Reading the new Harry Potter out of order

readnewharrypotterbookA classic bookworm dilemma presents itself:

Sarah, age 7, has read the first Harry Potter book, but not the rest of the series (yet, Sarah would have you know, she has not read the rest of the series YET).

And now, after waiting for a veritable plethora of people in line before us to read it first, we have finally received the new book from the library.

Because I am the mom and I drove us all to the library to collect it, I got to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child first. Since it’s a script and not a novel, that only took about an hour and a half. Hannah and Jack followed with alacrity.

Then the debate commenced. Should Sarah read the new book, having not yet completed the series? In case you or someone in your household faces the same conundrum, here are our thoughts on the matter.

  • The new book is a play. As previously mentioned, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not a novel, but rather a play. Thus, it is shorter and contains fewer details. So kids who weren’t ready for the detail of the whole series or adults who weren’t ready to commit the time could easily handle it.
  • The new book was not exactly written by J.K. Rowling. If you’re one of these purists who can’t stand to break rank with a series (one of the children here stands with that camp), knowing that the play is based on a story by Rowling but not technically written by her may help you overcome your reluctance to read it out of order.
  • The new book includes familiar characters, but takes place decades after the original series. Because the timeframe is so different, you won’t miss details or episodes the way you would reading one of the first books out of order.
  • The new book does contain spoilers. Several parts of the play do refer back to previous books, which could spoil the suspense when you do get to the original series.
  • The new book is really not as good as the original series. We hate to say it, but the play has faults. Ron is portrayed as a dufus. Several characters were missing or written a bit incorrectly in our opinions. The play lacked the same depth of theme and language we liked in the original series. So if you haven’t read the novels, we wonder if the play might sour you on the series.

After much conversation, we left the decision up to Sarah. We hope our lengthy deliberations may prove illuminating to you in your own decision about whether or not to read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child out of order. Let us know what you decide!


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Posted in Kids Books, Reading, Week in Books 2016 | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Brains, brawn, and bodyweight

books about brains, brawn, and bodyweightAlong with reading about sleep, I read a lot this summer about health. Although much of what I read tracks with what I already knew, I did wind up making some fairly significant changes in my routine. If you don’t have time to read about all six books reviewed in this post, the one I recommend most highly is last, so feel free to scroll. I added in headers so you can pause on books that make sense for you.

Bigger Leaner Stronger – if you want to know about lifting heavy weights

biggerFirst, I read Bigger Leaner Stronger after seeing a good review from Crystal at Money Saving Mom. It probably seemed funny to GoodReads followers that I was reading a book subtitled “…building the ultimate male body.” No, gentle readers, I was not going all Frankenstein 101 on my husband. It’s just that our library doesn’t carry the Michael Matthews book for women, and I figured I could get the gist from the guy book.

This was the first book I read extolling the fitness virtues of jettisoning endless cardio and “high weights low reps” workouts in favor of slow heavy lifts. I was skeptical, but gave it a shot. Instead of my usual Jillian workouts, I picked up some (for me anyway) really heavy weights. And it actually made a pretty solid difference. For one thing, I really enjoy the weights workouts. It takes about the same amount of time, and I’m still working hard, but I like it more and feel better afterward than I did doing fitness videos.

Does it matter if you get Bigger Leaner Stronger or Thinner Leaner Stronger? I’m not sure. From reviews it sounds like the difference is more about diet, but if you’re fairly well versed in nutrition and math, you could probably figure out your BMI and protein needs and so on using the same framework Matthews suggests whether you’re male or female.

One aside on tone: my husband thinks Matthews “sounds like a tool” (although he didn’t fault him on information) so if you are sensitive to that, be forewarned. 🙂

The Hormone Reset Diet – if you are a moderator and don’t like lots of explanation

hormone-reset-dietNext, I read The Hormone Reset Diet. If you’re a moderator and can’t stand cold turkey approaches, you might really like this book. The author’s premise is that hormones are involved in our ability (or inability) to lose weight, and so she suggests that you target seven of these critical hormones with what winds up as a cumulative elimination diet.

As an abstainer who is also a questioner, I had a hard time with this. If I need to eliminate dairy, why would I wait until Day 16 to eliminate it? If I need to eat more alkaline foods, shouldn’t I start adding lemon to my water and eating more greens on Day 1? Unable to answer these questions satisfactorily, I went ahead and cut everything she suggests in the whole book from Day 1.

Well, almost everything. What I did not do was cut caffeine. Gottfried’s approach to caffeine may strike you as completely nuts if, like me, you are a person who is highly affected by caffeine. In my experience, cutting caffeine means a 3 week headache and near inability to do anything. I do not have time for that at this point in my life. But Gottfried says you’ll eliminate all withdrawal if you cut caffeine in half on Day 1, cut to only 1 cup of coffee on Day 4, cut to 1 teacup of tea on Day 7, and cut caffeine entirely on Day 10. I did cut my coffee intake from 3 teacups of 3/4 strength coffee to 2 teacups of the same (roughly one mug’s worth) and suffered a headache for one week. After that I decided I was ok with that 2 teacup consumption level and elected not to undergo any further painful reductions.

