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The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller, sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher at Trinity Meadows Intermediate School in Keller, Texas.

Ms. Keller’s thesis can be summarized in two sentences: To make children into lifelong readers, surround them with books and let them read whatever they want to read. Treat them like readers, and they will become readers.

I’ve been following this plan in our homeschool for about twenty-five years now, with mixed results. Most of my eight children are readers. Several of them are voracious readers, the kind I am and the sort Ms. Miller describes herself as:

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill reader. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person whom family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. (It was Johanna Spyri.)”

However, even with all this reading environment and encouragement and, yes, pressure, I have one child who does not see herself as a reader (she reads, just says she hates to read) and another who has quit reading for pleasure for the last two or three years at least. Unfortunately, Ms. Miller’s book gave me very few ideas about how to re-awaken the love of reading in my son or how to instill a love for reading in my daughter. I already let them read pretty much anything they want to read. I already suggest books for them, buy books for them, borrow books for them, encourage them to read about subjects they love, and show them daily how much reading means to me by reading as much as I can, anywhere I can. Our house is full of good books.

The Book Whisperer is a very public school, teacher-ish, kind of book, but it is a good resource for teachers of reading in school settings. It did spark a couple of ideas in this homeschool mom mind of mine: I could have a time (half an hour? an hour?) each day when we participate in ye olde public school D.E.A.R (Drop Everything and READ). I could require them to read 40 books for the school year (a requirement Ms. Miller has for her sixth graders) and see what happens. I could keep giving my daughter piles of books that I think she might like until she finds one she loves. It hasn’t worked yet, but it might still click one day.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

With the (winter) Olympics coming up and my aforementioned current interest in the 1930′s, The Boys in the Boat was just the ticket for reading on a very cold day in January. The nine Americans in the title were: Don Hume, Bobby Moch, Stub McMillin, Johnny White, Gordy Adam, Shorty Hunt, Roger Morris, Chuck Day, and Joe Rantz. They were the crew of an eight-man shell for the University of Washington. Their coach was Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, famous for building racing boats for Washington and for many other championship rowing teams, was their mentor and the builder of their shell, the Husky Clipper.

The story focuses on crew member Joe Rantz, since he was the member of the Olympic team that the author first met and from whom he heard the story of the “boys’” journey to the Berlin Olympics. I put “boys” in quotation marks because by the time their story was published last year (2013), the boys in the boat had all passed on. But Mr. Brown got to interview some of them before they died, and he spent a great deal of time researching the backgrounds of the boys, talking to family members, reading journals that some of the boys kept, and preparing to write an inspiring and flowing account of their rise to glory at the Olympics.

One of things that the book emphasizes is that rowing is not easy:

“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body. . . And rowing makes these muscular demands not a odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. . . The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Royal Brougham marveled at the relentlessness of the sport: ‘Nobody ever took time out in a boat race,’ he noted ‘There’s no place to stop and get a satisfying drink of water or a lungful of cool, invigorating air. You just keep your eyes glued on the red, perspiring neck of the fellow ahead of you and row until they tell you it’s all over. . . Neighbor, it’s no game for a softy.’”

I was filled with admiration for these college boys who practiced in rain, sleet, wind and snow to go to a total of two races: one in their own Washington waters against arch rival, the University of California, and the other in Poughkeepsie, competing against California again and against all of the East Coast teams who saw the westerners as country cousins who were out of their league in the East. The persistence and fine-tuning of the team and its precise movements required all that the nine member team could give, mentally and physically–and then, a little more.

The book also made much of the contrast between Depression-era country boys struggling in Washington State to get an education and make the Olympic team at the same time, and Hitler’s desire to make the Berlin Olympics into a showcase for the Nazi regime in Germany and the Aryan youth of Germany who would be competing for the glory of the Reich. The impending war serves as a focus and a frame for the story, even though the boys in the boat were completely unaware of the imminent approach of a world war that would change all of their lives.

