Friday, June 27, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol 8: 6 Random Thoughts and a Picture

Earlier this week, I received a big box from Sacred Heart Books and Gifts. Nestled inside, surrounded by homeschooling books for next year, was my birthday book (the book I selected this year to buy with my birthday money), The Little Oratory. I've flipped through it a little and it looks just wonderful! I've promised myself I'm going to finish The Idea of A University first, though.

Speaking of Sophia Institute Press (publisher of The Little Oratory), they are having a nice sale with lots of $10 books$5 books, and a $5 flat rate shipping. It includes a few of my favorite books like A Life of Our Lord for Children, The Year and Our Children, and The Young People's Book of Saints. First Daughter will be reading that last book next year in second grade for her saints study. (I don't receive anything if you make any purchases.)

The two older kids have been at Totus Tuus all week, our parish's version of vacation Bible school. It's a wonderful time of fellowship with our community, but oh my! It is exhausting! There has been much wailing at the slightest provocation (from the kids, of course, never me; I'm not exhausted at all...oh wait). I'll be happy when the week is over, though we're following up with a week of swimming lessons so perhaps we're only jumping from the fire into the frying pan (slightly less painful but still not what you'd call relaxing).

I spent the first three days this week working with some of the other catechists in our Atrium. We pulled everything out, washed all the cabinets, shelves, and materials, and reorganized the Level 2 and Level 3 materials to make room for the new ones. The room looks beautiful and (almost) ready for next year. We were so productive we were able to focus on finishing up some of the materials on the third day. I feel so blessed my children will have a Level 3 Atrium, but also very glad to be happily teaching Level 1 myself.

Summer is such a good time for nature study. Without any real effort on my part, we've been noticing things. At a small suggestion, the children are eager to pull out their nature notebooks for some drawing. This week I found a brown recluse spider in the cabinet, trapped in an apparently slippery bowl. The kids were fascinated and loved showing it off to the Totus Tuus team members. They all sketched it in their notebooks, too.

--- 5 ---

We have a lot of birds right now. Kansas Dad butchered three earlier this week, but we still have a batch of laying hens (though still too young to lay any eggs), a young batch of meat birds, a second batch of meat birds, and ten keets (baby guineas). Eventually we will have eggs and meat to show for them, but for the moment the meat birds offer a nice greeting to anyone who comes to our door.

Second Son recently had his eyes checked under the See to Learn program. An optomotrist will examine your three-year-old's eyes for free. There are quite a few conditions they can treat more easily if they are detected early. (You can find a list of participating providers online.) He did really well, though he kept calling the duck picture a giraffe.

In other health-related news, First Son recently learned his braces will come off in August. Hooray all around! He's already coming up with a list of all the foods he wants to eat that have been taboo for the past year.

I think I'm out of takes, so you'll have to make do with a picture I found on First Son's camera recently.

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book Review: The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw

The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy

This is the third book in the Hero's Guide trilogy. I don't want to give anything away but I didn't want to neglect mentioning this fantastic series for middle grade readers. My ten-year-old son and I have been enjoying these books immensely. He even read the first two again in anticipation of the this book's release last month (in addition to his required summer reading!).

These books would be wonderful for reluctant readers. They are full of sword fighting, puns, quirky characters, adventures, giants, pirates, mongooses, and general silliness. If I were to choose my son's favorite genre, it would be humor, and this fits the bill perfectly, along with plenty of courage and friendship. There's even a character who loves words, leading to the introduction of such lovely Latin derivatives as defenestrate.

First Daughter (who is seven) tried reading the first one and kept getting confused. While she could read the words, the style of jumping around from person to person (there are a lot of characters) and starting in the middle of the action were a bit too complicated for her. Instead, she's been reading the the Half Upon a Time trilogy which First Son has read in a few days. Some readers may benefit from keeping a character diary, a list of characters with notes about each one to keep them straight.

Everyone lives happily every after (of course!) but there's an opening at the end for new adventures and some mysteries unanswered, which leaves me hopeful for more novels set in the same world.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Book Review: Something Other than God

Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It by Jennifer Fulwiler

Usually I wait about five years after a book comes out before I read it, not because I believe a book is better with age (though some are) but because I have this list and I like to add books to the list and then read them in that order. It keeps things nice and tidy for me. The blogs were all buzzing about this book, though, and I do occasionally drop by Jen's blog, so I feel like I know her. That's the beauty of blogs. You'd all read my book if I wrote one, right?

