The interesting book that wasn’t

1177If you saw a book titled 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, and if the lead quote on the cover was “astonishing…with eerie relevance” wouldn’t you expect a fast-paced, readable, narrative non-fiction approach to history?  Might you–dare I ask it–assume that the book would be about a year in which a civilization collapsed?

I picked up 1177 B.C. thinking it would be all of those things, but found myself wondering if the contents of the book had been swapped out with another volume.  I’m a huge fan of history–both popular and academic volumes–and just did not enjoy this book at all.  In spite of its hyperbolic title, subtitle, and cover quote, the book is actually about the fact that very little is known about the end of the Bronze Age and how it actually declined over a century, not in a single year.  And even if there was a year in which the decline began, we have no way of knowing which year it was out of a fifty-or-so year spread.

So…basically the author came up with a random year, titled a book for sales, and his conclusion was something completely different.  Also the interior of the book rambles, is full of dry facts with very little analysis and context, and jumps around in chronology so you’re left wishing for a timeline and mentally calculating how many more pages you have to read until you’re finished.  It’s amazing how the book is simultaneously too long and yet too short.

If you’re interested in ancient history, skip this book entirely and read Susan Wise Bauer’s excellent, highly readable and yet deeply detailed book The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome.  It’s so much better in every respect and well worth your time.

I’m sorry to completely pan 1177 B.C., but I found it thoroughly disappointing.  If you’ve read it (and maybe you have–it’s a best-seller in the archaeology category on Amazon), did you like it?  I’m interested to hear why or why not!


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October Read-Alouds 2014

The end of October finds us knee deep in several read-alouds we haven’t yet finished, but we did wind up a few to report on this month.

It was with some sadness that we read The Story of the Amulet, the last of the stories of the family from the Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet series.  In this last iteration, the four older children reunite with the Psammead and go on time-traveling adventures to find the missing half of an ancient Egyptian amulet.  The book is probably the best written of all three stories.  It is funny and adventurous and truly fabulous for reading aloud.  This series is probably one of my most favorites and I’m sad that it is now completed.  We highly, highly recommend these books, both for boys and for girls.

If you’re looking for a super fun read aloud that would work as a transition for kids who aren’t used to chapter books, or an entertaining choice for kids who like all kinds of books, we recommend The 13 Clocks.  We really enjoyed the fun use of language in this book.  There are a lot of internal rhymes in the dialogue, plus alliteration, references to other literature, and bizarre plot twists that kept us engaged.  The kids loved noticing the language choices, and also liked the illustrations.  The story is kind of a combo fairy tale/quest/mystery and features odd situations and inventive characters.

We read poetry every day, and one favorite we return to at least once a year is A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I linked to a free Kindle edition, although the one we use is a very old hardcover edition with illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith.  If you’re looking to buy a copy, I’d recommend her illustrations, and be sure you get an unabridged version!  I feel like these are some of the best poems of childhood–many will probably be familiar to you.  We’ve memorized lots of these along the way; some on purpose and some by virtue of reading them lots and lots of times.  It’s the sort of book that’s worth owning, because you’ll return to it again and again.

Another book worth owning is Franz Schubert and His Merry Friends.  All of the children really enjoyed the stories about how Schubert grew up and the fun times he had.  Although it’s not a comprehensive biography, I think for elementary kids it can be good just to know a few good and fun stories to tie to a historical figure, so as to remember him better.  Throughout the book, the authors included actual music, which you can play yourself if you have a piano, or you can get an accompanying CD.  I was delighted to see that the same authors wrote several books about other great composers, and look forward to checking those out too.

