Guest Post: Sisters Book Club Review by My Sister

My sister Gabby and I have a Sisters Book Club. You may have already known this, but if you didn’t, now you know it. The Sisters Book Club is me and my sister picking one book to read together each month and then writing about it on my blog. In the past we’ve done joint book reviews, but we didn’t get it together to do that this time.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Photo credit: dickiesandchucks)

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my review of our October selection, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, and now here’s Gabby’s take on the book. I’ll leave you to read the review yourself, but I will just add that while Gabby does not remember a time when our family didn’t have a computer, I do. I also remember when we got our VCR, and I bet she doesn’t remember that, either. That’s the advantage that four and half more years on Earth has given me.

If you want to join us in reading the next Sisters Book Club selection, you can follow this blog for the next announcement or join the discussion on our Goodreads group.


For as long as I can remember, both tradition and technology have coexisted in my life. Growing up in the 80’s with a technology-minded father, I can’t recall a time when we did not have a computer in the house. At a time when a home computer meant little more to the general public than an interesting novelty, to me they were a strange device with lights and sounds that somehow captured my father’s attention most of his time at home. While I occasionally forayed into his “computer room” to peek over his shoulder at the glowing green screen to try and comprehend this strange hold, I myself spent my days playing outside and my nights sprawled in bed devouring novel after novel.

Much like the rest of the modern world, a few short decades later I routinely find myself watching TV while using my laptop and checking Facebook and email on my phone. I like to call this “multi-tasking” but what it really amounts to is trading devoted attention to one task, with giving half-assed attention to three or more. I still read (as presumably evidenced by this book review) but technology has managed to pervade my daily life. I use computers for work at both of my jobs, as well as for recreation. I am (I am sorry to admit) one of those annoying people who monitor texts, email, and social media ad nauseum. But I still maintain a love affair with the bound volume. While I’ve tried digital devices for reading and cannot deny their ease and nearly instantaneous accessibility, to me there is simply no comparison to holding a book in my hands. I love the feel of the pages as I turn them in anticipation of what’s ahead. I love the smell of the paper, the weight in my hands or propped on my knees, the sight of the font on the page.

The dichotomy between the “old fashioned” printed books and the “modern technology” in which I am otherwise immersed daily is comparable to the themes throughout Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The main character, Clay, is no stranger to technology; as a recently unemployed up-and-coming web designer, he seems an unlikely employee of Mr. Penumbra’s “absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall” cramped and crowded and beautifully tangible bookstore. But Clay grows fond of the bookstore with its odd assortment of strange clientele.

The book continued the theme of juxtaposition throughout: the old-fashioned stuffy bookstore compared to the ultra-modern Google campus; Clay’s interactions with the superlatively modern Kat with the staggering knowledge of technology compared to the elderly and old-fashioned bookstore owner and patrons; the modern methods employed in solving a comparatively ancient mystery Clay uncovers. The very polarity of the elements reminds me of our world in general, and my own in particular.

Without revealing the mystery at the core of the novel, I will say that I enjoyed Sloan’s writing style. While a bit “green,” he nonetheless employed a certain sentence structure and descriptive language that made the story seem more traditional than I had expected, tempering the thorough descriptions of technology. The mystery Clay uncovers has potentially a deeper meaning and context from which I found myself drawing surprising comparisons to modern societal values – but to fully explore that you will have to read the book. Preferably in print form, thank you very much.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Layers

This is my photographic response to this week’s photo challenge by The Daily Post. I like taking photos, especially for this type of challenge. I find it leads me to see the world differently. And seeing the world differently is something I always find enriching.

The assignment: “In a new post specifically for this challenge, share a photo which means LAYERS to you!”


A Glutton for Punishment: Classics Spin

I’ve not participated in a Classics Club Spin before, but now that The History of England, Volume V is done (DONE!), I’m feeling bold and ready to take on another reading challenge…in addition to the Ulysses read-along.

No, bold isn’t the right word. Crazy? Unrealistic? Masochistic? Any of those is probably more accurate.

Whatever the adjective, here are the rules for the Spin from The Classics Club:

List your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list – in a separate post.

This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books in November & December. So, try to challenge yourself. For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

Next Monday, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by January 1.

My 20 from my Cavalcade of Classics list, in fairly random order since I discovered that after the Hume and with Ulysses on deck, I’m basically dreading all of the books on my list:

  1. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
  2. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Stranger by Albert Camus
  5. The Confessions by Augustine
  6. Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis
  7. Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  8. The Histories by Herodotus
  9. The Social Contract by Jean-Jeacques Rousseau
  10. The City of God by Augustine
  11. Lives by Plutarch
  12. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
  13. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
  14. The Castle by Franz Kafka
  15. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  16. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  17. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  18. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  19. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  20. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Monday’s the day. I’m hoping for a Bronte. Or one of the two by Rousseau. Stay tuned!

