What I’m into… (November edition)

November is the last month before the whirlwind of the holidays begins. This year not only do we have family events every weekend in December, the 4th Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve both occur on the same day which means overtime for church musicians. It tires me just thinking about it.

Here is what I’m enjoying right now before the madness begins.

Bagged lettuce. My husband loves salad, but I hate making it. We’ve been married for 15 years which means I’ve felt guilty for 15 years for not making him salad more often. It turns out, all he wants is lettuce along with crunchy things (sesame seeds, bacon chips, croutons) and blue cheese salad dressing. If I buy bagged lettuce, he can have salad whenever he wants it.

Online grocery shopping. I resisted this for a long time because I couldn’t fathom letting someone else select my produce. Then our local grocer ran an ad where they offer $50 in free groceries if your placed a $200 order online. I ordered everything except produce and loved it. Now I just order the $100 minimum to avoid the $2.95 service fee. I place my online order while making my grocery list so it doesn’t take extra time. Even better – I’m not tempted to buy things I already have on hand since I’m standing in front of my pantry as I add them to my cart. I spend my extra time on shopping day reading a book at Starbucks while waiting for choir rehearsal to be over.

Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. It was one year ago this month that Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected President of United States. During the previous administration, any criticism of an idea espoused by the President earned one the title of Racist. Now we have a President whose behavior on Twitter is often cringeworthy. How can we come back together as a community rather than constantly being divided over idealogical battles? I’m anxious to hear Brown’s perspective on this.

Missa de Angelis. I am so excited to sing in the choir singing for a special mass for Christ the King at Cathedral in Lincoln. The Latin mass setting Missa de Angelis is beautiful but far too challenging for the average congregation. I found it on Spotify and have been playing it before school every morning so my children are familiar with it. Now I get to perform it along with other great music and talented singers.

Husker football. With the dismal season we’ve been having along with the firing and hiring of an Athletic Director, Husker football has become quite the drama. The last scheduled game of the season is the Friday after Thanksgiving. If they let the current coach go, it will likely be announced the next day. We are on the edge of our seats watching each game, wondering if the team will win and how it will affect the outcome. Ben and I will be ushering at the two home games if I can find clothes to stay warm enough. Go Big Red!

Stuhr Museum and Grand Island Public Library. Every school year I sign up our kids to take Nebraska history classes offered by the Stuhr Museum along with other homeschoolers. These living history classes are very well done. Since usually only one child is attending the class, the rest of us go to the Grand Island Public Library. Rather than getting rid of everything that starts to look a bit old as Lincoln seems to do, they have a wide ranging collection including books I’ve never heard of before but often turn out to be great treasures. For instance, they have a complete collection of all the Newberry Award Winners all shelved together. I so look forward to browsing their collection and savoring a few chapters of several new-to-me books. Caroline has one class this month and then we’re done until spring.

October 2017 Reads

A view of the Missouri River from Indian Cave State Park where Lewis & Clark would have traveled going north in 1804 and back south in 1806. 

The Trespasser | Tana French has been on hold in my Overdrive queue literally for months, including suspending the hold when I knew I didn’t have time to read it. It seemed a good fit for October, though, and I was not to be disappointed. Someone anonymously calls in a murder, and they put one of the female detectives on the case. The problem is, the scene is literally devoid of evidence. (Does that not scream inside job?) Detective Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve press on anyway and finally do get to the bottom of it. I listened to the audiobook which was about three times as long as it would have taken me to read it, but Hilda Fay’s Irish accent was totally worth it. I see more Tana French novels in my future.

Young Jane Young | Gabrielle Zevin was short and sweet after French’s novel. Aviva Grossman has an affair with a Senator from Florida that goes public in a bad way, so she changes her identity and heads to Maine where years later she ends up running for office, and guess what? Her past comes back to haunt her. The structure of the book was interesting as it was told from five different perspectives using five different narrative voices, include the choose-your-own-ending style in second person. The author interview for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club discussion was wonderful! If I’m in a funk and need something light and fluffy to read, I may read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by the same author. But neither book is something I would wait months for on a library hold list.

The Fact of a Body | Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is a memoir that was touted as a book where the author switches from anti- to pro-death penalty. I was hoping this would be an interesting corollary to Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It’s actually more of a memoir of how the author was sexually abused as a child told parallel with the story of a case in the Deep South where a pedophile with a severely disadvantaged childhood kills a 6-year-old boy and is sentenced to death. Another lawyer appeals the verdict and gets the sentence reduced to life; the author later interns for that same lawyer and that is where she becomes obsessed with the case. Details of the story are fairly graphic. The documentary parts of the book were excellent, the memoir was neither here nor there.

The Haunted Bookshop | Christopher Morley is a sequel to The Road to Parnassus which I breezed through at the end of August. Once again, it sounded like a fun book for October, and it did not disappoint. The plot was a clever and energetic, involving a bookseller, a disappearing book, and strange characters lurking about. It’s only 96 pages so another quick, refreshing read.

Undaunted Courage | Stephen Ambrose is one of the Geography selections for Year 9 of Ambleside Online. I started it at the beginning of the month with my other AO reads, but when I hit a wall with my reading mid-month, I kept plodding away at this one – all 521 pages of it. It is a well-researched narrative of not only the Lewis and Clark Expedition commissioned by Thomas Jefferson but a biography of Meriwether Lewis as well. The Expedition was the first American contact with the Indians west of the Mississippi and laid the foundation for what was to come. Indian Affairs were one of the toughest issues of the Jefferson Presidency. Ambrose includes vivid descriptions of what the Indians were like and the challenges they were facing when white men came along. If you have an opinion on the Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day debate, I highly recommend this book along with Crazy Horse by Mari Sandoz (August) and The Captured by Scott Zesch (January).

Something Wicked This Way Comes | Ray Bradbury is the second book in the Greentown Series, following Dandelion Wine (August). Late in October, long after carnival season is over, a different kind of carnival rolls into town. Two inquisitive boys discover that the carousel has magical powers – when someone rides it, each time it goes around they get one year older; if the ride goes backwards, the opposite happens. That and lots of other creepy things make for a good coming of age story and spooky October read. I listened to the audio version narrated by Christian Rummel.

Zen in the Art of Writing | Ray Bradbury is one of those writers-on-writing books I so love. I once tried to read Fahrenheit 451 but struggled to get through it, so I’ve never considered myself a big Bradbury fan. This book is excellent, both as an insight into the writing process as well as the story behind some of his most famous works. It’s a series of essays, and I savored them, reading one every day or two over a couple weeks.

Anne of Avonlea | L.M. Montgomery was our audiobook in the car for several weeks. This is not our first time through the series, but they never disappoint. We have the version narrated by Mary Sarah.

In addition to Undaunted Courage, I pre-read the following books for Ambleside Online Year 9.

Common Sense | Thomas Paine is especially interesting considering today’s political climate and President Trump’s relationship to the media. Paul Johnson comments in A History of the American People that America never would have won its independence had it not been for the feisty press and George Washington’s stubborn refusal to quit even though he never won any great victories as a general. The audio version narrated by Walter Dixon makes you feel like you were there in the midst of the debate.

Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia | Samuel Johnson is an adventure story Johnson wrote over the course of a week or so. Rasselas is a prince and thus has everything he could possibly want but nevertheless desires to go outside his kingdom in search of happiness. He meets people from all walks of life and sees many paths to happiness illustrated thereby. In the end, he returns to his own valley with a much wider perspective on happiness. The curiosity of both Rasselas and the Lewis & Clark Expedition about the world around them once again provides great fodder for the Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day debate.

She Stoops to Conquer | Oliver Goldsmith is a play with themes reminiscent of Jane Austen. Kate Hardcastle wishes Charles Marlow to woo her, but he is very uncomfortable around woman of her class while relatively at ease around women of lower class. So she “stoops” to conquer by posing as a maid in hopes to win his attentions. I listened to an audio version while reading the written version on my Kindle – the best way, in my opinion, to read plays without seeing them performed.

A Circle of Quiet

My old blog What a Life sort of died when I joined Facebook. When my kids did cute things, I shared them on Facebook rather than in a blog post. The response was bigger and instantaneous. So Facebook has been my main mode of online sharing for several years now.

But times have changed. I have other things to say. And I’ve long pondered bringing back the blog.

Three school-aged children in a household make for a whirlwind of activity. Scouts, choir, music lessons, and 4-H projects to say nothing of homeschooling keep me in a tailspin. So what I long for most right now is a circle of quiet.

