Saturday, July 6, 2019

Book Review Rating Philosophy

Note: This post is primarily for my own benefit, and secondarily for anyone who reads my Goodreads reviews and actually cares to learn how I arrive at my ratings. I would prefer to have this posted directly on Goodreads, but there is no obvious place outside of a single book review. Since that doesn't make sense, here it is!

Book Rating Philosophy

It has come to my attention that I rate approximately 9 in 10 books as a nice, safe, inarguable 3 out of 5 stars. I've also come to realize that this is an almost meaningless rating, even to myself. Some of these 3 star books I consider really very good, and would eagerly recommend to a friend. Others I would never bother to recommend, let alone re-read. About the only thing the books in this forest of 3-stars has in common is that the writing mechanics and storytelling were good enough that it didn't feel fair to assign a mere 2 stars, and that they simultaneously lacked that certain something - a je ne sais quoi - that made me feel good about assigning 4 stars.
Reviewing my few 5 star books, I do see some common threads. The most obvious of these is world view. In most cases, the authors of my 5-stars share a deeply Christian philosophy, which when combined with superior writing mechanics, plotting, and characters create a thought provoking, even convicting work of art that calls me back time and time again.  There are exceptions: I've rated a small handful of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan stories at 5 stars, and even a few Heinleins. Neither of this authors could be counted Christian or even conservative, but their characters and worlds so captured my imagination - and I've in most cases re-read the stories so many times - that to give them fewer stars would seem disingenuous.
This is the clue I needed to figure out why I have comparatively few 4-star books. Something checks me when the worldview of the author does not align with my own, and unless every other metric is truly superior, I hold back that last star. Except when I don't, of course.  (Recently my kids using my account for their reviews throws off this metric. They tend to consider whatever book they've just read to be "the best ever," and while I've drawn the line at 5 stars, I've stopped arguing about 4!)

This long, rambling discussion is here simply to introduce my magical solution to this problem: all books I review will contain a sub-rating in several categories. For the moment I will stick to the out-of-5 metric.
The categories as of July 2019 are as follows:

Writing Mechanics, Characters, Plot, World Building, and Truth Value 

Writing Mechanics: 

This most basic measure includes word choice, grammar, adjective use - artistry. Ability to hint, insinuate, and otherwise show what a inferior author simply tells. A 2 indicates the author writes so poorly as to distract from a potentially decent plot. A 3 means the author writes at least as well as I do. No distracting tell-vs-show. a 4 or 5 indicates true superiority. Snappy dialog, humor, artistic place descriptions, etc.

Characters: 

It starts at "do I like them," but goes far deeper. Are they presented as truly, believably human, regardless of how much they resemble me Or the author? Do they grow and change as a result of the story. Do I care what happens to them, or are they merely tools of the author to tell his or her story?
I greatly prefer stories about People as opposed to stories about Events. I don't even Remember stories that have no interesting central character. Stories with an excellent one - i.e. Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" - may end up with 5 stars even when the author's worldview is in opposition with my own. Or as a counter example, Kim Stanley Harrison's "Red Mars" seemed like a book I should enjoy, but nearly all of the characters were distasteful at best, and hateful at worst. The worldbuilding in this book was pretty interesting (although others have pointed out its serious scientific flaws), but the characters were so uninspiring that I had a great deal of trouble caring long enough to finish the book.

Plot: 

This goes beyond whether or not I was able to guess the "whodunnit" in a mystery. Encompassed in this metric is whether the story lagged, or sped too quickly. It also involves believability, innovativeness, and uniqueness.

World Building: 

Primarily a characteristic of sci-fi or fantasy novels, encompassed in this metric is the imaginativeness of the world the author draws - whether it is simply a carbon copy of Tolkien or D&D, or whether it draws more deeply on less widely known mythologies and/or the author's own imagination. It also measures internal consistency and believability.
Tolkien, of course, would receive 5, as his worlds are detailed beyond all belief. Narnia, despite being my favorite series of all time, might receive only a 3 since there is a shallowness to certain aspects of the world that niggled at me even as a child. (Where Are those female Dwarves?!) Harry Potter similarly comes in at a 3, since there are certain aspects of the wizarding world and especially Hogwarts simply too fantastic and irrational to swallow. They are not followed to their logical conclusions, and therefore are far less believable.

