The Best of December was also the Best Nonfiction Book of 2015
Instead of a history crush, I have an HISTORIAN crush: David McCullough not only frequently narrates American Experience, but his books are simply tremendous. Although I’ve held fast for years to Mornings on Horsebackas his best book, I’ve now relegated it to second place. The Wright Brothers is magnificent. If you discard the meticulous notes pages, then not only is this book beautifully written and exquisitely written, it is also within the tyranny of the 300 page book club limit. McCullough’s fabulous prose brings Orville and Wilbur Wright to life. You come away “knowing” the brothers so well that you mourn for them being dead. Their amazing tenacity, patience and determination make this a book that should be read in every high school in America. Today, sadly, with mandatory college degrees and over-the-top credentials-worship, academic grantsmanship, faculty unions and all the rest, the brothers would be ringing up sales in a bike shop and be denied any credibility for the science that they all but created: aeronautical engineering. (Ok, likely today they would go to college.)
It is their character that gave them the confidence to do what they did. That kind of character is not something that can be taught in a class. It is from being raised right. It’s no accident to me that they grew up in a Christian home–their father was a minister.
At the height of their success they were both in Paris. McCullough put it this way:
“Never in their lives had the three Wrights been among so many who, by all signs, had little to do but amuse themselves. Nor did they feel out of place or the least intimidated by such company. They felt that they, in their way. were quire as well-born and properly reared as anyone. Never did they stray from remaining exactly who they were, and more often than not, they found themselves most pleasantly surprised by those they were meeting.” p. 214
King Edward VII, King Alfonso XIII or the next door neighbor in Dayton, Ohio–they were gentlemen to all. They were seen to have an excellent character and admired for it. They did not belittle anyone else ever. Today, they would likely not be on social media (beyond a corporate web site and maybe things related to that alone)–that should tell you all you need to know.
Sometimes a classic becomes a classic because there’s absolutely nothing else at all to call it. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is that book. While I admittedly skipped some of the part on internal parasites, this is among the most vivid prose ever written about the natural world–write up there with John Muir, Rachel Carson and Ernest Thompson Seton.
Read this one slowly–savor it. Don’t rush to check the “done” box. Let is flow over you, dwell on passages, write them out beautifully. (And flinch at a few too or even gag–even the greatest can overdo it).You won’t be sorry. It’s that sort of book. You’ll never step out in your yard again without really LOOKING to see what all is really living around you. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
With so much greatness this month, it is sad to have to say I wasn’t enthralled with The Muralist. Her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt and various famous people, such as artist Jackson Pollock, was so cardboard–so lifeless, their conversation often stitled. Though the story involving Eleanor was completely believable–her sort of cause, her sort of left-wing organization, Ms Shapiro just did not breathe life into Eleanor at all. But, Eleanor did certainly a champion of helping artists with the W.P.A. The plausibility of the story is not in question.
When writing historical fiction, which I do in my own writing, it is so hard to remember that while the author knows the outcome of history, the characters cannot. I felt the characters “knew” the outcome of history. They also seemed to fall into that other pitfall of historical fiction–taking on modern-day attitudes and sensibilities–though not as fully as in much of today’s historical fiction.
Like it or not (and I certainly do NOT) Americans of the 1930s and 1940s had little feeling for the Jews in Germany–outside of the Jewish community itself. Most people did not come to know of the death camps until the camps were filmed being liberated. Even the Jewish community itself had divisions–those wanting to assimilate and those of Zionist stripes. Certainly there were people working tirelessly to help the Jews trapped in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Certainly there is blood on the hands of the U.S. State Department for withholding legitimately apportioned refugee visas.
I’ve written before about how much I admire the Ambleside Online homeschool curriculum. I have a small, no-frills blog called A Lifelong Learner in Ambleside where I chart my progress in reading the books in the Ambleside Curriculum. So much beautiful prose! I’ve also gotten on the bandwagon of “Reading Challenges” this year although I’ve always challenged myself to read a book out of my comfort zone, a classic or two that I’ve “missed,” some book that’s been challenged, something a friend has raved about that I might not have chosen (but that isn’t really out of my zone). I also follow the picks of various book clubs–reading those that strike my fancy at the moment and ignoring others. I like to see what colleges assign to incoming freshman, or what a city has chosen for a citywide “read.”
