One Quarter Down…

This year I’ve organized my goals into quarterly steps, because I think it’s helpful to keep a variety of ranges in mind when you’re looking at big projects.

Similarly, I like to look back at what I’ve read quarter by quarter rather than just once a year.  It’s sometimes interesting to see how themes develop in reading or how my interest in one book sparked another rabbit trail of inquiry.  However, unlike previous years, this time around I’ll spare you the recap of reviews you’ve already seen, and instead will give some stats and highlight the superlatives.

Total (mine and read-alouds over 100 pages) books read January – March 2015: 47

Total fiction (not including read-alouds): 12

Total non-fiction (not including read-alouds): 20

Total chapter books (100+ pages) read aloud to the kids: 15

Best Fiction: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Best History: Destiny of the Republic

Best Life Management: Make It Happen

Best Theology: Prayer

What was the best book you read this quarter?

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March 2015 Read Alouds

Another month of read-alouds – some for school and some for fun:

thursdaysThursdays with the Crown is the latest installment in the Castle Glower adventures by Jessica Day George.  We have really enjoyed this series, which involves a mysteriously morphing castle, evil villains, visiting royalty with penchants for puppies, and griffins that you can ride on.  In this book, the Glower kids and their friends find out about the origin of the castle and then fight to save it.  There’s a lot more detail about the griffins too, which the kids particularly enjoyed.  Naturally, the end of the book leaves open the possibility of another story, which pleased us all.  If you’re interested in the series, it begins with Tuesdays at the Castle (link is to my review).

shanghaiedMany of the missionary biographies we’ve read have been really laborious to read aloud.  Shanghaied to China–while more of a historical fiction piece than a strict biography–was a pleasant exception.  The book tells the story of a fictional boy shanghaied into being a cabin boy on the ship that took Hudson Taylor to China.  The fictional boy’s adventures and wrestling with faith are set against true facts about Taylor and his work in China.  So you get a great adventure story with lots of detail about ships and China, but also plenty of history about Hudson Taylor.  It’s a good mix.  The kids really loved this book.

dreamA Midsummer Night’s Dream was our Shakespeare selection last term, and we did read some adaptations, but we also read the actual play out loud.  One day after we read a section Jack said, “I don’t really have any idea what’s going on with this book, but it sounds AMAZING.”  That’s kind of my philosophy about reading Shakespeare to kids.  They may not actually understand it or get everything that’s going on, but the language itself is so rich that there’s value just to hearing the words and phrases.

millyThe Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook is full of simple yet delightful stories about a little English girl and her life in a thatched cottage in (I think) the 1920s or so.  I got the book primarily for Sarah, but the other kids wound up liking to listen to it as a read-aloud too.  I liked the details of how much joy Milly Molly Mandy and her friends got from very simple toys and the descriptions of the food.  The kids liked the scrapes MMM and her pals got up to, and I think we all enjoyed the language and illustrations.  If you can find a copy with the original illustrations, go for that.  I looked over a modern selection which was, inexplicably, re-illustrated, and didn’t like it nearly as well.

towersWe enjoyed the Audible unabridged version of The Two Towers far, far more than we did the first book in the series, a circumstance that I attribute to the fact that no one had a stomach virus whilst we listened.  For a very long book, the Audible version is really, really well done and I’m very glad we own (or whatever) this series in this format.  Jack found it especially fabulous because he’s a big Tolkein fan right now, and he said to tell you that the Samwise parts at the end are particularly gripping.

potatoAs non-fiction books go, I would say that The Irish Potato Famine was middling.  It started out really well, with most of the information given in a story format that helped it to be more readable and of higher impact for the children.  However, it soon grew very long for what it was.  I probably should have just assigned this to Hannah and Jack to read independently, but I knew it was above Sarah’s reading level and didn’t want her to miss out on the concept.  If you’re learning about the 1800s or have a child who, for some reason, is interested in the Irish potato famine or Irish immigration in general, this would be a solid choice.  But for a family read-aloud at bedtime, probably not your best bet.

shogunCommodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun is one of those rare childrens’ history books that combines facts with stories and excellent pictures.  We really enjoyed learning about this interesting time in history when feudal Japan was first opening up to the modern world.  The illustrations include paintings and drawings by Japanese people first observing the American visitors, old photographs, and other Japanese-style line drawings.  If your kids are interested in Japan this would be a great choice, and it dovetails nicely with the Shipwrecked title by the same author that I reviewed in last month’s read aloud post.

