book review, Books We're Reading, Childhood, Homeschooling, parenting

Mercy Watson, Princess in Disguise – Kate DiCamillo

This was my first Mercy Watson book and I loved it, but it was way too old for my son. It is part of a series about a pig, named Mercy Watson, who is much like a beloved family dog and the scrapes she gets into. This is a Halloween story and is a hilarious tale of the trouble a pig can make when her owners take her trick-or-treating. This story would be perfect for the child who is just starting to be interested in “chapter” books since it is split up into short chapters, and can maintain their attention for a slightly longer period of time. It can be read aloud in under 15 minutes, though, which is good for the parents looking to get young ones wanting “one more chapter, please?!” into bed. I will pick up this series again when my son is a little older, maybe 4, and will be able to understand the humor. This time around, he was just excited to see a pig!

book review

Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is the story of three women in WW2, one American philanthropic socialite, one young Polish concentration camp prisoner and one ambitious German camp doctor. The American and German women are fictionalized portrayals of real historical figures, while the Polish woman is based on multiple women’s stories. It is a true story in the sense that the events the author portrays really took place and this makes the already compelling read impossible to look away from. The fictionalized nature of the retelling brings these people to life in a way that a dry text never would. In this way, the author has done a service to these women.

Hall captures the story of a young Polish girl who is a peripheral member of the Polish underground and is suddenly arrested, along with those around her, and transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp for women. She has never heard of a camp before but is fortunate enough to speak German and French (and not be Jewish) which helps her survive. She is also with family and friends when she is taken, so her community is with her, which both helps and hurts as she has people to rely on and people to lose.

In the camp she encounters a German female doctor, whose ambitions, inculcated racism, and commitment to the Reich quickly overcame any humanitarian feelings she initially had over mass murder and live experimentation. In her quest for glory, and nursing a grudge against others who do not give her credit based on her gender, she willingly joins a doctor who is choosing “rabbits” to experiment on, without anesthesia, supposedly in order to test the effectiveness of a specific class of antibiotics on casualties of war. Her callousness and ability to ignore the pain she is causing to people in front of her for the sake of invisible German soldiers is astonishing.

The American woman comes into the story because of her aid work with French orphans during and after the war. She comes across the story of these women and lobbies to provide them medical assistance and worldwide recognition for the horrors they endured.

This is simultaneously the story of the great evil and great compassion humans are able to show one another. The contrast between the German doctor and American philanthropist aptly shows the range of human interaction and how we can directly affect the lives of others for better or for worse. It is a story of amazing survival in the face of unspeakable horrors, humanized by the fictionalized retelling which lets you really get to know the characters. I also like that it shows prose snapshots of events from pre-war all the way through post-Nuremburg trial events so you felt like you got as much of the entire story as it is possible to tell. I loved that in many instances, Kelly uses direct words from their first person accounts in order to give the characters authentic motives for their behavior.

I recently read Night, by Elie Weisel, and was so struck by the biographical horrors he relates that I was unable to write a review because it felt disrespectful to his words and experiences. You should read that book, but that’s all I feel capable of saying about it. Kelly’s retelling of true events in Lilac Girls provides humanity and kindness and she treats the subject with the respect it deserves, but also gives it a handle that makes it easier to address. The fictionalized account makes it a bit easier to read and talk about, without degrading or dehumanizing any of the real people portrayed in the story. She handles an amazingly hard subject in the German doctor without detracting from the doctor’s own humanity – something a lot of authors writing about Nazis cannot do. This portrayal is important, because it is easy to demonize the people who committed these atrocities, easy to forget that it was regular people who were part of the German extermination campaigns – Hall does not let you forget it. It is discomforting and disturbing in a healthy, honest way to recognize yourself even in the darkest characters in her book, while you are encouraged and inspired to emulate the brightest. She brings a historical truth to light in a way that makes you ask, “How did I never know this before?”

book review

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

This book caught my attention because of the beautiful cover, the beautiful title and its spot on the New York Times bestseller list. I read it a couple weeks ago, but I waited to review it because it was so different from the typical book I read and I wanted to sort out my own reactions to it. My initial impression was that I didn’t like it, but in retrospect, it has grown on me considerably. It is unique and compelling, dark and gritty but it has flashes of hope and humanity throughout. The story itself is not cookie-cutter or traditional and in this, the book is strikingly creative. All the characters are deeply flawed which makes them more interesting, but not always likeable. The cultural descriptions and depictions of social class, drug use, and racial prejudices that persist in America are necessary, excellently portrayed, and incredibly difficult to read about.

