posts tagged with 'books'

work ethics

We're reading Farmer Boy at bedtime these days. I love that book. We're almost through; this evening we read the chapter called "Threshing", in which Almanzo and his father spend a snowy late fall day threshing wheat on the barn floor. As they get started Almanzo asks why they don't bring the wheat to the new threshing machine in town, and his Father tells him it's because all it saves is time: it wastes wheat, and it damages the straw so it's no good to feed the animals. And he doesn't see any purpose to saving time. After all, he tells Almanzo, they won't have anything else to do on stormy winter evenings; would Almanzo rather just sit around twiddling his thumbs? No, thinks Almanzo, he has enough of that on Sundays.

I'm aware of the perils of trying to raise children according to the Little House series. I think they're perils common to many in my circle of friends. But when the boys start the day with an hour of Minecraft, then enjoy a leisurely breakfast followed by an indeterminate amount of time reading at the table before they do their dishes, I start to wonder if I'm doing something wrong. At that just takes us up to 8:00! I wonder if Almanzo would have enjoyed the idea of leisure time more if he had had an iPad?

Of course, I can also look at myself—I acknowledge my own difficulties, historical and current, with sustained effort. And I count blogging here as work! But I have a long list of things I'd like to accomplish, which gives me a chance to try and model a proper work ethic. It might be working: today Harvey made breakfast—waffles!—and offered to pick up the slack of Zion's work before supper when Zion was absent. Of course, he's the one child who's not listening to Farmer Boy. I wonder what that means...

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hardcrabble for real

One of our favorite picture books is Hardscrabble Harvest, by Dahlov Ipcar. Leah bought it for me at a bookstore in Maine on vacation a few years ago; she could have bought Ipcar's Lobsterman, to be more thematically appropriate, but when she saw Hardscrabble Harvest she knew I had to have it. It starts, "Farmer plants early in the spring. He'll be lucky if he harvests a thing." It's hard for me to refrain from quoting the whole thing; many of the lines are favorites, and we bring them out as the situation demands. "Chickens in the garden, scratching up the row. Run farmer run, chase them with a hoe" is one that sees frequent use. The story runs through one farm season as a young farming couple deals with one setback after another. Because that's what farming is, setbacks. Maybe my favorite couplet is, "Summer almost over, harvest drawing near. Most of the cauliflower eaten by the deer."

Ipcar knew what she was talking about: in her twenties, she and her husband survived for a few years as subsistance farmers in Maine. The daughter of artists William and Marguerite Zorach, she was also painting in between farm jobs, and she had her first MoMA solo exhibit at the age of 21 (art doesn't pay much better than farming, even for "the first woman and the youngest artist to be featured in a solo exhibition at the museum"). She illustrated Hardscrabble Harvest using only mixes of red and green (and black and white) which gives it a unifying feel, and the pictures are a blend of symbolic and realistic.

Leah thought the book would appeal to me because of how much I moan about things going wrong in the garden. It's interesting, now that I think about it, how well-constructed the story is: the first three-quarters are a series of things going wrong—all kinds of animals eating the crops, mostly—then the last part is the farmers' amazing bountiful harvest, capped with their Thanksgiving feast. Because that's what it's like: all my attention is focused on the trouble I'm having with seedlings, and meanwhile we're getting as much asparagus and rhubarb as we could ever hope to eat. Yesterday I made some rhubarb syrup, and today I'm doing the second rhubarb pie of the season. After all, what's all this food for but to eat up? As the book ends:

Stuffing in the turkey,
cranberry sauce.
Sit down to eat it,
hungry as a hoss.

