Sunday, January 31, 2010

Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks (Week 4): Cry, the Beloved Country

I'd heard about this book for years but had never read it.  I even bought it for my dh, based on Gladys Hunt's review in her excellent book Honey for a Woman's Heart, wherein she cites this as one of her favorite novels.  Dh read it and liked it, and still I read other things.  Until last week.

Published in 1948, Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country was "like a shot heard round the world" (Hunt, p.53).  The story of two South African fathers, black pastor Reverend Stephen Kumalo and white farmer Mr. Jarvis, whose sons -- their only children -- die, this novel explores how we are all victims of racial injustice.

I was amazed at how successfully Paton, a white South African, depicted each father's story.  The introductory material explained how Paton, of British descent, worked as supervisor at Deipkloof, a large reform "school" for black boys aged nine to twenty-one and transformed this prison into a successful school and true reformatory.  He also worked for the liberal cause and wrote many articles, just like Arthur Jarvis in the novel, pointing to the disappearance of tribal and traditional family bonds within the native population as the underlying cause of crime in South Africa.  Paton's experience working in both communities enabled him to give honest voice to all his characters.

Two things bothered me about the novel, one of which was technical:  Paton utilized the introductory dash to mark dialogue, as opposed to quotation marks.  If the dialogue occurs within a paragraph, it is often difficult to distinguish from narrative comment.  Many times, I had to re-read portions to make sure what I'd read was, in fact, dialogue.  Since I am a fast reader, I found this distracting and irritating.  But it in no way dimmed my overall deep appreciation of the novel.  In fact, it may have slowed me down, made me consider more deeply, introduced an impediment to my reading speed in such a way that I paid more attention than I may have done otherwise.  Secondly, I wished that Paton had begun the story earlier in time, when Absolom Kumalo leaves his native village for the metropolis of Johannesburg, the first step in his path to destruction.  As it is, the story begins in medias res -- "in the middle of affairs" -- just like Greek and Roman epic poetry.  This is fitting, since some of Paton's writing reads like poetry.

Gladys Hunt deems Cry, the Beloved Country a "heart-breaking story of grace and forgiveness," and I concur.  This is a story that will stay with me for a long time.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Weekly Wrap-Up

We did things a bit differently this week.  Previously, I just kept a weekly schedule arranged by subject, not by day, i.e., all readings, assignments, etc., to be completed that week.  I was afraid that if I had a daily schedule, I'd feel like a failure if we didn't get EVERYTHING done for that day, so I stuck with a weekly schedule.  For some reason, though, this week I decided to print out a daily/weekly schedule for each of my daughters and for me.  And, shock of all shocks, it worked nicely.  We kept on task a bit more, and the girls had more "ownership" over their assignments.  Also, I discovered that certain subjects that tend to get overlooked or pushed aside ("we just don't have time this week for that"), like Latin or artist study, were scheduled AND studied.  We'll keep this going and see what happens.

We are wrapping up our study of the middle ages.  Although lapbooking/notebooking and others of that ilk deeply frighten me, each child is putting together a sort of medieval notebook.  We've only begun, but they are having a fun time with this project.  Since we don't do many hands-on projects (they give me hives), it's fun to shake things up a bit.  More on this later, because I'd like to share some of the resources we're using, in case anyone is interested.

We began English for the Thoughtful Child 1 this week.  We're only doing one lesson per week, but so far so good.  I also added in a parts of speech study.  I inherited a lot of books from my mother when she retired as a classroom teacher, such as a series of fun books relating to the parts of speech.  This week, the girls read Kites Fly High: A Book of Verbs.  They also each made a small verbs poster by cutting out verbs from some magazines.  (Hey, another project!  I guess I'm on a roll.)  We've studied nouns, verbs, and pronouns before, but it's good to reinforce.  We own the Schoolhouse Rock videos (multiplication and grammar), and they are not only educational but also a blast from my past.

Memory work is an area I have tended to overlook.  This week, though, the girls each selected a Sara Teasdale poem to memorize.  Also, Miss Priss is working on memorizing the Apostles' Creed for Sunday school recitation, and Tiny Girl is working on Psalm 23.  They have both memorized the Table Blessing in Latin, part of the Latina Christiana curriculum.

