Two awesome read-alouds (plus ancient Greece)

hittite-warriorThis fall we stumbled upon a terrific author whose books made terrific read-alouds and were then subject to much sibling negotiation as everyone wanted to re-read (and re-re-re-read) them on their own as well. Joanne Williamson did a tremendous job combining excellent storytelling and character development with detailed and fascinating historical research in her books Hittite Warrior and God King.

god-kingWe read the books as part of our history/literature studies, but they are such great adventures that anyone would enjoy them as stand-alone books. Hittite Warrior takes place during the time of Judges and ties in to the collapse of the Hittite culture, rise of the Philistines, and loosely touches ancient Greece. God King is a fascinating account of Egypt during the time of King Hezekiah in Judah and the rise of Assyria. Both books are well worth owning, although difficult to find. Check your library, and if you ever see Joanne Williamson’s other books, snap them up!

I tend to follow a literature-based lead for school books, and so I’m looking for good writing, excellent illustrations, and a storytelling (versus textbook or encyclopedia) feel. We do get reference books on the side, but not for our main focus. Here are a few other books we liked in theras-and-his-townour ancient Greece reading.

Theras and His Town – This novel is a bit light, but we enjoyed the story and the contrast between Athenian and Spartan cultures. It’s a good read-alone for elementary kids, and worked out pretty well as a read-aloud too.

daulaires-greek-mythsD’Aulaire’s Greek Myths – I like this version much better than other options for myth retellings. It’s also the book used in the National Mythology Exam, if you’re into those sort of tests (I’m not sure if we’ll do that or not–it’s the same group that runs the National Latin Exam). Anyway, the D’Aulaire’s always do a good job with stories and illustrations.

one-eyed-giantThe One-Eyed Giant (and the rest of the series) – Kids who like Mary Pope Osborne’s style will enjoy this series. We listened to the first one on audio and then the kids read the rest on their own time. Note that this series is available in two different formats–one that seems to be geared for libraries and another that comes in only two volumes and is for…regular people? Just letting you know in case you pick them up at a used bookstore and don’t want redundancy on your shelves!

golden-fleece-columThe Golden Fleece and the Heroes Before Achilles – You’ll start to feel the repetition if you do a lot of these readings, but Padraic Colum does a pretty good job of preserving Homeric phrases kids should know, like the rosy-fingered dawn, grey-eyed Athena, wine-dark sea, and so forth. Colum wrote other books on Greek mythology and the epics, so you may want to look for those as well.

famous-men-of-greeceFamous Men of Greece – Honestly, this one is a little dry, but the sections are a good length for a daily narration habit, and it does have good illustrations. I’d skip it if you only have younger kids, and might suggest assigning it for older elementary kids who are working on narrating their independent reading assignments.

wanderings-odysseusThe Wanderings of Odysseus and Black Ships Before Troy – These excellent retellings of the Odyssey and Iliad, respectively, are well worth owning. Pro tip: be sure you’re getting the larger format book with the illustrations. I accidentally wound up with paperbacks that omitted the pictures and the kids were none too pleased. We’ve read several of Rosemary Sutcliff’s works and have black-ships-before-troyloved all of them, so that’s another author to add to your look-for list.

The kids read a ton of other books from this subject area, but I didn’t keep up with all of them. It’s been fun to circle back to the ancient world with older kids and see how much they remember from four years ago!

A Quick Note About Book Shopping: In previous years, Amazon has put out several high value book coupons between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I hear of any, I’ll link them on Facebook and in the weekly Bookmarks email. If you come across any great book shopping codes this season, please let me know!

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Must Read Masterpieces

Yesterday we had lunch at a place where you can purchase amateur oil paintings of local scenery. Anyone can run in to a craft store and pick up a canvas and some art supplies for a reasonable sum. At our zoo, you can purchase modern-esque works of art made by the zebras and giraffes.

When I go to museums, I love to examine art more closely. If anyone (including elephants) can make art, what sets a masterpiece apart? Usually the technical aspects of detail, color, structure, and concept come together as a masterpiece because of the way the artist combines them into a striking way of viewing the world.

