July Read-Alouds

Our summer term involves reading a lot of well-loved children’s picture books, but we’ve also made time for longer read-alouds (my criteria for this category being, as I’ve mentioned, non-picture books that are over 100 pages, which seems a reasonable cut-off). To be honest, I have not been able to keep up with Hannah and Jack in terms of reading the books they read this summer, so we’ve had the month off from mother-child book club. Hopefully we’ll resume that soon! In any case, on with July:
One of the things I wanted to focus more on during our summer term was poetry, so we read through several anthologies. I didn’t love every selection in Poems to Learn by Heart, but it’s a good sampling of famous and lesser known poems, old works and modern verse, and it is greatly enhanced by the beautiful paintings illustrating each page.  The book is divided into sections by topic, which could be helpful if you know you want to find a poem on, say, family or sports or something.  I personally didn’t find that the title was very apt–to me the selection criteria didn’t seem to match with poetry you’d want to be sure to learn by heart.  However, that’s obviously a very subjective judgment, and I didn’t mind approaching the book as an anthology.  I just thought I’d mention it in case you’re looking for a book of great poetry to memorize as part of a literary foundation or something.

I hadn’t read The Hobbit since I was a child, so it was interesting to read it out loud to the kids.  They all loved it exceedingly, and are thrilled to learn that the Lord of the Rings trilogy follows in a similar vein.  We have added those books to our list of future read-alouds.  I enjoyed that this book was so well-suited for reading aloud.  It has a great cadence and many funny asides as well as being quickly paced so you never feel that you’re plowing through it.  I will say that several of the chapters were on the long side, so if you tend to read a chapter at night before bedtime as we do be prepared to spend quite a bit of time!

Although similar in format to Poems to Learn By Heart, I much preferred  Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart.  Both are compilations of poems, and in fact there are several overlapping selections, but I liked the selections in this book more.  I think one reason is that the poems in this book seemed more geared for children, in that they had better meter for reading aloud or reciting, tended to be funny or thoughtful in the way children are thoughtful, rather than thoughtful in the way grownups are when they are trying to be the sort of thoughtful children are.  Does that make sense?  Probably not.  In any case, we all (including the kids) liked this one.

I loved the movie version of The Swiss Family Robinson as a child, but when we listened to the actual book this month, I was surprised.  First of all, when they say “unabridged” they are NOT JOKING.  This is a very (very, very, very) long book.  The version we listened to (the link above is to the one we heard) clocks in at just under 13 hours!  But more to the point, I was intrigued by how much nature study and spiritual life were included in the story.  In the book, the family ends each day with worship, is constantly reminding each other to thank God for His providence and mercy, and otherwise indicates that faith is an integral part of their daily lives, but without being heavy-handed or sounding like a Sunday School tract.  We also noted that the island where the family was marooned seemed to possess the most interesting animals and vegetation from every corner of the world, and, moreover, that the family seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of what the flora and fauna were and how to use them!  While not very realistic, it did make for some interesting listening, and should we find ourselves lost on a deserted island like the one in the book, we will now be more likely able to sustain ourselves whilst we await rescue.  I will say that although the kids and I liked the book, we all found it a bit long and felt that it did go on and on a bit especially in the late middle sections.  Overall though, it was a good book and we are glad we read it. Or had it read to us by Jack Sondericker, as the case may be.

If you really and truly can only read one book aloud to your kids this summer, you should absolutely choose Five Children and It.  The book is superbly suited for reading aloud, the story is full of adventures featuring a family of both boys and girls, the kids in the book are normal siblings but still hang out together, and they learn some lessons along the way.  Plus, there is a psammead.  Which is a sand fairy that lives in a quarry and grants daily wishes, of course.

One note on the psammead, you’re probably going to want to do a special voice for him when you read aloud, so take my advice and choose one you can pull off over the long haul.  I chose a creaky, grumpy, back-of-the-throat number with a slight English accent, and let me tell you I had to have therapeutic tea every night after rendering the psammead’s musings.

At any rate, this is a fabulous book and fairly begs to be a family read-aloud.  Highly recommended.

 

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Essentialism

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is not exactly a time management/productivity book, and not exactly a minimalism book.  Rather–and I think the cover illustration nails this image–the book examines the way to unravel the Gordian knot of modern life and remake it into a more deliberate, coherent, focused existence.