What was your family’s favorite book to read aloud this month?


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Dressing Your Truth

I read about the Dressing Your Truth thing on Crystal’s blog, and initially I was a little skeptical about breaking all people down into only four types and then prescribing clothes, hair, and makeup for each.  But then I read Crystal note that she spent a lot of her life thinking she had to be a certain type and acting and dressing that way, when it wasn’t really true to who she really is.  I have been there!  So I decided to look into it.  The program website offers a free video series but I completely loathe video–I avoid getting information that way at all costs.  And there weren’t very many written recaps.  So, being me, I checked the library and found that a copy of the book version, Dressing Your Truth: Discover Your Type of Beauty, was available.  Problem solved.

Dressing-The-Truth-Book-Fate-and-BookAs I said, I am skeptical of the only-four-types thing. Women come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and I have a hard time buying it that all the women in one type look good in the same things. However, reading the book I immediately fell into Type 3.  As in, pretty much everything was spot on.  And the clothing suggestions for my type were pretty much the type of things I choose when I’m picking things I like and look best in.  However, I have gotten sidetracked over the years at times by wanting to fit in, wanting to follow a trend, or trying to be something different for someone else.  It never works.  You always know when you see someone wearing the wrong thing–you don’t think “yikes, your butt is big, girl!” but rather “I wonder if she knows she’d look better in a different silhouette?”

The tips in the book are pretty broad, which was enough for me.  I personally don’t love many of the styles on the website, so since my personal taste varies from Tuttle’s, I am fine with the broad guidelines.  However, I will say that if you have no idea what you’re doing with clothes and colors, or if you’ve been chasing someone else’s idea of what you should look like, the book won’t help because it doesn’t give much actionable detail at all about what to do once you determine your type.  In fact, the book is pretty much a vehicle for promoting Tuttle’s online course, which is very, very expensive.  That said, if you really don’t know what to do after reading the book, maybe the course–which includes tips on clothing, makeup, jewelry, and hair–would be worth it.

I appreciated how the book encouraged women not to be locked in to one type of femininity, but to embrace their own beauty and temperament while being aware of some pitfalls that could be negatives.  I always find personality typing helpful and get some insight from it, although I still don’t think Dressing Your Truth is as comprehensive as, say, the Myers-Briggs.

If you don’t mind getting information from videos, you can sign up for the free series on the website, or if you prefer to read for information, see if your library has Dressing Your Truth.  It’s an interesting read.


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Make It Happen

make it happenMake it Happen: Surrender Your Fear. Take the Leap. Live On Purpose is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.  I read a lot in this genre, but I really, really tracked with Casey’s way of looking at the world and her intense, direct style.  Although my life experiences haven’t tracked exactly with hers, I found myself nodding and saying “Yes!  That!” throughout.  I marked almost every page with sticky tabs–often more than one per page–and am still slowly working through my notes, writing responses and digging into the material.  This is an exceptional book.

It’s not so much that the material itself is new–you can read about living on purpose and overcoming fears that hold you back and setting goals all over the place–rather it’s the delivery in Make it Happen that really resonated with me.  Sometimes books in this genre seem too much of one thing or another to me, but I really connected with this one because, like me, Casey is driven, yet cares deeply about family relationships; she’s a person of real faith, yet still grapples with big questions and is still learning.  For that reason, as I read I either found myself agreeing vigorously or hearing big points I really needed to think through.  This isn’t a “light a scented candle and make a batch of cookies” sort of approach.  It’s more of a call to really dig deep, peel back the layers, and get to the root of your problems and fears and reluctance to live your best life.  It’s also not a name-it-and-claim-it book, but rather a call to pray deeply–surrendering your biases and boxes and preconceived notions–that God would show you what the “it” is that you’re supposed to make happen and how to go about doing that.

