Posted in Book Lovers Community

Alvin Fernald: The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald

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I have an engineering-type kid. My nine year old has loved all things engineering since he could stack blocks. Trying to feed his imagination with books that explore that interest, I asked friends for recommendations. Some wise friends recommended the Homer Price books by Robert McCloskey and we loved them. Homer is sweet, wholesome, and respectful of others. If he were a real kid, I would love for him to be my son’s best friend. We will do a review of the Homer Price books this winter.

Other friends recommended The Great Brain books by John D. Fitzgerald and we were unimpressed. In The Great Brain, my husband, son, and I all felt that the characters were a little bratty, a bit manipulative, and not entirely honest. I realize that many read these books in a different tone than we do. I respect that. For us, however, they were not a great fit and that made me sad because there are eight of them and they are written for my son’s reading level. We will not be reviewing The Great Brain books.

My husband remembers loving Encyclopedia Brown by Donald J. Sobol at this age. I loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys books by their many writers (just be careful to get the really old books with 25 chapters, not the rewrites with 20 chapters). We will be reviewing Encyclopedia Brown this winter.

While looking for things like Homer Price, Twenty One Balloons, Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, and Good Old Archibald, I discovered The Mad Scientists’ Club books by Bertrand Brinley. Michael devoured The Mad Scientists’ Club books which Purple House Press has brought back into print. We will be writing a review of those books this winter.

While trying to understand The Mad Scientists’ Club better, I discovered the Alvin Fernald books by Popular Mechanics Editor in Chief, Clifford B. Hicks. Previously out of print, Purple House Press reissued four of the nine original Alvin books: The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald, Alvin’s Secret Code, Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure, and Alvin Fernald, Mayor for a Day. Bethlehem Books has reissued Alvin Fernald, Foreign Trader.

Hicks is a WWII veteran, a father of three inventor-type sons, and a long time editor for Popular Mechanics. His Alvin books are set in the nonspecific 1960s and feel a lot like the Homer Price books or Good Old Archibald. Classic good fare for young boys who are reading independently and who, like Alvin, have minds that are “continually working on some kind of a problem.”

In this series starter, Alvin, his sister “The Pest”, and his best friend Shoie work together to solve an interesting mystery. A little bit Hardy Boys, a lot Homer Price, the kids must summon courage, creativity, and teamwork to solve a crime that is actively being committed. Of course the kids are the heroes of the story. Of course the kids sneak out at night. Of course Alvin is rude to his sister. Like Beverly Cleary in the Ramona books, Hicks keeps kids very kid-like – warts and all. However, also like Cleary, Hicks writes his characters with good values, sincere respect for right and wrong, and true love between siblings. These characters have imagination, courage and good character.

“Shoie and the Pest looked at him. There was surprise in their eyes. There was admiration, too.”

Written in the sweet spot for 8-12 year old boys, this book is interesting enough to please just about any independent reader who is beyond Nate the Great, Frog and Toad, and Henry and Mudge. Moms of inventors may want to be warned that this is likely to stimulate all kinds of “creative” problem solving from their kids. I shuddered as I read, knowing all too well how many of these “inventions” are likely to show up in my kitchen at some point.

Safe. Well written. Wholesome. Creative. Entertaining. A wonderful series to help readers transition out of “I Can Read” books and into short novels.

“Finally he said, ‘Both of you should be spanked within an inch of your lives. In the first place, you’ve been told many times to stay away from the Huntley house. In the second place, Alvin, you sawed off your mother’s broom handle, took one of her mirrors, and used the garden hose without permission. In the third place, both of you sneaked out at night. We want no sneaks in this family. In the fourth place, you know better than to take the chances you did with two dangerous men…in the fifth place, your mother and I are the proudest parents in the whole wide world. We’re proud that we have children so brave. And we’re proud that we have children with imagination, who can use their heads to solve problems. Children, you’ll never know how proud we are.’”

Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Quest for Shakespeare


“Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was someone else.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

In 2008, Joseph Pearce tackled the daunting task of trying to decode the enigma of Shakespeare’s religious identity. An Englishman by birth, Pearce is acutely aware of how intriguing and important the Shakespeare religion debate is to English culture. In another period of history, the Bard’s religion would have been a mere footnote in a biography. Shakespeare’s life, however, coincided with a time of intense religious torment. As Pearce so carefully chronicles, most of Shakespeare’s family and friends were recusant Catholics, yet the Bard was a favorite of the anti-Catholic queen. Because of his proximity to those who hated Catholics and his relationship with prominent Catholics, Shakespeare’s religious identity has been the subject of heated debate since shortly after his death. The Bard, his plays, and the legends that surround him are regarded as sacrosanct in English culture.


In The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome, Pearce makes the scholarly assertion that we can reasonably guess much more about Shakespeare’s beliefs than modern scholars would like us to believe. Over fifteen chapters, Pearce tells the story of Shakespeare’s life more or less chronologically. Using clues from the plays, accepted biographical details of Shakespeare’s life, historical facts about major events and major persons of the period, Pearce applies critical analysis to all of the major scholarship on the matter. With a friendly voice, a flair for storytelling, and a love of logic, Pearce carefully responds to the more reputable claims about Shakespeare’s character and beliefs.

Pearce, a convert to Catholicism from racist agnosticism, has a clear bias towards Shakespeare being a Catholic. Even though I am a Catholic, however, I approached this book and his assertion with skepticism. I was a theatre minor in college, have been to Stratford-upon-Avon, travelled to the Stratford Festival in Canada several times, and generally love Shakespeare. I wanted to read this book mostly to learn more about the Bard and gain insight into his plays. While I learned very interesting things about some of the plays, Pearce didn’t spend much time with them. Instead, Pearce did what he is truly excellent at, he wrote a biography that researches the research. It is clear that Pearce has read nearly all of the most compelling scholarship on Shakespeare and in so doing, discovered a thread that runs throughout that body of work that he can illuminate for us.

Pearce’s defense of Shakespeare’s Catholicism is staggeringly compelling. Grounded not in nuance, but in historical facts, cultural prejudices, and keen knowledge of how resistance movements work (presumably from Pearce’s political past), Pearce treats us to a well defended thesis.


Interestingly, Shakespeare’s alleged recusancy to Elizabethan Anglicanism is interesting but isn’t the most interesting aspect of this book for me. What I found far more intellectually satisfying was how Pearce pulls together so many other people and events that I was only vaguely familiar with and places them in their historical and intellectual context. I really enjoyed touring the period itself.

Classic Pearce, this is well researched and told beautifully. This fascinating story is an intellectually satisfying puzzle to play with. If I were not already committed to a specific path for my 2017 reading, this would easily have inspired a substantial rabbit trail to follow.


Posted in Book Lovers Community

Masarik Family Advent Resources 2016

I am not crafty. I am not musical. I am not patient. I certainly am not good at doing the same thing day after day. Like almost everyone I know, however, I long to have a meaningful Advent with the little people in my home. While Advent is a season of joyful anticipation, hope, and celebration, I often find it to be the season that shines the brightest light on my ineptitude. So many Advent related things seem to have crafty, musical, and routine oriented components to them. I come close to hating Advent because it is a season which is supposed to nurture holiness and yet it seems to always exacerbate my weaknesses, and then, I sin.

This year, I have scrupulously previewed Advent resources in an attempt to find things that would resonate with my family without asking things of me which I am simply incapable of doing reasonably well. I am willing to be stretched and challenged during Lent, but during Advent, I desire to be contemplative, peaceful, and full of good cheer.

In this post, I wanted to share with you the resources that we are going use this year. With the exception of the blessing prayers, all of them are new to me. In the new year, I will review each resource in detail to let you know how they worked out for us. In the interim, I thought that you might find one or two things to help your family on your Advent journey.

Advent Decor

My family is Catholic. For us, Christmas *begins* on Christmas Eve and runs through the Feast of the Three Kings (Epiphany): January 6th. For this reason, many of the Christmas decorations that adorn most American Christian homes are reserved until the Sunday before Christmas. Instead, we spend the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas in Advent. Advent is traditionally marked with an evergreen wreath with four candles: 3 purple and 1 rose.

