restlessJennie Allen’s interactive book (not a Biblestudy–I’m not sure why it’s billed that way) Restless: Because You Were Made for More has some helpful points about considering whether your vague restless feeling is God calling you to a bigger purpose and seeking Him more deeply.

I appreciated that Allen led off with an admission that our culture, even church culture, encourages an often obsessive amount of self-focus.  She is up front about how a lot of times we just need to get over ourselves and get started obeying God’s word.

The majority of the book then walks the reader through how the various threads of your life may point to God’s purpose for you.  This may be helpful for some readers, but to be honest I thought it was a little too surface in some areas and a little too opaque in others.

It’s not that the book wasn’t worthwhile at all–I did get some good reminders and insights–but overall it felt a little light to me.  If you’re really interested in digging into this sort of thing, I’d recommend Lara Casey’s book Make It Happen instead.


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Establish Your Heart (a Biblestudy on James)

Establish-Your-Heart-Cover-for-web-228x300Having really enjoyed Jenni Keller’s study on Colossians, I eagerly bought her second book, Establish Your Heart: A Six-week Study of James.  Although the format was a little different and I preferred the Colossians study overall, I still got a lot out of the James study, and would recommend it.

You can get the study two ways: via Amazon or directly from Keller’s website.  I got my copy from her website as a download and printed it out, but in hindsight I would have just gotten it on Amazon because for $2 extra you get a paperback version that doesn’t require your colored ink and is presumably bound versus being a stack of computer paper held together by a binder clip.

Either way, the study is an economical investment that will encourage you to think deeply about the book of James and really study this Scripture.  Like Keller’s previous study, this one doesn’t force feed you any answers–you really do your own study, but feel supported along the way.  I really like that about Keller’s approach.

The study could easily be done with a group or on your own.  If you’re looking for a tool to help you dig more deeply in your Bible study, I’d recommend Establish Your Heart or Complete in Christ, Keller’s study on Colossians (you can read my review of the Colossians study here).


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The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

shallowsIf you’re interested in how brains work–and particularly if you’re fascinated by how they change and what we can do about that–I’d recommend Nicholas Carr’s thought-provoking book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

At first I feared this would be a Luddite, over-anxious screed against computers, but instead I found it to be fairly balanced, and devoted mostly to an exploration of the considerable and growing body of research into the impact of screen reading and internet use on how we think, learn, reason, and process information.  The findings are quite interesting and have staggering implications for our social, political, and intellectual future.

Topics raised include:

  • How reading on a screen is vastly different from reading in a linear book, and what that means for an individual’s ability to retain, engage with, and learn from the material.
  • What linear reading allows that screen reading does not (including questions of what literacy means beyond simple decoding of letters).
  • How interacting online impacts our ability to see nuance and respond with empathy (hint: over time it draws both down shockingly)
  • Why online connection is addictive and how it differs from in person interaction or direct correspondence.
  • The nasty side effect of internet quick hit information–including unbundling content and being able to find things fast on google–which is distraction, and how that changes the ways our brain works with a negative impact on creativity, deep thinking, and higher-level cognitive skills.
  • How the philosophies of technology–especially in influential industry giants like google–really drive the direction of how we interact with the internet, ideas, and each other.
  • Why brains aren’t actually like computers, but how believing they are drives a lot of technology and the resulting flattening of our intelligence.

These are heavy subjects.  And yet the book does not have a doom-and-gloom feel at all.  The author concedes that technology and the internet are inevitable, and won’t be rewound.  But I think he hints at hopeful ideas as well.  If you’re aware of what’s going on, and what the medium is doing to you, you can take steps to combat it in yourself and your children.  I’m less certain what to do about society overall–especially the kind of frightening political implications of a populace in which the majority basically loses the ability to interact deeply with nuanced ideas.

Personally, I felt confirmed in my convictions about limiting screen time for my kids and requiring them to read only print books for now.  Obviously there is a huge continuum here that bears a lot of reflection.  This year I’ve taken steps to self-monitor the time I spend in online community versus the time I devote to real-life, in-person relationships.  I also watch how much time I spend reading things online versus reading sustained arguments and narratives in actual books.  My experience mirrors the findings in the studies Carr cites: I retain more and interact more deeply when I’m reading linear paper books than when I read online, and not just because of click-bait articles being inherently shallow–I’m talking about the difference I see between reading a book on my Kindle app and reading it in paper form.  There is value to having a book ready on my phone for many situations.  But I am mindful about which format would be best for different types of books.

