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Alysa's Summer Reading

Hello! I did do some good reading this summer that I want to share with you. 

Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst 

My book club read this fantasy novel and it was enjoyed by all. A couple of us thought we were reading a YA fantasy book, but it turns out this one is marketed to adults. The main premise is that in Bekar, people live good lives hoping for rebirth as a human or auger. The worst thing to be reborn as is a kehok - a monster. The kehoks are dangerous, but that doesn't stop people from racing them! We follow a trainer, a rider, and the political turmoil in the country. 

Our group agreed that the worldbuilding and characters were excellent. It was so refreshing not to have a love triangle! And the abundance of strong female characters was awesome. There was a fair bit of violence in the book, but prrrrobably definitely less than The Hunger Games or something. No bedroom scenes. I was so into the book that I ended up telling my kids all the plot of it, just because my mind was so thoroughly engrossed. I definitely filtered out some of the violence in my retelling though, ha! Recommended. 

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

This was my pick for book club this summer. It met with mixed reviews in the club, partly because it came on the heels of Race the Sands, and Bertie Wooster is very down on Angela Basset throughout! Those who liked it really liked it, and those who didn't, didn't. I find that's pretty typical of humor books. 

The Code of the Woosters is a middle book in the Jeeves and Wooster series. It was the most accessible title at the local libraries, which is why I chose it over Right Ho, Jeeves, which is probably my favorite (Right Ho, Jeeves is especially good on audio). Anyway, the series follows young bachelor Bertie Wooster in London in the 1930's, who is constantly getting into tight spots and requiring the ingenious brain of his valet, Jeeves, to get him out of trouble. This installment details Bertie's misadventures with a collectible silver cow creamer, blackmail, rifts between lovers that could have dire consequences for him, and more. I noticed it was on a list of recommended classics for eighth graders, and I could get behind that. If you want to dip your toes into the Jeeves and Bertie world, you can always look up some of the old episodes of the BBC TV adaptation on YouTube for a taste. 



How Not to Die by Michael Greger, M.D., FACLM

This thick volume details the research on nutrition in health for a number of scenarios. There are two main sections in the book: the first section has chapters organized by disease, the second section has chapters organized by types of foods. Chapters in section one include How Not to Die from Suicidal Depression, How Not to Die from Breast Cancer, How Not to Die from Diabetes and many more. Chapters in section two include Spices, Cruciferous Vegetables, Berries and many more. 

I became interested in reading this book because I did an internet search for "how to lower your estrogen" and the search results I found referenced the book multiple times. Obviously, I thought, it would be a better source of complete information. And I was right, there really is so much info in the book. The author has made a living of studying medical research findings and publishing them in layman's terms. He runs the website nutritionfacts.org. His grandmother's life was saved when she changed her diet in her old age, and he shares that amazing story in the beginning of the book. 

I didn't read the book cover-to-cover, but I did read large swaths of it, and found it fascinating and motivating. I shared enough passages of it with Benjamin that he took it up himself and started sharing passages back with me. We've both been eating healthier since. I recommend it, if you're interested! 

Oh, I also checked out the How Not to Die Cookbook from my library. It was alright. I've learned how to make vegetable broth now. I took down a few of recipes before I returned it: the one for Veggie broth, one for a dish of beans, rice and broccoli, and the last for a dairy-free "macaroni and cheese" dish.  My favorite healthy eating cookbook is still The Smoothie Project by Catherine McCord.



The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

This was the August pick for book club, and I had read it for another book club in another state some years ago. I remembered liking it, and I remembered all of the worst and most violent parts. So, I'm happy to say that I really enjoyed the reread!

This is the first in a series of detective novels set in Botswana. The author helps us get to know our lady detective, Mma Ramotswe, explores her country and family history, and takes us on several of her cases. 

Some of the cases are lighthearted and some are heavier, and the book strikes a good balance. I definitely categorize it as "for grownups," but then again as a teen I read a lot of Agatha Christie. Anyway, since I had read the book before and many of the cases outcomes came back to mind as I was reading, I was able to really enjoy the superb writing in this book and appreciate some of the humor and foreshadowing that I couldn't enjoy last time, because I was on the edge of my seat, metaphorically. I might read more in the series . . .There are apparently 21 books in the series now, wow. 

