Yearly Archives: 2011

1109 jesse wilcox smith copy

Books Read in 2011

It’s the season for lists, and here’s mine. It includes a few (4) of the chapter books I read to my daughters.

  1. Alcorn, Randy. Safely Home.
  2. Berry, Wendell. “Fidelity.”
  3. —. “The Boundary.”
  4. Blanchard, Ken and Spencer Johnson. The One Minute Manager.
  5. Bowditch, Eden Unger. The Atomic Weight of Secrets.
  6. Brooks, Geraldine. March.
  7. —. People of the Book.
  8. Burgess, Thornton W. Now I Remember: The Autobiography of Thornton W. Burgess.
  9. Bush, George W. Decision Points.
  10. Challies, Tim. The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion.
  11. Chesterton, G.K.. The Everlasting Man.
  12. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness.
  13. DeMoss, Nancy Leigh. Brokenness: The Heart God Revives.
  14. Farmer, Penelope. Charlotte Sometimes.
  15. Fields, Leslie Leyland. Parenting Is Your Highest Calling: And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us In Worry and Guilt.
  16. Garrett, Helen. Rufous Redtail.
  17. Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford.
  18. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers.
  19. Goudge, Elizabeth. I Saw Three Ships.
  20. —. Linnets and Valerians.
  21. —. The Heart of the Family.
  22. Guinness, Os. Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance.
  23. Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken.
  24. Jackson, Wes. Becoming Native to This Place.
  25. Jordan, River. Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit.
  26. Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis.
  27. Kingsolver, Barbara. The Poisonwood Bible.
  28. Lawson, James Gilchrist. Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians.
  29. Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism.
  30. —. The Four Loves.
  31. Lewis, Gill. Wild Wings.
  32. Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures.
  33. Magorian, Michelle. Goodnight Mr Tom.
  34. Maxwell, William. So Long, See You Tomorrow.
  35. McClure, Wendy. The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie.
  36. McQuay, Peri Phillips. A Wing in the Door: Life with a Red-Tailed Hawk.
  37. Merton, Thomas. A Book of Hours.
  38. Nesbit, Edith. The Book of Dragons.
  39. Perkins, Hal. If Jesus Were a Parent.
  40. Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.
  41. Preston, Richard. The Wild Trees.
  42. Raskin, Ellen. The Westing Game.
  43. Robinson, Marilynne. Home.
  44. —. Housekeeping.
  45. —. The Death of Adam.
  46. Sedore, Emma. Hiawatha Island: Jewel of the Susquehanna.
  47. Shaffer, Mary Ann and Annie Barrows. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
  48. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
  49. Stratton-Porter, Gene. A Girl of the Limberlost.
  50. The Way of a Pilgrim.
  51. Therkelsen, Margaret. The Love Exchange: An Adventure in Prayer.
  52. Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
  53. Ulin, David L. The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.
  54. Voskamp, Ann. One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are.
  55. Yousef, Mosab Hassan. Son of Hamas.

30 nonfiction, 25 fiction.

My favorite book of the year was Unbroken. Favorite read-aloud was Rufous Redtail. I would round out the top 5 with Spiritual Depression, Alone Together, and Outliers.

What are your top reads for 2011?

A Wing in the Door

A Wing in the Door by Peri Phillips McQuay is by turns a beautiful and a frustrating book. It narrates the fate of a female red-tailed hawk taken illegally by a would-be falconer from her nest when only a month old. The hawk — named Merak — is confiscated by Canadian authorities and kept at a rehab for awhile to be “untamed,” then released at a conservation center. McQuay and her husband, a naturalist at the center, live on site and observe the bird over the next several years.

At first there is some question whether Merak has been humanly imprinted, but it doesn’t take long to see that she has been. Her antics are both heart-breaking and humorous: building a nest on the front porch to lay her yearly eggs (always infertile, because she never mates); sparring with cats and dogs; finding various ways to communicate her moods to her human caretakers. For that is what the McQuays become, even though the original intent was to usher the hawk back into wild living. She proves permanently damaged — McQuay often uses phrases like “essentially infantile” — by her early contact with humans.

McQuay’s writing is beautiful. Her response to nature is poetic, and she finds many ways to infuse the narrative with interesting information about red-tails from her ongoing research. I found much of the material fascinating and could relate to many of McQuay’s perspectives on nature.