Your conclusions may–and likely will–be different.  But The Shallows is the sort of book that begs to be discussed!  If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments!


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Five Favorite Picture Books – August 2015

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

ferdinandThe Story of Ferdinand is a charmingly illustrated story about a very docile young bull you really just loves to sit around dreamily smelling flowers.  The other bulls like to paw around and snort about, but Ferdinand’s mother knows he is just his own person so she lets him hang out in the meadows loving life.  When men come from Madrid to find the best bulls for the bullfights, Ferdinand doesn’t bother trying out, but he accidentally sits on a bee and naturally goes a little beserk,making him the clear favorite for the fighting.  The book tells what happens when he goes to the city for the fight.  The story is fun, and Robert Lawson is one of my favorite illustrators.  It’s a great book!


In Clocks and More Clocks, a punctual man becomes more and more distraught as he realizes that the clocks he keeps in different rooms of his house are all–seemingly–different.  Finally he drags the watchmaker to his house to investigate and learns an interesting lesson, plus the value of having a watch.  The illustrations in this book are really 1970s-ish, but amusing.


Tacky the Penguin is a strange bird, but a good bird to have around.  He’s very different from his penguin companions (Goodly, Lovely, Angel, Neatly, and Perfect), but maintains a strong sense of who he is.  So when hunters come, Tacky has the presence of mind to confound them and save all of his friends.  This is a funny book, and lots of fun, but also has a good message about how being different can be ok.

sloppy kisses

I had the book Sloppy Kisses when I was a kid, and still enjoy reading it to my own children.  In the book, a pig family is very affectionate, giving hugs and kissing each other good-bye, and things like that.  But when the oldest daughter is seen getting a good-bye kiss at school drop-off, a friend makes fun of her and she decides she’s too old for kissing.  This makes her family sad, but eventually the pig daughter decides that it’s perfectly fine to hug and kiss your family members, and not babyish after all.

leo-late-bloomerLeo the Late Bloomer is a very simple book, with short, simple text about the theme of kids hitting milestones in their own good time.  What makes the book is the illustrations.  They are colorful, funny, and detailed, giving lots of points of interest.  This makes the book a great choice for very little kids who are just getting the hang of sitting still while you read to them, but it’s also a nice selection for kids who already know what to do during reading time.

Did your family find any great new picture books, or rediscover any old favorites this month?


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The History of the Renaissance World

renaissance worldSusan Wise Bauer does a fantastic job of writing readable histories that integrate ideas and locations to give a vision for the broad sweep of history. Having read her previous works, both for kids and adults, I wasn’t disappointed by The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople and found it similarly engaging and written to the same high standard.

However, this time around I listened to the book on Audible instead of reading it from a volume in hand.  While listening to it was still educational and enjoyable, I think I would have gotten more out of it in book form.  I think the sweep and complexity of the book–it’s story-telling strong points–made less of an impact on me since I “read” the book in audio.

Different types of learners interact differently with print vs. audio vs. screen reading, and I’m still looking for my sweet spot.  I can enjoy children’s fiction on audio (redeeming the time in the car with the kids) and certain types of non-fiction, but I still far, far prefer a print book.  Likewise, I still prefer print to Kindle (which I read on my phone via the free app) and only read Kindle books when I have no other option.  There again, I miss knowing where I am in the narrative, and find my attention and retention is dramatically lowered when I read from a screen.

I’m sure this is another case of knowing yourself–being aware of your learning style, your preferences, and how you prefer to take in different genres (especially your reason for reading a certain book, whether it be for relaxation, appreciating literary merit, thinking deeply, active or passive learning, etc) can be very helpful in determining which format to choose when you’re looking for books.

Do you find that you choose book formats by general preference, availability, or differently by genre?


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The Mirrored World

the mirrored worldAfter enjoying The Madonnas of Leningrad so much, I was eager to read Debra Dean’s next novel The Mirrored World.  Dean again sets her story in St. Petersburg, but this time in the 1700s, during the reign of Catherine the Great.  The Mirrored World imagines the life of St. Xenia and how she became a patron of the poor after being born into a life of nobility and privilege.