As I’ve been writing my responses to the book (there are lots of sections where readers are invited to think through something and write answers) I’ve been interested to see how often I’m coming up with stuff I didn’t even know was “stuff” for me.  Something about the way Casey writes invites deeper reflection and different angles for considering familiar topics.  This isn’t a Biblestudy, but it is a very biblical approach, and Casey’s examples draw from her faith experience.  Make it Happen isn’t something you can read and set aside in one sitting (although I had a hard time putting it down), but a book that almost demands that you wrestle with yourself.  Since my goal is to be changed by what I read I appreciate books that invite that sort of interaction.

I’m not sure what my ultimate conclusions will be after I finish going through my notes, but everyone will get something different out of the book.  No matter where you are in life, Make it Happen is such a great book that I think you couldn’t fail to get something from it, and I highly recommend it.


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4 Books, 3 Observations, 2 Asides and a Bagel in a Pear Tree

It’s Friday, so how about a round-up?  We’ll start with books because we always start with books around here!

Four Books

throneI’ve written extensively before about Bernard Cornwell’s fabulous Saxon saga (Reader’s Digest version: funny, awesome battle scenes, great historical detail) and all that applies to his latest installment, The Empty Throne.  Does Cornwell have a formula?  Yes.  But is it a great formula?  It is.  If you like British history in general or non-romancey historical fiction in particular, you’ll like Cornwell’s offerings.  I wouldn’t say this book moved the ball very far down the series field, but it was worth it nonetheless.

fairestIf you’ve read Meyer’s other books (Cinder, Cress, Scarlet) you’re going to read Fairest no matter what I say, so I won’t bother to dissuade you.  But it’s a disappointment.  We already knew Levana was the evil stepmother character, but I was hoping this prequel would give me some reason to like her.  Nope, she’s just evil.  I guess that’s part of the fairytale trope, but since we also don’t learn anything new about the overall storyline from this book, it seemed like a waste.  I also didn’t think that the Snow White frame came through very strongly, and the story was darker and less like something I’d let a kid read.  Fortunately it’s short and you can tear through it quickly.

Good-Cheap-EatsGood Cheap Eats: Everyday Dinners and Fantastic Feasts for 0 or Less is a solid cookbook from Jessica Fisher, combining fresh, real food ingredients with tips for saving money on your grocery budget.  If you’ve done any delving into those topics not much of this will be new (although I did get some good tips!) but the recipes are good for getting ideas and branching out, which I needed.  I did find that I had to double most of them to fit my family, and since we tend to be a protein + vegetables family rather than a carbohydrates + meat-as-condiment family not all of the ideas were a good fit.  But I tried several things and got great results every time, so I’d recommend this cookbook as a versatile and helpful resource.

tiredI wanted to look into adrenal fatigue after reading about it on Crystal’s blog, so I picked up Tired of Being Tired since the library had it.  I have some of the symptoms listed, and felt like lots of the advice was good (cut sugar, reduce caffeine, sleep more, don’t over-exercise) but some of it was flat out weird.  When the rationale for using some sort of magnet therapy is that Cleopatra wore a magnet on her forehead to reduce signs of aging, you’ve lost me.  I mean, even if Cleopatra did wear a magnet on her head, I think the asp got her before we could really draw anti-aging conclusions, right?  If you can take the good and leave the weird, this book might be a good choice.  Otherwise, go forth and do the good you know you ought to do anyway.

Three Observations

1) It’s always good to have a book on your phone.  I got stuck in Costco waiting for a pizza for 35 minutes (payback for trying to save time making dinner, I guess) and scrambled until finally found a library download about Queen Victoria.  I wish I had had something preloaded!

2) Jelly beans aren’t breakfast.  I try to get breakfast together in time to send my husband out the door with something to eat.  The other day my Biblestudy/exercise/shower routine got delayed and he had to leave hungry.  “It turned out ok, though,” he reported.  “Someone brought in jelly beans.”  #notbreakfast #nicetry

3) Small tweaks matter.  We dropped cello lessons and now all three kids take piano, back-to-back lessons, all at one time and in one location.  You wouldn’t think this would make a huge difference in my life but it has.  Driving to one less thing and having an entire hour to read a book while the kids are having lessons feels amazing.  Don’t underestimate the power of a small change.