What was frustrating, though, was the co-dependent relationship the McQuays seem intentionally to preserve with Merak. It is clear early on that the hawk can hunt for herself. I couldn’t understand why they kept providing her with mice and (in winter, when she refused to migrate) muskrats from local trappers. It would have been more responsible to leave Merak completely on her own for a time to establish whether she could provide for herself, and, if she couldn’t, then keep her captive for use in the center’s educational programs. Our local nature center has several hawks that are not able to live in the wild, and they are licensed to keep them and provide for them, offering them some quality of life as well as protection.

Instead, the McQuays persist in providing food for the hawk as well as interposing themselves in other ways. Parents who never let their growing children make any decisions or experience any consequences on their own will be left with an unhappy, demanding human ill-equipped for life. In the same way, the McQuays end up with a moody hawk who looks upon them as her tribe, responsible for providing for her needs, and sharing her territory. By the end of the story they at last begin withholding food, and the hawk becomes more independent. (Even after Merak learns to supply her own food, McQuay’s husband interferes on one occasion by knocking a wild rat snake out of the hawk’s talons. ???) But she will never be wild, and she never learns how to relate to other hawks. It was hard not to feel that the McQuays were complicit in the unfortunate long-term results of the original crime against Merak.

Outliers

My pastor mentioned Outliers in a Sunday school class. He’d read part of it, and it sounded interesting. I picked up a copy at the library to read, but I wasn’t expecting it to provoke so much thought or to have such an impact. It’s really given me a lot to think about.

“Outliers” are exceptional people — people who excel far beyond the norm in some way. Malcolm Gladwell takes a number of such figures — software gurus, pilots, hockey players, lawyers, geniuses — and examines their stories. He ends up showing that all of these people emerge from social, economic, cultural, geographic, historical contexts, rather than being “self-made.” “It is not the brightest who succeed,” he concludes, “…Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

He puts it pretty strongly there. I don’t agree with quite such a strong emphasis on outside factors; the giftedness of these individuals is crucial to their success, too. But looking at the Bible, I see that context matters. Look at Joseph, who was prepared for his position of power in Egyptian government through the seeming tragedy of his betrayal and enslavement. Or look at Moses, prepared for leadership in Pharoah’s household. Look, even, at Jacob, a weasel, but one who was loved and promoted by his mother, and so he rose above his brother in the long run. It all seems to reinforce what Gladwell refers to as “the Matthew effect,” based on Matthew 25:29.

The book is interestingly written and researched, and it made me think deeply about a number of things — only a few of which I’ll mention here, in order of ascending importance.

First, parenting. There is a difference, Gladwell explains, between the way different classes parent. Lower class, poorer parents tend to care for their kids, but let them develop on their own. Upper and middle class parents are much more involved, teaching their children how to assert themselves, and how to live comfortably in the world of people. Part of the way they do this is through conscious instruction in how to communicate and carry themselves, and part of it is through scheduling their children’s time and exposing them to lots of different experiences and activities.

I find that I’m a blend of these approaches. I think free time is important, especially for younger children. But I also see the value of giving them varied experiences in varied social contexts. I’m not sure what exactly this means for us, but I felt this book affirmed the direction my thoughts are already going on that score. I have no desire to overschedule my kids’ time, but I think it’s time to be more proactive about getting them involved in more activities.

Gladwell describes the best parents as actively looking for their children’s gifts and interests, and seeking out ways to cultivate them. I’m pretty good on the first half of the sentence but tend to flounder on the last half. I mean, I find play options for them to do the things they want to do; I have one daughter who wants to be a museum exhibit designer, and I get her dioramas to build, clay and legos to create with, drawing supplies, miniatures. But what can we do outside our four walls to cultivate this design interest? How can we bring it outward into more cooperative endeavors with others? (My other daughter is a little less focused. She wants to be either a pet store owner, a horse trainer, or an artist. I feel a little less pressure there…)

Another thing the book gave me lots of food for thought on was education. I think any home educator would find this book stimulating, not necessarily because we’ll agree with all of Gladwell’s conclusions (I certainly didn’t), but because there is so much interesting material about the learning process, and the values common to excellent students. As a teaser, I’ll mention rice paddies, taking 22 minutes to solve a math problem, and how Asian cultures count as factors Gladwell mentions. If you want to see how on earth they fit together, you’ll enjoy reading this.

Ultimately, of course, the book makes me think about what constitutes “success.” The operative definition for Gladwell seems to include wealth, recognition, and full realization of potential. He argues for a culture in which more people can succeed in these terms, one that could be brought about if we made a few key changes in our thinking. As a Christian, I find myself thinking about how I would define success differently. I believe there is a loving Creator who has a purpose for me. Wealth and recognition may or may not be a part of that. True success would mean transformation of the thoughts and intents of my heart toward Christlikeness, toward love for others.