As with her previous book, I thought Dean did a wonderful job of evoking the time period and setting without sacrificing pacing or storytelling.  This setting is one of my favorite historical time periods–the richness and complexity and contrasts of the era are fascinating and in the hands of a good writer make excellent backdrops for great stories.  I did wonder as I read how the book would resonate with readers who don’t have any background in the time period, but I think Dean used enough evocative detail that you’d enjoy the story even if this is your first exposure to the era.

I also love the title and its references to themes and imagery throughout the book.  The changing views of how the characters see themselves, the sense of pairings and scenes being inside out or oddly mirrored…it was all so well done.

If you’re interested in Russian history or historical fiction in general, I’d recommend The Mirrored World.

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The Bookmarked Life #13

2The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:


…my philosophy/theology/ethics of social media use as my kids get older.  I see lots of resources to keep kids from doing dumb things online, but what about things that parents post ABOUT kids online?  In the past I’ve had a habit of recording funny things the kids do and say on Facebook, but a recent episode when an anecdote about me was misrepresented on Facebook made me nervous–I can handle it because I’m an adult, but what if that happened to one of the kids because I unthinkingly put up a story about something I thought was funny?  I may need to record those moments differently to protect their privacy.  I’m interested to know if anyone else is thinking or writing about this!

…Furnishing My Mind

Eliza had a vocabulary explosion while we were out of town in July.  They say that a change of location often has that effect on kids, and certainly it’s true of Eliza!  One I really want to remember is the way she says “statue.”  It sounds like “staht-yeuw” and we keep trying to come up with reasons to make her say it because it’s so cute and funny.

In another great example, Eliza came dancing into the room wearing her sister’s ballet slippers.  She hauled her foot up on my lap and said, “DIE!  DIE plezz!”  I was taken aback.  My word!  She’s only two and already has had enough of me!?  Then I realized that the string was untied and she was trying to say “TIE please.”  That was a relief!

…Living the Good Life

DSC_0378We had a great week at the beach with my parents (pictured above), enjoying the sand and the pool and getting a good break from our home turf.IMG_4341Then Josh had to get back to work but the kids and I spent another week with my parents at their lake house. My parents got this huge inflatable thing to drag behind the boat and the kids had a blast.

IMG_4345The lake they live on is huge, with lots of fun coves and waterfalls to explore and rock formations to climb.

DSC_0434IMG_4370We visited a bunch of interesting places like the Biltmore House gardens, a science museum, and two museums in our own city, one of which offered a hands-on opportunity to pan for gold! Fool’s gold, but still fun!


We started school again on August 3, with a revamped schedule, new approaches to problem areas, and some different ways of doing things.  With a 4th grader, 3rd grader, 1st grader, toddler, and new baby due in November, we were due for some problem solving.  One innovation I have high hopes for is Table Time.  This section of our day is where I’m putting non-core subjects on a loop.  If I try to do Latin, Spanish, geography, artist study, composer study, poetry analysis, Shakespeare, and things like that every day, some of them wind up not getting done.  This year I set up a schedule to hit each of those topics twice a week during table time.  We will do those subjects all together, at the table, while the kids eat a mid-morning protein snack. I also added in memory work and a brief calisthenics break to this part of the schedule, and so far I think it’s going well.  If the new setup keeps working once the novelty wears off I will post more about it.

…Boosting Creativity

DSC_0038Eliza needed a backpack for co-op this year, so I grabbed a ridiculously cheap one that had decent colors.  Then I felt bad for buying my child a $3.97 backpack so I decided to upgrade it a little.  Fortunately I have a huge collection of embroidery flosses and found three to match the colors.  I added a flower and vines, then her monogram, then some more scrolly things, then put stripes on the monogram.  I could probably do more, but enough is as good as a feast.  I listened to podcasts while I embroidered and kept it simple, so it was a fast and fun creative project.  She REALLY likes it and refuses to take the backpack off, even to sleep.  If you lose Eliza these days, you can just listen for her little voice singing, “Mah backpack!  Mah backpack! Zaza’s backpaaaaaaack!”


