A story, a quest, and the Siege of Leningrad

CITY OF THIEVESIt seems like the frame for a lot of stories about the Siege of Leningrad is “survivors who don’t want to talk about it” but since the stories within are so different I suppose it’s just a historically accurate note about the character of person who made it through. David Benioff’s City of Thieves moves from grandparents who have never opened up about their experiences to the author/narrator’s account of the grandfather’s story.

Lev Beniov (the grandfather in question) is a 17-year-old who stayed behind when his mother and sister evacuated Leningrad–which he, and the other characters–persist in calling Piter even though the Soviets wanted to wipe out references to the tsarist name St. Petersburg. Caught looting a dead German paratrooper’s corpse, Lev assumes he will be shot, but instead he and a charismatic army deserter are given a strange quest: find a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake and they will be allowed to live.  In the middle of a frozen, starving city under siege.  Obviously this directive presents some challenges.

However, glad to be spared execution, the two head out to find eggs.  Over the course of the next several days the boy and soldier become friends, scout the desperation of the city, get involved in an insurgent attack on occupying Germans, and ultimately win their freedom but at a terrible cost.

I found the story fast-paced, gripping, and historically accurate, with great detail bringing life to the terrible realities of the siege.  This part of history is one that you almost have to read about through fiction, because otherwise your brain won’t want to grasp the significance of the statistics.  This novel does a great job of capturing the spirit and incredible fortitude of the people, while not romanticizing the inhabitants or glossing over the arbitrary nature of Soviet policies that made the siege so much worse and a metaphor for life in Soviet Russia in general.

If you like history, action, adventure, coming of age stories, war stories, or just stories with great pacing and plot lines, I’d recommend City of Thieves.

 

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How Will You Measure Your Life?

measure-your-life-416x620In an interesting twist on and melding of business and life management genres, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life? explores how tried-and-true business theories can illuminate and improve your personal life and overall life trajectory.

Theories, Christensen asserts, often apply to smaller units like families or even to individuals, not just to larger organizations.  In this book, he shows readers how to think differently about the ways you allocate time and resources, develop your family life, and measure your overall life success.

I thought the sections on building strategies, keeping kids motivated, emphasizing processes AND resources (versus, in the family example, giving your kid a lot of lessons in how to do stuff but no real life experience of how to solve problems), and establishing a family culture were excellent.  I was encouraged in some areas, challenged in others, and inspired overall to improve my perspective and change some tactics.

Although many people do New Year’s Resolutions (and I’m one of them) I also find the start of the new school year a good time to evaluate where we are as a family and define some goals for the year.How Will You Measure Your Life? would be a great resource if you want to think through your family’s culture, ways to provide helpful experiences for your kids, and personal or professional goals for yourself.

Do you find yourself re-evaluating when it’s Back to School time?

 

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Dept. of Speculation

dept of speculationDept. of Speculation is an odd, short novel, and yet it lingers with you once you’ve finished, giving you food for thought both as to the structure of the book and the narrative of a life.

The book takes the form of the stream-of-consciousness musings of a woman–known only as “the wife”–looking back at her life in light of her marriage.  When they were dating, she and her husband sent letters to each other addressed “Dept. of Speculation” in a cute reference to sharing a vision for their future together.  Of course, the title is quite loaded as we come to see.  Speculation can mean shared dreams, or it can mean a desperate and perhaps ill-conceived gamble with long odds.  Speculation, like marriage, is entered into with high hopes and high stakes and is a risky business–the investor is exposed deeply and may either find unimaginable riches or crushing loss.

Or, perhaps, both.

The structure–reading only the narrator/wife’s thoughts–at first seems light.  But as you read you find out that she is a deeply literary teacher whose very way of seeing and processing her life is accomplished through the lens of what she has read and taken to heart from the great thinkers, writers, and philosophers she has studied.  Cultural trivia (Germans have a word for gaining weight when you are depressed after losing a loved one: kummerspeck–literally, “grief bacon”), factoids about the space race, and quotes from Martin Luther and Kafka weave in with the wife’s own realizations about what goes into crafting a life with another person.