All of that being said, the actual writing was just okay. It was overly simplistic and stark most of the time interspersed with startling spiritual passages of intense description which made the flow a little odd. It is written from multiple character perspectives, which I usually like, but the characters were slightly too flat to support this type of writing really well. Sometimes, it was hard to tell which character was speaking because the voice did not change enough from person to person.

Overall I think the author addresses the issues she chose to tackle well, and provides illumination that we, as a society, could use more of, but her writing itself wasn’t groundbreaking.

Worth reading (what else can you expect from a NYT bestseller?) and an interesting story, but you won’t find classic or beautiful writing.

book review

Barry Lyndon – William Makepeace Thackeray

I could not finish this book. I just tried reading it for the second time this week, and I found myself avoiding reading… good for my step count, but so not me! Reading is my outlet! So, this is kind of an anti-review … what not to read….

I can count on one hand the number of books I haven’t been able to finish … Moby Dick and Barry Lyndon. Two.

Barry Lyndon is a fictional memoir of one of the most pompous, annoying, conceited, useless men who ever existed in literature. While the book itself was full of excellent history, and illuminated 18th century European societies the forced closeness with such a miserable character the form of story demanded was intolerable. So I guess you can say, in that sense, Thackeray succeeded. I felt like I was forcing myself to spend time with a person that made me want to scream – not enjoyable. So, if you have to read this, or you want an account of the time period that covers a lot of countries in Europe have at it… but if you’re reading for enjoyment – don’t!

book review, Childhood, Homeschooling, parenting, Quotes

For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay

Before you read any further, you should be aware that this book is written from an explicitly Christian perspective, that I, myself, don’t necessarily agree with. So, if that’s a deal breaker…. don’t read it.

Disclosures aside, this book has a lot of awesome content about education, and a particularly a parent’s involvement in education whether they are public school parents, private school parents or homeschooling parents.

Continue reading for an excessive amount of quotes from this book, my poor pages are so dog-eared upon just one read through…. I’m going to let the quotes speak for themselves.

Continue reading “For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay”

book review, Quotes

The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James

I have been wanting to read this book for a long time and finally got around to it when I found a beautiful used leather bound copy on Thriftbooks. Here is a picture of it on my Instagram.

The book started out wonderfully but got a little slow and depressing at the end. Overall, it was a really good read. It is less of a story and mostly an in depth look at the personality (a portrait?) of the main character, Isabelle. Henry James really focuses on character development and analysis rather than plot; any plot that does exist only serves the purpose of further illuminating the players by changing the stage on which they are performing. It is also really enjoyable to read because of the elegant writing – even if you don’t love the story, you won’t be able to deny the exquisite language. Read this if you enjoy classic literature, poetic feeling prose and character-focused novels.

The only thing that I found annoying about this book is that every single man that came into contact with Isabelle fell in love with her – it got old after a few hundred pages and made her character feel flatter than it should for one on which the author spends so much time. Despite the overabundance of eligible men, this isn’t a love story in the traditional sense and is definitely a realistic account of flawed personalities. It makes for a less stereotypical, but messier feeling read. Do not read this book if you like neat packages with happy endings, but if you enjoy lifelike consequences for fictional decisions, this is a book for you.

I found so many quotes in this book and I have included a selection of them below.

