Books by my bedside 2017/05/10

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!


Economics, history & politics

Poor economics : a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty by Banerjee, Abhijit V.

The white man’s burden : why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good by Easterly, William

Why nations fail : the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty by Acemoglu, Daron


First German Reader for Cooking: bilingual for speakers of English (Graded German Readers) (Volume 9) by Brant, Adelina

Starting out in German by Living Language (audio CD)

Math & technology

Gödel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid by Hofstadter, Douglas R.

Biography & memoir

The Egg & I by MacDonald, Betty

The Prize winner of Defiance, Ohio [sound recording] by Ryan, Terry


Apprentice in Death (In Death Series, Book 43) by Robb, J. D.

The Great Passage written by Miura, Shion, translated by Carpenter, Juliet Winters (note: this was a freebie from Amazon for being a Prime member)

Thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher

books - 1Reading Notes:

Eye doctor visit derails the reading process

Today, I had my eyes dilated at the ophthalmologist’s office, meaning I couldn’t read a word for about four hours and that I’m still hiding from the spring sun behind heavy curtains seven hours later. Ugh.

Please forgive me for any typos. My near vision is still blurry. I wasn’t sure that I would have a chance to post today at all.

Fortunately, I had requested an audiobook from the library this week, so I enjoyed the author’s reading of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio while covering my tender eyes on the couch.

Also fortunately, the discomfort I’d been experiencing in my eyes, prompting the visit to the doctor, has been diagnosed as simple dry eyes, and not an inflammatory complication of my autoimmune disease. Now that’s a blessing!

Book vs. video of 13 Reasons Why

I was able to read about a quarter of Thirteen Reasons Why as I waited for my appointment. So far, it strikes me that the video production faithfully captured the tone of the novel. It’s entirely readable, but, at this early stage, I’d say the protagonist (the male, Clay) reads somewhat less compelling than did the actor portraying him.

Rampant racism mars The Egg & I for otherwise appreciative modern reader

As for The Egg & I, I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and it’s got me completely torn. On the one hand, it is a really marvelous, fun read written by an obviously clever author who was clearly born before her time, suffering as a farm housewife when she was constitutionally better suited for a more intellectually stimulating life. I really feel for her. I enjoyed so much of her witty, sarcastic writing.

But the blatant, roaring racism! Oh my word. I read a lot of old books, and am used to making certain allowances for the different standards of earlier eras, but whole segments of this book were grossly, unapologetically offensive. Most of my grandparents were of the same region during the same era, and never did I see or hear any of them express attitudes like MacDonald’s.

I think that stands out so sharply because, otherwise, I feel like I could be friends with this author. She’s someone I’d like to sit down and chat with over a cup of coffee… but heaven forbid she learn that my grandmother claimed her father was a Blackfoot Indian.*

And would my sloppy home meet her standards, or would I be lumped in with poor, aspirational Mrs. Weatherly and her delusions of grandeur? But, rather than classism, it could be the fact that Mr. Weatherly was a [MacDonald’s words!] “dirty Indian” that really made Mrs. Weatherly so disgusting to the author. After all, MacDonald shows obvious affection for Maw and Paw Kettle, who were at least equally slovenly.

*Grandma’s brother claimed their father was a Turk, so don’t take her word for it. I don’t think anyone in the family has factual information about this particular great-grandfather.

13 reasons aren’t necessary to get to why

Make no mistake: the Netflix video production of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why is reckless. I hate to see adults enriching themselves by exploiting adolescent pain, and Hollywood’s record in this regard is abysmal.

Can anyone make a video people want to watch that accurately depicts the degeneracy of suicide? Drawing a sympathetic character fundamentally romanticizes the abhorrent actions to come.

Parents are up in arms, and schools are sending frantic emails to prove they’re on top of the crisis.

Suicide, as currently being glorified in 13 Reasons Why, is known to be contagious, especially amongst young people aged 15-24. Parents fear for their children. Schools fear taking the blame.

“It is only when we see ourselves as actors in a staged (and therefore unreal) performance that death loses its frightfulness and finality and becomes an act of make-believe and a theatrical gesture.”

–Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements (§47)

Kids are shaking their heads at the sudden storm of attention; nothing in their world has actually changed. They made this book a bestseller in 2011.

I’m shaking my head, too. Nothing in the world of being a teenager has changed since I gratefully outgrew that burden over twenty years ago.

Adults don’t listen to children. Schools are bureaucratic temples to the arbitrary that demand conformity while telling blatant lies about the value placed on individuals confined therein.

Nothing has changed.