Truth Value

Last, but certainly not least, is the what I've decided to call "Truth Value." In this measure I am most strongly influenced by John Eldredge, who taught that all art (inclusive of story, song, movies, and everything else) could be evaluated by its adherence to, or reflection of, capital-T Truth. In evaluating this, a useful rubric is "How does this piece of art reflect (or possibly deny) the capital-S Story of the humanity," which itself may be very succinctly distilled as "Perfection, Fall, Redemption, and Return to Perfection."
Some of the questions I might ask when evaluating the Truth Value of a piece of fiction are "Do the characters embody key virtues such as loyalty, bravery, kindness, self-sacrifice, and integrity?" "Is redemption, either of situations or preferably of characters, a key plot element?" "Are characters aware of their weaknesses and striving, through whatever means, to improve?" "Is there something more than crass romantic / sexual emotion at the root of the relationship between the central characters?" "Does the story seem to be in touch with the basic human condition of fallenness and selfishness, and do any of the central characters choose the hard work of rising above this default condition?" Finally, "Does the plot or characters point either explicitly or allegorically towards the True God?"
It is important to note that works by authors who no-one would ever accuse of being Christian may, in fact, score very highly. In many cases, the true state of man is seen quite clearly by those who have not embraced the Redemption of Christ. The late Terry Pratchett, for instance, made no end of poignant (not to mention hilarious) observations of the human condition. The "Emberverse" series by S.M. Stirling, who I believe calls himself an atheist, includes some very powerful pictures of the endless struggle between Creation and Disintegration. In the character of Father Ignatius, he also draws one of the most deeply Christian men you will find in current fiction.
On the flip side, there may be many works written by ostensibly Christian authors that would score less highly because they ignore, gloss over, or even deny certain fundamental truths that would give their art the ring of Truth.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

What the Kids are Doing Without Being Forced

Best homeschool purchase this year: A nicely bound lined journal from Grocery Outlet for $4. My 8 yo daughter saw it several months ago and wanted it for some reason she couldn't really explain. She's a poor and anxious speller, has less than stellar handwriting, and a reluctant writer, and this was not "right" for her, but since I too am attracted to pretty blank journals, I sprung for it.
Best homeschool field trip of the year: a holiday visit to my brother's house, where said kid (my middle) got to spend rare 1x1 time with her slightly older cousin. Said cousin shared her work-in-progress hand written and drawn comic book - long, silly, stories about a girl and her family. My daughter was Super impressed.
MONTHS LATER - like at least 4 - my daughter is suddenly covering her (lined!) notebook with elaborate cartoon drawings, speech bubbles, and the like. She has a wide-ranging plot planned. She's asking questions ranging from spelling to geography to salaries. She's working spontaneously and for long periods of time over the past few weeks, even in the car.
Her older brother (almost 10) is amazed. He works out plot elements with her and helps draw the mansion that the fictional family is acquiring. Soon he - also a reluctant writer and academics-resistant kid - wants his own nicely bound blank notebook and is beginning to fill it with his own cartoons, an offshoot of his sister's plot.
The youngest (newly 6, just starting to read semi-fluently) is also trying to make her own comic book.

My planning time on this: Zero. Honestly, if I had tried to plan this, I think it would have crashed and burned in the first two days. I am doing my best to stay out of the way, hoping that maybe if I don't acknowledge what's going on, they won't notice that it's educational.

Look, I feel guilty - sometimes really guilty - about not being a Classical or Charlotte Mason homeschooler with kids who have memorized the order of the presidents by age 6 and can explain Aristotle at 8. I've read - and have some fundamental agreements with - the articles disparaging the current trends towards kid-directed learning, as if letting the inmates run the asylum is somehow going to lead to superior results. "Unschooling" seems way too scatter-shot and lazy to me, even as I have to admit that in many subjects it's exactly what we do. I mean, the kids have exactly two textbooks this year. Two!