Continue reading “The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James”

book review

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

This book was a really fun read. It is an older historical fiction novel full of comedy, beheadings, secret societies, spies, romance, and of course interesting history – it really covers a lot of bases. I would recommend this book to anyone as it is a fairly light and quick read, but the vocabulary is a bit outdated and the author was fond of really long, uncommon words, so have your phone or a dictionary handy.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in the Reign of Terror, and puts a human face on the historical events of the French Revolution and Republican use of the guillotine against the aristocratic classes. The Scarlet Pimpernel is the name of an English James Bond type figure who, along with his band of loyal men, orchestrates the escape of aristocrats out of gated Paris across the channel to England where they will be safe. His symbol is an English star shaped flower, a pimpernel, which he uses to sign his missives. He is an enemy of the Republican government in France, and they start a covert search for him, making the book a race to see who will win.

It is interesting, from a modern American perspective, to see the “good guy” revolutionaries who just wanted a better life cast as really unappealing characters. The book is comical and unexpected and a really great read. I give it 4/5 stars – I definitely want a copy on my shelves and will probably have my children read it when they study the French Revolution as it is a different perspective than the one you usually find. If you’re into living books, this is a book for you!

Rating Scale

1/5 – Awful / would not read again / maybe could not finish.

2/5 – Low quality work / some enjoyment / not worth the time

3/5 – Don’t regret, Don’t love / would add to my shelf if it is a piece of literature

4/5 – Would maybe read again / Definitely would add to my shelf because BOOKS

5/5 – Would definitely read more than once / Must buy / Gives you the happy book love feels.

Childhood, Homeschooling

“Children are Born Persons” and Swim Lessons

Today, at swim lessons, I had an annoying encounter with the swim instructor that reminded me of how much we, as a society, think children aren’t people overall, that their opinions don’t count because they aren’t fully formed yet and need to be molded into an adult. Anyway, I always ask my son if he wants to go underwater before we do dips in the pool – and I wait for a response. Halfway through today, he told me he was all done, so we stopped doing dips for the last couple minutes. After, the instructor told pointed out that as the adults, we shouldn’t phrase commands as questions to our children because it teaches them they have a choice when they aren’t capable of making one yet. He stressed that this piece of well-meant advice was from the education he has been receiving on how to teach small children.  I didn’t say anything, because we see him for 30 minutes once a week – who cares, really? And, a pool full of toddlers is not the place for a debate. Furthermore, what he actually said was true – you shouldn’t phrase commands as a question, it just doesn’t apply in this case, because it wasn’t a command. Inside, I was irritated. Of course he has a choice! He’s demonstrated very clearly that he knows what I’m asking, and has the vocabulary to say more, all done, no more, yes and no quite easily. I think it is much more harmful to teach him that he doesn’t have a choice, when he should – how would you like to be dunked underwater for no reason if you didn’t want to be? If for 4 weeks he refused to go underwater and I felt it was inhibiting his water safety, I might change it to a command instead of a question, but for right now – he is cooperative until he has had enough and I feel that should be respected. Teaching him that his cooperation is rewarded and that his opinion matters seems to me like it will go a lot farther towards promoting good behavior and developing a relationship of trust between us than not taking into account his feelings about what we’re doing in the pool.

“Children are born persons.” This is principle one of Charlotte Mason’s system of education and I have been reading about it lately to prepare for a study group one of my sisters-in-laws is hosting tonight. It seems like a really obvious statement, right? Everyone knows that children are people – but as a society we don’t treat them as people. We talk down to them, simplify our language, tell them what they can and cannot like, and generally feed them mental garbage. Our education system is definitely like this – in school we teach excerpts from good books, we set standards and assume they all have to meet the same mold, we dictate who they should be, how they should behave and what they should know based on their age. We tell them what to think and then are amazed when they reach the higher levels of education and do not know how to think for themselves. After years of completely ignoring the fact that children are capable of really really good thoughts, we expect them to share their thoughts and still think that those thoughts have value. I’ve been irritated by this since I was a child, and I distinctly remember looking up to certain people who treated me with respect even though I was young.

