Easter book review: Petook: The Rooster Who Met Jesus

Somehow I’ve never read Petook: The Rooster Who Met Jesus by Caryll Houselander, illustrated by Tomie DePaola. It was recently republished by Ignatius and Magnificat, and it’s a wonderful book. 

It’s a simple story of a rooster who has a brief encounter with the young Jesus. Jesus only appears in person on a few pages, in an apocryphal scene where he pauses on his way  to Jerusalem. Hearing that “some stranger has been walking through the vineyardm” the new father Petook is alarmed, thinking a careless boy might step on his newly hatched chicks. But the young Jesus is entranced.

“It must be the first time that he has seen a hen gathering her chicks,” Petook realizes. I love this little reminder that Jesus is a real person who encountered beautiful sights for the first time with his human eyes. It’s the memory of this moment that later inspires Jesus to say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered you under my wings as a hen gathers her chicks, and you would not.” 

There are little symbols and portents throughout the story, but it’s done subtly and naturally.

It’s never explicitly stated, but we can assume that Petook is also the rooster whose crow made Peter weep.

The book tells the story of the Passion, death, and resurrection without telling it, with the gospel scenes appearing unobtrusively in the background for alert kids to find and identify. 

DePaola, as usual, conveys a lot with color — the bright daylight colors of Petook’s joy as a new father

the lonesome, uneasy tones of night when Petook can’t sleep (and readers can see the disciples sleeping and Jesus praying while the soldiers approach with their lantern)

and listening quiet just before the sun rises and new life emerges on Easter morning.

This isn’t a tearjerker like some of DePaola’s Christian books, but it’s a quiet meditation on how the life of Christ permeates the whole life of the world, even the chickens and the blades of grass and the seeds in the earth. Just lovely. Good for ages three and up. The language may be too sophisticated for youngest readers, but the pictures will be captivating. 

You can order this book direct from the publisher, where it is currently on sale for $12.74. It is a sturdy hardcover with an attractive format, and the colors are excellent. 

What we’re watching, reading, listening to: Exploring Music, Lady Gaga, The Repair Shop, Unstable Felicity, etc.

I’ve been doing a lot more watching and listening than reading, these days. Working on it!

What are we watching?

The Repair Shop This is a BBC show, five seasons, now streaming on Netflix. A crew of British restoration experts team up to repair and restore cherished items people bring to them. You see the owners come in and give a short explanation about why the accordion or piano bench or whatever means so much to them, and then you see highlights of the various experts disassembling, problem-solving, hunting for materials, and carefully restoring the items, and then the owner comes back to the shop and sees the item made new again. 

We’ve only seen a few episodes of this, and I gather some of the episodes have spectacular discoveries and surprises; but many of them are just straight forward repair jobs.

There are two elements that make this show so gratifying. One is watching people doing what they were meant to do in life, which is something I always enjoy. The restorers clearly get so much true joy out of practicing their craft. I enjoy this aspect of it, seeing people following their vocation, even more than seeing the actual work they do; although it’s also fascinating and emotionally restorative to see shabby, broken, neglected things put to rights again. 

The second element is the “reunion” at the end, when the owner has something precious restored to them. In one episode, a woman brought in a clock made by her father, who had lost his vision. She remembered that the clock used to chime, but she couldn’t quite remember the tune. The restorers made the clock work again, and somehow reconstructed the music it played, so the woman heard the tune again for the first time in decades. These are British people, so they are not extremely effusive and sentimental about it, and you don’t get that “eeek, I’m not sure I should be watching this intense personal moment” feeling. They keep it pretty understated.

But it’s a restorative show in more ways than one, and it’s especially gratifying in late 2020 to watch  skilled people doing worthwhile things for the purpose of making other people happy. 

We’re also devouring The Mandalorian with the whole family, and The Crown for just me and Damien. Both excellent with great use of music; more on those in some other post. Oh, and. GILLIAN ANDERSON AS MARGARET THATCHER. Hot damn. If you ever wondered to yourself, “Is X Files actually a good TV show or not?” just think about what they did to Gillian Anderson for so many years, and you will have your answer. 

What am I reading?

Unstable Felicity

Like I said, I’m a terrible person and hardly read anymore. I know I can make my phone stop giving me weekly reports about how much my screen time has increased over the last week, but I feel like I deserve it. It’s never good news.

I have started Cat Hodge’s (yes, Cat Hodge of Darwin Catholic) new novella, and I love it so far. Very easy to read, light but literate, engaging, and promising, and the only reason I put it down is because I’m terrible and, as mentioned, don’t read anything. The premise is: If you described the protagonist’s life, it would sound exactly like one of those cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies. But when you’re actually living through it, it’s neither tidy nor adorable, but actually kind of Shakespearean, in a King Lear way.

