Category Archives: Mmmm …. books

Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning: An interview with author Alan Kubitz (otherwise known as my dad)

It may be odd for a child to say they’re proud of their parents, but I sure as heck am proud of my dad, Alan Kubitz.  He has just published an enlightening new book, called Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning.  (It’s his second, following The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.)

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For those of you who haven’t had the luck to meet my dad, here’s a  quick snapshot: he’s a retired electrical engineer and a bona fide Renaissance Man, whose interests include history, jazz, science, book collecting, and blogging. He helped me with many math and science classes in my adolescence (just one of the reasons he was inspired by write this book), and he also happens to be one of the wisest people I’ve ever known.  Read on to hear about his new book, about Steve Jobs as a role model, and about why even techie types need  the humanities.

Give the two-sentence overview of your book.

The basic premise of my book maintains that America’s oft-publicized poor student performance in science, math, and general learning is less the fault of our schools and teachers and more the fault of the students and their parent/mentors. Innate curiosity and a “learning attitude” are key traits that must be nurtured at home, and my book is a common-sense guide which shows parent/mentors how to instill  in their students a respect for school, learning, and the power of knowledge.

Early in the book you make the comment that you can’t succeed in science and math just by wanting to have a high-paying job somewhere down the road; you need to have a genuine interest in the subject. How can parents help cultivate that interest?

The short, but complete answer is….read my book, for it deals with several key aspects of parenting/mentoring and the learning process of students! I can summarize the book’s main points, however. The most effective way for parent/mentors to launch and keep their students on a successful learning track is by being good examples themselves of dedicated learners and student nurturers. This book is intended to help those parent/mentors who have ignored that advice, and now see the results in their students’ attitudes toward school.

Children quickly sense the difference between adults who truly live and espouse a “life of the mind” and those who telegraph to them, “Do as I say (re: learning and study) and not as I do.” Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning details a recovery strategy for parent/mentors striving to turn around under-achieving, struggling students. The book will be particularly helpful as a how-to template for prospective and preschool parents: The earlier the parental buy-in to the techniques presented, the better the likely outcome for their student.

I wonder how often disinterested, under-achieving math students have heard a variation on the following from parent/mentors: “You need to study harder in math class and up your grades – it’s important for college and to get a good job, someday.” You might as well be talking to the wall; it will not work.  Students must be shown by example – at an early age – why math is important….and fascinating! In chapter five of the book, I include a math problem I call “The Power of Math: The Lottery Prize Choice” whose unlikely result is bound to surprise students while demonstrating the real-life power of mathematics. Such an approach to stimulating curiosity and a respect for knowledge is the key to winning over those students who are half-heartedly studying math and are prone to wail, “Why do I need to learn this stuff, anyway?”

One more related point: I advocate that parent/mentors and teachers have a heart-to-heart talk with their young students by the third grade. That is the time to impress upon them the need to take school and studies seriously – especially science and math. In the book, I discuss the importance of a dose of “fear of failure” as a second-tier student motivator. Science and math are very hierarchical in nature; a poor grasp of fundamentals due to poor study habits early on portends a nightmare experience later as the subject-matter difficulty escalates. Tell younger students that advanced science and math will be very difficult and challenging at times. Assure them that, by adhering to the plan I propose for dealing with those troublesome times, they will succeed and come to appreciate the “joy of science and mathematics.”

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You make the comment that it’s easy to fall into a kind of “technological complacency,” forgetting the history of how far we’ve come.  Why is that historical perspective important?

Without knowing the past, we cannot fully appreciate the present or accurately forecast the future. That is especially true in the case of science, mathematics, and the technologies they have spawned. Just think about it: Those technologies completely define the way we live our lives today! What seems commonplace today to youngsters and even some adults was quite beyond the common imagination only 50 years ago – less than one human lifetime. Seniors “get it” in a much deeper sense than young people because they are eyewitnesses to the impact that scientific inquiry and new knowledge have had on their lives. It is an important responsibility of the adults-in-charge to impress such an important perspective upon their young.