Two Asides

1) Manners matter.  I’m not talking about which fork to use when, but basic courtesy like speaking politely, not making comments about someone’s personal appearance, and responding to communication in a timely manner.  Is it the internet that’s squashing basic courtesy?  Because it feels like unkindness and disrespect when you’re on the receiving end of bad manners, as I have been several times this week.

2) Jillian still works.  I went back to the 30 Day Shred and Level 3 still brings it.  I can barely walk up the stairs.  But in a good way.

A Bagel in a Pear Tree

The weather turned nicer here, so we’ve been out taking walks.  One of our neighbors hung a bagel in the pear tree in their front yard.  We assume it’s to attract birds, but so far it just looks odd and kind of soggy.  The kids wanted to know if we could hang assorted food items in our trees, but I said no.  Probably a missed educational moment of some sort, but oh well.

How was your week?


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Silence-770862In Silence, Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo describes the persecution of Christians in Japan in the 1600s through the eyes of a Portuguese missionary.  Earlier missionaries had brought Catholicism to Japan and made many converts, but when the shoguns couldn’t control the new faith as easily as Buddhism, they outlawed it.

The book gets into lots of interesting themes and tensions surrounding missions – the problem of communicating a universal faith without unnecessarily trampling on the existing culture, the implications of apostasy and martyrdom, and who bears the guilt in situations of torture and coercion.  Throughout the book, I got the impression that Endo–himself a Japanese Catholic–is uneasy with many of these questions.

Perhaps we should be uneasy too.  Early in the book the Portuguese priest judges an apostate as a coward and weakling.  But how many comfortable Christians would stand firm if tortured to apostasize?  How should such a person be viewed, especially in comparison to those who accept martyrdom?  Is this a function of inherent strength or true faith?  Endo concludes that God can use the weakness of the apostates, and even implies that when faced with the ethical dilemma of trading apostasy for releasing other believers from torture, Jesus himself would have apostasized.  I can’t agree with Endo’s conclusion there, as I don’t think it’s borne out in Scripture at all, but the author does do a good job of showing the crisis between standing firm and yet wanting to help suffering people.

Torture is a terrible thing not only for its physical toll but for its psychological ramifications. It perplexed me why Endo didn’t allow his priest characters to confront the authorities with logic–when told that the Japanese Christians were being tortured because the priests were holding out, I feel like the immediate answer would be “No, actually they are being tortured because of your policies.”  But that may not be consistent with the actual historical references.

Another interesting theme is the question of whether Christianity just isn’t compatible with Japan.  One priest concludes that even the Japanese believers weren’t truly Christians, but rather just using Christian jargon on top of their former beliefs.  Here too, Endo seems ambivalent.  Is there really a possibility of a Japanese Christianity?  Again, I disagree with his conclusion, because Christianity is not the purview of one nation or culture or time period.  Certainly it isn’t Portuguese any more than Japanese!  But that said, I thought it was interesting that my church showed a video about one of the missionaries we support in Tokyo, and it gave the statistic that even today only 5% of Japanese people ever hear the Gospel during their lifetimes!  There is a lot of complicated history and sociology wrapped up in that statistic, I’m sure, but it’s pretty staggering.

The book’s title comes from a key struggle facing the narrator priest: why does God seem silent when His children suffer.  At the end of the book Endo concludes that God was not silent, He was speaking through the lives of the believers.  Even this is ambivalent though, since the book doesn’t indicate which of the believers is speaking for God–the martyrs or the apostates.

Although I don’t agree with many of the author’s positions, I did find Silence a thought-provoking and informative book, and would recommend it.


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Own Your Life

lifeSally Clarkson’s latest book, Own Your Life: Living with Deep Intention, Bold Faith, and Generous Love, invites readers to take responsibility for their actions and attitudes and live with greater purpose.

