Daybook for the First Week of Spring

Outside my window…


Sunshine is pouring down after a long stretch of cold gray days. [I wrote that two days ago. Now it’s gray and dreary, but at least it’s in the 50s]. We’ve had an odd winter with bitter cold and loads of snow in December followed by a snow-less January and February. Temperatures vacillated between frigid cold and balmy spring-like days. We even had a couple thunderstorms and a tornado watch in the mix. Flower buds popped out along the bare branches on our crap apples and daffodil shoots sprouted all over the yard. Now that it’s March we’ve had another four sticking snows and the kids finally got to use the sleds they received for Christmas. All the plants about to bloom have paused and hunkered back down looking a bit sheepish. If they had feelings I think they’d mirror the embarrassment one feels after standing up for a song in church, looking it up in the hymnal, then glancing around after finding the page to realize everyone else has remained seated. A purely hypothetical scenario not based on personal experience at all, of course. We moved into this house in June so I’m looking forward to seeing the yard in Spring for the first time.

I am thankful…


At the natural history museum. Only Josie seems to grasp the peril of their situation

…that the stomach flu continued on its way after afflicting only Jack. Poor Jack, but lucky us. [Update from two days later: apparently I jinxed myself. Reward: spending half last night up with a vomiting baby].

…for community. We’re glad to be closer to family  but have badly missed our old neighborhood, friends, church, and military community in North Carolina. We’re finally starting to build a few connections after many months of church hunting and it’s a nice feeling.

…for bigger kids. This is the last day of The Man’s latest stretch of ICU call. ICU is still exhaustingl and intense on the home front, but so much easier than it used to be. The Man came home late in the evening yesterday, glanced around the tidied-right-before-bed-with-the-kids house, and commented “You know, the house could never have looked this good in the middle of an ICU week a year ago.” It’s true. 4, 4, 2, and 1 is a very different state than 3, 3, 1, and an infant. When he’s gone for extended stretches it’s still (very) hard work but I don’t constantly feel like I’m scrambling to keep body and soul together. There’s just enough breathing space for little extras like a museum trip, park stop, or store run with all four in tow. I even made it to church solo with all four little kids this morning – a first! They can do things now like eat a picnic lunch in the car with (reasonable) tidiness, skip the occasional nap or snack, or delay a meal half an hour without imploding. Altogether, just a little more flexibility in our days.

I am thinking


about Spring plans outside and inside. Our home has basic landscaping but nothing more. We’d like to plant flower beds, a vegetable garden, some fruit trees, and a few berry bushes but will have to see what time allows. We’re also debating school plans for next year. Continue as we have with private school a couple mornings a week and low-key homeschooling on other days? Public special needs preschool? Full time homeschooling with more room for therapy? Another option?

Learning all the time…


with baking experiments. I love to cook and bake but can easily fall into a rut thanks to the basic necessity of feeding all these people all these meals on all the days. I really haven’t done much with yeast breads in the past. So, in place of the usual familiar dessert baking I’ve been experimenting this Lent with various yeast-based doughs: pizza dough, Smitten Kitchen’s Cheddar rolls (delicious, but I think better with tomato soup than for breakfast), and a couple batches of whole wheat/whole grain bread. Do you have a favorite recipe (or cookbook) for whole wheat bread, the perfect pizza dough, or something else? I’m all ears. We’ve had reasonable success but risen doughs are definitely a learned skill.

Celebrating the liturgical year…


with a low-key Lent. I can’t say we’ve done anything specifically Lenten as a family though we continue as usual with daily Bible reading, prayers, and hymns with the kids. As adults it’s been a quiet but beneficial Lent so far. Not dramatic, but steady. While it’s not specifically Lenten, I’ve also been enjoying richer and more consistent scripture study since Christmas. We’re pretty consistent about reading the Bible as a couple but I’ve struggled with sticking to my own devotions. I’m a fast reader and often find myself skimming through the Bible when I sit down to read it. On the other hand, when I use a formal study the intellectual perfectionist side of me rears its head and I find myself writing exhaustive answers to each question and lost for hours on a section that’s designed to take ten minutes. That’s not bad except that I then get impatient and frustrated and abandon the whole thing. At the end of December I jumped (late) on an Advent-focused scripture writing challenge. I started a new one in January and found I really benefited from the forced slow pace and intense focus of hand-writing a passage instead of just reading it. At the beginning of February I decided to start copying an entire book by hand. I settled on Romans because it’s middle-of-the-road in length, theologically rich, and one I haven’t studied in a while. Because I know myself and my tendency to do things just to check them off the list I didn’t even break it into sections to tackle and check off. Every morning I just read the next passage (usually 3-6 verses), hand copy it, re-read it, then rapidly skim the book back up to that point to place it in context and make sure I’m tracking. I’m happy to say, after years of on-again-of-again personal study that I’ve missed only a couple of days since January first. I’m half way through Romans and am pausing to outline the first eight chapters and review. 6 weeks sounds like a long time for eight chapters but I’m flying compared to my childhood pastor who preached through Romans for two straight years. There really is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

From the kitchen…


as mentioned above, yeast breads. Also, a fair number of meatless meals like potato pancakes, leek and potato soup, salads, black beans, and pasta. I also made crepes for the first time using the Joy of Cooking recipe. I substituted 1/3 whole wheat flour for all purpose. My Mom used to make crepes and I love them so I don’t know why it took me so long to get on the bandwagon. They make a nice Lenten special family breakfast. I skipped the sugar in the batter, spooned warm applesauce down the middle, rolled them up, and sprinkled cinnamon on top. A hit with everyone. Were it not Lent that’d be cinnamon sugar, the way my Mom used to make them for us on cold winter mornings. After Easter there’ll be blintzes and crepes with Nutella and strawberries in our treats lineup.

