Archive for January, 2013

This week’s book isn’t a book, exactly.  It’s a Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.  Got that?  For you non-Catholics reading, basically, a bunch of Catholic bishops got together in Rome and talked about how Catholics of all kinds could and should be encouraged to read the Bible more and incorporate Scripture into all parts of their lives.  Afterward, the Pope wrote up all the ideas in an organized, inspirational document for those of us who weren’t at the meeting with the bishops.  You can read it (and everything else published by the Church in the last 125 years or so) here.  The documents are generally published in book form as well and that is what I read.

My husband, I think, taught this document in one of his classes recently and put it on my stack of stuff I’d like to read this year.  I was on a good streak for awhile reading every encyclical and major document from Pope John Paul II but I’ve fallen a little behind with Benedict XVI.

And, lest there be any confusion, this idea of encouraging Catholics to read the Bible is not a new initiative of the bishops.  The Church has a long-standing history of encouraging the faithful to read the Bible and our liturgy (both the Mass and liturgical prayer such as the Liturgy of the Hours) is crammed with scripture readings.  It was a good reminder for me to appreciate how much “passive” exposure I get to the Bible just by going to Mass and praying with my family.  Not that prayer–or engagement with the Word of God–should be passive.  Not at all.  But the reality of my life is that Mass and family prayer are not always experienced in a distraction-free setting.  The Holy Father reminds us that the Word of God is at the center of all we do as a Church and that is a comfort–just showing up does have some value.

But I also feel very inspired and encouraged to make regular bible reading more a part of my individual prayer time.  The Holy Father gave the most concise and clear directions for the practice of lectio divina I have ever read:  First, reading, which asks, what does the biblical text say in itself?  Second, meditation, which asks, what does the biblical text say to us?  Third, prayer, which asks, what do we say to the Lord in response to his word?  Fourth, contemplation, which asks, what conversion of mind, heart, and life is the Lord asking of us?  I have long had the idea of taking fifteen minutes out of my day for the practice of lectio divina but, despite having read about this practice in the past, I never had a clear sense of what I was supposed to be doing.  Telling me to spend fifteen minutes reading and praying thoughtfully isn’t all that helpful.  I typically end up staring at the all or making mental grocery lists.  But this little four-point outline might give me just the structure I need to fit this practice into my daily life.



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My Top Five Books

My 52 Books project for the new year has had me pondering my personal “Top Ten Books” list.  I found that I had a hard time coming up with a Top Ten list but that I could fairly easily come up with the Top Five.   I won’t even pretend that I’ve read all the great books out there that could potentially make this list so I reserve the right to make changes down the road but here’s where I stand now.

1.  Brideshead Revisited  by Evelyn Waugh.  I’ve read this book to myself a couple of times, aloud to Eric at least once.  He’s read it to me at least once.  I think this is one of the most brilliant pieces of storytelling I’ve ever read.  What the books says about human moral development and conversion is fantastic.  And, as a bonus, the older BBC mini-series  is the best book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen.  I think the movie actually aids in understanding the book rather than obscuring deeper understanding.

2.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Every time I read anything by Austen I love it more and this one is absolutely my favorite.  And, if we’re talking books-to-movies: I like them all, Colin Firth is my favorite, and none of them is nearly as good as the book.

3.  Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset.  I reviewed this last year.  When Eric first told me about this book years ago he said, “It’s like Jane Austen but Norwegian and 14th-century.”  That’s not really accurate at all.  If I were going to compare it to another book on this list it would be a lot closer to Brideshead.

4.  The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.  What can I say?  I’m an urban policy nerd.  My husband first heard of this book when he read Jacobs’s obituary in 2006.  We were, at the time, going on two years living in an urban neighborhood and were developing some strong opinions on the city vs. suburb question.  This book gave us the tools to think about what we were seeing.  Jacobs is just a brilliant writer.  She sees things as they really are and is able to describe them in a way that is fascinating and informative and insightful.  She is able to challenge assumptions simply by looking at reality and accurately describing it.  If you live in or care about cities, you will not regret reading this book.

5.  Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux.  I read this book every couple of years.  In fact, I often comment to my husband that I would probably be a better person if I were always reading something by St. Therese.  Her life is so utterly unlike mine but her words seem to always strike at the heart of my own vocation.

And what would make up the rest of my list?  It is very hard to name a specific bottom half for my top ten list.  But I think, if pressed, it might have more Jane Austen, perhaps a C.S. Lewis, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (I know–a  “kid’s book”–but the storytelling is fabulous.  I’ve read that series every year since I was about nine), some Flannery O’Connor.  So many good books out there.

What’s on your Top Ten list?  I’ve got 49 more books to read this year!

