Posted in book lists, sqt

{sqt} – reading highlights of 2018

I’m joining up with the seven quick takes linkup again this week, for the first time in a while, with a fitting theme for the last Friday of the year: 2018 favorites! My focus is going to be on the books I’ve read this year; with my end-of-the-year detour into fan fiction my booklist is shorter than it was in 2017, but it is still full of books I loved and want to share.

Parenting: Differently Wired, by Deborah Reber

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If you were following my blog this summer, this favorite should come as no surprise! This is one of the best books I have found for parents of neurodivergent children – one that honors their differences and supports parents in helping their children to remain authentically themselves while also learning to live in a world that is often critical of who they are. For a more in-depth review, see this post leading up to its release this summer. (You may notice I tried to run a giveaway for the book; well, no one entered, so if you feel this book would be relevant or helpful for you, let me know… I still have the extra copy ūüôā )

Science: The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

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This book offers an interesting take on cancer, as it examines the history of human interaction with cancer in all its ethical and political context rather than focusing solely the medical manifestations of the illness (though it delves quite deeply into the biology of cancer as well). I learned a lot and was deeply fascinated through the entire book (but as it was a library book, I can’t go back to pull up any awesome quotes for this post, unfortunately!). While it is very long, I think it is definitely worth the time and effort to read it, especially for anyone interested in biology, pathology, bioethics, or science policy.

Other Non-Fiction: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

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When you grow up in a privileged environment, it can be challenging to learn about corruption and brokenness in systems skewed in your favor. This book was difficult to read primarily because of the nature of its topic, and the injustices it exposed Рwhose depths I had no idea existed beforehand (even though I was aware of the biases in our judicial system, I was not aware of the extent of those biases, particularly in certain areas of the country). I picked up this book last Christmas on the recommendation of Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, for both myself and my grandma, and both of us agree that it was a powerful and moving book, containing invaluable context for understanding (and hopefully healing) some of the racial and cultural divides in our nation. (For more of my thoughts, and some quotes, see this post from April.)

General Fiction:¬†Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

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In this novel, an old British major slowly falls in love with a Pakistani shopkeeper (both widowed), to the general consternation of her extended family and their entire village. The interactions between them on both individual and sociocultural levels are simultaneously awkward, amusing, and enlightening (in other words, fairly realistic for two very different people from very different backgrounds thrown into contact with one another); and the twists and turns of the plot are both somewhat unexpected and very satisfying. Major Pettigrew especially, as a slightly cynical and cantankerous old British man finding himself in ludicrously unprecedented circumstances, is quite a wonderful character ūüôā

Dystopia: American War, by Omar El Akkad

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I’m surprised I didn’t post about this book back in July! Dystopia is one of my favorite genres, and this one hit particularly close to home. It is set in the southern United States, in a future in which climate change catalyzes a second Civil War; with Northern forces applying external pressure and international agents internally taking advantage of hatred and discontent, the book follows one individual from poverty, through a refugee camp, to indoctrination and grooming in a shadowy terrorist cell. The methods and circumstances are drawn from the actual history of civil war and terrorism in the Middle East, but the culture and setting are undeniably American, and the juxtaposition reinforces both the humanity of people our culture often labels as “other” and the very real possibility that our nation too could be ravaged by the dark side of that shared humanity. I highly recommend it, but it is not a comfortable read.

Science Fiction: Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

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LeGuin is an exceptional world-builder, and I have enjoyed all of her works, but this is in my opinion one of her best, exploring aspects of nationalism, humanity, and gender. How arbitrary are the categories with which we identify ourselves? When one of those categories is rendered meaningless, how do we cope with our own self-understanding, or refashion the image we present to others? How far can one stray from the center of a category and still be considered part of it, by either themselves or by others? And of course all of these questions are not so much discussed as illustrated and implied as the two main characters seek (in both the context of two different nations, as well as in almost total isolation) to accomplish a mission with global and even universal consequences.

