Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The year in books!

This is the year of Discworld. My 15yo reading buddy and son was having too much fun listening to and reading all the Discworld books, so I finally took the plunge. They are filled with dry humor and some laugh out loud humor and often have great characters and compelling stories. I think I’ve read 9 of them:

Lost Continent -- surreal visit to the Discworld version of Australia. Some of the funniest lines.
Going Postal -- perhaps my favorite. The story of the post office in Ankh Morpork
The Truth -- The story of the Newspaper in Ankh Morpork. Not as good as Going Postal
Guards! Guards! -- the beginning reads like a Monty Python skit.
The 5th Elephant -- more Sam Vimes and the Night Watch
Thud -- Where’s My Cow? I loved this book and the previous 2.
Jingo -- rather unmemorable
Reaper Man -- Death takes a holiday. What can I say? It is silly and funny.
Unseen Academicals -- just read this one. Good characters, but not a favorite.

I should have known it was going to be an odd year of reading as my first book of 2010 was Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!

I read some classics this year, too.

Mansfield Park -- a very different Austen book.
Pride and Prejudice -- from cover to cover for the first time since my teen years
Jane Eyre -- I really liked this and it prompted me to read a biography of Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights -- I couldn’t finish. Catherine and Heathcliff annoy me to no end.
Moby Dick -- I didn’t hate it, in fact it was an enjoyable listen. Not always compelling, though.
Heart of Darkness -- it almost seems cliche, but it was the first “evil white colonialist” book

Other older titles that I enjoyed were The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which was an unexpected joy to read and The Sign of Four, one of the Sherlock Holmes novels. The plot for Sign of Four is now confused in my mind with The Moonstone as both stories deal with stolen goods from India.

My son and I both loved At Home by Bill Bryson. It really brought so much of 19th century England to life, the details from all that British literature I read now are not something I gloss over but actually describe something tangible. A couple of other titles from same time period was Remarkable Creatures, a historical fiction about Mary Anning's life and The Fossil Hunters, a biography -- poorly written -- of Mary Anning. (She is the woman who sold sea shells by the sea shore in Lyme, and discovered the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur fossils.)

I listened to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, based on my son’s love of the book. It made for a great car trip as we wound up talking about politics and Heinlein’s libertarian leanings. Far North was the most evocative book I read, I think. The landscape and situations are still vividly real in my imagination. Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series was entertaining fanstasy, but not memorable.

I haven’t read all the books I bought at Comic-con, but I thoroughly enjoyed the one I have read. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss has a terrific protagonist, someone who is NOT the chosen one, NOT going to fulfill his destiny. That alone is refreshing!! But the setting and the plotting are refreshing too. His second book comes out in March, and my son and I are clearing our calendar for that one.

All in all I read 55 books this last year, though admittedly a few were put down somewhere in the 2nd half and I only skimmed the end. I've got a stack ready to go for next year, including a few more Discworld titles...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


We made the plunge to start homeschooling in January 2000. It was a fairly sudden decision as it was over Christmas break that I knew I could not send my oldest son back to school. The withdrawn and unhappy child from the fall semester disappeared over Christmas break and the buoyant irrepressible child returned. I finally accepted it was pointless, even heartless, to force him to adapt to the classroom. The classroom had to adapt to him, and homeschooling was the best choice.

That child who prompted us to start homeschooling graduated back in May 2009. He is still an effervescent being, not following the standard and expected path of going to a traditional university, but is instead forging ahead with his own plans for himself, and doing very well.

And now my younger son is moving on. At the tender age of 15 he will be attending community college full time. He passed me by in math and science, the two subjects that most interest him, so needs the higher level courses, and he has had enough of mom as teacher/mentor/nag-in-chief. He is ready to move on, and proved himself quite capable in his intermediate algebra course at the college last fall.

So after 11 years, my primary identity as a homeschool mom is no more. I'm back to just being mom!

That is a huge change. Another big change coming with 2011 is that my husband will be working at home full time, something he hasn't done in 20 years. And my oldest boy will be back under our roof after living in Orlando for a year. It is going to be a very full house!

I'm no longer going to be writing blog posts about book lists and course or lesson plans. I'm trying to wean myself from the 11 year old habit of hanging out on the WTM boards every day. And yet, I'm still interested in education, still honing my skills as a teacher and mentor as I move into my second year of teaching private violin lessons. And I'm still an avid reader, still sharing books with my youngest. There should still be blog material worth reading!

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Stylish Blogger?!!

What a great way to start a morning! Stephanie from Daisies and Dominos passed the Stylish Blogger Award to me and 14 others this morning. Thank you, Stephanie! I'm always pleasantly surprised that people even read my blog, and am really delighted that you find it stylish!

The rules for accepting the award are to:

  • Thank and link back to the person who gave you the award
  • Share 7 things about yourself
  • Pass this on to 15 other bloggers you've recently discovered
  • Contact the selected bloggers and tell them about their awards

So...7 things about myself...

I've been married almost 25 years to my college housemate's cute brother
I play violin and now teach violin, a topic I've yet to blog about
I have a golden retriever that foams at the mouth an embarrassing amount when on walks
I have an MA in Chinese Studies, read Confucius in the original back in grad school.
My Chinese language skills are now reduced to the limited but useful ability to order a cold beer
Worst job I ever had was demonstrating a toilet bowl cleaner at Long's Drug Store
I have yet to master making a pie crust from scratch

Now to pass this on to 15 other bloggers. Except, well, I don't think I know of 15 other blogs! It seems I'm as much of an on-line introvert as I am in real life. I do follow bigger blogs like Pioneer Woman, but wanted to give props to other humble efforts like mine. So here's 12 stylish blogs that I know and love and 3 big national blogs that make me smile.

