Abandoned: David Copperfield

David CopperfieldDear readers, I only have 11 more months in my 30s. I will not be spending more of them on David Copperfield.

I don’t love all of Dickens’ work, but expected to be transported by this book. Hannah and I decided to read it together. We slogged through it for long stretches of December. Finally, last week, I looked up from page 311 and called a DTR.

In case you missed college, a DTR is when one party initiates a discussion about where the relationship is headed. In short order, Hannah and I decided to dump David Copperfield.

Yes, I understand, the book is a classic. But it’s also sappy, tiresome, repetitive, frowsy, and overblown to the point of extreme annoyance. It was not inspiring us to love truth and beauty, write better prose, or learn more about conditions in Victorian England. And if you’ve been with me long, you know that there are few things I enjoy more than the chance to learn more about England. This book just wasn’t doing it for us.

Having put in over 300 pages, I felt like we had given this one a solid go. We didn’t abandon it lightly. But life is short, and excellent books are myriad, so abandon David Copperfield we did.

What books have you decided not to finish lately?

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Read Alouds: England (Always)

There’s that old adage: you can never be too rich, too thin, or read too many books about England.

Well, I suppose you could be too thin.

But, England? One never reaches a saturation point.

Here are a few books we read together or that I read for discussion purposes with the kids last semester:

our island storyOur Island Story – Told in short story form, easily read in one sitting, Our Island Story covers many facets of British history at an elementary school level. In many ways, England’s history is also America’s history, so I see this as an extension that also helps us understand our own culture and legal system. The kids love this book.

Good Queen Bess – This is solid historical fiction for kids, although it gives a LOAD of gloss on some of the more tricky parts of Elizabeth I’s reign. If you’re ok with reading something else as historical background, this is a great book, but I wouldn’t make it your only source about the time period.

Children of the New Forest – We enjoyed learning more about the Roundheads and the Restoration–a very interesting time in British history, but not one with which I am deeply familiar. The great thing about this book is how it melds historical information with great adventure, particularly in how a family of orphans learns to be self-sufficient in the New Forest. It has sort of a Swiss Family Robinson feel at times!

Life of Alfred – It’s good to read original sources, but, to be honest, this was not one of our favorites.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – This is an odd book. I suppose it’s good to read, and perhaps my ambivalence is due to the incredibly annoying narrator. I wonder if the novel seemed more ground-breaking at the time of publication. At this stage of history, the structure feels tired.

The White Company – I cannot emphasize enough how insanely dull this book truly is. With the exception of one good part near the end, it was an unremitting slog. I decided not to make Hannah finish it, so as not to kill her love for literature.

The Incorrigible Children of Aston Place Series -I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. These books are so fun and funny. We listened to them on audio when we were in the car, and the reader is terrific. That may have added much to our enjoyment, as I’ve heard from others that the books are not as good for independent binge reading. But if you’re looking for a fun series to keep you busy on car trips, this is your win.

The Bear and the Nightingale

The-Bear-and-the-NightingaleThe Bear and the Nightingale, and its sequel The Girl in the Tower, are right up my alley given the medieval Russia setting, great writing, strong pacing, and folktale tie-ins.

But I found the real strength of the books to be a theme that I’m not sure was intentional. Maybe Katherine Arden has thought a lot about the culture of juxtaposition that happens when two belief systems overlap and collide, when two systems of thought are slipped into and out of as an era changes. Or perhaps not. Either way, these stories are fascinating examples of belief overlap, which is a situation our own culture finds itself in today.

I’m sure there is always an element of syncretism in any era, but sometimes belief is more stable and universal than others. In the late ancient and early medieval eras, a growing belief in Christianity clashed with older pagan beliefs and it wasn’t a clean break. For a long time, people held on to the old beliefs, or held them along with the new, and gradually slipped from one paradigm to the other. This is actually a very productive space to use in writing about our own culture. Fiction softens the blow about how vestiges of Judeo-Christian belief compete with post-modern materialism or neo-paganism. It is a softer window into how many Christians also hold cultural beliefs that are in direct opposition to their stated religious tenets. The folktale genre, when thoughtfully done, gives a canvas to explore what that looks like without stepping on modern toes.

