Thursday, June 26, 2014

A-Z Book Questionnaire

This is courtesy Carrie at Reading to Know. I made an effort not to include any author or book more than once, unless absolutely necessary. 

Author you’ve read the most books from: This says more about how prolific the author is than my actual favorite. (I mean, Jane Austen only wrote six books. And Chesterton wrote a whole lot, but mostly newspaper articles.) Probably Terry Pratchett, thanks mostly to the inimitable (and apparently interminable) Discworld series.

Best sequel ever: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Currently reading: As usual, a very random list
Ungifted, by Scott Kaufman
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
Code of the Lifemaker, by James P. Hogan
Still working on Paradise Lost, by Milton, and Poetic Knowledge, by James Taylor, but very slowly on each.

Drink of choice while reading: Me having anything liquid near a book is a very, very bad idea. 

E-reader or physical book? I definitely prefer physical books, but will happily read anything that has letters on it.

Fictional character you probably would have actually dated in high school: Well, the fictional characters *I* would have wanted to date, probably wouldn't have been willing to date *me*. I take that back. I could probably have had a shot with Henry Tilney, of Northanger Abbey, and he would have been a lot of fun to hang around with, though a little too cheerful for me to take seriously. Which would be just as well in high school.

Glad you gave this book a chance: The Count of Monte Cristo. I had read The Three Musketeers when I was far too young and was completely shocked. (I think I was ten, maybe. Goodness, that's how old Duchess is. No wonder I was shocked!) It took me until just a couple of years ago to get around to giving Dumas a second chance. Glad I did.

Hidden gem book: Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. Really amazing and wonderful book of the life of a medieval Norwegian woman.

 Just finished: My first two ever Georgette Heyer romances. I'm kind of embarrassed, because I never read romances, but they *were* very funny.

Kinds of books you won’t read: Self-help books. Most romances. Devotional or Christian living books. (I will read theology and philosophy, though. Just hate being told what to do. :D)

Longest book you’ve read: War and Peace, most likely. Despite its reputation and length, I loved it. Part of it is because Tolstoy really is amazing at getting inside people's heads. Part of it is because I had a quiet armchair in my bedroom and a big bag of homemade chocolates and a quiet couple of weeks between semesters when I read it. 

Major book hangover because of: Hmm . . . what counts as a major book hangover? Do you mean the one where you wander around the house wondering what on earth you are doing in 21st century North America because you could have sworn you were somewhere else? Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card, had that effect on me.  But so do a lot of other books. Or, sometimes, the junk mail. I'm kind of easy to distract.

Number of bookcases you own: Eleven, or thirteen, depending on how you count them and what's on them.

One book you have read multiple times: Just one?  Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.

Preferred place to read: My armchair/cozy corner, with the big end table of books next to it. Happiness.

Quote that you like, from a book you’ve read: "'You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all! ‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.” From The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Reading regret: I never regret reading. I regret that I have to stop and do the dishes.

Series you started and need to finish: I never read under obligation. However, I do plan to read the rest of Jim Butcher's Dresden series at some point.

Three of your all-time favorite books: Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton. The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Unapologetic fangirl for: G. K. Chesterton!

 Very excited for this release more than all the others: I always wait a few years to decide if I want to read something. Thus, I have no idea about releases. I'd like to read another one of Patricia Wrede's western fantasy series. I am getting annoyed by David Weber's Safehold series because it has become way too sprawling, but that won't stop me from reading the next one when it comes out.

Worst bookish habit: Propping books open on their spines. It is very evil.

X marks the spot: When I'm being good, I use my library hold slips, of which I generally have an abundance.

Your latest book purchase: Something for the kids' school (George Washington's World, by Genevieve Foster.) For myself, Poetic Knowledge, by James Taylor. I'm not a frequent purchaser--the librarians all know me by name.

Zzz snatcher book: You mean one I stayed up too late for? Alas, I am too responsible of a grownup to do this anymore. Sometimes in the summer I read early in the morning before DOB wakes up, but I have to avoid sniggering.

Please do post a link if you decide to do it, too!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Moderation Makes Poor Headlines

See? I tried and it does. The philosophers thought perfection was to be found in the golden mean, the balance between extremes. It plays well in philosophy, but not so well in the media. Perhaps it is inherent in our systems of communication. Perhaps it is due to our intrinsic desire to be known and notable in a crowded world. Perhaps it is simply a fad and will soon mercifully pass.

