August was a tough month in the bookconscious household. We went through vicarious ups and downs with the Teenager as he traveled alone to Europe and back (although a German customs agent didn’t think he was old enough to return home alone, but that’s another story), turned 16, went through public high school soccer tryouts, and ended up switching to a smaller private school team. We got busy with both kids planning our not-back-to-school life — looking into interests, choosing resources, figuring out who needs to be where, when, as their fall activities began. And I unexpectedly traveled to Chicago for my grandmother’s funeral.
Mary Levin Harris was 96, and until only a couple of months ago was a voracious reader. Recently she could no longer comfortably hold up the phone. But over years and years of conversations, no matter what else we discussed, we always made sure to tell each other about whatever we were reading. I’ll miss that very much.
She was a librarian and an English teacher, including a stint in an experimental school in Chicago with glass-walled classrooms. When we first decided not to send the kids to school, I was a little nervous about telling her, and at first, she really didn’t understand why we’d do such a thing. I tried explaining, but I was still figuring it out for myself. I recall telling her it was just what seemed like the right thing to me, to free them to learn all the time, anyplace, rather than raise them to think that learning happens in a place called school during school hours on school days.
My grandmother believed in me the way grandparents tend to, unwaveringly, and she spared me the scathing disapproval she was capable of dishing out — disproportionately to male members of the family, but also to public officials when she wanted them to right a wrong, and to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, which she read faithfully, when she felt the paper had unfairly disrespected a sitting president (Clinton). But I knew she didn’t really like the idea of her great-grandchildren being unschooled.
That changed one day in the late 1990’s, when she was in her 80’s. The woman who was cutting her hair told her about her son, who had been put on Ritalin. My grandmother was dismayed, especially when the woman told her it was quite common. When she got home she called to ask me whether I’d heard that “children are being drugged,” and told me in her day, if a student acted up, the teacher and the principal discussed how they were failing the child, and what to do about it. She told me it was probably a good thing I was not subjecting the kids to school if this is what it had come to.
From then on, she was very supportive of our homeschooling, and even told me I was doing a marvelous job. Once she moved to Atlanta and actually got to know the kids — we were fortunate to visit her once a month or so for just over two years — she told them in person how bright and beautiful and wonderful she thought they were, so they got to bask in the steadfast approbation that I enjoyed for so long.
They often talked to her about something they were learning, and were amazed by her sharp memory. Once they told her we’d read the Gettysburg address and she recited it cold (by then she was over 90). Another time they asked her what it was like to live during the Depression., and she said the New Deal helped her go to college. She frequently asked them questions, too — about what things cost, how their digital cameras worked, what they were reading.
So I’ve been feeling a little low, knowing I can’t share what they’re up to with her anymore. She was fascinated with the way they pursued their interests. I know she would chuckle to hear that the Preteen is exploring animal behavior with a kit that teaches one how to train a pet fish. And she’d find it interesting, if a bit hard to imagine, that all of the Teenager’s homework in his college French class has to be done online in a virtual computer lab.
Most of all, she’d love hearing about the books we’d all been reading. So I’ll get on with telling you, dear readers, and hope that Grandmother, or GGM as she signed her letters and cards, is reading over my shoulder, in a way.
While the Teenager was in Germany, his younger sister and I planned for not-back-to-school. She chose a new math resource. After watching her brother work on Algebra II, she decided on the same publisher for her book — Teaching Textbooks, which are designed for self-directed learners. Both kids seem to be actually enjoying using these, and the Computer Scientist thinks they are great. The Preteen also chose some science kits, including the aforementioned R2 Fish School, and checked out a stack of books about Vikings at the library.
She’d recently read most of the Percy Jackson books, so she needed a new pile of reading materials, and chose a Royal Diaries book about a Mesoamerican princess in 749, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which won the Newbury Award. She liked Percy Jackson’s adventures and event got out our well-loved copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths to brush up on the gods and goddesses. In fact, we ended up buying D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths, to enjoy along with Viking history.
