• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
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  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

Beefing Up SOTW3, Part I: Adding more Canadian history

We’ve been using The Story of the World (SOTW) series by Susan Wise Bauer as the backbone, or “spine,” of our chronological history studies for about two years now; we started with SOTW1 when Laura was in first grade, and starting in September we’ll be using SOTW3, Early Modern Times: From Elizabeth the First to the Forty-Niners (1600-1850).

Each year I’ve had to do a bit of tweaking to get things in order; well, my order anyway. The first year, when we studied ancient history, I rejiggered the chapters in SOTW1 to keep the various civilizations together, at the expense of some chronology. I realized that Laura would have a more difficult time hopping from one civilization to another and back again, so I lumped together all of the Egypt chapters as one unit, and ditto for Japan, China, Greece, Rome, and so on in rough chronological order.

This next year, I’ve decided to beef up the North American content of SOTW3, since we’re going to be going through a most exciting time early American and early Canadian history, and because the kids are dual citizens; I’m especially interested in exploring the Canadian and American sides of the Revolutionary War (Loyalists and Patriots), War of 1812, and other events. I also have to admit I’m keen to prove wrong all of the adult Canadians, homeschoolers included, who over the years have whimpered about how deadly dull their history is, “especially compared to American history”; if you want to read more about this, try Jack Granatstein’s spot-on indictment Who Killed Canadian History?* (that it remains out of print isn’t a good sign either). But I’m convinced that Canadian history is one long ripping yarn full of excitement, adventures, heroes, and heroines, even if you don’t get much past all of the voyageurs paddling upstream and Laura Secord running panting through the woods to warn the British. If I can’t prove it to everyone else, I can at least prove it to my own half-Canadian kids.


To hold everything together, I’ve chosen Courage & Conquest: Discovering Canadian History by Donna Ward. It’s available directly from Donna’s website and from every decent Canadian homeschool catalogue company, including the ones such as Academic Distribution Services and Tree of Life on the sidebar at right. Courage & Conquest is arranged much like a SOTW activity guide, with each of the 30 chronological lessons (from the Vikings through the fall of New France and Confederation to Newfoundland and Nunavut) accompanied by a short narrative passage; a two-page spread with a picture to color (if desired, and the kids usually do); brief questions for the student to answer; suggestions for additional reading and study: and recommended passages to read in the suggested spines, which include The Kids [sic] Book of Canadian History. The beginning of C&C also lists four-and-a-half pages of other books to read. I’m also going to interweave another one of Ward’s books, Canada’s Natives Long Ago, with C&C, and I’ll interweave (interleave?) all the Canadian material with SOTW3. Because we go down so many rabbit trails, and expand on certain subjects and people, over the school year anyway, especially in history, I’ve no doubt that it will take us longer than one year (42 weeks if you follow the chapter-a-week schedule in SOTW) to complete — closer to two years, I’d imagine. The subjects in C&C start with the Vikings (a bit of backtracking for us), then on to John Cabot, Jacque Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, the fur trade, Maisonneuve, and so on. We’ll stop at lesson 24, British Columbia Gold, and pick up with Confederation in 1867 when we start SOTW4 in anywhere from 12 to 24 months.

Despite Ward’s recommendation of a particular main text, The Kids Book of Canadian History, I’m being my usual difficult self, not only making substitutions but also using two spines where no doubt one would probably be enough (alright, I’ll admit it, that missing apostrophe does drive me nuts). But hear me out — first, we don’t already have The Kids Book, but we do already have Isabel Barclay’s out-of-print and wonderful The Story of Canada, an illustrated narrative history for young children, found at the Goodwill Shop for a quarter the other year, and My First History of Canada by Donalda Dickie, a reprint edition of which I bought secondhand from another homeschooling mum a few years ago, when home education wasn’t even in a glimmer in my eye (I just thought teaching the kids some Canadian history would be a good thing). The Barclay book, which unfortunately stops at around 1900, is very simply written and charmingly illustrated — perfect for the boys. The Dickie history, also in narrative style but more of a challenging read, is to use with Laura.

I also found another fun book, rather like a Dover or Bellerophon coloring book, with a large picture to color on each page accompanied by a brief story, called Pioneer Life by Natalie Quinn (Apple Press); it includes three sections, Settlers in New France, Settlers in Upper Canada, and Homesteaders in Western Canada. I really like the look of the Apple Press Canadian history and geography workbooks I’ve seen. Stylish and not too workbook-y for workbooks, if that makes any sense. And Laura can’t wait to get her mitts on it.

For what it’s worth, I looked at the Pioneers & Patriots study guide, by Vince Marquis, for Canadian history, but it’s a bit above the Grade 3 level and seems a bit dry compared to Donna Ward’s approach.

Besides the list of books in Ward’s Courage & Conquest, I’m also using this list of Canadian historical literature. This would be a good place to thank Nicola Manning for putting together the list, with the help of members of the SonlightCanada Yahoo group, and for keeping it on her website. If you really want to thank Nicola, you can buy some secondhand books from her online at Nikki’s Book Nook.

For more on Canadian history material, the Canadian section of Ambleside online has some very useful stuff, including a discussion of the various, though mostly out of print, children’s narrative histories of Canada and an outline of “How one family approached Year One”; on a thoroughly unCanadian note, I’m also intrigued by Ambleside’s Plutarch rotation for grades four and up. There’s also a Yahoo group for Ambleside/Charlotte Mason/Canada, with some nifty stuff in the Files, including a folder of information for each province, as well as lists of books and activities for various grades. Another useful group for classically educating Canadians is Canadian WTM at Yahoo. It’s not a very busy group and there’s nothing in the Files section, but some good information in the message archives.

