Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Whatcha Readin? Week 44

Last night I finished Me Times Three by Alex Witchel. This was a book that came to me randomly at the library. The bright yellow cover caught my eye, and a quick scan of the synopsis and a couple of reviews convinced me it would be worth reading. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to the fact that one of the positive reviews comes from Sarah Jessica Parker.

On the plus side, it was an easy read. I didn't have to struggle through intense, self-aware writing. And I don't mean to imply that it was badly written; the writing was perfectly...adequate. The writing in Me Times Three neither added to nor distracted from the story. (I find that unsettling.)

Witchel's main character is Sandra, who is engaged to Bucky. Her best friend is Paul, a fabulous, gorgeous gay guy she met in college. (She's in her mid-twenties during the story. Oh, and it's the 1980s.) She learns throughout the book that she doesn't know Bucky like she thought she did, and she also doesn't know Paul like she thought she did. OK, I get it: it's impossible to truly know anyone other than yourself. So why, in the name of all that's literary, wouldn't Witchel write Sandra with some introspective realization at any point in the book?? 

I might have enjoyed this book more if it had done something--anything--really well. I already mentioned the writing, and that lukewarm tone spreads to every aspect of the book. The supporting characters weren't one-dimensional, but they could have been written much better...or left out entirely. The premise was interesting, but also not fully realized.  The emotions rarely rang true. Imagine you found out your boyfriend of nine years has two other fiances. I expected to read epic shock, denial, rage, revenge. I expected to FEEL something, whether it was sympathy, pity or even amusement as Sandra unravels and then begins to pull herself together. 

That said, there was one moment that I thought the author nailed. 

from page 210:

On the strength of this one page, I'm not crossing Alex Witchel off my list just yet. And--bonus!--Kate Vaiden is a real book! I have two books already waiting on my Kindle, but I'm going to make a point to look for Kate Vaiden to read in November.

Anybody out there reading anything great? What should I add to my list?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Homeschool Week in Review: End of the First Nine Weeks

Week Nine! I don't think we've ever made it this far into the year without getting off track at ALL. We are all pretty proud of ourselves! This year has been the most enjoyable and joy-filled of our entire homeschool experience.  You know what I think the difference has been? We have rebuilt trust between the three of us. One of Charlotte Mason's principles deals with creating a secure environment to learn in. "It's good to be me, here with you."

We spent several years in a University Model School, where the kids were in school two days a week and were homeschooled by me the other three days. It's the best of both worlds; you still get the joy of homeschooling, but also the accountability and community. The thing is, it was also the worst of both worlds. I lost the freedom to choose curriculum (which I loved), and we were bound to the school's schedule and pace.  I was stressed out all the time, going at full-tilt and feeling like we never got enough done, not at all the homeschool mom I wanted my kids to remember. Now we're homeschooling on our own, with two academic co-op classes for each child. They're working hard, and seeing their efforts pay off. I really couldn't ask for more than that!

So enough about what I learned this week. :) Here's what the kiddos worked on.

Bible: Our "name of God" this week was Jehovah Shalom, the Lord is peace. We learned that the word "shalom" means much more than our English word "peace."  It denotes not just absence of conflict or inner calm, but also wholeness, completeness, wellness and perfection.   One of my favorite verses from this week's study was Isaiah 26:3:
"You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind 
is stayed on You, because he trusts in You."

Math: Everybody's still on track and doing well. Will is working on percentages; Katie finished up a couple of days on long division and started a new chapter on telling time. Well, okay, there's probably more to it than that, but after how hard she worked on all that division, I'm glad she gets a little break for a few days. My only complaint is that the Teaching Textbooks guy (we call him Uncle Mike) keeps referring to analog clocks as "old-fashioned" clocks, and Katie finds that hilarious.

Grammar: Will just finished the chapter on nouns and pronouns and will take the test on Monday. Katie is blasting through a chapter on nouns and should also have a test coming up in the next few days.  (Did I mention how happy we are to be right on track?!)

Literature: We had a split focus this week. The kids were working independently to wrap up their biography projects, but we went ahead to the next genre and started an adventure book: the last Percy Jackson book in Rick Riordan's Heroes of Olympus series. We've been reading these books as a family for several years, so I'm really happy to be able to incorporate this final book in an official capacity.

History: This is one of my favorite discussion-starting classes. This week we studied Joseph Stalin's rise to power in Russia. Interesting side note: You probably already know that Lenin's body is still on display, more than eighty years after his death, but did you know there is a committee responsible for checking and maintaining the body weekly? And that committee occasionally changes the Commisar's clothes??  In discussing the totalitarian regime that Stalin brought to Russia, we naturally touched on the United States' system. I tried to explain--neutrally--what the various political parties believe in. Imagine my shock when Katie burst out, "Ugh! I hate those guys!" when I was describing the politcal party I align with! When I pointed that out, she stammered and back-pedaled. Oh, well, it's a free country, I guess! :)

I'm going to wrap this up for now, but if I have time this weekend, I'll try to share what  the kids  put together for their biography projects in literature. In the meantime, y'all have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Whatcha Readin? Week 43

Last  week's book was Take Me With You by Catherine Ryan Hyde. I was able to borrow this book from the Amazon Kindle lending library. Several of the books I've read this year have come to me that way, but this one was far and away the best of that group.