I know, I keep reading books like this.  But I love to optimize systems and my life to make them better, and I keep getting good tips to implement, so I read on (and on, and on) in this genre.  I read that this is a personality trait thing.  So if you’re not the type that enjoys tweaks and continual upgrades, maybe this book is not for you.

I will say that I don’t deeply connect with Sally Clarkson–I think we share similar principles but maybe put them into practice in different ways, again, a personality thing probably–but I really appreciated her thoughts on several topics within Own Your Life.

Clarkson delves deeply into the tension between valuing productivity and valuing relationship.  The two need not be mutually exclusive, of course, but in our culture efficiency is greatly prized and busyness is often equated with meaning, so you really have to be deliberate to prioritize engagement and encouragement.  She notes that when you’re preoccupied with working on something, giving a passive “uh-huh” rather than making eye contact, you aren’t really fooling anyone, and miss the chance to build into the person seeking your attention.  Obviously you have to get the work done sometimes, but her thoughts on being more deliberate and careful about how I connect–especially with my kids–really resonated with me.

Another contrast that struck me was between chaos and gentleness.  Clarkson doesn’t explicitly make that comparison, but her points about identifying and eliminating the sources of chaos in our days, and then considering how gentle responses are more encouraging and loving seemed like a connection to me.  I know that in my life it’s the moments of havoc that lead to my drill sergeant moments when I’m yelling orders and herding the cats kids, usually completely overlooking someone’s need for grace or encouragement.  I’ve been analyzing that sort of thing this year, and realized that 1) we don’t do well with having to get somewhere in the morning, and 2) we don’t do well when we have too many evening activities that make bedtime chaotic.  I can’t tell you what a positive difference it has been to have a co-op that meets in the afternoon, and to move other activities to afternoons rather than evenings.  I still have a ways to go with this, but seeing the connection between eliminating chaos to make room for calm gentleness was a needed reminder for me.

While I wouldn’t say that Own Your Life grabbed me on every page or in every chapter, I did get some significant take-aways that made it well worth the time.  I imagine that most women (although, to be honest, primarily mothers) would find enough value in one area or another to make Own Your Life a solid choice in this genre.  


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The Road From Coorain

The-Road-from-Coorain-Conway-Jill-Ker-9780679724360In The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway recounts her memoir of growing up in the Australian bush, and her gradual intellectual and personal growth into understanding and appreciating her heritage and place in the world.

I appreciated Conway’s ability to see nuance and question assumptions, and was fascinated by her insight into Australian culture and conflicts.  The book is not just a straight autobiography–it is full of information about the land, the society, and how the established roles of the time period influenced Conway’s upbringing and experience.

This book was a book club selection, and it really did make an excellent vehicle for discussion.  In addition to comparing Australian culture to our own, we talked about family dynamics, the ways people deal with grief, the impact of institutionalized discrimination, and a whole range of other things.  We also enjoyed a tea and had lots of Australian and British items (one of the themes of the book is how Australia’s colonial history influenced its social mores) including “tim-tam slams” which are much less rowdy than they sound.  But only slightly less so, because it is difficult to slurp tea through a cookie and maintain decorum at the same time.  A good time was had by all.

I enjoyedThe Road from Coorain very much and feel like I gained a lot of perspective on Australia from reading it, but my enjoyment was deepened considerably by being able to discuss it with other people.  This is a great choice for anyone who likes memoirs, but if you’re in a book club, I’d particularly recommend it as highly discussable.  Conway wrote two additional memoirs and I plan to read both.


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contentmentIn Contentment: The Secret to a Lasting Calm, author Richard Swenson explores the concept of choosing to be content no matter what the circumstances–what that really means, what it looks like in practice, how it conflicts with modern values, and how to put it into practice.

The book is thoughtful and helpful, with a good blend of vision and application.  Swenson does a great job of breaking down the concept of contentment and giving it biblical, historical, and modern context.

While I can’t say that anything in the book was really new to me, the delivery forced me to examine some of the ways that our culture has impacted my perspective.  It is really difficult to call out your own blindspots, so I always appreciate authors who can point to ways our milieu is in conflict with a biblical view.

