thanks to all of you, mine certainly will be.
May you rest in peace, Florence.  (That is, when you're not participating in the greatest of all literary salons in the hereafter.)

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

March Madness (of a different, non-basketball kind)

Early March 1990:
That week, there were a cascade of gloriously perfect spring days with temperatures soaring into the 70s and flirting with the 80s. Those were days that hinted of the promise of the ones yet to come, that reminded us of what we still had. They were our gift for the taking ... and we did.

A friend's family lived at the beach. Two other friends had cars, a luxury during those days. We turned in papers early or not at all, switched work schedules. Two of us whispered our secret plan to our boss, a mentor and now, still two decades later, our friend.

She knew why we had to do this, that this madcap of a March day was our one chance to be together once more before life's tides cast us in different directions. Go. Be together. Enjoy each other. Because someday soon, you'll have jobs and families and lives and you won't be able to do crazy things like this. And you'll always remember and have this. 

And so we piled into the two cars and headed east, our itinerary precisely timed for when the friend's parents would be at work, none the wiser for us having dropped by when we (including their son) should have been 81 miles away. We rolled the windows down. We drove into the day, back into the cool night.

There was something about it that made me feel that we would be together always, that we could do anything, that anything was possible.

Early March 2012:
This week, there were a string of gloriously perfect spring days, with temperatures soaring into the 70s and flirting with the 80s. These are the types of days that remind us of the eternal hope and spring that we carry within us, the reminder that spring always returns. This day was a gift for the taking, I thought, as I pressed the button in my car that would automatically roll the window down.

Driving east, I wished I was headed to the beach instead of the work dinner I was obligated for ... and suddenly I was eastbound in another car, on another highway, in another decade. That March day of long ago came right back, as I admit it sometimes does on unseasonably warm days in March when the temperatures soar into the 70s and 80s. I wondered if the others - disconnected, mostly out of touch, some of their whereabouts now unknown - ever think of that day, too.
Go. Be together. Enjoy each other. Because someday soon, you'll have jobs and families and lives and you won't be able to do crazy things like this. And you'll always remember and have this. 
This had been a long week, a stressful week, a tough week. A reminder of a time when the improbable was possible was just what I needed as I drove home from the work dinner, an evening of networking and "I'll call you's" and prospects and potential asks. The breeze blew as I rolled the window down on this warmest of spring nights, the heat lightning crackling in the valley, a storm just ahead.

Impossible, yes, but for a moment, I thought I felt the ocean from 368 miles away.

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


My writers group - this wonderful collection of warm-hearted souls in this Steel City of mine - meets tonight. Among the works that they will be critiquing is Chapter 1 of my own novel in progress.  Some might be too intimidated to submit to folks that one has only known since December, but for me, it feels like the right time to let this story out a little bit more into the world. It is, I feel, a necessary step in the evolution of this story.  I need to know if this has potential, what the early impressions are to someone brand new to this story, if there is interest enough for more.

Early feedback from two members of our group indicate that the answer is yes, and for that, I am grateful - more than you can possibly know. K. and C., I thank you for your kind words.

Because this story is so personal, I thought I'd be more nervous embarking upon tonight (and maybe my crazy dreams last night of basketball courts encircling houses, holding tight to The Husband, being late to writer's group, and a cameo appearance by Hillary Clinton are a subconscious indication of such). Instead, I'm more eager and anticipatory to hear what the members of the group have to say, what nuances they've picked up on or not.

And because you, my blog readers, have been hearing about this novel for much longer than these new kindred writerly spirit friends of mine, here's a taste for you, as well:

