January 9, 2017 @ 6:30 am | Filed under: Books
Leslie in VA absolutely made my week with this comment:
Many, many years ago. . . you gushed over “Fruitless Fall” and that book truly changed our life. I read it, my husband read it and our older kids read it. My husband (phobic of bees) wanted to get bees (still does). Fast forward to today and my oldest son, 21, now works on a queen bee farm in Hawaii. He was truly inspired by that book. Thank you for your part in him finding his path!
I told Scott, “I feel like I was just given a George Bailey moment without having to get to the desperate jump-off-a-bridge stage first!” Thanks, Leslie, really. And thanks to all of you who’ve let me know my book chatter has been meaningful to your family life at some point or other. It means a lot to me to know that, truly. 🙂
Leslie went on to ask,
Also, thoughts on goodreads? I think it is a valuable tool but decreased activity over the past year. Are people reading less, not using it, is there another site? I have been keeping track of our books for over 5 years (kids have different shelves) because I often draw a blank when asked for suggestions for a certain age. Wondering what you think of its usefulness?
Have you read Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter? Delicious!
Taking the last question first: I have not! It’s been recommended to me by a number of Bonny Glen readers over the years, and I think I even snagged it on Kindle at some point. Why haven’t I read it yet?? If anyone understands my reading tastes, it’s you folks. Perhaps I can make it a January treat.
As for Goodreads, I too enjoy it but my use comes in fits and starts. I’ve been somewhat more consistent at updating my books in the past few years…at least, until October hits. Then, if it’s a year I’m serving on a Cybils panel (and since I’m now chairing the YA Fiction panel, every year will be that sort of year), it all falls apart. I can’t keep up with the logging.
I’ve tried once or twice to log my kids’ reading that way, but it’s hopeless. Too darn many books. Beanie does log her reading at her own account, though.
I admit I seldom read Goodreads comments on books I’m interested in—not the general pool of comments, that is. I do enjoy reading the remarks left by my Goodreads friends and acquaintances. It’s always fun to enter a book and discover six of my GR pals gave it four stars.
Oh, but about those stars—I hardly ever give any! Sometimes I’ll award them, but only if it’s (in my opinion) a four- or five-star book—and I’m terribly inconsistent at that, having entered many excellent books without putting in any stars at all. It bothers me that a three-star rating (which is supposed to mean “I like it”) is considered by writers (and readers) to be a lackluster, low rating. I don’t want to deflate someone’s scores (and feelings) by seeming to give it a bad grade. And writers work too hard on books for me to go around slapping a depressing two stars on their efforts, even though I’m bound to feel ‘meh’ about some of the books I read. So—I mostly ignore the whole star machinery. A zero-star rating isn’t factored into the book’s score. And it certainly doesn’t mean I thought the book was worth zilch. Some of my lifelong favorite books show up as zeroes in my list, because I didn’t bother with the stars.
I keep thinking I could use Goodreads to log incoming review copies, but there too I get bogged down by the busywork of entering titles.
In the end, my sidebar booklogs are a more accurate reflection of my year’s reading. I wish I’d begun keeping them sooner than 2008!
How about the rest of you? Do you have a good(reads) system?
A tangent: as I write this, at 8:30 Sunday evening, I’m listening to Rose and Beanie play a piano-and-violin duet in the next room—a song from one of the Zelda games, I believe, quite lovely—and my heart’s about to burst with delight. They each started group piano classes around age eight. Rose ‘graduated’ from the music school last spring, at age eighteen. Beanie still attends, along with Rilla, who’s in her third year. And Huck is beginning this week.
Beanie has been taking violin lessons for about a year. The instrument she plays on was given to me by Scott, my senior year of college. He knew I’d always wanted to learn and found a second-hand three-quarter-size violin somewhere. I took lessons for a few months from an elderly fiddle player who taught me out of an old hymnal. I confess I didn’t get very far. I was self-conscious about practicing in earshot of my roommates. The violin got bumped around through several moves, suffering a broken bridge at some point. And the bow disintegrated. The summer before last, Rose spent six weeks in Colorado with my parents and was given the rather amazing opportunity of assisting their neighbor, a violin repairman, with the restoration of my old instrument. She brought it home to Beanie, who’d been pining to play strings for ages.
And here we are. They sound, to this mama’s ears, utterly magical. When they play, I don’t just hear melody—I hear history.
Our weekend picture book reading:
The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman. A pencil draws a host of characters, and then when they clamor for color, he draws a paintbrush to help out. But when he draws an eraser, things begin to go downhill…my kids love this book, from the mild chaos created by the Calvin-esque eraser to the beleaguered pencil’s clever solution. This book would pair nicely with Harold and the Purple Crayon—or that Looney Tunes where Daffy Duck is being tormented by the paintbrush that created him (wielded, of course, by Bugs Bunny).
A Visitor for Bear by Bonny Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton. I wrote about this gem in 2008: “This was one of the Cybils nominees, and when I read the library copy, I knew it was a keeper. Sweet, funny story about a rather curmudgeonly bear who, despite his best efforts, finds himself playing host to a persistent and amiable mouse. I showed it to Scott, who instantly pegged it as a perfect Rose book. Endearing art, charming story.”
Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier and Suzy Lee. From my 2013 booknotes: “A series of quirky creatures is reading a series of little books, each smaller than the next. Very clever way to play with the convention of the codex. All those adorable nested books are irresistible to my kids. And the art, oh the art: utterly to swoon for.”
How to Read a Story by Kate Messner and Mark Siegel. <– This last one, I’m informed, will be our Monday pick, if we can find it. It fits nicely with the meta-book themes of The Pencil and Open This Little Book, which is probably what made Huck think of it. Some of you will recall that I caught Huck on video reading this one out loud, back in 2015. (Those character voices—oh my heart!)
January 8, 2017 @ 12:26 am | Filed under: Books
Yesterday I picked up one of my cleaning-spree finds: Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt. Just the thing to reset my brain after Cybils reading, I thought. Hornby’s what-I’m-reading essay collections were hugely important to my reading life several years back. He was writing monthly columns about his own reading life—not reviews, but meditations and meanderings, an ongoing conversation with the books he was immersed in each month. Those essays, originally published in Believer magazine and then bundled into several print collections, struck me as wittier, more deliberate versions of the kind of book-notes I’d been casually posting here on the blog for some time. I learned pretty early in my blogging career that I don’t enjoy writing formal book reviews (worrying, as I do, that I’ll wind up at dinner someday with the author of something I gave an unfavorable review to)—what I like is having conversations about books as I’m reading them. It’s during the reading that I’m burning to talk about what’s on the page. After I finish a book, I want to cocoon with it a bit, and finding words for it feels like work.
So as I said, I had more or less figured that out within a year of blogging, and I decided to think of what I was doing here as discussing rather than reviewing—sharing my enthusiasm, thinking out loud, capturing what thoughts the book put in my head while I was reading it.
When, in March 2009, I discovered that Nick Hornby was doing something similar (albeit in a more substantive, organized fashion) in his Believer essays, I felt my own thoughts come into focus. To chronicle one’s reading life—now there’s an activity that excites me. Ms. Mental Multivitamin, then as now one of my favorite bloggers (she posts these days at Nerdishly), had been doing exactly that at M-mv for longer than I’d been blogging (and probably since before Hornby’s essay series began).
(Thinking back, it’s likely I heard about the Hornby essays from Ms. M-mv in the first place.)
When I picked up Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt yesterday, my first reaction was to chuckle over the memory of what happened when I first posted a picture of it here in April, 2009. I presented the photo as evidence of Scott’s thoughtfulness—the book appeared on our bed not long after I’d mused aloud about wanting it—and a few commenters politely wondered if my husband might perhaps be going round the bend.
Q: “Was it a hint that the house was messy, was it exactly what you wanted, or was it a way of saying it’s ok honey, I love the house just the way it is?”
Huck would have been three months old at the time, and I imagine if a book about actual housekeeping had appeared, unsolicited, on our (unmade) bed as a sort of hint that it was time to tidy things up, said book might have hit a nearby wall…or head. 😉 But that would have required an entirely different kind of book, and an altogether different sort of husband.
And so whenever I come across Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt, I chuckle over the critical importance of context. Hornby’s title, of course, refers to two of the books he discusses in the volume.
And here we get to why I love to read the book-musings of other readers: because writers like Nick Hornby and Helene Hanff (O my beloved) don’t just write about the books; they write about relationship. The relationships they form with books. The ways their mental and emotional landscapes are altered by those books. There are personal connections and anecdotes; the books become a part of the reader’s history, shaping new narratives. All the books on my shelves have stories behind them, not just inside them. When I hold a volume, I’m remembering not only its contents, but where it came from and what was happening the first time I read it. Our old books, the ones we’ve hauled from house to house, state to state (uneconomically, sentimentally), contain multiple stories—their own, our family’s, and sometimes, if they came to us used, the stories of previous owners. Like Billy Collins, I’m entranced by the narratives we find in the margins:
…the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page
A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil —
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet —
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
—excerpt from “Marginalia”
When I pick up Hornby’s Housekeeping, I find it holds a piece of the congenial, bookish blog community I’ve enjoyed for so many years; and a memory of the happy jolt I felt when Scott surprised me with it; and the reading jags I went on because of Hornby’s recommendations; and the pleasure of curling up with those books while my last infant slept on the (unmade) bed beside me, in a room that existed in a state somewhere between housekeeping and the dirt.
All these associations rushed upon me before I’d even opened the book to page one this afternoon. I hit the Preface (page 11, technically) and felt immediately compelled to open the laptop and click New Post.
“I began writing this column,” Hornby writes,
“in the summer of 2003. It seemed to me that what I had chosen to read in the preceding few weeks contained a narrative, of sorts—that one book led to another, and thus themes and patterns emerged, patterns that might be worth looking at. And of course, that was pretty much the last time my reading had any kind of logic or shape to it. Ever since then my choice of books has been haphazard, whimsical, and entirely shapeless.”
You see why I love him.
“It still seemed like a fun thing to do, though, writing about reading, as opposed to writing about individual books. At the beginning of my writing career I reviewed a lot of fiction, but I had to pretend, as reviewers do, that I had read the books outside of space, time, and self—in other words, I had to pretend that I hadn’t read them when I was tired and grumpy, or drunk, that I wasn’t envious of the author, that I had no agenda, no personal aesthetic or personal taste or personal problems, that I hadn’t read other reviews of the same book already, that I didn’t know who the author’s friends and enemies were, that I wasn’t trying to place a book with the same publisher, that I hadn’t been bought lunch by the book’s doe-eyed publicist….”
