Reading Year in Retrospect

DSC_1833“I am an inveterate browser of people’s bookshelves, always curious to see what other people have been reading, and which books they choose to display. but I am equally curious about the manner in which they array them. Are their books neatly aligned, like the leatherbound books in the Levenger catalog, or do they teeter on the shelf at odd angles?”  — David Levy in Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital AgeI love looking back at my reading year, and yet I also shrink from the raised eyebrow of my inner critic. Deciding on categories and distributing my titles in those gives the same thrill that I get in organizing my books. This is my reading year in retrospect.

My own Book of the Year? It’s a tie! N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent was both the slowest and most profound read. I read it aloud to my husband a page or even a paragraph at a time. But reading through Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence was also deeply satisfying. (confession: I have 60 pages to finish)

This Rich & Wondrous Earth Linda Burklin (life in boarding school)
When a Crocodile Eats the SunPeter Godwin (living in Zimbabwe)
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild Lawrence Anthony (animal conservation)

Over the Gate Miss Read (cozy read)
Lark Rise to Candleford(trilogy) Flora Thompson (a portrait of a culture)
Lady Anna Anthony Trollope (novel of a marriage)
Cousin Henry Anthony Trollope (a study of a guilty conscience)
Tyler’s Row Miss Read (not my favorite Miss Read)

The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith Bruce Marshall (story of a Scottish Priest)
Father Hilary’s HolidayBruce Marshall (priest gets involved in political intrigue)

Death by Living N.D. Wilson (memoir/family heritage/travelogue/random thoughts)
Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community Dietrich Bonhoeffer (crammed with good stuff)
The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert Rosaria Butterfield (unusual story)

From Dawn to Decadence Jacques Barzun (500 years of cultural history, EXCELLENT) Scrolling Forward David Levy (e-book or bound book debate, written a decade ago)

Early American
Rip Van Winkle & Other Stories Washington Irving (some classics improve as we age)

Fit to Burst : Abundance, Mayhem, and the Joys of Motherhood Rachel Jancovik (wise)
Real Marriage Mark and Grace Driscoll (yes and no: all the stats got old)

Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed Philip Hallie (5K Jews saved by people of Le Chambon)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery (postmodern novel, quotable sections)

First Family: Abigail and John Adams Joseph Ellis (very enjoyable read)

Kid Lit
Anne of Green Gables L.M. Montgomery (priceless)
Anne of Avonlea LMM (sad to lose Matthew Cuthbert)
Anne of the Island LMM (away at school)
Anne of Windy Poplars LMM (winning over the Pringles and Katherine Brooke)
Anne’s House of Dreams LMM (early marriage, bereavement)
Anne of Ingleside LMM (a houseful of kids and dear Susan)
Rainbow Valley LMM (add the Meredith kids to the Blythes: delightful)
Rilla of Ingleside LMM (I love Rilla; more Susan; a great view of WWI at home)
Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (12 short stories, Anne is just a cameo)
Further Chronicles of Avonlea LMM (includes a delicious story of a revival meeting)
The Story Girl LMM (she can make a story reciting the multipication tables)
The Golden Road LMM (a hilarious mistaken identity story)
Kilmeny of the Orchard LMM (a mute girl plays the violin)
Emily of New Moon LMM (appeals to all aspiring writers)
Emily Climbs LMM (word lovers will love Emily)
Emily’s Quest LMM (overcoming obstacles to writing)
The Blythes are Quoted LMM (more short stories)
Charlotte’s Web E.B. White, (classic, test-drove with a grandson)
Island Magic Elizabeth Goudge (Guernsey family, classic Goudge)

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers Maria Augusta Trapp (must read for S o M fans)
God’s Arms Around Us William Moule (heart-pounding tale of family in WW2 Philippines)
Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism Temple Grandin (she translates autism)
The End of Your Life Book Club Will Schwalbe (terminally ill mom and son read books)
A Little Moule History William Moule (life of a vagabond adventurer)
Appetite for Life Noel Riley Fitch (bio of Julia Child)
The Bookseller of Kabul Asne Seierstad (daily life in Afghanistan)
The Alpine Path LMM (frustrating in its brevity)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie Alan Bradley (I ♥ Flavia de Luce)
Speaking from Among the Bones Alan Bradley (another Flavia book)
Chop Shop Tim Downs (Bug Man is a forensic entomologist)
First the Dead Tim Downs (almost had a heart attack reading this)
Less than Dead Tim Downs (difficulty breathing while reading this thriller)

