Saturday, February 13, 2016

Since you asked... an annotated reading list

A reader asked in a comment on my post about reading fiction, what books I would recommend. You know, I sit around just waiting for questions like that. Really, I love nothing more than sharing my favorite books with people. Many of these I have written about before in previous posts, but this blog has been going for a while and since I write a lot of posts, and those posts tend to have a lot of words, it can be difficult to find things without the handy search engine available to the blog owner. Besides, I don't think people can really write about good books too much.

So, my rather eclectic and stream of consciousness reading list (for brevity's sake, I'll constrain myself by listing only books aimed at adult readers)...

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth - This is a long book... well over 1000 pages. This, to my mind, is a real plus. Good books that end too soon are a disappointment. This book is set in India in the 1950's and follows the lives of several characters. As well as a good story, it is also a great history lesson on what was happening in India during those tumultuous years. I would read so much of this book at a time (because I couldn't put it down) that the characters would inhabit my dreams at night. Oh, and I'll spare you the embarrassment, the author's last name is pronounced, "Sate," with a long 'a' sound.

Since we're in India, I'll move onto...

The Vish Puri mystery series by Tarquin Hall, the books, in order, are:
The Case of the Missing Servant
The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing
The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken
The Case of the Love Commandos - These books are just fun. They give you a sense of India and the detective is just a really likable guy. Like some of the best mysteries, the books are not just about the puzzle, but have more going on as well. I am eagerly awaiting the next one to come out. I hope there is a next one...

In the category of a set of good books by one author...

To Say Nothing of the Dog
The Domesday Book
Blackout
All Clear - all by Connie Willis - I have grouped these four books together because they are set in the same story line, with some characters who move from book to book. They are also stand alone books, except for All Clear which is more of a part 2 of Blackout and which you really need to have ready for when you finish Blackout, since it doesn't end so much as stop mid story line. (I'm sure this was an editor's decision because it then creates two long books rather than one extremely long book.) Anyway, the basic scenario is, sometime in the future in England, time travel has been discovered, but is used for historic research. This allows Ms. Willis to set her modern characters in historical settings and tell history from their point of view. To Say Nothing of the Dog is more of a comedy than the others and not quite so much historical fiction. The Domesday Book is set in England during the Black Plague and Blackout and All Clear are set during World War II, particularly during the London Blitz. while none of these settings sounds as though it would be light or entertaining reading, it is so well done that I didn't mind the upsetting parts. I would recommend saving the Blackout/All Clear pair for after having read one of the other two, It will just make more sense as you will already be familiar with the time travel part. One other warning, there are a lot (A LOT) of different story lines which are introduced in Blackout and it takes a while to have them start to fit all together. Be patient and keep going, the payoff is well worth it.

More vast, multi-volume historical fictions which will keep you in books for a good long time...

The House of Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett (In order they are: Niccolo Rising, The Spring of the Ram, Race of Scorpions, Scales of Gold, The Unicorn Hunt, To Lie with Lions, and Caprice and Rondo) - The first book starts in Bruges in 1460 and follows Niccolo (and the Renaissance) across Europe. They are exciting and challenging and thought provoking. If you are out of the reading habit, I might suggest you practice with some lighter books before tackling these, as they can be challenging reading. They are worth it, but do work up to them if you have only been scanning facebook and reading the newspaper for a while, otherwise you might not like them as much as you would otherwise. It has been quite a few years since I read the series, but I still find myself thinking about the characters and the story lines. They are the type of books that stick with you well after you are finished. Ms. Dunnett also has a second series, The Lymond Chronicles. J. has read it (and possibly enjoyed it more than Niccolo) and we own them all, but I have yet to tackle it. I know I will enjoy it once I do, but I'm just not sure I'm ready to devote the next several months to one series, which is what will happen once I begin.

In the same file folder labelled, 'books that are difficult, but worth it"...

Middlemarch by George Elliot - This books always makes my top ten list and I read it for fun about fifteen years ago. I picked it up because so many authors had named it their favorite book and I was curious about it. I really loved it, and was surprised to discover later that it is considered "hard." I didn't find it all that hard. It's long and was written in the 19th century, but once your ear gets used to the language, it's just a good story. Once again, it is one of those books that still come to mind often, even though it's been years since I read it. Give it a try.

Other books that you "should" read that are worth it...

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin - Will it surprise you to know that up until a couple of years ago, I had never actually read this book? Well, I hadn't and when my children's theater group did a stage version of it, I decided I needed to read it, if only to be able to discuss the play adaptation. I'm so glad I did! I think I binge read it over a weekend and loved every minute of it. I'm not sure I can join the Darcy fan club, though.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - Another classic I read as an adult. It earns its reputation and is a good story with lots to think about. It is also worth getting over the older language hurdle. Besides, if you read Jane Eyre, it helps you to enjoy these next books even more.