The author notes that modern life is often chaotic, and that, in work or social life or with family concerns, nearly every aspect of our lives is not only subjected to information overload, but also opinion overload.  This makes for a tangled web in itself, but when you add in the stress of navigating opportunities and requirements on our time and resources, to say nothing of other people’s expectations and demands, it’s easy to drown out our purpose, productivity, and passion for life.

Essentialism, McKeown writes, is not about saying no, but about defining–for yourself–what your priorities and roles will be, and investing your time and resources into truly vital things, rather than frittering your life away on trivial things.  I got a lot out of McKeown’s perspective, but will note three things that impacted me particularly:

  • If you don’t define your priorities, other people will.  “Don’t allow your time to be hijacked by someone else’s agenda.”  This is something I’ve been thinking hard about in terms of balancing my work with homeschooling in the fall.  I value the flexibility I have, but I struggle to define clear boundaries of when I’m working and when I’m not going to pick up the phone or answer the email.
  • “Identify the slowest hiker.”  In any given problem situation, pinpointing the root of the problem and working on the worst or slowest aspect can help unravel the issue so you can manage it.  This concept, which is discussed at much more helpful length in the book, is giving me insight into some logistical and scheduling issues at our house.
  • When you’re feeling overwhelmed–especially when you can’t get to sleep–make a list of things on your mind and then ask yourself “What is most important this very minute?” or “What do I need to do in order to go to sleep peacefully?” so you can calmly decide how to triage your way out of the paralysis.  Often, when I’m overwhelmed, I go with “do the next thing,” and sometimes that helps me get moving, but it’s not a good way to prioritize.  I like the triage analogy better.  Rather than just spinning wheels, it reminds me to pause and calmly survey the scene so I can focus my efforts on the task that’s most important to my priorities.

Reading this book gave me plenty of other take-aways to apply to my work and family life.  Essentialism is not about maximizing your life in 15 minute increments, but more about how to untangle confusion, busy-ness, and triviality to get at what’s most important to you, and then how to protect your time and focus so you can really give your best efforts to those priorities.  I’ve read these concepts in other works, but McKeown’s take was original and insightful.  I’d recommend Essentialism to people who like the life management genre, but also to those who have a sense that they are not as focused as they’d like to be on important things.  

When you’re feeling stuck or swamped by your to-do list, how do you decide what to do first?

 

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The Night Circus

If you are, perchance, looking for an incredible story told in the style of a fairy tale, set in a Victorian circus, which also contains themes of consequences, how not all choices are black and white, and the ways that storytelling can help us see the magical aspects of life, you’re certainly looking for The Night Circus.  And if you didn’t know you were looking for a book like that, you should still read it, because it’s an amazingly well-told tale.

I listened to the audio version of the book while painting Jack’s room (a vivid dark blue) during a rainy day.  It was the perfect book to choose for those circumstances and was well read.  I’m only sorry that I didn’t read it myself because at several points there were quotes I’d have marked.  I might skim it again anyway as one of the book clubs I’m in will be discussing it for November.

At any rate, the author did a marvelous job with descriptions, really spinning a setting that sounded magical, whether she was describing illusions or feats of engineering or London streets of the 1890s.  Especially for a first novel, The Night Circus is really impressive and I recommend it.

 

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His Word in My Heart

His Word in My Heart: Memorizing Scripture for a Closer Walk with God has a simple premise: memorizing Scripture is accessible for anyone and useful for everyone who wants to know God more deeply.

Lots of people memorize verses.  In this book, however, Janet Pope talks about memorizing chapters, or even entire books of the Bible.  Quick to point out that she’s just a regular person, not a memorizing savant, Pope gives compelling reasons for memorizing larger portions of the Bible, as well as very practical ideas for how to go about doing so.

One thing that stood out to me about the book was Pope’s description of the affect memorizing has had on her spiritual life.  She notes that while reading the Bible and studying it had helped her, when she began to memorize she could study more deeply, found that Scripture was more a part of who she is, and saw how working to remember God’s word brought her continually into God’s presence–the simple action of replacing daydreaming or zoning out while doing mindless tasks with God’s thoughts gave new life to her prayers and helped her to understand Scripture more deeply.

The book not only inspired me in my own practice (I’ve long struggled with how to balance my desire to study God’s word with the reality of my daily schedule) but also gave me insight into our goals for our kids when it comes to Bible memory.  We’ve memorized chapters before, but I’ve wondered if instead we should be memorizing scattershot verses like my husband and I did as kids (in Awana, Sunday School, etc).  Those verses have stood us in good stead but I like how reading His Word in My Heart gave a vision for the value of learning God’s word in context.

