January/February Reading

Fiction Read in January and February 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stout (audiobook)
I loved this book. I loved how vulnerable and sympathetic Elizabeth Stout makes grumpy, unlikeable Olive Kitteridge.

Sing for Me by  Karen Halvoresen Schreck
Eh. Read for my book club. 1920’s girl defies super-strict religious Dutch family by singing in a jazz club and falling in love with a black man. Was just a little too much like one the cheesy Christian romances I read as a teen for my taste.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
Weirdly creepy and slightly sinister (and I mean that in the best way possible) beautifully word-crafted stories.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
One of the most fresh and new-feeling books I’ve read in a long time. Post-apocolyptic world after a flu pandemic seen through multiple characters, centering on Kirsten, a young actress with a traveling Shakespearean troupe.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The third book in Robinson’s triptych about the town of Gilead and pastor John Ames. This one tells the story of his much younger wife Lila who comes from a much different world than that of her husband. Lila is born into a horribly neglectful family and is stolen away (or rescued) one day by Doll, a wanderer. Doll and a group of migrant workers become Lila’s family as a child and teenager. Tragedy eventually leaves her on her own again until she arrives in Gilead. Like Robinson’s other books, deep essential religious questions are woven into the text. Lila decides to be baptized but isn’t entirely sure she wants to accept religion. Part of the issue for her is what religion says will happen to the people who were her family but certainly didn’t live any kind of “good” life. Lila is just as rich as Robinson’s previous works, Gilead and Home, which I count among my all-time favorite books.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
What can I say about this one that hasn’t been said already by someone else. Having a deadline to read this for my book club, I had to buy it because I was something like 922 on the hold list at the library. I’ll just say the hype is not just hype. It is an amazing book. Read it. Even if you have to buy it yourself.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah
A new Hercule Poirot mystery, authorized by the Agatha Christie estate. It’s clever and fun to read a new story starring the great detective. Not super memorable but a nice read.

The Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (audiobook)
The Curse of the Pharoahs by Elizabeth Peters (audiobook)
I decided to listen to the Amelia Peabody mystery series as my next audiobook (I read a bunch of them years ago) when I heard that the narrator was excellent. She (Susan O’Malley) is and the mysteries themselves are just as much a hoot as the first time around.

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny
Next edition in the Armand Gamache series. I mostly like these but Penny’s wordy and overly serious style grates on my nerves at times.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
I found this young-adult fantasy immensely readable and enjoyable. Emotionally-fragile teens able to access an alternative world where they can live their lives before the trauma that they have experienced. The book celebrates the power of words and writing and ultimately argues for the importance of facing your problems and moving forward in life. There is a twist in the end that took away some of my enjoyment, I found it somewhat unbelievable but it’s also been a long time since I’ve been a teenager so I might just be forgetting what it feels like.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
Based on the author’s own life, this bittersweet middle age novel looks at a single year in the life of Maggie, an 11 year old future President of the United States, writer, and all-around lovable geek. Maggie’s father also happens to have Multiple Sclerosis that is fairly severe and the novel chronicles the effects of his worsening illness on Maggie and her family. Probably because it’s based on a true story, it reads very true and never feels like a dreaded “issue” book. I liked it as much for the quirkiness of Maggie as for the way it addresses chronic illness.

Non-Fiction Read in January and February

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
I really meant to review this one fully when I read it but I think I never really felt worthy. I would probably read instructions for how to program the DVR written by Gawande. He would find a way to make them interesting. In this book he goes beyond interesting and looks at the more uncomfortable and personal topic of end-of-life living and decision making. As a pediatrician, this isn’t something I have to deal with a lot in my work but I still found much to challenge me professionally and hopefully make me better at caring for patients. Really, really excellent.

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek by Maya Van Wagenen
I hope to review this one more fully in the next few days. It’s fun and wonderful and I’m going to go and cry because it was written by a 15 year old. Actually, I think she’s 15 now so she was even younger when she wrote it. And did I mention it won the ALA award for best Young Adult Non-Fiction. And Dreamworks has optioned it to make a movie.

Newbery books read: 
I’m participating in Amy’s Newbery Through the Decades challenge
January:
The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly- Definitely felt dated, but it was published in 1929. I read this one aloud to the boys and they mostly enjoyed this adventure story set in medieval Poland and involving alchemy and a mystical crystal. I think their favorite part was actually a character named Peter the Button Face who was supposed to be the chief bad guy. However, they found his name so ridiculous that they would laugh hysterically every time I said it. Like falling off the bed (literally) hysterically.