The short review: I devoured this one. It was an easy read, but not in a Bridget Jones kind of way. Hyde's writing is straightforward, even when the subject matter is complex. It came across as confidence, actually, that the characters' feelings and backstories could stand on their own, without lyrical prose to describe the "sharp edges of their exquisite pain" or similar Oprah Book Club-esque phrases.

This book had a lot going on.  The primary plotline was about August, a science teacher grieving the death of his son. August is an alcoholic in recovery. He uses his summers off to travel in his RV. This particular summer's journey is especially important, because he is taking his son's ashes to Yellowstone National Park.  As a teacher, August budgets all year to have gas money for his summer travels. When the RV breaks down, the cost of repairs throws his ability to get to Yellowstone into question.

While he waits at the garage, August meets Seth and Henry, the two young sons of the mechanic. He is shocked when the mechanic asks him to take the two boys on his summer trip while he serves a 90-day jail sentence. August plans to say no, then Wes sweetens the deal by saying that the repairs to the RV will be free, whether he takes the boys or not. (No pressure--right??)

Seth is a 12-year-old chatterbox with the cares of the world on his shoulders. Nine-year-old Henry speaks only to Seth, and even him, only rarely.  I don't know which boy broke my heart more: Seth, so eager to see the world but so afraid to ask for what he wants, or Henry, so used to being let down that he has no expectations at all.  August is a decent guy, so of course he gets attached to Seth and Henry, even as he constantly tells himself not to.

They're not far into the trip when they learn that Wes's 90-day sentence for check-kiting is actually a 180-day sentence for his fourth DUI. August struggles to decide what to do about this latest development, while the boys each handle it in their own ways. Meanwhile, August attends AA meetings along their route and calls his sponsor regularly. Seth becomes interested in the program and how it might help his dad.

I don't want to unpack the entire plot here, because the real beauty of this book is the characters. Each one is damaged and hurting, and Hyde writes them with perfect consistency. I cannot recall one false note in any character. And yet, they weren't flat or predictable. (oooh, I so want to tell about two scenes in particular that would illustrate my point, but it would be unkind to spoil that part. I hope you appreciate my restraint!)

I'm headed to the library this afternoon, and if I find another book by Catherine Ryan Hyde, you can bet I'll be checking it out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Whatcha Readin? Week 42

This week's book was While I Was Gone by Sue Miller. It was chosen as an Oprah Book Club book, but I can't say for sure that I found that to be a selling point. And, just for the record, I read 100% of this one.

The main character is a veterinarian named Jo. She's married to a pastor (although she is not a believer) and has three grown daughters. I kind of hate her. She's restless and easily bored; she's closed off; she's secretive; she's self-absorbed. Miller did a good job writing Jo, I have to give her that. Most of the book is written in a detached style that emphasizes how closed off Jo is from those around her and, often, her own emotions. She describes a trip to the grocery store, a fight with her daughter, sex with her husband and even the murder of her friend in the same flat voice.  In other places, Miller includes some beautiful descriptions and thoughts, but since Jo is the narrator, I found these passages jarring.

Miller writes Jo in a way that you pretty much have to hate, but in writing Daniel, she is generous to a fault. Jo describes her husband with such adoration that it makes half of what she does in the book almost unbelievable. Who treats a man she loves like that?? Did she just think he was a bottomless pit of virtue and forgiveness?

While Jo made me want to tear my hair out, I'm still glad I read this one. In chapter six, Jo unexpectedly attends Daniel's church after the death of one of his congregants. His thoughts on grief and loss and memory resonated with me after the losses my family suffered this past summer.  "Pain," he says, "the pain that seems unbearable at the time, is memory's first imprinting step, the cornerstone of the temple we erect inside us in memory of the dead." and, later, "He gives us memory, too, to change that pain to laughter, to joy. To bring the dead back into our lives. To comfort us."

Monday, October 13, 2014

A little "happy mail"

Last week my daughter and I were visiting my parents, and a dear friend of my mother's wanted to take us to the Esse Purse Museum in downtown Little Rock. I had heard that such a thing existed, but I have to say that it was not at all what I expected. The museum is arranged by decade, from the 1900s through the 1990s, and each case is thoughtfully curated, giving historical context as well as details about why the purses of that decade were a particular size or color or fabric. I'm not much of a purse girl, but it was really surprisingly interesting. And their gift shop! My daughter went crazy at all the coin purses, clutches, handbags and evening bags. I thought it would be fun to snag a purse as a souvenir of our afternoon, but I have much better taste than I realized. Every single purse that I thought I could see myself carrying was at least $200. Do people really pay that kind of money for a bag??

