Organizing the Reading Queue- Again

As part of my September reset, I decided developing a reading plan is as important for an aspiring book blogger to solidify and set a firm agenda for the books I want to read and review for the final quarter of 2019.

My list consists of 7 books I hope to read and review by year’s end. That might not sound particularly ambitious, but my schedule has become quite packed this school year so for me, it’s pretty ambitious. The only reason I even hope to finish is that three of the books on this list are in the process of being read. Two of them are near the halfway point.

Here’s the fourth quarter reading queue (not to be at all tinkered with by distraction or whimsy!):

Fiction

 

Christian

 

Nonfiction or Historical

  • Setting the Record Straight: African-American History in Black and White, by David Barton. I’m more than halfway done with this one as well, so expect a review soon.
  • The White Horse King: The Life of King Alfred the Great, by Benjamin R. Merkle. This one is probably going to take the most time and be the last book review of 2019.
  • The Offline Dating Method by Camille Virgina is a soon-to-be-released manual to help women break away from the online dating nightmare and learn how to attract and connect with men in the real world. The early reviews seem to indicate that this author’s approach is helpful when it comes to real world socialization in general, and not just romantic connections. Being blissfully married with a robust social life myself, I’m interested in this book for reasons of curiosity and to examine its viability.

What are you reading or looking forward to reading?

 

 

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: A Short Story

walter mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Kindle Edition. Story Originally published in 1939.

You can read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty online here for free. It’s a quick read. If you’ve never read it, I would love for you to read it since this review is full of spoilers.

Walter Mitty is a married man -at least middle aged but probably older- who lives his daily life taking orders from his wife, but inner life is the place where he gets to be the man he wishes he was. It doesn’t take much for him to retreat into his fantasy life. A hospital, a newspaper headline, any minute reference can send him off into an adventure of mythical proportions.

Unfortunately, Walter often zones out and goes to Fantasyland at the most inopportune moments, including behind the wheel of his car, where he almost hits another car:

“Back it up, Mac! Look out for that Buick!” Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. “Wrong lane, Mac,” said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely. “Gee. Yeh,” muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked “Exit Only.” “Leave her sit there,” said the attendant. “I’ll put her away.” Mitty got out of the car. “Hey, better leave the key.” “Oh,” said Mitty, handing the man the ignition key. The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.

That brings me to a question I pondered with one of my daughters who also read the story:

Which came first: The Chicken or the Egg?

The story opens with Mrs. Mitty unpleasantly pulling Walter from yet another one of his intense daydreams. He finds him driving them into town at an unacceptable 55 miles per hour, a full 15 mph faster than Mrs. Witty feels is safe. In fact, very few of Mrs. Mitty’s interactions with Walter are free of reproof, command, or request. Walter’s frequent trips to faraway exotic places, and his wife’s responses, left my daughter and me commiserating on what, if anything, James Thurber is trying to communicate here about Walter and Mrs. Mitty’s lot in life. It surely couldn’t be the idea his daughter wrote in the introduction of the Kindle edition:

I celebrate his Daydream Method of small vacations from tedium and “quiet desperation”. As a child I was reassured to know that this practice could continue into grown-up years.

The chicken or the egg question as it came up in our discussion at home was this: Was Walter Mitty given to these sudden and occasionally dangerous daydream vacations because his wife was a nag who made him miserable, or had she become a nag as a result of Walter’s inability to live in reality long enough to do anything more than just enough to get by? Thurber doesn’t tell us, leaving the readers to come to their own conclusions.

Recently, we watched the 2014 film adaptation of this story, which is quite different from the original James Thurber story, save for the frequent daydream vacations taken by the title character. Hollywood leaves us with a Walter Mitty who finds so much real-life adventure, including true love that his need for vacations to Fantasyland diminish to nearly nothing.

Thurber’s original story leaves us with Walter in the rain, leaned up against the wall of a drugstore, where his wife commanded him to wait for her, smoking a cigarette as he heads off into his imagination, where without fear, he faces a firing squad.

Tales From Shakespeare

tales from shakespeare

Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb. Originally published in 1807. Hardcover, 304 pages.

