Monday, February 22, 2021

A Chinese Folk Tale: The Dinner that Cooked Itself

by J.C. Hsyu and Kenard Pak

Tuan is an orphan, raised by his kind neighbors. He has grown into a diligent, honest, and respectful young man, struggling to earn enough to marry a young woman deemed perfect for him, according to the characters of their names and the years of their births. One day, he finds his dinner has cooked itself. He eventually discovers it has been prepared by a fairy, sent to reward him and care for him until he can marry.

This is a beautiful book, and not just the illustrations. Even the cover and pages are high quality. They feel lovely in the hands. The illustrations are richly colored. The fairy, for example, sent to bless Tuan with a filling and delicious dinner every night, is wispy and elegant.

Chinese characters appear in the illustrations and are explained on a page at the end of the book.

This is an excellent book to read for China when Reading Around the World in Picture Books.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop are affiliate links. I read a library copy of this book.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

God's Will Before You: He Leadeth Me

by Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., with Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J.

This book is recommend by Mater Amabilis™ in Level 4 for Catholic Culture. It also aligns very well with twentieth century history (scheduled for Level 4), especially if you choose a focus on Russian history.

Father Walter Ciszek followed God's call to Russia in 1939. He was eventually arrested, spent five years in solitary confinement and ten years at a labor camp. After his release, he remained in Russia, under constant surveillance and control until 1963. In this book, he writes passionately about following God's will, both his personal experience in Russia, and the universal experience of every Christian.

Each of us has no need to wonder about what God's will must be for us; his will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day, if only we could learn to view all things as he sees them and sends them to us. (p. 40)

He writes often of this revelation of God's will in the people who appear before us each day. He learned to find true freedom in following this will. All he had to do was respond to the events and people presented to him. While in solitary confinement, he learned to focus on prayer and the present moment, without worrying about how he would handle the next day, the next interrogation. Not that these lessons were easy to learn. He writes eloquently of his own fears and failures. After his eventual release from the prison, his joy overflowed, even as he traveled by crowded railcar to a labor camp.

For me, each day came forth from the hand of God newly created and alive with opportunities to do his will. For me, each day was a series of moments and incidents to be offered back to God, to be consecrated and returned in total dedication to his will. That was what my priesthood demanded of me, as it demanded of every Christian. (p. 93)

Life at the labor camp was harsh. Attempts to minister to the few Christians in the camp were fraught with danger. The daily work was arduous and the food minimal. Despite the rough treatment and severe conditions, Father Ciszek did not shirk his assignments.

I did each job as best I could. I worked to the limit of my strength each day and did as much as my health and endurance under the circumstances made possible. Why? Because I saw this work as the will of God for me. [...] The labor I did was not a punishment, but a way of working out my salvation in fear and trembling. Work was not a curse, even the brutish grunt work I was doing, but a way to God--and perhaps even a way to help others to God. I could not, therefore, look upon this work as degrading; it was ennobling, for it came to me from the hand of God himself. (p. 106)

Father's words are comforting and encouraging. In an inescapable situation, he found grace and hope, following the will of God each moment of each day. I do think there are situations where God is calling us to action to change our situation, these words of faith are inspiring coming from a man who suffered so much so joyfully. I don't believe God will's our suffering (especially in labor camps), but he can grant us great joy and grace when we offer our sacrifices to Him.

The thought that actions otherwise worthless in themselves could be somehow redemptive, could serve the growth of his kingdom upon earth because they were undertaken in obedience to his will, and that such actions could even be the source of grace for others, could share in Christ's work of meriting grace for all--that thought sustained me in joy and drove me on to work ever harder to achieve more perfect communion with God and his will. (p. 123)

In the labor camp and his time working as a "free" man, Father Ciszek always found small groups of Christians to whom he could minister, or close friends with whom he could talk long into the night about God and enduring faith. Yet he admits to few converts. He placed his faith in God's will and his eternal view. Father's words readied the soil for God's "seeds" of faith, to be sown and reaped at a time or place beyond his sight.