Although I can’t say I agree with all of the narrator/wife’s conclusions I found the whole book striking, and more so as I considered it after the fact.  The close, close point of view gives the story tremendous emotional heft without the usual length or detail required to achieve that height of feeling.  Much of the nuance and imagery rings true, even if you are not quite in the same spot philosophically as the narrator.

All in all, Dept. of Speculation is a worthwhile read if you enjoy literary construction or unusual ways of telling stories.

 

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Summer Reading: Harry Potter Series

harrypotterUnlike basically everyone on the planet who self-identifies as a reader, I made it to 2015 without reading the Harry Potter series.  I don’t have anything against fantasy as a genre–in fact, I like it–but didn’t really have any impetus pick up the books until I found myself with elementary aged fantasy fans in the house.

Although I’ve read enough reviews by people I respect to figure I’d be ok with the books, I did want to read them as my kids did, so that we could talk over any potential problems or issues.  And so, this spring, I tore through the seven volumes in quick succession (that and empty carbs seemed like the only things I could stomach due to morning sickness) and found I quite liked them.

If you do have topical or thematic concerns with the books, I’d encourage you to read them before you make up your mind.  Personally I found them to be much more about how to handle being different, how to make good decisions when evil seems easier, and the importance of taking advice from wiser authority figures than about witchcraft as a religion.  I made notes as I read so that I could identify all of the topics I thought would make for good discussion, and I appreciated the many examples of bravery, integrity, taking a stand for what’s right, and so on.  I also liked how the stories ring true in the characterization of middle school/high school aged kids, and also take a firm line against the stereotypical sappy/drippy teen angst thing (several characters confront each other when tempted to indulge in martyr complexing and pity partying).

I do think the books increase in difficulty and complexity as the series progresses.  However, the series is pretty engrossing, so I think it makes for a good stretch if you have a kid who can handle the first two books but might need to reach a bit for the later ones.

Depending on when your school resumes, it might be a bit late in the game to recommend a series of seven long books for summer reading, but if you’re like us and fly through them you have plenty of time to read theHarry Potter series and then talk them over together!

 

If you’ve read the Harry Potter series with your kids, what issues or topics were most memorable for you?

 

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The Martian

martianIf you’re looking for a really engrossing story about manned spaceflight and survival against the odds, peppered with funny parts and interesting space and science trivia, you should absolutely read The Martian by Andy Weir.

The story is fast-paced and compelling, science fiction mixed with humor and a high stakes quest–it’s the kind of book you should pick up if you have an afternoon or so to really fall into a book.  The beach-read-ness of it is balanced by the inventive premise and science facts, but not in a way that feels heavy or contrived.

I picked upThe Martian because I saw a trailer for the movie version.  Now that I’ve read it, I’m interested to see what they did with the film version.

If you read the book or see the movie, let me know what you think!

 

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Five Favorite Picture Books – July 2015

To help keep me accountable for my goal of reading more picture books directly to Eliza (she sits in on family read alouds but deserves her turn with the picture book favorites!) I’m posting five of our most beloved titles every month.

always pooh and meYou may already own other collections of A.A.Milne’s work, but There’s Always Pooh and Me is a delightful volume of 23 poems, beautifully illustrated and laid out for younger children in a picture book format.  It is well worth owning and a wonderful way to read poetry to toddlers and preschoolers (older kids love it too).  Best of all, unlike other unwieldy poetry anthologies, this one is so nice to pick up visually, and the selections are so well chosen for reading aloud, that it’s one parents will not mind choosing again and again, which makes for getting the poems worked well in to your family parlance.