Except, in a more crowded world, contagion spreads faster. It took the growth of cities to create immense pools of victims for epidemics of plague and flu. Similarly, the growth of social media fuels the twin scourges of mass hysteria and shared delusions.

Our children are vulnerable to the foolish, romantic notion that they can solve their problems with suicide because they are adolescents. It is the nature of the undeveloped prefrontal cortex of a teenager to fail to observe his own errors in judgement, and to experience heightened pleasure from the reward center of the brain when taking risks. Teens literally can’t yet grasp the enormity of the long term consequences of their actions.

But what about this show, this crisis, the teens at risk today?

Here’s a radical thought: why don’t we listen to them? Why not participate in a conversation about this show and its appeal to the kids who’ve made it so popular? Don’t let them watch it alone, even if that means viewing it by yourself to share the experience afterwards in conversation.

Do not let it drop until you’ve seen the conversation through.

I watched the entire series. I find the depiction of reckless teens making foolish, selfish, sometimes deadly choices just as aggravating as I think I would have when I was their age; now, as mother, I also find it terrifying.

I’m not watching this show because it’s great, or because I’m fascinated. (I’d judge it an interesting story with good production values.) I’m watching because I have a teenaged son.

Having viewed the show, I’m also reading the novel, because my son has, and because he thinks the book is important.

Most of the teen-oriented viewing that I do (e.g., The Fosters) seems to carry a similar message, though always padded with plenty of foolish, risk-taking behavior that makes for dramatic, cliff-hanger moments:

Here I am, with my complex feelings and powerful emotions, and the adults around me don’t see what I’m going through and misunderstand when I try to explain. I wish someone would help me, but I have no faith that they can.

Some of this goes back to the as-yet-undeveloped prefrontal cortex. Kids can’t always hear you through their own internal noise. At least, they don’t hear you the first time. That’s when you have to try again, and keep trying with different words, or mime, or finger puppets… whatever it takes until you get through.

To fail at this is not a good option.

That seems to be the message Hannah Baker tried to send by filling thirteen audio cassettes with desperation in Jay Asher’s story.

So I’m sitting down to watch 13 Reasons Why, and I’m inviting my son to join me, if he wants to. I’m talking about the show. I’m talking about my reactions to the show. I’m asking his opinions of the story, the show, the novel, the dynamics between the characters, and how it all relates to real life.

I’m talking to my kid about this.

This isn’t a subject I’m going to let go, and, after some initial reluctance to delve into the darkest corners of the conversation, I am hearing back from my son.

I’m listening to what he has to say.

Books by my bedside 2017/05/02

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!


Economics, history & politics

The true believer : thoughts on the nature of mass movements by Hoffer, Eric

Poor economics : a radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty by Banerjee, Abhijit V.

The white man’s burden : why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good by Easterly, William

Why nations fail : the origins of power, prosperity, and poverty by Acemoglu, Daron


German I by Pimsleur Language Programs (audio CD)

Starting out in German by Living Language (audio CD)

Math & technology

Gödel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid by Hofstadter, Douglas R.

Biography & memoir

The Egg & I by MacDonald, Betty


Gone camping : a novel in verse by Wissinger, Tamera Will

Thirteen reasons why by Jay Asher

Reading Notes:

I can’t remember the last time I took so many notes as I’ve done this week from Hoffer’s The True Believer. His words are resonating in discussions I’ve had lately about politics, economics, and taking creative action. I found the following sections particularly compelling: 12, 18, 29, 30, 47, 56, 91, 93, and 98.

Regarding the same title, I’m bumping up against the one negative to borrowing books from the library: someone else wants Hoffer’s book, and I can’t renew it again! I would have enjoyed a few more days with it. I’ve been reading slowly and carefully with this one, but have had to devote extra time to it today so I can get the book back before its due date.

Books by my bedside 2017/04/23

Here’s what I’m reading this week.

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!


The Marvelous Misadventures of Ingrid Winter by J.S. Drangsholt
Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon


Economics, history & politics

The crisis of the middle-class constitution : why economic inequality threatens our republic by Sitaraman, Ganesh

The true believer : thoughts on the nature of mass movements by Hoffer, Eric

The white man’s burden : why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good by Easterly, William


Am I small? Bin ich klein? (Picture Book English-German Bilingual Edition) by Philipp Winterberg

German in 32 lessons by Adrienne

The little German notebook : a breakthrough in early speaking by Long, Charles Merlin

Starting out in German by Living Language (audio CD)

Math & technology

Gödel, Escher, Bach : an eternal golden braid by Hofstadter, Douglas R.