This was the place he had chosen for us, the situation and circumstances in which he had placed us. One thing we could do and do daily: we could seek first the kingdom of God and his justice--first of in our own lives, and then in the lives of those around us. From the time of the apostles--twelve simple men, alone and afraid, who had received the commission to go forth into the whole world to preach the good news of the kingdom--there has been no other way for the spreading of the kingdom than by the acts and the lives of individual Christians striving each day to fulfill the will of God. (p. 177) 

I relished this book, sometimes only reading a page or two at a time, often before the Eucharist in Adoration. To be honest, there is a lot of repetition, but these are surely lessons we struggle to absorb, so perhaps a little repetition is worthwhile.

I believe this will be an excellent book for First Daughter in Level 4 (eighth grade). I've assigned it to her for third term, when it will be read as she studies the Russian Revolution, and reads One Day in the Life of Ivan DenisovichFirst Son did not read this book; I just didn't want to buy it that year. But it's so worthwhile (at any age), I intend to assign it to him next year, in twelfth grade. 

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop and Amazon are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

Monday, February 8, 2021

High School Astronomy: The Planets

by Dava Sobel

This is such a delightful book through the solar system. There are chapters devoted to each of the planets (and some other astronomical bodies) that cover science along with history, mythology, poetry, and literature. The goal is not to impart all the knowledge possible, but to invite the reader to glory in the wonder and mystery of the universe, and to long to know more in the future.

I read this book a bit ahead of First Son this year as he completed the Astronomy study guide from Sabbath Mood Homeschool. This study is considered required for the Astrophysics one he will be completing in the third term, so I selected it for his Earth Sciences in eleventh grade, even though it's designed for Form 3-4 science. It does include activities and labs, which were relatively easy to implement. Certainly First Son had more success with them than with some of the chemistry and physics experiments we've attempted over the high school years.

I added some work to increase the difficulty level a little.

  • I made all the math exercises required. (They are optional in the text.)
  • First Son read the skipped chapters of The Planets.
  • I also added Brother Guy Consolmagno's Brother Astronomer to his required reading, with narrations.
  • I think we'll also have time at the end for him to listen to An Introduction to the Universe.
  • I wanted to add some evenings at the local observatory, but between Covid restrictions and our own schedule, we didn't make it there even once. 
I intend to assign this study and book to First Daughter next year in ninth grade. I will probably keep the extra assignments the same for her. I expect it to be a good fit for freshman year.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. I purchased the Sabbath Mood Homeschool study guide and will receive nothing if you follow the link. I received my copy of The Planets from a member of (not an affiliate link). Links to Bookshop are affiliate links.

Friday, February 5, 2021

The Chiefest of these is Love: Charis in the World of Wonders

by Mary Youmans

My friend, Sally Thomas, recommended this book repeatedly, so I put it on my wish list and was thrilled to receive it for Christmas. It was the perfect book to read as I recovered from Covid, when I was tired of all the streaming videos, but not yet focused enough for anything beyond a delightful novel.

It's a beautifully evocative book set in Puritan New England as Charis wanders alone through a world of horrors and wonders, mystery and assurance. 

The world was fallen, broken to shards like a clay pitcher. No, it was not the throne of an unchangeable will but the cross that hung in my mind with a glimmering, drowned light--the arms-out image of wide embrace that declared we were not alone in our sufferings. (p. 176)

I read it quickly, eager to know Charis's experiences and fate, and under the influence of illness, so I hope to read it again more slowly in the future.

To be quite honest, my recovery from Covid is not complete, and my ability to put my feelings about this novel into adequate words is entirely lacking. I loved every page of it, but here are some more reliable reviews if you want to know more before investing a few days of your time to read it yourself:

There are allusions to mature romantic themes, but I intend to put this on First Daughter's list of optional supplemental reading for early American history (which I think she'll start in tenth grade; her plan will be a little different than First Son's was).

