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I’m sure you’ve heard of Madame Tussaud and her wax museum in London.  I know I had, without ever thinking very much about it.  Then, via my affiliation with U.S Family Guide, I got an opportunity to visit her Washington, D.C. branch.

Having attended college in D.C., and frequently visiting the area since because my husband is a Baltimore native, I am familiar with and fairly comfortable in the city.  And at one time or another my family and I have visited most of the major attractions.  So it was exciting to get to experience something new to us, particularly at no cost to ourselves.  Yes, I was given the tickets for the four of us in exchange for promoting the attraction on social media and giving my honest opinion on my blog.  My opinions are my own.

We were staying in Baltimore and were able to drive from there right into the city, getting off the expressway only a few blocks away from our destination.  It’s also readily accessible via Metro.  We parked one block away in the Ford’s Theatre garage (bonus tip: Visit Madame Tussauds in the morning and Ford’s Theatre in the afternoon, and see two quality attractions without moving your car.  You can eat lunch in between, like we did; there are many restaurants right nearby.).  This parking garage is safe, well-lighted, and not free.  So come prepared.

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Above are side and front views of the museum.  I love that they used existing structures instead of building something new, so the museum fits right in.

I really have only one critical comment to make about our experience, and it occurred right at the beginning of the visit.  Once you pay for admission you go downstairs where you are invited to sit down and watch a couple of movies, one about Madame Tussaud herself and the museum’s history, and another about the process of making the figures.  We like that kind of thing in our family, and I would recommend that everyone take about five minutes to watch the videos.

But a lot of people don’t like to watch these things, so they just walk on by, and the way they’ve set this up is that they have to walk between the viewers and the screen!  And if they walked quickly that might be okay, but the beginning of the exhibit is crowded so the line started blocking our view.  This is a really stupid design flaw.

After the movies it was straight to the exhibits.  There was a line and I was worried it was going to be crowded.  But once you get into the first of several rooms, people start to spread out and crowding is never an issue.  I was immediately impressed by the first exhibit:

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This figure is a Piscataway Indian, and what I thought was neat is that his tribe was native to the area.  I liked that the company took the time to do the necessary research to personalize the exhibit.  This gives me confidence that should I have the opportunity to visit other locations, I won’t be seeing all the same exhibits.

Next we plunged right into the meat of the museum: The Presidents’ Gallery.  This was so much better than I was expecting.  I had an image in my head of the presidents all in a row, on pedestals, with people two rows deep trying to get a glimpse.  That’s not how it is at all.

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First of all, many of the presidents are doing things, as General Washington is here.  And the visitor is invited to do more than just view–there are many more opportunities like the one above to really put yourself into the moment.  Picture-taking is encouraged, and there were no signs saying not to touch.

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Ten-year-old Lorelei was almost as tall as James Madison, the shortest president!  Which reminds me, this is a good place to point out another flaw in the museum:  the heights of some of the figures are not right.  How do I know that?  Because my husband is basically a genius on the topic of the presidents and knows their heights.  He’s 6’3”, and many presidents who should have been shorter than he were in fact taller.  Also, he found minor factual/spelling errors in some of the printed materials that accompanied the displays.

But I really don’t want to complain too much because we all had a fabulous time, even though by the face he is making below you may not be able to tell that William was having fun.

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We wanted pictures of both kids with all the presidents from Tennessee, but in the end I cropped William out because he was spoiling the pictures!  Lorelei is a much better model. :-)

Now, all these presidents were not in the same room.  There were a few in each room, which helped to spread out the crowd.  It also helped to provide context for what we were seeing.  Some of the presidents were presented in rooms with period furnishings.  Some were placed before murals illustrating events from their time in office.  Others were accompanied by other figures who were important during their presidencies.  As we walled through each room, we were immersed in the American story.

Below, Lorelei shares a moment with Frederick Douglass, as we learned about slavery and the abolitionist movement.

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Below, she was again invited to immerse herself in the scene, even being provided with a costume as she helped General Lee negotiate the terms of his surrender.

