“The Song Poet, A Memoir of My Father” by Kao Kalia Yang

This book increased my compassion and raised my awareness of the difficulties faced by immigrants who come to America. I think my compassion gene runs pretty high, but this book definitely brought it up a notch.

“The Song Poet” by Kao Kalia Yang tells the story of her family’s emigration from Laos to a Thai refugee camp and ultimately to St. Paul, Minnesota.  The story is told from the eyes of her father, Bee Yang who was born “sometime in 1958, no one really kept track” and who lived the first years of his life in the mountains of Laos.

Bee was orphaned at a young age and met his wife in his teens.  They had their first daughter in Laos but in 1975 the family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand where Kao was born.  They lived in the refugee camp for 9 years before finally settling in St. Paul where the girls attended schools in the Harding High School district.

In the Hmong tradition, Bee was a “song poet” meaning he recounted the stories of his family and even recorded an album of these poems.  This was his way of teaching the family history.  After the death of his mother, his songs dried up and he would no longer share these stories.  Flash forward to his daughter, Kao,  who had already successfully completed her first novel who convinced him to let her share these poems.  And “walla” we have this amazing new memoir.

Living in Minnesota I was aware of the Hmong population, but I had honestly not done much thinking or research about the Hmong.  Reading this book was eye opening to me as I realized that it is not only difficult to GET to America, but once landed it is nearly impossible to support yourself with the limited job opportunities available for a non-English speaking worker. Bee worked among questionable safety practices at a factory job in Eden Prairie that compromised his health. Kao and her sister were motivated to improve the life of the entire family by pursuing education in an aggressive way and so they attended Hamline University through the PSEO program and have gone on to be very successful young women.

This is a very well written book that will leave you with more compassion but also inspired. She shares the many difficulties faced by her family and her younger siblings, but in the end the family is able to pull together to persevere and thrive in America. It truly is a win/win as  Kao is able to share her family poetry through her father’s eyes and improve our art and culture at the same time.


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My summer reading list…

I usually read more when I spend time on airplanes.  This summer I was lucky enough to travel to Europe and so I have read 5 books so far this summer.  All of these books were very entertaining and of a high quality making them hard to rank. But here goes:

  1.  “The Life we Bury” a first time novel by Minnesota writer Allen Eskens. This is a love story AND a crime thriller about a young U of M student, Joe, who meets an interesting old man while completing a college creative writing assignment.  Many years before, the old man was convicted of murdering his 14 year old neighbor girl but as Joe does his research he learns there is much more to this story. I am thrilled that Allen will be at my book club later this month.
  2. “The Nest” by Cynthia Sweeney is about four siblings who are expecting an inheritance with the youngest turns 40.  Their plans are stalled when their oldest brother gets into trouble and their mother blows “the nest” to bail him out.  The book is very funny and examines the serious issue of family money and how NOT to act when you are fortunate enough to get some.
  3. “The Girl you left Behind” by Jojo Moyes is a novel about a French woman who was the subject of a painting by her husband right before WWI.  Her husband is sent to the war and the French woman trades the painting to a German soldier in a plea bargain for her husbands life.  Flash forward to modern times:  a young man buys this same painting for his wife and it is later found out to be valuable piece of art and a battle for it’s ownership ensues.
  4. “My name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout.  Lucy falls ill and looks back on her life in an intimate and honest way with a keen view of human behavior.  While nothing much really happens in this book, I found her musings very interesting and promoted my own self reflection. Lucy is a very likable character and the book is interesting and easy to read.
  5. “Eligible – a modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice” by Curtis Sittenfeld.  This book doesn’t deserve to be at the bottom of any list, except for the strong competition. For me, I would have enjoyed it more if I took the time to read the original work along with the re-telling.  As luck would have it, I did find a cheap copy and read a few chapters just after finishing the book which made me appreciate it more.  In the modern version the girls are much like the Kardashian’s which made it interesting but a little far fetched which is why it’s down here at the bottom.

