Tuesday, June 24, 2008

GameStop has it all!

As soon as the temperature rises and school starts winding down, kids nationwide begin preparing for summer vacation. For us parents, this "vacation" can sometimes be anything but, as those so-called lazy days of summer often mean more time spent shuttling kids to and from friends' houses, the pool, and summer camp. It also means we're on the lookout for fun and safe activities that will keep the whole family entertained and fill the endless days of summer.

As we gear up for summer, MomCentral is spreading the word to moms to think of GameStop as a family-friendly source for video games of all kinds and for all ages, from Final Fantasy VII and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon to Crosswords DS (a nice option just in case Mom or Dad can squeeze in a turn). I also love that the GameStop employees I've run into always seem to have helpful suggestion while keeping in mind the ESRB standards. In fact, they will actually refuse to sell mature-content games to a child who isn't of the appropriate age. And they're also incredibly helpful to a sad mom who doesn't have a clue as to what her teens are playing these days, never mind on what platform. With the XBox, the WII, and Playstation3, I don't know how anyone can keep track of what game plays on what platform, but the Gamestop folks are great with this kid of help!

With the rise in popularity of gaming, it seems like every week there's a new game my kids are pleading for, and yet a week later it's in the corner and they're on to begging for the next one. Thankfully, GameStop offers a trade-in program that lets you bring in the old games and get credit towards new titles or systems (especially important with the way the economy is going). In addition to keeping more money in your pocket, this will help ensure that your whole family has fun all summer long. GameStop also sells used games, which is an excellent option when you're spending money on pricey games. Every used game is checked out before they sell it, to ensure that it works correctly and has been cleaned off the former owners scores.

One of the things we seem to spend Gift money on are the "essential" peripherals, like extra controllers for when you have a bunch of friends over.

Another thing I love about our local GameStop is it's location. Ours happens to be in a strip mall right next to both DSW and Old Navy. If I need to get my teen son new shoes or clothing and he's, say, resistant to shopping, I can always bribe him with a trip to GameStop. Heh. Us moms have to be crafty, eh?

Beaches Family Resort

Recently, I learned about Beaches Resorts from MomCentral. Actually, I knew about Beaches but always thought is was a couples destination, as opposed to a family retreat. I was not only pleased to see how beautiful and upscale the resorts look, but as a parent, I was THRILLED to see that a sponsor of Sesame Street, the resorts offer a bunch of events with their favorite characters. Activities include Sesame Street Stage Shows, Story Time with Elmo, Baking with Cookie Monster, Dancing with Zoe, and more. Kids can even eat breakfast with their favorite Sesame Street friends too! I wish this had been around when I was wealthy and I know my kids would think they'd gone to heaven if we had been lucky enough to visit Beaches.

If your children, like mine, are well beyond the Sesame Street years, not to worry. Though each of the four different Beaches destinations features different adventures, you can be sure everyone will be Waterpark satisfied. The Negril, Boscobel and Turks & Caicos locations have Pirates Island Water Parks with gigantic waterslides, kid-friendly pools and swim-up soda bars. Supervised kids camps for all ages are available at all destinations, from newborns to tweens and teens. Kids can also take advantage of the Crayola Art Camps and an Xbox 360® Game Garage, featuring the latest video games the entire family can enjoy. Here's hoping they get a WII too, maybe with a WII Fit game.

There's plenty of fun to be had for parents as well. Included in the all-inclusive price is luxurious accommodations, up to ten restaurants (kids-oriented and adults-only), access to the spa as well as activities like scuba diving and golf (additional cost).

And here's the best part - Beaches just announced the unique WonderFALL Celebration, taking place during the off-peak season months of September and October. Not only do you get to enjoy everything Beaches offers year-round but you can SAVE up to 45% off** published rates and get 2 Nights Free**(on stays of 7 nights or more).

