Medieval Girl Power

My August selections for Amy’s Newbery through the Decades challenge were two books by Karen Cushman that I have had on my list to read for a long time: The Midwife’s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy. And I’m so glad I did. I loved both these books.

I loved Catherine and Beetle, two fiesty but completely believable medieval girls. I think it would be fantastic to read both books together with a student and compare the different Beetle, discovered homeless and hungry and sleeping in a dung heap by a village midwife, is in more obvious dire circumstances. However, if you compare her story to Catherine’s, the daughter of minor nobility who is struggling against her father’s schemes to marry her off to the highest bidder, Beetle has more freedom. I also really liked that Cushman allows both girls a happy ending but one that fits in with the time period.  These two books are definitely going on my list to read and discuss with my kids.

Read Aloud Thursday

Ruth and I have spent the summer working our way through Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. I loved these books as a child and I love sharing them with Ruth. I’ve heard and read various modern criticisms of the books. There is the whole “true” story issue of the Ingalls family and the ongoing argument over who really wrote the books (Laura or her daughter Rose Wilder Lane). I suppose those are valid and interesting arguments especially for books that have become such iconic pictures of American girlhood. However, I haven’t really been engaged in the controversies. Maybe it’s anti-intellectualism to admit this but whether Laura really wrote every word or whether she sugar-coated her childhood doesn’t make me enjoy the books any less. The other criticism I’ve read is that of racism, in particular in the Ingalls family attitudes towards Native Americans. I can see how reading the books as an adult can be troubling but I haven’t found it to be a big issue for us. When we read statements like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” I stop and say “Hmmm…why do you think they would say that?” or “What do you think about that?” and we talk about it briefly and then we move on. I have found my kids are very capable of liking Laura and her family but realizing that they said and did things that we don’t agree with and that were wrong. I read the books on my own as a kid and I remember feeling bad for the Indians who were being forced off their land even as I also felt bad for Laura’s family when they had to move at the end. Ruth is enjoying them also and looking forward to being able to watch the TV series that we have on DVD. I told her that we first had to read through On the Banks of Plum Creek, because the book always has to come first in our house.

The boys and I have been working our way through Lloyd Alexanders Chronicles of Prydain series. This is one that I somehow missed as a kid. I know we had the first book (The Book of Three) on the shelf but for some reason I didn’t think I liked it. No idea why. In some ways it’s too bad because I would have loved these when I was younger. However, it’s been really fun to discover them with the boys. We’re at a very exciting part of the fifth and final book, The High King. If you or your kids are a fan of fantasy these are a must read. They are also quite funny and beautifully written with vivid descriptions, wonderful characters and poetic language.

For Amy’s Newbery Challenge, my May selection was Elizabeth Enright’s Gone Away Lake. I decided to use it as our lunchtime book and we finally finished it a week or so ago. It seemed only right to pick the sequel, Return to Gone-Away for our next lunchtime book. I love Elizabeth Enright’s books, which are about as far from fantasy as you can get. My favorites will always be the Melendy series but these are also wonderful pictures of an ordinary childhood and all the extraordinary things that make that up. In some ways, reading these books is like being Portia and Julian and discovering the long-lost Gone-Away Lake. They portray a world that feels familiar and yet exotic in it’s old-fashionedness.

For our current audiobook we are listening to The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone. A friend recommended these mysteries to us when she heard we were going on vacation to Chicago. They take place in the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. Two friends discover a key that gives them the ability to shink down to dollhouse size and explore these tiny miniature rooms. So far, this one feels kind of slow. We are enjoying it but it feels like not much has happened. I think that’s partially our fault as we’ve been listening in the car but for various reasons have had less time to listen so the story has become somewhat fractured for us. I would definitely recommend it though, especially for kids who like mysteries or are fascinated by other “little people” kinds of stories.

So that’s what we are reading together. What books have you been enjoying this summer?  Head over to Hope is the Word to see what other people are reading and to share what your family is enjoying.

Fun Friday

Even after 7 years of homeschooling there are things I “always” want to get to but somehow never seem to get done on a regular basis. Last year, I was intrigued by the idea of Fun Fridays on Amy’s blog. I was intrigued but still didn’t really implement it in our homeschool. The main issue for me is that we have a schedule that really allows for only two full days of school with me home. Two other days I work part of the day. The other day  of the week we do a co-op. Friday happens to be one of our full days at home and so is usually one of our longer and fuller school days.