I am creating…


a scarf. Very. Very. Very. Sloooowly. At this rate it will be ready just in time for the stifling heat of August. Knitting is not a “just like riding a bike” skill for me. I’ve learned and then forgotten how to knit many times: as a small child, an older child, in college, and again while The Man was deployed. At some point after the twins became mobile one crawled to the knitting basket and tangled my work-in-progress. I never finished it. Two more babies followed and all skills were again forgotten. I’m just now getting to the point where there’s a smidgen of breathing room for handcrafts. Courtesy of YouTube I’m now back to knitting Continental Style. I’m making this pattern without the contrasting center stripe or letters.

I am working on…


bits of spring cleaning, as time allows.

I am going


to lots and lots of therapy appointments. Physical therapy for me, feeding therapy for Jenny (the end is in sight after almost three years!), Speech, OT, and Behavioral Therapy for Annie. In addition there are specialist visits for various children and routine pediatrician and dental checkups needed. I don’t really like being a family that has someplace to be every day of the week but right now it’s necessary. Whenever possible I treat appointments as special 0ne-on-one time with a child. We chat in the car, play music of the kid’s choice, and read books or play one-on-one together in the waiting room. Often the long drives are also a good time for me to catch up on my podcasts queue or listen to an audiobook if the child isn’t in a chatty mood.

I am hoping


to prepare well in advance for a weekend trip to New York. Practically, though, who am I kidding ;).

I am praying…


for our three older kids and their first families. Adoption is complicated and messy. A blessing, yes, but also a tremendous loss.

I am pondering

Jack’s face of concentration. Ha!


special needs parenting. I’m reading as much as I can get my hands on. There’s a wealth of (often contradictory) information out there. It’s hard to take that flood of information in, filter it, and decide what’s best for a child who doesn’t yet have much say. Unfortunately many Christian parenting books take a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting that may work with typically developing children but is poorly suited to kids with neurological differences.  It’s humbling as a parent who thought I knew everything before having kids (and frequently judged others’ parenting) to realize that much of our kids’ behavior and growth cannot, and sometimes should not, be controlled by us. It’s a constant fight to focus on what a child really needs and not the way others around us are judging the child or our parenting.

I am reading


Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck as an audiobook read by Gary Sinise. It’s wonderful, and Sinise has the perfect voice for it. Even if you’re not a Steinbeck fan I highly recommend this account of his casual journey through 40 states. He combines dry wit and poetic description with detached observation and a warm interest in the people he meets. I love a good armchair travel book but frequently cringe at travel writer’s scornful summary of the people they encounter. I can’t imagine how the people Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux describe must feel at the authors’ sardonic assessments of their lives. Steinbeck manages to describe foibles without mockery and approaches others on his travels with warm interest. I’m also reading Madeleine L’Engle’s first memoir A Circle of Quiet which is enjoyable and thought provoking. She’s incredibly well-read so each page brings up some other book I should also read. Dangerous fodder.

I am listening to


Podcasts, whenever I can. When I was growing up my parents frequently had the radio on. Classical music, talk radio, or the news in the car, often Old Time Radio or Car Talk on Saturday mornings. I almost never turn the radio on but I think Podcasts are my equivalent. It’s nice to have a grownup talking to me about something interesting as I do the dishes or fold laundry. We’re also listening to classical music quite a bit as the kids usually request “singing” in the car and one can tolerate only so much of Elizabeth Mitchell or the OkeeDokee Brothers. Right now it’s Haydn’s masses in the car and Beethoven in the CD player at home.

I am hearing


The washing machine gently swishing, laundry tumbling ’round the drying, and an anemic burbling from our increasingly useless coffee maker. The baby spent half the night vomiting through multiple rooms so I’m in wash-and-sterilize-everything mode.

I am struggling


with my hair. Which sounds a bit silly and vain but I’ve never been a hair or makeup person. All my life I’ve just washed every couple days, combed or brushed, and tossed it back in a bun, braid, or ponytail without blow drying, styling, or products. The very hard water in our new home is wreaking havoc on my hair though and it constantly looks unkempt. Dry strands, frizz, and unevenness abound. The hard water doesn’t really bother us in any other way so I’m wondering if there are better product choices vs. investing vast sums in a water softener.

Clicking around


Well, not much really. I’m doing my best to cut back on social media in particular and screen time in general. Which, bonus, allows time for things like writing and reading!

Around the house…

SuperDad comforts four fussing children at once.

we’re making plans for painting a few rooms. We haven’t made any changes to the house and have only hung one picture since we moved in Hopefully we can get a few small projects done before warmer temperatures pull our living outside. We’re adding in some more consistent chores for the big kids now that they’re four. We’ve always had them help, but are adding in a few more regular jobs at regular times for them like vacuuming the dining room after meals and a set whole house cleanup every evening. They’re still at the age where it’s more work to supervise them than to do it ourselves, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

One of my favorite things…


The quiet hour or two before the kids get up. I’ve been consistently getting up at 5:00 or 5:30 since New Years with only a couple of later days from illness or missed alarms. I consider the earliest hours my personal time. For this introvert it’s a key window to read, eat a quiet breakfast, do my Bible study, exercise, or knit. Sometimes I squeeze in a chore or two, but I don’t feel obligated to use that time for household purposes. I find when I start the day with something mentally fulfilling I’m a much better spouse and parent throughout the day.

