Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Book Review - Homeschooling with a Meek and Quiet Spirit

Homeschooling with a Meek and Quiet Spirit


Teri Maxwell

Category: Nonfiction: Parenting & Families; Faith; Homeschooling

Synopsis: Homeschooling mother of eight, Teri Maxwell, shares how to homeschool children with a meek and quiet spirit.

Date finished: 5 July 2013

Rating: ****

I’ve been following the Maxwell family for years now. Theirs was one of the first blogs I discovered, and I’ve enjoyed seeing their family grow. I love their intense faith, and their witness has been instrumental in the deepening of my own faith.

Now, what you must know about the Maxwells is that they are a very conservative evangelical Christian family. They are literal-Bible, “the earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago,” Christians. They are “children are a gift from God” and we’ll take all the blessings he’ll give us Christians. They are “Jesus is God” and “memorize the Bible” Christians. They are fire and brimstone, “nonbelievers go to hell,” Christians. They are “the husband is the ruler of the family” and the wife is his help meet (the husband is not hers!) Christians. They can make you very uncomfortable or encourage your spirituality, depending on the state of your heart. I don’t agree with many of their doctrinal arguments. I believe in a loving God, not a punishing one. I believe in the equality of the genders because I know God as Father/Mother. I don’t have a dog in the race when it comes to the questions of the age of the earth or life after death. And yet, I’m drawn to their strong faith.

All that by way of saying, when you pick up their books, know what you’re getting into and take what you read with a grain of salt.

I picked this book up because I’d always been intrigued by Teri’s insights into mothering and homeschooling, even though I don’t have school-age children or homeschool. Also, I’ve begun teaching a Sunday School class consisting of one willful high-energy student who’s new to church and faith. And he happens to by my grandson. Teaching children in your family is always harder than teaching stranger’s children. I began to see behavioral issues pop up in Sunday School that weren’t present in the time we spent together before and after class. And I knew disappointment and strong admonishment on my part weren’t going to foster the best environment for sharing his heart and opening his life to faith. In short, I began to think I needed a meek and quiet spirit.

A meek and quiet spirit, however, does not mean that the children rule the mother/teacher. Mom is still in charge, she still disciplines when it’s needed, she just rules with kindness rather than desperation, frustration, and anger. Teri shares practical advice such as the use of schedules and if/then infraction and discipline guides as well as Bible verses that helped her regain her meek and quiet spirit while dealing with difficult situations. She also emphasizes the need for quiet Bible study and prayer time.

This is not a book about homeschooling. There’s no talk of curriculum or state testing or homeschooling being better than public schooling. This is not a book about admonishing moms. At the same time, it doesn’t coddle moms. (She’s of the “your free time begins when your kids are grown” camp.) It does offer encouragement and the promise that through prayer, a mom can change her heart, soften her spirit, and bless her family.

She also addresses depression as a mother who spent 15 years in its grip. This was helpful to me. She writes, “The more my thoughts are on the Lord, the more I am able to love my family with a meek and quiet spirit. When negative emotions come over me, it is usually because I am thinking about myself.” (page 108) While this can be read as one of those “look happy, be happy, don’t think about it” statements, I think if you put the emphasis on the first sentence, rather than the second, you’ll get to the heart of healing.

All in all, this slim book was a refreshing encourager to “run the race without weariness,” whether in Sunday School or homeschool.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
This book would appeal to a very narrow audience, but could be adapted by most Christian mothers.

You might also enjoy:
The Duggars: 20 and Counting!: Raising One of America’sLargest Families—How They Do It and A Love That Multiplies: An Up-Close View of How They Make it Work by Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar             

Check out their web store for other titles for the Christian family.

(image from the Maxwell's Titus2 website)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review - Home is a Roof over a Pig

Home is a Roof over a Pig: An American Family’s Journey in China


Aminta Arrington

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Asia; China; Traveling/Living Abroad

Synopsis: Arrington and her husband take their three young children, one of whom was adopted from China, to live in China.

