Thursday, January 27, 2011

Favorite Books of 2010

I determined to post my list of favorite books earlier this year -- last year I didn’t get the post up until February 1! If last year was “the year of the re-read,” this was probably best described as “the year of the biography” because I read some good ones.

I think 2010 was one of the spottiest reading years I’ve had in ages. It wasn’t that I didn’t read a lot – I always do – but 2010 truly was the busiest year I can ever remember in my entire life (even including 5th grade which, at the wise old age of ten, I thought I’d never top). All humor aside, I spent a lot of the past year feeling stretched and exhausted. Reading was a real refuge, but somehow the tiredness lurking in the background made it more challenging than usual to see patterns in my reading or to note reading trails. I have a feeling this list may feel more fragmented than usual, but here goes. Links are to my reviews on Epinions.

Favorite History Book of the Year: Introducing Early Christianity by Laurie Guy. Rarely indeed do I choose a text book I’ve taught from as a favorite on my personal reading list, but this book was such a delight both to read and to see students engage. Helpful, readable, basic but never boring. Excellent grounding for any study of patristic history and theology.

Favorite Children’s Biography of the Year: Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Runner by Kathleen Krull, illustrations by David Diaz. I don’t think the sweet girl has ever been more inspired by a biography.

Favorite Biography of the Year: This is a hard call, only because I read several good ones, including biographies of two of my favorite writers, Alcott and Austen. But I’m going with Eric Metaxas’ Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. Yes, I know I’m behind…this was the year Metaxas brought out his huge book on Bonhoeffer (which I’m currently reading) but I just now got around to his book on Wilberforce, and oh I’m glad I did.

Picture Book Author of the Year: Mo Willems. Hands down. Though my eight year old is finally starting to move away from total devotion to picture books (weep, weep) our whole family fell in love with Mo, especially his Pigeon books and especially Knuffle Bunny.

Best Devotional Book: I really didn’t read one straight through this year (and think I need to remedy that in 2011). Many blogs functioned as devotional material for me, however, and I did read often from A Year With C.S. Lewis, a daybook of quotations mostly from Lewis’ non-fiction.

Best Novel I Read This Year: Emma, by Jane Austen. Which is cheating, because it’s a re-read. I will cheat even further and say, as a close runner-up, The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, which is actually a mid-grade novel (and I have a separate category for that below...where I'll choose something else because it's really a tie between Wheel and that one). And did I miss reviewing either of these favorite novels this year?

Best Novel I Re-Read This Year: So as not to bore you by saying Emma again, I’ll go with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Favorite Book of Literary Analysis/Criticism: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James. I’m stretching a little here too, as this wasn’t a deeply analytical book. But James did a marvelous job of unpacking the history of the detective writing genre and thoughtfully considering its present and possible future.

Best “pop culture” book: no award this year.

Favorite “new to me” children’s book, mid-grade reader (8-12 year olds): A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.

Favorite “new to me” young adult book (12-15 year olds): The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope.

Best Children’s Book I Re-Read This Year: I honestly can’t choose. We’re doing so many wonderful (and long beloved) favorites with the sweet girl during family read-aloud time. The Long Winter and The Magician’s Nephew were the best re-reads of the year for me -- books I love that read aloud so beautifully. I also thoroughly enjoyed re-reading The Great Gilly Hopkins (on my own) and reviewing it for banned books week.

Classic Book I Can’t Believe I’d Never Read Before Now: On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius

Favorite “new to me” picture book: Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems. (As Larry the Cucumber might say: “I laughed. I cried. It moved me, Bob.”)

Book I Wish I Hadn’t Wasted My Time Reading: None really, but I do wish I’d found some other mystery writers in the summer besides Katherine Hall Page. I like her work, but it feels quite uneven.

Book I Should Have Finished (and still plan to): Hmm…I’m sure there are a lot of unfinished books in my piles, but I can’t think of one I’m particularly stuck in.

The Book That Surprised Me The Most: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

The Book That Made Me Laugh the Most: Oh my goodness, I didn’t read anything really funny! Must remedy that this year. (I almost listed the graphic novel version of Pride and Prejudice, but those laughs were mostly unintentional, so I don’t think I’ll count it.)

Book That Challenged Me the Most: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas

Favorite “new to me” mystery writer: G.M. Malliet.

Favorite “new to me” fantasy writer: N.D. Wilson

Favorite “new to me” Spiritual Resource or Bible for Children: none this year, as we used a lot of resources we already knew and loved. But we’re already using new devotional resources in 2011 (and the sweet girl has a new Bible this year as well) so I suspect this category will be interesting to reflect on next year.