A few plans for this week…

About typical for our “selfies for six” attempts. Seven if your count Annie’s beloved bear.

Therapies and specialist appointments. Dinner with the pastor’s family tonight. Sending off picture and email updates to the kids’ birth families.

A little peek at my day…


A sick baby overnight means a freshly-bathed baby with fabulous hair in the morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Currently Reading – Late April Edition

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The Man: Still reading the Wingfeather Saga. He’s on Book 3 and loving it. This being an ICU week, it’s more “reading” than reading. He’s only actually read his patients’ charts and sympathetic “I’m sorry you had to stay all night with a sick patient and catch two hours sleep on the office floor”-type texts from his wife

Me: Just finished the last of the Morningside Heights trilogy, Anything for Jane, and moved on to another book in my TBR stack. The kids absconded with it this morning, so until I dig it out from under a couch or in a cupboard your guess at the title is as good as mine…

The Kids: As always, we read big stacks from the library and our own stash every week. I only record the standouts worth revisiting here. Our current chapter book is Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty McDonald. I’m reading half a chapter or a chapter out loud after the twins’ bedtime picture book and hymn each night.

This week’s big favorites from the library (repeating the picture here because I’m too tired for hyperlinks tonight and I trust your google skills) are Lola M. Schaefer’s One Special Day and One Busy Day, Jonathan Bean’s Big Snow, and Elisha Cooper’s Train. 

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Schaefer’s books were such a fun discovery this week.I love her whimsical and engaging art. Her stories are simple but creative. One Special Day tells the story of a little boy named Spencer who is strong, wild, funny, and muddy,yet oh-so-gently welcomes his brand new baby sister with love. Sweet but not saccharine, funny, and the art is delightful. Each page is full of tiny little details that kids love to spot. I think this is an ideal book to give a new big brother or sister. Unlike many “a new baby is coming” books it doesn’t give a list of negatives about baby siblings. It’s completely positive.

One Busy Day follows Spencer and his little sister a few years down the line as they play together through a long and imaginative day. Again, great art, and the grownups and the kids in our house both enjoy it. Both books are ideal for the 2-5 age group.

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We’ve already read and re-read Jonathan Bean’s wonderful At Night many times. His book Building Our House made waves in children’s publishing circles in recent years (though I’ve yet to read it). He was homeschooled and his new book This is My Home, This is My School is the first traditionally-published picture book about homeschooling. I’d never heard of his Big Snow until I saw it at the library last week but I’ve fallen head-over-heels for it. The kids adore it too. It follows a little boy through a winter day as he alternates between”helping” his Mom in their home (with disastrous results) and checking outside for snow. This book perfectly captures the impatient anticipation little kids feel for snow, the pleasant warmth of a cozy winter home, the quiet wonder of a blizzard, and the contentment of a happy family. It’s set around Christmas but never specifically mentions the holiday so it’s a pretty good all-around winter (or anytime) book. Each outdoor page has fun little details to spot around the town. I liked that the Mom is dark-skinned with curly hair. It is so hard to find good Christmas books with black main characters for our kids!

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Last but not least on this week’s library favorites list is Elisha Cooper’s Train. We’ve borrowed it in the past and it’s always a pleasure to revisit. This book takes you across the United States by a series of trains. The book opens with a commuter train leaving an East Coast city, hands off to a passenger train en route to Chicago, continues on through the great plains by freight train, hands off to an overnight train through the mountains, and completes the last leg to the west coast by high speed train. Cooper’s beautiful watercolors and evocative text are pleasing for kids and adults alike. This book strikes just the right balance between keeping the story moving and introducing informative details about trains and railroads to young readers. Bonus, this book depicts a wide variety of races and families. We also borrowed another of his books, Beach. That story dragged a bit and the art felt less varied (though beautiful) but it, too, did a great job depicting racial diversity.

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What are you reading these days?

 

Books in Review – 2015

In these busy days with many very small children time to write (let alone edit) is precious and rare. I don’t pressure myself to blog regularly but get to it when I can in little snatches and bursts. I enjoy having a written record of anything I’ve managed to blog, even if it’s only a snapshot of one brief season in our lives. Whatever slips through the written cracks is still life fully lived, and there’s nothing to regret in that.

Every year I record new books I’ve read, not counting books only read partially, books re-read, or picture books read with the kids. At the end of the year I write a review. In 2015 I read 74 new books. I read a lot fewer old classics than usual this year and a lot more 20th century literature. In this brief season of tiny children I lean toward lighter or quicker reading because there just aren’t wide blocks of time to engage deeply and work through heavy topics. I don’t mind. Children are tiny for a very short period, and there are likely many seasons of meatier reading ahead. Memoirs took up a big chunk of my reading list this year, as did gleefully binging on Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. The Modern Mrs. Darcy site sparked a lot of my reading choices this year as well. It’s always a bit hard to categorize books, as some cross genres (e.g., many of the parenting or marriage books I read are also Christian, some memoirs are classics, etc.).

