Some quick notes on things we’re using a lot lately:
• Spellosaur app (Rilla and Huck). With the paid version, you can enter lists of spelling words for each kid. They both ask to play it daily, which is fine by me. 🙂 Huck’s favorite part is recording his own audio for the words, which he then laughs at on playback during the activities. I wouldn’t normally be working on spelling with a five-year-old but he enjoys the app so much, it isn’t work. For Rilla, I’ve been entering word lists from an old copy of Spelling Power. She also created a second user account to use for French words. Here, too, she loves recording the audio herself.
• I couldn’t find our Chronology game (I know it’s around here somewhere), but Rose and Beanie have been absorbing a lot of history this year, in a jumble of time periods. Science history in the Renaissance, American history between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, medieval English literature (now heading into Renaissance there too), all sorts of non-coordinated reading going on. We took our old timeline down last year—it was up too high and we weren’t really adding to it anymore—and I wanted some way to make chronological sense of all these events they’re soaking up. So I had a brainstorm and made our own custom Chronology set, sort of. We got index cards and wrote various key events and people on them, with a little stripe of colored highlighter on one side to indicate science, literature, arts, or political history.* They put the dates on the back of each card. We play the game just like Chronology: I put down one starter card and then they take turns picking another card, taking a stab at the date, and putting it down in a row in chronological order. If we can keep it up, we’ll build a nice collection of the main points of our history/science/literary studies this year. They get pretty giggly and competitive in the game, so it’s been way fun so far.
*A fifth color denotes fictional works related to a period we’re studying. There are certain novels and films that will always represent a particular time and place—Betsy in Spite of Herself, for example, popped immediately into the girls’ minds when we read about German immigrants building a home away from home in Milwaukee.
• The other thing we do quite a lot in our history studies is link whatever we’re reading about to our own family history, as far as we’re able. This applies mostly the 18th century and on, of course (although we do have a couple branches on the family tree traced back to the 16oos). I like to pull up our tree on Ancestry.com and take a look at who among our ancestors was living in a particular area at a given point in time. The big waves of Irish and German immigration in the first half of the 19th century, for example, became much more vivid to the girls when they got a look at the names and disembarkation dates of their forebears who were among those masses.
It occurred to me that I could use the voice-record feature on my phone to dictate a quote directly into Evernote. Then, later, when I’m back at my laptop, I can clean up the typos (voice recording always generates some gems) and paste the quote into my Tumblr, which, as I mentioned the other day, I’ve decided to try out as my commonplace book.
I’m still using my tumblr to collect other articles as well, but I’m using a tag to collect all the book quotes I want to hold on to. So far, I’m enjoying the process: the format encourages me to add my own thoughts below a quote, if I wish, but there’s no pressure.
January 27, 2014 @ 6:49 pm | Filed under: Television
After the high drama of last week, this episode proceeds at a more subdued pace—right up until the final scene, which comes off like a promo instead of a scene: Previously on Melrose Abbey. But truly, there wasn’t a whole lot of Melrose in the house this time around. The most shocking development was that Mary voluntarily spent ten minutes in the nursery with baby George.
A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.
Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books. Marcus Aurelius kept one–which more or less became the Meditations. Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts. Thomas Jefferson kept one. Napoleon kept one. HL Mencken, who did so much for the English language, as his biographer put it, “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Bill Gates keeps one.
Not only did all these famous and great individuals do it. But so have common people throughout history. Our true understanding of the Civil War, for example, is a result of the spread of cheap diaries and notebooks that soldiers could record their thoughts in. Art of Manliness recently did an amazing post about the history of pocket notebooks. Some people have gone as far as to claim that Pinterest is a modern iteration of the commonplace book.
Fun to hear thoughts on this topic from someone outside homeschooling circles. Apart from a few quiet book bloggers, nearly everyone I know who is familiar with or interested in commonplace books is a homeschooler.
I’ve tried many interations of the practice over the years. (This recent Onion piece made me laugh, because I relate all too well to the feeling that just the right notebook and just the right pen will make, this time, all the difference—only re quote-keeping rather than creative writing.)