But I think it also involves full realization of potential, as in the outliers Gladwell discusses. How do I parent in such a way as to help my children “succeed” as followers of God? How can I use the knowledge in this book to help my children become the people God made them to be, with the influence he intends for them to have? How can I help them to reach beyond the limits I feel myself? They have gifts and talents and aspirations meant to be realized, meant to be shared with the world. We all do.

One of the most interesting things Gladwell points out is that outliers all seem to follow the 10,000 hour rule. The Beatles, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Jewish lawyers who specialized in corporate takeovers — all of them had already put in 10,000 hours practicing in their field of expertise so that when their moment of opportunity came, they were prepared for it. It takes 10,000 hours, one neurologist explains, for the brain to assimilate all it needs to know to achieve true mastery of something. Gladwell points out that it’s next to impossible for anyone to log 10,000 hours at something by the time they’re a young adult — unless they have parents who support and encourage them. This book has been a wake-up call to be more intentional about some things with my children, and I believe that in the big picture I’m going to be very glad I read it.

I Saw Three Ships

The girls and I read Elizabeth Goudge’s I Saw Three Ships last year for Christmas, but it didn’t wow any of us. In fact, none of us even remembered it.

This year was different. It’s a short chapter book, and we read through it in a more concentrated way than we did last year, in two sittings. It charmed us.

Here’s the plot summary from the jacket:

Little Polly Flowerdew lives with her two maiden aunts, and she is absolutely sure that something special is going to happen this Christmas. She leaves her bedroom window open on Christmas Eve, just in case the three wise men decide to come visit. When she wakes up on Christmas morning, more than one miracle seems to have taken place.

The story required us to do a little digging about the English Christmas carol, which is thought to concern the three ships that allegedly arrived at Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century bearing the relics of the Magi. A British legend that Jesus visited England as a child, three kings, three ships, and perhaps even three persons of the Trinity, are suggested and layered in this little tale. So it’s a little story with big aspirations, but somehow it doesn’t topple under its freight of symbolism.

All the verses of the Christmas carol are sung in the story, and it’s printed in entirety in the back. My youngest loved singing it. There are several versions online, and this one by Sting includes all the same verses as the version in our story book (though the wording in the third stanza is ever so slightly altered).

Merry Christmas!

Rufous Redtail

I read this book when I was around 10, and I’ve always remembered it as one of the best. I didn’t remember all the details, but I remembered some of them. Mostly I remembered it as a book that had a strong impact, opening my eyes to new knowledge and moving me deeply.

You won’t find much about Rufous Redtail (1947) online, or about its author, Helen Garrett. There is more information out there about its illustrator, Francis Lee Jaques. Out of print and priced far out of my range, this novel makes an appearance from time to time at used book sites. It follows a red-tailed hawk from the day he hatches out of his egg, through his mastery of flight and hunting and his fall migration, on to his return to the Northeast in the spring and his finding of a mate and raising of a family. (We live in the Northeast, and red-tails don’t migrate in the winter. Rufous spends summers farther North than we are.)

A young red-tail in our neighborhood.

Our library system doesn’t have it, but a wonderful librarian found a copy at the library of the state capital and requested it for us. It took us four days to read, and we enjoyed every word and picture. It’s full of detail about red-tailed hawks, and I wish I could learn more about its author, who must have had many opportunities to observe these grand birds firsthand. But it’s also a coming-of-age story that takes Rufous from the egotism of a newly hatched chick bursting with pride to the confidence and knowledge of a mature adult hawk. We laughed often as we read, and were sometimes brought to tears.

Another local red-tail, this one mature.

The birds talk in this book, but it’s not sentimentalized the way Thornton Burgess’s stories are. The dialogue carries the plot forward and gives us necessary information without spoiling the realism of the characters. Unlike many of the modern nature books we’ve read, there is no politicization — no page in the back highlighting the loss of habitat of this species, no legislative initiative for this or that, no website to visit to see how you can help. These things have probably been worthwhile and helpful in protecting species and cultivating an ecological ethic. But what shines through in this novel is love for nature, wilderness particularly, and for the creatures that make their homes there.

I think this delight and wonder are stronger influences than anything else. Reach the hearts of children, and they’ll remember. I have remembered this book for several decades, not because someone was defending hawks, but because someone painted their lives in words in such a way as to make me respect and admire and love them myself. I can’t see into the future, but judging from their reactions, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear my daughters saying the same thing someday.

Jaques' illustrations adorn the inside cover.