1. Golden Grasses Stephanie sent her the stylish award as well.
2. Shades of White This is a peaceful spot to visit, with lovely photos and poetry
3. 52 Books in 52 Weeks Robin keeps us reading, and has inspired me to start writing book reviews of my own.
4. My Two Blessings Robin's non-book blog
5. Without Excuse Sydni is a creative homeschool mom and I love seeing photos of my home town, Albuquerque
6. Tumbleweed Road Sydni's other blog makes me want to start homeschooling all over again. She profiles all her terrific projects and the books they are reading.
7. Agenda Forty is by a homeschool DAD, yes folks, there are such creatures in our midst!! He is also a NaNoWriMo kind of guy, and the DM for my son's bi-weekly D&D games.
8. Four Squares is another cool blog by a creative and interesting homeschool mom.
9. Slowly Climb Mt. Everest yep -- another creative homeschool mom!
10. Home is where you start from is by a fellow Southern California homeschooler, yet another creative soul
11. Herding Ducks I like to stop by here now and again to look at the photos of farm animals. Not due to some weird proclivities on my part, but 'cause I'm a city girl who can't imagine living in the country!
12. A Little Rebellion is by another thoughtful homeschool mom.

Visiting each of the above today inspired to get busy and start blogging again more regularly!

The final 3 -- the bigger blogs that I enjoy:

13. Strange Maps, which is exactly what the name says. Check it out!
14. Patrick Rothfuss -- a blog by a fantasy author who usually makes me laugh.
15. Pioneer Woman -- I have "known" Ree from the old WTM days, and have loved watching her become a national phenomenon.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Rigorous Rant

A “rigorous curriculum that is easy to implement” is oxymoronic. Reading, answering comprehension questions, memorizing highlighted vocabulary words, and having the grading rubric predetermined by the publishers does not make for a rigorous education. It is simply learning to identify what to regurgitate the points someone else has determined are important.

A rigorous education is thinking for yourself about what you’ve read, analyzing, finding what points resonate with you, then persuading others to see the work as you do through persuasive and logically constructed arguments. It is taking what you’ve read and learned then applying it in unique situations. Of course it is harder on the mom -- it is harder for the student, too and that is the point. It is far harder to think for yourself and defend your thoughts, but that is ultimately more important than being able to parrot what you’ve read.

Grade levels, reading levels, lexile numbers -- all those are handy measurements when dealing with a school full of children. In your home all that matters is the child in front of you. Meet each child at his or her level then move forward. Read, explore, talk, create and have fun. And talk some more, encouraging your child to express opinions and all his or her creative ideas. That is when the real learning happens. Spend some time each day on skills but don’t make it the sum total of your existence. The skills are simply tools for furthering the joyous endeavor of learning.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

52 Books: September Reading

September was a productive reading month. Here's a few short reviews and one rant.

Dreaming in Mandarin by Deborah Fallows is a quick and delightful read about her three years of living in China and trying to master the language. She nails the challenges of coping with such a foreign language where there are no familiar hooks. The grammar is easy, but the tones and compound words are tough, and the language is even more confusing to master it reflects an entirely different way of experiencing the world.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson is a nicely written, literate and charming romance. I figured out the ending probably before the end of the first chapter, but it was a pleasure to get there because of the characters and the pacing of the plot.

Wilkie Collins is an author I had never heard of until there was a thread on the Well Trained Mind forums about his books. The Moonstone was the first book I read on my new iPad, a free download from the Project Gutenberg site.

I loved it. Loved reading on the iPad, loved the mystery, loved having the story told from the different perspectives of different characters. It is considered the first British mystery. Collins was a friend of Dickens, and it is a shame he isn't as well known as this mystery, especially, still holds up. If you've read the Sherlock Homes Sign of Four story, read this as it is a perfect companion piece.

Now for a short review and a rant about an audio book. I really wanted to like Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French. It is a look behind the scenes over several years at Tampa Bay's Lowry Park Zoo. When the book is straight journalism it is quite good as it explores the ethics of zoos, the logistics of caring for dangerous animals, the blurry line between conservation and entertainment.

But the author and especially the narrator couldn't leave it as straight journalism and had to play the emotion card, anthropomorphizing the animals with whole passages like "What were the animals thinking just then? Were they remembering the warmth of the sun on their back in the open savannah?" There were too many passages like that, all unnecessary interruptions in the narrative, and all insulting. Do journalists not trust readers to have imaginations and empathy? It also made the author seem like he couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to write an objective piece on the zoo or if he wanted to write about his own conflicting opinions about the role of zoos.

The narrator made things even worse by reading the story like a bad tv anchor on the local evening news. He felt he had to use different voices reading quotes. I like a good reader using different voices in fiction where there are fleshed out characters and the voices make sense. but in a piece of journalism it sounded stupid, especially when he used a bad Southern accent. When the book inevitably got to the death of some of the animals, the author's words sufficiently captured the emotion of the event -- how the zoo keepers reacted, how the other animals reacted. But the narrator decided it wasn't enough, so he read the passages with a choked up, deeply emotional voice. It was a jarring and unnecessary cheap ploy. I turned it off with about a half hour left as I just couldn't take the narrator any more. It left me angry with the book for the rest of the day!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Words to Live By

Spotted on the back of a plumber contractor's truck, this profound motto:

"Where Quality is Always an Option"

"How much do you suppose they charge for that optional package," quipped my son. "An extra 50 bucks?"

We considered all the companies and institutions that could adopt the motto, such as a college, an airline, a hospital. As my son said, it is a very versatile motto. Indeed they are words to live by.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A whole new world

My son has a community college math class that meets at 7am 3 times a week. 7am!! The kid who hasn't been up before 10am for the last 2 years sets his alarm clock, has his book bag packed the night before, and is ready to head out the door at 6:30. That alone is stunning.

What is even more stunning are all the people who are out and about at 6:30 in the morning. I had no idea. The freeway is packed with heavy traffic. It isn't gridlock and isn't the frenzied panic traffic that we hit on the way home from his class at 8:30. I figure those are all the people who are worried about being late to work so ride your tail, accelerating to pass you and cutting you off when your lane ends. The 6:30am traffic is a more sensible, though sizable beast.