BUT... classical, highly structured learning is a bad fit for us. Most of the formal, classroom like options are.
I know I am going to be fighting my own emotions and assumptions about learning and schooling for this entire journey. And my kids are going to have some gaps, maybe even serious ones, that they'll have to figure out how to fill as they come closer to adulthood. I'll be happy to help.
But I can also relax. We're doing OK. They're working on something they find fun and compelling and creativity sparking, and there's no way it isn't teaching them Something useful.

This "cans and string telephone" experiment also happened largely without my input. I checked out a bright, shiny "you can make this" book from the library last week and never mentioned it. Grace was inspired to make a guitar - and to finish it up, she had to collaborate with James. I did NOTHING on that project. On the telephone project I did get out my yarn needle to poke holes and finish up knots when the project got frustrating, but that was pretty much it. 

Lucy *asked* to do a report about Frogs. There was a ton of drama with James last week or so regarding the report I wanted him to do. It started out as salmon and somehow turned into the Internal Combustion Engine. I fought him on Every Step. Lucy, on the other hand, showed off her brand new reading skills to read me a book about frogs, and then eagerly did all the worksheets in the packet I printed her, acquired and resized her own piece of cardboard, and taped everything in place. She even labeled it and hand-drew a life cycle diagram.
Again, most of this happened while I was out of the room, and I emphasize that this is not a particularly compliant child. But this project struck her as fun, and it would have been hard to Stop her doing it. 


(Thanks for sticking with me this long. This was going to be a short, simple little bit of encouragement... until it wasn't!)

Friday, April 12, 2019

Quick and (Very) Dirty Marble Painting

I'll never find it to link to it again, but a few weeks back I watched a video of a man "painting" by rolling marbles and spinning tops across wet paint. I thought "Hey, we could do that... I mean, except for the really cool part where he actually makes the top draw a recognizable picture. That's not happening, but abstract? All the way!"

So we tried it. Our results are not as cool as his, but since we're not linking to the video, it's not like you'll really know, right?!
This is a project that can appeal to all ages and takes nearly no skill (aside from not popping the marbles out of your container).


Materials

1. Acrylic paint in 2-3 (or more) colors
2. A rimmed art tray, like one of these, or (considerably cheaper) a foil tray from the Dollar Tree meant for lasagne or casseroles. Just make sure it's at least 8.5 x 11 inches and fairly deep, or do the project Outside!
3. At least one ordinary glass marble. Or maybe two or three! 
4. Paper cups or foil plus popsicle sticks or something for mixing your paint
5. Whatever protective clothing and surface coverings you feel are justified
6. Solid colored paper or cardstock

Instructions

At its most basic, you're adding a few splashes of paint to your tray, dropping in a marble or two, and then rolling them around.
And feel free to start out by doing just exactly that.
But here are a few tips I found after messing around for 20 minutes that gave me the results I like the best:

1) Thick, tacky acrylic does not work very well. Add a few drops of water to your paint in a mixing cup to thin it considerably.
2) You can apply the paint directly on the paper, but this made blobs and globs I didn't like much. I ended up applying the thinned paint onto the tray, up at the top above the paper.
3) I think using one color of paint at a time is best. If you use a couple of primaries at the same time you could get some interesting mixes, but I think most likely you'll end up with mud.




Now the next question is: what to do with the finished product?
I think the idea that seems most practical to me is to add some adhesive letter stickers or shapes to the blank paper before starting as masks, then carefully peeling them off.
Other ideas are to make origami boxes or other creations out of your dried project. Or cut into pieces and use to make mosaics. The sky's the limit!

