Hodge Podge: Car Books + 1

Whenever we find ourselves in the car as a group, we listen to audio books. With five kids in tow, it’s not like we would otherwise have in-depth conversations–we save that for one-on-one time. Instead, we allay fights and complaints with an engaging story. Here are a few we’ve listened to lately, plus one additional read-aloud that–as with critical pieces of plot exposition–was added because it had to go somewhere.

The BFG – The kids had all read this one independently but I hadn’t heard it before. It’s terribly funny. My favorite part was the queen and her butler and the line about how the queen prefers bagpipes. Highly recommended.

Misty of Chicoteague – This short book is an interesting story about a brother and sister who capture and tame a wild horse, and is another one of those books that highlights just how much kids were allowed to do in days of yore.

james-giant-peachJames and the Giant Peach – Come to think of it, yes, we were on a bit of a Roald Dahl tear. This was another re-read (actually, I think we have read this one aloud at least three times, and the kids have read it independently, but it still bears repeating!) but well worth it. The audio version of this book is terrific. The voices are very well done. Highly recommended.

The Adventures of Richard Wagner – We read this aloud from a paper book, so have no idea as to the quality of the audio version, but here it is anyway. Normally, we love books by Opal Wheeler, and were looking forward to this biography of the composer Richard Wagner as a child. Unfortunately, this one was just not up to Opal’s usual snuff. We found this book dull and only very tangentially related to Wagner’s composing career. The others in the series are far better.

What have you listened to in the car lately?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Count of Monte Cristo–Fiction and Non-fiction

alexandre-dumas-the-count-of-monte-cristo-1405396754k4ng8My first mistake was trying to listen to The Count of Monte Cristo on 2x speed as an audio book.  That was a little nuts, especially with all of the French place names and characters, so at times the kids would ask in confusion, “What language is this story in?”  Plus the audio book was like 79 hours long or something.

Life is too short.

Since I read far faster than I listen, I got the hard copy book from the library.  To my chagrin, after about a month and a half of listening, it turned out I was only halfway through. I toyed with giving it up, but decided that after so much investment I was going to finish this book, by George.

OK, the book is a classic. It’s not poorly written, just insanely long, and incredibly indulgent. Imagine you’ve been wronged, and then you have all the money in the world and could spend a decade getting back at everyone. Would you do it? I, for one, would not (see Romans 12:19). But if you were to concoct a revenge fantasy, The Count of Monte Cristo would make a good handbook.

black countWhat really helped me understand the novel and push through to the end was reading Tom Reiss’s informative non-fiction work on Dumas’s father, The Black Count. It turns out that Dumas based the count on his own father’s story. The Black Count tells the story of the senior Dumas, including a fascinating history of race relations in France, the tricky political situations facing military officers in the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, and Dumas’s incredible and misunderstood career. I’m grateful to my friend Sheila at The Deliberate Reader (link is to her link-up post for this book so you can get other perspectives!) for recommending the books together!

I’m glad I read these books, although I wouldn’t say this was a favorite classic for me. If you’re planning to read The Count of Monte Cristo, I highly recommend that you read The Black Count first or concurrently. It will really deepen your understanding and help you get through the interminable bits of the novel.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Productivity vs. Retention: An Experiment

joan of arcI read somewhere that it’s a good productivity exercise to listen to audio books and podcasts on 2x speed. This, the theory goes, will allow you to consume information twice as fast and therefore be twice as effective. Naturally, an experiment was in order.

Results? Mixed.

I do think podcasts are better twice as fast.  I prefer to read information and am very fast at that, so podcasts often feel  like they take too long for the information they deliver.  I don’t mind in some cases, but in others I feel I’m plodding along.  The only time 2x speed failed me was when a podcast guest had an ex-ter-em-ely thick Southern country accent and was also a fast talker.  I felt I was going to suffer a heart attack if I kept on at that speed so I dropped to 1.5x and that was fine.

Audio books were tougher.  I already have to really focus to follow the arguments in audio books since I’m not an auditory learner.  This is a good exercise for my brain, though, so I press on.  I have gotten better at doing history in this fashion, as long as I don’t mind missing bits here and there.  At 2x speed, I think I started to lose too much. I listened to Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc as my first experiment, and while I enjoyed it and thought I was following along, I can’t really point to any new information I gleaned from the book.  I’ve read about Joan before, and we studied her in our homeschool, so maybe I just had enough exposure already, but I can’t help feeling that I might have gained more from reading the book than listening–at least on double speed.

Your mileage may vary, but I think I will stick to speeding up in smaller increments, or just tough out the longer time investment of audio books in order not to sacrifice the details.

What do you think? Have you experimented with speeding up your listening? How did it work for you?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

On Queen Victoria (and Edward VII)

victoriaI spent the past month and a half slowly working my way through two overlapping biographies–Victoria: A Life and The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince–in between reading other things.  Both biographies are long and detailed, and give a substantial picture of the inner and outer lives of these larger-than-life monarchs.

