Two Great Reads.

27276428 I loved Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book: The Gene: An Intimate History. It’s a comprehensive and fascinating look at the history of Genetics from Aristotle to Mendel and Darwin to Watson and Crick to the modern day study of epigenetics.

I did wonder about who the intended audience was. It’s fairly dense science. Genetics was one of my favorite classes in college and medical school and a lot of the historical information was familiar to me. I’m not sure it would be as readable if it was the first time I was encountering plasmids or recombinant DNA or the ins and outs of fruit fly mutations. Still, it’s a marvelous read. In addition to the history, Mukherjee uses the lens of his own family’s history of mental illness to talk about the clinical application of inheritance and genetics.

Mukherjee is strongest when retelling the history of genetics. Morgan, Franklin, Watson, Mendel and Berg come alive and almost jump off the page. The personal thread also helps to make the science seem more relevant and bring to light some of the ethical questions regarding genetics today. If there is a weakness, it’s in Mukherjee’s discussion of these ethical questions. He doesn’t really go into any kind of depth here and I was left slightly disappointed.

On a completely different note, but equally unputdownable (it should be a word) was Liane26247008 Moriarty’s new book: Truly Madly Guilty. If you’ve read any of Moriarty’s other books you’ll recognize a lot of what is in this book: secrets, memory loss, upper middle class Australian families that feel like a Southern Hemisphere doppelganger to suburban American families, multiple perspectives, and more secrets. I can’t put my finger on what it is about her books but Moriarty has found a way to take the same basic formula and make it unresistable again and again and again.

As a warning here are he things that I neglected in order to read this book:

Making dinner, homeschooling my children, cleaning my house, exercising, packing for vacation, prepping for a co-op class, feeding the dog, and sleep. Not to worry, I did eventually get all those things done.

But I finished the book first.

Stretching the Limits of Credulity

Sometimes I find when I watch a movie or read a book that there is one small annoying detail that bugs me and leaves me feeling like the whole story is implausible. The weird thing is that often those small details aren’t really that important or pale in comparison to much larger plot holes that I’m happy to overlook.

This weekend David, Ruth and I watched Cheaper by the Dozen (the Steve Martin version) while H. and John were on a men’s road trip to NYC with guys from our church. I had no problems with all of the crazy things that happened in the movie. Kids running amuck with barely an injury…sure! Coach Dad having football team practice in his backyard…no problem! Family of 14 with a salary large enough to live in a mansion in the Chicago suburbs…okey dokey! The sappy sweet ending…awwww!

But the one detail that got me was Bonnie Hunt’s character’s outfit on the day that they move into their new house. She’s supposed to be a Mom of twelve and what does she wear on moving day?

A pretty pink floral skirt, matching pink cardigan and heels.

No. Never. Nope.

 

Summer Reading, Plus Some

It’s been a long time since I posted a book list (April). I could just post about what I’m currently reading but that would cause havoc in the part of my soul that also cannot leave a list half checked-off and can’t stand it when the eggs in the carton won’t line up symmetrically.

So since last posting I’ve read the following:

Fiction:

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyemi
The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows
The Heart by Maylis de Kerangel
Reader, I Married Him (Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre) edited by Tracy Chevalier (audiobook)
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (audiobook)
The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino (read for Amy’s Newbery Challenge)
Dark Corners by Ruth Rendell (audiobook)
The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King
Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

Of these the ones I will probably remember most are The Heart and The Luminaries. The former for its unusual look at all the people involved in a heart transplant and for its beautiful language. Even translated French somehow sounds more musical than English. I spent most of the summer listening to The Luminaries. I’m not sure I would have stuck with it as a written book, it never grabbed me and it was so long. But it was definitely unusual in story and structure and I wasn’t sorry that I did stick with it. Towards the end I realized it was a book that probably would be better to be read than listened to as I think there was a lot that I may have missed in the intricate structure.