He took the boxed cake from me as I dropped my laundry-laden duffel bag to the floor, followed by my backpack. He bent down slightly for a hug, steadied himself by placing a hand on my shoulder.  As he did, the nubby wool green blanket that he had draped across his shoulders, despite the spring weather outside, fell to the tiled floor, revealing a thinner frame and more purple bruises to those in the lineup on his inner forearm. I was grateful for the hug, as it allowed me to avert my eyes.  Still, I smiled, leaning over to kiss him on his rough, sandpaper-textured cheek.
“God, when was the last time you shaved?” I asked, following him from the foyer and into the kitchen.  The Formica countertop was cluttered with a mélange of clean and dirty stoneware dishes, tomato sauce stained Tupperware containers, and utensils with food still caked between the prongs. “Or ran the dishwasher, for that matter?” 
“I’ve been busy,” he said.  “You know, this dying business takes a lot out of a person.” 
Another attempt at a joke.  I rolled my eyes and half-smiled for his benefit. He began laughing but caught his breath as he turned and stopped, a staccato series of gasping coughs replacing his sardonic humor. Gripping the counter with his right hand, he grabbed a dirty, overturned, opaque-spotted glass from the sink with his left, using his knuckles to knock the faucet on. I reached to thump his back, as one would a toddler, and quickly withdrew my hand as I felt the serrated ridges of bones beneath his faded red Phillies t-shirt, feeling guilty and simultaneously grateful that he wasn’t facing me to see me flinch.

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Sunday Salon

I should be packing instead of blogging this morning, since there are a mere 20 days remaining until we move into our new house, but ... well, here I am. (Yes, in case you missed the news, we found a new-to-us house and we move in at the end of this month! We can't wait.)

It sounds ridiculous to anyone who isn't a book lover, but one of the things I am most looking forward to is having all my books together again in one spot.  Several hundred of them have been tucked away in storage for nearly a year, and ... well, I've missed them.

However, the fact that I have several hundred books in storage (and an equivalent amount here in the apartment) makes me realize that I need to double up my efforts with the Mt. TBR Challenge. I'm striving to read 40 of my own books this year and so far, I'm doing ... okay.  I've read 6.

One of the oldest books on my TBR shelves was Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, which I just finished listening to this week and really enjoyed. (I know, I'm probably the last person in the world to read this.) I try to purposely select audiobooks from the library that correspond to books I have lingering on my TBR shelves. That way, I feel a double sense of accomplishment when I finish them. I know, this probably doesn't make any sense at all, but it does to me ... sort of.

Anyway, so I'm glad I finally read (or listened to) Memoirs of a Geisha, which is the fictional story of Chiyo, a 9 year old girl who is sold to a geisha house. Separated from her beloved sister and her parents, her name is changed to Sayuri and she becomes an apprentice in the world of the geisha. It's a fascinating story, and the audiobook version is especially well done. The narration by Bernadette Dunne is exceptional, and kept me interested over several weeks of listening to this. I'm keeping this one because I think it may be one I want to reread at some point. I also think it would be good for Betty to read when she gets a bit older.

I'm halfway through The Snow Child, which I talked about in last week's Salon.  Still loving this one and still wishing I could devote an entire day (or night!) to reading this. Hopefully if I get some substantial packing done today I'll be able to read some more of this tonight.

Looking ahead to this week, I'm planning to start listening to Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh on audio. I wasn't sure about this because The Condition was a DNF book for me, but I've since read a good review of this one as well as several great reviews of Faith, so I'll give Haigh another chance.  

OK, before any more hours get frittered away this Sunday, I'm off to go grocery shopping and then to pack more boxes.

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Springing Forward, In More Ways Than One

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Beth Fish Reads and is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Tonight we turn the clocks ahead one hour, springing forward. (If this comes as a public service announcement to you as it did to me the other day, then you're not alone.)  While I'm not a fan of the lost hour of sleep this weekend, I do welcome this change of the seasons. More sunlight? Bring it on.

We're also springing forward in a different kind of way. We found a house! We're beyond thrilled. We are so cramped for space here in the apartment, even with the majority of our things in storage. As regular readers of the blog may recall, we put an offer in on a house in late January, only to find during the home inspection that there were many costly problems a-lurking. (Mold, and lots of it. All 25 windows needing replacing. A buckling garage wall. The list went on.)  Then came a second house, whose owner wanted a full price offer and nothing less (which ours was). Finally, this house came along and it was everything we wanted and then some.