Just a small one. A few precious moments when I can have my own thoughts and not be interrupted. Which is why I so loved Madeline L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet when I read it several years ago. Some people practice deep breathing, others practice yoga – just the sight of that book on my shelf calms me. Finding my own circle of quiet has become my lifeline.

So I carve out time in the early morning hours to read. My evenings at home are devoted to quiet reading time rather than surfing the web. I snatch moments here and there throughout the day when I can read. And think. And reflect.

I take walks. On the streets of our small town. On gravel roads at the edges of our town. On local trails. At Spring Creek Prairie (scene of the cover photo for this blog). I soak in the sunshine and quietly watch the seasons as they change.

Now I’m restarting my little garden of thoughts here on a new blog with a new name. I’ve brought with me my posts from the past year about what I read each month – posts which have been the seed for this new blog.

And I have hope that this blog will be about more than just what I’ve been reading. That it will be a place for thought and reflection as well.

Yes, my own little circle of quiet.

September 2017 Reads

September is one of the busiest months of my year. It didn’t seem to slow down my reading, though. I listened to Dan Harris interview Gretchen Rubin on his podcast 10% Happier (September 13) where he commented in passing that he meditates for 2 hours a day. Not all at once, of course. He laughed and mentioned the saying, “If you don’t have time to meditate for 20 minutes, then you need to meditate for an hour.” I’ve never been one to meditate – I think I lasted no more than 30 seconds the few times I’ve tried it. However, books, I believe, serve me as meditation serves him.

Parnassus on Wheels | Christopher Morley This book was a hoot. The plot was fast paced with great twists and turns. If you’re tired of the daily grind and want to escape, it’s the perfect remedy. Written in 1917 shortly before the 19th Amendment was passed allowing women to vote, it’s a charming tale of a woman who drops everything to buy a traveling bookstore and the adventures that follow. If you love books, this one is not to miss.

A Gentleman in Moscow | Amor Towles This was the MMD book club selection for September 2016 and the 2017 One Book One Lincoln selection. A gentleman is sentenced to life in a luxury hotel – if he steps outside, he will be shot. Early in the book someone asks him about his plight and he says it is a question of whether one resigns or reconciles himself to his fate. He chose the latter, and the tale of interesting things that happened over the years makes for a very engaging read.

Jude the Obscure | Thomas Hardy One of the hosts of the Close Reads podcast was debating what to read while on a vacation in Aruba and chose this book, so I decided to read it as well. I feared it would be a slog but found it to be quite otherwise. It is rather depressing, filled with cycle after cycle of painful hesitation and bad choices. Yet I know people who have made poor choices and then tried to make better choices and only caused themselves more grief just like the characters in this book. For me, it was a gripping tale of woe. Ironically, the Close Reads podcast host hated it so much he quit before finishing it. I found that rather amusing.

Crossing to Safety | Wallace Stegner This was the MMD book club selection for September 2017. At the book discussion, Anne said she had two groups of people emailing her about the book – those who hated the characters and didn’t understand why she thought it was such a great book and those who loved it and were utterly distressed at seeing others bash it in the book club forum. For me, this book brought out all the feelings. It is the story of the friendship between two couples where one has money and the other seemingly has nothing to offer but somehow the friendship works and stands the test of time. Those who hated the book thought that one of the wives was terribly overbearing toward her husband; however, in light of Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, The Four Tendencies, I thought he was an Obliger who saw in his wife great ideas that he wouldn’t otherwise follow through on, though he occasionally lapsed into Obliger rebellion, writing poems when he was supposed to be writing things to publish that would help him get tenure.

The Four Tendencies | Gretchen Rubin I loved Gretchen’s book Better Than Before on habits where she first presented the idea of the four tendencies so I pre-ordered this months ago and have been anxiously awaiting its arrival. Gretchen defines two types of expectations – outer and inner – and categorizes people by how they respond to each. Upholders do well with both, Rebels hate both, Questioners follow inner expectations but struggle with outer, and Obligers follow outer expectations but struggle with inner. She describes not only the pros and cons of each type but how they interact with each other as well. Gretchen mentioned on her blog that her publisher had her remove many of the anecdotes and how difficult that was for her; in my opinion, the book had good information but felt stripped down and read more like an encyclopedia due to overzealous editing. Still a good read well worth your time.

Out of the Dust | Karen Hesse This won the 1998 Newberry medal which is awarded to children’s literature. It was okay. The story is set in the dust bowl years of the Depression and is written in freestyle poetry. I read so much history and classic literature that I often struggle with historical fiction and modern children’s books. Historical fiction imposes todays notions on the people of yesterday, and today’s children’s books seem simple and almost mind-numbing at times. If my kids find this book and want to read it, I won’t object, but it’s not one I will seek out and recommend.

Still Alice | Lisa Genova This novel tells the story of a woman with early onset Alzheimers. It’s told in third person but is limited to the point of view of Alice, a Harvard professor and mother of three children, who notices the symptoms in herself, wonders what they are and then learns her diagnosis without telling anyone in her family. The book follows her life as she tells her family, lives with the disease, steps back from her job, and then no longer knows her children. It is heartbreaking and so very well done. My grandmother and both of her parents died of Alzheimers (though not early onset) so I may be dealing with this myself at some point, either with a parent or myself. This is a must-read if you know anyone affected by Alzheimers. I listened to the audio version which was excellent.

Reading People | Anne Bogel Yes – that’s Anne Bogel of the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog and book club and the What Should I Read Next podcast of which I so often speak. Reading People is a survey of various personality theories from introvert/extravert to MTBI to enneagram. If you’ve heard of these things but aren’t sure if you really want to take the time to delve deeper (that would be the whole enneagram thing for me), Anne has gives a friendly, chatty overview of what they are and her experience with them. I’m still not sure if I want to read a book about the enneagram, but I think I have figured out my type, and I will say her description of what it’s like to learn your enneagram type was right on (it’s not fun but can be really helpful). If nothing else, I now have a better idea of what people are talking about when these things are referred to in conversation.

The Asshole Survival Guide | Robert I. Sutton Another new release this month, this book was so worth the wait. The a-word in the title may turn you off, but while the term is used throughout the book, that’s as far as it goes (aka it’s not the Howard Stern show when it comes to language). While focusing mainly on the workplace, Sutton has chapters on the various options when it comes to dealing with that person who drives you crazy – from leaving to reframing to dishing it right back to them – and the possible outcomes of each strategy. I checked this out from the library but may end up purchasing it as the advice is excellent and I have a feeling I’ll be returning to it again and again.

Father Elijah | Michael D. O’Brien This book was a Modern Mrs. Darcy book club community pick, and another book in the same series, Strangers and Sojourners, is the January 2018 selection for the Well Read Mom. It is a thriller and apocalyptic novel that follows the pattern of Elijah and King Ahab in the Bible with Elijah being a Catholic priest sent as a representative from the papacy to the Ahab of the story – a charismatic leader trying to unite Europe and bring in a new age. It felt like an average movie – little depth, mostly plot, lots of twists. It was okay. I hope I like Strangers and Sojourners better, but I won’t hold my breath.

Emma | Jane Austen I listened to the audio version of this read by one of my favorite narrators – Juliet Stevenson. But even Juliet Stevenson couldn’t make me like this Jane Austen novel as much as I like Pride and Prejudice. It’s classic Jane Austen with lots of matchmaking, but Pride and Prejudice pits pride against prejudice whereas Emma is just a one woman trying – and perpetually failing – to set up successful matches between her friends. Even Sense and Sensibility was better than this, though it took a solid second place to Pride and Prejudice which I’ve read more than once and will most certainly read again.

Gilead | Marilynne Robinson This book has long been on my must-read-someday list; I finally got the push I needed when the Close Reads podcast did a series on it and the Well Read Mom selected it for September 2017. Reverend Ames is growing old and writes a letter with anecdotes and advice for his young son (born late in age) who will likely grow up without him. He tells family stories as well as the story of a fellow parson in town whose son is currently in town and spending a lot of time at the Ames home. Like Housekeeping the story builds slowly and it isn’t until you get to the last 20 pages that it all begins to fit together. I listened to the audio version narrated by Tim Jerome – I would literally sit outside on our deck and just listen as though I were listening to an old man reminisce about his life. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have every intention of reading Home and Lila by Robinson as well. Soon.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s | Truman Capote It reminded me of On the Road by Jack Kerouac, The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and perhaps even Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. Told from the perspective of a neighbor, the novella focuses on Holly, a young woman trying to live a glamorous life during the World War II era. I listened to the audio version all in one day which made for a delightful rabbit trail at the end of the month. I liked it well enough that I intend to watch the movie when I get a chance.

