Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Words, Words, Words

It's been a wordy week.

Not only have I been surfing the crest of the wave on essay reading/evaluating, but it's been a delightfully wordy week for the sweet girl. In Latin, she's been having fun with derivatives, and in grammar, she's been learning how to find etymologies in dictionary entries...two activities that go together so well, and yet that just "happened" to come together in our curricula this week. Love those moments of serendipity in learning.

In spelling, she's been working with words spelled with "ie" and "ei" -- and you know, some of those words are tricky, especially the ones that simply do NOT follow the "i before e except after c, or when they sound like an a, as in eighty and weigh." A great mnemonic device except that there are still exceptions like neither and either, and today's bonus word...leisure.

I think I've come up with a couple of ways to help her remember how to spell believe and pieces, however. With believe, she has a tendency to drop the second e. I told her to look for the word "lie" inside of believe, and to think "never believe a lie." With pieces, she just tends to...well, go all to pieces. She's spelled it a couple of different ways, but can't seem to get it down. So I suggested she look for the "pie" in pieces, and remember that "we cut a pie into pieces."

Meanwhile, I had another realization today about the power of sometimes, maybe especially when we're tired, they evoke things for us on all sorts of levels. One of her bonus spelling words, an easy one this time, was "eighteen." And no sooner had the word left my lips than I was seeing, in my mind's eye, a beautiful bouquet of pink roses. I don't think I had consciously remembered, for years, that my parents gave me eighteen pink roses for my eighteenth birthday, but suddenly there they were, pale and lustrous, sitting on the shiny wood of the piano on Dustin Drive.

Words can be playful. They also have power!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Lovely Literary Geek Posts: Wilder Weather

I've had a simply exhausting week -- just the normal exhaustion with grading deadlines on top of it, which has meant not enough sleep for three nights running. And boy, do I feel it. At 44, one does not burn the candle at both ends. The candle burns you!

Be that as it may, utter and total exhaustion has its interesting moments. It sometimes seems to make me hear and see things with unusual clarity, followed (of course) by bouts of raucous giggling. Presidential debates, for instance, can seem a whole lot funnier and a lot less dire when you hear them in sleep-deprived condition. (Sometimes the lack of sleep can pitch me face first into despair...but just as often, it's likely to toss me off the cliff of hilarity. I prefer the latter.)

The other thing that seems to sharpen when I'm tired is my geekiness detector. I use geek here in the most loving way possible. One of the things that delights me about the world of the internet is that it introduces you to other people in the world who have crazy obsessions like your's. Well, sometimes like your's and sometimes quite different, but all in a similar "I just love to talk about this/read about this/research about this/spout fascinating facts about this" vein. I am particularly fond of finding fellow literary geeks, especially when their passions correspond at least somewhat with my own reading passions.

So I was delighted when, just yesterday, I stumbled across a blog called Wilder Weather. It's about...can you guess? can you? Yes, you can! It's about the weather in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, and seeing that such a blog exists made me absurdly happy. The blogger, Barbara Mayes Boustead, is serious about this stuff. She's a writer and history enthusiast who is also an honest to goodness meteorologist and climatologist and she loves tracking down cool facts about the weather in Wilder's books. Did you know that October 15th was the 131st anniversary of the blizzard that marked the beginning of the Long Winter? Now you do, and your life is richer because of it. I know mine is!

The weather in Laura's books has always fascinated me just as much as the food. I was the kind of kid who played "Long Winter" -- I would bundle myself up in blankets and eat bits of plain bread without any butter  (I think I toasted it to make it dry and hard) while I imagined that the wind was howling outside and the snow pouring down and the trains couldn't possibly get through and we were all going to starve before spring. (Little literary geek. Yes.)

