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We spent much of August organizing the house and updating some spaces in anticipation of a new school year. We made space on the fridge for all of my magnetic poetry, which includes a Shakespeare set. We live surrounded by words in this house. There are books everywhere we turn. Our children can hardly turn a corner without running into stacks of words somewhere. I think it is important for our children to see Bill and I reading voraciously, as well. Even though I mostly read when they are sleeping or at an activity or having free play time, I often discuss with them what I am reading. I talk about how much I am enjoying, or not, my current book. They have seen me cry and laugh at books. What are readers like? What are the habits of good readers? How do we interact with a text? How often do we carry a book—even hiking, an indulgence of weight in the backpack—because we can’t bear to be apart from ideas and language? How do we seek out texts that oppose our views and challenge us? How do we push ourselves as thinkers? Nothing is off limits on our shelves for our children: they know that they can finger, pursue, or read any book in the house. All words are for them, when they determine they are ready. All ideas are for them. All knowledge is for them.

So here are my ten for August, an eclectic bunch again:

1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (Eng. translation 1997, fiction)

“Anyway, it seems to me that the way most people go on living (I suppose there are a few exceptions), they think that the world of life (or whatever) is this place where everything is (or is supposed to be) basically logical and consistent…. It’s like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you’ve got rice pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can’t tell what’s going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody’s looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it’s natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me that’s just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni gratin.”

I didn’t think any Murakami could top his 1Q84, yet Wind-Up Bird may have. Part epic quest, part Kafkaesque nightmare, part historical and political commentary (Nomonhan incident to the end of WWII), Wind-Up Bird follows three narrative lines—all of which explore the themes of physical and metaphysical identity crisis and loss of self.

Murakami writes me into an in-between state in which reality and illusion have no clear demarcation; I have to space his works out to make sure my mind is up to the task of existing in his world and then being able to walk out of it in one piece. How does Murakami manage to get his reader so willingly to suspend disbelief?

2. Get Me Out: a History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D. (nonfiction, historical science, 2010)

This was a light, readable history good for fun trivia and sparking conversation. Preferring the prose and substance to be more demanding, I found that Epstein relied far, far too heavily on footnotes to convey material. In addition, the author seemed a bit too transparently derisive of childbirth techniques with which she might not personally agree. However, it is the subtext that fascinates: how we have historically fetishized the womb and reproduction, for various reasons. Shocking—even appalling—are the primary source documents pertaining to parturient women. How we view childbirth both individually, and as a culture, certainly reflects a philosophical view of life. Definitely an engaging read, all told. And some parts will (and should) give we feminist mothers/potential mothers the creeps.

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(Finishing Epstein’s book at the Newport Beach house during a little mini-vacay in August with my family)

3. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (nonfiction, science, 2003).

“We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.”

So much of understanding life and how to make the most of it, I think, involves trying to understand death. Most engrossing? Her chapter on the potential of using human remains as compost. Ideally, I’d love to donate any viable organs and then be disposed of in an ecologically helpful way. Friends and family have recommended this book to me for years, and they were not wrong.

4. 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, compiled with help by Raif Badawi (philosophy, July 2015)

Forward by the great Lawrence M. Krauss.

Have you heard about this activist and writer? He’s a fellow freethinker in Saudi Arabia brought up on charges of apostasy and sentenced to 10 years, 1000 lashings, and a fine. He received the first 50 lashings in January 2015.  It’s short, at times simple, but I bought and read it (and finished it in a couple hours) as a sociopolitical statement. Reading as protest? Always. Freedom of speech suppressed in favor of doctrine? Not on my watch. His plight is not looking good as of June (debilitated, sick, weakened), but through reading and thinking, we can set his ideas free.

This is a current event and part of a greater ideological struggle between reason and doctrine in our world, a struggle not confined to the Middle East.

5. The Story of the World: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of the Renaissance (nonfiction, history, 2008)

One of our summer learning/enrichment goals was to finish both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 of The Story of the World series (history textbooks in narrative form spanning the development of civilization). The first two volumes span from the earliest nomads to the end of the rise of the Renaissance. We also have the activity books and, while loose with them, have been enjoying some of the lesson plans as fun activities this summer.  Though finding them a more simplistic treatment, I’ve enjoyed reading these aloud with my children—a great refresher for me, as well. These introductory texts give children a structure on which to hang current events, deeper explorations of history, discussions about myth, and more. I really like these as supplementary materials and am planning on asking for the next volume as a Christmas present—for me! One of my favorite pursuits is reading to my children and learning with them.

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(Katie is hoping we get the next one. She loves history. We felt fairly accomplished getting these read this summer, along with so much else!)

6. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (nonfiction, history, 2010)

“Each time, Salva would think of his family and his village, and he was somehow able to keep his wounded feet moving forward, one painful step at a time.”

A Long Walk to Water is the story of Lost Boy Salva Dut, who was displaced from his home in Sudan to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. His story intersects with that of Nya, a present-day girl who must walk for miles a day to retrieve water for her family and whose village eventually receives a well from Salva’s Water for South Sudan organization. I read this with Katie and we found this to be an incredibly moving real-life story for middle readers; our discussions have been vigorous and rich ever since. Even weeks later, we are still talking about Salva. I highly recommend this one. Katie and I found it eye-opening, especially for a child in the United States who was born quite lucky and knows little of real hardship—that includes both of us.

For more information and ways to help: http://www.waterforsouthsudan.org/a-long-walk-to-water-faq/

7. The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (nonfiction, history, Oct. 2014)

“The fight for women’s rights hasn’t come in waves. Wonder Woman was a product of the suffragist, feminist, and birth control movements of the 1900s and 1910s and became a source of the women’s liberation and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The fight for women’s rights has been a river, wending.”