I'm finding that Miss Priss is open to reading some more materials on her own.  This is wonderful, since she will be in Ambleside Online Year 4 next year, which is quite a jump up from Year 3.  In fact, I am looking at Year 3.5 for Tiny Girl because I am wondering how she will do with Year 4.  I must say, though, it's so much easier with them in the same year!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Backyard Birding Bonanza

(Yes, I am well aware that's a silly title, but I liked the alliterations, and it's my blog, anyway.  Right?)

We have had lots of bird action at our feeders in the last few days!  I wasn't able to get good photos of many of our visitors, so I've only a few to share.  But what I have, I pass on for your viewing pleasure.

These Eastern bluebirds, which I adore, only visited for one day.  I don't have a bluebird house, so they don't hang around.  (I really need to get one!)  The vivid one on the right is, of course, the male, and there are two females as well.  I didn't notice the downy woodpecker in the upper left hand corner until after I uploaded the photo to my computer.  I couldn't have taken that shot on purpose in a million years!

Here's a closer shot of one of the females.  The male didn't stay long at all, so I was thankful to get a photo of him.

The downy woodpeckers love our homemade suet and eat it exclusively.  This is a female; males have a red splotch on the backs of their heads.  Downies and hairy woodpeckers look remarkably alike, but downies are 5 inches and hairies are 7 inches.  We get downies far more often than hairies.


We've had a lot of goldfinch action over the last several weeks.  They eat a bit of the black oil sunflower seeds, but prefer nyjer.  The males are starting to get their warm weather feathers in, that bright gold we associate with goldfinches.  Their numbers will increase as we inch toward spring.

I was really excited to get a passable photo of this brown thrasher, the state bird of Georgia.  Thrashers are typically quite shy and also groundfeeders, but this one (I'm assuming it's the one -- for all I know there are several who come!) visits at least once a day.  It likes the black oil sunflower seeds and my homemade suet.

I took about a zillion photos of this guy, and this is the only one that came close to sharing. But at least I have the one!  This is a male house finch.  He came alone for about two days, then his missus joined him.  I didn't get a photo of her.  Females are a grayish-brown and white, with a streaked breast and belly.  He ate a bit of nyjer seed, but they both preferred the black oil sunflower seed.

As usual, we had our share of titmice, Carolina wrens, male and female Eastern cardinals, American robins, Carolina chickadees.  But we also had a cute little brown-headed nuthatch, which was so fast I was never able to photograph it, and our first yellow-rumped warbler of the season.  Also, a female Eastern towhee has been munching on our black oil sunflower seed.  They are groundfeeders, and the male never ventures up to our tray feeder; but she has several times!  I've yet to get a decent photo of either of them.

As we get closer to spring, our feeders will become like fast food joints, and we'll be refilling them at least twice a week (sometimes more).  I'm looking forward to seeing the male goldfinches burst into color, and the arrival of the cedar waxwings, who stripped our holly tree of its berries in a matter of three days.

Backyard birding is one of our family's joys and is a great way to sneak in nature study with your children.  If you haven't done so before, have a go at the Great Backyard Bird Count this February (click on button at right for more info).  You may get hooked!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks: Week 3

I've been reading all the time (which I do anyway) to get caught up in the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, as I started a bit late.  The first three titles I selected are by the same author, Miss Read:  Village School, Village Diary, and Storm in the Village.  All three are set mid-twentieth century in the environs of Fairacre, a small village in the English countryside and are narrated in the first person by the character Miss Read, the village school's headmistress.

These warm, wise, and funny stories were exactly the tonic I needed this winter.  My friend, Jackie, who recommended them to me was "on tenterhooks" awaiting my reaction (I'm going to write about the dangers of book recommendation at some point), but her anxiety was needless.  I am now a Miss Read fan.

There are no plot crises, no denouments, no grand resolutions, although there are plenty of scrapes, conundrums, and sticky situations.  There is no Grand Question that is asked and answered (or, in the case of many modern works of literature, asked with no answer apparent).  What there is, in abundance, is life: the everday ups and downs of living on this planet and being in relationship with other human beings (and animals, as it were).

The author (whose real name is Dora Jessie Saint) has an extraordinary gift for creating characters.  These people are not characters; I'm convinced they are real.  Beyond that, her descriptions are so vivid (no minimalism here, thank goodness) I had no problem at all visualizing each scene:  I could hear Mrs. Pringle "mooing" a hymn "lugubrious contralto" as she cleans the school; I could see the children making their straw bunches for the harvest festival.  Each detail is perfect, and I was sad when I came to the end of the third book.  Happily, Miss Read several more books, and I look forward to reading them all.