“But this column was going to be different. Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which was read the books I wanted to read. And if I felt that mood, morale, concentration levels, weather, or family history had affected my relationship with a book, I could and would say so.”
Which is exactly what brings me back to these essays, time and again. And to other chroniclers of the reading life. Give me your moods, your weather, your family history, your ‘tired or grumpy or drunk.’ Give me the reader as well as the book. In the end, that’s my favorite genre, whatever it’s called.
January 7, 2017 @ 10:55 am | Filed under: Books, Photos
In a couple of weeks, this blog will be twelve years old. (So will The Wine-Dark Sea. Melanie and I, who were to meet in the comment box, happened to begin our blogs on the same day.) Even with the occasional dry spells I’ve had, twelve years means a lot of posts. 3,324 of them, in fact. Plus another 496 in drafts.
Them’s a lot of words.
Every couple of years, when the anniversary rolls around, I decide to wander through the archives and revisit old entries. Usually this results in my noticing broken links, wonky formatting, and missing photos (due to my Typepad-to-Wordpress migration in 2007), and I get first sidetracked and then overwhelmed by the attempt to clean things up, and within a week or two I’ve forgotten all about the whole Memory Lane idea. I don’t expect this time to be any different. 🙂
In that first month, January 2005, I published ten posts, some family-focused, and some diving right into gushing about books and things we loved. In that, I’ve been pretty consistent over the years. In personality tests, I always fall right on the introvert/extrovert line, and I realized a few years back that my extrovert tendencies manifest largely in the impulse to show-and-tell. If I’m loving a book, I need to talk about it. If a resource or game has sparked enthusiasm for someone in my family, I need to spread that information. It’s in my wiring. I’m sure that’s why blogging has been such a satsifying vehicle for me. This whole site is my turn to get up in front of the class and talk about my favorite stuffed animal.
And so Signing Time is prominently featured in Bonny Glen’s first month, because in Jan 2005 we were in the thick of our ASL immersion. Wonderboy’s hearing loss had been firmly diagnosed a few months earlier (after a stint with tubes to rule out conductive loss due to fluid), and he got his first pair of hearing aids in November 2004, at eleven months old. The Signing Time DVDs were daily viewing in our home for a good five years or more, and they still get pulled out from time to time even though everyone knows them by heart. They pop up over and over again in my posts from 2005-2010 or thereabouts. We even got to Skype with Rachel at one point.
The first picture book I recommended here is one I happen to have sought out just the other day, because I want to read it to Huck and Rilla soon: the beautiful Boxes for Katje. From my notes in 2005:
When I read this picture book to the girls, Jane had to take over for me near the end because I was so choked up. Candace Fleming’s beautiful story takes place in a small Dutch village, post World War II. Young Katje receives an unexpected package in the mail: a small box containing soap, socks, and—wonder of wonders!—chocolate, gifts from an American girl named Rosie. What follows is a heartwarming exchange of letters between the two girls, and a vivid illustration of the ripple-effect of generosity.
February 2005‘s posts could almost have been written this year, so full are they of the same books and resources I’ve just been pulling together for use this year. I guess that’s because Rilla and Huck are about the same ages Jane and Rose were in 2005. I’m cracking up right now to see I wrote about A Case for Red Herrings, because I found that on a bottom shelf just yesterday and shrieked with glee to Jane over it. Also discussed:
• It’s Not My Turn to Look for Grandma, another beloved picture book I grabbed last week for my read-soon shelf;
• Brave Writer and A Writer’s Jungle—and here I am about to teach classes for Brave Writer this spring;
• The Scrambled States of America—that one was a library book and I think I checked it out again for my younger set a couple of years ago, but it might be time to put in another request;
• Jim Weiss’s storytelling CDs, in particular the Shakespeare one;
• By the Great Horn Spoon, one of our all-time great daddy-readalouds;
• Small Meadow Press paper goods—Lesley Austin’s lovely stationery and planner items which are still in daily use on my desk (I keep our homeschooling notes in her beautiful Wild Simplicity Daybook); and
• even a mention of our beloved (and now in tatters) anthology, Favorite Poems Old and New.
That month was also the first appearance of my “These People Crack Me Up” tag, and I’m giggling afresh over some of those Rose and Beanie stories. The “woset in my closet” story!
(Amazon Affiliate links on this site help keep the lights on)
Scott is going to growl at me for this post. Old pictures of our children make his heart ache, the big softie.
January 6, 2017 @ 4:33 pm | Filed under: Books
There. I’ve been through every book in the house. There are hundreds stacked up, ready to be donated, just as soon as someone who wants them shows up with boxes. Thousands more survived this round of cuts, and I’m itching to curl up *right this minute* with about 80% of those. (Insert despairing cackle.)
I’m steeling myself to let some of the weaving books go. Some were reference for writing the Martha books; others were instructional for my own rookie efforts. I’m going to let Spinning and Weaving With Wool and the big book on linen find homes with someone else. (Sitting here writing this post, I couldn’t remember the exact title of the linen book. Then I remembered I probably ordered it from Amazon. And sure enough, there it is in my order history. From 1998.