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Everyone wanted to take a turn at hanging out with President Lincoln in his box at Ford’s Theatre.  This was especially cool since we knew we soon would be visiting the actual theatre!

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Last time we brought the kids to D.C. we visited Theodore Roosevelt Island, site of a lesser-known monument that I highly recommend.

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Eisenhower is one of William’s favorite presidents.  He and Lorelei both immersed themselves in the WWII section.

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Despite an interrogation from J. Edgar Hoover, the kids threw themselves into the Civil Rights Era.

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Lorelei kindly helped President Nixon deliver his resignation speech.  Seriously, y’all, the speeches were actually there, so if you felt like declaiming them yourself you could.

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John enjoyed posing with his favorite president.

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I cannot praise the realism of these figures enough.  They look so real that Facebook asked me to tag them when I uploaded my pictures!  Standing right next to them and looking in their eyes makes you feel like you are really with the actual people, and you start to get a sense of who they really were.

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Every one of the presidents and many of the other exhibits are accompanied by placards that tell you a little something about them and include a some of their own words.

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After President George W. Bush, we found ourselves in a short line to view the piece de resistance, our current president and the British Royal Family.  Only one party is let into this part of the exhibit at a time, because they have a staff photographer there who wants to take your picture for you to buy at the end of the tour.  However, I was extremely impressed that not only were we allowed to photograph this part of the exhibit ourselves, but the photographer asked if we we would like her to take pictures of us with out own camera (i.e. my iPhone).  Because we are frugal, those are the pictures you see below.

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Before the next section of the museum there was an optional “wax hand making” station (also not free) which William and Lorelei begged to participate in.  I believe it was $8 per hand, and they had fun doing it.  While you wait for this to be done (there will be a line) you can look at some artifacts from the first Madame Tussauds, including heads of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, which come from the originals Madame Tussaud made from their death masks.  Also there was the blade from the actual guillotine that killed them.  Did you know Madame Tussaud was forced to make wax replicas of decapitated heads for display on pikes?  It’s true, and it’s how she escaped the guillotine herself.

Here she is, by the way.  I love these pictures.  I love her delight in her own artistry, and I think it’s fabulous that her legacy lives on.  The company is still run by her descendants.

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Next came the entertainers room.  I’ll be honest, I was much more interested in the presidents.  Not that these weren’t good, because they are.  And very realistic, at least the woman who was kissing the one of Justin Bieber seemed to think so!

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Next was the sports room, which was really small and had only about four figures, none of whom were interesting to me, so I have no pictures.  Last was the media section.

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Then, predictably, came the gift shop (where we could have picked up the pictures they took of us and where we DID pick up our wrapped wax hands), and then out into the hot sunshine to find some lunch before heading over to Ford’s Theatre.

We had a great time, obviously, and I have no reservations about recommending this attraction to you.  Plus I can offer you a coupon:

KIDS GO FREE! Free Child (Ages 4-12) Ticket to Madame Tussauds Washington, D.C. with purchase of regular same day adult admission. Present this coupon at the Madame Tussauds box office to receive one free child admission with every purchase of a regular same day adult admission. Valid for up to 6 people. Not valid on online, advance or combo ticket purchase or with any other discounts. Restrictions apply. Promo Code: V373.

http://usfamilycoupons.com/coupon.php?regionid=75&bid=11233&dealid=1317

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If you are my age, you probably grew up reading the Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon in your daily paper.  I can remember being fascinated and excited by Ripley’s observations of the curiosities from all corners of the globe.

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So I was very excited to have been given the opportunity to take my family to the new Ripley’s Odditorium at the Baltimore Harbor when we visited there for my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday last month.  I was given the tickets (at 27.99 per person for the four of us, this was a big perk, I’ll admit!) in exchange for my honest review.  My opinions are my own.

It was a beautiful cool afternoon (amazing for May) when we approached the museum, which was not there the last time we visited the inner harbor.  We enjoyed the breeze and the beautiful sights.