I’ve read that science fiction is the literary space for exploring technological ethics, and I’m thinking that maybe early medieval historical fiction/folktales are the space for thinking about the culture of beliefs in flux.

If you’re interested, Eifelheim is another great example of this juxtaposition, and A Secular Age gives terrific background on the medieval shift in beliefs (although it focuses more on the late medieval shifts).

What do you think?

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

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.

In which we tackle middle school

DSC_0114Long ago, my aunt commented that I might want to use “homeschool” as a blog category rather than “preschool” because someday the children would get older. At the time, it felt like our older three kids were babies and toddlers and preschoolers for approximately 47 years. And then it seemed the younger two were only babies for around three seconds each.

Skewed time perception. It happens to the best of us (cue Simon & Garfunkel song).

Meanwhile, Hannah hit middle school like a Mack truck.

You’re thinking, “Like a Mack truck? Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?” I’m thinking, “Both.”

FullSizeRenderIn many ways, this year is a jump for Hannah, not so much because we switched curriculum (although we did) but because I moved her up into a pretty challenging level of readings. She’s ready for it, and thriving, and I’ve been really pleased overall. Every week she has a checklist so she can do most of her work independently. She chooses one assigned reading from each category on the left, and then is also responsible for what’s on the right (which is a combination of independent work, things she does with me, and things we do together with the other kids).

Every day Hannah and I have a designated hour or so when we discuss her readings, I correct her writing, and we do math and Latin. Here is what she’s up to for school. (Note: We are using Ambleside Online Year 7 with some modifications. I didn’t do Amazon links for the AO books unless I’ve already reviewed them separately.)

History & Geography (all narrated*)

  • The Birth of Britain, by Winston Churchill
  • Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on Alfred the Great
  • Battle of Hastings, by William of Malmesbury
  • The Magna Carta
  • New Nations
  • The Brendan Voyage
  • How the Heather Looks

Historical Biography (all narrated*)

  • The Life of King Alfred, by Bishop Asser
  • Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain
  • A Heroine of France

Art History (all narrated*)

  • The Story of Painting

Literature & Historical Fiction (all narrated*)

  • Ivanhoe
  • Beowulf
  • The History of English Literature
  • The Age of Chivalry
  • A Taste of Chaucer
  • In Freedom’s Cause
  • History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea
  • The Daughter of Time
  • The Once and Future King

Poetry

  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson (selections)
  • John Keats (selections)
  • The Idylls of the King
  • The Grammar of Poetry

Government/Economics/Citizenship/Logic (all narrated*)

  • Whatever Happened to Penny Candy
  • Ourselves
  • How to Read a Book
  • The Fallacy Detective

Science (all narrated* and all experiments written up)

  • The Elements
  • The Mystery of the Periodic Table
  • The Sea Around Us
  • Eric Sloane’s Weather Book
  • First Studies of Plant Life
  • Adventures With a Microscope
  • Signs and Seasons
  • Great Astronomers
  • Lay of the Land

IMG_6973Free Reading (not narrated, but required reading)

Bible

Language

Math

Co-op (classes meet once a week)

  • Engineering
  • Literary analysis
  • Machine sewing

Other (subjects we do together with the other kids, more in a separate post)

  • More science (The Way Things Work, Apologia Chemistry and Physics)
  • Church history (Trial & Triumph)
  • Citizenship (Plutarch’s Lives)
  • Indiana state history (various historical fiction, biographies, history spine)
  • Literature (Shakespeare play per term–Richard III this fall, daily poetry, poetry memorization, family read-alouds)
  • Artist study (Durer, this term)
  • Composer study (we were doing Telemann and Corelli, but may switch to Kabalevsky)
  • Nature study (using John Muir Laws guide)
  • Piano lessons

Notes on how we do this:

  • If you wonder about the weekly checklist, I break Hannah’s readings up into categories, and she has to read one selection from each category each day–an amazing idea I took from Kathy Livingston. From those readings, she chooses one per day to write a written narration (composition) about, and has to be prepared to narrate (tell back in detail and sequence what happened in the reading and be prepared to discuss issues and themes) each of the others. Once a week, she has to put at least one second draft piece of writing into each of her serious keep-this-forever notebooks: history, literature, and science.
  • Not all books are assigned each term.
  • Yes, I’m pre-reading all of this. Mostly so I can be prepared for daily discussions, but also for my own edification and/or nostalgia!

