Hodge Podge: Memoirs, middle age, and making the most of it

It’s a smallish snack this week, with only two selections. However, they go together in several ways that got me thinking.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – If you haven’t read 84, Charing Cross Road yet, you absolutely should, and then circle back to The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. In the forward, the book is described as “a charming story of a midlife dream realized.” I loved the tone and writing, and the fantastic (and not generally written about) living the dream in middle age angle. In fact, I got so caught up in the book that I began to forget it was a memoir. Thus, when the ending crashed in and was emphatically NOT what you’d do in a novel, I felt bereft. I still kind of can’t stand that it ended the way it did, although I know it’s a memoir and had to end as the facts dictated. However, I think if I had been writing this memoir having lived it, I would not have been able to handle finishing the manuscript. I would have had to go rectify the situation at once. Then I have to wonder how much agency we really have in changing our stories, and if I only think about things like shifting narratives because I read and write?

If you read this one, please come back and let me know–I’m interested to hear other takes.

Also, if I’m ever planning a trip to London (and I am always planning a trip to London), I will consult this book. I found the author’s itinerary matched many of the things I would want to do.

The Guynd – Thank you, Heather, for the recommendation! I was utterly captivated and fascinated by this account of an American woman who married a down-at-the-heels Scottish laird and how they managed Scottish country house life. Hint: it was not much like Downton Abbey, and rather more like things falling down ’round their ears. The outsider-married-to-an-insider perspective was exceptionally well-suited to the book, and I found I learned a lot, although it was another melancholy ending. As with Hanff’s book above, this whole edifice (or edifices, since the theme is both the marriage and the house restoration) is attempted when the wife and husband are in mid-life, and I do think the middle age perspective is kind of interesting. It’s a whole different thing than the usual 20/30-something-trying-something-for-a-year genre. The late 40s to early 60s viewpoint lends a different flavor and I’m kind of interested in that.

Although I still think that middle age doesn’t begin until 50, which gives me a good 12 years before I hit it (my decision to scrap Proust notwithstanding), I can see that a different era is up ahead, so I’m kind of skirting around poking at it to see what it’s like. Maybe that’s just me.

What are you reading this week?

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Hodge Podge: Life, Work, and Getting Your Point Across

In the mix this week: some thoughts on how we work (not just in jobs), form habits, and communicate.

Deep Work – In this fantastic book, Cal Newport describes how our culture is shifting toward shallow thinking, and the opportunities this opens for people who cultivate the ability to do deep work–that is, who know how to work with innovation, depth, and concentration. Newport discusses how to work deeply and develop focus and also exposes fallacies about what does and does not foster this ability. For example, he describes the idea that kids using iPads in school to prepare them for the high-tech economy is like giving them matchbox cars so they can learn to service a Porsche. Of particular strength are insightful sections on how to reframe the way we think about tasks and how we could approach tools and platforms with a craftsman approach (“Does this help me meet my core priorities?”) versus an any-benefit approach (“Shiny! New! I’ll take it!”). I took six dense pages of notes and was challenged in my thinking on many points, putting several of my take-aways into practice, such as the Roosevelt Dash. “A deep life is a good life.” Read this book. You will not regret it.

When Breath Becomes Air – This startling book is an end-of-life memoir written by a neurosurgeon struck in his mid-30s with terminal cancer. It sounds grim, but instead is hopeful and incredibly thought-provoking. One thing that stuck with me in particular was how Kalanithi’s pre-med background in literature and the humanities made him a better surgeon and more able to deal with the complexities and tragedies of own his life and those of his patients. Highly, highly recommended (both the book and the study of humanities!).

Reclaiming Conversation – This high impact book discusses how modern life is eroding our ability to communicate and relate to others, and offers suggestions for how to repair the walls. I’ve made a note to require my kids to read this book in high school, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Many things in our current culture are stacked against community and relationships, and it behooves us to pay attention and make stronger decisions about connection, empathy, attention, and imagination. This is not an anti-technology book, but rather a framework for how to prevent it from narrowing your world. An excellent read.