…Seeking Balance

IMG_4396I started tracking my time in August (more about that later) and one thing I remembered from previous time logs is how very, very much time I tend to spend in the kitchen.  With school starting back up and work to keep up with and a toddler who really, really, really wants to be snuggled around 5:30 every afternoon, dinner prep can easily be an hour and a half of cooking while breaking up fights and dragging a crying kid or two along while they are attached to my legs.  I enjoy cooking and being creative in the kitchen, but I prepare three meals a day for six people so I don’t always want to go full gourmet.  As this problem crystallized in my mind, Lora Lynn posted one of her seriously helpful updates (I consider her a virtual mentor, even though she has no idea who I am) and I decided to do some freezer crockpot meals.

I found some meals that seemed to fit with the way we eat (mostly protein and vegetables with lots of flavor) and used Lora Lynn’s tips to create 15 meals, prepared in crockpot liners, in just an hour and a half.  There was an extra half hour of cleanup, but still, eight minutes per meal beats 90 minutes per meal hands down.  I’ll keep you posted on how we like the meals, but I’m thinking that getting a few meals off the schedule might be worth it.

…Listening To

Every time I plug my phone into the car (I play audio books and music for the kids via the phone) the system defaults to the Hypnobabies: [Wahhhhwwwwwwnnnnnggggg noises] “Wellllllcome to your birthing day affirmations… is such a wonnnnderful day to enjoy liiiiiife.”  It’s creepy.  The kids can do a bang-up imitation of the lady, but this is getting on our nerves.  However, due to how our music is stored now, I can never seem to get it from iTunes to my phone via my laptop.  I have to use Josh’s computer instead, and I never remember to do this.  I need a better system.  Although for some reason I am now COMPLETELY convinced that today is a wonderful day to enjoy life.

What are you bookmarking this week?


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Summer Reading: The Chronicles of Prydain

chronicles-of-prydainI didn’t set out to make this the summer of middle-grade fantasy, but this is the genre the kids can’t seem to get enough of so here we are. And actually, I have really enjoyed remembering how much I love stories like this too.

I can’t believe that I missed Lloyd Alexander’s excellent Chronicles of Prydain when I was a kid.  These award-winning tales inspired by Welsh legends have a lot in common with the Lord of the Rings series, but in a more accessible, kid-friendly format.  The books deal with important themes like finding out who you are, standing up against evil, being a true hero, and being a loyal friend in the context of high adventure quests.

At the moment only Hannah (9 years old) has read this series, but I am really excited to introduce them to Jack (8 years old) because I think he will like the young adventuring protagonist.  Really, the series would be great for boys or girls.  If you decide to try them as read-alouds I’d recommend checking out the pronunciation guides in the back of each book, unless you are already really familiar with Welsh spellings.  You might want to give your kids this tip too, lest you wind up like Hannah and I did, having a discussion in which we could barely understand each other because she didn’t figure out what the names sounded like as she read!

As with many other fantasy series, this one gets more intense the farther you get into the books, although I’d say Prydain is far less intense than, say, Harry Potter.  But you may want to pre-read if you have a kid who is very sensitive to beloved characters dying or having to make hard decisions.

The Chronicles of Prydain are excellent books, and definitely the sort of books you’d want to invest in owning because you wouldn’t mind kids reading again and again.  Whether or not you can work them in before the end of summer, I highly recommend them!


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Are You Fully Charged?

fully chargedIn his short but helpful book Are You Fully Charged?: The 3 Keys to Energizing Your Work and Life, Tom Rath helps readers change perspective and refocus their efforts toward a more meaningful life.

Drawing on a substantial body of research, Rath concludes that happiness is the wrong pursuit.  People who go through life prioritizing their own happiness actually tend to have lower overall life satisfaction and greater overall stress than people who may report less happiness in a given moment, but who gear their lives towards meaning.

The key, Rath says, is reframing your work, personal relationships, and daily choices around three goals:

  • Meaning
  • Interactions
  • Energy

If you can find meaning in your daily activities–the work you do for your job, caring for your family, serving others–prioritize positive interactions and change your thinking about negative ones, and make mental and physical choices that increase your energy, you’ll go a long way toward building a life that you can look back on with satisfaction.