Similar distinctions apply to literature. Books are everywhere, but sometimes you find one that truly belongs in the literary museum. Thanks to a book club, I recently stumbled upon two such novels.

life-after-lifeThe group had a great conversation about Life After Life–it’s nuanced descriptions of World War II and its aftermath as experienced by Britons at home, it’s memorable characters, it’s compelling narratives, it’s unique structure that we couldn’t quite figure out–and one attendee mentioned that she had read the author’s next book which, while not a sequel, seemed to finish out the author’s thought.

So I picked up A God in Ruins and was amazed. Life After Life is excellent, but A God in Ruins is a masterpiece. Unlike some literary fiction, the story and pacing are riveting. Unlike most standard fiction, the characters are arresting and deeply developed. And unlike almost every other novel available, the structure of these books, which you can only appreciate fully as you end the second one, is intricate and astounding. The structure of the books is not a stunt or some annoying attempt at highbrow slight of hand. Rather it’s an entire narrative structure driven by an idea that really does only become clear at the end of the second book.

a-god-in-ruinsAs I finished A God in Ruins, I actually burst into tears–an action to which I am not prone. I was that wrapped up in the main character, but somehow also, by extension, had been wound into the lives and legacies of everyone impacted by World War II, and was simultaneously staggered by the complexity and richness of what the author had achieved. I wanted to go back and reread the novels immediately with the understanding of the full scope of the stories, and then wanted to read them a third time to examine how on earth the author had pulled it off–the way that you stand back from a painting in a museum to get the full scope, then come closer to examine how the artist accomplished it.

If you have any interest in World War II at all, any affinity for great stories and characters, or any interest whatsoever in how stories are told, you should read Life After Life and A God in Ruins immediately. Put them on your Christmas list. Get them from the library. Borrow them from a friend. But do read them both–while either book would stand alone, together they are a truly excellent and thought-provoking masterpiece.

 

Side note: Life After Life has a section that I found difficult to read, and many readers might be tempted to close the book at that point. Just know that you don’t need the section to understand the story. I wish I had noted the page numbers, but do skip over it and pick back up with the next section so you don’t miss out on the rest of the book.

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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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Read-alouds about Egypt

Because education is a life and we aren’t bound by grade-levels around here, we wrapped up our study of the history, literature, and geography of the 1900s (Tapestry Year 4) just before Easter, and then jumped right back into the ancient world (Tapestry Year 1) after spring break. This is the first time we are cycling back through the year plans, and it has been really interesting to use the material with a 10 1/2, almost 9, and 7 1/2 year old (last time they were 6, 5, and 3). I’m glad we decided to start in right away because it has given me a chance to experiment with how much work load Hannah can handle. We are now using the Dialectic, Upper Grammar, and Lower Grammar reading lists and assignments, not so much by reading level as by how much they can handle in terms of writing.

Anyway, Tapestry geeking out aside, we chose three read-alouds on Egypt, reviewed below. We read a lot of non-fiction and shorter fiction together too, and the kids also read several other longer books independently, but these are the ones I can speak for as longer read-alouds.

golden gobletOur favorite was The Golden Goblet. I knew we’d like this one since it is by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, and we were not disappointed.  I think all three big kids read it on their own, and we also listened to it in audio book form. It’s a great story, with lots of adventure and themes about kids being brave and doing the right thing  no matter what.

We highly recommend this one for boys, girls, and as a read-aloud or audio book.

 

bubastesThe Cat of Bubastes is a solid story, but we chose to listen to an audio version that was less than stellar. The narrator chose some really difficult-to-love accents for different characters, and we could not restrain ourselves from making fun of them at times.  Still, the fact that we kept listening anyway probably speaks well for the story itself! Next time we will read this one independently or I’ll read it aloud.

As a cool aside, we realized that part of this book forms one of the settings in a favorite book of ours, The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit!  If you’ve read that one (and if not, you should!) see if your kids notice the scene.

maia of thebesMaia of Thebes is decent historical fiction set during the reign of Hatshepsut. It has a lot of good setting information, although we wound up discussing the fact that the author implies that lying is ok as long as it’s for a good cause.  Things like this are why I think it’s a good idea to read and discuss books with the kids!