This year, with both my children out of school–one in college part-time–I decided it was time to renew the focus on my own “education.” So I’ve drawn up a personal “homeschool curriculum” or “reading challenge” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it. I will, of course, fail at some of these, will succeed at others and will certainly add many, many more to the list as I go along–all of those chosen because they just happen to interest me. To organize my “program” I’ve used the Ambleside curriculum as my “classification scheme.” [I’m a librarian–I know how to catalog!]. I will also be using Ambleside as a guide for “pacing” some of my books. Some books just demand slower reading so that they can be both savored and absorbed. I’ve even picked an artist to study and a composer–because that’s what drew me to this curriculum when I was a homeschool Mom way back in the day for a few years.
Finally, since Ambleside also uses Plutarch my goal is one life–ditto a Shakespeare play that I have not yet read, though the live performances of our local Shakespeare are all ones I’ve read. No matter, if I can find the ticket price I’ll go. I’ve plotted a map of a few more local art museum and historical sites too. If the kids hate that sort of thing, I love it! I’m striking a blow for empty-nesters everywhere and doing things I love! Let the kids rot their newly-independent brains with cable tv.
NOTE: All photos are from Amazon. I have not linked to the books, but when I do I do not make any money off the links.
Literature and Banned Books:
Science is a tough one for me. This I should be ok with.
Hans Holbein the Younger since I’ve never heard of him!.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina since I’ve never heard of him, either.
As You LIke It–the only one being performed locally that I haven’t read or seen.
Opera and Ballet:
I’ve always thought a homeschool year should have the story and performance of an opera and a ballet. A live performance when possible, if not an outstanding broadcast or recording of one. I will see what’s available
Live Drama and Musical:
Same as opera and ballet. I’ll see what’s available.
Historical sites to visit: Another presidents home, another writer’s home and whatever else I decide on.
Museums: I’ll chose as the years go on. Only the Dayton Art Museum is left locally.
Note I’ve put this down as a TWO year program. If it takes less fine, if it takes more, fine. In the interest of fair disclosure I’m already well into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the Pope and Mussolini and Yosemite.
Do you have an self-education plans this year–whether formal classes, travel plans, conferences or just “at home?” I’d love to hear your plans.
The term “Bucket List” is everywhere today. I have several. Recently, along with writer and friend Susan Braun, I was able to check a newly added site off my “Literary Places Bucket List.” I am late to discovering the joys of fellow Hoosier, Gene Stratton Porter’s writing. As I said before, her books were out-of-fashion when I was in school in the 1970s. Thanks to my reading from the Ambleside Online book liststhough, I found a new go-to author. I’m pretty sure I will work my way thru all of her books. When I was in Indiana for the Ambleside Online “At Home” Retreat, I made a detour on my way home to visit the Limberlost site maintained by the State of Indiana. Mrs. Porter, her husband and daughter all lived her for a few years. After they moved out they allowed local teachers to live there rent-free.
The visitor’s center helped to make this a great “Charlotte Mason” outing for all ages. Inside were displays explaining the real cost of the “progress” that drained the Limberlost back in Mrs. Porter’s day and the efforts to restore the wetlands to their original state at least in part. This focus on nature, which of course extends into Mrs. Porter’s books and home, makes this an educational as well as fun trip.
The house itself is a log Queen Anne and as lovely a home as I’ve ever seen. The many, many personal touches made it instantly homey to any visitor. I, naturally, especially enjoyed the library, which is at the front of the house and has the big window where Mrs. Porter often sat to write. Though the typewriter shown is simply “of the period” and not her own, it gave me the feel of her working day. What a setting! Imagining looking out the window to the yard, with it’s local-stone fence designed to allow wildlife access–yes, access, and enjoy the warm sun on her shoulders as she wrote in the winter; it must have been a wonderful “office.” Note in the background the display cases for various artifacts collected by Gene and, not seen on another wall, the Native American artifacts collected by her husband, banker Charles Porter.
