Commonplace Book, 47

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

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Readers’ Advisory: Policemen

Shortly after Pippin turned four, he got into policemen in a big way. (It may have been a half dozen back to back screenings of Lego City on the way to Christmas in Florida. Oops.)

Since then, his previous stockpile of truck books has simply become a source of needle-and-haystack searches for police cars and policemen. When asked why he loves police so much, he answers matter-of-fairly, “I don’t know. I’m just into right and wrong.”

We would have preferred his Next Big Thing be something like knights or animals, but it’s hard to argue with a thirst for justice. Still, with police books being at least 80% less popular than firefighter and construction books (WHY?!), we’ve been on a long quest now for the best in police books. Some suggestions for your young cadet:

  • Detective LaRuein which a dog solves the crime for which he’s been framed, with lots of irony between his letters and the illustrations.
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria. Probably my favorite. A police officer’s safety presentations become lively when a police dog begins to accompany him on his school visits. Bonus: John Lithgow reads the book aloud.
  • The Boxcar Children series for gentle mysteries — these don’t always feature police but they do feature bad guys and mysteries to solve and are unbelievably mild. The audiobooks are also often easy to come by.
  • Sergeant Murphy’s Busy Day and some other Richard Scarry titles. The Scarry spinoff show Busy Town on Amazon Prime also passes the test for extremely gentle mystery.
This year’s school picture. Weird homeschooled kid.

Dishonorable Mentions

  • Detective Chase McCain series. These are pretty agonizing to read aloud, but I could see how they might be OK to lure a Lego- and police-loving kid into reading by himself, if he were a bit older. Total fluff, though.
  • Officer Panda: Fingerprint DetectiveA little too odd and meta for me.

Have you found any police books your kids loved? We are always on the hunt!



Commonplace Book, 26

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • It’s possible I’ve shared this before: pesto bread machine bread. I’ve found if you add something like pesto or pureed pumpkin to your dough, it often tastes less “bread machine-y” than a more basic recipe. Do you have any favorites?
  • Everyday chocolate cake from Smitten Kitchen. But I forgot to sift the flour, and it mattered.
  • Add to the vaguely ethnic slow cooker recipes: vaguely French slow cooker cassoulet.
  • Quick tip obvious to everyone but me: if you do a whole chicken in the slow cooker, if you stick it in the oven for a few minutes at 400 degrees before serving it, you will make the chicken-skin eaters in your crowd really happy, because the oven will crisp the skin, while the slow cooker leaves the white meat tender and lovely.

What I’m reading:

  • Minimalism gets it wrong: This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit since reading some of the Little House books with Pippin at the end of last year. It’s not that we should have fewer things because the material world and everything bodily is bad; it’s that we should have fewer things because we only acquire those that are good and useful and beautiful — not to pass the time, or keep up with trends, or any of the other reasons we accumulate junk. The Ingalls family values their meager possessions, from the beautiful impractical ones, like Ma’s china doll, to the direly essential ones, like the horses that transport their wagon. An orange, or scattered Indian beads, are noteworthy treasures for Laura, and as our Christmas approached, this struck me all the more. A truly lovely Catholic church, like my college church, manifests this truth: it is in no way minimalist, but there is nothing trendy or junky or extraneous, either. I guess Marie Kondo hints at this, talking about things that bring you joy, but that’s not quite the same, is it?
  • A Tree Grows In Brooklynthis is the first time I’ve read this, and it’s beautiful and lyrical but so sad that I’m not enjoying it as much as I expected. I wanted something like Shadows on the Rock or Little Women, with lots of light amidst its lyricism, and this is much grittier than I’d expected —

    “The sad thing was in the knowing that all their nerve would get them nowhere in the world and that they were lost as all the people in Brooklyn seem lost when they day is nearly over and even though the sun is still bright, it is thin and doesn’t give you warmth when it shines on you.”