Favorite Book of Theological Reflections: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation

Favorite Book of Church History Reflections: The Changing Shape of Church History by Justo Gonzalez

Favorite Poetry: The Trouble With Poetry by Billy Collins

Friday, January 21, 2011

Poetry Friday: Cynthia in the Snow

In honor of the beautiful snowfall we had yesterday, and the season in general, I thought I'd share Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "Cynthia in the Snow." I have many favorite snowy poems, but this pops into my head frequently when I'm looking at a snowy city street, especially the first musical line. "Sushes" is such a perfect word to capture that sense of blanketed quiet. The whole poem has that sense of being "just right."

Cynthia in the Snow

It hushes
The loudness in the road.
It flitter-twitters,
And laughs away from me.
It laughs a lovely whiteness,
And whitely whirs away,
To be
Some otherwhere,
Still white as milk or shirts.
So beautiful it hurts.

~Gwendolyn Brooks

Happy Poetry Friday! The roundup today is at A Teaching Life.

Stephen Foster and the Rare Library Fail

My gratitude for public libraries is immense. I'm particularly grateful that we live within several miles of a public library that ties into the Carnegie library system, which has to be one of the best in the country. I love that I can find most (not all, mind you, but most) of the resources and books I go looking for, put a request through via computer, and within several days (or a little longer depending on popularity) have that resource hit the shelf.

I honestly don't know how anyone homeschooling (on a nonexistent budget or elsewise) gets along without libraries. We use the library for everything we study, from science to history to art and music, and lots more besides. One thing I love about exploring the library system is that I often turn up resources I never knew existed. We've fallen in love with many a book or recording that I just happened to stumble upon while looking for something else.

I've gotten so used to that serendipity and to the library's impeccable service that I'm astonished when a little glitch, or a little human error, creeps into the system. Take today, for example...

Friday is art and music day, and I was excited to be introducing the sweet girl to composer Stephen Foster today. He not only wrote some of the most memorable American folksongs, he's from our area. And (as a cherry on the sundae topping) while scrolling for library resources I'd found a version of his "O Susanna!" on the CD The Arkansas Traveler by a group called Pa's Fiddle Band.

Yes, that Pa. And yes, that Fiddle. This group apparently has three CDs out, all recordings of music from Laura Ingalls Wilder's wonderful Little House series. Given the sweet girl's love of all things Wilder right now, and the fact that we just last night finished the last page of These Happy Golden Years ("THAT was the BEST BOOK EVER" she pronounced, with her hand over her heart) I was really excited to introduce Foster by way of this CD. In fact, I gave it a really big build up (not something I usually do) before I opened the case with a flourish and...

discovered that the CD inside the case was a copy of Puccini's La Boheme.

After the requisite weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, we settled down to enjoy some other Foster music I had happily picked up. (It's amazing to listen to his work and to realize how many of these melodies have seeped into your consciousness over the years.) I'll return the CD to our library this week, so they can send it back to the lending library that provided it, hopefully with a note for them to check their Puccini. I'm hoping it's a case of simple mix-up and we can still check out Pa's Fiddle Band.

Meanwhile, I'll keep being grateful that mistakes like that are rare, and try not to take our library system for granted!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Art of Biography, the Art of the Quote

A few days ago I started reading Eric Metaxas' biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's been on my reading list for months, but I purposefully held off until January because I knew I would need to a book like this to fall into during the hardest, cold days of winter.

And I knew I would "fall into" this book. At least I would if it was anything like my experience with Metaxas' other well-known biography of William Wilberforce, a book I almost literally couldn't put down.

Good biographies, the kind that make you feel as though you've been in the subject's company, are some of my favorite reads. Metaxas seems to have mastered the art of telling a life in a way that's colorful, compelling and thoughtful. As I read Bonhoeffer, I keep trying to put my finger on what exactly makes up the art of good biography. I'm still working that out in my mind. But one thing that struck me yesterday was that a masterful biographer knows the value and artistry of a good quote.

A "good quote" can have different types of qualities (or a mixture): one that shows depth of research, one that feels particularly well-placed within the narrative, one that reveals something you never knew or stopped to consider about the subject, or one that looks small and commonplace on the surface but in consideration of the whole of the subject's life, offers a poignant phrase or line that feels weighted with more meaning that its original intentions.

