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Happy October to All!
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McGaugh Family at the Peltzer pumpkin farm, October 28, 2015: Locutus of Borg, Steve, Belle, and Little Red.

Fulfilling my lifelong wish of going as “through the town” Belle this year for Halloween, I am excited to portray a character whose love and voracity for reading are so close to my own. Bill, as Locutus of Borg, is my modern sci fi Beast this year; one of our deepest personal connections in our real life marriage has been our utter love of reading widely across genre and discussing the ideas and philosophies in that reading together.

What’s in Belle’s basket?

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I have been joking that I am Post-Modern Belle this year. If I had started on my costume earlier, I could have updated her look a bit to reflect a modern sensibility. What would steampunk, sci fi Belle look like?

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As it was, I spent nothing new on my costume, which is comprised of: my mom’s old, passed-on dress which had a square neck but which I changed here; my white beach cover up peasant blouse; my long sleeve white t-shirt tied by its arms to make an apron; and my Mock Trial competition shoes, which are currently 18-years-old. Waste not, want not, right?

October has been busy! I am NOT a fan of the phrases like, “I am too busy for such-and-such.” I hear this quite a bit with respect to exercise, though my favorite comes from my friend Lisa, a knitter. She was once told in a bank by the teller who saw Lisa’s knitting that, “I just don’t have time for that.” Well, excuse me. Let me put your hobby/passion down as being unimportant AND give pap at the same time.

Anyway, we all have the same hours in a day and how we allot that time is some magic alchemy of duty, choice, sacrifice, exhaustion, and above all, prioritizing. Time management helps, but sometimes we have to choose one love over another. This month, partway through, I put down my books for almost a week leading up to the Long Beach Half Marathon, choosing to focus extra time on that passion. We’ve also enjoyed multiple trips to a couple different pumpkin patches, hikes, a Foo Fighters concert (Bill and me), a trip to the San Diego Civic Theater (Kate and me) to see Phantom of the Opera, San Diego Ballet’s performance of Le Carnaval des Animaux (Kate, Eric, and me), and quite a bit else. Not to mention the many full days we are putting in homeschooling… Both children’s soccer schedules have kept me hoppin’, and I have been completing full weeks of running and swimming.

So even though I wish I could create a second self to read ALL the time and transmit that knowledge and pleasure into my original self’s brain, I have to take what I can get.

I enjoyed seven books this month, and they were all over the place in terms of genre. I am deeply involved in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy at this point, having finished two of the three novels this month. I want to finish the third and then move onto Diana Nyad’s book, for which I have been waiting for at least half a year.

Therefore, I’d better buzz as quickly as possible through this little blog recap, so that I have just a wee bit more time before the two soccer games this morning to start Cities of the Plain.

The October Seven:

1. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (fiction, 1992)

“It was always himself the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily.” 

Two young men, full of romantic ideals about a dying way of American life, search out the rugged west in Mexico. Once they cross the border in this coming of age story, though, they realize that idealism must often yield payment in blood and loss. This is a book about the cowboy spirit, one I find not limited to the male experience as I, too, feel the wanderlust and hard-working, romantic ideal alive and well in myself…especially at this phase in my life. McCarthy’s novels have entwined themselves into our hikes through Anza-Borrego SP and beyond, through our homeschool studies of Native American life and our focus this month on freshly made masa tortillas and southwest dinners most nights this month. Characters in McCarthy novels are always sharing food as a way of offering a counterpoint to a harsh and unforgiving world. I’ve been reading about the species in the natural world McCarthy describes, often seeing them up close as my children and I have adventures in this world. The Border Trilogy—all about the symbolic lines we cross as we create ourselves—is, in my opinion must-read literature.

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Reading All the Pretty Horses around the campfire at Manker Flats on Mt. Baldy, after hiking with my sister-in-love Ashley and the kiddos up to the Ski Hut.

2. California State Parks: A Day Hiker’s Guide by John McKinney (nonfiction, 2005)

In truth, this was only one of the many guide books I’ve been reading and research online I’ve been doing this month as I plan adventures and learning opportunities for Katie and Eric and myself. So when I wonder why I didn’t get more books read this month, I realize I need to remember how many reading hours were put into this type of research. It’s been substantial, something I can do after the kids are in bed at night. I used one of my Tuesday-the-kids-are-in-enrichment-so-I-have-two-hours-at-the-library time and dedicated that to perusing. This guide I actually finished, and I hope to own a copy soon.

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I need to check the Muir back out last month—I did not end up getting to it this time.

3. The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare (historical—kinda—fiction, 1983)

“Bring white boy bird and rabbit. White boy teach Attean white man’s signs.”

