Monday, January 16, 2017

Port William Past and Present: Three Short Novels

by Wendell Berry

This book includes three novellas: Nathan Coulter, Remembering, and A World Lost. The stories are all set in the Port William community and involve the same characters but with different protagonists.

Nathan Coulter, the first novel, concerns Nathan as a young boy. In it, he begins to discern the connections that run throughout time within his family and the land.
I thought of the spring running there all the time, while the Indians hunted the country and while our people came and took the land and cleared it; and still running while Grandpa's grandfather and his father got old and died. And running while Grandpa drank its water and waited his turn. When I thought of it that way I knew I was waiting my turn too. But that didn't seem real. It was too far away to think about. And I saw how it would have been unreal to Grandpa for so long, and how it must have grieved him when it had finally come close enough to be known.
In the middle novel, Remembering, Andy Catlett is an adult struggling to adjust to life after an accident leading to the amputation of his hand. Through flashbacks, the reader discovers the turning points in his life that led to his renunciation of the pressures of modern life and a return to his family's land.

I always pick out the passages on marriage. Here, he's thinking about their marriage before the current crisis:
It was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself, which simply furnished them to one another, free and sufficient as rain to leaf. It was as if they were not making marriage but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, rubbing them together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined. And though Andy did not understand this, and though he suffered from it, he trusted it and rejoiced in it.
Wandering around in San Francisco, his mind wanders through his past and he begins to emerge from his depression. His thoughts turn to his wife:
He has been wrong. His anger, his loneliness, his selfish grief, all have been wrong. That she, entrusted to him, should ever have wept because of him is his sorrow and his wrong.
The third story, A World Lost, Andy Catlett is a young boy, adjusting to life after his uncle was shot and killed. I struggled in this story to remember that Nathan (from the first story) and Andy (from the third) were different boys, but that was more my own problem with books of short stories rather than a deficiency of the book.
Somewhere inside the jail, only a few feet from us, was the man who had killed him. For a long time there was nothing to be done but stand there in the large silence and the failing light, and know and know the thing we knew. 
This was my Wendell Berry book for 2016 and one I finished just as December was ending. I love reading a little Berry every year, but this book didn't compare to Hannah Coulter for me.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

November 2016 Book Reports

Peter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson is the second in the Peter and the Starcatcher series. In it, Peter travels from his warm island back to England to save Molly and her family from a dark and looming threat. There are two deaths in the book, one which happens in the backstory and involves cannibalism at sea and a second that happens before the eyes of the children to an old friend of Molly's family. So I suppose it's a little darker than the first one. I still think it would be acceptable as an audiobook for our whole family (youngest is 6), but I'm going to hold off until reading the third installment. (library copy)

Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith was on First Son's list for historical fiction in the time of the Civil War, recommended in Connecting with History. Jeff's experiences in Bloody Kansas and along the Kansas-Missouri were an excellent read for our Kansas son. Trapped behind enemy lines, Jeff learns to respect and admire the Confederate Cherokee forces. There's a little bit of romance and plenty of death, so probably best for the older students. First Daughter (4th grade) asked to read it and I allowed it once First Son had finished. (library copy)

Who Was Robert E. Lee? by Bonnie Bader was a substitute I made for Connecting with History's recommendation of Robert E. Lee: Gallant Christian Soldier, which our library did not own. It was a fairly easy read for First Daughter (age 10) and gave a respectful biography of this heroic man even though he fought against the Union in the Civil War. (library copy)

Augustus Caesar's World by Genevieve Foster - link to my post (purchased used)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a relatively new book set in Germany during the second World War. A young girl is left with a foster family after her father's disappearance and her brother's death. Her obsession with books and her kind and loving foster father anchor her in a tumultuous time. Her father also shows great courage in the midst of a fearful populace rather than in the horrors of a battlefield. It's mostly depressing, as you might expect of a wartime novel. Death as the narrator allows insertions on the greater events of the war and a lot of commentary on humanity and war. It seems like a decent enough young adult book, though the choppy flow and casual insertions early in the plot line of the eventual deaths of certain characters annoyed me. (library copy)

