I'm Emily Reynolds.
Charles Dickens coined it best in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities with:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …”
Two hundred and fifty years after the fictional Charles Darnay chooses to live in England--because he can't bear to be surrounded by the cruel injustices of the French social system, here we are--facing the prejudice of our own country that we thought we'd battled ourselves first in the Civil War, and next in the 1950's and 60's with desegregation.
As our world spins out of control around the globe with racial injustice, protests and looting, a halted economy, and fear of the still-unknown dangers of this strange pandemic, I thought we might take a mental and emotional road trip.
Ahhhhh...Fresh air brings a clean-slate of a perspective! Breathe in the summertime breezes blowing through your rolled-down virtual car window. And make a stop in Portland Maine to step inside the childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Now imagine you're sitting in Longfellow's family sitting room, overlooking the courtyard gardens, sandwiched between two tall buildings in the cobblestoned-port city. The mist settles about the trunks of trees and lupine foliage as a storm brews overhead. Can't you almost just hear our young thirty-four year-old Henry scratching out the words,
"Into each life some rain must fall.
Henry is aching over his first wife's death.
And yet another writer whom we all know and love equally understood that sorrow so keenly by saying,
“The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That's the deal.” (C.S. Lewis)
I was reminded of this line at the recent funeral of a beloved uncle. And because for most of us, that metaphorical rain is still falling out in some way or another, and may continue to do so for a while, there won't be many real, physical road trips this summer of 2020. And that's okay. How about then, if we send our minds on an escape instead?
Here are some beautiful summer recommendations that aren't really escapist, but rather a juicy ethical feast:
1) The Running Dream,
Written By: Wendelin Van Drannen,
Narrated by Laura Flanagan
You may have read this book, but have your kids listened to the audio version? All six of mine were GLUED to this story! In fact, it made the child on dish duty (no matter the age from six to seventeen) jump right up after a meal to start loading dishes so they could hear what Jessica was going to go through next after having her leg amputated.
I've listened to this audio book probably four or five times since it came out in 2011. There's just so much meat to think about and discuss, when facing a story full of opposition to overcome. And the author nails the character development for teens on its stubborn head.
This is the type of story that all of us need to hear. So we can remember that we can overcome hard, dark situations in life. Just by working through the next small step, even when it's painful, we can push forward. Jessica's character in this story reminds us that hundreds, and thousands, of baby steps line the path to achieving big goals. Goals take time. Days, months, years. Decades. And if they're really worth it? A lifetime.
Here's Goodreads' synopsis of the plot:
Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?
Here's a fantastically-sympathetic interview clip with the persistent Wendelin Van Draanen. She radiates hope and a can-do attitude: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Revi1nl4dg
2) Les Miserables,
Written by Victor Hugo,
accessed free on Librivox.org
Have you ever tried to push through the mammoth tome of Les Miserables, only to hit the brick wall of the war chapters? I've been stymied by them twice. Almost thrice. :)
I even tried checking out the audiobook from the library years ago, then came to the same dry recounting of the Napoleonic wars, and Zzzzzzzz...felt I was facing the front lines with a short saber instead of a bayonet or rifle.
Maybe it just took having a daunting commission last year, with hours of uninterrupted painting time ahead of me, to get through that spot in the story. Or...hearing the audio book on LibriVox! The scenes of Napoleon's downfall actually turned into one of the tenderest parts of the story for me after Napoleon's personality was fleshed out at his up-seating.
Who knew? The history building up to the French Revolution came alive in my mind for the first time ever (well, at least since falling under the spell of The Scarlet Pimpernel when my older college-going brother introduced Percival Blakeney to me and my best friend and sisters as young teens. "Cool!")
And the chapters describing the saintlike priest who forgives Jean Val Jean--showing him mercy and kindness for a second chance on life, and in God's eyes--more than worth the read!
So back to LibriVox. What is it, a few of young'uns might be wondering?
For starters--free audio books! Just as the Latin name implies: "Libri"=free, "Vox"=voice, hence, "free voice." The purpose of Librivox is: "To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet."
What's included in the public domain, you might ask? Well, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says,
Which boils down to this: Les Mis is read for free. For you. To enjoy. Since it was published 158 years ago, and its copyright belongs now to the people. Because of this...