Sit down to eat it,
hungry as a pup.
Here come the relatives
to gobble it up!

the last page of the book: cat and dog stealing pie off the counter

the last page

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book food

Last night we started a new bedtime chapter book, Secret Water by Arthur Ransome. With plenty of time in our schedule we read some this morning, too: chapter two, which includes a discussion over a breakfast of porridge. I had planned waffles for our own breakfast, but once they heard the word the lure of porridge was too much for the kids to resist. So we did that instead. Then a little while later they listened to a Zoom read-aloud from our good friends at Team Moosiverse. After finishing Neil Gaiman's Fortunately, the Milk yesterday, today the hosts started Adventures With Waffles by Maria Parr. We read it ourselves a couple months ago—and pushed on everyone we know—but that doesn't mean they didn't want to hear it again. I don't think they actually got to the part where waffles come into the story, but it didn't matter: just hearing the title was enough for Lijah to need one for a snack. Who knew my children were so impressionable! It's a good thing we're not reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory...

winter solstice reading

For our solstice party, and for our family reading in general, I went looking in the library for a good topical picture book. You know, there are tons of books about Christmas—you can read about Christmas from every possible perspective—but not so much the winter solstice. Last year we read The Winter Solstice, by Ellen Jackson, which is a fine book... but not a story particularly. Nor is it particularly poetic, which seems like a shame given the poetry natural to the season. But this year, when I checked in with Ms. Elaine at the Children's desk she was delighted to offer me a brand new book, which hadn't even made it to the shelves yet: The Shortest Day.

It's by Susan Cooper, the author of the "Dark Is Rising" series, and illustrated by Carson Ellis, and it's fantastic. Cooper's poetry doesn't come from careful word choice but from connecting with the power of the season, which is just what I was looking for a ceremonial read-aloud. And Ellis's watercolor illustrations are a great mix of down-to-earth realism and mythic fantasy—they made me think of a modern children's book version of William Blake. (She's also the author of a pair of picture books that I recommend highly: Du Iz Tak? and Home.)

Of course, I'd love it if some other good writers stepped up to tackle solstice stories. I mean, the magic! As it is, though, the people who care enough aren't very good writers and don't have access to real editors—there's a self-published book about the eight quarter and cross-quarter days at the library, but it's cringeingly awful. But at least now there's one winter solstice book. Maybe I'll buy it for next year.

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from the "gooey" section

A couple weeks ago I picked up a cookbook at the library, Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich, thinking I'd get some inspiration for holiday treats. The only problem with the book is that, while it's designed like a glossy coffee-table book, there are only pictures for every fourth or fifth recipe! How does the author expect me to bake something that I haven't already seen in mouthwatering full-page illustration? Yesterday we tried it out for the first time, making "Rocky Road bars" (pictured on page 213) and they were delicious. So good, in fact, that after we left the last five with our friends who gave us dinner yesterday I had to make some more for dessert this evening. They came out even better the second time!

a chocolate marshmallow bar on a plate

yummy

The recipe is super simple: just a graham cracker crust (with sugar added), topped with chocolate chips, marshmallows, and nuts. You hardly need a recipe for that! And yet, I never thought of it myself despite always wishing I could get marshmallows in cookies somehow. The key, I think, is baking the crust for 10 minutes at 350° and then adding the other stuff before baking for 10-12 more minutes at 375°. I don't know if I'll get to any of the other recipes in the book before I have to return it—we've got a little bit going on this time of year—but it's already changed our lives. Rocky Road bars are a keeper!

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breakfast standards

I like to think we do pretty well for breakfasts around here. I've heard friends say that even cereal is too much trouble for them in the morning, so they limit themselves to a breakfast bar on the way out the door. None of that for us! Still, I come to understand that I still have improvements to make.

In our book club we're reading the fantastic Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright. I've read it lots of times before but I'm always glad for another go. Her sequel, Return to Gone-Away, isn't quite as good, but it's still plenty compelling enough for me to give it another run-through this weekend. And on page 29 I read the the following words:

Aunt Hilda's breakfasts were famous: varied and original, not just the ordinary plodding through of cereal and eggs and toast.

Eggs and toast ordinary?! Here I thought I was doing pretty well to get a hot breakfast with scrambled or fried eggs on the table four or five mornings a week. I do agree with her on the cereal though—at least so far as cereal by itself is concerned. So what would she have extraordinary cooks prepare? Here's Aunt Hilda's breakfast that day: "fresh orange juice, hot buckwheat cakes with butter and apple jelly, and bacon." Sounds good to me. Does anyone have a good recipe for buckwheat cakes? How about a suggestion for getting the kids to try them?

