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.

A Little Extra Math For Fun

 

Math pedagogy can be overwhelming, whether or not you homeschool. Is this the right curriculum? Am I doing too much? Too little? Am I boring him or pushing him too hard? What if she misses something important? How can I help my child enjoy math even if I’m not “a math person” myself?

I think math is beautiful and fascinating and exciting, albeit somewhat mysterious once you get past calculus. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m conveying those feelings to my kids, or if I’m pushing them to dislike math by boring them or over-drilling. Recently, I read a couple of books that helped me to relax about math, try some new things, and aim in a slightly different direction for pre-algebra.

mathematical-mindsets
In Mathematical Mindsets, Jo Boaler examines research about how children learn math and what makes a successful mathematian to suggest the ways in which traditional education is failing students and how we can change outcomes as parents (or homeschoolers). Whether you have your child in a brick and mortar school or you homeschool, this book would give you a lot to think about.

Topics like how to create problem solvers (versus calculators or test takers), how to help children develop a growth mindset, and how to best challenge kids with math are well-presented and highly practical, while also backed up with good research.

I found Mathematical Mindsets incredibly helpful and would highly recommend it to all parents, whether or not they are teachers, and all teachers, whether or not they are parents.

playing-with-math-book-210x300
I also read the inspiring and encouraging collection of essays in Playing With Math. The book chronicles efforts by really invested teachers in a variety of school settings, homeschoolers dedicated to teaching math well, and leaders of math circles (groups that get together to do problem solving). I got so many helpful ideas, insights, and reassurances from this book. Most of the essays end with a math problem to solve individually or in a group. I really liked the inclusion of those problems, and was inspired to add math games/group problem solving/logic puzzles to our Table Time each day.

Most of all, I am glad to have read both of these books for their vision. I think my kids had gotten into the habit of thinking of math as just a problem set to get through, but what I really want is for them to catch the excitement of how neat math is, and to learn to be problem solvers. While I wouldn’t say I agree fully with everything in either book–it’s not practical to implement every idea in every setting–both were instrumental in shifting my focus and in making math more enthusiastic in our house.

If you’re interested in adding math games for a range of ages to your family time (whether in homeschool or just for after school fun), I’ve also been using some of the suggestions in the following books:

And, since I mentioned pre-algebra, I’m looking at switching over from Saxon to Art of Problem Solving when Hannah finishes Saxon 7/6. If any of you have thoughts on that, I’d love to hear what you think!

What are your favorite problem solving, math, or logic games?

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Hodge-podge: Books for Kids and Adults

This weekend, I surveyed the double layer of books on my To Read shelf and elected to thin the herd. It felt great to lift some of that pressure, self-inflicted though it is! Although I’m preferring the topical round-up style reviews lately, I thought I’d throw out a hodge-podge in case it helps anyone clear out an overfull shelf, or gives some ideas for kids books to add to your audio queue for upcoming over-the-river-and-through-the-woods jaunts.

First, a few kids books of note:

Alice In WonderlandAlice in WonderlandThis classic is probably worth owning in print if you don’t already, and it’s also quite inexpensive on Audible. We listened to the audio version through our library’s Overdrive app and enjoyed it. It’s a great mix of silly and bizarre and rhymy so it works for all ages. It’s also a lot shorter than I remember.

The Island of Dr. LibrisThe Island of Dr. LibrisI expected to like this book more than I did, given the premise of kids encountering book characters coming to life. But often I just wondered, why these books? Why these characters? Some seemed normal for kids, while others seemed needlessly linked to grown-up books, so it’s not like the kids who read Dr. Libris would then go out and read the adult books. It just could have been better. It was fine as an audio book for the car, but nothing extraordinary.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid LindgrenPippi Longstocking – Although it’s obviously a classic, do yourself a favor and get your kids the paper version rather than subjecting yourselves to the audio book. From a parent’s perspective, Pippi is just so annoying. I could not wait for the book to be over. It’s a little odd, since I remember liking the book as a kid, and my own kids have read and liked the book. I guess it’s just one of those things, like how adults read Little House in the Big Woods and can’t get over how much work Ma had to do, when kids are only thinking about wanting a pig bladder balloon. Anyway.

Stone-Fox-John-GardinerStone FoxThis short book packs in a great story of adventure and sacrifice, with some good topics for conversation. It also has a shocking ending (at least it was shocking to us) so be forewarned. It was a great audio book to listen to, but would be a good one to own as well.

 

mrs_piggle_wiggles-farmMrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm – You really can’t go wrong with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. We’ve enjoyed all of the series (at least the ones we’ve found so far) both in audio and paper versions. This volume is no exception to the pattern: kids with bad habits or character issues are taken to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who gives them some natural consequences or otherwise helps them to figure out how to change their habit. I like the emphasis on the child having to do the work to change, but the adult being there to help.

