Posted in book lists

Kristin and Antonia: learning from my literary sisters

Over the past month I read both Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, and My Antonia, by Willa Cather, for the first time. I couldn’t help but mentally compare the two eponymous protagonists as I was reading, as both are Catholic women written by female authors, but are in temperament and circumstance very different.

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Kristin Lavransdatter, despite being raised in a noble and loving family, enters adult life unprepared and unwilling to battle her passions and bosom sins, pursuing her own whims regardless of the shame and inconvenience it causes the people who love her and sacrifice for her. It is not until near the end of her life that she is sufficiently humbled and matured to look back with repentance rather than mere regret, and to make the hard changes in her own life that following God and living rightly demand of her. I often found it difficult to read Kristin’s story compassionately or even patiently, because her struggles and misfortunes were so frequently caused by her own headstrong will and lack of self-control, when she should have known better than to act that way! But in that judgmental stance I was often rebuked by the gentleness and guiding love of her old village priest and a monk from a neighboring city, who lamented her sin, prayed for her peace, and offered their comfort and wisdom (and sometimes their correction) in her doubt. Love her, they seemed to say to me, protect and pray for her, do not judge her. Judgment will not help to restore her soul and heal her brokenness. And they were right; the scorn and shame of her neighbors stung, but she could ignore it, and it wasn’t that weight that in the end brought her back to God and taught her how to truly love another person selflessly and without resentment.

The book is written with a tempestuousness that matches that of the protagonist’s character – in the medieval Norway of the book (accurately depicted from what I can tell – the author did a lot of research), successions are contested, old folk beliefs fight with Christianity, famines strike, arranged marriages are disputed, childbirth is incredibly dangerous, miscarriages and depression and poverty hover beneath the surface, and epidemics sweep through society. Kristin is most definitely not the only fierce and passionate individual here! Her story and its setting draw the reader in from the beginning, and hold one’s interest captive through towering heights and plummeting lows.

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My Antonia, on the other hand, is one of the gentlest and most peaceful books I’ve ever read. Antonia’s character and life are sketched out through the eyes of a man who met her when they were both children in Nebraska (she from Bohemia, he from Virginia) and watched her grow up to full beauty and maturity with the affectionate eyes of an old friend. Where Kristin is blessed with beauty, love, and wisdom in the parents who raised her but squandered it in her own impulsive and passionate way, Antonia is struck with the incredible tragedy of her father’s suicide coupled with the small-mindedness and paranoia of her mother, and yet still manages to blossom.

And yet, Antonia is a passionate woman just as Kristin is, full of strong and rich emotions that carry her with them. She is by no means a weak or mild individual; she is strong enough to work the fields with the men, beautiful enough (in action as well as appearance) to turn every head, fun-loving and spirited, brave and opinionated. What makes her different is the direction in which her passions led her. Kristin’s passions were bent, misguided, uncontrolled, turned away from the good and praiseworthy; Antonia’s were, while not perfect, aimed in general towards truth and beauty. As Jim, Cather’s narrator, puts it near the end of the book:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true […] she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

Reading both books in close succession made me realize how the choices we make and the emotions we obey shape our lives and even our children’s lives, by painting two very different possible paths down which a woman of passion, beauty, intelligence, and potential could walk. Goodness does not remove all difficulties, as Antonia found through her suffering, but neither does repentance restore what all that is lost or heal all that is wounded, as Kristin found through her suffering. And the suffering endured with passionate love for the good, for truth, and for beauty will leave a much different mark on the people around us than suffering we bring down upon our own heads through our sin and poor choices.

Posted in book lists

what I’ve been reading lately

After a rather long stretch of time in which I mostly reread my favorite fiction (Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter on repeat!) and kept up with the news and our church’s Bible-in-a-year plan, I have been diving back into the world of books. I realized that I have a lot of time in which I can read but not do much else (while Aubade is nursing, especially at night), but of course holding a book is complicated by said nursing… so I had been reading the news, surfing the web, and spending altogether too much time on Facebook, which was not helping my postpartum mood in the least. Then I remembered that all the libraries in my county have come together to create the Greater Phoenix Digital Library – meaning that more books than I have time to read are available on my phone, for free, with a simple app and the PIN from my library card. Honestly I’m not sure how I managed the boys’ newborn phases without this…

So, despite finding that a lot of the books on my wish list are checked out by other users of the library system, here are four books I’ve read this week that were completely new to me, in a variety of genres:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

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This is of course a classic, and most people who haven’t read it are still familiar with some of Angelou’s poetry, at least (I knew of her mostly through her poetry, to be honest – Phenomenal Woman makes the social media rounds fairly frequently, and I love it every time I read it). But for me, who grew up in an educated, well-off, white family, it was eye-opening to see the deep personal and emotional impact of both intimate individual hurts (like parental divorce and sexual abuse) and systemic oppression (like the racism and poverty Angelou faced herself and saw affect her community). Someone’s story can be far more impactful than all the statistics and social study lessons in the world, especially when told with the simple power and unpretentious elegance of Angelou’s writing. It’s not an easy read, because of the painful topics it deals with, but it is definitely worth reading.