And that’s Hannah’s sixth grade so far!

Note: This post contains a few Amazon affiliate links, but links to other websites are not affiliated. For more details on the AO booklist, please check the AO website

The Madwoman Upstairs

madwoman-upstairsIt has been ages since I’ve read something just for myself, so last weekend I took a pause in my pre-reading for school and reveled in TWO entire books for myself. It was marvelously restorative.

One was The Madwoman Upstairs – a wildly clever, tremendously funny, well-plotted homage to the Bronte family, Oxford, and competing modes of literary criticism. I’ve put aside several Bronte spin-offs this year (a book club I’m in is doing Jane Eyre next month) and so I didn’t have high hopes for Lowell’s take, but I found it delightful.

The book is a bit of a mystery story, borrowing bits of structure from Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey, and a bit of a commentary on how to read a book. This is all bound up in a well-written story with characters that are interesting without being too slavish to Bronte casts. It was beautifully done, and is worth a read just to admire how Lowell pulled it off.

As a lifelong fan of Jane Eyre (I read it for the first time in second grade!), a total Anglophile, and a bookworm–to say nothing of being a person in desperate need of a stress-relieving read–I deeply enjoyed The Madwoman Upstairs and highly recommend it.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Hodge Podge: Middle Ages for Kids

The Middle Ages makes for a terrific literary setting. Here are some read-alouds and read-alongs we’ve enjoyed recently:

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood – Pyle’s version of the familiar Robin Hood tales is really excellent. Do yourself and your kids a favor and don’t bother with abridged versions of this one! You don’t need Classic Starts or Great Illustrated Classics EVER, in my opinion, but in this case especially you will lose almost all of the literary quality and sparkle of the language.

Black Horses for the King – This imaginative story follows King Arthur’s need for larger horses to carry armored knights. Along with a high adventure storyline, the book is a fascinating account of how different horse breeds were needed for different conditions, and how they could have been procured in the Middle Ages.

Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight – I had never previously read this story in the full verse, and it’s not an easy read. It might have been better read aloud. If you’re not QUITE used to reading poetry, this would be a tough sell. We like poetry, and read it daily, but it was still a challenge, both for me and for Hannah! We had a conversation about how and whether chivalry = morality, and where Gawaine stumbled and why it was a problem. Most of the detail had gone over Hannah’s head, but in case you’re turning this book over to a kid, be aware that you’ll want to preview and discuss the moral issues. One more note: we went with the Raffel translation, but I wonder if we would have enjoyed Tolkein’s more. If you’ve read both, tell me your thoughts!

The Knight’s Fee – I love Rosemary Sutcliff novels, and this one was particularly good. The story captures the conflict between Saxon and Norman cultures one generation after the Battle of Hastings, and gives a good picture of the process of integration there, as well as the question of old Britons and Brittany. And it’s also a great adventure story that will appeal to boys and girls (and, importantly if you’re reading aloud or listening, also to parents).

Rolf and the Viking Bow – This book does an excellent job describing Iceland in the Middle Ages, but has one of those plots that leaves you saying “oh, not ONE MORE BAD THING happening to the main character!” I got a little annoyed with that, but of course it ultimately turns out all right in the end.

The Door in the Wall – I  read this book multiple times as a child, and we’ve read it aloud at least twice. This summer we listened to it on audio during a car trip and really enjoyed the production. We got the unabridged audio, which had nice music and sound effects–not too many and very well done. We particularly enjoyed the medieval style music and felt it set the scene nicely.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for clicking through to Amazon from A Spirited Mind!