This is another series (like Jeeves and Wooster, above) that has been made into a television show. After reading the book I did look up the first episode of the show on YouTube, just to satisfy myself that I was pronouncing Mma correctly (and to pass the time as I folded laundry). Unfortunately I can't recommend the series, because it makes the main characters into buffoons. I was offended, on behalf of Mma Ramotswe. (Incidentally, Bertie Wooster is also a buffoon, but he is meant to be a buffoon.)

When Stars Are Scattered

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
National Book Award Finalist, Winner of Cybils Award (Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels)

Omar and his brother Hassan live in a refugee camp and they have ever since they can remember. This graphic novel shows their life in the camp, Omar's schooling, Hassan's struggles because of his disability, and their relationships and ups and downs of life. 

Coming from award winning graphic novelist, Victoria Jamieson (known for the Newbery-winning Roller Girl and All's Faire in Middle School), I expected the book to be well written and drawn, and it was. It's also an amazing story, and we have Omar Mohamed to thank for that. There were definitely moments when my eyes got misty.

This book is well suited to the upper elementary and middle school markets. I recently read Walk Toward the Rising Sun, a memoir written for middle and high school students, and I found that one richer in details but it also had some swearing and violence that When Stars Are Scattered doesn't have. Each was well suited to its audience.     

Benjamin (age 12) also read When Stars Are Scattered, and says that it's good. He recommends it for fans of Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, which his class read in 6th grade. 

A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The book opens with the transcript of a trial, and answers this question: What will become of a gentleman in Moscow? Specifically, what will the new communist Russian government do with the Count, His Excellency Alexander Ilyich Rostov, son of the Grand Duke, now that the Tsar has been deposed?  Before the beginning of Chapter 1, we learn that the Count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel.  

I really loved this book, and it reminded me of many of my favorite books. I loved the characters -- they felt as real to me as the March sisters in Little Women. I loved the setting and learning a little bit more about Russian history, because my brother Ransom speaks Russian and has spent time in Ukraine. I loved Count Rostov's noblesse oblige attitude (a la The Scarlet Pimpernel). And maybe you should imagine Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic, A Little Princess, but with a grown man?

I don't want to say much about the plot. I myself loved knowing nothing about where it was going as I went along. I would recommend this book for adults, but if my teen wanted to read it I wouldn't mind. 

This is the sort of book that makes me wish I spoke five languages, had read lots of classic Russian literature, and watched all of Humphrey Bogart's films. 

One of my favorite scenes in the book is the description of the twice-tolling clock and the purpose for which it was commissioned. And, of course, the hide-and-seek game in the Count's study. Ah, now that I'm thinking of favorite scenes, there are too many! 

I gave Ransom this book for his birthday. I don't know if anything else I can say could recommend the book more highly. 

Have you read it? Please tell me your favorite parts. I read it for a zoom book club, but then I missed the discussion, so I'm itching to discuss. 

I didn't take this photo in Moscow, but I did take it in the snow!

Superman Smashes the Klan

In this new graphic novel, Gene Luen Yang did a great job following a formula but still keeping things fresh. 

Gene Luen Yang is one of my favorite authors -- I'll buy a book of his before I've read it, I'll preorder books by him, and I'm constantly recommending his books. You can see all of my posts about him here

For Superman Smashes the Klan Yang took his inspiration from an old 1940's Superman radio serial. The Lee family has just moved to a new home to go with Mr. Lee's new job. It doesn't take long before they find out some people don't want them in the neighborhood, though. You see where this is going. 

But I love how Yang made the story complex and they characters two-dimensional. The young heroes have foibles, the villain has virtues, and Superman has a whole backstory to work out. It honestly surprised me how much happened in this slim volume, and I have high expectations for books by Yang. The story weaves in different kinds of racism, different reactions to racism, and other themes, too. 

I particularly like how anybody can read this book, regardless of how much they already know about Superman. Never heard of him? Everything you need to know is there. Already know everything and everybody from Lana to Lois, Kal-el to Kryptonite? You won't be disappointed. And the illustrations are flawless, making this an easy graphic novel to read even if you are new to the format. 

If you skip the backmatter in this book, you will be missing out! There's a fantastically done section in the back about Superman and about Gene Luen Yang, about the history of racism and hope. It's a great book, and the section in the back is MORE than the cherry on top. It's the whole cream layer on the banana cream pie. 

