Book Review: Deep Undercover

I’ve always been fascinated with the inner workings of the spy life. In fact, “spy” was often what I would say as a child when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Movies and television have greatly romanticized the spy experience, so I was looking forward to reading the new memoir by an operative in the Cold War KGB Illegals program, in which KGB officers were embedded in the US as full fledged citizens, in an effort to gather intelligence for Moscow.

Jack Barsky was living the American Dream with a good job in the corporate world, a nice house and two beautiful children when he was detained by the FBI in 1997. To the surprise of his family and friends, he admitted to being a former KGB operative.

Jack Barsky was born as Albrecht Dittrich in East Germany right after World War II. He was brought up in an austere home with little in the way of family affection. He was raised a staunch Communist, and had dreams of becoming a chemistry professor (science was a noble effort in Communist countries.)

As Albrecht was getting ready to begin his chemistry career, he was approached by The Party (Communist officials), who attempted to recruit him. He said yes, and a new life had begun.

After several years in Moscow learning to speak English as an American native, Albrecht was sent to New York City with only a birth certificate for one Jack Barsky and money. He had to procure all his own legal documents and make his way up in the world on his own.

The book talked about Albrecht’s training, Jack’s early days in the US, and the ideological shift that Jack faced after being in the US. Albrecht had a wife and son behind the Iron Curtain, and Jack had a wife and two children in the US, and neither family were aware of the other. He also discusses how he cut ties with the KGB with a sneaky untruth. The book finishes by talking about Jack’s conversion to Christianity, and how that shaped his after-KGB life.

I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed reading about Albrecht’s childhood (thought it was sad because of the lack of love from his parents and the harshness of his country), and I also really enjoyed the making of the spy–turning Albrecht into Jack, and all the training that entailed. It was so fascinating, and sobering that the USSR was able to put agents into place in the US, posing as US citizens and speaking perfect English.

I received a copy of this book from Tyndale Publishers. All opinions are my own. I was not required to write a positive review.

Vacationpocalyspe Part III

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Remember Vacationpocalypse? The one where the roads flooded and I-5 closed for 36 hours? How about Vacationpocalypse II, where a 3 hour flight turned into 9 hours sitting on the airplane in an unplanned detour to a Wichita Falls, TX Air Force Base?

You’d think we would either stop going places that have weather, or stop traveling altogether, but when the opportunity for travel arises, we have a hard time turning it down =)

We recently returned from Vacationpocalypse III. Yes, another weather related adventure!

My husband had a work trip in Nevada, so we tagged along as usual. After his work was done, we planned to spend four nights in a little town in Utah, called Duck Creek Village. Duck Creek Village is very quaint (read: super tiny–the closest grocery store is 45 minutes away), and halfway between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, and close to several other National Monuments. We rented a beautiful cabin, and planned out our busy (or what we thought were going to be busy) days.

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The drive up the mountain (we were staying at an 8000′ altitude) was snowy, but plowed. We arrived at the cabin, excited to see “real” snow!

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The first night it snowed…a lot. We decided to stay at the cabin to sled, build snowmen, and just play in the snow. The kids loved it and we all enjoyed sipping hot cocoa by the fire.

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That night it snowed again…a lot…again We decided to try the trek to Bryce Canyon National Park, but it took us 2 hours to dig the truck out of the snow. We only spent a couple hours at the park, but it was glorious, and the kids got their coveted Junior Ranger badges, so all was well.

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That night it snowed…a lot…again. We stayed in the next day. More snow play. We played in the igloo on the property. Yes, igloo.

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Oh look! More snow!

So, Monday morning we were scheduled to leave. We packed up, cleaned out the fridge, tossed most of the food that wouldn’t survive the long drive, locked the door to the cabin and got into the truck. No sooner were we in the truck about to make the 10+ hour drive home when my mom called.

“Are you leaving?” she asked. I told her we were just about to drive out. “Check the roads,” she said, “According to the maps, they’re closed.” So, I checked the map. Main road down the mountain was indeed closed. I checked the back road. That one was also closed. We got out of the truck to figure out what to do next and immediately started getting pelted with snow. A freak blizzard. For reals. We couldn’t see in front of us more than a few feet, and the wind was blasting. Laughing (because sometimes that’s all you can do), I called the home’s owner and after a few phone calls with weather and traffic she called us back to say “Well, you’re officially snowbound. Enjoy another night in the cabin on us!”