The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde (In order: The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, The Woman Who Died A Lot) - What's not to like? Book-loving characters who jump into and out of books. There is the special operations book world with the agents coming from literature (Miss Havisham, from Great Expectations, being one of the best). It is set in England, but an alternative England where mammoths still migrate, but now through people's gardens and dodo birds are a popular pet, provided you purchased the home-cloning kit and made it work. Time travel exists and it tightly regulated, except when it is not. What's there not to like? They are just good rollicking fun.

Also just for fun, particularly if you have ever followed the English royal family at all...

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin - Mark Helprin is a fantastic writer and excels at magic realism. I think this is his funniest book and there were parts in which I laughed out loud. This is not something I do terribly often when I am reading. It was the type of book that I would stop and be so taken by a passage that I would want to read it out loud to J. He would politely listen, but things are never as funny taken out of context, and he would good naturedly chuckle lightly. There are some definite pokes at the Prince of Wales and the whole thing is just fun. Well, its really quite fun if you enjoy magic realism. If it drives you a little mad, so will this book.

And two other books which have made me laugh out loud...

Life Among the Savages
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (Yes, that would be the same Shirley Jackson of "The Lottery" fame, the short-story which traumatized entire generations of high school students.) - I'm stretching the rules a bit as these two books are not fiction, but memoirs. I'm allowing it because they really do read like fiction. And they are hilarious. I find it a wee bit difficult to believe that this is the same woman who wrote the above named short story. These two books are some that I reread every few years just because they make me laugh.

Moving onto books I reread every so often (just two more series and I'll stop)...

Any of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, though hands down, Gaudy Night is the best and doesn't deserve to be limited to mystery readers. These are extremely well done mysteries with one of the most intriguing detectives in all fiction. I think it is because there is so much more going on than just the mystery. Do try them if you have never read them before, but read a few to get the lay of the land and to get to know the main characters before tackling Gaudy Night. You'll get so much more out of it if you do.

The Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. I'm not going to list all the titles, because there are so many of them. But, do read them in order as the characters age and grow up and that is the best part of the series. They really do start to feel a little as though you really, really know them. In brief, Amelia Peabody and her husband Emerson are English Egyptologists  at the turn of the last century. These are the ultimate escapist reading book as they are light-hearted, well-written, and just plain fun. The first of the series, to get you going, is Crocodile on the Sandbank.

There you go. That should keep everyone in books for a little while. As you can see, I do read a lot. I used to keep track of every book I read, and that was really useful, especially for going back and checking on titles. I stopped, probably about the time baby five came along. I also used to write a short review of each book. I think that probably is what did in my record keeping. I've decided I'm going back to keep track, but minus the review. I have no idea how many books I actually read in a year and I'd kind of like to see the number. I'm only up to four this year, which seems very few, but we did do a three week adoption trip with its consequent jet lag and needy children. I'm sure I'll catch up.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The things I find on the memory card

I took a picture of the necklace H. made today, and as I was looking at the camera, discovered a whole series of photos that TM took out on the trampoline. They seemed pretty amusing and I thought I would share them.

Now as you look at these, remember where we live. You know, the cold, cold Chicago area where it hasn't been above freezing for the past couple of days. I guess it was really worth the effort to bring that trampoline home. (G. is in green and L. is in blue.)







This is far more interesting than me recounting my various conversations with children's hospital neurology departments. I just love having to spell out 'Linear Nevus Sebaceous Syndrome' when talking with the place I have called for help.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Don't be a sea squirt

Well, we're back in the land of seizures and questions about medicines and not a lot of sleep. R. this time, not H., thankfully. (I'll have a really interesting seizure post relating to H. once I can finally finish my phone tag game with Lurie Children's Hospital and find a new neurologist I can work with.) Anyway, this is the first time we've really witnessed first hand R.'s particular seizures and since they seem to involve sleeplessness, we're tired. (The analytical side of my brain is finding it highly interesting. The emotional side of my brain just wants to go and find a hotel room.) I have to give real credit to my children here at home who seem to take the current medical crisis du jour in stride. They are interested in what is going on, are patient with the patient, and are also completely nonplussed by odd behavior.

So once again, I will have to rely on someone else's writing to entertain my audience. I've been working my way through The Body Knows its Mind: the surprising power of the physical environment to influence how you think and feel by Sian Beilock. It's had some really interesting things about how our bodies influence our emotions and thinking. (It's also had some parts where I find myself arguing and thinking, "Wow, this sounds like a really sketchy conclusion," but that adds to the fun, don't you think?) The part about the use of Botox to help with depression was really interesting. It seems to work because if you can't frown, your brain assumes you are not unhappy. It's kind of weird and wonderful.

