Author: paigejohnson (Page 1 of 7)

Paige’s Favorite Books and Best Things of 2019!

To clarify, these are not the best books in the world, or the best things that have ever happened to me. This list is fifteen books I really loved in 2019, five books I loved listening to, and five little things I discovered that made my life just a teeny, tiny bit better. Not in the way that family and faith make your life better, but in the way that a really great pair of jeans makes your life better. (I am yet to find the jeans.)

I will begin with books. But first the obligatory preface: the books I like to read are not the same as the books I like to listen to. Audio books and book-books are not interchangeable for me. When I’m driving, I need plot. Not layered or complicated plot, just plot that develops in a straight-forward way with characters I can keep track of even while looking for my exit. Not Danielle Steel or Twilight, but let’s just say I’m fine with less beautiful prose and depth if the storyline keeps me entertained on the long drive to Blacksburg, and the narrator’s voice doesn’t annoy me. When I read, I want gorgeous stories with writing that’s so good it’s almost painful, and layered, observant characters; a rich narrative that is beautiful, sentence by sentence. I want literature, but not the boring stuff they inexplicably make high school students read; not graphic war stories and sexual awakening stories or drugs-and-suicide stories. I want great but not perfect heroines, humor, beauty, and distinctive prose. (Whereas in the car, listening, I just want to stay awake and be entertained.) Some of the books I read might make for good listening as well, and vice-versa, but in most cases I’ll stick by this list.

To Read: 

I’ll start with the classic coming-of-age novels, though Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards might have made the top of my list over-all, regardless of genre. It’s about a girl named Frankie, an apple orchard, and a family pulled in different directions by change. Set in the 1950s and rich with family dynamics, seen through the eyes of a girl, I loved this one in the way I love Jane Smiley’s Some Luck Series, or Edna Ferber’s Giant. Deep and mysterious and bittersweet and funny, I felt full yet emptied when I finished it.  

Another coming-of-age novel about family and a decade full of change is William Kent Kruger’s Ordinary Grace. If you can get past the first few pages, where the main character recalls the death of a little boy about his own age when he was a kid, it becomes a mysterious and moving story about childhood’s end, in a Stand By Me sort of way. Funny and heartbreaking and unpredictable, the book is about a family doing it’s best one strange and difficult summer, with characters so subtly flawed and believable it hurts. 

Alice Mc Dermott’s Child of My Heart was one of those books about nothing and everything; about a fifteen-year-old’s observations as she babysits the child of a local artist one summer. There are no murders or great tragedies, but her description of families and human nature that idyllic summer are can’t-put-it-down compelling, and the narrator’s intelligence and storytelling made me sad to finish it. And After This, also by Alice McDermott, was a pull-you-in saga about a marriage and a family that narrates the little moments of ordinary family life in a way that makes you relieved that someone else noticed the beauty in the quotidian. John and Mary’s romance and years together will remind you of families you know, if you grew up Catholic in the suburbs; it hurts almost physically when the kids grow up and get pulled in different directions. It is an homage to how things used to be, the good and the bad.

Speaking of family dynamics and the American Dream, Matthew Thomas’ We are Not Ourselves was a sobering, beautiful book about another Irish family. The main character was born in 1941, and raised in Queens in a Tree-Grows-In-Brooklyn childhood. She marries a scientist and has a son, and is constantly yearning for a shiny reality she can’t quite get to, where the grass will be greener. A psychological shift in one of the main characters becomes a mystery that the others must solve with tenderness and loyalty, giving the story and narrative unusual depth. It is epic in the real sense as well as in the vernacular “epic.” 

I didn’t love her other books but Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things astonished me with it’s breadth. I can’t believe this ambitious, epic masterpiece of a book was written by the author of Eat, Pray, Love. This one is about a 19th century English family whose patriarch makes a fortune in South America, and his American-born daughter who grows up to be a brilliant scientist. I learned about so many things: botany, the slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, and the American Experience in general, but through fascinating characters and a storyline that doesn’t feel as though it is supposed to be educational. There is adventure and romance in this novel, and the heroine has that strong-delicate voice that transports you to another time. It’s not especially thick but it is a BIG novel. Quietly breathtaking. 

The best book about friendship I have ever read has to be Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss. Two friends growing up in 1960s Pasadena, it has a Mad Men aesthetic, but it’s about a childhood bond. It’s a mystery wrapped up in dreamy friendship narrative that occasionally makes you laugh aloud and wish you were friends with them, despite everthing. 

If you like books and movies about parents and their adult kids, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore could be made into one of those dramadies where the kids bring home their adult problems in one memorable summer. William and Ginny are the parents who must always be parents, and they are such well-drawn characters that you’ll identify with them even if you are the age of their children. A little examination of a modern family that somehow reads as literature with just a touch of chic-lit.

A Piece of the World by Christine Baker Kline uses the rather dull (and yet super well known and often shown in movies) painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, as its subject. The main character, Christina, was indeed one of the real-life models for the painting, and this loosely historical fiction is about this young disabled woman’s tie to the family farm in Maine, her dreams and regrets and inspirations. 

