Sir Cumference Rocks Homeschool Math

Today we read two of Cindy Neuschwander’s fabulous math adventure books about Sir Cumference and his family, son Radius and Lady Di of Ameter, who all live in Angleland (say it out loud to yourself, you’ll get it).  My daughter loves these because they are stories and math at the same time, so she says they are “true stories.”

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In Sir Cumference and The Viking’s Map, cousins Per and Radius get lost in the forests of Angleland, but find a Viking’s treasure map that teaches them to use coordinates.  In Sir Cumference and the First Round Table, all the knights are meeting with King Arthur to discuss what to do about the Circumscribers, who have been seen at the edges of Angleland, possible arming for war.  They start out with a long rectangular table, but people at opposite ends have to shout to be heard.  Then Sir Cumference discusses the problem with Lady Di, and has his carpenter Geo of Metry reshape the table into a square.  This is better, but no one likes being at the corners.  They eventually come up with a circle, after many other shapes are tried and rejected.  The circle is as wide as Lady Di’s reach, so King Arthur decrees that the span of any circle shall henceforth be known as the diameter.  See, isn’t that cute?  Neuschwander uses wordplay to create heroes and quests in each story, and it’s a great combination that immerses kids in geometry in a memorable, entertaining way.

There are about seven or eight of these books, but I see just from checking her name, that Neuschwander has oodles of other math story books as well.  We’ll be checking these out for sure!

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When I’m Not Blogging…

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Today Elsa and Anna were visiting with Tigress, her cub Kote, and Twilight Sparkle, who is a magic unicorn and and was going to give Elsa and Anna wings so they could experience flying.  E&A wanted to fly after watching a dragon and pterodactyl do tricks in the air while flying.

No, I was not playing by myself.  I was playing with my homeschooled kiddo, and she was having a blast.  I wish I could read and blog several times a week, but I have other obligations, you see.

Rollback Entertains, Engages

I picked up Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer about a year ago at a library sale–well, at my library sale, where I reign as Book Sale Queen, which means I paid a measly amount for it as part of my $5 per bag haul.  We always do the bag sale the last hour, but because I volunteer, I just stash my book pile all through the sale instead of waiting until the last hour.  Perks!

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Anyway, it took me forever to get around to reading this, because it wasn’t a library book and therefore not demanding my attention right away.  But I read it a couple of months ago and it was wonderful.  Very entertaining, and there was nothing I had to gloss over to enjoy it, i.e., sexist portrayals of women.  I was fascinated by the idea: rolling back your physical age several decades.  In the world of the book, only the super-rich can afford the procedure, but an interested gazillionaire offers it to an important scientist.

This scientist, Dr. Sarah Halifax, is famous for being the person who decoded our first ever radio transmission from aliens.  When a second message is received, she is already eighty-seven, and interested parties want her around to keep deciphering, and figuring out what to send back to the aliens to continue the exchange.

Dr. Halifax is happily married, and only accepts the offer of a rollback on the condition that her husband Don can have it as well.  Tragically, after both of them receive the procedure, it doesn’t work for her, only for her husband. Ironically, it may have something to do with the treatment that saved her life decades earlier when she had breast cancer.

I’m not spoiling anything, really, as this happens pretty early on in the story, and is not so much a result as a setup for the rest of the story.  What happens to that relationship, when her husband is physically twenty-five again?  Will they still be able to relate to each other? Who is his peer group now?  When he has conversations with people his physical age, all his cultural touchstones are lost on them, his references to musicians and actors long dead and gone met with confusion rather than knowing amusement. Meanwhile, he’s running to catch up with the current culture that now belongs to him in a way it didn’t when he was near the end of his life.  His grown children stop calling him Dad after the rollback, he notices, probably because it feels pretty awkward to be in your forties when your father looks twenty-five.  A former colleague calls Don, wanting an in with his rollback benefactor so he can get the treatment himself.  When Don says he isn’t in a position to ask for anything, his friend lashes out: “‘Damn it, what did you do to deserve this? You’re not that special.  You’re not that bright, that talented. You just f***ing won the lottery, is all, and now you won’t even help me buy a ticket.'”

I enjoyed Sawyer’s incorporation of cultural touchstones I am familiar with, like mentioning SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence.: “As Sarah always said, SETI is the Blanche Dubois of scientific undertakings: it has always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  Hey, and my husband and I are two of those strangers who donated computer time to the search! (I felt a tiny brush with fame)

I guess I’m finding that the sci-fi I really like has a world that is almost like the real world, with just a few tweaks to make it really interesting.  (I’m a lifelong Star Trek fan, so that should tell you something–I’m not going to say what; you draw your own conclusions.)  You don’t have to change much to create some really interesting questions.