Now.  This does not mean that I am going to chuck all contemporary fiction from my To-Read list on Goodreads.  And I'll always love a good, shadowy gothic tale.  Life may not be always sweetness and light, but it's not all bitterness and dark, either.  The Fairacre novels do a wonderful job of reminding me of that truth.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: The U.S. Space and Rocket Museum in Hunstville, AL

The SECOND reason for our recent trip to Hunstville was to see this much-hyped museum.  I say "much hyped" because they produce a fantastic Space Camp in the summer for middle school-aged through college-aged kids.  In fact, the museum's official website is, which should tell you something.  If it doesn't tell you anything, I'll tell you what it tells me, after having visited the place: they put way more money into their space camp than they do the museum.

The museum is actually two buildings: the Main Museum and the Davidson Center for Space Exploration.  The visitor entrance is actually in the latter building, which we did not know, so we parked much farther away (in the rain) than we should have done.  We thought the visitor's entrance would be at the Main Museum.  This sort of illogical design is a hallmark of the museum, as you will see.

However, the Saturn V Exhibit Area in the Davidson Center is wonderful.  It is well designed and presents a thorough look at the development of the Saturn rocket series, the space race, and the 17 Apollo missions to the moon.  Moreover, just in case you don't happen to be an astrophysicist or an aeronautical engineer, the various placards, short videos, etc., all explain everything in non-esoteric language.

After spending more than an hour in this exhibit, we made our way (through the rain again) to the Main Museum.  Thanks to the weather, we had to forgo Rocket Park, and the G-Force "ride" was closed due to technical difficulties, naturally.  But we still felt like we were learning a lot, having fun, and on the way to getting close to our money's worth (the place is pricey).

Then we entered the Main Museum.

My first question is, Who designed this place? Anyone?  Seriously, it looks like someone said, hey, we've got all this stuff, let's make a museum out of it.  And then proceeded to do so without any regard to logical placement of items, providing information to those unaffiliated with the space program (like the vast majority of visitors), or even having any of it make sense.  Stuff is scattered all over the place.  A few activities escape this scathing comment, like the climbing wall.  But most don't.  Even the Team Redstone exhibit makes very little sense to the uninitiated.  We sort of wandered around in a daze, learning very little and feeling like we'd just thrown dollars and dollars down the drain.  Thank heavens we first stopped by the Visitor Center downtown and got coupons; but it still cost us more than $70 for a family of four.

The IMAX film, "Magnificent Desolation" is fantastic.  It was entertaining and very informative.  Also, it's shown in the Spacedome Theater.  Instead of just a large IMAX screen, the film is projected on the domed ceiling, so it's extra huge, perfect for a space film!

All in all, my pervading thoughts are that this could be a state-of-the-art museum, but it just isn't.  It's really a waste.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Puppy Love

This past weekend, we took a two-night field trip to the Huntsville, AL, area.  Our prime reason for packing our toothbrushes and hitting the road was to visit our new friends, Bob and Leslie, and their litter of Pembroke welsh corgi puppies.  (We did some other things while we were there, too, and I'll post on those later.  It goes without saying that all other activities paled in comparison to the puppy visit!) If you are in need of some serious cuteness, just fawn over these photos.

Their tiny teeth are needle sharp!

One of these sweet babies will be ours in a few weeks, and we can't wait!  Can you blame us?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Reading Like a Maniac

This week I joined up with Read 52 Book in 52 Weeks challenge.  I'm a little behind, joining later in January as I did, so I'll have to play a bit of catch-up.  I don't know that I'll be able to write reviews on each book, but I'll take a stab at posting reviews on as many as I can.

My Goodreads monthly e-newsletter came yesterday, so I plan to peruse that for some title suggestions.  I also have my "To Read" list at Goodreads, as well.  If you have any suggestions for me, let me know!

And if you feel up to it, join in the challenge as well.  Why not, eh?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Update: Waiting to Be Surprised

The timing was God's and not mine. Quelle surprise! As I lay in bed last night awaiting sleep, I had a germ of an idea that grew. I think I have a beginning to the devotion I'm writing. This morning, I looked up some scriptures to use as a foundation and felt a glimmer of hope. And with just enough time before the deadline!

