"A house without books is like a room without windows." -Horace Mann

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Penderwicks, and a long car trip...

by Jeanne Birdsall

We did a whirlwind 3 day trip down to Southern Idaho this weekend.  My husband's grandmother passed away so we went to the funeral, which was really quite nice because she was really ready to be done with this life and move on to the next where she will be with her husband again.  I'm so grateful to know that we can be families forever.

One necessity of any long car trip is a good book, as I am lucky enough not to get too easily carsick. Unlike my husband.  And my son.

Requirements for a good road trip book:
1) Entertaining, not to heavy reading because with kids in the car, you tend to get interrupted a lot with requests for water, candy, pee breaks, french fries, McDonald's, toys, games, a different movie, windows up, windows down, etc.

2) Paperback.  You may need to pack it in somewhat flexible circumstances, especially if your car is jam packed with entertainment for the children, much of which will only be entertaining for about 5 minutes.  Considering the ride was 8.5 hours one way...well, you get the idea.

3) Indestructible.  This goes along with #2, because you never want to bring a hardback that has a loose cover.  It will get ripped, stepped on, torn, folded, etc.  Best to get one from the library that can take a little wear and tear.

4) Good to read aloud.  This is not a requirement but definitely a nice one to break up the monotony for others in the car.  My mother got us through many a long car trip by reading passages of To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Red Fern Grows, the Oz books, the Narnia books, and Patrick McManus short stories.  Good times!

Those are just a few of my requirements.  Sometimes I don't get around to reading on a trip, but this time the children cooperated for a while and took consecutive naps, so I was able to read an entire new book from start to finish in a few hours while on the straight, long freeway through Montana.  The Penderwicks is a book about 4 sisters.  Immediately I figured I would love it, because I am the oldest of 4 sisters.  They go to vacation at a little cottage on a large estate.  The owner of the estate is a real "uppity" lady, but luckily her son becomes their good friend and they all get into a number of fun and exciting adventures.  They eventually help the son, Jeffrey, communicate better with his mother, and they have a lovely holiday.

It was a lovely book about family, different personalities, love, and adventure.  The author did a great job of describing each of the girls and their differences, as well as the father and the family dog.  The descriptions of the scenery as well were well done.  The adventures were exciting and funny, and the other characters added depth to the story.  It is a charming, easy-going, fun, and generally happy little story that reminded me of past summer holidays with my family.  It is also a National Book Award Winner, so you don't have to just take my word for it!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Once and Future King

by T.H. White

The story of King Arthur is one of my favorites, dating back from when I was first introduced to Disney's The Sword in the Stone and then later, one of my mother's favorite musicals, Camelot.  I tend to forget that this story is based largely on folklore and legend, and even King Arthur's existence is often debated.  Still, it makes for a good story, even if most of it may not be true.

I'd been long meaning to read The Once and Future King, and finally got around to wade my way through it.  And I don't mean wading, as in slogging slowly in druggery, but it is not an easy book to read and certainly not one that is a quick read on any level.  T.H. White is a master storyteller, and his details are rich and full and complicated.  So it takes some time but I enjoyed a lot of it.

The book is divided into 4 parts, and the first one is by far my favorite.  It tells of Arthur's childhood when is known only as Wart and is educated by the wizard Merlyn.  I loved the details of his experiences being turned into animals, which is to teach him to think differently about the world around him.  The other parts go into his early years as the King as he learns to lead and when he meets Guinevere.  Then enters Lancelot into the picture and his story, which is much different than other versions of the story led me to believe.  In fact, in the book he is not considered particularly handsome or desirable, only that he is determined in being the best because he has issues with his own self-image.  And finally, the last section details how the empire falls apart little by little, because of their own nature, but also because of the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere.

Such a happy, funny book at the beginning, and it ends on such a sad note, although the last few pages brings you back to a little bit of a hopeful note.  King Arthur represents someone who tried to changes a way of life that was brutal, dark, and at times ridiculous.  He is a flawed man, a man who makes mistakes, but a man who nevertheless tried to do what he thought was right.  He tried to see the world from other points of view, and was forgiving of even those closest to him that hurt him the most. 

That is where the tragedy for me lies.  Not in the book itself, but in the story it tells.  Arthur had a vision of a greater world that he could work towards.  He put his own desires aside for the greater good.  Guinevere and Lancelot had good intentions to do this, but they didn't resist the temptation and instead caused a situation that lead to the breaking up of the round-table and ultimately war.  Now, I realize that this is a simplified way of looking at the story and that there were many other factors that caused the dream to fall apart, but it nevertheless felt like a real tragedy.  So, I enjoyed reading the story and getting a lot more details and depth than the Disney or musical versions, but it was a little heartbreaking at the end.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thinking in Pictures

by Temple Grandin

If you have not seen the movie "Temple Grandin" yet, you need to go see it.  Claire Daines plays the title character, who is a young lady with autism.  The movie shows the process of her learning to interact with the world, and her mother's determination to keep her out of an institution.  She is a woman who sees the world in a very different way from many of the rest of us who consider ourselves "normal".  Because of this different way of seeing the world, she discovers an interesting passion and calling in life. 

It's a movie that is hopeful, funny, and very helpful for seeing a different perspective on the world and perhaps helping us understand a little more people who are autistic.  I thought Daines did a spectacular job of becoming this character, which is based on a true story.

So, to the book.  I came across this book somewhat randomly, but figured it would be worth a try since it's written by this same Temple Grandin and I was intrigued to learn more about her unique perspective of the world, and of her own struggles with autism.  Much of this book was fascinating, informative, mind-opening, and funny.  Some of it was a bit of a drag.  But for me it was still worth the read, though I did skim through a number of sections rather quickly.

The reason for the skimming is mostly because Grandin admits herself that 1) she leans heavily towards extreme detail and exact description, and 2) because she is a scientist, and some of her focus in the book goes into scientific detail that is not my cup of tea.

Grandin begins by talking a little of her childhood, but mostly about how various forms of autism manifest themselves and how they change the perception of the world for an autistic child.  The idea of thinking in pictures instead of thinking in words is something that is pretty foreign to me, but it was interesting to read about and try to imagine how different I would be if my brain worked that way.

I also appreciated much of the practical advice Grandin gives about how to work with autistic children, how to discipline them, and how to stimulate and guide their brains to work the way they work best.  She is a prime example of an amazing mother who never gave up on her, but also didn't let her get away with things that simply weren't appropriate.  Even parents of children who don't have autism could probably be reminded of these things.

The scientific sections, especially the details regarding medication, etc. is where I skimmed the mostly.  It would be a good reference tool for someone who might need to consider that possibility, but for me it was not interesting, so I skipped ahead.

Closer to the end of the book, Grandin gets into her real passion, which is working with animals.  I don't want to give too much away, especially if you plan to see the movie because its so much fun to watch it all unfold there.  However, her connection and concern for animals, which she admits is probably deeper than her ability to connect with humans, is touching and it shows her true humanity.

As for the technical writing of the book, at times it does feel a little heavy-handed, but I think that is because Grandin is not a word-oriented person, so writing is not always easy for her.  But I am really impressed by her ability to put her thoughts and analysis into a book that does come across, for the most part, as very personable and fairly easy to read.  I think some of her early chapters especially would be a very important read for any parent, teacher, or caretaker that may have the opportunity to teach a child with autism. It certainly helped me be more aware of how other people around me might not always think the way I do, and how it really is amazing that we manage to find ways to communicate as well as we do.