Ripley's 1Ripley's 21The museum is located on Light Street, right in the heart of everything as you can see, with an easy walk to food, shopping, and the other attractions.  We also were able to find parking close by, but be prepared–it’s not cheap.

Ripley's 2Now, one of the things I was secretly thinking is that Ripley’s didn’t really belong in downtown Baltimore.  Visiting there instead of the Aquarium (for example) seemed akin to going to McDonald’s for supper instead of eating crabs.  But as you can see above Ripley’s has done their homework to make this Odditorium special and integral to the Harbor.

The sea monster is Chessie, rumored to be a resident of the Chesapeake Bay.  And this was one of several local touches we discovered.

We started by looking at the wax models and other displays in the lobby before heading up the staircase to discover more treasures.

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We saw another local touch almost immediately–this reprint of one of Ripley’s columns on the wallpaper!

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Chessie got a whole display to herself!

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Another local-themed display showcased the life and art of Johnny Eck, a Baltimore native who performed on the freak show circuit back in the day.  It was a sympathetic and nuanced portrait that made me want to learn more about Mr. Eck.

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The variety of exhibits at a Ripley’s Odditorium is astonishing.  You never know what you are going to find around the next corner.  There are many human oddities, like Mr. Eck and these photos below:

Ripley's 9 Ripley's 18There are examples of human ingenuity, like this giant penny made of pennies and this replica of Hogwarts Castle made of matchsticks:

Ripley's 7 Ripley's 15And there are genuine artifacts from all over the world, both rare and old, that Robert Ripley collected on his travels, like these items pictured below:

Ripley's 19 Ripley's 20 Ripley's 17Ripley’s also goes the extra mile to entertain, covering every inch of the space right down to the bathrooms:

Ripley's 11There are also many interactive exhibits, both old-fashioned and newfangled!

Ripley's 10 Ripley's 8We spent about an hour and a half going through the museum.  We (John and I) could have spent much longer–it’s 15,000 square feet, after all!  But the kids were always running ahead, all excited, and calling back to us to see what was around the next corner.

Our tickets also entitled us to a visit to the 4-D Moving Theatre and the Marvelous Mirror Maze.  The Maze was fun, and not too difficult to navigate although we did lose John at one point.  It didn’t take very long, though, and I expect you might be disappointed if you paid for just that experience and it was over so quickly.

I had no idea what to expect from the theatre.  It wasn’t my cup of tea (because that kind of thing makes me nauseated, frankly!) but I thought it was very well done.  It’s like an Imax theatre only the seats also move and there some other effects that I will leave out lest I spoil the surprise, but it was a very realistic experience, probably worth the price of admission.

We had a great time and I am happy to recommend the Baltimore Ripley’s Odditorium (in fact, I DID recommend it to John’s cousin later that afternoon!).

Ripley's 23 Ripley's 22But if you go, watch out for Chessie! BELIEVE IT . . . OR NOT!

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Greeley 2

It might seem a bit odd to review a book that was published almost 30 years ago and that I’ve read many times before.  But having recently re-read Patience of a Saint by Father Andrew Greeley, who died in 2013, I wanted to talk about him and his writing.

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In 1987 I wouldn’t have been able to understand or appreciate Father Greeley’s work.  I’d read about him, of course–what Catholic hasn’t been horrified at the idea of a priest writing “racy novels” with actual sex scenes? (Such very mild and tasteful scenes, by the way.)  I’m sure at the time, without having read any of his books, I disapproved.  I’m sure I thought that a priest ought to have better things to do than write sexy novels.  I’m sure I assumed it was notoriety the man was after.

Of course, Father Greeley, a sociologist as well as a priest, was doing other things too.  In addition to his priestly duties, he was cranking out scores of non-fiction books in his field.  But he considered his novels a ministry too, something that is obvious to me when I read them now.  In his own words: “I wouldn’t say the world is my parish, but my readers are my parish. And especially the readers that write to me. They’re my parish.”

