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?  

Read Aloud Thursday: From the New Shelf

We read a lot of picture books, although less than we used to and less than I wish we did. Today I have to share a small, somewhat random sample of some recent finds from our library’s new shelf that we have enjoyed. The first, Penguins in Peril, finds a penguin the unwilling captive of three dastardly cats. The cats have spent all their money on movies instead of food and craft. They come up with a plan to perpetrate the most daring robbery of all time and get all the fishes they want. But first they need a secret weapon: the penguin. The penguin outwits them in the end and the cat’s plan is thwarted. A first book by Helen Hancocks, this one definitely takes a dry sense of humor to appreciate. The somewhat flat text and graphically simple illustrations have a certain plain-Jane charm. My kids liked it when reading it the first time but I haven’t seen them reading it again on their own or seeking it out for second or third readings.

On the other end of the spectrum from the conniving cats in Penguins in Peril, is Sarah Weeks’ Glamourpuss, the title character in what can best be described as the Fancy Nancy of the feline world. Glamourpuss is, well, glamorous. The most glamorous pet ever. But then Bluebell, a tiny toy dog, comes to visit. Bluebell wears fancy clothes: hoopskirts and tiaras and fruit-covered turbans. Bluebell dances and does tricks. Glamourpuss starts to doubt herself. Then however, Bluebell tears up all her fancy clothes and Glamourpuss realizes that maybe there is room for two fabulous pets in the same house. David Small’s (one of my favorite illustrators) humorous illustrations are a perfect paring for this quirky and sweet story.

And for my last offering, we go back to simple, at least in concept. Mac Barnett’s Telephone takes the game of telephone and imagines how it would go as played by birds on a wire. The concept is simple but the execution is picture perfect. The message gets more and more garbled. Illustrator Jen Corace’s birds tell a story of their own as each bird changes the message according to his own job or hobby.

One reason we don’t read as many picture books as I might like is that with older kids, we spend more time reading chapter books. Chapter books are great fun as well to read, and I love our nightly “special book” time. But I think too often parents think that once their kids are old enough to move on to reading “big books” that the time for picture books is over. I recently discovered that my sixth grader still reads every picture book I bring home from the library on his own. It makes me happy that he doesn’t feel too old to enjoy what some kids might feel are books just for little kids.

Stop by Hope is the Word for Read Aloud Thursday and share what you family is reading together.

March Reading (The better-late-than-never edition)

Fiction Read in March: 

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Moriarty’s books are big, fun, juicy, frothy delicious reads. The women in them feel familiar to me even though they are Australian and inhabit a more upper-class world than my own. The overall subject of the book (domestic abuse and bullying) is serious but Moriarty manages to write about it in a way that is engaging to read and light in tone without making light of the horror of her topic. 

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
McEwan on the other hand could never be called light. Or frothy. I think I’m going to have to face the fact that I will never love a book of his as much as I loved Atonement. I keep reading him waiting for that completely blown-away by a book experience again and it hasn’t happened yet. Some of his books I’ve greatly disliked, this one I did enjoy reading except for one part that just didn’t ring true to me. The story is of a judge who is in the midst of a personal domestic crisis and who must render judgment on a case involving a minor’s right to refuse medical treatment. The boy is dying of cancer and needs a blood transfusion but is a Jehovah’s witness. The book is very much about the conflict between science and religion. 

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley
Another wonderful chapter in the Flavia deLuce series. This one must be read after the others, it ties up lots of loose ends from previous books. 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I stayed up way too late on several nights reading this book. It’s that kind of book; what I’ve heard called a “thumping good read”. I read a fair amount of mysteries and thrillers so I guessed the solution to this one pretty early on but it still kept me turning the pages to see if I was right and to yell at the characters to figure it out before something bad happened. 

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Non-Fiction Read in March:

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Really beautiful memoir told in verse. It’s won a bunch of awards and all deservedly so. 

Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat by Gail Jarrow
I hope to review this one in full one day, but it’s a well-written detailed account of the investigation into the cause of pellagra, a disease that effected millions of people in the United States in the early 20th century and is estimated to have killed about 100,000 people. I loved reading Bernard Rouche’s classic books about true medical mysteries when I was a teen and would have been the kid who ate this book up when I was in middle school. A wonderful addition to the young adult nonfiction section of any library. 

Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More–Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Prior Swallow
Read for my book club, I had really high hopes for this one. Hannah More was an amazing woman and I thoroughly enjoyed the other book I’d read by Karen Prior Swallow.  This one fell a little short of expectations, however. It’s a bit dry and somehow makes More’s life seem a bit dull, which it was anything but dull. I would recommend it though for the chance to learn more about More, a truly remarkable woman. 

Delicious Reads

Ruth and I just finished a unit on food for kindergarten. One of the favorite books we read was a new one by Emily Jenkins, A Fine Dessert. Jenkins follows four families over four hundred years making the same dessert: blackberry fool. Each family prepares the dessert following the same basic steps. The repetition in the text of the recipe and the similarities between the centuries (each child gets to lick the bowl) create continuity. However, the charm is in the differences. The first mother and daughter pair living in Lyme, England in 1710 use a whisk made out of twigs and cool their dessert in an ice pit in the hillside. The 2010 family (the only father and son pair in the book) live in San Diego and serve the dessert to a multicultural group of friends after preparing it with all the modern conveniences. Sophie Blackall’s delicately detailed illustrations draw the reader into each time period and further serve to tie the centuries together while also showing how clothing and housing and people have changed.

Pat Brisson’s Before We Eat: From Farm to Table is another new book about food. This
one take a less personal approach and looks instead at all the people who are involved in getting the food we eat on our table. There are farmers and ranchers, yes. But also, truck drivers and  grocery clerks and home cooks. The woodcut illustrations by Mary Azarian (illustrator of the Caldecott winning Snowflake Bentley) are beautiful and complement the simple text.


We also enjoyed looking through What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. This one is chock full of information but it was a bit too much for five year old Ruth. However, the photos were fascinating. The main interest for us was a photospread for each country showing a typical family and all the food they eat in a month. It was really eye-opening for my kids to see how much less processed food most of the world eats and to see how little some people have to eat in a week.

Other food themed books we recommend: 

Minette’s Feast by Susanna Reich
Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell and Lillian Hoban
Cloudy with a Chance for Meatballs by Judi and Ronald Barrett
The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman
Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann
Time to Eat by Steve Jenkins




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


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.



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


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


Read Aloud Thursday: 2014 in Review

Chapter Books Read in 2014:

Read Aloud to John and David:

The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis
Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
A Prince Among Frogs by E. D. Baker
Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager
Obi: Gerbil on the Loose! by M. C. Delaney
The Time Garden by Edward Eager
A Wind in the Door by Madeline L’Engle



Read Aloud to Ruth: 

Betsy, Tacy and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace
Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins
Toys Come Home by Emily Jenkins
Toy Dance Party by Emily Jenkins
Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary
Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary

Read Aloud at Lunch: 

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman


The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Dragon’s Breath by E.D. Baker

Once Upon a Curse by E. D. Baker
No Place For Magic by E. D. Baker
The Salamander Spell by E. D. Baker
The Dragon Princess by E. D. Baker
Dragon Kiss by E. D. Baker
Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Curse of Bane by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods by Suzanne Collins
Gregor and the Marks of Secret by Suzanne Collins

Gregor and the Code of Claw by Suzanne Collins

This was sort of a transition year for us in our chapter book read-alouds. For awhile we’ve had a routine where I read one “special” book to each child at bedtime and also had one book going at lunchtime for all three to listen to. Over the past year it’s been clear that the books I’m reading to David and John are really being read to both of them. And somewhere mid-year we changed our routine so that we all read together on our bed instead of in the kids’ bedrooms. First we read Ruth’s book and then the boys’ book or books. Juggling three nighttime books has become a bit too much so we’ve gone to having just two, one for the boys and one for Ruth. David probably benefits the most from this as being the middle child he is is the most interested in both books.