The Bat-Poet and The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell - link to my post (inter-library loan and

The Ides of April by Mary Ray - I almost didn't buy this book recommended in Connecting with History's volume 2, but found it at a deep discount directly from the publisher (a great way to get Bethlehem Books) and I'm so very glad I did! I enjoyed this story of murder, intrigue, courage, and justice based in Rome at the time of Nero. Though Christianity is not a major part of the story, a Christian plays a pivotal role and explains that he does so because of his faith. (purchased from the publisher)

Lincoln, in His Own Words edited by Milton Meltzer is a compilation of much of Lincoln's own speeches and correspondence, gathered and presented as a coherent whole by the work of the editor. First Son will read this during independent reading as we study the Civil War. I myself have read little of his words and appreciated his wit and wisdom. I kept thinking more of us should read Lincoln on a regular basis. I think this was recommended in Connecting with History volume 4, but I couldn't find it on their website. (library copy)

The Long Road to Gettysburg by Jim Murphy is a riveting account of the Battle of Gettysburg with quotes from a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier. Interspersed with the text are clear maps and illustrative photographs showing the hardships of the soldiers and the immense casualties. I wish I had read this book before I visited Gettysburg as a high school student. First Son read this (7th grade) and, while I would not have encourage it, I would have allowed First Daughter to read it as well (4th grade). (library copy)

My Several Worlds by Pearl S. Buck - link to my post (purchased used at a library book sale)

Books in Progress (and date started)
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These reports are my honest opinions.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Saints on the Range

St. Athanasius, St. Anne, St. Maria Goretti, and St. Thomas Aquinas
All Saints Day has long passed, but I couldn't neglect to show Kansas Dad's handiwork. He oversaw the creation of all our costumes this year and went above and beyond for Second Son.

There he is at the far right as St. Thomas Aquinas. He's carrying the Summa, wearing two pillows to give the impression of a plumpness his scrawny frame lacks, and the crowning glory (pun totally intended), a tonsure with some brown coloring for the hair.

The judges at our parish's party were so impressed with Second Son's dedication to the cause with an actual hair cut, they awarded him the award for best boy costume. He was thrilled with his prize - a $10 gift card to one of his favorite stores.

He was so delighted with everyone's reaction, he insisted on keeping the tonsure for weeks. Kansas Dad finally convinced him to let us shave it off just before Thanksgiving in case we took some pictures (which we did not).

Friday, December 2, 2016

Second Daughter and the Gettysburg Address

Second Daughter was begging to do a written narration and I finally relented. I didn't realize she intended to use the laptop to type it up so I think it was a play for more screen time rather than an actual desire to write.

Nevertheless, she wrote an adequate paragraph for a second grader.
A, Lincoln was a busy man. He had lots of things to do. There were lots of people who wanted to shake hands with him. And there were also lots of people who had problems. Tad was his son. at least that was his nickname. it was war time and he had to make a speech for the dead soldiers. he did.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Wandering Thoughts of Pearl S. Buck: My Several Worlds

My Several Worlds by Pearl S. Buck

I once spent an entire summer reading novels by Pearl S. Buck. I just moved from one to the next, reading through the (numerous) waiting times in the lab. I have not read any of her novels since then, but I have retained my interest in her.

I picked up My Several Worlds at a library book sale. In it, Buck writes eloquently of her childhood in China and her eventual return to the United States. It is not an autobiography; the other people in her life are mentioned only as necessary for her thoughts and generally not by name.

Her parents are really the only ones described in depth.