The Professor’s House | Willa Cather This is a very character-driven story about a professor in his fifties who upgrades to a new house but continues to rent the old just so he can finish writing his book in his old story, or so he says. His two daughters are grown and married but still live in town and are close to his wife while he quietly fades from the family scene. A very moving portrait of a man in the later chapters of life. I read O Pioneers! and My Antonia several years ago, but I loved Cather even more when I read Shadows on a Rock more recently. This book took my love of Cather to a whole new level. I’ll be re-reading O Pioneers! next month as it is the October 2018 selection for the Well Read Mom – it will be interesting to see if my opinion of it changes.

Now for school related selections:

Tree of Freedom | Rebecca Caudill This was our first read aloud for the new school year. Set around the time of the American Revolution, the Venable family travels from North Caroline to Kentucky to start a new life. But life isn’t necessarily easier – there are Indians, a man called Frohawk who claims rights to their land, and the unknown future of the colonies as they struggle against British rule. A great portrait of life on the frontier when the frontier was still in the woods and hadn’t reached the prairie yet.

And books I’m pre-reading for Ambleside Year 9.

The Colonial Experience | Clarence B. Carson This is one of the history options for Year 9 – a choice would need to be made between this and Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. Carson is far more theoretical. For instance, he defines mercantilism over several pages and then lists general examples of it during the 18th century whereas Johnson spends most of his time telling engaging stories and then adeptly ties them together into a related thread. One one hand, Carson is more abstract than Johnson; on the other hand, Johnson occasionally throws in offhand comments in passing based on assumptions that I didn’t necessarily agree with. I didn’t like Carson well enough to use his work instead of Johnson so will likely stick with Johnson from this point forward.

Washington: The Indispensable Man |  James Thomas Flexner Ambleside lists several options for biographies of George Washington. I chose this one because it received a Pulitzer Prize citation and National Book Award for its concluding installment and was said to be the most balanced by Washington biography enthusiasts. That said, it was tiresome to read, and I really struggled to get through it. It seemed to portray Washington as a bumbling idiot who was only successful by the occasional stroke of luck. I think if it were an autobiography, it would have been fine because I would have viewed it as written by a humble man who underestimated his role in history. But as a biography, it seemed to be overly negative. Yes, making mistakes is part of the story and shouldn’t be ignored, but life is more than just mistakes and dumb luck. After 392 pages of this, I’m rather burned out on George Washington right now. But I may read another biography of him at some point just for perspective and as an alternate option.

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Having just read James Daughtery’s Poor Richard aloud for year 4, the first part of this book was nothing new and only emphasized the quality of Daughtery’s work. Franklin’s autobiography only goes through the middle of his life, leaving out his important work as a representative of the United States overseas after the Declaration of Independence, which Daughtery covers so well. Franklin’s version gets a bit tedious with his work for education and science – a good example of how time and distance lend perspective and make for a better story. So while this was good, I wouldn’t put it at the top of the list of biographies for a student to read in year 9, especially if they’ve already read Daughtery’s biography in year 4.

The Problem of Pain | C. S. Lewis I loved this book when I read it in college (on my own time, not for class). I wholly believe in the importance and quality of this work, but the problem of pain isn’t a pressing issue for me at the moment so I struggled to care about what Lewis was trying to say. Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I still think it’s definitely a not-to-miss selection for high school students sorting through and defining their philosophy of life.

Isaac Bickerstaff, physician and astrologer |  Richard Steele This little journal-style piece about Mr. Bickerstaff read to me like something someone might have written when the invention of the printing press was still fairly new and they were trying to figure out what to do with its potential. It talks about daily life during 18th century England and probably wouldn’t be notable except that it was one of the few things published then that has been preserved over the centuries. Generally lacking in plot as a whole, the little vignettes were interesting none the less.

August 2017 Reads

Earlier in August, Anne Bogel wrote a blogpost Does your reading list embarrass you sometimes? Yes, it does. But not necessarily in the ways she describes.

I’m a member of several book groups online. In The Book Club everyone seems to be reading the latest fiction – granted, more literary in nature yet very here today, gone tomorrow. I’m so not one of those readers yet I like to read the occasional new release and am always in search of those that stand out from the crowd (hence my love of the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club). Close Reads and the Well Read Mom are definitely on the more serious side, as is the Potato Peel Society. I would love for my reading list to look like those of Laura Vanderkam or Gretchen Rubin – more thoughtful stuff both classic and more current. On one hand, I feel like I don’t have time for serious books (how many months has Emma by Jane Austen been on my list and I still haven’t gotten to it?) and yet that seems light compared to the stuff I pre-read for school (listed at the bottom of this post as it’s what I find most embarrassing because everyone else is not reading those types of books). But I digress.

Here is what I read during the month of August – the good, the bad…and the embarrassing.

Crazy Horse by Mari Sandoz is the book group selection for our community library in September. There are so many books out now trying to re-educate us on how horrid the white people were to the Indians, how evil Christopher Columbus was, etc. I’m not one for the rewriting of history though I do understand that much of what we have passed down through the generations is written from the white man’s perspective and reflects that bias. This book is about the famous Oglala Indian warrior Crazy Horse. In 1930 Mari Sandoz made a 3000 mile trip through the Sioux country, visiting key Indian sites and interviewing friends and relatives of Crazy Horse. This book is written from the Indian perspective, and when she describes what things were like, it’s based on what she was told from those who lived it. There were white men who did stupid things. There were Indians who did stupid things. Largely both groups meant well, but those stupid things caused a lot of problems and led to a lot of grief on both sides. If you want to be well-informed about the struggle between the white man and the Indians, this book should be a cornerstone of what you read. 5 stars

I pre-ordered The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher before it was published in March 2017 but only now finally got around to reading it. I’ve read the Rules of St. Benedict and loved Rod’s book How Dante Saved My Life. This book was sort of a different note – Rod takes the story of St. Benedict and uses it as a model for how Christians might respond to a society that is once again (as in St. Benedict’s day) becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity. The concept that your home is a monastery is not new to me – had it not been for the monasteries, the classics would not have survived. It was the monks who carefully copied the classics while also spending their time doing physical labor (necessary for survival) and caring for the poor and needy. That pattern for living is well worth considering. At the same time, in order to make his case, he has to talk about the difficulties Christians face in today’s society, which isn’t exactly pleasant to think about. Lots of good fodder for thought though definitely not the last word on this topic. 4 stars

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollara has received great acclaim in conservative scholarly circles because it supposedly is about a small town living out the Benedict Option described by Dreher. The highly educated Miss Prim goes to serve as a librarian for a gentleman in a small town. Her boss has a group of children to whom he is teaching the classics, obviously very different from what she is accustomed. The premise sounds great and the first few chapters were good. But the social life of the town – oh my! They have these social groups that get together to meet and at one of them, an item on their agenda is making a short list of candidates for a certain person to marry. That is the point where the book became absurd and it only went downhill from there. It reminded me of those books which are written to illustrate a certain Godly characteristic (e.g. “having faith” or “being kind”) in which the characters don’t act like anyone in real life acts ever. Or, as I say about many current fiction selections: very plot-driven with little substance to support the plot. 1 star

Deep Work by Cal Newport has been in my reading queue for quite a while. It popped up again when I read a negative review about how he was able to focus and do “deep work” only because he had a spouse at home caring for the children while he pursued his career. I love it when I can completely immerse myself in a project and long to do more of that – not being able to do that anymore was the hardest adjustment when I became a mother and left the workplace. I’m always trying to find ways to focus more and waste less time on distraction. My take from this book was completely different from that review. My kids are still all at home since they are homeschooled, but they are all school age which makes a big difference. I already do many of the things Newport talked about, there were many I could certainly do more so, and none of his methods were really that far fetched if I set my mind to it. My secret fantasy is to go on a retreat where I have peace and quiet for several days and can immerse myself in whatever projects I wish. Yes, I did say “fantasy” but Newport and I are on the same track. The methods he speaks of in this book happen to be how I get so much reading done (and not just light reading). This is a book I will return to again and again as a model for how I like to work. 5 stars

Food Rules by Michael Pollan was a re-read. When I purchased it a couple years ago, I found it disappointing in that it was just a summary of his other works which I had recently read. But now it served its purpose well as a quick review of what I loved so much in his books. 5 stars