I’m a little freaked out right now
One notable observation we made while culling the collection was how many books could be let go due to our now relying on the internet for their kind of content. Informational texts, science projects, cookbooks. (Okay, but I did keep Lotions, Potions, and Slime—I don’t care if you can find all those activities on Pinterest now; that book has family history.) If I ever need to know how to finesse linen in a handloom again, I’ll Google it.
Last night’s picture book: Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner. So good. Huck was initially baffled by the strange alphabets of the aliens’ and insects’ languages, but as soon as he wrapped his head around the concept, boy did he enjoy interpreting the dialogue. He started over again as soon as we finished, and then he took it to bed with him. I love experiencing a wordless picture book with a child—how his trepidation gives way to glee as he gets into the spirit of the ‘reading.’
My favorite parts of this book are the ‘cave paintings’—the insects’ murals on the wall under the radiator, depicting the history of brave stands the ants and ladybugs have made against the fearsome feline attacker. The detail is remarkable, and you get the fun of deciphering another wordless story within the wordless story.
I finally got my 2016 booklog up to date (more or less—not everything’s linked up, but the titles are all there). I may have to declare Goodreads bankruptcy, though, and just begin fresh with 2017. (Which is what I wound up doing last year.) It takes too long to click through all the layers of search new book—add new book—choose shelves—set start and finish dates when you’re doing it for dozens of books at once. Will I keep up as I go next year? Probably not.
I’m pining for a new episode of the West Wing Weekly podcast. Holidays, schmolidays!
Consider this a PSA—Creativebug is running a special: one month of free unlimited access. If you explore my Creativebug tag you’ll see how much enjoyment my family wrings out of our $4.95/month subscription.
(affiliate link, but only because I’m a happy customer)
January 5, 2017 @ 2:50 pm | Filed under: Books
I found a new(ish) middle-grade novel on my Kindle I’d been meaning to read with the kids. It’s a review copy of The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, sent to me by the publisher via Netgalley. I usually pre-read new books before diving into them as readalouds, but I liked the description and first chapters of this one quite a lot, and I decided to just dive in. So that’s our next novel, and we’ll save The Firelings for later.
Secret Horses takes place an English hospital during the second world war, a hospital for sick children—tuberculosis, it sounds like so far. The young narrator, Emmaline, sees winged horses in the mirrors and windows of the hospital. In reflections, the horses are vivid and present, nuzzling cups of tea on bedside tables. But when you look behind you at the real room, there’s no horse there, winged or otherwise. So far (chapter two) only Emmaline can see them. Highly promising, methinks, and Rilla agrees. Huck is worried about the dying Anna, the oldest of the Briar Hill children, “but I’m okay with going a bit farther to see what happens,” he says.
Here’s a list of our middle-grade readalouds from 2016.
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla
The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
Ace: The Very Important Pig by Dick King-Smith
And these audiobooks:
Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary (narrated by Stockard Channing—perfection!)
Frindle by Andrew Clemens
The Witches by Roald Dahl
Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
I feel like I’m missing something! But those are the ones I have written down.
All of these books went over well with Huck (age seven) and Rilla (who turned ten in April). I think Harriet the Spy was the only one that didn’t really grab Huck. He wasn’t sure about Understood Betsy, heading in, but by chapter three he was hooked. And when we came to the end, he asked in a quivery voice, “There are more Betsy books, right?” I had to tell him that no, not about this particular Betsy. But we do have some wonderful Betsy books waiting in the wings…
I think Mixed-Up Files and Understood Betsy were their favorites. And Frindle was a marvelous listen, probably my favorite of the bunch—although I would happily listen to Stockard Channing read the phone book, and her Ramona was quite satisfying. Rilla and I got about halfway through Ramona the Pest before our Overdrive checkout period ended and it disappeared from our queue. We’re back on the waiting list now.
A Lion to Guard Us was the perfect companion to our colonial America studies. It’s a short novel and had the kids pretty well entranced, although there were parts that distressed my sensitive Huck: the mother’s death, early on, and then the sad disappearance of the kindly doctor at sea. He’s okay with hearing about death in a story as long as there is plenty of space for discussing it as we go, and a cozy spot next to me under a blanket.
All in all, a pretty good year for readalouds. Of course this is only one piece of the literary picture. There were also poems and picture books, history and fairy tales. Basically, I read to them all morning and then send them out to play while I work.
Scott handles the bedtime stories and I need to get a list from him, because I can’t remember what he read this year.
Wonderboy (too old now for his baby blog name, but what do I call him here?) got into the Boxcar Children books this year, and Dan Gutman’s Weird School series was heartily enjoyed by both my boys. They all read lots of comics—Calvin, Foxtrot, Peanuts—and too many graphic novels to list. And I’ve utterly given up at keeping track of what my older girls are reading. Too. Many. Books.
Beanie and I read a lot of good stuff for her literature class, which I teach to her and three other girls. In 2016 we did Jane Eyre, Pygmalion, The Tempest, Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain, the first book of the Faerie Queen, and…what am I forgetting? We start Lear next week. She also has a taste for nature-and-science-related nonfiction, and I’ve pulled a lot of selections off this old Jane list for her.
