Wednesday, January 18, 2023

A Memoir of Place and People: The Hearthstone of My Heart

by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino is such a delight. This book is like sitting down to tea with her and listening as she shares memories of her family and her incredible life. Her thoughts on the deepest aspects of what it is to be human rise up naturally from her stories.

Borton de Trevino is the author of children's books like Nacar: The White Deer and I, Juan de Pareja. She actually wrote many books, but most of them are now sadly out of print. 

In this book, she commented on children's literature in a way that reminded me of Charlotte Mason's ideals. 

Shouldn't the imagination of what could be a beautiful world, be kept, in their stories, in their entertainment? If not, how will they envision it? Man has always dreamed of improvements before he was able to effect them. (p. 195)

A little later, she writes:

I do feel, strongly, that some of the special gifts of childhood must somehow be preserved, and chief among those is the vaulting imagination, and the child's capacity for love and empathy. (p. 195) 

This author led a remarkable life, interviewing and befriending (or befriended by) many of the greatest artists and musicians of her life in Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Mexico. She writes often with generosity and warmth of her relationships with them.

Her Epilogue provides a good reflection on the book as a whole.

I think, as I look back over what I have told in this volume, that the important thing I want to emphasize is that there is still much goodness, generosity, and kindness  all around us, that friendship is still the greatest treasure God has offered us for the taking, during our lives, and that, as they say in Spanish, "Amor con amor se paga." Love is repaid by love. (p. 223) 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I also recommend My Heart Lies South

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

Monday, December 26, 2022

Immigrants Today: Out of Many, One

by George W. Bush

Former President George W. Bush has taken up a paintbrush in his retirement. He creates colorful and vibrant portraits reproduced in this book, featuring immigrants from all over the world.

There are a few pages at the end of the book that discuss the kind of immigration advocacy work former President Bush supports, which I found interesting and encouraging.

My only quibble with the book was the wish that there were a few more immigrants who were just ordinary people, even decades after they immigrating. Most of the people in the book are celebrities, wealthy and successful business owners, or important political figures. I suppose those are the sorts of immigrants most likely to be introduced to a former president, and they make excellent stories to highlight the great contributions immigrants continue to make to life in the United States, but immigrants who struggle to make ends meet, working a couple of jobs and raising children, are also worthy of respect and dignity. (Not that I think the former President disagrees, of course; they just aren't in the book.)

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Amazon and Bookshop are affiliate links. I borrowed this book from my dad.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Janie's Choice: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, published this novel in 1937. It received mixed reviews and fell into relative obscurity before Alice Walker revived interest in Hurston, and this novel in particular, in the 1970s. 

Janie is a young woman bursting with life who yearns to discover herself and experience the world, but is unable to articulate her amorphous desires. Early in the book, she sits under a blossoming pear tree, gazing at the bees and flowers.

It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously.

Her grandmother tried to keep her safe by marrying her off to a relatively wealthy farmer, but Janie withered. Janie could never recognize her grandmother's love, her desire to see Janie safe rather than fulfilled. Nor did her husband understand Janie's heart. On a whim, Janie runs off with a man on his way to a town established for and run by blacks in Florida.

In Eatonville, Janie's new husband, Jody, becomes the mayor. He restricts Janie's freedom, forcing her to stay isolated from the community, a trophy wife. After his death, she falls in love with Tea Cake, a charismatic but troubling man. 

The end is spectacular and I don't want to give anything away. I reveled in much of Hurston's prose.

This book is my new first choice for an African American novel for my seniors in high school. It's much more approachable than Invisible Man, though it still includes important themes and insights into a world my own children probably don't understand.

There remain content considerations, so I encourage you to read it yourself before assigning it to your own children. Among other difficult subjects, Janie abandons her first husband, is intimate with Tea Cake before marriage, and endures emotional and physical abuse from more than one man.

The vernacular speech may also be difficult for a high school student to understand. It is helpful to read it out loud. I also heard on a podcast that listening to an audiobook version while reading along makes it much clearer.