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I almost never read modern fiction.  I don’t have a book budget for snapping up the latest best seller and our public library is crummy.  But, also, I just rarely find any that seem worth my time.

I don’t think that every published book should be a literary masterpiece.  I think there is a place for light reading that is pure entertainment and part of my thinking with my 52 Books challenge this year is to recognize that, most of the time, light reading is better for me than internet surfing.

I received The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a Christmas gift.  Part of the reason I chose it for this week is that I figured it would be a quick read and I wanted to devote a good chunk of time this week to making progress in Mike Wallace’s Gotham  which, at 1200+ pages is promising to take me until next year.  I was correct that it was a quick read–I began Sunday evening and finished Monday night.  And I admit to enjoying it.  I said to Eric, shortly after finishing it, “I think I have a good sense for when a book is bad or just mediocre.  But I have a hard time articulating what sets a good book apart from a great book.”  I’ve been trying to put my thoughts together the last couple days and I’ll give it a go.

Guernsey is an epistolary novel.  I think storytelling through letters is a fun device, in moderation.  There is certainly a lot of built-in romance with this type of book.  Details unfold more slowly, sometimes, so there is an air of mystery throughout.  But I think it is very difficult to put together an epistolary novel without much of it feeling contrived.  However, the plot:  The novel is set in 1946 in London and Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands.  Juliet Ashton is a writer casting about for a new book topic.  She receives a letter from a stranger on Guernsey and begins a correspondence with him and others on the island.  She eventually moves to the island to work on a book about the German occupation of Guernsey.  There is also a romantic subplot.

I really enjoyed learning a bit about the Channel Islands and, though reading about the German occupation wasn’t exactly enjoyable, it’s not a topic I’d ever studied so I appreciated a look at it.  And the romance was fun because I thought I knew what would happen and was surprised part way through the book at a slight twist.

But, I have to say, that the whole tone of the book felt off-key to me.  The voices of the authors sounded modern–all of them equally modern.  And since–perhaps due to the epistolary format–there was very little about the daily life and setting of 1946 London and Guernsey, it was very hard to convince myself that I was reading something historical.

The various layers of the plot seemed like they were thrown at the reader in a kind of heavy-handed way and it was never clear how various points advanced the plot.  Jane Austen’s books, for example, have not one extraneous detail.  Every event is part of an organic whole.  In Guernsey it was not clear how finding old Oscar Wilde letters had to do with anything.  I guess it gets Isola to fancy herself a Mrs. Marple-type which leads to her being a snoop which leads her to revealing one character’s true feelings for another?  But it all felt rather clumsy to me.

And, then, the book presents some pretty awful and heart-wrenching information about life on Guernsey during the occupation and happenings in the concentration camps and the landscape of post-war Europe.  I think that, like Juliet Ashton, we are supposed to come to care deeply about the character of Elizabeth McKenna.  But I just didn’t.  The book opened with Juliet’s personal life and love interest and it climaxed with her personal life and love interest.  Throwing in horrific details about life in Ravensbruck felt kind of tasteless (to put it mildly) to me.

And, finally, and this is just a small thing.  Juliet Ashton is supposed to be an amazing humorist.  But her letters aren’t funny.  She’s often not writing about funny things and maybe that’s part of the point–this is a time in her life too serious for humor?  But her whole career has been making people laugh during war time.

Again, overall, I enjoyed this book.  But it’s not a great book and it hasn’t whetted my appetite for more modern fiction.  I am interested to hear from those of you think I really missed something with this book.  Or, if you are a fan of modern fiction and have a title for me to consider, I’m all ears.

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Today I finished Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics by Liping Ma.    I’ve been putting in a fair amount of effort all this fall to make sure I”m doing a good job with math education for my children.  I don’t actually think that math is the most important part of their education but I think it is the component they are least likely to pick up on their own without consistent, diligent effort.  And, given the genetics on my husband’s side of the family, I’d hate to pre-emptively stifle a budding math genius by short changing their education.

I am not a “math person.”  I excelled in math, at least according to my report card, until eighth grade.  Then I was put in accelerated math.  I don’t know if I just wan’t truly up for it or was the victim of poor teaching or what, but I struggled and slogged through four of my last five years of math (I aced geometry but I was taught by an awesome teacher who used an inductive approach which is, maybe, called the  “discovery” approach these days).  I was allowed to drop out of  AP Calculus halfway through the year and, except for cramming later for the GRE and LSAT, that was the end of my math career.

We use Singapore Math at home and it’s been mostly a great experience for the whole family.  I am amazed at how much I have learned and how much deeper my understanding of really basic math is after teaching Singapore for a few years.  I thought I must be a true dunce for feeling this way until I read Liping Ma’s book.