The Sweet Spot – In the habits and happiness genre, this book stands out for concrete, workable, high impact suggestions written in a personable, inspiring tone. I put a lot of things from this book into practice, including this year’s motto (Love is the horse) and defining the MDR (minimum daily requirement) for things like exercise to help me break the “well I don’t have two hours so I guess it’s nothing” mindset. Another strength of the book is the emphasis on how to build or repair relationships in small, manageable ways. I really liked this book, and would recommend it.

Smartcuts – The fact is, most of us have to work and get stuff done in life in one or more arenas. So, the author of Smartcuts posits, we should do these things in a smart way. Whether you have a traditional 9-5 or not, many of the tips in this highly readable and entertaining book will help you. Smartcuts demonstrates how the maxims many of us take for granted, like “put in your time” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “10,000 hours of practice makes you good at something” just aren’t true, and replaces those ideas with research-based alternatives.

Average is Over – There are a couple of fascinating points made in Average is Over, although I think they would have been made stronger in an article rather than a book. To sum up, the author argues that in recent decades a lot of people have been “overemployed relative to their skills” (that is, the cost of providing insurance and benefits is more than the value they provide) and that in the near future loads of people are going to fall out of the middle class. Some of the conclusions are fairly obvious but others are interestingly unique, such as the assertion that a key determinant in future success will be self-control. It’s not a bad book, but now you know the gist and you could probably skip it unless you’re just really interested in this sort of forecasting.

What have you been reading this week?

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Hodge Podge: Science Fiction in Translation

I never got into science fiction much until I read Wired For War and realized that good science fiction is where a lot of the thinking about philosophy and response to technology and science happens. And it’s even more interesting when it comes from another cultural perspective. So this week’s hodge podge is, for a bit of a twist, flavored Science Fiction in Translation.

Roadside Picnic – Translated from Russian, this novel had a very different feel from most American works of similar kinds. It was not like the older Russian novels I’m more familiar with, but it did have a distinctive difference…I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but maybe the difference was that Roadside Picnic looks at alien technology in in a more pedestrian and less hero-driven way than an American author might have approached the same premise? The story itself struck me as inconclusive and low on hope, but it was interesting.

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End  – This fascinating and compelling trilogy was translated from Chinese by two different translators. I loved the way the author wove insights about the history and development of math and physics into the narrative, especially related to what went on in China during the Cultural Revolution. I think what really struck me about the trilogy was the reminder of how often we think of defense and technology in a Western-centric way, whereas there is an equally valid Sino-centric view that results in some completely different conclusions. The books deal with ethical conundrums like what actually underpins our standards and ethics on in the face of unforeseen circumstances, and how and why humanity often defaults to totalitarianism and what can be done about it. In many ways, these books reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, albeit with a different guiding hermeneutic.

On China – Unrelated to science fiction, but concurrent to the Cixin Liu books, I was also reading Kissinger’s On China, and found that it dovetailed well, especially in providing context to historical Chinese perspectives and cultural and academic changes of the more recent past.

What are your favorite sci-fi titles?

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Hodge Podge: Fiction that doesn’t chew its cabbage twice edition

How about a mix of grown-up fiction and read-alouds that are otherwise unrelated? These include some literary peanuts, raisins, and a few indeterminate chocolate-like blobs. Your mileage may vary.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d – Flavia fans will welcome another installment from our witty post-war, British, pre-teen, heroine/detective, and they will not be disappointed. I confess that I was flat out surprised by the ending to this book. I also loved the odd-but-apt aphorism, “Fate doesn’t chew its cabbage twice.” Words to live by.

Commonwealth – This book was…fine. It’s a little odd to say so, since I have loved Patchett’s books heretofore. If you’ve only got time for one by this author, definitely go for Bel Canto (review) or State of Wonder (review) instead.

Lila – I’ve not been a huge fan of Marilynne Robinson up to this point, but Lila grew on me. It became quite interesting to observe how Robinson was constructing the narrative and building the character, but I sort of felt like I was dissecting the book rather than reading it. However, I might try Home next and see if I like the series backwards better than forward.

