Wednesday, March 6, 2019

February 2019 Book Reports

Isaac Newton: The Scientist Who Changed Everything by Philip Steele - link to my post (purchased copy).

The Grace of Enough: Pursuing Less and Living More in a Throwaway Culture by Haley Stewart - link to my post (library copy).

The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius who Discovered a New History of the Earth by Alan Cutler - link to my post (library copy).

The Electric Life of Michael Faraday by Alan Hirshfeld - link to my post (purchase used).

Katherine by Anya Seton - link to my post (owned copy).

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson - link to my post (copy from

The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World's Happiest People by Dan Buettner - link to my post (library copy).

Of Swords and Sorcerers: The Adventures of King Arthur and His Knights by Margaret Hodges and Margery Everden - I've had this book on the shelf for ages and decided this year to dust it off and read it during our fairy tale time. These tales are adapted from Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the Mabinogion, and tales by Howard Pyle. We enjoyed them greatly, including First Son who was coincidentally reading Bulfinch's version of King Arthur's tales at the same time. Be aware there are rather obvious references to Guinevere and Lancelot's dalliances as well as his evening spent with a woman not his wife who consequently gave birth to his son. My kids know that children can be born after people behave together as if they are married even if they are not, so I just read it and kept on going.

Tirzah by Lucille Travis - link to my post (purchased copy).

Opinions expressed in posts are my own. I have received nothing in exchange for these posts. Links to Amazon, RC History, and PaperBackSwap are affiliate links.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Trust and Forgiveness: Tirzah

by Lucille Travis

This is one of the recommended books for RC History's Connecting with History Volume 1. (We're finishing volume 3 this year and then rolling right into 1 again. We study American and modern history a little differently and in another strand.)

Tirzah, a girl born under slavery in Egypt, and her family follow Moses into the desert. This familiar story of the Hebrews highlights aspects lost in the pages of Exodus...what fears parents had, how strange the commands of God, how desperate the situation time after time. As the Hebrew characters struggle with their own failures and sinfulness, some of them persevere in their trust and devotion to God.

One of the aspects of the book I appreciated was the contrition of one of the main characters as he realizes his sins. His father wisely takes the young man to Moses to ask for forgiveness (which many of us might have thought unnecessary) and Moses responds with kindness and comfort. His words are ones I hope my children would remember when they desire reconciliation.

Later, Tirzah and her brother discuss the difficulties they face in the desert: violent enemies, thirst, and hunger. Why does God not make it easier for them? Ram muses:
What I mean is, suppose he had made the whole crossing easy for us, plenty of water and meat every day, what then? We wouldn't even know what he had done for us.
There are scenes of great agony and violence: Pharaoh and his armies destroyed by the Red Sea, wounded and dying Hebrew soldiers suffering at the hands of Amalekites, and rebellious Hebrews cut down at the degree of the Lord. It may be too harsh for some young readers. My ten-year-old is going to read this independently; I doubt I would read it aloud with very young children near-by.

I also loved the example of Hanna, who risks her own life to care for those who are stricken with the plague for their sinfulness and waywardness.
Now child Yahweh may punish those who do wrongly, but when a man or woman is down sick we must not add to their suffering by refusing help. Yahweh has given us herbs and plants to use for the good of all. I must use my skill wherever it is needed.
I'm pleased to have this book in our library for grammar level kids to read independently (grades 4-6, though I'd be comfortable with third grade reading it if the skills are there).

The opinions in this post are my own. I have received nothing for this review, but the links above to RC History are affiliate links. The book is also available at Amazon (affiliate link), which is where I purchased it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Shaping Our World for Relationships: The Blue Zones of Happiness

by Dan Buettner

Mater Amabilis™families may recognize the author; he's the same one who wrote Sovietrek and Africatrek. We never read Africatrek, but loved Sovietrek. Apparently the kind of man who spends months biking across continents is the kind of man who devotes his later life to exploring what kind of behavior is correlated with happiness.