I also freely admit that I did not follow the plan perfectly for 21 days. I took a couple of detours, such as our family Saturday movie nights when we have a fancy cheese plate supper. I also never stopped eating butter because I hate eggs cooked in coconut oil. Still,I did lose seven pounds, which may have been from this diet, or may have been the weight lifting, or may have been because of other tweaks I made based on other diet books I read the same month. Sorry I was hasty and thus can’t give a completely scientific review; I was essentially cobbling together my own diet plan for the summer.

Overall, I would say that The Hormone Reset Diet had good points (eat a ton of vegetables, get protein in every meal, cut sugar and carbs and eat more greens, etc), but was vague at times and probably would only work if you like the idea of a phased approach and don’t require a whole lot of explanation before making changes to your diet.

The Wild Diet – if you are really into bio-hacking

wild diet

If tone trips you up, you might also want to watch out for Abel James. The Wild Diet was a helpful book in many respects but I had a hard time with the writing. There was a lot of “Big Food is after you!” rhetoric, including reference to “the guys with the $400 haircuts.” Um, wait, is this an issue of food quality or class envy? Especially coming from an author who does not hesitate to tell us that after he graduated from Dartmouth he was a consultant and had a million dollar house and a Porsche and whatnot.

Anyway, once you get past all that, I do think the book is solid. James follows similar lift-heavy-do-HIIT exercise prescriptions to what I was hearing from other sources, and also advocates eating a ton of vegetables and enough protein. His main distinction seems to be his advocacy for fat fasting, which was never super clearly explained but seems to involve eating fat in the morning and through the day until you mostly load up on vegetables and protein in the late afternoon and evening. I tried it because you know I LOVE TO TINKER and I was grouchy and exhausted. Could be because I’m nursing, but James notes that fasting doesn’t always work as well for women so who knows.

However, I did shift how I do mornings after reading this book, in that I’m having a teaspoon of coconut oil in my coffee with a green smoothie, then after my workout I have protein.

The Wild Diet contains a lot of recipes–some of which turned out great like the AMAZING cucumber basil green smoothie–and a lengthy discourse on how to feed your pets a wild diet, if you are into that sort of thing.

Don’t Just Sit There – if you need to integrate more movement into your whole day


Katy Bowman’s short book Don’t Just Sit There provides an excellent resource not only for transitioning to a standing workstation, but really for integrating movement into your whole day. Bowman says that it’s not really sitting that’s the whole problem, it’s lack of movement generally. So you could get a fantastic expensive standing desk and still have issues if you stand in the same position  all the time.

Instead, Bowman advocates a dynamic work habit. Sometimes you sit, sometimes you stand, sometimes you walk around, sometimes you sit on the floor leaning forward propped up on your elbows…but you change it up.

Bowman provides lots of suggestions and exercises, but the simple motivation of the book was most helpful. After reading it, I brought a tray into my office that lets me type while standing, and I also started doing more of our school day from a standing/walking position rather than sitting. I also do a lot of work with my laptop on the kitchen island, so one way or another I’m standing and moving a lot more than before thanks to this helpful book.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life – if you are considering contact sports or don’t have kids or need a reference for who to see for serious brain issues

change your brainDiet and exercise also play a huge role in brain health. With Alzheimer’s disease in my family, I am pretty interested in how to keep our brains going strong. So when I heard Daniel Amen on a podcast talking about the connection between physical health and brain health, I thought I would check out his book.

This was probably a mistake.

Change Your Brain, Change Your Life does have some really fascinating points. I love finding out how things work, and the visuals of brain scans were quite interesting. I learned some fascinating facts. For example, letting your kid play high school football is roughly as terrible for his brain as letting him do cocaine. Amen works with loads of ex-NFL players, and makes no bones about how wrong he thinks it is to let your children play contact sports. After looking at the brain scan pictures, I’m not going to disagree with him. Some people walk away from football just fine, but some people smoke and don’t get lung cancer and some people are functional cocaine users. Still not behaviors one would want to recommend.

The main reason I am hesitant about Change Your Brain is that, as a parent, I found it very distressing. I had a really hard time not feeling terrible about all of the times my kids have hit their heads. All of them have fallen down stairs, Jack once got a concussion when another kid slammed him into a concrete floor, etc. The book does have some hopeful points about how to rehabilitate your brain, but I found that it gave me a lot of anxiety about my children as I read it.

And, as it turned out, the diet and exercise aspect was really, really light. It basically boils down to: eat vegetables and high quality protein, eliminate sugar and most carbs, and do HIIT exercise. The suggestions for specific changes to make for problems in different areas of the brain were likewise simple–take Omega 3 supplements, drink green tea, some basic behavior modifications, and otherwise you need a specialist.

Overall, I felt like the book was mostly an advertisement for Amen’s clinics. And that’s fine–if you need brain help, definitely go to the experts who are actually studying brains rather than prescribing you medications without looking at your brain at all. But if you’re a (mostly) normal layperson, I’m not sure Change Your Brain is the best use of your reading time.