As part of this WonderFALL Celebration, Beaches has a great fall line up of special events and activities. From even more Caribbean Adventures with Sesame Street® that includes the premiere of a brand new stage show and a new activity with Abby Cadabby, exclusive Gordon and Elmo live performances and special parenting workshops hosted by Sesame educators, to Dive In Movies, "Baby You're A Star Photo Contest"( where your baby or toddler could win the chance to be featured in the next Beaches brochure) and even a celebration for Grandparents, it's all happening this FALL at Beaches family resorts.

Now all I need to know is, who is going to pay for our vacation to Beaches. Oy, do I need one!

Publish Post

Strawberry Season is here!

I recently learned that 88% of the nation’s strawberries are grown and harvested in California and this yeargrowers will be picking nearly 6 million crates of delicious, ripe strawberries.

Tell your kids:

  • If you lined up all of the strawberries grown in California in one straight line, they would wrap around the entire Earth 15 times.
  • About this guessing game! Have them guess how many seeds are on each strawberry. (There are about 200 seeds on the outside of each strawberry.)
  • California harvests over a billion pounds of strawberries annually.
  • One acre of land (about the size of one football field) grows about 50,000 pounds of strawberries - that's the same weight as 4 elephants!

For us parents, it’s worth knowing:

  • Strawberries contain powerful antioxidants and rank second among the top ten fruits in antioxidant capacity: one serving of strawberries contains more Vitamin C than an orange.
  • Strawberries may help reduce the risk of heart disease, fight some types of cancer and lower blood pressure. Not bad for a little red berry!
  • The antioxidants in strawberries also aid in memory performance and may help prevent Alzheimer's disease by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, two key factors that can cause age-related diminished brain function.

There is a web site just for young children called Strawberryville.com, with tons of fun animation, interactive games, activities, recipes(for mom and dad) and facts about the little red fruits of yummyness.

We eat so many strawberries, especially in a low calorie shortcake, I know we're about to turn into strawberries in our house!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl

Very rarely in my life do I get to use the word opportunistic. But after reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillippa Gregory, all I can say is, the courtiers described in this book are the most opportunistic, grabby, ambitious people that might ever have lived. I honestly can't believe that a family would continually put their children's happiness and well-being aside in order to gain power in the court.

This isn't a book you want to pick up lightly. It's 660 pages of deceit, misery, loss, and coercion based upon the story of the very unhappy but ambitious Anne Boleyn as told by her sister Mary. Anything written about the six wives of Henry VII of England has to contain the before and after stories of Henry's continual quest for a son. His first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was a virtuous woman that employed both Boleyn girl as her handmaiden. They lived in her chambers, kept her company, helped her with her tapestry projects, and slept with her husband the king. Katherine looked on as Henry fell in love first with Mary, with whom he had two children, and then the much more ambitious and cruel sister Anne. Mary, who was married herself when her family put her forward as new entertainment for the king, stepped aside as her sister Anne was pushed into the position of his next paramour. Except that Anne refused to sleep with Henry, which drove him mad with desire.

Anne insisted that Henry get rid of Queen Katherine, which led to his request for a dispensation from the Pope in Rome declaring his marriage to Katherine null and void. The Pope took his own sweet time deciding, and years passed with Anne becoming more and more demanding, and Henry more desirous of Anne's obvious charms. By the time the Pope made his decision, Anne was an enemy of the people for usurping Katherine's role. Henry married her anyways, and she went on to conceive a girl child, Elizabeth, who later became the greatest monarch in English history. But girls were of no value to Henry. He only wanted sons. Anne went on to miscarry several times and grew out of favor with the king. Eventually he had her charged with witchcraft and she was beheaded at the Tower of London, but not before Henry had become involved with Jane Seymour, who was to be wife number three.

This book was a real page turner and I very much enjoyed reading it. I love historical novels, especially ones that are both well written and very descriptive of the period in which the story takes place. This book has both. However, it's exceptionally long, and I'm not entirely convinced that some of the many moves from Palace to Palace might have been condensed. I don't think we really needed to hear of every Christmas fete and every Easter ball.

