Stranger than Fiction

Stranger than Fiction

Rewind a Minute

Well, it’s been entirely too long since I last shared a new #plotdrivenlife adventure, but I hope that this update to a post I wrote in 2017 will absolutely blow your mind and prove to you that books change lives!

In August 2017, I wrote a post entitled Family Ties, where I explained how reading Kate Kae Myers’ book, Inherit Midnight, prompted me to send away a tube of spit to Ancestry DNA in the hopes I could uncover the truth about my family history. As I explained in the post, learning about my family’s heritage was especially important to me because my dad, Boyd, was given up for adoption immediately after his birth in 1952 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. We knew next-t0-nothing about his biological family, believing only that his mother had been a teenager at the time of my dad’s birth.

Learning about my dad’s ancestry was exciting, but what has unfolded since has been a true miracle, and I am thrilled to share this story with you.

Stranger than Fiction

In December of 2017, my dad, ever the questioner, decided he would submit his DNA for testing through Ancestry. He wanted to confirm the company’s accuracy, so he didn’t list his full name, gender, etc. He wanted to see if I came up as a genetic match. Spoiler alert: I did. But almost immediately after dad received his results from Ancestry, he received a message through the website from a biological relative. That’s right, folks. Dad had struck DNA gold. This relative, Shelley, happens to live in his same province and is his distant cousin. She and my dad immediately developed a bond and began to converse almost daily. She was ecstatic that they’d connected through Ancestry, and she wanted to use her talent as a sleuth to help my dad connect to closer biological relatives, if possible. Shelley began digging through family photos and public records, sharing her findings and hypotheses with my dad and mom, and keeping us ALL on the edge of our seats.

While Shelley was investigating, my dad made the emotional decision to request his adoption record, hoping the paperwork would assist in the search. The wait for this information was agonizing for my dad, but in late February, he received it, and he was able to confirm that his mother, Helen Joyce, had delivered him at age 17.

Armed with new details, Shelley set off to contact a shared relative on her and my dad’s Ancestry family tree–a woman by the name of Laurie. Shelley asked Laurie if she knew someone by the name of Helen Joyce, and I wish that I could have seen the look on Laurie’s face when she read Shelley’s message. As fate would have it, Laurie’s mother’s name is Helen Joyce. . .

This story is even more amazing because Helen Joyce is 83 years young, living only a few hundred kilometers away from my parents. She has four children with her late husband, John: Diane, Laurie, Jeff and Fiona, all of whom knew nothing about an older half-brother born before their mother married. It would have been easy for the family to keep my dad at a distance, questioning his motives and fearing the impact this development would have on their mother. My “Bonus Granny,” or “BG” for short, is a spitfire, however, and the whole family has fully and completely embraced my dad and the rest of us with open arms.

Dad, on the left, met with his half-brother Jeff the day after connecting with Laurie. Amazingly, Jeff works in the same city where my dad lives.

On the weekend of his 66th birthday, my dad and mom traveled to meet his mom and his siblings. The large, extended family celebrated him with a birthday party, eager to make up for lost time. This summer, Mike and I will travel back to British Columbia for a family (re)union where we’ll get to meet everyone for the first time. I’ve had the chance to FaceTime with my BG and my “new” aunts in recent weeks, and I cannot even express to you how full my heart is as a result of this entire experience. All of us are marveling at this miracle, connecting through Facebook and email, and excited for what the future holds for us.

From left to right: my “BG,” Jeff, Diane, my dad, Fiona; together over dad’s birthday weekend.

Laurie and my dad, hugging it out after meeting for the first time.

So, I reiterate: books change lives. Had I not read Kate Kae Myers’ book, my BG might still be secretly wondering about the red-faced baby she gave up for adoption six decades ago, and my dad would never have known about the four siblings who bear a striking resemblance to him. Reader, your own life-changing #plotdrivenlife experience awaits you. What are you waiting for?

Happy Reading,

~Kelly

 

Moxie, #metoo & MacGyver

Podcast Driven Life

I have to admit that I’ve been living more of a Podcast Driven Life lately, and I’m cringing at how far behind I am on my Goodreads Challenge for the year. However, I think the lessons I’m learning from the podcasts I’m currently addicted to are worth sharing in an upcoming post. Stay tuned, and you’ll see why I’ve been ditching fiction!

