Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Annual "Happy Birthday, JKR and Harry!" Post

It's the birthday of author JK Rowling and her beloved fictional wizard Harry Potter! Jo Rowling is 49 (in real life) and Harry would be 34 today.

In honor of the day, I thought I would re-post a reflection from my archives. I'm cheating just a tiny bit -- or rather, double-dipping -- in that the post is just as much about Tolkien as it is about Harry Potter. Given that we're in the midst of The Two Towers right now as a family, however, I've had Tolkien very much on my mind, and happened to be revisiting this post today. It's an oldie but a goodie.

I hope Harry and Jo both gets lots of owl post today!

Saturday, July 19, 2014


My precious father turned 82 today. I am so thankful for him in so many ways, and so thankful for all the ways the Lord has sustained his health in recent years. As he often says, he feels like he is living on gift time!

In honor of the day, I thought I would post a poem I wrote for him two years ago, when he turned 80. It still sings true.

My father turns eighty today.
I know without asking
that he will celebrate
with an angel-food cake
topped with blue icing –
the same cake my mother
has faithfully made
for as many of his birthdays
as I can remember
and beyond.

Blue is my father’s color.
His eyes sparkle with it,
clear and bright, true blue
eyes my mother fell in love
with and still loves.
I picture him in blue,
the pale coarse fabric of
his long-sleeved work shirts,
the lighter, slicker blue of
dress shirts under suit coats.
One of those shirts is always
draped on the ironing board
of my memory, its white
buttons resting hard against
my cheek when we hug.

Blue is my father’s color –
The paint I see spilling
from the tubes next to his palette,
the hue of the musical notes
that flow from Gershwin’s Rhapsody,
the chipped sky blue of seats
at old Parker Field where we
watched minor league games
every endless summer, the slow
spread of July sky where I can
see him now, silhouetted against
the neighbor’s yard, hands cupped
to imitate the coo of mourning doves.

My father turns eighty today.
And I picture my mother
spilling drops of pure color
from a small bottle
into the white cream ocean of frosting,
swirling the spatters with her quick spoon
till they intermingle into a lovely
robin’s egg blue, festive and ready.

And it strikes me anew
that love is never just
the icing on the cake,
but that it decorates our days
in whorls and peaks
of ordinary brilliance.

                        ~EMP 7/19/12

Monday, July 07, 2014

School Books Beginning to Arrive!

We spent the weekend resting and playing, including a day-trip to an historic French and Indian War site a couple of hours away. Though the end of the first week of July is really way too early to be thinking about school again, we have occasional happy blips when boxes of books arrive. I suppose that's one good thing about having to order things a bit at a time, as I'm paid for various writing and teaching projects...the books trickle in rather than crashing down on us like a waterfall!

Today made me smile because the grammar books arrived. (I know. I'm a geek.) The sweet girl struggled with grammar last year, not because it was too difficult, but because it was too easy. Her grammar skills are strong, and it turned out that Saxon and Hake 6 did a lot of review, too much for a student who didn't need it. Having invested in the books, and still wanting her to keep her hand in with some skill practice, I tried my best to steward the resources we had and utilize them for drill as needed. But I knew we needed something different this year, something that would be less rigorous and more supplemental. I also knew that I didn't want to purchase a full grammar curricula because those tend to be tied to writing programs which we don't need, since we already have a rigorous and fully-formed writing program (Writing With Skill) that really, really works for us.

What I ended up ordering was Exercises in English (grade 7) from Loyola Press. It's a supplemental workbook set to their larger curricula Voyages in English. S. wanted to take a look at it as soon as it came out of the box, and her assessment of it made me smile. She noted right away that it had a bit of color (it's printed as a one-color workbook, green, rather than just black and white) and that the quality of the paper felt and looked great. (Saxon uses a rather gritty and grayish newsprint, probably to cut costs, which I appreciate, but it's quite flimsy and tears easily. And it just doesn't feel substantial enough somehow.)  She also noted that it had graphics, and that the lessons looked short enough that she really can use it as a daily drill. So my visual learner was really happy with the choice. All the things she noted were a big part of the reason I chose it! I've slowly learned over the years that the way information is presented really matters.