The book is a study comparing the mathematical knowledge of US and Chinese elementary math teachers.  There is an introduction, one chapter each on a single math topic, and a few concluding chapters.  The topics examined are subtraction with regrouping, multiplying 3-digit numbers, dividing fractions, and the relationship between perimeter and area.

The book was, on the one hand, really embarrassing.  The US teachers were, on the whole, so amazingly incompetent, that I found myself cringing as I read.  Their mathematical understanding was worse with each chapter while the Chinese teachers would spout off paragraphs of articulate, well-reasoned, mathematical discussion for every problem.  On the other hand, it was encouraging to see that, owing almost entirely to having taught with Singapore for a few years, I was as competent as the very best US math teachers in the study.  I should say, as a disclaimer, that I don’t generally read a lot of these types of things.  Quite possibly, much has changed in American math education  since this book was first published in 1999.  But the mistakes and pitfalls highlighted in this book are worth avoiding.  And the skill and mathematical agility of the Chinese teachers is worth emulating.

I can’t point yet to any big takeaways for me from this book.  It’s not designed as a manual.  But in the conclusion the author does note that Chinese teachers are able to achieve what she calls a “Profound Understand of Fundamental Math” because they are constantly learning and studying the material–even the material that seems like it should be “too easy” by now.

I’m thinking of looking for a follow-up book for my own math enrichment but, for now, I feel very validated in my choice of curriculum and I am looking forward to learning with my children as we explore math together.

This is a short, but fairly dry read.  I recommend it to any teacher of math, whether at home or at school.  The newest edition is rather expensive but some careful hunting turned up a used copy for $4 on Amazon.  Search for the 1999 edition if you are interested.

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During the last week of Christmas I treated myself to Christmas Remembered  by Tomie DePaola.  My oldest received it as a Christmas gift from a dear friend who shares our love of DePaola’s work.  It’s not really a children’s book at all, though DePaola himself describes it as a “book for all ages.”  My son did read at least a few of the essays but it kind of bombed as a read-aloud with the kids in general.

Honestly, I might not have read it at all had I not challenged myself to read 52 books this year.  But the first official week of the year was a short one and I was in the middle of two other heavy books as well as an audio book so it seemed like a good way to get the year off on a good foot.

The book is a series of fifteen essays highlighting fifteen Christmases the author remembers.  Hence the title.  I enjoyed the entire book but I especially liked the early essays from his childhood in the 40s and 50s.  I’m just such a sucker for that kind of personal American history stuff.

So, while not a particularly challenging read, it was a thoroughly enjoyable one and I highly recommend it if you are a big fan of DePaola.  It would also be a nice coffee-table or guest-room book to have around during the Christmas season.

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Every new year for the last several years I have resolved to read more and write more.  And every year for the last few years I’ve come to the end of the year, noticed that I posted five times on my blog, and can’t name more than a handful of books I’ve read.

I’ve also notice an unfortunate tendency to intemperate computer use.   My life is full and busy and, at times, a bit intense.  In the moment, when I just need to check out or relax, I tend to turn to a screen.  There’s so much of value out there on those screens but it’s not the Mom I want my kids to see the most.  I don’t want my baby bringing me a mobile device when he wants to be snuggled down for naptime.

In December I came across the 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge and decided to join in.  The women (mostly women, I think) participating are a diverse lot and I’ve already learned a bit about things I’ve read and things I might like.  Lots of them have participated for years and set up mini-challenges for themselves throughout the year.

For my part, I’d just like to develop a greater sense of reading as my default activity.  I tend to start books and never finish them, lose my books partway through, get overly locked-in to a huge, long book and lose steam and think that “light” books are a waste of my time.  This year I want to finish more books, read frequently enough that books don’t get lost, feel free to read shorter books in tandem with longer books, and enjoy some of the wonderful fiction taking up space on our bookshelves.

I’m following the rules posted here and I’m also proud to say (or should I be embarrassed?) that I should easily be able to finish the challenge using books I already own.

I set up a tab at the top of the blog to keep track of my completed books.  I also plan to post about each book as I have time.  I set out to do this last year and sputtered out fairly quickly.  I’m always surprised at how challenging I find it to write clearly and coherently about a book I’ve just finished.  But I think the exercise will be good for my writing muscles and, perhaps, posting once a week or so about books will inspire me to write other times about other things.  So this challenge may help me achieve both of my annual resolutions this year.

As of this writing, I’m enjoying the extra reading time I’m fitting into my schedule.  And I’m happy to report that yesterday at naptime, my toddler brought me my book.

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