On the Way Home by Laura Ingalls Wilder. On our recent trip to Oklahoma, we stopped at where they believe the Ingalls family lived in the book Little House on the Priarie just north of the Oklahoma-Kansas state line. This book was about their move from South Dakota to Missouri after all of the stories in the Little House series. It was short, composed mainly of Laura’s diary on the trip. Then Rose finishes the rest of the story at the end. Knowing many of the places on their route as I do, it was very interesting to hear Laura’s opinion on them. Once again, I love reading about times past written by the people who lived them. 5 stars

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh was the Close Reads podcast selection over the summer months. I had read it previously but once again enjoyed it immensely. The podcast brought out a lot of symbolism and underlying themes that I hadn’t directly identified in my first read, though I’m sure I absorbed many of the ideas indirectly. I listened to the audio version narrated by Jeromy Irons both times: that good. 5 stars

Return of the King [Lord of the Rings trilogy book 3] by J. R. R. Tolkien. Gollum was so annoying to me the first time I read the series that’d I’d pretty much forgotten most of the rest of the story. This read turned out to be quite fascinating – Gollum didn’t overtake the book so much as much as I thought, and I really enjoyed the parts without him (and actually didn’t mind him so much when he was there). Such an epic adventure. 5 stars

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I have always wanted to read Robinson’s works but just never got to them. Now the Well Read Mom and Close Reads are both doing Gilead so I read this to get a feel for her work before diving into Gilead. I listened to the audio version and then I would go back and read portions of it again on my Kindle because it was just so beautifully written. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work (and not just Gilead). 5 stars

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury was my last-fling-at-the-end-of-the-summer read. Supposedly semi-biographical, the novel is set in small town America the summer of 1928 following boys young enough to still have their freedom but old enough to be coming of age. I listened to the audio version narrated by Paul Michael Garcia (love the cover!). Great book to listen to while you sit out on your patio on a summer evening savoring a glass of wine. I’ve added Something Wicked This Way Comes (next book in the series) to my short-list for October. 5 stars

Now, switching gears to books from term 1 of year 9 for Ambleside Online.

For history this month, I read the first six chapters of The Age of Revolution by Winston Churchill. This is the third book in the series and is read over the entire year. Usually at this point in history, we turn to America and all that was happening in the colonies. It was fascinating to read about what was going on in England at the time and how little mention was made of the budding colonies across the ocean. I’ve enjoyed Churchill’s previous works – this one is no exception. 5 stars

The biography Peter the Great by Jacob S. C. Abbott opened my eyes to part of Russian history of which I was largely unaware. Abbott is very engaging and interesting – I read his biography of Charles II while camping one weekend. Peter the Great was a tyrant in many ways and yet had an obsession with improving his country. He traveled incognito to Europe and learned many things during his travels that he brought back home and implemented. Abbott also told of the city of St. Petersburg which Peter founded as a strategic maneuver in his battles with Finland – if you look at the city on Google Earth, you can see many of the geographical features Abbott mentions as important to the founding of the city. 5 stars

From London to Land’s End by Daniel Defoe describes the cities between London and Land’s End on the southeast corner of England. As I read, I followed along on Google Earth and “saw” many of the places he mentioned. For instance, he would talk about cities that were accessible by river or towns on the coast with rocks on which ships were lost and I could see exactly what he was talking about. It was a fun little tour of life in southern England during the early 18th century. 5 stars

The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot. I must confess I know relatively little of the structure of British government beyond the fact that the royal family was once very powerful but is largely symbolic today. The study of English history serves as a great backdrop to American history and the development of the American Constitution, but beyond that, I know little. This book was written during the late 19th century by a man who believed the English Constitution to be superior to any other government, including America. He describes various aspects of the English Constitution, contrasting them to the “inferior” American Constitution. This book is a goldmine for pondering why government is structured the way it is and what really works best in practice. It’s one I could teach every year for many years and learn something new every time. 5 stars

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift was a book I knew of but had never actually read. The book is hilarious in so many ways and yet gives a very thoughtful look at the structure of society especially in terms of visiting places where things are done differently. As I read it, I kept thinking of how Caroline and Joey howled with laughter at books like PinocchioPippi Longstocking and 21 Days in a Balloon and wondering why it wasn’t scheduled earlier when kids would really enjoy the humor of the book. Rose Wilder happened to mention it in On the Way Home as a book she read once she had completed the Third McGuffey Reader (so about halfway through her schooling). But then I saw that Ambleside Online has a footnote warning parents about questionable content in a chapter in book 2 where he is a tiny person and the people he visits are giants and the nurses cradle him with skin-to-skin contact between their breasts. I had to go back and read that part to see what they were talking about – when I read it, it had simply reminded me of skin-to-skin contact with babies immediately after birth in natural birthing literature so I thought nothing of it. Yes, I have met homeschool mothers who would be hysterical about their children being exposed to such risqué content, but I obviously am not one of them (or maybe I didn’t re-read far enough? – still, I thought nothing of it when I read it). When I watched Three’s Company as a kid, it was just a show about silly misunderstandings; when I watch it today, I see so many levels I was completely oblivious to as a kid. I must confess, I still may play the audiobook [performed by David Hyde Pierce] just to hear my kids laugh at the funny parts while they’re still young enough to not take it so seriously. 5 stars

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler. Ambleside Online spreads this book over several years, but this month I decided to go ahead and just finish it. He talks about the three levels of reading, not unlike the grammar, logic and rhetorical stages of classical learning. Then he applies his method to various genres of books. His method focuses mostly on nonfiction rather than fiction and is very scholarly in it’s approach. If you’re writing a research paper, this type of reading will serve you well. Susan Wise Bauer prescribes a similar method in her book The Well Educated Mind. I’m sure I would get more out of all of the books we do for school if I read them several times as Adler and Bauer recommend. That said, a lot of all three levels of reading can be done at once if you proceed slowly and don’t just inhale a book. Books that merit this type of deep reading aren’t necessarily exhausted after the third reading. 5 stars

July 2017 Reads (finally!)

I read a lot in July. My oldest was detasseling so I was going to bed at 8 PM and getting up at 4 AM which meant lots of early morning reading. July is also our quietest month for activities, in contrast to August, September and October which are by far the busiest.

I’m going to start with the light reads and progressively work toward the more scholarly stuff.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver sounded like a great summer read. The Poisonwood Bible is one of my all-time favorites. In contrast, I so wanted to love Animal, Vegetable, Miracle but ended up quitting it after about 20% – I loved the memoir part but detested the condescending preaching. Since this book was written earlier, I was hoping it would be more like the former and less like the latter. It was in the middle. There were fabulous scenes from the Appalachians which I loved, but the plot line was composed of three different environmentalists and their difficulties getting others to accept their obtuse beliefs. Two of them were pushing the idea that getting rid of “bad” things – be it wolves or spraying crops for insects and weeds – actually makes them more prolific. If that notion were true, extinction would be a non-issue. The scenery and other aspects of the plot were good enough for me to finish the book, but just barely. 1 star (ouch!)

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson was the last of the five Modern Mrs. Darcy book club picks for the summer and featured an author interview at the discussion. If you like lots of plot, this book is for you. I think lots of plot easily goes over the top and this book was not immune to that tendency. There was enough plot fodder in this book for at least six books which means lots of things happened but nothing was really given more than cursory treatment. The author interview was great, though. 3 stars

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles has gotten lots of acclaim and is a previous Modern Mrs. Darcy book club flight pick. I listened to the audio version on Overdrive. It reminded me a lot of Everyone Brave Is Forgiven where you have young adults wandering aimlessly as they to find their place in this world. I think The Great Gatsby or Rebecca do a much better job at this type of story. 3 stars.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood is a gripping story about a neglected child who finally receives attention to some of her basic needs (think groceries, someone paying attention to how she is doing in school) from one of her father’s employees. Their relationship evolves as she grows up and then tragedy strikes. Very engrossing story that will challenge many notions behind laws purported to protect children. 5 stars

Truth and Beauty by Anne Patchett is the memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy whose face was disfigured due to cancer. Anne is sort of the dull steady person in the friendship while Lucy is very colorful. Having been that dull, steady person in friendships myself, I really enjoyed watching how the story unfolded from Anne’s perspective. 5 stars

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty was another fascinating non-fiction read. Caitlin works in a crematorium and gives a behind-the-scenes look and history of the funeral industry and how we deal with human remains in our society. The both is both interesting for its detail as well as its thoughtful reflection on the issues she brings up. 4 stars

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris definitely lives up to its title (which I think rather clever). She starts out with the theory of cognitive dissonance (nothing new there) but takes it and applies it to many settings that make you think twice about the stories people tell – from stories told by therapists and social workers regarding abuse to police officers confidence that they have the right guy, and, of course, politicians. After reading this book, you will never see conflict in the same way again. 5 stars