I noted the various sections were well-organized and seemed to cover grade-appropriate concepts, both some review and some newer concepts. I also liked the fact that many of the sections involving practice sentences cover good, appropriate topics or themes which I know she'll find interesting. Three topics that I happened to note at random involved outer space, Helen Keller, and the Chronicles of Narnia. It even concludes with a unit on sentence diagramming, something I find valuable and she finds enjoyable and not every curricula includes. All of this bodes well for less frustration and more actual grammar practice in the coming year. Yay.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

In Review: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa (A Novel)

I just finished reading a novel with the intriguing title of A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. Its title and size make it look like an actual field guide, but in fact it's a fictional story about a man living in Kenya who happens to love birds and bird-watching.

(Book image from Goodreads)

It turns out that Kenya, with over 1,000 species of birds, is a great place to be an ornithologist. Novelist Nicholas Drayson has a wonderful time describing many of the birds that protagonist Mr. Malik spots. He spots a lot of them because he's in a competition with an old school frenemy named Harry. Harry is a wealthy ex-pat who has recently come back to Nairobi for a visit. He decides he likes Rose Mbikwa, the lady who leads the weekly bird-walk at the local museum, and wants to ask her to the annual Hunt Club Ball.

When Mr. Malik overhears this, at his club, he almost despairs, because he is smitten with Rose and has been planning to ask her himself. Rather than put her in the quandary of having to decide between them, the two gents decide to have a bird-watching contest to decide who gets to ask her first/have the right of first refusal. (The other can only ask her if she's turned the winner down.)

The rules for the contest are very specific, as spelled out by three other gentlemen at the club. And it comes down to this: whoever has seen the most species by the end of the week wins.

The reader is set up to sympathize with widower Mr. Malik from the start. Harry, while not precisely a villain, seems light-weight in comparison with Mr. Malik, whom we get to know quite well as the week progresses. Harry is not above enlisting a lot of help and throwing around a lot of money to try to win the contest, but Mr. Malik, who happens to be having a not-very-easy-week (among other thigns, his car gets stolen) is also ambivalent about taking time away from some of the things he does regularly in his everyday life. We begin to realize how important his volunteer work is, both to his own soul and to his local community, and we feel torn with him as he tries to decide the best way to spend his days. The fact that he really seems to be in love with Rose, who is oblivious to the contest being held in her honor, also ups the stakes.

Drayson does a lovely job of painting the vibrant city of Nairobi and other areas of Kenya (since Harry hops some charter planes and heads to various parks). From the sewage area where Mr. Malik spots a lot of his birds to a local village where he finds surprising support on a difficult day, we feel like we get a real glimpse of this culturally diverse area. Most of all, we get multiple glimpses of beautiful birds, most of which I'd never heard of, all of which sound fascinating.  Chapter headings include simple line drawings of some of the birds, but I found myself wishing I had a real field guide to East African birds while I read, just so I could see some of them in living color.  Drayson does a good job, however, of painting their colors for us in words. It turned out to be a lovely summer-time read with an ending that didn't feel as predictable as you might expect.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Gospel According to Frozen

Our family came late to the Frozen phenomenon. We didn't see the film until it came out on DVD, and though we all loved it, and the sweet girl has come to love it even more after several viewings, our singing of those darn catchy songs came six months after most people got stuck on them. We've laughed over several parody songs and videos (my favorite may be "Do You Wanna Go to Starbucks?") and enjoyed singing the actual songs around the house thanks to a library-borrowed copy of the soundtrack. Oh, and fallen firmly in love with Olaf, of course.

S. ended up watching it again the other day, and I sat down to enjoy it with her as I'd promised. It was the first time in a while that I'd watched the whole movie instead of just snatches, and I found myself impressed again by the lovely visuals, the smart storytelling, and that great narrative choice at the end that shows the power of sacrificial love and pays tribute to the wonderful bond of sisterhood. (Just in case you're one of a handful of people who has not yet succumbed to seeing the film, I'll try to keep that vague.)

A couple of other things really impressed me this time through, however, and I found myself thinking "that'll preach" at least twice. Once comes in the reprise of "For the First Time and Forever" when Anna is in the ice palace talking to Elsa, trying to convince her that together, they can fix the terrible winter that Elsa accidentally set loose when she lost her temper and gave into fear.