The Calorie Myth – if you only have time for one book on nutrition and fitness

the-calorie-mythI think the most helpful book I read in this entire array was The Calorie Myth. Again, this really goes back to temperament. In this book, author Jonathan Bailor cites tons of studies and research findings, quotes experts, and gives thorough reasons for what he claims. People like me need that. And despite the volume of information, Bailor also maintains a readable tone and doesn’t indulge in too much name calling, even as he clearly points out where government recommendations are based on bad science (or, more often, no science) and he’s up front about where food lobbies are financing policies.

I loved the simplicity of the guidelines Bailor draws out from his research.

  • Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables (at least 10 servings per day)
  • Eat 100-200 grams of high quality protein per day depending on your size
  • Eat 3-6 servings of good quality fats per day (but don’t go crazy)
  • Eat 0-3 servings of low sugar fruits per day, depending on whether you’re trying to lose weight and how you feel.
  • Eat good quality seafood daily for Omega 3s.
  • Drink a ton of water and green tea, plain coffee if you need it, and don’t get calories from liquids otherwise.

I also really got good results from Bailor’s discussion of weight lifting. He takes the whole lift-heavy thing farther by talking about different types of muscle fibers and how to get at the ones that really make a difference (Type 2B). Basically, you want to focus on very, very slow lowering of the weight, rather than letting it just drop. There’s more to it than that, but I got wildly improved workouts when I implemented his suggestions. To be fair, this may have also been in the Matthews book and maybe I was just too new to it to absorb that, but could synthesize it in Bailor’s book after reading so much about it.

And so, to boil down a 2000 word post into one recommendation–I’d say The Calorie Myth is the best, most helpful book in this bunch. If you’re still interested in the topic after that, I’d suggest Why We Get Fat, which is an excellent nutrition book along these lines, although it doesn’t get into fitness.

Have you made any changes in your life based on what you’ve read recently?

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Posted in Fitness, Reading, Week in Books 2016 | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Tools for deeper Biblestudy

To make a short story long, I inadvertently read three books about Biblestudies this summer. Theology is one of my usual reading categories, but this sub-theme did not follow my usual reading plan. In June, I went to a conference and wound up in a break-out session that I thought was going to be about ways to study the Bible in your own personal study time. But it was actually about how to get the women’s ministry at your church into deeply studying Scripture rather than relying on a lot of fluffy “Bible Lite for Girls” type programs. I read a lot on that idea a couple of years ago, so I felt in the wrong place entirely, but having parked the stroller with my (finally) sleeping baby at a point in the room furthest from the door, I couldn’t really slip away.

As it turned out, the session was really challenging and yielded several book recommendations. Through a confluence of circumstances, I wound up buying them and here we are.

dig deeperDig Deeper would be a helpful reference if you’ve never really dug into just reading the Bible for yourself. I found it to be a helpful refresher, but plan to use it more for my children, who are getting to the stage when deeper Biblestudy is the next step.

This would make a great book for a middle school or high school youth group–especially as the methods for study are nicely explained and easily synopsized. Learning to read deeply is not a given in our culture, so learning to do this with the Bible is helpful for faith but also just an all-around good life skill. I’m thinking about taking one of the book’s suggestions and making some sort of laminated card of study tools for the kids to put in their Bibles.

I don’t mean to make it sound like this is a book for children–it’s not. It’s just presented quite clearly so I think it would be helpful for a wider age range. It’s a good resource for close reading of the text.

one to oneOne-to-One Bible Reading takes less of an academic tack and explains how you can just get together with someone one-on-one (as opposed to a highly planned or off-the-shelf study) and read the Bible together. It offers a very simple framework you could use on your own, with a child, or with a very learned person, and still get a lot out of your reading.

I really like this model, especially for our culture of superficial community and runaway busy-ness. I wonder if one-to-one reading might be a great way to make a church more relational and more of a community, and also be a realistic way to answer people who are asking a lot of questions about faith.

I think this method would work really well for a family study–because different people can get different things out of it at their level–but it also might lend itself well to a small group in a situation where people aren’t sure how long they can commit.

There are several copies of One-to-One Bible Reading available on Amazon right now for a penny. I’m not sure why the glut in the market, but this would be a good time to scoop up a copy because this book is a great reference.

unleash the wordIn the past I have led Biblestudies and small groups, but for various reasons (primarily related to pregnancies and scheduling) have not done that recently. So I really didn’t intend to read Karen Soole’s Unleash the Word, although I wrote it down in that break-out session I mentioned. Our library doesn’t have it and it’s published in Britain, but apparently not in the US, so it’s about $40 on my version of Amazon.

(I know, there are SO MANY reasons I should move to England. Readier access to British publishing is only one of the myriad.)

Given the prohibitive price and lack of library availability I planned to skip the book, but while sadly perusing the conference book booths instead of listening to a speaker because Margaret was crying (note to self: do not try to attend cerebral events with an infant in tow), I spotted Unleash the Word on special for $5. So I bought it.