That last jumped out at me yesterday as I was reading about the Bonhoeffer family's great love of music, and how the young Bonhoeffer had a real genius for music. Metaxas cited a quote from Dietrich's twin sister Sabine to make note that he was an "especially sensitive and generous" accompanist. And then he quoted Dietrich's future sister-in-law:

"While we were playing, Dietrich at the piano kept us all in order. I do not remember a moment when he did not know where each of us was. He never just played his own part: from the beginning he heard the whole of it. If the cello took a long time tuning beforehand, or between movements, he sank his head and didn't betray the slightest impatience. He was courteous by nature."

"He never just played his own part: from the beginning he heard the whole of it." A line that makes beautiful sense in context -- can't you just picture the young blond-haired man at the piano, keeping time, patiently observing and waiting for the others, helping them all to pull their music making into coherence and beauty? The whole vignette wonderfully captures something essential about Bonhoeffer's personality, something people never forgot. But that one line also seems to ring with deeper resonance when you consider Bonhoeffer's life as a whole.

And maybe that vignette offers a good analogy for what a biographer, at his best, does: he listens to snippets of music, played at or sung about a person's life, from very different places and voices. And he brings them all together into a harmonious whole that helps you to not only appreciate the snippets, but the entire composition of someone's life.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January Supplemental Reading for Homeschool

Supplemental reading/resources we've used so far this month:

Language Arts

If You Were Onomatopoeia
by Trisha Speed Shaskan

A fun picture book introducing the poetic concept of onomatopoeia. We also read Gwendolyn Brooks' wonderful poem "Cynthia in the Snow."


Can't You Make Them Behave, King George?
by Jean Fritz

Longer picture book filled with lots of fun details about the utterly eccentric King George. Good background for American Revolution studies.

Betsy Ross and the Silver Thimble
by Stephanie Green

Early Reader (level 2) read independently by S. Part of the "Childhood of Famous Americans" series.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day
by Reagan Miller

A serviceable book about MLK and how we came to honor his memory with a federal holiday. We usually read a book about King on his day, and this year I had forgotten to put one on hold, so I had to take what I could get. I continue to recommend the wonderful book My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris.

Much better than the MLK book we read this year were the excerpts I read aloud to the sweet girl from the "I Have a Dream" speech. A really hard speech to read without tears.

Fine Arts

How Artists See the Weather

by Colleen Carroll

A really nice book to encourage picture study. Review forthcoming. We'll do more from this series.

We've also been inspired by Jon J. Muth's wonderful illustrations in City Dog, Country Frog (written by Mo Willems). I hope to post some pictures soon of our Muth-inspired art.


Reviewing with Mathtacular 2 (DVD arrived last week...yay!)

S. has also been enjoying some time with "100 Ways to Count to 100." She really digs that she "gets" the pages that use division now.


What's the Matter in Mr. Whisker's Room?
by Michael Elsohn Ross
illustrated by Paul Meisel

A fun picture book in which a creative teacher, Mr. Whiskers (a bit less zany than Ms. Frizzle!) sets up science stations in his early elementary classroom for the kids to explore. He presents several "big ideas" about matter, based on their questions and findings.

(Edited at end of month to add other resources)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Haiti is on my Heart

It's been a year since the earthquake in Haiti.

I was remembering this post I did last year, all my whirling thoughts as I attempted both to process the tragedy and share about it with my little girl.

For a long time -- months, in fact -- we prayed nightly for Haiti. As other countries went through earthquakes and hurricanes, we added them to our nightly litany. For a long time, the sweet girl would not let us forget to pray for the people of these countries, and especially for Haiti.

But time marched on, and somehow...we forgot. All of us. We still prayed for Haiti sometimes. We still talked about the earthquake sometimes, especially when we read reports from places like Compassion as they reflected on rebuilding and recovery. But we did not pray faithfully each night.

And now a year has gone by and I'm reading and thinking and pondering again. The sweet girl and I spent a long time at dinner talking about Haiti and being grateful for our blessings.

Haiti is on our hearts again, and I'm praying this time we won't let it slip back out so easily.

Of all I've read in the past couple of days, this article is perhaps the one that has moved me most deeply. If you have a chance, read it prayerfully: "A Strange Land Where the Poor Are Rich and the Suffering Sing."

Lord have mercy on the people of Haiti. And Lord, do not let us forget.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Favorite Picture Books of 2010 (and Newbery & Caldecott Winners!)

ETA: Well, this is embarrassing! Somewhere I got the date wrong...and thought that the Newbery and Caldecott awards were being given *next* week. So this post I just put up this morning was partly my speculation over what might win the Caldecott this year. I just realized, however, the awards are out today. I've not peeked yet, but am off to do so now...

Well, shows what I know! Congratulations to the Caldecott Medal winner for 2011: A Sick Day for Amos McGee illustrated by Erin S. Stead, and to the 2011 Newbery winner: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool.