However, this year I would really like to have Friday be a little bit different. I’m not sure exactly what this will look like but my plan right now is to have Fridays be a mix of Science, Art,  Poetry Teatime, and other special activities.

IMG_2176Today, I had the boys do some work on their current unit study (architecture with H.) and do a little bit of math. Then we all got together to do art. We are traveling to Chicago in a few weeks (hence the architecture unit study) and plan on going to the Art Institute. There are many things we could have studied but I decided to focus on George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte because it was relatively easy to come up with a last minute art project. (Just being honest) I decided to do a project from MaryAnn Kohl’ s Discovering Great Artists. First, we used Q-tips and acrylic paint (tempera would work fine but we didn’t have any) to make dots on index cards. We first did only dots of one color on each index card. 

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Next, after letting the first set of dots dry, we used a Q-tip to put dots of a different color in between the original dots. We used only red, blue, yellow, black and white paint. The idea was to see if the card began to look more like two colors mixed together from far away. It’s important not to let the paint mix together on the paper if you do this. It would also probably work better with smaller dots. Our cards still mostly looked like dots from across the room. But when we went outside, we were able to walk far enough away where the dots disappeared and we saw orange instead of red and yellow dots. We had a brief discussion about the technique and also about how with computers and TV screens, basically everything uses the concept of pointillism. Next week, we’ll do a larger painting but this was enough for today.

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After art, I surprised the kids by asking if they wanted to ride bikes to lunch. They were all excited about the idea. Ruth has recently “graduated” to using John’s old bike that has gears and hand brakes and she is very excited about her new skills. Note that John is wearing a backpack. IMG_2187

The backpack was to carry his books so that he could read during lunch. We enjoyed a delicious pizza picnic lunch at our favorite local pizza place. Sadly, I was the only member of the family even mildly challenged by the mostly uphill ride home. 

Once home, we gathered for science. We’re going to focus on chemistry this year. We did a few experiments out of Adventures with Atoms and Molecules. This is more at the level of Ruth and David than John but he likes science so was happy to join in. The experiments are all very simple and the book includes some brief explanation/discussion that you can use for slightly older kids. I am also going to have John and David go through Ellen McHenry’s The Elements and we did a few pages in that as well.

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I had then planned to do a poetry teatime but the kids all really wanted to finish playing Elemento, a new board game I picked up for this year, that they had started yesterday. So, I decided to scrap poetry and let them play.

All in all, a good day. It felt pretty fun and we still got some good work done. And I managed to include at least one thing that each of them had put down that they wanted more of on the first day of school (art, books, bike rides, time outside, doing things with siblings).

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The Uncommon Reader

I picked up The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett on a recent trip to the library where I was alone and had more time than usual to browse in the non-juvenile section. (I would say adult section but that seems to imply an all together different type of book.) It was an appropriate introduction to a book that begins with Queen Elizabeth II stumbling upon a traveling library on the palace grounds while chasing a wayward Corgi. Her Majesty feels obligated to take a book with her and thus begins her introduction to the pleasures of reading.

This slim novella is a quick read and all together delicious little book. Witty observations on society and culture and class are woven into musings on the nature of reading itself and what it means to be a reader as Her Majesty goes from being a reluctant reader to someone who ignores all her other duties in order to finish her current book. She is aided by Norman, a fellow reader and servant brought up from the kitchens to be her personal amanuensis. Her mildly villainous personal secretary Sir Kevin is perplexed, irritated and finally conquered by this new interest of the queen’s.

The book is full of great quotes on the joys of reading but I’ll finish with one of my favorite:

What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.

Ah, isn’t that the truth? The days certainly aren’t nearly long enough.

And it begins…

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Yesterday was our first day of school: 1st grade, 4th grade and 7th grade (yikes!). We’ve been off since May 8th so everyone was ready to get back into the routine. We don’t have a ton of first day of school traditions but one is to take a photo with a sign showing their current grade. And yes, the 4th and 7th graders are on the opposite sides from their signs.  Our other enduring tradition has been to start the school year with a healthy breakfast.