Now, on to the books for grown-ups:

nature-anatomy-coverNature Anatomy – We used this book as a read-aloud for nature study, but I thought it could just as easily be something an adult would want to pick up to peruse. The author did a lovely job of hand-drawing bits of nature from rocks to birds, animals to plants, and then hand-lettered in interesting facts and scientific names, with some typeset information and grouping by category. This is what a nature notebook could look like if you were an artist and naturalist for real. We found it inspiring and quite informative.

strong-and-weak-andy-crouchStrong and Weak – I wanted to like this book more since I did really enjoy the author’s previous book, Culture Making, and named it as one of my favorites from 2009. But this one just didn’t really stand out for me. It was fine, but I didn’t come away from it feeling particularly challenged or inspired or with new ideas about flourishing. I think your response might depend on how much culture-shaping type literature you’ve read.

becoming-brilliantBecoming Brilliant – Having received an advance copy of this book, I was somewhat sad to find that I’m really not the target audience and I honestly didn’t enjoy the book. For one thing, I felt that the authors’ views on issues like giftedness, the point of education, and educational methods ran counter to what I have read, researched, and experienced, both as a student and as a teacher. For another, the information is presented in fairly dry book report fashion rather than as dynamic new ideas, and I’ve read most of the information in other sources before. Not all of the ideas were really all that supported by research (for example, the actual outcomes from learning via screens). The good ideas also tend to be geared toward classroom teachers, rather than towards parents or homeschoolers–involved parents and homeschoolers are almost certainly already doing the things the authors describe to ensure their kids develop well. In thinking about who should read this book, I decided that it would be good for policymakers in government who have no background in educational issues, but who find themselves needing to get up to speed fast. If that’s not you, skip this one.

games-for-writingGames for Writing – I have a child who is a reluctant writer. It’s not that said child CAN’T write, because said child enjoys attempting intricate calligraphy and keeping notebooks full of random facts about various topics. However, said child LOATHES writing assignments. I have tried Oh So Many Things. What is working for now is reminding myself to take a deep breath because this is only elementary school and there are plenty of years in which to tackle the sort of writing required in college. Meanwhile, I’ve been using many of the writing prompt ideas from Brave Writer, and also several I found in this little book.Games for Writing is geared toward early elementary, but I’ve been beefing it up a little bit so that I can use it with all of my big kids (2nd, 4th, and 5th grades) together. In general, I still think the copywork to written narration to analytical essay path is correct, but sometimes it does help to get there via a meandering path rather than a straight blaze. If you’re in the same boat, maybe this will help.

What’s been in your hodge-podge lately? Have you cleared anything of note (good or bad!) from your To Read shelf lately?

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Two awesome read-alouds (plus ancient Greece)

hittite-warriorThis fall we stumbled upon a terrific author whose books made terrific read-alouds and were then subject to much sibling negotiation as everyone wanted to re-read (and re-re-re-read) them on their own as well. Joanne Williamson did a tremendous job combining excellent storytelling and character development with detailed and fascinating historical research in her books Hittite Warrior and God King.

god-kingWe read the books as part of our history/literature studies, but they are such great adventures that anyone would enjoy them as stand-alone books. Hittite Warrior takes place during the time of Judges and ties in to the collapse of the Hittite culture, rise of the Philistines, and loosely touches ancient Greece. God King is a fascinating account of Egypt during the time of King Hezekiah in Judah and the rise of Assyria. Both books are well worth owning, although difficult to find. Check your library, and if you ever see Joanne Williamson’s other books, snap them up!

I tend to follow a literature-based lead for school books, and so I’m looking for good writing, excellent illustrations, and a storytelling (versus textbook or encyclopedia) feel. We do get reference books on the side, but not for our main focus. Here are a few other books we liked in theras-and-his-townour ancient Greece reading.

Theras and His Town – This novel is a bit light, but we enjoyed the story and the contrast between Athenian and Spartan cultures. It’s a good read-alone for elementary kids, and worked out pretty well as a read-aloud too.

daulaires-greek-mythsD’Aulaire’s Greek Myths – I like this version much better than other options for myth retellings. It’s also the book used in the National Mythology Exam, if you’re into those sort of tests (I’m not sure if we’ll do that or not–it’s the same group that runs the National Latin Exam). Anyway, the D’Aulaire’s always do a good job with stories and illustrations.

one-eyed-giantThe One-Eyed Giant (and the rest of the series) – Kids who like Mary Pope Osborne’s style will enjoy this series. We listened to the first one on audio and then the kids read the rest on their own time. Note that this series is available in two different formats–one that seems to be geared for libraries and another that comes in only two volumes and is for…regular people? Just letting you know in case you pick them up at a used bookstore and don’t want redundancy on your shelves!

golden-fleece-columThe Golden Fleece and the Heroes Before Achilles – You’ll start to feel the repetition if you do a lot of these readings, but Padraic Colum does a pretty good job of preserving Homeric phrases kids should know, like the rosy-fingered dawn, grey-eyed Athena, wine-dark sea, and so forth. Colum wrote other books on Greek mythology and the epics, so you may want to look for those as well.

famous-men-of-greeceFamous Men of Greece – Honestly, this one is a little dry, but the sections are a good length for a daily narration habit, and it does have good illustrations. I’d skip it if you only have younger kids, and might suggest assigning it for older elementary kids who are working on narrating their independent reading assignments.

wanderings-odysseusThe Wanderings of Odysseus and Black Ships Before Troy – These excellent retellings of the Odyssey and Iliad, respectively, are well worth owning. Pro tip: be sure you’re getting the larger format book with the illustrations. I accidentally wound up with paperbacks that omitted the pictures and the kids were none too pleased. We’ve read several of Rosemary Sutcliff’s works and have black-ships-before-troyloved all of them, so that’s another author to add to your look-for list.

