Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Thinking about Habits

That's what I've been doing lately. This comes compliments of Gretchen Rubin's website:

“To make Routine a Stimulus
Remember it can cease —
Capacity to Terminate
Is a Specific Grace —.”

-- Emily Dickinson, “To make Routine a Stimulus,” 1196

Sunday, August 13, 2017


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
--W.H. Davies (1911)

Monday, July 24, 2017

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog

Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming SentencesSister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How does an author write a book about sentence diagramming that is both informative and downright entertaining? I never diagrammed sentences in school, but my mother did and was also an elementary school teacher. Maybe that's why I was interested in this book. The author provides the nuts and bolts of diagramming rules, a history of diagramming, and her own memories of sixth grade in Sister Bernadette's English class. She's a word nerd with the appreciation that not everybody feels the same need to obsess about grammar and punctuation. Hence, her humanity shines through in this story. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

"Few people would deny that students need to master grammar in order to write decently. But there are other places to acquire it than in sixth-grade grammar classes. And where brilliant writing "comes from" is always a mystery--the simple answer is that it comes from deep in the psyche of the writer who perpetrates it--but there's a lot more to it than correct grammar.

The fact is that a lot of people don't need diagramming or anything else: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading--which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical. The language sticks to them like cat hair to black rousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.

Others understand their own language only when they study a foreign one: seeing it from the outside makes it come clear, particularly--as in the case of Eudora Welty--with the study of Latin, which is a bit like an encyclopedia of grammatical principles. Once you've mastered, for example, the elegantly succinct ablative absolute in Latin (and, incidentally, seen how clumsy its English equivalent can be: 'With the dog barking furiously, the girl drew a diagram' versus 'Cane fortiter latrante, paella diagram describebat') you probably will never have trouble with your own language again." p. 100

"I suppose if I have any rules of writing, they would go something like this:

1. Communicate
2. Communicate elegantly
3. When elegance is beside the point, fuhgeddaboutit.

It's good to remember the importance of context. I speak slightly differently to, say, my landlord than I do to my editor friends, and a smart kid who grew up saying 'youse' or 'ax' will know not to say 'I'm axing youse for a job' at an interview." p. 115

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the author was asked if his book had a central theme, his answer cemented my five-star rating:

"I certainly hope not. In crafting a novel, I do not have an essential message I am trying to communicate. Rather, I hope to create a work of art that, while being satisfyingly cohesive, contains such a richness of images, ideas, and personalities that it can prompt varied responses from reader to reader, and from reading to reading."

I am tempted to climb up on my roof and shout, "THIS IS WHY IT IS A GREAT BOOK!" but a five-star review will have to suffice.

This is one of my favorite passages:

"Would you like to hear a story about a princess?' he suggested.

Sofia sat upright. "The age of the nobility has given way to the age of the common man," she said with the pride of one who has recited her times tables correctly. "It was historically inevitable."

"Yes," said the Count. "So I've been told."

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Eric Sloane's Weather Book

Eric Sloane's Weather BookEric Sloane's Weather Book by Eric Sloane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been reading selected books from our homeschool curriculum. My daughter remembered the bit about the woolly bear caterpillar's markings and winter predictions years after she read it. This book will inspire looking up more often--and shows what some careful observation can teach. Some of my favorite passages:

March 12, 2017 – page 12
"Ben Franklin advised that we "do business with men when the wind is in the northwest." He knew that when the wind is from that direction...the weather is likely to be buoyant, dry and hopeful--the best state for quick decisions and for bold enterprises."

March 16, 2017 – page 19
The troposphere is approx 5 miles high at the poles, but bulges to 10 miles at the equator. In temperate zones it's about 7.5 miles. This is due to centrifugal force at the equator.

March 24, 2017 – page 29
Isobars and millibars: "Exactly what a millibar is, is beside the point. It would make no difference if we measured air by the weight of apples or oysters. The point is that air pressure is higher or lower at one place than it is at another, or if it is going up or coming down."

April 2, 2017 – page 35
"The air you are now breathing was probably 500 miles to the west yesterday."

April 4, 2017 – page 40
Types of clouds associated with warm fronts: cirrus (wispy mare's tails), cirrostratus (cobwebby), cirrocumulus (mackerel) and finally towering thunderhead brings rain. From cobwebby halo around sun/moon it's 10 hours before rain starts.