Hannah asked if she could read our copy of The Wonderful O  for her reading out loud (I have the older kids read out loud to me as a separate skill from reading individually).  While it’s a really interesting concept (a pirate forces the populace of an island to take all letter O’s out of words) and the language use is excellent–lots of internal rhyme and interesting diction–it really does not lend itself to fluid reading aloud.  Many of the sections of dialogue are full of words with the O’s removed, which is really funny and interesting when you look at it visually, but not so great to hear or try to pronounce.  After a few tries, I just let Hannah read the book by herself and then I read it so we could talk it over.  My conclusion is that the book, while short and easy to read, is probably better read by a middle schoolish child, because the themes of freedom and political dissent are probably more resonant with that age group–it’s sort of like Animal Farm in that respect.  In any case, the book is good, just maybe not one I’d recommend for elementary kids.  They could read it on some levels, but might not really interact with it on every level.

What did your family read aloud this month?


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The Locust Effect

It was difficult to read The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence.  Written by Gary Haugen, who heads The International Justice Mission, the book powerfully describes the realities facing poor people in the developing world.  With careful reference to research and statistics, but personalized with individual accounts, Haugen makes the case for justice and protection from violence as the missing solutions that keep the world from making much headway against issues like human trafficking, disease, hunger, and poverty.

Haugen and his organization investigate these issues and advocate for victims around the world, and Haugen’s background is with the US Department of Justice and the UN, so he writes from personal knowledge and experience.  IJM is a Christian organization, but has the respect of the secular development community too, as evidenced by book blurbs from people like Madeleine Albright.  I first heard about IJM at my church in DC over a decade ago, and I think it’s a great example of an organization that is putting faith into practice.

Haugen’s book Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World is also excellent, and is written to a primarily Christian audience, but in The Locust Effect he broadens his reach to include everyone, while not minimizing the fact that his faith drives his commitment to these issues.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what your interests are (although if your subjects are law, law enforcement, or international development you’d be especially interested), I think you need to read The Locust Effect.  The book is that important.  Although it was hard to digest the content because the magnitude of the problem is so vast, the writing is clear and compelling and the prescriptions are thoughtful.  I’m adding this book to my top reads of 2014 and am certain to continue thinking about it and what I can do.  I highly recommend it.


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The Way of Boys

The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys was a much better book than some of the others I’ve read or looked at (not only because it doesn’t include words like “difficult” or “brat” in the title, sheesh!).  The author, a psychologist, has spent over 20 years helping boys and their families, and he has lots of common sense and helpful wisdom about boys in general.

Many of the boys Dr. Rao sees come to his office after receiving diagnoses like ADHD, Aspberger’s, sensory processing disorder, and various other things.  First of all, he thinks many of these boys are diagnosed poorly, too soon, or by unqualified people. The book contains a lot of helpful information about what to do if your son gets a diagnosis, and how to figure out if it’s accurate and what to do about it.

Even if your child is not being labeled in some way, Dr. Rao’s advice and insight will be helpful.  The book includes tips on how to more effectively give rules to boys, how to dispense consequences, and how to know if your boy is acting up because he’s in a new developmental stage, is testing boundaries, or is just not getting enough exercise.  I especially liked the common sense discussions about team sports and their value (or not) for young boys.

I found The Way of Boys refreshing, helpful, and insightful, and would recommend it to all parents of boys, whether you’re dealing with behavior diagnoses or just a normal kid having normal kid issues.  This book is calm and rational and encouraging in the fact that the vast majority of boys are just normal kids, and will give you ideas for how to help them along.


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The Devil Reads Derrida

Because I got so much out of James K. A. Smith’s books on life as worship (Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom), I was interested to read Smith’s book The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts.  In the book, Smith points out that Christian intellectuals tend to focus their efforts in academia, leaving the church and the broader society to the slim (and almost always theologically off) pickings of Christian and secular pop culture.  He calls Christian intellectuals to speak to the church (as well as to academia and the culture as a whole), serving as public intellectuals rather than just academics.

Smith goes on to do just that.  In a series of smart and readable essays, Smith takes on cultural blindspots that afflict Christians and non-Christians alike.  He challenges our cultural mindset on things like partisan politics (of either party), patriotism, movies, pop literature (Christian and secular), poverty, neighborhoods, consumerism and ambition, and many others.

By definition a cultural mindset is something you aren’t even aware is there, and most Westerners probably don’t think twice about these things.  Smith does an excellent job of identifying situations and then applying Biblical theology to them in a way that is at once philosophically rigorous and understandable.

I really enjoyed The Devil Reads Derrida and would recommend it, especially if you’re interested in culture, government, academia, or the arts.  And even if you aren’t particularly an avid fan of those topics, if you’re a thoughtful Christian you would still benefit from this book–you might be surprised at how many of these mindsets creep into the way we do life.


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In her fascinating book Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries, Molly Caldwell Crosby describes encephalitis lethargica–a particular type of encephalitis that was epidemic around World War I and following–and examines how even now the disease is not fully understood or curable.

This type of encephalitis–which has emerged many times in history and continues to appear today–results in victims sleeping all the time (or too little) and having complete personality changes.  Over time, the disease results in parkinsons-like symptoms and, of the sufferers who don’t die immediately, most suffer lingering symptoms for life, generally including being institutionalized.  I was horrified to learn that people with the disease are still fully cognizant, so they know what is going on and are just trapped in their condition.

Worse still, scientists and researchers still don’t quite understand what causes the disease.  Because of how it operates and looks at a molecular level, experts believe this type of encephalitis tracks closely with the flu or with strep bacteria.  That is, patients get a case of the flu or strep throat (or some of the other diseases caused by strep) and the body’s immune system starts attacking the brain as a result.  The book includes a lot of sobering parallels between the conditions that allowed the epidemic in the 20s and today.

While you might think that a medical history book of this sort would be dry and slow, I found Asleep to be quite the contrary.  The author masterfully weaves in social and cultural developments that happened alongside the medical events, giving an overall picture of the times that is highly readable, engaging, and swiftly paced.

I found this book fascinating, and would highly recommend it if you’re interested in public health or history.


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Transforming the Difficult Child

I read Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach after seeing it recommended as a resource for calm and effective parenting (particularly about getting kids through their homework without fuss, although the book is more comprehensive than just that!).  It took me a bit to get past the title.  I don’t refer to my children as “difficult,” nor do I find that title helpful even in kids who are difficult.  The authors use the term “intense” in a couple of places, and I wish they would have stuck with that in the title too.  In fact, I think the title could be off-putting to parents like me whose kids are basically great but sometimes have bad behavior.  That said, the authors note that their methods are applicable to all kids, not just “difficult” ones.

Once I got past the title, I found some helpful information.  Some of these ideas have been in other books I’ve read–putting energy into positive affirmation rather than giving attention only to negative behaviors, etc–but this book gave detailed examples that helped me think through how to implement the ideas with my elementary-aged kids.

I’ve put some of these ideas into practice and have seen positive results.  I’m not sure how completely I buy in to the whole system (I don’t know if I have time to do the complex daily tally of good and bad behaviors traded for points and privileges–it seems laborious), but at least the first half of the book was quite helpful.

If you’re interested in positive parenting techniques, Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach could be helpful for your consideration.  If you’ve read the book and tried the techniques, what did you think?


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The Bookmarked Life, #6

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

Right now I’m:


Flu shots.  I’ve never really gone for flu shots, except in years when I was pregnant and for babies under 2 years old.  But reading The Great Influenza this year changed my mind.  In addition to including plenty of gory detail on just how violently dreadful and horrifying really bad flu epidemics can be (if you think the flu means body aches and mild fever, you are just skimming the surface), the book discussed the epidemiology of how flu strains develop.  I was struck by how even getting an earlier strain protected people (in that they had a better chance of living), and decided that even if we don’t wind up with an epidemic any time soon, being at least partially protected for emerging strains would benefit us.  And we have the aching arms to prove it.

…Furnishing my mind

My friend Julie is an amazingly talented musician who plays with several local symphonies and musical groups.  When she offered us comp tickets to the Carmel Symphony Orchestra we jumped on it!  The big kids really enjoyed the performance and behaved quite well.  Our seats were right up front so we could see the musicians’ faces and fingering in great detail.  I had forgotten how much I love this sort of thing, and I am already making plans for how we can go to other performances near us.  If you’re local, the Palladium is a great venue–beautiful and not expensive, plus easy parking–and the music is wonderful!

…Learning about

In the course of studying the War of 1812 over the last two weeks, we checked out a lot of interesting books.  I start with the assignments and extra resources sections in our Tapestry of Grace week plan, but then I go to the library website and type in a general topic to see what else they have on hand.  Who knew the War of 1812 was such a richly covered topic in children’s literature?  One book we checked out was all about a pirate who helped save Louisiana during the war.  It’s called Jean Laffite: The Pirate Who Saved America and we recommend it for kids who are interested in pirates or history.

…Living the Good Life

This weekend one of the book clubs I’m in is going on a retreat.  The whole group rented a house and we’re going to hang out and eat great food and talk about a bunch of books either set in or about Paris.  I’m taking Eliza since she’s still nursing, but I’m looking forward to getting away for a little bit!  I’m not even taking my computer (which feels scary, since usually I do a big work day on Saturday, but I need the break).  I think it will be fun and  hopefully a good way to connect and rejuvenate!


Randomly our homeschool co-op disbanded, so in my effort to rally some extra-curriculars for my crew we find ourselves not only taking cello and piano lessons, but also hosting a Lego engineering club and a ballet class!  I volunteered to host the ballet class since the teacher (who used to teach at the co-op) was looking for a venue and I had the idea from Lora Lynn at Vitafamiliae.  This week was the first ballet class and it seemed to be a hit!  We have, I think, ten girls meeting in our basement, and the teacher agreed to come to us since we have a well-lit, finished area for the class.  Hannah and Sarah ADORED having a dance class on the premises, plus the fun of having tons of little girls over.  Now I’m wondering how to rig up some sort of mirrored wall down there.


As I kept pacing around the basement trying to get the steps I need for my Fitbit Zip (which is ridiculously motivational for me, by the way–a worthwhile investment!) I kept thinking how it would be easier to hit step goals if I ran for fitness.  Then, in a blinding flash of the obvious, I thought, “I could just…run for fitness.”  After I read Born to Run I got the Couch to 5K app, but never got around to running with it.  I used to run long distances in college prior to tearing my ACL and having extensive knee surgery and a bone graft (long story involving skiing and how I don’t speak French).  Now they say that even with a partial miniscus like I have, you can run as long as you’re careful.  So I’ve been running in the early mornings.  In my basement.  Yes, just back and forth on the carpet.  It sounds weird, but it works because I don’t have to worry about it raining or being cold, or what happens if a kid or four wake up early.  I’m up to running about 2.5 miles now.  On the carpet.  I know, this is a punchline waiting to happen.  Maybe I should invest in a treadmill.  Anyway, I’m looking around for a 5K to sign up for.  Locals, any suggestions?


In addition to our scripture memory, we’re reviewing October’s Party by George Cooper and The Morns Are Meeker Than They Were by Emily Dickinson.  I love autumn.  In celebration, we have a pumpkin on either side of our front stoop (not carved, I just like them whole) and I bought three mums.  When I cut the netting off of the mums, lo they were enormous.  I’m talking like three feet across!  I’m not sure what to do with these specimens.  Right now one lives between our garage doors and the other two are stationed between our front porch posts.  Surely I could plant them?  Would they live through the winter?

…Seeking balance

Yesterday was kind of a whirlwind, what with school then flu shots then piano then ballet.  It reminded me of how much I am not interested in being the suburban mom-chauffeur that is kind of the default for many families.  One thing I have accepted is that for our family, at least for now, we can’t do any regular evening commitments.  We really just do so much better when we can eat dinner and get baths or showers and have bedtime worship and read aloud a chapter or two of our current family book then get the kids to bed at a reasonable time.  Every now and then it’s fun to do an evening out or meet up with friends, but I’m happy with the decision not to do any night activities this year.  It does help things to feel less frantic and frazzled, even when the only slow and quiet part of the day is at the very end of it!

…Building the habit

Another of my habits for this autumn (order, focus, grace, duty) is grace.  Grace is actually my word for the year.  Here are a few ways I’m working on the habit:

  • For myself – I’m always afraid that I’m cutting myself too much slack, but this year I’m trying to focus on ways that I’m actually doing well rather than on where I’m falling short.  Lots of nights I make a two column list of things that went well in the day and things I’m concerned about, in an effort to clear my head so I can sleep.  This helps me give myself grace for the things that are problems.
  • For my family – Thought patterns matter.  I’m working on catching myself when I fall into negative thought habits, especially with my family.  I’ve been working a lot at recognizing and verbalizing the things everyone does well.  As a mom of four, it can be so easy to just give the squeaky wheels the grease, but I’m finding that when I give everyone grace and recognize the positives, it helps everyone’s behavior more anyway.

…Listening to

How cool is this: there was a visiting pianist at the orchestra concert we went to last week, and for his encore he played an arrangement of Schubert’s Trout piece!  We had just listened to that in our composer study, thanks to Dovey’s recommendation in the comments on the last Bookmarked Life post!  The kids were falling all over the place at how they knew the piece!  It was a great moment.

What are you bookmarking this week?


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During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

I don’t know what on earth is going on with me, but here’s the second acclaimed work of fiction I’ve read and disliked recently.  One of the book clubs I’m in is discussing During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, but otherwise I would not have finished it.

The story is told from the vantage point of four female cousins, growing up on a hardscrabble Ohio farm with their formerly Amish now alcoholic grandfather, flea-bitten grandmother, mothers and aunts, one uncle, and an abusive boy cousin.  There are random cameos by one dad and various boyfriends.  The story works backwards (sort of) from the girls being teenagers to smaller children, through one aunt’s bout with cancer, family tragedy, etc.

Did I just “etc” the phrases “bout with cancer” and “family tragedy?”  Yes.  I just felt meh about the whole thing.

Ultimately, the book didn’t grab me at all.  I didn’t think the writing was anything exceptional.  I didn’t think the characters were interesting or particularly well-developed.  I didn’t see any redeeming value in the characters to make me like them or particularly care what happened to them.  There wasn’t any change in the characters, family, or community even after the family tragedy.

I’m eager to go to the book club meeting and hear what the other members thought.  Perhaps I missed something, perhaps it was just a poor choice of timing, or perhaps the book was just not for me.

If you’ve read During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, did you like it?  I’m interested to hear your thoughts!


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The Reading Promise

The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared is a memoir written by a recent college graduate about the years her father read aloud to her, night after night, for a reading streak that lasted until she went off to college.

While structured around the reading episodes, the book is more a story of how a single dad did his very best to keep his daughter safe, happy, and loved in the midst of difficult circumstances. His dedication to reading to her daily mirrored his dedication to raising her and being an involved parent.  The books mattered, of course–you see a few instances where the family uses phrases they adopted out of books (that’s one of the side effects I notice from our family’s reading aloud), and several stories tie the books to events going on in Alice’s life–but the relationship is the topic, more than the actual books.  In other words, I didn’t leave the book with a list of books to add to our stack.  Although there is a list at the back, it’s not structured with reviews or snippets so it would be hard to say “aha, I’d like to read that one for sure” if you aren’t already familiar with the title.

As a parent, I found The Reading Promise encouraging.  I loved how Alice clearly loves reading and language, and how her father used something he was passionate about (reading aloud–he’s a librarian) to connect with his daughter.

Reading aloud is a big part of our day and our family culture, but I always enjoy reading about how other families incorporate reading into their days.  This book is funny, well-written, and quick–a very enjoyable memoir with a hopeful message.


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