Crosstalk – Connie Willis is such a fun writer, and manages somehow to balance light and witty writing with deeper subjects and issues. In Crosstalk, she looks at technology and relationships in the not-too-distant future through a story that will keep you reading while also giving you a lot to think about. I feel like you can’t go wrong with any of her books.

Read-Alouds

The Indian in the Cupboard – This is a short, funny read especially good for boys (or girls) who like adventure and girls (or boys) who are fascinated by the tiny-people-versus-big-people genre. We listened to it on audio while driving to and fro. There is a whole series, which the kids own and have read, and which I believe I read as a kid, but I can’t recall enough to know if I should recommend them or not.

Watership Down – So, technically this is not a kids book, but we listened to it as a family on our epic roadtrip-in-which-nearly-everyone-threw-up-for-11-hours. So let’s just say we all remember the story vividly. It’s a good story, if rather long. And since the author originally made it up as bedtime stories for his daughters, I think it’s fine for kids. Plus, you’ll learn a lot of really fascinating things about rabbits. When literature and zoology collide.

The Secret Keepers – We actually all read this separately not aloud, and I read it so I could talk to the kids about it. While we liked the book, it was so disappointingly NOT a Mysterious Benedict book. Of course we knew that going in, but one still hopes. I do like this author and will read anything else he publishes, but we like MBS best.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – The big kids and I have read the Harry Potter books individually (well, actually Sarah has only read the first three) at least once, but Eliza was feeling left out so we decided to listen to one for her sake. The audio versions of the series are just terrific. It was such an enjoyable listen, even though I had already read the book. And the big kids liked it even though Hannah has probably read the book 17 times. I’m not sure if we would tackle the later books with a small kid, but the first and second would probably be fine for younger kids especially if they have older siblings that already discuss the series as if it’s part of their lived experience.

Around the World in 80 Days – I grew up watching the movie of this book, so it’s fun to hear the actual story. We’ll watch the movie for family movie night to contrast and compare. If you’re reading aloud, you might want to skim ahead for terms to change as you go. If you’re listening to audio, it’s a good idea to pause and mention when a book uses descriptions that you don’t want your kids to internalize. It’s not too much, just here and there an old-fashioned parlance or attitude that we don’t hold.

How about you and your family? Have you read any great fiction lately?

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Hodge Podge: The Danish Thing

This week’s literary trail mix flavor is That Whole Danish Thing. It’s everywhere. One of the book clubs I’m in did a Danish theme this month (it was very hyggelig), so I read a couple of things.

  • The Year of Living Danishly – This is the book club selection, and it made for a lively discussion. The author did a great job of discussing various aspects of Danish culture that impact overall happiness. Although her attempts at application were not very helpful, it was easy to think of individual ways you might want (or not) to put the ideas into place in your own life. I will say that the things that struck me most are things that would require cultural overhaul and are thus not likely to ever be present in my life. But I’m still thinking about several things:
    • Danish society has a strong framework of shared traditions and rules. You’d think this would be stifling, but it really gives them freedom in their lane, versus American individualism, which leads to a lot of ambiguity and stress as we’re spoiled for choice on every front.
    • The taxes are high, but shockingly not THAT much higher than what I pay as a self-employed person (in the US if you are self-employed you pay an additional 15% on top of your regular tax bracket). And because Danish taxes and benefits are straightforward, there is a lot less stress and uncertainty involved.
    • Danish people trust each other. They leave babies in strollers outside of restaurants and shops. That sort of thing would send you to jail here. But I think trust also diminishes stress.
  • The Danish Way of Parenting – This book is a little gimmicky and heavily geared toward raising younger kids. I didn’t find much about older elementary or teenaged kids, but that’s ok. One of the premises of the book is that parenting is an ethnotheory–that is, we parent very differently based on our culture, and it’s hard to see our own bias objectively. Again, the take-away is that Danish people are not as individualistic as Americans. “They don’t enjoy drama, negativity, and divisiveness.” And that really sums up the difference, doesn’t it? Although I don’t think this book is a must-read, if you’re interested in the topic it did have some interesting insights, and perhaps more that you could implement in your own family even if you are unable to change your culture single-handedly.
  • Overwhelmed – Linked to my longer review, this book has a great section on Denmark and what makes it’s work-life balance so much easier. It would be a great companion read for the topic, plus it’s an excellent book on its own.