The topic of this week’s book is incredibly timely, and I think it fills an important void in YA lit. It would be a stand-out partner read or book club pick that could lead to in-depth discussion and research.

Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

I love, love, love the message of this book– that a group of united young women who demand respect can affect all kinds of awesome change in this world. For this reason, Moxie totally kicked ass. The timing of this book is perfect, too, in the wake of the #metoo movement and so many famous men being accused of sexual harassment. Altogether, author Jennifer Mathieu delivers an inspiring story that examines issues of gender, race and sexuality.

This cover is dabomb.com.

Life is as you’d expect in tiny East Rockport, Texas: Friday night football games draw the entire town and shut down all local restaurants. The football players live like kings, enjoying the newest and fanciest equipment while the girls’ soccer team is forced to fundraise for new uniforms. Most alarming, however, is that the principal of the school, Mr. Wilson, is a sexist jerk, and his son, a football star, goes unchecked when he sexually harasses his female classmates.

Enter Vivian “Viv” Carter, a shy do-gooder who is fed up with the inequality and inspired by her mom’s past as a member of the feminist group Riot Grrrrls. Viv gets the brilliant idea to start and distribute a “zine” called Moxie, a newsletter that calls on the girls at her high school to band together to take action against the sexist status quo. Viv wants to keep her identity as Moxie’s creator a secret; she’s both exhilarated and terrified of its impact. Before long, the Moxie movement takes on a life of its own, uniting her classmates and incensing Principal Wilson who threatens to expel anyone associated with the group. At the same time, Viv is in love for the first time with new boy Seth who may not fully understand her anger and frustration with the East Rockport High culture. It’s complicated. . .

As I mentioned in my original post, when I plan a #plotdrivenlife experience, I try to choose an activity that has positive consequences; I hope to learn a new skill or bond with a friend, etc. As I read Moxie, I connected with the idea of inspiring and empowering women by leaving secret messages in the bathroom, just as Viv does by planting copies of her Moxie zine in East Rockport High’s ladies’ rooms.

MacGyver and Me

Since the beginning of this school year, I’ve been rewarding teachers in my building with tech badges for incorporating technology into their instruction in new and innovative ways. I’ve been printing their badges (which I designed on the website Credly), on Avery labels I purchased from Amazon (This idea was inspired by an amazing educator named Josh Howard, by the way. I can’t take the credit! You can check out his site here.). Anyway, I decided to use those same Avery labels to print stickers with motivational messages for the young women at my school.

Some of my inspirational stickers!

Using the free Avery label template, I created six different types of stickers with sayings like, “I am enough,” “I am loved” and “I am unique.” I printed them in color and cut them out while watching whatever the hubs had on tv, and then had to enlist the help of my dad– my personal MacGyver–to figure out how to plant them in the girls’ bathrooms at my school without them getting wet or accidentally thrown away.

This guy–the original MacGyver– has nothing on my dad.

Dad came up with an inexpensive and simple suggestion: Ziploc bags taped to the bathroom mirrors. Genius! I grabbed my washi tape, some snack-sized Ziplocs and my stickers, and set out to anonymously (like Viv) decorate the bathrooms.

Just to be clear– I took this pic in the single stall teacher bathroom with the door locked. I didn’t want to be a creeper taking pics in a public bathroom!

The coolest part of this #plotdrivenlife experience was seeing my students wearing my stickers!

That’s a shirt-sleeve in case you couldn’t tell.

I saw students with stickers on their shirts and stuck to their phone cases. It made me so happy!

Could you do something simple to inspire someone today? I promise it will make you feel good, too.

Thanks for reading,

~Kelly

Will Roadtrip for Books

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

I love a good romance, and I took the recommendation of Emily Hall, owner of a local indie bookshop called Main Street books, when I picked up this week’s book: When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple Shah yearns to make a name for herself as a computer coder. As an eighteen year old Indian, however, Dimple’s parents have a very different plan for her future. Her mother seems desperate to see her only daughter immediately married and pregnant so she can gossip about her grandchildren with friends. While the Shahs agreed to let Dimple go to Stanford to major in coding, they consider it the perfect place for Dimple to shop for a husband. As a result, Dimple is agog when her parents actually agree to let her attend an elite coding camp called Insomnia Con at San Francisco State University during the summer before she starts at Stanford. Little does Dimple know, her parents have already been husband shopping for her.