Advent Rituals

This Sunday, we will bless our Advent Wreath and begin doing daily Advent prayers after dinner around the wreath. To bless our wreath, we are using this blessing from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


Advent Prayer Guides

During the Advent and Christmas Seasons, I will be reading Chesterton with Potato Peel Pie Book Club friends. We are using this resource. I plan to do this reading and prayer with my morning coffee.

Also with my morning coffee, my reading buddy and I are going to be using the Center For Lit’s A Literary Advent. We are not affiliated with Center For Lit, we just love some of their resources.

During school each morning, my kids and I will do this short Jesse Tree daily prayer.  

During our daily snack break, the kids and I will be reading through this study of biblical characters who made Advent possible: Bible Characters for Advent: The Stories That Brought Us Christmas.

Finally, the resource that I may be the most excited about for our family prayer is this historical, ecumenical, and thoughtful family Advent study. Heather from To Sow A Seed asked us if we might be interested in reviewing their beautiful Advent family guide: Experiencing Advent. I have previewed it and am really eager to rest in it during this hectic season.  

Feast of St. Nicholas

Catholics around the world celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th. If you live in a part of the country that is heavily Catholic and was settled predominantly by Dutch, German, and other Germanic immigrants, you may celebrate St. Nicholas day too. In my part of the country, even the non-Christians celebrate St. Nicholas by leaving out stockings or shoes to be filled with by the kindly saint.

On the Eve of St. Nicholas, we usually read this gorgeous book by Aaron Shepard. It has been out of print for some time and so we read it on our Kindle.

This year we will be adding a new book to our routine: The Miracle of St. Nicholas by Gloria Whelan.

When the kids were very little, we use to watch the Buck Denver: Why Do We Call It Christmas video from Phil Vischer. As Catholics, we take issue with some small things in it, but the section on St. Nicholas is pretty good.


In our home we have always laid out our Christmas stockings on December 5th. After the kids are in bed, Greg and I fill them with an orange for the toe of the stocking, some gold foil wrapped chocolate coins and a special book.

Christmas Eve: Tree & Nativity

I know that most families put their trees and nativities up right after Thanksgiving. We, however, reserve those activities for Christmas Eve. On the morning of Christmas Eve, we make some yummy breakfast and then we gear up for a really fun day. While Greg and I sip coffee and map out our day, the kids watch the Brother Francis Christmas video.

After breakfast, we spend the day decorating the house with our tree, nativities, and other Christmas decorations while also making a feast to enjoy at dinner time. Once our tree is up and dressed, we bless it with this prayer. After dinner, we all snuggle on the couch and watch Silent Night.

Christmas Day

On Christmas Day we mark the feast with simple presents, mass, and a day of family rituals. Each of our children receive three presents from us: a gift of something truly wanted (gold), a gift of something to strengthen their vocation (myrrh), and a gift of something to strengthen their prayer (frankincense).

After presents and mass, we spend the day resting, reading and making pasta. After feasting, we cuddle on the couch to watch Max Lucado’s The Christmas Candle

Christmas Season

During the Christmas season we read our stack of Christmas books and we leave our tree and nativities out until the Epiphany.



Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Importance of Being Earnest

I love stories. While a student at Hillsdale College, I was a theater minor. Between the long hours I logged as Stage Manager and then House Manager, and my appreciation for the art of great storytelling, theater seemed to be a sensible minor to attach to my Philosophy/Religion major. Interestingly, part of why I became a philosophy major was because my favorite professor was a regular actor in our vibrant theater department. Over my years at Hillsdale we did some truly excellent classic plays, and because of my philosophy professor we had incredible conversations about the many aspects of human nature on display in the greats like Taming of the Shrew and The Importance of Being Earnest. I will always be grateful for those incredible conversations.


Oscar Wilde is a challenging writer. I think that he is most famous for three things: being openly and defiantly bi-sexual, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and this happy and delightfully funny little play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Because of his controversial and raucous personal life and his dark and disturbing Dorian Grey, I was genuinely uneasy about reading The Importance of Being Earnest. I was fearful that it would have themes that I found distasteful. It does not. Not really. In fact, it is English comedy at its best.