In the very beginning of this book is a little survey the reader can take to assess their current level of "happiness." Just for fun, I jotted down my answers and scored them only to find I was practically off the chart for happiness in just about everything. Financially, I didn't score as high because Kansas Dad and I have deliberately chosen a lifestyle that allows us to focus on non-financial aspects of well-being. (I also scored a little low on having a goal to work toward, but as Kansas Dad said, if you're goal is just to read a book while drinking tea...there's not a lot of work and planning to put into that.)

The point, though, is that Kansas Dad and I have thought a lot about what makes us happy: faith, family, relationships. Then we shaped our life around those. Mr. Buettner's book identifies many of those same features.

The most interesting parts of this book for me were the ones that concentrated on how communities can choose to shape their laws and ordinances to make it easier for people to choose the kinds of activities that contribute to better health, better relationships, and general well-being. Most cities and towns in America do not consider "happiness" of their residents when developing their communities; they often focus on creating jobs (which are necessary but not sufficient) and economic development (also necessary but often at levels far below what people might expect).
As former French president Nicolas Sarkozy said in 2009, there has been a troubling disconnect in recent years between what government statistics are saying about the economy and what most people are feeling. While production and profits may be rising, people may not be feeling any better about their lives.
In the book, Mr. Buettner focuses on three countries in particular: Costa Rica, Denmark, and Singapore. Though he admits none of them would translate exactly into laws that would work in the United States, it's interesting to see how three different countries have developed different but equally successful ways to help their citizens flourish.
If the world you wake up to every day were designed to support healthier choices, you wouldn't need that extra oomph of willpower. if your grocery store featured the finest produce, if your friends dropped by every afternoon to take a walk together, if your neighborhood had easy-access sidewalks and bike lanes, if your workplace were a mile away from home, think how much easier it would be to make the choices I've outlined in this book that we all know lead to greater well-being!
Each chapter includes some focused ideas for the reader to consider applying to his or her own life. As I mentioned above, most of these are things we are already doing. One change I am considering is planting a small garden with the children this spring. Kansas Dad is the gardener around here; I much prefer to read about gardening. Or, even better, to just sit at a window overlooking a garden while reading Jane Austen. But growing things and especially food would be such a great complement to our homeschool and would augment much of what we're already seems like something that might be worth the effort.

The book also reminded me that negative interactions are remembered at a much greater rate than positive ones, something I lead in many parenting books over the years.
Offer at least three positive comments to each of your friends and loved ones, on average, for every negative.
Because we homeschool, my children do not have others interacting with them all day every day. They also have to listen to me correct them as their only teacher. As gentle as I try to be, I need to remember to also point out to them what they are doing well and when they are helping to cultivate a culture of love and kindness in our home.

One thing we won't be doing is following the 50-20-30 rule for our finances. It's not that I disagree with spending 20% of our income on financial stability and 30% on personal spending (shopping, entertainment, etc.). The problem, and one that probably affects lots of other people, is that we need more than 50% of our income to cover our essential living expenses (housing, health care, groceries, car payments, and utility bills). We could alter our percentages by changing Kansas Dad's job or sending me back into the workforce. Every now and then we talk about our options, but in the end we've always decided to continue our focus on family and relationships. We're willing to sacrifice these financial aspects to focus on what we think will make us happiest.

Another aspect I think Mr. Buettner doesn't really understand is the role of faith and children. The book encourages regular attendance and involvement in a faith community, but it doesn't seem to matter which one. Of course, we believe there is a difference and that following the truth of the Catholic Church (despite its current struggles) is better than other choices.

As for children, Mr. Buettner points out that they cause a decrease in happiness as long as they are dependents. I suppose that's true if you focus on the stress of raising children and perhaps our day-to-day struggles do cause less superficial happiness, but we believe children are a great blessing and give our lives meaning that would otherwise be more difficult to discern. I think this partly depends, too, on the support we have in raising children. Because we are relatively secure and supported by a loving family and parish, we experience less stress than others who may be worried about feeding their child.

Mr. Buettner's book seems to throw children in with other aspects of life like whether you can bike to work and eat healthy foods, but we would elevate them to another level. Children are not something you have to make you happier (now or in the future) nor are they something you should avoid because you think they will make you unhappy in the short term. All that being said, this view of children is probably outside the scope of Mr. Buettner's book, so I don't really blame him for this aspect of the book.