As I said though, it is the personal touches, that make this a true home. Here are a few of my favorites.This is the Porter’s bed in the master bedroom. It’s exactly the type bed I envision my own characters, Alva and Meg, sleeping in in my historical novel Meat, Potatoes and Pie: A Midwestern Love Story, albeit without the wonderful personalization. Gene had this bed made for the house and the owls were hand carved by a craftsman. Yet another homage to her life as a dedicated naturalist and lover of birds. I personally think owls are among the most fascinating birds, so I really liked this detail.
Above one fireplace is Gene’s Moth collection. In addition to being the “Bird Lady,” in Freckles, she was also quite a “Moth Lady” and naturalist, even publishing on the subject. The display case was created for the space and the glass, in an era when panes so large were still rare, must have been a major expense. The specimens are so fragile today that the case cannot be opened–the woosh of air it would cause would shatter the nearly century old dried insects.You can read her book, Moth’s of the Limberlost, here.
Trivia: Did you know Mrs. Porter’s name was really “Geneva?” Well, this house is in Geneva, Indiana!
It was a bright day so photographing the conservatory with just my phone was a challenge. This lovely room was, again, custom built for its purpose with drains in the floor and water available. Readers of Freckles may recall the moment when this room is featured in the story:
“The night was warm, and the Angel most beautiful and kind. A triple delirium of spirit, mind, and body seized upon him and developed a boldness all unnatural. He slightly parted the heavy curtains that separated the conservatory from the company and looked between. He almost stopped breathing. He had read of things like that, but he never had seen them.
The open space seemed to stretch through half a dozen rooms, all ablaze with lights, perfumed with flowers, and filled with elegantly dressed people. There were glimpses of polished floors, sparkling glass, and fine furnishings. From somewhere, the voice of his beloved Bird Woman arose and fell.
The Angel crowded beside him and was watching also.
“Doesn’t it look pretty?” she whispered.
“Do you suppose Heaven is any finer than that?” asked Freckles.
The Angel began to laugh.”
There were other treasures too– her ‘darkroom’, i.e. the bathroom, where she, like the “Bird Lady” developed the glass plates of her nature photographs. Then there were the stuffed birds and the photograph of them dressed up for a playtime tea party as Gene’s daughter once did to them. Currently the kitchen is not yet restored, but the separate “room” for the icebox is still there and just outside it, now for display only, is the hollow tree smokehouse from the Limberlost. The upstairs, which features a large gathering spot and the bedrooms that were later used by the teachers, is not decorated, but can be toured.
At the Visitor’s Center, in addition to the wetlands display, you can also see the safe and desk from Mr. Porter’s bank as well as buy copies of Gene’s books and books on local wildlife.
Trivia: Did you know Mrs. Porter wrote a book on “Birds of the Bible?”
These little ladies were created to represent some of Gene’s best loved characters. The dresses are hand made, hand embroidered. They were so lovely.
Our guide, author Curt Burnette, is himself a naturalist. You can purchase his book on the the wetlands from the Friends of the Limberlost, who run the gift shop at the Visitor’s Center. Sorry, it is not available for Kindle, though we both encouraged him to do so! The Friends also have nature programs which in June featured a Wildlife Safari, a guided nature hike of the Limberlost Restoration and a night out watching Swifts–a local bird.Homeschool students will be interested, too, in their Early Native American Culture courses designed for homeschoolers. Their website has an excellent webliography of free resources on the natural history of the area. Finally, The Friends hold Bluegrass Jamborees that usually feature (all volunteer and all amateur) musicians playing blue grass, folk music, gospel and other types of music.
I hope you enjoyed this little tour of Gene Stratton Porter’s “South Cabin,” and the Limberlost area. Leave me a comment with Literary Journeys you have made.
Mrs. Porter’s nature books are available in many forms–print, kindle format, e-book. Her photography is included in several of her books, though not in all versions. Here are links to a few:
And, if you are interested in Nature Study, Natural History stories or Nature Journaling with your children, check out Amblesideonline’s great list of Natural History stories (see the topic in each year’s curriculum) or on nature journaling as Charlotte Mason intended it. (If your children are interested in nature, ecology or science, Ambleside. Please note: Some books recommended on Ambleside Online have copyright use restrictions–please be courteous and abide by them.