The Family Nobody Wanted, by Helen Doss

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This is a memoir of quite a different type, although it touches on some of the same themes. Doss and her husband discovered as a young couple that they were infertile and that the demand for Caucasian infants to adopt was far greater than the number of babies available. So, in the 1940s and 50s, they built their family by adopting the unwanted children – children of mixed heritage who didn’t look “white” enough for mainstream American families to consider – and ended up with 12 children all together! The book is an honest look at their family life, addressing the racism directed at their children and family but mostly just full of hope and humor (I laughed out loud many times at the anecdotes Doss related – she is quite adept at capturing the funny side of disastrous moments as well as the dialogue of her young children).

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

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After reading two memoirs, I decided to switch things up and chose this post-apocalyptic novel after seeing it on one of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s booklists (in general, that is a helpful site if you aren’t sure what book to read next!). I don’t normally read this type of fiction because it is dark and suspenseful and keeps me up all night, and this was no exception… The basic premise is that a strain of the flu wiped out the vast majority of the world’s population, disrupting civilization to the extent that people are living without electricity, without medicine, scavenging and hunting to survive, holding on to what scraps of art and culture they can salvage, and falling prey to cults and prophets who offer some explanation for why so few survived. Mandel’s characters are diverse in personality and background, and the different ways they experience the pandemic (as well as the years before and after it) feel very authentic. I particularly liked how the threads of theatre, music, and literature wound through the characters’ stories without devolving into preachy passages about the meaning and value of those things in a broken world; the novel is far more about what it means to be human, and how humanity survives and even perhaps recovers from an event so utterly devastating.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

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Kristof and WuDunn examine the inequality of women in the developing world in a number of different arenas, including forced prostitution, rape (as a tool of shame or a weapon of war), maternal mortality and injury, and education. Each issue tackled is presented in light of the story of one or two individual women, spotlighting the problems involved as well as the complexities faced in addressing those problems; for instance, we see how difficult it is to truly free an underage girl from forced prostitution in the story of one young woman who returns multiple times to feed her drug addiction – which was in itself instigated by her captors and abusers. Some stories are inspiring; some are less so; and the statistics that they illustrate are often bleak. As a new mother myself, having experienced a labor (with my first) that would have resulted in death or serious injury without access to a surgeon, it is horrifying and saddening to read about women who have had similar experiences without the medical care available to me and others in the West. There is so much pain and death that could have been avoided. On the other hand, however, the book also shows us the stories of whole communities that have been improved by simple investments in education, or by deciding to take justice for women seriously. In addition to the stories and the statistics, a unique and valuable aspect of this book is the appendix listing specific organizations that are working in effective ways to address the issues faced by women in the developing world, to give the reader ideas of whom to support. I would encourage anyone – especially anyone who believes that things like rape and maternal care are only “women’s issues” – to read this book and see just how much communities can grow and heal when they come to realize that women, as in the eponymous proverb, “hold up half the sky.”

What have you all been reading lately? I’d love to hear your recommendations, since I have a short window of reading opportunity open right now!

Posted in book lists, family life, Uncategorized

books for the youngest dinosaur lovers

When Rondel fell in love with dinosaurs this fall (with Limerick close on his heels, as always), I was at a bit of a loss at first as to how to feed this love with good books. I spent a lot of time searching through recommended book lists online, as well as combing through the library catalog, and ended up bringing home quite a few of various genres, lengths, and reading levels. While I think that all of the books we ended up trying out were good books, some were definitely better than others for a young preschooler and a toddler! Two important aspects that stood out to me were quality illustrations and accurate but accessible information. In other words, mediocre art or dumbed-down language made a book annoying to me and, what mattered more, less captivating or engaging for the boys. Drawings that captured the wonder and drama of the dinosaurs could keep them riveted, and detailed information at an accessible level answered their questions and gave them a foundation for their own imaginative dinosaur play. All of the books we ended up truly loving had at least one if not both of these attributes.

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D is for Dinosaur: A Prehistoric Alphabet, by Todd Chapman and Lita Judge

This book was one of the best. The alphabet format allowed it to move through a wide range of dinosaur topics (some pages focused on types of dinosaurs, others on specific species, others on basic scientific concepts, and still more on fossil discoveries and paleontologists) without becoming overly long and unwieldy. Each page had a short poem to go with the letter and a well-crafted illustration to accompany the poem, but the unexpected bonus on each page was the extensive sidebar of supplemental information. I never read a full sidebar to the boys, but I almost always grabbed one or two sentences from them to give them more information about the drawings (which were incredibly detailed and thus led to detailed questions from the boys). This book also spent some time on extinction and what happened to the dinosaurs, which helped Rondel understand why he couldn’t just go out and find some real dinosaurs!