I did very much enjoy Mary's viewpoint on her family, especially her brother George and sister Anne. Using Mary as a central character when describing Anne's sordid court life and nefarious behavior allowed us to glimpse a less glorious world at court than is usually described. Indeed, the misery inside this King's home was legendary and allowing a voice of an insider who is dissatisfied with court life made it all come alive for me.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Road Map to Holland

Road Map to Holland is written by Jennifer Graf Groneberg. It is a moving depiction of the first two years after the birth of her twin sons, Avery and Bennett. The boys were born 7 weeks premature after a difficult pregnancy. Tested in the NICU, it is discovered that Avery was born with Down Syndrome. This book takes the reader through the painful realization that Avery would be developmentally delayed and 'different' than the author's other sons.

Now, to be honest, I have to disclose that I've got twins that were born 6 weeks premature and one child had a fairly severe diagnosis even before she was born. Now my twins are almost 16, they are both special needs children, and I've experienced many of the same things as the author. However, my reactions were radically different and I had a difficult time reading much of this book because I just couldn't understand why Groneberg acted as she did. We're obviously very different people, but I felt that the book was highly self-indulgent and that Groneberg felt sorrier for herself than she did for her child.

I'm unsure why she didn't have the prenatal testing that would have helped her prepare for her son's arrival. I'm not sure why her reaction to having a special needs child was to call him "broken." Why she said that all her hopes and dreams were also broken because she didn't get what she wanted. That was hurtful to me, a parent that never, for one second, felt that way about my own special twins.

This book is well written, the prose is poetic at times, but the underlying 'feel sorry for me' attitude that pervaded the telling of this tale made it, for me, a very difficult read. I realize that I'm personalizing someone else's story, but I have problems with how seemingly ungrateful and downright embarassed she was about her newborn baby. Taking him out seemed almost impossible for her because she was so fearful of the looks she might get. As parents, we know that even the most perfect of children get weird looks. I just didn't understand Groneberg's attitude throughout the book.

As she came to accept Avery's differences and to come to terms with her own seemingly rejecting behavior, it was apparent that the bonding finally happened and her love for Avery grew. I'm happy about that, because no child deserves to be held at arms length by a parent that can't quite cope with the misfortune of rearranged chromosomes. Sometimes it just happens and the child should never be penalized for that outcome.

I'm glad I read this book, however much I didn't enjoy it. I think it has a place in the homes of any parent who has a special needs child, even one without Down syndrome. It is a valuable read, though rarely pleasant, that shows the difficulty of acceptance that some parents feel towards their special children. I think that's an honest representation of one way to look at acceptance, and I hope that those that do read it will glean something positive from the book.

This review sponsored by MotherTalk.

Jennifer Graf Groneberg’s Website
Jennifer Graf Groneberg’s Blog

Monday, February 25, 2008

Guess what's just about to be out in stores?

I don't know about you, but I can't wait. I loved Joshilyn's first two books, Between Georgia and gods in Alabama. She's a great writer. If you haven't read her books, run to your local indy bookstore asap and get them. You won't be able to put them down.

The girl who stopped swimming

About the book
(from the author's own website)

Laurel Gray Hawthorne needs to make things pretty, whether she's helping her mother make sure the very literal family skeleton stays buried or turning scraps of fabric into nationally acclaimed art quilts. Her estranged sister Thalia, an impoverished Actress with a capital A, is her polar opposite, priding herself on exposing the lurid truth lurking behind middle class niceties. While Laurel's life seems neat and on track--a passionate marriage, a treasured daughter, and a lovely home in suburban Victorianna--everything she holds dear is suddenly thrown into question the night she is visited by the ghost of a her 14-year old neighbor Molly Dufresne.

