Monday, 15 January 2018

Books Read in 2017 - Part 2

Continuing on my list of books I finished in 2017 (here is the first part).

Random Christmas morning photo
15. From the Holy Mountain - William Dalrymple

A road-trip retracing the steps of a monk from the eleventh century through the Middle-East. A very sobering read although written in a light-hearted enough manner. Realising the huge Christian and Greek presence there used to be in the Middle-East right up until the mid-twentieth century is very challenging to West-centric narratives. The account of the treatment of Armenians, although merely evoked, is chilling and Turkey and Israel's memory-erasing policies so painful to read as a historian.The book does make you want to go and visit these places, the Holy Land in particular, but the terrifying foreshadowing in his description of the ill-at-ease security of Syrian Christians was hard to read post-ISIS. 
A great (if heart-breaking) read to realise one's own partial understanding of history.

16. 33 Days To Merciful Love - Fr Michael Gaitley

This was a great Lenten read, but I feel like I should get back to it again. Not sure I got as much out of it as I could have (but really, I'll just read whatever Fr Mike Schmitz tells me to).

17. The Shed That Fed a Million Children - Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow

I actually read this in a book I borrowed from Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow's nephew, who is a good friend (hi Thomas!), so although the story was fascinating, I kept getting distracted by recognising people's names and places I have heard a lot about. Some literary mannerisms but a very hopeful book that made me want to get involved with Mary's Meals straight away.

18. The Collapse of Parenting - Leonard Sax

Possibly the most influencing book I have read all year. I actually listened to it all over again with Simon as soon as I finished it. It is very affirming of what we are attempting to do in our parenting gig (I refuse to pretend I have a parenting philosophy) - but also challenging and a bit of the kick up the backside to actually be the kind of parents we always said we wanted to be. Another one I want to listen to again.

19. A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman

A huge disappointment after all the hype. Ove was very hard to bear with his constant whining at the beginning, but only got worse as the plot kept on being predictable (or just uninteresting). Pandering to the current cant, with the classic tokenisms (look! we have a gay! look! we have a foreigner!) and "modern-tribes-are-so-much-better-and-diverse-and-happy-and-inclusive-than-families". Dull. Predictable and dull.

20. Dark Matter -Blake Crouch

Good, solid, fun science-fiction. I was worried it would be predictable but was only so at the beginning. Not the hyperbolic achievement the cover claims it is, but solid, and great to listen to with Simon (our tastes in fiction don't typically overlap).

21. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying - Mari Kondo

Finally got my hands on this, two years after everyone else. Not particularly well written but a lot of good ideas to take away (storing things together, not keeping anything in the bathroom - especially true in our "I'm actually the outside" terribly insulated bathroom - sorting by type not by room etc) but, tempting as she makes her lifestyle sound she is clearly not writing with big families or hospitality in mind. And also, the obvious: tidying doesn't actually change your life.

22. The Great Divorce - C.S Lewis

A little Lewis never hurts. A lot of Lewis never hurts. All the Lewis never hurts. As usual, his ability to give a glimpse into unintelligible matters, whilst showing you that they are, in fact, impossible to describe, is amazing. The solidity of heaven vs the ghost-like quality of hell was particularly striking. 

23. The Silk Roads - Peter Frankopan

That was a beast of a book to go through. I learned plenty of interesting things about a region of the world I don't know enough about, and taking the long view has some very illuminating effects. However the author mostly merely mentions all the things I wanted to know more about, and for an author who claims he wants to correct an overly west-centric history, he writes an awful lot about the west. The ex-soviet republics of the actual silk roads are entirely jettisoned around the 14th century, only to picked up again in the conclusion - it reminded me of bad essays from my students, when they don't have information about all the points they want to make, so they spend the essay talking about things they do know, and pretend in the conclusion like they talked about everything  (or in Frankopan's case, keep referring the reader back to that one sentence about the Sogdians as if it was a whole chapter of facts and explanations). So, interesting facts, but not a tight enough argument.

24. Not of This World - Sterling Jaquith

I was hoping for a book to address the gaps in Mari Kondo's method (big families and entertaining in particular) but turns out I'm more of a minimalist than the author. Abandoned.

25. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafan

The story started out really engrossing but I got halfway through and just lost interest. I was dreading the scenes of torture it seemed to be foreshadowing and simply did not care about Julián Carax, so watching the protagonist get so enthralled by him was perplexing and ultimately off putting. And I am a grown up now, I don't have to finish books that put me off.