A few other links a ran across recently:

Have you read/thought much about the Danish trend? What do you think?

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Underground Airlines

underground airlinesThis week I read a book that smacked me in the face unexpectedly.

The premise of Underground Airlines is incredibly strong: imagine the present day, complete with modern technology, industry, and trade, but if the American Civil War never happened and slavery was never outlawed in the South. And then imagine an intricately plotted, deeply felt, tautly designed novel about that world.

Of course I wanted to read Underground Airlines for the story, and I know you’d like it for that, too. But I was not prepared for how well Ben Winters, the author, brought the issues home in a way that caused me to think carefully, and perhaps uncomfortably, about my own world.

The book is set in Indianapolis, which happens to be the city in which I live, so that already felt personal. So many things are right on and familiar about the world Winters imagines, and then Winters drops in a grim and startling facet of slavery that jars you in its incongruity. It’s not just the slavery (made infinitely more sickening by it’s modern setting–truly, this is an important narrative to read–history makes slavery feel remote and like maybe there were fringes that weren’t that bad but truly, really, evil is evil all the way down) of the “Hard Four” Southern states that still allow slavery, but the soft racism of the North (this is definitely a thing in our own world–and something that surprised me about living in the North), the deliberate, callous ignorance of people who’d rather save a few dollars on a t-shirt than buy one that was ethically sourced, the smug superiority of freedom activists who still don’t actually care enough about people as people, even as they spout platitudes about injustice.

Underground Airlines would make an excellent book club selection. It’s a fantastic story–fast-paced, full of action and nuanced characters, and a complex mystery that only unravels at the very end. But it’s also a tremendously challenging book from an ethical perspective. We still have slavery in our world (Cheap t-shirts? Cheap coffee? Cheap chocolate? Yes, we’re implicated.), and we still have people who are convinced they are more of a person than someone a different color, nation, or gestational age than they are. And those of us who do care almost certainly aren’t doing enough about it. I don’t even pray about it very often. A riveting, thought-provoking, convicting story. I think you should read this one.

“I don’t know,” he said. “How can we let him live? A man like this?”

“A man like this?” I said softly. “What’re you? What’re you?”

Note: If you’re interested in the topic of modern day slavery, I highly recommend Gary Haugen’s book, The Locust EffectIt’s a difficult read, but a crucial topic.

 

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Hodge Podge: Health & Fitness

This week’s literary trail mix of book reviews features health and fitness.

The Case Against Sugar – I probably shouldn’t lead with this one, because people get their hackles up when you suggest they give up their sugar. Take that as a clue, or not, as you please. I listened to this book on audio and found it compelling, although not as good as Why We Get Fat. I really enjoyed the deep dive on history and research–if you’re not into that, this is not the book for you. But if you’re trying to cut sugar, you’ll feel bolstered.

The Microbiome Solution – Microbiome is a big concept in health circles now, so I was interested to read this book by a top gastroenterologist who is in private practice but also is a researcher and professor. This goes way beyond taking a probiotic or eating some yogurt. The book was interesting, although it did highlight the contradictions in various health prescriptions. I’m finding that really the only things people agree on are: eat more dark leafy greens and cut out sugar. Beyond that it’s a lot of: eat more meat! eat less meat! eat bananas! never eat bananas! legumes are good! legumes are bad! Sheesh. Basically, you’re going to have to filter this stuff, and biohack until you find something that works for you.