owl babiesOwl Babies is a beautifully illustrated story about three owl siblings who can’t find their mother, then are joyfully reunited with her.  I love short picture books that still convey depth of character and setting, and this is one!  Each of the owls has a very unique character and lines that are easy to remember.  The detailed pictures really make the book.  I haven’t seen the board book version so I can’t vouch for it–be aware that lots of board books are abridged, and that would be sad in this case!

skippyjonSkippyjon Jones is such an immensely fun book!  A spirited siamese kitten thinks he is a chihuahua and in his imagination he teams up with some real chihuahuas to defeat a foe.  If you can do a Spanish accent, this book will be even better.  The kids ADORE it and it’s funny and enjoyable for the adults who have to read it too (an important qualification when it comes to picture books, in my opinion).  The illustrations are really good too, with lots of color and detail and characterization.

angus ducksMarjorie Flack wrote several great books about a little scottie dog named Angus (Angus and the Ducks is pictured here, but there are others). Get them whenever you see them! These sweet books are not super fast paced or anything, but the kids really love Angus and I think the stories have a sort of old-fashioned feel that makes me love to read them too.

1isoneBasically anything by Tasha Tudor is destined to become a favorite, but 1 Is One is a superlative among favorites!  Obviously the illustrations are beautiful and richly detailed.  The text, while ostensibly a simple counting book, is also a poem about nature.  This is the sort of book you will read again and again, and well worth owning in a sturdy edition.  Again, I can’t vouch for the board book, having not checked it for completeness.

Did you find any noteworthy new picture books this month, or rediscover any old favorites?

 

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The Buccaneers

buccaneers bookAfter reading about the late Victorian period and the fast set led by Edward VII when he was just Bertie, I decided to read Edith Wharton’s novel about rich American women who married into the British nobility, The Buccaneers.  If you watch Downton Abbey, you’ll immediately think of Cora, and this book begins quite interestingly by setting up how these girls made the transition from nouveau riche Americans to blue blood English aristocracy.

The first part of the book is fantastic, and I really enjoyed it.  However, somewhere around the middle the novel moves to a new part, which takes place two years after the previous section ends.  During that time, one of the main characters has made a completely uncharacteristic decision, which is not adequately explained.  The decision is so out of character, and even the character herself seems so bewildered by it, that I couldn’t suspend disbelief.  It was the sort of decision the other girls would have made in an instant, but for this one to do so, after she says she never would, and for her sensible governess to allow it to happen, when she knows the girl so well, just doesn’t make any sense.  So the rest of the book turns on this decision, and the increasingly unlikely and unrealistic ways the character goes about trying to undo what she’s done.  The happy ending rings so false that my only delight chalked up to the book finally being over.

The only thing I can figure is that since Wharton died before the book was finished, surely she would have improved the story as she went along.  I do wish I could read a version she considered finished, instead of a version based on her notes and finished by some other person.

Originally I conceived of this review as a book vs. movie post, but when I tried to watch the BBC adaptation I had to turn it off after five minutes because it was so annoying.  I can’t put my finger on why but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend any of my life on it.  Sorry to disappoint if you were anticipating the contrast after reading about it on the upcoming list in last months newsletter!

If you’ve read the book or seen the miniseries, what were your thoughts?  Do you agree or disagree about the ending?

 

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Possession

possessionA.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel Possession is one of those engrossing books of startling depth and complexity that manage to both reel you in with story-telling and keep you thinking with challenging insights into topics you didn’t even know you needed to think more deeply about.

The book is a literary mystery in which academics from the 1980s track a mystery from the 1890s via the poetry, essays, diaries, and letters left by two writers and their families.  As the mystery unfolds and then is slowly solved, you’ll find yourself thinking about the ways we read, how our reading is affected by our understanding (or misunderstanding) of historical context, the importance of interacting with ideas of the past on their own terms instead of through our modern lenses, and the ways in which writing and reading (or failing to do either) shapes our lives as we live them and as we understand them in hindsight.