I'm not alone in thinking this book is awesome. It won the Young Adult Graphic Novel category of the Cybils this year. I think it fits well in the Young Adult category -- it deals with the heavy theme of racism and hate crime. There is violence and complexity. It's not gory at all, for which I'm thankful. I recommend it for 6th grade and up. 




How We're Doing Flexible Preschool at Home This Year

Fall of 2020 is when I would have enrolled Sam in a preschool, but because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, this year we are doing preschool from home. Because the older kids (in grades 2, 5 & 7) are also doing school from home, my home preschool time has to be very flexible. 


Here's what Sam and I do together:

  1. Read books - Sam loves to read, and we have tons of books. I usually tell him to pick a few for me to read aloud during "Book time."
  2. Play Games & Do Puzzles - At a younger age than any of my other kids, Sam loves games and puzzles! One of our new favorite things is this build a skyscraper set. 
  3. Play with Toys - Our favorites on rotation right now are Lego duplo, Magnet tiles, and Blocks.  
  4. Paint/Craft/Playdough - I'm using the Little Hands Art Book to help me plan some crafts. We don't craft every day, but we have fun when we do it. 
  5. Clean up - I am the absolute worst at making myself and my kids clean up. Having someone else teach my kid about clean up time is definitely something I like about preschool. Now I'm bootstrapping it and attempting to teach Sam to clean up myself!
  6. Watch a Show - Daniel Tiger, Magic School Bus, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse are Sam's favorites. 
  7. Starfall - With his siblings doing so much of their learning on computers, and Sam soaking in that example, he is dying to get on the computer himself. Starfall.com is an online learning platform that offers some of their content for free. (Back in 2007 when I first heard of it, it was all free. Different times.) Sam enjoys it, and it is simple and ad free. I let him have about 10 min/day. 
  8. Outside Time - Right now with winter in full swing, this is mostly either checking on the chickens or sledding. 

Real talk: I spent a lot of time this fall teaching Sam not to be on camera during his siblings classes. And while I have meant to do music time with Sam as part of preschool this year, I can't honestly say that I have, yet. There was one time, but it's definitely not even part of our very flexible setup. However I did start giving his sister piano lessons a couple of weeks ago, and he often scootches in on those.  

Just recently I wrote down a schedule for Sam. I'm sure we will make some edits and improvements to it, but here's what it looks like right now:



We are really enjoying it, and refer back to it when we need some structure. When we don't need structure, I just don't bring it up. Ha! 

Here are some of the resources I'm using:

Books for Me

Practical Wisdom For Parents by Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum - This book is a great reference to have handy as I'm trying to figure out preschool at home. It discusses in depth what a good preschool should have, and also what parents should do at home to support their kids. Rereading part of this is what prompted me to write down a schedule for Sam . . . I had been meaning to do it, but the authors made a great case for it, which spurred me to action. My full review of the book is here

The Little Hands Art Book by Judy Press - I'm just taking projects from this willy-nilly and picking the ones I feel like doing. We don't use this book every day, or even regularly on a certain day of the week, but I have enjoyed the crafts that we've done from it, and some of the older kids have gotten into them, too. 

Books for Sam

I wrote a whole post about the books Sam is loving recently! Add Good Guys 5 Minute Stories to that list, because it is a big hit right now. It is a compilation of a bunch of full length picture books, back to back. 

Games



Build a Skyscraper - I don't know if this set of sturdy cards is more game, puzzle, or toy, but it has elements of all three and we are enjoying it. I received it for review and we have spent a fair bit of time improving Sam's fine motor skills and just building cool towers. Sam especially likes the clock card, which makes your building look like it has a giant clock on the side, and the door cards. I like that it can be put away very small, but yet build towers that are impressively big. 

Count Your Chickens - This is a super simple cooperative game we have enjoyed together. You spin the spinner, and count how many squares you have to go to get to the picture you spun. Then, you put that same number of chicks into the coop. If you spin the fox, watch out! You have to remove one chick and put it back in the yard. If you get all the chicks in the coop by the end, you win!

We've also been enjoying classics like Memory and Hi Ho! Cherry-O

I figure playing games together is a good way to teach turn taking and rules, in the absence of a preschool environment. 