Anyone who reads Father Greeley will see that he loves Chicago, the Irish, and the Church.  That doesn’t mean he won’t point out what he thinks their flaws are!  And I don’t always agree with his perception of the Church’s flaws–I’m no authority on Chicago or the Irish!  But always the love is there, and his conviction of the truth of the Church and of the power of the love of God to transform people’s lives.

Red Kane, a somewhat dissipated Chicago journalist, is a perfunctory Catholic when Patience of a Saint begins.  A conversion experience comparable to St. Paul’s on the Road to Damascus propels him reluctantly into a reformation of his life which simultaneously delights and threatens his friends and family.  He comes to realize that “if one party in a relationship undergoes a transformation, then the other party in that relationship must be transformed too,” and that this is scary for those around him who have grown comfortable with the roles they were used to playing.

In a climax that is foreshadowed throughout the novel, Red’s family decides he has had a nervous breakdown and they send for the men in the white coats.  In the end, in what to me was a particularly moving passage, Red asks himself where he can go for help.  “The answer was still obvious.  The only institution in the world that could help him now was the Roman Catholic Church–the real Catholic Church.  Send in the first team.”

I’ve read many–not all, by a long shot–of Father Greeley’s novels.  He’s a good writer, not a great one.  He does have what to me is crucial–the ability to anchor his novels firmly in a particular place and time.   Chicago and its environs are intrinsic to his books.  His characterization is terrific, his dialogue not so much, although to me in Patience of a Saint it rings most true.  But most important is that his books are deeply Catholic, even the “sexy parts.”  It’s a misunderstanding of and a disservice to Church teaching to claim that Catholicism believes sex is bad, or base, or dirty.  Greeley’s novels elevate sexual love within marriage almost to a sacramental level–the ultimate act of self-giving that reflects God’s love for us.

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Off The Shelf-V3

It’s been awhile since I’ve done an Off the Shelf book review for Beacon Hill Press.  Today I am happy to be sharing The Relationship Project by Bill Strom with you.  As always, my views are my own, and the only compensation I received was the book itself!

When this book arrived, I was intrigued right away.  I love the subtitle: Moving from “You and Me” to We.  I enjoy books that offer insights on marriage, especially from a Christian worldview.  And I like books that are interactive, which including “project” in the title seemed to imply.

I was imagining that this would be a book to read with my husband, something we could work on together.  We both agree that a good relationship takes work and we are committed to working on ours!  But here’s where the book was different from what I was expecting.  And I learned that pretty quickly, in the preface in fact:  ” . . . if you picked up this book to figure out how you can save your relationship, or fix a friend, put it down . . . the more important goal is to understand that we have our own heart work to do, our own self project.”    That’s not to say that you couldn’t read this in tandem with a spouse, but the point–and it’s a good point in general, is it not?–is that you are to work on yourself,  not on your partner!

That’s just the start of how this book is different from other relationship books you may have read, particularly if you’ve been reading mainly secular books.  In those books, you’ll learn about contracts and commitments–and those are discussed in this book too–but the focus here is on covenant relationships, which are “motivated by unconditional love and grace . . . not driven by the pursuit of personal happiness.”  It’s vocabulary I’d heard before, but here it is explained well and illustrated by clear examples.

The author shares from his own marriage, and the tone of the book is informal, making reading it a bit like listening to the good advice of a friend.  The Relationship Project is full of examples–stories of real people, their relationships and struggles.  There are illustrative quotations–and relationship stories–from Scripture as well.  There are several self-assessments along the way–I love those!  And there are questions for reflection.  In short, this is a book that asks you not just to read it, but to engage with it.

 

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IfOnly_BlogTourBanner

Hi, y’all, and welcome to the final day (saving the best for last and all that!) if the If Only Blog Tour.  In my capacity as an Off The Shelf Blogger for Beacon Hill Press, I’ve been given the opportunity to read If Only: Letting Go of Regret by Michelle Van Loon.  (My advance copy was my only compensation, and, as always, my opinion is my own.)  This time, instead of reviewing the book, I was asked to write a personal reflection on regret.