Possession will be treasured by readers who don’t mind slowing down and reveling in complicated storylines.  I would not recommend listening to the book on audio, because the variety of voices and sources–the modern characters and historical characters, the interspersed poetry and journal entries and academic writing–seem to me to be too complicated to pick apart if you aren’t looking at it.  However, that could just be me, and maybe auditory learners would be able to keep it all straight while listening.

If you like literary fiction I’d highly recommend Possession.  It’s gorgeously written and really a masterpiece on so many levels.  I’m delighted that I read it and look forward to reading the author’s other books now that I’ve discovered her!

 

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Be Happy, Christian Style

Happy-ChristianIn his wide ranging book The Happy Christian, David Murray offers his spin on the psychology research surrounding happiness.  If you’ve read much in this genre before you’ll recognize the books and studies he cites, and you may have made many of the same applications to your life if you’re a Christian, but Murray’s book is still helpful and worthwhile, especially if you have no intention of reading anything else about happiness.

Many of Murray’s points were good reminders of things I had already read in other sources, but I found several of his points particularly strong:

  • In his exposition of the Psalms Murray describes the biblical model for realistic happiness.  Rather than shoving your feelings and the reality of your circumstances under the rug, the Psalms show that it’s better to accept reality in context, looking to the past for examples of God’s faithfulness in order to generate the solid hope that allows for happiness and contentment.
  • I also liked Murray’s application of Paul’s exhortation to think on whatever things are true in light of our cultural tendency toward criticism and negativity.
  • The section on prejudice and the Church’s call to be radically inclusive was particularly well thought-out and relevant in light of current events.  

While I personally have found some secular books on happiness to be better overall resources thanThe Happy Christian, Murray’s application of happiness research to the Christian life has value and I’d recommend it.

 

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Summer Reading: Wildwood Series

wildwoodThe kids went on a tear this summer with various series. I couldn’t read them all, but thought this one looked intriguing and I really, really enjoyed it. The Wildwood Chronicles–Wildwood, Under Wildwood
and Wildwood Imperium–follow two kids from Portland who stumble into a hidden civilization right outside the city, which everyone in Portland calls the Impassible Wilderness but which inhabitants of the area call Wildwood.  Written by Colin Meloy, who is also lead singer and songwriter of the band the Decembrists, and illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis, who also illustrated the Lemony Snicket books, the series draws from elements of Narnia (talking animals, wicked queen), Middle Earth (trees that get involved in just war), Robin Hood (outlaws who steal from the rich to give to the poor), and other classic tales of adventure and worlds within worlds.  The books are very well written, imaginative, and memorable–full of adventure, quests, and epic battles where good wins out over evil.

under wildwoodIn short, these are great books for summer reading, or for any time.  These are the sorts of books that I’d give for gifts because kids would read them over and over, and because in addition to great writing they also have excellent illustrations sprinkled throughout, which really adds to the work.

One thing I particularly loved about the books was the author’s willingness to make them long (over 550 pages for a Middle Grade book is unusual), to use great vocabulary and literary allusions, and to approach complex themes with much greater nuance than usual in a children’s book.  I so appreciate authors who respect kids as able to handle ideas.  Certainly some of these things will go over the heads of lots of readers, but it can’t hurt to plant seeds that either challenge generally accepted orthodoxies or parallel historical developments.

Wildwood ImperiumI’d recommend the Wildwood Chronicles for boys and girls who like fantasy and adventure and who aren’t daunted by slightly longer books.  Topically, they are fine for younger kids who are solid readers, in my opinion, although there are a couple (literally only three to four out of three over 500 page books) of language issues you might want to discuss with younger kids who don’t filter that well yet.

And if your kids get this series, parents you will want to read it too.  Not just because of the compelling storytelling and great writing, but because the books are full of fodder for great conversations with your kids!

If you or your kids read this series, my kids want to know what you liked best and which part of Wildwood you’d want to join.  

 

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