June 13, 2017 – page 57
Winds: cushion effects, blanket effects, and even a cat's paw (ruffling the surface of the ocean). I have a new appreciation for sailing. So much to understand so you can get from point A to point B.

June 15, 2017 – page 64
The greater the spread between temperature and dewpoint, the farther away is rain. (Dewpoint is a humidity & forecasting measurement.)

June 30, 2017 – page 75
Heat lightning is regular old lightning that is too far away for you to hear the thunder (10-25 miles, depending)

June 30, 2017 – page 84
A waterspout is only sea water 7-10 ft up. The rest is a cloudforn of pure moisture coming down from above. Often start as a cumuli-mammato cloud. Can you guess what those look like?

June 30, 2017 – page 90
Look up and take note. "With your eyes in the sky, in old age may you walk lively in a path of beauty." -- Zuni saying

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Flood Friday

Flood FridayFlood Friday by Lois Lenski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I just re-read Lenski's Strawberry Girl recently and became interested in finding more of her Regional Series of books for children. Apart from Inter-Library Loan, they are difficult to find and out-of-print copies are getting pricey. I managed to find Flood Friday for under $10 so I snapped it up.

The story takes place in Connecticut in 1955 and is told from the viewpoint of a young girl and her friends. The narrative conveys the terror of the event as well as the persevering spirit of the people caught up in the flood.

A temporary shelter is set up in the local school. Children are simultaneously anxious and bored and Lenski portrays this so well. The uncertainty of the situation as missing family members are looked for is full of tension. Later, neighbors put up people who have lost their homes or who need time to clean up before they can live in their homes again.

After huge efforts at cleaning up and rebuilding, families are able to return to their homes. Their simple gratitude for a roof over their heads and family and friends to share a meal with is touching and humbling. I'd recommend this book to children and adults alike.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Conspiracy of Paper

A Conspiracy of Paper (Benjamin Weaver, #1)A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering this mystery focuses on 18th-century London stock fraud, it succeeds far better than I might have expected. With a few murders to season the sauce, we're off to visit some unsavory characters, both high- and low-born, Christian and Jewish. The combination of the intricate financial dealings and Benjamin Weaver's more forceful investigative style create a balance and tension throughout the novel. Weaver is a retired pugilist (The Lion of Judah) and a former petty criminal. Liss writes in a style reminiscent of the time period without getting tedious about it. His detective, or "thief-taker" in the parlance of the day, knows that he has to try to understand the stockjobbing world he's been thrown into, but sometimes his frustration results in a violent beating or two. This method yields results.

Quite a few times I was reminded of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe character:

"He aimed directly at my jaw, and in my weariness I did not see it coming. Or rather, I did see it coming, but I could not quite remember what to do about a punch aimed full to my face."

"The barkeeper showed me nothing but terse indifference--something just shy of politeness. I made a note to myself to return to this place, for I liked its way of conducting business."

Benjamin Weaver is an outsider, but an intelligent one. His wry sense of humor and friendship with Elias Gordon were some of my favorite parts of the story.

I found this book when I was searching for historical fiction about the East India Company. The third novel in this series will find Benjamin Weaver entangled with the EIC. I'm looking forward to that.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

I noted about halfway through this book that the author was hardly a typical hillbilly. At the age of sixteen, he was "consuming books about public policy." This might explain how he ended up at Harvard, but he makes it clear that there were plenty of opportunities for him to crash and burn. He credits his grandparents, especially his grandmother (Mamaw), with making the difference in his life. She sounded like a force to be reckoned with and somebody you wouldn't want to piss off. As her grandson noted, Mamaw's favorite TV show was "The Sopranos": change the names and dates, and the Italian Mafia starts to look a lot like the Hatfield-McCoy dispute. Vance's family traces their ancestry back to those infamous tribal combatants.

Vance also nails the half-hearted attempts to brighten up blighted downtowns in the rustbelt:

"Efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown always struck me as futile. People didn't leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren't enough consumers in Middletown to support them."