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No, not really. But we do have the tradition of letting them pick breakfast. This year we sort of picked for them as we wanted to try Duck Donuts. Let me just say, if you’ve heard the hype about these donuts, it’s all true. Every word. I’m not even a huge donut fan and I wanted to lick the box clean. I’m not sure what makes them so good. They are baked fresh and were still warm when I got home with the box. (And can I say I think I deserve some kind of award for driving 30 minutes with a box of delicious warm sweet smelling donuts on the seat beside me and still making it home with every donut unnibbled?) They were all good but my favorites were the maple-bacon, lemon and cinnamon-sugar.

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Our last tradition is that we usually go somewhere and do something fun in the afternoon on the first day of school. This year H. took the kids to the Building Museum to experience their summer installation, The Beach. The Building Museum is a fantastic museum that we love to go to. The past few summers they have done some kind of temporary installation in their very large interior space. Two years ago it was mini-golf, last year was a giant maze and this year is The Beach which is basically an space filled with polystyrene balls. The kids loved it. H. is doing a mini-unit on architecture to start off the year so this also sort of qualified as educational. Sort of.

IMG_2161A new thing I did this year was to ask the kids to each write down three goals for the year and three things that they want us to do more of in our homeschool. I then met with each one alone and we talked about the goals. The responses were very interesting to me and I hope to them. Two of them had goals for themselves that were very similar to my own goals for them. I expected more elaborate things that they wanted to do but for the most part they asked for relatively simple things. One wanted to do school outside more and more art. One wanted more bike rides and more books. Ruth? She wanted more sparkly stuff. So I let her get out the glitter and make some sparkly pictures.

I also usually do a treasure hunt for school supplies/small gifts but decided not to do one this year for various reasons. This was not looked upon well. Ruth listed “treshur hunt” as one of the things she wants more of in our homeschool. It may have to return next year.

So, you can’t win them all. But overall it was a good first day.

Musings from an Evening Walk

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I got an iPhone about 18 months ago through my work. Before I got the iPhone I used to watch people around me checking and checking and checking their email and texts and whatever other mysterious things they were checking. I saw them doing it in the elevator. While walking down the street. White eating at a restaurant. While waiting for their kids at swimming or ballet or baseball or wherever. I remember thinking how I didn’t want to become one of them and thinking how weird it was that everyone felt this pull to be constantly connected.

Tonight, I went out for a walk alone (except for my canine companion). Walks alone have been fairly uncommon for me lately. I’ve been extra busy at work so H. has been doing most of the morning walks this summer. And in the evenings we typically walk as a family. But tonight I was alone. The kids are away at grandparents’ house for the weekend and H. has been doing more than his fair share of dog walking and wanted to say home for a post-dinner snooze.

I like being alone, so I was fine with a little time to myself. I had to take my cell phone with me as I was on call for emergency calls for my practice but that was easy enough to do.

About 20 minutes or so into the walk, I started to wonder if someone had emailed me so I pulled out the phone and quickly checked it. I realized that I felt somehow restless and bored. I remembered I had a Pandora app on my phone and thought maybe it would be nice to listen to music as I walked along. I turned it on and put it in my pocket, walking along to some song or another.

And suddenly I realized I had become one of those people I used to find so weird. I wondered when I lost the ability to just walk and be alone for an hour. When I lost the ability to enjoy the cool summer evening and just be? And when did I find it so intolerable to be a little bit bored that I needed to pull out something to entertain me?

I turned off the music.

I’m not a Luddite. I actually love having the iPhone. It makes my life easier (and yes, more fun) in so many ways. I’m very grateful that my work provides it. And as much as I might bemoan modern society’s tendency to expect constant connectivity, that’s where we are. I can’t realistically see myself saying that I will ditch my phone or even that I will leave it home or turn it off. (Alert readers will realize that I couldn’t have gone on the walk tonight at all without some kind of phone or beeper since I was on for emergency call.)

So, where does that leave me? It reminded me of what I thought when I first got the phone, that it was a cool tool to have but that I still wanted to be someone who was more likely to pull out a book to read during my kids’ swim practice than to pull out a phone. I’ve definitely drifted away from being that person who I want to be. I don’t want to ditch the phone but I do think I need to learn to resist its siren call.