Highlights from my own reading year. So hard to confine to a small space! If I leave Cybils candidates for later, to narrow the field a bit, then the standouts are Passage and Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis—Passage in particular was wrenchingly good, and I find myself thinking about it all the time. I’d like to revisit it soon. I reread Julie Schumacher’s comical Dear Committee Members on a plane this summer because I so enjoyed the voice of the beleaguered English professor’s many lively epistles. And rereading Jane Eyre in preparation for teaching it burned that novel more deeply into my heart than ever. (Burned, get it? Motifs of fire and ice?)
I also had the fun this year of previewing a chunk of an upcoming Cassandra novel by Stephanie Spinner. She left me hanging and I’m itching to read more! (Hint…)
A new Connie Willis, Crosstalk, landed in my Netgalley queue just before the Cybils took over my Kindle. It’s got a high-priority spot on my 2017 list.
January 4, 2017 @ 3:53 pm | Filed under: Bloggity, Books
In addition to the household Fresh Start cleaning spree, the New Year always means an overhaul of my sidebar here on the blog. It begins with the year’s reading log, which must be transferred from sidebar to its own page. (In 2016 I got smart and started the page early—but then Cybils overtook my reading life and the page remains, as my sidebar note says, about thirty books behind. Perhaps more like 27 today. I’m getting there, book by book.) The empty space under the current year’s heading always drives me crazy until I’ve finished a book. Lots of years, I find time on January 1st to read a short children’s novel—last year it was Miss Happiness and Miss Flower—just so I can remove the placeholder text and enter an actual book title. I roll my eyes at myself while doing it, but I do it all the same.
Except I haven’t done it this year. Too busy sparking joy with every book in the house. I’m reading Cat’s Cradle, because I never have and Scott asked me to. 🙂 We often slide each other reading requests, wanting our frames of reference to be shared as much as possible. When Jane was a newborn, Scott would read aloud to me while I nursed her. We started with some childhood favorites the other had missed—The Great Brain (his); Harriet the Spy (mine). (You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Scott’s Ole Golly, let me tell you.)
Cat’s Cradle isn’t a long book, but this week’s pattern of cleaning frenzy in the morning and brain-work in the afternoon has left me too tired to make it through more than a few pages when I hit the pillow at night. So the gap remains.
The reading log is my sidebar equivalent of Flylady’s shiny sink. Once it’s been updated for the year, I have to start moving other things around. As the year’s book log grows longer, it throws columns off balance. I rearrange things and in January have to arrange them back. Which leads to a reassessment of what else is occupying space there. I’ve nixed some bits this year, tried to make the informational bits up top more compact so you get to the part that contains actual content—the recent comment widget and the “Caught My Eye” links—more quickly. I let the links section slide a bit during Cybils season, but I’m planning to use it more actively now, entering short remarks on the shared links so that section is more like a mini-blog within the blog. I know from your comments in the past that some of you do click through to see if I’ve added new links, which makes me so happy. 🙂 I’m glad you find them useful or interesting.
I’ve found a way to add links to this section directly from Feedly—very convenient! But I have to go in manually to add commentary.
At the bottom of my sidebar you’ll find a new addition: a “Blogging Like It’s 2005” blogroll. Yes, a blogroll—seriously old-school! This is the fruit of a conversation on my Facebook page. I asked my FB friends questions whether they still read blogs, and if so, do they use a feed reader like Feedly or Bloglovin, or do they rely on social media for notifications of new posts. I was surprised to discover that almost everyone who answered said they pretty much just click through on links from Facebook or Twitter.
It gives me the shivers to think of relying on the caprices of Facebook to find out if blogs I love have new content up. I will forever mourn Google Reader, but Feedly does the job pretty well for me—and has some nifty post-sharing functionality that comes in quite handy, as I mentioned above.
But I seem to be in the minority. Now, until this conversation I was posting my own blog links on FB only sporadically, because 1) I hesitate to spam my friends’ feeds with my own content; and 2) Facebook’s tricksy algorithms have a way of downgrading your updates if they too frequently contain links to the same website. Which means there’s no guarantee your friends will see your new post links, even if you do put ’em on FB.
But that’s fine, now that I know people prefer to see blog updates in their newsfeed, I’m happy to comply. And I have to say I’ve been thrilled by all the discussion happening in the comment box this week—thank you all for taking the time! 🙂
Well, as I said, this FB conversation led to a burst of wistful reminiscing about the lively blog community of old. A few of us decided to try to revive the spirit of those days by posting more often, more chattily, and by making an effort to comment on one another’s blogs. Thus the new blogroll. Let me know if you’d like to be included.
Today’s picture book: well, so far we’ve only read Hedgie’s Surprise again. (“Because I love it so much!” Huck pleaded.) But I found Jan Brett’s The Wild Christmas Reindeer mixed in with non-Christmas books (so we missed it), and I think since we’re on a Brett kick, it’s what I’ll read tonight. I did begin The Firelings last night, by the way. Huck had played outside all day and fell asleep two pages in. And today I happened upon The Minstrel in the Tower, which is a nice short readaloud that I haven’t done with this set. I’m contemplating holding off on Firelings for now.
I’d like to start sharing thoughts on some of the Cybils nominees I read this fall. To begin with, here’s the blurb I wrote for one of our finalists, a beautiful historical novel called Salt to the Sea.
