Burial Rites: a historical novel to challenge your views on justice

burial-rites-hannah-kentWhat does justice look like in a stratified society? Are we really as just as we think?

Can a novel in Iceland in 1829 illuminate our biases and challenge us to apply justice better in your own time and place. I think so.

In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent writes beautifully about the stark beauty and harsh way of life people of all social classes endured in 1800s Iceland. At the time, Iceland was a colony, with even the highest social levels subservient to Denmark. Perhaps because of that structure, class lines were very clearly marked–who was superior to who, who was allowed to marry and when, what sort of life you were allowed to lead–even though the top strata didn’t live so far above the lower classes.

The book’s main character, Agnes, is based on a real woman who was executed for murder. Throughout the story, the reader learns more details about who Agnes was, how her life developed, and who was involved in the crime even though only Agnes paid the price. I think the author did a great job of raising questions about justice that could easily be applied to any culture and time:

  • Does everyone receive equal justice? Or do some circumstances and traits change the verdict?
  • What role does truth play in the justice system? And who are we willing to hear from in the process?
  • How is mercy applied? Who deserves it?
  • If we aren’t part of the justice system directly, how do our responses to sensational stories and reactions to class and personal details reveal us to be just or unjust?

In our time and place, the questionable qualities might not be illegitimacy or being a servant. But there are points of prejudice in any society, and you probably know what they are for your area. Here are a few things I found to think about as I read:

  • In Burial Rites, the “good” family who initially judges Agnes lives in a tumble-down sod shanty. They are not so many rungs up the ladder themselves. We are sometimes quick to judge others when we aren’t so much on the high ground ourselves.
  • The story traces the interplay of the Icelandic sagas (old hero tales) with more recently acquired Christian beliefs. The question of how faith integrates (or fights with) national identity is a deep and fascinating one.
  • The broader community is complicit both in Agnes’ crime and her execution. As a society, our role in pursuing justice is bigger than serving on a jury every now and then. I don’t have conclusions about this, but I’m still thinking about it long after finishing the book.

Aside from adding Iceland to my travel bucket list, reading Burial Rites taught me a lot about a time and place I didn’t know much about previously, and also gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own biases and how I can better pursue justice. Although parts of the story are difficult to handle, overall I think the writing was strong, the story was compelling, and the narrative was worthwhile. I’d recommend Burial Rites for people interested in the area, the time period, historical mysteries, cultural and sociological issues, and historical fiction. It would also make an excellent book club selection due to the volume of issues ripe for discussion. Many thanks to Sheila for the recommendation–I’ve linked this post to hers.


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A solid historical fiction audio book

new-york-book-rutherfurdAfter finding his novel Sarum exceptionally overlong, I didn’t think I’d give Edward Rutherfurd another chance. However, I think I’ve found a better way to deal with the crushing length of his saga style–audio books.

The things that bothered me about reading Rutherfurd were his not giving me enough story where I wanted it but too much boggy detail where I didn’t want it, and also his penchant for tying multi-generational characters together by giving them shared characteristics (as in “oh yes, this is the family who is stingy”). These factors probably were present in his novel New York too, but since I listened to it instead of reading it, they didn’t bother me at all.

As is Rutherfurd’s way, New York traces the intertwining stories of several families from the earliest settlements in New York City through roughly the present day. I listened to the book while exercising or when I was in the car by myself, and although it was something like 37 hours of audio (less for me, since I listened at 1.75 speed), I managed to follow the story line pretty well and stayed interested.

Audio books are tricky to choose. For many non-fiction books I prefer a physical volume so that I can mark places and take notes. Most of the time I prefer fiction in hard copy so that I can savor the words and structure. But in the case of New York, I think the audio version worked well because it’s not a work of fantastic literature, and hearing it helped me to avoid being annoyed by the pacing so I could enjoy the story.

To find New York (or another audio book), check if your library has OverDrive–I love this app for free audio books I can play through my phone. Or, you can sign up for a free trial of Audible and get two free audio books. Just remember to cancel if you don’t want to keep adding to your audio book library!

What books have you listened to lately?


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Reading the new Harry Potter out of order

readnewharrypotterbookA classic bookworm dilemma presents itself:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Light Between Oceans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Science: Philosophy, History, Memoir, and Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Family-friendly audio books for long car trips

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

Another reason this works is audiobooks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you been listening to this summer?

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Do you always finish a series?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Two odes to food: a novel and a cookbook/memoir

Ruth-Reichl-My-Kitchen-YearThere is something so wonderful about reading a book written by an author who is deeply passionate about her subject. And when the author is Ruth Reichl and she’s writing a cookbook/memoir like My Kitchen Year? It’s perfect.

Reichl is my favorite foodie memoirist (Garlic and Sapphires, Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples) because of her grace and humor, as well as her strong voice and keen sense of structure. In My Kitchen Year, Reichl covers the year following the unexpected closing of Gourmet, the iconic food magazine of which she was the editor. From shock to depression to re-evaluating her life, Reichl works through her emotions and problems in the kitchen. Drawing on her background and the freshest local ingredients, she weaves in personal memoir with excellent recipes that are unique and intriguing without being overly precious or fussy.