Among the and then some things is a vegetable garden. As in ... a HUGE vegetable garden that resembles a small farm. (I'd post a picture of this garden I'm acquiring, but since it's technically not mine yet, I feel sort of funny about doing so publicly on the blog. If you're my Facebook friend, though, you know what I'm talking about.)

I'm told there are also apple trees. And pear trees. Blueberry bushes, too.

I see lots of pies in my future.

The thing is, I'm so not a gardener.  I know very, very little about keeping any of these things alive, which I'd very much like to do because I like the idea of eating locally - and you can't get much more local than one's own backyard. Also, these owners clearly put a lot of work and time into this and I would at least like to try my hand at this garden before dismissing it outright and saying this isn't for me. I mean, I know we don't have to keep this garden but there is something about the whole thing that I love. (It's a nostalgia thing; my dad spent weekends working in our yard.) I like the idea of trying to do this.

I have a sense that this is my next book.  (Whenever I'm finished with the first one, that is.)

I say I'm not a gardener, but the reality is, other than throwing some tomato and pepper plants in the ground one year (they turned out pretty good; we ate them and we're still here) and calling myself a gardener, I've never really tried.

But, still, let's not kid ourselves. I'm out of my league here.

So, even though this is a huge garden plot, I've decided to start small. Baby steps. A few plants and crops for this first season (but which ones???) and we'll see how it goes. (There's a compost bin, too, which The Husband is absolutely NOT thrilled about, given the smell of such things.) We'll be in the house at the end of this month, a few weeks before the last frost date in our area.  (Do you still go by that even if it has been such a mild winter?) So while I won't have any seeds started indoors, there might be time to plant some things. (Right? That's the correct strategy, right?  Here in the Pittsburgh suburbs, we are apparently in Zone 6a.  Aren't you impressed? See, I'm learning already.)

So, while I spend time that I should be packing on Pinterest looking at gardens, help me out here. Are you a gardener? What websites, blogs, books, crops, etc. would you recommend to someone new at this?

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Review: Everybody Loves Somebody, by Joanna Scott

Everybody Loves Somebody
by Joanna Scott
Back Bay Books (Little, Brown)
260 pages

This short story collection by Joanna Scott is as gorgeous as that cover.  Really, it is. I think when you can say that 8 out of the 10 stories presented here are wonderful and memorable, then that says something about the quality and originality of the writing contained within. 

(As much as I love short stories (and I do), it is a very rare thing indeed when I love every story in a particular collection.  This one comes really, really close to fitting that bill.  I'll admit, "Yip" and "Or Else" didn't quite grab me, but that's OK.)

Everybody Loves Somebody is a remarkable collection of just 10 stories filled with unforgettable characters and prose rendered so beautiful that it is almost breathtaking. 

Like this, from "The Queen of Sheba is Afraid of Snow," a story about an 11 year old illiterate girl living in poverty with her great-grandmother, who sells sweet potatoes and popcorn from a street cart in order to provide for the twosome.  (The girl's mother is an "angel" in a religious cult.) This story is one of the very best and if I had to pick one, probably my favorite in the collection.)

"Not that the child had any sort of queenly shine to her.  Her coffee skin was splotched with freckles, and her eyes usually had a startled gleam to them, as if she couldn't believe what she'd seen.  Truth was, she believed too much.  She believed that sinners spend eternity tied to a roasting spit over a huge bonfire; she believed her mother was a sinner, just as Granny said; she believed that when she grew up she'd have her own huckster cart and sell sweet potatoes and popcorn along Lenox Avenue; she also believed that the angels were waiting for her granny, tapping their silver slippers expectantly, though Granny never said as much and instead kept on like a mechanical soldier march, march, marching across a toy-shop floor.  But the old woman had a way of moaning in her sleep that made her sound like she was saying goodbye to life. The girl didn't think far enough ahead to worry about who would take care of her when Granny died, - she wondered about that strange moment when Granny would drift from her bed up to heaven, imagined that the angels would hover outside the window blowing trumpets while the neighbors came running. The girl only hoped she'd reach the rooftop in time to see her grandmother slip through the glided door at the crest of the sky." (pg. 98)

See what I mean? 