Fantasy: Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

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The story here, as wonderfully epic and convoluted and fascinating as it is, in a world with magic and music and legend coming to life, isn’t even the main reason I have to choose this book (and its sequel) as my top fantasy book of the year. Rarely have I encountered an author who can make their prose sing as beautifully as Rothfuss manages to do here. My only disappointment is that the third book in the trilogy has not yet been published, so while each book so far has a definite story arc and is still satisfying to read, the overall story is incomplete.

What are some of your favorite books from this year? Please share in the comments – I always love to hear about good books to read!

Posted in book lists, sqt

{sqt} – what we’re reading now

We finally made it back to the library to return our old set of books (renewed at least three times because we kept forgetting to bring them back) and pick up a new set! We’re missing some of the old ones, but loving some of the new ones, as well as finding classic favorites from our own shelves and Grandma’s house. These seven are some of our current most-read titles.

  1. Make Way For Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey –¬†This one is of course a classic. I had a copy as a child, but the one we have now I managed to find at a thrift store for $1.99, hardcover in perfect condition. I still can’t believe it… Published in the 1940s, it was a classic when I was a child and I wouldn’t be surprised if both my mom and grandma grew up with it. The Boston of the book is probably quite different from the Boston of today – but the story is timeless and the illustrations are absolutely beautiful. The humor is subtle but still has both the boys laughing every time (it’s the rhyming names for the ducklings that really get them). It has the added advantage of being a book I will never grow tired of reading aloud.
  2. Marti and the Mango,¬†by Daniel Moreton –¬†This is another book that I grew up with, although I doubt it is nearly as widely known. We are currently borrowing it from my mom. It tells the story of a mouse who is supposed to find a mango to take to dinner at his friend’s house, but who doesn’t know what a mango is! On each page he asks a different animal if the fruit they have is a mango, and they give him a different point of reference as to why it isn’t. What makes it really enjoyable to read is the alliteration for each animal-fruit pairing as well as the repetition of the mango identification hints on each page, as they accumulate. It is a simple story with the attention to detail (in both words and pictures) that makes it interesting for both parent and child.
  3. How Does a Dinosaur Eat All His Food? by Jane Yolen – This book is from our new library haul, and is I suppose nominally about table manners and dinosaurs, but is really just hilarious as the dinosaurs exhibit every type of horrible, atrocious, behavior. The boys basically fall over laughing every time we read it.
  4. Hello Hello, by Brendan Wenzel –¬†This is another book from our latest trip to the library, and one I didn’t expect the kids to enjoy nearly as much as they have. I had actually noticed it on the display and put it back because I thought they wouldn’t like it – but Rondel also noticed it, had me read it at the library, and then put it in out stack of books to bring home, and all three of the kids have requested it since we’ve had it. The words are very simple and sparse, but the illustrations are bright and bold, as the author takes you through pages of different animals and says hello to them (by category, not by name – the actual species of each animal is in a list in the back, however). Even Aubade will sit through the whole book looking at the animals, and Rondel and I will peek at the back to find out what some of them are that we can’t easily identify (although he’s quite good at remembering all the animals from the documentaries he loves… I probably need the identification key more than he does!)
  5. Tiny Little Fly,¬†by Michael Rosen –¬†This is one of the books we just returned, by the author of¬†We’re Going On a Bear Hunt. It has a similar pattern of repetition and rhyme, beautiful illustrations (this seems to be theme with these books), and a little fly who manages to irritate all the huge animals and get away with it unscathed. The boys were starting to copy the rhythms of it into their conversation and pretend play, which was neat to hear!
  6. Usborne¬†Big Book of Colors¬†– This book has no story; it is just a book naming colors, with a color wheel in the back. But it’s beautiful, with thick not-quite-board-book pages, and the boys and I – especially Limerick – like to sometimes just go through it together enjoying all the gorgeous colors and finding our favorite shades of each. It also sparked a conversation on idioms that link emotion with color, which was interesting for me to think about in depth and a great opportunity to discuss metaphor with Rondel. And why is it that no one is ever described as being “orange” with some emotion?
  7. There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, by Dr. Seuss –¬†This is Aubade’s favorite book right now (in board book form). She will ask us to read it multiple times per day, and multiple times per sitting. I’m not sure what she loves so much about it, but my hunch is that it’s the silly words and silly pictures combined. The book is basically just playing with the English language, and that’s a great way to come at it when you’re still beginning to learn that language.