Wilde was absolutely a master of witticism. Earnest is a very fast moving and side-splitting comedy. His jabs and jibes are smart and delightful. No one is immune from being both the fool and the hero when it is all said and done. If adults could recapture the wonder and joy of childish play, I think it would look something like this comedy.


The play itself demands to be heard and/or seen. Reading it on the page is excellent, but hearing it is far better. To that end, I laughed my way through this multi-actor theatrical production via Audible. Performed by stage actors, it really delights the ear and comes alive in the imagination.

The play itself is pretty wholesome. While there is some innuendo, it is generally clean and Victorian. The famously funny movie starring Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon, and Tom Wilkinson is a feast for the eyes and is brilliantly acted. That said, it is interpreted artistically (with some modern prejudice) and few opportunities to make it racy were lost. Delightful as the movie is, I caution parents before showing it to their teens. As an example, two of the characters get the name of their lover tattooed in a place usually covered by undergarments. Not only are the tattoos off script, the scenes are designed to be provocative. Another example stages some of the scenes in a raunchy dance parlor. The movie puts more Wilde into Earnest than Wilde did.


The play itself is absurd and over the top, but somehow, that makes it all the more funny. It seems obvious to me that PG Wodehouse was nodding to Earnest when he created Jeeves and Wooster.

The play is short and can be read or listened to in one afternoon. I think this is an audiobook that I will reach for whenever I am between books and needing a good laugh, world weary, or just in low spirits.


Posted in Book Lovers Community

Little Britches: Shaking the Nickel Bush

“Nobody likes to go back to his hometown dead broke, but I’d made up my mind to do it anyway. That was in St. Joseph, Missouri, and the night before the Fourth of July, in 1919. And that’s why I was lying flat in a ditch in the freight yards, a couple of blocks beyond the passenger depot.”

That is the first paragraph of the sixth book in Ralph Moody’s Little Britches series. When I was preparing to read this book for the first time, I was warned by Facebook friends that it was a very disappointing offering and quite different from all of the other books in the series. When that first paragraph opened the story, I worried that the critics had been right. I am not going to lie, in some ways they were absolutely spot on. There is no easy way to say this, but in this book, Ralph seems to break our hearts in a million little ways.

That said, I do not think that that adequately describes the story. I do not think that this book would exist in this series if it did not have some redemptive value. There is no question that this book is challenging fare for young readers, but it is not inherently a bad book. A classic coming-of-age story, it may be the most interesting of all of the Little Britches books.

At the end of Fields of Home, we are left with the impression that Ralph is going to go permanently into farming with his grandfather. When this book opens, several years have passed and no mention is made of his grandfather. This disconcerting change of events has caused many of us Ralph Moody fans to wonder, to speculate, to theorize, and to do what little research we could. In my own research, I discovered several interesting things and I want to share them here in case they help other readers have a little perspective on what may have impacted Ralph’s choices in this book.

We know from the beginning of this book that Ralph was passed over for the draft in WWI because he was the head of a fatherless family. Regardless, Ralph tries to enlist and is rejected for medical reasons. Wanting to contribute to the war effort, Ralph works in a munitions plant throughout the war. When the armistice is signed, Ralph returns home and is dangerously skinny. After a series of tests, the specialists diagnose him with diabetes and give him just six months to live. Mercifully, Ralph’s family physician does not agree with the specialists’ prognosis. Instead, Dr. Gaghan recommends that Ralph move west.

“Why don’t you go back to Colorado where you were raised –  or better still, to Arizona where ’tis warm weather all the winter long? Wear as little clothes as the law allows and let the sunshine at your body; there’s no end to the wonders it works.” (P12)

What Moody does not explain anywhere in his books or anywhere that we have been able to find, is why he doesn’t return to his grandfather’s farm. It may be because he needed the warm weather of the Southwest. It may also have been because the family farm suffered a massive fire and may have changed ownership.