As the Nazi Reich collapses and the Soviet army sweeps across the East Prussian countryside in the winter of 1945, three young refugees find themselves thrown together among the crowds of desperate, uprooted travellers. The distinctive voices and histories of Joana (“the nurse”), Florian (“the knight”), and Emilia (“the Polish girl”)—each guarding painful secrets—create a harrowing picture of the lives thrown into tumult by the war. A fourth narrative voice, the self-aggrandizing declarations of a young Nazi soldier named Alfred, adds an unsettling counterpoint to the narrative. The fates of the four narrators will converge at the doomed MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship targeted by Russian submarines. Ruta Sepetys brings authenticity and heart to this moving, gorgeously realized work of historical fiction.
It’s hard to pull off good historical fiction, and even harder (in my opinion) to manage multiple narrative voices gracefully. Sepetys excels at both endeavors. Her characters have lodged in my heart—particularly the old shoemaker, whom you’ll meet on the road. Highly, highly recommended.
I’ve been so busy this week, I haven’t had time to explore the other Cybils categories. We always try to read as many finalists as we can, especially the picture books! Time to fill up my library cart…
January 3, 2017 @ 2:58 pm | Filed under: Books
Tidying our bookshelves is like conducting an archaeological dig through the strata of my own life. All these selves I once was, or earnestly intended to be. The fiber-arts books have been collected from around the house onto one shelf. Look what an accomplished weaver, knitter, quilter, embroiderer I was going to become! In twenty years, I think my tally of completed crafts is: two quilt tops (fleece backing, no actual quilting involved); two scarves; one set of handwoven dish towels; three cotton dolls; and a felt pouch of some sort. Let’s not count the number of unfinished projects tucked away.
The older girls helped me with the sorting and shelving today, and the air was thick was nostalgia and laughter. Rose snatched up some old American Girls handbook and they all burst into song. I guess it had a CD inside at some point? Every other book, it seemed, triggered hilarious memories of how much they’d either loved or loathed it. I certainly wasn’t immune: I may have done some squealing over a stack of old hardback Weekly Readers I must have brought home from my parents’ house at some point. Anybody remember Mishmash and the Venus Flytrap?
Perhaps my favorite find was an old—very old—we’re talking circa 1998—Hearthsong (or was it Chinaberry?) craft kit, only half used. I know some of you remember the Preschoolers [sic] Amazing Window Hanging Kit, am I right? A very wee Jane and I completed about half the designs in the kit: the autumn leaf, the star, the heart, the candles, the tree, the balloon? That’s not bad, actually, considering all we had going on at the time. Or is it possible I shared some of them with Alice? We must have done them out of order because the patterns left are labeled January, May, June, July, August, and September. There’s even some of the gold string left. They’ve turned up at a felicitous moment: I know a ten-year-old and almost-eight-year old who are going to enjoy decking them out with tissue paper, stained-glass-style. I probably won’t even have to cut out the black frames myself, this time around. Rilla will take over this project and produce something fabulous. Note to self: pick up some contact paper.
I filled another whole shelf with Picture Books I Must Be Sure to Read to Huck Before I Miss My Chance. He’s off playing at the neighbors’ right now, but I believe my pick for later will be Astrid Lindgren’s The Tomten, a quiet, wonder-filled counterpoint to the greedy, screechy little tomten in yesterday’s book, Hedgie’s Surprise. I still haven’t begun the next novel readaloud. The neighbor kids are out of school for another week and that means mine have places to go, people to see.
Many layers of the archaeological dig turned up books I bought with a burning appetite, intending to gulp them down immediately…but didn’t. They’ve ossified on the shelf instead, accumulating dust with quiet dignity. So now I have this desire, which I think I always have in January, to read them all just once and decide whether to keep them or pass them on. Look, here’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, which I bought because it’s featured in an essay in my beloved A Child’s Delight—but I didn’t read that essay because I knew it would give away plot points. And then I didn’t read the novel either. Perrin has never steered me wrong, but I do recall starting Mistress Masham and wandering away after a few pages. It’s T.H. White, though, who always makes me laugh! I put it sternly in the giveaway pile but now I’m second-guessing. I ought to at least take a peek, oughtn’t I?
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Let’s face it, I’m never getting around to that one, am I. Even if I do (and I won’t), it’s a big heavy hardback and I’d rather read it on Kindle. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Why didn’t I finish that one? I was enjoying it. The Zookeeper’s Wife. I was waiting for the right mood.
And of course half the trouble is that for every book here that I haven’t read, there are five old friends I have, who cry out for another visit. “Maybe it’s time for me to reread all of L.M. Montgomery,” I remarked blithely at the start of yesterday’s overhaul. Nine bookcases later, I’m sobered by the knowledge that it would probably take me forty years to read all the books in this house. And, you know, there’s next year’s Cybils to prep for.
Well, that’s the brilliant thing about picture books. You really can read one a day. Two a day! Five a day!
Johnny Crow’s Garden illustration by L. Leslie Brooke.
Huck this morning: “Why are you on a site called Goo Dreads?”