This is the second time I’ve this book; this time Eric joined us, as this was one of Katie’s literature pieces. The basic (trite) plot is this: Matt and his father move to settle the wilderness (that would become Maine) in 1763. Matt’s father then departs to get the rest of the family from Massachusetts, leaving teenager Matt alone to guard the cabin. He falls on hard times, makes friends with the Native Americans, and learns to survive.

I just cannot bring myself to like this book, despite how solidly it seems to be ensconced on children’s lit lists. Not only do I find the hackneyed plot a bore, but the way Speare writes the Native Americans offends me. I am not the only one to recognize this; I later researched to discover if other scholars feel the same way. It has almost no modern sensibility, to me. Every page has the feel of some white woman writing caricature. Even in the quote above, this is the stereotypical characterization of Native American speech patterns. She gives the word “squaw” to the mouths of these Native Americans; this word is highly problematic, and if you want to see how a single word can inspire controversy, research the debate about it…

Not my favorite, but I took every opportunity to discuss the effects of the settlement movement on the Native American population. We asked difficult questions while reading. As with any material, the discussion is the key to its value.

4. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (nonfiction, environmental science, 1962)

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will ensure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

Years ago one of my most precocious and rebellious AP students—who could write a “9” level paper on any subject, by the way, despite being expelled from various campuses—carried around Rachel Carson for days, and he recommended I read this book. He was right. Both dated and yet still so relevant, this jeremiad rocked the pesticide industry and machine after its publication.

Carson clearly believes in inspiring a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty around us in order to get us to care. I did appreciate her somewhat moderate approach: she does allow that there is a tricky balance in preventing pest-borne diseases and letting nature run its own courses. She rejects the western religious idea that nature was created to be subordinate to man—an idea that, I, too, think needs to be absolutely jettisoned from our cultural viewpoint. We are PART of nature, and, as the species with perhaps the greatest awareness of the future, we are also the natural stewards of this nature. Human arrogance cannot end soon enough.

5. Hear the Wind Sing/Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami (fiction, August 2015 English trans.)

“We fell silent again. What we shared was no more than a fragment of a time long dead. Yet memories remained, warm memories that remained with me like light from the past. And I would carry those lights in the brief interval before death grabbed me and tossed me back into the crucible of nothingness.”

This book really is two books—novellas—in one. Both were originally published in Japanese in 1979 and 1980, respectively; the first he wrote as an entry for a competition after a mythic moment in which he was at a baseball game and had a vision of sorts that he would become a writer in later life. (Up until that time, he has spent his 20s opening, owning, and operating bars). Reading the press lead up to this release, one understands that Murakami is as aware of creating his own myth as he is of his stories. Visions, birds, serendipity, music, fate—these are themes and motifs in his fiction works, as well.

I’d been waiting and waiting for this release, which had been out of print for more than 30 years: How would an author’s earlier works inform my reading of his later works? After the dastardly disaster that was Go Set a Watchman this summer, you’d think I might be more gun shy of such a thing.

Delightful. A must for hardcore Murakami fans, of which I am one. Even from so early on, though 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are, to me, so much more literary, the nascent Murakami wasn’t so newborn. Here was an author already well developed. In the foreword, I relished his description of his writing process for these (writing in a second language, for example, to force himself to pare down his wordiness). And wells definitely make an appearance!

Even better: our little local library had a new copy!! I had already checked out my books that day when I saw in on the newly released shelf. I scooped it up and checked out again!

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Happiness one morning after a run and a swim

6. The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (fiction, 1994)

“There is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these are also the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted. We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall. And those seams that are hid from us are of course in the tale itself and the tale has no abode or place of beind except in the telling only and there it lives and makes its home and therefore we can never be done with the telling. Of the telling there is no end. And . . . in whatever . . . place by whatever . . . name or by no name at all . . . all tales are one. Rightly heard all tales are one.”

Young Billy Parham crosses from the United States into Mexico border three times in this novel, each time building thematically on the time before. This is a book about how tales and the stories we tell ourselves take mythic shape. McCarthy’s prose captivates me. A good portion of the book is in untranslated Spanish, interspersed with English. Grateful for my background there.

There is a torturous beauty in the desolate landscapes he writes. There are stories-within-the-story. McCarthy’s work descends from classics like The Odyssey. I am head over heels. McCarthy, Murakami, and Vonnegut are perhaps my favorite authors of all time.

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Reading The Crossing after taking my children to the ballet last weekend

I wish I had read more this month, but it’s not a bad list, all told. I am savoring what I have been reading. Staying up too late. Sneaking in bits and pieces here and there.