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Monster Bones: The Story of a Dinosaur Fossil by Jacqui Bailey

This book tells the story of a dinosaur who comes to an untimely end, slowly fossilizes, and is eventually discovered and reassembled. The science is good (one section describes how bone turns into stone at a microscopic level!) and punctuated by humorous thought bubbles from the dinosaur himself; information is broken up into segments and sidebars so that the discerning adult reader can add more or less information and time to the story as is appropriate for the listeners’ attention span at the moment. Sometimes we read them all and sometimes we skipped most of them… But more than any other book we found, this book explained fossilization and described paleontology in a way that a very young child could understand and get excited about. And since it’s rather incomplete, at least in my opinion as a scientist, to just learn about dinosaurs without understanding how we’ve obtained that knowledge, this was an invaluable resource (not to mention that most other dinosaur books will just casually mention “dinosaur fossils” and expect the reader to know what that means). It was an enjoyable book for me to read aloud and surprisingly to me, since I thought it might be a few years beyond them still, it was enjoyable for the boys as well. They even asked for it at bedtime!

In addition to these books, we had a few Eyewitness/Atlas type of books that gave broad overviews of the dinosaur era; they weren’t the sort of thing we could read straight through, but they tended to have excellent illustrations and exposed the boys to the vast spectrum of dinosaur species that existed. We also borrowed the Wee Sing Dinosaurs CD from the library and Rondel begged for it every car ride to the point of tears… but while it was a huge success with him, it drove my husband absolutely crazy! The songs are cute but far from high musical quality, and they will be stuck in your head forever once you’ve heard them a few times…

The rest of the books we brought home were either over the boys’ heads or not really at the same level as the two above. I am looking forward to reading the Magic School Bus books with them when they’re older, as I loved them when I was a kid and the dinosaur one seemed quite good when I skimmed through it this time around, but so far the boys have very little interest in them. It would also be nice to find some decent dinosaur fiction! Rondel doesn’t need the storyline aspect to stay engaged, because the dinosaurs themselves are the draw and poorly done stories detract from that, but I would enjoy it and I believe Limerick would as well (and a book that appeals to both of them is always welcome).

So there is my very short list of excellent recommended books for the very young dinosaur lover! With these, some dinosaur atlases, and some dinosaur figurines (accurate ones of course!), you should be set. Even your one-year-old may go around saying things like “metriacanthosaurus” and correcting you if you don’t pronounce “parasaurolophus” correctly, and your three-year-old should be prepared for months of dinosaur pretend play involving such things as turning into a dinosaur fossil (by being buried under pillows and blankets for “millions of years”), hatching from a dinosaur egg, roaring like a giganotosaurus, being eaten by a T. rex, and ramming his head into everyone like a pachycephalosaurus. (Results not guaranteed).

Posted in book lists

favorite books at almost-three

I think it’s time for another book list!

Rondel, about a week away from his third birthday, has discovered that subset of children’s books that have bears as the protagonists, and is completely in love with them. His favorites span quite a wide range of reading level (from board books to chapter books) but it seems like the bears are the appeal right now. So from easiest to most difficult, here are his current favorite bear books!

The Moonbear/Bear Books by Frank Asch

There are a lot of these books; Asch was a pretty prolific author! My parents have at least 12 of them (including 4 board books) from my brother’s toddlerhood, and Rondel loves them all. He’ll bring out the whole pile of books and contentedly rotate through them until the adult reader has to take a break! Some of our favorites include:

Sand Cake

In which a baby bear and his papa find a creative way to bake and eat a cake at the beach, even though all they can see is ocean and sand.

Skyfire

In which Moonbear worries that the sky is on fire when he sees a rainbow, and does his best to put it out despite Little Bird’s reassurances.

Moongame

In which Little Bird teaches Moonbear how to play hide-and-seek, and Moonbear asks the moon to play along.

But really, it is hard to go wrong with the Moonbear books. My personal favorites are Mooncake and Moondance! He is a very endearing character – not the brightest, which lets even little kids see the humor of the situations he gets himself into – but very genuine and open. He deeply cares about the things in his world, whether it’s the sky, the moon, the clouds, or his friends.

Don Freeman’s Bear Books

These two books aren’t part of a series (although one of them does have a sequel, which Rondel hasn’t read yet), but they’re by the same author and capture some of the same innocence and love.