Rishi Patel prides himself on being the good son. In his Indian household, he respects his parents and values their wisdom. When they choose Dimple Shah as a possible marriage match for him, he’s excited and eager to please his parents. When Rishi meets Dimple at Insomnia Con, he assumes she’s eager to get to know him, too, but their first interaction ends quickly with Dimple throwing a coffee at Rishi. Oops.

Dimple and Rishi are forced to team up to submit an app concept for Insomnia Con, and as the couple gets to know each other, sparks definitely fly. But Dimple begins to question whether she has room in her life for a successful career AND a relationship with Rishi, especially since he’s so content to please his parents. Rishi’s talents as an artist are obvious. Why, then, would he choose to study engineering?

Overall, a top-notch book with fresh, diverse characters. I loved learning about Indian food, culture and customs as I read this book. Dimple and Rishi are both relatable and have a love story that will make anyone say, “Awwwwwww!”

Will Roadtrip for Books

I considered several possible #plotdrivenlife experiences for this book including taking a self-paced coding class and throwing a coffee on someone (just kidding!). I decided to search for a bookstore-restaurant like Two Sisters Bar and Restaurant, the setting of Dimple and Rishi’s “non-date.” I loved this scene in the book because there is palpable chemistry between the characters, but they are still trying to figure out each other. Rishi, being the sweetie he is, arranges to have several sentimental books placed on their reserved table for Dimple to peruse. Swoon!

So, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to find several local restaurant-bookstores to choose from. Not true. In fact, I couldn’t even find any non-chain coffeeshop-bookstores near me! Since I was taking a road trip to Cincinnati to celebrate my friend Jaime’s birthday, I decided to move my search for a restaurant-bookstore to her neck of the woods. With her help, we found Roebling Point Books and Coffee in Newport, Kentucky. It is a magical place. While it’s not a restaurant, shoppers can enjoy coffee and treats while browsing an eclectic, cozy bookshop. It’s truly one of a kind, and I could happily live there! From the inscription on the fireplace to the chalkboard art on the exterior walls and the recycled church pews in the community room, If I lived closer, I’d hang out at this place all the time.

I love this picture of Jaime trying to decide which book to buy.

One of Roebling Point’s inviting spaces. Couldn’t you just move right in?

Jaime, her mom and I did stop by another bookstore with a connected restaurant called Joseph-Beth Booksellers. While this is a chain bookstore, it is one of my favorite places to visit in Cincinnati, and its attached Bronte Bistro doesn’t suck. I think it’s frowned upon to bring unpaid merchandise into the bistro, but you can enjoy delicious food while gazing longingly into the bookstore, so I won’t complain. It’s the next best thing to Two Sisters.

My delicious tomato-mozzarella panini and pear salad from Bronte Bistro.

Do you know of any restaurant-bookstores I should know about? I’m always game for a roadtrip!

Happy reading,
~Kelly

 

 

 

Get in My Belly!

It’s been a while since I lasted posted, but I hope to have several posts for you over the next few weeks!

North of Happy by Adi Alsaid

We are fast approaching the season of food. Thanksgiving is a month away, and if you celebrate Christmas like I do, you might already be searching for some trendy elastic waistband pants to get you through the season! In fact, a teacher friend of mine told me recently that she keeps a pair of maternity pants on hand for food holidays. Genius! This week’s blog post celebrates food, and I promise you can savor it without needing to change your pants.

DO NOT read this book on an empty stomach. Author Adi Alsaid writes tantalizing descriptions of food–from tacos to seafood, omelettes, sauces and sandwiches. This book will have you drooling!

Carlos knows it’s not healthy that he sees his dead brother’s ghost, and it’s definitely not healthy that he holds conversations with cet ghost. The trauma of losing Felix in a random shooting has deeply scarred Carlos, and the fact that their father wants Carlos to “forget about the past” makes it even worse. In response to his father’s insensitivity, Carlos makes a life changing last-minute decision. While watching a cooking show, he decides he’ll go to the featured restaurant–Provecho–located on an island in Washington state, thousands of miles away from his home in Mexico City.