Another strong New England Heroine is Bea, in Anna Solomon’s Leaving Lucy Pear. One of those stories about abandoning a baby to escape shame, only to be reunited with her years later, it’s a page-turner with beautiful prose. The book reviews will say something about how it speaks to family and class and xenophobia, but I loved the writing and the post-war backdrop, and the abandoned baby and yearning mother plotline. I read this one at carpool and was so engrossed that got honked at when it was time to pull forward; I could not put it down.

Which brings me to the other abandoned baby book: M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between the Oceans. Everyone else probably read this years ago, and it became a Spielberg movie with Michael Fassbender, but I only recently got to it. No wonder they made a screenplay; this one has the post-war backdrop, but with an isolated lighthouse, a woman who yearns for children, a husband who just wants to make her happy but also do the right thing, and gorgeous writing. Haunting and unusual, this is one of those books that is why people say reading is “escaping to another world” even though it is not fantasy.

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles surprised me with the distinctive voice of it’s ten-year-old narrator, and it’s sweet, haunting mixture of real and surreal, of childhood story and sci-fi. Julia is a precocious ten-year-old, worried about best friends and bullies at the bus stop, when scientists announce that the rotation of the Earth is slowing every day. Birds and the tides and human behavior are affected, and gravity sickness becomes normal. Julia’s family begins to fray, and she must discern what is a symptom of “the slowing” and what would have happened anyway, and what her future will look like. It will break your heart, and make you think about time and childhood and disater, but also leave you spellbound. I think someone is making a movie.

Another sci-fi-ish novel, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, made my list even though I generally dislike anything even vaguely apocalyptic. I only started reading this one because it opens with a production of King Lear, and seemed to be about artists and musicians, but it turns into an altered-universe story wherein a flu pandemic changes life as we know it. The main character is travelling around nomad-style with a group called the Travelling Symphony, who are trying to keep art and music alive. It is weird and depressing/exciting in the way that apocalypse stories are, but this one is set apart by its focus on the human need to see and hear beauty. For some reason it made me crave popcorn, like a good movie does. 

The Curiosity, by Stephen P Kiernan, is a Frankenstein-ish thriller, time-travel novel, and chic-lit all rolled into one. It’s main character falls in love with a man from another century who has been frozen in ice, Captain America style, and whom scientists discover a way to re-animate. Their romance is  delicate and doomed, but it is strange and beautiful while it lasts and makes you think what if through the whole story. 

Last but not in any way least is Eizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible. The only short story collection on my list, this is like a little dessert sampler or tapas platter for readers, by a writer who is one of the heavyweights of our time. All the characters in these vignette-type stories are real and flawed, Olive Kitteridge style, and will make you laugh and break your heart. Strout’s observations of human nature and love and loss and longing rival any of the great writers, and she does it with humor and an economy of words that filled me with awe. She’s a female Hemingway, but uplifting instead of despressing. 

To listen to while driving:

What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon. Time travel and romance with really decent writing and an Irish backdrop. Listened to this one on my phone when I wasn’t even driving. 

Eleanore Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Hilarious and sad with a hopeful ending, Eleanore is like A Man Called Ove, but British and with a girl. 

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. Based on a shocking true story about the Georgia Tann kidnappings, this is a well-told story with an old-school child heroine. 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. World War II story about sisters and love, it will shock you and the ending makes you gasp.

The Girl You Left Behind by JoJo Moyes. Part one is a World War I story that revolves around a Mona Lisa type of painting and the love story behind it; part two feels like a different story at first but circles back to the painting, and the resolution of part one. Great for a long drive. 

Other Best Things I discovered, in no particular order: 