Moonglow by Michael Chabon was one of three selections for One Book One Lincoln. The other two selections are Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (which I own but haven’t yet read) and A Gentleman in Moscow (a previous Modern Mrs. Darcy book club selection which I intend to read). I reserved this right after they announced the titles and my turn came up in the library queue rather quickly (I suspect others thought it sounded the least interesting of the three as I did). It ended up being the only one of the three I managed to read, but I enjoyed it immensely. The memoir-style novel tells the story of his grandfather’s life as his grandfather talks in his last days while under the influence of drugs which make him spill details he had never shared. The plot line meanders as it would when the story came out in bits and pieces like that, but it is fascinating just the same. I voted it my favorite of the three – the winner is to be announced Labor Day weekend. 5 stars

The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough was a selection of one of the book groups I’m a member of on Facebook. I’d heard of it and wanted to read it but just never had. I so loved this book! It is an epic saga of a family in Australia mainly during the first half of the 20th century. If I had to describe my ideal plot line, it would be a book like this where you get to know several characters in a family as events unfold over their lifespan. Heavy on character development but not without a good plot line, I can’t believe I didn’t discover this one earlier. 5 stars

Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge is set in colonial Australia and tells the story of an imperfect marriage. William meets Marianne and Marguerite in England during their youth and then leaves to serve in the navy. He ends up in Australia and writes home to ask for the hand of one of the girls. The problem? He names the wrong girl. He marries her and they make the best of it, though she really is a tough woman to love. A very insightful look at the hard parts of marriage. This was a Well Read Mom summer selection. 5 stars

I finished The Two Towers, the second in the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien and another Well Read Mom selection. This is a re-read for me. I just detest that Gollam creature and his raspy “my precious” so I kind of dragged my feet on this one. I kept bracing myself for that, but there was a lot less of it than I remembered (or, I’m really in for it in the last book of the trilogy). More to come…

I began pre-reading Ambleside Online Year 9 with A History of the American People by Paul Johnson. Granted, I only read the first chapter which applies to the term I’m currently reading. None the less, it was a fascinating read. Between my own schooling and homeschooling my kids, I’ve studied enough American history over the years to notice subtle variations in how events are presented. This version is very readable but definitely made me do a double-take several times. I’m looking forward to reading it over the next several years.

Longitude by David Sobel is a geography selection in year 9 of Ambleside Online. Sailors could use the stars to determine how far north and south they were, but when it came to east and west, they could easily be off by 50 or 60 miles which could mean missing their destination or crashing on a reef. This book tells the story of the various attempts to solve this problem and how they came to be accepted (it wasn’t straightforward as you might think). 5 stars

Are You a Liberal? Conservative? Or Confused? by Richard Maybury is the third book by this author included in the Ambleside Online curriculum. Easy to read and entertaining, it is also very thought provoking regardless of whether you agree with his views. Recommended reading for everyone. 5 stars

Days with Sir Roger de Coverley by Richard Steele was one of several literature selections for the first term of Ambleside Online Year 9 that I read this month. The narrator goes to visit Sir Roger de Coverley and accompanies him for several weeks and then writes about various aspects of his life, giving an intimate glimpse of life during the late 17th and early 18th century in England. Very short at only 27 pages but a treasure. 5 stars

Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift is one of three books by this author studied during this term. This short piece is a rather comical view of the classics vs more current books. The same could be said today of books written in the last 20 years vs ones that have proven themselves over time. Very entertaining, more so depending on your familiarity with the great classics. 5 stars

While I see the relevance of Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift, I did not enjoy reading it. Prior to the invention of the press, only the very best was tediously copied and made into books, but once the press came along, it seemed anything was worth printing, be it good or bad. Swift poked fun at this by writing a book that is basically complete nonsense. Needless to say, I did NOT enjoy reading it. Usually I just do Ambleside Online as written, but I am actually on the fence as to whether to require my children to read this one. I about choked on it myself. 1 star (and yet at the same 5 stars for making a very good point – not a book I will soon forget)

The God Who Is There by Francis Shaeffer is a devotional for year 9 of Ambleside online. This work is a very intellectual take on 20th century thought and how it has affected Christianity and the challenges of evangelism in today’s intellectual climate. Not a light read but very insightful. Lots of fodder for thought. 5 stars

How I Completed the #24in48 Readathon (and how I find time to read)

This weekend I participated in the #24in48 Readathon. Basically, it’s a challenge to read for 24 hours over 2 days (48 hours). There were even prizes. In fact, I won a doorprize during hour 27. When I told Steve about my plans at supper Friday evening, he told me I totally made it up just so I could have a quiet weekend. Then Joey and Caroline said they wanted to do it too, which made the weekend that much quieter.

People often wonder how bookworms find so much time to read. 24in48 was quite a challenge so I tracked not only how much I read but how I did it.

Saturday

Ben is detaselling this month, and I have been the one to get up and drive him to the bus every morning. So my reading began around 4 a.m. Saturday with an audiobook. Steve was also leaving early to inspect fields, and he cooks breakfast before he leaves, which takes a bit longer. Thus my first reading chunk was the last 45 minutes of the audiobook Moonglow by Michael Chabon (finished it) and the beginning of The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson. I listened to both via Overdrive which divides the book into files so you only know how much time you have left in the current file vs the entire book as with Audible. So I listened to the last file of Moonglow and the first file of The Almost Sisters for a total of 1:15.

At that point, I had a quiet house all to myself so I switched gears to deep reading per my usual morning routine. I’m currently working on Ambleside Online Year 9 (my oldest is in year 8 so I’m reading ahead). The Charlotte Mason approach to education emphasizes reading in small chunks and going through books slowly in order to digest them properly (vs inhaling them as can be done with lighter works). I read a chapter in The God Who Is There by Francis Shaeffer, a couple chapters in Are You a Liberal? Conservative? or Confused? by Richard Mayberry, and then a bit of Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift. That took about 45 minutes.

I decided I was hungry and ready to make breakfast so I moved on to Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, which I listened to on the Audible app on my iPhone with my bluetooth earbuds. I’m reading this along with the Close Reads podcast. I read the next chapter so I was ready to listen to the next podcast. But alas! the podcast had to wait until the #24in48 challenge was over. Another 45 minutes tallied.

After that it was time for a shower. I listened to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty on the Audible app with the little speaker Steve brought home from one of his work conferences (the best gift ever!) while I dressed and made the bed.  That chapter took about 25 minutes, after which I stopped reading to blow dry my hair.

At this point, Joey and Caroline were up and eating breakfast so I returned to The Almost Sisters with my earbuds while they made pancakes. I had flute choir rehearsal at 9 a.m. Joey and Caroline (ages 10 and 7) had to go along, and since they were doing the challenge with me, we all listened to audiobooks in the car with headphones. It made for a very quiet ride. On the way to rehearsal, I finished one file of The Almost Sisters – another 60 minutes tallied – and switched back to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. I popped my earbuds out right as I walked into the rehearsal room, and then I finished that chapter on the way home for another 30 minutes logged.

Now the only thing that might be worse than getting up at 4 a.m. to get your kid off for detasseling is having to keep checking Facebook to see when they are returning. Each field is different, so they come back at a different time every day, usually somewhere between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. I ate lunch and did some knitting and spinning while listening to three files from The Almost Sisters. Once the return time was posted, I removed my earbuds and read Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge for 20 minutes, bringing up my total so far to 7 hours 35 minutes.

When I left to get Ben, I started another chapter in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. One 25 minute chapter was perfect for driving to get him, waiting for him (return time is always approximate) and then driving back home. After that, I took advantage of a very quiet house to read Green Dolphin Street for an hour and twenty minutes.

At this point, I was starting to tire so I changed to something much lighter – Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris. Each chapter covers one type of error but has many examples, some of them quite humorous. The principles aren’t anything new – like cognitive dissonance – but thinking of them in light of current events makes for good reading. It would soon be time to start supper but it was still quiet so I squeezed in a short chapter from Minds More Awake by Anne White (definitely more serious) to add 15 more minutes to my tally before heading to the kitchen.

I popped my earbuds back in and made supper while listening to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, listening to a second chapter from the same while the kids cleaned the kitchen. That brought my total to 11 hours shortly before 7 p.m. I got ready for bed and read for an hour before turning out the light at 8 p.m. (a necessary hour when rising so early). Since it was quiet, I returned to heavier reading with a couple selections from Ambleside Online Year 9 – a couple chapters from History of English Literature by H. E. Marshall on my Kindle for a half hour followed by listening to a half hour chapter from How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler via Audible.