Here’s the official blurb: 

Jill O’Leary’s December has all the hallmarks of a feel-good holiday special. She’s a successful Los Angeles career woman summoned home to small town Ohio to save the family business. There, she’ll have to navigate a White Elephant gift exchange, decorate the tree, and meet not one but two tall dark handsome strangers.
 
But it will take a miracle to make this Christmas merry and bright. Jill’s baggage is waiting for her at home: Regina, the demanding mother she hasn’t talked to since her father’s funeral four months ago; Reagan and Del, her sisters with their own agendas; Garrett French, a local real-estate mogul trying to snap up her family’s inn; and Heath Albany, the married ex-boyfriend who’s suspiciously eager to reconcile with her. 
 
Jill is determined to get in, fix the family finances by herself, and get back to the big city as soon as possible. But keeping her mother from turning Christmas into a tragedy proves more drama than she can handle on her own. It’s going to take her conniving sisters, the division of an empire, sudden blindness, a journey through a pitiless storm, and an unlikely hero to give this tragicomic tale a happy ending. 
 
When you cross a conventional Christmas plot with Shakespeare’s King Lear, you get Unstable Felicity.
Available in Kindle or paperback, with a cover by the talented John Herreid, of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning With a Chainsaw fame. 
 

What are we listening to?

I recently discovered I can use iHeart Radio on our TV, which means when we go screen free from 7:00 – 9:00 (which we do only sporadically), I can play Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin. So I guess that’s my first recommendation. 

McGlaughlin is a composer and conductor with a public radio show that gently and engagingly helps the listener listen better. Each hour-long show has a theme, and he sits at his piano and picks out little bits of whatever recording he’s about to play for you. 

Here’s a representative excerpt from an episode on Schubert. The graphics are pretty cheesy, as it’s meant to be audio only. 

His delight in the music is very evident, and it’s contagious. If you’re looking for a painless way to get your family more connected with classical music, this is a great way. His voice is very pleasant and cozy, too. 

The other thing I’m listening to is, uh, “Sinner’s Prayer” by Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is so annoying. She has such a wonderful voice and such terrible taste. But this song is pure stupid fun. My kid told me she had made a country album (Joanne), and it turned out to be not really that at all, but it’s . . . something. This particular song is sort of a spaghetti western love song, I guess? Anyway it’s stuck in my head.

Now it can be stuck in yours, too.

***
Okay, that’s it! What are you watching, reading, and listening to that you can recommend? 

What I’m watching, reading, and listening to: Over the Garden Wall, The Secret Sisters, and Joyce Cary

Oh, I have so much good stuff to recommend today. Here’s what I’ve been watching, reading, and listening to:

WATCHING
Over the Garden Wall (2014) 

If you’re looking for a spooky Halloween show for your whole family, this is the one. I’m still amazed it got broadcast, because it’s so weird and beautiful and thoughtful. It’s an animated miniseries of 12 short episodes (the whole thing is under two hours), and every one is gorgeous, creepy, funny, and strangely moving, with crazy, memorable music.

Two half-brothers find themselves lost in the woods on Halloween, and as they try to make their way home, they quickly become entangled in some terrifying otherworldly business. It’s loosely inspired by The Divine Comedy, but I wouldn’t push that too far. 

Here’s the first episode (11 minutes)

Some of the characters and situations are extremely creepy, so while we did let our five-year-old watch it, she has a very high tolerance for scary stuff, and many kids under the age of nine would probably find it too scary. (Here’s a specific list of creepy stuff.) There is a lot of very silly and hilarious stuff that fixes you right up when you get creeped out. No gore, graphic violence, or sex. There is a persistent melancholy tone, but all the relationships in the show get worked out very satisfactorily, and familial love is the true theme of the miniseries, and all is restored in the end. 

This show also contains one of the most realistic depictions of a goofy little boy we’ve ever seen. We’ve come to burgle your turts! Lots of quotes and songs have become part of our family culture.

Here’s a beast costume

a Wirt costume

and a Wirt and Greg cake:

The whole thing is crowded with allusions and suggestions and portents, and you can either pursue them or just enjoy them. It originally ran on Cartoon Network in 2014. It doesn’t appear to be streaming for free anywhere right now. We bought it to stream on Amazon.

***

READING
The Moonlight by Joyce Cary (1946)

It’s criminal that Joyce Cary isn’t in every list of great English language novelists. You may have seen the movie The Horse’s Mouth based on his novel of the same name, and that’s a vastly entertaining book about a dissolute old painter intoxicated by naked women and William Blake; but The Moonlight and Charley Is My Darling are deeper waters. 