While Carlos continues to see Felix’s ghost on the island, he finds his place at the restaurant, taking on a job as a dishwasher and falling for the head chef’s daughter, Emma. Carlos desperately wants the chance to feature his own recipes on the menu, and he suffers through hellish cooking lessons from the notoriously short-tempered “Chef” for the chance to improve his skills. It’s Chef’s ultimatum that he can’t stand; she makes it clear that he can’t date Emma if he wants to continue working at the restaurant. Carlos feels he has sacrificed enough, though, and wants both the chance to learn from Chef and enjoy Emma–even though ghost Felix thinks it’s a bad idea.

This is a book about grief, forgiveness and perseverance; it’s a stellar reminder that we should all do what we love and eat fabulous food along the way!

The audio is great, by the way.

Channeling My Inner Carlos

During the last three Thursday evenings in October, I have had an absolute blast attending a Basics of Cooking class with my friend Ali Jean. Now, if you’ve read any of my previous posts that relate to food, you know that I love to eat it, but I am really terrible at cooking. I lack the patience, the skills and the palate to make truly great food, so when Ali suggested we take a newbie cooking class together at the Kitchen Conservatory in St. Louis, I thought I could at least improve my skills and write about the connection to North of Happy. I did not expect the experience to be such a highlight of my week!

My dear friend, Ali Jean, expert Fish Seasoner!

Our class was taught by Barb Nack, a no-nonsense teacher whom I liked immediately. At our first session, Barb provided each of us with a folder with the recipes we’d make that evening as well as some helpful cooking terminology. We had a chance to practice our knife-cutting skills before we dove into making a feast! In teams under Barb’s watchful eye, we made vegetable soup, garlic compound butter, pasta primavera, pasta soup, and beef and chicken stir-fry with rice. We learned how and when to use salt, why olive oil beats EVOO and why chopped veggies should all be the same size. I left the class stupidly full and happy. I’d cooked several dishes I was confident I could make at home without Barb’s guidance. Success!

Week 2: Roast beef with gravy, perfectly crisp green beans, root vegetables, cheese biscuits, mashed potatoes and chocolate ganache cake.

The second and third weeks of class proved to be even more tasty. During the second class, we collaborated to prepare an entire roast beef dinner complete with the best chocolate ganache cake I have ever had in my life. I ended up buying an in-oven thermometer after that class and used it to cook a pork roast to perfection in my own oven. During our third class, the highlights were the fried tilapia, homemade mac & cheese and chocolate mousse. So. Dang. Good. I have one more class to make up in January, but I’m flush with recipes to try on my Canadian family coming to visit in November. Hooray!

Chicken with vegetables and pan sauce.

Chocolate mousse.

While I didn’t exactly feel Carlos’ deep passion for cooking during my Kitchen Conservatory experience, the class was the most fun I’ve ever had in a kitchen. I looked forward each week to the opportunity to share the hectic, crowded space with ten or so other classmates, all working together to prepare a meal of which we could be proud! And who doesn’t love the chance to eat their hard work?

Me, Barb and Ali, all smiles in the kitchen!

Thanks for reading, and I promise to post next week!
~Kelly

Love Letter to a Bookstore

Unfortunately, I haven’t been living a very #plotdrivenlife lately. Mike and I bought a new house last month, and with the incredible support of my parents who flew in from Canada, we’ve been madly unpacking, cleaning and renovating the house to make it our own. We still have MANY projects to tackle, but we started by tearing down wallpaper and painting. Seriously, my parents are some of the most generous and hard-working folks I know.

My mom and me stripping wallpaper in our new kitchen!

Besides taking on a fixer-upper, school started back, of course, and I’m really missing the fact I could trot around on a horse in the middle of a Wednesday morning only a month ago! My hope is to continue to post new #plotdrivenlife experiences twice per month. This time, I want to share a book that inspired a love letter.

Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

“Quaint” is the best word I can think of to describe this book. If you can listen to the audio version, it’s superb– read by alternating male and female Aussie narrators– and it adds to the book’s “quaintness.”

Readers first meet Rachel, still reeling from the drowning death of her brother Cal ten months prior. After failing her last year of high school, Rachel is lamenting the fact she’s being forced to move in with her unorthodox Aunt Rose who lives in the town Rachel grew up in. Rachel is especially bothered by the fact she’ll have to see Henry, her former best friend who ignored a love letter she left him three years ago.