February:
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink- I have no memory of ever having read this as a girl although I vaguely remember trying it and not liking it. I’m not sure why as Caddie seems like a perfect mix of Laura Ingalls and Anne of Green Gables with maybe a sprinkle of Ramona thrown in. In full disclosure, I haven’t actually finished this one yet.

Read with the Kids:
Ruth and I are still working our way through the Ramona books. We’re up to the last one, Ramona’s World. Ruth is both excited and sad. Sad that they are almost over but excited because I said she could watch the movie when we had read them all. The boys and I are reading The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, another one I can’t believe I missed in childhood. In the car we’ve been listening to the Sisters Grimm books which all three kids are loving.

Busy, busy, busy (again)

I went into Brigid Schulte’s Overhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time with something of a pre-formed opinion. I had read the original article back in 2010 in the Washington Post that inspired her to look more deeply into the subject of leisure time (or lack of it) and even blogged about it here. At the time I came away slightly disappointed that Schulte didn’t more deeply examine our attitudes about work and busyness. I was interested in reading the book to see the idea fleshed out more and because she’s an excellent writer.

Schulte does explore society’s attitudes and norms regarding work, love and play in more depth in the book. She looks at the culture of  the “ideal worker”. A quote from Ben Hunnicutt (a leisure researcher) that stuck out to me this time was also one that I quoted in my previous blog post:

Work has become central in our lives, answering the religious questions of “Who are you” and “How do you find meaning and purpose in your life?”

As I said here and here, I think a lot of people like being busy. Or at least like the feeling that being busy makes them valuable. Schulte interviews a researcher named Ann Burnett who has been examining Christmas letters for years and has noticed that over the years

…people are competing about being busy. It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life. There’s a real “busier than thou” attitude, that if you’re not as busy as the Joneses, you’d better get cracking.

Schulte spends a lot time looking at ways that companies can cut down on work stress. Later in the book she spends a lot of time examining ways that couples can individually look at gender roles in their relationship and how society could find ways to be more supportive of working women and fathers who want to stay home. She had a lot that was interesting to say but at the end of her book I came away feeling slightly disappointed, as I did with the article.

Part of the reason was that I felt like she never really addressed the root cause of the overwhelm. What is it in us that causes us to make choices that make us busier and busier? Why do we need to sign up our kids for every activity under the sun? Why do we need to buy the bigger house which means we have to work more at a more demanding job? Why do we feel like being productive makes us somehow more worthy than having a lot of free time? Why do we equate self-worth to how much is on our to-do list? All of those are interesting questions and perhaps not answerable but no number of social programs or incentives by companies or flex-time or marriage counseling is really going to help us if we don’t somehow address them.

Another disappointment to me was the final section on play. In it, Schulte is a strong proponent for the idea of whimsical play. She spends time with a group of women who organize formal playdates (a word I cringe at using for my kids and can’t even begin to want to use for myself) where they do things like take trapeze classes or go rock climbing. Another play consultant is admired for her collection of goofy toys and her habit of blowing bubbles in the car. Schulte makes the case that for many years leisure time activities for women have actually been work: quilting, knitting, canning, baking. She is quite dismissive of quilting in particular, bringing it up as a poor example of play multiple times. I don’t quilt but I have always loved quilts. One of the things about them I love is that women didn’t have to make them artistic or creative but they chose to. It would have been quicker and just as warm to slap together some fabric and make and ugly blanket. But quilting became an art form over the years. It’s an example in my mind of women turning their work into something joyful and creative and, yes, playful.

I’m not advocating at all that all of leisure time has to be productive. And I’m not anti-bubble blowing. But there was something a bit too contrived about this kind of play in my mind. And again I think Schulte misses a chance to look at the deeper attitudes at play here (pun totally intended). Instead of seeking out new ways to play, it seems to me that we should first look to make the life we have playful. Or maybe to put it better, we should first examine our attitudes about the things that we have to do.

We got a dog last summer and she has to be walked daily. This is sometimes a dreaded chore (especially lately with single degree digit weather.) I find that when I look at it as a chore it feels like a chore. Last week, at the end of a long day with the kidsI took her out for a walk alone because I wanted to walk alone. It was a beautiful night with snow drifting down in soft white flakes. The dog loves the snow and she was so excited. There was no one else out even though it was relatively early. As I walked along in the dark, looking in lighted windows, and breathing in the cool crisp air, I was completely happy. It felt like play.  Same chore, but new attitude.