The Preteen discusses books with her friends more than the Teenager ever has, and in August she read the first of the Sisters Eight books on the recommendation of a good friend. She also came to a middle grade author event at Gibson’s, and came home with three books — The Amaranth Enchantment, Carolina Harmony, and Also Known As Harper. She enjoyed hearing the authors in person, and I think it’s unlikely she would have picked these books otherwise. So, if you live where you can go hear an author in person, go, and take your kids!
The Teenager’s oldest friend gave him a new soccer book, When Saturday Comes, for his birthday. On the trip he finished Magnificent Sevens, about five great Manchester United players who’ve worn number 7. He’s begun French class at the community college and in October will begin a Viking history class at Oxford University (online). In the meantime, we wrote a syllabus for his science exploration, based loosely on a class we found in MIT’s open courseware site.
We’re calling his studies “Soccer: The Biology, Chemistry, Physiology, Physics, and Psychology of the Beautiful Game.” We found three great books for him to use as he delves into the science behind his beloved game: Science and Soccer; edited by Tom Reilly, Fitness Training in Soccer: A Scientific Approach, by famous Danish coach Jens Bangsbo; and The Physiology of Sport and Exercise, a textbook we thought would provide interesting reference materials.
Some of you may be wondering, “Aren’t you unschoolers? What’s with the math books and the texts?” We’re life learners, and we use whatever works. We’re not anti-textbooks, although the Teenager and I are not enjoying the disconnect between his college French text and the website that has the labs/homework.
Although our motive in encouraging him to take this class was to help him see what college is like, I’m finding myself agreeing with him that the model isn’t all that different than what we’ve tried to avoid by learning on our own: we’re left feeling that the student is supposed to sit back and be told what to learn when. I told him there must be some logic to the homework, but today one of his classmates asked about the apparent lack of context with the text, and the teacher acknowledged it’s a problem but didn’t have a solution!
It’s causing us to waste time trying to figure out what lab goes with which portion of the book, which is unfortunate. Hopefully it will get easier (this is only the second week). Meanwhile, I wish I’d just gotten him the French editions of Harry Potter — the preteen is learning German that way. But I do think there’s nothing like speaking a language with other people, and so far none of our informal plans for that have panned out, so I’ll probably encourage her to take a class, eventually.
At the Preteen’s urging, the Computer Scientist is reading the whole Harry Potter series (in English), and last month I mentioned he was on the third book. He’s not deep into the seventh. He seems to be enjoying them and also has fun chatting with both kids, who love to pop in and ask him, “Where are you? What’s happening?” I think given all the heavy stuff he’s read this year, he’s having a good time with Harry Potter. Although I maintain that H.P. can be an avenue to some thought provoking conversation, and it’s not just fluff.
I read a book set in England last month, though not in the wizarding world. Helen Humphreys‘ The Frozen Thames is a lovely little book, made up of forty brief stories, each one set during one of the times between 1142 and 1895 that the Thames froze over. The concept of the book is an entertaining as Humphrey’s fine writing. The author’s website lists this as a work of creative nonfiction, but it reads like a collection of linked stories.
While Humphrey bends genres, Nick Harkaway bends time, reality, and life as we know it in his amazing debut novel, The Gone-Away World. This is the best book I’ve read all year. Part action novel; part philosophical commentary on economics, warfare, and ethics; part mind-boggling alternative reality, part futuristic thriller — and also very funny, very well written, and so smart it’s kept me busy wondering what in the hell happened at the end for several weeks.
One thing I loved about this book is that while the plot deals with awful things, there was no passage so horrible I wanted to turn away. Harkaway writes searingly without the over-the-top explicitly graphic prose that seems to garner so much critical acclaim these days. As I said, the end was so mind-blowingly hard to grapple with that I continue to think about it. And despite the fact that it’s a long book, I never got bogged down. As far as I’m concerned Harkaway’s a genius and I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next.
Another humorous novel I read this month, Nibble & Kuhn by David Schmahmann, is not nearly as apocalyptic as The Gone Away World, but is also concerned with the impact human enterprise has on the quality of human life. Schmahmann’s skewering of law firm life is wickedly funny, but his main character, Derek, struck me as a whole person, who doesn’t always act in predictable ways, and who manages to be both irritating and endearing, just like most real people.
