Mothers know the weird duality of being able to sleep at the drop of a blankie combined with the super spidey-sense that allows us to hear four-year-old eyelids popping open at, say, 2:37 a.m. for no discernible reason. I have an interest in sleep which I compare to the interest armchair travelers have in far-off and exotic lands to which they never actually travel. My personal feeling is that parental sleep deprivation is nature's way of attempting to dull or cushion the other body blows children dole out on a daily basis.  

A recent example would be Child the Elder's decision to microwave butter in an orange enameled cast-iron pot. If you're wondering, it takes exactly one minute and thirty-seven seconds to blow a hole through the interior wall of the appliance and this will be accompanied by impressive sound effects and fire. If a younger child is present for the explosion, you will also have much terrified screaming to accompany the wails of "I didn't know it was metal!  It doesn't look like metal!" from the responsible party. The pot itself will emerge completely unscathed--and completely unlike your nerves, despite the sleepiness. A well-rested parent might have noticed the child putting the pot in there in time to intervene, but where's the fun in that?

But enough about parents. James Mollison's book Where Children Sleep is an intriguing photo-essay of the circumstances in which children rest all over the world. A two-page spread is devoted to each individual child with one page containing a portrait and paragraph about the child's life and the other a picture of the place in which that child sleeps. It is a vast and sobering continuum, from the mansion bedroom of a child in New Jersey to a discarded sofa on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The details in each picture speak volumes and add layers to the spare text. In one paragraph we are told that Alyssa's "shabby house" in Kentucky is "falling apart." Indeed, the photo of Alyssa's bedroom shows a missing ceiling with insulation hanging from the rafters above a once regal angel doll, wings battered and drooping and gray with dirt.

If this sort of photography is your cup of tea, I would also highly recommend Material World: A Global Family Portrait and What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets by Peter Menzel and 1000 Families by Uwe Ommer. All of these titles offer fascinating looks at the eye-opening contrasts in circumstances for humanity around the globe. They are enough to wake a person up--no destruction of small appliances required.

In my life, lucky means snagging the last box of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Valentine's Day cards from the Dollar Tree shelf for the child who will have no other kind. Not even the kind with scratch 'n' sniff stickers. (My mind wonders about combining the two--what does the end of a franchise/era/childhood smell like?)

The Odds by Stewart O'Nan has 67 holds, but I managed to find a copy on the Lucky Day shelf. It was exactly what I wanted for Valentine's Day--the perfect love story to pluck from the twee sea of pink and red plush animals with giant eyes, the cheap boxes of drugstore chocolates, the cards that always fall short of the mark.

Set on a Valentine's Day weekend, the story follows Marion and Art Fowler on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary. Jobless, facing foreclosure and with their marriage set to finally implode, they book a bridal suite at a ritzy Niagara Falls casino for a second honeymoon--and the gamble of their lives with their liquidated savings.

Find a cozy place to sit and break out that heart-shaped box of chocolates. (You know, the battered ones with all the tiny finger-holes in the bottoms from children attempting to locate the caramels. Or maybe that's just my box.) Bet red or black on this game of reading roulette. Either way, you'll win.

Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.

These are the words of sixteen-year-old protagonist Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell's book Winter's Bone, giving her younger brother a lesson in conduct. Their father has not been home in days and they are hungry. A family across the way, to whom they are related, has freshly killed carcasses hanging in the trees; he is wondering about requesting some of the meat.

Ree's father cooks crank and the story picks up after he is missing and in danger of skipping a court date; if he does, the family will lose the house and land--their only security, pledged to a bail bond. Ree's mother, mentally ill and a vacant shell of her former self, is a burden Ree carries without question, along with her two younger brothers. They are family, and family is all.  

This novel is atmospheric, darkly lyrical and devastating. While the gritty portrayal of hardscrabble Ozark life is striking, even more compelling is the seeming resignation and acceptance of the status quo by adults, children and the law. The questioning Ree is a lone and exposed nail waiting for the hammer of the system to come down. She is clear-eyed about the risk she is taking but she also knows that without that risk she will sacrifice her life and the futures of her small brothers to the ravenous and self-perpetuating cycle of drugs and poverty.

She knows that searching for her father will take her deeper into darkness than she wants to go, but she also knows it is her only chance of finding the light.

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