Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

August 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

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When my friend found out I hadn’t read Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, she said, “I’m jealous. I wish I could read that book for the first time again.”

Coming from a friend with good reading taste, that is the kind of endorsement that gets a book to the top of my (very long) “to read” list. And, it did not disappoint. It was phenomenal. A ton of fun to read. Engaging all along the way. A totally different world and the perfect way to pass a few summer days in the hammock.

I’ve been making a concerted effort to read fiction as a writer this year, so it seems important to also mention that this book delivered a pivotal moment of enlightenment to me. Until now, I have been intimidated by the concept of building the actual structure for my novel. I know the story. But how to tell it?

The clarity and elegance of this story structure taught me more than all the chapters and thoughts and work I’ve done on this idea before. It’s perfection. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned/observed:

  • Gruen puts future and past parts of the story in chapters that are next to each other. This helps to elevate the details of both the past and the future because they are so different. If they were not next to each other in this way, they would become less meaningful and the story would be (WAY) less good.
  • The way she sets up the story in the prologue creates such a sense of urgency and curiosity. Especially because she set the prologue against chapter 1 (see note above).
  • Even though Gruen sets up the Prologue to seem like it provides a lot of information, it actually doesn’t. Which is awesome.
  • Gruen uses short “current day” chapters to provide additional information about the main character and demonstrate that all is going to eventually be “OK.” Compared to the other story line, these chapters felt like interruptions. This can either be called “building suspense,” or “being annoying.” You decide for yourself.
  • Gruen has high respect for a reader’s ability to join into the world of the circus, despite the fact that most readers don’t know anything. She does this by conscientiously teaching the reader new words in a non-patronizing way and showing the down/dirty details of circus life.
  • Gruen uses photos that add instant credibility. I was amazed by how hard the photos worked to bring this story to life.

Eldyn: 2 Years + 8 Months

August 14, 2014 § Leave a comment


Water Boy: If there’s one thing that’s going to hook me on gardening, it’s Eldyn. He loves to help me in the yard and can be talked out of almost any fit at the mere suggestion of watering the plants. “This guy needs a drink!” he says when he sees my wilted Impatiens. “This flower is thirsty!” He will do it as long as I leave the hose on and is pretty thorough too.

Vacation Payback: After wearing this baby down on vacation, he came home and promptly came down with Hand, Foot and Mouth disease. Even though independently, hands, feet and mouths are not that gross, a disease named all three of these things sounds horrifying. (Probably because I’m confusing it with Hoof and Mouth disease which also sounds horrifying.) At any rate, Eldyn is only just now recovering from Hand, Foot and Mouth disease. It was horrifying! Painful blisters all over his…wait for it…hands, feet and mouth. And bottom. And legs. And face. At one point he walked up to me and asked me if I would put a band-aid on his tongue. Poor buddy.

Living a Nightmare: Eldyn was disappointed when we told him he was still too young for Vacation Bible School. It didn’t help that Hiram was having a bunch of fun there and learning all kinds of new songs. At church on Sunday, the kids were going to sing a song they learned and when it was time to sing, Eldyn ran up too.  Of course he didn’t know the words so at first he just stood there. He was completely unfazed, standing a little out in front of the group with his arms crossed. Then he started moving his lips as he picked up words here and there. By the end, he had a few of the hand motions down! Clearly this kid doesn’t have that nightmare about performing for an audience and realizing you forgot to practice.

 1 Year + 8 Months

8 Months


Hiram: 5 Years + 2 Months

August 13, 2014 § Leave a comment


Vacation Highlights: Just to ease myself back into real-time blogging, here’s a list of the Hiram’s vacation highlights. He gave me this list the night we got back home.

  1. Playing mini golf three times
  2. Camping three times
  3. Our hotel
  4. Swimming
  5. Jumping off the swimming platform
  6. The Dolphin Show – dolphins, and whales and a sea-lion
  7. Seeing the man feed the shark
  8. Making up my own dolphin show
  9. Eating a happy meal with yogurt
  10. The car I got in my happy meal
  11. Eating a big pancake
  12. The jumping pillow
  13. A good dinner

Tooth #2. As if I don’t need more to remind me that Hiram’s halfway to college, he lost his second tooth. At least we managed not to let him swallow/drop/throw it away so dealings with the tooth fairy went more smoothly than last time. I feel certain the tooth fairy now has that cute little tooth locked safely away in a place where she will never, ever lose it.

Oh Hiram. One night after bedtime I had what can only be described as a complete meltdown over finding out what Hiram would be offered for hot lunch on his first day of kindergarten (waffles). After that, I realized that it would probably be best to just tell him that he’s going to see his mama cry about kindergarten. To take the pressure off, you know? I said, “When you see me cry, don’t worry. It’s tears of joy.”

“Why will you have tears of joy, mama?”

