Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Reports, Third Quarter 2010

I'm behind on all of my posting (First Daughter's birthday post is only half-written and her birthday was last week), but this post is ready to go so here it is.


39 New Saints You Should Know (a review for The Catholic Company) by Brian O'Neel

The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson is a Newbery Honor Book, but I was not overly impressed. It seems to have much to recommend it: opportunities to discuss another country (France and Paris), and poverty and kindness to those who are different than us. At first I was disturbed by the main character, Armand, who chooses to live on the streets rather than work a steady job. I'm sure there are some quite nice people who are homeless, some perhaps even by choice, and there is much to be learned from monastics and others who shun the financial lures of the world, but it just seemed like someone strong and capable should be working, and perhaps contributing to help those who really can't work or reliably care for themselves. I was also rather dismayed at the attitude of the gypsies portrayed in the book. I don't know much about gypsies in real life, but I can't imagine they'd be any more pleased than Native Americans would by by their depiction in On to Oregon!. By the end, Armand reluctantly suffers a change of heart to help the "starlings" (the children), which is sweet, but overall I think we'll skip this book for the kids.

Song of St.Francis by Clyde R. Bulla is an out of print book I picked up at a library sale. I thought it might be a good choice for First Son since St. Francis is one of his favorite saints. Having read it, I'm so glad I bought it! It provides many of the same stories we've already read (so he'll find them familiar) in a chapter book format that will challenge him a little. I'm still not very good at judging reading levels, but it seems like something he should be able to read right now (or soon) so I'm currently planning on making it his first "reading lesson book" for the fall.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider (H B J Modern Classic) by Katherine Anne Porter is certainly not uplifting. I originally put this on my list because of influenza's role in the title story. (In case you don't know, I have a fascination with diseases like influenza.) The stories are certainly well-written, but quite stark and rather depressing...even disturbing at times. I'm pretty sure I'm missing some of the nuances. One of these days I really do need to follow through on the lessons of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had so I can better appreciation fiction.

Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset

Home Education by Charlotte Mason

The Apple and the Arrow by Conrad Buff is a treasure my mom discovered at Goodwill. It tells the legend of William Tell from the viewpoint of his eleven year old son, Walter. I haven't read many renditions of this legend, but I love how this one is focused more on the historical context of the legend rather than just William Tell's proficiency with a bow and arrow. This book is definitely on our list of approved reading for First Son.

How to Use Child-size Masterpieces by Aline Wolf

Little Pilgrim's Progress: From John Bunyan's Classic (The Message) adapted by Helen Taylor was recommended by Brandy at Afterthoughts. I haven't read the original, but this adapted version seems well-suited to young folks. I think we'll plan on reading this together (as a family read-aloud) in a couple of years. I'd like to read it with them before we read Little Women (Signet Classics) and I want to read that when First Daughter (and maybe even Second Daughter) will be ready to enjoy it. (At that point, First Son may doing the reading aloud while I do something very sweet and domestic like cross-stitch.) I spent a bit of time researching online whether the original was anti-Catholic and did learn there is a reference to Pope who is decrepit and no longer a danger to the pilgrims. The adapted version, however, changed the name (I think to a generic Giant) so I found nothing worrisome. I have to admit allegories are difficult for me to follow completely. It's so easy for me to find where they break down. Hopefully by reading Louisa May Alcott's book immediately after we'll see a lot of the connections appear.

Parenting with Grace (a review for The Catholic Company) by Gregory and Lisa Popcak


Peppermints in the Parlor by Barbara Brooks Wallace was one I previewed for the kids. It's the tale of an orphan sent to live with her aunt who finds their home much changed, run as a home for unwanted elderly relatives by an evil mistress. Mysteries abound and personally I was a little surprised at how dark it seemed, but there wasn't anything supernatural involved. Everything wraps up nicely in the end. I think this could be a good book for an older child, but First Son may surpass the reading level before he's ready for the excitement level. We'll consider it a maybe for now.

Saints and Their Stories (a review for The Catholic Company) by Maria Loretta Giraldo

Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform by Diane Ravitch is an excellent summary of public education in the United States from around 1900 through the 1980s and 1990s. She has her own opinion, of course, and that comes through in the text, but for the most part I agree with her assessment of previous school reform ideas. The most interesting thing is how the same debates continue to rage every few decades. It seems every once in a while, someone builds an extraordinary school, but no one seems able to keep it going for very long and the public schools can't seem to extend those ideas to a whole school district. She doesn't discuss homeschooling much (one phrase in one sentence near the end), but that's not the point of the book. Even so, I find it interesting to compare the strategies and philosophies I've read with those of the more mainstream educators the author described. It's a bit long and sometimes repetitive (as each chapter is written so it could be read independently), but I found it informative.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic novel describing the author's childhood in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution. It is not a pleasant read and certainly not something you want to leave lying around where young children may pick it up (even those that cannot read as it's a graphic novel), but it's a valuable book for anyone interested in Iranian history or perhaps fundamentalism in general. I intend to read the second volume, too.

Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Pre-School Years by Elizabeth G. Hainstock

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914  by David McCullough is a detailed and fascinating history of the Panama Canal. Though over 600 pages long, I managed to read it in just over a week, which is a testament both to how engaging it was and how often  (and how long) Second Son wanted to nurse. I've read two books by David McCullough (the first being The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge) and have greatly enjoyed both of them. The technical details may be a little overwhelming for those of us who are not engineers, but the stories are incredibly compelling. It's also clear how much Mr. McCullough enjoys researching and writing these histories, which always adds to the enjoyment of a reader. This book is still in print, though originally published in the 1970s, so I'm not the only one who appreciates this author's style.

Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry by Katrina Kenison is a series of essays encouraging mothers in their daily lives. I appreciated her encouragement to slow down and appreciate the vocation of motherhood, I found myself a bit annoyed at her "spiritual" tone. There's very little specifically about God or our vocation in relationship to him. Instead, the essays use vague language about souls, peace, connection to nature and time, etc. It's not that I disagree with anything she says; I just think she's missing the point. Or at least, didn't want to risk offending anyone or decreasing her potential sales by actually talking about God, despite the title. (I thought My Cup of Tea was much better.)

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return  by Marjane Satrapi is the continuation of Ms. Satrapi's life (from Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood above). In it, we see her life in Austria (where her parents sent her to escape the war in Iran), her eventual return to Iran, her marriage and its end. While the first book showed much death and physical destruction, this one chronicles a time of drugs and "modern" living. (For example, she marries her boyfriend because she feels she must live with him to know if she really loves him and cannot live with him in Iran unless they are married.) As her first book, it's not particularly uplifting (though I think she means the end to be), but I do think it's an interesting look into life in Iran.

Celebrate the Season! (a review for The Catholic Company) edited by Diane M. Lynch

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler is the story of a young man who leaves college to care for his brother's children to assuage feelings of guilt. It was an engrossing story and one I think I enjoyed. I guess I'm never quite sure what I'm supposed to get out of modern fiction. Usually I just take it as a good story and leave it at that. With this one I kept wondering what would have happened if he'd been Catholic and found a good confessor. I don't think that's what the author intended.

Ralph S. Mouse by Beverly Cleary is a classic from my own childhood I wanted to read again before sharing with First Son. It's a fine story telling of Ralph's adventures in an elementary school classroom and how he applies what he's learned in his own life. There are some references to "missing" parents (no father in the picture or no mother in the picture), but they aren't too integral to the plot. I think I'd like these mice books better if I didn't have so many experiences with mice in our house here in the country. Luckily we haven't seen too many recently.

My Cup of Tea by Danielle Bean

We Have a Pope (a review for The Catholic Company) by Stephen K. Ray and R. Dennis Walters

College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy edited by Lloyd Thacker is a collection of essays on the process of selecting a college. The essays seemed to have different audiences (parents, students, media, college counselors, admissions teams, etc.) so there is a wide variety of subjects. There's a variety of opinions, too. I'm interested in books like these as a student from an "elite" college and as the wife of a professor at a university, but I found this particular book a little disjointed with all the different topics. I think I'm also in the process of reevaluating what I think the purpose of a college education is and what we can reasonably expect or hope for as parents and as citizens. I'll let you know if I figure it out. (Ha!) There's one particularly good essay (in my opinion) for prospective college students and their parents: "Status vs. Substance: Is There a Choice?" It presented a great series of questions and steps to take to guide students to picking a number of "first-choice" colleges for application.


Haystack Full of Needles by Alice Gunther

Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin is a very readable history of the industries catering to the working poor (or just the poor). It was a little shocking and I can't help thinking a great many of these businesses are unethical. There is, of course, a discussion of the sub-prime mortgage mess as well.

Joseph, The Dreamer and The Sword in the Tree (Trophy Chapter Book) by Clyde Robert Bulla, both as previews for First Son. In the latter, a young boy is driven from his castle by his uncle and petitions King Arthur for assistance. Knights and castles, what could be better for a six year old boy? After reading Song of Saint Francis together (by the same author, mentioned above), I went looking for other books by Clyde Bulla. They are wonderfully written and seem to be at the second or third grade level, almost too easy for First Son, but there are so many exciting choices. I'm not sure how many we'll read together as part of his reading lessons, but I'll be happily checking them out of the library for him. He loved the one on St. Francis (his favorite saint) and I'm guessing the ones on pirates and Vikings will also be winners.

Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea (Puffin Books) by Ursula K. Le Guin is the fourth book in the Earthsea Cycle. I enjoyed it, as I enjoy most fiction, but I got the feeling she was trying to say something (in particular, something about the difference between men and women) that I missed. Also, the ending was rather odd. Everything was wrapped up within a few pages after a long slow section, almost too suddenly. The ending is more like a beginning, so I'll definitely have to read the fifth and sixth books.