Students blessed with a mature, historical perspective on technology will be increasingly receptive to the  “joy of science and mathematics” – the realization that today’s commonplace technology comprises one of finest jewels in the crown of human achievement. That realization can only come from knowledge of the darker past when humans were enslaved by their ignorance of nature’s workings. If you were to ask me what has changed the most in 2,000 years, here on earth, I would say, “Technology and our insights into nature.” What has changed the least in 2,000 years? Basic human nature! Finally, and along those lines, the human struggles and scientific quests of luminaries like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein make for some of the most engaging reading imaginable.

 “Do not force-feed your student; rather, make him/her hungry.” That was one of my favorite lines in the book.  Say more about that.

There are successful students who became knowledgeable solely by “grinding through” their studies. This is not a recommended model for students in school, for it rarely works and seldom produces comprehensive, creative knowledge and thinking. Parent/mentors who literally force-feed school and learning into their students by brow-beating or using material rewards as a carrot are missing the boat.

Wise parent/mentors recognize that the ideal and most comprehensive learning emanates from a burning “desire to know and understand” on the part of the student. The task of parent/mentors is to nurture in their student curiosity – a hunger to “know.” For students studying science and math, that hunger manifests itself in a yearning to understand the laws of nature and mathematical logic. Nature’s ways are constant everywhere and always in the universe. What is more, the laws of nature are demonstrable and provable – a fact of considerable significance! To understand nature through a competence in science and mathematics is to move closer to the creator while grasping a significant subset of the absolute “Truth,” that less-provable and elusive challenge pursued by the world’s philosophers and religions. I believe that the great names in science and mathematics were invariably motivated by that very desire!

While science and math are the focus of the book, I know that you also have a great personal respect for the humanities.  As the world becomes more and more focused on technology, what role does a study of the humanities play?

Coming from a scientific/engineering background, I am continually amazed at the “staying power” of man’s fascination with himself. The endless appeal of “human personality” and man’s desire to “know oneself and others” continues to maintain a high ranking among the most tantalizing of natural mysteries which titillate our curiosities. Even in this Facebook and media age where we have, by now, seen and heard it all regarding human behavior, the cult of personality competes favorably for attention with such intriguing scientific topics like Einstein’s relativity, black holes, and quantum mechanics. I suspect that will continue to be true as long as man survives even though fundamental human nature has changed little over the last two thousand years!

Given all that interest in ourselves as a species, we best begin to understand the human condition through the liberal arts; that, more any other factor is what defines the importance of studying the humanities. On a different level, a solid liberal arts education facilitates the organization of thought processes, making it one side of the coin called “critical thinking”; the flip side of the coin is represented by the logical, cause-and-effect processes so necessary for science and mathematics. Clear and logical expression in word or print requires a significant dose of both disciplines.  Additionally, solid writing skills inevitably emanate from extensive reading – part of the liberal arts package.

I just received my copy of Fareed Zakaria’s new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education. Zakaria knows of what he speaks; he is, in my opinion, by far the best news analyst on television, in large part due to his outstanding insight and presentation skills. Just an aside: I am a huge fan of the author, David McCullough, and his ability to eloquently tell a true story.

What I find fascinating is that there seems to be a sort of growing mythology around the idea of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur.  I don’t think it was there when I was a child, but now someone like Steve Jobs has become an iconic figure for many kids (to the extent that one of the kids at my son’s school dressed up like him for Halloween!).  Do you think that people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are becoming role models in their own right, and is that a positive thing?

The “role model” has been with us for a very long time, Ginny. Publicity mills were much fewer when I was young, so the public knew their role models via their claim to fame. Little information was available about their true personal qualities. “Fluff” personalities with little talent were not fawned over like they are today – don’t get me started on that! The role models children adopt says a lot about their attitudes, their maturity, and their perception of “excellence.”

In bygone days, accomplished sports figures like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio (baseball), Jesse Owens (track), and Joe Louis (boxing) were your typical role models. Even earlier, the inventor, Thomas Edison, was a household name – the forerunner of present-day corporate legends like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Role models are generally people who have beaten the odds to achieve something almost unimaginable. Charles Lindbergh certainly qualified in that sense after his solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. Who could have guessed that Apple Computer would result from two young guys named “Steve” tinkering in a garage. People are attracted to the accomplishments of their role models. Albert Einstein was the most recognizable figure in the world in the nineteen-twenties, only because the public understood he had revolutionized physics and our concept of reality with his two theories of relativity. The public gravitated to the enormity of Einstein’s accomplishments even though virtually no one really understood them.

