Book review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have to admit I was unenthusiastic about reading this book, as it was an assigned book for our son’s 11th grade English class. (Assigned reading is about as appealing to me now as it was when I was in high school.) That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by this book. The book takes place during the events leading up to John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. Henry Shackelford, a slave, is mistaken for a girl by John Brown and his army, and it is from Henry’s perspective that we witness the various events leading up to Harper’s Ferry. Topics such as gender roles, slave vs free, abolitionists vs pro-slavers are all deftly explored in a spirit of genuine curiosity and open-mindedness. The author makes no heavy-handed proclamations but weaves the historical events and characters (including visits with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass) together seamlessly with the protagonist’s personal journey of growth and self-knowledge.
The end is well-known, of course, but the book is filled with depth, emotion, and a love for humanity that makes it well worth the read.



View all my reviews

Book review: Don’t Label Me by Irshad Manji

Don't Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times

Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times by Irshad Manji

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The premise for this book is interesting, to say the least. The author has a conversation with her dog, Lily, as a way to promote discussion about diversity of thought, tribes, and discord. As hokey as this sounds, it’s a useful literary device because it allows the author to both acknowledge and deflect knee jerk criticism of her arguments.
The thesis of this book is that in order to bridge the current political divide that affects this country, we need to talk to each other sincerely and with an open mind. Humans like to put labels on people (privileged, racist, sexist, etc.). The author’s point is that we fail to understand each other as human beings if we do that (the corollary being that you are far more willing to draw quick and unfortunate conclusions about people if you see them as labels and not people). Her goal is to encourage people to have the moral courage to seek to understand the other side’s viewpoint, not for purposes of conversion but for greater understanding. In other words, acknowledging that, as I like to say, “Reasonable minds can disagree.”
This is a thought-provoking and thoughtful book. If you like dogs, it’s an especially entertaining read as well. Well worth the time to read!





View all my reviews

Book review: A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell, #3)

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I really loathed the heroine (and narrator) of this series, Veronica Speedwell, after reading the first book in the series. But I liked the author’s previous works enough to read the next two books of this series. This particular one (#3) is my favorite of the series so far. Veronica has become much less arrogant, much less smug, and much more likeable. Stoker, the hero, has always been interesting and likeable and this book contains more of his back story, which is fascinating and gives him a deeper dimension. The mystery is solid, and the plot takes place in the context of Egyptian excavations, which I have always found interesting.
I am so glad that I continued with this series, as it has evolved into a humorous and complex narrative over the course of the three books. But I do wish that the Lady Julia Grey series would return!!



View all my reviews

Book review: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


“A Woman of No Importance” is about the life of Virginia Hall, who despite being a woman, an American, and disabled (a prosthetic leg), managed to outwit and outlast the Nazis and organize, arm, and train pockets of the Resistance throughout France during the German occupation. (Oh, and fled over the Pyrenees when the Nazis finally figured out who she was.) She then returned to France to aid the Resistance to prepare for the Allied invasion in Normandy. Upon her return back to the United States, she joined up with the OSS and then the CIA, only to encounter deep-seated discrimination due to her gender.
Virginia Hall was a woman of immense force of personality, charm, and sense of purpose. She survived unimaginable hardships and loss and built a life for herself on her own terms. This is a well-written biography about a fascinating woman and her importance in the Allied victory in World War II.



View all my reviews

Book review: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, #1)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The premise of this book is fascinating: Mary Jekyll (daughter of “Jekyll and Hyde” Jekyll) through a fortuitous set of circumstances discovers other “daughters” of infamous men (Diana Hyde, Justine Frankenstein, Beatrice Rappaccini, and Catherine Moreau) and works alongside Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to solve the mystery of the Whitechapel Murders (theoretically attributed to Jack the Ripper).
I love how the author takes the perspective of the daughters (or “monsters” as they call themselves) as they solve the mystery. In addition, because there are so many main characters, the author has the daughters interject commentary throughout the story, in order to convey more clearly the personality of each character. I loved her use of this technique, although some readers may find it distracting from the main narrative.
My only quibble is that the ending of the book is a bit of an anti-climax, as it is clearly a story to be continued. (The second book of the series comes out next week.) I do think the author could have done a better job making this book a standalone mystery rather than leaving so many loose ends for the next in the series.
That being said, I really enjoyed this book. The premise is original, the author does a very good job of folding in the main characters and giving each of them a back story consistent with the literary fiction about their characters (her take on Justine Frankenstein’s story is especially fascinating), and I look forward to reading the next in the series!