Henry is devastated; his longtime girlfriend Amy has admitted she doesn’t love him, and he’s stuck with a round-the-world plane ticket he bought to accompany her. At the same time, Henry’s parents are toying with the idea of selling his childhood home/family business– a used bookshop called “Howling Books,” and it’s causing major family drama.

Rachel reluctantly accepts a tedious job at Howling Books; she’s responsible for cataloging the “Letter Library,” a unique part of the shop where visitors can write messages and leave letters in specific books. Slowly, Rachel and Henry begin to rebuild their friendship, but she still can’t find the strength to tell Henry that Cal is gone. When her old feelings for Henry start to resurface, will Amy get in the way again?

This book has so much going for it. It explores grief, friendship, forgiveness, love, and regret and the author balances all of these topics very well. As I read, I wanted to visit Howling Books which takes on a life of its on. The story is sweet and unique, and I loved the Australian dialect. So very good, and sure to be a winner with young adults.

A Love Letter to a Bookstore

As I read Cath Crowley’s book, I couldn’t help but think about the little used bookstore of my childhood called, The Book Bin.

Much like Howling Books takes on its own personality in Words in Deep Blue, The Book Bin has a distinctive personality to me; it’s a place I spent many cozy hours as a kid, usually with my younger sister, Jenn.

To celebrate The Book Bin and for this week’s #plotdrivenlife experience, I wrote a love letter/story to The Book Bin:

Dearest Book Bin,

Once upon a time, there were two young girls whose parents loved to read. They read together while sipping after-dinner coffee in the living room. They read side-by-side, propped up in bed each night, sometimes illuminated by a book-light. They read while they lounged under the shade of the camper awning on family vacations. They read a lot. Sometimes they shared books like those by John Grisham and Wilbur Smith. Other times the mom preferred romance and mystery and the dad liked action and adventure. Regardless of what they were reading, their daughters took notice, and they started to read a lot, too. Like their parents, they shared favorite books like those by Lurlene McDaniel and Ann M. Martin. Very soon, the girls were reading so much that the parents decided something must be done about it.

The parents introduced the girls to a magical place an easy walk from their house called The Book Bin. The Book Bin was a small shop filled to capacity with pre-loved books. When the family first visited together, the mom left a large stack of books on the counter, and Pat, the shop’s owner, traded her for a magical white slip of paper. With that slip of paper, the girls were allowed to choose books from the shop’s shelves and not have to pay for them. The girls thought this was amazing! Even better, the shop’s bright blue awning was easy to spot from school, and the sisters often walked to the shop on their way home, the magical white paper in one of their pockets, ready to show Pat.

The girls could lose track of time in the back of the shop where they sifted through books by Dahl, Stine, Montgomery and Pascal. They were delighted by the fact that Pat’s Cocker Spaniel often slept contentedly in her bed underneath the cash register, and they were wowed by the idea that Pat spent her whole day surrounded by books, making magical transactions happen for all kinds of people. After the girls had made their choices and showed Pat their ticket, they marched home, excited to delve into their newest literary adventures.

As the girls grew into ladies, they continued to visit The Book Bin, though less often. They stopped by every so often to pick up Mary Higgins Clark and LaVryle Spencer, following in their mother’s fiction footsteps. Soon, though, both girls had moved out of their parents’ house and lived in far away cities. One of the girls parlayed her love of books into a job as an English teacher and then a school librarian. The other works in a fancy office, but continues to read voraciously.

Now women in their thirties, the sisters have very fond memories of The Book Bin, the little shop that fed their childhood hunger for reading. When they are able to come to town, they try to make a point of stopping by the shop just to smell the book-y scent, run their fingers along the cracked spines and pet the newer resident pup. The shop’s awning is no longer blue, and the sisters no longer have a magical slip of paper, but just stepping into the shop can transport them back to their happy, book-filled childhood.

We love you, Book Bin!

Sincerely,
The Sisters

~Kelly Oliva & Jennifer McLaren

I’m sending Book Bin owner Pat a copy of this letter, and I hope it brings a smile to her face.