Cary originally wrote The Moonlight (as in the “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, and also as in . . . moonlight) because he was so incensed by Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata. I haven’t read Kreutzer in a long time but, although I adore Tolstoy in general, we all know he could be a little

y
i
k
e
s

about women and sex and ideal love, and I recall that Kreutzer is an extreme example of this tendency. The Moonlight deals with two generations of women living through social transformations of sexual mores, and the choices they make, the hardships they can’t escape, and what it does to their souls. That makes it sound tiresome, but it’s super dramatic, but also extraordinarily true to life, very tender and funny and sometimes shockingly, horribly familiar. 

Cary is one of those authors who understands human nature very deeply, and also loves his characters very deeply, even as they allow themselves to do stupid and monstrous things. The book would be a wonderful portrayal of the interior lives of women in any case, but the fact that the author is a man makes the book extraordinary. Love, suicide, pregnancy, art, sisterhood, beauty, sex, taxes, dead sheep: this novel has it all, and it’s so fluidly and engagingly written, and always with the element I admire most: clarity.  This is my current “pluck strangers by the sleeve and try to get them to read it” book.

I always feel like I choose the wrong excerpt and turn people off books I love, so I’ll just give you the opening page, and you see what you think.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, like Jane Austen,” you are mistaken. Maybe it’s like if someone took Jane Austen characters and gave them souls. I said what I said. 

The book is hard to find, so you’ll want to go third party seller on this one!

***


LISTENING TO

The Secret Sisters

What a find! My favorite radio station, WRSI, recently played “He’s Fine” and I had to go find out who the heck that was singing. It is two sisters from Alabama, Laura and Lydia Rogers, plying that magical sibling harmony and here to make you Feel Things. Here’s “He’s Fine,” which is currently Corrie’s favorite song:

Here’s one that really knocked my socks off: “Mississippi.” It carries such a weight of old-fashioned menace — man threatening doom on a young woman — but he gets a little backstory and interior life of his own. Men like this come from somewhere.

I can’t help it, I’m going to give you the whole lyrics. 

All my life
I ain’t never been a lucky man
Saw the back of my daddy’s hand
Lost your momma to the promised land 

In my time
I’d never had a thing that’s mine
Till they handed me a baby fine
My little girl 

There’re only two things I know
I get ugly when the whiskey flows
Wanted you to know I love you so
And I would kill before I let you go 

Taking off for Mississippi
Wearing someone else’s name
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same 

If you leave for Mississippi
I will beat you at your game
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same.
 
My dear one
Heard you’re whispering your plans to run
Off to marry some rich man’s son
I bet he’s never met a poor man’s gun
 
In the darkness you could not see
The drunken devil instructing me
Two bullets in a crimson sea
Now I’m certain that you’ll never be 

Taking off for Mississippi
Wearing someone else’s name
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the sameIf you leave for Mississippi
I will beat you at your game
Brought you in this world and I
Can take you from it just the same

Grief and sin
When the righteousness of you sets in
And the blood in my veins
begins to ramble on

Now I know we can
stand and judge the execution man
But we all have to make a trembling stand
before the sun

Maple tree
Can your branches carry me?
Before the war, before the wine
Before I stole what wasn’t mine
Can you bring my baby back to me?

 
Co-written by Faulkner, I guess. What a complex song, not only the lyrics but harmonically and structurally. Brilliant. This is a sequel to Iuka, which is from the young woman’s point of view, urging her lover to take the risk despite her father’s jealousy. (It doesn’t go well.)
 

I heard a clip of a concert where the sisters laughingly apologized for the fact that their lives were going so well now. They had sung a lot about betrayal and loneliness and grief, but then they got married and had babies, and now they sing happy songs, and who wants that?

I DO. Here is one that keeps going through my head: “Late Bloomer”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeWtjx4XAJk
 

It’s so unapologetically encouraging, very motherly, and I sure need that right now. 

And here’s one that was apparently in The Hunger Games, which I haven’t seen. Wonderful song: “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder”

Even their sad songs are full of comfort and promise: (to all the girls who cry)

I just love them, that’s all. 

Okay! What are you watching, reading, and listening to that you can recommend? 

***
Images: Joyce Cary from a 1950’s Penguin book cover, via Wikipedia, fair use
Screenshot from Over the Garden Wall ep. 1 and The Secret Sisters from Rattle My Bones

The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted: A terrifying and potentially dangerous book for kids

A new children’s book, The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted (Sophia Institute Press, 2019), is getting rave reviews from moms, Catholic media, and conservative celebrities.

On the surface, it’s a simple, inspiring story about courage and change; but for many kids — and for many adults who have suffered abuse — the pictures, text, and message will be terrifying and even dangerous. At best, this children’s book delegitimizes normal emotions. At worst, it could facilitate abuse.