The ghost leads Laurel to the real Molly floating lifelessly in the Hawthorne's backyard pool. Molly's death is inexplicable--an unseemly mystery Laurel knows no one in her whitewashed neighborhood is up to solving. Only her wayward, unpredictable sister is right for the task, but calling in a favor from Thalia is like walking straight into a frying pan protected only by Crisco. Enlisting Thalia's help, Laurel sets out on a life-altering journey that triggers startling revelations about her family's guarded past, the true state of her marriage, and the girl who stopped swimming.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Water for Elephants

After a couple of months of being sick and unable to follow a book, this morning I read Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen. Such an interesting choice, and quite serendipitous, as it got me right back into craving books and enjoying the prose of a spectacular new writer with a marvelous story to tell.

Sara Gruen mines fertile territory in Water for Elephants: the chronic miseries of advancing old age and the terrible years of the Great Depression, when people wandered the country in search of work, their homes and failed business left behind. She introduces us to hobos, grifters, and circus workers with a historical knowledge that shows she did a massive amount of research prior to writing this book.

As the novel begins, Jacob Jankowski is an old man in an assisted living home, his memories sparked by a nearby visiting circus and a creeping helplessness that assaults his aging body: “Age is a terrible thief. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back.”

As he falls into fitful dreams, the past emerges. Stripped of everything after his parents’ untimely death, the twenty-three-year-old fails to sit for his veterinary exams at Cornell, grief-stricken and robbed of home and future, the country bartering in goods instead of money. He runs from Cornell, blinded by the loss of his future and sets out to get as far away as possible.

Hopping a circus train in the dead of night that by belongs to The Flying Squadron of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, Jacob hires on to care for the show’s menagerie, his advanced training in veterinary medicine a ticket into this bizarre world. Uncle Al, Benzini Brothers circus owner-by-default, is a ruthless businessman who cares only for his reputation, engaged in a quest for fame to rival the great Ringling Brothers.

Star performer Marlena, an equestrienne running a liberty horse performance, adores her animals and is quick to notice Jacob but circumspect in her actions. Her mercurial husband, the trainer August, is obsessively jealous and given to unspeakable cruelties toward man and beast. Jacob does his best to protect the animals from their harsh existence, especially Rosie, an elephant purchased to replace Marlena’s lead horse.

Jacob is increasingly attached to Rosie, empathizing with her plight at August’s hands and helpless to change the situation. Because of his growing affection for Marlena, Jacob suffers August’s increasing affronts, caught in a cycle of inevitable violence, certain of a reckoning.

Related in the somber tones of the Depression, the novel addresses the hardscrabble and often unscrupulous practices of a traveling circus, the rowdy carnie atmosphere and the antiseptic corridors of the assisted living home, all viewed through Jacob’s perspective, as he rages helplessly against the decrepitude of old age and the secrets of the past: “In seventy years, I never told a blessed soul.”

In prose both poignant and infinitely tender, Jacob dwells in both worlds, revealing the wounds of the past and the sorrows of the present. In a devastating denouement, as inescapable as the indifferent world that turns a blind eye to the vagrants of the ‘30s, Jacob’s spirit retains the essence of his kind nature, a man who cannot be broken by circumstances. All is redeemed in a coup de grace that will leave the reader richer for having met this raggedy tribe of miscreants and lost souls.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

How Doctors Think

After a few weeks in the Public Library Network queue, Jerome Groopman’s recently published book, How Doctors Think, finally became available, so I promptly picked it up and checked it out. It lives up to its publicity, though the brief reviews and interviews are (unsurprisingly) in some ways misleading. Yes, Dr. Groopman does tell us about doctors usually make snap judgments and how they make mistakes in their thinking. That much is true...and valuable. But focusing on this idea greatly oversimplifies a more complex book. The title suggests a lot more than snap judgments and mistakes. It doesn’t say “How Doctors Think Incorrectly,” but — more simply and more comprehensively — “How Doctors Think.” And that’s what we learn.

Of course it’s more sensational to focus on medical mistakes. The doctor who reaches a judgment in ten seconds rather than ten minutes can be alarming — and even ten minutes seems far too short. What especially interests me is that the two most common mistakes that Groopman discusses are the same as any math students’ two most common mistakes: they want a really quick answer rather than think about a problem in depth, and they want an algorithm they can follow rather than think about each problem individually. Surely it’s no coincidence that doctors and math students fall into the same trap. Groopman tells plenty of true anecdotes about medical errors of both of these types. Like any good story-teller, he writes about concrete examples, involving himself wherever possible, rather than using impersonal, “scientific,” third-person examples. These anecdotes are successful in bringing Groopman’s ideas to life without overwhelming the reader with too many examples.

