Books

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The Secret Garden

For Christmas, I bought Sammy The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  This is, by far, the longest book Sam has ever attempted, even though I got an abridged version.  The book I bought included an audiobook version on CD, and I figured that would be a great way to start Sam off reading longer stories.

Since I finally cracked it open about a week ago, we’ve listened to the entire book at least four times.  Every single trip in the car means another installment of The Secret Garden.  Sam can’t get enough, and that’s fine with me, because I love it too!  We’ve also read parts of the book out loud to her, but she is less interested that way.  I’m sure that will change, though.  I have a feeling that The Secret Garden is going to be one of those special things that both Sam and I remember as an integral part of her childhood, just like Little Bear has been (and still is!).

I’m not even sure why I bought this particular book.  I had some vague recollection that it was a classic, but after hearing the story, I don’t remember it from my own childhood.  Maybe I did read it, but it didn’t stick with me into adulthood.  But I’m so glad that I did pick it up.  It’s a wonderful story, and it’s just the right level for Sam right now – a bit of a stretch, but comprehensible to her.

Today I was catching up on the VanDamme Academy video blogs (have you been watching? you should be) and came across this one, in which Ms. VanDamme actually uses The Secret Garden (as well as Burnett’s other classic, A Little Princess) as an example of a children’s book with “good, rich, thematic material.”  So maybe I picked up the book on a half-remembered recommendation from Ms. VanDamme or someone else in the little Objectivist educators’ world.

Whatever – I have a new world of books for Sam now.  Amazon.com says that A Little Princess is for reading level ages 9-12.  I suspect that there are many wonderful books for that age that Sam could appreciate.  Audiobooks are a good thing.

Books for Me

So now that I’ve written about TV and books for Sam, and TV for me, it’s time for an update on what I’ve read in the past couple of months.  I’ve read some really great stuff lately!

Psychologically, I’m still in great need of fiction.  Any non-fiction seems like a chore (except my Italy guidebooks).  I am in the middle of Objectively Speaking, a collection of Ayn Rand interviews, but I’m having to force myself through it.  I’m finding that there’s not much new there for me.  I’ve been stuck for weeks in the middle section which is a series of college-radio station interviews.  The questions are intelligent but they feel planted, and Ayn Rand’s responses don’t feel extemporaneous.  This might be over-editing, but I suspect it was the nature of the interviews themselves.  Since I already know Rand’s positions on most of the issues, what I’m really looking for in this book are those flashes of brilliance – no, not flashes, but the consistent brilliance that she shows in her off-the-cuff remarks.  Hopefully I’ll get that in the third and final section.

From the book swap at my gym, I picked up Agatha Christie’s Funerals Are Fatal, which I found to be a complete waste of time.  I don’t know why I keep going back to Agatha Christie, but hopefully now that I’ve actually written this down, I’ll remember how much I dislike these kinds of mysteries and stop picking them up.

I’ve read two more Dick Francis books from the stack my friend loaned to me.  I was bored with To the Hilt, but I loved Risk.  I continue to be amazed by Francis’ ability to create unique, but always admirable heroes.  I’m sure that eventually I’ll start getting all of his characters and plots mixed up, but for now, each book still stands in my mind as a unique experience.

Through my online book club, I discovered a new author that I love:  Elizabeth Peters.  I read the first book in her Amelia Peabody series, Crocodile on the Sandbank.  It was a benevolent, intelligent adventure mystery with the most interesting, admirable characters!  Rational Jenn has a nice post about the series and I agree with her completely.  I’m excited to have a huge new list of fiction books to read now that I’ve discovered this gem.

I just finished Enchantment, by Orson Scott Card.  Leonard Peikoff recommended it on his podcast and I’ve loved his picks in the past (especially sci-fi author Frederic Brown).  I also dearly love Card’s Ender’s Game, but I thought Enchantment was a bore.  I’m not a big fan of fantasy fiction, and this was too wildly impossible and irrelevant to the real world for me to find much of interest in it.  I also thought it was very anti-technology, the characters were average people moved by fate, and the plot was not very exciting.  That was a big disappointment.  I wonder if I missed something.

I saved the best for last, so if you’ve stuck with me so far, you get the prize.  Go read Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day right now!  Aside from Anthem, this is the best dystopian novel I’ve ever read.  This book has a real hero who moves the plot by his choices and actions, the plot is full of twists and turns that I never expected, and it has some great themes.  I haven’t figured out the overall theme of this book yet, but it’s rich enough that I know I’ll read it again.  In fact, I almost want to read it again right now.  It was that great.

I’m still (somewhat) determined to keep going with my Great Books project.  I’m stuck on Augustine, though.  I think I’ll have to modify my plan to allow me to skip things that are just too painful for me to read, or I’ll never make it through.  So that is on the near-future agenda, along with tons of other exciting books.  They are all lined up on a bookshelf in my bedroom, waiting for me.  I love that.

A friend of mine made some comments about my Family Movie Night post and got me thinking about how we choose books and TV/movies for Sam.  In this post, I’ll focus on books.

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I didn’t start discriminating about the content of what Sam read until fairly recently.  When she was a baby, it was just words, voice, and pictures, so I chose books based on whether they had pictures I thought she could perceive as related to real-life objects.  I also chose books based on whether they were the right length and whether they had the right amount of words on the page – too many and she would lose interest, too few and the page-turning would become distracting and chaotic.