Over the weekend it was my privilege to gather together with the ladies of Amblesideonline.org for an “at home”–a day of retreat and rejuvenation for these very dedicated home school moms. Back in 2005-2006 both of my children and I spent a glorious year with this incredible home school curriculum. I was drawn to it for its love of beauty, scholarship and relationships. That composers and their music, artists and their art and amazing literature was included was just gravy. In 2008-09 my daughter and I spent an additional year together in Ambleside. Finally in 2009-2010 my son spent his freshman year of high school partially in Ambleside, partially in another well respected curriculum. These years provided such amazing academic growth as well as memories to be treasured for a lifetime or two.
The Amblesideonline.orgcurriculum provides an amazing array of subjects, depth, richness, texture and academic rigor. This involves the development of habits that lead to success, to ordered, purposeful lives and to the enjoyment of those lives. Based on the writings of British educator Charlotte Mason, those habits are today well supported by scholarly, peer-reviewed research. Many of them are in the Student Success Skills Workshop I teach on my “real” job to adult college students. A little aside, the only time the famous Mitford sisters went to “school” as such was to use Miss Mason’s correspondence curriculum! How’s THAT for an endorsement! [photo of Miss Mason https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotte_Mason%5D
So, when my dear friend Jeanne at A Peaceful Dayannounced first that she was coming all the way from Australia for this event and then, second, that I was to join her….well….I couldn’t say “no” now could I? I HAD TO BE THERE. I just couldn’t NOT be there, now could I? My most loyal reader. My true friend. My book-mate. I packed and went even though it meant possibly having to share not only a motel room, but also a motel room bed, with a total stranger.
And, am I glad I did so. For the record, my two roommates not only graciously let me have the second bed alone [thank you ladies!] but they were delightful companions. As were ALL of the ladies at this event. (I did not have the opportunity to talk to the 2 or 3 men so will keep saying “ladies” in this post).
Friday night was arrival night, we mixed we mingled, we worshiped and then I was asked to accompany some of the big shots, the “top table,” if you will to a private home. Now, don’t get the wrong idea–no one in this group is a “big shot” in attitude. But here I was face-to-face with some of my real life “heroines”–the creators of this incredible educational path that takes children from pre-school to arguably well beyond high school. They were RIGHT. HERE. Plus, there was an Irish Wolfhound, too! How Cool is THAT? I’d never met one before, but I immediately called up Clancy from James Herriott’s wonderful novels as my reference point.
Saturday morning the fun began. We gathered again in the Church’s sanctuary, albeit sans coffee or tea, to again worship and to be inspired by Cindy Rollins–a speaker who offered her heart as well as her wisdom. As toddlers played quietly here and there and Mom’s nursed babies without fear of condemnation, Cindy extolled her fellow homeschooling mothers too keep the faith. As Charlotte Mason, the educator upon whose work Amblesideonline is based, said “All education must be outward bound.” Cindy told us to “hook our children to the past to prepare them to the future.” She told us about the use of a ritual her family has of “morning time” in which essentials are done daily. She related this to a little book she’d found, Daily Rituals, in which famous writers tell of their daily writing routine.
The remainder of Saturday was spent as though we were Victorian ladies paying calls at various friends’ “At Home” days. We selected our sessions and left our cute calling cards in the tray provided. Although I thought, to be proper, the cards for the married ladies should have read like this–styled on my great-grandmother: Mrs. J.H. Fulwider. Far easier to know our friends in the modern way.
It was very difficult to choose from among so many excellent “engagements” or break-out sessions. The various church classrooms were renamed in the style of a great Victorian home–the Conservatory, the Parlor, etc., prompting many jokes from Clue of the “It was Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the candlestick” variety.
I choose the most unusual for my first engagement: Swedish Drill in the Charlotte Mason Home School. Dawn Duran, military wife, physical therapist and incredible instructor led the session based on this Guide. She helpfully pointed out that many things in it were today known to be useless or dangerous and kindly showed us the effective exercises from the book. These were charmingly demonstrated on video by her two young sons who did their Swedish Drill with rifles ala their soldier or Marine dad! The benefits of this exercise include help with focus and undoing the physical effects of spending too long before a screen or steering wheel. I am keeping up the practices I learned–my turkey neck and slumping shoulders thank you, Dawn! I sincerely hope she goes on with her plan to create a modern guide or youtube lessons for this great workout.
Before lunch we gathered together to sing a special grace.