Stats for the first day: 12 hours with 12 books, of which 8 hours were logged listening to audiobooks. Top three books: The Almost Sisters (about 4 hours) followed by Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Green Dolphin Street (about 2 hours each).

Sunday

Once again I arose around 4 a.m. and started with an audiobook. I listened to half of a file from The Almost Sisters (30 min) but decided the reading was too light for that hour so switched Ambleside Online readings, beginning with How to Read a Book for about 15 minutes. Then I got really serious and listened to the headache-enducing Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift for 25 minutes. At that point, Ben was gone and Steve wasn’t working so he was still sleeping, meaning I had a quiet house to myself once again. I removed my earbuds and read Battle of the Books for 20 minutes, Minds More Awake for 15 minutes, and made another attempt at Tale of a Tub (this time on my Kindle) for 15 minutes.

I really am not enjoying Tale of a Tub. So I made a dramatic switch and read a 35-minute chapter of the highly entertaining Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). Just one chapter provided lots of fodder for thought so I stopped and took a shower. I listened to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes while making and eating breakfast then stopped reading to dry my hair. After that, it was listening to The Almost Sisters during the chaos of everyone else eating breakfast and getting ready for church.

Once we returned home, I listened to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes while making and eating lunch. Then I listened to The Almost Sisters on my little speaker next to my spinning wheel while waiting for Ben. I picked Ben up, switched from spinning to plying then back to spinning. I made supper. I stopped listening during supper, at which point I knew I could take a 20 minute break and finish my 24 hours of reading by 8 p.m. while simultaneously finishing The Almost Sisters, which is exactly what I did.

Stats for the second day: 12 hours with 8 books, of which over 10 hours were logged listening to audiobooks. Top book was The Almost Sisters (almost 9 hours) with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes trailing far behind with just a little over an hour.

So how do I find time to read so many books every month? A few key observations.

I tackle the tough books first thing in the morning while I’m at my best (yup, morning person here). As the day progresses and my ability to focus wanes (both to fatigue and the amount of chaos in a home with three kids), I switch to lighter books. Even then, there are times when the house is quiet and I can read slower, deeper books like Green Dolphin Street. There are also times when I’m just tired and need something light and entertaining, such as Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) [that title makes me laugh every time I see it]. I also read more serious books during the week and lighter books on the weekend just to keep things fresh.

I love reading books on my Kindle. I love that I have all my books at my fingertips which means I don’t have to remember where I left a book, much less get up to retrieve it. I love that I can just close it and it remembers right where I stopped (which can lead to problems when reading hard copies…). I love that I can read in bed without doing acrobatics to hold the book open so I can see it. And I so love that it tells much how much time I have left in a chapter (this really helps me stay focused rather than counting – and recounting – how many more pages are left in the chapter and calculating – and re-calculating – how much more time it should take to finish).

My Kindle also tells me how much time I have left in a book (not just the current chapter) as well as how long the typical reader spends reading a given book. I’ve learned that it takes me about 80% as long as the typical reader to read a book while audiobooks take 2 to 3 times as long to listen to as to read. Therefore I only listen to audiobooks which I think make a book better than it would be if I just read it myself. It goes without saying that I do not bump up the speed on audiobooks just to get through them. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Also, if I really want to pay attention to a book or if it is particularly challenging, the perfect combination is often audiobook with spinning or knitting.

Audiobooks make it possible for me to read when I otherwise couldn’t be reading, thus greatly extending my reading time. Audiobooks (and podcasts) are great during mundane tasks such as cooking, driving, doing things around the house, exercising, and even running errands. For this challenge, had I not had audiobooks, I might have read for 8 hours a day but that would have been about it.

Some books are better read fast, others are better read slow; some books I read over the course of a month, others I’ll read in a couple of days. Sometimes I just get tired of one book and want to read something else. I usually have 4-6 more challenging slow reads that I hit first thing in the morning. Then I have 1 or 2 lighter books/quick reads I can pick up at other times. I have at least two audiobooks going at any time – one more serious and one lighter. I keep a short list of books in each category that I might want to read next, but the decision of what to read next is always made on a whim.

I also set aside regular time for reading. Normally I get up at 5:30 a.m. in order to read for an hour while it is quiet and I am fresh. When I am home in the evening, I usually read for an hour before bed; even if I’m out for the evening, I still read for 10-15 minutes before turning out the light as it helps me wind down. On average, I listen to about 10 hours of audiobooks per week. I often listen to audiobooks while I make supper, and then I read after supper while trying not to hover while the kids clean up the kitchen. I listen to audiobooks while I knit or spin. Sometimes I even listen while running errands (and if the kids are with me, they listen, too). The key is knowing where books fit well into my day and making good use of those times.

What I don’t do? Watch tv. At all. Nothing against it – just not my cuppa. Nor do I read just one book at a time and complain that I’m too tired to read or can’t concentrate (hello! try a different book). When I leave the house, I always have my Kindle with me and my iPhone and my earbuds. I have good sources ideas of what to read next so I rarely come across a book I don’t like or struggle to finish. Though I tend to read more serious books, I read across a wide spectrum of books – everything from classics to history, biography, science, business, and literary fiction (with a few Westerns, mysteries and thrillers thrown in).

Bottom line: There is no single strategy for reading a lot. It’s just a matter of figuring out what works best for you and making a point to do it.

June 2017 Reads

Another whirlwind month of reading.

Modern Mrs. Darcy has two reading challenges going on this year: Reading for Fun and Reading for Growth. Nevermind the specifics of the challenges – those two categories are a great way to represent the type of reading I do.

Let’s begin with reading for fun.

I read five selections from the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 Summer Reading Guide in June, four of which are being discussed by her Book Club. The first was The Dry by Jane Harper which I listened to on audio. Set in Australia in a small town in the desert (hence the title), a man kills his family and then himself. Or so it appears. His best friend from childhood comes back for the funeral and gets wrapped up in re-investigating what happened alongside the local sheriff. Small town politics and history that is never forgotten but not really spoken of either shape this story into a fascinating tale. 5 stars

Beartown by Fredrick Backman is a great pairing with Missoula by Jon Krakauer which I read last month. The novel is a bit slow at the beginning as Backman develops the characters but the time is well spent. This particular plot revolves around a hockey team, but you need not be a hockey fan or even a sports fan to understand. Backman’s account really looks at the issue from all sides. Well done. Must-read. The audio version is excellent. 5 stars

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro is rather short but very satisfying. It is a memoir that focuses more on reflection and less on plot. The audio is read by the author. One of those books that you just want to live in if you could. I loved it. 5 stars

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham is a YA novel about the 1921 riot/massacre in Tulsa, OK with a parallel contemporary storyline. It is very plot-driven and like many YA books, it tries to incorporate all the things. If you want an exciting book that can be read in an afternoon, this may do the trick. I would have preferred more depth and fewer plot lines. 2 stars

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout has generated lots complaining in the MMD Book Club (they just cannot get into the book…), but I loved it. It is a collection of loosely connected short stories. The vignettes give glimpses into life in the town where Lucy Barton (of My Name Is Lucy Barton by the same author) grew up. “Anything is possible” really sums it up. If you think your neighbors are “colorful,” this book will make them seem perhaps a bit more normal than you may have thought. 4 stars

The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout was selected by the Waverly Community Library as the next book group read so I picked it up thinking I might get to know more people in my small town by joining the local book club. It is a Western and much lighter reading than I normally choose. It is also historical fiction, which isn’t my favorite. I told Steve that you can always tell when you’re reading historical fiction vs books written closer to the time in which they are set – historical fiction always has lots of bathroom talk while books written by people who lived in those times never even acknowledge the existence of an outhouse. But I digress. I hope I enjoy the discussion more than I enjoyed the book. 1 star

Now, the reading for growth side of my reading life.