When I grew up, my ongoing fascination with the books, especially as my daughter grew old enough to read them/listen to them, got me interested in learning more about 19th century winters on the prairie.  I ended up reading David Laskin's The Children's Blizzard (if you have any interest in the subject at all, this book is a must-read...please read my review at the link to see why). Then I turned to the amazing poems in Ted Kooser's The Blizzard Voices. I wrote about that book in a review titled "Small Poems Like Landmarks in a Storm." own geek credentials on this subject are pretty high, but not nearly as high as this delightful blogger who is working on a book (oh hooray) about Wilder Weather. As you can imagine, I plan to hunker down with that when it's finally published...probably while wrapped in a blanket and chomping on dry toast.

Friday, October 12, 2012

She Loved It

We finished reading A Wrinkle in Time tonight. It was an emotional experience for me, sharing this book with my daughter, much more so than I even expected.

She loved the book (yay!) and I thought I would jot a few paraphrases of my favorite things she said about it today. I should mention that we'd been reading Wrinkle during the day (school break) and still doing our re-read of our beloved Narnia (up to Last Battle again, but just barely started it) in the evenings....

"Can we read the last chapter of Wrinkle tonight instead of Last Battle? I know everything is going to turn out all right, but I want to find out how!"

"They are going to get Charles Wallace, right? They're going to get home, right?"

"This is a very suspenseful place!"

"I love these characters!"

"It's funny, when you read the first chapters of this book, you think, oh this is a nice family story. And then you keep reading and find out their father is missing and say, oh this is a good mystery. And then they start to tesser to other planets and you say, oh this is an adventure book! And then they go to Camazotz and strange things start happening and you say, oh this is science fiction!"

"All those people whose brains are connected to IT would die if somebody killed IT. So maybe somebody should go to Camazotz and love every person there to get them away from IT." 
"Can we read it again, this time slowly? And then I'm going to want to read the next book on my own."

And the moments I definitely heard her chuckle during the final chapter: when Calvin kissed Meg, and when Charles Wallace said they'd landed in the broccoli in the twins' vegetable garden.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Mary's Song

I finally got my review up of Mary's Song, a lovely picture book recently published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

I say finally because the book was sent to me as part of the Early Reviewers program at Library Thing. I've had it for quite a while and the review has been percolating in the back of my mind for ages, but I just now got it up. At least well in advance of Advent! (Though the fall does seem to be flying by...doesn't time seem to speed up when we transition into a new season? The sudden colder weather has me feeling like we're already poised on the edge of winter, and I haven't even put away my summer sandals yet!)

I was especially taken with the beautiful pictures in the book. As I wrote:

Even more than Hopkins’ words, Alcorn’s beautiful pictures invite us to marvel anew over Jesus’ birth. Each sketch is rendered in various media (colored pencil and crayon seem to predominate) on a creamy ivory background. The color palette seems especially royal, with many hues of reds and blues shading into purple, and plenty of lighter yellow or golden touches, though homespun brown has its place in these sketches too. The drawings themselves seem to have been crafted with a light, almost unfinished touch, as though the artist himself moves lightly and wonderingly in the face of the mystery. There are almost no solid colors; the sketches instead are made of many long, flowing lines, crisscrossed with other darker lines to blend the colors almost impressionistically and to give a sense of texture and movement. 

If you'd like to read the rest of the review, you can find it at Library Thing here. I write there as greenglasspoet.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Pearl Harbor (by Steven M. Gillon)

I found an unexpected treat on the new nonfiction shelves at the library this weekend: Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War by Steven M. Gillon.

I've read several books on Pearl Harbor and on FDR over the years -- it's a topic I tend to go back to. I think it started long ago when I visited Pearl when I was eighteen (my sister was living in Hawaii then). Not only did I pick up my first book on Pearl Harbor in the gift shop at the visitor's center there, but seeing the monument and much of the surrounding area forever cemented the place in my mind, so that whenever I read books about it since, I can picture things so clearly.

I also spent a winter in the company of Roosevelt when I read Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time. Maybe it's the sudden chill to the weather that made me drift over to the nonfiction shelves -- autumn and winter tend to be my time to hunker down with history and biography, especially big tomes.