The rhymed verses by Anthony DeStefano, lavishly illustrated by Erwin Madrid, tell the story of a little seed who’s plucked from his familiar drawer

and planted in the earth. He’s frightened and confused, but soon realizes that change means growth, and as he’s transformed into a beautiful, fruitful tree, he becomes thankful to the farmer who planted him, is grateful and happy, and forgets his fears forever.

While religion isn’t explicitly mentioned until after the page that says “the end,” the influence of scripture is obvious (the seed packets are labelled things like “mustard,” “sycamore,” “olive,” “grape,” and “fig,” and it makes references to “mansions” and “vineyards”). The seed is everyman (or everychild), and the farmer is God the Father, and/or authority figures like parents and teachers.  

It sounds helpful and wholesome, but let’s take a closer look.

Margaret Realy, author, artist, and speaker (The Catholic Gardener) reviewed the book, anticipating a pleasant read, but was alarmed and disturbed. She wrote a review on Amazon that pinpoints the specifics. Realy said:

This story places childhood abuse and neglect in the center of its theme. A small defenseless being is repeatedly traumatized by seeing loved ones ‘disappeared’ “…and no one would see that seed anymore.” Then the following stanzas speak of anticipatory trauma that he too will be taken away.

The fearful day comes, he can’t escape, and the man’s hand clasped around him. No matter how the seed cried and yelled, he was taken from a secure and loving environment to one of “horror”, “pain”, and “agony.”

The man that took him away was silent and unresponsive to the pleading seed, buried him alive, and left him abandoned.

That’s a lot for a young child to process, and nearly impossible for one—of any age—that is abused.

The pictures are dramatic and gripping, and the dark subject matter contrasts weirdly with the cartoonish faces and font:

Here is the seed, weeping after being abruptly buried alive:

The seed does, of course, come out well in the end, and it becomes a home for birds and animals; children play around it, and it bears much (confusingly diverse) fruit while overlooking a prosperous paradisal landscape with “millions of mansions.”

But this happy ending doesn’t do the job it imagines it does. Realy points out that, while the story attempts to show that the seed’s fears were unfounded and it would be better if he had trusted the farmer, it doesn’t show any of that in progress. Realy said:

Unfortunately I find the story’s transitioning through fear of the unknown into transformation by Grace, weak. The ‘seed’ began to change without any indication of the Creator’s hand, and his terrified soul was not comforted or encouraged by human or Holy.

Instead, it simply shows him transforming “all at once, in the blink of an eye”

This might have been a good place to point out that a seed grows when it’s nourished by a farmer, and to illustrate what appropriate care and concern  actually look like. The Old and New Testament are absolutely loaded with references to God’s tenderness, kindness, mercy, love, care, pity, and even affection; but this book includes none of that, and instead skips seamlessly from terror and abandonment to prosperous new life.

It explicitly portrays God (or his nearest representative in a child’s life) as huge, terrifying, silent, and insensible and unresponsive to terror and agony — and also inexplicably worthy of unquestioning trust.

Realy points out: 

Research indicates that up to 25% of children in the United States are abused, and of that 80% of those children are five and under (Childhelp: Child Abuse Statistics Facts. Accessed December 2019). This is based on only reported cases.

That’s a lot of kids.

Imagine a child who has been taken from a place of comfort, happiness, and companionship and is thrust into darkness and isolation by a looming, all-powerful figure who silently ignores their terror and buries them alive.

Now imagine what this book tells that child to think about himself, and what it tells him to think about God. Imagine how useful this book would be to someone who wants to continue to abuse, and who wants his victim to believe that what is happening to him is normal and healthy and will bear fruit. 

It is ghastly.

But what about kids who aren’t being abused? The statistics, while horrifying, do show that most children aren’t being abused. Can’t we have books designed for these typical children? 

It is true that some kids are inappropriately afraid of change and growth, and need to be reminded that the unknown isn’t always bad. Imagery is useful for kids (and for adults), and I can imagine an anxious child who’s afraid of going to second grade being comforted with a reminder: Remember the little seed? He was scared, too, but the new things turned out to be good and fun!

But even for these children who aren’t experiencing massive trauma or abuse, and who truly are being cared for by people who want good for them, the narrative minimizes and delegitimizes normal childhood emotions. It’s clear that the seed is wrong to be afraid, even though his situation is objectively terrifying. Teaching kids to ignore and minimize their powerful emotions does not facilitate growth or maturity; it encourages emotional maladaptations that bear bad fruit in adult life. Ask me how I know. 