  1. Pomegranates! I knew I liked the strange, juicy-crunchy little seeds on my yogurt, and that they have tons of vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants, but getting those seeds out was too annoying until my sister told me how to peel them in a bowl of water. The membrane floats up and the seeds sink, so you just skim the top and drain. PLUS, they apparently have exactly 613 seeds, the number of Commandments in the Bible, which is random but interesting. PLUS, I read a book about Catherine of Aragon, who had pomegranates stitched into her clothing when she came from Spain at age 15 to marry King Louis of France, and she kept these “apples of Granada” as her personal symbol, though they were a symbol of fertility, all through her marriage to Henry VIII and beyond. Not that this matters to my health today, but Catherine of Aragon was steadfast to the point of bad-ass, so now I like pomegranates even more.
  2. The Instant Pot! I’m pretty set in my ways cooking-wise, but when the crock pot broke we replaced it with an instant pot that can double as a slow cooker. I decided tob e open to new things, and this one turned out to be low-key life-changing. Apparently pressure-cookers have been normal in other countries for decades, and were a big thing here in the ‘70s, but they were pea-green plastic and dangerously hot on the outside. Now they are back, and the Instant Pot brand is just a new name on the oldest trick in the book for turning big, cheap cuts of meat into tender, shred-able stew and taco meat. I actually think ceramic makes a better slow cooker, but it doesn’t matter because my instant pot can do everything a crock-pot can do but better and in less time. Chili, amazing beef stew, carnitas for soft tacos, fall-apart coq a vin, etc. all in under an hour. Plus you can make homemade yogurt in them, if you’re into that.
  3. Madam Secretary! Having never watched 24 or Homeland or Designated Survivor or really any non Masterpiece Theater show in a long time, I am surprised that I started watching this at all, and surprised how much I like it. Tea Leoni plays a former CIA agent-turned-professor who is asked to be Secretary of State. She’s polished and quick-thinking, smart and funny, and also the mother of three teenagers. Plus she’s soooo pretty, in an authoritative-yet-approachable way that seems natural and real, not like she’s trying too hard. The show has the West Wing quick dialogue, but the diplomatic crisis scenes are interspersed with warm, realistic plot-lines about her family, including her hot-but-cute husband, a CIA agent turned Catholic religious scholar, which has probably never been done on TV before. And her clothes! Her clothes make me drool. 
  4. Hollywood Glamour Beauty Queen hand cream! It’s in a bubble-gum pink tube and smells like cherries and childhood, and moisturizes hands like nothing else I’ve ever tried and without feeling greasy. I want to take a bath in this stuff, it’s so awesome, but it seems to be available only at those old, dated Rite Aid stores that are about to be taken over by Walgreens. If you find it, buy several. 
  5. Online grocery pick up! GAME CHANGER. What started as a one-time thing has become my norm: I fill my Giant cart while sipping decaf Earl Gray at home, and the next day I pull up and a nice lady comes out and loads me up. IT’S AWESOME. My groceries come in nice bags with handles, and the produce is nicer than what I could have found in the store. I used to think I had to see the food before I bought it, but I’m over that. (A decade ago, I never thought I’d do my Christmas shopping online either. Hahahaha.)  I like having someone else gather up apples and onions and roast beef and  for me, after I plan my recipes from the comfort of my own home. I like letting someone else find the arugula and the exact right kind of shampoo my teenager requested for his combination hair. I see other women in the store with huge carts, waiting in long lines and then loading up their own cars, and I want to roll down my window and yell Save Yourself! Order online! Grocery delivery still costs extra, but I’m fairly sure that ordering online and picking them up does not incur a fee. And if it does, it’s worth it. 


She wore ill-fitting navy-blue flats, the shoes she wore to church with her parents. They were the only thing that matched her outfit, which she hoped looked casual, like she hadn’t thought about it too much, like she went on dates all the time. She thought about wearing her gold sandals, she loved the way they made her feet look like a more mature version of themselves, but she did not want to look too dressed up, too invested, as though she thought they were going to a red carpet event. Trey would probably be wearing shorts. That’s how boys were.

But Katie was invested. She had not been on many dates, and she would be in college soon. She had arrived at her high school sophomore year with the aloof-but-desperate look of a military kid who moved around a lot, had promptly joined the extra-curriculars and corresponding social groups appropriate for her status level (drama, wind ensemble, photography club), and had quickly made friends, mostly the forgettable sort of friends she made everywhere she’d lived. Periodically, there were boys who were rumored to like her, and she would go with them to a dance, to Denny’s after the cast party, or even to their house to watch a movie. She had been kissed exactly three times: once, too eagerly, by Michael Smelzer after a band concert (she’d thought what the heck, but had drawn back in horror when he immediately tried to stick his tongue in her mouth), and twice by a boy named Brandon who was a day camp counselor with her at Brookside Camp, where her job was to make yarn crafts with dozens of screaming ten-year-olds whose parents worked. It was a nice kiss until he said, “Wanna go in the tool shed on our break?” She’d replied, “Um…. not really…” To which he’d said, “Cool,” and never paid her any attention again.

The fourth kiss, the best one, really, would be from Trey Andrews, a lacrosse-playing senior, leagues beyond her socially, who had inexplicably left his team senior year and tried out for a school play, and wound up playing Benedick opposite her Beatrice in a very abridged version of Much Ado. He was olive skinned and blue eyed and had that jock swagger that other theater boys did not have, and he was not gay. Katie knew, because Trey Andrews had dated Lisette Peterson, and had a string of girlfriends before her. He looked cocky and made a good Benedick, and they had chemistry, something she’d never had with anyone on stage, or anyone off stage for that matter, except maybe her friend Parker, who did not do theater but who was gay.

Trey Andrews ignored Katie, mostly, for the first three weeks of rehearsal, except to say lines with her and then leave in the car of some other lacrosse-playing senior, engine revving over laughter and music, like in a movie, while Katie left in the passenger seat of her mom’s minivan. But at some point the week before tech week, when she’d decided to really commit to being a good Beatrice, to really nail her lines–especially the argument scene where she says even if Benedick’s face got scratched by a dog, it wouldn’t be worse–he did start to pay attention to her, a little. It had felt good to hurl insults at Trey Andrews, because it was something. He would never like her, pay attention to her, so at least she could have this contrived passion with him on stage, even if they mostly hated each other in the abridged version. At least she could have something with him. Surprisingly, he actually got his lines memorized–nobody thought he would–and he was good at them, and by the end of tech week, Katie thought maybe they were friends. Slightly flirty friends, which was thrilling and unsettling.