Just joking around. But here's the catch. LibriVox Works on volunteer fuel. That means that people all over the world record one chapter at a time. So when I listened to Les Miserables last year, one chapter would be read (for instance) from the viewpoint of Marius by a male's Australian voice. Then the next chapter (from the viewpoint of Cosette), would be read by a female British voice. And then the next chapter from the view of Eponine, would be read by a female American voice. And so on...
This unusual mash-up of readers makes for an adventure. At first, I wasn't sure if I was going to like the hodge-podge of volunteer voices. But actually, I was pleasantly surprised by how the readers seemed to fit the chapters they narrated. Don't know how that worked out...Or maybe I just grew used to the readers and their excellent quirks.
Below is a pic of the chapter by chapter format for listening. You don't even have to download a thing. Just go to the website when you have time to listen...the hardest part is remembering on what "SECTION" you left off between listens (tip--write it down on a log) and squeeze in more free classics when you have time!
Here's the link to a random chapter, below, of Les Miserables if you want to see what you're in for:
So, if you want to hear the Dickens, Bronte, or more classics per month than your audio book provider allows for your budget, LibriVox is a fantastic, FREE option, or addition, to your audio-listening habits. Happy "hearing of the people sing," to you!
3) The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate,
Written by Jacqueline Kelly,
narrated by Natalie Ross
If you couldn't get enough of Jacqueline Kelly's rock-solid storytelling in her first book, Newbery Honor Award-winning The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, but didn't realize a second installment slipped under the door in 2015, then this is your story.
The audio narration by Natalie Ross is fantastic--she does an especially great job of portraying Calpurnia's Mark Twainesque grandfather with just the right amount of austerity and gentleness.
As a side-note, I still feel that some resolution with Calpurnia's aversion to domestic skills needs to be addressed in a third volume by Ms. Kelly. Perhaps if Calpurnia goes off to medical school, she'll realize that even veterinarians need to know how to cook for themselves--if they don't want to slog through fried eggs and oatmeal for every dish.
And hopefully Ms. Kelly could enlighten Calpurnia to the fact that the sacrificing of one's passions to stop daily (for some of us that's two or three times daily, right?) to prepare food for others, is one of the most vital acts a body can do to continue progression for all, and service to others. (..."when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God." -Mosiah 2:17, The Book of Mormon).
I mean, if there's one thing we have all learned from CoVid-19, it's how much we DEPEND on hard-working people in the food service industry--produce and dairy farmers, grocers, butchers, bakers, and truck drivers. Thank you every one, for making the world's food happen every day!
So Calpurnia, wake up and smell the hot cocoa (which you need to know how to heat up yourself)!
But as much as Calpurnia's character loathes domestic duties, she's helped my own family find sanity, even joy (hear that, Callie V.?!), while cooking because of her antics. The irony! The stories of Calpurnia dreading to be taught by SanJuanna to whip up egg-whites by hand somehow make it easier for me to do that very act--all while hearing her complain about it. Go figure. We can do hard things. Cooking is not hard. Just tedious, sometimes. Right?
The author here, gives us a look at what went into preparing a single meal for a large family from the side of those who did all the grunt work behind closed kitchen doors. Calpurnia curiously wonders at the efforts, lifestyle, and workload of the people who really keep the show going for her family each day. We see highlights of:
I may never know or understand what hardships so many oppressed peoples have gone through, but even reading fictionalized accounts, can give us a flavor or appreciation.
4) Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller,
Written by Judy Taylor,
Narrated by Patricia Routledge
(Maybe I just soaked up every word of this biography as I love Beatrix Potter so much that I named one of my children after her. Or maybe Ms. Potter just lead a very intriguing life? Either way, this bio is delightful. And a read that older children will enjoy/endure hearing as well.
Audible carries it, and if you liked the movie "Miss Potter," or "Peter Rabbit," I think you'll dig the audio bio that covers Beatrix's courageous battles to preserve 4,000 acres of rural farmland and countryside which she gifted to the National Trust upon her death in 1943, as well as 14 farms. Beatrix Potter was truly a forward-thinking woman, artist, illustrator, sheep-breeder, and conservationist.
Besides, this audio bio is narrated in a lovely, British, school-marmy accent...Can't wait for you to gobble it up faster than the Flopsy bunnies did those soporific lettuces in Mr. McGregor's garden.