26. Happier at Home - Gretchen Rubin

A fun read, I like Rubin's voice and anecdotes (but not her use of the word "healthful" - there is already a perfectly good word in the English language to describe this concept, Rubin!). However, it made me wish I had read the original happiness project book, to see what led her to the idea, and also because I couldn't help but feel like I was being used (book 1 was successful? here is the same one, but blue!)

27. Better Than Before - Gretchen Rubin

A much more useful book! The first chapter made me worry there would be nothing new (the opposing pairs were just not that groundbreaking)and the four tendencies were interesting (if again not as groundbreaking as she makes out) but everything else was overall great encouragement to pick up new habits and lots of common sense and practical tips.

28. Le Liseur du 6h27 - Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

In an attempt to read in French again (which I hadn't done for years) I picked a few novels back in October. This was not a great pick. It read well, but the writing was a long list of clichés, whilst the plot was trying too hard to be original ("look at me! I've got a dame pipi as a protagonsit!"). Very meh.

29. The Lost Tools of Learning - Dorothy L Sayers

Cheating again, as this is an essay, not a book, but I loved it so, I want to include it! So much wisdom, so many one-liners. We are very interested in the classical method of education for homeschooling the kids, so this was fascinating, but also, the former secondary school teacher in me couldn't help but burst out laughing at her description of the "pert" age:

"It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands. It may, indeed, be rather less obtrusive at home if it is disciplined in school; and anyhow, elders who have abandoned the wholesome principle that children should be seen and not heard have no one to blame but themselves"

And that's a wrap! A lot more non-fiction than in previous years, and no crime (come to think of it, that probably explains the low numbers as well as I normally tear through those - I haven't found a new series I like yet, not since I broke up with Louise Penny). Hopefully I can do better this year, and maybe actually finish some of the books I am still reading:

1.The Way - Josemaria Escriva
2.Catholicism For Dummies
3. Unbound - Neal Lozano

Although, I have excuses for these three, I am actually going slowly on purpose as I use one as a devotional and try to reflect as I go along with the other two.

4.The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

Which, if I am honest, I am probably not going to finish... I did like it, I just got distracted by a squirrel and now I don't have the book anymore, so... 

5. A Charlotte Mason Study Guide - Penny Gardner 
6.The Religious Potential of the Child - Sofia Cavalletti

Those are to inform my teaching - so I need to make myself read them... which I am not really doing.

7. Le Quatrieme Mur - Sorj Chalandon

This one is actually great, a much better attempt at reading in French again - but I can tell it's going to be tough reading, so, surprise, surprise, I'm procrastinating.

8. Danubia - Simon Winder

Actively reading this one and loving it. Should be done soon.

9.Gargantua - Rabelais

Current reading-the-classics read. Mostly hating it. I just don't find crass humour funny. Not in a shocked-prudish way, just in a that's-not-actually-funny way. So mostly wasted on me. Dear dear. Not doing well with the French literature!

Cute picture of Mathilde to reward you for making it to the bottom

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Books read in 2017 - Part 1

This is the first year I've actually tracked my reading (just title, author, date started and finished and a few lines of my impressions in a pretty notebook).

Pretty notebook+galette des rois = the best combo 

It has been good fun, but also showed that I am a compulsive book starter, and a somewhat lacklustre book-finisher (I have eleven still going at this exact moment.) It is also the first year I allowed myself to give up on a book. I mean, I *have* not finished books before, but there were always somewhat naggingly taunting me from my shelves. This is the year I said: No more! I shall not be bullied by books that don't engross me anymore! And I officially allowed myself to admit I was not going to finish those books.

The things grown-ups get to do, hey!

Overall, it hasn't been a great year for reading. Hard pregnancy, new baby, three children three and under, the ludicrous hours junior doctors are made to work, all this didn't help, but mostly I think giving up on my Audible subscription for several months is what really slowed me down. It reduced my reading time to just before bed (grabbing my book at naptime instead of collapsing in a heap and scrolling on my phone after chores requires more self-discipline than I have).
I'm happy to report Audible is back, so knitting should also pick up pace again, all the hurrays!