And then on a Thursday after school, when the play was over and there was really no reason for them to be seen together, Trey Andrews stopped by Katie’s locker and asked her what she was doing on Saturday. For a moment her mind raced: was there some mandatory meeting of cast members? Did he need to borrow notes for a class? She couldn’t think why he was asking.

And now here she was, eating a nice dinner with Trey Andrews at a fancy-ish restaurant, not a Denny’s or a Chipotle but a date restaurant, her tight, ugly shoes kicked off under the table. The shoes didn’t matter because he had the bluest eyes and ordered like a grown up, raising an eyebrow at her to indicate that she could order first, which made her a little dizzy. The waiter was in his twenties, so Trey was younger, but he wasn’t nervous at all and even seemed to brush the waiter off just a little, which was so adult. Trey wasn’t actually rude or anything, just confident, Katie told herself. And maybe he felt just a teeny bit cooler than the waiter even though he was younger, because the waiter was chubby. Athletes were like that, they couldn’t help it. Plus, Trey made her laugh at dinner, talking about his team and his friends, and when she reached for her little purse when the bill came, he’d said I got this and put a gold credit card in the wallet thingy they give you, sliding it in the pocket like he did it all the time.  

Walking to his car, he’d taken her hand for a minute, sliding his fingers down her arm first, then letting go. He’d tilted her face up, right there in the parking lot, and she’d thought oh, so that’s what they mean in books when it says her knees went weak…

 What do you want to do now? He’d asked, in an almost-whisper, and her stomach flip flopped. Another first. She’d been ready for the question, though: there was an old movie playing at the dollar theater, she told him, the one where the guy dances in roller skates and it’s amazing. It was a really old movie but her grandmother liked it, her grandmother had grown up in California and lived near the famous dancing actor when she was a little girl. Plus, it was two dollar popcorn night.

Trey had made a strange face and said wouldn’t that take like two hours? Yes, she’d said, it would, and then suggested they go to the bookstore on Princess Street instead, they had outdoor seating and they let you take books out there even if you weren’t buying them. Sometimes they had live music.

Trey had sighed at that, which Katie couldn’t understand, but he’d said okay and started driving in that direction. Was there something you wanted to do? She’d asked, and he’d said no, this was fine, but something in the atmosphere had changed. Or maybe she was overthinking it.

Pulling into the parking lot of Cyrano’s Books and getting out of the car, Katie heard a little flapping noise in the grassy median that separated the two halves of the parking lot. A small bird was just feet away from her, flapping and then stopping to rest, its beak open a little.

“Oh, gosh, oh no, the poor little guy, I think he’s hurt,” Katie said, a small, sad panic rising up from deep inside her. She could tell the bird’s wing was badly hurt, and she instantly decided two things without even thinking: that this was a boy bird, she would call him him, and that something had to be done for him, though the prognosis was grim.

“Leave it,” Trey said, just ask Katie bent down to scoop the bird up in her sweater. Did Trey have anything like a little shoe box in his car, she wondered? Or even a hat or something? If she took off her sweater, maybe she could wrap the bird in it to keep him still while they found help.

“What?” she said, taking off her cardigan. Had he just said leave it?

“That’s so gross, leave it alone,” he repeated.

Katie swallowed. “He’s hurt,” she began. “It’s his wing I think. There are animal rescue places that might take him, we could at least call–”

“God, what’s wrong with you?” Trey said, a sneer on his face, confusion in his eyes. “Just leave it, it’s dirty, and–”

“He’s hurt, and he’s not that dirty, plus I think he’s a bluebird, and if we could just find some help–”

“Jesus, that’s so fucking weird, I should have known,” Trey said, rolling his eyes. Somebody from the patio of the bookstore looked over at them as he raised his voice, “Just leave the stupid thing, it’s just going to die–”

“I KNOW IT’S GOING TO DIE!” Katie shouted, and now several people from the patio looked over at them, and slowly returned to their conversations. The bird’s head, she now saw, was sort of at an odd angle. “I know that,” she said again, quietly this time. Her throat was suddenly sore, and she felt the cool sting of tears in her eyes, but she willed them back down to wherever they came from. “But if there is a chance we could save him, like find a vet or something, we should at least try. Or we could at least, I don’t know… take him somewhere…” Her voice trailed off. She really didn’t know what her plan was. Maybe they could call a vet with after hours.

Trey starred at her, and she knew he was analyzing something, calculating. She also knew, in that instant, that he didn’t really like her, and if he did, she did not care. She took off her sweater, a whisper-thin, light blue cotton shrug her mom bought her at a beach when she was fifteen. She bent down and wrapped the bird in it; it did not put up a fight.

“I think you should take me home,” she told Trey, meeting his gaze.

“Jesus,” he said again, getting into the car and slamming his door, not helping her with her door this time, though she was cradling the bird-sweater now.

They didn’t speak all the way to Katie’s house. The bird died in her sweater, in her arms, as she thought it might. She looked straight ahead and did not cry. It was only a twelve-minute drive to her house, but she saw, stretched before her, a whole future, more clearly than anything she’d imagined before. She would continue to act; she was surprisingly good at it. Maybe not for a job, but maybe. She would study what she wanted, learn as much as she could, and stop imagining other people were cooler than her, better than her. She would stop waiting for everything to happen to her and decide what she wanted to happen to her instead. She would throw the navy-blue flats in the garbage.