Starbucks is packed by 7am with a never ending line of 10-12 people. There are school kids with their parents, college students, and people dressed for work. As I write there is a little boy who asleep in one of the over-stuffed chairs. And Santa Claus just walked in wearing a bright aloha shirt festooned with tropical Santas. I may need more coffee...

As we get back to our neighborhood on the way home the elementary kids are heading to school. Another slice of life I've never experienced. Their backpacks are bigger than they are!!

6:30 to 8:30 am has been my quiet time for the last 11 years. If I'm up, I'm reading the newspaper, enjoying a quiet house. Or I'm out walking the dog or getting grocery shopping done before the family gets up. The grocery store is great in the early morning hours, although you have to dodge pallets of boxes while the shelves get re-stocked. And if you time it wrong on Monday morning, they haven't gotten around to restocking milk after the weekend rush so you have to make a second trip to get milk later in the day.

I was dreading this 3 times a week early morning routine, but it hasn't been bad at all. And it's been fascinating seeing how the rest of the world lives!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

52 Books in 52 weeks: More Moby Dick and some reviews

My reading list continues to be very eclectic -- a few “great books”, some good books and fluff and some non-fiction. I’ve slowed down a bit thanks to Moby Dick, which I’m still enjoying but isn’t quite the page turner of an epic that I thought it might be. But I’m past that “wall” that marathon runners describe, that point where you feel too fatigued to go on and realize the end is still so far away. At least now the end is in sight, the white whale is almost in sight and I’ll have a terrific sense of accomplishment when it’s all done.

But I was going to write about what else I’ve been reading.

First up, some light but entertaining fantasy. A friend lent me a copy of Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson promising it to be a fun read, and indeed it was. Fantasy is one of those hit or miss genres, too often a miss for my taste. Mistborn started off leaning toward the “miss” category because of the expository rush at the beginning of the book. There is nothing that kills a sci fi or fantasy novel like heavy handed explanations -- the world should be revealed through the story. But, the exposition wasn’t too clunky and the characters and plot soon caught and kept my attention.

My son and I attended a reading and signing with Sanderson just last week, and in a serendipitous coincidence he happened to mention Moby Dick, describing it as a kind of fantasy novel. I liked that analogy. What my son and I find quite amusing is that Sanderson’s newest book, in audio format, clocks in at a whopping 45 hours! Moby Dick was only 24, and is a self contained book whereas Sanderson’s book is the first in a planned 10 book series!!! 10 books! I can’t imagine a story that warrants 10 books of 400,000 words each! And yet the author was engaging, Mistborn was readable, so the 45 hour marathon may be worth a try.

Another recent read was Moonstone, a Victorian detective novel by Wilkie Collins. What a delightful read! The story is told from several viewpoints, each of which is a very distinct and entertaining character. The loyal and funny servant and the fundamentalist spinster aunt are the two best, but the detective and secondary characters are fun too. There are some terrific red herrings and a solution that works even though it defies reason.

I had never heard of Wilkie Collins until some of the ladies on the Well Trained Mind high school forums started talking about his books. I looked him up either on Wikipedia or Sparknotes (can’t remember which) and was surprised to find out he and Dickens were great friends. I assumed he is an author slipping into oblivion (because, of course, I hadn’t heard of him!) only to discover there is an essay contest for teens sponsored by Penguin books on the Moonstone, and a local bookstore’s book club is discussing the book later this month.

It seems the more I learn the more ignorant I feel! There are clearly more wonderful titles and authors out there that I’ve never heard of and so many literary references that still go over the top of my head.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Does this mean I have to vacuum more often?

I'm getting a taste of what life is like after homeschooling and it is really odd. I'm not entirely sure what to do with myself.

During my 11 years of homeschooling I'd relish the quiet hours before everyone got up, sipping coffee, browsing the internet, reading the paper. I'd fit in an errand or load of laundry before it was time to brace myself for the homeschool routine. I'd cement a cheery smile on my face while the kids rolled their eyes over math or while they dragged their feet getting out the door for a class or activity. If one kid was at an activity the other was supposed to be doing work -- I was constantly juggling my attention from kid to kid, to school to the calendar and where I needed to be next. I even found a way to shoe-horn in my own interests, but it made for some crazy busy months.

This September I suddenly find myself free from math and science, two time consuming homeschool subjects, and virtually free from driving. I still start my day with my own quiet time, still get an errand done fairly early, but I realize I don't have to start the juggling routine of homeschooling and driving, I really have no responsibilities to anyone for the balance of the day. It is unsettlingly bizarre. I can't figure out what to do with myself, what my own priorities are. I start making lists of things I've wanted to get done, of tasks that could be done in a more timely manner, and it is all Suzy Homemaker stuff. Vacuuming. Dusting. Organizing closets. Yuck!! Is that all I have left in my life?! Then I think of my interests such as reading, writing, practicing violin, gardening, knitting......and that seems sooooo self-indulgent. I feel guilty to think that I get to just do that as much and as often as I want. Then I think of how I could be exercising daily now, and I feel even more guilty that I'm sitting in Starbucks writing a blog entry!

I know -- what a horrible problem to have. This is NOT a complaint, really, but more of an observation of how strangely different life my life is now. For the first time in almost 19 years of motherhood, I'm not having to react and adjust to and juggle the needs and demands of others. After organizing everyone else, I have to organize myself.

It is so bizarre.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Moby Dick!

Call me astounded.

Moby Dick is epic, and I don’t mean in just in the literary sense of the word. It is epically over the top, full of terrific lines that have been adopted into the geek lexicon thanks to Star Trek. It has grand characters, unexpected detours, and, eventually, a whale of an adventure tale.

That there will be an adventure story I’m taking on faith as so far -- and I’m not quite half way into it -- the action can be summed up in a couple of sentences. Ishmael meets Queequeg, they join the crew of the whaling ship Pequod and sail out of Nantucket. Ahab announces he wants to hunt a particular whale. I’ve just summed up over 300 pages!! No wonder people give up on reading this book.