The flaws in the book are especially egregious when they make the message explicitly spiritual. The final page says “From the Bible” and quotes four passages from scripture. Two are unobjectionable, but two are breathtakingly inappropriate for kids: One quotes John’s passage about a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying; and one describes Jesus falling to the ground at Gethsemane and praying that the Father might take the cup away, but saying “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

These are not verses for children! They are certainly not for children of an age to appreciate the colorful, cartoonish illustrations and simplistic rhyming stanzas in the book. These are verses for adults to grapple with, and goodness knows adults have a hard enough time accepting and living them. 

Including them in a book for young kids reminds me chillingly of the approach the notorious Ezzos, who, in Preparation for Parenting, urges parents to ignore the cries of their infants, saying, “Praise God that the Father did not intervene when his Son cried out on the cross.” I also recall (but can’t find) reading how the Ezzos or a similar couple tell parents to stick a draconian feeding schedule for very young babies, comparing a baby’s hungry cries to Jesus on the cross saying, “I thirst.”    

On a less urgent note, it’s also sloppy and careless with basic botany. Realy, an avid garner, points out its “backwards horticulture” which has the tree growing “nuts and fruits that hang down,” but then later “the tree sprouted flowers/and blossoms and blooms.” It also shows a single tree producing berries, fruits, nuts, and grapes, refers to how “woodpeckers pecked/at his bark full of sap.” Woodpeckers do not eat sap, and sap is not in the bark of a tree. Realy and I both also abhor the lazy half-rhymes that turn up, pairing “afraid” with “day” and “saw” and “shore.” 

But worse than these errors is the final page, which shows a beaming, full-grown tree, along with a textbook minimization of trauma:

“The tree understood
that he had been freed.
He barely remembered
when he was a seed.

He barely remembered
his life in the drawer.
his fears disappeared
and returned . . . nevermore.”

Again, if we’re talking about a kid who was nervous about moving to a new classroom, then yes, the fears might turn out to be easily forgotten. But that’s not what the book describes. When the seed is being carried away from its familiar home, it says, “I’m in so much pain and such agony!” and “He felt so abandoned, forsaken, alone” as he’s buried alive by a giant, faceless man who offers no explanation, comfort, or even warning. In short, it describes true trauma, and trauma doesn’t just “disappear and return nevermore.” It’s cruel to teach kids or even adults to expect the effects of trauma to vanish without a trace.

As Realy said: “PTSD never goes away, even with God. We learn to carry the cross well.” 

Let’s be clear: Children don’t need everything to be fluffy and cheery and bright. Some kids, even very young kids, relish dark and gruesome stories, and I’m not arguing for shielding children from anything that might possibly trouble or challenge their imaginations. We recently read Robert Nye’s Beowulf, for instance. We read mythology; we read scripture.

But when we set out to explicitly teach a lesson — especially a lesson that purports to speak on behalf of God! — it’s vital to get the context exactly right. This book is so very sloppy and careless with children’s tender hearts, that even if there isn’t some dark intention behind it, it’s very easy to imagine a predatory abuser using it as a tool.

 A Catholic publisher like Sophia Institute Press ought to know better.

Book review: The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill

Very few, it turns out, can be trusted, and nothing will be the way it was.

But despite the contemporary resonances, this is not a political novel. It’s a story about what it means to survive, and what it means to go home; what it is like to love, what it is like to be betrayed. It is about guilt and responsibility, about how to live with unspeakable burdens, and about how to survive when, as one character says, “everyone is excused, but no one is forgiven.”

But this is not a dark novel, either. Or, rather, it’s dark like the earth is dark, sometimes crushingly heavy, but also fertile and alive—partly because of where the story brings us, and partly because the writing itself is so luminous.

Read the rest of my review of The Ghost Keeper in Dappled Things

The Ghost Keeper

The crepuscular nihilism of E. B. White

“I’m drankful they didn’t clip Serena’s wing,” said my four-year-old at evening prayers. “Drankful” is her fusion of “grateful” and “thankful,” and Serena is the wife of Louis the Swan in The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, which we’ve been reading aloud. And her whole sentiment was my signal that, no, the weirdness in the book hadn’t flown harmlessly over the kids’ heads.

The Trumpet of the Swan tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born without a voice. He can’t communicate, which means he can’t live a full swan’s life. So he goes to school with a boy who befriends him, and, after some initial skepticism from the teacher, he learns to read and write, using a small slate and chalk that hang around his neck. But none of the other swans can read, and he still can’t talk to them; so his father steals a trumpet for him, and he uses it not only to vocalize like a swan, but to play human music. Burdened with the guilt of the theft, Louis leaves home to play music for humans until he earns enough money to pay back the trumpet. The trumpet also allows him to woo Serena, who is also attracted by the slate, a lifesaving medal, and a moneybag that hang around his neck along with the trumpet, setting him apart from other swans.