Although I am in NO WAY a science person, I had to attend my friend Jeanne’s session on the new AO Science curriculum. Jeanne, shown here with co-presentor, Kathy, has put together an amazing collection of living science books that integrate the sciences rather than separate them. Kathy is the math lover and helpfully pointed out some places where math is part of the language of science. I fell in love with this book–and have downloaded it’s app—the first-ever Amblesideonline-endorsed app!
My final engagement was on one things that drew me to Amblesideonline long ago as a home schooling Mom wanna be: Composer Study. I never understood why so many parents were put off by artist study and composer study! We’d have done both each day! Each year Amblesideonline.org selects three artists and three composers to study. This is a great addition to an already outstanding education. Megan Hoyt, author of a forthcoming book on composer study, led the session. The composers for the 2015-2016 year were introduced. I loved the Brahms quote:[There is] “no real creativity without hard work.” So true.
Megan helpfully played selections from this year’s composersto give everyone the feel and tone of the year’s study. I like the way the web page ties the artist and composer making it all come together so nicely. Megan, like Miss Mason, recommends the use of Scholes’ book Listener’s Guide to Music.
In addition to the books Charlotte Mason used and those that Megan and the website introduce, author Susan Barnett Braun, who studied piano at Indiana University, has created a one volume compilation of the Child’s Own Book(s) of Great Composers, available for kindle. [Additionally, she also has put out a volume of Burgess Nature Stories.]
It was hard to say good-bye to everyone. The day was so fun-filled and packed with discussing good books, sweet memories and good jokes.I came away a bit sad that my kids did not get to have all of their education in this manner, but even more grateful for the few years we did get to share. Homeschooling as a single Mom is very complicated unless you are self employed. These ladies are all blessed to have supportive husbands who value having a stay-at-home-wife, albeit often one who earns money part-time from home as well as being the family educator.
If you are interested in Charlotte Mason homeschooling, I urge you to read her works linked here,though do take note of the copyright restrictions and stay within them, please. Do not simply grab a book list and start–you will be doing yourself and your children and injustice. Take time to read and absorb Miss Mason’s writing, then tour the curriculum and pre-read some of the books in the early years to get a feel for the experience. Then bring on the children. You will never regret it.
It’s fashionable today (and usually with very good reason) to bash textbooks. But I have very fond memories of my upper elementary, middle school and high school readers and literature textbooks. Today I’m going to show what’s to love in the literature textbook of my school days.
This series of literature textbooks was outstanding. Let’s look at a few samples of what made it great and why it is a shame that it has disappeared from our Middle Schools and High Schools.
Rigorous, classic content
Plutarch’s Lives, in days gone by, were an essential piece of the Western Canon–that now much vilified era of great literature dismissed by many today as the story of “Dead White Men.” I happen to think it is an excellent way to study character–and so do the Advisory Committee of the outstanding Charlotte Mason homeschool curriculum, Ambleside Online, whose Retreat and ConferenceI will soon be attending [Sorry, registration is Closed–see you there next year]. I had the seemingly daunting task, back when my daughter and I were homeschooling for her 6th grade year, of leading her thru Plutarch’s life of Poplicola. In the end, in spite of the demanding language, my reluctant reader listened to the story then retold it perfectly in one short, very public school sentence: “All that to say he was stuck up?” Indeed. It is as possible to relate Plutarch to gritty modern “relevant” situations as it was to do so when my Grandmother studied them in school during World War I (when, incidentally children in the public schools of Bloomington, Indiana, learned German and later Latin as a matter of course, regardless of their abilities or career goals). A corrupt man is a corrupt man–as my daughter’s response shows modern kids can understand the story and relate to it. One now all-but-forgotten campaigner for educational excellence in the 1970s and 1980s, Marva Collins, used Plutarch and other classic works to educate children seen as, in a few cases, “uneducable” by the Chicago Public Schools of that day. Other inspiring stories of great men were offered as well as a way of showing students what they could become if they worked hard. I loved all of these stories.