Anna's sweet earnestness is so palpable here: she is just so relieved that she finally gets why her sister has been hiding for so long, and is sure that the two of them, standing firmly together, can find a way to make things right. She also has a touching belief that her sister is capable of undoing the damage she's done -- she's sure that Elsa will not only want to do the right thing, but that she'll be able to find a way to undo it. It hasn't fully dawned on her that Elsa not only doesn't know the extent of the damage she's inadvertently inflicted, but has no clue how to reverse it...and is more terrified than ever of anyone, especially her beloved sister, getting close to her in case she accidentally hurts her again. It's a powerful musical reprise, with the two of them singing together but once again showing in their words how far apart they are. Anna sings her sweet assurance, while Elsa sings her despair, ending on the crushing clashing words "I CAN'T!"

It's those words that give me shivers every time; they come from such a deep place of fear, and accompany Elsa's unintentional unleashing, yet again, of crushing hurt. And yet there's freedom in the words too, when you think about it. In emotional and spiritual terms, this is where Elsa pretty much hits rock bottom -- she's completely at the end of herself, and there's nowhere to go here but up. Yes, things get crazier later on, mostly when she's threatened by the usurpers who see her struggles as their opportunity to cash in and make a power grab, but there's something almost more freeing in this "I can't" moment than in anything in the "Let it Go" song, when Elsa is re-learning the joy of the creative powers of her gifts, but reaching the firm conclusion that the only way to be free is to shut herself off from everyone else in case she loses control again.

The other bit I never noticed came ever earlier, when Elsa first accidentally hurts Anna when they're children. She is devastated that their joyful playtime turned frightening and that her attempts to save Anna from injury actually ended in hurting her. When her parents take Anna to the trolls for healing, the head troll makes the comment that he can help her because it's only her head that's received the freezing jolt, not her heart. Cold minds and thoughts, as it turns out, are not good, but they're somehow still on the surface, far easier to heal than frozen hearts. I love this insight: that it's the heart that matters the most. At the root, it a heart problem that needs help and healing we cannot provide for ourselves, and only true love (sacrificial, deep, real true love) can ever fix a damaged heart.

Yup. That'll preach.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Love of Annotated Book Lists (and Blessing the Memory of Gladys Hunt)

This morning, the sweet girl was lingering at the breakfast table (oh, happy summer days!) perusing Gladys Hunt's Honey for a Child's Heart. It makes my own heart very happy to see that she has inherited her mother's love for reading annotated book lists. It's one of my favorite reading past-times, and a great way to discover more books I want to read!

My twelve year old daughter (yes indeed, I can say that now...the birthday weekend festivities are now behind us!) noted that the author Gladys Hunt had also written a book called Honey for a Teen's Heart, and asked if I could find a copy for her. I went looking in our library system, which seldom fails me, but today I could only turn up the earlier edition of that book, from 1992, with a slightly different title. The 2002 revised edition is for sale in various places, and I think I am going to swing a copy from Advanced Book Exchange and chalk it up to a school year purchase. I have always liked Hunt's lists...not only trustworthy book choices (and fun to read annotations) but usually accompanied by small but cogent essays on the importance of reading, why and how we read for best enrichment, ways to discern good qualities in literature, and so on.

Since the last edition of Honey for a Teen's Heart came out in 2002, the year my own almost-teen (gulp) was born, I went looking to see if perhaps there was a third edition in the works. Alas, I see that Mrs. Hunt, rest her soul, passed away in 2010 at the age of 83. Though saddened to hear that news, it was edifying to read her obituary and to discover that in addition to writing these great books for families, she and her husband had a long and fruitful ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for many years. I was also happy to see that her archived blog from Tumblr is still up, with many good posts about children's and young adult literature.

All of this is making me wonder where I can find good book lists (of the trustworthy and spiritually-rich variety) on young people's literature since 2002. I'm sure there are many blogs and other online resources, and perhaps some new collections too. As I begin to hunt that down, I will report back any finds here!  I may also, of course, need to begin my own annotated list.