And I’m still not sure how I will use it, but I have to say that the book is quite good. If you’ve ever led or been part of a Biblestudy, you will appreciate Soole’s insights. One thing that I appreciated was her exploration of why canned study materials sometimes don’t work with a group, and how you can evaluate and use them more effectively. Her thoughts on how to handle group dynamics and how to promote deeper relationships while keeping a lid on distracting sidebars were also helpful. Most interesting to me–although this could be a British thing since it’s not the way most groups operate here, at least in my experience–was the idea that application is best done independently. That is, while in the group you read the Bible, discuss it, and pray about what you read, and then everyone goes home to ponder deeper application questions personally. I really, really like that approach, because it would keep people from jumping to quick conclusions and encourage people to really be open to conviction rather than assuming a text doesn’t apply to them based on a cursory reading.

If you lead Biblestudies or small groups I would highly recommend finding a copy of Unleash the Word.

studyOn a related note, Hannah has been working through Starr Meade’s The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Study for her Bible reading over the past couple of weeks and I am really impressed with it. I think it’s designed for a middle to high school audience, and is a guided way to read through the entire Bible and really learn to study it. It’s not a quick program, and could easily take several years to complete, but I like the format and it has been a great tool for Hannah (age 10) so far. If you’re interested, you may want to watch the price–I found the set for a solid discount on Amazon this summer, although the price is a little higher now. You might catch it on CBD with a coupon code at some point, but the books are consumable so I doubt you’d get a clean copy used (but you never know!).

Did any of your usual reading categories run away with you a bit this summer?

Speaking of reading categories, here’s a brief update on the Book Atlas. I put together a 19-page ebook explaining the concept and how to set one up, which you can get for free when you sign up for the newsletter. If you’re already a subscriber, you’ll get a link to the ebook in your August newsletter this coming Monday. I’m so interested to hear what you think!


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Posted in Reading, Week in Books 2016 | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

On starting school, NOT planning, and knowing yourself

starting-school-not-planningWe started school again on August 1, having enjoyed the month of July for vacation. It was a shorter break than many choose, but for us it was just right–a couple of weeks at the lake with my parents, a couple of weeks at home.

A few people panicked on my behalf because how could I have time to plan a whole school year on only one month of summer break!?!?! Well, it’s simple really. We added a couple of new procedures and a few new subjects. I made clipboard checklists for the kids to encourage them to be more independent. I thought about goals and came up with some solutions to persistent problems. Other than that, I didn’t actually do any school planning.

There are three reasons this works for us.

1) I do not make detailed lesson plans. Or any lesson plans, really.

Yes, I said it. I see people online posting these incredible plans that list page assignments for every single day of the year in every single subject for every single child. Clearly some people love that sort of thing, and if it works for you, go for it! But please know–especially if you are just starting out and feeling overwhelmed–that it is not necessary.

That’s not to say that I go into each day loosey-goosey. We have a set number of subjects and a threshold for completion–we pack a lot of learning into each day. The difference is that my plan looks like “Sarah is using Saxon 5/4 for math”and we do math every day, rather than “Sarah will complete Saxon 5/4 Lesson 16 on August 19.”

After several years of being at this, I’ve realized that my teaching goal is mastery. Every day we move the ball down the field in each given area. Sometimes a kid is on fire and does three math lessons in a day. Sometimes something isn’t clicking and we spend five days doing one lesson. It doesn’t matter. It all comes out even in the end. The goal is for the child to learn math, not to complete a textbook in a given amount of time.

My decision has two facets:

  • I don’t want to hold my kids back. If she is ready to move on, we move on. Does the kid have that concept down? Great, I say, let’s not beat it into the ground. Who says you have to spend a year in a text book just because that’s how they would do it in a classroom? I don’t want to kill the child’s love and wonder for something just because my checklist says get through each and every lesson as written–or just because I made an elaborate plan that requires me to only do one lesson per day.
  • On the other hand, I don’t want to breeze over something that requires more time. In a classroom of 20 kids, you have to do that sometimes. In a classroom of a homeschool family, you don’t. If someone doesn’t get something, we camp out. I don’t get stressed because no one is telling me we had to make it to page 87 today. It’s more important that the child really understand the concept than that we track to a plan.

I do think you have to be careful not to fall behind too badly if your goal is to put a child into a traditional school at some point, or to graduate by a certain point, or to follow a certain academic path. So far, for us, following the goal of mastery has played out mostly in the sense of jumping ahead (for example, Sarah is a 2nd grader in a 5th grade math book) but I think even in areas where a child is behind, it makes more sense to work to mastery than to push ahead for the sake of a schedule.

There are probably notable exceptions and I may change my mind in the future, but that’s how it seems to me from here.


2) We do the same things every day.

The second reason minimal planning works for us is that I spent time up front thinking through what we do every day. I carefully considered how much each child should do independently. I changed our daily flow of events to see if that helped smooth some rough spots. But when it comes to actual teaching, we do different lessons and amounts of each subject, but we do accomplish those subjects daily (or several times a week, depending on the item). So each child has a checklist of independent work that I just print out weekly with no changes. He or she knows to do the next thing, or whatever specific instruction I gave during individual teaching time. The only thing I change on my record-keeping checklist are specific book titles by category for read-alouds, vocabulary words, and art projects.