Head on over to This Ain’t The Lyceum for the rest of the {sqt} link-up today!

Posted in book lists, information, links

differently wired: an introduction

I don’t remember when I first discovered Debbie Reber’s podcast, TILT Parenting, but I do know that I immediately went back and binge-listened to the entire archive, and have assiduously awaited each new episode since. It is a mix of practical advice and principled encouragement, of understanding acceptance and useful support; it encourages parents through their struggles while maintaining the worth, dignity, and humanity of their neurodivergent children. Almost all of the episodes are interviews – some with experts in the field, like Steve Silberman (author of¬†Neurotribes) and Dr. Ross Greene (author of The Explosive Child¬†and found of the non-profit organization Lives in the Balance); others with life coaches and parents of neurodivergent children, sharing their stories and offering real-life suggestions; still others are with Reber’s son Asher, giving the perspective of a neurodivergent child a huge platform and helping parents understand where their children might be coming from.

So when she announced that she was writing a book, I was incredibly excited! When she asked listeners to consider joining her advance book team, I signed up as soon as possible – so I’ve gotten to answer polls about book publicity options, mostly, and should be helping publicize the book’s publication when it launches in mid-June. But unexpectedly, and wonderfully, Reber convinced her publisher to let all hundred-odd people on the team have access to an advance e-copy of the book. I was walking on clouds when I got that news…

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And now that I’ve read Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World, I want to share it with you, because it exceeded all my expectations.

Reber is a skilled author, adept at blending storytelling, science, principles, and pragmatics into a unified whole.¬†In the first part of the book, she explains the problem: the failure of a system that is “good enough” for neurotypical individuals to accommodate the increase in neurodivergent individuals, trying to force them to change instead of offering supports that would allow them to flourish as they are. In the second part, she outlines eighteen “Tilts” – shifts in perspective that enable change – along with action items for putting each one into practice in some small way right away.

My plan is to share some of my favorite quotes and themes from the book with you over the next two months, and then, when the book launches, to give away one copy here on the blog! Maybe you are feeling frustrated and stuck, wanting to connect with your child more deeply but not sure how; maybe you are feeling hopeless about your child’s future and want to rekindle optimism and find a path forward; maybe you are worn out from fighting for your child’s needs and need encouragement on your journey. Reber’s book can help with all of that – and it is one of the only parenting resources I have come across that (as a neurodivergent individual myself) doesn’t leave me feeling “othered” and uncomfortable.

So keep checking back – I’ll be sharing content from the book, and will open the giveaway as soon as I receive the hard copy sometime in June. If you care for a child who processes, thinks and behaves outside of what people consider to be “normal,” this isn’t a book you’ll want to miss.

Posted in book lists, musings

zombies, democracy, and the definition of humankind

Having made my first foray into the world of zombie fiction, I am struck by the idea that zombies are the end product of dysfunctional democracy.

In a democracy there is rule by the many, leading to decisions that may be good for individuals in the majority but not so good for individuals who are part of minority groups. As social structure and community connectedness decreases, more and more people feel that democracy is failing them by its inability to address their needs (since, as people splinter away from each other, almost everyone is bound to end up in the minority with regards to at least one significant issue in their lives). They observe society crumbling and blame the vast hordes of their fellow citizens – not without reason, as those vast hordes are the decision-makers of a democracy!