Notice the piece in the right–David and Goliath. Back in the 1970’s it was still fine to teach the Bible–either retold in age appropriate ways or in the King James Version, as essential literary knowledge–a work so beyond compare that everyone should learn some of it, if only for the beauty of the language or for the timeless lessons it convey. David’s triumph over the giant Goliath is a timeless tale of faith, course, belief in self and in God and in perseverance–a story as relevant today in a world plague by the ultimate Philistines. For what but Philistines are gangs? And gangs perfectly illustrate the literary reference “a Philistine.” Instead of reading gloomy, profane, violent books with “relevancy” this story shows the power of doing right.
Students were taught the essential vocabulary not simply by memorizing the terms, but by being introduced to them and then studying a great work that illustrated the term, style, tone or voice. By using time-tested outstanding works, we learned from the best of the best. Drama, for example, featured great plays such as “Abe Lincoln of Illinois,” by Robert Sherwood as well as a play by Shakespeare in each grade. Now, I know these things are still done in school. Our schools are not always terrible–in fact many ARE excellent. But too often the path of least resistance is taken–“easy” Shakespeare re-tellings or other modern language versions are used. That’s ok up to a point as is pre-teaching with a modern movie version of the play. I fully agree with reading the play and then watching it–after all it was not written to be “literature” but entertainment. I do think that discovering that the Bard’s works are accessible and finding the many, many references in our language from his work is as essential as it ever has been.
I remember discovering in my textbook that Shakespeare could be performed in modern dress and with modern imagery due to a photograph of a production of Julius Caesarwith the bad guys in Nazi uniforms–an image that resonated well in my brain. Years later as I sat in Stratford-Upon-Avon watching the Royal Shakespeare Companypresent a Midsummer Night’s Dream, I wished it had been done in modern dress. Later my daughter and I saw Timon of Athens done with Timon as a Bill Gates figure with his photo on the cover of Vanity Fair! I wonder how I had responded without that photo to “educate” me to ways actors and directors interpret the works they are staging.
Fine Arts Literacy
Just like with literary styles or genres, fine arts literacy and vocabulary was taught by illustration. There was a short reading passage, then paintings, sculpture or other “art” to illustrate the lesson. I loved this part of the books. With my great-uncle and great-aunt working artists and with my mother having helped start the “Picture Lady” at our former school to introduce students to one or two great works of art per year, I found the illustrations the perfect escape in boring classes or on the bus or even at home. My brother was so taken with one he reproduced it in his painting course in high school–The Old Guitaristby Picasso. These textbooks introduced students to the world of beauty and esthetics. It saddens me to think how many children today grow up without any contact with either.
When I first visited the Art Institute in Chicago, a few of the paintings I most wanted to see–other than those my Mom’s group had shown–were from these books or were ones Mom or my brother had mentioned, perhaps in a car or diner table conversation, as being “like” one in the textbooks. Sadly, today fine arts education, art classes, music ensembles and music classes have all but disappeared. Learning the vocabulary of drawing, painting and sculpting and having even a vague notion of artists eras enhances our lives by making art approachable and understandable, but it also helps us to find moments of beauty and awe when we stumble across great art in the fleeting glimpses modern life sometimes offers. It makes coping with the cacophony of images, or visual chaos a little easier to process. Art, when understood even superficially, can provide an oasis of calm and restoration of the soul.
The School-ish parts
These are textbooks were meant to have accountability as well. For me, and I suspect for everyone else–teachers included, this was what ruined the experience. Having to read to answer the questions at the end and not just to savor the story, the language, the painting or whatever, made a great book switch instantly from engaging and exciting to dull and loathsome. There is no way around this when you have 20 or so in a class, I fully appreciate this. And accountability is part of school. Our eyes glazed over, we hunted back thru the story for the one “right” answer and our interest in the story was just gone because of that.
As my 35th high school reunion looms this weekend, I have to wonder how many–whether they have read a book or seen a play or looked at a painting ever again, I wonder if they nod and remember when the see the American Gothic used somewhere if they recall seeing it or another Grant Wood thanks to a bored moment flipping thru one of these textbooks and landing on, say, this painting….
I hope you have enjoyed this childhood memory. Take a look at the textbooks your kids bring home, whether traditional “print” textbooks or e-books on their I-pad. You may be pleasantly surprised to find things like this. Don’t make it a lesson. Just remark that its a lovely painting, or that you remember and love that poem. “Strewing” or “scattering seeds” can be done verbally as well as physically. Try it.