Stay tuned for Part II, adding more American history to SOTW3 (as well as a possible list of Canadian and American juvenile historical fiction and non-fiction), and hope I don’t get sidetracked by laundry or possibly a novel and a nectarine… [update: so far the laundry is winning.]

* The educrats did it, revamping and politically correcting Canadian textbooks until they turned them into “the blandest of mush” and “air-brushed accounts of the past.”

More Resources for Middle School and High School

Canada: An Illustrated History by Derek Hayes

Canada: A Portrait in Letters, 1800-2000 by Charlotte Gray

A Short History of Canada by Desmond Morton

A Little History of Canada by H.V. Nelles

Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and Its People by Roy MacGregor

“Canada: A People’s History”, CBC’s broadcast series on DVD; the accompanying books (Volume 1 and Volume 2); and online teacher resources

An episode-by-episode bibliography to accompany the CBC’s “Canada: A People’s History”

a Canadian Literary Reading List compiled by Dr. Bruce Meyer, director of the Writing and Literature Program, University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, prepared for the CBC’s “Canada: A People’s History”

Canada in the Making website

Early Canadian Online (ECO)



Making Hay: A Summer Rhapsody

Before Tom and I were married and I moved here from Manhattan, I bought some books to help me understand my new life. One of them was Making Hay by Verlyn Klinkenborg, who splits his time at The New York Times and his small farm in upstate New York, and whose writing is equally split between the down-to-earth and the lyrical of rural life. Every summer, I’m reminded of passages from the book, which 11 years ago helped me understand what I was seeing and smelling (and why I was eternally running to town for parts).

Some of these passages have come to mind over the past few days, as I watch the the tractor make its rounds in the hay field — as I watch the kids, who are trying, with much effort and even more difficulty and bicycles instead of tractors, to make their own big round bales in the front yard from the swathes of grass their father cut with the tractor the other evening — as I watch Tom take off, to check the progress of the haylage crew, in his old 1978 Ford pick-up with the kids in the back, “gimmee” ball caps from John Deere and United Farmers of Alberta shading little brown faces, and little brown arms hanging over the side.

If farmers were at all disposed to rhapsody, they might get eloquent about the work itself, and particularly about the process of adaptation. There is a machine for every job on the farm, and yet much of the work, it seems, falls between machines. Figuring out what to do with a sickle blade that will not fit is the appointed labor of farming just as surely as it planting oats or combining soybeans. The Unexpected stalks a farm in big boots like a vagrant bent on havoc.

Not every farmer is an inventor, but the good ones have the seeds of invention within them. Economy and efficiency move their relentless tinkering, and yet the real motive often seems to be aesthetic. The mind that first designed a cutter bar is not far different from the mind that can take the intractable steel of an outsized sickle blade and make it hum in the end. The question is how to reduce the simplicity that constitutes a problem (“It’s simple; it’s broke.”) to the greater simplicity that constitutes a solution. …

The rain had let up, but if anything the wind had stiffened. The alfalfa seemed not to wave or billow in the breeze so much as to abase itself voluntarily against the earth. Plants on the rises flattened themselves like men under fire and then sprang erect again. Noise from the exhaust stack behind us blew away and left us in silence or flew into our backs and warmed us. Louie lowered the header, engaged the drives, and we moved forward, the wicked sickle sound muffled, its teeth full of alfalfa at last.

Hanging over the machine like the figurehead of the good ship “Urban Boy,” I peered into the header below me. Stiff ranks of alfalfa shuddered slightly under the impact of the sickle blade and fell straight back onto the conveyor belts. They bounced toward the center gap like almonds on a sorting line and disappeared. I turned around and looked back over Louie’s head. A narrow swath of crushed alfalfa emerged from the tail of the machine and pointed straight north to four persons standing in a clump at the edge of the feedlot. They all waved briskly. …

Game in southwestern Minnesota, warned by the windrower’s roar, is well accustomed to this species of interference and usually makes good its escape, though that night over coffee at Country Kitchen Elmore Jack told us about once having rescued a fawn lying in the path of his swather. Louie and I scared up no rabbits or pheasants or deer. Insects were not so lucky. As the windrower took to the field, the swallows that filled the barn eaves and the granary dormers took to the air ahead of us. For them the swather served as a huge mechanized beater on a driven insect shoot. They arched and plummeted in the breeze, taking moths and other winged insects right off the rotating reel. When the wind blew in our faces, the path behind us closed with swooping, diving birds, like the wake of a garbage scow being towed out to sea.

A possible title for the shopping cart…

…and an interesting contender for curriculum when we get to high school biology:

Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature by the father-daughter team of David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash. He’s a psychology professor and zoologist at the University of Washington and she’s about to start her junior year at Swarthmore, and their premise is that the heroes and heroines of the Great Books illuminate not just the human condition but human nature, and as such are “as much a product of evolution as they are the result of the genius of their creators,” as radio host Anthony Germain put it this morning on CBC Radio’s “Sunday Edition” show. Or, as the Barashes write in the opening lines of Ovaries, “Othello isn’t just a story about a jealous guy. Huckleberry Finn isn’t just a rebellious, headstrong kid. Madame Bovary isn’t just a horny married woman.”

Barash pere et fille don’t argue that biology is everything, but they apparently provide a lively argument for the fact that it’s a useful and valid perspective. No, the idea’s not an incredible revelation, but it’s supposedly all wrapped up in one neat, amusing package, which I always appreciate. And of course I also like the idea of a generous helping of literature with my science.