Trey Andrews stopped in front of Katie’s house exactly long enough for her to get out before he sped away. Walking toward her front door, carrying a small, dead bird wrapped in her sweater, she felt, suddenly, as light as air. She felt free.


In childhood, that drowsy dream

of mountain peaks and meadows wide;

of needles crunching under-foot

of sun-soaked woods and babbling brooks;

where inspiration could abide

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

I learned that home and family

(both fluctuating, changing things)

tether us, by degrees to

where we’re born: towns, countries.

and in my blood and in my brain

indelibly were stamped it seemed

the air and sky and peaks and planes

of Colorado: Evergreen.

I learned, quite young

that I belonged to this small town

with elk-filled fields

and columbines, burst-out among

snow-laden hillsides, purple yields 

to violet amid the brown.

In snowy town, all sun-shine shroud

nestled deep in canyon walls

we flew Old Glory high and proud

from cedar cabins big and small,

cheered at high school football games,

watched fire-works light the July air

and listened to the wistful strains of

Willie at The Little Bear.

I tasted pie at Summerfest,

in Bear Creek I did wade and dream

of my mountains, and the rest:

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

So as I grew and traveled far,

saw other mountain majesties,

exceeding not that highest bar

of scented pines, and towering trees;

of shining lake and one stop light,

small steepled church and hardware store,

where eagles soared in constant flight

in turquoise sky, white clouds galore,

I never questioned my true home,

my affection was unwavering

for rock-hewn Camelot where I’d grown:

my heart belonged to Evergreen.

And then, at tender age I left

we packed our bags and went away

and I, all empty and bereft

did dream of mountains, night and day.

though other places called to me

their alabaster cities gleamed

poor substitutes they all would be

for I was looking back it seemed.

and now that on my hands—eyes, stronger,

time has carved some tiny lines

and elsewhere I have lived far longer

than the city in the pines

still, when I smell the mountain air

or smell a brand-new Christmas tree

for a moment I am there:

my heart belongs to Evergreen.

Some Good Movies to Watch With Teens!

*First Published on

Your teenager is home on a weekend night and you want to watch a movie with actual character development, a movie without animated animals or explosions (including the F-bomb), and without an OSS (obligatory sex scene) that makes you all cringe or dive for the remote. The plot has to really grab them right from the start, which rules out award winners like Chariots of Fire or A Man for All Seasons; if they can’t relate to it, they’ll pass. Maybe you also have a twelve-year-old who might decide to watch the movie, and you’d like them to understand it, enjoy it, and not be traumatized. You want a movie that sucks you in and makes you laugh and feel things, a movie that inspires discussions (un-forced, organic discussions of course) about loyalty or ethics or what really matters on the chance that your teen feels chatty when it’s over. So here’s a list of sleepers that weren’t made in the last eighteen months but hold up exceptionally well, and pair well with teens and popcorn.

Quiz Show

It might take some convincing, because nothing explodes in this movie except a man’s ego, but this little gem of a film, based on a true story, slowly grips you like a well-paced thriller. A young and super good looking Ralph Finnes plays Charles Van Doren, a college professor from a family of good looking intellectuals, who is asked to be a contestant on the wildly popular Jeopardy-like TV show, Twenty-One. He’s slumming a little–his family doesn’t do this sort of thing–but the fame is fun until the previous contestant, an awkward Jew from Queens played by John Turturro, gets jealous and begins to tell everyone the game is rigged, they give out the answers to whomever they want to win. The book the movie was based on was written by the lawyer brought in to investigate, played by a young and also handsome Rob Morrow. Just being real: handsomeness is a factor if your teen is female and maybe even if they’re not, and attractiveness, or lack of it, is part of the plot in this case. The movie takes place in the late 1950s and has a gorgeous, Mad Men-like aesthetic and Bobby Darin on the soundtrack, used in a way that somehow makes his catchy tunes unsettling. There’s even smart and carefully placed humor in the script, while it flawlessly illustrates vanity, deception, greed and envy, and the other side of the coin–the one that modern teens, used to reality TV, would think of on their own: ambivalence.

Apollo 13

Even if you saw it twice when it was more recent, here is a movie that’s easy to watch again because it takes an archetype that’s big and impressive and different than your average person–an astronaut, back when they existed and were larger than life–and shows him in a lens that makes him deeply, incredibly human. This achingly relatableness is where Tom Hanks’ brilliance lies, even when he plays a bad guy. In this case he plays real-life good guy Jim Lovell, the astronaut who commanded a 1970 mission that suffered a critical failure on the way to the moon. It’s a testament to the filmmaking that viewers are riveted even though they know how it turns out, although modern teens, who didn’t learn about the Apollo missions in school or remember them like parents and grandparents, may not know if they guys make it back to Earth or not. The story revolves not just around getting the men back home safely, a feat of brilliant, spontaneous engineering and leadership, but around the personalities and relationships involved. The acting is superb, the pointy collars and big hair make you feel like you are really there, and unlike the more recent First Man, the writers didn’t throw in a lot of puff-the-story-up fiction (the bracelet in the crater…). These things really happened, and according to the guys who were there, were every bit this dramatic. Director Ron Howard puts you on the edge of your seat at the end and if you don’t cheer out loud or feel a few tears welling up when that capsule drops into the water, you have no soul.