We were happy to have one more day in gorgeous Duck Creek Village, and relieved to be off the road, but I had just thrown away a lot of food and there was no way to get to a grocery store. That day we nibbled on the food I had kept–chips and salsa, granola bars, trail mix, beef jerky, and water. We were definitely roughing it. Then, the power (AKA the heater) decided to go out. So there we were, it’s 7 degrees outside with a wind chill well below zero, huddled next to the small gas fireplace, eating beef jerky, waiting for the heater to start working again.

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We couldn’t do much snow play that day–once the blizzard settled down, it left us with local neighbors whose 4 wheel drive heavy duty trucks couldn’t even make it out! Once the power came back on, we had movie day, and enjoyed the beauty of the snow falling outside. (And the warmth of the heater!)

The next morning was Tuesday and we were determined to leave. The main road was still closed (and would be, we later found out, for the next 72 hours), but there was a back road that opened up that morning and would take us through Zion National Park. We decided to give it a shot.

The snow was deep, but since we had 4 wheel drive we made it through. It took a little extra time to get home, but the road through Zion was AMAZINGLY  gorgeous. We later found out that the snow storm we experienced was the largest one in the area in nearly a decade, and over the 5 days we were there, Duck Creek Village got 50 inches of snow!

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So, we made it home, and don’t have another trip planned until close to summer. Hopefully it won’t be snowing then :)

Book Review: Different

Being the parent of a special needs child can be isolating and lonely. We often feel alone in our struggles, weary that we seem to be the only person we know dealing with these things. Life with Junior has been a lot of ups and downs, from day to day. Some days are good, some days are awful, and most days are a big ball of lots of good and awful all wrapped into one little 24-hour period.

I have read most of Sally Clarkson’s books, and have gotten a lot of helpful encouragement out of each of them (I’ve given all of these previous books 5 star reviews because they are all quite good), but in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but have the negative inkling of “this woman has the perfect life. Her children, her marriage, her homeschooling…all perfect. If I had the perfect life, I bet I could have a peaceful home/homeschool/marriage/life as well.”

Well, how surprised I was to see that Sally Clarkson was releasing a new book titled, Different, written with her grown son Nathan, who has always suffered from OCD, ADHD, and ODD among other things. This book is basically about how Sally managed to raise Nathan and to love him in spite of his issues, seeking to understand him, guide him, teach him, and show him unconditional love through and despite all his struggles.

This book was eye-opening, and allowed me to see Junior in a different light. I suddenly wanted to understand his world instead of trying to make him fit into mine. I no longer saw a little boy who was pushing my buttons for the sake of making my life difficult, but instead I saw a little boy who craved the safety and security of unconditional love and grace from someone who sees him as he is and adores him anyway-his momma.

Sally and Nathan wrote the book together. Two-thirds of the book is Sally writing from the mom’s perspective, and probably 1/3 is from Nathan’s perspective–the misunderstood child who was always an “out of the box” kid. Both perspectives were really helpful. As a mom, I only see this side of it, but Nathan gave some insight into what special needs kids go through in navigating this big world that seeks a one-size-fits-all personality.

Overall, I loved this book and will reference it frequently. I’ve already recommended it to many people, and even purchased another copy for a friend who is in need of encouragement dealing with her struggling child.

*I received a copy of this book from Tyndale Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. All opinions are my own and have not been influenced in any way.

Book Review: In the Shadow of Denali

I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska. In fact, my husband and I were planning a cruise to Alaska when I became pregnant with our firstborn, and 9 months of chronic morning (afternoon, and night) sickness got in the way of that. She’s worth it, but I still would have enjoyed Alaska. But, I digress.

There’s something about the thought of the untainted beauty of Alaska that just draws you in and refreshes your soul. Tracie Peterson and Kimberly Woodhouse have teamed up to write a new series about early 20th century Alaska called The Heart of Alaska. Book one is entitled In the Shadow of Denali, and takes place in the 1920s near Denali National Park.