So Long at the Fair

All week long we’ve either been getting ready for the fair or at the fair, which kicked off on Thursday as usual with the big parade. Today is the last day, culminating with fireworks at 11 pm. Tomorrow we recuperate (the kids and their friends rode the rides at the midway all day yesterday), and Monday we join the volunteers to tidy up the fairgrounds. Tuesday I collapse again, and think about blogging some more about the past few days, which also included a trip to the little city 40 miles away to see the RCMP’s Musical Ride.

By the way, I am the mother of the chocolate fudge king — six-year-old Daniel won first prize in both the kids and adult categories, in the latter beating out women who’ve been making fudge for 50 years. Hip hip hooray for the Fannie Farmer cookbook, marshmallow fluff, and Daniel’s gumption. Oh, and Laura and Davy didn’t do too shabbily either, winning several first prizes each too, and numerous seconds and thirds. Details, and some blue ribbon (and if you’re Canadian, red ribbon, which is what you get for first prize up here) recipes to follow next week.

My husband’s love language* is…

…lamb chops, one of my most favorite non-chocolate foods in the world, and which Tom brought home for tonight’s dinner. He knows the way to my heart, especially after a horrendous two-day headache (part of it endured through an otherwise fun homeschool Sports Day involving lots of kids, raucous noise, egg and spoon races, and water ballon tossing) and nursing Laura through foreign-object-in-eye for two and a half days, requiring a quick jaunt to the hospital ER in town.

So tonight we’ll enjoy grilled lamb chops with grilled vegetables, and oven-roasted potatoes. And rhubarb compote with vanilla ice cream for dessert. After 11 years of marriage, I’m much happier to receive expensive cuts of meat instead of flowers.

*Normally I hate this pop psychobabble twaddle, but somehow the juxtaposition of “lamb chops” with “love language” just tickled me. Blame it on the headache.

Canadian Interlibrary Loans Dodge a Bullet, for now

Some good news, after my post the other day — according to an online story at the CBC yesterday, “Ottawa cancels planned postal hikes on library books.”

However, while this rate will continue “beyond April 2006,” that sounds like government speak for “you’re toast after June 2006” and still applies to only books, so, after sending a thank you note to National Revenue Minister John McCallum, who made yesterday’s announcement, I’m going to press on with my letter writing campaign and suggest that 1) the special rate be made permanent, since permanent literacy is a good thing, yes? and 2) that Canada Post come into line with the U.S. and the 21st century and amend the Book Rate to include audiovisual materials. I can hope, can’t I?

In memory of Ateeque Sharifi, the final victim

On Thursday, Britain’s Independent newspaper published the following obituary of the final victim to be formally identified following the fatal bombings on July 7th:

Ateeque Sharifi had seen his fair share of tragedy as a boy in Afghanistan. His parents were killed by the Taliban before he was 20 and he was the only male in his family to escape death.

At 21, he fled Kabul to find refuge in Britain, where he overcame his struggle to learn English and became a model student. In his spare time he worked in a pizza takeaway, sending most of his wages to his younger sister in Afghanistan.

But three years after fleeing the brutal regime of the Taliban to rebuild his life in his adoptive city, the young Muslim was to die in a suicide bombing car- ried out in the name of his faith.

Yesterday, almost two weeks after the London attacks in which 56 people died, including the bombers, the 24-year-old Afghan became the last victim to be formally identified.

Mr Sharifi, 24, who lived in Hounslow, west London, had attended West Thames College since September 2002, eight months after arriving in the UK, where he became one of the most popular students. As an inquest was opened into his death yesterday, Thalia Marriott, the college’s principal, said: “The deep irony of this tragic event is that Ateeque had left Afghanistan to seek safety in the UK, only to find his fate at the hands of extremists here.”

She described him as a “truly inspirational and popular student” who was “destined for a bright future” and said the college’s staff and 7,000 pupils were deeply shocked and saddened by his death.

The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, paid tribute to Mr Sharifi yesterday by placing flowers among the hundreds of personal tributes piling up in the garden square outside King’s Cross station. He said: “The Afghan people share the pain of these families very, very much. Those who have committed these crimes are the enemies of all of us, all over the world. In Afghanistan, they have killed travellers, students, women and many innocent people.”

Details of Mr Sharifi’s death emerged as the hunt for the terror network behind the 7 July bombings continued. A British man who police want to question over the London bombings was reportedly arrested in Pakistan yesterday. In a separate development, the Government announced new powers to deport or exclude from Britain people who incite others to commit terrorist acts

Mr Sharifi had been returning from spending a night with some friends when he was caught in the blast. His tutor, Harminder Ubhie, who teaches English as a second language at West Thames College, was in tears as she described her “model student”. “He started learning English at a beginner level when he first arrived. He was a delight to have in the group,” she said. “He was always present. He became one of my top IT students.”

Ms Ubhie said that he had been something of an entertainer among his peers. “He was the joker of the group. He also always helped the new members of the group by showing them around the college, going out and helping them during the lessons. His fun-loving nature and hard work will never be forgotten.”

Mr Sharifi had rented a room in a flat-share with three other Afghanis in Hounslow for the past year. To his flatmates, he was a sociable man who took pride in his appearance and was a great gym enthusiast with a diverse set of friends including Indian, Pakistani and English people. He had come to Britain without being able to speak a word of English but had made enormous strides in his adoptive country. He excelled in class, he was going to sit his driving test this month after failing once before, and he dreamt of getting married in Britain one day and eventually becoming a computer expert.

He would occasionally attend Friday prayers at a mosque but was a more regular face at a gym in nearby Hanwell. Mr Sharifi had managed to save enough money to buy himself a computer and was due to start a higher level IT course at the college in September.

Abdul Wahib, from the Afghan embassy in London, said that although Mr Sharifi had friends and some distant relatives in the UK, his close family were not in this country. He added that his body would be returned to Afghanistan for burial.