I received nothing in exchange for this review. I borrowed this book from the library. All opinions are my own. Links above to Amazon are affiliate links.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Hurricane without Warning: Isaac's Storm

by Erik Larson

As I mentioned in a previous post, this year, for First Son's ninth grade science, I decided to use Sabbath Mood Homeschool's study guides. First Son is spending one term studying Chemistry, one term studying Physics, one term studying Weather, and a whole year studying Biology (but only the equivalent of a term as it's only once a week). The study guide for weather, like the others, contains a list of suggestions for independent reading during the term related to the science. Isaac's Storm was the book I selected for our term on Weather. I was able to request a copy from another member at

(Side note: I seriously considered having First Son read Warnings, which I read many years ago, or another book on tornadoes, which would be appropriate for Kansas. Another good Kansas option might be The Worst Hard Time, which is a fantastic book, but I couldn't remember how much actual "weather" is described in it. In the end, I picked Isaac's Storm, partly because the reviews looked good enough that I wanted to read it and partly because I prefer to own our assigned books and this was the easiest one to get in hard copy. For First Daughter in a few years, I'll probably put them all on a list and let her choose one...and she'll probably read all of them.)

This book describes the hurricane that devastated Galveston, TX, in 1900. Told from the viewpoint, mostly, of Isaac Cline, the resident meteorologist, it also includes descriptions of the storm as it moves through space, escalating in strength. In 1900, there were no satellites to track hurricanes from space so the author relied on ships' logs and current knowledge of hurricanes. Moving over the open sea, it was completely hidden from everyone on shore until it struck with unprecedented force.

The author visited Galveston and spent hours poring over surviving photographs, augmenting the story with vivid descriptions of the bustling city before the storm. Besides Cline's experiences, interviews and written memoirs of a few others weave through the book, providing eyewitness accounts of the storm from different vantage points.

The Galveston hurricane was horrifyingly deadly. There are no pictures in the book (though some exist) but the descriptions of the death and destruction will be difficult for sensitive readers.

It's a masterful account and a compelling complement to our Weather study.

I received nothing in exchange for this post. This review contains my own opinions. Links above to Amazon and PaperBackSwap are affiliate links.

Friday, February 22, 2019

For Love of a Prince: Katherine

by Anya Seton

I found this book on my shelves while trying to thin by collection. (I have to make room for three more years of school!) I don't know if it was my grandmother's, or if my mom picked it up somewhere; I certainly don't remember buying it myself. After a quick glance at the summary and reviews online, I decided to read it. Coincidentally, it matched perfectly with my ninth grader's readings in British history and his third term introduction to The Canterbury Tales.

Katherine, the heroine of the novel, was a minor noble during the time of King Edward III. His third son, John of Gaunt, employed Geoffrey Chaucer. Katherine's sister married Chaucer. She herself was John's mistress, the mother of four of his children, and eventually his third wife. John of Gaunt was never king, but his son (from a previous wife) became Henry IV of the House of Lancaster.

The novel is one of adultery, healing, and redemption. Katherine lives many years as John's mistress, quite in the open and with the inevitable knowledge of his lawful wife. Their actions fulfill their own desires, but cause sorrow and heartache for many. Katherine suffers a great shock and loss. She is contemplating the end of her life when a strange priest draws her away from a cliff. He introduces her to Julian the Anchoress who shows her the great love and forgiveness of the Lord. With their assistance, she renounces her sinful ways and rebuilds a life of honor and dedication to her home and children.
What a weary time it took to learn how homely and direct the answer was, that it needed no thunderbolts and flaming wonders for Him to fulfill His promise, I will keep thee full securely. That He had as many ways of loving as there were droplets in the ocean, the ocean that was yet all one sea.
It's a magnificent depiction of life of the times of Geoffrey Chaucer and the English monarchy. It covers the Peasants' Revolt and much royal intrigue. Reading it alongside our Churchill helped me immensely in keeping the royal family members straight and in imagining what life was like during that time.