The Middle Ages Meet Sci-Fi–a series for kids that adults will love, too

tripods booksI pre-read John Christopher’s excellent Tripod Series for Hannah (it’s a free read for Ambleside Online Year 7) and loved it. The premise is right up my alley: a dystopian future in which modern life reverts back to a medieval-like era after people fail to fight for their freedom. A small pocket of hold-outs struggle to regain freedom and restore what was lost. The narrative is compelling and prescient, and maintains a feeling of high adventure and great pacing while also reveling in details of medieval life and customs.

I can’t believe I missed this series as a kid, but as with most great children’s literature, it still works for adults.

Hannah tore through these books in a matter of hours, and highly recommends them. I’m trying to hold Jack and Sarah off until they get to AO7, but we’ll see.

This series would be great as a gift for a middle grade/middle school reader, but I could also see it being terrific as a family read-aloud or an audio book choice for long car trips. While you can get a boxed set, the individual books are actually cheaper on Amazon:

The White Mountains

The City of Gold and Lead

The Pool of Fire

When the Tripods Came (Note: this is a prequel. I accidentally read it first, but would recommend reading it last)

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. Thank you for clicking through to make Amazon purchases. I appreciate your support! 

Swim Team Fiction

I find myself ambivalent both about summer swim team and the hodge podge of novels I read poolside as I waited for my big kids to hurl themselves headlong into a the chlorinated fields of glory.

Once I figured out that a babysitter was non-negotiable for the epic, seven-hour-long meets, I had leisure to read here and there between events. I usually only had one book along, so wound up finishing a few books I would otherwise have jettisoned, but also finished several I enjoyed. And then, hodge-podgily,  I threw in a couple of other fiction books I’ve been meaning to review.

The Shadow Land – I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Kostova’s writing. Her style is lovely without being obtrusive, and she always makes me desperate to travel to Eastern Europe. This novel is no exception, and now I want to go to Bulgaria. Aside from her noteworthy grasp of culture and ability to weave historical context into a story without sacrificing pacing, Kostova always structures her stories along the lines of a folk tale from the region she’s chosen for the setting. It’s not heavy-handed or YA-ish at all, just a faint but fascinating echo, as when you’re reading something written by someone who is very well-read. I love it.

Dark Matter – The published descriptions of this book make it sound fantastic, but, in reality, I found it only so-so. The writing was a little off, the pacing and plotting struggled, and the ending was only OK. Because I was so distracted by the writing problems, I didn’t enjoy the premise as much as I expected to. At times like these, I wish another writer could take over a premise and do right by it.

Uprooted – Uprooted won a lot of awards, so it surprised me that it was written in such a no-man’s land of genre and audience. That is to say, I found it too adult to be YA, yet too Princess Academy-ish to be an adult book, and not very satisfying overall. I had thought to pre-read this for Hannah, who likes fairy tale retellings, but there were too many adult themes. Oh well. It passed the time between relays.

A Wild Sheep Chase – Having loved Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I tried one of his novels. To sum it up, it’s super, super weird. I can’t even really add to that, because of the weirdness. I did keep reading in hopes that it would have a breakthrough moment, but, no, just weird. If not for swimming, I’d have bailed.

***Midnight Riot – Starred for excellence and high recommendation! Midnight Riot is like a combination of Harry Potter grown up plus a Connie Willis novel plus a detective story plus scifi plus set in London. So many wins in one tidy package. It was immensely entertaining, funny, and happily turns out to be part of a series, which I plan to continue. Thank you, Sheila, for your recommendation!

Where the Light Falls – I got a review copy for this book, thinking I would love it because it’s historical fiction set in the time of the French Revolution. Sadly, the writing was poor, the plot was derivative, and it suffered mightily in comparison to basically everything else I have read about that time period, both fiction and non-fiction. It was a struggle to continue past the first few pages, and it never got better. If you have not read ANYTHING else about the time period, and if you aren’t picky about anachronism and writing style, this book might be ok, but even so I think you could do better.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest – Friends raved about this book, and I think I might have liked it more had I read it all in one sitting. However, unlike many other novels this summer, I had this one by the rocking chair so only read it in snips and snaps while feeding Margaret. Perhaps because of that, I found it a bit tiresome. There was a gigantic cast of characters, most of whom flitted in for a chapter and then were cursorily drawn back into the pat ending. Without much chance to grow to like them or care, I was left thinking, “blah blah blah foodies, blah blah blah artisanal this and that, blah blah blah hipsters…” etc. I like foodies, artisanal people, and hipsters (ok, sometimes I make fun of the hipsters, especially if they have man-buns or if I catch them stomp dancing, but I still like them as people), but I didn’t wind up liking them much in this book. It was ok. Just not my thing.