Daniel is reading!

I don’t know who’s more proud and happy, M-o-m or s-o-n, as Daniel would say. In the last couple of days, he’s been spelling like Helen Keller after meeting Annie Sullivan, and tonight, in the middle of lesson 24 of The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading by Jessie Wise, he started sounding out all of the three-letter words (vet, wet, fox) on the page. He’s reading! Or did I say that already?! And just a plug here for Mrs. Wise’s OPGTR; the title is unwieldy but the method is anything but, especially compared to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, which I used with Laura several years ago.

I’ve been taking a very relaxed approach with the boy all through Kindergarten — in part because of his nature, and in part because of mine (preferring to deal mainly with just a second grader) — while still trying to take advantage of any windows of opportunity I saw; I’m glad I didn’t miss any, at least not so far.

But there are a couple of people around here who don’t share the general sense of excitement. One, because she can sense that her brother is hot and heavy on her heed still.” Though I have a feeling that Davy won’t be too long behind his big brother. And then Laura will really have to watch out. I told her tonight as I tucked her in that she can find some more chapter books to read to me, which seemed to cheer her up. A bit. Those pesky boys….

Now I’m off to get the Bob Books off the shelf, and Hop on Pop, too. And tomorrow we’ll celebrate some more with milk shakes and new books! Isn’t that how every family celebrates all good things?!

Is it me?

This month I’ve listened to a fair number of interviews with, like, 10- to 14-year-olds, you know, mainly in connection with the release of the new Harry Potter book? Today, I heard like two interviews on the radio and whatever, and it was like the straw that broke the camel’s, um, back? I’m reminded again, like, you know, like how poorly so many kids today speak, even the ones who, like, like reading, do well in school, are like smarter than the average bear, and, um, whatever, you know? So one of the girls, she goes like, you know, “I just love to read!” and then her friend goes like, “I know!”

Like, I’m glad they’re, you know, reading and literate whatever, and at least Harry Potter is like so much better than Animorphs, like a modern, like, classic, but, you know, I’m still not impressed with like their speech and whatever? You know?

Farm Report

Haying season has begun. Tom has started swathing the alfalfa, but this year rather than letting it dry and baling it, we’re going to try haylage. Haylage is similar to silage (which is made from corn, barley, oats and so on) in that it’s gathered up green to ferment, which sounds rather nasty to me but is quite tasty and nutritious for cattle. It’s also a better choice for us this year, when every passing cloud seems to contain a shower. To put up bales of hay, you need a good long stretch of dry, sunny, and breezy weather, and right now Mother Nature can only guarantee the breezy part.

Our field peas, about 100 acres of them, are growing nicely, and I’m thinking of snitching some pods when the time comes to supplement the few rows growing in our vegetable garden behind the house; I have a new raised bed currently under siege by a mole. With apologies to Kenneth Grahame, moles are not polite, charming visitors to be encouraged. They are rude, destructive, persistent, and sneaky. Mr. Mole has done a number in and around my peas, trying to get to the lettuce he prefers.

We went to check our wheat the other day, and it’s beautiful. Because it’s growing without any synthetic fertilizer (our farm has been certified organic for the past eight years), the plants are a considerably darker, richer green than the neighboring fields of conventionally grown wheat. If it just doesn’t hail — farmers are always hoping and praying for the right weather (no hail, not an early frost either, enough rain, some more sunshine) — it will make a nice crop come harvest time, in a month or so.

The blossoms are falling off the canola plants now, and the seeds are starting to form. We don’t grow any canola ourselves — it’s nearly impossible to keep an organic canola crop uncontaminated by the genetically-modified interlopers, and the consequences if you don’t can be ruinous — but I love to see the huge yellow fields throughout the countryside. There’s nothing like a beautiful sunny day, with a rich blue sky, bright green grass, and the vivid yellow of the canola to make you appreciate life in this part of the world.

Tom cut some more rhubarb for me, a hint I think — I have stalks poking out a large five-gallon pail in the middle of my kitchen — and I’m busy making an rhubarb crisp with some and cutting up the rest to freeze. The plants grew beautifully this year; I have a soft spot for anything that grows so vigorously and tastes so good.

Our new kittens are thriving and growing. We had a call from an acquaintance shortly after we bought a new Shorthorn bull from his parents the other month, asking if we’d be interested in the gift of some kittens. “How many?” I inquired suspiciously. “Well, Mom said you have three kids, so I was thinking of one apiece,” was the overenthusiastic reply from the young man, on his own with a house in town. It turns out that a heavily pregnant mama cat wandered into his yard, and he found himself with too many mouths to feed. In the end, we were happy to oblige, and took three of the babies — two mostly black with some white on the face and on the paws (they look alike to me, but Laura and Davy, the new owners, can tell them apart easily), and one gray tortoiseshell with rusty highlights. Laura named her kitten Vibrissa, after the cat in our Minimus Latin book, Davy’s (in good Davy Crockett fashion) is Cougar, and Daniel’s is Tiger. Like their owners, they are always hungry. Also like their owners, they’ve become pretty good at finding their own snacks between authorized mealtimes; even without the help of their mama, the kittens have figured out how to catch and eat mice in very efficient and elegant fashion, even though they don’t seem too much bigger than mice themselves. From my seat at my desk in the kitchen, where my computer and cookbooks are, I watch the kittens on the deck, wrestling with each, sleeping in a heap in the shade under the barbecue, climbing into the flower pots, and trying to catch dragonflies.

Building Ourselves Again and Stronger

I was rather confused on waking this morning to the CBC radio news about the latest bombings in London, because I had read myself to sleep last night with the The Economist‘s glowing review of Incendiary by Chris Cleave, about a terrorist assault on the new Arsenal football stadium in north London.