Believing that he is doomed, Ralph moves West looking for enough time to make enough money to set his family up before the diabetes claims his life. I think that it’s really important that we understand his psyche so that we can view his mistakes with appropriate charity. Ralph tells us again and again that he is deeply concerned about his family’s livelihood in the absence of a paycheck from him. At this point, his mother has not remarried and she is trying to raise the children by herself just outside of Boston. Ralph states many times it is his goal to send home as much money as possible, without worrying his mother, until his younger brother Hal is through his apprenticeship and can be a sufficient wage-earner for the family.

Understanding that he thought that his life was in serious jeopardy and that he had only a short time to provide for his family, Ralph refuses to cash enough liberty bonds to see him properly set up in the west. Instead, he thinks that he will be able to get a job in the stockyards in Phoenix to see him through the winter months, then he will go north to Colorado where he has friends and connections.  When he arrives in Phoenix, however, he quickly realizes that many returning soldiers have gone west looking for work, and because he did not serve, no one will hire him.

The first chapter is full of all kinds of bad news, and it sets the stage for a deeply fascinating but somewhat troubling story. This real life character we have grown to love in the first five books has always had uncanny good fortune. It would seem that the pendulum has swung the other way. Even when Ralph does everything right, throughout this book, one bad turn leads to another.

Readers will probably appreciate the exciting stories of Ralph’s riding “horse falls” in the movies, his artistic career, his business savvy, and his interesting adventures touring the southwest in his Ford Flivver, “Shiftless.” There is no question that we see a very artistic and exciting side to Ralph that matches the vitality of the horse work he did in the earlier books.

But there are challenges with this book. Ralph is ultimately very decent, pretty moral, and extremely hardworking. That said, he does a lot of lying, he allows his partner to do some stealing, and desperation leads him to break the law on more than one occasion. I won’t dismiss these choices as the realities of adolescence, nor will I justify them in the light of what he was trying to accomplish. Ralph is far from a role model in this book. But, he is still Ralph and his poor choices are fairly understandable. He is wrong, but he is not truly selfish nor is he excited about these sins.

Diane and I have talked about this book many times. Both of us love Ralph and have mixed feelings about this part of his story. Diane mentioned that it seemed as though Ralph’s challenges coincided with the challenges that Americans were facing generally. Post World War I America was a place of fast moving change, industrialization, evolving education and new moral attitudes. In some ways, this book captures some of the tension between the older more pastoral America and the emerging regulated America. So many people like Ralph were caught between the clash of two worlds and two opposing ways of life.

In Mary Emma and Company, Ralph is pulled out of his beloved Colorado and forced into urban Medford (a suburb of Boston). His western work ethic clashes with the progressive law and order of the eastern city life. In Fields of Home, Ralph returns to what he knows and loves: farm work. Confronted by his stubborn and old fashioned grandfather, Ralph comes to terms with a precarious balance between old methods and new techniques. In Shaking the Nickel Bush, Ralph is in a middle place. A wilderness of sorts that is vanishing. His lifestyle and his efforts at work are an ugly and messy discord between the old and the new. In the final two books, Ralph comes to a special place. After being tossed around for so long, Ralph comes into his own. The Ralph of the final two books is the Ralph who is making good on the promises of his childhood.

As I have said in previous reviews, young families will probably want to stop reading aloud at the end of Mary Emma and Company. Fields of Home and Shaking the Nickel Bush would make excellent parent-child book club books for tweens and teens. Both books have a lot of discussion-worthy content. The final two books are for a more mature reader. Ralph is an adult so the content is specific to adult challenges and adult decisions.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Childcraft: Time To Read

We are working on a project related to the Childcraft books which will take many months to complete. As we are working on that project, we do not have time to wrap our heads around every volume as quickly as we would like. We don’t want families to have to wait to see inside any volumes that we have access to, however. In the interim, we are going to put up a series of posts that aren’t heavy on text but are rich with interior photos. To find everything that we have written about Childcraft, check out this link.










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Childcraft: Make and Do

We are working on a project related to the Childcraft books which will take many months to complete. As we are working on that project, we do not have time to wrap our heads around every volume as quickly as we would like. We don’t want families to have to wait to see inside any volumes that we have access to, however. In the interim, we are going to put up a series of posts that aren’t heavy on text but are rich with interior photos. To find everything that we have written about Childcraft, check out this link.