Biography & memoir

Tasting the sky : a Palestinian childhood by Barakat, Ibtisam

5 picture books to read aloud with melodramatic zeal, especially if you love world languages

I’ve hinted at this in my posts about learning foreign languages, but I like to get a little silly when my mind is the most engaged. It makes tasks that might be onerous into a bit of fun, and it keeps my sometimes whiffly energy levels from flagging in mid-effort.

My own two kids are big enough to read on their own now, but ours is a household of almost constant excited interruptions to share some great, new sentence, paragraph, or page of written work. In fact, I wooed my husband by reading an entire (admittedly short) novel* to him one afternoon at the beach.

I’ve read and re-read a few top favorites aloud to my boys even at advanced ages well past the “tell me a story” years; I think I’ve read these books to most of the younger friends we know, too. I’m that adult who always has time to read to a child. Some stories are too delicious not to share.

Two of my favorites are very popular and well-known American picture books I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere:

Bear Snores On (Karma Wilson)

Click Clack Moo (Doreen Cronin)

You can’t go wrong with either of these. If you’re like me, and you read them a few times, you may memorize most or all of the text! It’s hard not to when the rhyme and rhythm of the stories flow like song lyrics with every reading. This was a great help when the middle of our stapled paper Cheerios box freebie edition of Click Clack Moo lost a page. We closed our eyes and imagined those illustrations as I recited from memory.

Two other wonderful read-alouds were gifts to our family from the PJ Library program, a non-profit that strives to provide Jewish books to all interested Jewish or interfaith families with kids aged six months to eight years.

Something from Nothing (Phoebe Gilman)

The least obviously rhyming text on the list shows up in Something from Nothing, but the writing still has a poetic quality. There is a regular rhythm, both visual and verbal, to the way each new page spread builds upon the last as the story moves ahead. This one also happens to have a beautiful message about favorite things “wearing out” and being lost, whether you see it as primarily ecological (using something up completely without waste) or self-reliant (making the best of what you have) or some combination thereof.

Something from Nothing depicts a lovely inter-generational relationship between grandfather and grandson. It has the most detailed artwork of any book on this list. The wonderful, whimsical pictures, drawn by the author herself, include an entire silent second storyline hidden beneath the illustrated floorboards. Pre-readers might particularly enjoy poring over this aspect on their own.

Beautiful Yetta (Daniel Pinkwater)

My absolute favorite book to read to children, I’ve given Beautiful Yetta as a gift several times. This book is amusing—telling the tale of a valiant hen who “will not be sold. She will not be soup… She is free”—and includes the great fun of combining English, Yiddish, and Spanish in the text. Don’t worry, there are phonetic transliterations so you don’t need to read Hebrew letters or know either Yiddish or Spanish to share this book. You can also try on your Brooklyn accent when the rat tells Yetta to “Get lost!” This one is less obviously moralistic than some children’s books, but certainly carries on lightly with themes of self-reliance, serving others, and loving yourself and your friends as you are and in spite of your differences.

Except cats who try to eat you. Those, you scare away with confident words and wide-spread wings.Book Beautiful Yetta excerpt

ΡΕΠΚΑ (translation: Turnip; pronounced “Ryep-kuh”)

Not every reader will be able to share this story with their kids, but if you are even a beginning student of Russian, the frequent repetition makes this a great confidence builder for deciphering Cyrillic characters and the cadence of the story makes it so much fun to read aloud. In our family, where the kids heard Russian from native speaking grandparents from birth, this served all of us well.

Book Repka cover

When I said these stories were delicious read-alouds, I meant literally, and not in the modern sense where literally now officially means figuratively. DS2 chewed off that missing corner.

Hopefully the text is pretty classic, because my edition isn’t available on Amazon in the US, but here’s a link to a bilingual Russian-English version. We own two versions of this story, and this little red book (©2002, ISBN: 5-7865-0003-9) definitely tells it better as far as enjoyable read-aloud cadence goes. Not being fluent in Russian, I can’t say if the language itself is any more refined.

If you know of other wonderfully rhythmic read alouds that shouldn’t be missed—especially if they include foreign content in German, Spanish, or Russian while being accessible to a language learner—please share the titles in the comments!

*The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, haunting, and lyrical even in translation; it’s one of my all time favorite books

Book review: “From Anna” by Jean Little

I read incessantly as a child, and I read some young adult fiction working in a bookstore as an adult (between my professional career as an engineer and becoming a full-time parent.) Then, I was the mother of a child who read far above grade level, but was still emotionally too young for some kinds of content, so I read many more children’s books in a newly critical way.From Anna by Jean Little cover

I found Jean Little’s From Anna (written in 1973) at our local library in 2012, read it, and shared it with my son. It appears to be out of print as of this writing (2017.)