On a practical note, I really appreciated the practical helps in the book.  From giving suggestions on how to get started (index cards on a ring is working for me–I can carry them around and don’t lose them here and there around the house), to specific ideas on when and what to do to really get the words into your mind and heart, the book is helpful and encouraging.

Because it’s such a great mix of vision and practicality, and on such a helpful topic, I really recommend His Word in My Heart.

Have you ever memorized an entire book of the Bible?  

 

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Tallgrass

Tallgrass is a novel delving into the complex relationship between a midwestern town and a Japanese internment camp during World War II.  My feelings toward the book are mixed, but I liked it a lot better in hindsight after discussing it with a book club.  Isn’t it interesting how some books are better read with a group?

I thought the author did a great job of exploring how the midwest experienced the war–particularly bringing in elements like the way that having lived through the Depression and the Dust Bowl impacted people and influenced their attitudes and responses.  The main characters realistically explored their feelings on race and patriotism, and gave a nuanced look at the role of community in shaping ideas and responding to challenges.

However, I do think the book suffered somewhat from the author’s decision to incorporate some mystery genre elements.  I didn’t mind the murder mystery aspect, or even the overuse of parallel experiences in different storylines (and I loved that the author had one peripheral character make a funny aside about how odd it is to find so many examples in one small town), but I felt like the genre tropes were inconsistently applied, especially at the end, which made the whole thing feel too neatly wrapped up and rushed at the end.  Actually, the whole ending was pretty bad, in my view, and the other people in my book club agreed.

If you’re interested in World War II history, especially in the subject of the internment of Japanese-Americans, this book would probably provide helpful insights, if you can read it with half an eye closed to its weaknesses and if you’re prepared to have it end with a thud.  That probably sounds like a terrible advertisement, but I find that a lot of books have merit even if they aren’t stellar across the board.  I would still recommend the book, and issue the caveats only for the benefit of those whose reading time is limited or whose interest in the topic is not deep enough to warrant giving up a book spot.

Have you read any other novels on the Japanese-American internment?  Someone in my book club mentioned a couple of other books, but I’ve already forgotten their titles!  

 

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The Bookmarked Life

Something new!  The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:

…Considering

Did you see this Slate article about the girl who sent all of her texts in calligraphy for a week?  Something about that really appeals to me–maybe it’s the juxtaposition of fast and slow communication, or the fact that it would force me to think before I mindlessly use my phone.  I probably won’t text in calligraphy (although I could!  I love calligraphy!) but I’m thinking about mindful technology use.

…Furnishing my mind

As we’ve been reading more poetry and going over grammar in a different way this month, I’ve been reminded of how beautiful language can be–it has a structure, but there’s a wildness to it too.  Reading about the Oxford English Dictionary reinforced that feeling!

…Learning about

…Spanish curriculum options.  I decided to go with PowerGlide based on the Rainbow Resource review, and then after a 20 minute perusal of Homeschool Classifieds I found a like-new used set for $25, postage paid.  Since my kids love mysteries and stories, I think this option is going to be a win for us.

…Living the Good Life

The kids wanted to put on a colonial feast at the end of the semester, but we were getting ready for our big trip then so we put the idea off until this month.  Sarah made blancmange, Hannah made Scotch Collops, and Jack made Martha Washington’s Great Cake with meringue on top.  They did a great job, and it turns out that blancmange is really good.

…Teaching

We had a short Summer Term this month–nothing taxing, just reading from Sonlight, Ambleside, and other book lists.  We checked out all of the preschool and kindergarten type books to read aloud and Hannah and Jack read a lot of the older grade selections.  We also found some fun new favorites.  I’m happy that we got a chance to really focus on reading great children’s literature, read more poetry, and brought in math concepts in different ways this summer.  We also started a fantastic language arts enrichment curriculum that I’m super excited about.  More about that later.

…Creating

After living in our house for over a year, I’m finally doing something about the children’s rooms.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the baby is now over a year as well?  First up, the nursery.  I painted the walls (Baby Bee Yellow, same as the old house) and also painted some furniture and rearranged knick-knacks and pictures.  I think the new color makes the changing table/dresser with the Peter Rabbit knobs look much smarter.

…Memorizing

We’re working on 1 Corinthians 13 together, and I’m beginning to memorize Colossians on my own.  I recently read a fabulous book on the topic of using Scripture memory to deeply meditate and study the Bible–look for the review next week.