It was interesting to see the development of Buck's ideas about missionaries. Certainly many of their actions in the past would now be construed as harmful, even by those who intended no harm.
They were deeply devoted to the Chinese we knew and indeed to all Chinese, and in greater or lesser degree so were all the missionaries. Few of them were selfish or lazy, and most of them in those days came from homes well above the average. And yet I knew intuitively that they were not in China primarily because they loved the people, even though during years they did learn to love a people naturally lovable. No, they were there, these missionaries, to fulfill some spiritual need of their own. It was a noble need, its purposes unselfish, partaking doubtless of that divine need through which God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son for its salvation. But somewhere I had learned from Thoreau, who doubtless learned it from Confucius, that if a man comes to do his own good for you, then must you flee that man and save yourself. And I was troubled when my father preached his doctrines and I wished he would be silent, content only to live what he preached, and so, lifted up, to draw near to him without words. And this I wished, knowing that my father would never have preached had he not felt it his duty, for he was the gentlest preacher any heathen could ever hear, avoiding all mention of hell fire and dwelling only upon the wonderful love of God, surpassing the love of man.
Buck learned to feel that all missionary impulses were inherently misguided (at best). I am sometimes ambivalent about missionaries myself, but I would never go so far as to claim we shouldn't evangelize in non-Western cultures. It requires, perhaps, an exceptionally high level of cultural and emotional sensitivity, but it should not be abandoned.

She wrote of the practices in China that we find abhorrent; that sometimes she felt abhorrent. For example, families would often sell girls in the time of famine, reasoning they'd have to leave eventually anyway.
It was an old system, I say, and like all systems in human life, everything depended upon the good or evil of the persons concerned. The best government in the world, the best religion, the best traditions of any people, depend upon the good or evil of the men and women who administer them.
She wrote similarly of other practices, like that of infanticide.
The longer I lived in our northern city, however, the more deeply impressed I was, not by the rich folks but by the farmers and their families, who lived in the villages outside the city wall. They were the ones who bore the brunt of life, who made the least money and did the most work. They were the most real, the closest to the earth, to birth and death, to laughter and to weeping. To visit the farm families became my own search for reality, and among them I found the human being as he most nearly is. They were not all good, by any means, nor honest, and it was inevitable that the very reality of their lives made them sometimes cruel. A farm woman could strangle her own newborn girl baby if she were desperate enough at the thought of another mouth added to the family, but she wept while she did it and the weeping was raw sorrow, not simply at what she did, but far deeper, over the necessity she felt to do it.
t's not so much that she didn't think infanticide was painful, but that she thought it was understandable and therefore we should not condemn the people who did it. But there is a difference between condemning a person for an action (especially one he or she weeps over) and condemning a practice. We should not neglect one because of compassion for the other.

There were some places in the book that reminded me of the beauty of her writing in her novels that I so enjoyed all those years ago.
Here every spring the great pink shoots push up, and when I go there in May, the sunlight is pouring down upon the deeply tinted peonies, glowing in reds and dusky pinks, and in the center creamy ones with golden hearts. The terrace is cleverly placed so that the guests must needs look upon it from the dimness of the interior. What words could be spoken, what thought shaped in such a place, save those of purest beauty! 
I appreciated reading this book to learn more of the secret of who Pearl S. Buck really was because I always admired her writing, and still do. Though I'm not certain her assertions about the rise of Communism in China are correct (there's a lot of conjecture on this in the book about which I do not know enough to comment), I do think she was able to capture the thread of life in China during her time there in a way most Westerners did not and to express it in astoundingly beautiful words. I'd be inclined to read one of her novels rather than this book again, though.

Monday, November 28, 2016

2016 Grand Adventure, Days 27-29: Sinks Canyon, Denver, and HOME!

You can find links to any other 2016 Grand Adventure posts at the "home page." 

Day 27: We packed up and headed out early to go to Mass. It took three tries to find a church with Mass at the right time, but we made it!

Then we visited a near-by state park, Sinks Canyon. This wasn't on our original itinerary (see previous post for our change of plans due to being tired of snow and cold), but it was fascinating to see the river vanish into the rock and then hike over to where it reappears. 