God fashioned the waters and their salt, changeable secrets out of joy and pleasure, and likewise he formed me, and all he longer for me in my life was that I be alive, all the way alive and whole like the sea, doing what I was intended to do, being all of what I was meant to be--a woman rejoicing in creation and sensing another, better world next to our own, a mother and wife, a wielder of the needle, an apprentice to a goldsmith and a candle on fire. (pp. 313-314)

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop are affiliate links. I received this book as a gift.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Sounds of Enchantment: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

translated by J.R.R. Tolkien

This book was on First Son's optional reading list for ninth grade, but he opted to read something else instead. I never got around to it, either. Somehow, though, I ended up with an audiobook version of it from Audible. (It was probably on sale.) Anticipating First Daughter's ninth grade year (starting in the fall!), I decided I should give it a listen. First Daughter likes to read everything.

The introduction was illuminating; I hadn't understood before the different kinds of English epic forms and why Sir Gawain is not as popular as some others. So don't skip that.

I think I enjoyed this book immensely more by listening to it, rather than reading it. The sounds of the lines are integral to the form of the poems. I could readily hear aspects Tolkien mentioned in his introduction. We have a copy of the book itself (thanks to Kansas Dad's Great Books courses), but I intend to recommend First Daughter listen to the audiobook. She can read along if she likes.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Amazon are affiliate links. Kansas Dad received a copy of the book as the teacher of a course. I guess I bought the audiobook, though I don't remember it!

Monday, February 1, 2021

January 2021 Book Reports

The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel - link to my post (library copy)

The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 by Edmund S. Morgan - link to my post (library copy to start; then a copy from PaperBackSwap)

Find Another Dream by Maysoon Zayid - This audiobook was offered to Audible members, probably for free. It's hard to imagine someone more different from me than Maysoon Zayid - a New Jersey native with Palestinian parents who suffers from cerebral palsy and is an actress and comedian. Yet I enjoyed her story immensely: honest and funny. It's definitely not for children, only mature audiences. I find it helpful to listen to stories like this one, stories of people who have completely different experiences of the world than I do. In particular, I find the voices of those who are disabled to offer important insights; it's so easy to go through the world without realizing the myriad ways their every-day lives are more difficult than for me. I sought out her TED talk after listening to the book and enjoyed that as well. (Audible book)

Our Bethlehem Guests by William Allen Knight - I do not know where I got this little old hardcover book, but I'm guessing it was a library book sale. It's a short tale about an older man whose young daughter was born in Bethlehem. They left when she was young, but he continued always to regale her with tales, especially at Christmas, of the shepherds and the wise men. I read this aloud to the children this year, as I wanted something short, without having read it myself first. I think I would have anticipated their general lack of interest in the slow story. It was a nice little tale, though. (purchased used)

Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton - I saw this book on a young adult list and thought it might be a good option for First Son's psychology readings this year. He's currently reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and is fascinated by it, but it's really more neurology than psychology, and First Son is considering counseling. I liked this portrayal of a teenager suffering from schizophrenia, and I think the format of letters to his psychologist would be a good one for First Son's interests. It's a typical young adult novel, though, with intimate activity between Adam and Maya, and some questionable comments on Catholics. I think it's more Adam's attitude and inability to understand them more than any determined malice, but it felt cavalier. Still, some good things here so I'm putting it on his spreadsheet as something to consider at the end of the year. First Son is 17 and heading off to college in a year; there's not much here he probably doesn't already know. (library copy)

Minds More Awake: The Vision of Charlotte Mason by Anne E. White - Anne White is an accomplished educator, part of the team of dedicated volunteers who have made Ambleside Online the amazing resource it is for modern American homeschoolers who want to follow in Charlotte Mason's footsteps. This book is a wide-ranging invitation to her own experiences implementing Mason's principles in homeschool life. She doesn't give a curriculum, though there are suggestions. Amid descriptions of their family lessons, Mrs. White helps to translate principles into practice, into a lifework. This would be a great book for someone young to the philosophy of Charlotte Mason. (purchased Kindle edition)