Jack said to tell you that he didn’t mind it as a read-aloud but he doesn’t think boys would enjoy it too much as an independent read.

 

What is your favorite book about Egypt?

 

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Yet another take on Richard III

Should you find yourself in the mood for more speculation about Richard III and the princes in the tower (if The Princes in the Tower, A Dangerous Inheritance, Elizabeth of York, and The Sunne in Splendor–to say nothing of Shakespeare–weren’t enough for you), and particularly if you enjoy mystery stories, you might like Josephine Tey’s much lauded book The Daughter of Time.

I enjoyed the book, although for those who have read Alison Weir on the subject you might find the facts presented too simplistically. Tey’s account paints the whole confusing jumble of the Wars of the Roses-Richard III-Bosworth Field-Plantagenets to Tudors progression as if it was really quite cut-and-dried, in spite of centuries of speculation.

In fact, one of Tey’s main themes is the idea that our common understanding of history is often wrong. She cites several examples, including an impassioned declaration that the Scottish Covenanters were in fact terrorists, and much worse than the IRA. That took me somewhat aback as it runs quite counter to what I’ve heard on the subject. Perhaps it really is an example of mistaken understanding of history, but given that I couldn’t entirely come over to Tey’s side for Richard III, I’d much rather see what historians have to say. (To that end, if you have recommendations for good–readable, available–Scottish history, I’d love to hear them!)

All in all, The Daughter of Time is quite readable and enjoyable, especially if you’re a fan of the time period and open to reading different perspectives on history.

What do you think of Richard III? Is he guilty of murdering the princes or just massively maligned? 

 

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The Island of the World

islandThe Island of the World is like a fantastic book combined with a so-so book, resulting in a four-star book that is about 300 pages too long.

Allow me to explain.

I am not against books that top out over 900 pages, but you have to earn that length. At points, this book is exceptional.  As a piece of historical fiction about the Balkans, and as a lyrically written story of how a boy’s life is irrevocably impacted by the circumstance of his birth in that region in the 1900s. I thought the story was amazing, with exceptional attention to detail that never felt overwhelming.

However.

The book also contains vast passages of didactic conversations that don’t advance the plot, minor characters that don’t really go anywhere, and meandering subplots that don’t serve the story. The book would have been much, much better without those sections.

That said, I really did enjoy The Island of the World, and would recommend it if you don’t mind plodding through or skimming the unnecessary portions. I especially recommend it if you are interested in the Balkans or don’t know much about that part of the world. This book greatly expanded my understanding of that region.

 

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Warriors of the Storm

Warriors of the Storm HB.inddIf you like Bernard Cornwell novels, you will love Warriors of the Storm, because….

…wait for it…

…it’s a Bernard Cornwell novel.

And oh, is there ever a formula for these.

It’s a good formula. But after reading several of the books in the Saxon series, I kind of feel like if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

I’ll keep reading the series because at SOME POINT Uhtred will finally either win or lose at his ultimate goal, but I wish Cornwell would hurry up!

I don’t mean to pan Cornwell overall. He writes excellent battle scenes and I think he does a great job of capturing the somewhat more murky periods of British history.

Do you usually stick with a series, even if it gets a little drawn out or starts to disappoint?

 

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History vs. Current Events

the German WarNicolas Stargardt’s compelling history of World War II from the perspective of Germans, The German War, is well researched and well written. It’s fascinating to me how much understanding and clarification continues to emerge about World War II. This book, like Stargardt’s work on how children experienced the war, includes an exploration of what people knew and when and how mindsets changed during the course of the conflict and its aftermath.

One thing that particularly stood out for me in reading The German War was how driven people were to justify or recast their roles and positions on the war. I was struck by how everyone took the role of victim after the war, with hardly anyone accepting responsibility as a perpetrator. This is a complex legal, moral, and ethical question certainly, but really we all want to think of ourselves as basically good people, don’t we?