The two I probably enjoyed most were both somewhat modern takes on classics. Vinegar Girl (Hogarth Shakespeare Series) is Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Wilde Lake is heavily inspired by To Kill a Mockingbird, although not exactly a retelling. What I found interesting in both was that they forced me to look at issues in the originals that I respond to differently than I would in a modern work and wonder why that is.

Non-Fiction

The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Sciolino
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
One in a Billion: The Story of Nic Volker and the Dawn of Genomic Medicine by Mark Johnson

The clear standout here was Bonhoeffer. A lot of the summer was spent with him and it was well spent. It’s become too much of a cliche to compare anything we don’t like in modern times to Nazi Germany. So I’ll just say that reading this book at this time in history was somewhat spooky and strange.

With the Kids: 
We read less together in the summer than other times of the year because our evenings are busier. However, we’ve begun reading Harry Potter together as a family and that’s been loads of fun. This is Ruth’s first time through the series and it’s so fun to experience it with her. I might have coerced her a little into letting me read it out loud instead of having her read it on her own. We are currently on book 2 and we’ll probably take a break after that for awhile since they start to get scarier.

Up Next/Currently Reading
I’m reading The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I can’t say enough good things about it. Love, love, love it. John and I are also reading Sense and Sensibility for school. I’m enjoying it as a reread and enjoying discussing it with him. David is reading Maniac Magee for a co-op class. I’d like to read the books he reads in that class so we can do more literature discussion together. I also have Liane Moriarty’s latest book Truly Madly Guilty out of the library. It’s like a decadent dessert sitting on my nightstand waiting for me after I finish my main course of genetics.

 

Scenes from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

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The kids spent this past weekend at my parents. H. and I had a lovely, if much quieter than usual, time together. Quiet didn’t mean boring. We ate well, saw a couple of movies, golfed (him), read books (me), did some school planning and thinking (me). We also saw two excellent exhibits at museums: The Greeks at the National Geographic Museum and a retrospective on the work of Kehinde Wiley at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (all the photos above are from the Wiley exhibit). I would highly recommend both. The Greeks was fascinating and full of really remarkable artifacts. (Photos were not allowed so you’ll have to just believe me on that or, even better, go see for yourself.) I knew nothing about Wiley going into the exhibit at VMFA but I came out feeling like I had learned a lot. Both exhibits are around for just a bit longer so if you are in the area consider checking them out.

This Week in Books

Our first week of the 2016-2017 school year is under our belt and we’re on our way. It was a good week, fairly light but just enough to get us back into the groove of having a little more structure in our lives.

I think one of the best finds of the school year is going to be Mystery Science. I have become a believer in doing interest-led science for elementary and middle school aged kids but I’m not always sure how to do it in practice. I love science and maybe because of that I tend to be more critical of formal science curriculums. So I think about doing more informal science, but then it ends up getting pushed to the back burner. Mystery Science looks like it will be the perfect solution. The lessons are organized in units by topics and then each lesson is a short video that presents a mystery. The videos are well done and walk the kids through making hypotheses and thinking about the answers. Then there is a short hand-on activity for each lesson. I’m using it for my 2nd grader and 5th grader. This particular video was below the grade level of my 5th grader but it’s fairly easy to add in books and other resources as you need. And as a bonus, Mystery Science is currently offering a one year membership free.

Ruth picked plants and flowers to do as our first unit. The lesson (video plus activity) took about an hour total to do. We then also read A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long and Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move by Joann Early Maken. Both were excellent. I especially recommend any of the Aston/Long books as beautiful poetic scientific non-fiction for kids.

200256Ruth and David and I are also embarking on a year of American History study. We’ll use this series by the Maestros as a spine. We read The Discovery of the Americas this year as a beginning of a unit on Native Americans. We also will use some of The History of the US by Joy Hakim and of course, lots of other picture books and other books. John is going to be doing a year of Civics this year. He will use We the People as his spine and also do some Boy Scout merit badges (all the Citizenship ones). In addition, we’re hoping to go to Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Philadelphia as a family and use lots of the resources here in DC as well.