Jen's book describes her transformation from an atheist to a Catholic, and it's fascinating. Jen read widely from Church fathers and church history in addition to the Bible. If I had ever been an atheist, it's exactly how I might have come to know and love the faith. (I suppose it's just as likely I would have listened to lots of rap, as she did, as I am to have been an atheist.)

One of the most interesting facets of Jen's journey to faith is how important an online community was early on in her explorations. She visited an atheist website and selected a few Christian commenters she thought were thoughtful and considerate, ones who used reason to make cogent arguments rather than blind statements of faith. Then she invited them, by email, to read her new blog, to comment on her posts as a way to help her work through her questions, to offer recommendations and advice. If nothing else, Jen's story shows us that Christians who comment on blogs can make a startling difference in someone's life. You never know who might be reading (so be kind and truthful!).

She is startled and a little disturbed when she later discovers all of the commentators who respond to her invitation were Catholics. Even as she contemplated the bizarre turn of her life toward Christianity, she had never considered Catholicism viable. Then these people she'd never met in real life started to challenge her.

One of the scenes I found most powerful was when Jen contemplated the life and music of rapper Tupac Shakur.
I weighed the Catechism in my hands. The idea was that this Church's teaching was divinely inspired. If it tried to tell me that Tupac Shakur was in hell, that God didn't factor in his upbringing amidst violent radicals and his life amidst poverty and street warfare, that was going to be a problem. Even I, as someone who only knew him through his art, saw some goodness in him--a goodness that counted for something--despite all of the horrible things he did. And if this book told me that there was no hope for him at all, I didn't think I could believe that its ideas came from God.
She spent hours pouring through the Cathechism, reading everything she could find on hell and salvation, as she listened to Shakur's music.
In a move that was both frustrating and respectable, the Church didn't make final proclamations about who goes to hell. It simply said that people who choose to turn their backs on God completely, in their hearts or in their actions, can expect to end up there; God respects our free will and won't make us hang out with him forever if we don't want to.
So there's no way to know if Tupac Shakur is in hell, purgatory (on his way to heaven), or in heaven. The Catholic church offers us an action, though, something we can do for those who have died, as we hope. We can pray.
The living sent their love for the deceased into the spiritual world, like adding water to a stream that would eventually float their lost friends home.
That's one of the best descriptions of the tradition of praying for the dead I've ever read. In some ways, I think it applies to sacrificial acts for those who are alive as well. I often pray for people I know who are ill or laboring as I exercise, for example, offering my sweat for those who cannot exercise their bodies but who long to be healthy (or to give birth to a healthy child). I don't understand how my prayers and sacrifices can benefit others, but I believe it does.

In the end, Jen prays.
I slid off the bed and dropped to my knees. I pressed my eyes shut as I waited for a wave of pain to pass through my leg. When it had gone, I folded my hands, leaned my head forward, and poured out the most sincere prayer I had ever said, for the soul of Tupac Shakur.
I think it's amazing that a rapper, one who at the very least sang about doing some horrible things but who always wanted to be closer to God, so clearly and powerfully impacted the faith journey of a woman he never met.

There are some other powerful moments in the book as well, but I don't want to ruin it for you. This is easily one of the best conversion stories I've ever read and I highly recommend it, especially if you are an atheist and willing to wonder.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Book Review: The Hidden Power of Kindness

The Hidden Power of Kindness: A Practical Handbook for Souls Who Dare to Transform the World, One Deed at a Time by the Reverend Lawrence G. Lovasik

I read this title out loud to Kansas Dad and we both started laughing; it seems a little overstated.

When I started reading it, though, I loved it! I've read The Imitation of Christ once all the way through and then in bits and pieces. It's a marvelous book, but it always seemed to me a little dense, difficult to read at times and more valuable for the monastic or priest than an ordinary mom with four little ones wreaking havoc. Rev. Lovasik's book, in contrast, is a series of mostly short sections, many only a few paragraphs long, that call us to imitate Christ each and every day in the smallest ways, the ones that present themselves all day long.

I'm not sure how this book was written or edited, but it can seem a little disjointed. It's like someone has gathered sayings or quotes of Rev. Lovasik's sermons. While it still seems a little ridiculous to me to imagine how kindness can "transform the world," I think Rev. Lovasik is talking about the supernatural transformation of God's kingdom on earth, the one we are all called to serve. I remember a few years ago when I was struggling to understand how what I did at home with four kids six and under was meaningful. This book goes far to address that struggle. A smile and a quiet voice in answering the needs of a child are indeed the work of Christ on earth.

In the very first chapter, Rev. Lovasik lays out the simple but enormously difficult rules:
1. Don't speak unkindly of anyone
2. Don't speak unkindly to anyone.
3. Don't act unkindly toward anyone.

