Friday, June 30, 2017

Read Aloud Saints: The Book of Saints and Heroes

by Andrew Lang and Lenora Lang

If you've enjoyed any of the color fairy books of tales collected by Andrew Lang, you have a good idea of what this book is like. This is a particularly nice hardcover edition with detailed full page pen and ink illustrations. I think there's one illustration for each saint.

First Son received this book as a gift in celebration of his First Communion. I thought it a wonderful choice, but he never read it. I decided last year to read it aloud to the children. I quickly realized it's probably not at the reading level of a typical second or third grader. The stories are long and sometimes meandering with a rich vocabulary. I rarely read an entire saint story in one sitting, instead spreading them over two or three days. While it's hard to imagine even my voracious reader ten-year-old reading these on her on, it was enjoyed mightily by all of the children from the 13-year-old down to the 6-year-old.

Some of the early stories in the book (they are mainly chronological) include fantastic tales. The authors usually admit when these are probably legends rather than actual historical facts. There were also a few bits here and there when facts are not entirely accurate only because the book is a reprint of one published in 1912. These are generally easily explained, if it's something the reader notices. I found it useful to just mention when we started that the book was a hundred years old and we've learned more about saints since then.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Rediscovering Home: The Long-Legged House

by Wendell Berry

This is a book of essays written between 1965 and 1969. The first two sections are rather depressing commentaries on strip mining, the degradation of natural habitats through misuse and ignorance, war, poverty, and the startling greed of corporations that choose profit over neighbors and communities. It is unpleasant to consider how little has changed in the decades since they were published.

Berry sees most government efforts to address poverty as demeaning and counter-productive.
Unable to live by his work, the furniture maker is dependent on the government's welfare program, the benefits of which are somewhat questionable, since if he sells any of his work his welfare payments are diminished accordingly, and so he stands little or no chance of improving his situation by his own effort. 
Many of Berry's essays describe the tourists he encounters in Kentucky, those who escape from the city to the lakes and rivers. He senses and uneasiness in them. They continue to rush, filling the lakes with gears and motors on their swift boats.
What I hope--and it is not an easy hope--is that people will begin to come into the countryside with a clearer awareness of why they come, of what they need from it and of what they owe it. I assume--and it is not an easy assumption--that the world must live in men's minds if men are to continue to live in the world.
One of the chapters is the text of a speech Berry gave, a statement against the war in Vietnam. I intend to assign this essay to First Son in 8th grade as part of his Twentieth Century History course, found in Level 4 of Mater Amabilis.
Does the hope of peace lie in waiting for peace, or in being peaceable? If I see what is right, should I wait for the world to see it, or should I make myself right immediately, and thus be an example to the world?
I don't necessarily agree with everything he says in the speech, but I hope it will lead First Son to consider multiple sides of the issue of war.

