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book review: Magic Hour

Late this summer, I signed up at, a service for… wait for it… swapping paperback books. Well, any book, really. They don’t discriminate against hardcovers and audio books. Conceivably, those could be swapped, too.

if you prefer to own the book, you should hasten to this site.

Anyway, if you sign up for a membership and list 10 books, you are given one credit. The credit allows you to request one book posted by another member, and they mail it to you (they pay postage). When someone requests one of your posted books, you mail it away to them (you pay postage) and earn a credit. So far I’ve requested and received five books. I’m waiting for two more in the mail. I’ve sent six to other people.

they're not all perfect, but they're smell and spill free. and perfectly readable!

I’ve been pleased so far. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

Imagine that. I’ve been sidetracked. Good thing I’m not so easy to distract in the classroom. Sheesh.

captivating. kept me up past my bedtime, so i could finish.

The point of this post is to tell you how much I loved Magic Hour by Kristin Hannah, one of the books I received in the swap. The story opens with famous child psychiatrist Dr. Julia Cates being ostracized from the world she’s known when she wasn’t able to read between the lines and prevent one of her patients from committing murder.

Around that same time, her sister —  hometown police chief and former beauty queen Ellie Cates — has her own unique problem. A wild child, literally, appeared in town. After hiding in a tree and only being captured by net and tranquilizer, she was taken to the hospital. When the girl proved to be nonverbal — and seemingly unaware of the usual world’s norms — Ellie called her sister.

The remainder of the book follows Julia, Ellie, and the wild child — later dubbed Alice — as they try to find the child’s family and teach her how to feel (and act) human again.

The best part of this book is the healing that love provides. Now I’ve believed in fairy tales forever, but I know full well that the world is flawed and relationships often fail. Different perceptions of life events — even events shared with someone else — can cause giant rifts between people. But this book shows that communication and honesty — the tearing down of walls — can allow for people to come together even when they disagree.

This theme is repeated many times in this book’s love stories: between man and woman, yes — but more importantly between sisters, between mothers and daughters, and between friends.

And, as the title suggests, there is something magical about the little girl who is the center of this book, Alice. As a teacher and mother, my heart flipped at her moments of learning and connection. And, as she made her way from feral child to Julia’s world, I loved how the author let her keep nature as part of her essential self.

I fear writing more because I want to tell you that the ending is happy and that the reasons behind Alice’s wildness are revealed. But then I would spoil it. So I’ll just leave you here: with one of my favorite passages.

Girl looks at Sun Hair. Holding tightly to her hand, she wants to look away or close her eyes so that if Sun Hair is going to hit her, she will not have to see it coming, but she forces her eyes to stay open. It will take all her heart, everything she has inside of her to think and remember and make the forbidden noise…

She looks up into those pretty green eyes. Girl wants to be good. She licks her lips, and then says quietly, “Stay.”

Sun Hair makes a sound like a stone falling in deep water. “Didyousaystay?”

Girl gives her the special rose. “Peas.”


book review: The Dive from Clausen’s Pier

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Is the mark of a good book the depth of feeling, or is the mark of a good book the wanting to understand how it fits your life? The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer is the first book I’ve read in a long time that does not fit the standard pattern. You know, how romances and mysteries are predictable and always have a happy ending? I wasn’t sure if this one was going to; and I’m certainly not going to spoil the surprise and tell you whether it does or not.

In fact, as I begin this review, I haven’t even finished the book yet. I’m about 10 pages away. I can think I know what is going to happen, and I can feel okay with telling you it isn’t what I expected as I was reading the first 400-odd pages. And I really hope I accept what the main character does with her life. But it doesn’t really matter as long as she’s happy with it, and I sense she will be.

The premise of the book is the stuttering relationship of Carrie Bell and Mike Mayer. Carrie and Mike were high school sweethearts — in love since age 14 — and headed towards forever together in a generic Wisconsin town. In the first few pages we learn that Carrie had fallen out of love with Mike but didn’t know how to tell him or what to do next. It was all about expectations, you know? And then he dove from Clausen’s Pier and broke his neck. He lived but was permanently paralyzed.

And in a way, so was Carrie. She made some hard choices, mostly unconsciously, as she casted around in her new future. Her actions helped her start to move again. She made friends and broke up with friends. She found talents and surprised herself. She started to talk to people and ask questions… in a definitely un-Midwestern-like way. And then she had to decide if she was cut out for midwestern life… or not.

I think the book is about knowing yourself and the people in your life and being happy with how they fit together. I think it’s about making family where you are and with who you need. I think it’s about loving others even if you’re not sure how or why.

As I worked through the last few pages of the book (before I started writing, of course), I reached for the tissues several times. Probably because I feel that Carrie is a lot like me. Her Mike is like my Mike. Her Kilroy is like my Kilroy. And at this point in the book, I’m not sure that she’s meant to end up with either of them. (If you’re reading this and wondering if you’re Mike or Kilroy, you’re not. Neither of these characters in my life would care enough about me to read this.)

I knew this before, but love is tough. Carrie is tough, too, and I admire her. I still don’t know what is going to happen — in my life or in Carries — but I wish us both the best of luck. And I highly recommend this book.