Twelfth Night W. Shakespeare (mistaken identities)
The Tempest Shakespeare (full fathom five thy father lies)
The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare (TWO sets of identical twins)

Little Black Sheep Ashley Cleveland (the gift of willingness)
Sober Mercies: How Love Caught Up with a Christian Drunk Heather Kopp (story of addiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot (spellbinding story of HeLa cells)

TV Reading (one-night read without substance)
A Lancaster County Christmas Suzanne Woods Fisher (English stranded with Amish)

Shadow of the Silk Road Colin Thubron (China-Turkey by one of my fave travel writers)
In a Sunburned Country Bill Bryson (winsome writing…mostly)
Stephen Fry in America Stephen Fry (witty, sometimes coarse flyover)
Roads : Driving America’s Great Highways Larry McMurtry (he drives the interstates)

The Whistling Season Ivan Doig (the Wendell Berry of Montana)

What have you been reading?

(This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which allows me to buy perhaps one or two new books a year. But I’m thankful if you decide to buy a book through the links.)


Comparing L.M. Montgomery

DSC_1607(Katie, another Anne-girl model)

A distinct joy of the reading life is in making connections. Ah, we say, this is like that! This is true of unfamiliar words: we meet and greet; then that new friend appears at someone else’s party. Hey! we exclaim. I know you! It is true also of authors. We chortle—at least I do—when an author is referenced and, instead of shrugging in ignorance, we know that name. Oh joy! Montgomery writes of Dan King in The Story Girl “he had a new Henty book he wanted to finish.” Twenty years ago you wouldn’t’ve known Henty, I remind myself, smiling.

This summer as I’ve read through most of L.M. Montgomery’s fiction, I’ve been thinking about connections.

L.M. Montgomery writes much about the landscape: trees, orchards, the ocean, the light, the color. Two other authors write great descriptions of vastly different geographies. Gene Stratton Porter and Willa Cather.

Rainbow Valley, full of adventures of the Blythe kids and the Meredith kids reminds me of other books revolving around siblings: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Railway Children, and  Meet the Austins.

I’ve been reading books set before the Great War (aka WWI); though I find it hard to articulate, there is something different in the flavor of daily life. A clear-eyed view of rustic simplicity is portrayed both in Maud’s books and in Lark Rise to Candleford.

Emily Starr, in Emily of New Moon, a young writer coming of age—with a supreme desire to be published— reminds me of Jo March in Little Women.

Though Prince Edward Island is almost a character itself in Montgomery’s books, there is a Scotch Presbyterian element that makes me think of Scottish books, particularly O. Douglas’ Penny Plain.

Orphans? Oh, man. There are times, particularly with the Emily books, where the adults were so brutal they were positively Dickensian.

I don’t want to get too obscure (e.g. books set on islands: Anne of Green Gables was like Robinson Crusoe! — wink) but it has been fun to retrieve a few of the random thoughts that wandered around my head while I read through L.M. Montgomery’s books.

The Giraffe That Walked To Paris


My first exposure to the Egyptian pasha’s gift to the king of France came by reading Michael Allin’s book Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris (my review). Since then I’ve wanted to buy an affordable edition of Nancy Milton’s children’s book The Giraffe That Walked to Paris. An inter-library loan (thank you Enterprise Public Library) allowed me to test-drive it with a 7-year old and a 3-year old. Two thumbs up!