New Age, New England-Style

I spent much of today at the Natural Living Expo, “New England’s largest holistic expo,” according to their website. It was the first of this kind of thing I’ve attended since I left the western half of the United States, and while much of it was as I expected, I noticed a few regional differences.

In the exhibit hall, I met up with the usual cadre of persistent purveyors of various cure-alls and my clothes and hair became (predictably) infused with nag champa. In the workshops, I saw a past-life regression therapist with awesome sideburns and another therapist who asked a volunteer from the audience what issues her stomach wanted them to address today. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone ask another person to give voice to a normally nonverbal body part, but it was the first time I’d heard the question asked with a Massachusetts accent.

Aside from the difference in accent, the main differences I saw between this expo and similar events I attended in California were that the one here included less flowing clothing and fewer dreadlocks but more smokers lurking outside the exit doors. And no one once said “namaste” to me, which I found I didn’t really mind that much.

My favorite part of the expo today was the keynote by Marilyn Taylor entitled “‘Crazy Busy’ Cure.” Marilyn is a certified life coach, a licensed massage therapist, and the author of 10 Practices of Personal Sustainability: The Savvy Person’s Guide to Conscious Living. In her talk today Marilyn shared six of the ten practices in the book: listen and cultivate awareness, get clear about what you value, increase sustaining activities (and decrease draining ones), take on projects with a focus on completing them, and work with the natural patterns of your mind (e.g, if you think most clearly in the evening but are foggy in the morning, save your intellectual pursuits for the later hours of the day and do something active during your less lucid time).

I liked her talk, and it came at an opportune time in my life, when I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and trying to find a system for figuring out how to prioritize the different activities in my life and jettison the ones that don’t fit for me right now.  December brings the annual reevaluation of our homeschooling and extracurriculars schedule, and I have high hopes that with awareness and reflection, I can maybe get adequate sleep this winter and spring without dropping all of my responsibilities.

I’m a little scared that my plan to read James Joyce’s Ulysses this December might not fit with this goal, but we’ll see what happens.

Friday Free-for-All

Just a quickie post for this Friday evening with a few things I found interesting this week:

1) To the Best of Our Knowledge, my favorite radio show (well, one of my three favorite radio shows along with This American Life and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me), had a couple of great shows recently.

One is called “Forgiving” and includes some thought-provoking discussion about the nature and difficulties of the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a thorny issue for me, and this show came at it from a direction that I found interesting, insightful, and non-preachy. Interviews include a Canadian woman who was taken hostage by Somali kidnappers, an author who interviewed Japanese war criminals, and the spiritual leader of Lab/Shul in New York who talks about reinterpreting Yom Kippur as a Day of Forgiveness.

The second TTBOOK show I really enjoyed was “Albert Camus,” a show discussing Camus’ writing in celebration of his 100th birthday. It’s all great, but I particularly liked hearing from Jennifer Hecht who uses the works of Camus and others to offer a philosophical argument against suicide.

2) For my birth-loving friends: “The Impact of Birth on Lifelong Wellbeing,” the keynote presentation of the 2013 GOLD  Perinatal Care Online Conference, is available to the general public until November 18. In this presentation, Sarah Buckley—researcher, former GP, and author of the book Gentle Birth, Gentle Parenting—talks about the long-term positive hormonal, psychological, and microbiological effects of the normal process of childbirth on both mothers and babies. She includes a review of existing literature and shares some of the results of her own research.

I like that it focuses on the positive effects of physiologic birth rather than the negative effects of birth interventions. Also, Sarah Buckley is from Brisbane, so if you like hearing Australian accents AND birth, then you’re in luck with this presentation.

It’s intended for health professionals, but I find it quite accessible, and anyone interested in human birth is likely to find the presentation interesting. (Two notes: the handout mentioned in the presentation does not appear to be available with the publicly available presentation, and RCT = Randomized Controlled Trial.)


Now I’m going to pop some popcorn and read the last chapter of David Hume’s 18th-century classic, The History of England, Volume V. Because it’s Friday night and I am a party animal.


I had my first visit with a new doctor today. He asked me a lot of questions, including this one:

“I know you’re homeschooling two children, so you probably don’t have a lot of extra time, but I ask everyone this question: What are your hobbies?”