It is an incredible statement from me that I believe this might be the most moving children’s book I have ever read. I finished it in just a few hours and loved everything about it. I had to hide my raging enthusiasm for it lest my son rebel and refuse to read it. I think this novel is a valuable read for every child.

The plot is straightforward: a German family decides to leave their homeland as the Nazis rise to power in the 1930’s. The youngest child, Anna, has an undiagnosed problem. She is almost blind, but no one realizes it. Her family loves her but assumes she is as stupid as she is clumsy since she fails miserably at school and in her household chores. A family connection to Canada opens a door for them to emigrate. After this huge transition, Anna’s disability is discovered and she finally gets an appropriate education where she can feel safe to come out of the protective shell she’s kept herself in all of her short life.

The reasons I loved this book are so much more than the plot.

The story is written very naturally, yet every word is well chosen. For example, I have struggled to appreciate German culture due to the legacy of the World War II and the Holocaust. Early in the story, before I cared about the characters, the lyrics of a song beloved by Anna’s family are presented: “Die Gedanken sind frei.” I was brought to tears reading the English excerpts in the book. Here’s a link to the full text and translation, Thoughts are free.

A family who would sing this song in spite of the very real dangers of doing so is one I will enjoy visiting in a novel. I care, desperately, about human freedoms. Knowing what would soon happen in Germany made this moment in the story achingly poignant for me. It also serves as a valuable reminder that dissidents persist under the most tyranical regimes, and the atrocities of a culture’s leadership should never be allowed to eclipse the good that inevitably remains, however deeply buried.

The child, Anna, is drawn realistically. Her family is good and loving, but they completely fail to understand her. She is treated unfairly, and the novel recognizes this without vilifying anyone. Her father loves her. She might even be the favorite of all five children. His love isn’t enough to solve Anna’s problems.

Anna is stubborn and grumpy and imperfect, but the reader sees why this is so and likes her in spite of it. Unlike some children’s books, there is no sugar-coating the experiences of a child with real problems. It recognizes that life can stink, even when a good person lives surrounded by other good people who love her. The failures of Anna’s family members in the story are noted, commented upon, and then forgiven. Anna herself comes to terms with her family in a very believable way, providing a beautiful role model for the child reader.

Share this book with your children. Read it yourself. Tell everyone you know about it, especially if they have a child with any special needs. I loved it.

*Adapted from my August 9, 2012 Amazon review of From Anna, by Jean Little

Learning German: foreign language tools for adults

As a child, I might have been offended at the very idea: I’m studying to prepare for summer camp? See my post here about attending German language immersion camp with the kids in a couple of months.

But who could have imagined an adult attending summer camp at all? I like to think my younger self would be excited at the opportunity to travel to a “foreign land,” even if it’s only as foreign as Bemidji, MN.

Here are the tools I’m using right now to brush up on my German before camp. I find that mixing and matching different products has a multiplying effect on my progress, both by keeping up my interest and by coming at the same vocabulary from a different angle.

  • At every glance, I’m bombarded with FlashSticks® German Flash Cards for Beginners, conveniently printed on Post-it® notes for the speediest possible deployment all over the house. I might have learned more by making my own tags, but I also might have stopped after far fewer terms when I got tired of “arts and crafts” time.

  • A retired GE Aerospace manager’s re-thinking of the entire “language education” genre called The Little German Notebook: a breakthrough in early speaking (Charles Merlin Long) suggests a radically different approach to language acquisition that I find fascinating. If nothing else, thinking about the structure of the language in a new way makes studying its lists of vocabulary somewhat more novel. Analytical types studying German should definitely give this book at least a quick look.

  • Living Language‘s all audio set, Starting out in German, is what I’m using on the go in the car. None of it has been new vocabulary yet, but it’s tuning my ear back to the language and has clear, crisp dialogue compared to some. I like the Pimsleur audio series, too, and have used both German I and French I, but this is my first time through the Living Language set, so the content feels fresher.

  • Finally, I’m using Visual Education Think German I flash cards when I have a few down time to flip cards as well as listen. The audio quality on the included CDs is abysmal, however. It sounds like it was dubbed off the old cassettes, and maybe in a wind tunnel…

    Book cover Visual Ed Think German I

    You still get a cassette as well as CDs with Visual Ed’s Think German I

Have you had success with any particular tools for self-studying a foreign language?