View all my reviews

Spring break 2019: Disneyworld

We were once again fortunate enough this year to have our college-attending daughter share a spring break with our high school son. After some consultation with the entire family, we decided to spend spring break at the happiest place on earth (aka Disneyworld). It has been many years since we spent an entire week at Disneyworld, and we were looking forward to an opportunity to do some things that we had not done in a long time or had never done before in and around the parks.
Our dual missions were accomplished successfully, as we all had a wonderful time and did things we had never done before (an encounter with Kylo Ren, anyone? He’s a bit scary up close and personal).

the daughter’s fictional boyfriend
3 guesses as to whose first time on Rock n Roller Coaster


Highlights included meeting up with friends whom we had not seen for 20 years who live in Orlando (I know, shame on us); meeting up with friends whom we see regularly but who loathe Disney in an attempt to brainwash them otherwise (our attempt met with modest success);

no love for the Pirates ride from the skeptics

and the velociraptor consuming a large pizza meant for 2-3 people by himself at Via Napoli (in Epcot) for lunch (I am incredibly envious of his metabolism).
The parks were crowded, but we rode all the rides we wanted multiple times and even saw some shows that we hadn’t seen in a while (including Festival of the Lion King and, despite the reluctance exhibited by the daughter, It’s Tough to be a Bug). We ate well, played well, and spent some quality family time together. As the velociraptor said, “This was one of the best spring breaks ever!”

Hollywood Studios
dripping wet from the Kali River Rapids in Animal Kingdom
we love Mickey!

Our First 10K

Before you get the idea that we’re runners or anything, understand that we don’t run races, we run/walk them (4 minutes running, 1 minute walking). That method pretty much rules us out of any runners of the year type of awards.
That being said, in the winter, Jim needs a motivating exercise event. When the weather is nice, he can play tennis forever. But he hates exercising for the sake of exercising. (Exercise relaxes me and gives me peace of mind—I like it.) So we came up with the idea of signing up for a race.
There were multiple factors in deciding where and what to enter. First, wherever it was, the weather had to be pleasant—not too hot, not too cold, not too humid. (Yes, we are high maintenance runners.) Second, while we ran a half-marathon several years ago, it wasn’t an ideal distance. Mentally, you’re done when you hit the 10 mile mark, and you still have 3.1 miles to go. And, third, the destination had to be one of the rewards for doing the run.
We found one race that fits all of the criteria—the Disney Princess Enchanted 10K. First, Orlando in February is usually lovely (it wasn’t this time, but more on that later). Second, a 10K is perfect as it requires training but not a lot. And, third, what better place to go to race than Disneyworld? (I know, I know—reasonable minds disagree on that last point.)
In the end, it was unseasonably hot in Orlando last weekend, but, fortunately, the race was held at 5:30 in the morning, and there was a breeze, so the temperature wasn’t a problem. (What was a problem was that we had to get up at 3:00 am to get to the race on time—it was not this non-morning person’s favorite part of the race.)
The 10K is also a great distance because it’s not considered a “real” distance by serious runners, which means the bulk of the runners were doing it for fun and not taking it too seriously. There was wonderful camaraderie on the shuttle bus as we were waiting for the start.
And the Princess Marathon weekend itself is a hoot. For those of you familiar with the Bay-to-Breakers race, think costumes along those lines but without the sexually inappropriate ones. For those of you who are not familiar with Bay-to-Breakers, a large number of the runners are dressed in variety of elaborate princess outfits, tutus, tiaras, and other Disney costumes.
The race itself included live music and characters along the route, and many runners stopped to take photos with the characters. We were more concerned about being able to finish so did not succumb to the distractions as we wended our way through Epcot.
We both finished in 1:14.42 and are quite happy with our time and finishing the race without any trips to the emergency room (my threshold for a successful trip of any kind!). It was so much fun that we might even do it again next year!