Sawyer made me want to know these people, Don and Sarah Halifax, as they have such a rich relationship.  Here is an excerpt of one of their conversations, in which Sarah is struggling to figure out what the aliens’ belief systems are after she translates the first message:

     “But still, why is abortion a moral issue? I mean, it is for people here because we believe at some point that a soul enters the body; we just can’t all agree on what that point is. But the alien message made no mention of souls.

     “‘Souls’ is just a shorthand for discussing the question of when life begins, and that will be a universal debate–at least among those races who practice SETI.”

     “Why?”

     “Because SETI is an activity that says life, as opposed to non-life, is important, that finding life is meaningful. If you didn’t care about the distinction between life and non-life, all you’d do would be astronomy, not SETI. And where to draw that distinction will always be of interest to people who value life. I mean, most people would agree it’s wrong to kill a dog for no reason, because a dog is clearly alive–but is an embryo alive? That’s debatable; every race will have to define when life begins.”

I love Sawyer’s descriptions of the relationships, and the conversations are genuinely interesting and don’t feel like set pieces.  His science holds up as well, as he explains complex ideas in terms I, the reader, can understand.  I loved his take on quantum physics “‘not as the basic nature of reality, but rather as the–how would you put it?–as a by-product of the level of resolution of our simulated world.'”  Sorry if I lost you there, I do have a physics background. But really, I don’t think you need one to get this, at least, in context you don’t, as Sarah explains it to her non-scientific BBC journalist husband.

Overall, I gave this book 5/5 stars.  It’s engaging on so many levels.  Has anyone out there got any Robert J. Sawyer favorites?  What of his should I read next?

Do You Underline/Desecrate or Flag/Preserve Your Books?

I’m asking this because Ann and Michael on the Books on the Nightstand podcast were just discussing how people will underline in their books for different reasons, and how some people cannot allow their books to be desecrated thusly.

To answer your question, no, I don’t underline.  You can breathe a sigh of relief.  But I did underline and highlight when I was in school.  And it wasn’t just so that I could go back and find that passage again.  Ann explained how she underlines to change her focus in that moment when she’s reading it, like it underlines it in her brain.  I think I did that, too.

Now I don’t mark up my books at all, partly because it always kind of hurt me to do so, because I revere the book as an object (yes, I know, idolatry and all that), and also because I read a lot of books from the library.  So I invest heavily in those Post-it flag thingees, and if I’m still reading a book, it will have oodles of flags sticking out the side.  When I’m done I can take them out, and the book will once again be pristine.  And all is right with the world.

But while I’m experiencing the book, I’m very involved.  And I flag passages for lots of reasons, not just because I might want to quote them in a review later.  That’s really only the simplest reason.  If I’m reading a mystery, I flag what I think might be clues, so that I can see later if I was right in identifying the clues, which will tell me a couple of things: 1)was I a good detective-reader, did I pay attention to the right bits? and 2)did the author give me enough to go on?  (One of these days I’m going to write a mystery, and I need to really pick apart how these things work and what the authors I like do to make a good one.)

I also might flag what I think is a turning point, the crux of the novel, that sort of thing.  Then I can check when I’m finished if it was really that important.  I’ll flag something if it’s really awful, so I can think later about whether it was really necessary.  So I guess I do a lot of reading with my writer hat on.  I don’t know if other people flag things like I do, but I do know my reading groups kind of titter at me when I come in with a book full of flags.  Every now and then I stop using flags and just read something for the passing enjoyment of it, but it’s rare.  I enjoy reading like a writer, it’s not a chore to me.  I’ve even branched out lately and bought some fancier flags, check it:

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I ordered them from Japan, I think.  Aren’t they adorable? Each little cat is the top of a flag, and so on with the rainbows and stuff.  Then each package has a wider posty in the same theme.  I know some people will think I’m nuts.  But I’ve always had a love for office supplies.  And these will make my reading experience even more fun.  Sort of like new shoes made you run faster when you were a kid.  Or like it says on the front of the package: “Composure creates time to the full.”

When Is It”Meh”?

So I’ve been reading, yes, and even finishing a few more books since last post, but really, are any of them that great?  I am not sure if it’s me, feeling depressed in the midst of a dreary winter–I kind of think it is, because I’m almost always excited about books.  But I do wonder sometimes, is it me or the book that’s just “meh”? Have you ever felt like that? Sometimes I think it’s just bad timing and I miss a good book because I’m in the wrong frame of mind for it.  It could be depression, or it could be unpleasant personal circumstances that the book reminds me of, or it could be “a bit of undigested tofu,” to slaughter Dickens.