Dread is actually an apt word for my feelings about catching up my Goodreads, which (thanks to Cybils) is about thirty YA novels behind. I’m trying, but it wants time I do not have. And then there’s my booklog here at Bonny Glen, which is a whole other task. Maybe I’ll outsource it to a kid.
Today’s picture book: Hedgie’s Surprise by Jan Brett. A natural choice after yesterday’s pick. I think this one may be my favorite of Brett’s Hedgie stories. And the needlepoint patterns in the margins have me itching to paint. Maybe that’ll be my drawing challenge subject for the day.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’m hoping to sketch every day this year. A few weeks ago, Scott remarked offhandedly that I ought to draw more bears. So during that night’s art date with Rilla, I pulled up a Google image search and tried my hand at a few. Yesterday I attempted a polar bear. I went right to the good paper, which might have been a disaster because I thoroughly botched the proportions and put the face way too low. Fortunately I have learned to use something water-soluble for my first rough sketch. (Or pencil. I love pencil. A lot of instructors tell you to avoid pencil, but I think they see relative shapes a lot better than I do. I need to be able to shift things around. Like when the nose ends up where the chin should be.) I often begin with a blue or brown watercolor pencil and go over that with black waterproof ink. Lately I’m enjoying a gray Kuretake Fudegokochi brush pen. When I mess up on my first pass, as I inevitably do, I can blur the mistakes into shadow with a waterbrush. The bear is still messy but I was much happier after I redid his face in black ink.
Someone asked how I’m finding time to keep up the sketchbook practice, given all the work on my plate this year. The answer is: I give it fifteen minutes a day. That’s all. I mean, there are days when I get lucky and find some extra time, like if I sit on a bench and draw while the kids are at the playground. But sometimes I prefer to read during playground time instead. And so I’ve committed a quarter of an hour to sketching every evening at 9pm. Fifteen minutes isn’t much. (That’s a big part of why that polar bear is so messy.) But it’s something. It’s what I can manage, for now, and that’s enough.
This morning I sorted two bookcases’ worth of books. I’ve pulled together a new row of picture books for our daily selections—enough to last us for four months, if we read one a day. Every book I handled felt like another conversation, a whole post unto itself. It’s funny that I had so many days last year where I couldn’t come up with anything to blog about—I learned a long time ago all I have to do is walk over to one of my shelves.
At one point this morning I had at least a hundred books in piles on the floor, swallowing the room, when I came across our copy of Material World. Which, if you haven’t seen it, is a collection of photographs of families around the world with all their material possessions spread in front of their homes. The variation between quantity of stuff from family to family is staggering. We Americans, we…accumulate a lot of things. Like, say, books.
We finished Understood Betsy just before the holidays, and now I need to choose the next readaloud. Scott read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever the whole family (including the college kids and me), which bought me time to decide, but…I’m still undecided. We still have so many great books in the pile for this year! Jane (still home for winter break) is plumping for The Firelings. Which may have been one of the first readalouds I ever wrote about on this blog. Maybe it’s time. 🙂
After the morning’s bookcase jamboree, I took the younger kids to the playground. I’ve been a lot better about this lately—you know my older girls practically grew up at local parks, but rhythms change when you have teens, and park visits had all but disappeared from our routine for a while. But last fall I stepped it back up. They’re old enough that I can sit, as I said, and read or sketch. Or catch up on blogs. 🙂 Which makes me That Mother you see condemned in posts that make the rounds occasionally—you know, the ones written in tones half imploring, half scolding, about much you miss when you’re staring at your phone while your kids are playing. “I watched your beautiful daughter twirling around in joy and you—you missed it. Because Facebook.” Those always make me laugh. I’m like: honey, I have been taking my kids to the playground since 1995. I have stood in line at the post office with an imaginary goldfish in my hand. I have sat on hospital beds entertaining a toddler with playdough by the hour. I’ve spent all morning homeschooling them. I’ve read thousands of books out loud. Literally thousands! So here at the playground? I’m good. They’re, you know, playing. They don’t need me hovering over them on the jungle gym. In fact, you just know the next article in my feed is going to be a screed against helicopter parenting. So I’m just going to sit here with my magical smartphone and catch up on some reading. Or play a game. Or maybe even goof around on Facebook. Which is where I happened to be when I came across your post, so don’t pretend you aren’t doing the same thing.
Favorite playground moment today: we’d just arrived and my kids were already up the hill toward the play equipment. As I got out of the minivan, a preschooler in a bright orange shirt jumped out of the next car over, took two steps onto the grass, and shouted, “I’m here!” To no one, and everyone.
Today was too chilly for sitting on a bench. (Sorry, Facebook.) We had unusually heavy rains recently (I mean, it’s San Diego; rain is unusual, period) and there were big sploshy puddles all over the place. The kids mostly avoided them by keeping to the mountain peaks of the jungle gym. I decided to get a bit of exercise in by walking laps around the wide, flat grassy area adjacent to the playground. You can see the play area from the whole circumference, so you don’t even have to miss That Mother’s beautiful daughter twirling around in ignored joy if you choose.