For my own education, I listened to the Close Reads podcast episodes on Their Eyes Were Watching God. I also found an episode of Black Chick Lit, which I found highly entertaining and insightful (language warning).

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. Links to Amazon and Bookshop are affiliate links. I checked this book out from the library and then requested a copy from another member of PaperBackSwap (affiliate link).

Thursday, December 8, 2022

May 2022 Book Reports

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck - The author modified a truck into a camper and took off across America with his dog, Charley. My experiences with Steinbeck in the past were mixed, but this was a delightful book. His descriptions of the Badlands, the Redwoods, San Francisco, and many other places were a joy to read. Though confirmed in most of his opinions, he relished conversations with people from all backgrounds and walks of life, listening carefully to their stories. The book is as rambling as his journey, including a protest of school integration in New Orleans along with the magnificent vistas of the west. (purchased used)

A Priest in the Family: A Guide for Parents Whose Sons are Considering Priesthood by Fr. Brett A. Brannen - link to my post (gift from our diocese)

The Conscience of Israel: Pre-exilic Prophets and Prophecy by Bruce Vawter, C.M. - I thoroughly enjoyed Vawter's A Path through Genesis, which I assign to my ninth graders, so I went hunting for a few of his other books. This one examines the role of the prophet in Israel and then specifically explores the lives (such as we know them), the contexts, and writings of  Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and Jeremiah. Vawter reveals enduring messages from these men of God beyond predicting the coming of the Messiah. I appreciated this book for myself and may offer it to my high schoolers when these books of the Bible show up in our high school plans. Unlike A Path through Genesis, this book does not contain the prophetic books discussed, so you would need a Bible for the texts. (purchased used)

The Chosen by Chaim Potok - This is one of the suggested supplemental books for Mater Amabilis's Level 4 history plans (eighth grade, twentieth century). This is the story of two young Jewish boys in 1940s New York City who become friends despite being from different (and often opposed) schools of thought. Over the years, their friendship is shaped by and shapes their families and each other in profound ways. This is a good option for the Level 4 student because it's provides insight into life in America during World War II and the creation of the state of Israel without reveling in the violence of warfare and the concentration camps. (requested from a member of

Door to the North: A Saga of 14th Century America by Elizabeth Coatsworth - This is one of the many quality historical fiction books brought back into print by Bethlehem Books. In this book, Coatsworth imagines the journey of a young Scandinavian to Greenland and a grand new world. First Son read this as a complement to his early American history study this year (sixth grade). (purchased new)

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

Monday, December 5, 2022

Daughter, Wife, Mother: Kristin Lavransdatter

by Sigrid Undset
translated by Tiina Nunnally

This book is a masterpiece of historical fiction set in fourteenth century Norway. Kristin Lavransdattar is a beloved child who becomes a loving wife in a marriage between two deeply flawed people, a mother full of love and anxiety, and a wayward child of Christ. 

I first read this book as a young wife without children. I enjoyed it, but didn't realize it's true worth until this second reading. I don't know if it's my own maturity or the new translation, but I understood and loved Kristin much more.

But always with that secret, breathless anguish: If things go badly for them, I won't be able to bear it. And deep in her heart she wailed at the memory of her father and mother. They had borne anguish and sorrow over their children, day after day, until their deaths; they had been able to carry this burden, and it was not because they loved their children any less, but because they loved with a better kind of love. (p. 854)

A simple search online will reveal hundreds of sites sharing great thoughts on this book; I won't bother to attempt anything to compete with them. I do, however, encourage you to read this trilogy if you haven't already, or if you haven't read it in many years. If the single volume intimidates you, find some copies of the three books individually. The new translation is more accessible than previous translations.

Feeling of longing seemed to burst from her heart; they ran in all directions, like streams of blood, seeking out paths to all the places in the wide landscape where she had lived, to all her sons roaming through the world, to all her dead lying under the earth. (p. 1062)

Highly recommended. 

