Weekend Reading: memory-making, music-making, thinking about facts, and cul-de-sacs

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. Christmas Traditions Undone (FearlessFamilyLife.com)

I learned over years of trying to #makememories that memories aren’t made. Memories happen. They grow organically from the things we do over and over again, like the footpaths that appear between sidewalks, showing the shortest point between A and B. If you break down crying every year over your children’s Christmas outfits and yell at everyone to get in the car dammit we’re late for church, it will become the Christmas tradition your children remember, you can quote me on that. I try to keep my eyes on the overarching tradition of enjoying our time together, especially now that my older children are leaving home and returning for holidays. What flows from that — cooking, special outings, crafts and activities — is always up for grabs.

2. 6 of the world’s most extreme choirs (BBC Music)

Taking the Tuneless Choir concept a stage further, Mieskuoro Huutajat (Men’s Choir Shouters) is a Finnish choir that doesn’t sing at all. On their website, they describe themselves (brilliantly) as “20-40 decently dressed men” who “scream, bellow and shout excerpts from national anthems, children’s ditties or international treaties”. There are a lot of raised voices, in other words, in a range of frequencies from the heavy metal death growl to a very manly kind of screeching. They refer to their musical approach as “simple but loud”.

3. Thinking About Facts in the Digital Age (The Walrus)

I’m going to start by saying two things that will surely make some people very mad. First, the language we use has begun to obscure the relationship between facts and fantasy. Second, this is a dangerous by-product of a lack of education in our country that has now affected an entire generation of citizens. These two facts have made lies proliferate in our culture to an unprecedented degree. It has made possible the weaponizing of lies so that they can all the more sneakily undermine our ability to make good decisions for ourselves and for our fellow citizens.

4. Debunking the Cul-de-Sac (CityLab.com)

This is where it’s most apparent – from an airplane window – that American ideas about how to live and build communities have changed dramatically over time. For decades, families fled the dense urban grid for newer types of neighborhoods that felt safer, more private, even pastoral. Through their research, Garrick and colleague Wesley Marshall are now making the argument that we got it all wrong: We’ve really been designing communities that make us drive more, make us less safe, keep us disconnected from one another, and that may even make us less healthy.

“What I understand now is that the patterns of places matter enormously,” Garrick says. “Even from 40,000 feet, you can tell the difference between places. It’s not going to give you all the answers, but it’s going to tell you an awful lot about how people live in different places, just by looking at these patterns.”

 

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Weekend Reading: the power of patience, the moral imagination, and lemon pigs

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

1. The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention (Harvard Magazine)

What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.

2. Awakening the Moral Imagination: Teaching Virtues through Fairy Tales (reprinted at CatholicEducation.org)

Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium of this kind of moral education. This is the education of character.

The Greek word for character literally means an impression. Moral character is an impression stamped upon the self. Character is defined by its orientation, consistency, and constancy. Today we often equate freedom with morality and goodness. But this is naive because freedom is transcendent and the precondition of choice itself. Depending upon his character, an individual will be drawn toward either goodness or wickedness. Moral and immoral behavior is freedom enacted either for good or for ill.

The great fairy tales and children’s fantasy stories attractively depict character and virtue. In these stories the virtues glimmer as if in a looking glass, and wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. These stories make us face the unvarnished truth about ourselves while compelling us to consider what kind of people we want to be.

3. Lemon Pigs Are the World’s Newest New Year’s Tradition (Atlas Obscura)

Pallai’s followers agreed, and soon she was deluged with dozens of lemon pig photos, cobbled together from fruit bowls and holiday detritus. The photo’s accompanying instructions are simple. Four toothpicks make up the pig’s legs, while small slices in the lemon peel create its mouth and ears. Two cloves are the eyes. The curly tail is fashioned from crushed up foil, and a glistening penny is inserted into the piggy’s mouth, presumably symbolizing the hoped-for luck. Even the lemonless joined in on the fun. Mandarin pigs and lime pigs joined the herd of citrus swine. An onion, as it turns out, makes a reasonable piglike shape, while a banana really does not. (“Sorry for the horror,” its creator wrote.)

But there is no actual tradition of making lemon pigs to ring in the new year. Instead, the lemon pig has a stranger backstory. And a certain appeal that seems to result in them trending about once every 50 years.

 

Reading Round-Up: 2018 Books

It’s the start of a new year and my blog reader is filling up with people’s lists of what they read in 2018 — sometimes everything they read, sometimes just the highlights. I like to recap my reading every month, but just like I did for 2017, I’ve compiled a master list of every book I finished last year.

Here are my stats:

  • Total books read: 132
  • Monthly average: 11
  • Fiction: 71.5 (53%)
  • Non-fiction: 60.5 (46%)
  • New reads: 111 (84%)
  • Re-reads: 21 (15%)

The “.5” in both fiction and non-fiction — I know that looks weird — is because of C. S. Lewis’s Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories which, as the title implies, is half essays and half short stories. As far as the rest of my stats go, I note that I pounded my previous record for non-fiction (29%) with a balance approaching 50/50 on the F/NF split. I wasn’t shooting for this, really: the big difference this year, I think, was discovering how much I love reading memoirs. People are endlessly fascinating, and so between memoir and poetry, I got in a lot more non-fiction than I usually do. This year also had an unusually high proportion of new reads vs. re-reads. Again, this wasn’t deliberate — just the way things shook out. I’m certainly getting my money’s worth out of our library system!