I think this was a good set of criteria for book-choosing up until Sam was verbal. But at that point, I should have thought more carefully about what she read.  Looking back, I think in her early verbal stages (18 to 30 months old or so) I would have looked for a few things:

  • Books with words on one page and a picture on the opposite page.  About 6 months ago (when Sam was 3.5), she expressed confusion about how there were “two Cliffords.”  There was a picture of Clifford (the Big Red Dog) on the left page and on the right page, and she thought there were two Cliffords!  She didn’t understand the temporal advance from left-to-right.  I was surprised that she had never figured that out.  Of course, she learned it (we focused on that for a while), but I would have isolated the skill of matching one set of words with one picture early on if I had thought about it.  (I strongly agree with the Montessori principle of isolating the difficulty, but it is a huge challenge to do it properly. Scroll down to “I” in this glossary of Montessori terms to learn about isolation of difficulty.)
  • Books with a story-progression.  The purpose of fiction books is to tell stories.  Pre-verbal children obviously follow stories.  By the time they are verbal, they need to be challenged with more and more complex stories.  I think this is good preparation for literature (it is early literature!) and also a way of focusing and ordering the mind.  There are so many children’s books (obviously targeted to toddlers and pre-schoolers) that just have no story whatsoever.  There’s nothing wrong with those books – some have great language or pictures or are just fun.  My second favorite book (listed below) doesn’t have a real plot.  But if I could do it over, I would have limited them and focused more on stories.  I think we did pretty well by default, though, since we all like stories so much.
  • Books with more real-life characters and less fantasy and nonsense.  I wish we hadn’t read quite so many Dr. Seuss books to Sam.  Adam and I had purchased a bunch of them for ourselves before Sam was born because we like them as adults.  I don’t think they are entirely worthless, but they are full of nonsense words, nonsense characters, and nonsense “stories.”  They’re probably appropriate later, as silly fun, when the child has a firmer grasp of reality versus fantasy.  But it’s not just Dr. Suess (though he is probably the worst offender).  Why are children’s books so full of senselessness and fantasy – and even animal characters?  I laughed with derision when I heard that some Montessori teachers recommend no books with talking animal characters at all, but now I’m not so dismissive of it.  Again, I don’t think I’d eliminate all of those kinds of books (it would be so limiting!), but I’d certainly be on the lookout for real people in real situations as much as possible.
  • Poems.  We did read a lot of Mother Goose when Sam was about 18-24 months old.  She loved them, but maybe I would have differentiated poems from stories for her by only reading poems at a certain time of day or something like that.  We read her some more advanced children’s poems now, along with adult poems that seem intelligible to her.

Now that Sam is four, we’re looking for books with all of the above characteristics (except the word/picture issue), plus we are more concerned with the themes and messages. We recently got rid of one book that was explicitly altruistic and one that was pure subjectivism and egalitarianism in a sickly sweet, moralistic way.  Those pedantic books with conventional values are out.  But we have no problems with books with themes like “loyalty” or even “cooperation,” even though those are not on our list of top virtues and values.  If a book shows that loyalty is good when it is loyalty to one’s own (objective, not subjective) values in the face of pressure from others – that’s a good theme.  When a book shows that a child who cooperates with others has more success than a bully – that’s a good theme.  And “show, don’t tell” applies here.  Overly pedantic books are irritating.  The theme must be part of the plot, just as in adult fiction.

We also like books with more advanced vocabulary or interesting language, but it’s hard to get all of that in one package.  This is lower on the priority list for now, but I think it will become more important later.

Here is a partial list of some favorite age-appropriate books on Samantha’s shelf right now.  Not all of these meet all the above criteria, but each has at least one special thing about it:

  • Brave Irene, by William Steig
  • The Napping House, by Audrey and Don Wood
  • The Wishing of Biddy Malone, by Joy Cowley (best book ever!)
  • Rickki Tikki Tavi, by Rudyard Kipling and Jerry Pinkney
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton
  • The Rusty Trusty Tractor by Joy Cowley
  • The Fancy Nancy series, by Jane O’Connor
  • Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
  • Buford the Little Bighorn, by Bill Peet
  • Adios Oscar, by Peter Elwell
  • All the Places to Love, by Patricia Maclachlan (second best book ever!)
  • Dr. DeSoto, by William Steig
  • The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf

Book Reports

With all of my medical problems lately, plus two vacations in one month, I’ve been doing almost nothing but light fiction reading.  I’ve read a few really good ones, though.  Here’s a brief (ha!) report:

Void Moon, Echo Park, and The Brass Verdict, all by Michael Connelly.  As I’ve mentioned before, I really like Michael Connelly’s detective fiction.  I didn’t like The Brass Verdict, though.  The hero was not heroic and I found the plot a bit contrived.  It wasn’t awful, but it was a disappointment.  Echo Park was good, but dark like some of his others (especially The Poet).  Void Moon was excellent.  It was told from the perspective of a criminal, but Connelly makes her likeable enough to make you root for her, even while you are not necessarily rooting for her to pull off her crime.  He did it by means of both characterization and plot, or at least situation.  I thought it was ingenious!  It had a good story and some other elements I liked a lot.  I might even read this one again some day, and that’s saying something for this kind of book.

Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka.  I’ve been hearing about this book for years, but never read it because I never considered Samantha to be unusually “spirited.”  But, I figured, it might be worth a look.  A look is about all I gave it – I mostly skimmed it.  I don’t think it’s a bad book, but I just found nothing in it that applied to my daughter, or that I didn’t already know.  I guess one thing I learned is that I was right that Samantha’s temperament is pretty average.  She didn’t fit into any of the categories in the book, and in many cases, she had such a mixed set of traits within the category that pegging her down was impossible.  For example, she does not stick with difficult tasks, but she has a really long attention span – these are contradictory elements within the “persistent” temperament.  Is she the persistent type, then?  My answer was “no” to that one, and all the others were similar.  It’s possible things will change when she is older, though, and I would consider reading this book again.

The Great Bridge, by David McCullough.  (Wow, two non-fiction books in a row!)  McCullough is the author of the hugely popular, recent biography of John Adams and other well-respected books.  Adam has been reading this one, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, out loud to me for at least four months.  We are about 50 pages from the end, but I can safely say now that this is a wonderful book.  It reads like a work of fiction, with heroes and villains and even a bit of a climax and resolution (I think).  This book is not good as a straight history; if so, McCullough would need to essentialize more than he does.  But the amount of detail that he includes is what makes it read like a story, with virtual characterization and plot.  Sometimes it is actually too much detail for me, but Adam can’t get enough.  (He tends towards empiricism while I tend towards rationalism, so he is much more comfortable in an ocean of facts than I am.)

McCullough’s translation of facts to story is amazing.  The example that comes to my mind occurs when McCullough was describing the dedication of the bridge builder’s wife.  When the builder became ill and couldn’t write, McCullough tells us how she had to transcribe his dictation onto paper as instructions for building the bridge.  There were massive amounts of these instructions.  The author tells us how she would get so weary that she would forget to sharpen her pencil.  Or maybe the point was that the builder would dictate in such a frenzy that his wife didn’t have time to stop and sharpen her pencil – I don’t recall exactly.  What I do remember is that when I read that, I thought, “how in the world could the author know that, about sharpening the pencil?” and I realized that he must have copies of those transcriptions, and that he must have noted the thicker lines of her writing.  Whatever the implication he drew, I was amazed at that detail that he must have noticed and then considered to write that passage.  The book is full of great things like that.

McCullough also seems to have a great respect for the achievement of the men who built the bridge.  That’s me reading between the lines, but I think it’s there.  I haven’t yet read any of McCullough’s other books but I definitely will now that I’ve tasted his storytelling ability.

The Long Lavender Look and Cinnamon Skin, both by John D. MacDonald.  I’m getting a bit tired of this author.  He has some good plots but the cynicism I noted before is starting to turn me off.  I’ll try at least one more before I give up on him since he has other good qualities.  I don’t recall either of these two books very well; neither made a huge impression.

I tried to read Fletch, by Gregory Mcdonald on the recommendation of a friend, but I couldn’t stand the glib, supposedly witty banter, and gave it up in less than 30 pages.

Straight, In the Frame, and Dead Cert, all by Dick Francis.  I continue to love Dick Francis.  His characters are so admirable and his stories are always interesting.  I actually liked Straight, a more (most?) recent one, the best of all I’ve read so far.  Usually, the quality of an author’s writing deteriorates over time, especially when the author is as prolific as Dick Francis.  But I heard or read somewhere that Francis’ son collaborated with him towards the end of his career, and that might account for my love of Straight.  Or, maybe Dick Francis just remained good up until the end.  I only learned last month that he died earlier this year.  Too bad.

The Targetby Catherine Coulter.  Oh my god, this book was so bad.  I picked it up from the library at my gym.  I should have put it down by page 30, but it tricked me by starting off ok and getting worse and worse.  Seriously, I can’t believe this book was published.  I was constantly confused about who was talking during the dialog, or whether characters had entered or left scenes, and that’s just the technical details.  The story was obvious and trite and corny and the dialog was embarrassing.  When I was telling Adam about how bad it was, he said, “Why do you waste your life reading books like that?  You should have stopped as soon as you hated it.”  I said, “I know.”  But then I went on and kept telling him about how awful it was.  He interrupted and said, “Stop telling me about it right now.  Now you’re wasting my life with a bad book.  Your punishment for reading it is never getting the satisfaction of venting to me about it!”  I thought that was hilarious.  But I guess Adam forgot I have a blog and I can vent to anyone and everyone as much as I want, so there!

Getting Through to People, by Jesse S. Nirenberg.  I accidentally bought two copies of this book because, quite some months apart (which is longer than my memory works) it was recommended by Jean Moroney and then by Dr. Ellen Kenner.  Those are some good creds!  However, I liked this book, but I didn’t love it.  I’m looking for help with assertiveness, and this book was more focused on persuasion and breaking through others’ barriers to listening.  Most of it was really worthwhile stuff but it just wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.  I’m looking forward to reading Asserting Yourself, by Sharon and Gordon Bower, another recommendation from Ellen Kenner, to see if it is what I’m looking for.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.  I suppose I’m the last person in the world to have heard of this book.  Was there a movie, too?  I had never heard of it but I picked it up at the gym.  Despite my trepidation about a story set in Afghanistan and a weak ending, I really enjoyed it.  I loved the main character’s father, even though I’m not so sure that was what the author intended.  (As with most modern fiction, all the characters were mixed.)  But, really, I just enjoyed the story of redemption.  It was the book version of a good chick-flick – very emotionally charged.  When it is well done, as this book is, that can be a really good thing.

