Thursday, June 28, 2012

Excellent Audiobooks. Excellent Books, Really. Read!

I mentioned how June is Audiobook Month, right? Well, I've got a few that I loved listening to, both for their greatness as texts and for the quality of their narrations. They're all debut novels, which encourages my writerly heart. You should seriously check these out:

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, narrated by Laura Hamilton
Whereever you are when you start listening to this, be sure you won't mind the people around you wondering why you're snorting with laughter. Like, for instance, in the middle of the hardware store. (Those were some hi-larious toggle bolts, let me tell you what.) This is the tale of three co-workers at a newspaper. Beth and Jennifer are friends who exchange non-work-related emails throughout the day, discussing Jennifer's marriage and Beth's boyfriend and much else besides, and Lincoln is the tech guy who works nights monitoring non-work-related email for the company. His lonlieness and boredom contribute to his decision not to flag the exchanges between Beth and Jennifer, and their charm, humor, and personalities are enough to explain why he begins to care about them and look forward to seeing what they'll have to say next. Gradually Lincoln is drawn further and further into their orbit, especially Beth's, but it's awfully hard to confess to someone you've never actually seen that you've been spying on them and have fallen in love. Rowell makes vivid presences of all three, and Hamilton's narration is quick, wry, and fully engaged. It's all just so much fun.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, narrated by Ann Marie Lee 
Also featuring a journalist, but otherwise a completely different type of book, this was Flynn's debut and as much as it made my skin crawl at times, I'm so glad that there are a couple of her other books for me to look forward to now. Camille's editor sends her to her Missouri hometown to get the local angle on the case of a missing girl, despite Camille's entrenched reluctance to set foot in the family mansion ever again. Camille's sister died when they were young, but her controlling mother, withdrawn stepfather, and precocious young half-sister welcome her back with anything but open arms. As Camille investigates the deaths of her half-sister's peers, she's disturbed by the girl's casual cruelty and the ways she is manipulated by and manipulative to their mother. The deeper the investigation goes, the more Camille's own disturbing past comes to the surface, like the scars of the words she has carved all over her body in the years since her sister's death. It's all haunting and fragile and cringing to listen to, especially with Lee's narration relentlessly moving onward. I'd have covered my eyes, but the words just kept pouring into my ears. Yikes.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, narrated by Holter Graham
I will move back into the light now. Out onto a baseball diamond, in particular to that spot between second and third where the shortstop performs his magic. That's where Henry lives, whether he's actually there, or working out at Westish College's weight room with team captain Schwartz, or in the dorm with his roommate and teammate Owen. Henry has polished his work to a fine point, devoted to the game, but until Schwartz stumbles across him, even college ball was just a dream. As he moves through the years at Westish, the team solidifies and heads towards a championship. The college president, meanwhile, is torn both by his new, impossible love, and the devastated return of his daughter to his home. This is, of course, about baseball, but it is also about Melville, and independence, and dreams. Graham has a smooth and mellow timbre, with tension creeping in along the edges as Henry strives towards his goals. I rooted for the whole team, and I don't even care that much about sports.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Intersection of Secrets, Ukrainian Folklore, and a Treadmill

Oh, hello. It's been awful quiet around here. I blame the gym: I got on a rare fitness kick, which ate into my free (blogging) time, and I didn't want to scare it away. (Yet here I am, blogging. That elliptical won't sweat on itself, Mel!)

I'll tell you the best thing about gym time: audiobooks. Although the people around me might wonder why I'm constantly breaking into sudden laughter or tears as I'm working out, I really love listening to an engrossing story to while away my cardio time. Only problem is when I am overtaken by a sob and literally slip off the dang treadmill, like I did when I listened to Xe Sands' narration of Valya Dudycz Lupescu's The Silence of Trees.

The nice people at Audiobook Jukebox provided this title courtesy of the nice people at Iambik Audiobooks (I had issues, they all helped, I am grateful.) It ran a smidgen under 10 hours, and carried me to a world I'd never imagined and people I long to sit with over several long meals.

The heart of the story is Nadya, a Ukrainian who lost her family as a teen during WWII, and has been unable to tell her children and grandchildren the truths about her life before the war. When she left Ukraine, she left knowing that she would have died alongside her parents and sisters if she hadn't snuck out of the house one night to consult a gypsy fortuneteller. And although she lost everyone she loved, she never lost her inclination towards magic, folklore, and tradition, all of which stayed with her as she survived the war years in a German work camp, then moved with her new young family to Chicago. That family grows, and she finds a new Ukrainian community in her new city, but can't ever bear to think about the family and community she'll never see again. Although Nadya is engaged with the 'now,' her daughter and granddaughter in particular see that she uses it to hide from the 'then,' and a series of small but devastating moments begin to crack Nadya's shell for them. The cracks widen, the events get wider (I fall off the treadmill), and finally Nadya's truths begin to emerge. It's devastatingly beautiful. Lupescu puts together gorgeous sentences and scenes, bringing all of Nadya's places - Ukrainian farmhouse and woods, German camp, American ship - to vivid life.