An even bigger coincidence, because Cleave’s novel came out in Britain on July 7th, the day of the London bombings; it’s scheduled for release in the U.S. and Canada next month, and I’ve ordered it already from Chapters (I refuse to kowtow to the impossible “pre-order”) because it will be a long slog with interlibrary loan.

The book follows the shattered life of Petal, a woman who loses her husband and four-year-old son when the stadium is immolated. As The Economist‘s reviewer writes,

Mr Cleave’s multiple themes — the controlling tendency of governments when responding to civil mayhem, the rightness or otherwise of sacrificing a few in order to save many, love or force as the best riposte against terror — give his book a density he could easily have set aside, given that his heroine is only more-or-less literate (“I’m not thick or anything just don’t ask me where the commas go”), and the tone is often rueful, funny even.

Mr Cleave has also managed two particular, and rather old-fashioned literary achievements: a distinctive narrative voice and a captivating heroine.

In closing, I’ll end with a silent prayer for England and a quote from the book,

“Dear Osama I want to be the last mother in the world who ever has to write you a letter like this. Who ever has to write to you Osama about her dead boy.”…

“You’ve hurt London Osama but you haven’t finished it you never will. London’s like me it’s too piss poor and ignorant to know when it’s finished…I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am too stupid to know better I am a woman built on the wreckage of myself.”

Shockingly Provincial

What’s that saying about giving with one hand and taking away with the other?

While I was delighted that the same-sex marriage bill finally became law this week, I was distressed to learn yesterday that Canada Post, one of our Crown corporations, is proposing to eliminate the Library Mail Rate, also known as the Library Book Rate, first established in 1939. If Canada Post gets its way, the rate would jump next April from under $1 for each book to as much as $14 each. This is progress?

The huge rate increase will, of course, come as a tremendous blow to rural libraries and their patrons. Especially those patrons who are home educating. Our family orders in hundreds of books every year by interlibrary loan (ILL), because our small town library has an exceedingly limited selection.

I suppose I wouldn’t be as upset about this if the jump wasn’t so dramatic, and if Canada Post’s library rate didn’t include only books; in fact, until 2003 we were able to get audiovisual materials by ILL, but that came to an end because the Library Mail Rate includes only books and Alberta libraries couldn’t afford the usual unsubsidized postal rates. Canadian readers might be surprised to learn that down south, the U.S. Postal Service not only has a special Media Rate, once (and sometimes still by old-timers) called Book Rate, including books as well as “film, manuscripts, sound recordings, videotapes, and computer media (such as CDs, DVDs, and diskettes)”, but also has an even further discounted rate just for libraries. How ’bout that? If anything, we’d like the Library Mail Rate extended, not cut back. That, my friends at CP, of which I as a taxpayer am a shareholder, would be progress.

Typically, Canada Post is spinning this as a “good business” decision. According to a CP spokeswoman, maintaining the special library book rate isn’t efficient: “The bottom line is: we are a business and it is our mandate to operate as a business so that we are not a drain on the taxpayers.” She added that CP would lose $13 million a year if it continues to offer libraries the subsidized rate. However, Don Butcher, executive director of the Canadian Library Association, pointed out that “A $13-million project in a multibillion-dollar corporation … isn’t a whole lot of money.” Making another good point, Mr. Butcher said that CP’s legislation “also says that [it has] a duty to a public or a social good, so it’s well within their mandate to continue a special rate for libraries.” Hmm, libraries as a public or a social good. What a very novel idea!

What to do? Talk to your librarian, write to your MP, notify your small town newspaper (ours never seems to know about news until after it’s happened), and tell your bookloving friends. A letter to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Hon. Liza Frulla, can’t hurt, either; after all, some of us actually ILL books about Canadian heritage and history. I might even plump for a stamp and send her a letter by Canada Post, just to make more of an impression. In addition to that, I’m also going to join the board of our local library. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while — I’m already on the Friends of the Library board for fundraising — but was having trouble finding the time. With Canada Post’s new salvo, I’ll have to make the time.

Pass the Bean Dip, er, Cookies

I came across the recipe below in a current farm publication; it’s from a fairly new cookbook, Grazing: Portable Snacks and Finger Foods for Anytime, Anywhere by Julie Van Rosendaal, published last November. Tom proclaims it an abomination and a dreadful thing to do to chocolate chips, pecans, and dried cranberries (he does have a point, especially when it comes to the chocolate), and has forbidden me to give it a go.

But part of me is perverse and wants to know just how bean-y the cookies would taste. I may have to sneak them by the family, just as an experiment. Yes, I am a sneaky mom, and because of that my kids eat pretty well — not because I make a habit of sneaking healthy foods past their lips (grated zucchini and carrots in the meatloaves and tomato sauces) but because they are so young that basic child psychology, and some of the nifty reverse variety, work painfully easily on them. Davy loves beans. Why? Because his sneaky mom told the boy who wants to be a cattle baron when he grows up that cowboys love beans. Adore beans. And now he does, too. Laura covets my calamari when we go out to eat, and even knows that it’s Italian for squid. Why? Because I told her calamari is really much too sophisticated for children, and she relishes the look on surprise on the waiter’s face (there’s always a look of surprise!) when she orders it for herself. Of course, they may all end up in therapy when they find out that mommy put beans in the cookies. And if you decide to sneak them by your family, come up with a different name for them.

Breakfast Bean Cookies (makes 2 dozen)

2 cups oats
1 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
14 oz. can of white kidney, navy, or cannellini beans
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 tbsp. ground flaxseed (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Place the oats in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until it resembles coarse flour. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt and process until combined. Transfer to a large bowl.