I’m in the middle of reading and implementing Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, a favorite personal productivity book and system amongst Objectivists.  Paradoxically, it’s put me a bit behind in my tasks and I can’t seem to get to blogging much.

It’s really not such a mystery – it’s just the pain of setting up a new system, and I know it will be well worth it.  Also, as I’ve been freeing up my mind by offloading things into a better system, I’ve thought of many more new projects that I want to take on, and just getting them all down has been a challenge!  I plan to write more about what I’ve done and why when I’m more settled with it, but I’ll give you a few teasers.

First, I already had a really good system for staying on top of the gazillion Little Things that need to get done in my life on a daily basis.  I had a fairly clean “in and out” system, a calendar, a task list, and project lists for big things like all the home improvement plans we have.  I looked at my calendar and task list daily, and they helped me remember to pay the bills, return the library books, and even to write blog posts.  I recently added my Droid phone to the system, which has allowed me to be truly mobile with these tools.  I had to manually sync my Palm Pilot, which was a real hassle when you are adding literally a dozen or more items to your lists each day, sometimes while at home and sometimes not.  The Droid syncs up automatically and continually.  Plus, it has a handy voice recorder for those 1001 ideas I get while driving and walking the dog each day.

What I’ve learned so far from GTD is that:

1.  I absolutely must get my filing system in order.  I still have not filed a single piece of paper in over 2 years, since we moved from Michigan.  I have stacks and stacks of paper, my passport and birth certificate are missing, and when I do need to find something I have a panic attack.

2.  I’ve been using my task list improperly by setting dates for my tasks.  I need to have clear boundaries about which tasks are day/time sensitive (these go on the calendar) and which are just things I need to get to as soon as possible (these go on the “next actions” or “to do” list.)

3.  I need to get more clear on what the next action is for any particular task or project, so that when I come across something on my list, I don’t have to rethink the whole project to figure out what to do, but just look and start moving.  For example, I’ve had “filing” on my task list for 2 years, and every single day I postpone it.  It has been adding enormous stress to my life, and yet I can’t seem to move on it.  But “filing” is not a task.  I have to buy the supplies first, then figure out a place to work, then move everything to that place, etc. etc.  It is an enormous project and I have to treat it as such.  I’m actually not too bad in this regard – most of my “tasks” are actionable items, but there are a few that I’ve allowed to remain fuzzy in my mind for too long.

So, while I’m in this transition period, blogging might be light.  I wish I could rattle off a “what I’ve been doing lately” post like Rational Jenn is able to do with such humor and interest.  There’s been a lot of fun stuff going on here at Casa Mossoff, but finding a way to make it interesting to anyone but me takes more effort than I have available right now.

Snow and Books

So here we are, virtually snowed in for the fifth straight day and waiting for yet another storm.  (As a friend of mine said: “In December we had the Snowpocalypse. This weekend it was Snowmageddon. Coming our way tonight and tomorrow: Snoverkill.”)

You’d think that I’d have plenty of time to blog, being house-bound with Adam at home to help with Sam and all the chores; but I can’t seem to get anything done.  I’m falling behind on the laundry and dishes, I keep forgetting to cook dinner, and the “postpone” hotkey on my task list program is getting worn out.

I was heartened to see that the library was open today and that it was packed!  I guess people do read, after all.  I’ve been reading a lot too, so I guess I’ll do a quick report on the last two books I’ve read, both for my book club.

First, I re-read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.  I love Jane Austen more each time I read her.  This time around, I finally started understanding her ironic sense of humor.  I was fascinated with the portrayals of “sense” and “sensibility” in the novel, and surprisingly, I was much more sympathetic to the characters who displayed an overabundance of sensibility than I had been in previous readings!  I found that, because Austen accepts the ethics of her times, “sense” includes a heavy dose of altruism and duty.  The (sensible) character of Elinor, although hugely admirable in her strength and moral ambitiousness, is much too concerned about the feelings and fate of others.  She also represses (not just suppresses) her emotions.  I still love her dearly, but I didn’t see her as the clearly better half of the sister-pair.  In fact, I ended up admiring the overly-emotional Marianne even more in the end, because she seemed to grow into a much more sensible person by learning from the trials of herself and of her sister.  The fact that I see these characters quite differently than I did 10 years ago showed me a lot about how I have changed in that time.  What a powerful psychological insight Jane Austen has, and no wonder this is a classic.

Next, I read The Butler Did It, by P.G. Wodehouse.  For the book club, we were supposed to read Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, but I got the wrong book from the library (a compilation of 5 other novels) and decided to read this short one instead.  It was quite fun!  I loved the humor and the ridiculous ever-twisting plot, and I got quite a few of the literary references (although I’m sure I missed more than I caught).  The end was disappointing.  It had a little twist, but it wasn’t something that made me think, “Of course!  That makes everything else make sense and of course it had to be that way.”  It was more like, “Oh, that’s cute.”  I’d read more by Wodehouse, but I probably won’t seek him out.