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A friend loaned me Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen, ostensibly a fictional version of the real cousin of Edgar Alan Poe, whom he really married.  At first I was into it, and I rather like the fragile, intense, strange creature that Cullen has created as Mrs. Poe.  And that Mr. Poe is sick to death of everyone asking him to recite “The Raven,” a publishing sensation but far from his own favorite.

Alas, I’m halfway through the book and I can stand no more.  The problem is not Mrs. Poe, but the narrator, who is a woman trying to break into the literary circles of New York with little success.  She meets Mr. Poe and is instantly smitten.  I really hate it when people are smitten, don’t you?  They seem to lose all self-respect.  And perspective.  So now all she does is obsess over Mr. Poe and her feelings towards him.  Oh, and did I mention that she’s also married?  No matter that her husband seems to have left her high and dry with two kiddies to raise alone.

What’s worse is that Mr. Poe seems to return her feelings.  Ugh.  Why can’t we just focus on the weird relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Poe? That’s what I wanted to read.  So, meh.  Farewell, Mrs. Poe.

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I finished Doll Bones about a week ago and it was one of those books that felt extraordinary, but like a secret that no one else would understand.  I felt like it spoke to me rather personally and that probably no one else would really get it.  Which I know is wrong! Because it’s a popular book already (that’s how I found out about it) and so a lot of people are probably feeling the same way I did.  Isn’t that funny how that works?

Doll Bones is a what I’d call a middle-grade novel.  I was just talking to another Mom today about how so many middle-grade kids are reading young adult books now, but I think this is a standout in that it is about and would appeal to middle-grade kids.  It’s about that transition you make from being a little kid to a bigger kid, to pre-teenage. But it doesn’t beat you over the head with the message that “aw, you’re growing up.” I’d like to peer into Holly Black’s mind to see how she comes up with such crazy adventures.  There’s a creepiness factor that’s really fun in this story, and I like that she doesn’t resolve everything in the end.  I mean, it’s resolved enough, but she doesn’t wipe away all the magic.

The story is of three friends living in the same neighborhood who are in families with varying degrees of dysfunctionalism, and you’re just so glad they have each other to play with. Poppy, the youngest, is in awe of an antique porcelain doll that her mother keeps in a glass-fronted cabinet, not to be touched and certainly not to be played with (you picture Mom going on Antiques Roadshow, full of hope).  Poppy and Zach and Alice all weave stories around this imaginary queen, using other dolls (and action figures) to play out their adventures.

Zach’s father, who has been absent the last few years but recently moved back in, makes a serious misstep when he tries to grow up his son by chucking his favorite toys–the action figures he uses to play with Alice and Poppy.  Dad thinks Zach is too old to be doing imaginary play. And of course he wants Zach to do more sports, to be manly (this is a parent I loved to hate, although he does eventually become more three-dimensional and less hateful). Zach is so upset with his father’s actions that he can’t even speak about it to Poppy and Alice because he’s afraid he’ll burst into tears.  So he tries to pretend that he just doesn’t want to play anymore.

Meanwhile, the game escalates when Poppy has a vision of the doll talking to her like a ghost, telling her where she wants her bones–the doll–properly buried.  The three friends end up going on this quest together, and along the way, they realize their relationships with each other are changing, and that’s hard.  I’m making it sound very Oprah-esque, and it’s not. Black makes convincing observations of their motivations and thought-processes:

In the end, [Zach] wasn’t sure if he went because he half believed in the ghost already or because he was used to following Poppy’s lead in a story or simply because leaving allowed him to run away and still believe he could come back.

If he wanted.

Their quest is not without its perils–creepy guy on the bus, police nosing around, a Huck Finn-worthy jaunt down a river, and much more.  Breaking into a library was one of my favorite bits.  And that doll is Miss Creepypants.  She seems to move when no one is looking, and other people react to her presence as if she’s another child, the friends notice.

For my Masters Thesis in school, I wrote a middle-grade novel, about this same kind of coming of age transition, with friendships changing.  I haven’t looked at it since I graduated, because at the time I had a personal tragedy that sort of wiped out everything else.  For the first time since then, reading this book made me want to go back to mine and work on it, to start the rewrite.  That’s a big thing for me.  Thanks, Holly Black.  And I’ll definitely be reading more of your books!