Sands' narration is gorgeous. She imbued a subtle touch of Ukraine into her voice, which always felt true to Nadya's emotions. Poor Nadya was often telling of dread, angst, trepidation, or anguish, in addition to her vast love, pride, and thoughtfulness, and each moment was true without being maudlin. I did know going into this that the narrator had loved the book she was narrating, but it would have been obvious regardless (you should follow @XeSands on twitter if you love words as I do - she's always finding gorgeous language to share.)

My son just noticed I'm still at home blogging instead of at the gym, so my time here appears to be over. I hope to tell you about a couple more audiobooks this week, since June is, as I'm sure you know, Audiobook Month. So download something and start listening (and doing cardio. I'm a huge fan of cardio, I've decided, as long as I can avoid being anywhere near Houston's insane outdoor temps.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Parenthood Was My Idea

I self-identified as the nurturing one. The babies were my idea, especially that first one. The one we had when I was 25, and he'd just turned 27, and we'd only been married for 2 years and 3 days. But I had always been Little Miss Mommy, babysitting my way from middle school to college. Go on, ask me to recite The Wizard of Oz from memory - A & I watched it every Monday afternoon my whole senior year at UCSC.

What I'm saying is, it's a good thing Robert didn't put up a fight about having kids. In my young mind, it was simple: we loved each other madly, we were married and had a home and jobs, and kids were next on my agenda. It could be that he was overjoyed at the idea, but I wouldn't know. Didn't ask, or not in a way that wasn't passive-aggressively designed to secure his agreement. Mostly I just started in checking my basal body temp and stressing about how long it took before the bun was securely in the oven.

I had hints that the smart, tall, dark, handsome, studious author I'd married would be a good dad. He was a teacher, after all, and you have to be at least somewhat good with kids to hang out with a bunch of high school boys all day. Plus, his sisters each had three children already, and wasn't that the revelation to me, the day I first saw him playing around with the toddler nephew? He was Pied Piper with them, and clearly enjoyed it. So I was sure my agenda would be fine with him.

But I had no real idea. Yes, it was beautiful to watch him cradle our first-born while singing "Yellow Submarine" in our hospital room. And he was quite excellent at ensuring that I had everything I needed to stay home with the newborn while he went back to the high school. Diapers, long sessions pacing the floors while humming and bouncing, wigging his bushy eyebrows to make the baby laugh, all of that. He was everything I suspected I'd need, and since I was, after all, the nurturing one, mostly the boys just needed me, right? I even joked ("joked") that I would raise them for the first 10 years, and since Robert was so used to teenage boys, he could handle their second decades.


The joke's on me. Robert turned out to be an amazing father. I spent those first 10 years of each son's life listening to friends tell me how lucky I was, genuine awe in their voices, and they didn't know the half of it. Sure, they knew about the soccer coaching, the den leadering and cubmastering, the goofiness around the campfires and the running around the front yard being joyously (loudly) attacked by plastic lightsabers. They may have noticed his overprotective streak, or the fact that he always made sure they had sunscreen on and were happy with their meals.

They didn't know about Ted Bear or Hercule McGrew, the heroes of many, many invented bedtime stories that went on for so long that the boys never got to sleep on time. The songs sung, and the guitar chords he's taught them. The hours spent playing games, both raucous and cerebral (and sometimes both.) The facile imagination he brings to family outings - not engaged by straight-up history? How about if you're all members of F Troop, and there's a mission to complete, and an enemy on the horizon? Lefty will send you scouting ahead, but watch out for any snipers hiding behind those barracks. The questions answered, the carpools driven, the homework explained, the meals cooked, the rules enforced, the laughter shared. The many, many, many puns.

And here we are, both boys in that second decade. Not quite as many Ted Bear stories or F Troop adventures (still lots of puns.) And Robert and his boys are still "bone pals," as defined by a preschooler D - pals forever, even when they're reduced to mere bones. I'm sure I was plenty nurturing for the first 10 years. I do try, still, even though it's rare for a 16 year old to want to curl up in Mommy's lap. (The 12 year old is more accommodating. Also, shorter.) It's not that my Mommy-ness is diminished by the fact that Robert is an inventive, engaged, active and loving father. I suspect it enhances my own parenting as much as it enriches the lives of our sons. What it really does is humbles me. I don't get to take all the credit for what interesting and fun boys I have. I can't look at anything about them and think, "That's all me. I am the Mommy who made this excellence possible." Robert has been far too wonderful a father to them, has touched too many vital aspects of their existence. And the mundane ones. He's everywhere, and they're so lucky.