This is the kind of book which can create a thirst for history. There are 20 pages of solid text, denser than a typical picture book, but with illustrations that keep kids interested.  Imagine it is 1826, and a nation that had never seen a giraffe. Think through the logistics of moving such a large animal before the time of cars and trucks or trains.  A ship was fitted to transport her from Alexandria across the Mediterranean Sea to Marseilles. She walked from Marseilles to Paris, about 425 miles! The illustration shows one man leading the giraffe. Actually it took four men with four ropes to keep the giraffe secure. A gift for the king can’t be running off! For France, it was the Next Big Thing: there was an explosion in giraffe art, giraffe china, giraffe linens, and even a giraffe hairstyle.

I am fascinated how one animal can so greatly impact a culture. If you happen to be in Paris, you can see La Girafe’s remains (what does one call the non-living specimen?) mounted, on display. If you happen to be in Paris, make sure you visit Jardin des Plantes, the second oldest zoo in the world.

One could easily springboard from the reading of this book to a short introduction to geography, zoology, taxidermy or meteorology.

Here’s a fun quote:

It isn’t easy to make a raincoat for a giraffe,
but Professor Saint-Hilaire designed a good one
that covered her whole body and buttoned down the front.
It even had a hood to keep her head and long neck dry.


I want to read two other children’s books about La Girafe: Mary Holmes’ A Giraffe Goes to Paris and Judith St. George’s Zarafa: The Giraffe Who Walked to the King.

In a most delicious synchronicity, it turns out my other grandsons went to the San Diego zoo and saw giraffes.


Three Children’s Classics

The Prince’s name—Dolor, which means grief—sets the tone. When his nurse was carrying the infant she dropped him, causing him to be lame. Here is a tale with a fairy godmother, a wicked king and a magic cloak. There are no instant fixes. The godmother tells Prince Dolor “I cannot alter your lot in any way, but I can help you to bear it.”. Many children’s books from the Victorian era can be sickly sweet and cloying—treacle—or tediously preachy. This book, thankfully, was light on both counts.

The sense of the inevitable, as the grown-up people call it—that we cannot have things as we want them to be, but as they are, and that we must learn to bear them and make the best of them—this lesson, which everybody has to learn soon or late—came, alas! sadly soon, to the poor boy. He fought against it for a while, and then, quite overcome, turned and sobbed bitterly in this godmother’s arms.

Where Dinah Mulock sees the inevitable (Fate), I see divine providence. If I were reading this to a child, we would talk about the difference between fate and providence and how those differences would affect our responses.
When we see people suffering or unfortunate, we feel very sorry for them; but when we see them bravely bearing their sufferings, and making the best of their misfortunes, it is quite a different feeling. We respect, we admire them. One can respect and admire even a little child.

[My edition had two other stories by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik. I found The Adventures of a Brownie, (a foot high old man who can only be seen by children) bland and blah. The lack of conflict or tension provided no hooks to hold my interest. Poor Prin was perhaps the ghastliest children’s story I have ever read. In those days an annual tax was levied on pet owners which the parents couldn’t pay. When a girl is instructed to take the dog to the landlord, she drowned the dog she loved to prevent him from going to a questionable home.  End of story. Ghastly, I tell you.]

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Do you reckon Tom Sawyer was satisfied after all them adventures? The answer, Huck Finn tells us, is no. Instead of a good float down the Mississippi, Jim, Huck and Tom glide in hot air balloon across the Atlantic and over Africa. It’s a fun romp—it is supposedly a parody of Around the World in 80 Days—with laugh out loud humor. Don’t get your knickers all knotted because Twain puts tigers in Africa or the balloon’s fuel and food are never replenished. Some sections are dicey for younger ones: the mad (in all senses) inventor is pushed out of the balloon over the Atlantic; they come across dead bodies in the desert.

Jim begun to snore — soft and blubbery at first, then a long rasp, then a stronger one, then a half a dozen horrible ones, like the last water sucking down the plug-hole of a bath-tub, then the same with more power to it, and some big coughs and snorts flung in, the way a cow does that is choking to death; and when the person has got to that point he is at his level best, and can wake up a man that is in the next block with a dipperful of loddanum in him, but can’t wake himself up although all that awful noise of his’n ain’t but three inches from his own ears.

Me and Jim went all to pieces with joy, and begun to shout whoopjamboreehoo…

“My goodness,” I says, “we’ll be as rich as Creosote, won’t we, Tom?”