Similarly, in the zombie apocalypse, society breaks down (in very dramatic ways) at the hands of the vast masses of humankind. We, the reader, identifying with the main characters of the book or film, see ourselves as the rational few who still cling to sanity and good judgment, while the rest of the world is wildly destroying itself around us. And since our democracy is so huge (at least here in the US) that there isn’t much we can do to tangibly alter its course, zombie fiction allows us an escape into the lives of people who are even more horribly stuck – but who aren’t limited to polite social mores in their methods of dealing with their frustrations and problems!

Of course, I have no idea if this idea has any basis in reality, but it was interesting to me ūüôā

If you’re wondering how I decided to make entry into the world of zombies, I did it by reading¬†The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey, on the recommendation of my boss. The introduction is brutal, mysterious, and haunting; the end is absolutely perfect. The middle feels rather stereotyped or trope-ish: you have the tough and experienced military man, the disposable underling, the obsessive and unethical scientist, and the bleeding-heart who is sympathetic to the zombies’ plight. However, I still definitely enjoyed it! As a science nerd, I particularly enjoyed the description of the source of the zombie plague (for reference, Cordyceps is a fungus that attacks ants, infiltrates their nervous systems, and controls their behavior for the purpose of spreading its spores; most species of Cordyceps are specific to a single species of ant):

“At some point a¬†Cordyceps came along that was a lot less finicky. It jumped the species barrier, then the genus, family, order, and class. It clawed its way to the top of the evolutionary tree, assuming for a moment that evolution is a tree and has a top. Of course, the fungus might have had a helping hand. It might have been grown in a lab, for any number of reasons; coaxed along with gene-splicing and injected RNA. Those were very big jumps.”

It made me happy that they acknowledged the implausibility of the fungus mutating that much on its own – but also the possibility of some scientist designing it to do so. It reminded me of the professor of my senior capstone class, who told us that we now knew everything we needed to create a bioweapon that would devastate humanity, and were responsible to conduct our science ethically. If humanity is wiped out by some pathogen, I won’t be surprised to learn that humanity had created that pathogen to begin with.

I also appreciated that this book was not overly graphic (this is the reason I’ve avoided zombie films in particular). It allowed me to enjoy the concept and implications without having to deal with excessive violence and gore! So I recommend it for anyone wanting an action novel that will, if you permit it, also raise the question of what it means to be human.

Posted in book lists, family life, musings, Uncategorized

celebrating St. Francis

I feel like the holidays come fast and furious once fall arrives! They are such a fun way to introduce or remind myself and my kids of the great men and women of God, and to help direct our own hearts back to Him as well.

St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day falls on October 4, less than a week after Michaelmas, providing a beautiful foil to the Michaelmas stories and themes of dragons, knights, and (spiritual or otherwise) battle. For of course, St. Francis is one of the gentlest saints in the liturgy: a man who gave up wealth and power; who befriended the outcast, the poor, and the sick; who rejoiced in the beauty of nature and loved animals as well as people with tenderness and understanding. While Michael illustrates the bravery and glory of fighting against evil, Francis illustrates the courage and beauty of seeking redemption and reconciliation.

(Of course, due to sickness and poor planning on my part, we didn’t actually celebrate until the 11th… better late than never I suppose!)

To introduce the boys to St. Francis, I checked out two books that seemed to have good reviews and were actually available at our local library. First:

St. Francis and the Wolf, by Richard Egielski

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This is a legend, retold in a way that is satisfyingly scary for a younger audience, without being over the top, and while retaining an emphasis on Francis’s message of peace and love. It shows how the obvious solution to something scary, dangerous, or disliked – trying to get rid of it or destroy it – isn’t always as effective as trying to communicate and make peace. And really it is just a well-told, fun story. Rondel has asked for this book¬†many¬†times since we borrowed it, and enjoys acting out the various characters as well!