I’ve got a few weeks left in summer and a few more good books on my list!

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10 Random thoughts about my 2 week trip to Europe with my family

My hubby and I went to Europe before we got married and since we love to travel always talked about going back with our kids.  We wanted to make sure the kids would be old enough to remember such an epic trip and the time never seemed quite right.  Then, with a blink of an eye 24 years have passed from our original trip and we experienced the death of our beloved father and grandfather, Grandpa Brian (aka “Coach”) so we decided there was no time like the present!  We just got back from the “trip of a lifetime” with our kiddos who now at ages 21, 19 and 14 will certainly be “old enough” to remember it.

We went to Iceland for one day, then Rome,  Paris and London.  The trip was everything we imagined and I am certain when I reflect back on my life it will be on the highlight reel- one for the record books as they say.  So while it’s still fresh in my mind, here are 10 random thoughts…

  1.  There are beautiful churches everywhere – so beautiful they take your breath away.  Stained glass, painted ceilings, and sculptures with beauty that are equal to any museum.  There are the big ones, Notre Dame, Westminster Abby and then the small ones.  For example, across the street from our hotel in Paris was the beautiful Church St. Roch built in 1653 and while fallen into a bit of disrepair was still astonishingly beautiful.
  2. So much of what you learn in school is available and on display in the scads and scads of museums.  We saw beautiful works of art that we had learned about or studied in school.  A family favorite was the huge painting by David called “the crowning of Napoleon.” We all sat in front of that painting listening to the audio tour completely spell bound by the painting and the story behind it. It was gorgeous.
  3. The audio tours are essential.  They give great context, allow for people to go at their own pace and enhance the understanding of the art. At these museums it’s easy to achieve the state we called “sensory overload” where you don’t even know where to look there is so much to see.
  4. Just getting around on the public transit is an experience in itself.  We used the Metro in Paris and the Underground in London and got to experience the urban commute which is much different than our “hop in the car” suburban lifestyle.  I am a bit embarrassed to admit the great sense of accomplishment I felt when we successfully arrived at our destinations.
  5. Translating money makes it difficult to see if you are getting a good value and frankly there aren’t many choices when walking up to a museum and they ask you for 5 pounds or 10 Euros.  It all becomes “Monopoly money” especially when they give you change.  I have no idea how much we spent and I do not look forward to getting our Visa bill.
  6. There are crowds of people everywhere especially at the major attractions like the Vatican or the Louvre.  We all got frustrated when people knocked into us or stood in front of pieces of art to get their “selfie.”  Frankly, it took away from the experience and our favorite memories are at some of the smaller places where we didn’t feel so rushed and crowded.
  7. We walked and stood so much that I was physically exhausted.  We started to keep track of our steps using our smart phones and one day we reached 30k steps.  This is a physical trip with many uneven surfaces, steep stairs and lots of walking.  I was thankful for my practical and sturdy shoes.
  8. My daughters and I spent an inordinate amount of time dreaming about repacking our bags.  We basically wore the same clothes over and over!  So if I could re-pack my bag I would add a few more pairs of pants and certainly a few more sweaters.  My daughters and I had some fashionable dresses that barely made it out of the bag and we spent many hours talking about things we wished we would have brought especially when the weather was cool.
  9. There is no better way to get to know someone than to spend 2 weeks with them on a trip.  And while we did have a few tense moments, we travelled well together and I know these 4 people much better than I did before we left. Special shout out to my hubby-  there is nobody better to travel with, he can can read a map, walk around tirelessly, and navigate a city better than anyone I know.
  10. And while I love, love, love to travel, I equally love to come home.  Because somehow the trip is even better when you get home.  You forget about how long it took to get lunch, how frustrated you were with the crowds, how tired your feet were or how hot/cold you were, and you just remember the amazing trip with your favorite people.
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“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” By Karen Abbott

I am embarrassed to admit I knew very little about the Civil War before I read “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.”  How is it that I have read dozens and dozens of books about WW2 and nothing about the Civil War?