  • Housekeeping (audiobook) because I think it’s the only Marilynne Robinson novel I haven’t read yet. I don’t love it as much as Gilead but that’s not to say I don’t love it, if you see what I mean.
  • Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating because, you know.

My Books of 2016

Total: 42. (I might knock out a couple more in the last couple weeks, but I’m calling it as of 12/11.)

You can see them all here. I’m kind of cheating to include ones like Catwingswhich are like thirty seconds long, but on the other hand, I’ve slogged through some real behemoths. (Shouldn’t Brothers Karamazov count as more than one book?!)


  • Audiobooks. Audiobooks while running, audiobooks while cleaning, audiobooks getting ready in the morning. So grateful for those opportunities.
  • MG with Pippin: In the last few months Pippin’s powers of attention to long stories have really taken off, and he loves to have me read aloud to him as he zooms a truck along beside me on the couch. It’s (unsurprisingly) one of my favorite things to do with him. We start many more than we finish, but when he hits on a book he loves — Henry HugginsLittle House on the Prairie — he begs for the next chapter unceasingly.
  • The endless Throne of Glass series. Thanks, Maddy!

Favorite fiction:

  • The Lake House (Kate Morton) — almost as good as The Secret Keepermy favorite of hers. Her books are always atmospheric and kind of moody and beautiful, and the best have plots that broadside me, but have a rightness. (I want to say “lushly romantic”…but that descriptor kind of embarrasses me.)
  • Helena (Evelyn Waugh) — maybe my third or fourth Waugh, and the first I’ve liked. The plotting and language are kind of disconcerting, but at the kernel is this idea: that one decision can define you, that one fiat can set you down in legend.
  • The Precious One (Marisa de los Santos) — I recommended this to a friend who said reading it was like listening to me talk, that it was just so essentially me. All I can say is I loved it: funny and quirky with vivid characters and places you want to visit yourself and lots of sweet moments.

Favorite nonfiction:

(You can catch up on previous years on ye old tumblr.)

What book was the best to come out of your reading for this year?




Library Link Up

I’ve been meaning to jump in with my library haul over at A Gentle Mother all month, and today I finally got it in gear.

(Caveat: This is not the entire contents of our library bag, as there are always 1000 mindless truck books and usually an Octonauts DVD for good measure.)

1. An Illustrated Treasury of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. I got this so my students at co op could comb through and find themselves a fairy tale to illustrate for our triptych project, but Pippin and I have been enjoying it as well. The stories hew very closely to Andersen’s originals, so things get pretty dark, but the illustrations are just dreamy, and it seems like so far Pip can take it.

2. This Is Not My HatA friend of mine from library school got Pippin I Want My Hat Back when he was a baby, and so far I don’t think he really understands it, but he does smile mischievously, because he suspects Something Is Up.

3. Last Stop on Market StreetBecause I’m always on the lookout for Truck Books that Aren’t Just Truck Books. I like this more than Pippin does, but maybe that’s because he knows I’m trying to indoctrinate him to greater generosity. (The birthday greed is serious over here, folks.)


4. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend as a digital audiobook. Light and sweet and allusive so far, with a lovely small town at its center.

We also have out a ton of Molly Jan Brett for that triptych assignment, but who doesn’t already know about Molly (Jan) Brett?! [Edit: An attentive reader from Sweeping Up Joy totally caught me out on my mistake: JAN. Apparently there is a Molly Brett and she’s written stuff, but that’s not who I was thinking of!]

Mama-Scout Dates


Scout the big kid, ruling the playground

So, a couple of things have conspired recently. Pippin’s in preschool without me three mornings a week, and Scout has kicked the morning nap habit. Suddenly, the world has opened back up: I have just a toddler again, awake and eager.


For awhile now, I’ve been taking Pippin on Mama-Pippin dates, usually just a walk to the local Starbucks to split a plain croissant and buy him milk in a box, which is apparently the height of luxuries. But I haven’t gone a lot of places with Scout simply for her enjoyment, unless, of course, she enjoys ambling through Goodwill as much as I do.