I pulled up an audiobook I started several months ago, Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful Landmarks, which is about the language we use for things in nature—terrain, weather, flora. Specifically: the “place-words” of the United Kingdom. When last I listened to this book, I was playing Minecraft. And as soon as the new chapter loaded and the narrator with his wonderful accent began reading the opening lines, my mind was flooded with images of the house I’d built in that particular Minecraft world—a birch cabin on a bluff overlooking a river, with a village in the distance and a craggy mountain rising behind. I remember thinking at the time that Landmarks was the perfect book to listen to while playing Minecraft, since both are so thoroughly centered around terrain. It was also perfect for listening to on a brisk walk through a soggy park. Macfarlane even mentioned a Scottish word for “a person who is walking briskly”—I need to get hold of a hard copy and look it up, because I missed it on the walk, what with all the puddle-sploshing.
It’s terrible, in fact—every other sentence made me long for a print edition of the book to mark up and dog-ear—on the very day when I’ve embarked on a ruthless shelf-culling endeavor! Plus now we’re past both Christmas and my birthday. 😉 I’ll have to get it from the library, though, because Chapter 4 is all about a Scottish author named Nan Shepherd and her book The Living Mountain, “a celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.” There were easily five quotes in the first ten minutes that I wanted to copy down. Which I could have done if I were sitting on a bench staring at my phone. I’m just saying.
Backing up to the Minecraft thing for a moment—I’m amazed by how clearly I can picture that map, and even remember some of the adventures that befell me there, just because I was listening to an audiobook while playing. I mean, I’ve played a lot of Minecraft over the years, with my kids and without them. The worlds all begin to blur together after a while. Except for those I’ve explored while listening to something on audio. I went through a whole slew of lectures a couple of years ago—mostly literature classes via Yale Open Course. I can’t just sit and listen to something; I have to be doing something with my hands. (This is why I make sure my kids have something to play with while I read to them.) Nowadays I usually use the listening time to sketch. Or to clean a bathroom. File some papers. But what I have found is that the lectures I listened to while playing Minecraft have stuck in my brain more clearly than the others. You see, the vivid connections are happening in both directions. I remember the house I built during Amy Hungerford’s Lolita lecture (so great!)—a small oak farmhouse with a well in the yard. I remember being down in the nearby mine fighting skeletons during the Wise Blood lecture. During Franny and Zooey I built a house of sandstone and constructed a monster trap nearby. And for all three lectures, I can recall the professor’s words with much more clarity than the one I listened to while scrubbing the bathroom. It’s like Minecraft gave me pegs to hang the lectures on. Or a map, both literal and figurative? I know this: I remember more detail from those lectures than ones I took actual notes on.
I know, I know, this post is ridiculous. You can’t have nine sections in a daily blog post. That’s serious overkill. If I had any sense, I’d have saved some of this for later in the week when open a draft and draw a blank. But I guess that’s one thing I’ve learned about myself in twelve years of blogging. If I save it, it’ll start to feel like A Topic, like something I need brain to tackle. And I have to save all my brains for work. So it’s overkill or nothing, I guess.
Well, maybe we’ll just consider this catch-up for months of sparse posting.
January 1, 2017 @ 7:30 pm | Filed under: Family
Up before dawn to comfort a sobbing seven-year-old who awoke to the sad realization that he fell asleep before the New Year arrived. We cuddled on the couch for a long while, chattering (him) and murmuring (me). Then I let him play Minecraft for a bit so I could get more sleep.
Late morning: bacon sizzle drifting down the hall. Mmm. Scott served a New Year’s breakfast of eggs, bacon, and almond bear claw. The younger kids and I sat down together and had devoured second helpings before the first teenager made an appearance. Excellent way to start the year. Everyone was singing Moses Supposes His Toeses Are Roses all day due to last night’s viewing of Singing in the Rain.
Early afternoon: my annual New Year’s Day cleaning frenzy. I didn’t realize I was singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” until Jane chuckled at me. She says I always sing that on this day. It’s true: I love fresh starts. I love packing away Christmas and sorting through books in preparation for a new season. Sometimes I get carried away—I have mouse-cookie syndrome something fierce—and commence a heavy-duty purge. This year I seem to have gotten the pattern backwards: I started by reorganizing the boys’ dresser and wound up purging shelves in the laundry room and cleaning out under my bed. The bed part was a continuation of yesterday’s grand overhaul of my desk and all my art supplies. I keep bins of paper and ephemera under the bed, and they wanted tidying.
Then I rallied the kids to help me take down the Christmas tree and decorations. I never can last the full Twelve Days. Too much depends upon that clean, fresh January first beginning.
Scott, my hero, remembered to soak the black-eyed peas last night, and all afternoon they were simmering away with a hambone. Just before dinner, I rounded up my younger set for a readaloud. Since my last little guy is about to turn eight, I want to read our way through all our favorite picture books before my picture-book audience is grown. Of course you’re never too old for a picture book, but you know how it is. They do grow up, these children. 🙂 I just don’t want to blink and realize Huck is twelve and has never heard Borreguita and the Coyote.
First readaloud of the year: Jan Brett’s The Hat—a perfect follow-up to the kids’ favorite holiday book, Christmas Trolls.
At dinner we discussed goals and resolutions for the coming year. Lots of “I’d like to learn __” plans. 🙂 My own goals—besides the picture book readalouds—are to sort through all our books and pare down by rather a lot; and to continue my daily sketchbook habit.
Speaking of which: I haven’t picked up a pen today. Better get to it!
P.S. Cybils finalist lists are out!