This is a children’s book, or at least it’s supposed to be, but I absolutely love this compilation by the renowned brother and sister authors. These narrative renditions of Shakespeare’s works are quite well done. This is not a book of synopses of Shakespeare’s plays. They are the stories themselves transformed into literary narratives suitable for children. Here, as an exmple, is the introductory paragraph from the Lambs’ translation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

There lived in the city of Verona two young gentlemen, whose names were Valentine and Proteus, between whom a firm and uninterrupted friendship had long subsisted. They pursued their studies together, and their hours of leisure were always passed in each other’s company, except when Proteus visited a lady he was in love with; and these visits to his mistress, and this passion of Proteus for the fair Julia, were the only topics on which these two friends disagreed; for Valentine, not being himself a lover, was sometimes a little weary of hearing his friend for ever talking of his Julia, and then he would laugh at Proteus, and in pleasant terms ridicule the passion of love, and declare that no such idle fancies should ever enter his head, greatly preferring (as he said) the free and happy life he led, to the anxious hopes and fears of the lover Proteus.

Clearly, this is not Sparks’ Notes nor a Cliff Note’s paraphrase. These are well presented translations from gifted authors. Charles and Mary Lamb, whose stories are told in the introduction  of this volume, were a troubled and intriguing pair. Plagued by mental illnesses so severe that Mary Lamb was institutionalized for killing their mother, the two cared for each other throughout their lives.

Despite their troubles and hardships, they were highly regarded and well respected within the literary community. This volume of Shakespearean tales, along with other volumes, were commissioned to them to compile. Charles wrote the tragedies, while Mary wrote the comedies.

I received this book as a gift, and since I have only ever read four of Shakespeare’s many works, and three of those in high school, I took the opportunity to read the stories and familiarize myself with the characters and plots. I have neither the desire nor intention to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do appreciate a rudimentary knowledge of his lesser produced works. Tales from Shakespeare allows me to do acquire it.

The entire first volume is available for free online through Project Gutenberg. You can read it here, but I really like this beautifully illustrated, special edition in hard cover.

5 out of 5 stars.

 

The Old Man and the Sea

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The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, published in 1952. 112 pages.

This weekend, I decided to read this short novel from Hemingway for a couple of reasons. The first is his poetic way of describing natural beauty, and the second is because this is a very short book, and I was guaranteed to finish it off in less than two days. It is a very satisfying man vs. nature novella.

Santiago is an old fisherman, once successful, who has experienced a long run of bad luck on the seas. For a time, the young boy Manolin was his apprentice fisherman, and caretaker on and off the boat. However, since Santiago has gone for so long without catching any fish, his parents forbid him from fishing with him any longer. They send him to apprentice with more successful fishermen.

Manolin obeys his parents, but his heart is still with old Santiago, and he checks in on the solitary fisherman every morning and every night. He makes sure that he eats, gets him his morning coffee, and they talk baseball. Both love Joe Dimaggio.

One morning Santiago heads out early, determined that it will be the day his luck turns around. He loads his skiff and sails out farther than he normally would, following the current and the birds overhead who seem to indicate a place where he’ll find a large school of fish.

The thing I love about this book, despite having zero experience with sailing, is the way the sea is almost a character all its own. This was something I noticed when reading The Lion’s Paw and Captains Courageous as well. Here, Hemingway contrasts the way older fishermen like Santiago and younger fishermen characterize the sea:

He [Santiago] always thought of the sea as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things about of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar, which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought. p.29-30

Leaving aside the political correctness or lack thereof in Hemingway’s description, it’s a poetically beautiful description of the sea which gives the reader a vivid picture of how much the old man loves her.

On the day when he goes far out to sea, his luck does indeed turn. He hooks a gigantic marlin, so large that it pulls him farther and farther out to sea. He holds on to marlin, suffering intense pain, hunger, and discomfort for two days. In the end…

You’ll just have to read it, which you can do for free right here. It’s so short that the only thing left is the ending, and I don’t want to spoil it for you!

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

What is Classic Enough to Be Classical?