I have received nothing in exchange for this review. Links to Amazon, Bookshop, and PaperBackSwap are affiliate links. I purchased this book with a gift card from my brother's family.

Monday, November 28, 2022

April 2022 Book Reports

Katharine Drexel: Friend of the Oppressed by Ellen Tarry - I read an older version of this book from Ignatius Press's Vision Saints series with the subtitle Friend of the Neglected. The books in this series are written at a good level for 4th-8th grades. I pre-read it before assigning it to my seventh grader last year as part of her American history studies. The book describes the life and calling of St. Katharine Drexel, who gave her life and her great wealth to teach and care for Native Americans and African Americans at a time when many others discriminated against them. She is one of my favorite saints. I liked this book, even though I think if it was written today some of the language used would be different. (purchased used)

Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery - This was my very favorite book in the Anne series when I was a teenager. In the past few years, I've read the entire series again, looking forward to this one. It did not disappoint. A few of the incidents poor Rilla endures in the book seem to depict her less highly as a woman than I would like, now that I'm a mother myself, but the strength and courage of the people who suffered at home during World War I is inspirational. It would be an excellent choice for a sensitive young reader not ready yet for a more graphic book about the war itself. (purchased audiobook)

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry - link to my post (received as a gift)

Beowulf: A New Translation by Seamus Heaney - link to my post (purchased new)

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

Monday, November 21, 2022

Adventures from Europe to Mongolia: Season One of the Far From Home Podcast

Far From Home

I learned of this podcast when listening to a recent Planet Money podcast episode. I was immediately intrigued by this modern day adventure story of two brothers traveling from London to Mongolia in the Mongol Rally in 2016. First Daughter is studying the Middle East, Central Asia, and India this year in her geography course (Level 5, tenth grade), and I thought this might be a good option for one of the two supplemental books on the region. Not knowing what to expect, I listened to all of season one before assigning it.

Scott Gurian and his brother, Drew, along with two other friends, drove their ridiculously tiny cars through tunnels, over mountains, and through rivers. They travelled 11,000 miles and visited almost twenty countries, including some, like Iran, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which are infrequently visited by Americans.

The podcast does include some strong language and slightly mature references, but nothing that I find concerning for my high schooler. Overall, it's a great introduction to lots of countries and modern travel. Russia's invasion of Ukraine stymied the Mongol Rally in 2022 (replaced with a new offer of adventure from the organizers), but we can experience the 2016 Rally vicariously through this podcast. (Let's be honest: I would never attempt the Mongol Rally. But I love listening to adventures like this.)

I intend to continue listening to the podcast, but have currently only finished season one, which is the only season I will assign. I imagine you can find Far From Home wherever you listen to podcasts. (I just use Google's app on my phone.)

You can find the Mater Amabilis high school Geography plans here. I would recommend assigning these lectures once a week after finishing the earth studies book in the first term (The Seashell on the Mountaintop). A student wouldn't quite have time to finish them at that speed, so you could either skip some episodes or extend them past the end of the year. I intend to double them up for First Daughter, but she loves to listen to books and lectures on her phone while outside running around so an additional episode a week won't be a problem for her. On her own time, I will probably also ask her to read I am Malala (Young Reader's Edition) and Everything Sad Is Untrue, but those are both relatively quick reads for her. She will narrate the Far From Home episodes, but not the other two books.

List of Episodes

01: Getting Started (29 min) and (optional) 01a: Bonus Episode (10 min)

02: What Kind of Car Do You Drive to Mongolia? (30 min)

03: What Will We Eat? (22 min)

04: Final Preparations Before the Big Day (31 min) and (optional) 04a: For a Good Cause (12 min)    

05: Hitting the Road (28 min)

06: Mad Dash Across Europe (28 min)

07: The Real Rally Begins (30 min)

08: Not What We Expected (25 min)

09: An Eye-Opening Experience (28 min)

10: Culture Clash (35 min)

11: Just Plain Weird (37 min) and (optional) 11a: Bonus Episode - Voices from the Door to Hell (6 min)

12: Breaking Down (24 min)