The kids read a ton of other books from this subject area, but I didn’t keep up with all of them. It’s been fun to circle back to the ancient world with older kids and see how much they remember from four years ago!

A Quick Note About Book Shopping: In previous years, Amazon has put out several high value book coupons between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I hear of any, I’ll link them on Facebook and in the weekly Bookmarks email. If you come across any great book shopping codes this season, please let me know!

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A fun pair of books for gifting & discussing

Don’t you love that moment when you’re reading a book and you notice a subtle nod to another book or author? I think that sort of thing is fun. That’s why I quite enjoyed Val McDermid’s retelling of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, even though I didn’t overly care for Austen’s original the first time I read it.

Val McDermid's Northanger AbbeyThe key to enjoying a retelling, though, is having read the antecedent. So I would suggest that you breeze through Austen’s Northanger Abbey first. As I read McDermid’s book, I asked myself if I would have liked it as well without that background, and I decided not. I would have missed some of the funny and clever ways that McDermid called back to Austen while pulling the story into the modern day. In fact, reading McDermid’s Northanger Abbey created a bit of a halo effect for Austen’s, so in all I wound up thinking of the story more fondly than I might have had I only read one or the other alone.

As we’re coming up on Christmas, I thought this Jane Austen's Northanger Abbeypairing would make a great gift–I could see giving it to a variety of people from teen on up. As long as the person likes the classics and doesn’t feel attacked by poking a bit of fun at modern vapidity I think it would be a great present to foster discussion. Both books are available in several editions including the economical one penny options, so it’s not the sort of thing where you need to really weigh whether or not the books are investment literature (they aren’t, really, just fun–but those are good gifts too).

Do you have any favorite classic retellings? Have you ever done a book share/club/discussion/gift exchange with a classic and a retelling as a pair?

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Must Read Masterpieces

Yesterday we had lunch at a place where you can purchase amateur oil paintings of local scenery. Anyone can run in to a craft store and pick up a canvas and some art supplies for a reasonable sum. At our zoo, you can purchase modern-esque works of art made by the zebras and giraffes.

When I go to museums, I love to examine art more closely. If anyone (including elephants) can make art, what sets a masterpiece apart? Usually the technical aspects of detail, color, structure, and concept come together as a masterpiece because of the way the artist combines them into a striking way of viewing the world.

Similar distinctions apply to literature. Books are everywhere, but sometimes you find one that truly belongs in the literary museum. Thanks to a book club, I recently stumbled upon two such novels.

life-after-lifeThe group had a great conversation about Life After Life–it’s nuanced descriptions of World War II and its aftermath as experienced by Britons at home, it’s memorable characters, it’s compelling narratives, it’s unique structure that we couldn’t quite figure out–and one attendee mentioned that she had read the author’s next book which, while not a sequel, seemed to finish out the author’s thought.

So I picked up A God in Ruins and was amazed. Life After Life is excellent, but A God in Ruins is a masterpiece. Unlike some literary fiction, the story and pacing are riveting. Unlike most standard fiction, the characters are arresting and deeply developed. And unlike almost every other novel available, the structure of these books, which you can only appreciate fully as you end the second one, is intricate and astounding. The structure of the books is not a stunt or some annoying attempt at highbrow slight of hand. Rather it’s an entire narrative structure driven by an idea that really does only become clear at the end of the second book.

a-god-in-ruinsAs I finished A God in Ruins, I actually burst into tears–an action to which I am not prone. I was that wrapped up in the main character, but somehow also, by extension, had been wound into the lives and legacies of everyone impacted by World War II, and was simultaneously staggered by the complexity and richness of what the author had achieved. I wanted to go back and reread the novels immediately with the understanding of the full scope of the stories, and then wanted to read them a third time to examine how on earth the author had pulled it off–the way that you stand back from a painting in a museum to get the full scope, then come closer to examine how the artist accomplished it.

If you have any interest in World War II at all, any affinity for great stories and characters, or any interest whatsoever in how stories are told, you should read Life After Life and A God in Ruins immediately. Put them on your Christmas list. Get them from the library. Borrow them from a friend. But do read them both–while either book would stand alone, together they are a truly excellent and thought-provoking masterpiece.

 

Side note: Life After Life has a section that I found difficult to read, and many readers might be tempted to close the book at that point. Just know that you don’t need the section to understand the story. I wish I had noted the page numbers, but do skip over it and pick back up with the next section so you don’t miss out on the rest of the book.

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Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.