But I’m not reading it in print form. I’m listening to a wonderful recording of it as read by, actually performed by, Anthony Heald. Talk about epic. (And I’m not just referring to the 24 hours of audio!) He can take the most clause-choked sentence and make it sound natural. Make it interesting and worth listening to. Melville’s writing is made lively and brilliant. The Shakespearean nature of Ahab’s speech comes to life, lines that the average reader would miss because his eyes had glazed over suddenly pop out in all their poetic drama. Even the chapters detailing whaling life or the natural history of the period are a good listen. It is simply brilliant.

I find myself taking notes, looking things up on the internet, pulling out the print copy to reread a particularly interesting passage. And I’m getting a kick out of all the literary and mythological references that I now get thanks to all the reading of classics my kids and I have done while homeschooling.

My 15yo son is also listening to Moby Dick and loving it. I often hear him in the next room chuckling over speech by Ahab, not because it is comical, but because it is unexpectedly familiar. We are constantly asking each other “have you read the part yet ....” and comparing reactions. He keeps saying, “This is soooo much better than the Iliad!!” Sorry Homer, you just don’t make the cut!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

(Not Very) Wordless Wednesday

First a short explanation of last week's WW. The bubble men were part of an advertising campaign that was outside of Comic-Con. That it took us 2 days before we figured out what they were advertising shows that the ad campaign was cool but not effective in its message! Anyway, the bubble men were made by Flogos, a company that specializes in large bubble figures. You can read the FAQs for the company here.

This week's (Not Very) Worldless Wednesday features "Chinny", the Black Chinned Hummingbird who has taken on the mission of guarding our backyard from any and all hummers who are tempted by my feeders.

Can you find him in there? He likes to perch on a small twig that gives him a view of the whole yard.

There he is! He knows us, so doesn't even flinch when I'm right on the other side of the fence.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Summer Reading

I’ve managed to read at least 15 books since mid-June, putting myself ahead of the book a week pace after being behind for so long. Here’s a brief summary of the hits, and luckily, no real misses.

The happy new discovery of the year for me and for my son Mike, has been all the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett. I know we’re late to the party as everyone else seems to have read them already, but we’re awfully glad to be here! I’ve only read 4 of his books so far as I’m also reading other genres, but Mike is on a steady diet of the things, impatient for me to get to certain titles. I love the dry humor, the absurd situations, the colorful characters, but I especially love that there there is a story that draws me in keeps me turning pages.

I finally got to Laurie R. King’s 2 most recent installments in her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Language of Bees and The God of the Hive. I also went back and reread the first from the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Maybe I’m outgrowing these books, because while I like the writing and the pacing, I’m starting to find them a little too fan-fictiony. Mary Russell is a good character, and her meeting Sherlock Holmes in the first book makes perfect sense, but the books could have been just as strong with her as the only detective and without her marrying the man. I also tried Laurie R. King’s other detective series, The Art of Detection, that happened to have a Sherlock Holmes tie in. Really good mystery, good characters, a real police detective book. Nice to know there another series by this author I can turn to now.

I’ve finished the 3rd Temeraire book by Naomi Novik. The Napoleonic Wars! With Dragons! It sounds bizarre, but it works, and she manages to weave in some interesting themes, such as the issue of slavery, making these especially good reads, I think, for teens. Fantasy loving adults have lots to enjoy too.

Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco was terrific, but depressing as could be. His realistic depiction of Medieval life was just a tad too much for me -- I couldn’t focus on the mystery as I was too upset by knowing a poor girl was going to be burned at the stake. I came to realize that I prefer a more romantic version of olden times than a realistic version, hence my enjoyment of fantasy lit.

Simon Tolkein’s The Inheritance was a great page turner suspense/mystery.

My favorite book of the summer, though, is one I picked up at Comic-Con. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is a terrific beginning to a fantasy series. The prose is lovely, the characters are slowly revealed in a clever manner, and the world is believable. There is none of the clunky exposition that bogs down many fantasies. The passages where he puts us inside the mind of a musician transported when making music are poetic yet realistic. A dragon getting high on opiate trees is a funny adventure romp. It isn't an epic hero quest, but there is an epic hero whose story we are learning almost in a backwards fashion. Now I have to wait until March for the next installment.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Beginning of the End...

I made a list at the beginning of the summer of all the books I thought I'd get to with my son before he graduates. Too many books for one last year of homeschooling and he has a long reading life ahead of him, so I winnowed the list down to a manageable number. Recently I've been organizing the titles into somewhat logical groupings. My plan is to have us do all the grouped books together, but we can do the groups in what ever order feels right.

I've got the Southern grouping, featuring civil rights, integration and race relations:
Huck Finn
To Kill a Mockingbird
Flannery O'Connor short stories
Invisible Man.

I've never read Flannery O'Connor nor Invisible Man, so am looking forward to reading them myself. Mike expressed an interest in re-reading Huck Finn as he had read it when he was 10, I think, and was disappointed that it wasn't more like Tom Sawyer.

Then there's the Shakespeare fest:
Bill Bryson's Shakespeare book
Macbeth along with Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters to liven things up
Midsummer's Night Dream along with another Terry Pratchett book
The recent BBC Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart

Mike has been exposed to Shakespeare since he was a wee lad, either attending Old Globe plays, acting in kid versions, or reading them in class. I'm not entirely sure what Terry Pratchett will bring to the study, but everything is better with a bit of Discworld thrown in!

Back to American Lit, we've got some early American authors to explore:
Moby Dick (which we should be starting this week)
Nathaniel Hawthorne short stories
Edgar Allen Poe short stories

Moby Dick we are reading just because it seemed like a terrific summer project. It is already August and we haven't started, so clearly we weren't that enthusiastic about the idea...

I'm going to inflict more poetry on the lad. I have yet to pick out which poems, but I am going to make sure he writes an academic paper on a poem, just to stretch his writing muscles.