At one point, Serena is in danger of having her wing clipped to keep her at a zoo; but Louis, who works for the zoo, strikes a bargain: If they let Serena go, the couple will return and donate a cygnet to the zoo from time to time. 

My kids were not okay with that, and neither was I. 

This book — and E. B. White’s other books, Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little — are not the first ones to deal with the problem of sentient animals living in a human world, but I find myself repelled by how he does handle it.

Let’s switch for a moment to Charlotte’s Web, which aggressively insists that children to think about mortality and, specifically, about being killed. When Wilbur realizes he is going to be slaughtered someday, he is quite reasonably horrified. Charlotte, with her creative weaving, manages to find a way to spare him, and that’s a comfort; but every other animal on the farm, who is just as sentient and emotionally and psychologically whole as he is, will be put to use as farm animals are. Many of them will be killed and eaten. That’s just the way it is. Charlotte dies, too, but Wilbur has some comfort when a few of her children stay behind as friends for him.

As a kid, I read this book compulsively, with fear and loathing. I could see what a good story it was, and how sensitively and beautifully the story was told, but I also felt guilty and ashamed for not being moved and satisfied by how it plays out.

It’s not that I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that everything passes. I did as well with that idea as any child or any human could be expected to do. It’s that I was angry to be presented with two contradictory realities: That animals are just like us, only we don’t realize it because we can’t understand their language; and that humans can kill and eat these animals, and that’s fine. That even extraordinary people like Fern can penetrate the wall between human and animal . . . until she grows up a little and meets a boy, and then she stops caring, and that’s fine.

That friendship and other relationships between two souls is extremely important, and are what gives life meaning — but someday this will be cut short. And that’s fine. 

It’s really not fine. It’s not just that Charlotte’s death is tough. It’s that the entire book is steeped in a kind of mild nihilism, brightened by the suggestion that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can put off death for a while. How is this a book for children?

The same theme is present in The Trumpet of the Swan, although it’s more in the background. The central problem of the story is communication: Louis and his father both feel that Louis cannot be whole unless he can communicate. When the father swan goes literally crashing into the human world, through the plate glass window of the musical instrument store, he brings back something which allows his son not only to converse with other swans, but to enter into the world of humans as an entertainer and a businessman — which, in turn, allows him to pay back his debt, lay down the human burden of the moneybag, and return to the world of swans and live in peace with his family in the wilds of Canada. 

Except that he made that deal that sometimes he gives some children to the zoo. Dammit, E. B. White! There it is again: The reader, and specifically children, are forced to work out some kind of uneasy truce with the contradictory world he builds. We are asked to accept that swans are fully sentient, with ideals and ethics, consciences and desires, and that a wild swan living in a zoo with clipped wings is a kind of servitude so undesirable that my four-year-old recognized it as a dreadful fate. And yet this is the fate Louis proposes for an indeterminate number of his future children, and that’s fine.

White is a good and imaginative story-teller, and he could have come up with some other plot device to extricate Louis and Serena from their dilemma. But he chose to use a trope familiar to anyone who reads fairy tales: child sacrifice. This is in Rapunzel; it’s in Rumpelstiltskin; it’s in Hansel and Gretel. Heck, it’s in Iphegenia and Psyche and Andromeda. Heckity heck, it’s in the Old Testament, when Jacob lets Benjamin go to Egypt. I have no other choice. Here, take my child.

And it’s never presented as a good or reasonable solution. We may recoil in horror, or we may writhe with pity and sympathy, because we can imagine what it feels like to be in such a tight spot; but it’s unequivocally a wrong choice, or at very least a dreadful one, made with anguish. You’re really, really not supposed to sacrifice your children to save yourself. 

Not so in Trumpet. Louis and Serena, who love and dote on their children, who know them as individuals, who have real relationships with each other and even with their own parents, and who cherish their beautiful and peaceful life in the wild, travel across the country once a year and sometimes drop off one of their babies at the zoo, as per their agreement. And that’s it.

We don’t even have the comfort of knowing that this is fantastical world where the rules are different when magic intrudes, as we do in fairy tales. In fairy tales, everyday life and hardships smack up against supernatural rule-breaking, and it’s easier to accept some hard truths that wouldn’t play well in real life, because magic is present, and magic has rules of its own. Sometimes cleverness beats magic; sometimes humans are helpless before magic’s inexorable logic. But even when the results are weird and scary and unsettling, we can tell our children, “It doesn’t happen that way in real life. It’s just a story.” 