It’s always the copying out by hand that gets me. I bookmark quotes all over the place (via Diigo, Tumblr, or Evernote, depending on whether I want to share them, if indeed I want to share them at all). And I highlight the dickens out of the things I read on Kindle. But as methods go mine are pretty scattered—and, except for the Kindle highlights, only cover my internet reading. I’ve no single place to go to pore over passages that have struck me in, you know, books made of paper.
Mental Multivitamin has made a consistent practice out of commonplace-book-style blog posts for some ten years, recording quotes that struck her in the books she has read. Would that I had followed her example. The paper-loving side of me craves a handwritten version, but realistically I know myself (and my achy wrists) well enough to know that I would wind up with that dogeared stack of waiting books Ryan mentions in his post—the very thing he cautions you to avoid. Typing is always going to work better than writing, for me.
I wonder if I would keep up with a Commonplace Tumblr? Typing or pasting book quotes into that platform? Same principle, easier on the wrists. It would certainly be a steadier use of my tumblr than the haphazard link-collecting I do there. (My original vision for my tumblr back in 2009—good grief, has it really been that long?—was to collect links to all the reading I do online, or all significant reading, at least: a companion to my reading log. That didn’t pan out over the long haul.)
I began this post a couple of days ago and have since decided to give it a try. I’ve hit the reset button on my tumblr (figuratively) and am going to try to copy out book quotes into once or twice a month. It’s an experiment; I may lose steam after a while, but we’ll see.
(I could do it here instead, but when I post things here I feel more pressure—entirely self-imposed—to add my own commentary. Over there I don’t seem to mind tossing a quote onto the page and letting it speak for itself. Then, if I have more to say—as indeed turned out to be the case with the article above—I can bring it over here and expand upon it.)
While finishing up this post just now, I was amused to find “commonplace book” among my categories. I probably made a similar resolution years ago. Didn’t take, obviously.
Surely we all occasionally buy books because of a daydream we’re having—a little fantasy about the people we might turn into one day, when our lives are different, quieter, more introspective, and when all the urgent reading, whatever that might be, has been done. We never arrive at that point needless to say…
January 20, 2014 @ 2:29 pm | Filed under: Television
I once read a scathing review of my book Little House by Boston Bay in which the reviewer lambasted me for utterly mischaracterizing events in a small Massachusetts village during the Revolutionary War. The reviewer was something of an expert on the Revolution and was openly disgusted with my apparent ignorance. Such-and-such would not have happened during the War of Independence, he declared, did not happen. And he was right: because, you see, Boston Bay does not take place during the War of Independence. The novel is set in 1814, some thirty years after the end of the Revolution, during the War of 1812. The reviewer, it turned out, disliked my book because he thought he was reading an entirely different book.
It struck me this week that I’ve been doing the same thing with Downton Abbey. I’ve been mentally classifying it as the same kind of smart, probing period drama as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, when really what it is is a beautifully dressed Melrose Place. It is, I can confidently say, the most gripping and linguistically clever Melrose Place I’ve ever seen. But it’s never going to be Pride and Prejudice, in which every tiny morsel of plot supports the primary narrative and themes. Here we will have characters stride in, devastate a life or two, and stride back out into the credits, serving purposes more dramatic than transformative.
I’m trying to make my peace with this, trying to stop expecting a bite of orange when I sink my teeth into an apple.
And so we say goodbye to Braithwaite, that “manipulative little witch,” as Thomas called her, and to Lord Gillingham as well. Ah, Tony, we hardly knew ye. Mrs. Hughes dispatched Edna as effortlessly as she would have swatted a fly. (And just as viciously. “I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down”—good heavens! Since that’s exactly what happened to Anna last week, this remark is in rather bad taste.) It’s interesting to note that Mrs. Hughes is the real mover and shaker of this season so far, the catalyst of events in the lives of Isobel, Carson, and now Tom. I’m fully expecting her to be the eventual force of reconnection for Anna and Bates. Perhaps not; Anna is generally her own catalyst, but I can’t imagine Mrs. Hughes will be able to watch this painful distancing go on for long without interfering in some small way.