Catch Me If You Can

At the risk of putting ideas into teens’ heads, this movie is worth watching because Leonardo DiCaprio makes you simultaneously root for the hero and hope he gets caught. The fact that this is also true story is astonishing; DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, a nineteen year old who begins dabbling in check fraud and impersonations, and eventually successfully poses as a commercial pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. Abagnale is being chased by an FBI agent throughout the movie, played by Tom Hanks; the two actors are so good at what they do that you can’t decide who the good guy is. The agent discovers something about the criminal: he’s young and brilliant and funny, but he’s lonely, which makes the end of the movie more interesting than just the facts would lead you to believe. This is one of those movies you have to pause just to get another soda because you can’t miss a single thing.


Here we get to see Captain America (Chris Evans) play a regular guy with problems and some family baggage in this movie about loyalty and parenting. Evans plays the caretaker to his brilliant niece, played by a precocious kid who manages to be adorable but not saccharine, and makes viewers of all ages want to watch her reactions. It’s a fairly predictable plot: her uncle must fight for custody of her and convince the authorities and a grandmother that whatever his less-than-perfect life is lacking, he can make up for with his unconditional love for this little girl. The film gets viewers thinking about choices and repercussions, sacrifice, and wanting something for the right reasons–and the wrong ones. and the It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it makes you smile often, and the characters are so darn convincing that you can’t look away. Teens will like the storyline because they can relate to both the child and the uncle, and watching this flawed thirty-something try to be a good father figure is endearing and inspiring.

We Bought a Zoo

The animals on the cover image of this movie make it seem Doctor Dolittle-esque, but this is a funny, heartbreaking story about a widower and his kids, trying to grieve and heal and move on. I’d personally watch Matt Damon do laundry, so seeing him play a Dad trying his best at taking care of wild animals and, even harder, a troubled teenage son, is pretty darn engaging. It’s unpredictable and funny and heart-wrenching, but in a good way. Scarlett Johansson plays the obvious love interest realistically, and Thomas Haden Church provides comic relief when it gets a little sad. Mostly, it’s not a sad movie, it’s just a movie about a family trying something out of the box so they don’t get too sad, and fighting for it when they have to. Without being heavy-handed, it paints a beautiful picture of what a family can be.

The Martian

And speaking of Matt Damon, in this movie, based on a self-published manuscript, we get to see him grow potatoes in space while fighting for his life and making jokes. Most people know the premise of this one or have already seen it, but it bears watching with teens because it tackles loyalty, ethics, and survival; it’s science fiction but realistic, even a little playful. Some viewers might not be able to get through the nearly-opening scene where Damon must pull shrapnel out of his chest, but he tempers that and everything he does with humor, even the Cast Away-like scenes of loneliness. There are no aliens or computers trying to kill him, so even non sci-fi fans will enjoy the plot.  

Some runner-ups, not chosen for this list because of language, violence/death, or the OSS, are: A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Good Will Hunting, Castaway, and Interstellar.


Hancock Fabrics


The two of us would go with our mom to the fabric store on summer days, when we all needed to get out of the house.

That’s how she phrased it, let’s get out of the house. And she called it Hancock’s, made it possessive, even though it wasn’t, and dropped

the “Fabric” part altogether, as though they were on a first-name basis. Sometimes she actually needed fabric, or a pattern, or notions;

I loved that section, zippers and pincushions and piping; I told her that once, saying I liked the notion of notions, and she was amazed at my cleverness. I didn’t

have the heart to tell her I’d heard it somewhere else:                                                 Mrs. Harless, down the street.

She would shop and my sister and I would look at patterns: our favorite was Simplicity and Butterick Girls, their main girl-model was so pretty.

She’d get straight A’s, you could tell, and sleep in a pink canopy bed with a cocker spaniel in a basket on the floor.

You’d look good in this one, we’d say, or I want a skirt like that but blue, or we’d find the pictures of boys in homemade sailor suits and laugh at them,

see if there were any cute ones. We could look at buttons for ages without getting bored, picking out our favorites, reds and yellows and blues and all shades of brown

spilling over the sides of the bin and making the loveliest sound when you lay your hand flat and swished it back and forth,

or dug both hands in deep and pulled up fist-fulls, letting the buttons pour back into the button ocean. Unattainable, unless we’d saved allowance.

She, my mother, bit her lip a little, in concentration, scrutinizing the isles of calico or chintz or damask or seersucker, big purse under her arm, big sunglasses

on her head, pulling back short blond hair, gold stud earrings from Tiffany’s in her ears, the only ones she ever wore and only thing she ever owned from there

and I would think: she is beautiful, she is beautiful, and I am lucky, I am lucky and my chest would hurt a little, I remember that, from the happiness of it.