Jim motivated to run!
running (actually, walking) together
enjoying the sunrise

Book review: The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The authors set up the book with 3 Great Untruths that they think are endangering future generations. These Great Untruths are (i) what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; (ii) always trust your feelings; and (iii) there is a battle of good vs evil (and you and your beliefs are, of course, on the side of good). The book posits these Great Untruths, demonstrates with data how these untruths have spread throughout society, and documents the harm these Great Untruths cause. (Among those harms is a higher incidence of depression and anxiety.)
The authors further propose solutions to combat these Great Untruths, the groupthink that accompanies them, and the institutions that cave into them.
I found this book especially interesting because the direction K-12 schools as well as college and universities have gone is in the direction of the Great Untruths, all from the best of intentions. And I especially think it is important for educational institutions to teach its children that reasonable minds can disagree and disagree with respect and civility. As the authors state, “Having people around us who are willing to disagree with us is a gift.”
Four stars and highly recommended.



View all my reviews

Vaping: Facts & Thoughts

For those of you who have been living in a cave the past few months in order to survive the winter, vaping is technically inhaling water vapor into the lungs. The term is more commonly in reference to an electronic cigarette. A device heats up nicotine liquid that then turns into water vapor, which you then inhale.

The federal government, specifically the Food and Drug Administration, is concerned about the addictive nature of vaping and how it is being marketed to young people.

But what are the actual facts around vaping?

First, there’s no doubt that vaping is safer for you than smoking tobacco. While both contain nicotine, the particulate matter from tobacco is more harmful than the nicotine from either. (https://academic.oup.com/ntr/article-abstract/21/1/41/4956222?redirectedFrom=fulltext)

Vaping is also an effective means to quit smoking. A recent study (https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1808779) in the New England Journal of Medicine by a British public health researcher demonstrated that vaping was more effective than nicotine replacement treatment for smokers who wanted to stop. In addition, it is easier to quit vaping than smoking, and, as I’ve mentioned, the risks of vaping are also lower than that of smoking. In fact, the British Public Health Service doesn’t even consider vaping to be a serious health risk.

A different study (https://academic.oup.com/ntr/article-abstract/19/2/160/2631650) found that switching to vaping resulted in the same reductions of biomarkers of exposure to hazardous chemicals as quitting all types of smoking altogether. In other words, current smokers who switch to vaping dramatically reduce their health risk.

But what should you as a parent think about vaping?

There’s no doubt that, in an ideal world, your child would neither vape nor smoke. But all parents know that the desire to experiment (not to mention the lack of a frontal lobe) means that you should realistically expect that your child will try something (or perhaps many somethings) that you would prefer them not to try. And if the choice is between vaping and smoking, the clear winner from a health and safety perspective is vaping.

I am the mother of a 20 year old and a 17 year old. My husband and I count ourselves fortunate that they are both great kids with an excellent set of friends. But we are also realistic about the many choices available to them regarding experimental substances, now and in the future. And if they have to experiment, we’d much rather they choose something that, from a health perspective, is the best of an admittedly not ideal set of choices.

Let me be clear—I am not an advocate of vaping. But I would much rather my child vape than smoke (either tobacco or marijuana) or experiment with any other illicit substances. And even there is disagreement about my choices (and reasonable minds can most definitely disagree about this issue), those are my choices for my children. It should be up to each individual family to make its own decision in accordance with that family’s values, not for the government to make that choice on the family’s behalf.

What we as parents need is unfettered access to the facts so that we can make the choice that’s best for our families. What we don’t need is fear-mongering by government agencies and distorted interpretations of the available data by a government who, however well-meaning it may be, wants to substitute its judgment for ours.

Deer Valley 2019

We are creatures of habit, even if we prefer to call them traditions. Tradition dictates that during Presidents’ Day weekend, we join our ski-loving friends in Deer Valley for a weekend of skiing.
To be sure, our family can best be described as 2 non-skiers, 1 reluctant skier, and 1 enthusiastic skier. The enthusiastic skier (the 17 year old boy) has now skied a total of 1 weekend a year for the past 5 years and tackled his first black diamond slope on Sunday with control and skill. See below:

Despite the 1 in 4 skiing enthusiast ratio in our family, we thoroughly enjoy the weekend. Deer Valley is the Nordstrom of ski resorts, with excellent customer service and friendly staff (not to mention good skiing). Park City has a cute and fun downtown to walk around (we are particularly partial to the Park City Jewelers.) 🙂 Our contribution is to cook dinner (this year it was cioppino one night and make-your-own-pizza one night). Most importantly, we love spending time with our friends. We have known them for over 25 years, and we appreciate the relatively quiet time over the holiday weekend to re-connect and form new memories together.

Deer Valley