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As his first book of the school year, John (and I) are reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. This might seem like an odd choice for a fantasy loving almost 13 year old boy. And in many ways it is. However, one of my main goals of his 8th grade year is to push him a bit with his reading. He is an excellent reader and loves to read. But he also loves to stay in his comfort zone of middle-grade and young adult fantasy. He reads a lot of books that are fairly easy for him, not just in vocabulary but easy in terms of ideas. So when I heard that Sense and Sensibility is coming to the Folger Theater in DC this year I decided to get student tickets and have him read the book first. So far, so good. He enjoyed the first week assignment and seemed to understand it fairly well. We did watch the movie version first, breaking my normal Book Before Movie rule. I thought that for this particular book it would help him enjoy the book more to have some idea of the storyline first.

For our current family read-aloud we are reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Ruth was ready to read it on her own but I convinced her to let me read it aloud instead. It’s fun as it’s one of the few books we’ve read that is equally enjoyed by the 6 year old and 12 year old. In the car we are enjoying Gregor and the Marks of Secret. This is the second time we’ve listened to Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles and it’s just as great the second time around. 18774964

Me? In addition to Sense and Sensibility I’m reading two other books: David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. The first is enjoyable and interesting but really dense. The second is predictable but no less charming for that.

So, all in all, a good bookish first week of school.

How about you? Are you back at school yet? Reading good books?

First Day of School

 

Another school year began for us today. Since we homeschool we can pretty much start when works for us and the past few years that has been mid-August. We’ve pared down our first day of school traditions to a few favorite things. We take first day of school pics with a sign. They pick a special breakfast. This year was ice cream sundaes. We do a treasure hunt in the house. The clues usually relate in some way to things we will study or do during the year and the treasure at the end is just fun school supplies (gel pens, goofy pencils, extra post-it notes, stickers, etc). Last year I left out the treasure hunt because I thought they were tired of it and getting older and less excited about it. I learned my lesson when they all complained bitterly so we brought back the tradition this year.

We do a bit of school in the morning and then do some kind of fun adventure in the afternoon. This year H. and the kids went to the zoo. They enjoyed the animals and enjoyed the sprinklers that the zoo has even more.

A  more serious and newer tradition that we’ve done the past two years is to have each kid write down three goals for the year and three things they want to do more of in school. It was kind of a spontaneous idea last year but I found it helpful. The things they wanted were fairly easy to implement. I had expected elaborate requests but they were things like “more bike rides” and “more time with my brother”. Ruth asked for more glitter, easy to do from day one. It was also helpful to look back at the end of the year and show them how they had each met their goals from the beginning of the year. They wrote down goals again this year and then I met briefly with each of them to talk about my goals for them (not always the same as their own) and also how I thought each of them could help to make our school year successful.

It was a good beginning.

Living like a GPS

So one of the posts I’ve had rattling around in my brain this summer is the idea of how life is like a GPS. That’s not a particularly original idea. I first heard it from a speaker at our homeschool co-op who pointed out how often during the day she hears in her head a voice saying “recalculating”. That idea struck me as true and funny at the time. Since the spring I’ve thought about it over and over again as I’ve been faced with sudden changes in plans and heard that little voice in my head: “recalculating”.

It’s true on a day to day basis and long-term. People stop by unexpectedly. Appliances break. Kids get sick. A school program that worked for one kid and that I planned to use over and over just won’t work for the next kid. Decisions are made at work that change my schedule and my responsibilities. Friends move away.

IMG_1276I was reminded again of this idea this week. The boys are away at camp and Ruth was signed up for a ballet camp every morning. She loves this small excellent camp run by friends of ours and it was a good way for her to have something special to do while the boys were away. Plus, having the house to myself every morning meant I could get lots of school planning and organizing done. Fantastic!

Then Tuesday night she jumped out of a tree at a friend’s house and landed hard on one foot. Thankfully, it turned out not to be broken but she was unable to walk on it at all the next day. We thought she was out of camp for the rest of the week. And that was ok. We recalculated. We planned some special activities. She was disappointed but understood that sometimes things just don’t work out.