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”

~ John Greenleaf Whittier

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Charles Wallace Murry is given the responsibility, with the help of  a time traveling unicorn, of saving the world from imminent nuclear destruction by finding and changing the right “Might Have Been” in the past.  Charles succeeds, and the world is saved.  The rest of us aren’t so lucky.

Because all of our lives are littered with “might have beens.”  Whether for good or ill, every choice made excludes all the other possible choices.  Everything we do–or leave undone–has repercussions.  In If Only, Michelle Van Loon writes of how regrets can divide our hearts, trap us in the past, and damage our relationships with God and with one another.

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . . That’s the first thing that comes into my mind when I try to reflect on my personal experience with regret, but I’m not sure whether it’s true or just a comforting story I’m telling myself.  Van Loon writes of people who have submerged their regrets so deeply that they don’t even realize the damage these unresolved feelings are causing in their current lives.

Most of the time I tell myself that there is no point in regret, because I can’t really know what would have happened if I had done things differently.  Like those well-meaning time travelers in just about every book or movie you’ve ever seen on the topic, what if I had made things worse by doing (or not doing) whatever it was?  Is wishing I could go back and change things not a rejection of everything good that has happened since?

I think about our house burning down.  If only I had insisted on having a professional deal with the electrical box situation instead of the handyman employed by our landlord (not that it ever occurred to me at the time).  Then the box wouldn’t have exploded and the house wouldn’t have burned down and I would still have all my things.  But what about the lessons and the love and the new home and new friends we have now?  And who’s to say that if we had stayed in that house, we might not have died in a car crash on the way home one night?  This is why it’s a good thing that we are not God and that time travel remains the stuff of science fiction.

If only I hadn’t wasted so much time and energy on sorting and storing all the things that I had.  If only I hadn’t gotten so upset over various things getting broken or ruined by floods in the basement or careless children.  But I couldn’t have known what was going to happen–all I can do is try to be better going forward.  Which is definitely one of Van Loon’s points–that our regrets can be a tool for us now if we acknowledge them and own them instead of burying them.  And her book supplies tools to do that, with discussion/reflection questions, scripture, and prayer.

Where she really got me was when she started talking about her experience as a parent of grown children: “My empty nest echoed with the sound of regret.”  My nest is still quite full (will any of them EVER leave?), but three of my babies are legal adults.  Without implying that there is anything seriously wrong with any of them–don’t get me wrong!–of course they have their struggles and I cannot help but think there were things I should have done differently.  I can’t help but remember how far short I have fallen–and continue to fall–of the perfect mother I just knew I was going to be.  I regret deeply–I can’t tell you how much–that I didn’t enjoy them enough when they were little.  I never heard that saying “The days are long but the years are short” until my kids were already big.  I wish I had.  It won’t do any good for me to tell those of you who still have little kids that they will be grown up before you know it but it is true.

So I guess that is a pretty typical regret to have with kids who are almost but not quite launched, but it’s the one I am really struggling with right now, and I hope that going through some of the reflections in If Only will help me.

Would you like to have a copy of If Only for your own?  Leave a comment below, and one week from now (July 10) I will choose one of you randomly as the lucky winner!  I know there are all kinds of fancy technical ways to do giveaways but I am going to write all your names on pieces of paper and pick one at random and you will just have to trust me on that.

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Would you like to know more about Michelle Van Loon?  Her website is here.

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For more on If Only, please visit the other stops on the Blog Tour: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4  Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8 Day 9 Day 10 Day 11 Day 12 Day 13 Day 14 Day 15  

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rescuing julia

I am so happy that Tina Traster offered me the chance to read and review this important story of her daughter’s adoption from Russia (Siberia, to be precise) and the family’s struggle with Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Let me start by explaining why this subject resonates with me, and why I was excited to read this book.