At first, I considered adding this book to our list of potential historical fiction for ninth grade. I think if one of my children (in ninth grade or high school) asked about reading this book, I would allow it. It's certainly one that reveals the insidiousness of sin and points toward confession and redemption, but it is a book in which the acts of adultery are a key point of the plot. Some of acts of infidelity are described a little more explicitly than I might wish for my fifteen year olds. So I would allow it, but I don't think I'm going to add it to our independent reading list for ninth grade. I do, however, recommend it to any homeschooling mom who is looking for historical fiction of this time period.

I have received nothing for this post which contains only my honest opinions. The link to Amazon above is an affiliate link.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Thrill of Illumination: The Electric Life of Michael Faraday

by Alan Hirshfeld

This year, in ninth grade, I decided to use Sabbath Mood Homeschool's study guides for our science courses. First Son is spending one term studying Chemistry, one term studying Physics, one term studying Weather, and a whole year studying Biology (but only the equivalent of a term as it's only once a week). The study guides suggest students may enjoy reading a biography each term of a prominent scientist of the field. I had trouble finding many of the ones recommended in the guide, but this one was available at PaperBackSwap, so I decided we'd give it a try. I finished it ahead of him as he's been focused on his history independent reading. (I think he's just going in order of his list, rather than trying to match them up to his course-work.) It's a wonderful book on Faraday, covering his personal and professional life in a way that presents the science without overwhelming the non-scientist (or student) reader.

The wonderful aspect of reading biographies like this is how they reveal to the reader the vast intellectual leaps (through often brain-numbing repetition of experiments) by placing scientists within their own time. It also emphasizes the kinds of characteristics that provide a foundation for strong scientific practices.
If there was one overriding element to Faraday's character, it was humility....Faraday approached both his science and his everyday conduct unhampered by ego, envy, or negative emotion. In his work, he assumed the inevitability of error and failure; whenever possible, he harness these as guides toward further investigation.
I was pleased to find one of First Son's first experiments of the year described in the text: splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. (This experiment was relatively easy to do at home and yet one I would never have considered or attempted without it being listed right there in the study guide. It helped to have Kansas Dad home to supervise, too.)

Faraday's humility and dedication to unimpeachable laboratory experiments are an inspiration. When searching for an effect of magnetism on light, he adjusted polarity, magnetic strength, and pole positions, without any indication he would ever find a change.
Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, nothing but mind-numbing particulars, penned with drab uniformity in his own hand. Until September 13, 1845, paragraph 7,504. Here appears, in stout capital letters and underlined three times, a large exclamatory "BUT." That single word, an island rising above a tedious sea of ink, illuminated Faraday's joy as surely as the lamplight that suddenly illuminated his eye.
There are points where the scientific accounts are more difficult to follow. A student may need to read some chapters more slowly than others. Many of the descriptions are beneficial, though; I still often confuse current and voltage, but there is an excellent explanation of the difference in the book.

Near the end of his career, Faraday devoted some of his time to campaigning for better and extended science education in schools. He wanted students to learn real science not just to draw them into the field, but also to equip them with the knowledge and skills to assess assertions and ideas they would encounter throughout their lives.
During a career that spanned more than four decades, Faraday laid the experimental foundations of our technological society; made important discoveries in chemistry, optics, geology, and metallurgy; developed prescient theories about space, force, and light; pressed for a scientifically literate populace years before science had been deemed worthy of common study; and manned the barricades against superstition and pseudoscience. He sought no financial gain or honorifics from any of his discoveries.
This is an excellent biography for our science studies and complements well the work First Son did in the Physics part 1 guide.

I received nothing in exchange for this review which is only my honest opinion. I found this book recommended in the Sabbath Mood Homeschool study guide above (not an affiliate link). The link to Amazon is an affiliate link. I purchased this book used.