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Plushy Fever - and a Special Offer

A couple of weeks before Christmas I got a wild hare to sew a kitty plushy (or stuffy, or stuffed animal, or whatever you happen to call them in your home.) I found a great pattern from cholyknight.com for this Kitty Bean Plush. I used some flippy sequin fabric salvaged from a Dollar Tree gift bag for her belly and ears. It was a lot of fun to sew, and I immediately recognized that if I was going to make one for my first daughter, I'd better make one for the second daughter as well! Kitty #2 turned out even better, and by then the bug had bitten. I've hardly put down my needle and thread - or stopped haunting the remnants bins at JoAnn Fabrics - since!



Here are just a few of my creations. Not pictures are a couple of narwhals, a dino, a third owl, some dragon-headed scarves / hot pad holders, a Mer-Kitty (purr-maid?) and the kitties that started it all.

About half-way through this obsession, I decided - co-incidentally, of course - that it was time that I owned a functional sewing machine again. You know, so I could teach the girls, right? (Long story short: there are no fewer than 3 non-functional machines - not to mention a technically working but effectively impossible to thread serger - mouldering in my craft room somewhere.) So I bought a basic Singer with solid reviews off Amazon, and my critter production has only accelerated.

But, there's a problem: my kids had too many plushies when I started! As attached as I tend to get to these little guys while I'm making them, the fact is I need an outlet Other than my daughters' overcrowded beds.

This is where you come in. I am not ready to stop sewing plushies - and my fleece / minky bin is still overflowing. I would love to make a plusy for You. You choose the pattern (from any of the free ones on www.cholyknight.com) and the colors, and I'll give you a quote. While it will depend on the size and complexity of the pattern, whether you want special fabrics such as fur, sequins, or shiny, and especially whether you want a pouch or heating pad built in, you can be confident it should come in between $15 for the little guys to $30 for the largest and most complex.
But the best news is that I'm not going to keep your money. In fact, I'm going to donate every cent of it to one of three charities: Zoe InternationalMountain Ministries, or a missions fund of City's Edge Church.

Interested? Reply in comments, or thru Facebook if you know me. Let's talk!

Saturday, June 30, 2018

But Not the Ibuprofen!

True story.

But Not the Ibuprofen!

Mommy’s head began to hurt,
So she searched inside her purse,
And this is what she found:

Her wallet and keys,
A spare maxi pad,
A bunch of receipts
From meals that she’d had,
But not the ibuprofen!

A bunch of hair bands -
There much have been five -
Some bobby pins
And a USB drive.

A measuring tape,
A little toy frog,
A trading card of
Wrangler the dog,
But not the ibuprofen!

A seashell, a chapstick,
At least one dime,
A small ziplock bag
Of blue glitter slime

Three pens that write with
invisible ink,
Another hair band,
And this one was pink,
But not the ibuprofen!

Sunglasses, suckers,
An unwrapped toffee,
A packet of sugar
In case she had coffee

A lime green sharpie
A purple hair clip
A small yellow tube
Of gloss for her lips
But not the ibuprofen!

A cloth for her glasses,
A good ballpoint pen,
Hand sanitizer,
Some stickers and then -

A tiny glass jar
With the kids’ melatonin,
What’s this? Could it be?
Yes! The ibuprofen!

(Two grape-flavored tabs. Junior strength. Sigh.)

* With thanks and apologies to Sandra Boynton and "Not the Hippopotamus"