But this is not a big tome, and I am speeding my way through its very accessible prose. Some of this is not new to me, but it's been a few years since I've visited Pearl Harbor in my reading so it feels fresh. I like Gillon's shaping of the narrative too -- he's essentially focused on the first 24 hours for FDR following the attack, though he does some necessary prologue work at the beginning and some side-stepping and rabbit trailing to provide other stories of interest.

Lots of interesting bits stand out, but one struck me especially this evening. At one point Gillon is detailing some of the condescending, sneering attitudes of the fascist nations toward the U.S. -- how many of the leaders assumed our nation was too "soft" to make a difference in the war or see it through, partly because of their beliefs about capitalism, partly because of their racism. At least in one case, however, that of Mussolini, there was sneering condescension about Roosevelt's ability to lead a country because he was crippled. Writes Dillon:

"Most of all, he (Mussolini) simply could not understand how a man incapable of walking could lead a nation during war. 'Never in history has a people been ruled by a paralytic,' he contemptuously said of FDR..." 

Contrast this with Dillon's profile of FDR's actual courageous fight to overcome polio and to help others who were battling it, and his long, arduous return to a political career despite his limitations.

"Once easily dismissed as superficial, ambitious, and shallow, FDR responded to polio in a way that added new depth to his character. It intensified his ability to set priorities and to focus. 'Polio,' Franklin Jr. said, 'taught Father to concentrate on the things he was physically able to do and not waste time thinking about things he could not.'...When asked how polio had changed him, Roosevelt replied, 'If you spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, after that anything else would seem easy!' 'Having handled that, he probably thought there wasn't anything he couldn't deal with,' said Henry Morgenthau. 'Once you've conquered that kind of illness, anything's possible.'"

Two things really stand out to me here:

~ the difference between looking only at what the surface shows you about a person versus really knowing and understanding their character, and

~the way that tribulation truly can encourage patience, build character, and lead to hope

The very thing that some thought had weakened Roosevelt had, in actuality, made him much stronger and tempered him into a man uniquely qualified to lead our nation in a time of crisis.

A lot to think about in our image conscious time.  A lot to think about as we ponder the qualities we consider essential in a leader.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Poetry Friday: Why Write? (an original poem)

Why Write?

Because words can bite
And words can sting,
But words can fly
And words can sing.
Because words make pictures in your head
And find the heart of gold in lead.
Because words can hope
When hope seems gone
And bring you friends
When you’re alone.

~EMP 10/4/12

Yesterday I found myself playing with list poems, inspired by the wonderful collection Falling Down the Page edited by Georgia Heard. This was my favorite result.

Poetry Friday roundup is at Laura Purdie Salas' site writing the world for kids. Visit and read some wonderful poetry!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Wrinkle Read-Aloud

A momentous event at our house this week...we've begun reading A Wrinkle in Time during morning reading time.

It was such an important book to me when I was around eleven. Although I hadn't put a whole lot of thought into when to introduce it, I guess I always had "eleven" in the back of my mind as the magic number. I'm not sure I had thought of it as a read-aloud either, given the fact that when I first read it, I fell into it headfirst on my own steam. But then, nobody really read aloud to me when I was a child (at least not much, and not onto in later childhood).

If I had thought about it at all, I think I assumed I would likely give the sweet girl Meet the Austins sometime this year. She's been acquainted with the Austins her whole life because I have about a quarter of a century tradition of reading The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas every Advent, and she was born somewhere in the middle of that tradition and joined it early. She's always liked that story and so it seemed a natural extension to move her on to the rich, middle-grade goodness of Meet the Austins, a lovely book of Madeleine's that I don't think gets enough attention.

But then we were discussing possible reads for our homeschool group this fall (we try to do a monthly book, with families coming in ready to discuss it on a given Friday) and I found myself suggesting Wrinkle. It's kind of funny how it happened -- we'd asked the two older kids, the sweet girl and her good friend (whom I'll call science boy) what kinds of books they'd like to read this year. We're mostly pitching to the two of them in our group, since the rest are littles more or less along for the reading ride. Science boy immediately said "let's read something with spaceships...and aliens!" and not a heartbeat behind him, sweet girl said, "let's read something girlish!"