Some interesting mentions in the book:

Actor Hugh Laurie’s father, Ran Laurie, was member of the British eight-man crew at the 1936 Olympics.

Louis Zamperini (Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand) is mentioned once in this book, as possibly the only athlete on the boat to Europe for the Olympics who had a bigger appetite than rower Joe Rantz.

Swimmer Eleanor Holm was expelled from the U.S. Olympic team for drunkenness on the boat over, after an all-night party with some journalists, who then proceeded to make headlines with The Eleanor Holm Story in newspapers all over the United States.

The coxswain for the team, Bobby Moch, found out for the first time in a letter from his father just before he left to go to the Olympics, that his relatives in Europe, whom he had never met, were Jewish, and therefore that he was of Jewish heritage.

Hitler’s pet filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, made a well-regarded propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics, called Olympia. The film was secretly funded by the Nazi government, and it was shown all over the world to great acclaim.

All in all, The Boys in the Boat is a great book for anyone interested in sports stories in general, rowing in particular, the rise of Nazism, the 1930′s, Olympic history, and just plain inspirational stories of perseverance and courage. If there were a few extraneous details, they were details that I enjoyed learning. And the prose was well above average.

House-Dreams by Hugh Howard

House-Dreams: The story of an amateur builder and two novice apprentices and how they turned an overgrown blackberry patch, ten truckloads of lumber, a keg of cut nails, and an antique staircase into a real home by Hugh Howard.

I’m not a home builder or a designer, so I’ll admit I skimmed through a lot of the more technical passages in this story of a man and his quest to design and build his own house. I’m also not an architectural elitist, so I sniffed and rolled my eyes at some of the author’s more pretentious statements about building a house designed to fit into a milieu of nineteenth century American architecture. However, since I’m in the beginning stages of own home remodeling project, a lot of the commentary and advice here was quite pertinent to my own situation.

Because we had a house fire in December, we’re going to have to replace the roof, the attic, and the kitchen in our house. We’ll also be getting new flooring throughout the house, and we may remodel one of the bathrooms while we’re at it. Any advice?

Mr. Howard’s house with its solid maple wood floors, antique staircase, Rumford fireplace, grubka stove, and marble countertops is way out of my league, but I did pick up a few tips:

1. Watch, learn and ask questions. Mr. Howard is a self-taught builder and designer. He asked a lot of questions at hardware stores.

2. Expect the job to take longer than you expected and to cost more than you budgeted. I sort of already knew this bit of house-building/remodeling wisdom.

3. Enjoy your home. I am totally overwhelmed with the thought of even as small a home-rebuilding project as we will be doing. However, I am determined to enjoy re-making our forty year old house to suit our current and anticipated needs. I’ll try to update you on our progress here on the blog.

In the meantime, I’ll take any advice you have on kitchen flooring, countertops, cabinets, bathroom flooring and other fixtures, roofing, and living room walls and ceilings. I might as well cast a wide net.

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

“Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced.”

I like spy stories, especially true spy stories. Author Ben MacIntyre’s story of Eddie Chapman and his activities as the consummate double agent for Britain during World War II is particularly fascinating because it’s well-researched and full of details that were gleaned from recently declassified MI5 files.

So, first, I had to get straight the difference between MI5 and MI6:

“The Security Service (MI5) is the UK’s security intelligence agency. It is responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) operates world-wide and is responsible for gathering secret intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence and foreign and economic policies.”

Well, that’s clear, but I can see how during a war like WW II when the outside threats (of German infiltration and even invasion) were quickly becoming inside threats, the lines would get a little blurred. Anyway, Eddie Chapman worked for MI5 because he came to England as a Nazi spy and saboteur. When he reached Britain, parachuted in by his German employers, he immediately reported to MI5 about what the Germans had taught him and what they wanted him to do while he was “in the field.” (The Nazi wanted him to sabotage and blow up a factory where British warplanes called Mosquitos were being manufactured.)