Then one of the counselors from the camp called and said they had figured out a way for Ruth to still be in the end of camp show if she was interested. Interested? Ha! She was thrilled. We were actually driving to a local theater performance that I thought would  help make up for the disappointment of missing camp when we got the call from the counselor. So we got off the highway, turned around and headed back to camp. Recalculating. The camp show was a version of the Nutcracker and they gave Ruth the role of Clara. Mostly she sat on the stage and watched the performance. They started by having one of the counselors play her mother and give her a teddy bear and she had to act happy and then pretend to fall asleep and wake up later. She embraced her role wholeheartedly and did a beautiful job.

I feel like over the years as a parent that I’ve learned over and over that the best gift I can give my kids is the ability to be flexible and resilient. In other words, to know how to recalculate. I feel like if they can learn that they will be successful in life. This is not the same as just “going with the flow”. I’m a planner by nature and so is H. Our kids are pretty much doomed to be checklist checkers, schedule followers and planners. I think that’s a good thing. It’s good to have a plan but it’s also good to be able to adjust when things deviate from the plan. To stick with the GPS metaphor, not having a plan would mean you get lost from the beginning. Having a plan means you start out knowing how to get where you want but you’re willing to try a different route if the original one is blocked.

 

 

 

 

What I did on my summer vacation

Well, that three months just flew by, didn’t it? How has your summer been? We’ve been good. Busy but good. I didn’t really intend to take a three month break from blogging but it sort of just happened. I’ve had a few posts rattling around in my brain all summer but haven’t gotten around to writing. Part of it has been that I’ve been too busy but more than that I’ve had what has become my semi-annual semi-philosphical crisis about why I blog (or don’t blog as the case my be).

When I started this blog the idea was to have a place where I could write and that could be a journal of sorts about our family life. Along the way I’ve dabbled in book reviews and wanting to be more of a book blog or a homeschool how-to blog. I’ve felt like maybe I should somehow DO something more with the blog. I kind of missed the big surge of amateur bloggers who formed a community. Now it seems everyone either has a polished website that is promoting their personal brand and the community is elsewhere (Instagram, Facebook, etc).  I’ve realized that I don’t post consistently enough or enough about one topic to really be successful as a blogger. So, I come back to the why. I think it goes back to my original purpose: a place to write and a place to record some of our family life. And that’s probably enough of a reason.

So, quickly to bring the blog up to date, this is what we’ve done with our summer vacation.

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Ok, so maybe there was a little bit more than just swimming but that was certainly the main all consuming activity. John broke our pool’s team record for butterfly for his age group, which was his summer goal and was very exciting in our little corner of the world. Ruth joined the dive team and proceeded to immediately learn a flip and do a back dive off the high dive. At one swim meet David easily broke the record for the most temporary tattoos one person could put on his body. We also did some other things. Reading (not enough for me). Board games and card games. A tiny bit of Math. A lot of movies about Paris in preparation for a fall trip. A lot of ice cream. John took a Lifesaving course for Scouts. Both boys are finishing up a week of sleep-away camp tomorrow. So a good summer. I’ve spent the last few days getting ready for the school year which starts for us in about a week. Lots to look forward to there. It’s been good to have a break and it’s good to get back into the routine. That goes for school and for blogging as well.

A Mother’s Day Wetlands Walk

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For Mother’s Day we spent the afternoon at one of our favorite places. It was a gorgeous green day, the first warm and sunny day in a long stretch of cold rain.

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We saw a lot of animals, some that we had never seen before: a water snake, leeches (!!), numerous tadpoles, geese, red-winged blackbirds (my favorite), frogs, turtles, a crayfish, and an unconfirmed bald eagle (spotted in a tree and reportedly an eagle according to people who had binoculars).

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By far, the most exciting sight was this mother cardinal feeding her babies in a nest that we spotted on our way out. Very fitting for Mother’s Day indeed.