The kids loved it, because there were rocks to climb.

Second Daughter casually identified an American Dipper which we read about before our trip but didn't see in California. We also saw a snake and lots of trout. Our visit ended a bit abruptly when First Daughter took a big fall. 

We all piled back in the van, fortified with snacks and drinks, for the long drive to Denver. We finally arrived at our hotel around 9 pm.

Total driving for day 27 - 398 miles.

Day 28: We spent the entire day at the Museum of Nature and Science, including the traveling Robots exhibit. This museum is massive!

Our local museum membership got us in for free (though we had to pay for the Robots exhibit - thanks Grammy!) and we ate lunch there quite reasonably. They even accepted our visiting membership for a discount at the cafe.

We had a few minutes to play at the park, too, before going to my cousin's house for dinner. It was such a treat to see her and spend time with her wonderful family. Her son instantly adopted our kids and led them on a happy romp through the neighborhood.

Total driving for day 28 - 46 miles.

Day 29: We began the day with swimming! Our kids still think hotel pools are awesome and we hadn't had a chance to visit this one. I was a bit disappointed, but the kids were content. 

When we hopped back in the van for the final day of driving. We made it close enough to home to have dinner with Kansas Dad's parents. By 10:30 pm, we were mostly unloaded and the kids were sleeping in their own rooms.

Total driving for day 29 - 536 miles.

As I wrote in my original post, the trip by the numbers included:

1 van with over 200,000 miles on it before the journey began
2 adults
4 kids
1 large tent

29 days
5823 miles (not counting the rental when our van broke down)
6 hotels
1 cabin
11 campsites  
11 states
11 national parks
1 national monument
1 national recreational area
4 state parks
1 aquarium
3 science and nature museums
Hoover Dam
whale watching
a ferry ride (van and all)
and another country (Vancouver, BC)

It was supposed to be the trip to last a lifetime, but mostly it just peaked our interest in even more camping and traveling around the country with our family! In fact, we'd only been home a few days when we booked a campsite at Rocky Mountain National Park for July. That'll be another post or two.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Poetry and Beauty and Family: The Bat-Poet and The Animal Family

The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell, pictures by Maurice Sendak

I requested this book from inter-library loan after reading and enjoying The Animal Family. (I thought I had written about The Animal Family before, but I can't find it on the blog, so I'm written more about it below.)

The Bat-Poet is the tale of a bat with a love of the beauty of words, rhythm, and song. Early in the story, he becomes estranged from his fellow bats. Over the course of the book, he composes a number of poems and recites them for other creatures. His natural sense of poetry guides him, structuring his poems in physical ways to imiate the creatures about which he writes.
The owl goes back and forth inside the night,
And the night holds its breath. 
Just before winter, he composes a poem about bats. He returns to them to share it with them, but they all fall asleep before he does. The act of composition, however, seems to have granted him both understanding and peace to rejoin the community.

This is a short book, less than fifty pages, interspersed with many illustrations, some spreading across two pages. Nevertheless, it seamlessly and beautifully reveals details on the natural lives of bats, owls, chipmunks, mockingbirds, and cardinals. In addition, it begins to introduce elements of poetry and composition, not as formal grammar or structure, but through experimentation and enjoyment.

Though I received this book through inter-library loan and read that copy aloud to the children, we all enjoyed it so much I have requested a copy from another member at for our home library.

The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell, decorations by Maurice Sendak

The Animal Family describes a lonely hunter who, over time, gathers around himself an unusual but delightful family. First, there is a mermaid. They are joined by a bear and a lynx. Finally, the ocean provides a son.

My children were enthralled by the descriptions of the bear and the lynx. Second Daughter in particular laughed aloud and repeated lines hours or days later from the book.