Put the beans into the food processor and pulse until roughly pureed. Add butter and process until well blended. Add the brown sugar, egg, and vanilla and pulse until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl.

Pour the bean mixture [a phrase Tom says does not belong in any cookie recipe] into the oat mixture and stir by hand until almost combined; add the chocolate chips, raisins, nuts, and flaxseed and stir until just blended.

Drop large spoonfuls of dough onto a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with nonstick spray [I prefer parchment paper], and flatten each one a little with your hand; this works best if hand is dampened first. Bake for 14-16 minutes, or until pale golden around the edges but still soft in the middle. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

By the way, coincidence or not that Stephanie/Lynx over at Poppins’ blog gave her secret sneaky recipe for including black beans (and a zucchini) with a box of brownie mix? That would definitely take a bigger leap of faith for me, what with all the chocolate involved.

Bean Appetit, she chortled.

Excessively Diverted

I spent the afternoon on our deck with three kittens, a bowl of the first BC cherries, about a dozen dragonflies, a very vocal meadlowlark, a family of western bluebirds, one determined bluebottle fly, and my new “beach book” (never mind the fact that I’m landlocked in Alberta), Jane Austen in Boca by Paula Marantz Cohen, a new interlibrary loan acquisition. No, it doesn’t live up to the original, but it’s a fun piece of fluff.

Tom and the kids were over at his parents’ house all afternoon, to work on one of the tractors with his cousin, a mechanic who is wonderfully generous with his time and expertise on the weekends. And since I had straightened up the house, especially the kitchen where we all seem to live, and changed all the sheets and towels in the morning while Tom and the kids did chores and worked on yet another tractor, I was able to enjoy a relaxing and sunny Sunday afternoon. Especially nice after our long night at a neighbor’s wedding celebration, and since the idea popped into my head unbidden that I might want to take a look at a couple of Developmental Math workbooks (particularly multiplication and division) for Laura for fall. And here I thought we were all set with our schedule.

The lazy summer mood will continue this evening with steaks and garlic toast on the barbecue, more lettuce from the garden (we’re turning into rabbits here), a tomato/red onion/balsamic vinegar salad, and a nectarine crisp with vanilla ice cream. Then Tom and the kids are off to start swathing (cutting) the alfalfa tonight.

Quick and easy sorbet

Here’s a recipe for incredibly quick and easy sorbet, without an ice cream maker. Actually, this is better in winter, when fresh fruit isn’t in season and abundant, so tuck it away for later. This was in The New York Times about 10 years ago, and makes 1 pint of sorbet. I’m not going to hazard how many that might feed in your house.


1 large can of fruit in heavy syrup, frozen for at least 12 hours
2 tablespoons brandy, rum, or amaretto (optional)

1. Place the can in warm water for about 1 minute. Remove fruit from can and pour any liquid into a food processor. Slide the fruit out and chop into 1-inch pieces.

2. Place fruit in food processor with the brandy and process until smooth, about 1 minute.

3. Serve at once, or transfer to container, and place in the freezer.

The Word of the Week

is eristic, thanks to the CBC Radio program Sunday Edition‘s new summer feature, “Word Report.” WR is dedicated, for the summer months at least, to reviving obsolete, underused, and otherwise forgotten words. So I was very happy to discover that my 1961 edition of Webster’s (not so) New Collegiate Dictionary does in fact include a definition:

eristic, adj. [Gr. eristikos, from erizein, to strive, from eris, strife.] Pertaining to, suitable for, or given to disputation.

From, of course, Eris, the Goddess of Discord, the one who caused all that trouble for Paris, Helen, and a cast of thousands, with that pesky apple.

According to WR’s Judy Maddren, the word also has a noun form; for example, one could argue (pun intended, I suppose) that “Mary, Mary quite contrary” was an eristic. Or, to coin a variation, an eristicrat. Or, as my retro kids suggested, as they were listening along, an eristicat, which has a suitably hep and disputatious feel to it.

I can think of more than a few eristicrats and eristicats, myself included depending on the day, and it shouldn’t be too hard to work our new word into conversation this week.

An excellent Farm School lesson…

“An eight-year-old boy who watched his father get pinned beneath a piece of heavy farm equipment climbed behind the wheel of the family pickup truck and drove several kilometres for help.

“Family and neighbours are hailing James Amell and his little sister Neely as heroes for their part in rescuing their dad, Don Amell, a 39-year-old farmer.

“Neely, 7, comforted her dad while James navigated the hilly rural roads for more than an hour in search of a neighbour over the noon hour on July 6.” Read the rest here.

This is my favorite part: “Don said having his son help him in the field and showing him the basics of driving last year turned out to be a ‘blessing in disguise.’ But his parents said they’re amazed James managed to travel that far, negotiated the hills of the Big Muddy and didn’t get lost.”

Kudos to James from another farm family. And what a timely reminder for all farm families to be careful and stay safe this busy growing season.

Bonne Fete Nationale!

Bastille Day is one of my favorite holidays, and one of my favorite Bastille Day celebrations was an evening in 1993 in San Francisco with some friends. We had a long, lazy dinner at a wonderful bistro (I’m not being coy — I’d share the name if only I could remember it after all these years) surrounded by dozens of Frenchmen and -women in a festive mood, eating wonderful food, drinking fabulous red wine, enjoying decadent desserts, singing the Marseillaise, and dancing in the street afterwards.