MY FAVORITES

  • Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker. There’s a lot of food for thought packed into this concise and practical volume. Drucker discusses analyzing strengths and weaknesses, learning and performance styles, ethics and values, relationships, communication, and developing interests and strengths. He speaks from a business viewpoint but his ideas are widely applicable.
  • Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges. It is easy to become preoccupied with society’s “big” sins while ignoring or even condoning sins in our own lives or our Christian communities. Bridges briefly tackles “respectable” sins like frustration, discontentment, pride, impatience, irritability, gossip, lack of self-control, and others. So-so writing but meaty ideas.
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I’m not usually a big Steinbeck fan but, as promised by others, this one completely hooked me. The Hamilton and Trask families’ stories are often dark but they’re also full of tremendous warmth and beauty.
  • Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas. Dumas has a wonderful sense of humor, and her stories will have a special ring of familiarity to anyone who is the child or relative of immigrants. I like that Dumas approaches both Iran and the US with a gently critical eye and with appreciation vs. blanket generalizations. I also like that this book poked fun without humiliating the subjects. The same cannot be said for her first book, Funny in Farsi, which left me cringing for the objects of her jokes.
  • Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache books. I discovered this series about a detective in Quebec via Modern Mrs. Darcy. I succumbed to addiction and only emerged after bingeing my way through the entire saga during midnight feedings with the newborn. You know books are fun if you’re happy when the baby wakes you in the wee hours! Beautiful writing, enjoyable characters, and good dialogue. I appreciate that Penny thoughtfully tackles issues of ethics, honor, and virtue. While I don’t always agree with her conclusions or base assumptions, these books are more thought-provoking than your typical mystery. They follow both individual stories in each book as well as a broader story arc so they are best read in order. Not all of the books are equally good (especially toward the end of the series) but overall I loved them.
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. My sister-in-law introduced me to Gaiman. This is his newest book. Gaiman’s writing tends to be spooky and macabre but also beautiful and evocative. His writings freely explore evil, but always in contrast to good. The Man and I both loved this book although the ending feels a bit weak. Like the Narnia books it is also an allegory of the central themes of Christianity – someone has evil/darkness placed in his heart and owes his life to dark forces because of it. There is a Christ figure, a trinity, incarnation, the second coming… Frankly the choices surprised me as Gaiman publicly rejects Christianity.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir. I picked this up because it was getting such good press, and because I wanted to read it before seeing the movie. For the first chapter or two I had a pretty “meh” reaction, thought it wasn’t for me, and wondered why it got the good reviews. I’m glad I stuck with it though – creative and so much fun, a perfect vacation read!
  • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I loved this book. Durrell later became a famous naturalist and conservationist. This memoir covers his boyhood on the Greek island of Corfu. Think Cheaper by the Dozen with a splash of P.G. Wodehouse and several hundred animals and bugs shaken in. I laughed like a loon while my husband shot me concerned looks, then passed it on to my Mom. I can’t wait to try Durrell’s other books.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. I never actually read this one as a kid. The twins love Pooh bear so I read them the novel and was surprised by how much fun it is. A lot of the humor is over kids’ heads, but it’s so clever and wry for adult readers.

Here’s the full list for this year:

BUSINESS/LEADERSHIP

Managing Oneself by Peter Drucker

Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life by Donald Rumsfeld

 

PARENTING/MARRIAGE/HOUSEHOLD/HABITS

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World by Marguerite A. Wright

Hands Free Mama by Rachel Macy Stafford

Beyond Ordinary by Justin and Trisha Davis (could also file under memoir)

The Fringe Hours by Jessica N. Turner

The Four Seasons of Marriage by Gary Chapman

The House that Cleans Itself by Mindy Starns Clark

How to Really Love Your Child by D. Ross Campbell

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne

The Mission of Motherhood by Sally Clarkson

 

CLASSICS

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

Here is New York by E.B. White

 

CHRISTIAN

Talking with God by Francois Fenelon

Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges

Relationships: A Mess Worth Making by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp

A Homemade Year by Jerusalem Greer – a tough one to categorize

 

MODERN FICTION

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon

I Am One of You Forever by Fred Chappell

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Martian by Andy Weir

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

 

AUTOBIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR

The Antelope in the Living Room by Melanie Shankle

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Boy by Roald Dahl

Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

The Quotidian Mysteries by Kathleen Norris

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller

Life from Scratch by Sasha Martin

A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford

The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

 

CHILDREN’S NOVELS

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (read with the kids)

My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Garnett (read with the kids)

The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (read with the kids)

 

MYSTERY

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

Still Life by Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

 

CHILDBIRTH

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth by Henci Goer

Husband-Coached Childbirth by Robert A. Bradley

Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way: Revised Edition by Susan McCutcheon

 

What did you read this year? Any favorites? Do you have a preferred way of tracking books like Goodreads? I used to record everything in a notebook, but prefer Pinterest these days.

Currently Reading

The Man is currently charging through a history of Australia’s founding: The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. He says it’s fantastic. He stole it off my to-be-read stack so I’m looking forward to diving into it when he’s done.

He also picked upAugustine’s City of God again. Neither of us has read it since college. It’s excellent but also very long and very dense and he’s currently on call in the ICU so you can expect a post-read review in…2025?

