Read Alouds from August

We did a lot of reading aloud in August, but didn’t complete many longer books so this makes for a short post.  However, we are currently in the midst of four books that we’ll finish soon and have several more on deck, so next month’s read aloud review will be a smorgasbord!

We all enjoyed The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.  I liked the emphasis on kids making their own adventures, negotiating sibling relationships in an on-the-same-team sense, and the kids liked the characters and story.  My only complaints are that some of the adult characters seemed two-dimensional (nobody is really all oozy evil all the time–even in kid lit) and there were some scenes where the 12 year old girl thinks quite a lot about kissy stuff.  I elected to skip those parts, because it’s not the stage we’re in and I see no point in encouraging the idea that it’s cute to gush over or try to kiss boys as a preteen.  You may differ with me there, and it’s not that I don’t want to discuss those issues with my kids, just that I see no reason to bring them up prematurely or indicate that I think they ought to be thinking or acting that way.  It’s a complicated question, and one on which parents differ, I’ve found.  Anyway, there are other Penderwick books and we will probably read them to catch back up with the sisters and interesting boy.

In our poetry reading, we finished The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems.  To be honest, I didn’t love this one and probably won’t circle back to it.  Many of the poems were great, but several were ones I didn’t think were particularly important for children to know, more like the kind of thing that adults would want to study in the sense of not being particularly suited for children topically or appealing for reading aloud.  Also, I didn’t love the illustrations.  They seem like the sort of drawings young teenagers do before they realize that they need to learn some more technique.  They felt sort of off to me, and not excellent or unusual in style or composition.

I feel bad writing a harsh review of a book of poetry, especially when many of the selections were great, but it wasn’t exactly our cup of tea.

I saw Betsy and the Emperor recommended somewhere and so when we started studying Napoleon I checked it out for Hannah to read.  After she had read it a couple of times (she likes to re-read things) I read it.  Well.  At first the book does seem like the story of a spunky 14-year-old determined to befriend the 49-year-old exiled emperor (the story is historical fiction–there really was a Betsy on St. Helena).  However, in the course of the book Betsy makes out with a soldier, she observes through a window the wife of one of Napoleon’s friends get into bed with Napoleon, Napoleon reads aloud a newspaper speculation that he’s involved with Betsy romantically, Betsy is shut into a wine cellar and drinks an entire bottle of wine and is hungover the next day, and Betsy discovers her soldier amorously entangled with another girl.  Good grief!  Hannah is only eight!  I talked to her about the book and think most of this went over her head, although she opined that things must have been very different for 14-year-olds back then, because Betsy seems to have thought she was old enough to get married, and Hannah also thought the soldier was not very trustworthy.  Mostly Hannah wanted to talk about Napoleon’s exile and how it was different from his exile on Elba.  So that was good.

I read a lot of inappropriate stuff as a kid, and I guess it’s just one of those things when you have a kid who reads ahead of grade level and voraciously.  But still, she’s eight!  Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t recommend this book for elementary age kids.  Pretty interesting insight into Napoleon’s last exile though.

What did you read aloud this month?


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If you have 32 minutes

It was 7:44 and I had left my books-in-progress in the room where the baby had already gone to sleep. I looked at my books-not-yet-read shelf and spotted the book I hadn’t had time to read for a book club this week. By 8:16 I had finished the book, and had a whole host of things to think about.

Stitches: A Memoir is done in graphic style (that is, illustrated sort of like a comic book, but with a more serious story) and tells the story of David Small, a Caldecott-winning picture book illustrator.  Although the story is dark–Small had a terrible family life–the drawings are so full of feeling and communicate so clearly the thoughts, imagination, and perspective of a creative child caught in dreadful situations, that the book is somehow still quite hopeful.  I really wish I had been able to get to the book club meeting to hear what other people thought.

Although its format is simple, the story, characters, and themes are complex and nuanced.  The book does an excellent job of illustrating how growing up can change your perspective on your family, as you come to understand the circumstances and choices that shape people and drive their choices.  The hopeful perspective of the book comes through in the author’s willingness to accept his relatives for who they are, forgive them, and choose a different path for his own life.  Even if you had a fairly normal childhood, as I did, the book may remind you of weird ways you saw things as a child or ways adults acted that you didn’t understand or misinterpreted, and the message of redemptive forgiveness and choosing a positive direction in spite of circumstances is universal.

I’m not usually one for this style of book, but I’m glad I read Stitches and can see why it was a finalist for the National Book Award.  I’d say it’s well worth your 32 minutes and the time you’ll spend thinking about the message of the book afterward.