For some people, doing different things every day really helps. For my kids, it’s easier to make the school day a given. I don’t want to fight battles over whether or not it’s the day for math or cursive or whatever. Is it a school day? Then you are doing math, writing, cursive, etc. This makes things easier for me, but it also makes the kids feel better because expectations are clear.

3) We stick with what is working.

Yes, I know there are simply gobs of different ways to teach math. I’m sure lots of them are more colorful, more fun, more modern, and more hip than Saxon. But after trying lots of different things, hopping around from book to book hoping to find the magic and mysterious One Perfect Fit, I decided that my goal is to teach math. And Saxon does just fine. I don’t use the books exactly as written, so I can tailor the lessons to each child, but for the most part we just truck through each level.

The point is, I find that most of the time I can make what I have work for what I need. Because I’m not casting about for the latest and greatest grammar, writing, spelling, math, and so on anymore, I don’t have to spend time learning new systems. Other than new subjects I add for my oldest student, I’m not having to reinvent the wheel.

So, for me, school planning is really about evaluating systems and considering goals.

I think through pain points in our school days and try to come up with solutions. I consider where each child needs improvement or more challenge, and whether he or she is developmentally ready for more. I make general checklists and the details fall where they may.

That said, I’m an ENTJ (side note for MBTI nerds: I once thought I was an ENTP in spite of always testing ENTJ, but then I realized that I’m actually not spontaneous, I just have an extremely low tolerance for inefficiency so I change things up as I go–now I’m wondering if I’m really an E or if I’ve become an I in my 30s? Is that possible?) so big picture planning appeals to me. Maybe the detail planners are different personality types? As with many things in life, it’s important to know yourself. 

If you like personality typing, you might enjoy the homeschool personality post at Simply Convivial. I found it helpful, and even freeing, to realize that I do things a certain way because it works for me.

Maybe you plan (or not) in a totally different way, and that’s great! As always, this is just the way we do things around here. I think it’s nice to get a window on how other people do life.

How are you tackling the new school year?


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The Light Between Oceans

oceansI saw a commercial for the movie version of The Light Between Oceans and found the premise intriguing, so I decided to read it.

The setting is great. It’s Australia after World War I, plus the fascinating idea of manned lighthouses on remote islands. The thought of living with your family on an island and only coming into contact with the outside world via boat every few weeks and shoreleave once a year is pretty wild. I thought the author did a good job of coming up with the setting, although I wished for more detail. Every now and then I caught myself thinking, “Oh right, they’re in Australian, hence the seasons are flipped” rather than really feeling I was there. Setting is very difficult to do well, and when it’s done well, you almost don’t notice it.

The story premise–lost baby washes up on the lighthouse island with a dead man in a rowboat, childless couple decides to keep it instead of alerting anyone on land, and somehow doesn’t hear that a baby went missing and the mother lives in the same small town on the mainland–was a bit of a stretch on a number of counts. Even in the days before ubiquitous information, I found it a little hard to believe that in a small town no one did the math for four years. I wished that the author had made the story circumstances more nuanced–she could have made it more of a mental illness issue and explored how a loved one might protect the ill person by covering for her. Or there might have been more uncertainty about the child’s role in the family. Or…something.

The writing was good in parts and fine overall, although sometimes felt forced, as though the author was trying really hard to be literary, rather than just being literary. That’s probably just me being picky.

I kept reading the book for the setting and it wasn’t terrible. I gave it three stars on GoodReads, which is what I give most books. Still, if you’re interested in Australia as a setting rather than child stealing as a story theme, I think A Town Like Alice, The Road From Coorain, or (maybe, with some reservations) Oscar and Lucinda would be better.

I do think I will see the movie when it comes out, and it will be interesting to see which format turns out better.

If you’ve read The Light Between Oceans, what did you think?


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Science: Philosophy, History, Memoir, and Fiction

five great books to read about scienceI went on a bit of a reading odyssey on the subject of science this summer. Like math, science often gets a bad rap as being not for everyone or overly difficult. That’s a shame, because it’s truly such a fascinating and beautiful topic.

science bauerThe whole thing started because of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of Science, which attempts to get at the history of science through the writings of the greatest thinkers–the Great Books of science. I liked the approach, because instead of being lots of dates and formulas, Bauer wrote the history of science as a story of ideas. This will not surprise you if you’ve read her other histories. Bauer begins with the pre-Socratic philosophers, which was a fantastic reminder of how all subjects overlap and intertwine. As Bauer says, “The first questions were asked not by astronomers and physicists, but by theologians and philosophers.” Throughout the book, Bauer skillfully weaves in the ways in which thinkers influenced each other:

“Scientists who grapple with biological origins are still affected by Platonic idealism today; Charles Lyell’s nineteenth-century geological theories still influence our understanding of human evolution; quantum theory is still wrestling with Francis Bacon’s methods. To interpret science, we have to know something about its past.”

Each chapter covers the subject and time period of the pertinent idea, and then gives helpful–and helpfully short–lists for further reading if you want to dive deeper. The whole book is structured and written in such a remarkably excellent way. I highly recommend The Story of Science for adults and could easily see how this could make a science elective for high school students, or maybe a good book to augment general history reading.