Along that same train of thought, my husband and I were talking about modern history and how the line between history and current events blurs and shifts over time. It seems like maybe the fact that most of the people who were old enough to have played an active role in World War II have died now clears the field for more unbiased scholarship. Maybe World War II is now firmly in the past in a way it wasn’t even when I was growing up.

Our conversation ranged into later events too–we are wrapping up our modern history over the next couple of weeks so I have been looking at resources–because we have knowledge and opinions about the events of the 1960s-2000s but we may not have enough perspective and distance to really know how those events will eventually fit into the larger historical narrative.

On the other hand, we’re probably never finished understanding historical events, so that line between history and current events probably blurry for a lot longer than we might initially suspect.

In any case, if you’re interested in World War II, I would recommendThe German War and Witnesses of War as engaging works on different perspectives for understanding that era.

 

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Read-aloud Hodge Podge – Feb 2016 edition

And now a hodge podge of longer read-alouds and chapter books I read to discuss with the kids. I’m trying to break these up into topical posts when I can, but these defied my organization for the past couple of months. However, not all odds-and-ends are rewarmed leftovers–these are a proper literary smorgasbord. Let us know if you enjoy them!

moorchildEloise McGraw’s The Moorchild is a fairy story (in the old fashioned sense of the word, not the Disney sort) that weaves in themes modern kids can relate to, such as being different, being made fun of, and not fitting in. This is a great book for discussion. It can be tough to figure out how to talk through scenarios with sensitive kids without them feeling defensive, and I often find that books help. This one gives lots of ways to talk about different strategies, what works and what doesn’t, and helps reassure kids that they are not the only person who has ever felt left out or different. Plus, it’s a great story!

 

Book-BigWoodsOf course everyone has read Little House in the Big Woods, but Sarah, our first grader, just finished reading it for her out loud reading practice with me (I have the kids read aloud to me for a while after they are independent readers so that I can catch any errors in pronunciation and to help them read with good expression).  It was so fun to have little discussions with her along the way, and to see how her ability to read smoothly and expressively improved over the course of the book.  The Laura Ingalls series was one of my favorites growing up, and it’s a delight to share them with my own kids!

 

homeless birdHomeless Bird is a fascinating story about a 13 year old widowed girl in India who finds a way to happiness in spite of many hardships and extremely limiting social conventions. I thought the author did a good job of presenting the reality of a different culture calmly, but without glossing over what makes it terrible for young girls in the protagonist’s position.  The author also handled the ending well–without too much Western sensibility but also without fatalism or outright rejection of the culture.  Note that there are a couple of oblique references to dangerous situations you might want to be prepared to discuss with younger readers, although those might go over their heads.

my_side_of_the_mountain

My Side of the Mountain is one of my all-time favorite children’s books. I have no idea how many times I read it when I was a kid, and it was really fun to be able to read it with the children. We chose this as an evening family read-aloud. Even though the older two kids had both read it on their own, it was still great to experience it together. The story–about a self-sufficient boy who leaves his home in New York City to live off the land in the Catskills–will appeal to any kid who loves adventure. It’s amazing that this sort of thing even seemed possible in the 1950s, when the book was written.  But I like the way the book shows how children can make good decisions and be responsible, and if you ever have to flee to the hills you’ll definitely want this book along as a reference for what to eat! Highly recommended for boys and girls of all ages!

all of a kind

All-of-a-Kind Family is a FANTASTIC read-aloud about a big family from turn-of-the-century New York. Even Jack, who normally looks askance at books about gobs of girls, enjoyed the adventures of this family (and he was pleased at the surprise in the last chapter). The book doesn’t underplay the fact that poor immigrant families faced hardships, but focuses more on the family’s hard work, loyalty, and determination to maintain old traditions with new ways of life. Because the family is Jewish, we learned a lot about Jewish holidays and the kids really, really want to build a succah in the backyard.  Maybe when it gets warmer.  We are excited that this is only the first in a series of books, and we plan to read them all.

What was on your read-aloud list this month?

 

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