What I love about Reichl’s recipes is her unusual ability to drop a note where someone (ahem) might be tempted to cut a corner. Instead of just throwing out ingredients and instructions, Reichl explains why not to make a substitution if you really shouldn’t. Having been at this whole cooking-three-meals-a-day-for-a-large-family gig for years now, I have learned a lot about what can and can’t be done, but I appreciate not having to guess and check. This is how we learn and improve as cooks!

Unlike her other memoirs, My Kitchen Year is more of a cookbook. I marked so many recipes to try, and have set myself a goal to try one of them per week as seasonal ingredients allow. The few I’ve tried so far have been excellent.

REICHL_DeliciousHaving read My Kitchen Year, I was interested to see the Reichl also wrote a novel based on her experience. While there were some parts that could have been edited better, for a first novel I thought Delicious was pretty fun.

What made the book so enjoyable for me was again the clear sense of how much Reichl enjoys food! You can’t help but want to taste everything she describes. The book also conveys Reichl’s love for New York, especially NYC food culture. I considered making a list of things to search out when next I visit (I say that like I go to New York frequently, but in fact I have not been since 2001, sadly).

Delicious is a mystery of sorts, and has an interesting epistolary component, but really it’s an ode to food culture, and worth reading for that reason!

I enjoyed both books so well that I have already gifted them once! So if you have any foodies on your list, I think My Kitchen Year or Delicious (or both as a set!) would be a great choice.


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The Awakening of Miss Prim

the-awakening-of-miss-primI find it interesting that The Awakening of Miss Prim is an international best seller. The book takes a setting reminiscent of the movie The Village, adds a Mr. Rochesterish male love interest, and turns a love story kind of like Sound of Music, plus it’s a paean to classical literature and hybrid homeschooling and faith, and includes a lot of Quotable Deep Thoughts (QDT).

What’s not to like?

I expected to love this book. The premise is really interesting–a throwback community in a staunchly secular modern world, communal education based on classical principles, combined conversion to faith and love that is decidedly counter-cultural. And yet, I felt the book was a swing and a miss. Why?

Upon reflection, I think this book suffers from being too short–had the QDTs been spread through a long story it might have come across as less preachy and didactic. In such a short volume, the story is totally overwhelmed by talkiness. While the length probably contributed to sales, it really detracted from the book’s development. The author missed opportunities to flesh out the characters, describe the intentionally isolated village and its benefits and pitfalls, and make us care about Miss Prim. I didn’t buy her change of heart, but I think that’s because I didn’t have time before the book was done. Moreover, the child characters are not believable, even as presumably gifted kids who are exposed to great educations. They came across like that annoying little boy in The Sixth Sense who stage whispered about seeing dead people. Overly precious and two dimensional. Perhaps this is a problem with the translation?

While I pretty much agree with the author and should be the target audience for Miss Prim, I can’t really recommend it because of the problems in the writing. I partially enjoyed it and wanted to love it but overall was disappointed.


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Hannah Reads: Peter Pan in Scarlet

And now, a guest post from Hannah, aged 10:
peter panLots of kids have seen movies of Peter Pan. However, I think not many have read the book. I have read the original Peter Pan and it is SO much better than the movie. The movies leave out details and put new ones in, which can really complicate your memory. You are left thinking, “Hm, is this detail from one of the many Peter Pan movies, or from the book?”

Since I liked the real book of Peter Pan, I thought I would like to read the follow-up. There was a contest for writing the sequel. I’m pretty sure I was too young to have entered it, or else I probably would have. Anyway, the judges voted on the sequel ideas and Geraldine McCaughrean won. So Peter Pan in Scarlet is the first OFFICIAL sequel. Apparently there have been other sequels, but I have not read them.

When I started Peter Pan in Scarlet, I found it had a slow start. My brother thought it was boring. But once you get into the book, it becomes extremely interesting. In the book, the characters are in World War I. Michael went to war, and it isn’t very clear, but it says he was “lost.”  You could interpret that in many ways. He could be dead, he could be actually lost (like he doesn’t know where he is and has forgotten his life), or he could have been captured by the enemy. The book is not very clear about that. All of the other characters except for Michael have dreams, and wake up to find clues from their dreams in their beds! As you can imagine, you’d be in big time trouble if you dreamed about a cutlass! The characters go back to Neverland and search for treasure.

Overall, I found Peter Pan in Scarlet very exciting, especially at the end. I recommend it highly for people who can stick with a book to get to the interesting part.

Hannah’s questions for kids (and adults):

  • Have you ever read Peter Pan?
  • Have you ever found a sequel as good as the first book?
  • Would you like to go to Neverland?
  • Have you ever wanted to fly?
  • What would you do if you woke up and found something from your dream in your bed?


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