The other day, we dropped Pippin off at school and I went to return a giant stack of library books Pippin and I had accrued between the two of us. I was just going to run them to the drop box while Scout hung out in the car and then I realized I could take her in.

The thought, honestly, felt a little traitorous. Pippin loves the library! I should wait till he can come, too!

But I went anyway, and figured it was fine if we went back later this week, even later that day. I got to grab a few books I needed for my homeschool class without hauling around Pippin’s dragon-hoarde, too, and Scout clambered happily among the toys, and recklessly pulled things off shelves, and invaded the personal space of other families. It was pretty great.

Crossing the street from the library, Scout hooted and pointed at a truck. The truck driver softly honked his horn in greeting and she peered over my shoulder, wide eyed.

It’s the kind of moment I’ve had a thousand times with Pippin, but it’s all new with Scout. My big girl. My not-baby.


(Well, not too big.)



Books That Shaped Me

Recently my blog-crush Dominika shared her list of life-changing books and inspired me to do the same. It was hard to differentiate favorites from the ones that really rearranged my mental furniture, but here’s my attempt:

  1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: I remember trying to read this a couple of times before I could get through it, totally in love with the movie (was Dickon my first crush?), but totally stymied by the Yorkshire accents. I think it was the first book to touch (or inspire?) my love of deep history, of stories in which layer upon layer of human generation has touched a place, leaving it shadowy with memory and mystery. It is also probably most directly responsible for the Anglophile tendencies that led me to Oxford for study abroad in 2007.
  2. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: Later this book was other things to me — the foundation for a dream-come-true trip to Prince Edward Island when I was 9 or 10, the subject of my undergrad honors thesis — but first Anne Shirley was an inspiration to me for how one should live. She balances a dreamy romantic spirit with a sense of duty to the people around her. (Also, every bouquet I’ve ever picked has been inspired at least a little by Anne.)
  3. Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank: I’m not really sure why I’ve always loved post apocalyptic stories, but I am sure that this was the first I read, plucked from a shelf of my parents’ books sometime in grade school. I think stories of worldwide calamity satisfy some conviction in my anxious heart of the brokenness of our world, and the best ones, like this one, show us a way to rebuild it.
  4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling: I was born in 1985, at just the perfect time for Harry P. — right at the generational hinge of people young enough to read the books just as they were coming out, so that the first debuted when I was about Harry’s age, and I awaited the last one as an old engaged lady. The books in themselves are a world to inhabit, but what was probably most important to me about them was how they made reading a communal thing. Harry Potter was and remains a secret language for discovering kindred spirits.
  5. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis: I want to list Orthodoxy or Lost In the Cosmos: A Last Self-Help Book — something to give me hipster Catholic cred — but Mere Christianity was the first book to really suggest to me that smart people could be Christians, and that Christianity could be understood (to an extent) rationally.
  6. What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing by Naomi Stadlen: Ok, I’m going to tell you a librarian secret now: we scam from the holds shelf. I saw this one come through when Pippin was a baby and I was working circ, and I immediately added it to my holds, because I was a mother who felt like she was doing nothing. It was unbelievably affirming and fascinating and you should really read it, too, if you’ve ever felt like motherhood was killing you.

I am not sure about this list. It’s like nothing notable happened to me in college, despite being an English major and Great Books student. Hmm. But it’s hard to select just one formative thing (King LearPascal’s Pensees! Digging deep into Austen! You know, finally reading the Bible!), so I will offer a jumble of other stuff, college and not, below.

Honorable mentions: anything Jane Austen, because her prose is just the absolute best; Paradise Lost because it is so big and hard and beautiful; The Four Quartets which I wrestled over in a book club one summer in college; Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year because Anne Lamott can make me tear up and cackle in the same paragraph, and believe everything will be ok…

On the Scary Stuff in Fairy Tales

The other day when everyone was sick we watched Shrek and I realized Pippin was getting zero of the fairy tale references, except maybe the Gingerbread Man, because it turns out we haven’t read him any fairy tales.