I have long been an advocate of “Attachment Parenting,” which sometimes receives a bad rap in the popular press by people who misunderstand it as a rigid set of rules. Really it’s more about rejecting rigid rules, trusting yourself, and following your baby’s (and later your child’s) cues. It was already something I was doing at least in part when I learned what it was called from my sister (who founded the Knoxville Chapter of Attachment Parenting International), and I’m now friends with someone who actually wrote the book (or at least one of them!) on it. So I know how important secure attachment is for children, and how we as parents should be fostering that from the moment of birth.

But what happens when children don’t get that kind of parenting, or indeed much parenting at all? As Melissa Fay Greene asks in her foreword to Ms. Traster’s book: “[W]hat of babies who . . . are unable to attract permanent devoted caregivers and cannot seem to locate an adult to adore? . . . What happens to such a baby if she is not rescued before the light in her eyes has gone out? . . . When a baby or young child has learned that no one is coming, that no one thinks he or she is the cutest little baby on earth; that he or she must weather hunger, cold, and sickness in solitary, those are hard lessons to unlearn.”

Doesn’t your heart just break, reading that? I know mine does. And it’s something I often think of and worry about because of the work I do.

As many of you know, my husband is an attorney, and we do a lot of work in the juvenile court system. We see babies who are removed from their parents as infants, and allowed to see them for only 4.3 hours per month. Sometimes months and years go by before these children are reunited with their parents. Many times they are moved from one foster home to another. No one seems to discuss the effect this has on their ability to form attachments not just to their parents but to anyone. Conversely, I routinely read Petitions to Terminate the Parental Rights of some of our clients which claim that no bond exists with the birth parents (with whom the child may have lived for many years) and that a bond has formed with the foster parents (with whom the child has lived for a few months). We always question these non-evidence-based assumptions when we answer these petitions, and demand to see the science that would back them up, but of course there is no such science.

So we worry. We worry about these kids, and their futures, because we know secure attachment is so important. And that’s why this book is so important, not only for those who have adopted from foreign countries or are considering doing so, but for anyone who is interested in helping the troubled children in our social services system, or in doing something to reform that broken system.

When Tina Traster and her husband, Ricky Tannenbaum, set out to adopt a baby from Siberia, they did not even consider the idea that their child might have trouble bonding with them. On the contrary, Tina was more concerned about her own “queasy ambivalence.” She hasn’t read any parenting books. She is shocked, and not in a happy way, to learn that Julia’s adoption will take place much sooner than they had been told. She doesn’t even know how to change a diaper.

Tina’s honesty in disclosing her fears and her mixed feelings about adopting a baby strikes me as a bold move. It would be easy to blame Julia’s lack of bonding on a mother who has her own issues with attachment–one who is in fact in the middle of long-standing conflict with and estrangement from her own mother. But this tactic works because of Ricky, who is not ambivalent, who is deft and efficient in caring for the baby from the start, who is loving and nurturing and who seems to his wife to have it all together. We are accompanying Tina on her journey as she worries when she sees other babies and the way their mothers interact with them, and becomes certain something is different about Julia at the same time that she questions her own ability to mother. When Tina writes: “For the first two years after we brought Julia home, I thought I was the only one in the world who experienced difficulties with her, that I’d made a mistake, that motherhood and I weren’t meant to be . . . only in the last year have I seen Ricky become aggravated with her behavior. She’s just as unresponsive to him as she is to me,”  her concerns are validated, and any misgivings the reader may have had as to the origins of Julia’s inability to bond are swept away as well.

It takes a while for Julia’s parents to accept the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, and some time after that for them to decide to attack the problem head on, which they do not with the help of professionals but via copious research and then applying what they have learned on their own.  They don’t advocate this approach for everyone, noting especially that some children with RAD can hurt themselves or others and would require professional intervention. But it works for Julia.  While Tina is quick to make sure we understand that RAD is not something that goes away, that it will always be a part of Julia and will require constant vigilance by her parents, she has become “solidly attached.”