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Little Folly

A Little FollyA Little Folly by Jude Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved the other two books by Jude Morgan. Unfortunately, this one fell off for me about half way through. Not sure what was missing or if I just wasn't in the mood. There were some funny observations and situations, but I didn't get much involved with the characters, as I remember doing with An Accomplished Woman and Indiscretion.

A few notable quotes:

"Sir Clement Carnell's ruling passion, until the very last moment of his life, was his passion for ruling. In other times and circumstances he might have made a fine king of the absolute and despotic sort, bringing troublesome provinces to order, crushing rebels under his chariot wheels, and inscribing on a giant column his exact and fearsome laws. Being, however, only a country gentleman of Devonshire, he had to make do with tyrannising his wife and children."

"But Miss Rose's determination to be ignored and slighted was not yet satisfied; and there must be a good deal more fuss about her taking a glass of wine, and her insisting that she did not expect such a privilege, before the matter was done, Miss Rose in this demonstrating the peculiar talent of those who proclaim their absence of self-esteem for getting a lot of attention by pretending they never get any."

"Demi-reps, my dear. Cyprians. Votaries of Venus. The muslin sisterhood." "Oh," said Louisa, in an impressed tone. "I thought they were just prostitutes."

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Saturday, March 25, 2017

Rights of Man VS Reflections on the Revolution in France

The Writings of Thomas Paine - Volume 2 (1779-1792): the Rights of ManThe Writings of Thomas Paine - Volume 2 (1779-1792): the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

Reflections on the Revolution in FranceReflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
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So you are reading along in Thomas Paine's defense of the French Revolution when you come across a compelling argument as to why his opponent, Edmund Burke, is not only wrong, but morally reprehensible:

"But Mr. Burke appears to have no idea of principles when he is contemplating Governments. 'Ten years ago,' says he, 'I could have felicitated France on her having a Government, without inquiring what the nature of that Government was, or how it was administered.' Is this the language of a rational man? Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race? On this ground, Mr. Burke must compliment all Governments in the world, while the victims who suffer under them, whether sold into slavery, or tortured out of existence, are wholly forgotten. It is power, not principles, that Mr. Burke venerates; and under this abominable depravity he is disqualified to judge between them." (p. 23)

Oh, that horrid Burke! See!? He's ethically challenged, so his arguments are invalid. But wait. Here's what Burke actually wrote:

"Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good; yet could I in common sense, ten years ago, have felicitated France on her enjoyment of a government, (for she then had a government,) without inquiry what the nature of that government was, or how it was administered? Can I now congratulate the same nation upon its freedom?"

Paine has crafted an artfully edited statement with which to skewer his adversary. Or did he accidentally reverse "could I" to "I could"? Either way, this was long before anyone had coined the term "Fake News."

Friday, March 24, 2017

Promiscuous Knowledge Acquisition

It's not what you're thinking. I'm using the word in the sense of its second, slightly less derogatory meaning:

pro·mis·cu·ous /prəˈmiskyo͞oəs/
demonstrating or implying an undiscriminating or unselective approach; indiscriminate or casual.
"the city fathers were promiscuous with their honors"
synonyms: indiscriminate, undiscriminating, unselective, random, haphazard, irresponsible, unthinking, unconsidered
"promiscuous reading"

From page 26:

This idea came to mind when I started reading my latest eBay acquisition: a set of books called "The Golden Treasury of Knowledge" Margaret Bevans, editor-in-chief. The 16-volume set, originally published by Golden Press in 1961, contains "420 basic articles with 2500 illustrations and maps; not organized alphabetically--random articles on a wide range of topics in each volume, cross-referenced in the index (vol 16). Intended for children (level probably around age 8-12)." This description comes from Goodreads.

When I was young, our family had a set of encyclopedias, but this is something different. The introduction in Volume 1 states, "The articles in the volume are chosen for variety and interest. You can open the book anywhere and find absorbing reading. But when you have read an article that suggests another idea, look in the index in Volume 16 for related articles and facts." What I like about this method is that it is both thought-out and systematic while appealing to the random "scrappy" impulses of a curious mind.

Now, for a sample of the promiscuous content of Volume 1: The Universe, Giotto, Domestic Cats, The First Firearms, Venezuela, The Chestnut Blight, Molecules and Their Structure, The French Revolution. At the back of each volume there is a time chart showing how the periods of history relate and at what time the events in the articles took place.