This book is a work of non fiction and follows 4 women who went undercover during the Civil War.  These four women were spies who provided intelligence to the military for the side of the war they supported.

The first woman posed as a man to enlist as a soldier. During her military service she was recruited to be a spy .  While undercover, several times she/he had instructions to pose as a woman.  (A woman posing as a man posing as a woman- a little complicated!)  I learned that there were as many as 400 women who pretended to be men so they could enlist as soldiers in the war.

The second and third women relied on their female charms to gather intelligence.  Wowza!

And the fourth woman was a wealthy spinster who cleverly used her servants to gather intelligence.

The methods they used were crude but interesting and their early work provided important contributions to the generals and leaders of the war.

The book was politically balanced as two of the spies were “Unionists” and two were “Confederates.”  Frankly, when I began I wasn’t sure which of these terms described “the north” and which was “the south.”  This lack of knowledge led me to the wiki to do Civil War research to get the terminology and my history up to speed.

To be honest, the book was a bit hard to read because of the level of detail, length and difficulty in following 4 different characters.  Yet, I am glad I read it because learning about history is good and seems even more relevant during this election cycle.  (Make it end, please I can hardly take it anymore!)

So if you have the time and attention for a well researched and written book about four feisty women who made a difference during the Civil War, read the book.



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Transitions – They’re BAAAACK

The month of May:  that glorious time of year when the days are longer, flowers are planted and everyone is in a transition. For me, a creature of habit, there is nothing more stressful than this “glorious” time of year.

The first and most obvious transition in our house is the return of the “adult” children from college.  After 9 months of independence they have to stuff themselves back into their 10X12 childhood bedrooms which are lined up three in a row.  These shared walls which seemed so precious back when they were young now cause nothing but problems.  The music is too loud, one of them has an early job, one has a hard time sleeping.   So within just 1 week of their being home Jack is moving to the lower level where he can have his own space and his own bathroom.  (Side note:  I am not sure who is messier in the bathroom, Jack or the girls but needless to say they cannot co-exist in one space.)

With their return come the chores that should be shared equally.  What a joke.  This is a constant battle between Sean and me. Why between the two of us?  Earlier HE was responsible for assigning chores to the kids, however, I did not like his heavy handed approach and so a few years ago I took on this responsibility.  Major mistake.  They do not perform their duties and he constantly asks why I can’t get them to adhere to my rules.  It would appear that I am a successful leader at work where this type of behavior is easy to achieve.  Hire the right people, give them clear direction, remove obstacles, reinforce positive behavior and watch them prosper.  I will flat out say that this approach has not worked at home.  All attempts at clear direction have been met with resistance.  They will do the chores later, the directions were not clear, or they will do the chore but without any clear evidence of results.  The worst is the ever popular argument that THEY have to do more chores than the OTHER kids.  And so within just 1 week of their being home I am hiring help to clean my home. (Side note:  I am not proud of this, I am merely reporting this as a fact.)

Finally, my youngest daughter is in her last few weeks of a middle school transition complete with the drama associated with that minefield of teenaged hormones.  This has been a difficult year for her and I have watched from a distance the tactics used by teenaged girls everywhere to alienate and claim power over other girls.  In my worst moments I felt myself revert back to MY teenaged self and want to get involved with these girls on her behalf.  Thank goodness, she did not WANT my involvement – which should be a surprise to absolutely NOBODY and I was able to restrain my behavior and avoid appearing in the National Enquirer. The good news is that it seems as though “this too shall pass” and by this time next year this drama will be a blip in her memory banks.  (Side note:  a wise person once told me that the adults should never get involved in the business of their children.  That wise person was my mother.  Good advice, Delphine.)

So I am surviving this time of transition by moving the boys away from the girls, getting some help around the house and listening to my mother.  Some things never change.