My sister was bored, I knew, and growing weary of handmade clothes, but I was younger and wanted to stay forever.

Once, when we got home, the gross boy next door asked where we’d been and when we told him Hancock Fabric, he laughed his nasal laugh,

making a gesture with his hand that made no sense, saying Get it? Hand-cock? Get it? I did not but my sister’s face pinched up

and she shoved him into the gravel on the sides of his driveway and his mother came out and yelled at her, saying she was older so she was a bully, which 

temporarily ruined Hancock Fabric for me, but I see now                                    that she was trying to save it.


The College Decision, Postmortem

It’s January, so high school seniors everywhere are finished with college applications and are now just “waiting to hear.” That’s how their parents will phrase it when they bump into friends at the grocery store and church and are asked where Sally or Jack is going to college: “Well, she’s applied to blah blah blah and now we’re just waiting to hear…” Depending on the subtle inflection in the words, there’s hope in them, or exasperation, or desperation, or smugness, or false modesty. When a parent of a high school senior says that one sentence, we are just waiting to hear, so much more is conveyed. There’s, “We are just waiting to hear, but she got Cs and Ds in high school and there were those two incidents with the police so it’s not looking good,” and there’s, “We are just waiting to hear, but what with the four-point-eleven GPA and the National Merit Scholarship and the charity work and the nuclear reactor she built in the garage, we are confident she’ll get in somewhere.” And everything in between.

When decision time is near, the brag factor is real, especially in an area where having parents with graduate degrees and bulging investment portfolios is as common as having a family pet. The kids aren’t the ones doing the bragging, it’s the parents, and though it is born out of pride in their child’s hard work–and the parents’ surviving it–it  catches you off guard, masquerading as chit-chat that sounds like something in a Meg Wolitzer novel. As in, “Cornell is her first choice, but if she doesn’t get in, she may have to settle for Vanderbilt, and we’ve told her life will still go on if you have to go to Vanderbilt…” Or “He got into Stanford, but the scholarships from Duke and Northwestern are so big, one of them might make more sense, you know?”

The brag factor is not only real, it’s strong enough to propel people into decisions so financially unwise, they’re painful to hear about. Parents taking out a second mortgage to pay for Swarthmore, grandparents taking out loans to pay for Amherst, or even students taking on decades of debt to pay for Brown, all because Swarthmore and Amherst and Brown are not only great schools that might give your child a leg up on getting a really good job someday, but because they are all so freaking fun to say when someone asks where your kid is going. Not just fun, but, in some circles, almost necessary to really be a player in the game of smart, sophisticated, suburban parent who shall be taken seriously. At parties or work events, when you are with people who on the short list to become a federal judge, or just sold their third book to Simon and Schuster, or are head of Coronary Care at Hopkins, and someone asks politely where your eighteen year old might go to college, it’s a tough pill to swallow to say a state school or community college.

Besides the “good school” pull, there’s also something we don’t talk about, because it’s overtly snobby and there’s no way to say it without sounding like a character in a British play but we just can’t help it: we parents want our kids surrounded by the right kind of people. They don’t have to be rich, and they don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be smart. And ambitious. Preferably kind, but mainly shiny and polished and going somewhere, and while these type of students exist at any university, they are in abundance at the really good ones, and we’re often willing to pay through the nose for our child to be one of them.

The kids fall into the trap, too; they intuit early and clearly that going somewhere with wow factor in the name automatically imbibes them with a cool sapience they are suddenly ready for, and is a sure defense against anyone thinking they didn’t work their butt off in high school. Four AP classes junior and senior year, two honors with labs and final projects, and that stupid on-level class that might as well have been AP, the teacher was so tough. In their minds, they worked so dang hard, they sure as hell aren’t going to settle for some lame-o state school like a dumb jock. Then what was the point of all that?

Only here’s the rub: the schools with wow factor are getting too expensive, even for the upper, upper middle class, so their smart-as-hell kids are flocking to the state schools that impress with a smaller price tag–the Universities of Virginia and William and Marys–making those schools even harder to get in to. So now students with a four-point-five, memberships in clubs and on teams and glowing letters of recommendation can’t necessarily get into their state schools, at least not the “almost-ivies,” making them wonder why they worked so hard and slept so little in high school. Straight As and being team captain might not be good enough if you didn’t also build a nuclear reactor in the garage, and unless you lost a limb in an accident or a parent in a war, you’d better have a disabled sibling or some charity work in Haiti to write about for your essay. (If you don’t, write about something so mundane it’s barely worth mentioning, like being a redhead or playing Monopoly, and maybe the sheer quotidianness of it will impress them.) Even then, the top-notch state schools might be out of reach.

About a year ago, I visited my alma mater with my daughter for “accepted students day,” walking her around the quad and showing her the English and history department buildings, my old stomping grounds. Unexpectedly, a former professor of mine was sitting in his office, eating cheese and crackers for lunch, so many books and papers surrounding his bow-tied self that he looked like a professor in a movie. He remembered me, congratulating me on life in general and my daughter on getting in. “Honest truth,” he asked her, “Where do you think you’ll go? Is this your first choice?”