I already know the answer to my own question, but as usual, Mr. Joshua Gibbs has offered me educational food for thought. In his article Classical: A Word in Need of a Common Sense Definition, Gibbs uses his trademark -hypothetical?- conversation to demonstrate that we have woefully complicated a term that most people innately understand. Namely, what we mean when we identify our selves as classical educators or classical homeschoolers:

I would like to argue that classical educators should own up to a common understanding of what the word “classical” and “classic” mean. Rather than explaining classical education in terms of Dorothy Sayers and three stages of learning— which makes Sayers out to be little different from Freud, Piaget, or any of the other 20th century theorists who were always reducing childhood to a sequence of stages— classical educators should happily admit that “classical” connotes “old things” and not be embarrassed by it.

I agree, because while the whole grammar, logic and rhetoric thing speaks to me as a nerd type, it’s really not revolutionary. For example, we all *get* that you teach kids their multiplication tables when they are very young so as to prepare them for more complicated math later. Internalizing the multiplication facts makes it much easier to solve complex equations which also include a knowledge of multiplication facts.

This principle can be applied to phonics, the scientific method, historical dates, or myriad other subjects. You fill the stufdent with the basic knowledge while they are young and spongelike (the grammar stage) to prepare them for later stages. Even educators who have no frame of reference for the classical education model intuitively know this.

We also know that the spirit of postmodernism tries desperately to assert that there may be new, better, more fashionable ways to transport a child from the grammar stage to the rhetoric stage. They never give up the fight to discard the tried and true no matter how well it works, and  no matter how much cultural or educational carnage their experiments leave in their wake. We all see how it is turning out, which is the reason for this current revival of classical education.

The fact that the basic stages of a child’s mental development are widely understood, even if only intuitively, is why Gibbs is inviting those of us involved in the movement to consider embracing a common sense, common man’s approach of describing to others what it is we mean by classical education. In this conversation, he invites us to listen in to one such explanation, one which proves the statement I made above. Most people basically already know what classical means:

Fellow on a train: What line of work are you in?

Gibbs: I’m a classical educator.

Fellow: What’s that mean?

Gibbs: Well, when you hear the word “classical,” what are the first things which come to mind?

Fellow: I suppose classical things are usually old things. Ancient Rome. Statues. I also think of classical music, which is old music, and I’ve heard that classical music is really good— and it probably is— but I’m not really into it, even though I probably should be. Or maybe “classical” is related to “classic,” as in “classic cars” or “classic rock.” So perhaps “classic” means something which is old, but still kind of good.

Gibbs: To be quite frank, I could not have defined the word “classical” any better myself. Would you mind humoring me by answering another question?

Fellow: Why not?

Gibbs: Supposing your understanding of the word “classical” is spot on, what do you suppose a classical education is?

Fellow: I suppose it’s an education that centers around old things and old music.

As the conversation unfolds, Gibbs explains to the fellow traveler why we esteem the old things as “good”. You can read the rest here, but there was one bit that jumped out at me precisely because it hits me where I live:

Gibbs: A moment ago, you said that you’ve heard “classical music is really good,” and that this judgement was probably true, but that you nonetheless don’t like classical music. And then you said something really fascinating. You said, “I probably should” like classical music. How come?

Fellow: If everyone says it’s good, it probably is.

Gibbs: Lots of people say Post Malone’s music is good, though. There are songs of his which have well over a billion streams on Spotify.

Fellow: That’s true, but Post Malone doesn’t seem much like Beethoven.

Gibbs: Agreed. How come?

Fellow: Because when I hear a song by Beethoven or Mozart or whoever, I always think, “I should probably like this.” But no one has ever heard a Post Malone song and said, “I should probably like this.” People like Post Malone’s music immediately, but if they don’t like it immediately, they would never say, “I should probably like this.”

Gibbs: Why not?

Fellow: By the time you learn to like Post Malone, everyone will have moved on to something else. However, if it took you ten years to learn to love Beethoven, at the end of it all, everyone would still be listening to Beethoven.

Gibbs: So, if you learned to love Beethoven, there would be a community of Beethoven lovers waiting for you in the end?

Confession: With the exception of a few of his piano somata’s, I’m not a huge fan of Beethoven. This is despite the fact that my children attend, and I teach at, a classical school.  In fact, some of my taste in music is pretty base by comparison. I really enjoy music that makes me want to move. I’ve matured enough in the years since we began our classical journey that popular music has lost most of its appeal, but I have developed an interest in Latin music because I like to dance. In my house, only. I have even considered joining a Zumba class just so I can indugle my hip gyrations guilt free.