Mr. Chapman is an interesting character, a very flawed hero. He was “a man who kept every option open, who seemed congenitally incapable of taking a bet without hedging it.” Terence young, the filmmaker, who had known Chapman before the war, wrote to MI5 officials about Chapman,”One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out. . . . He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.” Chapman had a girl in every port, or country, and he seduced each of them into thinking that she was the only one. But when none of his long-term partners was available, he found it necessary to visit prostitutes or find a new paramour. He performed some incredibly valuable missions of misinformation and spying for the British, but he was paid mostly by the Germans who believed that he had done great things for their side.

If you’re interested in World War II, British intelligence services, James Bond and the like, espionage, or just morally ambivalent characters, Agent Zigzag is a good read. MacIntyre does tell what happened to the major players in this episode of double and even triple cross after the war was over, and the index is useful for finding specific incidents and information if you’re studying the era and the subject.

12 Books about Books that I Still Want to Read

By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life by Ramona Koval. Reviewed by kimbofo at Reading Matters.

Bequest of Wings: A Family’s Pleasure with Books by Annis Duff.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves by jacques Bonnet, reviewed at Stuck in a Book.

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill. Recommended by Beth at Weavings.

Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passions by Leona Rostenberg & Madeleine Stern. Recommended at Book Psmith.

A Passion for Books by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan. Recommended by FatalisFortuna.

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea. Recommended at The Book Lady’s Blog.

Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth D. Samet. Also recommended at Random Wonder.

Walking a Literary Labyrinth by Nancy Malone. Recommended at Indextrious Reader.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson.

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes.

Buried in Books: A Reader’s Anthology by Julie Rugg, reviewed at A Bookish Affair.

Don’t all of these sound delicious? What are your favorite books about books?

12 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. Recommended at Book Diary.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher.

Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with his Father’s Questions about Christianity by Dr. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton by Joseph Pearce.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright, reviewed at Semicolon.

Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson.

The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong, featured at Semicolon.

C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath.

Saving a Life: How We Found Courage When Death Rescued our Son by Charles and Janet Morris.

Beautiful Nate: A Memoir of a Family’s Love, a Life Lost, and Heaven’s Promises by Dennis Mansfield.

Two biographies (Chesterton and Lewis), two autobiographies/conversion stories (Denise Chong and Rosaria Champagne Butterfield), two memoirs of the loss of a son (the last two on the list), a couple of inspirational apologetics titles (Boyd and Wilson), exposes of Scientology and of poverty in Mumbai, a narrative history of the assassination and death of President James Garfield, and a memoir of Rod Dreher’s encounter with death and community in small-town Louisiana: those were my favorite nonfiction reads this year. I recommend any or all of them, if you’re at all interested in the subject matter. Ms. Butterfield’s conversion story and Mr. Wright’s book about the history and inner workings of the Scientology movement were particularly thought-provoking.

Cybils YA Nonfiction Trio

The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb.

The Nazi Hunters tells the story of how, in Argentina in May, 1960, a crack Israeli spy team captured the infamous Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and other people during World War II, and took him back to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. The story could have been an exciting and thought-provoking read, but unfortunately the pacing of the story was uneven and off-putting. I never got to know the members of the Israeli team well enough to remember which was which, and the author was unwilling or probably unable to help to understand the mind and motives of Eichmann and his family members either. This book is adapted from Bascomb’s adult nonfiction book, Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi. Maybe more somehow would have been better, and I would have developed an interest in these characters by reading the adult version.I don’t think teens will be intrigued by this YA abridgment, and I’d point anyone who was interested in another direction.

Wild Animal Neighbors: Sharing Our Urban World by Ann Downer.