I've got a couple of chemistry titles for him, too. If these were available at I'm sure he would have read them already:

Uncle Tungsten
The Disappearing Spoon

Because Mike enjoys fantasy, sci-fi, and a good parody, I thought I should introduce him to gothic literature by way of:

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.

I can't bring myself to assign something by one of the Bronte sisters -- I myself have never been able to get through Wuthering Heights.

I may add other titles to the final short group:

Animal Farm
Fahrenheit 451

Or I may decide, due to homeschool guilt, that he needs to read Steinbeck or Dickens before he graduates and assign Grapes of Wrath, or Great Expectations.

I've got my list of related Teaching Company lectures to go with most of these titles, and have happily spent many hours reviewing SparkNotes before deciding on a title. I just love the planning part of homeschooling. I'm going to be lost next summer when I no longer have to plan, no longer will have an excuse for searching the library catalog and Amazon for hours on end in order find the perfect works to assign my kids.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Wordless Wednesday (a day late)

Scenes from Comic-Con 2010

Trolley station signs in Klingon

Boba Fett and a storm trooper kicking back

Shrek getting a touch-up from Fiona

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Comic-Con 2010

Comic-Con, the annual pop culture extravaganza in San Diego, has one more day to go, but I think I’ve had my fill for the year. My nightstand and wallet can’t quite take anymore book purchases! Comic-Con has nearly been taken over by the Hollywood marketing machine such that comic book artists, writers and retailers are an after thought, shoved into the far corners of the exhibit hall. But interestingly enough, book publishers such as Penguin and Del Rey have a fairly strong presence and bring in many well known genre writers for signings and panels.

I sat in on 4 of these discussion panels, and was as always entertained and wowed by how interesting and intelligent these authors are. Well read, as you would hope, and articulate, as you would also hope, and full of interesting opinions and a passion for their favorite genres.

This was the third time I’ve seen Christopher Paolini at Comic-Con, and once again he was delightful. The topic for his panel was “The Hero in Epic Fantasy”, and the question came up about the trope of the protagonist being a “chosen one” or having a “destiny to fulfill”. The first author to address this, Patrick Rothfuss, enthusiastically proclaimed he detested it, that it was a weak and hackneyed plot device, just a bunch of crock perpetuated by weak writers. Christopher Paolini was sitting next to this guy, and said, “Well, as someone who has invested most of my life now to writing a series about a boy with a destiny, I have to disagree with you,” and then he went on to very eloquently defend the trope. I wish I had taken notes on what he said, but I was really impressed by him, by his bringing up examples from literary history to discussing how and when the trope works.

I did buy Patrick Rothfuss’s book, The Name of the Wind, as he was a riot on the panel and I myself am rather sick of chosen ones in every fantasy book I read. Got him to sign my copy, too!

I was also very taken with China Mieville who was a special guest of Comic-Con. His recent book, Kraken was reviewed in the New York Times Saturday. What I love about him is between his intimidating looks (shaved head, lots of piercings in one ear) and his educational and political background you’d expect his books to be dark, brooding and full of heavy political themes. In reality he is a regular geek who simply lets his active imagination flow onto the page. He was very funny, humble, thrilled he can make a living as an author, and clearly intelligent. I’m really looking forward to Kraken and exploring his other titles.

The one author I wanted to meet but just didn’t get to was Naomi Novik, who writes the Temeraire books. I did get to see her on a panel of authors who mix genres. They talked quite a bit about the challenge of pitching their ideas, of publishers and booksellers categorizing their books. I would have loved for them to talk more about how they research and plan these mixes of genres, but they ran out of time.

I waited in line for a signing with some other fans of scifi and fantasy, and we talked about not having books for authors to sign as we use e-books and audiobooks. We were joking about autographable skins for iPods and iPads and Kindles. As we talked we shared favorite authors, and one woman recommended I try Lynn Flewelling, so I picked up The Bone Doll’s Twin.

I also wound up with free copies of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. I now have quite a stack of books to get to between these new titles and the books already queued up at home such as the rest of the Temeraire books, all the Discworld books my son wants me to read.

When I wasn't in panels or waiting for an autograph, I was busy taking photos of people in costume. I'll post some of those in the next few days.

Friday, July 16, 2010

52 Books in 52 weeks: A review!!

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks
by Ethan Gilsdorf

I started out really enjoying this book. Ethan Gilsdorf’s personal story of being an awkward and unhappy teen who found refuge in weekly games of D&D was honest and resonated with me even though I’ve never played D&D. I liked that with each chapter he explored all the various permutations of fantasy fandom from Tolkein society meetings to D&D gamers to on-line MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, to the people who are building a castle in France using only Medieval materials and methods. It was an honest and affectionate, if sheepishly uncomfortable look at all of these groups of people and activities.

And yet it wasn’t as satisfying a book as it could have been. He never got past his own deep embarrassment of his geeky D&D playing past. He swung between being a star-struck fan-boy of the Lord of the Rings movies and being incredulous of adults who spend weekends deeply involved in role playing games. His chapter on on-line RPGs like World of Warcraft sounded the stereotypical alarms of adults who give up on real life in favor of their on-line avatar. He ultimately couldn’t settle on whether the book was about his own unresolved issues or about the burgeoning fantasy and gaming industries.

I think the book would be best for people who know little to nothing about all these different fantasy worlds but have children, siblings or friends who are happily immersed. It explains different games, and groups, and profiles normal and well adapted people who love their spending their weekends deep in fantasy mode.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


It is the silliest thing.

I write and write all kinds of creative and passionate posts on the WTM homeschool forum, but when I try to put some of those posts into a short essay for my blog, I can't do it. I've got at least 4 carefully crafted introductions that lead to no where, and in the meantime this blog stagnates.

Very silly. I clearly have opinions and things to say, but I'm not saying them.

Stay tuned.....

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

End of the school year

It is a mixed bag of a home school year, I think.