Lose Weight Here – One great idea I got from this book was to monitor your HEC (hunger, energy, cravings) to figure out when your diet/exercise plan isn’t working for you. Beyond that, this book is a pretty complex system of alternating between eat-less-exercise-less and eat-more-exercise-more. Sounds simple. Isn’t simple. I’ll just say that “exercise LESS” includes TWO HOUR WALKS. I can see how that is ideal, but not how that is feasible. The book has some great tips and action items, but if you’re easily overwhelmed or don’t want to spend all of your brain space on your diet and fitness plan, this is not for you.

Micronutrient Miracle – To be honest, I didn’t get a ton from this book. I’m not sure if that’s because it was information I already knew from other sources, or just not my jam. I’m not going to do a plan that requires two protein shakes a day instead of real food meals, but I did like the clear explanation of sprint timing and the reminder to take your iron at a different time of day than your other vitamins.

The Thyroid Connection – I heard the author on a podcast and thought her story was interesting, but in truth I do not have a thyroid problem. I do feel tired and brain-fogged a lot, but that comes down to the fact that I am a bad sleeper, have five children, and essentially work two jobs. So in that sense, the book was reassuring because I feel secure in my thyroid situation. However, if you’re not sure about your thyroid or have problems with it, this would be a really helpful book to read. The author is a physician and has definite opinions about the treatment options, so it’s certainly worth skimming before you take drastic measures with your thyroid. Although I don’t personally need the information right now, I’m not sorry I read this book, if only to know what to turn to if this is ever an issue in my family.

Podcasts – A lot of my fitness information intake is happening via podcasts right now. I find it inspiring to listen to something fitness related while I’m exercising. In case you feel the same way, I thought I’d give a shout-out to a few of my favorites:

  • The SANE Show – A simple, doable, no nonsense approach to health. Jonathan Baylor wrote The Calorie Myth (reviewed here) and his co-host is a relatable working mom.
  • The Model Health Show – Shawn Smith, who wrote Sleep Smarter (reviewed here) and his co-host Jade are really funny and always interesting.
  • Better Everyday – Sarah Fragoso, author of Everyday Paleo (reviewed here), and Dr. Brooke give a great perspective on health as it relates to women and female hormones and systems. So much health information is written for men, and it’s incredibly helpful to hear how certain advice applies (or not) to women in various life stages.

 

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Hodge-podge: Historical Fiction

In order to move more swiftly through the burgeoning backlog of reviews, I’m resorting to hodge-podging (shorter reviews, no pictures). I suppose this is the literary equivalent of trail mix – small amounts of all sorts of things – some savory, some sweet, and some of those bits you were sure would be chocolate but which turned out to be carob.

Laurus – Much lauded in various quarters, I found this literary historical piece rather…plodding. It’s set in Russia, which is why I expected to love it, but it was more Island of the World-ish than Dostoevsky-ish.

The Flame Bearer – By golly, Uhtred actually moves the ball down the field in this one! If you’ve dropped Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series due to the fact that the last several were essentially the same book, never fear. This one, while following the series formula (of course) does actually advance the story. I say this in love, as Cornwell won my loyalty through his amazing skill at battle scenes and commitment to the more obscure bits of English history.

 

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen – Ach, come awa’ in! There’s always room for one more novel about Henry VIII’s wives! And when Alison Weir writes one, you know it’s going to be good. This book kicks off Weir’s intended series on the wives, with a fictional account drawing on the author’s extensive historical background. I really enjoyed this one.

The Uncommon Reader – I’m not sure this quite qualifies as historical fiction, but I wasn’t sure where exactly to place it, so here we are. The book follows a fictional modern Queen of England who suddenly and precipitously takes up reading later in life. It’s a short book, and very, very funny, but also a joyful laud to being well-read. Warning: you will probably assume that this is safe for children. And indeed it would be save for one rather startling moment toward the end of the book when the Prime Minister’s secretary breaks through the protocol with a blue comment. Funny is not quite the word, but it was funny for the shock value…but in any case, not suitable if the little pitchers are about so be forewarned if you do this one on audio. Overall a diverting and fun read.