And please kindly disregard my belated speculation and just read this post in its main spirit: a short list of some of our family's favorite picture books published in 2010. Links are to my longer reviews on Epinions.

~All Things Bright and Beautiful illustrated by Ashley Bryan

Vibrant colors and beautiful paper collage accompany the old hymn text by Cecil F. Alexander. This one came out in early 2010, but we remember it well (though it's been months since we've had it out of the library). We recently thought of it again and are hoping to do some Bryan inspired collage art soon.

~City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, illustrated by Jon J. Muth

One of our favorite picture book author-artists, Mo Willems, handles the writing in this one, while the delicate water color illustrations are done by the wonderful Jon J. Muth. A winning combination, and a poignant book about friendship.

~A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole

A wonderful look into the life and works of John James Audubon. We loved using this as a companion for our Audubon studies (and we loved Audubon so much that we're probably going back to him this spring, when the birds arrive back.)

I'm cheating just a tiny bit with the inclusion of this book. It's actually a mid-grade novel, but the plethora of beautiful pencil sketches do so much to help tell the story. So much so that I wonder if it will not get some attention from the Caldecott committee despite the fact that they tend to favor standard picture books. Hugo Cabret showed they can go this route, so we'll see.

~Mirror, Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josee Masse

An amazing book...creative poetry (in the "reverso" form created by Singer) and gorgeous pictures that play with symmetry and shared borders and shapes. I've been seeing a lot of people talk about this book lately...we fell in love with it early in the fall.

~Knuffle Bunny Free by Mo Willems

Can Willems be given a Caldecott Medal for a series, a la Peter Jackson's Oscar for the third Lord of the Rings film? He's already taken home Caldecott honors for Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too. This third and final installment is an absolutely amazing, age-appropriate ending to these books. We've watched Trixie grow and change from toddler to preschooler and now elementary aged girl, her responses so perfectly authentic every time, her passion, love and excitement for life (and for Knuffle Bunny) shining through every page. Kudos to Willems for using the picture book format to really tell an ongoing story with a great depth of character development in our heroine. This last book (which literally made me both laugh and cry) was so perfect for our eight year old right now. It celebrates growing up, giving deep, and how small acts of measured, loving kindness can be truly courageous.

We loved a lot of picture books this year, but these were some of our very favorites published in 2010.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Reader Girl in January

The sweet girl announced at breakfast this morning: "Hot chocolate, warm cinnamon toast, and The Long Winter. Those are my goals for today."

Good, attainable goals. And a reader girl after my own heart.

Happy Epiphany!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A Patchwork Post on the Eleventh Day of Christmas

Our wise men are still journeying. Every year the sweet girl sets out the wise men and their camels a good ways away from the creche, on the other side of the living room. She moves them slowly across the room, leaving them to fend for themselves while we're out of town -- I think this year they got left on the bookcase, around the midway point in their travels. This year she was so excited when we did our family present opening on January 1st (8th day of Christmas) that she almost brought them to the stable. Then it dawned on her that they weren't supposed to arrive until Epiphany. She quickly faced them toward the wall, where it looks like they've taken a slightly wrong turn and are about to crash into the drama shelves of yet another bookcase. "I made them get a little lost," she informs us. "I don't want them to get there too early!"


It was a very ESV Christmas. D. and I had decided to get the sweet girl a new Bible; we chose the "Seek and Find" Bible which has the entire ESV (English Standard Version) translation plus some nice added features (Bible story retellings, book introductions, sidebars with some information on Biblical figures and times -- essentially an ESV study Bible for the mid-grade crowd). What I didn't know was that my dear husband had also gotten me an ESV study Bible, something I am really delighted to have. We moved over to the ESV a few years ago for all our family Bible reading, and D. and I have used the one copy we owned till it's almost in tatters. Having this beautifully fresh copy, complete with copious study notes, is such a blessing. It's hefty, which doesn't make it ideal for, say, trekking off for a quiet time in the woods (oh...wouldn't that be nice?) but for reading and studying at home, it's great.


It was a bookish Christmas in other respects. We've had some lean years when we haven't been able to get each other much of anything, including books (which used to be a Christmas gift staple). This year was still lean (which is fine, and our new normal) but some precious gifts from friends and family, and a gift certificate I won for a review I wrote for a website all came in handy on the book front. I got the two cookbooks I've been wanting for ages (Recipes from the Root Cellar and Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day) plus Looking for the King, the Inkling novel by David C. Downing. I was also blessed by a few other books that have been on my wish-list, including Karen Edmisten's Through the Year With Mary. D. found Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals under the tree, and the sweet girl got several books she'd been hoping for, including These Happy Golden Years, Thee Hannah, and The Wheel on the School (the last two thanks to my sister) along with some picture books.