It’s also been a year where it’s tougher to get the nighttime reading in, especially since they all want to listen to every book. I work one night a week. John is out late one night a week for Scouts. During basketball season there are night practices. During swim season there are swim meets. On the weekends we might choose to watch a movie instead of doing the nighttime reading. So it often is the case that we are reading maybe 4 nights out of 7. That’s ok but I might have to think about how we can change our routine to get more reading in. I’m thinking of having our nighttime reading be the same book as our lunchtime reading (something else that doesn’t happen daily).

Our two best reading experiences of the year were both through audiobooks. We spent months in the world of E.D. Baker, totally loving the princesses and dragons and princes we met there. We then spent the fall in Suzanne Collins’ Underland with Gregor the Overlander. Both were the best of a bookish family life: shared immersion in another world.

What’s next in 2015? The boys and I are currently reading Redwall (John and I for the second time, David for the first). Ruth and I are continuing to enjoy Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. And I have the first in the Sisters Grimm series on audiobook for listening the next time we go somewhere.

Stop by Hope is the Word for the first Read Aloud Thursday of 2015. Lots of reading lists today! Sure to be something that you can enjoy in the coming year.


2014 in Books

So, last year I made some bookish resolutions. And, as with most New Year’s Resolutions, I failed. I was going to read more, read more classics from the Well-Educated Mind list, read off my shelves/TBR list and blog more about what I read. As far as numbers I read about the same number of books (71). I forgot the classics resolution somewhere around Jan 7th and I still have shelves piled high with “someday” books and a TBR list that just keeps getting longer. And I blogged way less than I had in past years. So in some concrete ways, it was year of failure.

Ah well, it was fun trying. A year of reading is never really a failure, which is maybe why it’s my favorite pursuit. I always find it near impossible to name my favorite book of the year or the best book I read. Instead here are a few reflections on my year in books. If you’re interested the full list is here.

The Year of the Short Story

I have frequently stated that I’m not a fan of short stories. I appreciate the skill and craft, but I just like longer format fiction. This apparently was the year I decided to challenge that self-stated belief.

In all I read five collections of short stories this year:

Dear Life by Alice Munro
Bark by Lorrie Moore
Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist
Selected Short Stories by William Faulkner
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

I still think I prefer the longer form of a novel but I did learn to enjoy the short story more. I have several collections on my shelf  or TBR list to read in the coming year: Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol.

The Best 34 hours I Spent

Alternate title: That’s one way to get to the classics.
Other Alternate title: Best serendipity reading

Early in the year I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Somewhere in reading about it, I saw several references to David Copperfield. I love Dickens but had never read David Copperfield. I thought about reading it but it was the summer and I had a stack of books I needed to read in preparation for John’s 6th grade year. So I decided to listen to the audiobook. Twenty-seven CD’s and 34-some hours later and I was still loving Dicken’s creation.

I also read (and enjoyed) three other classics for the first time:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.

Truth is Better than Fiction (This Year, at least)

This year, the books that stood out for me the most were both non-fiction books. First, Lawrence Wright’s mind-blowing Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. If you were around me when I was reading this book, I apologize. I probably bored you with long experts or stories. It was that good. Crazy and spooky. But really, really good.

I also probably bored a lot of people with spy stories from my other great non-fiction read of the year: Ben MacIntyre’s A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. Spies and Scientologists both make for fascinating reading.

You Can Never Go Wrong Writing about Books

Nick Hornby’s Ten years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books is a collection of columns he wrote for The Believer magazine. The columns are a celebration of reading and books and especially of a particular kind of reading: reading for whimsy, reading for joy, reading what you want because you want it and because you like it. It would made a wonderful gift for anyone who loves books and reading.



And the one that negates that whole “no best book of the year thing”: 

Ok, I know I said I have a hard time picking my favorite book or best book of the year. But Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son was just so good that I’d have to say it would win. If there was a winner. I said it all in my earlier review so I’ll just point you back there.  And say that at the end of the year it still stands out as the top of the top for this year.