Of course, role models exhibit human failings and vulnerabilities, some in very egregious ways. Certain of Steve Jobs’ personal characteristics, which were so instrumental in building Apple Computer, did not always qualify as endearing attributes. Silicon Valley tech workers in Apple’s earlier years were used to hearing stories of Jobs’ very brusque treatment during interviews of candidates whom he quickly decided were not meeting his expectations of excellence and were thus wasting his time. Few were hired and most dispatched, unceremoniously, to the so-called “Bozo” bin. Albert Einstein was second only to Isaac Newton as a scientist, yet he set a terrible personal example as husband and father.

Truly great role models who reflect both great personal accomplishment and attributes to emulate are much rarer than the popular variety. How many have ever heard of Michael Faraday, the great, early nineteenth century physicist who truly is the “father of the electrical age.” He was the complete role model package for youth – an exemplary, humble and kind human being and a scientist whose reputation in physics ranks only one level below that of Newton and Einstein. His only drawback as a role model: Not much charisma!

Personally, I think it is OK for youngsters to be attracted to people who are high achievers – people who earned their fame and fortune through honest hard work, talent, and imagination. Any personal shortcomings of these people should be evaluated separately with the help of parent/mentors. Yes, Einstein was a great scientific success…but at the steep price of failing in his role as family man.

One more comment regarding the liberal arts: What do Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg surprisingly have in common? A distinct appreciation of the liberal arts! Einstein was a profound philosopher and a music devotee (violin). Steve Jobs began his short stint at Reed College as a liberal arts major. Mark Zuckerberg entered Harvard as a psychology major – not a computer science geek. Facebook exists so successfully today not only because of great computer code, but because Zuckerberg recognized the psychology behind its conception – our human fascination with one another.

 I really liked how you talked about your own role models, including your track coach in high school.  I knew the story of your hard-earned success as a hurdler, but I didn’t know about the touching inscription that your coach wrote in your yearbook in 1958.  Even as our world grows bigger thanks to science and technology, that personal connection, one person encouraging another, is as powerful as it ever was. Can you say more about that?

Yes, that personal connection of which you speak is the key to all of our human experience, is it not? After a successful senior year as San Mateo High School’s varsity track team hurdler, my coach wrote a very personal note, ending with the comment, “Success can’t escape you if you apply yourself as you did in track.” My high school track experience was one of the highlights of my life – the first affirmation in my young life that hard work will pay-off and that, for most of us, it is a prerequisite for great success. Would that all youngsters could have that affirmation, early in life.

Coach Wagner left his mark on me and countless other boys he coached by being, as you say, “one person encouraging another.” His example as a long-time coach, along with my parents and their tremendous influence, personify the importance of the human connection. Fittingly, this is precisely the theme of my book – the importance of parent/mentors nurturing their young for success in school, learning, and life. In the end, the book is as much a common-sense guide to good parenting/mentoring as anything else. That is what it is all about.

If what you’ve read piques your interest, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning is available for purchase at Amazon.com and at the author website.  And check out Alan’s weekly posts about science, music, history, and life at his  blog Reason and Reflection.  

The Book Pile: Gardening, spirituality, and sports (yes, sports)

Once again, my “recently read” list is a hodgepodge of genres.  I kind of like it that way …

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In all my many years of reading, this is a first: I  read something published by ESPN Books.   It’s Man in the Middle, by John Amaechi, and it’s about his unlikely journey from Manchester, England to his years as a player in the NBA.   Amaechi spoke at my high school last fall, during a particularly vulnerable time for our school, and he was riveting; the kids couldn’t stop talking about it.

His journey is fascinating.  Amaechi didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 17, and through sheer grit he made his way to Penn State and the NBA. The book covers a lot of material he didn’t address in his talk, including the extent to which he went to conceal his identity as a gay man from the press and the team and fans, but what I found most fascinating was Amaechi’s frankness about what basketball did ( and mostly didn’t) mean to him.  “I was never a basketball player; I just happened to be really good at it for a while.  I mostly looked forward to going home to hang with my friends, to take care of my kids, to work with future generations of children.”  In both his talk and in the book, he comes through as a thoughtful, compassionate man.  When he was a teen, he said that his mom asked him, “Would you recognize your soul in the dark?” — a pretty terrific question, if you think about it.   I think we all are on a quest to know who we really are inside, once all the externals are gone.  This book was a fascinating look at what happens when someone lets that question guide his life.