On Flexibility:

It's my tendency to be too flexible, rather than too rigid, about a schedule. So, writing down the schedule has really helped me, and Sam, too. The advantage of not putting times on the schedule is that I don't feel "behind" if something comes up. For instance, on Tuesday morning I had to run some errands. Because our schedule isn't attached to times of the day, Sam could just hang out with Dad while he worked. When I came home again, Sam was still in his pajamas and I didn't feel like I was off the schedule. 

Some days we don't do everything on the schedule, but most days we do. And some days we don't do it all in order, especially lunch. Lunch happens by the clock and the signals we get from our stomachs, so the rest of it shifts around to make sure lunch happens on time. 

I do try to get the kid dressed. As the old saying goes, pick your battles. I choose the parts of a routine that are the most important to me and let others move or be skipped to preserve peace of mind.   




Super Snowstorm Setup for the Chickens

Today was our first day getting two eggs -- what a thrill! 

Sprite's first egg

I didn't want to leave you hanging after the end of my most recent chicken post. The chickens are a-ok and nobody got frostbitten. I do think that moving them in was a good choice, so no regrets there. We kept them in the garage for just under 24 hours I would guess. 

What happened was this: two days of particularly cold weather with highs below freezing. The next day, a big load of snow, then some sun. In the night more snow with rain in the morning and temps right around freezing. Then, in the late morning clear skies and cold temps. So, after the cold cold days and before the snow and rain I went out and tried to rig things up for their comfort and survival.

I've got two chickens, Rootbeer and Sprite, in our Eglu Go coop. There's no heat in it, but there's not supposed to be. Omlet does sell an extreme temperature blanket, but I was a little frustrated by the fact that I couldn't find particular temperature guidelines on when to use it. I guess I can understand. I mean, how much cold one chicken can take is different from another and how many chickens you have -- 4 chickens vs. 2 chickens vs. a rabbit or something (the Eglu Go can also be outfitted as a rabbit hutch) is also going to make a difference on when you would need to put on the extreme temperature blanket.

I did a little bit of reading online and found out that adding some extra bedding in the coop could help my chickens stay warm, so I did that. We use pine shavings. And I read that chickens are generally hardy in the cold and snow, the problem comes when they get both cold and wet. So as long as you can keep them dry, you're good. 

One website I read said that the blue tarps aren't that good for keeping the rain off because they do eventually soak through, and contractor's plastic is preferable, especially because it will let light in. I had read the suggestion to move the chickens feed and water closer to them so they didn't have to walk the length of the run (or through the rain) to get to it, but our run doesn't have an access door on the side, though apparently they are available for purchase (I guess it's a business to think of these things!). I had also had the tip from a couple of chicken-keeping friends to buy a heated dog bowl to keep their water warm.  

Heated dog bowls were not to be found on the day before the storm. I tried several stores. And since blue tarps were supposedly not great, I found some bubble wrap and decided it would work as a clear plastic cover. I took it out to the run and safety pinned it together, but it wasn't long before I realized I would need a way to pin it to the coop. No problem, I just ran my safety pins through the plastic and the wires of the run. I didn't quite have enough bubble wrap on hand to completely enclose the run, but it was pretty good. I pinned a black garbage bag to one side, as a waterproof windbreak. 

The snow came and it was accompanied by a lot of gusty wind. I was out there every few hours to make sure the chickens water hadn't frozen and to keep an eye on them.  I had now been a chicken keeper for a whole six days! When Rootbeer's comb started looking more and more white in the afternoon after the snow, I made the call to move the whole coop indoors for a bit. It was not too tough to pick up the whole thing and bring it in to our garage. Jacob and I did it, and had some help from Benjamin for part of the way, too. 

So, the chickens were indoors for a little more snow and some rain and plenty more wind. The next day in the sunny weather Jacob and I shoveled the driveway and moved the chickens back outdoors. 

Since then we had another good strong snow, but thankfully this one was not preceded by two days of bitter cold. 

Between the storms, in a time when they were out of the run, the chickens found a sheltered spot under a bush and gave themselves a dust bath. They loved it!

This time we just decided to use our blue tarp over the run. That was a great choice! Having learned a little bit from safety pinning bubble wrap to the run I knew this time I wanted complete coverage and I wanted it to be easy and less fiddly to put on. So, we used clothespins. We spread the tarp over the run and then pushed clothespins into the tarp until they could grasp the wires of the run. It was much easier to rig up (and to take off this morning). Tomorrow morning we expect more snow and rain tomorrow afternoon, so we let them have some sun today and put the tarp back over them tonight. 