I also liked Scott's final story in this book. "The Lucite Cane," where an elderly man's cane almost becomes a character itself.  How this simple cane and the presence thereof manages to ensnare so many lives is a heartbreaking tale.

As the description on the back cover says, "At a seaside wedding in 1919, a doting uncle observes the happy scene while his errant brother - the father of the bride - struggles to free himself from a locked bathroom ["Heaven and Hell"].  A young woman new to Jazz Age New York strikes up a dangerous relationship with her boss ["Stumble"].  Two old women gamble with a diplomat who counts General Franco as his friend ["Freeze-Out"]. An apartment building burns ["Across from the Shannonso"]. Children are lost ["Worry"]. Children are found. [not saying which story this is, for fear of spoilers]. A single character experiences life in multiple versions ["Or Else"]. And everybody keeps looking for someone to love."

Don't these stories sound intriguing?  They are.  One of the other original qualities about Everybody Loves Somebody is that the stories span an entire decade.  They're not interconnected, but rather the first one starts in 1919, then the next is set in the Jazz Age, etc.  One of the last few (I forget which one) ends circa 1972. I really liked that continuity throughout the book.

I think this collection would be especially good for people who claim not to like short stories for one reason or another.  Yes, you might grow a little attached to some of these characters, but that only means they might stay with you longer.

Although I'd heard of Joanna Scott before picking up this collection, I only knew of her recent novel, Follow Me, which I had borrowed from the library and had to return unread before it was due.  I'm glad I was introduced to her work through her short stories though.  I happened to stumble on this while browsing the library's stacks. If these stories are any indication of Joanna Scott's talent, you can bet I am looking forward to reading more.
copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

It's Not Just Another Word

"That's so retarded."

How many times have you heard someone say this, or some variation of this?

Pretty often, I'd imagine. Because I've heard it too. From everyone. It's not a figure of speech flung by teenagers. I've heard this from former coworkers.

From our friends.

From our family.

You've heard it and I've heard it. And, it is just a matter of time before my son, who has autism, hears it too.

Maybe he already has. He's in 4th grade; it's quite possible. It's possible that he's even heard it in reference to him.

Someday he'll ask me - because he always asks me; he is full of questions, especially about words - what that word means. He's like that, curious about words. Their meanings, their spellings, how and why they are used.

And I have no idea what I will say.

I'll probably explain it to him similarly as I did when I told him he has autism. Trust me, as a parent, you get intimately acquainted with a special kind of heartbreak when you get to tell your little boy that his brain works differently, that he has something called autism, that even the best doctors don't quite exactly know why you were born with this, that this is the reason why some people don't understand why you act differently than other kids, that you will have this (to some degree) to the rest of your life.

You want to hold him and protect him for the rest of his life as his blue eyes fill with tears, absorbing this. You know that you can't.

You know that that word and the people who use it so casually and cavalierly are out there. Closer than you think.

I don't really understand the logic behind using this word. I've heard the reasons (and excuses, really) why it happens.
It's just a figure of speech. It means stupid. 
I don't know what I was thinking. 
Oh, I wasn't referring to YOUR son. 
Lighten up. It's just a word.
It's not just a word. Trust me on this.

It is Not. Just. Another. Word.

For in the minds and hearts of those with developmental disabilities and those of us who love them, it is a word with searing-hot and flame-red qualities. Hearing it hurts my heart, physically. It is a dagger, a rifle. Call me a dramatist, but in my mind and in my view, it is the verbal equivalent of rape.

I cannot explain the pain this word causes unless I am talking with other parents of special needs. It is a certain kind of pain that you only understand if you love someone with a disability, regardless of that disability.

And chances are, you probably know someone who has a disability. Even if they're good at hiding it, even if it is a disability on the inside, in the deepest corners of their minds. So, if it helps, think about that person who you love when calling something or someone retarded.

Or, if you know our family personally or even through my blog or the funny Facebook quotes and conversations of his that I post, think about my little boy, who will soon be asking me why someone called him this name.