The Creative Family by Amanda Blake Soule

Worried All the Time : Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It by David Anderegg has been on my list for a long time. I'm not sure it covered anything I didn't already know, but it was an interesting read. I think in a lot of ways he and I came to the same conclusions, but for completely different reasons. For example, he goes through a study showing the financial benefits of an elite college education and basically asks if the monetary difference is worth all the stress. I would argue the benefits of an elite college education are much less about money than they are about the conversations and challenges of such a student body. (Kansas Dad argues the professors are remarkably similar, especially given the current economic situation and dearth of faculty openings.) Anyway, I think a student who desires those kinds of interactions is also the kind that will be attractive to that kind of school, which means parents (and their children) should not be so concerned with all the "extras" they may think they need to be accepted. I liked how he chastised the media for exasperating parents' worries and agree with his declaration that the children about whom we really need to worry are those growing up in poverty.

St. Athanasius by F. A. Forbes is a little book about one of Kansas Dad's favorite saints. I had been considering reading it to the children, but think it above the first grade level even as a read-aloud. I think it's listed as a middle-school reading level and would agree with that. It goes into a bit of detail on the Arian heresy against which St. Athanasius fought nearly his entire life. Kansas Dad sometimes longs for the days when theological arguments would bring rioting in the streets (not for the rioting, but for the evidence that people really cared about ontological controversies today) and this book certainly describes those kinds of events. It's not what you'd call an objective biography, though...more hero worship. I think that's alright for some books on saints, as long as it's balanced by other sources. (We have Kansas Dad for that.) I liked it and will definitely keep it around for the kids when they're older.

Tales from Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 5) by Ursula K. Le Guin covers the distant past of Earthsea and sets everything up for the final book. I enjoyed it more than the last book, though Kansas Dad wasn't a big fan.

A Catholic Woman's Book of Prayers (a review for The Catholic Company) by Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle

Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes was another preview for the kids. This is the sequel to Ginger Pye (Young Classic). I happened to enjoy the first book more than this one, but they're both good reads for kids. Someone who loves cats will particularly enjoy reading about Pinky. Ms. Estes surely knew cats!

The Other Wind (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 6) by Ursula K. Le Guin is the final book in the Earthsea saga. I enjoyed this one as much as the others, but don't have anything profound to say about it.

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason was a remarkably enjoyable book. It's much better written than Dan Brown's book (which some people claim is similar). Full of intellectual puzzles and action, it's definitely worth your time.

Thinking In Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin is the most recent autobiography of this amazing autistic woman who has made a place for herself in the slaughtering industry. Kansas Dad and I are fascinated by her. She's been honored by both McDonald's and PETA. Who else can say that? Her book is incredibly insightful for those who are interested in how autistics (and others on the spectrum) perceive the world and the kind of help parents and others can provide. She is incredibly well-read. You can listen to her speak on the TED website on how we can encourage the creativity and engineering skills of those who may not fit into our social culture. The last chapter, in which she explains her concept of God, was a little odd, but other than that this was a fascinating book.

Townsend's Warbler by Paul Fleischman is a book I picked up at a library sale. I read it through thinking First Son might enjoy it as part of our bird study this year. It's a brief recounting of the journey by two naturalists (and a group of others) on the Oregon Trail before it was the Oregon Trail and on to Hawai'i and back again. I think I'll let First Son read it as it has some parts that might be particularly interesting for young boys (like when the men stick their heads right into a buffalo to drink the blood because they are so thirsty - ugh).

The first week in September, I ran into problems saving this post because I had too many labels. Did you know Blogger has a limit? So these are the labels I would have included if I could: American, non-fiction, stewardship, science fiction and fantasy, art appreciation, visual arts, performing arts, fears, biography, culture, nature study, natural history.


  1. I picked up one of Bulla's books at a thrift store just this morning for Amanda - A Lion to Guard Us. I had seen it on a reading list, and the main character is a girl named Amanda who lived during Colonial times. We've read one or two of his others, but I really had no idea he'd written so many.
    Have you ever checked out the Sonlight curriculum catalog? I have used it to make lists of read-alouds and book lists for Amanda. I mention it because several of the books you mentioned are on their lists. They have all their books listed by grade, with descriptions. It might be something you would find useful, and the catalogs are free.

  2. I have seen the Sonlight catalogs, Tiffany, and the lists are wonderful. That's probably where I originally found some of mine. (I even considered ordering their curriculum.) I'll have to check it out again now that First Son is actually reading.

    A Lion to Guard Us is on our list, too, though I haven't read it yet. I think I've read three or four Bulla books and have been pleased with all of them. Quite a few of them are recommended by the website I used when I started planning our lessons for this year. They're almost too easy for First Son for lesson time, but I'm hoping to interest him in them for his personal reading because I think they are much better than so many of the more recent books for kids.

  3. In case your looking for a book recommendation, (I'm guessing you wouldn't refuse one, at any rate), I just got done with "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind." Excellent autobiography of an extraordinary young Malawian man. Not for kids, although we did discuss with our kids what it was about, since Joel and I read it at the same time and we were talking about it.

  4. Tiffany, I just read A Lion to Guard Us and thought it pretty good. Parts of it are a little depressing, but that wasn't too unusual for the time period.

    Hilary, thanks for the recommendation! I never turn one down. Though I am trying to really put a dent in my "to read" list this year...actually, I'm making good progress on that goal. Nursing a ginormous baby might have something to do with that.


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