They was all Moslems, Tom said, and when I asked him what a Moslem was, he said it was a person that wasn’t a Presbyterian. So there is plenty of them in Missouri, though I didn’t know it before.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne retells six Greek myths [The Gorgon’s Head, The Golden Touch, The Paradise for Children, The Three Golden Apples, The Miraculous Pitcher and The Chimæra] in A Wonder Book for Girls & Boys. Eustace Bright, the gifted poetry-writing college-aged narrator who calls his cousins Primrose, Periwinkle, Cowslip, Clover, Sweet Fern, etc. tells the myths with humor, intelligence and grace.

Sit down, then, every soul of you and be all as still as so many mice. At the slightest interruption, whether from the great, naughty Primrose, little Dandelion, or any other, I shall bite the story short off between my teeth, and swallow the untold part.

Hawthorne writes an interlude chapter before and after each myth that responds to the previous story and introduces the next.  There isn’t enough material in these interludes to give me a sense of each child’s personality (it would have been easier for me if their given names—Susan, Peter, David and Sally—were used); nevertheless, I enjoyed these chapters as much as I did the myths.

Ninety-nine people out of a hundred, I suppose, would have been frightened out of their wits by the very first of his ugly shapes, and would have taken to their heels at once. For, one of the hardest things in this world is, to see the difference between real dangers and imaginary ones.

Oh, how heavily passes the time, while an adventurous youth is yearning to do his part in life, and to gather in the harvest of his renown! How hard a lesson it is to wait! Our life is brief, and how much of it is spent in teaching us only this!

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Kindle for Toddlers

Remember those beginning biology experiments? The ones in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion, but you have to follow the steps of the experiment, write it up and turn it in? 

I tried one of those last night. Not biology, but an experiment reading to a toddler from my Kindle.  All the time I had Dan Newman’s quote, “Maybe I’m a Luddite because I feel sorry for children who read “Goodnight Moon” on a phone.” in my head.  Knowing this would fail, I asked my 2 1/2 year old grandson, Noah, if I could read him a book.  Reading is a daily delight in his life and he readily acquiesced.

I picked up my Kindle, slid the power on, and pressed buttons. Thanks to Janet, I had Thornton Burgess’s Bird Book for Children on my Kindle. We started with Jenny Wren Arrives. Happily the first character is Peter Rabbit. Yay for familiarity!  But Noah is a mimic and if Nana pushed buttons, he wanted to push buttons too.  A book with buttons that he wasn’t allowed to push, pull, tap, or pound just made no sense.

The next hurdle was the lack of pictures.  In order to compensate for the visual wasteland, I tried to capitalize on the oral/aural parts.  I had Noah repeat “tut, tut, tut, tut, tut”; I gave “Jenny Wren” a Southern drawl, and had him say “JAY-nee RAY-in” after me each time the name came up. This morning when Noah woke, we continued the tuts and JennyWren’s.

But we only made it through four Kindle pages before I surrendered. Noah’s mom said she saw glimpses of cheerful panic in his eyes. We replaced the Kindle with picture books and all was well, again.

I could envision this working in perhaps four years with a bird coloring book and crayons.

Reading to a toddler with a Kindle.  Fail!  But I’d like to believe it wasn’t an epic fail. 


Advice to Small Children

Advice to Small Children  by Edward Anthony (1895-1971)

Eat no green apples
   or you’ll droop,
Be careful not
   to get the croup,
Avoid the chicken-pox
   and such,
And don’t fall out
   of windows much.

I can’t help myself. 

This odd little poem reminds me of one of my favorite words.


The act of throwing someone or something out the window.

From the Latin fenestra, window.

(I guess I’m not out of my Latin stage, after all.)

My New Favorite Book

P.G. Wodehouse meets Robert Louis Stevenson

Mix two parts E. Nesbit with three parts Jerome K. Jerome

Here is a diamond of a book! 

I want to wave down readers and persuade them to read this gem.

Auntie Robbo is a rollicking tale of an orphaned boy, Hector Murdoch (11), and his great-grand-aunt and guardian, Robina Sketheway (81). They got on as well together as any two people possibly could.