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It’s been a long time since I read any Dickens, so I started Little Dorrit on Christmas vacation, reading it in bits while also working on other books.  The last four hundred and fifty pages were better than the first (how often does one get to make a statement like that?).  I was reminded of  how brilliant he is at describing a place or a scene with one or two details: the “staring” hot streets of Marseilles, for instance.  There are also little turns of phrase throughout that made me dog-ear the pages … the man was good, no doubt about it.  That said, I didn’t warm to the main character quite as much as I think I was supposed to, so it won’t end up in my top tier of Victorian novels. Still, I’m glad I read it.

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Sanctuary:Creating a Space for Grace in Your Life
by Terry Hershey. I got the chance to meet Terry at LA Congress and was thrilled to get a copy of this book.  It’s a very readable invitation to think about what in your life gives you a break.  Where do you go to recharge?  What in your life gives you a feeling of being home?  What do you do when you feel the need to replenish?  How can we be sanctuary for others? The book has invited me to think about what my own sanctuaries are, and why they draw me.    There are reflection questions and space to write in the book itself, too, which is something I always like in a spiritual book like this.  It’s a great read for busy people who know they need to create a quiet space in their lives, but need a little push to begin.

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An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey.  It’s hard to know how to describe this book: it’s part mystery, part romance, part historical fiction, part cookbook.  In the eighteenth century, a young cook gets drawn into her mistress’s life of intrigue in Italy, and uses all of her wit and cleverness (and her ability to cook) to great effect.  The book was rather ambitious in its storyline and there were a few plot threads that seemed a little loose, but overall, I enjoyed it and once we got fifty pages from the end, I could not put it down.

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A kind friend sent me The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman, and I read it in about two days.  It’s a love story (a few love stories, actually) set in Italy during WWII.  This book really opened my eyes to the terror of the time, as well as the sheer courage of those involved in the Italian resistance movement.  I also loved this book’s treatment of the romantic relationships.  Sometimes I get drawn into a love story between two characters and get disappointed when one inevitably betrays the other.  In this book, you see the power of true feeling and the beauty of loyalty, which made a refreshing and inspiring change.  It’s also about the kindness of strangers, and that is always a theme I like to encounter in fiction (and in life).

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A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac by Margaret Rose Realy.  I have kind of a thing for gardens, as you know if you’ve read this blog for even a minute, and I just love the premise of this book. The book is divided into twelve sections, one for each month;  each month focuses on a different spiritual theme and meditates on that theme as reflected in the act of gardening.  Realy includes tips for gardening, stories of saints connected with plants or gardens, Scripture stories and verses that relate to the monthly themes, and the net effect is wonderfully inspiring.  I love how she invites the reader to work spiritual symbols into the garden and to create specific places for prayer.  It’s the kind of book that makes me want to drop everything and go pick up a trowel.

What have you been reading lately?

Gender roles and parenting: “The Home-Maker” serves up rich food for thought

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A while back, a friend of mine posted a simple graphic on Facebook. It was a triangle, with something written at each of the three points.  One point said “A Clean House,” the second said “Happy Children,” and the third was labeled “Sanity.”  Underneath the triangle was written the slogan, “Choose Two.”

I laughed when I saw it.  It was the laughter of recognition, and no small amount of resignation.

And that little triangle flashed upon my inward eye as I was reading the novel The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

The Home-Maker is published by Persephone Books, the most excellent London publishing house dedicated to reviving the “forgotten” classics.  (I adore PB; read my thoughts about another of their titles here.)  It was first published in 1924, and I can only imagine how subversive it was for the time.  Even now, ninety years later, it somehow still feels radical in its portrayal of an unconventional family.