Date finished: 4 July 2013

Rating: ****½

This has most everything I love in a book: family, parenting, travel, exploration of other cultures, word/language exploration, and pages of delicious facts. This is a book I found during pre-sale, and I stalked it and bought it as soon as it came out. And then I let it sit on the shelf for a few months. I wasn’t sure if I’d like a book about a family that goes to China to show one of their three children her roots. Would it be too liberal, too sappy, too indulgent? Well, it wasn’t what I expected; instead, it surpassed all my expectations.

This was a thoughtful book. The tone and writing was very similar to the tone in Gretchen Rubin’s happiness books. It was informative and friendly, yet somewhat formal. She tried very hard to be objective. Arrington gave us an in-depth study of the language and culture of China. You could tell she was passionate about learning about China—and about sharing what she’d learned. It was part academic (but approachably academic) and part memoir, but the balance was always perfect.

My favorite parts of the book were when she explained certain pictographs for Chinese words. I was fascinated, sitting there with a big geeky word-drunk smile on my face. (This is where the title comes from; the pictograph for “home” is a roof over a pig.) I love this stuff. I literally saw language come to life.

I also thoroughly enjoyed her discussion of daily life in China and the cultural aspects of living abroad as a family. The family didn’t live in a modernized (Westernized) city, but they weren’t in the countryside, either, so it was the perfect setting for describing an average Chinese experience.

The fact that Arrington and her husband were teaching English to Chinese college students was an ideal backdrop for discussing some more controversial topics such as communism, Marxism, Taiwan, the one-child policy, Westernization, the 2008 Olympics, and Tibet. She also spent time explaining the educational system and how everything was taught to “The Exam,” the test taken after high school that determines where—or if—a student will be able to attend further study, and thereby determining the fate of the rest of their lives.

My only quibble with the book is Arrington sometimes seems to apologize for United States foreign policy. She explains (repeatedly) that America was “afraid of communism.” That doesn’t seem historically accurate to me. We were afraid of what far-reaching communism would do to the world’s economy, yes. We were afraid of it infiltrating and dismantling our democratic system, yes. But more than that, I think we had (and still have) altruistic motives for the elimination of communism and socialism. As the only country in the world founded on the principle of liberty, it is our very nature to recoil at a whole people that is denied liberty. I realize she was walking a fine line discussing such controversial topics with her students at all, but I was uncomfortable with her wishy-washy explanations of our motives.

I took copious notes throughout my reading, and I wish I could supply them all, but I’ll try to keep my excerpts short and just recommend you read this book.

[Words in brackets are mine, added for ease of understanding. First two citations are not direct quotes from the book.]

All students memorize the same textbook for college entrance exams. (page 37)

The Chinese college students she taught didn’t know about China’s “lost girls.” (page 45-46)

Unlike out capricious English words, which can be conjugated, suffixed, prefixed, made plural, or otherwise adapted, a Chinese character remains an encapsulated singular morpheme, not allowing such impulsive mutilization. Each character, a complete work of art—mounted, framed, and hung on the wall—cannot be then modified. (page 58)

The objective in a child’s education is singular: pass The Exam. This requires memorizing The Facts. There is no room for questions, no time for deliberation, no space for debate—and no tolerance for asking why. Memorization has taken the place of thinking. (page 71)

[of her children]
But sometimes I feared that the absence of cultural rules that are applied across the board would completely confuse them. (page 73)

China has 56 ethnic groups, but the Han comprised 92% of the population. (page 91)

The Chinese government seems to have a pact with the minorities: don’t seek power, and we’ll give you autonomy and allowance to lie traditional lives….There are exceptions, of course, such as the Tibetans and the Uighurs who are unwilling to consent to such a pact…(page 92)

Sixty percent of Chinese live in the countryside. (page 140)

And isn’t that the greater part of what gives us our culture: our mother’s voices, ringing in our heads? (page 154)

The one area [math] that I thought called for rote learning, the Chinese thought the opposite. The paradox was that I had finally found creativity in China, in a place my closed American mind told me had no potential for it. (page 179)

They [Chinese students] knew their parents loved them, but they knew from their actions, not because they had ever been told. (page 203)

And like the other countries I had lived in, China’s automobile preference reflected its personality. No bright colors, no rear spoilers, no shiny hubcaps, China’s choice as a black four-door sedan, impeccably cared for, blending in with all the other black four-door sedans already on the roads. (page 206)

Eric [their tour guide] told us that Shanghai was so modern and Westernized, it needed its own Chinatown. (page 222)

The average lifespan for a building in Hong Kong is 30 years. (page 239)

Mao…was the anti-Confucius, giving women the right to divorce and own property; setting quotas for women in civil-service positions, and putting as much money into women’s sports as men’s. But what he could not change, was millennia of thinking. (page 273)

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley – not the comprehensive and engaging look that Home is a Roof gave, this is another memoir of an American family living in China.