1. Do speak kindly of someone at least once a day.
2. Do think kindly about someone at least once a day.
3. Do act kindly toward someone at least once a day.
The book sets a high standard, defining negative habits like nagging, describing how you behave when you are nagging, and then encouraging the reader to wage war against the smallest bad habits.
Do not be one of those who, for the sake of honor or praise from people, are ready to make great sacrifices, but neglect the little acts of kindness that add more luster to their name than do great deeds inspired by selfish motives.
In this paragraph, you can see how Rev. Lovasik connects kind thoughts and acts with a full and rich life.
Do all the good to others that circumstances allow. If you concentrate on yourself too often, your life will be flat and empty. Lively interest in others makes you rise above the pettiness of self-love. Self-love is to be dissolved in the crucible of a common interest in people. Self-effacement in order that others may be made happy is a lifework that will be most richly rewarded by God. It is Christlike to give generously of your kind thoughts, your heartening words, and your kind deeds.
I love how the book points us always to our neighbors, including those of our own household. Kindness in this book is not something we feel vaguely for poor people in another country
You are not always required to give your life for another, but you must always live for others. The true meaning of charity is more the giving of what you are than of what you have. Your neighbor does not require a portion of your money or possessions, but he longs for a portion of your heart.
Kindness to other people is one way to make God's kingdom present here and now.
Nobody can judge people fairly except God, for He alone judges with perfect knowledge, certainty, and compassion. God is merciful because He is all-knowing and all-wise. In imitation of God, you must learn to interpret the motives and actions of others kindly before you can arrive at perfect love of your neighbor. Your kind interpretations are images of the merciful compassion of the Creator, who can find excuses for His creatures. Therefore, kindness in judging is true wisdom, because it is an imitation of the wisdom of God.
I don't agree with every statement in the book; sometimes it seems as overstated as the title. I like how he quotes Scripture often, but it's disconcerting to me when he then sums up the meaning of the Scripture verses in one sentence. I think it's likely many of those verses mean what he says, but also much more than he says.

I still have to count it as one of the most useful and inspiring books I've read so far this year. It would be perfect to read a bit at a time along with a morning devotion or at anytime when you find yourself with a few minutes to pick up a book. In fact, I think I read it too quickly to absorb everything (because I had to get it back to the library).
Each time you are kind, you do a service to Jesus; at the same time, Jesus acts in your soul by His grace to make it more beautiful and holy.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

May 2014 Book Reports

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson is a book I never read when I was younger. It's a compelling look at sibling rivalry between twin girls, one of which seems to be more favored by everyone, written from the point of view of the other. The resolution seemed inadequate when I first read it, partly perhaps because I read the last two-thirds of the book very quickly. I think it's also the kind of book that benefits from thinking about it for a while after reading it. (library copy)

Conquest: Book 1, The Chronicles of the Invaders by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard is the first of a planned trilogy in which a superior (but not vastly superior) race of aliens, one startlingly like humans, conquers Earth and tries to subdue it, so far unsuccessfully. A young Illyri, Syl, becomes embroiled in the politics of her race and the battle for freedom by the humans. Written for young adults, the book contains hints of plenty of classic and cult science fiction like Battlestar Galactica, Dune, and even Stargate. So far, it's pretty enjoyable and I'm looking forward to reading more. (library copy)

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling is the story of a lazy obnoxious rich boy who topples over the side of his fancy steamship and is picked up by a fishing dory. He spends the season cod fishing until the boat is full and they can head back to land, learning much about how to be a man and the value of work. It's a good book, but even I found the language difficult to follow at times, so I'm not going to assign it to First Son just yet. I think I'll just leave it on the shelf. The copy I have is an old one with lots of illustrations, notes, and definitions on the sides of the pages, so it's a good one, but I couldn't find the edition on Amazon. (purchased discarded library copy)

Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez (with Kristin Ohlson) is a memoir of an American woman who volunteers in Afghanistan and then returns later to start a beauty school. Some of the language was a little crass for me, which is more intrusive when listening to the audio version rather than reading it. My main problem with it was that, despite the author's insistence that she loved the Afghani women, she was constantly condescending to them and, in particular, to their beliefs. Obviously, things like stoning are unacceptable, but short of that, I think she could have been more understanding. She also marries a man she barely knows with whom she cannot even talk because they speak different languages. (She apparently does not make an effort to learn any languages herself.) Finally, at the end it seemed like one woman's horrible story after another and was overwhelming rather than uplifting. (playaway from the library)