An old, if not classical music art form that I have begun to enjoy a great deal over the past year is jazz. In particular, Duke Ellington’s compositions from the 1930s and 1940s. It’s old, it’s birth is unquestionably Western, but I know that it isn’t classical. As I read Gibbs’ piece, I wondered if a day might come when someone might consider it classical. And I wondered if I will ever, in my heart of hearts be what one might call a truly classical educator. If nothing else, I do love old books.

This is one of my favorite Duke Ellington recordings, In a Sentimental Mood, recorded in 1935:

 

Another confession: I have absolutely no idea who Post Malone is either.

 

More Short Stories and Mid-year Roundup.

Where did the time go? It’s the first day of the third quarter of 2019. I have a birthday coming up very soon, even though it feels as if I just celebrated one. Preparation for the upcoming school year is well underway, and even though we’re still 16 months away from our country’s next major election, we received a political call at our a few nights ago. The mother’s encouragement trusim about long days and short years rings quite true today as I consider how quickly time  seems to be flying by.

Short stories worth a look:

In preparation for the new school year when our kids will be studying British literature (last year was American literature), I had the great pleasure of meeting with several women much smarter than me for a time of literature appreciation. We read short stories by British authors.

One of the best things about short stories (I’m certain I’m repeating something I’ve said before), is that they can be read quickly. Because of that, even those  who have limited amounts of time for leisure reading can read great literature which transmits time tested values of what is True, Good, and Beautiful. Others, such as the first one I will highlight, are just a light and fun good time, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that either.

  • Jeeves Takes Charge, by P.G. Wodehouse (read at link), is a story published in 1916 by the renowned British humorist. Wodehouse is one of my go-to writers when I want to read something that is not only funny, but intelligently so. This story is the one in which we meet the indomitable valet Jeeves for the first time. As the story suggests, he takes charge from the moment Bertie Wooster, the young heir, hires him into his employ.
  • The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (read at link) first appeared in a magazine in 1891, and is one of many Sherlock Holmes short stories. A red-headed client appears with a fantastically bizarre and mysterious tale which has left him confused. Holmes, using his masterfully astute gift of deduction, figures out that what appears on the surface to be nothing more than a curious story is actually the beginnings of an elaborate criminal heist.
  • The Blue Cross, by G.K. Chesterton is the first of Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. Of the three stories I read this weekend, this was by far my favorite. Up until this point, I hadn’t read any of the Father Brown stories, but that is about to change. This story, filled with equal bits of mystery, humor, and profound -without being preachy- insights into the nature of man and nature itself, enveloped me from the first. I am very glad to be entering the world Chesterton’s fictional works, albeit a little late.

Mid-year roundup:

  • I took a minute to tally up the book reviews I’ve posted to date this year and I’ve written a grand total of 20. That isn’t many, especially when you consider that four of those were chapter installments of the Feminine Mystique throughout January.
  • In what counts as a pretty big departure from how I’ve handled this blog over the preceding three years, I’ve also written 21 discussion posts, covering everything from education to book trends,  genres and characters, and even a couple on current cultural trends. As I expected, when I began to add more of those kinds of posts, the conversations here were more animated and robust. I appreciated hearing all of your thoughts on the various topics. So thank you.

My favorite books of the year so far:

  • My favorite book that I’ve read so far this year is one that I haven’t reviewed here yet. I haven’t reviewed it for two reasons. The first is that I’ve picked it up and put it down so many times that it took what seemed like forever to read it. I often needed to set it aside and let the ideas marinate for a few days. Now, I want to re-read it and I have a friend reading it along with me so I hope to have a review up in August. At that point, I’ll divulge the title. I do have other favorites which I’ll break down by fiction and nonfiction.
  • My favorite fiction book for the first half of this year was A Girl of the Liberlost. The beauty, language, and deep relational insights of this book have stayed with me.
  • My favorite nonfiction books of the year tied for first place. The first is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. I find that I am still challenged by everything about this book. It is a magnum opus for the digital age. My second favorite nonfiction book to date at mid-year is Beauty Destroys the Beast, by my friend Amy Fleming. Yes, it’s a favorite because she’s my friend. More than that however, it’s a favorite because it speaks to a subject that I actually care about, and I agree with what she has to say about it.