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop, Amazon, and are affiliate links.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

An Illustrated History of the Pilgrims: The Mayflower

by Libby Romero
illustrated by Olga Baumert

This is a lovely new book on the Pilgrims made with the collaboration of Plimoth Plantation. The illustrations are beautiful, depicting details about life on board the Mayflower and on land in vibrant colors. Native Americans are portrayed with dignity. Some acts of the Pilgrims, like confiscating corn they found in empty villages, is described. They later make restitution by paying for the supplies.

It's more than a picture book, so you would have to read it aloud to younger children. A Level 2 or Level 3 student would be able to read it independently and narrate it.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop are affiliate links.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Story of American Government: The Birth of the Republic

by Edmund S. Morgan

First Son is studying American Government this year, working roughly from the new Mater Amabilis™ high school American Civics and Economics. He had already done some reading based on the previous beta plans so I was mixing and matching a bit. I have been thrilled with all the primary sources selected and scheduled in the MA plans, but I found I was having trouble putting them all in context, so I have been looking for a more narrative text telling the story of American government. 

This book was mentioned in one of the linked articles early in the course. Our library had a copy. Once I'd read enough to know I liked it, I requested a copy from (My copy is the third edition; I read online the only difference in the fourth edition is the new introduction.)

It's a thorough but readable account of the events, debates, speeches, and essays leading to the development of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. It describes prominent people in both Britain and America, allowing their voices to speak out more clearly in the primary sources we were reading. The author is not afraid to share his personal opinions, but he does a decent job of revealing conflicts and blind spots of the founding fathers while still respecting and admiring the dedication they had to the founding of a new country and the substantial contributions they made to our country.

First Son will not reap the benefits of this book. He's doing the readings and narrating them adequately, if not necessarily understanding as well as he might. He's not particularly interested in government, and I don't want to add to his current load. My younger three kids will definitely read this book. First Daughter will love it!

I am hoping to pair this with an additional supporting text just on the Federalist papers. I believe First Daughter will start this course her sophomore year, so I have a year in between to solidify in my mind what I'd like to create. I really just want to add this to what is in the MA plans, but I am cognizant of the need to balance civics and government with all the other things, so there might be some adjustments on other readings to make room for it.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. The link to Bookshop is an affiliate link.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Last Acceptable Prejudice: The Tyranny of Merit

by Michael J. Sandel

In this book, Dr. Sandel argues that meritocracy (the idea that we can "go as far as our talents and hard work will take us") has failed. More importantly, he argues persuasively that such an ideal is flawed even if it could be implemented perfectly.

In fact, there is less economic mobility in the United States than in many other countries. Economic advantages and disadvantages carry over from one generation to the next more frequently than in Germany, Spain, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. (pp. 75-76)

Later, he writes, "By these measures, the American dream is alive and well and living in Copenhagen."

If our talents are gifts for which we are indebted--whether to the genetic lottery or to God--then it is a mistake and a conceit to assume we deserve the benefits that flow from them. (p. 123) 

I find myself overwhelmed at the thought of addressing everything in this book. You can read an excellent summary and review of it in The Guardian (better than the one in the New York Times). Briefly, a meritocracy leads to two main devastating effects: 1) those who fail to earn a decent living are forced to believe it is their own fault (though it's usually not), and 2) those who succeed erroneously believe success is based entirely on their own efforts and therefore denigrate (subconsciously or consciously), those who are not as successful.

Moreover, the elites are unembarrassed by their prejudice. They may denounce racism and sexism but are unapologetic about their negative attitudes toward the less-educated. (pp. 95-96)

The book criticizes both sides of the political debates in the United States (also the UK and Europe), but its focus is on liberals, not because Sandel agrees with conservatives, but because he blames the liberal elite for the series of attitudes and policies that led to the development of a populist uprising that has (so far) elected Trump in 2016 (and fought for him after the election in 2020) and voted in favor of Brexit. 