The good:
  • my World History and Literature survey course, if I do say so myself.
  • all the terrific books he read, the discussions we had and the papers he wrote
  • my son's taking responsibility for his own education
The bad:
  • all the terrific books we didn't get to
  • my not pushing enough here at the end of the school year
I'm reaching the end of my homeschool career as my ds will be taking some of his courses through the community college next year. He wants to be challenged and pushed, just not by me!! And that is ok, because I'd rather be a mom than a homeschool task master, I've decided. A huge part of our mother/son relationship centers around books -- fiction, science, great and silly books. We love to share books with each other and discuss them. I'm thrilled for the chance to be left with only being responsible for literature as it is what we do best.

One more year, possibly two, but my homeschooling days are waning.

Friday, May 7, 2010

About Those Dreaded Gaps

I’ve heard it in person, I’ve seen it on message boards. Homeschooling parents are terrified that one way or another they will fail their children by leaving gaps in their education. Gaps in history, gaps in grammar, gaps in math. Something or another will be forgotten unless a rigorous curriculum published by an expert company is used exactly as laid out.

To this I say “phooey”.

Of course there will be gaps! Thousands of years of world history and literature, music and art, not to mention language and math, and you expect your child to have covered it all, and remember it all, by the time they are 18? Nonsense! Why waste your time in worrying about gaps when gaps are inevitable?

But parents are still stuck with the worry. What should a homeschool parent be doing if it isn’t cramming facts into their children on a regular basis? What is learning if it isn’t reading, answering comprehension questions, then memorizing those key points for the chapter test?

Here’s what I think. Education isn’t about memorizing dates, names, formulas and facts, especially these days with the internet at our fingertips. It is about mastering the skills you need to continue learning: reading, writing, being able to analyze the worth of the sources you use, being able to gauge the soundness of the logic in the arguments you hear. It is about learning to listen, to take the time to think, and it is about the joy of discovery. It is about building a knowledge of the world around you so you have a context into which to fit new information. The context comes from travel, from reading historical fiction, from reading biographies of scientists or explorers or through a pure study of history, but the context is best built through an exploration of something of interest.

What does it look like in real life homeschooling?

It starts with lots of books. Books about math, mathematicians, and numbers. Fiction and non-fiction books about anything -- airplanes, dinosaurs, theater, sports. Mythology, poetry and silly verse, classic literature and the much maligned twaddle that sometimes is the only material kids want to read.

Reading alone isn’t enough. Books should be shared and enjoyed together. Read together or read the same books separately and talk about the books. Read books you don’t want to read, but read them anyway because your child is passionate about them. Talk about the characters, talk about what you think is interesting and WHY you found it interesting. Point out facts that you never knew before and share your excitement in learning something new. Ask questions, then look up the answer on the internet and share what you found out. Learn about the author. Pull out a globe or atlas and look at the place where the book takes place. Use Google Earth.

Get the newspaper or good magazines. Muse is a great one for older kids and young teens.

Get out of the house and visit area zoos, parks and museums, and visit the same ones repeatedly. Kids will take something new from the same exhibits as they get older. Look at the book section in the museum gift shop to see if there is anything that relates to something that interests them. Attend lectures at the museum. Take your kids to classes at the museum and let them ask questions, but teach them good manner to not dominate a conversation, or not show off their knowledge. We think our kids are fabulous, but others are at these classes to see the teacher, not to hear your child enumerate all the facts she has picked up.

Talk about what you see at the museum or at the zoo, and make connections between what you’ve seen and what you’ve read.

Play games. Mad Libs, monopoly, scrabble, chess, poker or other card games. Let your kids teach you how to play Pokemon or Magic or other of the more recent card games. Do craft projects and science kits, let them build with legos, let them make movies or picture books with actual photos.

If you travel, make a point of visiting area museums or go on tours of national parks. If you don’t have the opportunity to travel, watch travel documentaries on places you’d love to visit. Pull out the atlas and Google Earth again and look for the Acropolis or look at the streets of St. Petersburg.

Listen to music, try new food, snicker at the silly clothes people are wearing in paintings from the 1700s.

ALL of this is part of learning, and by conversing about what you see and read and do, your children WILL be making connections between all those disparate pieces of information. Keep a small reference library at home -- a good atlas, a history and science encyclopedia. Plan your outings and readings around topics you’d like to cover, but be ready to follow your kids down random rabbit trails.

Be persistent in working on the three Rs, but remember the rabbit in the Aesop’s Fable -- slow and steady wins the race. Grammar one day, some dication the next, spelling the next. A bit of math practice each day. Oral narrations with younger children, adding in written narrations as they get older and essays in the teen years. Tackle a foreign language and tackle logic, but the centerpiece of your lives is the exploration of interests, and finding interesting ways of exploring those boring subjects.

So what about gaps? Doesn’t this approach mean that some critical period in history will be skipped? Some key literary concept overlooked? Some fundamental science facts missed? Maybe, maybe not. I’m simply not worried about it. My kids have a lifetime for filling those gaps, just as I continue to fill in my own gaps, and they have the skills and desire to continue learning.

I think an educated person is well aware of his gaps and is constantly learning and filling in those gaps. An educated person has a context into which he can place new information, and will have opinions on how important that information is, or on what significance it holds. An educated person is fascinated by the world and feels a lifetime isn’t enough for learning everything. My job as a homeschooling parent -- my quest, my goal -- is to produce young people with exactly that kind of education -- one with gaps but the ability and desire to fill those gaps.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

When to give up on a book.

My son and I both gave up on Galileo's Dream a few days ago. We each really tried to like it, and in fact did like very much the historical aspect of the book. As I wrote last week he brings Galileo, warts and all, to life. But the sci-fi part of the book -- not so much. The characters of the future sci-fi world are one dimensional, not very likable, and their motivation, their reason for intruding into the book, is very unclear. They were so patronizing to Galileo -- I didn't want them to have any influence on him or his work. If that wasn't bad enough, the sci-fi story completely "jumped the shark" into silly and unbelievable territory.