Monday, February 18, 2019

January 2019 Book Reports

Coraline by Neil Gaiman - This twisted fairy tale was wonderful and disconcertingly creepy. Coraline goes through a door in her house into a copycat world. She escapes only to find her parents are trapped there. She emulates her father's courage and follows her mother's love to try to save them. Pre-read if you have sensitive children. My twelve-year-old read it and thought it was pretty good. It may be the kind of book that speaks to parents in a way children miss. (library copy)

The Glorious Adventure by Richard Halliburton - link to my post. (purchased used)

Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski - the newest Witcher book, though it goes back in time a bit. I've been reading some of the King Arthur myths (part of our ninth grade curriculum) and it struck me how much the Witcher is like a roaming knight. (library copy)

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman - link to my post. (purchased Audible book)

Tales of Ancient Egypt by Roger Lancelyn Green - link to my post. (purchased new)

Red Hugh Prince of Donegal by Robert T. Reilly - This is another great book from Bethlehem Books, recommended by RC History for Connecting with History volume 3. I read it aloud to the children and they were very interested (even when I was a little tired of poor Hugh being stuck in a tower). It's kind of fun to read a book in which the English are the "bad guys" and I was able to torture my own children with my not even passable Irish accent. (purchased new)

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman - I picked this up at a library sale. Some of the stories were interesting. Many were a bit disturbing. I think if you're a Gaiman fan, you'd enjoy it, but it's probably not the first Gaiman book I'd recommend. (purchased used)

These opinions are my own. I received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Amazon and RC History are affiliate links. The link to Bethlehem Books is not an affiliate link.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Geology and Faith: The Seashell on the Mountaintop

by Alan Cutler

Through an unexpected sequence of events, I pre-read this book I was considering for First Son next year (tenth grade) even though there's plenty of this year's pre-reading I haven't done (and may never do). Its excellence has cemented my decision to add a term of geology as our earth science in tenth grade.
He [Steno] showed that the earth had a history, revealed in its own rocks. As a result, the static world assumed by both the scientists and churchman of his day gave way to an evolutionary one. And with that idea came unlimited possibilities.
This biography of Bl. Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686, beatified in 1988) describes his life of science, his life of faith, and how each influenced and fostered the other. As with the best of scientists, faith and reason were so intertwined as to be nearly impossible to unravel.
"In various places," wrote Steno, "I have seen that the earth is composed of layers superimposed on each other at an angle to the horizon."
It is an amazing fact of the history of science that before Steno few European writers had thought this fundamental observation worth mentioning.
Steno's book De solido inaugurated a new science, that of geology. The three tenets he proposed and explained in this book, superposition, original horizontality, and lateral continuity, remain the main principles of the science, ones so instrumental they are general presented in the first chapter of any geology text, even for young students. (I've read a few, so I'm speaking from experience.)

The geological concepts are explained clearly in the biography, so anyone could read it without any scientific preparation. For geology students, however, its principles will echo what they have read in textbooks and, perhaps, reveal the great intellectual leap Steno made to establish them. Once they have been pointed out, it's shocking to imagine they weren't always obvious.

The author is respectful of Bl. Nicolaus's religious beliefs.
Such intimate mingling of science and religion seems strange to us today, but the distance that we now put between the two realms would have seemed equally strange to scientist's of Steno's generation. Most of the prime movers of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution were deeply religious. Conflict between true science and true religion was impossible in their minds because both ultimately came from God. Despite his problems with Rome, Galileo remained a devout Catholic until the end of his life.
Cutler describes Steno's conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism, which surprised many of the scientists of Steno's day. While considering such a drastic step, Steno read, studied, talked with friends, and compared theological viewpoints. In the end, it was a leap of faith (as it always is), but he spent much of his time afterward carefully explaining his views to his contemporaries.
Conditioned by the familiar story of Galileo's persecution by the Catholic Church and by the modern-day clash between scientists and Protestant fundamentalists over evolution in the classroom, we often assume antagonism between religion and science is inevitable. But as much as their methods and ideals differ today, over the history of both there has been easily as much cross-fertilization as conflict. Until very recently, religious and scientific arguments were advanced by both sides in every important scientific controversy. Too often what filters down to us in the history books are the scientific arguments of the winners and the religious arguments of the losers. Thus the picture of a long-standing rift between the two.
It's refreshing to read a scientific biography that gives such balanced thoughts on faith and religion. It's not that there is a conflict between faith and science, but there is an assumption that there is by many in the scientific community and, consequently, in the ones writing biographies. I think this book would be a great supplement to a foundation that prepares students to enter the world where they will encounter this assumption in science classes and books.