Children’s books that made me who I am

Many of us read frequently, seemingly constantly, in childhood. Assuming there were lots of re-reads, and an average of finishing a few books a week for the decade between literacy and the teenage years, let’s call that about 1500 books read.

10 years x 52 weeks/year = 520 weeks

3 books/week x 520 weeks = 1560 books

The math is there for those of us who automatically calculate the numbers every time we read a blog post or news story anyway…

So we read a couple thousand books in childhood, but I think we all know a secret:

Not every book mattered.

How many books are there from your childhood that still sneak out and surprise you on occasion? There are those we couldn’t bear to let our own kids miss out on, and others we swoon to imagine them reading. (Or maybe only degenerates, or prudes, like me read stuff at that age that still brings up a blush?)

I still find myself caught up short in the middle of my day by distinct memories of scenes from books I otherwise can’t recall. There was a book with catfish crossing a street, but that’s all I remember…

Little House on the Prairie

I don’t believe I would be the woman I am today if it weren’t for some books. The Little House on the Prairie series comes immediately to mind. I know I read it over 50 times, and once re-read the entire series (minus the upsetting locust chapters) on one winter snow day.


I think 1984 is the book that took my innocence. You’ll find that listed on my all time favorites book list, too, but it’s a bittersweet favorite. It kindled my dark fascination with dystopian fiction, and perhaps colored my worldview more than it should have.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies was the novel that made me realize a great book was literally a great book, not a teacher’s great excuse to annoy kids.

The Melendy family books, beginning with The Saturdays

The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright (of the Melendy family series) is one I’m joyfully sharing with DS2 right now.

Picture books

My mother tells me that my first favorite book was Whose Mouse Are You? (Kraus) I remember Corduroy (Freeman) and The Snowy Day (Keats) from those early years, too.

There must have been early readers in my youth, but none of them left an imprint.

My grade school memories of reading include a sense of outrage at the red-taped-line between the lower two shelves (for first and second graders) and the better range of books above. I discovered, and adored, the “real” Mary Poppins (Travers) books, The Story of Doctor Dolittle (Lofting), and James and the Giant Peach (Dahl). I remember devouring every available reference book about holidays and celebrations in other countries and the one Spanish language book on my elementary school library’s shelf.

By upper elementary, I’d moved on to Agatha Christie and the selection of Reader’s Digest Classics my parents had on hand, in part just to provide the bulk of reading matter I required, but also due to a fascination I still have with British drawing room culture and The World as it Was (Before the War(s)?)

Somehow, I’ve ended up listing all the classics on every list, but perhaps there is a reason they are so popular. I can remember titles for a few non-classic titles:

The Girl with Silver Eyes (Roberts)

Key to the Treasure (Parish)

Behind the Attic Wall (Cassidy)

Are these great books? I couldn’t say. They still stand out, thirty years later, as memorable books, and there’s something to be said for that.

Books that change the contours of my mind

  • 1984 by George Orwell

  • The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

  • The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

  • The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

  • An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Listed in roughly the order I experienced them, these are extraordinary novels that had a profound effect upon my very understanding of the world. They stand out as “the greatest books I’ve ever read.”

It’s telling that most of the titles were read in or before young adulthood. Is youth simply more open to seismic shifts of consciousness, or did my good education expose me to a spectrum of great writing, exactly when and as it should?

The closest I’ve come in recent memory to a reading experience as paradigm-altering as these was non-fiction:

  • The Little LISPer by Daniel P. Friedman and Matthias Felleisen

While I still read novels for pleasure almost every day, this does reflect a trend I’ve observed in my life.

As a child, my discretionary reading was primarily fiction. As an adult, the majority of my selections seem to be non-fiction. Six of the seven books I have out from the library today are non-fiction titles. My Kindle is filled primarily with novels, bought and borrowed, so this may not be a representative sample of all my reading, but, when I consider the mental effort I put into reading these days, I do feel as though  it is non-fiction that provides most the gear-grinding heft of deep thought and hard work.

Sometimes I think that a lifetime spent enjoying wonderful writing has simply raised the bar for what qualifies as “a good book,” making great novels ever harder to find. Believe me, I’m still actively looking for one every time I visit or the local library. A non-fiction title need only offer new information in a palatable form to warrant at least a browse, if not a thorough read.

Is a shift from fiction to non-fiction a natural side effect of maturity, reflecting adult values and responsibilities? Or could my self-imposed exile from the world of intellectually demanding technical work to the domestic sphere and full-time parenting be the weightier factor here?

How have your reading choices changed as you’ve grown?