The text is lyrical and a joy to read aloud. I copied portions of it for our copywork binder as well. (The children choose from this binder for their own copywork.)
The mermaid and the hunter and the boy went to the beach almost as much as the mermaid and the hunter had gone in the old days. The boy loved the sand and shells and little shallow waves that splashed in over his legs and stomach. Sometimes the hunger, with the boy in his arms, would wade out to where the big waves were, and as some great green, white-headed wave hung over them, about to break, it would seem to the boy that there was nothing in the world strong enough to save them--then the hunter would thrust himself up powerfully, the wave would burst around them in a smother of white, salt, blinding foam, the boy would gasp and shut his eyes, and when he opened them he and the hunter stood there alone, the wave was over.
I also requested this book from These are both the kind of book that beckon from the shelf when something peaceful is needed.

Monday, November 21, 2016

2016 Grand Adventure, Days 24-26: Museum of the Rockies and Yellowstone National Park

You can find links to any other 2016 Grand Adventure posts at the "home page." 

Day 24: We drove from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Bozeman, MT. We left at 7:30 am and made it through customs just before Second Son threw up. (It was bound to happen at least once.) We drove and drove and drove, stopping briefly for meals. We drove all the way through Idaho, though we did stop so the kids could get out and say they've actually been there. Our poor old van climbed up mountains and then drove down them again and again. We finally arrived at our hotel at 12:30 am, totally exhausted. I'm sure some of the mountain views on the last third of that drive were tremendous, but it was dark so we'll have to go back for them someday.

Total driving for day 24 - 814 miles. And we're never doing that again. Ever.

Day 25: We visited the Museum of the Rockies for a few hours in the morning. This is now one of my favorite museums. If you really want to know what life as a paleontologist is like, this museum is the one for you. It's full of dinosaur skeletons, of course, but there are collections of fossils with explanations of how paleontologists study and compare them to understand what dinosaurs were like. Absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in forming hypotheses and meticulously examining data. So...the kids liked the bones and were ready to move on.

a row of skulls for comparisons
We hopped back in the van and drove south to Yellowstone National Park! We were so excited about this national park! And it did not disappoint. We'd had a picnic lunch and were on our way to Old Faithful when we spotted a bear and her two cubs. Totally awesome and completely safe because we were in the van with plenty of distance between us. First Daughter got the best picture. We're not experts at telling grizzly bears from black bears, but we think they are grizzles.

After the exciting bear siting, we stopped at Artist's Paintpots for a short hike. Kansas Dad and I wanted to see mudpots and this was a great walk for us. Second Daughter thought the smell was terrible. (In fact, Second Son doesn't have great memories of Yellowstone as a whole because so much of it smelled like sulphur and other gases he didn't enjoy.)

We recorded a video of the mudpots, too, because pictures just don't do them justice.

We visited Old Faithful next. The children were duly impressed by the geyser. My pictures aren't as interesting as many you can find online, but we were there.

Finally we began the drive to our campground...just in time for the rain. Poor Kansas Dad had to, once again, put up the tent in a drizzle. Our site was a muddy mess. The night was rainy and cold though our tent kept us nice and dry. It wasn't very fun taking Second Son to the bathroom in the middle of the night (though it rarely is while camping).

Total driving for day 25 - 179 miles.

Day 26: We had intended to stay a second night at Yellowstone but it was really cold when we woke up and snow was in the forecast. Being a bit tired of camping in the cold and wet by day 26, we decided to cut our trip in Yellowstone short (and skip the night we'd planned at Grand Tetons) and instead drive down into a warmer valley.

But first we revisited Old Faithful to see it erupt in the snow. Kansas Dad and the kids stood out in the winter weather, but I watched from inside and took the opportunity to call my dad where there was phone service. It was properly snowing with accumulation on the ground as we drove out of the park.
Grand Tetons - with clouds
We drove south through the Grand Tetons National Park and then headed east into lower elevations. We ended up at a random campground in Wyoming but the 27 mph winds convinced Kansas Dad he couldn't easily put up the tent. The children were thrilled to hear he'd rented a tiny cabin. When we started unloading, First Daughter bounced right in and declared it "smaller than Little House on the Prairie!" She was right. It was our first "cabin" of the trip and it was nice to be inside from the wicked winds that night.