7. By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder (historical fiction, 1939)

“We’d never get anything fixed to suit us if we waited for things to suit us before we started.”

One of my least favorite of the series, this one is a bit darker than the others. But I love the cuddle time with my two babies. We are now on The Long Winter...

And here is a sample from ONE week of items I read with my children:

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So, imagine four weeks of stacks like these! We try to read quite a bit!

Happy Halloween to all. And Happy Reading in November!

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Tucked away in my cedar hope chest at the foot of my bed, a gift from Nana when I turned sixteen, amid old journals, first shoes, family heirlooms, and the white blanket in which I wrapped my children on our way from the hospital is an envelope with Eric’s first piece of cut baby hair. Auburn and silky and lovely. A treasure for a mother.

This is completely morbid, yet I own it: because Katie never had a first hair cut, I saved a ball of hair from her comb, thinking that if something ever happened to her, at least I would have that to cry over. Mothers are weird. We want our children to grow up, and we don’t. We want them to go the heck to sleep, and then we stand peering over their angelic faces instead of getting our own hobbies done. We want them to know how to wash their own hair, and then every once in awhile just for old time’s sake, we sit on the toilet and do it for them. With certainty I don’t want more children, but I would love to hold them as newborns one more time. I want to be sometimes needed, but I also want to be not needed at all. The motherhood game is one of holding close and letting go at the same time, a duality we learn to inhabit because we must.

So I have had a ball of Katie’s snarled hair stashed away, for a rainy day. If you think that’s quirky, you really should get to know me. Got more up my sleeve there, I’m sure.

By the time Katie was three, she was adamant about not ever cutting her hair. I saw two sisters get the cutest bobs in our Music Together class and was smitten with all the ways we could style Katie’s golden locks if we cut them, but she did not want to. I love her as she is, and I believed she should have a say about her own hair.

Age four, five, six, and seven… It became a bit of thing for her. “I never want to cut my hair, Mama!” Okay, fine by me. Her hair did need it: she went through a period of hair chewing for awhile, and it got a bit scraggly at the ends. She doesn’t do that anymore, but some of the effects remained.

Last year I learned a bunch of braids, other than my standard French. We had fun with that, but she has a sensitive scalp and after awhile she really wanted me to stop yanking the hair to make the braids compulsively straight and even. Sorry, kid. I hear ya. Moms and daughters in the bathroom getting ready would make an interesting coffee table book.

It became a refrain even without being asked: “Mama, I never want to cut my hair. I’ve never cut it. I don’t think I could ever cut it.” I heard in those words: because I have never done it, now I don’t feel I can. Still I said nothing, other than that I loved her hair as it is, that I would help her if she ever changed her mind, and that it is her hair to decide about. In my assessment, though, I felt like part of her decision was based more on precedent and habit than on total desire.

This summer during a (terribly hot, what were we thinking?) hike up Dripping Springs in late July, Katie talked about “What if I cut my hair very short and dyed it?” and “I really like Amie’s hair and wish my hair could be short.” She went over and over it. Although I let her know that we don’t do dye at her age (heck, I’ve never even done a permanent dye—just hair chalks–on my hair and I am 35), I told her that if she thought about it for a week and still wanted a cut, we would do it.

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(Dripping Springs hike, right before we started a descent and Katie started musing about her hair)

After a week, she said she didn’t want to cut it. I kind of sensed maybe not.

Which brings us to today. We were getting ready to go to the local pumpkin patch and she asked, “Mama, do you think you could trim the damaged ends off the bottom of my hair?” Her voice had a hopefulness in the timbre.

I got my sewing scissors. Baby’s first hair cut.

She wanted more than a trim, but not much more. So we evened up and shortened it just a little. She said that maybe if she wanted, could we cut more in a couple of days? I agreed, but told her to get used to this first.

I was about to put the scissors away when she asked, “Mama, what about bangs?” as she pulled some hair over her eyes.

My mom has bangs, and Katie loves Amie completely. Her piano teacher also just got bangs, and looks beautiful in them. They’ve been on her mind.

We fiddled with her hair a bit and I determined whether or not I could pull off a convincing bang-cutting. I thought maybe I could, if I tried. We folded her hair up and tried to see what it would be like. She was eager… I could feel her readiness to shape herself, her glimpse of freedom. After a second of pondering whether she would be in better hands if I made her an appointment somewhere, I thought, this is my child asking for her freedom right now. It’s my job to help her. And I cut.

You should have heard the joy that went up. “I cut my hair! I cut my hair! I love it, Mama, I love it!”

