February Books

Real Learning Revisited by Elizabeth Foss

Synopsis: More or less a tour through the Foss family homeschool, both at the time of the book’s original publication and now (thus the “revisited”). Foss’s whole-life approach is Catholic, Charlotte Mason-inspired, and, as a wry friend noted, very “NoVA.”

I struggled a bit with the tone of this for some reason. Maybe if I had read it earlier in my homeschooling research I would have found her a little less superwoman and smug in some sections — it really seemed like she was able to spin all the plates effortlessly most of the time. This is a critique of the book’s voice, rather than the actual content, or, heaven forbid, poor Elizabeth Foss’s actual character. (Maybe if I were a longtime blog reader I’d cut Foss more slack — Kendra Tierney is similarly super-capable and she doesn’t annoy me.) Still, this was the first book-length synthesis of Charlotte Mason philosophy and Catholic educational theory I’ve read, and valuable for those early philosophical sections, as well as for some of the closing sections. (I especially liked “What I’m Not Going to Tell You.”) Also, she may have softened my heart just slightly toward team sports. (But seriously, ugh.)

Takeaway Passage: “[P]arenting will always be more about self-discipline than it is about bending or shaping a child’s will.”

On to Oregon by Honoré Willsie Morrow

Synopsis: When his parents both die suddenly along the Oregon Trail, 13-year-old John Sager takes responsibility for his six younger siblings, including a newborn, as they press on to Oregon despite many obstacles.

A book recommendation I got from Real Learning Revisiting, so there’s value right there. We worked through this as an audiobook whenever I needed to run errands and everyone was enthralled to varying degrees, with Pip being the most enthusiastic. (Foss had mentioned it appealed most to her eldest son and improved his attitude to his younger siblings — my initial reason for trying it!) I found the historical detail interesting and it tied in well with our current work with Classically Catholic Memory — as a librarian, I also appreciated how the author cited diaries and letters from her research so my kids could see research in action. On the other hand, I found the constant peril of the newborn baby sister painful (probably a legacy from my miscarriage) and the attitude toward Native Americans required a lot of conversations — probably good to have those, but also a little painful. (Then again, original publication date: 1926.)

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Synopsis: Explores the lives of the Mirabal sisters and the enormous impact their lives and deaths held on the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic.

I know nothing about the Dominican Republic! Except that maybe some good baseball players come from there (?) and also that it’s on the same island as Haiti! (I mean, I think?) Still, In the Time of the Butterflies completely engrossed me, though: the political intrigue, the nuances of four very different sisters, the question of what we owe our families, our faith and our nation. Lovely prose, lovely book.

Takeaway Passage: “‘Dictatorships,’ he was saying, ‘are pantheistic. The dictator manages to plant a little piece of himself in every one of us.'”

The Half-Acre Homestead; 46 Years of Building and Gardening by Lloyd Kahn and Lesley Creed

Very aspirational hippie stuff about a couple out in California who built their own home in the 1960s and have been tweaking and modifying it as a self-sustaining tiny piece of land for the last four and a half decades. J would panic if he leafed through it — lots of sections on greywater (maybe someday) and roadkill taxidermy (never), but it has some clever solutions and inspiration for living a frugal and handmade non-Instagram life. It is more like a magazine, a glancing and wide-reaching overview, than a how-to manual on any particular subject, but with a lot to interest in the breadth it covers and the life it describes.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: On the winter solstice, at a merry pub on the banks of the Thames, a badly beaten man comes to the door bearing a dead little girl. But is she dead? And to whom does she belong?

I can’t begin to say how much I loved this one. Such a lovely surprise — I didn’t go into it with any kind of recommendation, just happened upon it in the library e-audiobooks, and, having loved Juliet Stevenson’s reading of Middlemarch, decided to give it a go. Well, Juliet didn’t point me wrong. The book just felt old-fashioned, even a little Dickensian, with any character who cropped up once appearing before the end, and its strict and merciful distribution of satisfying justice, but also peppered with very of-the-moment discussions of what parenthood and children call forth from a person.

Takeaway Passage: “A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.” (Also, Robert Armstrong may be one of my favorite literary creations of recent memory.)

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

This was a struggle. I listened to it as an audiobook and it just felt like a complete assault of information, coming too fast for me to process it. Massacre, treaty, migration, massacre, massacre. I could’ve gone slower, of course, if I’d read it as a book, but I’m skeptical I would have made it through. The last section, about the repatriation of artifacts and remains, was the most interesting to me, probably because I was best able to understand it, with less hopping around geographically, historically, and culturally, and with my limited knowledge of the subject from my sister-in-law’s work. I’m hoping this is a step in the right direction of correcting my woeful ignorance, and that more fiction like Even as We Breathe and heck, even counterexamples like On to Oregon, will populate my imagination and give me a better framework to build on.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Synopsis: Nora has nothing to live for. So when the last few threads holding her to other humans finally fray, she makes a rash decision at midnight and awakens in the Midnight Library, where she will live different variations on her life until she finds the one that makes her want to keep on living.

Despite the macabre start, a really charming, life-affirming little novel with shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, Family Man, and Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Very cinematic, and full of humor and pathos. Enough philosophy to not make it completely superficial, and honestly a little too much physics for me, but maybe that’s your thing.

Takeaway Passage: “You’re overthinking.” “I have anxiety. I have no other type of thinking available.”

2 thoughts on “February Books

  1. Great suggestions! I’ve added several to my list. Currently halfway through The Midnight Library and enjoying it so far (perhaps because it reminds me of a grownup Choose Your Own Adventure book?!).


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