Yet again, I had relied upon my own strength and my own vision, and I got in God's way. Since He is never flummoxed by my behavior, He simply worked around me. When I was most quiet, I was finally able to hear the Spirit.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Waiting to Be Surprised

I'm supposed to be working on a contribution to my church's Lenten devotional book, but I've hit a snag. I had (what I thought was) a great idea on how to structure the devotion based on a psalm, but everything is falling apart. The other morning as the rest of the family slumbered, I sat with my Bible at the kitchen table and pored over the Psalms, but NOTHING seemed right for my idea. I was, understandably, a trifle annoyed and complained (one might say, kvetched) to God about it.

This morning I humorously related my woes in a meeting with five of my dearest friends. One of them gently reminded me, "Because what you had planned is so much better than what God might have planned." To which I had two responses: 1) But my idea was so great! and then 2) Ouch. You are so right, sister.

So here I am. At this point, I am not sure what God has planned. He has yet to reveal it to me. Perhaps I am just to paraphrase a psalm in my own words as a personal prayer, which was one of the suggestions in the devotional guidelines. What is the right thing to do when my vision doesn't seem to align with God's? And all of this with a deadline looming before me, I might add.

But I somehow feel that it is right for me to wait just now. It's late at night, and I am weary inside and out. Tomorrow I will begin again with God. I'll open my Bible but more importantly my heart to the stirrings of the Spirit. I will be more open to what God would say through me. And I'll expect to be surprised.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Birds in the Snow

I took a few photos of some birds at our feeder this morning. It was 15 degrees outside, colder here than in Maine, according to our friends! Needless to say (or at least it's needless to say if you know me -- I hate to be cold), I took these from inside my kitchen window, hence the not-so-fabulous quality. The male cardinal, above, proved very elusive to catch on camera. We have cardinals at our feeders year-round, but apparently the males are camera-shy. Or at least skittish at movements in nearby windows.

Tufted titmice are also frequent, year-round guests. This one was quite cute, breaking open the black-oil sunflower seed on the side of the feeder.

I was excited to see the first flock of dark-eyed juncos. We only have them in the winter. Since they are ground feeders, I liberally sprinkle seed around to coax them in. It's a terrible photo, I admit, but perhaps you can still note its pale yellow beak. Juncos feed in small flocks; I've never seen one alone.

About three weeks ago, we noticed our first goldfinch in a tree, so we hung up our finch feeder full of niger seed. This male sports his "winter coat"; in the spring, he'll be a glorious gold.

Here's a Carolina chickadee, which is smaller than a black-capped chickadee. They are year-round visitors to our feeders, and their absolute favorite seed is black-oil sunflower. They turn their beaks up at plain mixed seed.

This female cardinal was not as camera-shy as the male. I got quite a few shots of her, and this was the best. Cardinals are not as picky as chickadees, although they also prefer to (pricey) black-oil sunflower seeds. They still come to snack when only mixed seed is on the menu.

I also saw a nuthatch at the tray feeder, a male Eastern towhee, and a red-bellied woodpecker, but they were too quick for me to capture on "film."
With this frigid weather we're having, Tiny Girl and I are planning to whip up some homemade suet mix to put in our suet feeders. The birds need the fat to stay warm. Miss Priss does not enjoy making suet mix; she says it's too messy!
Join in on winter birdwatching action yourself. Hang a feeder or two near a window, brush up on your bird identification skills (we keep the Stokes Beginner's Guide to Birds: Eastern Region by the window), and have a camera or binoculars nearby. And get ready for the 2010 Great Backyard Bird Count, slated for February 12-15. For some more great winter nature study ideas, visit Melissa's blog In the Sparrow's Nest.
Bundle up and have fun!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Van Gogh: I Worked and I Was Alone

Last week, my sister, the girls, and I visited Fernbank Science Museum in Atlanta to see the IMAX film, Van Gogh: brush with genius. It was fantastic.

I have to admit, I've never been a huge van Gogh fan. I've always leaned more toward realistic paintings, like those of Vermeer, for example. And for me (as well for many others, I expect), the myth of the artist eclipsed his actual creations. Yet when I was in London last, I stood before several van Goghs and was drawn to riot of colors, the thick daubs of paint, the energy of each work, and I came away bemused. Perhaps there was more to this than I'd previously thought. After I saw the film, I changed my mind.

I did not know (perhaps you did) that van Gogh painted more than 900 works in his brief, nine-year career. Like many of whom we later label "genius," his obsession with his work necessitated a grossly unbalanced life, which led to severe solitude, exhaustion, and, finally, suicide.