The author focuses on various animals, one per chapter, that have adapted to living in urban areas and tell the story of how they have managed to co-exist with humans in cities –or not. The animals Ms Downer highlights are: bears, raccoons, mountain lions, crows, coyotes, flying foxes, turtles, and alligators. The alligator chapter interested me the most because the gators in question live and sometimes stroll down the sidewalks in Houston where I live. However, her diagnosis of the “alligator problem” seems inadequate: “For the residents of Houston, the best weapon against gators may prove to be greater understanding and appreciation of these amazing creatures—and a lot of caution and common sense.” Really? I can agree with the “caution and common sense” part, but I plan to follow the Pearland (suburb of Houston) Parks and Recreation Department instructions: “Don’t tease the gators, don’t feed the gators, and if you hear an alligator hiss, you’re too close.” My appreciation for alligators, and other wild animals in cities, will be strictly photographic in nature, thank you. Other people’s photographs.

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent by Pearl Witherington Cornioley.

If one were researching the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and/or the French Resistance during World War II, this memoir would certainly be a helpful resource. However, just for reading, it’s a little dry, and the author leaves out key transitions and information that would make her story more understandable. There’s an odd sort of summary at the beginning of each chapter, and then the chapter itself backtracks in time and fills in more detail for each episode in the life of this intrepid heroine. Fans of Code Name Verity might enjoy reading about a real WWII agent and comparing her adventures to the fictional ones. I just wish someone else had written and organized the story of Ms. Cornioley’s life as a resistance fighter to make it more coherent and more evocative of the spirt of the times.

The 4th Gift of Christmas at Wounded Knee Creek, 1891

Despite heart-warming stories such as the Christmas Truce of 1914 and the redemption of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Christmas and its message of “peace on earth, goodwill to men”, does not always bring about compassion nor does it everywhere restrain evil.

“In late 1891, Tibbles and Susette [La Flesche] traveled to Pine Ridge, on of the Sioux reservations in southwestern South Dakota. Many had fled the reservation, fearful of the soldiers who’d come to quell any disturbances aroused by the Ghost Dance. Starving Indians danced to bring the savior, to se departed loved ones living again, and to see the whites driven away and a new earth returned, once again home to free Indians, the buffalo, the elk, and the antelope.

On Christmas Eve, soldiers slaughtered a band of Indians camped near Wounded Knee Creek; they were under Chief Big Foot and included men, women, and children. In one of the darkest moments of her life, Susette helped care for the survivors that escaped to Pine Ridge.”
~Women of the Frontier by Brandon Marie Miller

And this episode and other like it illustrate why we need more than a message from angels, more than the moral law that we know to be true: we need a Savior.

Today’s Gifts from Semicolon
A song: “I understand Christmas as I understand Bach’s Sleepers Awake or Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. . . When I am able to pray with the mind in the heart, I am joyfully able to affirm the irrationality of Christmas.” ~Madeleine L’Engle

A booklist: A Madeleine L’Engle Annotated Bibliography

A birthday: Nick Vujicic, Serbian Australian evangelist and motivational speaker, b. 1982.

A verse: God Knows by Minnie Louise Haskins.

“The President Has Been Shot!” by James L. Swanson

51Km7NeeU2L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_On the evening of November 22, 2013, I was reading, not an unusual activity for me. But instead of reading C.S. Lewis or any of the many novels that I want to finish, I was reading one of the Cybils YA nonfiction books that was nominated this year. “The President Has Been Shot!” The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James L. Swanson was the sad story of what happened in Dallas fifty years ago, and I was reminded of the fragility of human life and the sinfulness of mankind.

Yes, I remember where I was when I heard the news of Kennedy’s death. Unfortunately for my reputation for perfect recall, I remember incorrectly. I was in first grade in 1963, but for some reason I have a vivid memory of being in my second grade classroom with my second grade teacher, Mrs. Bouska, announcing to us that the president had been shot. I’m not sure why my first grade memory has transposed itself in time into second grade, but there it is. Memory is unreliable.