“Because, baby. I’m super proud of you.” (tears)


4 Years + 2 Months

3 Years + 2 Months

2 Years + 2 Months

1 Year + 2 Months


Vacation Remembered: Saturday, August 2

August 12, 2014 § Leave a comment


Our last day of vacation.

Aside from a short trip into Baraboo Proper for a decent cup of coffee, we didn’t get into the car. The campsite was plumb full of stuff for us to do so we decided to stay close to the tent and partake in a “Play Crawl” of sorts.

  • Before nap: Swimming at the beach where there were at least 6 different inflatable platforms to swim between.
  • After nap: More swimming at the beach along with time on the “Jumping Pillow,” the park, the human-sized chess game and even more mini-golf. Also, ice cream. We finished our last night with an absolutely delicious dinner of pork chops roasted on skewers, corn on the cob, so many strawberries and S’Mores*

* Remember that stinker raccoon? He took our Graham Crackers. Luckily the store at our posh campsite came through with a fresh new box.

Vacation Badges Earned

  • Mystery Solvers
  • Gourmet Cooking
  • Very Happy Campers

Vacation Remembered: Friday, August 1

August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment


Lew was the most done with Chicago but both boys were pretty fritzy by the time we made it back to our train at Union Station. The trip, first by train and then by car was one that I wouldn’t want to repeat. But our destination was Wisconsin Dells and the boys forgave us when we got there. They couldn’t believe their eyes. We set up our tent in record time and then ran off for a round of turbo-mini golf before the rainstorm forced us out to eat for dinner.

There was a Mexican place across from mini-golf so we went there. This time, the whole family had had “what she’s having.” Margaritas all around! Hiram and Eldyn loved their virgin versions.

That night was another rainy camp night but we all had Chicago to sleep off so we were happy to turn in early. We fell asleep to the pitter-pat of rain on our tent and significantly less lightning than we had the last time it stormed.

Vacation Badges Earned

  • Super travel troopers
  • Mini-Golf

Vacation Remembered: Thursday, July 31

August 10, 2014 § Leave a comment


If Hiram becomes Marine Biologist, I am going to tell anyone who will listen about how when Hiram was 5, he sat with a dropped-jaw through the entire Aquatic Show at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. I’ll tell them that was when he got the bug. I couldn’t take my eyes off him while he watched, stone-faced, as the dolphins dove and the Beluga Whales nuzzled up to the trainers. It’s like he was trying to memorize every second.

Needless to say, the aquarium was Hiram’s vacation highlight. His favorite part, actually, was getting to touch the stingrays and seeing the diver feeding fish in the big tank.

True to form, Eldyn was obsessed with finding out the names of all the animals he saw. He and I even had to make a special trip to ask a trainer about the Beluga Whales (Mama = Myack, Baby = Kimalou). He was still talking about Myack and Kimalou when we got back to the hotel and then realized we never learned the daddy’s name. To keep him from getting upset, I told him the first name I thought of, which unfortunately was “Howard.” He looked at me like he didn’t believe it, but then he said it back to me. “Howard.”

Dinner for our last night in Chicago was a little ridiculous. We went out for hot dogs (Chicago style, of course), French fries, chips and onion rings. B had a beer and for the first time in my life I ordered, “what she’s having” because it looked delicious. It turned out to be a Margarita and it was delicious. I never would have thought to pair it with hot dogs so it was a new experience! Then we ate ice cream sundaes for dessert.

I spent the last night in our fancy hotel trying not to barf. But it was fun.

Vacation Badges Earned

  • Marine Biology
  • Gluttony

Vacation Remembered: Wednesday, July 30

August 9, 2014 § Leave a comment


Wednesday was our most “normal” day. We woke up at our usual time and ate a sensible breakfast in an actual kitchen. Then we ventured out with our eye on the clock to make sure we were back in time for lunch and naps. Personally, I thought the boys were having a fun looking at the sculptures in Millennium Park. But at some point that morning, they each stopped laughing/climbing/running/or jumping to ask me if we could go back. Tired enough for you?

Post-nap, the boys were in much better moods so we went to Navy Pier to ride the Ferris Wheel and Carousel. Then we met some friends for dinner. They suggested a pretty popular pizza place which we had previously rejected due to what looked like a very long wait for a table. Thanks to our friends for the stretch assignment! The wait was more than worth it and made me realize that sampling the best of Chicago Pizza should never have been “opt-in” in the first place.

During the short walk back to our hotel room, magic happened. It was the moment I was dreaming about and hoping for the whole time I was planning, packing, organizing, dragging luggage, dragging boys and forking over cash for our vacation. The four of us – bellies full, holding hands, spinning and laughing together on the streets of crazy Chicago.

Vacation Badges Earned:

  • Art Appreciation
  • Locavore
  • Magic

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