Nonetheless, here is what I managed to finish in 2017 (I'll add a list of ongoing books in the second post) :

1. Middlemarch - George Eliot - re-read

Ok, this is just cheating. This is my favourite book ever, so it's kind of permanently on the go (I have this audiobook - really well read, and this pretty edition. Both are sheer joy for the soul.)

2. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

Another re-read, but it was my first time reading it in English - I hadn't picked it up since my teenage years (pre-enough English fluency to read hundreds of pages in the language). It was fantastic, unsurprisingly.

3. The Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan

Part of the Reading the Classics project. Did NOT enjoy it, fun as it was to pick up where many literary references came from. Here are my thoughts.

4. The Quiet American - Graham Greene

As always, Greene is an amazing storyteller. It was actually fascinating to read it in parallel with The Pilgrim's Progress, considering Greene's understanding of human flaws and sinfulness.
This is an amazing portrait of dangerous innocence. Watch out for the scene in the bell tower and then the last sentence of the book - showing how confession and the mercy it represents is only trifled with by people who have not yet done their worst. But Greene believes it is only a matter of time until we do.

5. The Wednesday Wars - Gary D. Schmidt

A lovely story; the Shakespeare analysis is very compelling. There are a few gimmicks in style that get very repetitive ("let me tell you" in particular) but the plot is very enjoyable and the characters endearing. Bonus points for the inspiring teacher NOT turning out to be a bland saint-like mentor nor a "look at all my flaws" character, but very human.

6. God's Smuggler - Elizabeth and John Sherill

This came highly recommended by one of my heroes, but wasn't as good as I hoped. It made the Iron Curtain sound quite tame. Or at least, didn't show him taking many personal risks there. It was still a very interesting account of discernment and following the will of God.

7. The Lamb's Supper- Scott Hahn

I listened to this in one day (admittedly one day when I had a lot of time to listen, travelling to London and back on my own, but still!). There are too many insights to write down, it was fascinating. It was an excellent way to focus on what really is happening during the Mass and how the war really is fought - in personal relationships. The idea that revenge is only complete in the culprit's change of heart really stayed with me.

8. The Power of Habit - Charles Duhigg

Many insights and fun stories on how habits can be/are used. The author sets rather too much store by his own theories, but the last chapter concentrating on a "changing habits how-to" is very practical and useful.

9. The Little World of Don Camillo - Giovanni Guareschi

This was made into a French film some decades ago and I remember it with delight from my childhood. The book turned out to be just as delightful. Funny and tender. I can't wait to read it aloud to the children (and show them the film, obviously). I was surprised to find some gun violence which wasn't in the film, but it made it even better, adding just the right amount of depth to an otherwise very light-hearted story.

10. A Charlotte Mason Education - Catherine Levison

Slightly disappointing. A whistle-stop tour of the main principles of Charlotte Mason's education theory arranged by topics, but it could really do with offering more practical ideas. Plus, why exactly the author is meant to be an expert when she had only been doing it for a year when she wrote the book leaves one flummoxed.

11. Letters from Father Christmas - JRR Tolkien

Very sweet and inventive. It makes me wonder whether we should put more effort into the whole Santa Claus thing for the kids (at the moment, we merely say that he is Saint Nicholas and leaves chocolate coins in shoes on December 6 but are somewhat inconsistent on the other stuff). The antics of the goblins and other characters hint at a detailed vision which I wish JRR had put on paper somewhere.

12. Hillbilly Elegy - JD Vance

An absolutely fascinating insight into the white poor in America, who have, I suspect, a lot in common with their British counterparts. Replace "hillbilly" by "pikey" and I reckon the problems will be very similar. Interestingly, he does not advocate for sweeping government intervention - beyond avoiding "poor enclaves" and taking the extended family into account in the child protection system - but rather encourages a culture change by wanting the hillbillies to take a hard look at themselves. His reflections on the importance of a stable family life sounded very much on point to me. Worth the hype.

13. Gérard - Mathieu Sapin

The drawings were not what I typically like in BD, but oddly suited to Depardieu's character. It makes you wonder whether his incredible ability to inhabit the characters he plays comes from being so larger than life himself. Or whether art and life have become so intertwined in him that there is no good line to draw between the man and the actor. Fun read, but sad too.