“Isn’t it nice to know you can cut it and that it is okay? You look beautiful,” I said. “Don’t you love knowing you can cut it? You are not kept back by never having cut it before. You are free from that,” I said.

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She loves it. She has said many times how glad she is that she has done this. You get the sense that, when she talks, she not only likes how she looks and that she chose it, but that some burden has been lifted from her.

There are many kinds of prisons in life. Most, I think, we fashion ourselves, brick by brick. We think of ourselves in one dimension only, we tell ourselves untruths about what we can do and what we cannot do. Sometimes we give ourselves over to groups or institutions that whittle away at our sense of self. We might hear from well-intentioned teachers or mentors that we shine in a certain area, with the implication that because we are good at one thing we must not be good at some other discipline. Girls don’t play with Legos; boys never wear a princess dress for dress-up. We are nerds, not athletes. We are this party, that party, label, label, label. We fit the gender stereotypes. We think only part of life is meant for us.

All of life is meant for us. Whatever part we seek. Free yourself. Katie, free yourself. There are no limits and rules on what you can do, or be. You can cut your hair. Just because you never have, doesn’t mean you never can. Do not be afraid.

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Do not be afraid. Rebel against any and all parts of yourself that keep you glued in an inert place. The main biological mechanism of life is to adapt and survive. Life is about changing and becoming as strong a force as you can be, for the good.

I thought later that we often think of parents, or mothers, as guides, cheerleaders, four-star generals, clowns, maids, and everything all in one. This morning, however, I found my favorite role yet: the rebel. It was an honor to be the one to give Katie that first haircut, that step toward her independence.

If I can teach my daughter how to be in a constant state of rebellion against the fears and patterns that hold her back, I will have done my job.

Katie: question everything that anyone ever tells you, especially if it comes from me. Cut your hair. Read everything you can. Offend yourself. Try something overwhelmingly new. Be a novice. Listen to music that makes people hold their ears. Be smart, be safe, be curious, be demanding in your philosophies. Do not conform unless your eyes are open to your choice. And remember:

“You cannot wake a man who is pretending to be asleep.”   -Navajo Proverb

As I sit to write this, my fingers feel rusty and can barely usher the words out. I often feel as though words flow from some inner source right through my hands, as long as I take myself out of their way. This morning, for want of writing much, that pipeline appears dreadfully rusty. My brain is trying too hard to intervene, instead of just being the conduit.

At some moment late in August, after my Nana passed, I found a need to return to bound paper books. The heft and feel in my hands, the scent of the page: these are the healers, along with Nature. On a whim, I also decided to make a challenge for myself that I would purchase no new books for an indefinite period, at least a month. Or more. (Diana Nyad’s book comes out this month, and I might have to make an exception). I’d read only what I already owned, or better still, I would savor the stacks of the library again.

I don’t think my Kindle is even charged at this point.

That crinkle of protective plastic on the library hardbacks is a music that soothes my mind.

So in addition to Rule 1 (Do not buy any new books), I also decided upon a second parameter: Rule 2: Augment your knowledge of the postmodern cannon.

I’ve read decently widely, but I am thinking in particular of those free response lists on the AP English exams. I also need to catch up on some of my Man Booker Prize winners as of late.

Last year I had an obsessive interest with nonfiction and still do, but it occurred to me that I’ve let quite a bit of canonical fiction remained unexplored.

At any rate, here is my reading list for September:

1. Beloved by Toni Morrison (fiction, 1987)

“Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best things she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing — the part of her that was clean.”

Here’s a novel to rend a person into a thousand pieces. Can’t believe I didn’t read it until now; probably couldn’t have begun to receive all it offers if I had. 316 brutally heartbreaking pages. Any discussion, or attempts at disavowal, of the history of slavery and racism in these United States ought to begin with this novel as required reading.

This may be one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read in many ways and now, also, one of my favorites. Between this book and the research we’ve been doing above and beyond that required for Katie’s Native American unit, I am looking more critically than ever at the truth that much of our country was settled on the backs and blood of slaves, as well as the massacre of thousands of natives. These are facts that we know—if we’re able to extract them from the way American history is typically presented/taught in this country’s public school system—yet I have to say that in my mid-30s, everything is much more personal to me now. These narratives shape my perception of current policy and politics, to be sure.

2. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (historical fiction, 1935)

“There’s no great loss without some small gain.”