Since I like to think about education, I thought I would share this bit with you. First you have to learn about the sea squirt. It makes sense, I promise.

"The sea squirt starts off its life cycle as a tadpole-like creature, complete with a spinal cord connected to a simple eye and a tail for swimming. It also has a primitive brain that helps it locomote through the water. Its mobility, however, doesn't last long. Once the sea squirt finds a suitable place to attach itself, whether the hull of a boat, an underwater rock, or the ocean floor, it never moves again. As soon as sea squirts stop moving, their brain is absorbed by their body. Being permanently attached to a home makes the sea squirt's spinal cord and the neurons that control locomotion superfluous, so why keep them?" (p. 47)

Now read this about current educational practices.

"Probably more than any other institution, Western mainstream education embraces the computer metaphor of the mind. Even though the information we take in comes from five different senses -- visual, aural, smell, taste, and touch -- educators tend to characterize the storage of this information as abstract, removed from the very senses that helped load the mind's hard drive in the first place. Lesson plans seem to be designed with the adult sea squirt in mind, as if the body in unnecessary, with students permanently affixed to their desks. Physical objects such as blocks, which help teach children about math concepts, are scarce, and even fewer objects are used to help teach reading. Students are becoming more confined than ever to their chairs." (p. 49)

There's your visual take-home image for the day. Do not treat your children as though they are sea squirts. There's more to life... and education... than workbooks done in a chair at a desk.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The dregs of my writing for the day

Between the seizure/drug dazed child, the child who fell and cut her head, which then bled like Mt. Vesuvius (she's fine now), and an article which was due that ran to over 2000 words, there is not much left for you, my dear blog readers.

Instead, I'm going to send you to another article. This was sent to me by a good friend who shares my taste in books and, more importantly, reads as voraciously as I. We like to talk about books together. And give each other book recommendations. And discuss why finding time to read is a high priority for us. And worry together about running out of book titles.

And since we also share a love of research, articles that tell us why we are better off doing our favorite thing... reading... make us happy. Now you can share our happiness, too.

The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 ways it makes us happier and more creative

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A public service announcement

Things are beginning to settle down a little bit around here. The girls are starting to figure out what our typical schedule is, where things are, how things work, etc. etc. There is just so much new to sort through for them. The other children are getting to know their new sisters and their personalities. Communication is starting to be a teeny, tiny bit easier. I am beginning the process of figuring out exactly where to start each girl in regards to school work. 

[An aside. That school work comment makes it seem as though we're plunging right into the books. We have started back to a regular school schedule, but really as a means of self-defense. If I didn't, the loose-ended children would self-implode. Everyone does better on a schedule. R. and Y. are doing little bits of things here and there, mainly because they see everyone else working and want to join in. I was ready for this and have been getting our preschool boxes out again in rotation. Watching them play with the things in the boxes (lacing, counting, fine motor skills, sorting, etc.) helps to give me a sense of where each of them is at in those areas. I also have some simple work books for the same reasons. R. needs a lot of fine motor skill work, plus a lot of eye tracking exercises, so that is what we will focus on. Without those skills, there is no point to trying to do anything else. Y. turns out to have a good number sense and can do addition and subtraction as long as she has enough fingers. I also have her working on some Mandarin characters each day to keep that up. The rest is play. It will probably be six months to a year before I even contemplate adding in anything else.]

The girls are also starting to feel a bit more comfortable and secure with me and J. Bedtime is much, much better and Y. even lets me kiss her goodnight and sing her a song. (This was really not even a possibility when we were in China.) It is so, so sweet to hear her little voice say, "I love you," when I tuck her in. R., who like H. loves every single person in the world, said, "I love you," immediately and without hesitation. We were the best people she had ever met. Well, in the bizarreness that is the adoption world, I'm happy to report that now, sometimes we are not the best things since sliced bread in her mind. We do not always do things which make her happy, and she is not terribly happy with us sometimes. As odd at is sounds, this is actually good. It means that we are on the path towards developing a real relationship. These real relationships, with both girls, are ones that take time. They are born out of multiple interactions that ultimately show the child that J. and I are both trustworthy and lovable. In order to show that, though, the ups and downs of life have to happen over time. Ups and downs such as, "What happens if I accidentally break a glass?" "What happens if I yell, 'No!'?" "What happens if I get hurt?" "What happens if I am sad?" "What happens if I don't eat my dinner?" and so on and so on. Every little interaction is a chance to show that there is love, caring, and limits in our house. 