Paris in Love: A Memoir by Eloisa James – far inferior, in my opinion, this is a memoir of a family transplanted in France.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review - Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey


Jane Austen

Category: Fiction: Classics

Date finished: 29 June 2013

Rating: ****½

This is only my third Jane Austen novel, so I’m halfway through her repertoire. There’s really no way to critique this novel. You’ll notice that I didn’t provide a plot synopsis above. Either you’ve read it, and you know the plot, or you’ve not read it and, in my opinion, the plot should be revealed to you as you read. I make it a point to not know what an Austen novel is about before beginning it. I like to savor the journey.

This is my big brother’s favorite Austen novel, so I put it next on my list. It’s not my favorite of her novels, though. I can’t imagine a book surpassing Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. But I did enjoy this book of course. How could I not, it’s Austen.

What did I enjoy most? Other than Austen’s humor (I love when she talks directly to the reader), I enjoyed how this book evolved. Her books are about romance and mystery, and perhaps the mystery of romance; of fortune and good fortune; of pride and propriety. There’s always the ninny woman, the dull and boastful bore of a man. Characters and plots intertwine and come undone but all get tied in a big bow in the end. I love it all.

Some luminous quotes:

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

But now you love a hyacinth. So much the better. You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible.

…If Wednesday should ever come!

It did come, and exactly when it might be reasonably looked for. It came – it was fine – and Catherine trod on air.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Austen’s other novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book Review: Stag's Leap, Sharon Olds


Stag’s Leap: Poems


Sharon Olds

Category: Poetry

Synopsis: Poems from the period of Olds’ life during and after her husband left her.

Date finished: 19 June 2013

Rating: ****

Sharon Olds’ poetry and I go way back. She’s one of the first poets I found who could burn it to the ground almost every time. And if you ask me who my favorite poets are, she’d be right there in the top five: Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Max Garland, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Bob Hicok. And I’m happy to say, she’s writing as good as she ever has.

I haven’t bought a book of poetry for years. I think I was frustrated by so much bad poetry, so many poems that I just couldn’t connect with. Not to mention that poetry’s expensive, relatively speaking. But this spring I bought a handful of titles because I had a hunger that I knew only poetry would fill.

I enjoy collections of poetry with a common theme, and Olds’ 1992 collection The Father will always be one of my favorite theme-collections. I discovered it at the time I found out my father was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. I even read parts of it during a Favorite Poets reading in the late 90s or early 2000s. This is another theme collection, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, about the dissolution of her marriage and the aftermath of her divorce. It would seem that her husband of over 30 years left her for another woman.

Reading about divorce is not something I normally care to do, although there are some great divorce memoirs. Was the book a downer? Surprisingly, no. There was enough flashback joy to keep the hovering black cloud from dropping down too far. Remarkably, there was no anger in the poems.

I was surprised that Olds wrote mostly about missing her husband’s body and their sexual intimacy. I shouldn’t have been too surprised as her work is full of sexuality (look up “The Pope’s Penis” or “Topography”), but I have to tell you, should my husband leave me for another woman, I wouldn’t be thinking much of his butt or thighs. Didn’t she miss the intellectual intimacy that comes from long marriage? I’d think that’s what I’d miss most.

If you’re not normally a poetry reader, Olds might be a good place to start. Her poems are layered but accessible, and she writes about real life. 