They say chickens need a certain amount of light to lay their eggs. I do feel like getting Sprite's first egg today was a sweet reward for all this diligent chicken care we have been doing. And I'm proud of her! Good job, chickies! 

I'm having fun having chickens. 

Related: Books I recommend for a new chicken keeper.

Four Book Club Books I Enjoyed Recently


The book group I'm in didn't meet from March - August 2020, but we did start meeting again in the fall. For September and October we met outdoors, but for November and January we met online only. Here's what we've been reading.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I really liked this book. It started off as a family history reminiscence, but wound its way around into being a present day drama, connected of course to the family history. I liked that it was short and succinct. I liked that little tidbits were revealed. I loved little lines like "[Television] seems so two-dimensional after radio." And I loved the parallelisms for instance, the young Jack Boughton being mistaken for a preacher. The time that Lila comforted John Ames "you'll be just fine" and the time she comforted Jack "People can change." I liked how the book shifted from quoting the Old Testament to quoting more of the New Testament, reflecting changes in the spiritual life of the family. 

The book is a letter, or book of remembrance, that John Ames writes for his young son. John is in his seventies, and tells of his life growing up and marrying his childhood sweetheart, only to lose his wife and baby at the baby's birth. In a roundabout way he imparts the lessons of his widower life and the love story that surprised him late in life. Throughout the book John switches from remembering the past -- sometimes remembering stories of times before he was even born -- into the present moment. This switching and the little sections the book is written in work very well to convince the reader that the book was written over the course of a few months, here and there.

Touching moments and astute reflections abound in the book. Our book group discussed many of these! I was surprised by how many people had come with passages marked that they loved and wanted to talk about. 

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

This one is a murder mystery (chosen for the month of October). I listened to it on audio, and the swearing bothered me a bit. There was plenty of sex, drugs and violence, too! The suspense was very well done though, and the plot was twisty and had lots of red herrings. It was a nail biter, right up until the big reveal.

The Silent Patient is narrated by a psychologist whose patient never speaks. She is a famous artist, institutionalized after being convicted of the murder of her husband. Did she really murder him? If so, why? If not, who did? 

The interplay between Greek and Christian names and symbols in this book was one of my favorite parts of it. 

We had a great time discussing all of our hairbrained theories about who had done the murder. I found it interesting that the two group members who read the book quickly both suspected the same person, while those of us who read the book over a longer time had various other theories. 


When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I had heard of this book, but it wasn't until it was selected for book club that I realized its settings were closely tied to the settings of my own life. Paul Kalanithi, who wrote this memoir as a young doctor dying of cancer, moved to Kingman, Arizona when he was ten years old. About ten years later, I moved to Kingman, Arizona when I was nine years old. Eventually Paul moves to Connecticut to study at Yale. I currently live in Connecticut, about an hour from Yale. I really enjoyed connecting with the settings of Paul's life so strongly. 

I expected this book to be more about dying than it was. I expected it to be like The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, which I had read previously and enjoyed. When Breath Becomes Air is much more a descriptive memoir and less a prescriptive, well, lecture than The Last Lecture. I felt like I got to know Paul a little bit, and that was meaningful to me, knowing that we have some mutual friends. 

This was another book the people marked passages from and shared insights about. Discussing hypothetical situations about death, current medical situations and problems, and tender family moments was the meat of our book club conversation.   


The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

I listened to this one on audio, and the narration was excellent. I had never heard of The Good Earth before it was picked for book club, but Jacob had. 

The Good Earth reminded me of The Fiddler on the Roof -- it's a life story. The Good Earth follows Wang Lung from the  morning of his wedding day until his death. There's a lot that happens in between! I feel that I learned about Chinese culture in the late 19th and early 20th century, along with learning about these particular characters. 

I was reminded of Boxers & Saints, a pair of graphic novels that I love, since the books are set in the same time period. 

Our book group talked about Chinese culture, what we loved and hated about Wang Lung's choices, the strength of O-lan, the way nature grounds us, and more. 

For next month's book group I get to pick the book. I've chosen All Thirteen. It's really SO good. It's winning all the awards right now. My review here

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