How are we celebrating on the prairie? By hauling out some of our LP’s and listening and dancing around the deck to The 1812 Overture (not so easy to dance to) and Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne (much easier), and eating crepes. And the kids have been mooning over the Papo figurine catalogue, picked up at the Mastermind toy store in Toronto earlier this year. They are intrigued by the French historical collection, which includes Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Cardinal Richelieu, Francois I, Napoleon, and Admiral Nelson (both of whom would have come in handy for a 200th anniversary recreation the other week); you can see them here. But sadly no little figurines of Louis XVI, with or without detachable head, or a realistic little guillotine to add to our collection, which does in fact include a spiffy catapult — though not the battering ram, as Davy reminded me — for use with our Playmobil castle.

Go storm something today, or better yet, go play on a nearby tennis court or watch the Tour de France and cheer on the French team — allez, David Moncoutie! Or make some crepes, too. Here’s a recipe from a recent Bookcloseouts purchase, The Kids’ Holiday Baking Book by Rosemary Black; since this is a holiday, I’m not going to expound on why I think you should use unbleached flour (or, even better, the organic stuff) or the most recent studies on, gack, Teflon:

Bastille Day Parisian Crepes (makes one dozen)

2 tbsp. butter
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tsp. butter for coating the pan

1. In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat; set aside to cool.

2. In a medium mixing bowl, beat the eggs very well with an egg beater or with an electric mixer set on low speed. Add the milk, salt, flour, and butter; beat until smooth. Cover and let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes.

3. Heat a 7-inch nonstick skillet or crepe pan over medium-high heat. When it is very hot, apply a very thin film of butter using a paper towel. Pour in several tablespoons of batter, then tilt the pan so that it spreads evenly, coating the bottom of the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes.

4. When the bottom is golden and you can easily lift the edges up from the pan, turn it over with a spatula. Cook for another 1 or 2 minutes. Remove to a plate, apply a very thin film of butter to the pan, and make more crepes.

5. There are several ways to eat crepes. You can simply spread one with strawberry or raspberry jam, roll it up, and eat it. Or you can slice and sugar some strawberries, roll them into a crepe, and top with whipped cream [the real stuff, s’il vous plait, et pas le mauvais whip de cool].

You can also have a yummy savory dinner of crepes filled with ham and Swiss cheese, or just about anything else, and they are beyond with some souffle batter rolled up inside and then baked briefly; crepes happen to be a very useful way of disguising or reconfiguring leftovers (sneaky mom hint of the day).

Allons, enfants! Let’s go, kids — into the kitchen! And let them eat crepes.

P.S. Anyone have an idea of how to make the necessary French accents on Blogger? And how to explain it simply to the technologically challenged? Merci ever so much.

Summer School

Our last official day of school was Friday, June 17th, a good 10 days earlier than the local public school, and we celebrated by going to the playground. We’ll start up again on Tuesday, September 6th, the day after Labor Day (definitely not a Canadian holiday, even if you stick a “u” in it) and, I believe, a few days after the public school re-opens its doors. I’ve chosen the dates and they’re completely arbitrary, based more or less on the fact that summers, especially this far north, are short and should be enjoyed; I think school should be out before summer really begins, and shouldn’t start up again until it’s over. It’s bad enough that the days have a decidedly fall-ish feel in August most years.

That said, unofficially at least, school here continues through the summer. I suppose that makes me a hypocrite, and a Mean Mom to boot. Though the kids don’t think so. Not only was it their idea to keep up with our history — the favorite subject around here — and science studies (we can do all sorts of wonderful, messy experiments outside for a change), but they understood and accepted my explanation for doing a bit of math and reading every day: rather than beginning to climb a new huge, steep mountain in September, we’re going to continue our current climb and amble along a very gradual incline, which means about an hour a day first thing on the days that we remember or don’t have other plans (like the playground, wading pool, or the upcoming country fair). Either way, we have to get to the top, and it’s up to the kids to decide whether we take the hard route or the easy one. We have a fairly relaxed school schedule anyway, with Fridays off (a holdover from my egg delivery days), and this past year took a two-week holiday in the autumn to New York to see my parents and in January spent five weeks with them at their house in the West Indies (don’t get too excited — we were there so Tom could build the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room cabinetry for the guesthouse he built on our previous stay, in 2003).

Laura, who will be eight next month, is finishing up Singapore 2A. Not only is she keen to finish the book (a terrific incentive I’m in no hurry to remove) but she’s just started learning multiplication and has been having a grand time with the two- and three-times tables. If she were to stop now, she’d have to start from square one in September, and the frustration, for her and for me, would be huge. Ask me how I know. The same with reading — she’s made such great strides, and reading has become so much easier (if not always easy, or fun) for her that I hate the idea of her forgetting so much and starting back at square one. The boys, ages four-and-a-half and six, don’t have to bother much with math, though they do a fair amount on their own and are forever counting and noticing number patterns, but I’m continuing their reading lessons as well. Every day they ask more and more questions about the words they hear and see all around them; it’s almost like living in Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee Land — every word they see they spell, then ask what they’ve spelled. Yesterday afternoon, paying for our groceries, Daniel looked out the window at the store across the street and started spelling S-a-a-n, a nationwide chain of clothing stores. I mentioned offhand that few words in the English language have a double a. “But aardvark does,” he said, causing the cashier’s head to snap around and Mommy’s eyebrow to lift. This, apparently, was a nugget learned between shows at CBC Kids.