(Talk about rabbit holes...that milky juice that oozes from a lettuce stem after being cut fresh from the garden, turns out to be not just be a clever literary ploy on Ms. Potter's part to make her bunnies sleep after all. http://thetanglednest.com/2009/06/soporific-salads-and-lettuce-opium/ I always thought that white bleeding from the spiky stem of the lettuces was weird--now I know it wasn't just my own gardening misadventures gone awry. "What kind of spiky, milk-bleeding monster lettuce is this, anyway?!")
5) Interview with the Robot,
Written by Lee Bacon,
Narrated by a Fabulous Full Cast
This is not my typical genre of book. But if you thought Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card was fun (but didn't revel in the swears--totally unnecessary!), then you'll love the smooth writing and curiously-clean plot of Interview with the Robot. Really, if you're reading this review, you're the type who will dig this story.
In fact, I think anyone would find this book fascinating. My youngest son turned it on to help him get through his afternoon chores each day, and the whole family just happened to hang out where he was listening--for several days...oh, until about the time the book ended. It's that good! Even my oldest girls and husband lingered to hear. If one of us missed a few minutes, we'd ask questions to get caught up to speed.
This cutting-edge story is perfect for any age, but especially tweens! The intriguing plot makes your mind wonder about the ethics of recreating life in robotic form. Plus, the sweet friendship between the two main characters is utterly charming here. Definitely worth a listen if you are an audible subscriber! We loved this book. More like it, please?!
6) The Great Brain,
Written by John D. Fitzgerald,
Illustrated by the Inimitable Mercer Mayer
I think many of us can remember either having this series of books being read to us as children, or coming across them on the library shelves at some point during adolescence. Did you? Can you recall that? Comment below, if you have childhood memories of these books...I'd love to hear about it...
So my husband and I often checked out these audio cassettes (that's how old we are!) for long-distance car rides when our oldest three kids were younger. But now it's time to introduce these classics to our youngest three. The funny thing is, I went to pull the first book in the series off the shelf last night, only to find that the second and third books were missing.
Hmmm...I asked my husband about it, and while I was in the little girls' bedroom reading the first book to the six and nine year-old, he was in our bedroom reading the third book to our eleven and thirteen year-old. Ha ha! Great (brain) minds think alike. I guess it just feels like this is a unique time in the world when we can slow down and empathize with what a simpler, old-fashioned life was like. Not to say it was perfect. There were ills and misguided ideas in that era too. But reading about the past helps us re-evaluate our "family-functioning" (or not-so-functioning, depending on the day!) today--to see where we may have gone wrong, or what we can do better...
Here's one of the best reviews (from Goodreads, naturally) that I've come across to describe the caliber of solid writing in a children's book. It made me laugh as my youngest just did (last night, while hearing book two) exactly what this reviewer describes his son doing while listening to these stories:
I've read a lot of books to my son. A lot. The Hobbit, all three books of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, six or seven of the original Doctor Dolittle books, several Three Investigators books, and far more. And he's loved almost all of them (I selected them carefully, from the books I loved best as I child and teen).
And... just in case you haven't read or watched it yet, here's :
• Bonus Book/Movie Recommendation #1):
Written by the brilliant Jerry Spinelli
Hopefully you've already been spellbound by the magic of this unusual book. I've been waiting for years to share it with my own kids, and now that they're finally old enough to enjoy it, it's out as a movie! Ha! I'd better have them read it quick!
My oldest daughter was woken up by a fox circling the chicken coop last week at 4:30a.m., and couldn't fall back asleep after shooing it away. So she went downstairs, turned on this movie, and was swept away before early-morning seminary!
The story is an uplifting reminder to find joy in who we are, let go of fear to make room for friendship, and open our eyes to the situations of those around us.
Here's a link to the fun movie trailer (aimed at the high school crowd, and a great movie for parents and teens to see together--though a certain thirteen year-old I know may scream from the gross factor of two innocent kisses...):
And for me personally to learn more of what I need to understand about the history what it's like to be someone in the minority in America, while navigating this unsettling day and age, here's a title long overdue on my to-read list:
• Bonus Book/Movie Recommendation #2):
Chains (Seeds of America #1),
Written by Laurie Halse Andersen
My two oldest daughters thought it was definitely worthwhile. Having loved Ms. Andersen's book Fever, I'm pretty confident this one will be a poignant reminder of what I have yet to learn to understand what freedom really means. For all. Not just half, nor some, but equality for ALL of God's children.
Here's what good old Goodreads has to say: