Are You Fully Charged?

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

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

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

  • Meaning
  • Interactions
  • Energy

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

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

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


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July 2015 Read Alouds

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

What was your favorite read aloud from July?


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A story, a quest, and the Siege of Leningrad

CITY OF THIEVESIt seems like the frame for a lot of stories about the Siege of Leningrad is “survivors who don’t want to talk about it” but since the stories within are so different I suppose it’s just a historically accurate note about the character of person who made it through. David Benioff’s City of Thieves moves from grandparents who have never opened up about their experiences to the author/narrator’s account of the grandfather’s story.

Lev Beniov (the grandfather in question) is a 17-year-old who stayed behind when his mother and sister evacuated Leningrad–which he, and the other characters–persist in calling Piter even though the Soviets wanted to wipe out references to the tsarist name St. Petersburg. Caught looting a dead German paratrooper’s corpse, Lev assumes he will be shot, but instead he and a charismatic army deserter are given a strange quest: find a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake and they will be allowed to live.  In the middle of a frozen, starving city under siege.  Obviously this directive presents some challenges.

However, glad to be spared execution, the two head out to find eggs.  Over the course of the next several days the boy and soldier become friends, scout the desperation of the city, get involved in an insurgent attack on occupying Germans, and ultimately win their freedom but at a terrible cost.

I found the story fast-paced, gripping, and historically accurate, with great detail bringing life to the terrible realities of the siege.  This part of history is one that you almost have to read about through fiction, because otherwise your brain won’t want to grasp the significance of the statistics.  This novel does a great job of capturing the spirit and incredible fortitude of the people, while not romanticizing the inhabitants or glossing over the arbitrary nature of Soviet policies that made the siege so much worse and a metaphor for life in Soviet Russia in general.

If you like history, action, adventure, coming of age stories, war stories, or just stories with great pacing and plot lines, I’d recommend City of Thieves.


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How Will You Measure Your Life?

measure-your-life-416x620In an interesting twist on and melding of business and life management genres, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life? explores how tried-and-true business theories can illuminate and improve your personal life and overall life trajectory.

Theories, Christensen asserts, often apply to smaller units like families or even to individuals, not just to larger organizations.  In this book, he shows readers how to think differently about the ways you allocate time and resources, develop your family life, and measure your overall life success.

I thought the sections on building strategies, keeping kids motivated, emphasizing processes AND resources (versus, in the family example, giving your kid a lot of lessons in how to do stuff but no real life experience of how to solve problems), and establishing a family culture were excellent.  I was encouraged in some areas, challenged in others, and inspired overall to improve my perspective and change some tactics.

Although many people do New Year’s Resolutions (and I’m one of them) I also find the start of the new school year a good time to evaluate where we are as a family and define some goals for the year.How Will You Measure Your Life? would be a great resource if you want to think through your family’s culture, ways to provide helpful experiences for your kids, and personal or professional goals for yourself.

Do you find yourself re-evaluating when it’s Back to School time?


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Dept. of Speculation

dept of speculationDept. of Speculation is an odd, short novel, and yet it lingers with you once you’ve finished, giving you food for thought both as to the structure of the book and the narrative of a life.

The book takes the form of the stream-of-consciousness musings of a woman–known only as “the wife”–looking back at her life in light of her marriage.  When they were dating, she and her husband sent letters to each other addressed “Dept. of Speculation” in a cute reference to sharing a vision for their future together.  Of course, the title is quite loaded as we come to see.  Speculation can mean shared dreams, or it can mean a desperate and perhaps ill-conceived gamble with long odds.  Speculation, like marriage, is entered into with high hopes and high stakes and is a risky business–the investor is exposed deeply and may either find unimaginable riches or crushing loss.

Or, perhaps, both.

The structure–reading only the narrator/wife’s thoughts–at first seems light.  But as you read you find out that she is a deeply literary teacher whose very way of seeing and processing her life is accomplished through the lens of what she has read and taken to heart from the great thinkers, writers, and philosophers she has studied.  Cultural trivia (Germans have a word for gaining weight when you are depressed after losing a loved one: kummerspeck–literally, “grief bacon”), factoids about the space race, and quotes from Martin Luther and Kafka weave in with the wife’s own realizations about what goes into crafting a life with another person.

Although I can’t say I agree with all of the narrator/wife’s conclusions I found the whole book striking, and more so as I considered it after the fact.  The close, close point of view gives the story tremendous emotional heft without the usual length or detail required to achieve that height of feeling.  Much of the nuance and imagery rings true, even if you are not quite in the same spot philosophically as the narrator.

All in all, Dept. of Speculation is a worthwhile read if you enjoy literary construction or unusual ways of telling stories.


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Summer Reading: Harry Potter Series

harrypotterUnlike basically everyone on the planet who self-identifies as a reader, I made it to 2015 without reading the Harry Potter series.  I don’t have anything against fantasy as a genre–in fact, I like it–but didn’t really have any impetus pick up the books until I found myself with elementary aged fantasy fans in the house.

Although I’ve read enough reviews by people I respect to figure I’d be ok with the books, I did want to read them as my kids did, so that we could talk over any potential problems or issues.  And so, this spring, I tore through the seven volumes in quick succession (that and empty carbs seemed like the only things I could stomach due to morning sickness) and found I quite liked them.

If you do have topical or thematic concerns with the books, I’d encourage you to read them before you make up your mind.  Personally I found them to be much more about how to handle being different, how to make good decisions when evil seems easier, and the importance of taking advice from wiser authority figures than about witchcraft as a religion.  I made notes as I read so that I could identify all of the topics I thought would make for good discussion, and I appreciated the many examples of bravery, integrity, taking a stand for what’s right, and so on.  I also liked how the stories ring true in the characterization of middle school/high school aged kids, and also take a firm line against the stereotypical sappy/drippy teen angst thing (several characters confront each other when tempted to indulge in martyr complexing and pity partying).

I do think the books increase in difficulty and complexity as the series progresses.  However, the series is pretty engrossing, so I think it makes for a good stretch if you have a kid who can handle the first two books but might need to reach a bit for the later ones.

Depending on when your school resumes, it might be a bit late in the game to recommend a series of seven long books for summer reading, but if you’re like us and fly through them you have plenty of time to read theHarry Potter series and then talk them over together!


If you’ve read the Harry Potter series with your kids, what issues or topics were most memorable for you?


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The Martian

martianIf you’re looking for a really engrossing story about manned spaceflight and survival against the odds, peppered with funny parts and interesting space and science trivia, you should absolutely read The Martian by Andy Weir.

The story is fast-paced and compelling, science fiction mixed with humor and a high stakes quest–it’s the kind of book you should pick up if you have an afternoon or so to really fall into a book.  The beach-read-ness of it is balanced by the inventive premise and science facts, but not in a way that feels heavy or contrived.

I picked upThe Martian because I saw a trailer for the movie version.  Now that I’ve read it, I’m interested to see what they did with the film version.

If you read the book or see the movie, let me know what you think!


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Five Favorite Picture Books – July 2015

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

always pooh and meYou may already own other collections of A.A.Milne’s work, but There’s Always Pooh and Me is a delightful volume of 23 poems, beautifully illustrated and laid out for younger children in a picture book format.  It is well worth owning and a wonderful way to read poetry to toddlers and preschoolers (older kids love it too).  Best of all, unlike other unwieldy poetry anthologies, this one is so nice to pick up visually, and the selections are so well chosen for reading aloud, that it’s one parents will not mind choosing again and again, which makes for getting the poems worked well in to your family parlance.

owl babiesOwl Babies is a beautifully illustrated story about three owl siblings who can’t find their mother, then are joyfully reunited with her.  I love short picture books that still convey depth of character and setting, and this is one!  Each of the owls has a very unique character and lines that are easy to remember.  The detailed pictures really make the book.  I haven’t seen the board book version so I can’t vouch for it–be aware that lots of board books are abridged, and that would be sad in this case!

skippyjonSkippyjon Jones is such an immensely fun book!  A spirited siamese kitten thinks he is a chihuahua and in his imagination he teams up with some real chihuahuas to defeat a foe.  If you can do a Spanish accent, this book will be even better.  The kids ADORE it and it’s funny and enjoyable for the adults who have to read it too (an important qualification when it comes to picture books, in my opinion).  The illustrations are really good too, with lots of color and detail and characterization.

angus ducksMarjorie Flack wrote several great books about a little scottie dog named Angus (Angus and the Ducks is pictured here, but there are others). Get them whenever you see them! These sweet books are not super fast paced or anything, but the kids really love Angus and I think the stories have a sort of old-fashioned feel that makes me love to read them too.

1isoneBasically anything by Tasha Tudor is destined to become a favorite, but 1 Is One is a superlative among favorites!  Obviously the illustrations are beautiful and richly detailed.  The text, while ostensibly a simple counting book, is also a poem about nature.  This is the sort of book you will read again and again, and well worth owning in a sturdy edition.  Again, I can’t vouch for the board book, having not checked it for completeness.

Did you find any noteworthy new picture books this month, or rediscover any old favorites?


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The Buccaneers

buccaneers bookAfter reading about the late Victorian period and the fast set led by Edward VII when he was just Bertie, I decided to read Edith Wharton’s novel about rich American women who married into the British nobility, The Buccaneers.  If you watch Downton Abbey, you’ll immediately think of Cora, and this book begins quite interestingly by setting up how these girls made the transition from nouveau riche Americans to blue blood English aristocracy.

The first part of the book is fantastic, and I really enjoyed it.  However, somewhere around the middle the novel moves to a new part, which takes place two years after the previous section ends.  During that time, one of the main characters has made a completely uncharacteristic decision, which is not adequately explained.  The decision is so out of character, and even the character herself seems so bewildered by it, that I couldn’t suspend disbelief.  It was the sort of decision the other girls would have made in an instant, but for this one to do so, after she says she never would, and for her sensible governess to allow it to happen, when she knows the girl so well, just doesn’t make any sense.  So the rest of the book turns on this decision, and the increasingly unlikely and unrealistic ways the character goes about trying to undo what she’s done.  The happy ending rings so false that my only delight chalked up to the book finally being over.

The only thing I can figure is that since Wharton died before the book was finished, surely she would have improved the story as she went along.  I do wish I could read a version she considered finished, instead of a version based on her notes and finished by some other person.

Originally I conceived of this review as a book vs. movie post, but when I tried to watch the BBC adaptation I had to turn it off after five minutes because it was so annoying.  I can’t put my finger on why but I just couldn’t bring myself to spend any of my life on it.  Sorry to disappoint if you were anticipating the contrast after reading about it on the upcoming list in last months newsletter!

If you’ve read the book or seen the miniseries, what were your thoughts?  Do you agree or disagree about the ending?


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possessionA.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel Possession is one of those engrossing books of startling depth and complexity that manage to both reel you in with story-telling and keep you thinking with challenging insights into topics you didn’t even know you needed to think more deeply about.

The book is a literary mystery in which academics from the 1980s track a mystery from the 1890s via the poetry, essays, diaries, and letters left by two writers and their families.  As the mystery unfolds and then is slowly solved, you’ll find yourself thinking about the ways we read, how our reading is affected by our understanding (or misunderstanding) of historical context, the importance of interacting with ideas of the past on their own terms instead of through our modern lenses, and the ways in which writing and reading (or failing to do either) shapes our lives as we live them and as we understand them in hindsight.

Possession will be treasured by readers who don’t mind slowing down and reveling in complicated storylines.  I would not recommend listening to the book on audio, because the variety of voices and sources–the modern characters and historical characters, the interspersed poetry and journal entries and academic writing–seem to me to be too complicated to pick apart if you aren’t looking at it.  However, that could just be me, and maybe auditory learners would be able to keep it all straight while listening.

If you like literary fiction I’d highly recommend Possession.  It’s gorgeously written and really a masterpiece on so many levels.  I’m delighted that I read it and look forward to reading the author’s other books now that I’ve discovered her!


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