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“John Adams” by David McCullough

I recently visited with my former boss, Tim and of course we got to talking about books.  He spoke highly about the “John Adams” book and in my typical way I blurted that I had always wanted to read it.  He retrieved the book for me and my jaw dropped when I saw the enormity of this book.  Yet, I wanted to read it for a few reasons;  it won the Pulitzer,  I know very little about American history, and because I wanted to read something that Tim had recommended.

I came to love the hardworking man that John Adams was.  Throughout his long career he never said no to any assignment that he was given.  He was a family man who was completely devoted to his wife.  And he loved to talk and to read.  He sounds like my kind of guy!

I know that not many of you will read a 700 page book and so I offer you 6 fun facts about our second POTUS, John Adams:

  1.  While married for over 50 years, John and Abigail, spent many of them apart when he traveled to foreign countries as a US diplomat.  This job did not pay very well back then so Abigail ran the family farm to supplement their income.  Throughout their long marriage and mostly due to these extended absences they wrote over 1,000 letters to each other.
  2. The Declaration of Independence was written by a “committee of 5” which included John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
  3. John Adams was the first Vice President of the United States and served 2 terms before he was voted President and became our second POTUS.  Before the first Presidential election in 1789 our government did not have an executive branch and was run by Congress.  The first election was under a system that gave each state a number of electors and each elector could vote for 2 candidates.  Whoever got the most votes was President.  Whoever got the second most votes was Vice President.   This system was changed in 1804 via the 12th amendment to the process that is in place today.
  4. The Adams family was the first family to live in the White House.
  5. John and Abigail were the parents of John Quincy Adams who was the 6th President.
  6. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary  of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

As I read this book I became aware of how unique and well designed our government is.  I am thankful for the thought and planning our founders put into the structure of our country and am proud to be an American.  Thank you, John Adams for your service.

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The value of a “bad” book to a book club

I haven’t written much lately because it is my habit only to blog about books that I would highly recommend and as my title indicates I haven’t loved anything I have read recently.  But that got me to thinking that as much as I haven’t enjoyed the books, my book clubs seem to have a new vitality to them and maybe picking a bad or “difficult” book is the key to this.  Here are the 5 benefits to choosing a difficult or “bad” book to your club.

  1.  Finally, you have something to talk about!  My Bloomington group read “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez and there was a buzz about us the whole month preceding the meeting.  Isn’t this book dark?  And the ending is so horrible!  I wonder if it’s true?  This whole discussion prompted us to learn about the largest school explosion which took place in New London Texas in 1937.
  2. Don’t hate on the book selector.  I say this from personal experience as I have challenged my group on a number of titles.  I know what a responsibility this is since many of my clubbers only read one book per month and I am imparting my opinion on their free time.  So I usually have a purpose in mind, like this book won a Pulitzer so it’s important.  Or there is a really good lesson in here, just stick with it.  In general picking a book is a big deal, so take it seriously but don’t have thin skin about it.
  3. Choosing a difficult or “bad” book creates a venue for differing points of view to be heard.  My Minneapolis club picked “H is for Hawk” by Helen MacDonald.  Myself, I did not care for it, however I truly respect my friend Ruthie who loved it.  We have had a very good discussion about our respective reasons for love/hate.  And if I didn’t have her to debate with my own view wouldn’t be as crisp as it now about why I still did not like it.  Sorry, Ruthie.
  4. A new energy is restored when you have something to discuss.  For me, when the book is hard, I tend to text or email some of the other clubbers in between meetings.  What do you think about THIS one?  I am not loving it!  And back and forth we go.  Sometimes my friends will encourage me to continue with hints to good things to come.  However all that said the following still always applies:
  5. I still abide by the 100 page rule.  If you truly hate a book and another clubber cannot convince you otherwise.  Quit reading.  You will have enough to discuss in the meeting.

So there you have it.  I have not loved the books I have read and yet I am glad I read them.  Bad or difficult books definitely have a place in a thriving book club.

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