I’m suggesting Freakonomics as his next non-fiction book because it’s such a fun text. I’m currently binge-listening through the Freakonomics podcast so I’m back in the mood for Econ chat and need a victim “conversation partner”.

I’m slowly working my way through Plutarch’s Lives (all volumes). Somehow I managed to skip it in high school and college. I’ve set a very small goal of one “life” a day – about 20 pages – to leave room for other reading. Most of my reading happens when I’m nursing the infant right now, so there’s almost never a long chunk of time. This week being an ICU call week I didn’t even meet that low goal. It’s over a thousand pages of small print so this will take a while. It’s refreshing my memory on Greek and Roman history and covering much new-to-me material as well. For example, my grade school lessons on Lycurgus failed to mention the Spartan norm of loaning your wife out to your respected friends so they can beget extra genetically superior children for you. Ack. Plutarch kicks off the first bio by reviewing, as a tertiary historian, how all the secondary sources argue with each other about the primary records. Historians haven’t changed much in 2000 years.

My other current hefty read is Boswell’s Life of Samual Johnson. Like Plutarch, I’m going through it in little nibbles while sprinkling other lighter reads in at will.

The Martian by Andy Weir was fun and addictive.

The Man and I also both loved Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It combines beautiful writing, a tense compelling plot, and a C.S. Lewis-like allegory of Christianity. Evil and sin, life owed for sin’s place in one’s heart, the Trinity, the incarnation, the second coming…it has it all. I was surprised how very few mainstream reviews mention it because to us the allegory didn’t feel subtle at all. While less macabre than some of Gaiman’s other work, it can still be quite dark and disturbing so it’s not for everyone.

We read a lot of books with the kids each day but a few new library favorites stand out. The Thunderstruck Stork by David J. Olson, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger follows Webster the discombobulated stork on the day he accidentally delivers babies to all the wrong families. The whales get an infant hamster, the lions a gosling,the frogs get an elephant, and so on. The hysterically funny illustrations and rhyming text left The Man and I guffawing. Bonus, it’s also a nice light-hearted adoption story where none of the families “match” but the kids and parents love each other, work together, and support one another’s needs.

Kidogo by Anik McGrory has really lovely watercolor illustrations and simple sweet text ideal for 3-5 year olds. Kidogo the baby elephant has to rely on his adult relatives for help and mournfully believes he’s the smallest creature in the world. Eventually, though, he finds someone even tinier who needs help from him.

Museum ABC from The Metropolitan Museum of Art follows a nice concept for an alphabet book. Each letter (upper case only) is paired with four art images matching the letter. E.g., “D is for Dance” pairs with four paintings of dancers from Indian, Japanese, French, and Colombian art. The art covers a wide variety of eras, styles, geographic regions, and mediums.

What’s on your nightstand these days?

Seven Quick Takes: Siblings, Snow, and Books

1) It’s fun watching sibling relationships grow. Sometimes relationship “development” means the toddlers wind up banished, screeching and flailing, to separate timeouts for mauling each other. On other days we watch their imaginative play or hysterical laughter and see the potential for real friendship as they grow. The big kids adore their baby sister; the feeling is mutual. Jack makes a beeline for the baby when he gets up. Nobody is better at coaxing belly laughs out of Jenny than her big brother. [That’s a giant red loaner bag of maternity clothes in the back because in one week I went from “everything fits, won’t need bigger clothes for a while” to “all pants too small, all shirts too short.”]

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2) Unfortunately, our sweet brown-eyed son has accidentally developed the mouth of a sailor. Toddler pronunciation is adorable but, well…he conflates clock and lock. And he just can’t properly pronounce fork. Or stick. Or shirt. Or half a dozen other things… Basically, we live in a truck stop right now. He makes up for his endless stream of profanity via cuteness, though. From yesterday’s walk: “Garbage truck! I love you, garbage truck!” Yes, he’s definitely male.

3) We finally got a little dab of actual snow (vs. last week’s ice). Just in time, apparently. Next week’s forecast calls for 80 degrees (27 C). As usual, the South melted into a puddle of hysteria and the kids and I stayed home, played in the snow, and avoided the Southern drivers. Every single winter here when it drops to freezing our dear southern friends dash from building to building thinly dressed and complaining about the cold. Their excuse is that nobody bothers to buy warm clothing here because it’s so rarely cold. After four winters in this location I regret to inform them that it gets chilly here for a couple of months every winter. And one doesn’t have to spend that time curled in a ball of misery on top of the heat vents, even if the county does only own one snowplow.