To a country where we have so much and suffer relatively little, Berry offers "Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience:"
Because so many are hungry, should we weep as we eat? No child will grow fat on our tears. But to eat, taking whatever satisfaction it gives us, and then to turn again to the problem of how to make it possible for another to eat, to undertake to cleanse ourselves of the great wastefulness of our society, to seek alternatives in our own lives to our people's thoughtless squandering of the world's goods--that promises a solution. That many are cold and the world is full of hate does not mean that one should stand in the snow for shame or refrain from making love. To refuse to admit decent and harmless pleasures freely into one's own life is as wrong as to deny them to someone else. It impoverishes and darkens the world.
The third section focused more on autobiographical essays describing the relationship of Berry with his native land. These were much more hopeful and pleasant, a demonstration of what life can be if we allow ourselves to be rooted to a place. After their wedding, he and his wife lived at his camp in the woods without electricity or running water for the summer.
Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort, it seems to me. There can't be enough knowledge at the beginning. It must endure the blundering of ignorance. It is both the cause and the effect of what happens to it. It creates pain that it is the only cure for. It is the only comfort for its hardships.
The last essay, "Native Hill," Mr. Berry shares his response to the reactions of his literary circle when he decided to leave New York City to live and teach in Kentucky. In a word, they were horrified, convinced his writing would suffer and that he would be miserable. Though certain of his decision, he still held himself uneasily for a while, questioning regularly whether his writing suffered.
I have come finally to see a very regrettable irony in what happened. At a time when originality is more emphasized in the arts, maybe, than ever before, I undertook something truly original--I returned to my origins--and it was generally thought by my literary friends that I had worked my ruin. As far as I can tell, this was simply because my originality, my faith in my own origins, had not been anticipated or allowed for by the fashion of originality.
Instead of being thwarted, Berry rediscovered his home, gaining more depth in his knowledge of a country he already knew intimately.
We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it.
Berry often expresses a distrust of religion. He argues that faith in a Creator and the goodness of Creation should have cultivated a people who protected the world, the environment. Instead, their focus on an eternal future caused them to treat the created world as a means to an end.
It has encouraged people to believe that the world is of no importance, and that their only obligation in it is to submit to certain churchly formulas in order to get to heaven. And so the people who might have been expected to care most selflessly for the world have had their minds turned elsewhere--to a pursuit of "salvation" that was really only another form of gluttony and self-love, the desire to perpetuate their own small lives beyond the life of the world. The heaven-bent have abused the earth thoughtlessly, by inattention, and their negligence has permitted and encouraged others to abuse it deliberately.
The kind of attitude he describes is the one that causes consternation amongst the faithful when presented with words of stewardship from Pope Francis in Laudato Si' - On the Care of our Common Home.
On suddenly coming upon a glade of bluebells:
For me, in the thought of them will always be the sense of the joyful surprise with which I found them--the sense that came suddenly to me then that the world is blessed beyond my understanding, more abundantly that I will ever know....If I were given all the learning and all the methods of my race I could not make one of them, or even imagine one.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sly Remarks from the Author: Dead Souls

by Nikolai Gogol

Inspired by the course on Russian literature I listened to last year, I decided to purposefully read through some Russian literature. This critical edition was recommended in the course notes. I debated about reading the essays but decided in the end that I wanted to challenge myself and think deeply on the material which was more likely if I spent some time reading what others thought about it. It took much longer to get through the essays than the book!

Gogol's book is an episodic tale of a man who is traveling around the Russian countryside buying "dead souls," serfs who have died since the last census but are still taxed as if they were alive. He has a plan to purchase them inexpensively, then use them as collateral to procure a loan and buy property. The plot allows Gogol to introduce new characters frequently and thereby portray different ways of life and living.

Everything is humorous. I particularly loved this description of women dressed for a ball, so much so that I read it aloud to Kansas Dad.
They had gone to unusual trouble to think out and plan all the items of their attire; their necks and shoulders were left bare just as much as was necessary and no more; each one revealed her possessions to the point only where she was convinced that they might prove the downfall of man. The rest was hidden away with extraordinary taste: either some light ribbon or a neckband, as dainty as the pastry known as 'kisses', ethereally encircled the neck, or tiny crenellated edges of fine batiste known as 'modesties' peeped out from under the dress at the shoulders. These modesties concealed in front and behind that which could not bring about man's downfall but which made one suspect that the road to perdition lay precisely there.
The book is disjointed, purposely unfinished I think. I enjoyed reading it but am quite sure I didn't understand all of it. The essays provided in this edition convinced me even the experts are still mining the text for meaning (and jokes). Alexander I. Herzen in "Diary Entries on Dead Souls" writes what is probably the clearest sentence in the essays.
Dead Souls--the title itself bears something that evokes horror. Gogol could not name it otherwise; not the dead serf-souls, but all these Nozdrevs, Manilovs, and all the others like them--these are the dead souls, and we meet them at every turn.
My intention is to read a work of Russian literature each year, along with my annual Chesterton, Austen, Dickens, and Berry.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Understanding and Misunderstanding: Kingfishers Catch Fire

by Rumer Godden

Sophie is adrift in India after her husband, whom she rarely saw, passes away. She decides against all advice to rent a little house and live "simply" up in the mountains, away from most of the English in India. With the mingling of two cultures the inhabitants of which completely misunderstand each other, something is bound to happen.