…Seeking balance

As I look ahead to the fall, I’m trying to think through the best way to handle my work/life balance in terms of windows for our best work.  I do my best focused creative work in the morning, and the kids focus on schoolwork better in the morning too.  I don’t want to wake up at 4am, but sometimes the kids are up before 6:00.  So as I work through plans for fall I’m considering the best times to schedule our babysitting (we have an amazing adult, Christian, educated babysitter who is available part time and who is fabulous with the kids and willing to supervise them doing schoolwork assignments–it is nothing short of a miracle, I know) in order to maximize everyone’s best windows.

…Building the habit

Exercise.  It’s addictive when I can get into a rhythym, but due to my aforementioned desire to sleep past 4am, it’s tough to schedule.  I’m trying to give myself points for showing up, even if some days I only make it through 15 minutes of Jillian Michaels before the baby starts eating crayons or someone starts a small fire in the toaster.

…Listening to

The baby now refers to herself as “Ah-za-za!” and it’s so stinking cute.  I could listen to that all day.  In the car, the kids and I are listening to the audio book of The Swiss Family Robinson (it’s very, very, very long).  And, since the new carseat I bought last week was a Graco TurboBooster, naturally I have had I Got a Man on the brain (“When your man don’t treat ya like he used ta, I kick in like a turbo boostah”).  Late 90′s hip-hop is always relevant, isn’t it?

What are you bookmarking this week?

 

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Manage Your Day-to-Day

Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind is a compilation of essays and interviews of time and creativity gurus (people you’ve heard of like Gretchen Rubin, Seth Godin, and the like) about how to get hold of your day to maximize your productivity.

OK, you feel like you’ve read a million books on that topic.  Or at least a million reviews of that kind of book on my blog.  Maybe not a million, but close.  How is this book different?

  • It’s perfect for flex workers.  If you work on a contract, from home, part-time, or entrepreneurial basis, this book is for you.  When you’re setting your own schedule, work can spill over into everything and you really have to fight for your own creative space.  This book is geared toward people dealing with those challenges, and I think more and more of us are going to be working this way in the future, so these are good tips and habits to work on now.
  • It’s a good reminder to be the boss of your technology.  Are you in the habit of checking your email first thing?  Do you leave your email and Facebook open while you’re trying to get your other work done?  Is the internet taking up too much of your creative time, or are you successfully keeping it as your servant rather than your master?  These are all dangers to be aware of and another reminder never hurts.
  • It covers old standby topics in fresh ways.  Balancing your personal creative work with the creative work you get paid for, combatting perfectionism, saying no to good things to make room for best things…these are all topics with which we’re familiar.  But I appreciated how the essays in the book tackled these perennial favorites with new perspectives and insights.  For example, to find out where you’re indulging in perfectionism, check yourself for idealism, judgement, fear, and pride.  Sounds simple, but it’s amazingly helpful to nail yourself down on why you’re thinking or feeling a certain way on a given project.

Is Manage Your Day-to-Day a panacea of time/life management?  No.  But is it worth your time?  Yes, particularly if you’re in a creative line of work and work in a flexible way.  The book’s format lends itself to reading in short spurts – while you nurse the baby, when you’re waiting for the onions to brown, while you’re waiting for the client to join the conference call…and the essays are such that you can read them quickly but then benefit from digesting the information later.  I enjoyed it, and would recommend it.

 

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Some Books on Communicating

I think the most helpful piece of advice I’ve ever heard about communicating came from Gretchen Rubin (sadly I can’t find a direct link): If you’re talking and are interrupted by a child or loud noise or whatever and the other person doesn’t ask you a follow up question about what you were saying, drop the topic. I’ve tried to keep that in mind, and also I’ve tried to notice it with others–when someone is interrupted I now make a point to ask a follow up question about what they were saying.

Communication is filled with little things like that–small cues to keep in mind or ways to remember to show someone else that you’re interested in what he or she is saying. In The Fine Art of Small Talk, you’ll get tips for when and how to engage in small talk, but perhaps more helpful for most people are the interesting asides about how to leverage small talk in business situations, and how to handle it when you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know how to make small talk.

For example, the book has lots of helpful tips on how to structure questions to avoid getting one word replies.  Sometimes it’s as simple as saying “Tell me about…[your weekend, your project, whatever]” rather than “How is…”  I’ve been using that idea with good results so far–it’s amazing what changing the phrasing of a simple question can do.