So we have books—to record the memories and the events and keep us honest. A lot of the information in this book I either never knew or I didn’t remember. I had no idea that Kennedy was shot through the back of the head and his head either fell or was pulled into Jackie Kennedy’s lap where she held pieces of his brain in her hands all the way to Parkland Hospital. Gruesome. Then, it was also rather grisly and horrific to read that Jackie refused to change her blood-stained clothes all that day, saying repeatedly, “I want them to see what they’ve done.” People certainly do grieve and react in different ways to shocking, appalling events.

“History is more than a narrative of what happened at a particular moment in time—it is also the story of how events were reported to, and experienced by, the people who lived through them.” (For Further Reading, p.240) Mr. Swanson does a particularly good job of giving readers a feel for the time period and the way newspapers, magazines, radio, and television reported on the death of the president. Black and white photographs interspersed throughout the book add to the verisimilitude of the story, transporting readers into the early 1960′s when color television was still not in widespread use and newspapers and many magazines were filled with black and white photographs.

Swanson’s 2009 nonfiction tale of an assassination, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, was adapted from his adult book, Manhunt. “The President Has Been Shot!” was written specifically for the YA market, and it shines as an example of a nonfiction history narrative that doesn’t talk down to teen readers and yet keeps the detail to a level that suits young people who may be new to the subject of the Kennedy assassination. I highly recommend the book for students of history and politics who want a simple but thorough summary of the background of Kennedy’s presidency and the events surrounding and leading up to his assassination.

Women of the Frontier by Brandon Marie Miller

51aDnzTnIKL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Women of the Frontier: 16 Tales of Trailblazing Homesteaders, Entrepreneurs, and Rabble-Rousers by Brandon Marie Miller.

This collective biography/history was a fascinating book, although I found myself skimming the explanatory material at the beginning of each chapter to go directly to the stories of the women themselves. Some of the women I knew something about: Margret Reed, a survivor of the ill-fated Donner Party; Narcissa Whitman, missionary to Oregon; Carry Nation, prohibition campaigner; and Cynthia Ann Parker, captive of the Comanches and mother to Quanah Parker, famous Comanche chief.

Even about these women I learned new things:
According to the author, Narcissa Whitman grew to nearly despise the Native Americans she traveled to Oregon to minister to and convert.

After years of “smashing” saloons to protest the evils of alcohol, Carry Nation settled in Eureka Springs, Arkansas and opened a home for the (abused) wives of alcoholics. The home was called Hatchet Hall.

Indian captive Cynthia Ann Parker was taken back from the Comanches when her son Quanah was only twelve years old, and she thought he was dead. She did not know that he became a great warrior chief of the Comanche.

Then, there were the many seemingly ordinary, actually extraordinary, women who managed to survive a life of hardship and vicissitudes that would have put me into an early grave. Amelia Stewart Knight traversed the Oregon Trail, “out of one mud hole into another all day.” And she was four months pregnant when she and her husband and their seven children left Iowa to head for Oregon. Luzena Wilson learned that she could make more money by cooking and cleaning for the 49ers in the California gold fields than she or her husband could by mining. Then, she learned by experience with both that a fire or flood could destroy everything she had built and earned, and she learned to start all over again.

Mary Lease fought for government regulation of the railroads, the graduated income tax, the direct election of senators, and suffrage for women. She lived to see all of these things enshrined in law. Sarah Winnemucca and Susette La Flesche, on the other hand, both championed the rights of Native Americans, but lived to see most of the promises of the U.S. government to the Native peoples broken and the Native people themselves mistreated and disrespected.

I was inspired and a bit humbled by the stories of these ladies. Again, I’m not sure how I would have done, given their circumstances and faced with their choices. I’d like to say that I would have persevered and made a life despite the difficulties and adversities they faced, but I don’t really know.

Said one Kansas woman:

“It might seem a cheerless life, but there were many compensations: the thrill of conquering a new country; the wonderful atmosphere; the attraction of the prairie, which simply gets into your bloom and makes you dissatisfied away from it; the low-lying hills and the unobstructed view of the horizon; and the fleecy clouds driven by the never failing winds.”

Maybe those things, and more, were enough.