Looking ahead to the second half of this year:

  • I am currently reading a few books, including a novel by the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse whose short story I reviewed above. In addition, I have three non fiction books in queue. However:
  • School starts around the middle to end of August, and we still have a lot of prepping to do for that.  At that time, my entire reading queue may be overtaken by British literature, so don’t be surprised if all the book reviews here are books by British authors -except for books I’ve already read but not yet reviewed.
  • What we refer to as “birthday season” in our family has meant we’ve been partying like it’s 1999 since May, partying overtime in June, and won’t really let up until the beginning September when all the of seven birthdays in our immediate family are wrapped up. I’ve eaten too much cake. Speaking of which, here’s one I made for one of my girls upon special request:

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This dark chocolate cake, with peanut butter frosting, chocolate ganache drizzle and Reese’s peanut butter cups on top was very good! It was also so rich that no one (guests and family alike) could finish an entire slice. I think that’s the sign of a good dessert; you only need a little of it to be sated. We’re on a sugar moratorium around here to recover, making exceptions for, and only for, each of our respective birthdays.

Summer in Florida is oppressively hot, but we’re still managing to have great fun because, why not? I still can’t believe that we’re half way through 2019!

How’s your year been so far? Read any good books lately?

 

 

Russell Hoban’s Frances Series

bedtime for frances

Some stories never get old or go out of style. The children’s picture books featuring Frances the Badger by Russell Hoban is a series which fits this bill. My children have aged out the books, or at least I thought so, but we’ll get to that a little later.

For the past several months, a lovely young homeschooling mother who is a friend of mine has been teaching our daughter to play the piano. Despite numerous attempts to offer her remuneration for her time and talent, the only thing she requests of me is that I read to her youngest children in exchange for the lessons. Since her native language is Korean, she’s determined that the time I spend reading to her kids is a valuable exchange.

Our home library is constantly evolving, so I’ve exhausted all the books we have which might sustain the interest of a three and five-year-old (even accounting for repeating books!). So yesterday I went to the library in search of books to read to the children this week. After reading through several newer children’s books and finding only two of nine worth checking out, I searched my mental Rolodex for specific authors that might suit my needs and narrow my search.

I originally thought of Arnold Lobel, but there was nothing on the shelf at that branch which sparked my interest. Then I remembered Frances, and all the stories about her that are funny, well-written, and teach lessons in ways that are profound and true without being preachy. My children thoroughly enjoyed the books when they were younger. I found copies of several books in the Frances series:

While preparing breakfast this morning, I noticed our 12-year-old sitting at the table with the entire stack of books in front of her, saying to herself, “Ooh! I love these books!” She cracked open Bedtime for Frances, and got my attention as she read a funny exchange from the book out loud.

After several unsuccessful attempts to fall asleep, and several trips to her mother and father with various excuses and fears about things that go bump in the night, Frances’s father puts his foot down, exasperated with her constant interruptions which are disrupting his sleep:

Frances said, “There is something moving the curtains. May I sleep with you?”

Father said, “Listen Frances, do you want to know why the curtains are moving?’

“Why?” said Frances.

“That is the wind’s job,” said Father. “Every night the wind has to go around and blow all the curtains.”

“How can the wind have a job?” said Frances.

Everybody had a job,” said Father. “I have to go to my office every morning at nine o’clock. That is my job. You have to go to sleep so you can be wide awake for school tomorrow. That is your job.”

Frances said, “I know, but…”

Father said, “I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office, I will be out of a job. And if you don’t go to sleep now, do you know what will happen to you?”

“I will be out of a job?” said Frances.

“No,” said Father.

“I will get a spanking?” said Frances.

“Right!” said Father.

“Good night!” said Frances, and she went back to her room.

We had a good laugh, and I realized that we never really age out of a good story. Russell Hoban, using Frances the little badger, provided children with great stories.

If you have young ones and you’ve never read these, you should check them out.