Now there aren't many books that fit both bills, but Wrinkle comes awfully close. Granted, the elegance of tessering does away with the clunky need for spaceships, but there are "aliens" -- beings who live on other planets and even visit our own. travel, check. Aliens, check. Then there's the added bonus of a girl protagonist. And not just any girl protagonist, but the wonderfully gawky, braces-wearing, scraggly-haired, impatient, math genius Meg Murry -- and seriously, don't you just feel like hugging Madeleine right now, for gracing the world with Meg?

So I said "How about  A Wrinkle in Time?" and everybody said yes, and we picked October as our reading month for it.

I could have just handed the sweet girl the book...but she is just past ten, and does love being read to still. Plus we have a tradition of reading the homeschool books together. Plus -- true confession -- I just couldn't bear being left out of it. It had not occurred to me how momentous it would feel to read Wrinkle with my daughter. Nor had it dawned on me that apparently I've never read the book aloud. I have recommended it to countless people over the years -- I think I could seriously make a list of people I introduced to Madeleine L'Engle (I'm pretty sure reading the time trilogy was a prerequisite for anyone who dated me in college) but I don't think I've ever read it aloud.

Doing so has been a delight but also a bit bizarre. How does one pronounce Uriel -- with a short or long u? How do you reeeaaad ttthhee ssstammmering words of Mrs Which? For that matter, how do you read Mrs Who's Greek quotes when you don't know how to read Greek? What does Calvin sound like? How do you make Charles Wallace sound like a petulant, normal five year old somehow tinged with mysterious otherness? How do you change Mrs Whatsit's voice when she metamorphoses from one kind of being to another? (In the end, I decided not to.) And wow, the Black Thing -- it's pretty scary.

Those are some of the questions and thoughts that have been running through my mind as we've read the first few chapters together this week.

Oh...and in a marvelous bit of serendipity...the amazing "you could not possibly have scheduled this to happen if you'd tried a million times" kind...we are also re-reading Magician's Nephew as our bedtime read aloud. Today I got to read both Mrs Whatsit's flight with Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace on her back and Fledge's flight with Digory and Polly on his back. I am a very happy reading woman.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

On Conan Doyle

I'm about midway through Michael Dirda's biography/memoir On Conan Doyle. I'm really enjoying it, and learning some fascinating things I never knew about Doyle (though admittedly, I went to the book not knowing much).

First off, I love how this book feels in my hand. Especially in this age of e-readers, I think it's worthwhile to celebrate the pleasurable physicality of a book. It's small and slender with a lovely dust jacket featuring a black and white photo of Doyle reading in a remarkable looking sitting room with a tiger-skin rug at his feet.. My copy is from the library so my jacket is also covered in smooth plastic; even that seems to add to the pleasure of how easy it is to hold and read this book. It has ragged edges on raw-cut pages that are a perfect shade of cream for the dark text. (I live in hope that the age of e-readers may, among other things, be creating a culture of beautifully made physical books again....)

I like the way Dirda mixes biography and memoir. The reflections on Conan Doyle are biographically weighty, but they're shaped by Dirda's love of reading...not just Conan Doyle, but many other good books. For him, Doyle was his gateway into a lifelong love of reading, and many of the books and authors he's read since have some connection to Doyle, either in style or simply because he tends to compare other writers to Doyle (the first author of his heart -- he fell head over heels for Sherlock at the age of ten).