But when the story begins, it’s all highly conventional.  It’s small-town America, and Evangeline Knapp, mother of three, is busy scrubbing the floors.  It’s immediately apparent that though she’s a fiercely competent housewife, she’s not a happy one; little messes and disruptions to the routine bother her intensely.  She can’t relate to Stephen, her youngest son, the “problem child” with a fiercely protective love of his filthy Teddy, and her two older children receive a constant stream of criticism and commands.

Obviously, Evangeline has chosen “Clean House” and “Sanity,” though her grasp on the latter is somewhat questionable.  Her house is clean, but she’s miserable.

So too is her husband Lester, a clerk at Willing’s Emporium, a downtown department store . He loves poetry and loathes his job.  Eventually (I won’t say how — no spoilers here) he suffers a paralyzing accident.  Out of financial necessity, Evangeline enters the workforce, getting a job at Willing’s Emporium, while Lester stays home with the children.  And — unconventional though it is in 1924– it ends up being the best thing that ever happened to the family.

There’s so much that made me think in this novel.  First of all, I was struck to realize that all these years later, the roles of the Knapp family (mom working, dad keeping house and watching the kids) are still far from the norm.  At one point, contemplating re-entering the work force which he loathes, Lester muses on how much social resistance there would be were he to continue to stay home: “It would be easier for him to commit murder or rob a bank than to give his intelligence where it was most needed, in his own home with his own children.”  That statement may not be entirely true today, but it’s probably pretty close. I know exactly one family where the dad stays home and the mom works; shouldn’t I know so many more, in 2015?

And while this novel is very advanced in its treatment of women, showing that women deserve the chances to develop the parts of their potential that have long been denied to them, it also extends the same courtesy to men.  If women have traditionally suffered from “too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation” (as Charlotte Brontë wrote in Jane Eyre),  perhaps men have suffered the same.  Evangeline is a smart and innovative retail clerk, one who comes to life in her job in the emporium, and her happiness rubs off on the family.  Lester is an endearing character, one who has an intuitive grasp of his children’s emotional selves;  more contact time with him is just what they need to flourish.

In fact, another reason I loved this novel is the way it highlights two contrasting ways of parenting. There’s Evangeline’s way, the don’t-put-your-shoes-there-it’ll-get-the-floor-dirty way, and then there’s Lester’s way, which is to give kids things that make messes (an egg-beater, a dog, a sandpile) and let them discover and create.  It’s pretty clear which one is better for the kids … and the novel is a reminder that if you have to sacrifice a spotless home for happy kids, that’s a great trade-off.  I’m far less obsessive about cleaning house than Evangeline is — the dust-bunnies can tell you that themselves – but I do see some of myself in her.  If I were to tally up the things I say to my kids on a daily basis, how many of them are “Don’t” statements, and how many are “Dos”?  How many are instructions geared at keeping the house neat,  and how many are invitations designed to broaden their imaginative horizons?  I know where I am in this, and where I’d like to be.

So it’s not just a novel about gender roles; it’s also a novel about parenting.  It’s a thought-provoking reminder that families work best when the parents are leading from their strengths, when they don’t routinely bring bitterness and disappointment to the evening dinner table.  And from this working mom’s point of view, it’s a call not to get so wrapped up in my to-do list that I forget the inner lives of my kids.

In fact, one of my favorite passages in the book is when the paralyzed Lester looks at Stephen, the formerly troublesome little boy, playing quietly and contentedly.  “‘I never saw one of my children just living before,’ he meditated.  As [Lester] lay in bed, a book was usually open before him, but he looked over it at the far more interesting spectacle of his undiscovered little boy.”  

Many thanks to Persephone Books for the review copy of this forgotten classic.  It deserves to be widely read, and pondered, and enjoyed.

The Home-Maker can be found through  Amazon.com, but I prefer to buy Persephone titles from their own website.  It’s so fun to get a package from overseas, and they arrive far more quickly than you think they will.  While you are there, check out their other titles — it’s a dream of mine to visit their London shop one of these years and to browse their books in person.

Love Will Steer Me True: A conversation with authors Jane and Ellen Knuth

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My pre-mom life involved two extended stays in Paris: I studied abroad for one semester in college, then returned after graduation to teach English for a year.  Both experiences were exciting, rewarding, life-changing.

But I have to admit that at the time, I gave very little thought to how my mom was handling it all.