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Kid Dates at Mc Donald's

Several years ago now, James - then about age 5 - took a bike ride with his mommy (me!) Bike rides are boring without a destination, and we live in a fairly hilly, very suburban area. Thinking it through, I decided that McDonalds was within range (and reachable entirely by sidewalk!), so we set off on a roughly 1 mile trip passing through the subdivision, a schoolyard, a serious hill on a busy street, and three major intersections. We made it intact (although that hill is a killer!) and enjoyed an ice cream cone in celebration.
Little did we know that this would become a near unbreakable Saturday morning tradition for years to come. All of my kids were early bike riders (Lucy wasn't even 4 the first time she got up and moving) - but I'll save my rant against training wheels and in favor of glide-bikes for later. This post is about Kid Dates. Suffice to say that Grace was ready to tackle the ride when she was between 5 and 6, and we began rotating Saturdays. (Taking both kids at the same time strained both my patience and my nerves as they ride at very different speeds and have different levels of "good sense" around intersections and cars.) Gradually I learned that I could combine the plain old fun of the bike ride and ice cream with some extra school. We haven't been consistent about what we work on, but recently it's been mostly book reports, which they dictate to me while I type them into the computer.
We've also done some consumer math (having a receipt handy helps!), and recently we started doing some typing practice. Sometimes James finishes up his spelling. I won't pretend that the kids don't fight me on this at times, but it's become part of the expectation and rarely detracts from everyone's enjoyment.
We've also gotten to "know" (OK, recognize and exchange greetings with) a group of retirees who tend to be there at the same time of day, which adds to the enjoyment.  Last year I met a grandma who homeschooled her grandchild and exchanged some tips and resources. And last week I got a major bonus. It was Grace's day, and she was in a sadly typical mood where every difficulty, challenge, mistake, and misunderstanding in her work was upsetting her badly. Typing lessons were Not making her happy. Rather less typically I was being pretty patient and encouraging. Eventually we got through it - she finished what I'd decided was going to get done, and been allowed to run off and play. A few moments later an older lady who'd been sitting nearby the whole time came over and said - almost gruffly - "I know you probably don't need to hear this from me, but you're a great mother!" She went on in this vein for at least a minute, and I was glowing at the end. (I also assured her that I most certainly Did need to hear it and much appreciated it!) I know that I have my weaknesses as a parent and a teacher, and I can tell you about them at length. But having a disinterested third party tell me out of the blue that I was doing a great job was - somehow I've used this phrase a lot lately - life giving! (Glad she wasn't there this evening when I was shouting at the squabbling kids at the park...)
Is there a point to this post? Maybe just a theme. Everyone looks forward to our "dates" on Saturdays. They combine exercise, 1x1 mother-kid time, and probably nearly as much school as they get on many of our increasingly disorganized weekday mornings. And yet I often forget to count them when I think back over the schooling we've accomplished over the week just Because they are so fun and relaxed. I wish there was a way to bring more of that feeling into the rest of the week. Of course, then we wouldn't have as much to look forward to. :)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Let It Go

Just a quick little anecdote about the value of cutting back and letting go. 
My middle daughter (7) is in dance and loves it. 

Her older brother (9) is in taekwondo and loves it. 
For about 18 months, my daughter also did taekwondo. Mostly, she enjoyed it, but in the past 4-5 months a combination of chronic illness, her best friend dropping out, and the timing of the class (5:50 pm) took most of the fun away. Nearly every class night would be met with "Oh No, it's taekwondo!" and then we'd cajole and push her to get ready and rush out the door. It was frustrating to everyone. I don't know why it took us so long to cut the cord.
I mean I do know. First, she usually admitted to enjoying the class once she was there. She liked her teacher. Her big brother often got to help in her class. We'd paid for a lot of classes missed due to legitimate illness and I had this notion she could make them up. I think martial arts are great for discipline and fitness. I value following through and working past rough points.  Her brother experienced a rough patch with taekwondo a year or so ago and we are all glad that we didn't let him drop out. And, it's ridiculously hard for me to "give up" on anything. There's this loyalty / stubborn gene in me that feels like a failure when I do. *
Finally, this week, I managed to let go anyway. And it's a weight off everyone's shoulders! Her own sense of relief is palpable. She's happy on taekwondo nights because she gets to play with her little sister at the park while big brother practices. His class isn't until 7, so no more rushed dinner. We should have done this back in February, if not sooner!
My short-story-long to say, if, like me, it's hard to let go, take a step back and really examine what you're holding on to. Are you making the decision to carry on for yourself or your kids? And it's it really the right one? Cutting back on commitments isn't failure: it can be life giving!

* If I look back on my own life and count the things (jobs, classes, commitments) that I deliberately, proactively quit rather than waiting for a door to be slammed in my face, I can see the pattern. I stick with things out of habit, not wanting to disappoint others, and comfort - in addition to the more admirable traits of loyalty and dependability.