“I don’t know,” she said, earnest and blunt as ever. “I didn’t get in my first choice, or where I thought was my first choice. There are pros and cons to everything, and I don’t know exactly what I want, like I think I’m supposed to. So I don’t know what to do.”

My professor smiled at her like a grandfather and chuckled. “You know what? It doesn’t matter,” he said. I felt the corners of my mouth turn up into a smile as he said what no one else had ever said to her said to her, certainly not someone with a PhD and decades of teaching and scholarship.

“Almost any school will give you a good education if you work hard,” he went on. “It just doesn’t matter that much. Pick one because you like the size, or the area, or because you can afford it. Then go enjoy it. Study hard and don’t party too much, make some lasting friendships. Just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.” She laughed, and I swear she seemed a little more care-free the rest of the day.

It would be interesting to take a photograph of a college senior and her parents every day from the day they submit their first application to the day they commit to a university and send in the check, and put those photos together in a time-lapse video showing the whole–dare I say it– journey.  I’m not sure pictures would capture it, but if you could film the hope and the uncertainty, the surprise and pain of rejection by a school your child was sure she’d get in, the surprise of acceptance from a school he thought was a stretch, the humbling moment of hearing someone else rejoice over their child’s acceptance to a school your child didn’t get in to, it would be a fascinating movie, but from the distance of a few years, all that drama might ring a bit false, as reality TV usually does.

Like so many events in parenthood, the whole process and decision seems huge at the time, so absolutely critical to your child’s development and identity and future, but years later you can’t help but think, oh, it wasn’t that big of a deal. As long as you love them and listen to them and help them make a wise decision with the tools they’ve been given, it just isn’t that big of a deal. It’s good post-college advice, too: we should all just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.


Magical Jumper

I have felt big my whole life. Not fat–although I have often felt fat, too–just big, which is odd considering I am not tall and never have been. I think it may have started when I was four or five and people told me I was a “big girl,” meaning grown up of course, but I took it to mean large. In elementary school, my friends happened to be a bit younger and much smaller than I, those tiny little girls with ski-jump noses and frail limbs whose doctors are forever asking if they are eating enough. I was robust and ate plenty. Also, I had an obsession with cute things–the small forest animals in my books, the small glass animals I played with and made tiny houses for, even the tiny shoes of the babies I saw at church made me swoon, and I felt enormous in comparison.

In high school and college I felt big, even though I weighed about 115 pounds. I remember weighing 115 pounds, and thinking I should not try out for the cheerleading team even though I could do handsprings and flips–not that I would have, I didn’t have the cheerleader personality, but still, here was another reason–because I would look big in that tiny skirt. I’m sure there were actual cheerleaders on the team that weighed more than I did and were taller and more ungainly, and they looked fine to me, but when I imagined myself in that outfit I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.

But I had a magic outfit, when I was seven, and it changed everything.

It was a dress, made by my mom as most of my clothes were at that time. She called it a jumper, and it was sort of like dressy overalls that finished out into a skirt instead of pants, and she made it out of blue velour that was sort of a cross between cobalt and turquoise. The most shocking, bright blue, velvety fabric you have ever seen, and even though an overalls-dress sounds ridiculous now, it was the height of little girl fashion at the time. I know because my mother made it from a Butterick Girls pattern and those, I felt, were very stylish. It draped beautifully and swished when I twirled and didn’t stick to my legs or tights, and the color looked great on me. People always said so when I wore it. People stared at me when I walked by, for real. There was nothing quite like it in any store I’d ever seen, and I imagined I looked like some kind of almost-royalty in it, like Sarah Crew in A Little Princess, mixed with a dash of the very sophisticated Nancy Drew, the version in the books where she is older and wears lipstick.

No outfit ever came close to that jumper in making me feel beautiful, though some have come close. There was a purple sweater I wore in high school that caused a boy I liked to say, “You, um, you look, um… wow.” There was a pale blue wool jacket I wore as a newlywed that was expensive in an understated way and inspired an Italian waiter call me beautiful lady with pretty eyes, and there was a maternity dress my husband bought me because I complained when I was seven months pregnant that I had nothing to wear, that dress somehow took my hilarious beach-ball body and hung in such a way as to look a tiny bit sexy. I have no idea how.

But there was never another outfit like the magical blue jumper, maybe because I was never seven again. I learned to doubt myself even when I think I look great. And this is not because of anything society has imposed on me about female beauty, this is just because of an inner voice that is analytical and critical and finds humor in everything, which also makes me a good writer, so I guess I wouldn’t give it up. I do try, though, to conjure up that feeling the blue jumper gave me; that light-as-air, pretty, not-big feeling that swooshed down me as soon as I put it on. And I hope my daughters had that feeling in some little dress from their childhood, or have that feeling in their wedding gowns and in many outfits they will wear as grown up ladies. I wish it for everyone, actually; I think we’d all be a lot nicer, a lot more benevolent and magnanimous if we felt lovely in our clothes. Not powerful, not sexy, not “on trend,” just light and air and possibility, of all that we might become.

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