Both books rest on exhaustive research of available private papers as well as public records, and paint a slightly different picture of Victorian England than I had previously had in mind.  Both Victoria and her son Bertie (who eventually became Edward VII) were self-indulgent and responsible for significant shifts in the English monarchy that had huge implications for the events of the 20th century and following.  I was surprised at how petulant and bizarre Victoria was, as well as what an astoundingly horrible mother she was, especially given the influence public perception of her large family had on family norms.

heirIn his early life and ridiculously prolonged adolescence (which, seemingly, lasted until he became King at around age 60!) Bertie was treated so shabbily by his mother and put down at every turn that he turned to a life of dissipation and indolence.  Reading about the foibles of Bertie and his set, as they went about using and discarding various women of all classes including each others wives, strewing STDs all over Europe and etc, one wonders how the monarchy survived at all.  However, once Bertie became King and his mother was no longer in the picture, he performed admirably and did a lot to reform the way the public viewed the royal family.  While he never did get around to treating his wife very well, at least Bertie ultimately did right by his country (for the most part–although he didn’t help the lead up to World War I, he certainly didn’t cause it single-handedly).

We’re currently studying the late 1800s in our homeschool, including Victorian England, and I plan to launch into the early 1900s before the summer break, so I am glad that I read these books to give me more background for our school discussions.  Both biographies gave more detail and a more complete picture than the histories we’re reading for school, and I like having that depth to draw on in case of questions.

But even if I wasn’t homeschooling I’d be glad to have readVictoria: A Life and The Heir Apparent–I’d recommend them for lovers of English history and royal biographies–and I think it was excellent to read them together as so much of the history overlapped but was told from different angles.

Do you ever read history or biography that overlaps?  Does it annoy you or do you enjoy the perspective shifts?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.


April 2015 Read Alouds

In April we finished our average number of read-alouds (currently defined as longer chapter books of at least 100 pages), and a couple of books that Hannah, Jack, and I read for a discussion, but I decided to make that a separate post for later.  Two of our books were for school reading and two were our family bedtime read-alouds.
TGE-CoverThe Green Ember has been much discussed in the read aloud pool, and so when it was free on Kindle one day I snagged it.  We found the book engaging, adventurous, and funny in parts.  Jack wanted his own copy so he could read it again.  I thought the book was good for reading aloud, with a story and topics that appealed to both boys and girls and could be good for multiple ages.  I do think the book has been overhyped a bit (at least among the people I follow online) and I don’t think it’s the next Narnia or Lord of the Rings.  Had I not seen the superlatives, I would have still said that although I doubt this book is destined as a lifetime favorite for our family, it’s a solid choice either for a read-aloud or individual reading for kids and I do recommend it.

ratsKidnapped by River Rats is a fictional book about two orphaned kids in London who are rescued by the Salvation Army.  It’s the sort of book that aims at a little bit of history while telling a story, which I normally like, but there were some flaws.  First, the dialog is dreadful for reading aloud.  It’s anachronistic and clumsy.  I found myself changing it every time there was a direct quote.  If you’re ok with in-process editing as you read, that might be ok, but although I can change wording as I read aloud, I found it annoying that I had to do that throughout the book.  Also the illustrations are really third-rate.  I didn’t bother mentioning to the kids that there were illustrations, because they were really that bad.  The kids didn’t strongly dislike the story, and we did pick up some information about the Salvation Army that we used in a later history discussion.  To warn you, the book does deal with human trafficking and child prostitution–it’s glossed but be aware that you’ll probably need to have a discussion about it if your kids notice.

soulHeart and Soul: The Story of Florence Nightingale is a fairly long but nuanced biography. We read it aloud for school and I found it a little long, but the kids liked it. The book does a good job of balancing between the popular ideal of Florence Nightingale–the angel with the lamp, etc–and the reality that as a person Nightingale was critical and demanding and self-absorbed. We had some interesting talks about this, with the kids speculating about whether or not Nightingale would have gotten as much done if she had been kinder.

bears of blue riverWe have probably read The Bears of Blue River aloud five or six times and we keep coming back to it. The book is a great story of the adventures pioneer kids in Indiana had–including brave rescues, daring deeds, and the sort of independence that is probably illegal in Indiana these days.  I like the subtle emphasis on keeping a cool head, being brave, and standing up for your friends. The kids like the action, particularly the stand-offs with huge wild animals.  If you’re looking for a great read-aloud for boys, this is your ticket.  But girls love it too, and it’s an overall awesome pick for family read-aloud time.

What were your favorite read-alouds this month?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President

destinyIn my ongoing quest to listen to audiobooks my husband liked so we can talk them over, I recently finished Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.  Josh loves presidential history, and this is a particularly good selection.

Prior to reading (hearing, whatever) this book, I hadn’t been very familiar with James A. Garfield.  Although he wasn’t President for long, I was struck by what a gifted, humble, and good man he was.  That combination is not the norm nowadays, so I was fascinated by the account of how Garfield rose from poverty and obscurity to high office.  I also admired how Garfield was a man of strong principles, and yet was also a great uniter of people (another trait sorely lacking in our milieu).  I wonder what he might have achieved had he lived out his term of office.

While a biography of Garfield, this book also weaves in profiles of the assassin who shot the President, the physicians whose pride kept them from accepting medical advances that might have saved Garfield’s life, and the inventions and advances that either had their start or gained an audience by virtue of Garfield’s wound.

The kids listened to parts of the book with me, and we had some really interesting conversations about pride and believing in things you can’t see, and checking with the Bible to see if God is really telling you something that seems crazy or wrong.  Josh and I had more in-depth conversations about the medical aspects of the case and what responsibility the physicians bore for Garfield’s death given that their malpractice is what actually killed him.

Destiny of the Republic gives a great feel for the post-Civil War period in America–its politics, popular opinion, and progress.  After reading the book, I feel like my understanding of that era is deeper and much more informed.  If you’re a fan of history–especially political or medical history–I’d recommend this book.

Side Note: My friend Amy also reviewed this book recently and gave it high marks–check out her review too.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.