The New World [Vol. III of History of the English Speaking Peoples] by Winston S. Churchill is the history spine for year 8 of the curriculum we use (Ambleside Online). I listened to the last two-thirds of the book this month. I love Churchill’s description of English history and the audio version on Audible is excellent. British history makes American history three-dimensional. You cannot really understand the New World unless you first get to know the Old. 5 stars

A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I by C. V. Wedgewood takes a closer look at the weeks leading up to the execution of Charles I by Oliver Cromwell and company. If you’ve ever been part of an organization where there was a controversial change of leadership with lots of turmoil, this book will resonate. Meticulously researched yet very readable, this is a great leadership book, though you will not find it in the Business section of your local bookstore. This book is one of the history readings for year 8 of Ambleside Online. 5 stars

History of King Charles II of England by Jacob Abbott is a free read for year 8 of Ambleside Online. That means it isn’t assigned but is considered well worth your time. It is more about the personal history of King Charles rather than a history of the England at the time. It talks about where he was and what he did as his father, Charles I, was fighting the civil war in England which led to his execution. Charles II tried to take the throne after his father’s death but failed and continued to live in exile until after Cromwell’s death. Once he became king, we’ll just say he got along with Parliament better than his father and lived a fairly peaceful life. This is more along the lines of what I consider a good weekend read. 5 stars

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis was the Well Read Mom selection last spring that I bailed on. I had started it, then we had company for about a week, and I was unable to get back into it when I picked it back up. So I started it again and listened to one chapter a day during my morning reading time. It is said to be a reworking of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, but it isn’t about the myth directly. The main character is Psyche’s sister who tells about Psyche as she grows up and then disappears, what happens after she is gone, and then how she learns about what really happened to her sister. If you like literature, this one is not to be missed. 5 stars

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis is another Well Read Mom selection from last spring that I skimmed and wanted to revisit. So I listened to one letter per day during my morning reading time and once again enjoyed it immensely. 5 stars

The Holy War by John Bunyan is a tale about the imaginary city of Mansoul and how the evil Diabolus captures it and then loses it back to Emmanuel. Allegorical in the same way as Pilgrim’s Progress (written by the same author), it is interesting to see how little Christianity and human nature have changed over the centuries. Also, very interesting as a “book flight” selection to The Screwtape Letters. It is one of the literature selections for year 8 of Ambleside Online. 5 stars

Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis is another free read from year 8 of our curriculum. I’m not a fan of sci-fi. Steve will occasionally watch sci-fi old enough to be in black-and-white on TV, and I will see part of it if I happen to pass through and stop for a minute to chat while it’s on. He often makes fun of it because it is so simple (sci-fi seems to become outdated very quickly). This book definitely fits in that category. Now that I’ve read it for the story, I’d love to go back and re-read it to see more of the symbolism. There are two more books in the series; I may read them first and then go back. For now, 4 stars.

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. Oh, how I loved this book! If I were to plan my dream vacation, this would be it. Get in the car, stay off the interstate and get to know the country better. Stop to read the historic markers and eat in local cafes. A couple years ago when the kids and I were in Oklahoma for a family reunion, I took the scenic route back – literally driving all the roads between there and home that had those little dots that Randy McNally uses to indicate “scenic” highways. It was so fun to travel for the pleasure of traveling rather than being trapped in the car just so we could get somewhere. I’d love to do a similar trip through New England or along the Lewis and Clark Trail. 5 stars

 

May 2017 Reads

This month’s list is so long it’s rather embarrassing. With all the summer reading guides coming out in May, I buckled down and finished several books that had been on my nightstand forever (along with several new finds, of course). Now the discipline is over – let the summer reading party begin!

The first book I finished in May was Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Russel Hochschild. A Berkley sociology professor travels to Louisiana to try to understand why people would “vote against their own interest.” I grew up with conservatives and am a conservative myself, and quite honestly, I felt like a stranger reading this book. No conservative I know thinks the kind of pollution described by Hochschild is okay. That’s not why conservatives don’t like the EPA. I could go on and on about so many things like that in this book, but I won’t. If you’re a conservative and are interested in a glimpse as to how liberals misunderstand conservatives, this book is for you. If you’re a liberal trying to understand conservatives, look elsewhere.

I listened to the audio version of The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, one of the MMD Book Club selections last summer. It’s the story of a single mother with a boy who poses very mysterious behavior and the doctor who tries to help them. The story intertwines with another family and the unsolved disappearance of their young son. Well written, the twists and turns of the story really pull on your heartstrings.

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and Justice in a Small College Town was recommended by Laura Tremain of the Sorta Awesome podcast. This was a heavy book, and my husband had to listen to me talk about it. A lot. I’ve had very unpleasant discussions with people who view this issue differently than I do so I will just say this: I think that just as there is first degree murder (premeditated), second degree murder (intentional but not premeditated) and manslaughter (not intentional but the result of irresponsible actions), there also ought to be different levels of rape as defined by the justice system.

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl is one of the books in our curriculum that I pre-read. It’s the story of several guys who build a wooden raft in Peru and sail it to the Pacific islands. The theory is that the people on those islands came there from Peru on similar crafts. The book tells how they learned of the design and built it as well as fascinating accounts of the sea life they observed while at sea. If you like true adventure tales, this is a great read.

Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is another MMD Book Club selection from last summer. I’m not good with Indian names so I listened to the audio version which had multiple narrators and was very well done. It is a multi-generational story that includes immigration. It seems like a bunch of disjointed pieces but they all come together splendidly at the end. Highly recommended.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson was the May MMD Book Club flight selection and a Newberry winner I’ve long wanted to read. It is written in verse and the audiobook (which I listened to) is read by the author. The book contains brief vignettes of growing up black in the 1960’s and 1970’s, giving firsthand glimpses of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. Some found it slow and gave up, but I enjoyed it. Short but well done.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is a memoir written by a scientist beginning with jobs she worked while she was in school and continuing through her years as a professor. There are some quirky characters in this book. I’ve been exposed to some of this in real life through scientists I know and having worked in the biotech industry. This book makes me smile just thinking about it. I don’t doubt for a minute that the tales she tells are true.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is one of the MMD 2017 Summer Book Club reads. In anticipation of reading it, I snagged a copy of My Name is Lucy Barton as I hear Lucy makes an appearance in Strout’s newest book. This book was written in prose but otherwise very similar to Brown Girl Dreaming in that it gave small glimpses into someone’s life – in this case, the relationship between a mother and daughter. I love books about family relationships so this was a hit for me.

I had to wait several months to read Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance (a la library hold queues). The story of a Yale educated lawyer with deep roots in rural Kentucky, it is popular because people are reading it to try and understand how Trump got elected. I don’t know that it answers many questions in that regard, but it is a great corollary to Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates which I listened to last fall.  If you’re interested in issues of race and experiences of the disadvantaged, I highly recommend reading both.

Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist has been on my nightstand since January. I adored this book. If you’re old enough to understand why people in their 40’s crash their cars for no reason or give up alcohol or faint from lack of sleep and break their cheekbone on their desk and stuff like that (aka they were trying to do too much), this book is the doctor’s prescription. Written from a Christian perspective, it is especially helpful with overcommitments at church and in other areas where you really feel guilty for even thinking of saying no – you’re not just letting down your kids but your faith and everyone else, too.

Napoleon’s Buttons by Penny Le Couteur was another pre-read for school. It looks at discoveries in chemistry from a scientific as well as a historical point of view. You would never think simple molecules could bring about major changes in world history, but they did. Fascinating stuff.

At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider tells the tale of their family’s trip around the world one year. They sold their house, put everything in storage, and traveled with three kids through China, Australia, Africa, Europe and more. I’ve traveled some and while I really like sleeping in my own bed, I will admit this did make me want to see a few things. I’ve always wanted to travel Europe more than I had a chance to during the semester I studied abroad. Oxenreider’s descriptions of New Zealand piqued my interest, too.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien I had read previously, but Well Read Mom is doing Fellowship of the Ring as their June selection and I wanted to re-read it as a prequel to that. I own the books, but having listened to the audiobooks narrated by Rob Inglis, I just couldn’t get into the pages and had to return to the audio (yes, Inglis makes the books that much better!). I listened to The Fellowship of the Ring over Memorial Day weekend and intend to finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy over the summer.

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson was the main selection for the MMD Book Club in May. It is the story of a black girl who attends a private school across town on scholarship and gets accepted into a mentoring program. Oh, my! There were so many things that happened to this dear girl that reminded me of my own experiences in high school – not getting selected for trips I really wanted to go on, getting into big trouble for trite things, the challenge of making friends when you attend a big school and don’t know a soul, etc. I’ve also participated in mentoring programs and have seen both the good and bad sides of those ventures. This book stirred up lots of feelings. A great book for understanding not only the black experience but the human experience as well. Strongly recommended.

Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel is yet another pre-read for school. It is a biography of Galileo written largely from the perspective of letters he received from his daughter who was a nun (unfortunately, his letters to her were destroyed after her death). This gives the perspective of seeing him not just as a scientist and public figure but as father and caretaker of his family as well. I cannot fathom thinking through the math he did to figure out the orbits of the planets and such. And the controversy he faced for those ideas – wow! A very personal look at a very great man.