Victory on the Walls – This is a read-aloud we did for school, set during the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. We all liked it, and I was particularly impressed with the depiction of contrast between Susa and Jerusalem and the connections to what was going on in other cultures. Not as good as Joanne Williamson’s books, but it’s a high adventure, boy protagonist story, if you’re in need of one.

What’s in your hodge-podge file of late?

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Year in Books 2016 (and thoughts on being “well-read”)

A friend who was sad about not having acquired a strong background in literature once asked me to give her a list of “10-20″books she should read to become “well-read.”

I declined to provide one.

I absolutely believe in being well-read, and I understand that it’s a long process and you have to start somewhere. But to distill all of the written words from the ages to a short list strikes me as ridiculous. Books are conversations. All great writing refers back to other things–all of the philosophy and history and science and art and literature from the pre-Socratic philosophers and the Old Testament through today twists together. Probably none of us is really well-read, if it comes to that. And yet, people keep posting these clickbait-for-bookworms lists of Books You Need To Be Well-Read. I know they are rubbish, and yet I click them, if only to shout arguments at the posters, who leave out Plato in favor of Shades of Grey (I am not going to dignify that one with a link!).

With that said, I present my own list!

Never fear, dear readers, this is NOT a list of what you need to be well-read. It’s just a few of the highlights from my own reading in 2016, should you need some fodder for your library holds list or in case the Amazon gift cards you got in your stocking are burning a hole in your pocket. It’s my TENTH Year in Books post, if you can believe it, and is a bit of a departure from my normal format (here are 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 if you need more ideas) as I’m going by category and didn’t bother to count up totals of books read. As an aside, I have a giant backlog of books-read-but-not-yet-reviewed from this year, so some of these do not have links to longer posts.

BEST FICTION

This is a twofer, because you might not think Life After Life was incredible if you didn’t follow it with A God In Ruins, and you wouldn’t understand why A God In Ruins is a masterpiece if you hadn’t read Life After Life first. I was blown away by these novels, and plan to read them again just so I can appreciate how the author managed it. Here is my longer review.

BEST LIFE MANAGEMENT

I’m awarding Cal Newport’s Deep Work even though I have not done a full review of it yet, because since I read it I have not stopped thinking about and implementing what I learned. The book really challenges some of our deeply held cultural mindsets about work, life, and purpose, and presents a different path toward approaching your time. Whatever your work looks like–parenting, working, homeschooling, side hustling–you will not fail to find a massive amount to think about and act upon in this book.

BEST FITNESS

I did a lot of reading in the health/nutrition/fitness category, and tried a lot of things. Overall, the highest impact and most refreshingly sensible title was The Calorie Myth, with a runner up being another title from the backlog list, The Bone Broth Diet. I’ve decided to stop picking up every shiny squirrel title in this genre, and focus on implementing the plans in these two books for 2017. (If you missed it, my longer review for The Calorie Myth is here.)

BEST READ-ALOUDS/KIDS BOOKS

We read two excellent series this year that will have to tie in the read-aloud/kids books category: The Mysterious Benedict Society books by Trenton Lee Stewart and The Wingfeather Saga series by Andrew Peterson. Both series are funny, thoughtful, adventure-filled, and well-written. All of my big kids asked for these books as gifts and spent their own money buying titles from the series too. We did a mix of listening to the audio books, reading them aloud together, and reading them alone. All of those options were great. If you have a mix of genders and ages, these are solid picks. (Longer reviews here.)

