My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s hard for me to resist a book about Jane Austen. And this one did not disappoint. Mullan raises all sorts of deceptively simple questions, from what the weather was to when and how the characters blush to how long the bereaved wear mourning. His answers reveal the genius of Austen’s subtle manipulation of the simple everyday happenings of life in 19th century Britain, and how even seemingly insignificant details shape and reveal her plots. Apparently, everything matters in Jane Austen.
Although this book did give me some additional historical insight, what I really enjoyed were the plot analysis and learning about how Austen invented literary devices to make the novel more powerful and greatly influenced later writers.
Caveat: if you’re unfamiliar with Austen’s novels, the extensive quotations and dizzying leaps from plot to plot will probably just be frustrating and boring. But for those who have read and reread Austen, this is a wonderful tool for appreciating her even better.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a fascinating, unusual book, and my first by Camille Paglia. In a relatively small, slim volume, she takes the reader on a sweeping tour of the history of Western art. Each chapter contains a photograph of a piece of art, and then a short essay. Although I diverged with Paglia in some of her opinions, her insights were invariably illuminating. I really loved that she devoted an unusually large portion of the book to more modern art, and most of the modern pieces she used were new to me. I will admit that I initially picked up this book for its titular promise to treat Star Wars as serious art, and yes, I was tempted to turn to the end and read the Star Wars essay first. I didn’t, and I’m glad I read the rest of the book first to give me context, because the Star Wars essay was great, and I think I understood it better than I would have if I’d just flipped to the end and read it. This book is totally worth a read, whether you’re interested in Star Wars or art or both.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is really a 3.5 star book, but I admire Jana Riess, so I gave her another half star for that. It turns out that I enjoyed the idea of the book more than the actual book, so maybe this is just a case of having too high of expectations. One thing that surprised me is that the book is almost entirely focused on Christian spiritual practices, when from the title I had expected a more ecumenical approach. Still, there’s quite a bit of diversity in Christianity, and I was unfamiliar with several of the approaches she tried, so I learned a lot. My favorite thing was that along with the different spiritual practices, she read writings by the Christian authors (some going back to the early centuries before Christ, and others more modern) who championed those practices. I felt like by the end of the book I had a better understanding of the diversity of Christianity through the ages. As far as the author’s goal of incorporating a different spiritual practice each month, however, the whole thing seemed a little flippant.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was another one of those esoteric books I picked up on a whim from the “new books” shelf at the library. Really, I was just curious to finally find out exactly what that cryptic term “Steampunk” means. To my delight, as well as being an artsy how-to book, this actually is a sort of primer to Steampunk. There’s an introduction explaining the term at the beginning, and short chapters interspersed between the jewelry projects explore different aspects of Steampunk style and history.
The jewelry itself is quirky, creative, and often beautiful. Most of it looks like it could belong on the set of the movie The Golden Compass. This book is worth a read, even if only for the sake of cultural literacy. But for a brief moment as I read it, I actually considered converting my entire wardrobe to Steampunk.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a real educational winner. The funny, sometimes bizarre story-line has my kids laughing out loud almost every day. We’re actually already on Book 3 of the series, and I’ve made it the primary math curriculum for my children (ages 5 and 8). I find that they both understand and retain the material. And because it is presented in a real-life setting, they also can see how math is meaningful and useful in life. I will re-start my 5-year-old on the first book in a year or two, but in the meantime he is getting a great introduction as he listens along with his big sister. He loves the story, and can do a lot of the problems too. The icing on the cake is that this series goes all the way up through calculus. With any luck, my homeschool math curriculum is taken care of forever.
Note: I supplement with Khan Academy for extra practice, and bought some math card games to help my kids learn their arithmetic facts. But Life of Fred, despite how fun and painless it is, seems to be a very solid primary math course. I would also highly recommend it to any parent with a child who’s struggling in math and needs some extra help not only “getting” math, but loving it.
photo credit: Steampunk Vader