While the book is a little light, it could be really helpful if you don’t know where to start with small talk, and would probably be at least moderately helpful for anyone.  We can always get better at communication.

If you’re the sort of person who feels like small talk is a waste of time and superficial, consider that small talk paves the way for relationship building and for establishing a friendly tone before bringing up big topics. In a sense, you need small talk in order to make big talk. Heap big talk, I sound like Disney’s Peter Pan, good grief.

At any rate, once you’ve got small talk down, you almost certainly could use help navigating more touchy or in-depth topics. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most is an exceptional resource from the Harvard Negotiation Project that covers common reasons why difficult conversations go awry, and how you can reframe your perspective and tactics to really understand the person you’re talking to in order to have a productive conversation.

The book is, happily, not a manual for how to manipulate or browbeat the other person into agreeing with you until you get your way.  Rather, it presents a method for understanding a competing point of view, emphasizes respecting the other person, assists you in understanding your own weaknesses and hot buttons, and gives very helpful steps for changing your phrasing and your objectives to arrive at a better result.

I noticed these tips working almost immediately.  In one particular conflict, I realized I was inwardly thinking in terms of “they always…”  Instead, as the book suggests, I began to frame the problem around “I feel…” and asked myself what information the group had that I did not and tried to disentangle the impact of the action from the intent.  Although I didn’t actually have a difficult conversation about the issue, just reframing the matter in my own head helped me tremendously.

One particularly helpful exercise in the book involves discerning patterns in when you tend to get knocked off balance and lose your cool in a situation.  These, the authors say, are times when your identity is being challenged and reveal some of your fears.  By identifying these things, you can more calmly talk to yourself about the situation, and not lash out.

I could go on and on about the myriad ideas and concrete action points contained in this book.  Difficult Conversations is an excellently thought out, well written, eminently helpful reference and I highly recommend it.

What do you find tougher: small talk or difficult conversations?

 

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In which I couldn’t put down a book about a dictionary

Sounds like the beginning of a joke about nerds, doesn’t it?  But really, I was immediately sucked in to this odd and genre-bending book about a brilliant editor, an insane Yale alumnus locked up in an asylum after committing murder, and the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

First of all, the book covers a lot of historical ground in telling the life stories of the two men and their obsessions, plus a side story about the man who was murdered.  Then there is also the fascinating story of how the OED was compiled, mixed with great trivia about the history of the English language and examples of OED definitions, which alone would have kept me reading. When you combine all that with the author’s precise yet good-humored writing style, you get a truly winning book, if somewhat unlikely in subject and organization.

As with the best histories, this one reads like a novel and includes lots of fabulous and interesting trivia and vocabulary.  If you love words and language in general you’ll particularly enjoy this book.  It’s an odd pick, but I highly recommend it!

 

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Some Books on Epidemics

Kind of an odd topic to read about, but epidemics are strangely fascinating and can make for compelling narrative!

In fact, once I started Mary Beth Keane’s historical novel Fever, which is based on the life of Typhoid Mary, I couldn’t put it down.  At first I kept reading because I was so horrified by the terrible treatment Mary suffered at the hands of public health officials, but then I kept reading because I couldn’t get over how Mary kept making terrible decisions in her personal and professional life.  This book is a great example of how well-researched historical fiction can bring an academic subject to life.  Having previously only had cursory knowledge of the way Mary’s case progressed and the changing cultural and social attitudes toward disease and contagion at that time, I learned a lot from this book and also gained understanding of how the events of Mary’s case fit in with broader historical narratives.

Even if you think you don’t care much about typhoid outbreaks, the well-done pacing and solid writing in Fever will probably hold your interest!

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History suffers from being about 200 pages too long, but in spite of a tendency toward repetitiveness and overwrought chapter endings apparently tacked on to raise tension, the book covers such a fascinating period of history that you can’t help but like it anyway.

In addition to chronicling the flu pandemic of 1918, the book also delves into topics ranging from the science behind how viruses work, how influenza evolves and becomes more or less deadly as new strains develop, the way that medicine changed as a profession over time, and how geo-political concerns helped to facilitate and spread the epidemic.  I learned a lot from reading this book, and would recommend it to history buffs interested in the World War I era.

Although I didn’t intentionally set out to read two books about epidemics so close together, I did find that the information contained in these two books added to my understanding of each topic and gave me a fuller picture of an interesting period of medical, social, and cultural change.

 

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