April Reading

Fiction Read in April: 

Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights by Alison Case
I loved this companion to Wuthering Heights told from the perspective of Nelly Dean, the faithful servant to the Earnshaw family. I have mixed feelings about Wuthering Heights itself. At one time I though it a beautiful, dark and sad, but romantic story. I haven’t read it in a long time but I think I would see it with a different eye now. I certainly see it with a much different eye after reading Nelly Dean. Similar to how I felt after reading Jo Baker’s Longbourn, I wondered how I could have read the original and not wondered more about the life of the invisible servants. Not that Nelly Dean is invisible in the original, she is the narrator and very much a character. But she isn’t really given the chance to feel or think or be anything other than “housekeeper”. She only has a life in relationship to the life of Catherine and Heathcliff and the rest of the family. 

 I did a term paper on it in high school so I know the story fairly well but if you haven’t read the original you probably should do that before reading this book. Case refers to events from the original but without much explanation and it would be much harder to appreciate Nelly’s story without also knowing the rest of the story.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Another beautiful jewel of a book by Strout. Lucy Barton is lying in a hospital bed for weeks recovering from a surgery when her estranged mother comes to visit. The novel is told in short reminisces and stories that weave together to give us the picture of Lucy’s life. Partially about the mother-daughter relationship, partially about surviving abuse and childhood trauma, partially about what it means to be a writer and write your story, this short novel is a joy to read. 

China Run by David Ball
Eh. A thriller pressed on me by a friend. It was a good light read when I needed it but just an ok book.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (audiobook)
For about the first third of this book (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) I wondered what all the fuss was about. It was classically Tyler: well-drawn realistic characters, family dynamics in a Baltimore suburb. Then the structure of the book suddenly changed and I got why I’ve saw this on a lot of best of lists last year. The story could be described as an “epic family drama looking at generations within a family” but the brilliant thing is that Tyler telescopes into the past so we look at the family backwards instead of forwards in time. By structuring the book this way we see how characters memories of events differ from each other and change with time. The theme of memory and what is the “true” story weaves throughout the book but as always with Tyler it is the characters that are like people we all know that make the book so readable.

Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark (read for Newbery Challenge)
I enjoyed this coming of age tale of a young llama caretaker in Peru but still can’t believe that it won the Newbery the year that Charlotte’s Web got an Honor Book. 

Non-Fiction Read in April 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My book club was looking for a book to read and someone asked if we could read something not depressing. I started talking about this book that I’d heard about on NPR that sounded really interesting…about a young neurosurgeon who died of cancer. They all looked at me like I was crazy and someone suggested that maybe I didn’t understand the meaning of “not depressing”. In the end we picked When Breath Becomes Air as our selection and everyone loved it and agreed that it wasn’t at all depressing. Sad, yes. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that Kalanithi, a brilliant man, dies tragically young, just as he is about to begin his career. However, his voice is powerful and speaks eloquently about what it means to die with grace and even more to live with appreciation for life. The end is full of redemption and hope, not a small achievement for a book that is essentially a memoir of dying. 

In a Different Key: A Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker
I didn’t realize this one was going to be 500+ pages when I put it on hold at the library. It’s worth reading every one of those pages though. Donvan and Zucker tell the history of autism from the first description of the disorder by Leo Kanner to the modern controversies over vaccines and the concept of “neurodiversity”. They anchor each new topic or time period with a case study/story. This makes the book very readable. It’s not just a series of interesting stories: their thorough research is evident all through the book. 

With the Kids: 
Ruth and I finally finished all the books in The Doll People series. I decided to go with a classic for her special book: The Trumpet of the Swan. She and I also read the Ivy and Bean books together during school as her reading practice. The boys and I are almost done with A Pocketful of Murder and looking towards what our next book will be.

Up Next/Ongoing:
I’m listening in the car to the delightfully creepy Dark Coners by Ruth Rendell (her last book, sadly). I think I’m going to read The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs next. Our book club selected  H is for Hawk as our June selection so I’ll be reading that soon.