But E.B. White, with his clean, lucid, reporterly style, is at pains to present his world as the actual world, where there are seedy jazz clubs and spoiled campers, where Louis frets over the appropriate tip for the bellboy, and must remember to clean his trumpet’s spit valve. He’s not a magical creature, and he’s not exceptional, except that his defect propelled him to take the trouble to learn English. His creatures rejoice in the world, especially the natural world; but it is very clearly the real world. There’s no otherworldliness to reassure us that we may approach the ethics of this particular story through a modified lens. Again and again, he presents troubling questions to us, and does not answer them. 

I keep wondering, how much is White aware of the plight he’s creating for his readers? 

Sam Beaver, the boy who befriends Louis and helps rescue him from an ignominious life of muteness, has the endearing habit of writing a question in his journal every night, something to mull over and he falls asleep. In the final scene, he come across the word “crepuscular,” describing a rabbit, and he doesn’t know what it means. He falls asleep wondering what it might mean, planning to look it up later. Then the book ends.

After we finished reading, I followed the obvious prompt from the author looked it up. It means animals that are most active during twilight. 

And there it is. E.B. White is a crepuscular writer, who leads us, for reasons of his own, to live in a twilight world, where nothing is clearly one thing or the other, but we’re still expected to live our lives in the half-darkness.

Maybe it’s not nihilism; maybe it’s more like some kind of American zen buddhism. But it’s not especially well-suited for kids, either. Kids can handle the idea of death; but they can’t handle the idea of being content with semi-meaninglessness, and neither can I. 

***

Some interesting responses to this essay:

from Darwin: In defense of E. B. White’s talking animals
and from Melanie Bettinelli: Children’s books in Parallax

Dreamlike reviews: Hadesdown, The Ghost Keeper, and The Sopranos (again)

You know what the real thing is about being in your mid-40’s? You can do everything you used to do in your 30’s, but you cannot bounce back.

I was in Chicago at the FemCatholic Conference last weekend, and it was completely wonderful. Met Mikayla Dalton, Corita Ten Eyck, Theresa Scott, Leticia Adams, Donna Provencher, Jenne O’Neill, Aimee Murphy, and so many others in real life for the first time, and I spent lots of time with my wonderful friend Elisa Low.  And Nora Calhoun, and Hope Peregrina and Ben Zelmer, and Samantha Povlock! And Shannon Wendt and Meg Hunter-Kilmer and ARGH the woman at the Femm Health table whose name is escaping me at the moment. And so many other brilliant, interesting, driven women I admire so much. I felt so out of my league.

Anyway, now I’m lurching around like a reanimated but still desiccated mummy, dizzy and incoherent, picking ridiculous fights with people I care about, and complaining about how bad my head feels and always feels, and I just can’t seem to snap out of it. I blame feminism. And airplanes. And train madness! (I did not take a train.)

Oh, if you want to hear my talk and all the talks at the conference, you can stream and download the whole thing for $49. My speech was called “When Women Say Yes: Consent and Control In Sex and Love.” It was about . . . a lot of things.

Also, I’m sorry we haven’t put out a podcast since the middle of February. Soon, I promise! I’m sorry! You could listen to that one again if you wanted to. Sorry.

Anyway anyway, I don’t want the algorithms to forget me completely, so here are some quickie reviews of things I’m enjoying while busily burning through all my social capital:

Listening to Hadestown

My daughter Clara turned me onto this musical. Originally a New Orleans jazz-style folk opera concept album about Orpheus and Eurydice by Anaïs Mitchell (I know. Stay with me), it’s now a musical that’s premiering on Broadway this month. You guys, it’s so good. Entirely successful world building. I am a sucker for anything based on Greek mythology, but become irrationally enraged with anything that doesn’t do it justice. This one is just weird enough to work.

From The Theater Times:

[Mitchell’s] version isn’t totally pin-downable about where and when it’s set–it’s mythic, after all–but there’s a Depression-era vibe to above-ground scenes, where penniless poet Orpheus and his lover Eurydice struggle to survive. It is hunger that allows the wealthy Hades to tempt her down to the underworld–to an economically secure but soulless industrial town, where men may be guaranteed work, but forgo contact with the natural world. Naturally, it is Hades who gets rich from their labor.

You will not believe “Why We Build the Wall” was written in 2010.

But this isn’t about politics; it’s about mankind. “Wait For Me” just about killed me.

All in all, just a fascinating, captivating, completely original work. Perfect lyrics, songs that stay with you. Such good stuff.

What I’m reading:

The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill

It is not a chick book, despite what the cover might suggest if you are one of my jerk sons. I keep plucking people by the shirt sleeve and shakily asking if they’ve read this book yet. I don’t know why I haven’t heard more about it. It did win the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, which is a good start. I’m working on a review for the Catholic literary mag Dappled Things, where Morrill is fiction editor.