Some beautiful passages:

from “Unspeakable”

…Now I come to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I’m not
standing in its light. I want to ask my
almost-no-longer husband what it’s like to not
love, but he does not want to talk about it,
he wants a stillness at the end of it….

from “Running into You”

…But you seemed
covered with her like a child working with glue
who’s too young to be working with glue…

from “Years Later”

…except, in some shaded
woods, under some years of leaves and
rotted cones, the body of a warble
like a whole note fallen from the sky—my old
love for him, like a songbird’s rib case picked clean.

from “September 2001, New York City”

…There is something in me maybe someday
to be written; now it is folded, and folded,
and folded, like a note in school…

How glad I am that she unfolded, unfolded, unfolded, and wrote these poems.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review - The Honest Toddler, Bunmi Laditan

The Honest Toddler: A Child’s Guide to Parenting


Bunmi Laditan

Category: “Parenting”

Synopsis: A treatise on parenting from the toddler’s point of view.

Date finished: 19 June 2013

Rating: ****½

If you’re unfamiliar with The Honest Toddler blog, you should probably stop reading this review now, go there, read one or two (or all) of the entries, and come back. I’ll wait.

See there. Hilarious, no? You’re welcome.

The book is no different. The best part about the book, however—aside from its hilarity—is that it isn’t just blog entries bound in book form like so many blog books are. No, it’s a whole parenting guide with sections and subsections and lots of new material. Some of the entries appear, but I don’t remember anything appearing in its original blog form. So kudos to the author!

Which brings me to this: I was sort of disappointed to have the name and a picture of the author. Nowhere on the blog was the author’s identity divulged (though a Google search would reveal it). Intellectually, of course, we all knew that Honest Toddler (HT) didn’t write the book or the blog, but it was a fun delusion. The point of view was so original and spot-on. I actually enjoyed NOT knowing who was behind the entries. While waiting for the book to be released, I kept trying to figure out ways for the anonymity to be maintained. But alas, book publishers are interested in sales and profit and a book won’t sell without a face and, presumably, a book tour.
Also, I was surprised (perhaps disappointed?) to discover that the Honest Toddler is a girl. I’d always pictured HT as a boy.

But all this aside, I was not dissatisfied with the book at all. At times I think I was slightly bored, the way you might get bored if a standup comic’s routine had gone on too long. I think I hit cute/sarcasm overload a few times.

My review really doesn’t do it justice, so I’ll give you some favorite passages for an idea of what HT has to say about parenting, and how you’re screwing it up:

On Sharing:
Even though it sounds ridiculous, many adults believe that because children don’t have formal employment, all their possessions must be nonproprietary…. Seventy percent of all toddler-on-toddler violence comes from sharing…. Sharing is a socially accepted form of theft and needs to be abolished…. If a strange women or man knocked on your door and asked to borrow your vehicle, how would you feel? (page 14)

On Risk-taking:
The only time a toddler can be injured is when a parent views the accident. The gaze of a parent is like kryptonite and immediately weakens the child. (page 19)

On Grandparents (who KNOW how to parent):
Make it your new goal to love not like a parent but like a grandparent. (page 45)

On Vegetables:
Ninety-nine percent of vegetables are not fit for human consumption. The other 1 percent is ketchup. (page 55)

Broccoli is a gateway drug to cauliflower. (page 55)

[Eggplant] tastes like frustration. (page 56)

When I see a pea lift anything over its head or an orange bell pepper break a cement block, I will believe that vegetables can impart strength. They’re not even powerful enough to taste good. (page 225)

On Brown Rice:
This food looks like a rough draft. (page 62)

On Band-Aids:
A toddler who walks out of the house wearing no Band-Aids hasn’t been anywhere or seen anything. (page 109)

On babysitters:
I find it amazing that parents won’t leave their cars unlocked in an underground garage but will hire babysitters. (page 215)

The author brilliantly brings to light the hypocrisy of parents, the egocentric worldview of the toddler, and the nuances of the life of the child with few words but many ideas. If you have a toddler or have ever known one, I think you’ll be delighted with this read.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Book Review - The Favored Daughter, Fawzia Koofi

The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future

Fawzia Koofi, Nadene Ghouri

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Middle East; Afghanistan

Synopsis: Koofi recounts her life during the Afghan civil war and during and after the rule of the Taliban.