I thought for a second. The first thing that popped into my head was “woodworking.” This despite the fact that the only things remotely woodworking-related I’ve done since I made a bookshelf in junior high wood shop is assembling Ikea furniture and little pine kits I get for my kids. I just think woodworking sounds like a good, utilitarian hobby to have. I also like the idea of working on model trains, but that’s another one that I’ve never really done. I went for the only two things I could think of that I do that aren’t directly related to childrearing, homeschooling, or housecleaning.

“Well,” I answered, “I read and I blog.”

“What was that?” he asked, leaning forward and turning his left ear toward me.

“I…read? And I blog?” I answered, unsure whether he asked me to repeat because he hadn’t heard me, because he didn’t understand me, or because those are such lame hobbies he needed to hear me say them again. “I mean,” I clarified, “I do other things, too.” Pause. “Those are just the ones that I do, like…regularly.”

Yes, I’m one month shy of my 37th birthday, and I said, “like” to my doctor.

On the drive home we got stuck in traffic (because we always get stuck in traffic on the way home), which gave me plenty of time to think about what things I do that could be classified as “hobbies.”

I knit and crochet, but one or two projects a year doesn’t seem like enough to make it a hobby. I take photos, but I think to make photography a hobby, I’d have to have more interest in it than just keeping my point-and-shoot charged and in my diaper bag (the fact that I still carry a diaper bag even though my youngest has been out of diapers for 2+ years is a separate issue). I’d have to have a good camera or have used PhotoShop sometime in my life or have taken a class.

I did actually take a black-and-white photography class in high school. This was in the days before digital cameras, and we worked in a darkroom and spooled our film onto metal reels with our hands inside light-proof bags. We developed and fixed and washed and then hung our negatives to dry until it was time to cut them and take them over to the enlarger and see if this long process yielded anything worth a passing grade. My teacher clearly didn’t think I had much aptitude for photography. I would ask her questions about how to stop the film from sticking to itself on the reel or exactly how to keep bubbles from forming in the developing solution, but she was always too busy working with the students who actually had promise in the field of photography to help me.

So, photography isn’t really a hobby, it’s just something I do.

I have this sense that something isn’t a hobby unless I immerse myself in it like I see other people do, but I think maybe that’s too strict a definition of “hobby.”

The All-Knowing Wikipedia says a hobby is just something done for fun and relaxation, “typically…during one’s leisure time.” So maybe writing can be my hobby even if I don’t seek out the company of writers or attend workshops or even write every day. I can include singing in my list of hobbies even though I don’t go out to vocal performances or listen to showtunes or operas or choral pieces while I’m cooking meals or driving down the highway (although I do take weekly voice lessons and sing in the church choir). I don’t need to frequent Williams-Sonoma or own a Le Creuset pot to classify cooking as one of my hobbies, and I don’t need to go backpacking every weekend—or ever—to say that hiking is one of my hobbies.

So, next time I see the doctor, I’ll tell him that my hobbies include not only reading and blogging, but knitting, crocheting, hiking, cooking, photography, singing, writing, learning Latin, seeking spiritual growth in a group setting, cross-country road trips, and amateur birding.

And while I know that “worldbuilding,” which is included in Wikipedia’s list of hobbies, is some kind of gaming/sci-fi thing, I might add that to the list, too, just because it sounds really cool if you don’t quite know what it is.

My doctor will cock his head and say, “What was that last one on the list?” and I’ll say, “Worldbuilding. I’m not just raising children; I’m building a world.”

Yes, I like the sound of that.

Discovering The Avett Brothers

CIMG3012I learn about new music (i.e., music made since 1999) from one of three sources: My spouse, NPR, or the local college radio station.

In the case of The Avett Brothers, I first heard their music on WERS, the Emerson College radio station that just barely comes in where I live. I can listen to it only in my car because it won’t come in inside my house.

I heard their song “February Seven” several times on the radio and really enjoyed it. I remembered the title of the song because it’s my mom’s birthday. (They’re also from the town in North Carolina where my mom graduated high school, which seemed kind of like a sign. And Scott Avett was born the same year I was! How’s that for a sign?) I initially decided to check out the album it’s on—The Carpenter—from my library because I thought maybe I’d buy it for my mom’s next birthday. After listening to the lyrics a few more times, I’ve decided against sending it to my mom, but I’m still glad I picked up the album.

Everyone in my family enjoys listening to it, which is something of a rarity. I admit, usually I’m the limiting factor. My kids enjoy listening to Led Zeppelin with their dad, while I only tolerate it. The kids actively request Vampire Weekend, and my spouse is happy to oblige…when I’m not in the car. And while I know that my spouse plays AC/DC for the kids, I choose to ignore that reality.