There were a few themes that emerged in my reading this year. I continued my personal, informal “Race in America: Seriously, What the Heck?” study series with new-to-me authors like Gail Lukasik, Julie Lythcott-Haims, D. Watkins, and others. As previously mentioned, I read a lot of memoir this year: Tara Westover’s Educated, Lynn K. Wilder’s Unveiled Grace, and Jennifer Fulweiler’s One Beautiful Dream stood out to me as particularly fine examples, along with both of Sara Hagerty’s books.

I read a number of books on technology and social media — Manoush Zomorodi’s Bored and Brilliant, Antonio García Martínez’s Chaos Monkeys, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock, and Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — which collectively led me to delete my Facebook account once and for all. You can read about that here (scroll to the bottom to read it in chronological order). It’s been about half a year since I made that change; no regrets so far.

Other highlights include reading through Winston Graham’s Poldark series (a mere twelve books!), Naomi Novik’s new fairy-tale novels, reading the Divine Comedy in its entirely for the first time, and Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. All in all it was a very pleasant reading year for me; I think I learned a lot along the way (some lessons; bees are great but I don’t want to keep bees; it’s ok to purge your children’s toys with impunity; Fredrik Backman is even better than I remembered).

Click through if you want to see the whole list; the asterisks denote new reads and the months link to their respective round-up posts if you would like further thoughts on any of the lists.

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Reading Round-Up: December 2018

Happy New Year! We celebrated by going to bed at 10 pm as per usual, and changing the calendar in the morning. Whee. Here’s what I read last month:

  1. That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis)
  2. A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace (Susan H. Swetnam)
  3. The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (Charles Williams)
  4. The Man Born to be King (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (Alan Bradley)
  6. Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon (Kelley and Tom French)
  7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (tr. Simon Armitage)
  8. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg)

A few of these I’ve already touched on in prior posts: Season of Little Sacraments and The Man Born to be King here, and The Figure of Beatrice here. I hadn’t finished either of the Sayers or the Williams when I wrote their respective posts — suffice it to say that they each continued excellent to the end, and are well worth your time (particularly the Sayers play cycle).

That Hideous Strength is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, the first two installments of which I read in November. It’s funny… the first time I read this trilogy, about 10-15 years ago, I thought that This Hideous Strength was the weakest of the three. I am convinced, now, that it’s the strongest. It’s true that it doesn’t have as many fantastical elements as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra — taking place, as it does, entirely on earth — but I found on this read-through that the stakes and the drama are much higher than in the first two books, and that Lewis speaks very presciently to many aspects of our life today.

I’ve been reading Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce series since it came out — The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is the ninth of them, and I am sad to say that it will probably be the last… for me. What can I say? Some of Flavia’s charm has worn off. The internal chronology of the series is stretched beyond belief; this book had a subplot about a blackmail situation that was just dropped instead of resolved; the final straw, for me, was when Flavia bent a crochet hook into an L-shape to pick a lock. Dude. Crochet hooks are 1) too big for that, and 2) made of steel. Probably Bradley was thinking of tatting hooks, which are teeny-weeny because they’re used to make lace… but the mistake certainly killed what was left of my suspended disbelief. Sorry, Flavia. Sorry, Alan. It was a good ride while it lasted.

Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon is the story of Juniper French, a micro-preemie born at 23 weeks 6 days gestation. Her parents are both investigative journalists, and they tell the story together, alternating chapters. If you want the Cliffs notes, I linked to the three-part series that was the genesis of the book in my last edition of Weekend Reading. Kelley Benham French won a Pulitzer for that series, so if you enjoyed it, be sure to pick up the book and get the expanded story as well.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a delightful surprise to me this month. It’s a long poem — about 2300 lines and change — and one of the earliest examples of English epic poetry after Beowulf, most likely written sometime around the year 1400. This edition is a new verse translation by Simon Armitage, and it’s fantastic. He sticks to the alliterative scheme of the original, and the whole thing just rollicks along. It’s also an interlinear text, with the Middle English on the left-hand pages and the translation on the right-, so you can go back and forth between them looking at some of his specific translations choices. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.

And my last book of the year: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I finished last night with a few hours to spare. I’d already seen the movie, but enough years ago that I had only a few particular images/scenes left in my mind. This one was great fun, and surprisingly poignant. There was a lot of time-jumping between chapters; I remember that the movie did a certain amount of that as well; I will have to watch it again to properly compare, though.

And that’s it! Stay tuned for my big post about everything I read this year — I hope to have it up sometime in the next few days. Happy new year and happy new reading!

Weekend Reading: “Never Let Go” (Kelley Benham French)

Weekend Reading is a weekly collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

Kelley Benham French won a Pulitzer for “Never Let Go,” this three-part series on the birth of her daughter Juniper, a micro-preemie born at 23w6d gestation. I just finished her memoir, Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon, and was able to track down this series (which became bones of the book).

1. Part One: Lost and Found — A daughter is born four months too soon

2. Part Two: The Zero Zone — Juniper’s first few weeks

3. Part Three: Baby’s Breath — Miracles, in little pieces