About the same time that I remembered to pick up The Story of Science, my 9-year-old declared that he wants to be a physicist and asked if we could do physics for science this year. “Of course!” I said. “Oh no!” I thought. You see, in an effort to cram in extra AP classes and to be able to take AP Biology my senior year, I never took physics in high school. At all. I remember the conversation with my guidance counselor about whether or not I could take AP Physics if I had never taken regular physics, and if I could take AP Physics at the same time as BC Calculus. She said no. I wish I had pushed it. But anyway, here we are, and I don’t know anything about physics. So I began to dig.

sevenFirst, I found Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and really it’s a pretty marvelous introduction. The book is very short, and designed to pique your interest rather than load you with math. I really enjoyed it, and found all of the topics a source of great amazement. The author made even the most complicated subjects seem accessible and put the study of physics into context. For example, he writes,

“You would, of course, need to study and digest Riemann’s mathematics in order to master the technique to read and use this equation. It takes a little commitment and effort. But less than is necessary to come to appreciate the rarefied beauty of a late Beethoven string quartet. In both cases the reward is sheer beauty, and new eyes with which to see the world.”

I was surprised at the end when the author comes to a completely different metaphysical conclusion than mine–as if we both looked at the same narrative and yet chose opposite explanations for it. That was interesting to ponder, and would make for a great discussion topic.

poetsNext, I remembered that my freshman year roommate took a class nicknamed Physics for Poets in order to get one of her lab science requirements out of the way. When I found a book by that title, I dove in. In hindsight, I wish I had not. Physics for Poets is disappointingly not enough detail about physics and not enough beauty to satisfy even the most casual armchair poet. The author would attempt to simplify by giving a complex looking formula, but then not explaining it (frustrating!), or mention that a concept impacts technology but not explain how. It was simultaneously too much and not enough. The author ends with the following quote, “It is customary, in conventional physics courses, to equate understanding with the ability to calculate.” Sadly, the book failed to deliver either.

love physicsFortunately, my stack did not end there! For the Love of Physics got my attention with the cover picture of a wild-haired old man swinging on a pendulum in front of a blackboard, and Walter Lewin kept my interest throughout the book. A former MIT professor, Lewin’s enthusiasm and love for physics is contagious. The book is not only about physics, it’s also Lewin’s science memoir and his thoughts on teaching. His goal as a physics teacher was to inspire the student to see the world through new eyes. Lewin writes:

“I present physics as a way of seeing our world, revealing territories that would otherwise be hidden to us—from the tiniest subatomic particles to the vastness of our universe…To me that is teaching at the highest level. It’s so much more important to me for students to remember the beauty of what they have seen than whether they can reproduce what you’ve written on the blackboard.”

I enjoyed Lewin’s obvious delight at the beauty and intricacy of the universe and the way things work. This is the really, really fun part about science, just learning how amazing even the most mundane things are. Plus, you’ll learn a ton about rainbows and those little circles of light you sometimes see on walls. I may have startled my whole family when I recently pointed to some light dancing on a wall and shouted, “Oh my word, this is a camera obscura; y’all this is a PICTURE OF THE ACTUAL SUN!” Science!

when-you-reach-meAs you probably know, I am never reading only one book at a time. In fact I usually have at least half a dozen scattered around at any given moment. So I did not choose When You Reach Me because of science. In fact, I pulled it from my To Read shelf because I saw a mention of it on Hope is the Word and I thought I might pre-read it before giving it to Hannah since Amy mentioned that it has some fantasy/scifi elements at the end and I wondered what those were. But as I read the book I jumped (figuratively) because oh my goodness, it’s not fantasy, it’s PHYSICS! Well, it’s sort of fantasy, in that the physics is theoretical (my dad, who is an engineer, probably just snorted “all physics is theoretical!” Sorry, Dad.). But this reminded me of something I read in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fiction books–she got the idea for the Wrinkle in Time books after reading a bunch of things about…wait for it…physics!

Don’t things run together in such interesting ways sometimes?

In my latest newsletter, I mentioned an idea I have for a Book Atlas–this is the sort of great tie-in that a Book Atlas delivers. I’m writing up a short PDF on how you can set up a Book Atlas of your own and I’ll send it out free to the newsletter list later this month. Plenty of time to sign up if you haven’t already! Thanks to those who wrote to talk about the idea.

What interesting rabbit trails has your reading taken you down this summer?

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A couple of resources for writers

course_badges_Starting_yesOnline courses are A Big Thing right now, which you’ve probably noticed, and I’m not sure how I feel about them. As with anything, there are great examples and also lackluster offerings. In general I don’t think they match my learning style as well as reading a book. But in some cases, for certain topics, I think courses really, really work. One case in point: Upstream Field Guide, and a new favorite, Christine Gilbert’s Starting Your Book.

I got the course as part of an incentive package Christine offered for pre-ordering her book, which made the price a great deal. I’m not sure I would have pulled the trigger at full price then, although having completed the course, I am convinced of the value.