But I’m not quite ready to talk about Anna yet.
I liked Lord Gillingham quite a lot and I thought Mary’s scenes with him were her finest of the season so far—the layers of her emotions each distinct and apparent. Affection, wistfulness, regret, ache. But it was too soon, too soon, for us to root for that romance, and in the end, her gentle refusal felt entirely familiar. We’ve seen Mary in this moment before. The only fresh note was when her calm mask cracked, her eyes filled with tears, and she spoke of how Matthew fills her brain and she isn’t ready for that to change, isn’t ready to mentally leave him. That was a raw, honest moment, but still the whole story arc left me feeling like I’d been strong-armed back onto a roller coaster before I’d caught my breath from the last looping ride. Also, now I have to think about Tony being sad and stoic out in the world somewhere, making the best of a life with poor Mabel.
Will everyone please stop bumping into Isobel in the graveyard? We get it, she’s there a lot. One tombstony encounter would have been sufficient to make the point (and I’m certain we’re going to see another proposal before the season’s out—I only hope we don’t have to watch another regretful ‘I’m terribly sorry but no’).
At the Lotus Club—why on earth didn’t Tom or Tony go rescue Rose sooner instead of sitting there watching that drunken Bullock slobber all over her? Oh that’s right, it was to contrive a moment—and a very sweet moment it was—between Rose and the singer. Well, it could have been much less clumsily contrived. Now the question is, will Mr. Ross be dispatched brokenhearted in the next episode a la that nice young farmer, or is he the next Tom Branson/Michael Gregson?
Speaking of Michael, it’s remarkable how the bold, modern Edith shrinks back into her chastened, pre-war self the moment Rosamund raises an eyebrow in her direction. But then I think Edith has a lot of uncertainty about this very unorthodox path she’s walking. At least her aunt doesn’t underestimate her, the way everyone else persists in doing, year in, decade out. “Edith’s as mysterious as a bucket”—oh, come on. (I forget who said it—Mary? Cora?)
I’ll leave the tortured Kitchen Love Rectangle to the rest of you. Still wondering why Daisy chooses to stay at Downton in misery rather than go be mistress of her very own farm. If ever a woman needed a change of scenery, it’s that one.
As for Anna and Bates…I don’t know. I’m so unhappy about this story arc that I find myself just hoping it’ll all be resolved quickly, and then I feel sick, because of course that’s the point. What happened to Anna can’t be ‘resolved quickly,’ can’t be neatly wrapped up in a three-episode arc. It’s 2014, and rape should not be Melrosed.
I did watch an interview with Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, discussing her confidence in Fellowes and her feeling that the storyline is not gratuitous (i.e. not being played for drama only). I appreciate her thoughtful comments (here’s the link if you can’t see the video below), and I want to say I think Froggatt is doing a beautiful job of conveying Anna’s pain and trauma. But. But. Something still isn’t sitting right with me, and it’s what I talked about last week: the decision to create a rift between Anna and Bates before her trauma. His sharpness and jealousy, the suggestion that Anna was being a bit flirty with Mr. Green. Those two writerly decisions (and always, always with this show, we come back to the very visible hand of The Writer, who is meant to be invisible) are so wrongheaded they undermine whatever sensitive or unflinching exploration of a very real trauma they are striving to create.
I’m also bothered that Anna’s trauma is becoming all about Bates. He did kind of bully her with his “I will find out.” Bates is being written all wrong this season, period.
Well, Carson’s being written rather wonderfully, I’ll give Melrose Abbey that much. He wins best line this week: “I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast.” Oh, the layers of disdain he piles into the word ‘foreign’!
So who’s your pick for the next lady’s maid? A return of Miss O’Brien? She’s not that old. I’m trying to remember what ‘older’ women Thomas knows…