I’m definitely planning a visit to the shop when I return to my hometown this Christmas. It’s been too long.

Happy reading,
~Kelly

PS: A huge thanks to my dad who (sneakily) took all of the photos included in this post.

Take Me to The Muny

One of the best parts about leading a #plotdrivenlife is that it has provided the ideal kick-in-the-pants to get out me of my house to enjoy some of the amazing attractions and experiences Missouri has to offer with some lovely people. This past week, I took an octogenarian to a musical, inspired by a book written by a Missouri native and fellow librarian!

Deacon Locke Went to Prom by Brian Katcher

What do you do when you’re too terrified to ask a girl to prom? You take your spunky grandmother instead!

Deacon Locke has lived with his grandmother, Jean, since his dad ran away to Amsterdam to escape some bookies. Deacon and Jean make a pretty great team, and they have plenty of laughs together, so after several promposals derail Deacon’s plans to take his crush to prom, Deacon decides to ask Jean to prom instead. After all, Jean didn’t get a chance to attend her own prom because her husband was fighting in the Vietnam War, so Deacon thinks his plan is perfect. And his life only improves when he meets the girl of his dreams, Soraya, while taking dancing lessons with Jean.

Deacon’s life takes a drastic turn, however, when he is reluctantly thrust into the limelight after a video of him and Jean dancing together at prom goes viral. The story of a teenager taking his grandma to prom is social media magic, it turns out. As Deacon’s fame grows, he realizes Jean is having more frequent episodes of memory loss, and he’s increasingly alarmed by her behavior. He’s only eighteen, after all. Can he handle all of this pressure by himself?

Author Brian Katcher has written five book for teens, including one of my all-time favorites, Almost Perfect, a very timely book about a teen boy growing up in rural Missouri who falls for a transgender girl. Two of his other books have made the Gateway Nominee shortlist, including The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak which is a Gateway Nominee for the 2017-18 school year. Read more about this year’s Gateways here. I also have to mention that Brian is super about visiting Missouri schools to discuss his books. He’s got a great sense of self-deprecating humor!

An Unusual Friendship

I don’t have living grandparents anymore, but I do have a stand-in named David. David and I had the chance to meet in 2004 when I was doing my student teaching with a saintly lady named Jean Weinstock. Jean immediately and fully embraced me, a barely twenty-one year old from Canada who had no nearby relatives. David was her adoring husband, and I got to know and love him, too. I was completely enthralled by Jean and David’s loving relationship and cultured life. They had season tickets to Rams football and Cardinals baseball games as well as season tickets to the St. Louis Symphony, Stages Theater, and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Despite their active lives, they welcomed me into their family and showed me more kindness than I can ever repay.

Jean, me and David at my college graduation party in 2004.

Sadly, Jean passed away after a tragic accident in 2009. At her visitation, I can remember her daughter, Bess, asking if I would attend a symphony concert once in awhile with David. I was happy to do so, and since 2009, David and I have met several times a year to see movies, concerts, operas and ballets. One thing we had never done together before, however, was attend a performance at the outdoor Muny Theatre in St. Louis’ Forest Park.

In the spirit of Deacon Locke, I asked David, fifty years my senior, to accompany me to dinner and the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown at The Muny which is celebrating its 99th season this year. David was genuinely delighted to be my date for the evening and over dinner, he shared his memories of attending Muny performances in his youth. His childhood home was so close to Forest Park that he often walked to the theatre which he called “a summer hotspot” for famous entertainers. In the 1950s, he had friends who worked as ushers at the theatre, and he can remember them sneaking him in to sit in the box seats. These friends also made it possible for him to attend cast parties at swanky local hotels.

The entrance to The Muny, short for “Municipal Theatre.”

While David is no longer a sneaky little school boy, he has the same enthusiasm for The Muny today that he did as a teen. We both thoroughly enjoyed The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and David said he hopes this is the first of many performances we’ll see together at The Muny.

Waiting for the show to start!

 

We’re an unusual pair, David and I, but he and Jean taught me that you don’t have to be related to be family.

David and me on our walk to The Muny.

Readers, take Deacon Locke’s actions to heart and consider making a date with an elder, relative or not. You may not blow up on YouTube, but you’ll likely be a star to your date.

Thanks for reading!

~Kelly