 

This and That

So…it’s been awhile. I always feel weirdly awkward about posting after time away, like I need to explain what’s kept me silent. I feel like my first post after a protracted time away needs to be somehow worthy, like where I explain that we’ve been busy building a nuclear reactor in the garage or milking the new flock of goats we acquired or that I was trapped under a teetering stack of books that I’ve read but never got around to reviewing. (The last one is the only one close to the truth.)

In reality, all that has been going on is a little of this and a little of that. School. Work. Way too many activities and obligations. Some fun field trips. Birthday celebrations. And a bout of what I’m pretty sure was the flu for me. Nothing terrible exciting and yet at the same time all of it is what makes our lives full and rich. A few highlights:

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*We’ve been on several adventures. We attended Homeschool Days at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore where the boys both took a class on Geology in Space and we all watched an Imax on Forces of Nature. We also went on a co-op sponsored field trip to Dulles Air and Space where all three kids got to take classes about flight and space. IMG_1524*I went away for my now annual birthday “retreat” weekend. I stay in a hotel downtown, go to some museums, read a lot of books, take a bath (or two) and generally enjoy some lovely long hours of solitude. This year I went to the Piero di Cosimo show at the National Gallery and spent some time slowly wandering through the excellent sculpture gallery at the National Gallery. On a whim I also went to the Postal Museum (it was near the hotel) which was really interesting. I plan to go back with the kids, I’m sure they would love it. While I was downtown, H. and the kids also ventured into the city to see an exhibition on bird-themed art, The Singing and the Silence, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum which they said was fabulous but has now closed. I planned to go to it on Sunday but by that point I was feeling pretty lousy with what I believe was the flu.

*When you are a reader, you remember experiences often by books that you were reading at the time. During my birthday weekend, I was reading Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s amazing post-apocolyptic novel. The novel takes place after a global flu pandemic and interweaves multiple stories through flashbacks before the pandemic, during the initial days of the crisis and years later through the eyes of survivors. It is without a doubt the freshest, most new-feeling novel I have read in a long time. It was one of those books that you are sad to finish because you know you’ll never be able to inhabit that world again in the same way. The experience of reading it was made even more memorable for me by the fact that as I read about a character trapped in a hotel room with the beginnings of the flu, I realized that I had a fever and an achiness in my bones and the beginnings of a cough.

DSCN7485*We’ve all been reading. I’m in the midst of All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte. The boys participated in out library’s new Boy’s Book Club (there were only three boys and I think the librarian was thrilled to have them all there). As a family we’ve begun listening to The Sisters Grimm series in the car which so far is a worthy follow-up to our months of enjoyment with Gregor the Overlander. For read-alouds, Ruth and I are still working our way through the Ramona books and the boys and I just began Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (a fantasy series that I somehow missed as a child).
IMG_0798*Life sometimes feels like this, a whirling crazy dance but it’s mostly good. Today I sit in our nice warm house while the boys build me a fire and there is a nice amount of snow outside. Enough to have canceled all our daily obligations and give us a day of rest and play. But not so much to be too troublesome.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work offers delightful glances into the habits of a widely diverse group of artists, scientists, musicians, philosophers and writers. The book grew out of Currey’s blog, Daily Routines, that he started as a way to catalog these short descriptions of artist’s habits. The blog gives brief descriptions, often from an interview or article. The book goes a little deeper into the background of each subject to give the daily ritual some context. However, the strength of the book is that Currey uses the artist’s own words as much as possible. When that’s not available, he often uses a description written by a friend, family member or biographer who knew the subject well.

There’s something for everyone here. Did you know P. G. Wodehouse was a dedicated fan of The Edge of the Night soap opera, never missing an episode? Or Truman Capote preferred to only write lying down? Or Freud’s wife (that phrase right there gave me lots to ponder on….Freud’s wife) did everything for him freeing him up to work? Everything included putting toothpaste on his toothbrush, a task apparently to taxing for the great man.

The most interesting thing to me about the book was that there is really no one right way to be an artist. There are the “sit down and write (or paint, or compose) for x number of hours a day” people. Stephen King falls into this group. Highly disciplined, he views writing as his work and sits down daily to write 2000 words a day.  On the other end of the spectrum is Marilynne Robinson who says that she can’t write if she doesn’t feel inspired about what she is writing. Some are morning people, some are night owls. Some are solitary, some manage to schedule in their writing or art around a family life or day job. As different as the lives of these highly varied individuals are, there are also patterns of similarities that emerged as I read the book. For example, it was amazing to me how many spoke of taking some kind of scheduled walk every day, either as a way of starting the day or as a needed break in the middle of work.

I’ll end with three of my favorite quotes from the book:

Joseph Heller: ” I spent two or three nights on it for eight years. I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drew me back to Catch-22. I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels. ”

 

Friedrich Schiller:  “We have failed to recognize our great asset: time. A conscientious use of it could make us into something quite amazing.”