13: Should We Stay or Should We Go? (32 min)

14: From Bad to Worse (25 min)

15: Whatever It Takes (34 min)

16: The Roads Get Rougher (30 min)

17: Stranded (31 min)

18: Wrong Way (26 min)

19: One Surprise After Another (32 min)

20: The Going  Gets Tough (32 min)

21: A Costly Mistake (30 min)

22: The Longest Day Ever (26 min)

23: The Finish Line (37 min)

24: Looking Back (39 min)

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. The podcast is free. Links to Amazon and Bookshop are affiliate links.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Monsters and Dragons: Beowulf

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation
by Seamus Heaney

Beowulf is a foundational text included in our Mater Amabilis high school plans for ninth grade English (Level 5 Year 1). Though you don't have to follow all of the plans, the history plans for ninth grade include references to Beowulf, so they complement each other. (The history honors lectures schedule The Anglo-Saxon World which includes even more details on Beowulf, and is highly enjoyable.)

Beowulf is an adventurer who follows stories of a monster to the Daneland, where he kills first Gendel and later Grendel's mother. Many years later, he vanquishes a dragon in his own land, though he loses his life in the struggle.

I haven't read Beowulf in any other translation, but this one was clearly understandable and enjoyable. There is an introduction by the translator that discusses Beowulf for some context and provides some insights into his translation. I read it, and motivated students may find it interesting, but it's not included in the Mater Amabilis plans.

This bilingual edition of Seamus Heaney's new translation of Beowulf shows the Anglo-Saxon on the left page and a modern English translation on the right. Also, the margins on the right have helpful notes describing the poem, like section headings. Line numbers are included.

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

Monday, November 14, 2022

Dreams Deferred: A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

This title of this play comes from the Langston Hughes poem, "Harlem," in which he asks

What happens to a dream deferred / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?

Three generations of the Younger family live in a cramped apartment full of faded furniture. An anticipated insurance payout check might change all their lives forever. 

Though first performed in 1959, the themes of justice, hopefulness, and the grinding weariness of inescapable poverty remain relevant.

I am considering using this book in our senior spring as a substitute for Invisible Man, which I pre-read earlier in the school year and decided not to assign to First Son. The play is obviously much shorter, so I would also find some additional resources. I still have a few years before my second child will be a senior.

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Love Is the Fire: Works of Mercy

by Sally Thomas
The October days looked caught in amber. Amber was the color of the land as it rose and fell beneath the high, dry sky. At night the moon rounded and rode above the soft edge of the trees, breathing its calm blue light. The world at this time of the year felt enormous, tall and wide and empty. (p. 103)

Works of Mercy is the first novel of my friend and fellow Mater Amabilis advisory board member, Sally Thomas. In the book, the widow Kirsty Sain lives alone, not just in her home, but in her thoughts and actions. She skirts around the edges of other people's lives. She cleans the rectory, but tries to schedule her weekly cleaning when the priest is not at home. She attends daily mass, but tries to avoid talking with the other participants. When cornered by Janet Malkin, a talkative mother of many (an indefinite number as they run and wander so much Kirsty can't keep track of them), she remains taciturn. She observes everyone as if from a distance.

At the same time, her thoughts circle repeatedly through memories of the people she left behind in England when she came as a bride to America. The relationships with her parents, her grandmother, her aunt, and her lover are revealed in her memories nearly as detached as the relationships of her present. 

But as Janet and her family begin to view Kirsty as a friend, Kirsty finds herself drawn unwillingly into their lives. Begrudgingly, she visits them and prepares meals for them. When tragedy strikes, she comforts them and suffers with them.

Kirsty's works of mercy allow the Malkins to press close to her. Kirsty learns to love and to suffer with those she loves. The end of the book resolves few problems; it is instead merely the beginning. Kirsty cradles a new little baby and realizes she cannot go back. She is a part of their lives, whatever comes.

I have received nothing in exchange for this post. I purchased a copy of this book. Links to Amazon are affiliate links.