We have continued on with the series because Eric has been begging us to! These are the first chapter books with which Eric has truly connected. Although Katie and I have read them before, what we’re doing with them now will be a family memory for the rest of our lives. We’ve been taking all the Little House books with us on our hikes and adventures. We’ve been reading them everywhere and making deliberate, calculated memories of cozy reading. From Mount Palomar to Idyllwild to the Santa Rosa Plateau (where we finished Little House on the Prairie early one morning, by the old adobe house), we’ve tried to forge a connection between the words and the natural world around us. We’ve also been cooking pioneer recipes, making button strings, and dressing up.

3. White Noise by Don DeLillo (fiction, 1985)

“Isn’t death the boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit.”
It’s completely possible to love a book for intellectual reasons and not personal ones, and Don DeLillo’s _White Noise_ (1985) reaffirms this to me. In my quest this year to augment substantially my knowledge of the postmodern canon, DeLillo is essential. Parts I found totally brilliant; however, there is none of the laughter at it all that I find in Vonnegut, nor the playfulness of Murakami. Pleasurable? Prose often excellent and so many many moments of practically cooing out loud “Ooooh, look what he did there!!” with respect to literary analysis. Richard Powers’ forward tickled my mind. You have to be careful with postmodern works, though. Hold them at a remove; otherwise they can become unbearable and existentially critical. Some of the reading experience was painful with this one: probably the point.

I did not enjoy this book as a personal balm. My favorite character was Heinrich, an awkward yet brilliant 14-year-old son of the main character. As a thought exercise? I would have loved to discuss this one with some of my favorite thinkers.

4. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (fiction, 2005)

“How does a man decide in what order to abandon his life?”

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” 

““If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”

“He shook his head. You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world. Do you see?

Yes, she said sobbing. I do. I truly do.

Good, he said. That’s good. Then he shot her.”

My friend Karen M. recommended McCarthy to me after reading my Facebook posts about Vonnegut. I don’t know how it is possible to fall in love so often and so hard all the time with words and new authors. Every month I claim to have a new favorite. Richard Powers! Murakami! Vonnegut!

McCarthy!

People are going to stop taking my claims seriously. Perhaps “favorite” does not work as a term anymore!

Powers, Murakami, Vonnegut, and McCarthy all meditate on same kinds of heavy themes: chaos, redemption, luck, destiny, and so on. I could eat these ideas up all day.

Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre is my newest obsession of the mind. Anton Chigurh may be my favorite “villain” ever written. Where have I been?

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5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (post apocalyptic fiction, 2006)

“Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

This novel haunts me in all the best ways. Couldn’t help but think of the father leading the son as I am leading my children up and around Mt. Baldy to the Ski Hut, or through Doane Valley on Palomar.

Because McCarthy allows breathing room in his words for events to unfold slowly, the reader takes the invitation to think in the spaces. Quite quickly in this book, the reader should become aware that the road is of course the trajectory of our own lives. If we aren’t asking, “What makes life worth living?” within the first couple dozen pages, we are missing the point. Just because the world in this book has been decimated, it is not that much different from our own: we may say there is hope for our future generations because we are not yet on the brink of annihilation…but we WILL be. Even if we human beings do not undo ourselves, surely the Sun is going to wipe us out at some point. Now, we could take the Neal Stephenson Seveneves route; and I hope we do. We need to be figuring out as a species how to get our genetic information dispersed into space.

But the point McCarthy makes—or doesn’t make, and allows us to realize—is that in some ways we go on living our lives as a sort of McGuffin exercise: what is it we’re carrying and why? For the characters in this book, they “carry the fire” inside of them. They carry the good, or so they say. This epic journey shows us parts of humanity in all its forms. These characters purport to be good, but are they? McCarthy also offers room to meditate on altruism, selfishness, and survival.

I loved this novel.

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6. On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder (historical fiction, 1937)

“One morning the whole world was delicately silvered. Every blade of grass was silvery and the path had a thin sheen…. When the sun came up, the whole prairie sparkled. Millions of tiny, tiny sparks of color blazed on the grasses.”

This happened to be the first of the series I ever read as a child, so I came to them a bit out of order. Plum Creek always was a favorite of mine. Katie, Eric, and I made many good reading memories together with this one in September, including taking it with us to Idyllwild one day.

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As we roll into October, I just finished another McCarthy book this morning, and I have been reading up on state and national parks, as well as botany books. I might pause the Border Trilogy for a week or so and try to finish Carson’s Silent Spring, which has been on my reading list for years.

Happy reading to everyone! (I might try to be better about updating my blog this month, too, although I am finding my days packed with all kinds of shenanigans at the moment)!

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I have been reading in the library every Tuesday during Katie and Eric’s enrichment classes (choir and art) for two hours. It is paradise. Give me a library for my mind and flowers for my hair above all the material objects anyone could possess.