Brother Sun, Sister Moon, by Katherine Patterson

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This book is an illustrated retelling of St. Francis’s canticle of the creatures in words that are accessible for small children, yet still retain the beauty and majesty of the original. The illustrations are exquisite as well, with every page showing how the aspect of creation in question (sun, moon, fire, wind, and so on) touches and blesses our world, as the words describe how those things reflect and honor their Creator. I was concerned that this book would be too advanced for the boys, but they have asked for it several times and are always held captivated by the beauty of its poetry and art. It makes a good counterpart to the more “fun” story above, also!

In addition to the books, we tried to make a sun-and-moon window hanger, but ran out of steam partway through due to the aforementioned illnesses; if we had more energy, I would have also had us make a bird feeder so that we could practice kindness to the animals around us as well (there aren’t many other animals besides birds in the middle of a city, since we don’t have pets…). While we don’t have the cold weather that makes feeders a perfect gift for the birds in October in other parts of the world, there are many native birds that benefit from feeders targeted at their unique needs and adaptations. Ah well, maybe next year ūüôā

In the meantime, my goal is to emulate St. Francis’s compassion and gentleness, beginning in my home with my family but hopefully spreading outward to the other people with whom my life intersects! I also hope that, like him, I would have the courage to do what is right regardless of how strange it looks to the people around me. He somehow managed to care deeply for people without being a people-pleaser – a combination which strikes me as both a worthy and a difficult goal.

Posted in family life, musings, quotes

different (a full review)

Sally and Nathan Clarkson’s book¬†Different¬†didn’t exactly live up to my hopes and dreams for it – that is, I suppose, it didn’t give me a checklist to follow or an instruction manual to read or even a set of principles to live by which would ensure success in the endeavor of parenting a unique and uniquely challenged child.

But that really wasn’t the point of the book. As Sally writes, “…don’t try to use our family’s experience as an exact template for your family. Every child is unique and requires a unique approach.”

And the story they told together, of struggles, pain, faith, and triumphs, was just as beautiful as I thought it would be. While they shared specific aspects of their personal lives, they made those intimate and individual stories relevant to a whole range of readers, drawing out empathy for both the challenging child and the challenged parent (or in other words, for both the different child and the parent who longed for normalcy). As there are in my close family many people on both sides of this dynamic, it spoke to me on a number of layers, and both encouraged and convicted me about several of my relationships.

(For example, it is easiest for me to apply the need for patience, acceptance, and understanding to my children, while failing to give that same grace to my husband, parents, siblings, or in-laws. Different, while primarily about that parent-child relationship, continually challenged me to scrutinize my motivations and intentions in my other relationships as well, and to try to bring them also into a more open, gracious, and loving posture.)

My primary take-away from the book in this season of my life is the value of making a home in which everyone in the family can feel at ease and accepted for who they are: a place where each one of us can truly feel that we belong. When my children are losing their tempers over trivial affronts, or melting down for inexplicable reasons, or refusing to answer a simple question when everyone else is waiting for their response, or taking out their frustrations on each other; when my husband is tired, preoccupied, or worried and speaks more sharply than typical; when I am moody and irritable and impatient – in those times, it is very hard to accept each other, to love each other, to give grace to each other. It is tempting to construct a narrative of the people in our family using only those negative moments, to focus on their immaturity or sinfulness, to attempt to fix and correct them with annoyance and frustration for their present state. But Sally addresses that temptation directly (emphases mine):

“…creating a welcoming home also includes the choice to accept the unique design of our families and the limitations of each family member. We have to learn to lean into life as something beautiful even if it is not exactly what we expected. Trusting that God works all things together for the good despite the challenges we face is a gift of worship we give to God. Acceptance with humility must eventually come to each of us if we are to please God and not always fight against the limitations of our own family pattern.

If Nathan had grown up in a home where he was constantly put down and corrected, I think the oxygen of God’s love would have been strangled from his heart, which needed a wide berth of unconditional acceptance. Love is the food our hearts need to grow, and so I had to figure out a way to give it in a way he could feel.”