I'll keep claiming that parenthood was all my idea. But I think I'll have to change the story, just a little. I think I'll have to pretend to some prescience - that when I picked Robert to be the guy I'd spend forever with, I just knew, with the brilliance inherent to a head-over-heels 23 year old, that no man on earth could be a better father. Yeah, that's it. All part of the plan.

Happy Father's Day.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Thanks for Everything, Mom. In Return, I Wrote a Blog.

It's Flag Day! Also known as Mel's Mom's Birthday! Cute story: when Mom was little, she thought the neighbors all hung flags on June 14 to celebrate her. Reality: they do. Wave your flags for my mom, y'all!

Here's the thing about my mom. Well, a few things. She had her first baby in May of 1968. She had her fourth baby in October of 1972. Those were my brothers - my sister and I were in between. So, as you might guess if you do the math, she had a lot of years there of maternal blur. Happy years, if my memories serve. (They may not. I was a bit young.)

Part of what remains of our
collection from the 70s
I don't know what she thought of it all, while making sure we ate our vegetables (or pretending not to notice that I fed all my peas to the dog), went to bed on time (my sister and I shared a room until I was 8. I think they bought a bigger house so she wouldn't have to come threaten us into silence every night), played well together (best inventive punishment: sitting us under the dining table looking at each other until we stopped fighting), and generally had a good life. She bought each of us our own Han Solo action figures so we wouldn't fight as much during our many Star Wars games. She rewired the attic when my sister and I earned (by dint of being teenage girls, I believe) our own phone line. She eventually stopped trying to serve me peas.

So it was a good thing, growing up with my mom as the mom. But, you know, kids. I was pretty involved with negotiating complex alliances with my siblings, playing Little House, throwing tantrums, being The Best Student My Teacher Had Ever Met, checking out more library books than I could carry home, enjoying all of the early-adopted technology Mom got (BetaMax! Atari! Cable TV! Commodore 64! Walkman!), and being otherwise a self-absorbed kid to give my relationship with Mom much thought. I mean, except when periodically convincing myself that I was the favorite of her four children, but it was easy to reassure myself on that point, and then I could move on to adoring my cat (he also loved me best) and bartering with my brothers and sister over the chore chart.

So that was my first 18 years. Then I went off to California and England for college / grad school (oh, yeah, thanks Mom & Dad, for funding my education.) I got married. And at 23, I went to work for my family business. Well, I'd worked there off and on - that's the deal with family businesses. The kids end up answering phones or taking inventory or (if they're Mom's favorite) helping to layout the new catalog. I can't tell you how impressed I was watching Mom use the adding machine - her fingers flew over those keys. (I tried to impress my 12 year old with my own 10-key skills last week. He shrugged. I do believe kids who take keyboarding in 3rd grade and start texting in 6th ought to have more respect for the fleet fingers of their forebearers.)

But this was full time work. A job. As it turned out, a career. If you want to know how a woman with an MA in Creative Writing ends up VP of a multimillion dollar corporation, just check in with my mom. Because it's not like I knew a lot about AP, HR, or IFTA reports before I started working at Fixtures. I learned everything by helping her, then taking over some of what she did, and eventually taking over most of what she did. I love Dad and all, but was never very interested in the manufacturing side of our manufacturing company. (Sis was, and that's why she took over his side of things. Parents have to retire sometime.) (That was an instruction, not an observation. Parents, retire already!)

And it's surprisingly fun, how well I can rock a spreadsheet. I like my job. (Well, you'd hope, since I've been there full time for 19 years now.) But as awesome as time cards are, the best part of those 19 years has been working with Mom. Sharing office space, eating lunch together (okay, for a long time, eating whatever she brought for lunch. I feed myself now, usually, but I admit: grown up, and my parents make my lunch.) Bringing my sons to work when they were babies. Talking constantly about my kids, my husband (only good things! I promise! I mean, not promise, but....), remodeling our kitchens, and always having a sympathetic ear. We talk about books while doing the books, we laugh at ridiculous government reporting requirements together, and no one else in the world will roll her eyes with me if I just mention the name of that one vendor's AR person. Or that other one, either.

It has been so great, working this closely with Mom. (She should still retire.) So, happy birthday, Mom, and thanks for teaching me, well, everything. Except how to rewire the attic, but that's okay, I didn't really want to know. I love you.