As a parent myself now, I have a sense of how hard that separation was for her.  My kids are still young, but when I think of one of them someday doing what I did and moving to the other hemisphere,  my pulse starts to race.  Although I know from my own past that living abroad can forever enrich your life, I know from my present that it must be extremely hard for a parent to see her child go so far away.

So I could very much relate to the book Love Will Steer Me True: A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love, and God by Jane Knuth and her daughter Ellen Knuth.  In fact, I didn’t just relate to it; I loved it.

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Love Will Steer Me True tells the story of Ellen’s experiences teaching English in Japan, and — here’s what makes it so unique —  it’s told from the point of view of both mother and daughter, alternating narrators.  As a result, you get an insider view on the relationship between a mother and her adult child, along with two perspectives on faith and culture and letting go.  It’s  real, honest, and touching, and I was delighted to have the chance to talk to both Ellen and Jane about the book.

What is the two-sentence description of your book? 

 Jane: This is a true story about women’s spiritual journeys told from the  perspectives of a mother and daughter . The daughter, Ellen, is working and living in Japan for four years in her mid-twenties, and the mom, Jane, is back in the USA worrying about how God fits into all this.

What was it like to collaborate on a book?  What were the challenges of co-authoring, and what were the unique joys? 

 Ellen: Having never written a book before, collaborating with my mother on the manuscript was a great way to enter the writing world. I was initially concerned about being able to maintain a distinct “voice” without becoming too influenced by my mom’s writing style, but once we hit our stride it was great fun discussing how our chapters would play together.

Jane: I thought it would be more difficult than it was. It was fun to read Ellen’s chapters and remember the events together. We spent one long weekend in a motel in Kentucky in order to pull the thing together, which was exhausting, but fun.

I always find that writing about my experiences makes me understand them in a new light.  What did you learn about your own experiences as a result of writing this book? 

Ellen: Putting the stories to paper really brought into focus how all of these seemingly un-connected events that happened over the course of several years were, in many ways, a fluid progression. It helped me reflect on how far I’d come and how much my relationship with my mother had grown during my time away.

Jane: I learned that my motherly worry is often not helpful. It can stunt the growth of the child and the parent both.

Jane,  I love the scene when your husband reminds you that worry and prayer are not the same thing.  How do worries change as your kids grow up?  How has your prayer life changed as your kids have grown up?

Jane: When the kids were very young, I worried that I wasn’t doing things right, teaching them enough, spending quality time, etc. Once they were in college, I worried that they hadn’t understood all I tried to teach them, and I began to teach them over again. That’s what people commonly call nagging. My husband pointed this out in a gentle way and encouraged me to pray silently instead. Prayer of this type is a huge leap of faith because you are turning over your heart to God and  trusting that he won’t drop it.

Ellen, it  was fascinating to read how your experiences in Japan helped you see your childhood faith traditions in a new light.  What is the biggest lesson that your time abroad has taught you about faith?

Ellen: That love is truly at the core of my faith journey. Even in the hardest moments when I felt confused or lost, love anchored me.

What did you learn about each other’s experiences of this time that you  didn’t know before writing the book? 

 Jane: I didn’t know the story of Ellen’s conversation with Ayden, her agnostic friend, after the death of her friend Rodger. Ayden is a loving, whip-smart, courageous young man who verbalizes the non-faith perspective of death in a touching way.

Ellen: I talk about a lot of things with my mom, she knows all about my insecurities and fears! However, I don’t think we’d ever really discussed HER insecurities, especially where our relationship was concerned. That all came out during the book-writing process

What is one thing your daughter/mom wrote in the book that really surprised you? 

 Jane: I was surprised that Ellen yearned for her parents to be proud of her and what she was doing in Japan. We have always been proud of our kids, so this struck me . I think what she wanted was that we would give our blessing to her . Our worry, and expressing our worry, was kind of like an anti-blessing. She didn’t need that.

Ellen: Though I could objectively identify my mother’s worries as coming from a place of love and good intention, it wasn’t until I read her chapters that I understood that no anger and disappointment factored into her worry. That was a huge surprise!

What is the best thing a mother can give her daughter before she moves overseas? 