Though First Son (and presumably my other children in later years) will read this along with a text in geology, there is quite a bit of geology in the text so it could serve as a geology component of a survey of earth sciences, especially for students who do not intend to focus on scientific studies after high school.

I received nothing in exchange for this blog post. All opinions are my own. Amazon links above are affiliate links.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Living the Faith: The Grace of Enough

by Haley Stewart

I've followed Haley Stewart's blog off and on for years. I love her story of giving up a job and house in Florida for an internship on a farm in Texas. I immediately thought it showed a family that was willing to make sacrifices in order to live the life they thought would bring their family the greatest joy. This book tells the story of that journey, but more importantly, it provides thoughtful chapters on living with faith at the foundation of the decisions we make every day: how we work, how we spend our free time, and what we buy.
Among the treasures of hobbit culture are a relationship-centered community, a strong connection to the natural world, and the prioritization of leisure and festivity over production and efficiency. These things are completely opposed to our throwaway culture and compatible with the Gospel, and they can be lived out wherever you are.
The book is divided into three parts: Returning to our Roots (a focus on togetherness, authentic freedom, environment, beauty, and home), Reconnecting with what makes us Human (slow food, hospitality, communities, internet), and Centering our Disconnected Lives at Home (NFP, generosity, and hopefulness).
How we live out our responsibilities will vary from person to person and from family to family. We must be cautious not to fall into anxiety or despair or to seek "solutions" such as population control that merely put bandages on problems at the risk of damaging human dignity. God has created the world for us. He has designed it to sustain us, and we are meant to live here and be fruitful. We need not act out of fear but out of love.
There are lots of books in today's world about minimalism, but Stewart's book focuses not just on how to declutter (though there's some of that), but why we declutter and how we can use the time and freedom we gain to improve the lives of our children and our neighbors.

When Kansas Dad chose a graduate degree in theology, we were well on our way to a life contrary to contemporary measures of financial wealth. There wasn't much in the book that our family doesn't already do, though it is always comforting and encouraging to read about others who are attempting to focus on love and faith.
Many of those caught up in throwaway culture have forgotten that food and creation are inextricably linked. Wendell Berry reminds us that eaters "must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used."
One aspect I did consider more deeply after reading the book was the idea of inviting people over for dinner more often. To be honest, we may just be in a phase of life where that's not possible as often as we'd like. Our oldest children are reaching middle school and high school and we do feel it's important for them to have activities outside the home. With all four of them involved, we are resigned to evenings out much of the time.

There are reflection questions for each chapter. Resources are provided at the end of the book for decluttering, natural family planning, and prayer and the liturgical year.

This is a relatively quick read that will be inspiring to those of us who want our faith to infuse our lives every day, not just at church on Sundays, and not just when we are teaching our children.

I received nothing in return for writing this blog post. All opinions are my own. I checked this book out from our local library. Amazon links above are affiliate links.

Monday, February 4, 2019

A Biography of Isaac Newton: The Scientist Who Changed Everything

by Philip Steele

This biography of Isaac Newton is recommended by RC History for Connecting with History volume 3 at the logic level (7th-9th grades). It was not my intention to buy it. I thought our library would certainly have a biography on Isaac Newton I could substitute without spending any money. So I checked out and read every juvenile biography of Newton...and they were all unacceptable.

So I bought this inexpensive biography and it far surpassed all of the library options. It's brief, only about 60 pages, but is in full color and has supplementary information and a timeline in addition to the text. It's divided into four sections: Young Isaac, Fired by Genius, Secrets of the Universe, and Man of the World.

Many biographies of Newton present what seems to me an unbalanced look at Newton's religious beliefs. This book remains mostly quiet on such matters. It does explain that he did not believe in the trinitarian nature of God, which is known from his unpublished works, but the book doesn't claim he no longer believed in God at all or that he rebelled completely from a life of faith.

I asked my sixth grader to read this. She's an overachiever, but I think most fifth and sixth graders could follow this text without too much trouble. She even wrote an excellent narration on Newton at the end of the book.

I received nothing in exchange for this review and all opinions are my own. I purchased this book new. Links above to RC History are affiliate links. The book is also available at Amazon (affiliate link).