If you’re interested in an entertaining read about how people don’t get enough sleep these days, The Sleep Revolution by Ariana Huffington might interest you. If you actually want to sleep better at night, your time will likely be spent better elsewhere. I did pick up on one helpful reminder: you sleep better if you exercise. I’ve never had more energy when I exercise (which they always preach), but I have started exercising again and have noticed that I do, indeed, sleep better. So time well spent, I guess.

And last but not least, I started At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon a couple years when I checked it out of the library on a whim. I had to return it before I finished it, and then every time I went to the library, all copies were checked out. I finally snagged a used copy but still didn’t get around to finishing it. It’s a good clean read that feels like a Hallmark mini-series. It took me a bit to get to know the characters again, but I finished it (finally). At the right time and the right place, I’ll probably read more in the series. But right now, I have too many other good things in my reading queue.

Coming up in June:

  • The Dry by Jane Harper {MMD summer book club selection}
  • Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro {from the MMD Summer Reading Guide}
  • Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham {another MMD summer book club selection}
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (after months on the library waitlist!!)

April 2017 Reads

April was a tough month for reading. We had family in town for about a week, which puts a squeeze on reading time. Then Holy Week with lots of extra musical performances at various services. My reading for school (which I don’t talk about much here since the books are read over months, not days) suffered the most. But the last couple weekends of April were quiet which allowed some catch-up time on lighter reads.

Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurty is the first book I finished. Another epic saga and follow-up to Lonesome Dove (a favorite in January), it was great read for when I had family in town and couldn’t focus on more serious stuff or getting to know new characters in a new book. It wasn’t quite as good as Lonesome Dove, but I still intend to read the last two books in the series at some point.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Ron Jonson is a relatively short book (especially after Streets of Laredo) about the hazards of the internet and those who have lost their livelihood over seemingly inconsequential statements that went viral. Jonson compared it to the public shaming of the 19th century – public floggings or the wearing of the scarlet letter A. While I’ve had my bad moments in forums where people misinterpreted what I said and attacked me like hornets (I simply left those forums – I don’t need to spend time with people like that), I haven’t done anything on the scale of the instances Jonson recounted. That said, I had only heard of one of the stories he told. This book was definitely interesting – I wished at the end it had been a bit longer.

I read Miss Jane by Brad Watson in one sitting at the public library in Grand Island. The boys had an all day class at the Stuhr Museum so Caroline and I went to the library. It’s a great library, but we cannot check out any books (it is over 90 miles from our home) so what we read must be read there. Our lunch was a little late, but I finished Miss Jane before we left (I feared it might be checked out or disappear while we were at lunch). This book ran along similar veins to A Piece of the World where the main character has a physical deformity before there were means of fixing such things and how they dealt with their malady and the life they were able to lead on account of or in spite of it. A well-written, satisfying read.

The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon was the main selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club in April. I started it (and loved it!) before company came, then it languished until after Easter. I loved the characters in this book and immensely enjoyed learning about their various situations and relationships to Judge Crater. I am not keen on how the author “solved” the mystery at the end, but that detracted only a little from the book as a whole.

I started reading Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson a couple months ago on my phone as my when-distracted read. Then I saw someone online mention that the audiobook was really good so I checked it out on Overdrive. Let me put it this way – the audio greatly improved on a really good thing. It’s not a heavy read (think: great listen while at the grocery store or driving around town running errands). A couple years ago I read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir (also by Jenny Lawson) and loved Victor’s reaction to things she’d do or say. This book was more of the same and once again, fun to read.

I found What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes on Audible Prime Channels. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Yes, there were stories about what it is like to go to war (Marlantes served in Vietnam). However, the book is a very thoughtful reflection on the ethics of war and how we prepare our young people to serve as well as the challenges they face when they come home and how we can best support them. A great read for anyone who has gone to war or knows someone who has gone to war or has a child who may go to war or whose spouse may go to war. It was also a great way to process many of the things I’ve read in other books like Unbroken (Hillenbrand) or Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Cleave).

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns was another find on Audible Prime Channels. I’d seen it recommended, and I’d read reviews where some loved it and some hated it. The audiobook was great. Sadly, Audible removed it from their Prime Channels before I had finished it. I had asked previously if that might happen if I had listened to books on their channels and been assured that they would give me the book so I could finish it. So when it disappeared, I contacted customer service. They gave me a $17 credit I could use to buy anything I wanted. Even though I was using a credit, I hated to buy a book I’d mostly listened to so I used the money to buy something else. I had the book on my Kindle so I read a couple chapters there. Let me just say that reading it on my Kindle helped me understand the people who didn’t like it. The charm was lost. I found the audio on Hoopla and finished it there. Great audiobook. Perfect summer read (if you’re looking for those…).

I finally go around to starting one of the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club flight selections the third weekend of the month – The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I had a hard time getting into it. The writing style got under my skin. I felt like I was being told over and over that there was great suspense without actually feeling it through the story. I pressed on, though, because I trusted my source. Once I got about 40% through the book, the writing didn’t bother me anymore and I enjoyed all the different storylines as they intersected. Anne (of Modern Mrs. Darcy) had said that it was a mystery with a very surprising twist at the end. I was pretty sure I had it figured out. Even when there were 20 pages left, I was positive I had it figured out. Then the author really did turn the story completely upside down and all the pieces fit splendidly. Oh, what fun it was rethinking the story and fitting them all together! And talk about a major book hangover! This was a good one!

We actually went to Grand Island for classes at the Stuhr Museum three times during April. The first visit is when I read Miss Jane. When we got back from our late lunch, I perused the fiction section, reading a few pages of books I’d seen but hadn’t read. [Have I mentioned that the collection at the Grand Island Library is phenomenal? They have the really good classics (that Lincoln so often discards) mixed in with really good new stuff. Fabulous library.] One of the books I picked up was A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. I’ve never read anything by her before but that book cover always catches my eye. I liked what I read so I checked it out electronically when I got home. Oh, it was a glorious read! There is nothing better than a good family drama. I loved how she developed the characters and brought everything together. I loved Commonwealth (Patchett) for similar reasons, but I would say this was much better. I will definitely be reading more Anne Tyler.

I’ve dabbled in Book of the Month selections before. This month I put a library hold on The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel and was patiently waiting for my turn when I saw the book on the shelf with the new reads at the Grand Island Public Library. The class we were there for that day was a short one, but I managed to read half the book before we left. My turn in the library queue came on April 29th so I checked it out immediately and finished it. Being an introvert, I often long to get away and not talk to anyone for a while. This guy did that for 27 years. He lived as a hermit and stole various essentials from cabins and campgrounds in order to survive. The story begins with their capturing him and goes from there as they learn about his life of solitude and how he survived. Quite the tale.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu was mentioned in passing in The Stranger in the Woods (something about where he choose to have his campsite, if I remember correctly). It’s a short book, only 67 minutes of audio on Audible Prime Channels. Reviews talk about how it applies well to working in corporate America, but I read it mostly in terms of survival after reading The Stranger in the Woods. We study quite a bit of history in school – it also stimulated connections along those lines. Interesting little book. One I’m sure can be read again and again.

On the last day of the month, I finally got to the other book flight selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy book club – The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. I’d read it previously but over the course of twelve weeks (as scheduled in year 7 of Ambleside Online, the curriculum we use for school). It was fun to revisit it in a single sitting and compare what I thought about it with each approach.

I also finished Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor which I read along with the Close Reads Podcast from Circe Institute. I wasn’t freaked out by O’Connor as some people were in the Facebook discussion group. I found her commentary pointing out the absurd on racism and religion in the South during the first half of the 20th century quite fascinating. Where it resounded with me the most, however, was in terms of how people treat each other today when discussing politics. You have people with holier-than-thou attitudes telling others how it should be and what is good for them. I’d love to see someone write some O’Connor-esque stories about that!

What I failed to read this month was Till We All Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. I mention it only because it was the Well Read Mom selection for April. I started out the month listening to a chapter a day and was bopping right along just fine until company came and all the things that go along with Easter. I tried listening to a couple chapters after Easter, but I just could not wrap my mind back around it. I’ve heard it is quite good. I may revisit it during the Tour de Fleece in July when I’m spending lots of time at the spinning wheel, a venue where I’ve successfully read several tough books I might not have read otherwise. [The Tour de Fleece is a challenge spinners do during the Tour de France – spinning on days the cyclers ride, doing challenges on the challenge days, and resting on days off.]