 

Bernard Malmud: ” There’s no one way- there’s too much drivel on the subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place- you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time- not steal it- and produce the fiction. If the stories come, you get them written, you’re on the right track. Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you. “

Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me

It’s not hard to see why Daniel Beaty’s Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me has gotten great reviews (and is a Cybils picture book finalist). The young boy narrator begins by telling about the game his and his Dad play every morning. The boy clearly adores his Dad and his Dad loves him. But one day the Dad doesn’t come home. The boy sends him a letter and waits for a response. When the Dad finally writes back his answer is both heartbreaking I will not be coming home and beautiful No longer will I be there to knock on your door, so you must learn to knock for yourself.

Like all great illustrators, Bryan Collier watercolor and collage paintings tell the story along with the text. The expressions on the boy’s face are tender and sad and warm and compelling. I loved that the illustrations also went further than the text alone. As we hear the father’s words to the boy, we see images of the boy growing up and becoming a man with children of his own.

Diversity is a big buzz-word in kid lit this year. The fact that the boy in this book is African-American certainly makes this book a needed addition to a library. However, even more of a factor is that fact that the father in the book is in prison and that the story is based on the author’s own childhood and father. The fact that the father is in prison is not ever stated directly in the book, which might be confusing or upsetting for some kids if they think he has just left. However, I think leaving it vague was a wise decision. It mirrors the boy’s own confusion at what has happened and it leaves some space for discussion.

I’m often a bit torn about “issue books”. In general, I think adults like books that help kids deal with divorce or death or bullying much better than kids like reading those books. But I also believe that reading a book about a kid going through something similar to what he is  going through can truly help. Mostly I see a place for those kinds of book but I don’t particularly seek them out to read and enjoy with my own kids. Knock Knock is the rare book that transcends the “issue” genre. Yes, it would be a wonderful book for kids who are faced with the loss of a parent for any reason. Yes, it is great for children of color to see someone who looks like them in a book.  Yes, it is good for kids who don’t live in cities and who don’t have parents who are in prison to read about people who are different from them. But more than any of that, it’s a good book.

Armchair Cybils: Fiction Picture Books

Well, I’m almost a week late with this Armchair Cybils post. I did write a post last week, only to somehow lose it entirely. One of my New Year Resolutions is to be better about getting to bed on time and getting enough sleep so I elected to leave it and then never got back to it over the weekend.

I’ve been able to read all the Fiction Picture Books on the Cybils shortlist except one. (This is a Moose is not available yet at our library but is on order so I’m hoping to read it soon.) Of the books I was able to read, Mark Pett’s The Girl and the Bicycle is my favorite. It’s a sweet story of a girl who falls in love with a green bicycle in a store window. She tries to save the money to buy it, only to find that it’s harder to make money than she realizes. Finally, a kind neighbor hires her to do odd jobs and she gets the money she needs. Along the way she also finds a friend in the neighbor. The ending is no less satisfying for being somewhat predictable (at least to adults). The illustrations are simple pencil and watercolor on brown paper bag colored paper. The book definitely has an old-fashioned feel, although the feeling is more timeless than belonging to any particular era.

Over the past few years I’ve grown to appreciate wordless picture books more and more. I find that often the lack of written words allows for more interaction between me and the child I’m reading to. Instead of reading the words the author gives us, we talk about what we think the characters are thinking or what they are doing. It becomes a conversation instead of just a one-way read-aloud. I’m not at all disparaging books with words. I still prefer most of my books to have words. I’m just becoming more of a convert to the idea that well-done wordless books can be excellent also.

I hope to review the other nominated titles some day soon. But for now, stop by Hope is the Word and see what Amy has to say about the other books in this category. (Spoiler: She agrees with me. )

More wordless picture books reviewed at Supratentorial: 
Two from last year’s Cybils: Flora and the Flamingo  and Mr. Wuffles
A bunch including two favorites: A Ball for Daisy and 10 Minutes Till Bedtime
Once Upon a Banana
Gem

Two Winter Adventures in DC

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Two recent winter weekends have seen us on adventures downtown. Adventure #1 started after church at a new to us lunch place: 100 Montaditos. A Spanish chain, this restaurant serves up delicious tiny sandwiches (about three bites each). We sampled smoked salmon, meatballs, a fantastic BBQ pork, Brie, serrano ham and a Nutella sandwich on chocolate bread. If you’re in the DC area, check out one of their three locations (Bethesda, Arlington or Navy Yards). We then headed to The National Museum of Women in the Arts for their Picturing Mary exhibit, about images of Mary throughout history. Highly recommended and if you take advantage of their Community Day on the first Sunday of the month it’s also free.