I tell my kids all the time that a little boredom is not a bad thing. Life is not about being entertained all the time. It’s ok to be bored and have time to think and wonder. Or it’s ok to just be bored. I think I need to remember that for myself.

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June and July Reading

Fiction Read in June and July

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
The winner of the Man Booker Prize last year. A beautifully written epic novel about an Australian POW working on the Japanese death train in Burma. Ultimately though for all the beauty of the language, I found this one left me cold in the end.

Redeployment by Phil Klay
Another prize winner, of the National Book Award last year. This one is full of cursing and the ugliness of war. But still, the stories are full of honesty and even redemption. 

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Another “epic” novel following an Irish-American family in New York City over several generations. Ultimately, it’s about marriage and love and faithfulness and also about Alzheimer’s. 

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
Flavia de Luce is sent away to boarding school in Canada. The first day there a corpse falls out of a chimney. And it only gets better from there. 

In the Blood by Lisa Unger
Entertaining psychological thriller. A great summer read. 

To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman (audiobook)
A fun twist on a school shooting story.

Figgs and Phantoms by Ellen Raskin
Read for Amy’s Newbery challenge.This one by the author of The Westing Game was weird. 

A Fine White Dust by Cynthia Rylant
Also read for Amy’s Newbery Challenge. One of the very few children’s books I’ve ever read that deals with real religious feelings and faith in children or teens. 

Non-Fiction Read in June and July

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
A deliciously fun read by a long-time proofreader at The New Yorker. Norris deftly weaves personal stories in with grammar education and stories about many of the writers and editors at The New Yorker she has worked with over the years. 

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
I was really excited to read this biography/memoir by one of my personal heroes. I was deeply inspired by Sacks’ books and articles on neurology and medicine. Overall, I enjoyed the book, but it was a bit disappointing. There’s too much in it and it’s somewhat unfocused. The feeling I got was of someone who just wanted to put everything he could think of into one last book. I know Sacks is dying and that might be the case. It’s understandable but didn’t make for the best book. I was also somewhat turned off by the graphic sexual descriptions. Maybe it should have made him more human, but there are just some things you don’t want to necessarily know about your personal heroes, you know?  

This and That

IMG_3678Well, hello there. It’s been over a month since I’ve posted. Or since I’ve posted in reality (or is that posted in virtual reality). Whatever. I’ve had lots of posts in my mind that I’ve thought out but somehow I haven’t managed to get to the computer to type them out.

I decided to take a page from my friend Amy’s book and write a This and That post (she calls it Odds and Ends which is a better title but I don’t want to totally plagiarize from her). Hopefully that will get me back in the blogging saddle, so to speak.

So what have I  been doing other than blogging? Mostly swimming. Or to be more precise, mostly driving my kids to and from swim team practices and meets and social events. I took on a very big volunteer role this year with our summer team and it’s been a lot of fun but also a lot of work. As you can see from the photo, David’s ability to swim competitively might have been curtailed by his broken arm early in the summer but his ability to dress up in crazy costumes is completely intact. (It was Hawaiian theme day.)

The broken arm has also defined our summer in many ways. David did finally get aIMG_2067 waterproof cast after about three weeks in a
bulky very un-waterproof splint. The waterproof cast meant he could swim which was a big help to enjoying the summer as a family. However, he can’t dive which meant to competitive meets. That’s been a disappointment to him but he continues to adjust. The cast is now off but he has another three weeks of being super careful (no roller blading, biking, skateboarding, or other activities that might cause him to fall). And still no diving.

Meanwhile, the DC suburbs have morphed into the rainforest as we experienced the rainiest June in 43 years. Every swim meet we had involved rain of some kind, many with delays for thunder and lightening.

I had big plans for some IMG_0002gardening this summer but it seems it’s been either raining, about to rain or too hot to get much done. We’ve actually lost several plants to root rot from too much water. The sky might look pretty in that photo, but we haven’t seen many days like that.

 

I had a lot of other big plans for projects this summer. Organizing our storage area, especially the homeschool stuff. Working through AOPS Algebra. Listening to lots of the lectures from the WTM Conference. Walking 10,000 steps a day. Reading a lot. Blogging more often. A lot of it hasn’t gotten done (other than the reading, that always happens). That is partially due to swimming but if I am going to be honest with myself, it’s just as much due to my predilection for wasting time.  I still hope to get to some of those things in August and what’s left of July.