Sandel describes a professional and wealthy class that responds to arguments with a subtle but substantial bias against anyone who is less academically educated. I have seen that bias myself, essentially throughout the mainstream media, but also directly from friends on social media, but I think it extends just as much to those who profess a religious belief, even if they hold graduate degrees. Although Sandel briefly mentions faith occasionally (and even approvingly cites Church documents and Papal speeches or letters), he rarely links religious beliefs with this prejudice.

If you read mainstream news articles about abortion, the pro-life position is always presented as if those who hold it are ill-educated. This is a dangerous discrimination. Eventually people stop believing anything they read from those sources. The reasons are two-fold: 1) If they're so wrong about abortion, why should I believe them about anything?, but more pertinent to the book,  2)Why should I listen to anyone who obviously thinks I'm an idiot? I think this leads directly to the difficulty in open discussions of medical practices and the best ways to safeguard our own health and that of those around us. I see this repeatedly in discussions around vaccines and everything Covid related. It doesn't matter who is right if no one will believe a single word anyone else says.

In many ways, this book brings together many of the ideas and thoughts that have been coalescing in my mind for years, not all of which are shared in this blog: the struggles of the working class, the search for a consistent life ethic, frustration at the failure of the higher education system to live up to my ideal of education, the denigration of the dignity of work, and the fractures I feel keenly between many of my family and friends. The clash in 2020 of the pandemic and an intense presidential election forced these misgivings into my daily life--and not just on social media. It suddenly felt like no one could even agree on the most basic truths, and no source of information was universally trusted.

I think I'm going to assign this book to my children when they are seniors in high school, as part of a government credit.

I often felt unsettled while reading this book. Even though I had read and thought much about these topics, this book in particular made me question my own prejudices. I encourage everyone to read this book, and then tell me what you think about it! I found myself constantly asking myself, What would [friend/family] think about this? The chapter on Success Ethics is a bit dense, but the rest is remarkably readable.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop are affiliate links. I checked this book out from our public library.

Monday, January 11, 2021

November and December 2020 Book Reports

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe - link to my post (copy from

Who Gets in and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions by Jeffrey Selingo - link to my post (library copy)

Richard III by William Shakespeare - I read this just ahead of my eleventh grader. Richard III has few redeeming qualities, though some wonderful lines. I thought the most dramatic scene must be one in which ghosts of Richard's victims file across the stage in the dark of night, condemning him and comforting his rival for the throne. It's fairly long, so I split some of the acts over two weeks. (purchased copy)

The Beginning Naturalist by Gale Lawrence - I grabbed this book at a library sale to read aloud as our nature study book. The book follows a year in New England with essays of 2-3 pages on a variety of topics. More than once I was delighted by Second Daughter's discoveries on our land to match the topic of essays in the book. (purchased used)

The Captain's Dog: My Journey with the Lewis and Clark Tribe by Roland Smith - This book is on my younger son's historical fiction list for the year (fourth grade) and I think he's going to love it. Seaman's perspective is a doggy one, which is fun. The author also manages to show some of the events and actions of the Lewis and Clark Expedition as ones we'd find unacceptable today. (purchased used)

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien (first book: The Fellowship of the Ring) - I read this trilogy when I was in middle school but knew it deserved another read. I invested in the audiobooks and enjoyed every minute of them. (purchased from Audible)

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai - link to my post (purchased Audible audiobook)

Zikora by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - I follow this author on Amazon because I saw her amazing TED Talk. This short story was available to borrow for Kindle and, somehow, the Audible book was available for free as well for listening. (I'm not able to download it on my laptop, but I could listen on the app.) It was beautifully written and provided a look into a completely different life than my own. The ending was rather abrupt, almost not an ending at all. (borrowed Audible audiobook)

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Bookshop, Amazon, and are affiliate links.