But we can all agree on The Avett Brothers.

Except for two songs towards the end of the album, the songs on this album have a rolling folk-music feel, with the addition of a cello or a saw (which I thought at first was a theremin) that adds a bit of surprise and a richness that I really like.

“February Seven” is still my favorite, with its dark but hopeful lyrics. My daughter and I sing along with it together.

I also love the first track on the album, “The Once and Future Carpenter.” The lyrics reflect my habit of moving from here to there every few years.

The chorus:

Forever I will move

Like the world that turns beneath me

And when I lose my direction

I look up to the sky

And when the black dress drags upon the ground

I’ll be ready to surrender

And remember we’re all in this together

If I live the life I’m given I won’t be scared to die

My spouse was a little surprised that I like the album so much since the lyrics can be a little cliched and almost cheesy; usually I have a very low tolerance for cheesiness. But there’s something about this I don’t mind. There’s a special place in my heart for cheese, if the music underneath it works. Pleasant vocals, nice harmonies, and that cello just really work for me.

“Winter in My Heart” is a song of especially cheesy lyrics, but, while I wouldn’t say it’s an objectively great song, I find myself singing it to myself on my dark and frigid morning walks around the neighborhood, where it’s actually more winter outside and and spring or summer in my heart, so I’m not really sure why the song comes to mind so often. I think the rhythm of the words and the sing-song way they sing the line, “They say flowers bloom in spring,” really appeals to me.

Another favorite of mine is “A Father’s First Spring,” which appears to be about the way a father feels after his first child is born.

When I’m in the sweet daughter’s eyes

My heart is now ruined for the rest of all time

There’s no part of it left to give

I feel a lot of license to interpret songs however I want to, regardless of what the lyricist intends, but this really sounds like a new parent to me. The lyrics pretty much nail the way it feels to love someone so deeply and thoroughly, to surrender one’s heart to a being in a way that’s totally new and unexpected, no matter how much you’ve anticipated it.

And “Down with the Shine” could just about be the theme song for my blog. “Down with the shine, the perfect shine/That poisons the well, and ruins my mind”. Sing it, Avett Brothers.

The Avett Brothers released a new album last month called Magpie and the Dandelion. I’ve heard one track from the new album—“Another is Waiting”—and it sounds pretty good. The song reminds me a little of a band from the 90’s, but I’m not sure who. I think I’ll be picking up the album soon to hear some more. And who knows…maybe if they do a show nearby, I’ll try to see them live, even though I have mixed feelings about going to see live music. But that’s a topic for another post.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Habit

This is my photographic response to this week’s photo challenge by The Daily Post. I like taking photos, especially for this type of challenge. I find it leads me to see the world differently. And seeing the world differently is something I always find enriching.

The assignment: “This week, show us something that’s a HABIT.”

I usually make a point of posting photos for these challenges with little to no commentary, but this week’s challenge left me wondering: What’s the difference between a habit and a routine?

A habit is something I do without thinking, like putting on my turn signal before I change lanes or clicking refresh on my blog stats. When ingrained, a routine is also something I do without thinking, but a routine is something that moves me through my day in a way a habit doesn’t. Habits stand alone, while routines are part of a larger plan.

Neither a habit nor a routine is that easy to photograph, though (at least not for me), so distinguishing between the two is irrelevant for a weekly photo challenge.

Habit #1: Pilling the Cat. (This is not an effective cat-pilling technique, incidentally.)


Habit #2: Doing the dishes; specifically, stacking the dishes precariously in the drainer while talking to my sister on our habitual Tuesday-night phone call.


Homeschool Quick Takes

Homeschooling gives me the opportunity to spend a lot of time with my kids.

A lot.

Of time.

And since I know you were wondering, every moment is a blessing. No dreams of finishing a cup of tea before it’s cold or cooking food I don’t have to share or using the bathroom by myself here. No, sir. Every single moment. A gosh-darn blessing.

Homeschooling also gives me the chance to be present for even more of their learning process than I would be otherwise, which can be kind of fun. Or at least educational. Here are some of the recent fun things the kids and I have been learning together. Read More

Outsourcing Sex Ed

The sex ed classes I had as a child were taught by the public schools I attended.

In sixth grade, we were segregated by sex and went into separate rooms to learn about our changing bodies from the school nurse. I don’t know what the boys learned, but the nurse showed us a movie that assured us that eating potato chips and chocolate would not cause pimples. Read More