Doctors are understandably reluctant to criticize each other. Groopman cites plenty of instances of poor judgment, though never by name, and plenty more instances of excellent judgment and devoted care, naming names in those cases. As an oncologist, Groopman is particularly moving in his long exposition of cancer cases in friends, acquaintances, and strangers, where we learn of the many alternatives that physicians have to consider and how they think about those alternatives.

We all need medical care, and we all want to trust our doctors. But we need to be our own best advocates. In some ways this highly readable book will scare you, but in other ways it will give you a glimpse into the mind of the doctor and will help you advocate for yourself.

Dangerous Admissions

Almost any reader would enjoy Jane O’Connor’s satire, Dangerous Admissions, but it resonates especially well for anyone connected with an elite high school, public or private. The setting is the fictional but completely plausible Chapel School, an upper-class K–12 independent school located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 349 West 103rd Street, with a four-acre campus extending to Riverside Drive. Google Street View spoils the illusion; I should never have checked.

Freed from its Episcopal roots, the Chapel School has a student body that is now self-consciously diverse, being 50% Jewish and 25% “minority students” on scholarship. The remaining 25% are mostly wealthy WASPs. Everyone wants to go to the very best colleges, and there is tremendous pressure to get into Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. The premise of the story is simple: the head of the Guidance Department is found murdered, and the mother of one student figures out whodunit in the classic tradition of the amateur detective. O’Connor writes in a humorous but never silly tone, making the book fun to read. Many of the characters are teenagers, so of course there’s some of the required sex and drugs, but not to the point of unbelievability. And even the slightly sensationalistic aspect of the material is relevant to the characters and the plot; no reader will think it’s gratuitous. It’s not Weston High School (the wealthies high school in MA), but that’s only because the Manhattan setting is integral to the story. Otherwise, even though Dangerous Admissions takes place in a private school, it might as well be Weston or any other wealthy public school.

The fact that the amateur detective is a copy editor makes the book even more delicious in my eyes. Fortunately Dangerous Admissions itself has been meticulously copy-edited, unusually so among current paperbacks; it would be too ironic if it had not been. Rannie Bookman, the appropriately named protagonist, keeps resisting the impulse to correct misplaced modifiers and the like. I appreciate that (the impulse, if not the resistance).

Needless to say, I highly recommend this novel. Go read it!

Yiddish Policeman's Union

Just finished reading The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon. This hybrid novel fits squarely in the hardboiled-detective genre — except that it also fits into the alternative-history genre. The premise is that the state of Israel failed almost immediately in 1948 under a defeat by the Arabs, so European Jews fled to the newly established Jewish homeland in Sitka, Alaska. After half a century, this fictional homeland (where Yiddish is spoken, not Hebrew) has seen three generations of Jewish inhabitants, one of whom (Meyer Landsman) is the Yiddish policeman of the title. Although Chabon’s premise may sound implausible, in fact a Jewish homeland in Sitka was actually proposed by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, so it could have happened.

Anyway, I’ll stay away from giving any details, lest I inadvertently include any spoilers. Let’s just say that the beginning is a little slow, especially as the reader has the task of figuring out what’s going on in this world. That task, of course, is common in science fiction, but science fiction rarely has the attention to character that The Yiddish Policeman’s Union has. So you have to learn about the fictional world, get to know the characters, and understand the plot, which is initially confusing and contains a surprising amount about chess, various Jewish chassidic sects, not to mention a bit about Esperanto and other apparent irrelevancies. But it’s well worth persevering, since the initial difficulties start to fade away to reveal a fascinating integration of all three — the alternative history, the characters, and the story line. Do read it as it's a lot of fun!