We continued our yearly tradition of reading Madeleine L'Engle's The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas on our way to Virginia. We may have a new book tradition at Christmas from now on too: this year for the first time we read The Trees Kneel at Christmas by Maud Hart Lovelace. It's up there with other Christmas-time favorites like The Light at Tern Rock. We were hoping to try A Christmas Carol as a family this year (even got the Jim Dale audio from the library) but had forgotten that the CD player in the car has gone caput. Maybe next year, if we start early and do it as a read-aloud in the evenings in December or listen to it here at home.


We saw the new Narnia film in the theater the day after Christmas. I'm still wrestling with a review: so much to enjoy (and I think Michael Apted's direction lends much more confidence and coherence to the storytelling) and yet it still just falls flat in certain places. They still have not gotten Aslan right, and never will. But laying that aside (a huge thing to lay aside) I still thought this was the best of the three films overall. And I'd enjoy seeing Will Poulter tackle the role of Eustace again in The Silver Chair -- he's a fine young actor. Voyage of the Dawn Treader is worth seeing for his performance.


Christmas day itself was a strange mixture of displacement and stress for all sorts of reasons. The trip seems to get harder every year. It helped to remind myself of how displaced Mary and Joseph must have felt as they made their way into Bethlehem. It also helps to keep things in perspective when I remember that there are many people in our world who are that displaced every day.


We were blessed to spend a day with my parents: an amazing day, simply because it was yet one more Christmas with my dad, something I was not at all sure we'd ever have again when he went into the hospital last spring. He and mom were feeling extra grateful for this Christmas too. Dad and I spent some fun time just hanging out and watching stuff on the MLB network. Baseball and Dad...doesn't get much better than that!

We were also blessed to have some extra time to spend with my mom-in-law, who is under a great deal of stress right now as as a caregiver for her husband who has alzheimer's. His confusion has grown much worse, but his essential sweetness often shines through, which makes seeing this happen to him both easier and harder, if that makes sense.


Not long after we got home, we received the news that the home of my husband's late grandparents (his mom and aunt's parents) had been demolished. We knew this was a possibility, but no one realized how soon it might happen -- so we didn't even drive by the house while we were in the area. We said our good-byes to the house last April, when it had to be sold, but we still feel great sadness to know it's gone. D's grandparents built that little home with great love over a great many years. And for many years, up until their deaths (including the first ten or so years after I joined the family) the house was the central meeting place for all family celebrations. I have a decade's worth of Christmas, birthday, anniversary, Easter, and July 4th memories all centered at that house. My husband (who turns 50 this year by the way!) has a whole life's worth, as do his mother and aunt. It was in that house that his mother and grandmother awaited their father/husband's return from Europe in WWII, where he fought with Patton. It's hard to make peace with the idea that the lovely little plot of land the house was on will soon be crowded with a new "McMansion."

***********'s the 11th day of Christmas. My fall semester grades are almost ready to turn in, I'm almost finished responding to diocesan students' papers, I'm starting to turn my mind toward spring semester work. The sweet girl started back to school here at home yesterday, though she's still watching Rudolf at lunchtime - hooray for Burl Ives! Things are slowly returning to our regular, daily winter schedule. I'm grateful Epiphany is on the horizon...and hopeful that the wise men will soon figure out where the stable is!

Monday, January 03, 2011

2011: The Year of the Lop-Eared Bunny

Happy New Year!

Chinese culture often celebrates with a "year of the..." (dragon, monkey, etc.) In our family, I've begun to realize, we celebrate with the "year of..." whatever animal graces our kitchen calendar. It's been tradition since the sweet girl was about three that she gets to pick the calendar for the kitchen, and creature of habit that she is, she always chooses a different animal. We've had the year of the owl, the year of the chocolate lab, the year of the dachshund, and the year of the butterfly (those are the ones I remember...I think we might have had cats in there somewhere too).

So yesterday after a beautiful lessons & carols service at church, we headed out to lunch and then went calendar shopping. And I'm here to announce, it's the year of the lop-eared bunny!

Not so surprising, given the sweet girl's continued fascination with rabbits -- and given the fact that she got to meet "a real, live rabbit!" at the annual new year's party given by our friends the Jernigans. Their son, just one week older than our daughter, now owns two rabbits. She was in raptures of joy because she got to pet one.

Whatever your new year's celebrations look like, I hope 2011 has gotten off to a healthy, joyous beginning.