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The Long Shadow

The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century is the latest in what has become an epic foray into reading about the history and impact of the 20th century.  Flu, Typhoid Mary, the Dust Bowl, Japanese internment camps, and now the long shadow cast by World War I.

First of all, this book is amazing because it combines rigorous scholarship with readability.  So often really detailed histories are dry and drag along, but this one never did.

The author, a Cambridge professor, walks the reader through the ways in which common conceptions of World War I have artificially colored the facts, and contrasts popular knowledge with contextual data.  While it didn’t turn my view of World War I entirely on its head, it did add tremendous depth and nuance to the skeleton knowledge I had.  Starting with the lead up to the war, covering the emergence of nationalism, socialism, fascism, communism, and many other attendant issues, and tying the threads of history together in an understandable way that doesn’t compromise their complexity, the book is really a wonderful resource.

If you’re interested in history, even if you’re pretty sure you completely understand World War I, I’d really recommend The Long Shadow.


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Children of the Jacaranda Tree (and a recommendation for another book)

Children of the Jacaranda Tree is a novel tracing several generations of characters impacted by the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath.  As Iran is an area of particular interest to me, I was eager to read this book, and to see how it compared to others I’ve read on similar topics.

The author’s style–zooming in on different characters in different voices and then not coming back to them until decades later if at all, picking up a thread with a connection to a previous section of the book for a brief vignette, and looking at events through the eyes of characters of different ages–served to reinforce the theme of dissonance.  That is, her narrative choices underscored the broken lines of connection, severed relationships, torn families, and jagged edges of the culture in the aftermath of the Revolution and then the long war with Iraq.  Some of the stories were fascinating and compelling–such as the opening chapter, based on the author’s life, where a baby is born to a woman held in the notorious Evin Prison.  Others seemed hopeful, for example in the way that the author captured the excitement the Green Movement stirred up even in exiles and expatriates.

However, I will also say that the book suffered for many of these same features.  The narrative threads didn’t hold together securely, so some of the stories seemed jumbled rather than woven together.  Characters were often not well differentiated, the setting was sparse, and many of the chapters and even the jacaranda tree motif felt contrived, stretched, tacked on.

My biggest issue with the book was the fact that I didn’t ever get a sense of being in Iran.  The lack of setting details and almost complete lack of descriptive voice and idiom were disappointing, especially because I’ve read other pieces set in Iran that made me almost see, hear, smell and taste the country as I read.  I do realize that this is a style and preference issue.  Some writers write evocatively of place and others don’t.  I’ve noticed this in novel after novel with distinct settings and I know it’s a matter of taste.  I just prefer more descriptive storytelling.

If you are interested in the themes and time period covered in Children of the Jacaranda Tree, I’d recommend A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea in addition or instead.  Teaspoon also considers the effects of the Revolution and war, but in a more focused way, looking at one family and its tragedies in detail, rather than skipping between dozens of loosely related points of view.  The setting and language in Teaspoon are incredible, and beautifully done.  I don’t think  Children of the Jacaranda Tree was a terrible novel, or a waste of time, but it does pale in comparison to to Teaspoon so if you only have time for one book to give you a feeling for Iran in the 1980s and following, I’d vote for A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea.


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The Bookmarked Life 3

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

Right now I’m:


I recently read about a podcast titled Whose Well Done Are You Working For?  I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but even the title is proving to be an excellent thought provocation. I find myself turning to the question as I plan my schedule, consider my conversations, think about my work, and feel nervous for saying yes or no to the different obligations that crop up this time of year.

…Furnishing my mind

As it happens I am reading Shakespeare’s King Lear for the first time in preparation for our fall semester.  I’m familiar with the plot since we’ve read the Lamb and Nesbit versions, but I don’t think I’ve ever read the original. I’m looking for suitable quotations for memorization.  When it comes to furnishing the mind, Shakespeare is almost always a good bet.

…Learning about

Pickles. You can pickle so many things with such good results.  My parents make an excellent squash pickle relish, which I’ve enjoyed this week as we’re visiting the lake again for one last summer hurrah.  And, new to me, I learned that you can also pickle okra.  Y’all.  It’s incredible and I’m glad I learned of its existence in time to savor the goodness of this amazing food for the rest of my natural life and probably on into the Heavenly Feast because it’s just that delicious.

…Living the Good Life

I tried something new for the State Fair this year. As usual, we earned our tickets through our library’s summer reading program, and we went on “$2 Day” when some food items and all rides are $2. But this year we went in the afternoon (after the babysitter was here in the morning for my work time) and I gave each of the big kids an envelope containing $5.  They added some allowance they had saved up (they don’t get much allowance so they didn’t have a lot to add) and each child could decide what he or she wanted to eat or ride.  It worked fabulously!  It only took one question of the sort that usually plagues us at the Fair:

“Mama, can I get that giant inflatable blue alien? Pleeeeease!”