I have Getting Things Done reserved at the library but it hasn’t come in yet.  Maybe by the time it does, the roads will be cleared and I’ll be able to go pick it up.  Probably not.

I just read On Becoming Childwise: Parenting Your Child from 3-7 Years, by Gary Ezzo.  In keeping with my new commitment not to delve into parenting philosophy, I’ll refrain from a detailed review.  I’ll just say that I don’t agree with the principles in this book, but that there were some techniques in it that seem very helpful and that I will use.  Or, at least, I’ll try.

One idea was the author’s way of teaching a child to move more quickly using a game called Three Candy Speed.  Since Sammy is a big-time dawdler, I thought I’d try it.  You pick a time when things are not urgent or stressful to play the game.  You put out three small pieces of candy and tell the child that she can have them as soon as she accomplishes some simple task, like putting away her Legos or something.  As the child is working, and when she is finished, you tell her that this is called her “Three Candy Speed.”  Afterwards, as she is eating the candy, you explain that there will not be candy involved anymore, but that you just wanted her to feel what Three Candy Speed feels like, and to give it a name.  And you tell her that whenever you say, “use your Three Candy Speed” that she should move just like that.  I like this idea because it concretizes the idea of moving quickly for the child.  I decided to try it the other day while getting Sammy dressed for school. 

I broke a tiny square of chocolate into three pieces and set them on the ottoman and told her that she could eat them as soon as she got dressed, and that the faster she got dressed, the sooner she could have her chocolate.

She responded,

BUT I DON’T WANT TO GET DRESSED FAST.  I WANT TO GET DRESSED SLOOOOOOOOOOW.

She did get dressed much faster than usual, but that just means that she didn’t stop to pet the cat, smell her toes, read a book, pick up a fuzzball and throw it in the trash, tell me a story about the monster in her closet, point out the cool shadow on the wall, and just space out for a while.  She didn’t move quickly, but she focused on the task, and it was great.

But it was a one-time thing.  She definitely does not connect the words “Three Candy Speed” with moving quickly.  All she hears is, “candy.” 

Oh well, it sounded like a good idea.

Theme Day

Maybe it’s just because I’m in the middle of reading a draft of my husband’s latest work-in-progress, which is a defense of intellectual property on the basis of Ayn Rand’s theory of value (!), but yesterday was a day of lessons for Samantha about the value of work.  I didn’t plan it that way – it just happened.

First, I told her a Little Bear story.  I tell her stories based on the Little Bear TV show all the time.  I use the characters from the show, but make up stories on the fly.  Sometimes I use these stories pedantically, but sometimes they’re just silly.  I usually don’t know what the story will be until I’m telling it.  Yesterday, she asked for a story about Little Bear’s sweet tooth and a piggy bank shaped like a cat (??).  Here is the story I told:

Once upon a time, there was a Little Bear.  He lived with his Mother Bear and his Father Bear, in a cozy cottage in the woods. [This is how the story starts each time.]

Little Bear loved sweets.  Mother Bear said that he had quite a sweet tooth.  He could eat sweets all day long:  cake, cookies, candy, ice cream, pastries, chocolate, pie, hot cocoa – you name it!  One day, Mother Bear said, “You eat too many sweets, Little Bear.  You’re eating me out of house and home, and it’s not good for you.”

“What’s ‘out of house and home’?” asked Little Bear.

“It means that I don’t have enough money to buy so many sweets for you.  I have an idea.  From now on, I’ll make dessert for the family on occasion, but if you want your own candy and other treats, you’ll have to buy them with your own money.”

“But I don’t have any money,” whined Little Bear.

“Hmmm.  That’s true,” said Mother Bear.  “I have another idea.  You can work for the money.  You can do jobs around the house for me, and I’ll pay you money.  That’s what money is for, you know.  It’s a trade.  If you do this for me, I’ll give you money, and you can use that money to buy something that you want.”

“Yea!” said Little Bear.

“Now,” said Mother Bear, “I can only pay you a small amount of money for each job, say, folding the laundry.  You might have to save up your money for a while to have enough for a treat like a candy bar.  I’ll pay you five cents for a simple job like folding laundry.  A candy bar costs twenty five cents.  Do you know how many loads of laundry you’ll have to fold to have enough for a candy bar?”

“Hmmmm,” said Little Bear.  [And then commenced a counting exercise.]

“But where will I put my money while I’m saving it?” asked Little Bear.  Mother Bear replied, “I’ll buy you a piggy bank.  I’ll use my own money this time.”  [And then commenced a trip to the store where Little Bear picked out a piggy bank in the shape of a cat.]

So for five nights, Little Bear folded laundry.  He took the nickels Mother Bear gave him and put them in his piggy bank.  When he knew that he had five nickels, he opened up the bank, took them out, and went to the store, where he bought his favorite treat:  a chocolate bar.

“Mmmmmm,” said Little Bear.  “It’s soooooo good.  My sweet tooth is happy.”

It was the best chocolate bar he had ever eaten – because he had earned it.

The End.