In multiple ways, this novel questions the role of missionaries and Englishman in India who believe they are there serving the non-English population. Sophie is ill early in the novel and finds healing in the mission hospital.
'God is here,' said the printed text on the wall [of the chapel]. 'Yes,' said Sophie. 'But,' she asked, 'isn't He everywhere? Then why do they make Him little?'
Sophie's treatment of the locals in her little village confuses them. Her attempts to aid and interact with the villagers lead directly and indirectly to confrontation and injuries to her and her family. Interestingly, though she has misunderstood the villagers repeatedly throughout the book, she feels instinctively that the official story is incorrect.
Have you a duty to those who hurt you? Surprisingly the answer seemed to be that you had. If Sophie shrank from that answer that did not take the duty away.
Her belief leads her to investigate events on her own, a risky endeavor.
It was strange for Sophie, who always made the ordinary extraordinary, to be entering on a battle to make the extraordinary ordinary, but a feeling of truth came to her each time she tried. 
My book club had a lively discussion on this book, covering everything from Sophie's personality, her actions, the confluence of cultures, and the English presence in India. I enjoyed reading it, though the heavy foreshadowing worried me from the very beginning. Our book club meeting was one of my favorites.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Shakespeare on the Range: Romeo and Juliet

Last year, we reached Passage 12 in How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet.

Just to give an idea of Shakespeare on the Range, here's what our study looked like for this play.

First, First Son and First Daughter read retellings of the play. They read independently and narrated them to me.

First Son (7th grade) read from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. We have the version illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. I like this version. The illustrations are fine, the pages are nice, and it smells properly of old book. I think I bought ours used on Cathswap.

First Daughter (4th grade) read from Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit. We have the Wilder Publications version which is merely adequate. There's no Table of Contents, which can be annoying. I also bought this version used.

I read the chapter in How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare aloud. Sometimes I have to change the wording a bit as I read to address the children directly rather than the parent, but it's usually not a problem. Then, over the course of a few weeks, we memorized the passage in the book. Only First Son and First Daughter have to memorize it, but the younger two often know all or most of it by the time we're done. We try to have Shakespeare twice a week. Once we review only the few most recent passages as well as the current one and one day a week we review all of our Shakespeare. (It takes about ten minutes to review the twelve passages plus a few bonus passages.)

After we had the passage memorized, we spent one day a week reading aloud an act of the play, continuing to review all our passages on the other day. First Son did not want to do this at all, mostly I think because it was Romeo and Juliet. I agreed to read Romeo's part so he wouldn't have to read it. We also decided to use their Star Wars and Disney Infinity characters to play the parts on our table. First Son even did their voices: Lego Batman played Capulet, for example. You haven't seen Romeo and Juliet until you've seen Princess Leia as Juliet and Jabba the Hut as the nurse. Just what I should have expected.

For our readings, I used Shakespeare Made Easy for my copy. It shows Shakespeare's text on one page with a modern translation on the facing page. I find this helpful in understanding the text more fully and following the action, but don't recommend it for students because sometimes the translations are a bit too graphic. I got my copy from

The kids both used the older version of Cambridge School Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This is one series recommended in How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare. It has the play's text on one side and literary, dramatic, and historical notes on the facing page. We didn't specifically read any of these as my children are young and I wanted them merely to enjoy the play (as long as they could follow the main plot). It also includes photographs from actual productions, which I liked. I found, however, that some of the text was a little too explicit for little eyes. I used a post-it note to cover the top of page 74 and another one to cover pretty much all of page 50. When we came to those pages, I told the kids I didn't want them to see those pages just yet. I requested both of these copies from

Finally, after finishing the play, we watched the movie version with Olivia Hussey, which was available at our library. Warning: Romeo and Juliet are naked in bed together and Romeo even gets up while we can see his backside.

I also always make our Masterpuppet Theater available for them once a new passage is memorized. It comes with a book of scenes as well as some creative additional puppets like Shakespeare himself, a robot, and a bear. Every time we get this out, the kids spend extra time playing with the puppets.

One thing I forgot to do was make a character map with the kids. I find these helpful to have in front of us while reading the play because we can quickly see who a character is and all the relationships he or she has with other characters.

With a few breaks and missed days in the spring (when we were also working on a homeschool play with our drama club), we spent twelve weeks studying Romeo and Juliet. Next up: Macbeth.