And yet Kim Stanley Robinson is such a good writer that we both kept thinking there had to be something more to the book, something that we just weren't getting. It made us feel dense, as if we were too stupid to see the profound message buried in the story. I finally started reading published reviews of the book, looking to see what exactly we were missing, but it seems the book has many people scratching their heads. The reviewers who did like it didn't convince me that reading to the bitter end would be earth shattering and worth while.

So, we put it down. I'm intrigued with his writing enough that I'd like to try another of his novels. The premise for The Years of Rice and Salt intrigues me, and I'd be reading it this weekend but the copy in my library is missing a huge chunk of pages.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

52 Books in 52 weeks.. a long overdue update

It is week 15 of the year and I'm on my 14th book but only my 5th blog post about books. Here's my list thus far...

1. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglass Adams
2. Leviathon by Scott Westerfeld
3. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
4. The Little Book by Shelden Edwards
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
6. Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle
7. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson
8. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
9. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
10. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
11. Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
12. Country Driving by Peter Hessler
13. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
14. Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson (still in progress)

Lost World, Remarkable Creatures and Galileo's Dream each have made me stop to think about the science I take for granted as each of these books deals with the state of science in a given time. Lost World of course isn't a modern book so when Professor Challenger's expounds on science facts it seems quait and antiquated. But Remarkable Creatures and Galileo's Dream are both newly released, and the authors had to put themselves into the minds of historical figures and have those figures react to their discoveries and grapple with what it might mean. It gives me pause that idea of extinction, for instance, was earth shatteringly new, 200 years ago, and it is extraordinary to me to how the authors bring that sense of wonder, awe and confusion to life as these characters struggle to make sense of what they discover.

My ds and I are both reading Galileo's Dream, but haven't quite finished it yet. So far --I'm about half way done-- we agree that the historical fiction aspect of the book is our favorite part. Galileo has come to life. The sci fi part we can't quite decide about, why it is there, whether it is worthwhile, how it is central to the story. It's that big question -- WHY did the author write this book? Tune in next week when I'll see if my son and I come up with an answer.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

This and that

I've experienced more earthquakes in the last 5 days than I have in the last 25 years. I'm beginning to get good at figuring out the richter scale number. "That was minor, probably a 4.6." "Now that, that was over 5" and the big one last Sunday was just plain WOW!!! Can't imagine what it felt like in Chile several week ago when they had that almost 9 earthquake. Don't think we'd enjoy that massive a quake as much as we do these little ones.

I've been slacking off in my reading. For no good reason other than I'm too preoccupied with the neurotic clutter rattling around inside my head.

This week's Lost was awesome. Desmond episodes always rock.

Need to practice violin today or I'll embarrass myself at quartet rehearsal tomorrow.

Back to that mental clutter. Can't decide if I'm a brilliant homeschool mom or a failure. I think I'm fairly reasonable and creative, but I'm not one of those hard-nosed "rigorous" moms who post all the time on the WTM board. What if I'm screwing it all up?!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nerd cred

Apparently the word "nerd" is not a pejorative these days -- it is rather a compliment of the highest degree. So says my 15 yo son, who patiently explained recently that "nerd" "geek" and "dork" are not interchangeable words.

Nerd, according to him, is a label you have to earn. You have to actually be knowledgeable and smart while living and breathing science or engineering or computers. Geek is a close second, but it is more of a wannabe level. Both nerds and geeks enjoy the same gadgets but geeks can't reach nerd status without earning some cred. Dorks are just idiots -- there is no hope.

My son has been working hard on his nerd cred. He has the geek level down pat -- Rubik's Cubes, logic puzzles, World of Warcraft level 80. He loves his USB missle turret that he has programmed to target anyone who passes too close to his work space. He makes bad puns referencing Lord of the Rings.

But he is making progress towards being a bona fide nerd. He built this from a kit, which to him means any fool could do it, but I think it is pretty cool and nerdy. It is an old fashioned Pong game:

What really cemented his nerd status in my mind, though, was how much fun he was having yesterday in learning how to use his new TI 83 calculator. He spent hours with it, and was ready to move on to new math topics so he could explore new functions on the calculator. It reeks of nerdom!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The one thing every homeschool mom yearns for is a little bit of alone time. If only we had some time to ourselves, why we'd be reading great books, quilting, knitting, we'd have a sparkling clean house. We'd be reading that book in a smartly decorated room, cuddled under a homemade afghan while enjoying an uninterrupted cup of tea. It is the ultimate fantasy of life without kids underfoot.

Here's the bizarre thing. With one child out of the house and the other done with all his outside activities for the school year, I'm finding I have hours each day to do with as I please - and I can't figure out what the heck to do with myself. If I spend time reading or working on a quilt, then I feel guilty about the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink and the piles of laundry waiting to be put away. If I spend time cleaning I resent that I'm using my free time on that instead of doing something interesting. I even am questioning the homeschool time I spend with my youngest, as if somehow that isn't a worthwhile use of my time either. I have this luxury yet am paralyzed with the worry that I am not using it wisely!!

It seems I'm at a loss without deadlines and young people needing my immediate attention. And I'm stunned that after 24 years of marriage and 18 years of parenthood, I still find it hard to fathom how much time it really takes to keep a house running smoothly -- the laundry, the groceries, the dust bunnies, the piles of stuff.


So much for blogging deep and profound insights into homeschooling. I have to empty the dishwasher now.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The joys of car schooling

Homeschooling high school is, and this is a glaring understatement, a lot of work. More work than the earlier years because it really matters and it is the last chance for cementing skills and imparting wisdom before your kids fly the coop. I find older teens to be interesting young adults, but they still don't necessarily LOVE every subject, don't greet each school day with heart-felt enthusiasm. They still don't give me all the praise I am due for creating such brilliant courses of study for them.

The 4 day car trip I had with my son last weekend turned out to be a wonderful break from the worries and pressures of high school. It reminded me of the old days when learning was a simple, natural and unrushed endeavor, and it was a relief to see that meaningful learning, without assignments and expectations, can still happen with a teen.