Their idyllic whimsical life at Nethermuir, twelve miles from Edinburgh, is threatened when Hector’s step-mother, Merlissa Benck, a woman he has never before met, visits with the aim of adopting Hector.  She sniffs around and is appalled at the the lifestyle of this unusual pair.

“But what about … Hector, wait for me … What about other subjects?”

“Oh, Auntie Robbo knows all about them. Sometimes we do sums. We keep account books, and history—lots of history; then afterwards we ride over the battlefields and go and look at the castles where the murders were done.”

“I dare say,” said Merlissa Benck shortly. “But I should have thought British history would have been more suitable for a boy of your age, indispensable in my opinion. England’s story is a very great and noble one.”

“Yes,” said Hector. “But then we couldn’t ride to the battlefields, could we? I mean they were mostly fighting in places that didn’t belong to them, weren’t they?”

Hector is smart enough to apprehend the intent of Merlissa Benck: how easily she could “prove” dear unconventional Auntie Robbo was mad, stake her claim and clap the lad into dreaded public school.  So Hector and Auntie Robbo slip away at night.  On the train from Edinburgh they pick up three waifs: a brother, sister and cousin.  Fugitives, they live in a tinker’s cart, traveling through Scotland.   

And when the fresh curling trout had been eaten, with a mound of scones and butter, they lay late round the fire, swilling cocoa, arguing again about stags and cows, telling stories, and looking back on yet another well-spent perfect day.

Auntie Robbo is magnificent: a hale and hearty woman, opinionated, kind, an octogenarian who hikes hills and understands boys.  No morality tale here, no treacle, no dour Scottish frowns, just a thumping good read.

My journey to Auntie Robbo was through Russell Kirk’s autobiography.  While studying at St. Andrews, Kirk became friends with the widower George Scott-Moncrieff.  One phrase intrigued me: his wife Ann, who wrote inimitable children’s books… 

A search on her name introduced me to Auntie Robbo, which is printed in full at GutenbergI dare you to read the first chapter.  I had to decide whether to buy the book (which involved waiting at least ten days), print the book (115 pages) or read it online.  I opened my laptop, used “Control +” to increase the font size and read all 22 chapters in one sitting.

Here is a buffet of Scott-Moncrieff’s delectable sentences:

He slipped out of questions like a mackerel fry through a herring net.

There was a spluttering of laughter like geese being chased across a field.

And the sea, deep and green as oil silk, swayed and sucked about the feet of these cliffs, growling with hunger, like an old lion who paws a gristly piece of meat and wonders if it’s worth a broken tooth and a belly-ache.

She thought she had slipped into her dotage….Years ago, round about seventy, she had accepted such things as inevitable, much as children accept that they will one day be grown up; but by this time she was eighty-one, she had forgotten about dotage and death again, and it was very unpleasant to be confronted by one of them suddenly.

This is a book I plan to read at least once a year until I slip into my dotage.  I laughed aloud; I disrupted my husband’s concentration, intruding with quotes. I have plans for read alouds with the grands.  I’m baffled why Auntie Robbo has remained unknown to me before now.

Auntie Robbo would make a fantastic full-length feature film.

Picture a madcap Maggie Smith with laughter and twinkling eyes, and you’ve got Auntie Robbo.

If I knew an ounce about writing a screenplay, I’d do it myself.

Hans Brinker – A Sterling Story

Hans Brinker is a sterling story. 

Like a meal at a four-star restaurant it is delicious, beautiful and nourishing.  But a taste for delicious, beautiful and nourishing must be cultivated.  I would not serve Mary Mapes Dodge’s classic  Hans Brinker to a child who has been fed a steady diet of literary Happy Meals.  But a boy or girl who has tasted Laura Ingalls Wilder, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott or Ralph Moody would eat this story up.

The setting, the time period and cultural references are foreign, and thus require some work to read.  Published in 1865, the story is set in the Netherlands.  Imagine weather so cold that the canals froze.  What would American families do?  Stay inside and watch TV.  In nineteenth century Holland every able bodied person laced on his skates, bundled up and had fun skating! 