The kid’s a Grimm, for heaven’s sake. But I do a lot of child-led book selection and so it’s been all trucks, all the time for the most part, though at least he got some fractured nursery rhymes, which he looooved, from The Big Book of Truckery Rhymes.

And you know, it turns out reading fairy tales to your kid is kind of scary business. For the parent, I mean. Pippin doesn’t bat a lash at Little Red Riding Hood getting gobbled or Hansel and Gretel’s parents abandoning their own children, and he enjoys knight/dragon battles with a relish I frankly find a little unseemly.

The truth is, I don’t think he’s encountered a lot of darkness in his own life yet, beyond his own not inconsiderable fears and anxieties. Two years ago at Holy Week we started to talk about the crucifixion, but when NPR talks about the latest shooting, we change stations, and we skip the Mr Rogers episodes about divorce, because it hasn’t come up in Pippin’s life yet.

Reading him this sad and scary stuff hurts me a little, as if I’m destroying his innocence, but his excitement and solemn focus suggest that these stories are telling him something he needs to know, and perhaps has long suspected. I’m reminded of that bit from G.K. Chesterton:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

So I’m letting him know now there are dragons in our world, and someday sooner than I’d like we will give them names: playground bullies and neglectful parents and police brutality and all the other ugly things in our broken world. But I hope by reading him these old stories, I will help him learn to find the heroes and to maybe, someday, become one himself.

(What are your kids’ favorite fairy tale versions?)

Baby Pip made a pretty adorable Little Red Riding Hood, right?

Building a Family Reading Culture, Part 3: Do Good Books Matter?

There are so many ways to approach this question.

As an undergrad, I received a Great Books and English literature education I loved. I still find many so-called great works to be a bolstering moral influence. The characters are more often concerned with the question of how one should live, and so I can take comfort in Anne Shirley‘s quest to be a good girl, or Fanny Price‘s uncool, surprisingly steely morality. What’s more, as I continue my adventures in reading, I meet new compatriots in unexpected places, on the French Canadian frontier, for instance. Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued a year back,

 But at the same time, there are ways in which Christianity really is a time machine: As a Catholic, as a Christian, you can step into those worlds, find your footing, and realize that you are not somewhere altogether alien; that the past is another country but also somehow yours; you can in some sense think with the letter-writers of the New Testament and the Church Father scribbling in late antiquity and the medieval monk in the north of England and the Florentine poet and the philosopher-nun dealing with hapless popes and the mystic in Spain and the philosopher-martyr in Henry VIII’s court and thence back around to the saints and novelists and polemicists of the modern world.

My eyes meet Kristin Lavransdattar‘s over the communion rail; Alyosha Karamazov and I can discuss the overlap between western Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century.

I feel, sometimes, though, like I’m caught between the librarian camp and the bookish mama camp. My librarian training would say that all books are valuable and that variety is most important, never looking down on a Spiderman novelization; the bookish mamas would say only quality will pass muster.

Contemporary books, after all, and reading simply for pleasure’s sake, have brought so much into my life. John Ames has had a lot to teach me and the rest of us, even if the book in which he finds a home is a (comparatively) new one. Even low quality books may offer their own rewards: escapism for the wretchedly morning sick new mother; enthusiasm for reading in a young reader choosing his own books for the first time.

They give me a fictional framework upon which to contextualize knowledge I gain later from loftier sources — for instance, I’m reading the so-so Crazy Rich Asians at the moment, maybe the first book I’ve ever read that takes place in Singapore, and it will form the conceptual framework I use next time I hear a NPR piece on Singapore. It’s like TV. There isn’t really anything you can watch that is particularly virtuous and educational, compared to, say a book or a lecture. But there’s something about the vividness of the nature documentary, or the setting of 1920s Yorkshire in Downton Abbey, entertainment you’ve chosen for yourself, that cements those facts more strongly in your head better than the driest, most informative book. I think the same goes for the fun fluff your kids choose to read. It’s not a meal in itself, but it’s certainly a start.