To clarify, I know that children are less mature and have less knowledge and life experience – I don’t recommend we let our children have total freedom. My 19 month old regularly throws temper tantrums, tries to touch hot things, wanders too close to the street, and is pretty willing to run straight into the water even without his life jacket on – he doesn’t know enough not to yet. He IS still a person though who is capable of making some choices, of telling me what he wants, of coming up with new ideas, fun games and contributing positively to life. He is capable of putting his pajamas in the hamper every morning, and while I’m not willing to fight with him over this yet on the rare morning he isn’t excited to do it, I generally expect him to do so. As a part of the family, he needs to know his contributions, even as small as one piece of clothing in the laundry, matter. It doesn’t save me any work, it takes twice as long for him to carry his pajamas to the hamper under my supervision, but he is SO PROUD of himself, because he knows he is being useful, and that is something I want to instill in him. I don’t want to tell him to go play by himself while I clean up after him – that is counterproductive if I want him to be a capable adult someday.

It isn’t just his abilities that matter, though. Charlotte Mason also stresses that children need lots of free play to be allowed to learn about themselves and trust in their capabilities. This is something I believed before I started learning about her principles of educating young people. My son is really good at playing outside, he loves it – “outshide! outshide!” is a refrain you can hear at all hours of the day in our house no matter the weather and I try to foster that. I find though, that if I sit and be boring or try to read, he gets bored pretty quickly and wants interaction. If, on the other hand, I go outside and start weeding the garden, he usually starts out next to me helping and then slowly wanders away to play at whatever game he has invented while pulling weeds up. Recently he discovered you can knock leaves off trees with a stick and the memory of that belly laugh will stay with me forever. Simply by being productive and present I end up fostering independent play and his imagination – it is good motivation to actually get up and weed my garden.

Today’s conversation at the pool, and the reading I’ve been doing on Charlotte Mason’s first principle have just served as a reminder to respect my son, and I am grateful for that, I guess that’s all I’m trying to say.

book review

The Wildling Sisters by Eve Chase

There is something captivating about the word wildling, isn’t there? It’s evocative of freedom and nature and you can almost smell the fresh pine needles on the cool breeze you imagine is carrying you the quiet noises of a dim forest in summer. That feeling is what drew me to pick up this book in an airport recently, and the recommendation by Kate Morton sealed the deal – I couldn’t have stopped my credit card from swiping had I wanted to.

It is a very quick read, reminiscent of the Gothic type stories like Jane Eyre and Kate Morton’s books. It wasn’t of the same caliber as either Bronte’s or Morton’s works, but that is an admittedly high bar by which to measure a book and it certainly was well written, nonetheless. There was just enough creepiness to the characters and background level darkness to keep you avidly reading. It has two story lines taking place in the same location but in different time periods and it is cool to see the result of the previous generations on the later time periods before you find out what truly happened back then. Overall, I would say I am glad it is on my bookshelf and I could see myself re-reading it by the pool or at the beach someday, but I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to add it to a curated collection – unquestionably worth checking out from your local library though!

I give this book 3.5/5 stars because it doesn’t quite meet the need it on your bookshelf requirement, but it also is an engrossing, quality read I would recommend to a friend looking for a quick and fun book.

Rating Scale

1/5 – Awful / would not read again / maybe could not finish.

2/5 – Low quality work / some enjoyment / not worth the time

3/5 – Don’t regret, Don’t love / would add to my shelf if it is a piece of literature

4/5 – Would read again / Definitely would add to my shelf because BOOKS

5/5 – Would definitely read more than once / Must buy / Gives you the happy book love feels.

Childhood, Homeschooling

Toddler Teaching Tools

I’ve been working with my 1.5 year old to help him learn some of his basics lately like ABCs, 123s, shapes, colors, animals and their sounds and body parts. I have gone through a few different teaching tools and games and I thought I would post a review so that other people might have an easier time finding good stuff. He is too little to really sit and learn anything, of course, but everyday I try to find time to play with him in an educational way and incorporate learning without it feeling like pre-school. I’ve listed my favorite 6 toys and the alternatives that didn’t work out so well to hopefully save you a little work 🙂

Continue reading “Toddler Teaching Tools”