So, beloved southern friends, here’s a very brief tutorial on dressing appropriately for your winter, based on six years of careful and highly scientific observation *cough* of southerners in their natural habitats. You can implement this bit by bit as the temperature drops. I know some folks here that would require all these layers once it hits 50 degrees, and Chicagoans who are still in flip-flops in a foot of snow, so the cutoff is arbitrary based on your personal comfort. The basic premise is that in winter, the first goal of your attire is to layer and stay warm, not look cute.  A) Ditch your sweet little thin ankle socks (or *shudder* adorable sock-less flats). Put on a pair of long thick socks, preferably knee-length vs. shin-length, preferably wool or ski-sock material. Smartwool socks are great and machine washable and can always be found on clearance sale at this time of year. One pair will last you through a lifetime of southern winters. Around the house, add some slippers. Outside wear your sneakers, hiking boots, or even rain boots or muck boots. B) Wear a long camisole or close-fitting shirt tucked into your pants to create a warm inner layer that traps your body heat and prevents cold air seeping in between the cracks in your clothes. C) Put on a long-sleeved overlayer shirt or sweater. I usually wear an undershirt, long-sleeved shirt, and fleece or sweater around the house and keep the heat set low. Unless your underlayer is high-necked, avoid low V-necked sweaters. I can’t tell you how often my coworkers in Texas wailed about the cold as the wind whistled down the fronts of their lacy-knit low-necked cotton sweaters (with no underlayers), while stating in confusion “but I’m wearing a sweater! I AM dressed warmly! And I’m still cold!” D) If you are still cold, wear a pair of close-fitting long-john (long underwear) pants under your jeans and long socks. You can get them for $3 at Walmart and they’ll probably last you for the remainder of your southern winters. However, if properly layered, you’ll most likely be too hot with them indoors and might want to save them for walks or playing in the once-a-year snow. E) Hats, scarves, and gloves are for warmth first, cuteness second. My friends here all wear loosely crocheted fashion hats and gloves and filmy style scarves as they shiver. Instead, for the same price invest in a closely knit hat or warm fleece, preferably with a double layer around the earband. Winter scarves are for blocking wind and cold around your neck, not elegant draping to accentuate your neckline. F) Everyone wears a hoodie or one of those thin waist-length fake wool fashion coats open wide at the collar here in winter. No. They don’t insulate, and they don’t block wind. I’ve seen many name brand parkas for $5 in the thrift stores here for truly bitter cold. Otherwise, to go outside, put on a warm layer or two (wool sweater, fleece, hoodie), then top it with the most wind-proof thing you own – your raincoat, a windbreaker, your spring trench coat… If you’re cold or it’s windy, zip it up to your neck.

Snow pants and snow boots are generally not worth the investment here for the once-a-year snow. The Man and I only keep ours for trips to see family up north. We don’t even own a snow shovel because it’s always melted off the driveway within a day for all four years we’ve spent in this house. No need to layer up as much as Annie here unless you’re planning on rolling in the snow. She, however, loved it and grinned ear to ear the whole time we were outside.

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4) Once Jenny woke from her nap and started crying on the monitor I had to bring the kids in from the snow. We spent much of the rest of our morning curled up on the couch reading A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. It’s the perfect chapter book to engage toddlers as they play nearby. There’s a small line drawing on almost every page, so it holds a nice mid-point between familiar picture books and longer text-heavy kids’ novels. The text also varies frequently between songs and poems, conversations, and description so there are lots of opportunities to vary your voice and engage small kids’ interest. Ours are especially enamored because the classic 1970s Winnie the Pooh movie is the one movie they’re allowed to watch (it’s the gentlest and slowest-paced movie we could find). They’ve seen it half a dozen times in the last six months and are familiar with the characters and basic story. Actually, the book is pretty fun to read as a parent, too. My mother read us countless books when we were kids, but somehow we missed this one. I’m having fun discovering it now. The language is creative and the British humor always leaves me chuckling even though it goes over the kids’ heads. For example, after Pooh’s attempt to reach the bees’ honey by hanging onto a balloon fails, he asks Christopher Robin to shoot the balloon with his cork gun to bring Pooh back to earth:

‘….you aimed very carefully at the balloon, and fired.

Ow!” said Pooh.

“Did I miss?” you asked.

“You didn’t exactly miss,” said Pooh, “but you missed the balloon.” ‘

Or, when Pooh and Piglet are tracking an unknown set of animals through the snow (with some concern that they might be “Hostile Animals”):

‘And still the tracks went on in front of them… Suddenly Winnie-the-Pooh stopped and pointed excitedly in front of him. “Look!”

“What?” said Piglet, with a jump. And then, to show that he hadn’t been frightened, he jumped up and down once or twice in an exercising sort of way.’

5) I owe Rosie many thanks for suggesting this music cube on her blog a year or so ago. It is Annie’s favorite toy. She will play with it for up to an hour experimenting with instrument combinations, listening to the music, and getting up to dance. We’re not big fans of noise-making electronic toys, but this one’s a winner.

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6) On the grown-up front, The Man just finished re-reading Anna Karenina. I’m inching through Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (it’s hard to hold thick books one-handed whilte feeding the baby).

7) The baby just woke up crowing up for her morning bottle, and The Man and the twins are stirring so it’s time for this late quick takes to go up. Enjoy your weekend!

For more Seven Quick Takes please visit This Ain’t the Lyceum.

Library Finds

It’s always nice to find picture books that your kids love. It’s nicer still if the books don’t drive you crazy.

(Go insane, who me? Never…)

I freely admit that any very annoying or very ugly book that makes it past our front door usually goes straight out the back door into the donate box before the kids can form an attachment. Life is too short to die from bad books. Here, though, are a few really good picture books we’ve enjoyed lately from the library. I’ve linked to Amazon for each item so that you can preview pictures with the “click to look inside” option.