“I don’t know, do you have $27 in your envelope to spend on a giant inflatable blue alien?”

And then there were no more questions about $9 face painting or $15 plastic swords or deep fried hamburgers with donuts for buns.  Win!

As it turned out, we saw the things we HAVE to see at the Fair, including the World’s Largest Hog (who actually stood up on his own actual-to-goodness legs–a feat we’ve never before witnessed in an over-1000-pound porcine wonder), the horses, the goats, the World’s Largest Cheese Sculpture, the building where you can try archery, the Pioneer Village, and the Little Kids on the Farm exhibit.  In addition, the kids each rode three rides and had one $2 frozen pineapple treat each.  At the very end I caved and bought them each a $2 corndog so that I wouldn’t have to make them supper, and we arrived home in time for showers, worship, and read-aloud chapter with lights out on time!  Boom.


School starts for us on Monday, so I’ve got notebooks and binders ready (color-coded by child, because why not?), plans in place, and no illusions about how often we will stick to the schedule, because let’s face it, we probably won’t ever have a perfect day.  When I was looking through our school supplies for a missing notebook, I found the binder of my records from the 2009-2010 school year, when Hannah was in PreK-3. So wow, this will be our sixth year of homeschooling!


This week I did not paint, embroider, or redecorate anything.  My creative output consisted of a variety of marketing materials, a nine page outline for a huge work project, and gluing a loose ruffle back on one of Hannah’s dresses.  Yeah, I glued it.  The dress is knit and the thought of getting out the proper foot for my sewing machine just to reattach two inches of ruffle seemed daunting compared to the allure of fabric glue.  Here’s hoping.


I have the whole first chapter of Colossians in my index card ring now, although I am still kind of shaky on the end.  Still, I’m making progress and continuing to enjoy steeping myself in the same verses over time.  The kids are starting to pick up more words in their new passage, although I did notice once I put our Bible memory notebook together that we need to get a lot better at review too!  Starting next week, we’ll add some Shakespeare and poetry memory back into the mix.

…Seeking balance

I have a bunch of work at the moment (for which I am thankful), and the thought of getting it all done plus adding 30 hours of homeschooling per week back in had me a little stressed this week.  I’ve planned as well as I can, we’re moving our babysitting time to two afternoons a week, I’m looking into possibly getting a mother’s helper for two more afternoons a week, and beyond that we will have to see how it goes.  I really like my work and am grateful for the provision, and I love that my flexible schedule allows me to make time for homeschooling, which is something I’m truly passionate about.  A lot of other things–even worthy things–have to drop aside to make space for our priorities, and that’s something I’m really having to accept this fall.  I’m choosing to define “doing it all” as “doing my top priorities well” rather than “doing all the things” and that’s a little freeing.

…Building the habit

I know you’re only really supposed to build one habit at a time, but the ones I’m working on this fall overlap a lot.  I started this list before my work load increased, but now I’m thankful that I had already been thinking these over.  This semester I’ll be working on the habits of Order, Focus, Grace, and Duty.  I may write more about those in upcoming posts.

…Listening to

As I write this, I’m listening to crickets.  My parents live on a lake, and the children and I are here for a few days before a family wedding.  The combination of water, sunshine, flowers, and Carolina mountains is hard to beat.

What are you bookmarking this week?


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The Family Worship Book

If you’ve only got time to read one book on family worship, I really recommend A Neglected Grace over The Family Worship Book: A Resource Book for Family Devotions.

That said, if you’re interested in the topic of how to set up family worship (or Bible time, or family devotions, or whatever you want to call it), The Family Worship Book may have some helpful ideas for you.  Personally, I found the tone a little less encouraging, and the suggestions seemed more black and white and less flexible.  But I did get some good ideas for components that could figure into our practice, and also a good list of hymns and Psalms that reminded me of favorites I still need to teach the kids.  I could have gotten that from a quick perusal of the hymnal and Psalter we own, but the list was a nice quick reminder.

At any rate, what we’ve settled on for a routine is to do our worship before we read the bedtime chapter of our current read-aloud.  We sing the Doxology, read a chapter of the Bible (from Acts, currently, we finished Joshua), sing a hymn or Psalm, say the Apostle’s Creed (because we’re working on memorizing so the kids can say it during our church services), work on our Bible memory, sometimes sing another hymn or Psalm, pray, and sing the Gloria Patri.  It doesn’t take very long, all told.  Some days it goes very smoothly.  Other days, the kids are wound up and it’s a tougher thing.  However, I’m keeping in mind the advice from A Neglected Grace that having the daily commitment is helpful over time, even if individual days here or there make you wonder if any of this is sinking in.  The commitment to having family worship and reading a chapter before bed has also made me more mindful of our family schedule, and what has to happen when in terms of eating dinner, doing evening chores, getting ready for bed etc, so that everything can fit between when Josh gets home from work and when the kids need to be in bed.