One example would be the way we view success.  Modern western sensibility dislikes the concept of contentment because it smacks of mediocrity and underachievement.  But the modern alternative is restless discontent, where nothing is ever enough and we churn around “relentlessly striving after dissatisfactions we can scarcely name.”  Swenson shows that biblical contentment is not about sloth, but about taking a right view of work as something we do to the best of our ability, but balanced by the view that we owe our success and every good thing to God, whose provision is trustworthy.  Yes, we work for our food, but God provides the soil, sun, water, etc.

Another example is in how we tacitly define the good life.  Swenson observes that the modern script defines the good life through media, technology, and money, but greater contentment comes through a community-oriented definition.  When we build a rich lifestyle based on community, relationship, and hospitality, we can be content with much less by our culture’s measurement.

I’ve noticed that, for me anyway, technology and media offer a false sense of community–a sense that I’ve connected with an old friend because I’ve seen her pictures on Facebook, when in reality I haven’t talked to her in 14 years and we have no real idea of what’s going on in each other’s lives.  Facebook is what it is–the Christmas card of connection–but it’s not real community.  One of my goals for this year is to work much harder at real life connections and really owning that my life is happening here in Indiana whether I feel like I fit in or not.  Getting together with people and being determined about getting on people’s schedules takes time and is sometimes uncomfortable (I hate feeling like I’m imposing on busy people who already have friends and don’t really need an extra!) but I’m always happier when I make the effort.  So I think Swenson’s point about defining the good life as community-based rather than consumption-based is valid and worth deep consideration.

I thought Contentment was a worthwhile read, full of good reminders and helpful challenges to my perspective.

How do you define contentment?  Do you think it’s challenging to maintain a counter-cultural definition of living well?


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Two Ideas and the Books That Sort of Followed Them

I recently read two books with killer premises.  One: you can cut 10 hours off of your workweek.  The second: how to think Christianly about productivity.  Neither book turned out to deliver exactly what I expected.

shave-10-hours-ebook-3d-isFirst, Michael Hyatt’s (currently free when you sign up for his newsletter) e-book Shave 10 Hours Off Your Workweek.  As someone who homeschools, works, and runs a household, the idea of freeing up ten (!!) hours a week appeals to me.  Hyatt identifies this as a margin issue, and exhorts readers to consider if they really want to be remembered as “constantly tired, sick, and emotionally spent.”  No.

Interestingly, the most guidance I noted in the book was about getting more sleep.  The book has some good ideas about this.

I did find the book helpful, and think it’s worth the cost of giving up your email address.  I like Hyatt’s style, although lots of times I feel like I’m not his target audience.  I am a flex worker, but I’m in a creative field that is very client-driven.  Hyatt’s advice is very much geared toward internet entrepreneurs who are investing in building platforms for whatever reason.  I’m not really in that mode.  However, some of the advice is universally applicable, so again, the book is worth the price and time.  You may find more take-aways if you haven’t read as heavily in the time and life management genre as I have.

nextI was really excited to read What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done.  The premise–that thinking Christianly impacts productivity–deeply appeals to me.

Sadly, the author got pretty bogged down along the way and the parts where his idea came through clearly were few and far between.  Overall, this reads like a book report.  Most of the ideas come from other writers in the productivity or faith fields.  If I had read the book prior to publication, I would have said, “OK, clearly you know a lot about productivity, and clearly you’re passionate about your faith and how being a Christian informs all of life.  Now tell us YOUR unique perspective, give us YOUR point based on all the stuff you know.”  Instead, there were just lots and lots of references to books I have already read and ideas I have already heard.

There were some good points in the book.  I liked Perman’s point that when we see our mission as glorifying God and being just, merciful, and humble (Micah 6:8), we can consider our life a success even if we don’t achieve our goals.  I’ve personally circled back to Micah 6:8 a lot this year as I have been praying for God to clarify my vision for life, so it was neat to see Perman’s perspective on that verse as a mission statement.

I just wish more of the book had been like that, and less of a litany from other writers.  Maybe in future books Perman will focus his thoughts on productivity into that framework in a more direct fashion.


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