The IMAX film is beautiful, and the original soundtrack is a perfect backdrop. The storyline follows two people, a filmmaker in France working on a film about van Gogh's life and work, and a researcher in Amsterdam studying his private letters and documents. Tying the two together is a voiceover portrayal of van Gogh, which lends a personal aspect to the film. Like many IMAX films, this one employs a few cinematography tricks, some of which are successful and some of which it could have lost with no ill effects. I especially enjoyed the time-lapse effect used in the museum scenes: hundreds of visitors zipping by a painting as the painting itself remains the same, unchanged.

The girls, of course, were not as enthusiastic as my sister and I were, although they enjoyed it and could talk about particular things they liked. But I am confident that, as we study van Gogh further, their appreciation will grow. It was the same with our studies of Monet and Sargent. I'm amassing resources now.

Dover's 24-postcard collection, Van Gogh's Paintings, is a must for us. I've also reserved at our library two children's books: Camille and the Sunflowers and Katie and the Sunflowers. There are several online printables and coloring pages, such as Starry Night coloring page, which we may or may not explore. Sometimes the girls still enjoy this activity, other times not.

There are other online resources, such as this interactive page of Sunflowers at London's National Gallery and another of Van Gogh's Chair. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has a superb website, but it's in Dutch. No worries; I translated it into English using the Google Toolbar translator.

My hope is to ignite an interest in my girls for this artist, an interest that will grow into a real appreciation, as it has for me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Endings and Beginnings

Dh (a.k.a. Himself) remarked a couple of years ago that if it were up to me, we wouldn't even have a Christmas tree. Alas, he is quite correct. Unlike many of my neighbors and friends, I do not decorate my entire house for the holidays. What goes up, I figure, must come down. And who is the one who will be taking it all down, wrapping it all up, and packing it all away? Yes, indeed -- the very one who dreads doing it the most.

I don't subscribe to the cultural (at least in America) ideal that More Is Better in any area of my life, so why should I at Christmas? More is just more, and in this case translates into more work for me, effectively robbing me of my joy. So I limit our decorations and am happier for it.

Yesterday, everything came down except the tree itself, which stands in our dining room, naked except for the lights (it's a pre-lit artificial tree). Himself will pack it up later today. The rest of the downstairs rooms are still messy from our two weeks' holiday, which is an appropriate metaphor for how I deem the ending of 2009.

This past year wasn't all horrid, but there were (and still are) some unexpected and upsetting circumstances. The death of my constant companion for more than 12 years, our corgi Lily, was another blow, albeit an expected one. But instead of feeling frustrated or let down, I feel hopeful. The brand new year gleams before us like a new penny.

I'm excited about the lessons the girls and I have on our schedules, the books we're planning to read, the history we're going to study, and an upcoming trip we're taking in January. There's also a new puppy to look forward to. And I wonder how the Lord is going to reveal himself more to me in the coming days. I'm expectant, rooted in the surety of God's faithfulness to meet me where I am, but not leave me there.

I don't make New Year's resolutions because I never fail to break them; but this year I've decided to stop longing for a quiet life. Instead I'm going to relish in and be grateful for the life I have, the one God obviously has planned for me. There is a truth that I tend to discover, lose, and then re-discover, but always with a happy sense of surprise (though sometimes, it must be said, in hindsight): God's plans are always better than my own. What a difference it would make in my day-to-day life if I would rest in this certainty as one who has found the Lord's grace to be sufficient in all things. This is how I desire to live in 2010 and beyond.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Heavenly Yeast Rolls

I found this bread machine recipe on and thought I'd share. I changed the name, though, because I like my name for them best! They are completely easy and scrumptious. The reviewers on the website talked about successfully using some whole wheat flour and also making entirely by hand, if one doesn't own a bread machine. Another reviewer suggested serving with honey butter. I'm sure that's delicious, and to each her own, but to me, that comes a trifle too close to gilding the lily. Why mess with perfection? And that's about what these rolls are.

Bread Machine Heavenly Yeast Rolls

1 cup warm milk (70 to 80 degrees, if you want to be picky about it)
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 cups bread flour
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast

Put all ingredients in bread machine pan according to manufacturer's instructions. Select dough cycle. When cycle is complete, turn out onto lightly floured surface and divide into 24 portions. Shape dough portions into balls and place in a greased 9x13 baking dish. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 1 to 3 hours, or until doubled in volume. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-16 minutes or until golden brown.

These warm up very well for breakfast the next day, on the off-chance you have any left over.