Date finished: 13 June 2013

Rating: ***½

I’ve read an awful lot of books about Afghani and Iranian women’s lives and the horrific struggles therein. The Afghani women’s stories are by far the worst. Most Iranian women prior to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in their country had been well-educated and enjoyed more freedom and a more equal place in society. Most Afghani women, on the other hand, have always had the burden of crushing poverty. Family life, especially in the rural areas, was much more traditional, and conditions were harsh. To say the least. Access to medicine, roads, and modern conveniences was scarce. 

Having read so many books like this one, they’re beginning to blend. And sadly, the impact is beginning to lessen. The sheer fact that so many of these women’s stories exist, and so many facts and circumstances are the same among them, we now know (if we didn’t then) the horrors visited upon women in this part of the world.

The more I read these books, the more disheartened I become. Even if you can remove fundamentalist groups like the Taliban from power—in fact, abolish them altogether—you still have the challenges of traditionalism to face. Men are in charge of women, husbands in charge of wives, brothers in charge of sisters. Male law goes. Men beat women as a matter of course. Men deny medical care to their wives. A family mourns when a female child is born. Women are less apt to (and in some cases, not allowed to) be educated or join the workforce. This means a struggling economy has little hope of getting on its feet, as half of the available workforce is ineligible to work. Koofi maintains Afghanistan must be reformed from the inside out. No amount of well-meaning Western aid workers or foreign aid money, will change traditional views. Or the governmental corruption, for that matter. The men and women in this part of the world have to want change. They have to believe in hope through hard work. They have to know there’s something better and that they can have it. Do they?

Parliamentarian Koofi is one of the first women to serve in the post-Taliban Afghanistan government. She assumes she will someday be killed for daring to serve and daring to voice her opinions about the issues facing Afghanistan and the solutions to its problems. Each chapter begins with an honest and touching letter to her daughters—letters for them to have after her death.

In the midst of history being made, it’s easy to become impatient for change to come to fruition. Hopefully we will be able to look back on Afghanistan years from now and see the steps being taken now as giant leaps.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
I think so.

You might also enjoy:
Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson

P.S. This book contained so many grammatical and typographical errors that I got very frustrated. Hopefully these will be cleaned up by the second edition.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review - An Affair with a House, Bunny Williams

An Affair with a House

Bunny Williams

Category: Decorating & Home

Synopsis: Williams takes readers on a tour of her New England manor house and its grounds.

Date finished: 8 June 2013

Rating: ****

I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted this book. Sometime in the past I told myself I had to be more careful when buying decorating books. They’re very expensive, and I’ve found that if they don’t appeal to me, they don’t appeal to me. It’s very black and white. And then they’ll sit on a shelf and take up lots of space, but because I paid so much or because one photo really spoke to me, I’d keep them even when I shouldn’t. So in the past few years I’ve been very cautious. I’ll try to find them in a bookstore to flip through first. I could never find this book in a bookstore, though. Then one day I happened upon her newest book, Bunny Williams’ Scrapbook for Living, at the public library, and from it I got a taste of her style, and I felt confident I’d enjoy An Affair with a House. Not wanting to spend $45 on it though, I kept trying bookstores and Amazon Marketplace for a good used copy. Finally, last month I found one for $20 and pulled the trigger.

I have a few dozen of this kind of decorating book—large, lots of beautiful photographs—and only a few of them become favorites that I return to for inspiration. This one just might. Her style is very traditional. I’d say it might be a mix of New England and southern (she was raised in the south), with an emphasis on gold-framed paintings and layered textiles. She has a thing for fresh flowers and well-set tables. She’s obviously doing well financially, because this estate is a Martha Stewart-esque operation requiring paid staff for maintenance. (Stewart undoubtedly has paid staff, right?) I was delighted to see that she enjoys dog art as much as I do, and I drooled over several paintings and sculptures (far out of my league, I’m afraid), as well as one of her real canine companions, Elizabeth, a whippet.

My only complaint is that hers is less an affair with a house as it is an affair with a property. Only 82 pages were devoted to the interior of the home (homes, actually), and the balance (156 pages) were devoted to the various outbuildings and gardens. Lovely, but not why I bought the book.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
It’s hard to recommend decorating books because style is so personal, but I’d say it’s worth a try.