Expanding on this theory, Rath offers concrete examples of how to change your perspective, shift your thinking, and make solid daily choices.  Some of these are things you probably know but don’t necessarily do.  Others may be brand new to you.  All were, at the very least, good reminders for me.

This time of year I’m looking for ways to get geared up and re-evaluate processes, in work, school, and life.  If you are too, or if the idea of a meaningful and more energized approach to life just appeals to you any time, I’d recommend Are You Fully Charged? as a practical, helpful, motivational resource.


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July 2015 Read Alouds

We took a long car trip this month, so we listened to more audio books than usual.  Below are the longer (100+ pages) books we either read aloud as a family, listened to on audio, or that one or more of the kids and I read so we could discuss it together.

elevatorImmediately upon finishing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last month, we started reading Charlie and the Great Glass Elevatorfor our evening read aloud. While it’s just as easy to read aloud as the first book and also has great illustrations, the story itself was not as wonderful. It’s fine, just not fantastic. The grandparents feature heavily and aren’t wise or interesting at all–they are just crotchety and selfish and apparently incapable of performing simple mental mathematics. The kids kept asking, “Wait, are the grandparents adults?!”  I think my conclusion is that the first book made a great family read aloud, but I could have just let the kids read the sequel on their own.

20,000Our latest audiobook was the unabridged 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea read by Frederick Davidson.  The book is like a deep sea version of The Swiss Family Robinson, in that it’s a story held together by an immense data dump of information about the natural world.  That’s not all bad–we did learn a lot and basically enjoyed the book, but it was pretty long and not destined to be one of our favorites.  I feel like the kids would have liked it better had they been reading it on their own rather than listening to it.

hidden jewelWe will be learning about Amy Carmichael during the first couple of weeks of school (which starts August 3 for us!) so Hannah and I pre-read The Hidden Jewel, a biography of sorts that mixed some fiction in with real events from Carmichael’s life in India.  I didn’t try to read this one aloud because we’ve had mixed results from this series, but I thought it was fine from a personal reading perspective.  The pictures, as with all of the books in this series of missionary biographies, are terrible.  But the content is accessible and engaging and it’s a good introduction to Carmichael’s work, putting her mission to help children in context of the prevailing customs in that part of India at the time.  I do think these authors do a good job of pointing out the ways that the missionaries they profile loved the people and cultures they served–dressing, acting, and speaking like their adopted cultures–while challenging the negative and dark aspects of that culture (in this case, selling small children into temple prostitution–don’t worry, this is glossed in the book–treating girls like chattel, etc).  I like how this approach reinforces to kids that Christianity is not a western religion, and that all cultures, including our own, have good points as well as areas that need to be redeemed.


We listened to N. D. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards on audio while on our long car trip, and thought it was all right.  I’m normally a huge fan of worlds-within-worlds type fantasy fiction, but somehow this one felt like it was trying a little too hard.  The author’s style is a bit flowery (I just remembered that I read one of his non-fiction books and used the phrases “trying too hard” and “flowery” for that too).  I’m not sure if we will get into the rest of the series.  The premise is good, but none of us were overwhelmed by the story itself.


As we are seriously devoted E. Nesbit groupies around here, we were of course predisposed to be fond of The Magic City as a family read-aloud.  If you can find a version with the original illustrations go for that–it’s worth it.  In this story, two children who love to build cities and worlds actually find themselves transported into those cities and tasked with quests and adventures.  Even as an adult I have to confess that I read this book and LONGED to get to explore the various dolls houses and fairy houses and worlds I played with as a kid.  My kids play this way too, so we were pretty into the setting.  Plus you get Nesbit’s charming writing and pesky villains and it all comes right in the end.  Most satisfactory!


Although we try to redeem car time by listening to audio books, I do really prefer to read the books out loud myself most of the time.  This is one exception: The Trumpet of the Swan read by the author is really a gem.  I love this story, and the kids did too, and I thought hearing the author’s voice (he has an accent that lends a sort of dry humor to lots of parts) was a really great way of experiencing the book.  The audio book is also punctuated with trumpet music of the tunes described in the story, and that gives a fantastic effect.  We all really enjoyed this and would highly recommend it.

This month I also reviewed the Wildwood trilogy and the Harry Potter series in separate posts, with notes about reading those to or with your kids.

What was your favorite read aloud from July?


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