But moderation does not tend to go viral. Headlines are all about outliers--and not outliers because of greatness, which requires more than fifteen seconds to demonstrate. No, it's how to follow an impossible dietary and exercise scheme that will unlock the fountain of youth, or how someone built a house out of toothpicks, or avoids generating any trash or spending any money, or put a dozen children through college by the age of twelve. Or how something is the most important, best, worst, most shocking thing you will ever see, even though you saw two dozen things just like it yesterday and will see two dozen more tomorrow.

There is not much interest to be generated by such topics as, "How I remained only moderately stout and reasonably healthy on a normal diet, somewhat light on the doughnuts," or "I have paid most of my bills on time so far and only use the small weekly garbage can," or "This family raised three children to be fairly productive adults who moved out before they were 25."

Maybe it seems too easy to confuse mediocrity and moderation. The difference is that living well is not an achievement on which people can be ranked. You can be the best in your field, but you can't be the best at being alive. (Though if you *are* the best in the field, chances are it cost you more than most people are willing to pay, with good reason.)

Even goodness and wisdom can be overpursued, according to Ecclesiastes. And I suspect the point at which they become too much is the point at which they stop being a place of balance and harmony and start being a point of comparison--when you are no longer content to be good and wise, but become obsessed with being the best and the wisest. There is a shortcut there straight into wickedness and folly.

Admittedly, tales of extremes are entertaining and they may be relatively harmless as long as we keep our footing and remember that happiness is not found as the most, best, least, or furthest of anything. And maybe someday it will be easier to accept that and we will see links that say, "Cute video with a totally predictable but still heartwarming ending!"

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Despicable Me: The Generational Warfare Reading

I think I've mentioned our fascination with the Strauss-Howe generational cycles before. We finally watched Despicable Me this week. (Living in Cincinnati for several years was enough to leave us permanently several years behind time.) Somewhere in the Strauss-Howe materials they point out that kid movies are generally aimed both at the current child generation and at the current parent generation. Despicable Me is a perfect example of this. (Note that further discussion is based on the Strauss-Howe archetypes and is not meant to resemble any actual persons.)

Gru is, plainly, a middle-aged Nomad (Generation X). He is coming to realize that not only has he never been able to get approval from his Prophet (Boomer) elders, nothing he does, no matter how spectacular, is ever going to impress them. And he is already old enough to feel a bit of a has-been, with an obnoxious Hero (Millenial) pajama-clad upstart nipping at his heels.

So, after one last attempt to do something worthy of notice, he gives up and settles into private life and finding fulfillment from a very child-centered and maybe a bit stifling form of parenthood to the Artist generation, thus making the Nomad midlife transition from frenetic competition to exhausted embracing of obscurity.

I have no idea where the Minions fit generationally, though.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Under a Spreading Chestnut-Tree

Actually, it's a bigleaf maple, but we'll waive the technicalities. Part of cleaning out up at The Hill has been collecting all the scrap metal remaining from Grandpa's innumerable projects. (This is not usually *my* part of the cleaning up, you understand--I'm always in the back cupboards, getting dusty.)

Anyway, there's the pile of scrap metal for the recyclers under the spreading maple tree, next to the pile for the dump and across from the gigantic ant hill. Last Saturday I emerged from categorizing antique cameras to load the ducklings into the car only to find that it was already loaded with chunks of rusty metal.

"What happened here?" I demanded.

A short parade, namely two, of small boys suddenly appeared, their arms loaded with more scrap metal. "It's OK!" Deux said, "The uncles said we could have it."

I noted that *I* had not said they could have it, but their puppy-like enthusiasm was enough for me to only comment, "Where are you going to keep it?"

"NOT scattered all over the front yard!" Deux assured me.

I settled for, "Well, that's the last of it, then."

They did unload it all themselves. And put it in the back yard. They have a fort out there, next to the compost pile. (We have a lot of back yard that's just grass. This is boring. Everything interesting tends to congregate in one place.)

Today they were talking about going outside and someone said, "Hey, let's go play blacksmith again!"

Hey, for a few hours of play outside, I will deal with having rusty metal scattered around the back yard. Just not the front.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Random Book Post

I'm still plugging away at Paradise Lost. Very, very slowly--I only pick it up once or twice a week and usually a couple of pages is enough of a plow. One day the kids asked me to read some and when I paused they wanted to know what it was about and they wanted me to read more. (They are all great fans of poetry. We have been reading Longfellow in school. After The Wreck of the Hesperus, Deux said, "I hate that poem." The next day he asked to read it again.)