We’re in the process of moving Sam into a new bedroom.  She is going to get the bigger bedroom of the two kids’ rooms on the top floor.  We figure that when SS (Sammy’s Sibling) comes along, the older child should probably have the bigger room.  Adam was putting on the final coat of paint last night, and Sam was excited to help.  (She actually did a great job and didn’t destroy anything, using a miniature roller, and with much supervision.)  But before we went upstairs to help him, I called her over, saying that I wanted to tell her something important.  I said, “Have you noticed how hard your daddy has been working to get your new room set up for you?  All good things take work.  Every single good thing in the whole world takes work.  And you might want to say ‘thank you’ to your dad for all the work he is doing to make your room so nice.”  She did say “thank you” later, but the point about values coming from work was the more important part, I think.

Finally, I read Sammy one of her books she got for Christmas for the first time:  The Wishing of Biddy Malone.  I didn’t even pick it out for the evening’s reading – she did.  Its theme is that things you get for nothing (wishes) have no value.   (And by the way, this is a beautiful book, appropriate for children Sammy’s age, but also much older.  Check it out.)

I liked Theme Day.

Book Reports

I haven’t been reading as much as usual lately.  I read almost nothing while Adam and I were watching Battlestar Galactica from start to finish because it utterly consumed me.  I bought a couple of light fiction books right before I went in for the D&C because that usually helps when I’m down, but I ended up not doing much reading during that period, either.  And most of my reading has been light fiction because I’ve not been in the right mind-set for anything serious.

However, I do want to continue to record my reading here on the blog, so I’ll try to recall what I’ve read since my last report.  Let’s start with the good stuff, eh?

Chantecler, by Edmond Rostand, (translated by Kay Nolte Smith):  (I believe Kay Nolte Smith was an admirer of Ayn Rand and had some relationship with her, but I can’t recall the details.  Her introduction to this book is wonderful.)  This play is the best thing I’ve read in quite a while.  If you like Cyrano, you might like this book, although it is not as focused as Cyrano and its theme is a bit more confused.  But I loved it.  Chantecler was an intelligent, passionate idealist, and also, yes, a rooster!  The characters are all barnyard animals, which is what turned me off from this play for years, but trust me, its theme is as human as Animal Farm‘s.  Any fan of Rostand will recognize the witty dialog – it’s just so darned clever!  I wish I knew French so that I could read the original because, even in translation, the language and wit was amazing.  I’m not sure why this play is not more popular.  There were a few scenes where Rostand took the joke too far and it became tiresome (how many pages of peacock-analogy-satire do I really want to read?), but overall, I think it deserves to be a classic.  Read it!

Speaking of classics and tiresome passages, I also tried to re-read Victor Hugo’s Ninety Three recently.  I’m just not in a place to deal with an author who includes so much extraneous information in his fiction.  Although I was fascinated with the plot, I gave it up after about a month of effort.  (I was also able to recognize Hugo’s stylistic influence on Ayn Rand, elements of which I’ve picked up in my own style.)  I’m sure that I’ll read this book again someday, but I’ll have to be capable of more patience.  Maybe after my child(ren) are all grown up.

I read Montessori Read and Write, by Lynn Lawrence.  I’m still torn about whether or not to buy this book.  I read it quickly from the library and it seemed to have a lot of great exercises.  Actually, now that I write this, I realize that most of the pre-reading exercises that I do with Sammy are from this book, so I probably should go buy a copy.  It’s definitely a worthwhile addition to any Montessori fan’s reading list.

I read two good books by an author new to me, John D. MacDonald.  I read A Purple Place for Dying, and One Fearful Yellow Eye, both of which are part of his Travis McGee series.  It’s detective-fiction, and MacDonald is a cynic, but he’s the kind of cynic you like because he’s just misguided, not nihilistic.  He writes great stories with a biting style that really fits with his cynical view.  I’ll never forget his description of Chicago in “Yellow Eye.”  It was such a witty, scathing condemnation that I heard Dennis Miller’s “rant” voice in my head as I read it.  Even if you don’t “feel it” as a sense of life experience, you’ve got to appreciate MacDonald’s skill.  I plan to read every one of his books.

And now on to the junk.

I read a terrible book called The Water’s Lovely, by Ruth Rendell.  I was intrigued by the plot, but by the end, I found that it was just a cheap, TV-drama-style trick, and worse:  all the good characters suffered and all the bad characters won in the end.  Totally nihilistic.  Do not read this book.

I read The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham.  God, I’m so sick of John Grisham, but this book was given to me and I needed mindless reading.  The book itself was worse than mediocre – it was banal, sloppy, and the main character was not likable at all.  But I did get something important out of it.  Ayn Rand suggested in The Art of Fiction that, as an aspiring fiction-writer, in your reading you should always be asking yourself how you could make a dull story better.  Good premises (in plot-situations, not philosophy) are a dime-a-dozen, but how many times have you been suckered into a movie or book based on a clever “what-if” idea that collapsed into nothing after the basic situation had been presented?  Ayn Rand said that thinking about how those dull plots could have been great is a good exercise for a writer, and might lead to original plot ideas.  I took that advice to heart while reading this otherwise worthless book, and it led to my initial idea for my own novel.  I hate to admit it, but it’s true.