As a librarian, I was a staunch supporter of letting a kid add a Star Wars novella or two to his stack of books, and I still wince when a well-meaning parent outlaws any fluff from their little one’s reading. My varied, omnivorous reading has made me smarter, and wiser, and more compassionate, stretching me in all kinds of ways.

What’s more, divorced from community and faith and family, even great capital-Literature can be no stand-alone salvation. The summer I turned 25, my memories of my Great Books education became irrevocably tarnished, when a classmate in some of my early courses was charged with murder. The voices of goodness, truth and beauty that had spoken to me in that sunlit classroom haunted by errant wasps had fallen upon deaf ears, or perhaps been drowned out by subsequent influences or deep illness. The books I’d read and argued for gathered at that round table hadn’t necessarily meant the same to all of us.

Maybe good books matter, but good books aren’t the only ones that matter, and books aren’t all that matter. The simple act of reading cannot make us happier, or better, or holier, but filtered through experience and reflection, through the guide of a tradition and a community, reading can assemble behind us a rank of fictional counterparts, fighting down through the ages the same battles we now face.

Important skill: napping while pretending to read a really lame book with your kid.

[Catch up! Building a Family Reading Culture, 1: On a Home Library; Building a Family Reading Culture, 2: Books as Un-Sacred Objects]

The Lola Quartet and the Disintegration of Community

I picked up The Lola Quartet in a little bookstore’s closing sale in Montgomery, Alabama. I ached for the little business, blinking out of existence just as my brother-in-law and his wife moved within walking distance, but I couldn’t help but pick up a few half-priced impulse purchases. I loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and hoped I’d love this novel, one of her earlier books, just as much.

I bought The Lola Quartet in Montgomery, but read it in a blankly comfortable Knoxville hotel room as the kids slept, and finished it on the monotonous interstate of Tennessee and Virginia.

The book is literary noir but between the whodunit details breathe a rich setting and striking questions about identity, community, and loneliness. Mandel’s South Florida reminds me of nothing so much as the world of The Orchid Thieflush and quietly malevolent.

These days we are in the middle of buying our first ever house, and I grew uneasy as the protagonist Gavin takes a job with his sister, who sells foreclosed homes in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. Gavin, long a New York apartment dweller, considers houses “[t]hese enormous anchors that people tied to their lives,” but his radical alienation is hardly the solution.

Mandel returns again and again to the sameness of everywhere — “Only the names of the towns varied, and the towns were like envelopes with all the contents the same.” Here is the stage where evil lurks behind closed doors, where abuse, neglect and addiction run rampant. It’s a hypnotically awful world, and it is, of course, our own, where every stop on the interstate offers the same fast food chains, where every suburban house is its own hermetically sealed mystery.

Gavin, like Binx Bolling in The Moviegoerseems more aware of this hollowness than those around him, and embarks on a quest that, for a time, brings meaning to his crumbling life. The people he encounters, in their late 20s and early 30s like me, are all frantically or else numbly lonely. They come from estranged or indifferent families and, despite their best efforts, are well on the way to repeating the pattern. Mandel doesn’t offer an anecdote, or much hope for this old high school quartet and its hangers-on, but her dark conclusion, perhaps, suggests what we must work against:

“On either side of the highway the suburbs continued uninterrupted, a continuous centreless glimmering of lights, shadows of palm trees on parking lots, malls shining like beacons and he was nowhere, this could be any suburb on the edge of any city but it seemed to him that none of the cities had edges anymore, just a long slow reach across landscapes.”

In our lives and in our new house, we must work against this insidious encroachment. We must respect the uniqueness of the landscape in which we find ourselves and support the businesses and culture that make it unique. We must resist the empty beacons of mindless consumption, never letting our house or our habits become a financial anchor around our necks. Most importantly, we must open our home to the wholesome air and light, and welcome in those who find themselves on the anonymous fringes.