As you might guess from the title, Starting Your Book takes you from your idea to a fully outlined book.  Although I think it’s structured more for a non-fiction book concept, it also works well for fiction projects. You learn about tools to help you collect your thoughts, organize your premise, and develop a well plotted, complete outline you can actually write from. I was skeptical of the idea, because I’ve tried to outline novels before, but this time? I actually accomplished it! It did take a lot of work, but I felt challenged, encouraged, and best of all, equipped to get the thing done.

If you need the course, Starting Your Book is an excellent choice. It worked well for me because it’s entirely online and it’s written down, which meant I could consume the content as I had time and mental space, but also at my own pace, versus the slooooow pace of a video or audio. Each day packs in a lot of material, with several assignments each day. At first I was thinking, “There is no way I am going to get this done in 30 days, there is no way.” But then, lo and behold, I actually did.

pressfield-book-coverAbout three weeks into the course, when I had a pretty well fleshed out outline of 30 chapters, I read Nobody Wants to Read Your S***. OK, I know, crass title, and people who can’t think of better titles than those involving words requiring asterisks are usually annoying, but the book turned out to be helpful. I got it as a free download so there was little risk involved. I think the book was helpful for me because I was neck deep in plotting a story, so I had very concrete ways to envision the advice. For the most part, it’s good advice. And it’s better than Pressfield’s other non-fiction books (The War of Art, Do the Work) although it covers lots of similar ground. Pressfield has a formula, and clearly it works (he’s a best-selling author) but you can take or leave what you like of that. I did think he had some interesting ideas about themes, particularly one about how American authors tend to (maybe subconsciously) write the American Dream–defined by Pressfield as the belief that if you do the right thing and play by the rules, you succeed–into their books.

I looked at my outline. OK, apparently I am not an American because I wrote the exact opposite. I guess you could say I sub-themed that the American Dream isn’t true?


But that’s honest, because I don’t believe it, if you go by Pressfield’s definition. I guess those four years I lived abroad while growing up had a bigger impact than I thought. Anyway, onward.

During the last week of the course, I started to have major panic. The daily content and assignments tapped into some insecurities I have about the outline and I started thinking I had wasted all of that time because the whole thing was a hopeless mess and irrevocably broken. So I almost missed out on THE MOST VALUABLE PART of the entire course.

Christine reviews your outline.

I very nearly didn’t send it in, but at the last minute I said what the heck and pressed send. And Christine reviewed the entire outline (it’s a 17 page single-spaced Word document, so this is not paltry) and sent back the most thoughtful, helpful, lovely response letter. I did not expect anything so encouraging.

I think the final review is an incredible value, because having another person–a person who doesn’t know you or your story and has no vested interest in your being a writer at all–look at your ideas and evaluate them is incredibly helpful.

So, how do you know if you need a course like Starting Your Book?

I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too. I’m a fairly Type A person who gets things done. Couldn’t I just outline my book on my own without a 30-day course? Well, yes. Except I’ve been working on this idea for, oh, seven years or so, and still didn’t have a good outline. I’ve read all the books and listened to all the podcasts and written reams of scenes and partial ideas. I’ve even written an entire 80,000+ word draft! It was terrible. I wasn’t keeping at it in anything resembling a consistent fashion because I wasn’t sure if it was a good use of my time–in short, I have a serious case of Imposter Syndrome about writing, even though it’s what I do for a living. The course gave me a needed push to buckle down and really apply myself to combine ideas and sort everything out and get it done.

If you’re in a similar position–you write but drafts don’t shape up well, or you can’t seem to get over the mental hurdles to be diligent on the project, or you have an idea but aren’t sure where to go with it–I’d recommend Starting Your Book. It’s a bit of an investment, but might be just what you need.


Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are to my previous book reviews, but one is an Amazon affiliate link and I am also an affiliate for the We Create courses. Thanks for clicking through from A Spirited Mind!

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Family-friendly audio books for long car trips

family-friendly audio booksBecause my family lives half a continent away, the kids and I have long car trips down. Yes, twelve-hour drives as the solo adult with five kids including a nursing infant are possible. One reason this works is because four out of the five are potty trained and three of the five can not only take themselves inside a bathroom stall, but can also wash their own hands AND hold the baby (not simultaneously, of course) during a stop. Much easier than the days when I traveled with three under three.

Another reason this works is audiobooks.

Whether you’re making a long car trip or simply motoring about town, a good audiobook series can make a ride much more enjoyable for you and the children. Here are a few of the series we’ve enjoyed of late (all available through our library’s OverDrive app, which you should ask your library about, but also easy to find through Audible–a 30-day free trial might be a good choice if you’ve got a big trip coming up!).

mysterious-benedict-societyThe Mysterious Benedict Society series combines a mystery with a quest and riddles and teamwork and very clever wordplay to create a bang-up story that the kids and I loved. We listened to Book One on audio and have the next on hold, but meanwhile Jack enjoyed it so much that he spent his own money to purchase a copy of the first book for himself, and Hannah liked it so well she asked if she could give a copy to a friend for a birthday present.