Rescuing Julia Twice is a gripping story, and Ms. Traster is a good writer (an award-winning journalist–this is no ghost-written memoir).  It weaves together seamlessly the linear events of Julia’s adoption and what follows with scientific information (accessibly presented) on RAD as well as flashbacks to Tina’s past and the conflict with her mother.  So this book is a lot of things put together, and that’s a strength.  You will not be bored by it, and you will also learn from it.  My only criticism is that I would have liked more story about Julia’s transition to firm attachment, and further information on the techniques her parents used.  This is primarily the story of the road toward Tina and Ricky’s definitive realization that Julia has RAD, and I feel that the ending comes a little abruptly.  However, to be fair, this may just be the story that Ms. Traster wants to tell, and she tells it very well.

Rescuing Julia Twice is available on Amazon both in hardback and Kindle versions.  You can read more about Julia here, and more about Ms. Traster’s other writing here.  Additionally, there are many resources on RAD listed in the Resources section at the end of the book.

As always, this review represents my own opinion.  My only compensation was the review copy I received.

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Beware!  Herein lie spoilers!

I’m not in the habit of writing movie reviews, but then I’m not in the habit of going to movies either.  John loves them, and occasionally he insists on taking me, but usually I’d rather spend date nights talking.  I go to the theatre for big events:  Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Hobbit . . . the movies whose opening date you’ve known for months, the ones where your heart is pounding and you are a little bit breathless as the show finally begins.  Y’all, I had actual tears in my eyes when the theme music started.  This is serious stuff to me.

Why so serious? you ask.  Because I am, and have been, a certified Tolkien geek for most of my life, since I first read The Hobbit when I was about eight years old.   I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it–and its “sequel”–since.  I read it aloud to my children; I read The Lord of the Rings (yes, all 1,200 pages) aloud to my husband.  Pre-fire, I owned most of Tolkien’s books, including obscure works; I had the soundtracks of the animated versions of his books; I had encyclopedias and atlases of Middle Earth; I even had the War of the Rings board game.  In college, I wrote a term paper on Tolkien’s life; in grad school, I created an annotated bibliography of sources related to the languages he created.

So I’m not a casual fan, or someone who just discovered Tolkien because of Peter Jackson’s movies (which up until now I’ve mostly been pleased with).  And this is a family full of serious Tolkien fans.   We were so excited about this movie that we kept the kids out of school today so that we could go as early as possible.

the hobbitSo I hate that I was disappointed.

I was skeptical when Peter Jackson announced that he was making The Hobbit into a trilogy.  I knew he was going to have to make additions, but I expected that most of them would involve adding scenes from other Tolkien sources (like Gandalf’s meeting with Thorin in Bree, a scene in this movie) or expounding on things that are mentioned in the book but not fleshed out (like flashbacks to the fall of Dale and Erebor in the last one).  I did not expect him to flat-out MAKE THINGS UP.  His efforts to insert matters from The Lord of the Rings  into the first installment were irksome, requiring mischaracterization of the relationship between Saruman and Galdalf, and I groused about that then, but for the most part his tampering was minor enough to overlook.

But not this time.  You know, I could overlook Azog not being actually dead in the first movie, but I can’t overlook the appearance of Bolg as well and orc after orc after hideously ugly orc in this one, especially not in freaking Imax 3-D.  THERE SHOULD BE NO ORCS IN THIS SECTION OF THE MOVIE.  They go back to the Misty Mountains and don’t reappear until the Battle of Five Armies.  Y’all, orcs are repulsive to look at and I’m tired of seeing them get their heads cut off.  I mean the thrill is totally gone.

You know what else shouldn’t be in this movie? Legolas.  Now. don’t get me wrong, I love Legolas.  And I was prepared to go along with his presence, because Thranduil IS his father, and he is a Mirkwood elf, so he was probably there.  So give him  a few lines or whatever, but don’t give him a huge subplot, complete with a love triangle.