I do agree that the depiction of God in Paradise Lost is not very appealing. So far he just sits around explaining himself. It's a Puritan weakness, I think, the attempt to *explain* God. Instead of coming across as a Person (let alone the most interesting Person), he comes across as a textbook. In depicting the rest of experience he does better--the good angels are quite interesting, as is Adam. (Eve is a bit objectified.) But they all have things to *do.*

It seems like to create an effective depiction of the divine, an author needs to be willing to leave the explaining out and simply focus on the personality. We cannot hope to understand God; but we can learn to trust him. George MacDonald never tries to explain why Irene's grandmother doesn't just step in and deal with the goblins herself. Or even why she doesn't step in and make the obstinate servants understand things. But he does show us a person who is profoundly worth knowing, which lets us trust that she does have good reasons for her lack of direct action.

Horror is not one of my usual genres, but I'm giving H.P. Lovecraft a try. I'm finding it hard to be horrified. I don't know if it's just not something that resonates me, or if there's some other reason. One thing is that Lovecraft isn't much on twists and turns. The basic plotline is: There's rumors of something really, really horrible. People at first pooh-pooh it and then decide to go investigate and see if it really is horrible. Yep, it's horrible. This lacks the startling emotional punch. (OK, there was one story where, after being horrified by discovering a town of people slowly turning into amphibious fish-monsters and barely escaping with his life, he discovers that his ancestry traces to the same town and he's turning into a horrible fish-monster too--and he embraces it. That was a little horrifying.)

I tend to find horror more vivid if it crops up in places and ways that ought to be safe. I suppose one could look at Lovecraft as doing this, being as he sets most of his adventures in the idyllic New England countryside, but he does his level best to convince you from he first that all those hills and streams and decaying farmhouses are brooding pits of horror, so you are never off guard.

Probably the bigger reason, though, is that Lovecraft has been parodied so often and so thoroughly that it's just hard to read him seriously. Reading about an invisible monstrosity that crushes barns and consumes the cows inside sounds more like a Far Side cartoon. (Crunchy outside! Tender bovine insides!) Anything involving tentacles immediately invokes the wizards of Unseen University. It's the peril of being an icon in your field. I have no desire to protect Lovecraft from this fate, but I consider it my sacred duties to protect my children from Tolkien parodies until they have gotten to know Tolkien well for himself.

(This is all preparatory to our next adventure campaign, which is going to be horror-themed, as designed by DOB. I'm not sure where on the good/bad parenting scale playing a horror RPG with your children falls, but I can assure you that it will not give the children nightmares. The only one prone to nightmares is Dot, and her own innate imagination is so disturbing that it would be difficult to top it. DOB is loosely inspired by the Lovecraft mythos, but apparently Lovecraft held it as a cardinal rule that the horror could not make sense; that, DOB believes, is an impossible condition for a game. So it will make sense, if we are lucky enough to survive and figure it out.)


On a lighter note, Rocketboy convinced me to read Simon Green's Blue Moon fantasy series, which has been a lot of fun. He told me the second book was much darker than the first, and since the first involved the probable end of the world under the control of the Demon Prince, I was curious to see how that could be. I read it and thought, "This isn't darker. It's just middle-aged." The youthful hero and heroine of the first book are now world-weary thirty-somethings, and alliances and choices are murkier. It just seemed more realistic to me.


Every once in a while I read something by Howard Gardner, just to keep up with more mainstream educational thought. It's hard to say how much I agree or disagree with him; we come at the topic from very different angles. I read The Unschooled Mind, which essentially boils down to saying that what people learn in school makes little to no impression on how they actually think about the world--generally they stick to their pre-school impressions no matter how faithfully they can regurgitate the school answers on the quiz. It's nice to see it well-documented, but it's not exactly an earth-shattering revelation for those of us who are not professional educators. He then offers some ideas or different models that he hopes might help, but he admits that they are not really tested and that assessment is difficult.

And that really is the heart of the matter--there's no way to ascertain, in a standardized way, whether someone actually understands something, or is simply good at test-taking. Yet our society insists on standardized answers. Like the little boy with the lost quarter, we keep looking on Fifth Street, where the light is better, even though we lost the coin on Third Street.

He offers some models which he hopes would be better (apprenticeship and museums); if the essence of each of those is the presence of an adult who is actually interacting with the child's knowledge, and the child taking personal responsibility and interest in what they learn, then I agree that those are helpful approaches towards gaining understanding. On the other hand, I'm doubtful that his insistence on a national curriculum would help with that (especially since, in America, we are congenitally dreadful at doing internal policies at the national level--it's just not the way our system is set up to operate).

On a broader level, though, his focus in education is still essentially skill-based and utilitarian. It's about gaining understanding in the disciplines, not about becoming a whole person. So it is useful but limited.


I have more books I want to talk about, but this post is becoming unconscionably long.