I could have insisted we listen during the drive to a work from his world history and literature syllabus, but instead we listened to a book he had been impatient for me to read, Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. He talked about what he liked about the book, I talked about what I didn't like, we talked about Libertarians, and utopia and current politics. We compared the book to Dune, he compared it to Starship Troopers and told me not to read that one based on the things I disliked about this one. It was relaxing yet engaging and the hours passed quickly.

We also went on a couple of organized tours. Neither was really planned to connect to this year's science or history, they were just interesting and available. One was a behind the scenes tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which was quite interesting -- we could have spent another hour with that docent. The other was at the beach where the Elephant Seals hang out in the winter. That was quite amazing, and my son surprised me with some random knowledge of the physiology of the animals.

Part of me wishes we could school like this for the rest of high school. I'm a former unschooler who only planned for math during the early elementary grades, otherwise everything was learned simply through exploring the world via books, videos or being out in the world. My kids thrived with this set up, yet they adapted and thrived as things became more formal and structured. I guess it was a good reminder for me that it is still worthwhile to spend some unstructured time outside of our routine, that simply sharing books can be more edifying than dissecting great works. And with the high school years passing by so quickly, we definitely need to make time for a few more of these excursions.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Car Schooling

My 14yo and I spent the last 4 days together in northern California. We went up there for a robotics tournament in San Jose, but one of the unexpected pleasures of the trip was simply driving past all the happy California cows. It looks like Ireland or New Zealand, but the green hills are in California after a winter of El Nino rains.

We spent a day at the Monterey Aquarium, both in the exhibit halls and behind the scenes on a tour. We were delighted earlier in the day, though, to spot an otter or two out in the ocean just off the bluffs. This guy kept bobbing on his back, disappearing to get more food, then popping back up on his back and eating. Another happy, laid back California critter

The most interesting part of our trip was the naturalist led tour around the elephant seals of Ano Nuevo State Beach. Talk about your laid back creatures. They are slugs from the time they are born!

The above group are a bunch of pups called "weaners" because they have been weaned. Their mothers nurse them for about 4 weeks then take off. The little weaners hang out for another 2 months then get hungry enough to head out to the ocean and start feeding. Nobody protects them from predators or clumsy 1 ton bulls who sometimes flatten them. No one teaches them to hunt or swim -- they just hang out. The wild El Nino storms swept about a third of them away last month.

But aren't they cute?!!

The bulls definitely get a little weird looking, like some sci-fi creature from another planet, and they are only capable of galumphing along on the beach for a short stretch before they collapse for a rest. This one wanted to join our little tour group!

Elephant Seals were thought to be extinct back in the late 1800s as they had been killed for their blubbler. It was much easier to hunt the slug like seals on the beach than the big whales in the open ocean. A small group somehow survived and started reproducing and today a couple thousand return to Ano Nuevo beach each winter to give birth and mate, and again in the spring to molt. There are new colonies also forming on beaches further south along the California coast.

But the Elephant Seals seem unimpressed with their history and small gene pool.
The bulls in particular seem eager to loudly proclaim their awesomeness to the world!!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On my nightstand...

Robin of My Two Blessings started a thread at the WTM boards asking "what's on your nightstand?", prompting me to pull out the basket of books gathering dust next to my bed and see what goodies are waiting for me there.

It looks nice and tidy, which is not typical for my house, but I have my rare artistic moments of organizational inspiration. There's at least 14 books in there, a small LED reading light, my paisley reading journal. And the basket leaves enough room for the all important kleenex box!

My iPod dock usually is on the table top, but it just died. I have at least 3 audio books to start and several that are favorites to listen to during the occasional bouts of insomnia, bringing my total nightstand library up to about 30 titles!

Some of these are Comic-con purchases -- the interactive Sherlock Holmes mystery is published by the same folk who brought you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The Peter S. Beagle and Wizards books are collections of short stories, and red lips is the first of the Charlaine Harris vampire novels. The book seller described the series as "literary crack"! I'm sure I'll devour them once I start.

The book with all the red rings is a collection of articles about wine. Loving Frank is historical fiction about Frank Lloyd Wright and it sounds interesting. Banana is a non-fiction history and economics and science tale about, well, bananas. I never read the Beedle Bard tales, which is silly because I'm a Harry Potter fan and it is a short book. The Nine Tailors I have read, and it is there for when I want to re-read it as it is brilliant. The collection of short stories, Say You're One of Them is amazing, but almost too visceral for bed time reading.

I started the Book Thief a while back and will have my 10th grader read it before the year is out. Which means I'd better get around to finishing it. Finally, Looking Beyond the Ivy Leagues is something I'm reading casually as the entire college search process has barely started.

Guess I'll avoid the library and book stores and get to reading all the good stuff I already have!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wordless Wednesdays

Shouldn't a bird this exotic be someplace other than suburban Orlando?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Releasing my fledgling

Last week my firstborn ds turned 18 and moved to the other side of the continent to start living his dream. I flew out with him to help him get settled in his new apartment and to share in the excitement of the first days, then said good bye and came home without him. I didn't cry when we hugged good bye -- he is where he wants to be in an excellent situation and I'm so happy and excited for him.

It struck me during the last week that setting your child free is much like giving birth all over again. The nesting instinct kicks in as you help them buy things they'll need, and help them choose what to take. The need to feed them and nurture them feels as primal as it did when they were newborns. Emotions are running high. And there is both the excitement of the new and the relief of not having to deal with the things that have become so annoying -- in pregnancy it was getting rid of that big belly, with a teen it is getting that huge teen personality out of the house. Just as when you gave birth, life will never again be the same.

Now I have to get used to a quieter house, but I'm looking forward to hearing all the news from my ds. I guess I'll eventually have to learn to wean myself from updates several times a day, but for now I'm thrilled to have Facebook and Skype and text messaging.