(I’ve recently learned that there is a Lifetime movie made of this book. I recommend that you steer clear. I’ve read the reviews. It sounds like they’ve massacred the book. It is so rare that a movie can do justice to a book anyway.)

cooking with kiddos: cream cheese wontons

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In my efforts to learn more about cooking to feed my family, I’ve learned to make one of our favorite meals: Chinese food. Typically, for us, this includes fried rice (modified from this recipe that made me feel confident in my ability to fry rice!) and a yummy ramen noodle stir fry my friend taught me. But it was missing something: cream cheese wontons.

I couldn’t even order them in from the Asian restaurant up the street (literally, 1/2 block from my condo) because we don’t like the sweetness of their wontons.

And since the other Chinese recipes I’ve tried have been super easy (and yummy!) I had to try to make the wontons on my own. Our first foray into the wont0n-making was at a friend’s house in Kansas. And it was a huge hit.

And yes, very easy. Easy enough for me and the curly-haired daughter to make them together. The recipe is modified from here.

1. Gather the ingredients: 1 package wonton wrappers, 2 blocks of softened cream cheese, 1/2 t. garlic powder, 1/2 t. onion powder, oil, and a small bowl of water. When we made these in Kansas, we used egg roll wrappers and cut them in half (because the store was out of the wonton wrappers). They worked just as well; today I learned that wonton wrappers are made of the same material cut smaller. Also, don’t substitute garlic salt for the garlic powder. The cream cheese is salty enough without added salt.

2. Mix together the cream cheese, the garlic powder, and the onion powder in a small bowl. The original recipe called for pepper and real onions, but I didn’t want to include those things. It also called for more garlic, but we found that to be too much garlic for us.

3. Dollop a teaspoon (a regular kitchen spoon is fine) onto the center of a wonton wrapper.

4. Dip your (clean! you washed your hands, right?!) finger into the water. Trace your finger on two sides of the wonton wrapper. Fold the wrapper into a triangle shape and press the sides together. The water acts as a glue to hold the edges together.

5. Dip your finger into the water two more times to glue both ends of the triangle in, making a package like in the picture.

6. Keep working until you have filled all the wrappers. Place them on a plate while you’re working.

7. Heat up about an inch of the oil in a wok or a cooking pot on the stove. I don’t have a thermometer, so I went for a higher heat at first. I don’t know how proper it is, but I could tell that the oil was hot enough when the water I sprinkled on it sizzled.

8. Everyone into the pool… er… hot tub! Well, not everyone. I did just 6-8 at a time. It’s hard to keep track of more than that, and you don’t want them to burn.

9. Flip them over to brown both sides. This takes just a minute or so. (As I was cooking, the oil got hotter and hotter. I turned it down during the process — to about a medium heat.)

10. I used tongs to fish the wontons out of the oil. Place them on a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Keep working until you’ve fried them all. The recipe makes about 50 wontons total.

And that’s it, folks! They were a hit at our house. Any leftovers can be sealed in a plastic bag or bowl and refrigerated. Testimony says that 5 seconds in the microwave is enough to bring back their goodness. Enjoy!

debut book review: Lock and Key

>This is a spoiler-free review.

Last night I finished a book by Sarah Dessen called Lock and Key. The novel is intended for a teen girl audience, but it can definitely be enjoyed by teen boys, women, and other audiences.

Well, I can only really vouch for the teen girl and women audiences. Though after tomorrow I hope to be able to say teen boys like it, too. It’s one of the options for my advanced eighth graders’ literature circle assignment, and some boys chose it. (I told them that it might help them gain insight into girls. Hee hee!) It’s discussion day tomorrow, so I’ll be able to let you know how the boys like it soon!

Dessen’s main character is Ruby, a high school senior whose mom abandoned her. After living on her own for several months, Ruby’s secret is discovered, and she is forced to move in with the older sister she hasn’t seen in 10 years. This new life includes a new school, regular meals, extravagant shopping trips… and people who care about her future.

Ruby’s main struggle in the book is determining her new definition of family. For years it had just been her and her mom, and when her mom left, she didn’t rely on anyone but herself. Her first instinct in this new life, then, is to shut people out and run away.

Thankfully Dessen gives Ruby a foil in Nate, her new next-door neighbor. Nate is a fellow senior at Ruby’s new school, and he is enlisted to drive her to school each day. The relationship between the two is more than the typical new-girl-at-school-captures-the-coveted-boy’s-heart storyline in many teen reads. Ruby and Nate learn quite a bit from each other about similarities and differences that aren’t always apparent at first glances.

My favorite element of the book, though, was the definition of family woven throughout. More specifically, I love this quote:

“What is family? They were the people who claimed you. In good, in bad, in parts or in whole, they were the ones who showed up, who stayed in there, regardless. It wasn’t just about blood relations or shared chromosomes, but something wider, bigger. … friends, lovers, sometimes even strangers. None of them were perfect, and we couldn’t expect them to be. You couldn’t make any one person your world. The trick was to take what each could give you and build a world from it.”

It’s this definition of family that touches me in my life right now. I am experiencing the idea of building a life with my children, my extended family, and my friends. And right now, I can truly say that my life is better than ever.

So I love this book because it spoke to me at the place I’m at right now. But I think it has messages for any number of individuals. Friendship is universal, and so is family.

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