It’s easy with satire to lapse into caricatures, but I found myself empathizing with Derek and definitely wanting to know how the hopeless case he is stuck with will turn out. The romance in the novel is unbelievable, but it’s meant to be — Derek is dumbstruck when he finds out who he’s fallen in love with as well. But it’s not simply a satire with a romance, it’s also a story that examines human resilience and the tension between motives and actions when getting ahead might be at odds with getting things right. Schmahmann will be reading at Gibson’s; I’m looking forward to meeting him, and to reading his earlier, award winning novel, Empire Settings.
For a bleaker, but very personal look at human nature, our impact on each other, and the survival of the human spirit even when it’s dragged through the deepest pain, you can’t do much better than to read essays by Andre Dubus. His son, Andre Dubus III, is coming to Gibson’s in October, and I happened to see Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable Chair at the library, so I checked them out. Last year I spent a lot of time studying personal essays. These are some of the most moving I’ve read.
Dubus lived through several emotional traumas and a very serious accident that put him in a wheelchair. He’s probably better known for his fiction, but I enjoy his nonfiction style, which is very straightforward and unembellished. His range, from the simple beauty of time spent with friends to the agony of losing the use of his legs and the pain of living with his children only part time, is somewhat gut wrenching. You can’t read very many of his essays at a time. But despite all the difficult things Dubus lived through and explores in his writing, he work is never self-pitying.
On the plane to Chicago, I read Rilke‘s Letters to a Young Poet. Here is another gifted man who dealt with illness, writers’ block, personal strife, the unrest and disillusionment of the early 20th century, but rather than feeling sorry for himself, he shared what he’d learned in the struggle to be an artist. The letters in this book are his responses to a nineteen year old who he knew only through this unsolicited correspondence. Yet they are deep, open, and personal. I have a book of Rilke’s poems in my “to read” pile for this month.
Another book that had been in my “to read” pile since April was The Half-Inch Himalayas, by Agha Shahid Ali. Many of his poems are concerned with ancestry, family history, and place, all subjects I am deeply curious about, and which I spend time thinking about in the context of my own family. “Snowmen,” a poem both surreal and heartfelt, strikes me as a beautiful piece of writing as well as poignant cry of both longing for and struggle with one’s own history.
Both the poetry book and Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning by Gary Eberle were books I discovered at the Five Colleges Book Sale last spring. Eberle explores the history of human time, which is interesting in itself, he also probes the spiritual aspect of our relationship with time, and tells of his own return to living in sacred time, as manifested in the seasons and the church year.
I enjoyed the book, although it made me somewhat frustrated with myself. I’d been doing very well for a long time at keeping a sabbath — a day of little to no work and no computers, but of real recreation and rejuvenation. Lately I’ve been unable to keep that sacred time for myself. As a result of my overly busy life and my lack of respite, I’m not writing much right now. Eberle’s book was a strong reminder to get myself back in balance.
One aspect of my sabbath is reconnecting with faraway family by phone. Even before my grandmother’s last weeks, our weekly conversations had grown shorter, and sometimes she was not feeling up to talking. I was fortunate to be able to talk to her just about weekly for my entire adult life, as well as during my childhood.
And yet, there was so much more I wanted to ask. I have a box of letters she and her brother wrote to each other, and they left me wondering even more about family stories. By the time I’d puzzled through some of them, she was less interested in speaking of the past — her mind was on the end of her own story, having outlived nearly everyone who was a part of it. At dinner the night before her burial, as my cousins told stories, I realized how differently even the same events seem through the prism of each of our lives, our experiences, our hearts. How different we each were through her eyes than our own vision reveals.
Everything I read this month reminds me in some way of how universally humans seek to understand ourselves, each other, and our lives in relation to each other. The novel I’m reading now, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is an epic tale dealing with that same problem — finding out who we are, who we’ve come from, how our story fits into the greater human story. I’m also reading Joseph Cambell’s and Bill Moyer’s conversations about the human search for meaning through story, The Power of Myth. Both are excellent so far.
Seeking meaning — in story, in sacred time, in relationship with people who came before me and those I live with now — feeds my poetry writing. Grandmother was always thrilled when I had something published, no matter how small or obscure the journal. She also liked to recite poetry, and she read A.A. Milne to me with great relish when I was very young. I leave you with “Disobedience,” in her memory.