 Ellen: Her blessing! My mother and father took the time to write a series of notes for me before I left. They were labeled with titles like “For a bad day” or “For when your head feels fuzzy”, etc and having those little affirmations of their love and support to read and save on the days I felt lowest were awesome.

Jane: A rosary.  It’s a prayer, a blessing, and a link to home, all in one little package.

Thanks to Ellen and Jane for being my guests here today!   And, gentle blog reader, do yourself a favor and read Love Will Steer Me True.  It’s available from Loyola Press, Amazon.com, and BarnesandNoble.com.  

Great books for “Downton Abbey” fans (or fanatics)

At long last, “Downton Abbey”  is back.  If you’re like me, the advent of the new season was met with great rejoicing and a celebratory cup of tea.

I know this show appeals to a wide range of people, but I suspect that moms have a particular affinity for it.  I’d venture to guess that most modern moms fantasize about living like Lady Grantham, with her beautiful clothes and every-present lady’s maid and a stunning home that she doesn’t have to clean herself.  In reality, our lives are closer to that of the cook, frantically trying to keep multiple pots from burning while snapping at anyone who gets in our way (or is that just me?).

Anyhow,  if you can’t get enough of big English homes with elaborate social hierarchies, here are a few books that you might enjoy.   Save them for those rare moments of Lady Grantham-like relaxation, and see if you can convince someone to bring you breakfast in bed to make the fantasy complete!

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One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens

This memoir, first published in  1939 , is a gem.  The twenty-something Dickens, unsatisfied with her life as a debutante, decided to try a new existence as a cook for the upper classes.  She hid her privileged background  and embarked on a series of jobs for various employers, both in London and the country.  The book is consistently interesting and, at moments, side-splittingly hilarious.  Dickens describes her struggles both with the cooking and with the eccentricities of her employers and fellow workers.  She has a fabulous turn of phrase (of a bad-tempered milkman, she writes, “he looked capable of watering the milk with the tears of little children”). The chapters where she works as cook for a Downton-style estate are  my favorite; her descriptions of the malevolent butler, the dim-witted scullery maid, and the handsome chauffeur (” whose name, appropriately enough, was Jim Driver”),  are brilliant.

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The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

I have a mad love for Persephone Books, the English publishing house dedicated to reviving “neglected” books.   Most of their books are by women; many of them center on home and family relationships, which is surely the reason why so many haven’t gotten the attention they deserve (insert rant about why war is taken seriously as a fictional subject and human relationships are not).

One of their most high-profile authors is Dorothy Whipple, who was a phenomenal novelist.  Her book The Priory is the story of an old country home in England, inhabited by a retired Major and his adult daughters, and the changes that ensue when he marries a much younger wife.  Whipple makes the servants into fairly major characters in their own right; there is a well-drawn and painful subplot about a bit of a “love triangle,” for lack of a better term, and she brings the character of Nanny to terrifyingly competent life.  Whipple was a sharp, sensitive novelist who excelled at describing relationships; the prose carries you along, and 530 pages feel like nothing.

Persephone’s books can be hard to find in the US, but you can order from their website and they arrive quickly.  One other cool thing: Each of their books has the same dove-gray cover, but the colorful endpapers inside are different for each book, and each is a reproduction of a textile from the year the book was published.  I love that.

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The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

I blogged a few years ago about The House at Tyneford, which I couldn’t put down.  I won’t repeat the review here, but suffice to say that it’s a most unusual love story.  It takes place a few decades after DA — World War II, to be precise — and it’s about social class,  the experiences of refugees, and the reinvention of self once everything familiar is gone.   And yes, it all happens in a big, beautiful country house.

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The Royal Spyness mysteries by Rhys Bowen

The Royal Spyness mysteires, set in the 1930s,  are fun and a half.  There are eight  in the series, and they tell the story of minor royal Lady Georgiana Rannoch, thirty-fourth in line to the throne of England.   Georgie is an impoverished royal with a drafty Scottish castle but little cash; luckily, she is rich in adventure as she ends up being drawn into murder mysteries wherever she goes,  from English country houses to a royal castle in Transylvania.  The books are a great blend of whodunit, humor, and social commentary, with tinges of P.G. Wodehouse.  For sheer escapist fun, these can’t be beat.