There are benefits to reading it slowly, using tools such as Google Earth, search engines and maps to explore areas of interest.  Rabbit trails abound!

• Were the telescope and microscope invented by the Dutch Jacob Metius and Sacharias Janssen or by the English Roger Bacon
• A group of boys skate to Leiden and The Hague: look it up!
• Why did the art of curing and pickling herrings revolutionize the economy of Holland?

Any reader with a whiff of curiosity could learn a fair bit about Holland by reading Hans Brinker alone, in concert with other reference tools, or alongside other books like The Wheel on the School.  References to art abound; use Hans Brinker as a springboard for studying Dutch artists.  

Some favorite quotes:

Never had the sunset appeared more beautiful to Peter than when he saw it exchanging farewell glances with the windows and shining roofs of the city before him.

It is no sin to love beautiful things.

A tamed bird is a sad bird, say what you will.

Although the sermon was spoken slowly, Ben [English boy] could understand little of what was said; but when the hymn came, he joined in with all his heart. A thousand voices lifted in love and praise offered a grander language than he could readily comprehend.

Who will be the fastest skater in the race and win the Silver Skates?  Read Hans Brinker to find out!

The Peterkin Papers

The Peterkin Papers reminds me of a young child who tells a joke that makes everyone laugh. Then she tells the same joke again and again and again and again, looking for the same satisfying response. 

The Peterkins–Mr. and Mrs., Agamemnon, Elizabeth Eliza, Solomon John, and various unnamed younger brothers–are a family with lofty aspirations and nothing to ground them.  If the Christmas tree is too tall for their living room, they raise the ceiling instead of cutting the tree down to size. In short, they are silly fools. The lady from Philadelphia is their salvation. After they’ve exhausted their harebrained ideas, she solves their problem with one sentence of common sense.

The foolishness is funny at first blush, but gets tiresome quickly.  On the plus side, the illustrations are well done, complementing the text.  The chapter on Agamemnon’s education entertained me because it was close enough to the truth to be very funny. This is the best taste of the book I can offer.

Agamemnon had always been fond of reading, from his childhood up. He was at his book all day long. Mrs. Peterkin had imagined he would come out a great scholar because she could never get him away from his books.

And so it was in his colleges; he was always to be found in the library, reading and reading. But they were always the wrong books.

For instance: the class were required to prepare themselves on the Spartan war. This turned Agamemnon’s attention to the Fenians, and to study the subject he read up on Charles O’Malley and Harry Lorrequer, and some later novels of that sort, which did not help him on the subject required, yet took up all his time, so that he found himself unfitted for anything else when the examinations came. In consequence he was requested to leave.

Agamemnon always missed in his recitations, for the same reason that Elizabeth Eliza did not get on in school, because he was always asked the questions he did not know. It seemed provoking; if the professors had only asked something else! But they always hit upon the very things he had not studied up.

Mrs. Peterkin felt this was encouraging, for Agamemnon knew the things they did not know in colleges. In colleges they were willing to take for students only those who knew certain things. She thought Agamemnon might be a professor in a college for those students who didn’t know those things.

Alert! New Wendell Berry!!

I just ordered a brand new book – a children’s book – by Wendell Berry: Whitefoot: A Story from the Center of the World because the opening paragraph was just too wonderful.

Her name was Peromyscus leucopus, but she did not know it. I think it had been a long time since the mice around Port William spoke English, let alone Latin.  Her language was a dialect of Mouse, a tongue for which we humans have never developed a vocabulary or a grammar.  Because I don’t know her name in Mouse, I will call her Whitefoot. 

Isn’t it just….delicious?  I have been a “serial clicker” this morning – clicking Suprise Me! in the Amazon Reader to see more, no matter the random order.

One more paragraph! 

Her name fits because her four small feet and all the underside of her were a pure, clean white.  Her coat, above, was a reddish brindly tan.  She had a graceful tail, a set of long, elegant whiskers, perfect ever-listening ears, a fastidious nose, and black profound eyes shining with sight. She took a small, feminine pleasure in being beautiful.

Contented sigh….

I. Love. Wendell Berry.