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waiting for the contagion to run its course

At the library today, Harvey picked up the first volume in Rick Riordan's Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series. It follows on the heels of the five books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and the five books of the Heroes of Olympus series, all of which run three- to four-hundred pages, and all of which Harvey has read. It's not that I don't approve of the stories—I'm actually kind of excited to see what Riordan's take on Norse mythology will be, since we studied the Norse stories last year—but I can't help but think about all the other good fiction out there that Harvey isn't getting a chance to read. Oh well, even if Riordan keeps churning out the stories—and I have no reason to expect he'd ever stop!—Harvey can read a lot faster than the dude can write. So we're due for an opening in Harvey's reading schedule in the next couple weeks. Any suggestions for what he might like next?

Anna Hibiscus

We like lots of books. There are now four readers in our house, and together we plow through a lot of written material. But obviously, some books are more favorite than others. As Zion is working his way though short chapter books, we've rediscovered some old favorites. Just like Harvey, he enjoyed Dory Fantasmagory, and read all four. We also rediscovered another series we've enjoyed, Anna Hibiscus—and even better, we found that there are now twice as many books in the series than last time we looked!

In the US it's hard to find books about other cultures that aren't completely othering—like, "look at how people live in other places!" So we really appreciate the exceptions. Anna Hibiscus is a girl living with her big family in Lagos, Nigeria. Her dad is Nigerian and her mom is originally from Canada, so while she—and her mom—feel completely Nigerian, she also has a little bit of a different perspective about her family and her city than her many cousins (the books' author, Atinuke, is similarly a child of mixed cultures). That gives the non-Nigerian reader a great perspective on life in Lagos or the village. Even better, in the third book Anna Hibiscus travels by herself to Canada to visit her grandmother, giving American readers a rare look at North American culture as strange and other!

Besides that, the books are wonderful in lots of other ways. The communal life Anna Hibiscus and her extended family share sounds amazing and overwhelming. Anna's unique perspective sometimes clashes with her family's traditional values, and both sides end up learning something. And Anna Hibiscus's kindness should be an example to everyone. As of now there are eight chapter books and a couple of picture books in the series... you should read all of them.

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fantasy reading in our house

Harvey is currently plowing through the Harry Potter series. He's about a third of the way through the last book right now, so I have some hopes of speaking to him again at some point tomorrow evening. This is his second run at the series; he started reading it the first time after a friend recommended it to him last year, but got stalled out in the middle of book four. This time he came to it on his own, and he's going strong to the end. You can read of my mixed feelings about the books here and here and here; given that, I think I've done a fair job of not being too scathing about the stories. Actually, as we talk about them I'm surprised by how much I remember!

Still, I continue to assert (privately) that better books exist. Like Dial-A-Ghost, which I picked up at the library books sale this past weekend. You could make an argument that Eva Ibbotson did what J.K. Rowling did first, and better (she seems to have been a very good person for not minding particularly much when Rowling made the big time). Certainly, her books have more humor and liveliness. It's natural to wonder why Rowling's work gained such wide popularity and cultural dominance while Ibbotson's, though successful enough, didn't. I don't think it's only the publishing juggernaut that lined up behind Harry Potter; it seems to me that Rowling pioneered a certain sort of authorial focus that leaves her books empty of everything but plot and one-dimensional characters acting out their roles like the guys in a sitcom. That's a satisfying combination. Maybe I'll pick up The Prisoner of Azkaban again and see what I'm missing.

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can I be intellectual?

I started yesterday to relive my undergraduate glories by rereading that seminal volume of my youth, E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. Actually, to be honest I'm not sure if I ever read it cover-to-cover before, but I certainly read from it. It's good stuff. Here's a quote that I thought could be applicable to today:

But so great has been the reaction in our own time against Whig or Marxist interpretations of history, that some scholars had propagated a ridiculous reversal of historical roles: the persecuted are seen as forerunners of oppression, and the oppressors as victims of persecution.

White male fragility, anyone?

It's a bit of a challenging read at this point in my life: anything more rarefied than my usual fare of middle grade fiction can be hard to follow while the children are shouting and/or climbing on me. Still, I'm pushing on. As an intellectual history, the book assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader about what actually happened around the various developments in working class consciousness; I remember some of what Thompson is talking about. It makes me want to also read some more concrete history of the period to refresh my memory. In my free time.

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