Well, now we're home and I wanted to thank our friend properly for taking us to the museum. (And in Little Rock, that means nothing less than a handwritten thank you note.) Our friend is also a creative-crafty genius, so I wanted to make the card myself. First stop, Pinterest. 

This is what I ended up with. The striped paper is single-sided scrapbook paper, folded in half and cut into a trapezoid shape. I couldn't find a die that I know I have somewhere (grrr! So irritating!) so I drew a shape like this:

by hand and cut it with scissors. Like a caveman. I sliced two small openings along the fold of the red piece and threaded in ribbon for the handle, and added a brad as the purse closure.  Easy! 

Friday, October 03, 2014

Homeschool Week in Review (week 6)

This past week was a little odd, because my husband and my son were out of town. He did all of his work before leaving, so he had a guilt-free week off. And he made the most of it! They went hiking and fishing and, by all accounts, had a wonderful time! They broke the family record for number of fish caught in one day--the biggest one my son caught weighed a whopping 45 pounds!!

(This isn't the 45-pounder; this is the third of five that he caught!)

Back at home, my daughter and I just focused on the three Rs. (This is my favorite homeschool freedom! We do this when we don't want to/can't go full tilt, but we don't want to fall behind, either.)

Math: Katie just wrapped up chapter 3 and took the quiz. She's flying through math this year!
Grammar: She finished the chapter on basic sentence structure and will take the test next week.
Literature: We fell a little behind on her biography. I would have thought she would devour a book about Milton Hershey (See what I did there??) but it hasn't captured her attention. I think I'm going to extend the unit by one week so that we can finish it without being rushed and grumpy.
Science (co-op class): Things are running reasonably smoothly on this front. There's still a lot of intense reading, but I feel like she *understands* what they're learning right now, so that makes a huge difference.
IEW (co-op class): I love this class; it's so enjoyable to help with their assignments but not actually teach the material. They're both becoming strong writers--and they know it! We've had lots of academic struggles over the years, and it does everybody's heart good to excel in this area!

Since we had a lighter workload, we made a point to enjoy our extra time. Katie follows a YouTube channel called Nerdy Nummies and frequently asks to make the recipes. Cooking can be really fun when you have a little extra time! She made hamburger cupcakes and they were DELICIOUS.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Whatcha Readin'? (week 39)

You have probably heard of the equation used for figuring out the socially acceptable age difference of romantic partners:

Younger partner's age must be > 1/2 (older partner's age) + 7.

If younger partner's age is < 1/2 (older partner's age) + 7, then there is a very good chance that the older partner is having a midlife crisis and is making a fool of him/herself.  (I'm looking at you, Tom Cruise.)

I developed the Reader's Corollary this equation. I have to read half the book, plus 7 pages and then I can quit in good conscience. Life is short, and there are more books out there than I can possibly read. Now, that said, I finish the vast majority of books I begin. I'm all about the closure at the end. And that bass. I'm all about that bass, too.

I'm sure you can tell where this is going. I had to break up with a book this week. 

Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison looked promising on GoodReads, but by the end of our first date, I was questioning what I thought I saw in this one to put it on my "To Read" list.

For one thing, it is an epistolary novel, written entirely as journal entries. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? What if I told you every single journal entry could have been written on post-it notes? Chapter 1 was 2 1/2 lines long. Chapter 2 was 3 lines long. 

It gave me the feeling of being on Law Order, when the detectives walk into the crazy conspiracy theorist's secret room and there are notes and newspaper clippings and surveillance photos all over the walls. That is not a feeling I'm comfortable with.

Why Did I Ever was like being dropped into somebody's mental Twitter account. 140 characters that made sense to them at the time, but wasn't necessarily fit for public consumption.  Ironically, as I am writing this--literally, at this very moment--I am beginning to appreciate Mary Robison's point.  

The protagonist has some serious problems that she's dealing with. Her life is in shambles, her adult childrens' lives are in shambles. A few of the longer chapters (e.g., 12 lines) allude to her son having been the recent victim of a violent crime; her daughter is a junkie. As I got closer to the half-the-book-plus-7-pages cutoff, I started to wonder if Money (the protagonist) was a multiple personality or possibly the imagining of the autistic child in St. Elsewhere.  

Why Did I Ever is actually well-written. It's just that it's written in a style I don't personally appreciate. And even that isn't entirely accurate. I found several lines that I thought were just brilliant. In the chapter entitled "Ride Along With You," one Money's coworkers says to her, "I just detest you. To the point that it's almost invigorating."  I loved that sentence. Another example of greatness, from chapter 276: (Why, why, why? Why do some chapters have titles and some have only numbers?)
Anyway, in chapter 276, Money writes, "I think perhaps a syllable maximum should be set for some people and, I'm sorry, but rather a low one."

All in all, I had to break up with Why Did I Ever. There were definitely a couple of interesting things going on, but I just knew that if I stuck with it, I would be sorry. I didn't want to hear about the crime against her son in minimalist prose. There were no signs that anything was going to work out, and there wasn't enough narrative for me to even hope that I was going to understand whatever did happen. And, strangely, I'm sad about it all, just like a real break up.