Allan Brennan is traveling to Alaska to find closure after his father, Henry Brennan’s death some 6 years earlier. Allan’s father attempted to climb Mt. Denali (Mt. McKinley) and never returned. Henry was on an expedition with business partner Frank and local expert wilderness guide John Ivanoff. Frank returned to their hometown of Seattle and told the Brennan family that John allowed Henry to die on his watch. As a result, Allan has always harbored resentment toward the native Alaskan without ever having met him.

When Allan arrives to work at the Curry Hotel at the foot of Mt. Denali, he is stunned when his new boss is no one else than John Ivanoff. John and his daughter Cassidy both work at the hotel–John as a guide and Cassidy in the kitchen. Allan and Cassidy begin to enjoy each other’s company, but Allan still has too many questions about his father’s death to let anyone into his heart. When he begins to question Frank’s account of the story, Allan learns that sometimes the truth can have deadly consequences.

I really enjoyed this book. I could imagine myself at the Curry Hotel, in the shadow of Mt. Denali, taking it all in. There was a lot of good development in Allan’s character…you could see him work through his issues and grief, and eventually become a different man. I am looking forward to book #2 in this series.

I received a copy of this book from Bethany House Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. All opinions are my own and have not been influenced in any way.

Why We Homeschool: 5 Reasons to Teach Your Kids at Home

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Homeschoolers get a bad rap sometimes. People think they’re weird (some are, most aren’t, just like the general population.) People think they’re unsocialized (studies have shown that homeschoolers are more well socialized than typical school children.) People think that you have to wear a denim jumper and cut your own hair and own a 15 passenger van in order to homeschool (just no…to all of that.) So, in defense of homeschooling, I want to share my top 5 reasons for choosing this for our family.

1. They Grow Up Too Fast
If you’re a parent, you don’t need me to tell you that time goes by too quickly. We all know that you blink and they’re grown. Let’s look at a typical school schedule…6 hours a day, 180 days a year. That’s 1080 hours every year that my kids would be away from me. From kindergarten until 12th grade it adds up to…wait for it…over a year and a half away from my kids. 14,000 hours…585 twenty-four hour days…18 months.

They grow up fast enough without my only seeing them on evenings and weekends. Last week Tater told me that she loves homeschooling because “We get to spend all day together.” These are moments I can never get back and wouldn’t trade for anything.


2. I Can Teach Individually to My Children’s Strengths
Each kid learns differently, but in a classroom setting with 20 or 30 other kids, there isn’t time to cater each lesson to each child. At home, I can tailor each and every lesson to my children’s unique learning style. They end up retaining more and enjoying their lessons instead of just trudging through the school day. This enables them to be lifelong learners instead of just doing their work so it can be done and over with.


3. I Know What They’re Learning
Most parents take great care in making sure they know what is going into their kids’ bodies and minds…we feed them good foods, limit their sweets, moderate the shows they watch and the video games they play. But, with 30+ hours a week in an environment I’m not in, I don’t know what they’re hearing or seeing or learning from the other kids who don’t share our same standards.

Now, I’m not “wrapping them in a bubble”, but at such impressionable ages, I want to do my best to shape and mold them in a way that reflects our values, not their peers’ values.

4. We Can Travel
Our family really enjoys traveling as a way to make school more hands on. We love taking long weekends to the National Parks. Our kids learn so much about science and history from these trips, and I love that we don’t have to “take them out of school” to go places…those places become our classroom!

5. We Can Learn Beyond the Curriculum

Sometimes we will learn about something, and the kids will take a real interest in it. Homeschooling gives us the opportunity to really explore beyond the original curriculum. For example, we have been studying world cultures this year. Tater wanted to learn everything she could about Russian history, so we did extra art projects and checked out a bunch of books at the library and really delved into it instead of just glossing over it. So far this school year we have checked out over 400 books from the library!

Those are only five of my reasons for homeschooling…there are many more, like not having to endure school traffic, not having to get everyone up and rushed and ready by 8am every morning, going to our favorite field trip locations when it’s least crowded, etc. In short, we love homeschooling and while it’s not easy, it is definitely the best choice for us, and I’m so proud of how much my children are learning and what kind and thoughtful little people they are becoming.