Which brings me to the important point of this post. It came to mind this morning when J. was carrying Y. to her room because she didn't exactly want to get dressed before breakfast, yet that was how things work around here. As he was heading to her room, she lightly slapped J. on the face. He immediately told her in both English and Mandarin that this was not allowed, which caused her to have a little smile and give another slap. The interaction was clearly inquisatory. "What happens if I do this? How far can I push things to get what I want?" Well, J. being the excellent therapeutic parent that he is, set her gently down, told her no once again, that she could get dressed and come down to breakfast when she was ready, and left the scene. Why drag out drama? I doubt she will try it again. It meant that her favorite person stopped interacting with her and the whole thing was pretty much lacking in excitement. And she still had to get dressed to eat. 

But what happens when a child (any child, this is not always an adoption issue) does not intuit the boundaries, or care if they are there, or doesn't seem able to stop him or herself from crossing them. Here is my plea to you, born out of deep regret and sad experience... if your child is fairly constantly having difficulty regulating, 
if your child is constantly crossing lines, 
if your child is regularly raging, 
if you find that living with your child feels as though you are living with a ticking time bomb that you must tiptoe around, 
if your child is hurting you (hitting, slapping, kicking, biting)

or (and this is the biggest one)

you find yourself constantly thinking things such as, "I think it's getting better," "It's a stage, she'll grow out of it," "It's been a difficult month/day/year, when things calm down, he will be better," 

listen to me very carefully.

If these things (all or some) are happening and you have said one or more of those statements to yourself more than once, things are not getting better. She is not growing out of it. Life will never be calm enough for it to make a difference to him. Please, you and your child need help. Things can get better, but usually only with people who can join with you and help. Please, find a family therapist and start your family on a path towards healing.

If your child were bleeding, bleeding that would sometimes stop for a day or two, and then start again, wouldn't you go find help? O would you say to yourself, "The bleeding will get better, I just have to give it time," or "Once my child is older, the bleeding will stop," or "Life has been pretty busy, once we can rest, the bleeding will stop." Really? That all sounds a bit ridiculous. Mental health is the same thing. It can be helped, but you need to find someone to help you. And just as in physical medicine, the earlier you catch something the better. 

I know firsthand how hard it can be to pick-up the phone and make that first call. I know how humbling it can be and how you can feel a bit of a parental failure. But listen to me one more time. The only failure is when you know deep down inside that something is wrong and you fail to act. If your family is struggling, pick-up the phone and make the call. Change your future and your child's future for the better.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Phonics Firefly

I have blogged about the Phonics Firefly before, but I feel as though I really need to give it its own post. It is a noisy toy, ie it uses batteries and makes noise. Usually noisy toys very rarely make it past the threshold of the house and if they do, the batteries are mysteriously short-lived. Yet, the phonics firefly with it's vaguely annoying voice and music has its batteries regularly replaced and we own not one, but two of the things.

Why? Why would we do this to ourselves? (Because let me tell you, when they are both going in the same room at not quite the same time... much deep breathing must ensue.)

We happily put up with this state of affairs, because the deal little firefly toy is a learning toy that actually does what it promises. It really does teach letter and sound recognition and children like playing with it. Learning toys either fall into one of two categories, they can teach, but it doesn't matter because children hate them, or they are fun and children play with them, but they don't really teach. Oftentimes, I find just regular old toys and games of the non-educational variety are more useful than the "educational" ones. I bought the firefly on a whim because of good recommendations, but truly didn't have great expectations for it.

Our two fireflies have been in nearly constant use since we bought the first one when A. was little. I will also add, that the play is entirely self-directed. I don't help the children. If they want to play with it, they are entirely on their own. I have better things to do with my time than make an electronic firefly tell me I'm doing a great job. I am firmly convinced that A. learned to read so early because she played with it so much and it has helped nearly every other child with early phonics.

My love of the firefly has been renewed over the past couple days as I have watched Y. play with it. She is a fairly competitive child, so testing herself with this toy is right up her alley. She is also strongly driven to learn and she has figured out that learning to read English is going to be in her best interests. A couple of days ago, Y. saw one of the little girls playing with a firefly and immediately picked-up on what it was doing. H. showed her how it worked and since then she has made amazing progress. The first "game" on the toy is it singing the Alphabet Song while each letter lights up as it is sung. The second game is to push a letter to hear the firefly say the letter name. The third game is to push the letter that the firefly says. I have watched Y. move between the three games as she teaches herself the letter names. I would say after two days, she is about 50% accurate. Not bad for having no English exposure up to now.