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Adventure #2 took us to the Library of Congress to see the Magna Carta. One of only four copies from 1215, this copy from is on loan (through Jan 19th) from the Lincoln Cathedral. It was pretty amazing to view an 800 year old document, especially one as historically significant as this one. We skipped most of the rest of the exhibit. It looked interesting but was very crowded and we preferred to revel in the beauty of the architecture itself.

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The kids were a little underwhelmed by the Magna Carta. I can understand that. Even though John had studied it this year in co-op, it still is just kind of a piece of paper to them (and one that Ruth pointed out “looked kind of scribbly”). I think more interesting to them was this exhibit on Thomas Jefferson’s Library. Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress in 1815 after the Congressional Library was largely destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. Most of the Jefferson books were also lost in a fire about 40 years later. The exhibit attempts to recreate Jefferson’s personal library, including the way that the books were organized by Jefferson. If you believe that your bookshelves and what you read says a lot about who you are, you can imagine how fascinating it is to see this snapshot of Jefferson’s reading life. DSCN7616And it’s always good to end an adventure on a sweet note. This time literally, with beignets from Bayou Bakery. Yes, that is all powdered sugar on the table. And yes, we had to stop them from licking it clean.

Snow!

Ruth and I are talking about snow this week in kindergarten. Serendipitously, this morning we woke up to the first real snowfall of the season. Perfect!  We weren’t sure what Roxy, the dog, would think of the snow since this is our first winter with her. She loved it, perhaps even more than her three human companions.

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Snow themed books we recommend: 

Snow! by Uri Shulevitz
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton
Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner
Snowflakes Fall by Patricia Maclachlan

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

I never really liked Math in school. I got good grades in the math classes I took, but I’ve realized since that I was never really good at mathematics but was reasonably good at memorizing formulas and studying and following directions. Once I reached higher math classes in college I realized there was a whole world of mathematics that I just didn’t get. I fully admit to being one of those students who grumbled about how there was no way they were ever going use something like trigonometry in the real world.

I wish a book like Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to be Wrong had been around then. (Well, to be fair, maybe there was a book like that around then. But maybe I had to wait until I in my forties and more open to having my mind changed to appreciate it.) Ellenberg covers probability and regression theory  and non-Euclid geometry and basic calculus all while discussing real-life examples of how math is useful in the real world. He skips around from the MIT students who figured out how to beat the Massachusetts lottery to how a mathematician figured out how to design better planes in WWII to a discussion of the 2000 election results in Florida (remember Bush v. Gore). It’s not an easy book to read, Ellenberg doesn’t shy away from discussions of complex formulas and puzzles. But he has a very easy to read style of writing. It’s like having a really excited math professor in the room with you. Even if you don’t grasp everything he’s saying you get the idea. Math is really cool! And useful!

A few quotes:

One of the most painful parts of teaching mathematics is seeing students damaged by the cult of the genius. The genius cult tells students it’s not worth doing mathematics unless you’re the best at mathematics, because those special few are the only ones whose contributions matter. We don’t treat any other subject that way! I’ve never heard a student say, “I like Hamlet, but I don’t really belong in AP English- that kid who sits in the front row knows all the plays, and he started reading Shakespeare when he was nine!”….  p 412-413

and

Every time you observe that more of a good thing is not always better; or you remember that improbable things happen a lot, given enough chances….; or you make a decision based not just on the most likely futures, but on the cloud of all possible futures, with attention to which ones are likely and which ones are not; or you let go of the idea that the beliefs of groups should be subject to the same rules as beliefs of individuals; or simply, you find that cognitive sweet spot where you can let your intuition run wild on the network of tracks formal reasoning makes for it; without writing down an equation or drawing a graph, you are doing mathematics, the extension of common sense by other means. When are you going to use it? You’ve been using mathematics since you were born and you’ll probably never stop. Use it well. p 437

 

Off on the Right Foot

DSCN7327 DSCN7341 DSCN7343Our New Year tradition for the past 14 years has been a walk with a group of friends.  We started this tradition before we had kids and the one other family that year had two small children. Now our oldest is 11, that other family has seven children and our numbers swelled this year to 44 people total, 25 of whom were kids. (And one dog.) We’ve varied the route and distance but the basic idea has remained the same. We walk somewhere around 3-5 miles then end up at someone’s house for food. This year we had soup and paella and cake and trifle and various other goodies at our house. It’s a good start to the year.