14. Being Mortal - Atul Gawande

Another book well worth the hype. Instructive but also inviting you to reflect on your own life and choices. A lot of what he talks about made me marvel at what a wonderful thing Maminou did for Papinou. There is an odd advocacy for euthanasia right at the end which goes against almost the entire book (my tin-hat self wonders whether the publisher asked to have it added in so an not to alienate any potential readers), but this is small matter compared to the attention he draws to end-of-life care and the other options beyond "acharnement thérapeutique" (a hard-to-translate French expression to describe the extraordinary and invasive types of medical interventions one will be pushed into in the face of terminal illness).
I have been forcing this book on everyone I meet.

This is about half of them.
The second part will coming soon if you want more of my impressions on books. In the meantime, go well and read, reader!

Friday, 1 December 2017

Lost in Translation: School Uniforms

For this here blog re-launch, I have decided to also dip again in the always fruitful Lost in Translation segment, this time tackling an issue which first caused me intense bewilderment before I just gave it up altogether. 

School uniforms.

Put yourself in my shoes: I grew up in a school system where school uniforms were all but unheard of (including in religious schools) and where teachers could - they mostly didn't, but they could - wear all kind of eccentric garments (my favourite remaining to this day the epic complex-landscape-with-houses-etched-across-a-brownish-trouser-suit that my Latin teacher used to wear - it was epic, you should have seen it). And yet, the common issues used as arguments for a school uniform were and still are also absent:

- people (yes, including teenage girls) dress according to the weather
- their clothing is typically modest
- the behaviour of students is certainly no worse than in England
- kids have no trouble feeling like they belong to their school and that other children who are not from said school should therefore be shunned (yes, they are able to work that out even without the help of designated blazers)
- bullying over clothes is no worse than in the English schools I worked at (sorry to break it to you, but English kids are just as able to pick on be-uniformed peers, they just make fun of how clean the uniform is or focus on bags, shoes and hair-dos).
- they seem to be able to recognise and follow or rebel against arbitrary rules just as well as the British

So I really struggled to see the point of adding to my already heavy workload as a teacher by having to pretend like I cared deeply whether the students were tucking their shirts in, wearing their clip-on tie, asking me before they took off their blazers, and following the one million rules on how to wear your hair up or down (because if your hair is down it will get caught in stuff and you will DIE, as demonstrated by the astronomical rate of death-by-hair recorded amongst French kids).

I had to remind myself constantly to Be cross! It's disrespectful! Don't forget to make them fix their clothes! when really they looked just fine to me. I listened to countless parental hand-wringings over even the smallest issue - clip-on ties were a particular favourite: When are they going to learn to tie them if they don't have to wear a real tie as part of the uniform? as one anguished parent once asked (I don't know, you could always, maybe, just show them?) - Luckily I knew how to answer that one: I just needed to look grave, shake my head and utter in hushed tones - I'm so sorry, it's a health and safety issue you see... - 
I had teachers explaining to me that they once worked in a school where the kids only had to wear a polo-shirt and jumper rather than a shirt and blazer, and the behaviour.was.appalling, Isabelle, APPALLING! (everyone knows that all behaviour issues are solved by clothing, as the immaculate behaviour of toddlers wearing their Sunday best amply demonstrates.)

In the end I did acquire the automatisms needed to berate the students appropriately, but I never managed to care. I collected  reason after reason from as many sources as I could in an almost anthropological effort to try and see the point of it all, and whilst I can give you as many reasons as the day is long, don't believe in a single one of them. Sorry England. I tried ever so hard! 

But I can't even escape it now, because now I am a parent myself, and belong to groups of other parents, and they love to care about this stuff, to the tune of 100s-long comment-threads on Facebook at the slightest provocation. So, as this is my blog, I am going to take matters into my own hands. It's not going to be easy to hear, but it's for your own good Britain.

Wait. First you will have to come a bit closer, because it's a secret and we are about to stop pretending:

Are you ready?

Ok, maybe go make some tea first, to steady your nerves.


Ok, I'm about to take the plunge, hold on to your screen.

Here goes: the only actual reasons why your kids wear school uniforms is because 
a- it looks nice
b- that's how it's kind of always been

That's it. 

So, my dear anguished parent brethrens, you have my official permission to stop caring. It doesn't actually matter any more than the weird rule about not sitting on the grass patch on the left in the Jardin du Luxembourg whilst the one on the right is totally fine.

It's probably easier to just follow the rule, but you don't have to think there is any reasonable argument behind it. 


Now we can start fighting about attendance rewards instead.