My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock

McClintock’s lively and detailed illustrations bring this retelling of a Yiddish folk song to life. A young boy immigrates to America, trains to be a tailor, and sews his own coat for his wedding. The story follows his life as he and his wife move to a farm and welcome a child, grandchild, and great grandchild. Along the way the coat wears out and the tailor cuts it down and transforms it for new life events – first into a jacket, then a vest, then a tie for a wedding, and so on. In our household kids and adults alike love the pictures and story. This is the kind of book I would have read and reread as a child, both for the warm pictures and the “something becomes something else until every last scrap is used” storyline.

Roadwork by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock

The twins, especially Annie, adore this simple board book with rhythmic text and bright interesting pictures. The story follows construction of a road from planning to completion. Every page has lots of accurate details and construction equipment like graders, bulldozers, oil trucks, and backhoes. As a parent, I think it’s a bit more interesting than the typical board book – simple enough for little ones, but with plenty of details to keep young kids engaged, searching, and picking up new information on each re-reading. Annie wasn’t particularly interested in trucks or construction before we brought this home from the library but she’s officially obsessed with this book. If nobody is free to read it to her she sits on the floor and flips through it over and over again muttering sound effects. We maxed out our library renewals with it. It also wins a prize for magically bribing our terrified-of-strangers daughter to sit on the couch with her Grandpa so they could read it over and over (and over, and over…). As a parent of black kids I also appreciate that it has a naturally diverse cast of characters without feeling forced or “requisite rainbowy” like some newer picture books. Sutton and Lovelock have also collaborated on two other books with similar layouts: Construction and Demolition. They’re all good, but we like Roadwork best of the three. Most have a couple format options – it’s worth noting that the board book version of Roadwork doesn’t come with a key at the back identifying the construction vehicles, while the full-size versions of Construction and Demolition each have one.

Following the Tractor by Susan Steggall

Following the Tractor is an ideal picture book for young children, although older kids might find it boring. Steggall’s creative and somewhat unusual collage illustrations recount a year on the farm from plowing and planting to summer growth, harvest, and winter. The simple poetic text is well done, and there’s lots of detail for children to spot and learn from on each page. Our kids beg for this book, and the Man and I enjoy the art even though collage-style books usually aren’t my cup of tea. It’s worth noting that we checked two of Steggall’s other books out of the library (Red Car, Red Bus and The Life of a Car) and both books drove my husband and I insane. The children loved the bright pictures, but we found the text too bland to tolerate and the bright primary-colored illustrations visually overwhelming. Following the Tractor has a lot of natural scenery on each page to break up the visual impact, something the other books lacked.

Happy reading!

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2014 in Review, Part 2: Books

In the middle of high school I began recording all the new books I read in a pocket-sized notebook. The habit stuck. At the end of each year I review the year’s books and write a summary as a blog post or just for my personal records. This year I thought I’d kick things off with a twist – my husband’s favorites! The Man doesn’t keep a book list, but has a nose for good reads. In no particular order his three favorite books read this year were:

  1. In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord. Review below, as it was also one of my favorites.
  2. World Order by Henry Kissinger. I second the motion, though I’m only half way through so it’s not on my book list. After laying a historical groundwork on the major regions affecting international relations, Kissinger offers a clear analysis of the challenges and requirements of a shared world order. Excellent, intelligent, engaging reading for anyone high school aged and up. About half of our gift list received this book for Christmas.
  3. Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). To quote the Amazon blurb, “Is truth knowable? If we know the truth, must we hide it in the name of tolerance? Cardinal Ratzinger engages the problem of truth, tolerance, religion and culture in the modern world…Ratzinger embraces the difficult challenge of meeting diverse understandings of spiritual truth while defending the Catholic teaching of salvation through Jesus Christ. “But what if it is true?” is the question that he poses to cultures that decry the Christian position on man’s redemption.” From previous years’ reading the Man also highly recommends Benedict XVI’s trilogy on the life of Jesus.

Over the past few years I’ve moved much of my book logging to Pinterest because I like the visual album of titles and the ability to include summaries and links. Pinterest has my reading lists for 2011 here, 2012 here, 2013 here, and 2014 here. I don’t include books I’ve re-read, skimmed, or left unfinished. Books read to the kids also don’t count.

I read 57 new books in 2014, with more of an average toward “fluff” than usual. The favorite books described here are the handful I couldn’t bear leaving and always raced to pick up again. A few even made me glad when the infant woke at 2:00 in the morning so I could jump back into my book!