BEST SPIRITUAL LIFE

I got a journaling Bible for Christmas last year (there are myriad options, in a variety of formats and translations, but I got this one) and it was absolutely transformative. At first I was not sure about the whole thing. You see pictures of how people have adorned their journaling Bibles with large watercolors of wide-eyed lambs gamboling about in flowery fields or multicolored hand lettering offset by washi tape collages. That is not my jam. Instead, I made the volume a combination of my daily journaling, prayers, and Biblestudy. Beginning in Genesis, I did my daily journaling and read the text next to it as I went, interspersing things I was thinking about with my reactions to the biblical text, and prayerful responses to both. I also used the journaling Bible to do deeper study of all of the New Testament books except for Acts and Revelation, and several Old Testment books (Women of the Word is a good reference point if you aren’t sure how to do this). Tim Keller’s excellent Songs of Jesus helped me to write prayers through the Psalms this year. Along the way, I cross-referenced in sermon notes (so easy to jot “see page 923” or something if I had already written in the margin area for that passage) and places where what I read in one area informed something I was studying or praying about in another area. The journaling Bible was a marvelous tool for encouraging me to deeper study, deeper prayer, and deeper thinking, and I highly recommend trying it for yourself.

And now back to being well-read.

I think your best bet is to pick a book and start unravelling. You could start with something big and foundational, like Plato or Augustine or Dostoevsky. You could choose the chronological approach (if you’re interested, this is the sequence of courses that got me started–click on links or scroll for book lists–it looks like they only offer four courses now, it used to be five, but maybe the HUM 220 link is in there somewhere). Or you could just start your own path somewhere and see where it leads you. People who are well-read have read different things, but as long as you’re reading deeply, widely, and thinking about what you read, I think you are probably on the right track!

What were the best books you read in 2016? What are you looking forward to reading next year?

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On Languages

Languages. I love them. I want to speak many of them. And yet, it’s hard for me to set aside the necessary time and narrow down the focus to one language to really learn it well. So, I dabble. And I let the kids dabble. I used to feel bad about that, and still think about which modern language to really drill down on with them, but I’ve mostly decided that, for now anyway, fostering passing interests in various languages and cultures is part of broadening their viewpoints and giving them a taste of the world.

learn-any-languageThat said, I do love to read about languages and the pedagogy of learning and teaching them. If you’re also interested in those topics, you should definitely read Learn Any Language by Janina Klimas.

Unlike some other language books that I ultimately found difficult to implement, I really clicked with Klimas’ approach. She advocates a strategic framework that meshes well with how I think: figure out why you want to learn your target language and what you want to do with it, be realistic about how long it’s going to take you to achieve that level of fluency, and tackle the language in a low tech but high impact way.

Klimas makes strong points about why classroom language instruction often leaves students unable to communicate after several years of study, and offers an alternative path that involves creating your own sets of necessary words and phrases for different situations (you might need a set for talking to a babysitter more than a dialogue on picking up drycleaning, or vice versa), reading, and writing in the target language daily. I think her approach to writing is particularly sound, and I wish I had known these tips when I was floundering gracelessly in my college Russian classes.

Full of helpful, concrete examples and inspiration to learn languages for a variety of applications, Learn Any Language is a great resource that I highly recommend, and will certainly return to for myself and to help the kids.

language-hacking-italianThis fall, the kids and I previewed Benny Lewis’s Language Hacking course. Jack had gotten the bug to learn Italian (possibly fueled by his gustatory preferences, but hey, you have to start somewhere) so we gave it a go. We checked out some Italian picture books and made it through the beginning lessons of the course, but ultimately found it didn’t gel well with our style. That said, the program has some significant strengths that could make it excellent for others. If you’ve read Benny’s book Fluent In Three Months, you’ll remember that he’s big on speaking from day one. So his course emphasizes creating dialogues and mastering key phrases to practice in speaking. You use the phrases to record videos of yourself speaking and share with an online community. That’s far easier and cheaper than other online tutoring options, and could get you into a good groove quickly. Since we try to minimize screen time for the kids and don’t really do a lot of things on the computer for school, the program didn’t line up too well for us, but again, could be excellent for others.

These days, our language notes include Korean, French, Italian, German, and Dutch. We play Latin card games. Hannah and I are slowly working through Visual Latin together. And we dabble on.

Have you chosen one language to focus on for yourself or your family? How did you decide which one to learn?
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Disclosure: I received review copies of both products mentioned in this post in exchange for an honest review. This post also contains affiliate links.