The Mothers – I’m sorry that I missed the book club discussion of this book, because it was full of things to talk about. While the writing was excellent and the author was, for the most part, highly respectful of her characters, I didn’t wind up buying the way the novel ended.

First, though, the strengths. The book provides an exceptionally nuanced view of an African-American church community dealing with crises with, through, and in spite of each other. I think maybe troubled communities can deal with issues differently than congregations that are able to hide behind privilege, and so the choice of the church was a good window into the author’s main ideas. The theme of motherhood–how characters related to their mothers, were mothers or mother-like figures themselves, and how communities are shaped generationally through those relationships–was handled with depth and care, especially considering the fact that in America, black communities have to grapple with so many cultural and generational issues.

Depicting this through the lens of a faith community was an interesting choice and probably the best frame for the story, but ultimately the church was where the book broke down for me. I felt like the members of the congregation lacked authenticity. I thought about this a lot–because people of faith can and do commit terrible sins, make dreadful choices, and turn on each other, but I think the way they do that is a little bit different than how the author wrote it. I thought about whether that was because I’m from a different background, but concluded that what was missing was not some way of thinking particular to my race or class, but rather something characteristic of Christians I have known from all sorts of backgrounds all over the world. Ultimately, I think what was missing was a sense of hope and redemption even amidst horrible mistakes and terrible circumstances. It’s not that Christians do life neat and easy and wrapped up with a bow, but I think hope and redemption are the things that keep even troubled communities afloat–and perhaps are even more in evidence in those churches. That’s what I expected to see emerging at the end of the book, but instead there was only coldness, hypocrisy, hate, and viciousness. It was more like a caricature of what an unbeliever says about Christians than representative of actual people. It took otherwise well drawn characters and smashed them flat into two-dimensions. I was sorry the book ended that way, since as I mentioned the writing is otherwise so great. I will certainly look for other books by this author and will be interested to see how her style develops.

I would have loved to get book club feedback on my take. If you’ve read the book, let me know your thoughts. (And to caveat, please be aware that The Mothers deals with many difficult issues. Although they are written tastefully, if you’re coming from a background that makes you sensitive to violence and abuse, this may not be the book for you.)

What have been your favorite fiction reads of the summer so far?

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

 

 

 

Eifelheim

Here is what you need for your summer reading: an addictive yet literary genre-bending novel combining physics, history, the Middle Ages, faith, personhood…and aliens.

Now that I have lost basically all of you one way or another, allow me to introduce you to your next favorite book: Eifelheim. I loved it, and I honestly think you will, too. If you’re not generally a sci-fi fan, the compelling story and resounding themes will win you. If you’re not generally a literary fiction fan, the history and sci-fi elements will make it worth your while. And if you are a historical fiction reader, you really, really have to read this book.

Thanks to last summer’s excellent (albeit extremely long) reading challenge, wherein I tackled Charles Taylor’s amazing A Secular Age and James K. A. Smith’s likewise excellent How (Not) To Be Secular, I could see how accurately Eifelheim gets into the medieval mindset–the way common people lived and thought about life, God, and science. It’s a far cry from popular conception, and this novel nails it.

It also strikes me that science fiction may be the last genre where you can read a serious exploration of faith in a secular book. Isn’t it odd that it takes aliens to approach topics like salvation? In that way, this book reminded me of Lewis’s space trilogy, which I also recommend.

Although there were a few storylines that I didn’t find satisfactory, overall I loved Eifelheim, and was caught in that terrible place of wanting to race through it while being sad that it was ending. If you’re looking for a fascinating, unusual, well-written book this summer, I think Eifelheim would make an excellent choice.

 

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.