It's been interesting to realize just how prolific Doyle was and how much he wrote that most of us never hear about, knowing him primarily as the author behind Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, even in his lifetime, that drove Doyle a little crazy. That people only knew him for Sherlock was especially annoying because Doyle didn't consider Sherlock to be his "important" work. Despite not having read the historical novels and non-fiction of his that he did consider important, I found myself disagreeing -- quite vehemently -- with the sharp distinction he made between important and non-important work:

"The best literary work is that which leaves the reader better for having read it. Now nobody can possibly be the better -- in the high sense in which I mean it -- for reading Sherlock Holmes, although he may have passed a pleasant hour in doing so.  It was not to my mind high work, and no detective work ever can be, apart from the fact that all work dealing with criminal matters is a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader."

To which I found myself saying "no, no!" in passionate (albeit inner) tones. I really struggle with this sense of "high" and "low" work -- it seems to dismiss good storytelling (and the huge human need for it) far too easily, not to mention it disqualifies a whole body of fiction from being "serious" in one fell swoop. I'm not saying I turn to detective fiction primarily for information or training in the virtues, or that it isn't pleasurable and lighter reading than, say, scholarly writing. But a well crafted work of detective fiction can provide both pleasure and tremendous insight into the human condition and into how human beings respond in times of suffering, confusion, and crisis. Compare Doyle's words there to P.D. James, in this recent interview, who provides a helpful insight into how such fiction has changed since the Golden Age:

"I think that when one writes detective stories one is imposing order, and a form of imperfect but human justice, on chaos... I think there's been a huge change since the novels of the Golden Age," she suggests. "What was popular then was the puzzle: such qualities as psychological truth or even atmospheric location were secondary to it. For me, characterisation is at the heart of my books. From the start, I felt that what I was doing was examining human beings under the strain of an investigation for murder. And such an investigation tears down all the walls of privacy that we build round ourselves and reveals us for who we are. It's a fascinating way of dealing with people."

In a less exalted way, James also values detective fiction for the way it can capture the tone and liveliness of an era (and though she uses Sayers as an example, certainly Sherlock Holmes is also proof of this premise):

"A detective story can give a much truer picture of the society in which it's written than a more prestigious literature," James suggests. "If we want to know what it was like – actually like – to work in an office between the wars, we should go to Murder Must Advertise. It's all there: the people and personalities; the inter-departmental rivalry; the great excitement of having a flutter on the Grand National; right down to how much things cost and attitudes to sex and class. I wanted my books to do the same; to be unambiguously set in the present day, so that they give a picture of the life we're living. And if I'm lucky enough to be read in 50 years' time, I hope people will be able to point to them and say: that's what it was like."

Yes and yes. Both of James' insights here point to reasons why I read her books -- and Sayers, Christie, and Crombie, just to mention my favorites. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Patchwork Post

"I should blog about that," I've found myself thinking several times recently, but blogging time has been rare, as you can see from the paucity of posting here!

Nothing earth shaking happening, just an incredibly busy and tiring season. That's been true of most seasons lately, but it seems I am feeling more stretched all the time...and not only stretched, but slower. Slower is not always bad. In fact, sometimes I am very happy about the fact that I'm slowing down on purpose, trying to live more deeply right where I am. But sometimes slower just is, mostly because I'm getting older and my energy is seeming more finite all the time.

"Is seeming" -- is a present participle. That's what my tired brain just thought, and it thought that because I've spent a lot of time recently teaching grammar. The sweet girl's fifth grade venture is going swimmingly, but it does seem like she's doing a lot of grammar this year. The new grammar curric we went with, Saxon and Hake, does tons of review each day, though most of the concepts so far have been review or review with slightly new tweaks. I have been utterly thankful for the good foundation of First Language Lessons during the past four years, even more so because she's swimming in deep waters with grammar when it comes to Latin too.

We're loving Visual Latin. I only wish I'd found it sooner! What a terrific program! More on that forthcoming.

In fact, more on everything forthcoming. I've not forgotten that I need to do a part 2 post on teaching literature in the mid-grade levels (it's been percolating in my mind now for almost two months). I've got poetry posts percolating too, and I think I am long overdue for a reading roundup.

For now, it just feels good to check case anyone is still out there listening. It's a beautiful harvest moon October evening, and yes, I'm still here. Busy and tired and slow, but here.