Anna Hibiscus and Hooray for Anna Hibiscus! by Atinuke are easy reader books about a young girl who lives in Africa (Amazing Africa) with her parents, twin brothers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, and cousins. She is rich and greatly loved and their family is sweet and wonderful. The poverty of the city outside their compound is in the first book a little and the main subject of the last chapter of the latter book. These are great books about Africa because they show some of the contrast in many large African cities today - wealth and poverty, technology like cell phones and texting but inconsistent electricity. Her whole family works to make Africa, and the world, a better place, including little Anna who must do so by going to school. These books are a bit too easy for First Daughter, but I think I'll put them on her list for next year when First Son is also reading books set in Africa. There are a bunch of Anna Hibiscus books, but these are the only two our library has. (library copies)

Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat is the hilarious book of the misadventures of Billy and his two owls, Wol and Weeps. There's a tremendous amount of descriptions of the wildlife and prairies of Saskatchewan as well. I was considering it for First Son to read next year, but think instead I'll offer it as possible summer reading. It's enjoyable enough for summer! (library copy)

Darkness Be My Friend (The Tomorrow Series #4) by John Marsden was reviewed for another website. As I said last month, I'm reviewing the series but it's not really worth your time. (audio CD from the library)

The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son by Lois Lowry (library copies)

A Gift from Childhood: Memories of an African Boyhood by Baba Wague Diakite is written by an artist from Mali who now splits his time between Mali and the United States. His book gives a wonderful glimpse into live in a village in Mali with his grandparents and then a large city where he lives with his mother. At the end of the book, he is a grown man who marries a woman from Kansas (including a favorable description of her hometown and family). First Son will be reading this next year for his African studies. This is not a Christian book and the references to African beliefs, but nothing that would preclude me from sharing this with my son. (library copy)

Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family by Veronica Chater is the fascinating and heart-breaking memoir of a family uprooted by their parents' refusal to accept Vatican II. I have been thinking about it deeply since I read it, trying to discern what (if anything) I should draw from it. I think most of all, it was a reminder to me to love my children unconditionally, even when they make mistakes. I think, too, it speaks to a balance between sacrifices for the sake of our faith and needlessly endangering our families. (library copy)

Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan is the story of a young girl orphaned by influenza in 1918 after living her entire life in Africa with her missionary parents. After a journey to England, she perseveres in following her dream and her heart back to the land she loves. This could be a good book for the fifth grade MA study of Africa, especially for girls. (library copy)

Tankborn (Tankborn Trilogy) by Karen Sandler is the first in a series for young adults set far into the future on another planet. It the context of GENs (genetically modified creatures), it explores what it means to be human, caste systems, racism, and how to do right in the face of great wrongs. The last chapter is the weakest, but it could be an interesting series. I am reviewing this series for another website. (library copy)

Blue Sea Burning (The Chronicles of Egg) by Geoff Rodkey is the third and final book in the Chronicles of Egg series, one of my favorite middle grade series, though I would recommend it for older students in that range due to some romantic interests by the main characters in addition to some pretty violent actions. It was an exciting and satisfying end to the series, though, especially since it leaves room for the characters to continue to grow. (library copy)

Homeschooling with Gentleness by Suzie Andres (inter-library loan)

Clementine's Letter by Sara Pennypacker, pictures by Marla Frazee (library copy)

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende (library copy) 

A Little Maid of Old Philadelphia by Alice Turner Curtis is a sweet little book set in the time of the Revolutionary War. I think First Daughter will love reading this with our American history studies next year in second grade. It's part of a series and, if she likes, I'll let her read the rest without pre-reading them myself. (free Kindle book)

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure is a meandering book of the author's fascination with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I thought it would be interesting as we've been listening to the books again ourselves. While it does give some information about what life was really like for Laura, it's more a book about the people who become obsessed with the stories. I listened to the audio book and quickly tired of the performer's rendition of the people in Kansas and Missouri; I found it quite demeaning. I was also frustrated at the condescending attitude toward those who might want to learn how to make something from scratch or be self-sufficient for their own sakes, while the author could do those things just because she read them in the book. She equates everyone who wants to make their own butter, for example, with those who anticipate the end of civilization as we know it. I'm sure there are some crazy people out there and the author probably met a lot of them, but I was pretty offended by her attitude by the end of the book. (playaway from the library)

Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter's Uncommon Year by Laura Brodie (library copy)

Books in Progress (and date started)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Book Review: Love in a Time of Homeschooling

Love in a Time of Homeschooling: A Mother and Daughter's Uncommon Year by Laura Brodie