What do Margaret Sanger, the lie detector test, the suffragist movement of the early 1900s, a charlatan/genius Harvard-educated psychologist, and an unconventional 1930s family practicing polygamy/free love have to do with the creation of Wonder Woman? Suffering Sappho! So interesting. So relevant to now. I love Wonder Woman but did not know ANY of this cultural history, or really, how ahead of her time she was as a character in the 1940s. Lynda Carter will always be my Wonder Woman, but by the 1970s, Wonder Woman was as watered down as the underground feminist movement tried to regain some traction. The original WW is actually even more amazing a character. Fascinating read, for feminists and fans.

8. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (science fiction, 1969)

“How nice — to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

“- Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Yes.
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

“All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

I am not sure what even to say about Slaughterhouse-Five or Kurt Vonnegut. I am obsessed—OBSESSED—with Vonnegut right now. I have wandered at last to a writer whose darkly comic observations of morality and life closely mirror my own. I have met a kindred, across all time and space.

How could Vonnegut have existed and I not met him before now? Slaughterhouse-Five has sat on one or more of my bookshelves for years, moving with me once, sitting patiently by while I had children and regained my direction and purpose as an avid reader. To think it was there all this time! Doesn’t it ever thrill you, the way it does me, that words can assemble themselves and just sit waiting for you? What other book is on my shelf, or in the library, right this second that has the power to bring the universe a little more clearly into focus? Or ourselves into more vibrant being?

Is it quaint to love the power of the novel so much?

Is it out of fashion to need and love words as much as I do? I have often said I could not live—like really not live—without books and words and writing and language and authors and novels. Who would I even be? Part of me is here, but for all of my life ever since memory, I have felt that my mind lives and roams among all the pages of the books I’ve fallen into. Literature is the way I have made sense of the world, the first place I go in grief, or in passion, or love.

To be 35 and find an author like this… To be still discovering words and ideas that can thrill to the core…

I guess I should say this book is about the bombing of Dresden. Or try to give a summary that might provoke someone to read it. But it’s not just an anti-war, freethinking, philosophical book. It’s more.

And it sat on my shelf, waiting.

Like the universe opening in words right in my hands.

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(Ever see words that make your core behind your ribs glow?)

9. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (fiction, 1963)

“Tiger got to hunt,/Bird got to fly;/Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”//Tiger got to sleep,/Bird got to land;/Man got to tell himself he understand.”

“Science is magic that works.” 

“-I’m not a drug salesman. I’m a writer.”

-What makes you think a writer isn’t a drug salesman?”

“Busy, busy, busy, is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.”

“Anyone unable to understand how useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.”

For much of my life I have wondered what words I would ever have permanently written on my body if I were going to do so. It’s just a thought experiment really, and never one I could answer sufficiently to myself! What words, of all the many words I cherish, would be so much entwined with me that they could coexist daily as part of me? There have been some candidates…but nothing—for all my literary passions–has ever felt so much like me as the words of Vonnegut. If I were going to write something on myself, those words would most certainly be either “So it goes” or “Busy, busy, busy” somehow worked into a cat’s cradle design of string.

Oh yeah…this book is about the annihilation of the human race and planet. Have fun!

10. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (historical fiction/nonfiction, 1932)

“She thought to herself, “This is now.” She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”

Ha, in a weird way the quote I just pulled actually relates quite thematically to some of the ideas in Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut and Ingalls Wilder are not two authors I would usually put together—but that is exactly why it behooves us to read diversely, in a variety of genres and disciplines, too. When we put words side by side, ideas and thinkers side by side, themes and truths often emerge. The dialectic among all the words is, I think, something that lives and breathes apart from just the context in which they were originally formed.

I read this with Katie and Eric before school began, as it is Katie’s first piece of core lit for the year. She and I have read it before, so this was a second pass. With school rolling robustly, she is now reading it a third time in order to do the lit analysis and activities that accompany it.

Eric loved it, the first chapter book he’s really, really loved. So we moved on to Little House on the Prairie and are now starting On the Banks of Plum Creek. I have never seen Eric so excited to start a chapter book as he was last night.

Deliberately, I took this book with us on a hike up Palomar Mountain to the observatory a few weeks ago. We made an intentional memory of starting this book in the woods and read a couple of chapters that day. We finished LHOP yesterday on another hike near the grass/meadow regions of our local Santa Rosa Plateau. We read the last four chapters of the book sitting at the historic adobe house. Now with OBPC, we will pack it with us to Idyllwild next week—we have a hike planned to go with a science unit/lessons on trees—and we will read part of it by the Strawberry Creek.

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(Reading on our hike)

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(Starting a memorable book in a memorable setting)

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(Then LHBW went to sit poolside at the Disneyland Hotel during a mini-vacation for a few days a couple weeks ago. Words on-the-go are my favorite. Reading is for EVERYWHERE, any time, always).

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(When my Nana died last week, I turned to the literature of my youth. Children’s lit is some of my favorite there is. Tomie de Paola, especially. I am this boy, still).

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(Eric’s curriculum: look at all of those beautiful books! We actually own many of them already, which is fine since all non-consumable curric goes back to our charter at year’s end. We’ve already discovered a new favorite, though. Of course, we’ll be heavily supplementing with other books, as well)!

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(And here is Katie’s official collection for the year. We’ve already read about half of the chapter books in this 4th grade collection, but so much the better for her. I love that she will have a 2-3 passes at each text. We don’t really know a text until we’ve been in it more than once, I feel. The nonfiction selections here are also GREAT, and we’ve been previewing them heavily).

Happy reading to all!

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