I read Extreme Measures, by Vince Flynn.  I’ve read at least one Vince Flynn book that I liked, but after this book, I can’t imagine how that is possible.  This book was juvenile, predictable, and corny.  It read like a parody of what the angry left might imagine as George W. Bush’s wet dream, but it was serious.  As much as I despise the angry left, I can’t take this kind of garbage seriously.

I had zero e-mails in my inbox before our trip to New York, and although I managed to keep the inevitable build-up while I was away to less than 20 messages, I am quite proud to say that I’m already back down to zero.

And I haven’t even read Getting Things Done yet.

My personal favorite gift that Samantha received for her birthday was a book her dad found for her, called Because I Could Not Stop My Bike and Other Poems, by Karen Jo Shapiro.  It’s a collection of classic poems which have been transformed into kid versions.  For example, from the editorial review listed at Amazon.com:

… Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” becomes “Oh, Mommy! My Mommy!,” a lament from a kid stuck in the backseat on a long car trip. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” becomes “Macaroni and Cheese” (“It was many and many a week ago/that I and my sister Louise/first tried out a food that you might know/called macaroni and cheese”).

Before it arrived I thought the book might be a bit too silly or sophomoric, but it is so well done that it’s fast becoming one of my favorites.  I’m going to have to re-read all of the original poems so that I can enjoy how the author plays off of them in her transformations.  (Samantha loves it too!)

The final half of Sam’s birthday party was a hit.  Here are a few photos, and you can find the rest here at my Picasa site.  (I still hate the way I have them organized, but I can’t seem to find a better way.)

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I Read!

Sam isn’t the only one who has been reading around here.  I’ve mostly been reading light fiction this summer because we’ve been traveling.  I can never read anything challenging while on vacation, and I do love my thrillers and mysteries.  Here’s a quick summary of what I’ve read in the past few months:

Knockdown, by Dick Francis.  I’m really excited to have found a new author that I like, especially one who has written over 30 books!  (Thanks, S. and D.)  In this book (the first of his that I’ve read), I loved the protagonist and I found the story compelling, but I thought the ending was weak.  The plot-theme was, “Under pressure and threats from dishonest colleagues, an honest racehorse broker struggles to maintain his livelihood, and even his life, without compromising his integrity.” 

Trunk Music, by Michael Connelly.  I’ve read a few of his books now, and I like Connelly, but this wasn’t his best.  His Harry Bosch character is likeable and smart, and the mystery was not bad, but I didn’t find anything about the book compelling.  There’s not much point in writing out the plot-theme here, but it might be something like, “An independent, dedicated detective must solve an apparent mob-hit without the support of his department.”  You get the idea.  If you want to try Michael Connelly, I’d recommend Blood Work or The Poet.  I’m sure I’ll eventually read all of his books just on the strength of those two.

Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child.  This is Lee Child’s 13th Jack Reacher novel.  These are the only light fiction books that I buy new, in the bookstore, at hardcover prices ($28!).  Jack Reacher is a lot like the Dirty Harry character:  brutal, competent, stoic, a loner, and dedicated to justice.  But Dirty Harry has tremendous inner conflict; Jack Reacher has none.  Stepping into Jack Reacher’s world is like climbing out of a swamp of muddy complexity into a clean, black and white, wide open world.  He has absolute confidence in himself.  He is not fearless, but, to play off of Ayn Rand’s description of Howard Roark, his fear only goes down to a certain point.  Other things I love about these books are the descriptions of the settings, from deserted corn fields to big cities, and the subtle, thematic threads that are often woven into the plots.  The plots in the earlier books are very good, but even with the series weakening a bit, this was the best of my summer reading.  The plot-theme was, “While investigating a mysterious death, an ex-military cop finds that sometimes our friends become our enemies, and sometimes our enemies become our friends.”  If you want to try Lee Child, I’d recommend starting with Die Trying, his second book.

Taking Charge of Your Fertility, by Toni Weschler.  This was recommended to me by a couple of people when I mentioned that Adam and I are working on another baby.  Essentially, this book explains how to read your body’s signals to understand what part of your menstrual cycle you are in, using a process they call the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM).  I didn’t read the parts on birth control, but the rest of the book was very good.  I’d recommend this book to all women as a basic health and wellness text.

Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky.  I heard the author discussing this book on NPR and was intrigued.  It’s a collection of writings from the Depression era about the eating habits of people in different regions of the country. I gave it a shot, but I just couldn’t bring myself to read the whole thing.  It had interesting factoids and some funny recipes, but it was just too long for my level of interest.  Check out LB’s review if you want to know more.

Right now I’m reading three more books, and then, in keeping with the back-to-school mentality of September, it’ll be back to the Great Books series for me.

That's gonna scarAfter Samantha cut her head so badly last week, I wanted to make her feel better about the “boo-boo,” and thought of Harry Potter.  I picked one of the books off the shelf and showed her the cover, pointing out the scar on his forehead.

The next day, I was working at my computer when Sam brought over one of the Harry Potter books.  HERE HARRY POTTER, MOMMY.  I set it on my desk and said, “Yes, there is Harry Potter.”  Then she brought another one and put it on top of the first.  HERE ‘NOTHER HARRY POTTER, MOMMY.  “Oh, now we have two.  Can you bring me another?”  HERE YOU GO, MOMMY.  ‘NOTHER HARRY POTTER.  “How many do we have now?  One, two three.  There are seven in all, can you bring them all here and stack them up?”  And she did:

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This is particularly impressive given the haystack within which she found those seven needles:

Bookshelves

For anybody considering becoming a parent, I’d like to recommend this excellent book:  A Baby? Maybe:  A Guide to Making the Most Fateful Decision of Your Life by Elizabeth M. Whelan. 