These are the kinds of books for whiling away an afternoon, whether you are nine years old or a little bit older. And please don't tell me that all this information is available online. While that's perfectly true, it doesn't suit me to stare at a screen any longer than I already do. These books are refreshing, in an old-school kind of way.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Galileo's Daughter

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and LoveGalileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent science biography from the Ambleside Online Year 9 curriculum. I'm trying to pre-read more of the Ambleside books before my children get to them. This is a book that I had wanted to read when it first was published, but I never got around to it.

I had a mistaken notion that Galileo's daughter was also a scientist. She was not. She was born Virginia Galilei in Padua in 1600. Galileo never married her mother, though she bore him three children. Her sister Livia was born a year later and her brother Vincenzio was born in 1606. The two daughters entered the convent in Arcetri while the son was later legitimized by arrangements his father made with church officials. Suor Maria Celeste (Virginia) and Suor Arcangela (Livia) spent most of their lives in the Convent of San Matteo. The convent was of the Order of Saint Clare, known for their vows of extreme poverty modeled on Saint Francis of Assisi. The sisters lived through several rounds of plague outbreaks in Italy and were continually on the verge of starvation. Don't girls always get the best treatment? ... but that's another story.

Dava Sobel uses the letters from Suor Maria Celeste to her famous father to chart the course of his later life. This approach humanizes a figure who was subsequently painted in heroic proportions by his admirers. Galileo's struggle with the Inquisition and censors of his treatises on the revolutionary Copernican heliocentric worldview are the stuff of scientific legend. Galileo the man was not quite so heroic, but who can blame him? When your opponents can torture or kill you for disagreeing with them, it's usually advisable to take a pragmatic approach to dialog.

There were a number of passages that I highlighted throughout the book. My absolute favorite is one tending more towards philosophy than science, but the two were much more closely related in Galileo's time.

"The deeper I go in considering the vanities of popular reasoning, the lighter and more foolish I find them. What greater stupidity can be imagined than that of calling jewels, silver, and gold "precious," and earth and soil "base"? People who do this ought to remember that if there were as great a scarcity of soil as of jewels or precious metals, there would not be a prince who would not spend a bushel of diamonds and rubies and a cartload of gold just to have enough earth to plant a jasmine in a little pot, or to sow an orange seed and watch it sprout, grow, and produce its handsome leaves, its fragrant flowers, and fine fruit. It is scarcity and plenty that make the vulgar take things to be precious or worthless; they call a diamond very beautiful because it is like pure water, and then would not exchange one for ten barrels of water. Those who so greatly exalt incorruptibility, inalterability, etc. are reduced to talking this way, I believe, by their great desire to go on living, and by the terror they have of death. These individuals do not reflect that if men were immortal, they themselves would never have come into the world. Such men really deserve to encounter a Medusa's head which would transmute them into statues of jasper or of diamond, and thus make them more perfect than they are." --Galileo's "Dialogue" translated by Stillman Drake

Apart from refusing to suffer fools gladly, unless instructed by the Inquisition to do so, Galileo is cemented in my memory with this quote:

"Galileo prided himself on having been the first to build a proper telescope and point it toward the sky. But he believed his own greater genius lay in his ability to observe the world at hand, to understand the behavior of its parts, and to describe those in terms of mathematical proportions." (326)

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Friday, March 10, 2017

Nature Journal Struggles

Yesterday a small group of Charlotte Mason homeschoolers visited the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase. We tramped around the woods, collecting small items for our nature journals. The children were naturals at noticing things around them and taking the time to draw and record in their journals. It was so easy. Why have I made it so hard?

I've been struggling to integrate meaningful nature journaling in our studies for years. It has been hit-or-miss at best. A few times I've been absorbed in a drawing and thought how much I want this to grow, both for myself and my children, but somehow it gets squeezed out.

Almost ten years ago, I purchased a book in hopes of keeping a nature journal.

Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around YouKeeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Clare Walker Leslie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My 2008 review: Reading some of Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy inspired me to try to capture the natural world on paper -- ideas, impressions, and sketches. It's surprising the amount of nature you can find in your own backyard and by walking down the street! I hope to make this a continuing project with my kids for years to come.