Oh, and don’t create a “she-elf” to be one of the vertices of said love triangle, and have her be the one who enlightens Legolas on his duty to leave the safety of the forest against his father’s will in order to help stop the spreading darkness (which is not really even mentioned in this book but which is insisted upon over and over in the movie–by the elves, Gandalf, the orcs, and even Smaug).

So belatedly I should say that the first problem I have with this movie is it adds things that never happened.  More things than I’ve mentioned.  But enough said.

Second, just because a movie is fantasy doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be believable.  Believable, I mean, within the confines of its own universe.  So yes, dragons and elves and dwarves exist, but even awesome elves like Legolas cannot physically do the things he does in the crazy action sequences (SO many action sequences) in this movie.  After awhile you are just shaking your head.  Nor can Thorin constantly survive blasts of Smaug’s fiery breath.  Or people fall repeatedly from great heights and hop right up with no broken bones.

Third, wouldn’t you think that one of the pluses of turning a short book into three long movies is that at least nothing would need to be cut?  That you would get to see every beloved scene on screen?  Well, think again, Buster.  Because Mr. Jackson is so enamored of his manufactured subplots that he doesn’t have time for the things that ACTUALLY happened.  The weeks of weary travel through Mirkwood?  Five minutes, tops.   Bilbo’s time spent skulking in the halls of the woodelves?  We see plenty of Thranduil (and what an ass he is) and Legolas and Tauriel (aforesaid she-elf) but we have no idea what poor Bilbo is up to until he appears with the keys.  The weeks the dwarves spend on the Lonely Mountain before they get inside?  They arrive moments before the keyhole appeared.

Fourth, the Ring.   The chief importance of the Ring in The Hobbit is that it’s Bilbo’s little secret weapon–he’s invisible while he fights the spiders, he’s invisible in the elf king’s halls, he’s invisible while talking to Smaug.  The Ring is NOT yet exerting some malevolent influence over him, for one thing because Tolkien hadn’t thought of that yet (although he goes for a little revisionist history later himself), but more important, MUCH more important, because it takes years and years and years before the Ring even begins to affect Bilbo.  His ability to resist its evil effects is miraculous and a tribute to him and to hobbits in general, and Gandalf makes much of that in The Fellowship of the Ring (the book, I’m talking about here).   But in this movie he has to be constantly pulling it out and staring at it and hearing the words that he does not even know are inscribed in it inside his head–in the Black Speech, no less–and even tells a spider, “It’s mine!” (At least he didn’t say it was precious.)  And when he should be using it, he’s always TAKING IT OFF.  Like when he is standing a couple of feet away from the MOUTH OF A FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON.

Finally, and most important of all, Peter Jackson has missed the point of The Hobbit in every possible way.  It’s a children’s story that he wants to rewrite for an adult audience.  It’s a simple tale that he wants to make complicated.  It’s a standalone book that he wants to tie to the War of the Ring.  And at its heart, it’s BILBO’s story.  It’s the story of how a simple, stay-at-home hobbit left his comfortable fireside for an adventure he never knew he wanted  and discovered that there was more inside him than he and others guessed.    Bilbo is largely missing from the second installment, which plays partly like Thorin’s story and partly like a prelude of the evil to come.  His triumphant moments are passed over quickly or even taken away from him all together (the elves come to the rescue and finish killing off the spiders, his single-handed liberation of the dwarves from the eleven king requires more elvish assistance as well as help from the dwarves and Bard).  In the book the dwarves respect and rely upon Bilbo more and more as time goes on.  That’s important–central–and you don’t see it here.

If I had never read The Hobbit, I would have liked this movie.  It was fast-paced and exciting and visually appealing.  I thought the 3D was used to much better effect this time around–there were times where the characters looked REAL to me in a way I can’t exactly explain.  The spiders and Smaug were awesomely scary.  I liked Tauriel’s character.  But as someone who loves the book, I instead found myself constantly shaking my head, and thinking, “Did he really just do that? Really?”

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