I can choose to be impatient, irritated, frustrated with the imperfections I see in myself and my husband and the immaturity inherent in my young children – or I can choose to see the beauty and value of who we are and what we are building as a family. Only one of those choices will fill our home with the love our hearts need to grow, and the welcome we need to feel that here, at last, is a place where we – no matter how different – can truly belong.

Posted in book lists

Kristin and Antonia: learning from my literary sisters

Over the past month I read both¬†Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset, and¬†My Antonia, by Willa Cather, for the first time. I couldn’t help but mentally compare the¬†two eponymous protagonists as I was reading, as both are Catholic women written by female authors, but are in temperament and circumstance very different.

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Kristin Lavransdatter, despite being raised in a noble and loving family, enters adult life unprepared and unwilling to battle her passions and bosom sins, pursuing her own whims regardless of the shame and inconvenience it causes the people who love her and sacrifice for her. It is not until near the end of her life that she is sufficiently humbled and matured to look back with repentance rather than mere regret, and to make the hard changes in her own life that following God and living rightly demand of her. I often found it difficult to read Kristin’s¬†story compassionately or even patiently, because her struggles and misfortunes were so frequently caused by her own headstrong will and lack of self-control, when she should have known better than to act that way! But in that judgmental stance I was often rebuked by the gentleness and guiding love of her old village priest and a monk from a neighboring city, who lamented her sin, prayed for her peace, and offered their comfort and wisdom (and sometimes their correction) in her doubt. Love her, they seemed to say to me, protect and pray for her, do not judge her. Judgment will not help to restore her soul and heal her brokenness. And they were right; the scorn and shame of her neighbors stung, but she could ignore it, and it wasn’t that weight that in the end brought her back to God and taught her how to truly love another person selflessly and¬†without resentment.

The book is¬†written with a tempestuousness that matches that of the protagonist’s character – in the medieval Norway of the book (accurately depicted from what I can tell – the author did a lot of research), successions are contested, old folk beliefs fight with Christianity, famines strike, arranged marriages are disputed, childbirth is incredibly dangerous, miscarriages and depression and poverty hover beneath the surface, and epidemics sweep through society. Kristin is most definitely not the only fierce and passionate individual here! Her story and its setting draw the reader in from the beginning, and hold one’s interest captive¬†through towering heights and plummeting¬†lows.

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My Antonia, on the other hand, is one of the gentlest and most peaceful books I’ve ever read. Antonia’s character and life are sketched out through the eyes of a man who met her when they were both children in Nebraska (she from Bohemia, he from Virginia) and watched her grow up to full beauty and maturity with the affectionate¬†eyes of an old friend. Where Kristin is¬†blessed with beauty, love, and wisdom in the parents who raised her but squandered it in her own impulsive and passionate way, Antonia is¬†struck with the incredible tragedy of her father’s suicide coupled with the small-mindedness and paranoia¬†of her mother, and yet still manages to blossom.

And yet, Antonia is¬†a passionate woman just as Kristin is, full of strong and rich emotions that carry¬†her with them. She is¬†by no means a weak or mild individual; she is¬†strong enough to work the fields with the men, beautiful enough (in action as well as appearance) to turn every head, fun-loving and spirited, brave and opinionated. What makes her different is the direction in which her passions led her. Kristin’s passions were bent, misguided, uncontrolled, turned away from the good and praiseworthy; Antonia’s were, while not perfect, aimed in general towards truth and beauty. As Jim, Cather’s narrator, puts it near the end of the book:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true […] she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

Reading both books in close succession made me realize how the choices we make and the emotions we obey shape our lives and even our children’s lives, by painting two very different possible paths down which a woman of passion, beauty, intelligence, and potential could walk. Goodness does not remove all difficulties, as Antonia found through her suffering, but neither does repentance restore what all that is¬†lost or heal all that is wounded, as Kristin found through her suffering. And the suffering endured with passionate love for the good, for truth, and for beauty will leave a much different mark on the people around us than suffering we bring¬†down upon our own heads through our sin and poor choices.