This is a great resource. I sketched our bird feeder this afternoon and incorporated several ideas from Ms. Leslie's book. The struggle continues.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Grove of Eagles

The Grove of EaglesThe Grove of Eagles by Winston Graham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Winston Graham's historical novel of Elizabethan England is not his best, but is still better than most contemporary historical fiction. The male protagonist in this novel did not engage my imagination as well as other novels. Graham seems better at female characters, for whatever reason. I skimmed the third quarter of the novel, but the early part of the story and the conclusion were good reading. Plenty of historical figures including Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Essex, the Cecils, and the Howards. 3 1/2 stars.

From early in the story:

"Before I was old enough to reason I came to love the sea, to know it as an element as natural as earth. As soon as I was old enough to reason I came to fear it--not as an element but for what it could bring." the Spanish Armada. Later on, the main character becomes a secretary to Walter Raleigh. The English spell it "Ralegh" without an i. However, there was definitely an "i" in Ralegh. But that's another story.

"The environment into which Walter Ralegh took me...was a foreign to life at Arwenack as the de Prada house in Madrid. ...Doors of the mind were opened looking upon new and exciting country as vivid and as unexplored as anything in Guiana or the colony of Virginia. Here were books treating of every subject from astrology to campaigns of war, from botany to Greek history, from chemistry and experiments in alchemy to poetry and philosophical speculation. Nor were they ranged along the walls of a single room; they proliferated about the house, left open on tables and settles, dropped where they had been temporarily abandoned and where they would be most convenient picked up. Globes and maps abounded and musical instruments and paintings and busts, and old parchments and vivid tapestries..."

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Fake Outrage

It's a little late for New Year's resolutions, but I stumbled across something that has the potential to improve my life, as well as the lives of the people who must live in close proximity to me.

"Outrage is a fool’s errand, and unless you’re a fool, you needn’t carry the weight of another person’s burden. Let the fools do their own heavy lifting."

This is from Fake Outrage: Dealing with Criticism on The Minimalists blog. The irony is that I came across it on that Great Source of Outrage: Twitter. I know it goes against conventional wisdom, but fighting fire with water is pretty effective.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse

Good Night, Mr. WodehouseGood Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So good! The story spans 60 years, but doesn't feel like a saga. Instead, it is intimate and warm with characters you love and a few that you loathe, reminiscent of the small town community that Nell Stillman lives in.
She was a home girl, warmed by the glow of lamplight, a stove boiling water for tea. To sit in the rocker and read Jane Austen or Hardy, to play checkers with Hilly--these entertainments spoke of her unsophistication, and she did not mind. To be unsophisticated was no crime if you weren't narrow, and she hoped that her reading kept her from that. Through novels you glimpsed the grim night that could eventually overtake the intolerant. (109)

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Spark Joy

Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying UpSpark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kondō

Verb. To konmari, to follow the process outlined in the book "The Magical Art of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo.

Nothing is more necessary in the bleak mid-winter than a little dose of joy. What better time to clean out the cobwebs than when you are stuck inside? Spring cleaning has always seemed odd to me. That's when I rush outside and don't give a hoot what my house is like anymore. But in winter, I'm face to face with all my stuff and it can get depressing.

Enter Marie Kondo. She's a tidying guru and much talked about in the media these days. People either love her system or hate it. Interestingly, many of the people who hate it are professional organizers who prefer to sell people complicated systems and more stuff to organize your stuff. When will Westerners learn? This market-driven promise of happiness will only end in tears. Get off the product treadmill and channel your inner upbeat-yet-ruthless tidier!

My favorite thing about Ms. Kondo is that she doesn't insist that her way is the only way. Imagine! In a New York Times article from July 2016:
Kondo does not feel threatened by different philosophies of organization. “I think his method is pretty great too,” she told me later. She leaves room for something that people don’t often give her credit for: that the KonMari method might not be your speed. “I think it’s good to have different types of organizing methods,” she continued, “because my method might not spark joy with some people, but his method might.”
She's confident enough in herself to leave room for others.

A few months ago, I KonMaried my clothes with the help of my daughter, who is ruthlessly unsentimental. I think she might grow up to be a KonMari consultant, if that's still a thing in five more years. Every morning when I open my closet, I am greeted by my favorites. I smile and tackle the day.

My next step is tidying my books.

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