First Book Purchase of 2015

Whoops! Didn’t check the account first and now I have 8 cents left.  But look at the lovely books I got yesterday at Magers & Quinn bookshop whilst my daughter was learning to ice-fish!

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I have never heard of this artist before, but I love his drawings, they make me want to draw and color.  I needed an infusion of art inspiration, and this was a great find.  Oh, did I mention this is a new and used bookstore? I”ve only been in it a couple of times but I’ll be going there more now.

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Simon of Savidge Reads loves M.C. Beaton, who I’ve never read, even though I love mysteries, so I thought I’d try her.  One is even the Agatha Raisin title he  reviewed just before Christmas, although I like his cover better.  And the other is a Christmas title, which I’m collecting for a huge special issue of Bookstore Thief.  Know any  Christmas titles that are off the beaten track? Oh, and if you’re thinking those are nasty-looking stickers defacing the covers, they come off pretty easily.

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And two poetry books! I wrote a lot of poetry, and read a lot, in grad school, and I’ve been feeling the need to read some more lately, so these are the two I grabbed.  Tony Hoagland is funny and brash, very plainspoken. I have no idea what the title refers to, at least not yet.  If you can’t see it, it’s Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. I haven’t read Kate Green (her title is Tourist in the Pure Land) before but one of the blurbs on the back is from one of my former professors and I love his work, so I’m gonna try it.

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And last, but not least, a books of reviews and essays by Margaret Atwood.  I love reading book reviews.  Do any of you have favorite writers who have collections of their book reviews?

That Year That Was 2014

Everyone is doing these fun lists on their blogs about their favorite books they read from the last year, which I really love because then I can add more books to my TBR pile!  Well, at least the pile in my head.  The virtual pile.

So I feel like I should have a list!  But I don’t exactly have one. Hmm, how about a list of Top Five Book-Related Thingees for 2014?

1. I got a Little Free Library for my birthday!  It’s not up yet, cuz we (ahem, my husband) had to build a stand and dig a hole, and just stuff.  So my daughter and I just picked out paint colors for it this last week.  Hopefully we will paint it soon, but it’s stinkin’ cold out so we might have to do it inside the house.  We’ll see how that works…

2. Along with a friend from my local library’s Friends group, I started a monthly Science Fiction Book Group for the library.  We have a small group, about 6 average, who come faithfully and a few more who trickle in depending on the subgenre of the book.  We’re limited in what we pick to read by what the library owns, since we need to have enough copies for everyone who wants to participate.  It’s a little tricky sometimes because our library system is geared toward more modern readers, so sometimes they only have a few copies of the classics.  Still, we’ve been able to come up with some good titles.  Here was our roster for our first year:

  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories
  • The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • The City & The City by China Mieville
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Flashpoint by Nancy Kress
  • Going Postal by Terry Pratchett
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

We did a mix of classics and new stuff, as you can see.  Our best discussions were probably with Oryx and Crake and Ender’s Game. I think my favorite was Ender’s Game, but I’m conflicted about it because I think Orson Scott Card’s personal politics stink. My other favorite was the Connie Willis story collection.  I liked her so much that I read Bellwether, which was a really funny take on fads, and Passage, which is a more serious investigation, but not at all fluffy, of life after death.

3. One of the readers who joined our Sci-Fi group got involved with the Friends group and then started another book group, this one for Graphic Novels and Comics, which has been wildly popular. We regularly have 15 people or more, and we have fabulous discussions.  People who come to that group seem to have very open minds!  Here’s the titles we read this year:

  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  • Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
  • Black Hole by Charles Burns
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore
  • Preacher by Garth Ennis
  • Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • epileptic by David B
  • Habibi by Craig Thompson
  • A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

I liked most of these at least somewhat, except for Preacher, but for that one we had one of our best discussions, so it was totally worth coming.  Hyperbole and a Half was the absolute laugh-out-loud funniest.

4. I finished writing another issue of my book review zine, Bookstore Thief.  A whopping 68 pages! It’s from all my notes I took on books I read in 2013.  I know, it takes me forever to catch up!

5. My mom can still see to read.  This is a big deal.  We always discuss books together and like some of the same mystery authors (our fave: Deborah Crombie), and just in the last couple months she’s had a scare with spots in her vision.  She couldn’t read at all for a few weeks, which had us all very sad and frightened. Right around Christmas she was able to see better and is reading again!  Hooray! (Okay, I know this is a totally personal list item, but let it make you appreciate taking for granted that you can see to read this.)