Apart from being a thrilling tale, I particularly like that the main characters in The MBS are all kids who are a little unusual. They are kind of weird or have unusual abilities or are lonely, and yet they come to see how their unique skills and life experiences put them in exactly the right spot to do great things. This is a fantastic message for kids, especially if you have some who feel odd sometimes.

wingfeatherI’ve heard about The Wingfeather Saga for a long time, but we finally began it this summer and we are hooked. If you’re looking for an adventure series that is also well written, very funny, and excellent to read aloud (and who isn’t?) these are the books for you. We listened to On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, then switched to reading aloud for North! Or Be Eaten! and I’m not sure if we will proceed with audio or reading aloud for the rest of the series, or if I will just turn the big kids loose to read for themselves.

If you’re nervous about the whole “darkness” and “being eaten” themes, rest assured that the bad guys (for example, the Fangs of Dang) are scary, but offset by the silliness of their names and the fact that the good guys fight for Truth and Justice and Right and are never forsaken.

Not only did the big kids and I like it, but even Eliza (3) is engrossed and asks for more chapters.

narniaThe Chronicles of Narnia should go without saying for read-alouds, and we have read them all aloud together. The big kids have also read them individually. But we still really enjoyed listening to them on audiobook. Several of the readers were uncommonly excellent.

There are a couple of versions out there, so you want the unabridged. I haven’t tried the dramatized versions to know if they are any good. And please, whatever you do, please do not put The Magician’s Nephew first even if it is chronologically accurate. Read or listen in published order–it does make a difference to when you discover things!

I think of all the books, my favorite is probably The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, although I found The Last Battle particularly poignant as we listened to the part about Aslan’s Country after my grandmother died, so the allegorical Heaven was touching for me.

What have you been listening to this summer?

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How Dante Can Save Your Life

danteWhat a title, right? I love the premise of Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life–it’s a personal memoir structured around a book (well, three books actually, but part of a set) that deeply changed the way the author sees the world.

Although Dante’s Divine Comedy (note: I have the Mandelbaum translation–there are many) may not strike you as hard as it did Dreher, most readers will identify with the transforming power of literature. My aunt who recommended the book to me was also taking a class on Dante at the time, so she enjoyed the memoir alongside a deep dive into the source material. I read Dante in college and didn’t really feel the need to re-read it, so you can certainly read the memoir as a stand-alone.

On the other hand, I might suggest that you not read Dreher’s book and assume that you now know about Dante. Although the book does contain information about Dante and clips from the Divine Comedy, it’s really a book about Dreher. And whether or not you like the book may come down to whether or not you wind up liking Dreher.

I didn’t, much.

I’m not sure what threw me off, but I wound up rooting for the antagonists in Dreher’s narrative. I wanted to like him–he’s a writer and a deep reader and a homeschool dad and his story is actually pretty interesting–but the tone of the book kept veering toward whining and the histrionic. I’m not sure if that’s just my reading of it or if the structure rubbed me the wrong way. Dreher opens each section with a segment from Dante that applies to the next step in his own narrative, and ends each section with an abrupt text box of vague application, here’s-how-YOU-can-change-YOUR-life type of prompts. That was an odd choice, and I think it asked too much of the book–like Dreher (or his editor, maybe–they felt tacked on) was making the book do too much at once and the structure couldn’t handle it.

I don’t want to pan How Dante Can Change Your Life, because the premise is great and the story is interesting. If you’re familiar with Dante and can get past the structural hiccups you might enjoy the book. My aunt, who is a great judge of books, really liked it. Even though I had issues with the book, I might still recommend it, especially to anyone considering writing memoir–different structures are always interesting to consider. If you do read it, I’d be interested to know your thoughts!


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Do you always finish a series?


You may have heard of Hugh Howey–the one-in-a-million author who put a short story up on Amazon and wound up with a serialized best seller and a book deal–and his Silo Series. I hadn’t planned on reading it, but when a book club I’m part of (I wonder how many meetings one can miss and still style onself “part of” a book club…this one is hard for me to make for some reason) chose Wool for the July book, I decided to give the series a whirl.

The series–set in a dystopian future–uses terrific world-building and Howey managed multiple angles simultaneously in a way that drove the plot rather than getting confusing. As I read I wondered how much Howey changed his idea along the way, since he was getting feedback after every installment.

The first book, Wool, is the strongest. In it, Howey establishes the setting and introduces characters who slowly unravel just enough of the complicated mess to move the ball down the field a bit and leave the reader wanting more.

Then comes Shift, which delves more into how the mess got started. It’s still good, but a little less compelling. Sometimes backstory should stay backstory. The second book definitely felt like, “fans are demanding to know more about this fascinating scenario!” rather than a solid story in its own right.

By the third book, Dust, I was getting sick of the main characters. The bad guy is too bad (and I kept mentally thinking of him as Snow from the Hunger Games) and the heroine is too annoying. Several other characters felt two-dimensional and either too saccharine or too clueless. There were some plot elements that came out of nowhere and went nowhere (fast, at least) and at several points I asked myself why I was devoting my limited lifespan to continuing this series. And then the ending was too pat.

I know, the point of diminishing returns and everything. But it’s hard to let go of a series once you get started. If I were you, and if I were looking for a good summer read with a strong plot and fast pace, I’d read Wool. But then I’d let Shift and Dust go and move on to other things.

Once you start a series, do you always finish it?


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