Ms. Brodie decides to homeschool her daughter, Julia, for one year in fifth grade.
As I thought back on my mom, it occurred to me that all good parents are homeschoolers. Homeschooling is what happens when families turn off their TVs, cell phones, and iPods. It occurs in long, thoughtful conversations at the dinner table, as well as at baseball games and ballet recitals, and in the planting of a vegetable garden...Unfortunately, in our busy lives, parents and children have less and less time for hours of thoughtful interaction, which is one reason why homeschoolign has been on the rise. Homeschooling provides families with the quality time that used to occur after school.
She begins the book with a description of the great schools of their area and Julia's troubled relationship with them all her life. I found myself shaking my head, wondering why anyone would allow her daughter to be forced to conform to the standards of education when she was so clearly intelligent and would thrive in a home environment with more flexibility, but I think it's important to remember, especially for homeschooling families, that homeschooling is not for everyone. So rather than bemoan the parents who don't care enough to give the time to homeschool, I think this book is a celebration of the willingness to reach across that gap. Ms. Brodie never intended to homeschool forever, and she probably wouldn't agree with the reasons we choose to homeschool (if I could even articulate them well), but she was willing to rearrange her schedule to experience homeschooling for a year with her daughter. I noticed some of the reviews on Amazon thought she was a little critical of homeschooling, but I found her point of view mostly positive. On more than one occasion, she mentions families who intend to homeschool for a year and end up homeschooling indefinitely because it was such a wonderful fit for their families.

It was fascinating to read someone's beautifully written book explore the internal debates and anguish of a homeschooling mom over curricula, learning styles, standards, and daily interactions. Despite all her misgivings, I think Ms. Brodie provided an amazing fifth grade for her daughter, even if it seemed the expense of such a year is out of reach for most homeschooling families. (It included many field trips and even weekends and other overnight trips.)

This book seems to be written mostly for non-homeschoolers. As they read, I imagine people who would never consider homeschooling to see the benefits of treating the education of children as an individualized endeavor that might include a variety of methods and places over time. Changing that mindset, the idea that children must sit in a classroom of age-level peers for eight hours a day, nine months a year, could do more for public education of all children in our country in an amazing way more than those of us who choose simply to homeschool could ever hope to do.

That being said, I hope someone who is considering short-term homeschooling seeks out more resources than this book as I think veteran homeschoolers, if we are generous and welcoming to short-term homeschoolers (as we should be!) could offer a great amount of guidance and support. In particular, the list at the end of ten great homeshooling resources includes only one book I might mention, and that one I probably wouldn't recommend to a short-term homeschooler because it can be so overwhelming. (For anyone interested, the first book I recommend to all potential homeschoolers is Cathy Duffy's 101 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum which begins by talking about the different methods of educating and helping the reader discern his or her own "best" method. It may not be perfect, but it can help eliminate a great many attractive but ultimately inappropriate curricula for a particular family.)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review: Better Off

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology by Eric Brende

Eric Brende and his new wife, Mary, leave behind Boston to explore a technology-free life in a community similar in many ways to the Amish. They have no running water, no electricity, and no phone. They have a large garden and plant some cash crops. More than an examination of the absence of technology, Mr. Brende is interested in what community looks like when everything moves at a slower pace and everyone is dependent on each other. This is particularly true for the Brendes. It's not at all clear to me how well the time would have gone for them if they hadn't had lots of help from their very kind and knowledgeable neighbors.

Most of the book is an account of how they spend their days, but without a great amount of detail. In some ways, I thought it was either too much (a bit redundant and wandering at times) or too little (you certainly couldn't try to replicate their lives with the limited information here on actual gardening and farming). I was also confused by some of the personal interactions related, but perhaps that was because I couldn't keep the different individuals straight in my head.

The most interesting chapter is the epilogue, when Mr. Brende pulls together his thoughts on the experiment as a whole and how it impacted their lives after they returned to a more conventional city.
For those who would outstep and outsmart machines, a broad suggestion: remember the principle of minimation. Technology undoubtedly has, and will always have, some role in making life easier or better, so one shouldn't exclude it. But the role is supplemental. Technology serves us, not we technology.
I particularly liked when he talked about how technology should be used most when it brings people together who otherwise would not connect. I like using email to keep in touch with old friends, but it would be better to step away from my laptop during the day when my children are asking me to read aloud to them. (Frankly, in my case, books are just as bad as the laptop.)

If you're interested in reading this book, I almost recommend reading the epilogue first. Then you can decide to read the rest of the book if you want to learn more about what it was like for the Brendes.