And then tell me how you would answer him.

Because I don't have the words.

From Spread the Word to End the Word's Facebook page: Spread the Word to End the Word is an ongoing effort by Special Olympics, Best Buddies International and our supporters to raise the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word “retard(ed)” and encourage people to pledge to stop using the R-word. 

The campaign, created by youth, is intended to engage schools organizations and communities to rally and pledge their support. Most activities are centered annually in March, but people everywhere can help Spread the Word throughout their communities and schools year-round thru pledge drives, youth rallies and online activation. 

The effort is spearheaded by college students, Soeren Palumbo (Notre Dame 2011) and Tim Shriver (Yale 2011), and led by young people, Special Olympics athletes and Best Buddies partners across the country. Celebrity activist John C. McGinley of the hit show “Scrubs” is a spokesperson for the campaign. Respectful and inclusive language is essential to the movement for the dignity and humanity of people with intellectual disabilities. However, much of society does not recognize the hurtful, dehumanizing and exclusive effects of the word “retard(ed).”

It is time to address the minority slur “retard” and raise the consciousness of society to its hurtful effects.

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Sunday Salon: A Million Book Bloggers Can Sometimes Be Right

I'm not usually one who jumps on the latest book bandwagon and reads something just because everyone says it is the most amazing book ever.  In fact, I'm actually the opposite. If everyone is raving about how wonderful a particular book is, I tend to be even more cynical of such hype because ... well, (because I'm cynical) and because such hype has tended to disappoint me in the past.

Not this time.

You have to be in hibernation to not have heard of the blogger buzz surrounding Eowyn Ivey's debut novel, The Snow Child. Set in 1920, this is the story of Jack and Mabel who are grieving the loss of their stillborn child, albeit in their own separate way. They're trying to make a new start for themselves by establishing a homestead in the Alaskan wilderness, which is about as far away from Mabel's family's home in Philadelphia and Jack's family farm along the Allegheny River as one can possibly get.  During a snowfall, Mabel and Jack build a snow child ... which comes to life in this enchanting story that is based on a fairy tale.

Eowyn Ivey's prose in  The Snow Child reads like a fairy tale; it is transformative and magical and absolutely captivating.  I cannot put this down.  So many bloggers have said that this is a book that you want to savor, yet you want to read in one sitting in order to find out what happens.  They are so right.  

See, this is one of the things I adore about this book blogging community of ours. I would have seen this on the New Books shelf at my library, read the description on the book jacket and seen the words "both still deeply longing for the child it's now impossible for them to have" in reference to Jack and Mabel and immediately thought NO. THANK. YOU. As someone who has gone through infertility hell, you don't forget those days too easily. Nor do I tend to seek out novels with this as a theme, but I thought I would make an exception for this.

I wasn't sure what to expect but I absolutely did not expect this - a book that I want to stay up all night to read. Seriously, this is that kind of book. I'm convinced The Snow Child is going to be among my favorite books of 2012. And this Eowyn Ivey? You keep an eye on her, too, because she is a writer worth watching and keeping an eye on.  She is going to do great things.  (She HAS done great things with this book.)

Anyway. Some housekeeping business. Since this is the first Salon of a new month, it's time for a look back at February's reading. The short month was definitely reflected in the quantity of books read, with only 4 books total.  But the quality was much better than January, which was just OK.  My four February books were:

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright 

American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds
by James Maguire 

I didn't finish any audiobooks in February, mainly because I tend to listen to my audiobooks mostly in the car and I didn't have too many long drives on my work schedule this month. I'm currently listening to Memoirs of a Geisha (I know, I can't believe I've never read this!) which contains 15 CDs, making it  one of the longer ones that I've listened to.  I'm finding this fascinating, though, and even though I'm only listening to it for about 30 minutes here and there, it's definitely keeping my interest and attention.

Between that and The Snow Child, March is definitely starting off on a good note, literary-speaking. (It's also looking like a good month on the home front, but that will have to be a separate post ... maybe as soon as tomorrow.)

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.