I have done some other things non-swim related. I’ve read some great books, some that I hope to blog about later this week. H. and I went with some good friends to hear The Punch Brothers at Wolftrap this past week. It was a virtually perfect concert. Fantastic music but also great seats and a lovely summer evening with cool breezes. (The weather did finally clear up for us that night).
DSCN9400aAll in all, a good summer so far, even if I haven’t completed my to-do list. Or even really scratched the surface of it. It’s good to be back here and I hope to be writing more regularly.

 

A bump in the road.

Our summer started off with a bang. Or maybe I should use John’s words, a giant “kerplop”. David broke his right arm in two places on May 31st roller-blading. We’re at Day 17 of the awkward, heavy, itchy, hot and very very non-waterproof plaster splint. Breaking your dominant arm anytime is hard. Breaking it when you are eight years old and it’s summer is even harder. Breaking it when you are eight years old and your summer revolves around swim team and being at the pool all day is even harder than that. Breaking your arm when you are the kind of kid who spends most of every day outside climbing trees, roller-blading, skateboarding, biking, and generally running amuck may be the hardest of all. It’s been a tough start to the summer, to say the least.

David is usually not a kid who deals well with frustration or disappointment. All our kids have strengths and things they need to work on. David is generous to a fault; several times I have had to forbid him from buying his sister presents at the store. He is sensitive and empathetic. He is loving and kind. He is quite funny and often wise in a way that surprises me. He is a peace-maker and rarely selfish. But usually he is someone whose day can be undone by a missing Lego piece or a thoughtless word from a sibling. I think this might be because he has such a strong sense of fairness and kindness that he can’t understand when the world isn’t being fair and everyone isn’t being kind.

I said he usually has a hard time dealing with frustration. This has not been one of those times. He has consistently astonished me with how well he is handling this fairly major hurdle in his summer plans. The orthopedist had originally said he could get a waterproof cast last week but when we went in to the appointment felt like he needed one more week in the splint to ensure proper healing. David broke down very briefly and then kind of shook it off (a la Taylor Swift) and moved on.

I realized that, as a parent, I want the best for my kids. I told David that I would have broken my arm for him if I could and I would do anything in my power to have him not have to go through this. However, I see how this experience is molding his character in a way that is good and that I think will bear much fruit in the future. Seeing him go through this has made me see how my natural desire is to smooth over every bump in the road , to solve every puzzle, to ensure that they don’t have to deal with disappointments  big or small, to banish mean kids and unfair coaches and rainy days from their lives. I know of course that I can’t do those things and part of me knows I shouldn’t. But oh, how I want to. I’m learning that my job as a parent isn’t so much to smooth over those bumps but to cheer them on as they navigate their way around them. In reality, the best thing for my kids isn’t always the easy road.

 

May Reading

So May turned out a lot like April: non-fiction and mysteries. I think I need to break out of this pattern for the summer.

Fiction Read in May: 

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil by James Runcie
Similar to the first two in the series, these proved the perfect blend of cozy mystery, slightly deeper theological questions to ponder and lightish read in a busy season. 

The Noonday Friends by Mary Stolz
Read for Amy’s Newbery Challenge. This month was the 1960’s and was the first decade where I had already read a fair number of the honor and medalist books. I picked this one by Mary Stolz because I enjoyed her as a author as a kid. More of a character driven than plot-driven book, it deals with the issue of poverty in a NYC neighborhood.

Non-Fiction Read in May: 

The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines by Cate Lineberry
The story this book told was compelling: a medical transport plane that crashed in Albania during WWII and the subsequent survival and rescue of the nurses and medics who were on board. Unfortunately, although the events are compelling and should make for a fascinating read, the way the story is told kept the reader at a formal distance and never really drew me in. I think one reason was that there was no central figure to identify or empathize with. I couldn’t help but compare it to The Boys in the Boat, which also told the story of a team but through the eyes primarily of one central character. In this one I kept getting confused about who I was reading about and the book ended up feeling more like a dry description of events rather than a true adventure story.

The Road to Character by David Brooks