I never went to proper summer school, but from about 6th grade on began each summer with a tantalizing summer reading list. The fun really began when my father took me, along with the list, shopping at Coliseum Books, then at Columbus Circle. If the list read Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, off the shelf would come Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey, too. My father’s thinking, to my never-ending delight and gratitude, was that someone who enjoyed reading Main Street might well want to read Elmer Gantry and anything else Sinclair Lewis had written. To this day I still have several shelves full of Signet Paperback Classics, some in decent shape but most, old friends, quite dog-eared. Quite a few, including most of Miss Austen’s works which I re-read every year (usually in the Spring), have fallen apart. One book I never finished, a rarity I admit, was Winesburg, Ohio, the thought of which to this day makes me shudder; just as well — would I have moved to rural small town Canada with such eagerness otherwise? Probably not. But with that one exception, I have a memory of glorious, long summers on city buses and the Circle Line, under trees, and on couches with book in hand. I dare you to find a better summer school than that, and I can’t wait for my three to reach the age where the phrase “summer reading list” evokes a sense of anticipation and magic as it did — still does — for me.

We’re off to the playground again this morning (after a wonderful time spent at the wading pool all yesterday afternoon). And no, I’m not taking my book along. Well, I won’t take it out of my bag if there are other adults to talk to….

Guns, Germs, Steel and Books: The Economist’s list of best-selling history books and then some

I read in the online edition of The New York Times yesterday morning that PBS’s three-part series based on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies begins tonight. Unfortunately, our household won’t be able to join in the PBS fun because we get only two TV channels, neither one of which is PBS and both of which have pretty crummy, snowy reception. I might ask my parents, in cable heaven (NYC), to tape it for us.

I gave the book to Tom several Christmases ago, and promptly borrowed it back as soon as it was unwrapped. An interesting read, and much to think about, especially Diamond’s geography vs. biology argument, as the kids and I worked our way through volumes 1 and 2 of the Story of the World series; I tend to give a bit weigh things out more evenly between the two, but then I’m not, unlike Diamond, a trained geographer. Guess what Tom will be getting for this Christmas this year? No prizes for guessing what I’ll be reading by New Year’s.

Of course, Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse made it on to The Economist‘s recent (July 2nd-8th) big books survey of bestselling history books. That issue also had a review of David McCullough’s latest, which is summarized below. Here’s the list:

1776 by David McCullough; according to The Economist: “A corker of a year that so nearly wasn’t. David McCullough, biographer of Truman and the Panama Canal, traces the rise and fall and rise of George Washington’s rebel forces, and explains how, despite the forces stacked against them, they came to win the day and make history.” In the full review in the current issue, the Economist’s book reviewer writes,

Mr McCullough, a popular two-time winner of the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award, tells the tale of the reverses of 1776 with all the panache of his earlier books on Harry Truman and on the building of the Panama Canal. …

[But] Although 1776 is a fine book, it is, in almost ever respect, inferior to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, which was published last year and which has just earned the Pulitzer prize for history. Mr Fischer, a professor of history at Brandeis University, is Mr McCullough’s equal as a writer but superior in capturing the full historical picture. He fully demonstrates something Mr McCullough ignores: notably the impact of British atrocities — rape, execution and pillage — on the people of New Jersey. The stress caused by the guerrilla warfare in which the locals engaged was a key factor in the subsequent British defeat.

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang with Jon Halliday; “A blistering portrait of the Chinese leader by the author of the bestselling Wild Swans, both of which are banned in the PRC. Not yet published here in Canada.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond; “An exploration of why societies fail because of long-term environmental factors, rather than short-term political ones.”

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond; “An earlier long view of what leads to the rise of civilisations by the University of California’s most famous geographer.”

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson; “The dark side of 19th-century Chicago is brought to life in a dual portrait of the architect of the 1893 World’s Fair and the serial killer who stalked his victims at the fair.” I haven’t read this one, just a few reviews, and it puts me in mind of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman and also recalls architect Sanford White’s murder at the hands of Harry Thaw.

A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present by Howard Zinn; “Blacks, women, American Indians, war resisters and poor labourers all find their voice in this elegant narrative.” I’m not a fan of revisionist history, though Zinn has some good points and it’s definitely a lively read.

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward; “The naming of Deep Throat, 30 years on, revives a classic about the Nixon era.” One of my old favorites, read the first time in 1980 in high school, when of course it made quite an impression.

A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage; “How beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola made the modern world, by The Economist’s technology editor.” If you like this sort of book, try author Mark Kurlansky, whose Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World are fascinating stuff.

His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis; “An emotional portrait of the icon that most Americans know only from dollar bills, quarters and Mount Rushmore.” I haven’t seen this one yet, but I liked Ellis’s detailed biography of Thomas Jefferson and also his Founding Brothers.

Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln; “Jesus may not have died on the cross, but lived to marry and father children.”

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen; “A critique of 12 American history texts currently used in schools bewails a long train of omissions and distortions.” Not in our provincial library system yet, and because of the American subject I don’t know if it will be. Since I dislike revisionist history about as much as I detest textbooks, I’ll just mention that if you’re really interested about the whys and wherefores of poor textbooks, try Diane Ravitch’s measured The Language Police instead.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu; “History’s greatest military strategist advises how to overcome every adversary in war, at the office or in everyday life.” A classic. I last read it in college and can still recall his advice, “Though effective, appear to be ineffective” and wondering if Inspector Columbo had read Sun Tzu, too.

The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith; “A highly readable digest of half a century of woes in the cradle of mankind.” This one doesn’t seem to be available yet on this side of the pond but appears to be quite timely. And I can see handing it to my kids when they get to the rhetoric stage in high school, if it lives up to its billing.

Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper by Jack Coughlin, Casey Kuhlman and Donald A. Davis; “The Marine Corps’ best sniper describes life on and off the modern battlefield.”

A Picture of Britain by David Dimbleby; “A celebration of the British landscape and the art that it has inspired, from Constable and Turner to Lowry and Nash.”

Alright, enough already. Go to a bookstore, your library, and hey, watch some TV.