  • In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord. Completely mesmerizing. It’s written under a pseudonym by an American woman who worked for an NGO in post-9/11 Afghanistan for five years. Her story is full of eye-opening cultural examples and perspectives, but the book’s main focus is the author’s discussions with Afghan Muslim friends about Christ and faith. Her stories are great examples of respectful, honest, and carefully thought-through cross-cultural dialogue, as well as the profound effect of Biblical ideas in a culture where they are utterly unfamiliar. I disagree with her theology in a couple of places, but both my husband and I loved this book and could not put it down.
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. I ended up doing a lot of armchair traveling this fall. Bryson’s story of his travels in Australia is funny, light, and (gently) informative. Along the way you learn a fair bit about Australian geography/history/environment. My previous scraps of remembered Australian history from school went something like: Aborigines….Captain Cook….transported convicts….gold rush….fence to contain rabbits….WWII….indigenous children sent to boarding schools….the present. As you can see, some filler was definitely in order. It’s not remotely a comprehensive work on Australian history (I picked out a copy of The Fatal Shore for that), but it’s a good quick read. Fair warning that his ascerbic treatment of those he encounters sometimes makes you cringe, a risk with any Bryson book.
  • Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. A sharp-eyed protagonist comments on her life, family, and rural neighbors in pre-war Britain. This classic of British humor kept me chuckling and sympathizing with the author’s household and social woes all the way through. Delafield’s work is pleasant light reading. She uses a calmer, less hysterically relentless type of humor than P.G. Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Appropriately enough I read this while vacationing…on the beach. This work was published in 1953 along with a raft of other post-nuclear holocaust novels. After nuclear bombs wipe out the northern hemisphere, southern Australians are warned that they will only survive until September. Shute’s story is very well written and the characters and premise are engaging. However, readers should brace for crushing depression. I’ll admit to letting loose a couple rants wondering why a) nobody just builds a well-stocked bunker with filtered air so that at least a segment of humanity can survive and emerge after the land recovers, and b) why they leave that poor baby in its crib. Someone please pick up the baby!
  • The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck wrote this book as a propaganda piece to encourage resistance fighters during WWII. It’s a good story and my favorite Steinbeck to date. An unnamed enemy force occupies a town easily, but faces resistance over time. I found it especially interesting because, despite being written in support of the occupied countries, it does not oversimplify or dehumanize the (unofficially German) enemy soldiers.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This was my first Gaiman, read on my sister-in-law’s recommendation. Gaiman draws you into an imaginative world of London Above and London Below. In this world normal life moves smoothly and obliviously around a bizarre world of vampires, scavengers, criminals, and heroes. The book has great humor and a creative plot. It’s completely addictive once you’re about 20 pages in. Frequently gruesome.
  • Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. This biography received great reviews, and just came out as a movie. I’ve read many POW memoirs, but this one stands out because the biographer chose to follow Zamperini’s story beyond his release from the POW camp and return to America. Many POW stories wrap up with a happy “hooray! they’re free!” finale. Instead, Hillenbrand unflinchingly looks at the destructive effect of so many years of deprivation, torture, and suffering on a man, his life, and his family in the years after his release. It makes the change all the more stunning when Zamperini encounters Christ and enters a new life transformed by Him.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is a book that sticks with you long after you’ve finished it. While much of the content would not be suitable for young readers, Adichie weaves a compelling story of a young Nigerian woman who moves to America and faces the challenges and joys of living in a new place, immigration, racism, long-distance relationships, family, and old friendships. Adichie has a gift for quickly sketching a scene so that you can feel it – the smell of chicken stewing or the feel of cold winter air with a hint of snow. I also found Adichie’s TED talk on “The Danger of a Single Story” interesting and thought-provoking.
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I think everyone read this this year, and with good reason. It’s a fantastic story, sort of a modern David Copperfield. There are a few sections where I felt the author got carried away and desperately needed someone to edit her verbose pontifications. Still, that leaves a good 700 pages to love.
  • Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China by Paul Theroux. Are all travel writers so…cynical? I don’t know, but I enjoyed following Theroux across Russia and all around China by train. While the internet can certainly be distracting, I love it for armchair traveling. If you’re stuck in the US with a passport-less infant it’s fun to hitch a ride on someone elses journey. I keep a map handy on one tab and google image searches for each location on another.
  • The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful by Myquillyn Smith. I read this in the wee hours while feeding our littlest one. It’s the perfect kick in the pants if you’re feeling a bit stuck with your home’s appearance and livability. While my style is very different from Smith’s, her approach toward creating a pleasant inviting space with the resources you have is doable for anyone. [I will quibble with her claim that it takes just a couple minutes to patch a nail hole, though. Sure, if you use the old dorm/renters trick of toothpaste, but not if you do it properly by filling the hole, sanding, spreading fill again if necessary, and painting. Small complaint, loved the book.]

As usual, I also categorized the titles I read by genre to map any reading patterns the year. Sorting the list like this always makes me spot habits and gaps I didn’t recognize at the time:

Classics

  • The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
  • Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (unfortunately found out it was an abridged version once I finished the whole thing)
  • The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt
  • Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth
  • Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun
  • Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
  • Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
  • The Provincial Lady in London by E.M. Delafield
  • The Provincial Lady in America by E.M. Delafield
  • The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield
  • The Provincial Lady in Russia by E.M. Delafield (have my doubts that the Kindle edition was complete)
  • Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  • Dear Enemy by Jean Webster
  • The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
  • Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
  • Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson
  • The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

Mysteries

  • Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James
  • Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James
  • The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  • The Forgotten Affairs of Youth by Alexander McCall Smith

Current Fiction

  • Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
  • A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn
  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Bertie Plays the Blues by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Love over Scotland by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Bud not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Circle by Dave Eggers
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Travel Writing

  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
  • Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China by Paul Theroux
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  • I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after 20 Years Away by Bill Bryson
  • Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Non-fiction: Science, Theology, Family, Advice, Humor

  • Minimalism for Moms by Janice Thompson
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • The God of the Mundane by Matthew B. Redmond
  • Brown Babies, Pink Parents by Amy Ford
  • The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages by Shaunti Feldhahn
  • Unbroken: A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally by Tsh Oxenreider
  • Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth (#3 in the Call the Midwife Trilogy)
  • Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth (#2 in the Call the Midwife Trilogy)
  • In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord
  • What Did You Expect: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage by Paul David Tripp
  • Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
  • My Neck of the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
  • The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful by Myquillyn Smith