If you read any good books or resources on family worship, please send them my way–I’m interested in what other families do!


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Some books on creative work

The Accidental Creative is geared primarily to “creative workers”–that is, people who are paid not just to perform tasks for a certain number of hours, but who are paid by the value of what they create.  This perfectly describes my work, so I appreciated that the book spoke to particular issues of scheduling, managing energy, focus, and keeping creativity sharp when you’re working in a creative field.

In some sense, the book helped me by reinforcing some of the work habits I already have, and I wouldn’t say any one piece was really revolutionary or totally new to me.  However, the real value of the book, for me anyway, was in its suggestions for how to maximize creativity by tweaking normal time management advice to apply more specifically to creatives.  For example, normally time management advice assumes that to a certain extent all of your waking hours are on the table.  But with creative work, you have to factor in the fact that not every 15 minute increment is the same, and know yourself well enough to understand when you are doing your best work.  Another example is in stewarding your energy–you might be doing stuff for 15 hours a day, but you probably aren’t churning out top-notch creative work for each of those hours.  The author had good ideas for how to make sure that your best work actually happens.

Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day is another book by the same author, this one purporting to have wider applicability beyond creative fields.  I guess that’s true, although I’d argue that both books would have useful tidbits for just about anyone.

This one includes a lot of the same concepts as the previous volume, including advice on how to curate the flow of media you’re subjected to, ideas for how to have weekly and quarterly self-assessments of all of your work and life activities, and how to maximize your focus.  It does contain a bit more information about goal setting and how to leverage your focus, time, and energy to be sure you’re really being effective in the roles you identify as your priorities.

I found both of these books useful because I’m always looking for ways to be more efficient and effective in my work and more focused on my priorities rather than being fragmented.  The books are general enough to be broadly applicable, but if you don’t really do anything in a creative/idea-generating field you might not get as much out of them (but still would probably like the focus and prioritizing parts).


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More Flavia!

While I was painting last week I managed to listen to the audio book renderings of the latest two Flavia de Luce novels. I hadn’t previously tried them in audio form, but found the reader’s voice perfect.

It’s always hard to imagine Alan Bradley getting any better, but he continues to beat his own previous wins and  Speaking from Among the Bones and The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches are his best books so far.  I continued to love the perfect characterization, impeccable plotting, and hilarious asides, and of course I learned even more about chemistry.  These books are the perfect combination of excellent storytelling and superb writing.  Really, the series is so truly good, if you have not yet read it, I highly recommend you start at the beginning and don’t stop until you run out of titles.

The latest two books in the series deliver on Bradley’s penchant for finding fabulous titles in famous literary works, which is a small point, but just goes to show how every detail in these books is well thought out.  Speaking from Among the Bones ends with a wild cliffhanger, so I’d suggest getting both books at once if you can, so that you don’t have to wait to figure out what is going on.  The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches wraps up a lot of the recurring themes and questions of the series, so I had a moment’s panic thinking that maybe the series was over.  However, I’m relieved and pleased to note that Bradley plans to write four more Flavia books, presumably releasing one a year as he has up to this point.

If you’ve read the Flavia books (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?!?!) do you think you’d allow a child to read them?  Since the main character is 11 and the books are remarkably clean I’ve thought about allowing Hannah to get into them.  She loves mysteries and I think she’d be fascinated by the chemistry.  But since the books aren’t billed as YA, I wonder if there’s a reason?

In any case, I highly recommend these two books, along with the rest of the series, and am looking forward to future installments!


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The Big Fat Surprise

In The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, author Nina Teicholz takes an exhaustive (seriously, deeply detailed and footnoted) look at the history of nutrition science and the studies that have been done to test hypotheses, to conclude that most of our modern nutrition policy is based on bad or incomplete science, ignoring more complete or up-to-date information.

This book goes into great detail and would probably be helpful if you know someone who is seriously resistant to the idea that saturated fat is not the bad guy as you’re used to hearing.  However, overall I think you’d do better to read Gary Taubes’ book Why We Get Fat–Taubes and Teicholz cover much of the same material, but Taubes is more comprehensive in terms of fat in general versus its relation to heart disease and metabolic syndrome.

That said, both books do a good job of really probing the nutritional studies and tracing the roots of why our nutritional policy is so deeply counter to what the science actually tells us.  It’s a pretty interesting topic if you’re into health.


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