Watching Y. play with the Firefly has also encouraged G. and L. to get it out again. They know their letters and sounds, but are now branching out into the higher level games of spelling three letter words. R. also likes the firefly and has been spending a lot of time listening to the Alphabet Song. I love how the toy encourages children to pick their own level of learning. Usually when I'm watching the child will pick a level that is a bit of a stretch. They will play at that level for a while and then switch to an easier level for a while. Then it is back to the appropriate one. Every so often, they will try a level out of their reach, then go back to the appropriate one, and so on. I find it so interesting watching them challenge themselves and then give themselves a mental break.

So if you have a pre-reader in your home, or a child newly learning English, I highly recommend the firefly. It is pricier than when I bought our first one 14 years ago, but I would probably spend the money again, knowing how much it would be used over the years. I think we are on our 2nd and 3rd versions. If memory serves, firefly #1 at some point was invited into the bathtub and didn't survive the ordeal. We try to keep the surviving ones downstairs and away from running water.

(In full disclosure, that Amazon link up above is to my associate's account and I do receive a teeny, tiny bit of money for everything sold through that.)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

"Nothing will ever be simple again"

I won't kid you, the dog dying on top of everything has thrown me for a loop and I've been kind of an emotional mess. While we're really sad about losing Gretel, I have a sneaking suspicion that the overflow of emotion is not just about the dog. The dog was just the straw that broke this camel's back. I'll survive, but a period of relative calm would help greatly.

In the meantime, even during the extreme of amount of chaos around here, we have still be having our tea time/read aloud rest in the afternoons. This has truly been the single best idea I've had in a long time. It is good for us all to be together, to share a treat, and just listen to an engaging story. It has been a period of calm in a particularly un-calm time.

Of course, the irony here is that during our calm, restful hour of the day, we have been reading about the siege and fall of Constantinople. I can't decide whether knowing the city falls ahead of time helps or not. Either way, I highly recommend The Emperor's Winding Sheet by Jill Patton Walsh. It is an older book, written 1974, but in my book that is a plus since language and sentence structure in books written for older children (and younger ones, for that matter) over 30 years ago is significantly more complex. (I read a lot of books out loud and there is a noticeable difference. Children need to hear complex language or when they are adults, entire swaths of our culture will be unavailable to them. Sorry. Vent over, I'll go back to the topic at hand.) Because of the subject matter, this book is definitely best for junior high ages and older, and I can see boys in particular being engaged by it. I read it to a very mixed audience of listening abilities, but much of it went over the heads of the younger people, which was probably a good thing. The book is about a siege and sack of a city after all. It is not an easy subject. I felt the author did a good job of conveying the truth of what that looks like without going into unnecessarily traumatic detail. I have a very low tolerance for the horrors of war and while my own personal hair-trigger Geiger-counter was going off a bit, it wasn't enough for me to close the book. It is still not easy, though.

That said, there are so many redeeming parts of the book that it makes the yucky parts worth plowing through. The chapter that describes the Emperor Constantine (the last, not the first) going from person to person, begging their forgiveness if he had ever wronged them, and that cascading into every person in the room doing the same, on the eve of the final attack nearly brought me to tears reading it. It was so beautiful and moving and heart-rending. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful portrayals of Christian repentance and humility in juvenile literature.

At the book's heart, it is really about a boy (the narrator of the story) learning to see a broader and much more complex world. He starts out having a certain view of his world. It is a rather narrow and close-minded view and he is firm in his opinions of those around him. At the end, as he looks back on all he seen and all the people he has come to love, he wonders at the change in his outlook on the world. Eventually he is able to head back to England and ponders what it will be like to tell his family about all that has happened. He also realizes that it will be very difficult to convince them of the positives of the people he loved, because he knows that they are back in the mindset where he started. He realizes that nothing will ever be simple again. He has seen too much, has come to appreciate the humanity of people he didn't understand at first, has learned there is always more than one side to a story. His life has been made richer, yet much more complicated all at the same time.

This line speaks to me on a very deep level and I find myself thinking about it often since we finished the book. On this blog, I try over and over to convey the change that happens to people when they are confronted by real life orphans. It changes you. Suddenly, instead of just a depressing statistic, you know real faces, real stories, real children. You come away realizing that nothing will ever be simple again, because you cannot unknow what you know. This is also true parenting children who society has deemed less-than-perfect. Those of us who have been blessed by this experience, realize that our worlds have broadened. We know more now. We see things differently. We are thankful that we have not missed out on the joy and wonder our children bring us by staying on the traditional (and normal) path.

Nothing may ever be simple again, but it will be richer and deeper and more meaningful.
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