When Adam and I got married we were both undecided about having children, and I think we both leaned towards the negative.  The first thing that started steering us in the other direction was a vacation we took with our close friends and their 18 month old son.  We spent a week in the Bahamas with them and saw firsthand how they were able to integrate their child into their lives and continue to do fun, adventurous things, even if it did mean lugging around a lot more stuff.  We thought to ourselves, “We could do that.”

Then, a friend of Adam’s recommended this book to us.  He picked up a copy and we read it together (back in the days when we had time for him to read out loud to me ;) ).  I don’t remember it too clearly, but the book was mostly a series of interviews the author conducted, asking people about which choice they made, why, and whether they had any regrets.  Adam and I came away with three new and life-changing ideas about this decision:

1)  The decision to become a parent is unique – unlike any other you will make in your life – and so it must be approached slightly differently.  There are two things that make it unique.  First, you are creating a new human being with free will, so you have much less control over the outcome than with other choices.  You never have perfect information, but in this case, you will always have doubts and confusion because you have no ultimate control over what your child will be.  You can’t make a pro-and-con list.  You will never feel like you’ve analyzed the options and know what to expect.  You cannot really know what to expect.

2)  The second thing that makes this decision unique is that it is irrevocable.  Most choices you make in life can be reversed.  Sometimes there is a lot of pain involved, but you can say, “I made a mistake.  I’m going to go back and fix it.”  When you have a child, you can never change the fact that you are a parent.  Even in the worst cases where you might give the child up for adoption, the fact that you created a human being is going to alter your life forever.  But, more likely, you will spend the rest of your life as an active parent and there is nothing you can do to change that.

3)  The regret principle applies.  In the interviews in the book, the people with the most regrets were the ones who defaulted into a choice, whether it was to have children or not to have children.  That included people who had kids because it was “the thing to do” after they got married, and people who never had kids because they just never got around to it or couldn’t make up their minds.  This taught us that we needed to make a conscious decision one way or another.

Once we recognized these three principles, we both knew we wanted to have a child.  It was strange how it became so obvious after these revelations.  I think we both had been in the “wait and see” mode, figuring that we’d know if and when the time was right.  The third point really woke us up.

The book is out of print, but you can find used copies at Amazon.  The thing that prompted me to write about it is that I recently heard Leonard Peikoff recommend the very same book on his podcast.  (Unfortunately, I didn’t write down which podcast it was.)  The person who told us about the book was not an Objectivist, so I was quite shocked and pleased to hear that Dr. Peikoff also recommended it.

A Baby? Maybe is not a book that will convince you to have children.  It is a guide to how to approach the whole issue.  It gives you a framework for your thinking.  And it uses an inductive approach by starting with real people and their decisions, and using those facts to come up with some general principles.

I’ve read a few more books recently so I’ll dash off some quick reviews.  Warning: I’m feeling a bit flippant today.

First, I finally finished the bible.  Actually, I gave up reading the actual bible and turned back to my Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Bible.  I just got so bored with Jesus and the traveling and the healing and all that.  Also, the bible that I have has some strange notations in it that make it very difficult to read.  Every single proper name is written with the dictionary-type pronunciation notation, with stress marks, carats, and the whole works.  Considering the number of names in the bible, this gets quite overwhelming.  All of Jesus’ words are in red which was actually helpful because I never could have figured out who was speaking on my own.  Then, of course, are the paragraph numbers and italicized words.  I had no idea why so many words were italicized in this King James Version, but apparently, these words were added at some later point in translation.  I really do not understand why they would need to do this.  Other works are translated between languages all the time and it is understood that there is no such thing as a word-for-word translation and that the translator must be trusted to convey the proper meaning.

As to substance, here are just a few impressions.  The Old Testament was a lot of fun, but if I was trying to take it as some kind of moral guide I suppose it might have been depressing.  Jesus did not impress me, but I did get a bit more of a sense of how Christianity was new and unique.  The altruism in the New Testament is definitely much stronger, as is the focus on reward and punishment in the afterlife.  Really, what struck me most is how absurd the bible is.  I’ve always held that Christianity is no different than any cult, and reading the bible just gave me more evidence.  Do Christians really believe that Jesus came back from the dead?  I mean, are you kidding me? 

Next, I read a terrible Michael Crichton book called Timeline.  Crichton always has some kind of intriguing premise, and then he lets you down.  This one was worse than usual.  I’m done with Crichton.

I’m sorry to say that I was disappointed in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.  I read it for my book club.  It’s a classic, right?  Well, I found the mystery to be dull, the resolution to be somewhat arbitrary, and I didn’t even like Poirot.  I’ve read Christie before and liked her mysteries, but this one left me cold.

So, three duds out of three.  I am glad that I read the guide to the bible, though.  I’m sure reading the actual bible carefully would have given me a clearer picture, but I got what I wanted out of the guide.  Since I started with almost no knowledge of the bible, this gave me an overview.  It was worth the time.  The other two, not so much.

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