Total driving for day 26 - 237 miles.

Friday, November 18, 2016

2016 Grand Adventure, Days 21-23: Vancouver, British Columbia

You can find links to any other 2016 Grand Adventure posts at the "home page." 

Day 21: Finally, we set off for another country! Our main goal, the farthest point of our journey, was always Vancouver. Kansas Dad had always wanted to visit it and we thought it would be exciting for the children to visit another country. Kansas is just about as far from the borders of the United States as you can get.

On our way from the Washington state park to Canada, we took a ferry, driving the van right onto it. Of course the children had never done such a thing before and were thrilled with our little ride. We hopped out of the van and ate our lunch on board.

A quick picture on the deck before heading back to the van.

We still had a few hours' drive after the ferry to get to Vancouver, but arrived in time to unpack in our apartment (so much better than a traditional hotel!) and visit a grocery store to buy supplies for the next few days.

Total driving for day 21 - 232 miles (not including the ferry ride).

Day 22: On our first full day, we went to the Vancouver Aquarium (tickets provided by the ever-fabulous Grammy) and spent the entire day there. We packed a lunch and wandered around, visiting the favorite sites multiple times. I think Second Daughter spent over an hour with her hand in the ray pool.

The mammal on the left is a false killer whale, which is so unusual, the keeper had to Google it when they rescued him. First Daughter particularly liked this show and watched it two or three times during the day.

First Daughter took this amazing picture of the jellyfish tank.

She also made a video of the electric eel. It's difficult to see the eel, but you can certainly see the lights he's powering.

We finished our day with our only meal out in Vancouver - Legendary Noodles. The food was terrific. The server was gracious and kind to our whole family. The kids were entranced with the woman right behind us who made all the noodles right in front of their eyes.

Total driving for day 22 - 0 miles!!

Day 23: On the second full day, we visited a local Chinese Garden. It was a lovely oasis in the midst of the city and they had wonderful tea available for guests.

We were there when they fed the fish. One of the employees (or perhaps volunteers), rang a gong under the water to call them to the meal.

Then we visited the Science museum, because it was close by and free with our local science museum membership. The kids enjoyed it tremendously.

a view of the harbor
We went to bed early after packing everything and loading as much as we could at the end of our second full day because the following day was the Day of Driving.

Total driving for day 23 - about 5 miles. (Don't worry; we more than make up for the lack on the next day.)

Monday, November 14, 2016

Homeschool Review: Augustus Caesar's World

Augustus Caesar's World by Genevieve Foster

This is a wonderful book describing now only the life of Augustus Caesar, but cultures and people all over the world at the time. The birth of Jesus is an important moment in the book, of course, but it focuses on Caesar and the Roman world. The text is enjoyable and the illustrations are many.

The book lends itself to narrations with the strong story aspect. First Son (seventh grade) read it easily enough, though of the reading assignments were long and took him a bit of time. I think it could be used a little younger and certainly older than seventh grade as well.

I appreciated how the book handled specifics that aren't exactly known, and that don't matter as much as the overall thread of history.
In this Year 1, which was later supposed to mark his birth, Jesus was perhaps eight, possibly only four or six years old. No one knows exactly, for the two stories telling of his birth do not agree. But that is not to be wondered at, for they were not written until after eighty or ninety years had passed. Seen through the distance of so many years, facts lose their sharp outlines and often appear strange and mysterious like objects seen in starlight.
Highly recommended and delightful enough for independent reading even if you aren't assigning the book as part of a history course. I only wish these Foster books weren't so expensive!

The link above is an affiliate link to RC History's website. I purchased this book used at Cathswap but wouldn't have known of it without Connecting with History.