Corduroywhich made it onto Rondel’s favorite book list a year ago, still holds a special place in his heart (and in mine!). We went to the mall this weekend and he saw and escalator for probably the first time and immediately wanted to ride up it because that’s what Corduroy Bear got to do in the book! So of course we did 🙂

Rondel’s new absolute favorite book, though, is another by the same author:

Beady Bear

In which a toy bear discovers in a book that bears ought to live in caves, and so sets out to find a cave and make it his own. The pull for Rondel in this book is when Beady’s friend Thayer comes and finds him and brings him back home with a big hug. After Thayer has found him and wound him back up, Beady asks Thayer, “If I need you, who do you need?” and Rondel always answers, delightedly, before I can turn the page, “Beady!” And then of course we have the perfect excuse for a hug of our own before reading the last few pages 🙂

 

And finally… A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh Stories!

The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

If you’ve never read these, you’re missing out. I think most of you, however, are already familiar with the bumbling, innocent, creative characters of Milne’s invention, and it has been a pleasure introducing Rondel to them for the first time. This is the first chapter book we’ve attempted to read aloud together, and I wasn’t sure how it would go, but he has sat captivated for each (long) chapter, asked questions about the stories, and referenced them in conversation afterwards. I’m sure a lot of it goes over his head, but how can you learn if everything you read is at or below the level you can understand already?

So there you have it, our current favorite bear books, courtesy of Rondel at almost-three 🙂

Posted in book lists, family life

favorite books at just past two

I think it is a good idea to keep track of the best and most-loved books I come across, if for nothing else than to remember to pull them out for younger siblings or give them as gifts to friends and family 🙂 These are some of our favorites – books that Rondel asks for over and over again and that can be read over and over again by me or my husband without inducing insanity.

Just for reference, at the time of this list, Rondel is 26 months old.

Corduroy, by Don Freeman, 1976

This is a classic story about friendship and home, from the perspective of a toy bear looking for his button. Everyday things and circumstances are described with the kind of wide-eyed wonder that a little kid is going to have as he encounters the world, without losing their simplicity. I think it is hard to capture that kind of innocence in an urban setting in kids’ books, at least from the books that I’ve read, and so this book is great for those of us who live in the city and can’t rely on nature to fuel our children’s sense of wonder and exploration. But more than that, Corduroy the bear is simply an endearing character who quickly finds a place in the reader’s heart. Despite this being a longer book, Rondel asks for it often and gives it rapt attention.

Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, by Richard Scarry, 1974

This has been a favorite of my son’s for a long time now! It can be read cover-to-cover for the story of the Pig family going to the beach, or simply enjoyed on a page-by-page basis for the illustrations and humor. At this point we usually just read a page or two at a time, because it is a long book and Rondel is more interested in the different vehicles on each page than in the story anyway. Especially if your child is obsessed with cars and trucks, this is a good book to have in your home library.

A Child’s Treasury of Nursery Rhymes, collected by Kady MacDonald Denton, 1998

I’m sure there are a lot of excellent poetry collections available for younger kids, but this is ours, and we love it. Rondel has been asking to read from it at bedtime every day for several weeks now, and when we read from it during the day he keeps asking for more. He’s starting to have favorite poems as well, like the flying-man poem or the chuff-chuff-chuff train poem. Because each poem is illustrated, he has visual anchors to connect with the words and rhythms, which is an advantage over my other favorite poetry collection. There are of course a few poems that feel odd and out of place, or not quite appropriate for the age of the intended audience, but overall the poems are perfect in feel and content and the layout of words and pictures on each page is very well done. The poems lend themselves quite well to finger games, roughhousing, and cuddling also!

Little Fur Family, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Garth Williams, 1970

This book is, in my mind, very similar to Corduroy in the way it captures the wonder and simplicity of everyday life. In this case, the setting is a normal day in the life of a little fur child who lives in the woods. He spends all day playing outside by himself, making discoveries, observing the world around him with all his senses; Brown uses simple but evocative language to describe what he sees and feels and hears. Then, at the end of the day, he returns home to the comfort and security of his family, whose love and presence is clearly shown. I have always loved this book, even as a single adult. The prose has just enough meter to feel rhythmic and almost musical without falling into a rhyme-y or sing-song pattern, and the illustrations are absolutely beautiful.

“Could Be Worse!”, by James Stevenson, 1987

This book is definitely intended for slightly older children, but Rondel enjoys the vibrant illustrations, the repeated theme (“Could be worse!”), and the ridiculously tall tale unexpectedly told by the grandpa. He doesn’t get all the humor, or some of the more subtle layers of the book, but he likes it enough anyways to ask for it 5-6 times a day! I have a suspicion that he pictures his own grandpa doing some of the crazier things in the story… 🙂

In addition to these top five, there are quite a few board books that Rondel loves and that are easier to read when Limerick is around, since he has a tendency to try to rip the picture books. But I will save those for another post as this one is already quite long!