This is seriously brilliant lyrical writing, on a level with the best of Michael Chabon or . . . I don’t know, I don’t want to be crazy, but I keep thinking, “Edith Wharton, no, E.M. Forster, no, Faulkner . . . ”

It follows a Jewish Austrian boy with a very particular vocation that keeps pulling him back. He grows up and starts a little family, and they are so happy, until the Anschluss.

The book follows them before, during, and after the war, and I’ve just gotten up to the chapter that describes another, related love story, but an infernally inverted one. And then they all need to figure out: What is love? What is loyalty? What is forgiveness? GOSH. I haven’t finished it yet, but even if it totally mucks up the ending (which I don’t anticipate!) I’ll forgive it, for all the moments of gorgeous tragedy and piercing joy. Do not read on airplanes unless you don’t care if you get stared at for gasping audibly while you read. Wear a sweater; you’ll get chills.

And we’re watching:

Well, we’re still watching The Sopranos. This is the second time around for me, and it’s even better than I remembered. It’s so much funnier than I remembered. It’s a little scary how much more sympathy I have for Tony this time.

I also think they should have won some particular prize for the depiction of dreams.

I guess the common thread in all these things is a sort of lyrical dreamlike quality, realer than real life.

That reminds me, what movie or TV show has the best, most accurate portrayal of dreams? It’s so easy to get it wrong and overplay your hand.

Nearly useless reviews of some books I read part of in 2018

2018 was not my greatest reading year. This is the year that social media really devoured my evenings, not with lively conversation or even bitter squabbling, but just mindless scrolling scrolling scrolling. I’m fighting to win that time back, without implying a metaphor that involves reaching into the throat of social media and pulling out a wad of time. What is the matter with me.

Anyway, I recently moved my bed hoping to find my glasses, and I shoveled out a ton of books that had slid down there. Here is a random sampling of books I read at least part of at some point during the year. (I asked Facebook, and Facebook said it wanted to hear about it, so there.) The only thing these books have in common is I thought they were interesting, and you might, too.

I’m linking to Amazon for your convenience, but nobody wins anything if you click on it.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

I say “Catholic sci fi,” you say “Space Trilogy by Lewis,” and that’s good, but this one really ought to be on the list. A Peruvian Jesuit biologist is part of a team wrapping up a routine mission to another planet, to judge its suitability for colonization and commerce. The planet Lithia is inhabited by elegant, intelligent, highly civilized lizards who appear to have a sin-free society. And that’s kind of a problem. Good reading for high school and up, very clever and thought-provoking, with a very appealing protagonist. It’s a little bit dated, as an interplanetary travel book from 1958 is bound to be, but the main themes hold up. Plenty of sci fi authors of that period (and this, even more so) leaned too heavily on their ideas and gave the actual writing craft short shrift, but not here.

I read this ages ago and haven’t re-read the ending yet, so I can’t guarantee that the end delivers what it should. I keep meaning to look up more books by Blish.

***

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

Okay, I adored The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and I cackled and sobbed my way through The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but every other Chabon novel I’ve read has left me frustrated in one way or another. Summerland was a freaking mess, like someone pretending to have a fever dream. Gentlemen of the Road was self-consciously stuffy, and not in the fun way. Telegraph Avenue had some astonishing passages, but it didn’t hang together.

Wonder Boys is an earlier work which he apparently wrote in lieu of another book for which he was under contract and from which had already spent half of the advance on alimony, so you can imagine. I started to sympathize so much with the characters, it was like living in someone else’s skin, and again, not in the fun way; so I lost heart and set it down. I may pick it up again, because he’s such a good writer, you hate to let it go unread.

I have heard that Moonglow is a semi-autobiographical work (actually it’s described as “quasi-metafictional memoir,” whatever the hell that means) and I’m wondering what else he can possibly not already have told us about himself. What a fascinating writer, though. He’s like David Bowie, always trying something new, but also always circling around the same few ideas.

***

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert



I remember loathing this book in college, which is the last time I read it. I guess I just disapproved of Madame Bovary so much, I couldn’t deal with spending so much time with her; and I think we were supposed to be scrupulously tracking and cataloguing the symbols, or something, which certainly took all the fun out of it. Anyway, I completely missed how sharply mean and funny the writing is; and yes, the descriptions are exquisite. If you can just pick it up and read it like a novel, instead of like A Classic, then do! I am reading the Francis Steegmuller tranlsation.

***

 

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

The other day, I grabbed what I thought was this book and started reading, only to discover it was Kristen Lavransdatter, Book Two: The Wife. I cannot recommend this experience. Worse than a sip of OJ when you expected milk, let me tell you, but not as bad as thinking it’s a red cup of beer but it’s actually dip spit, like that girl Lodia did in high school, ha ha.

Anyway, I am never quite smart enough to know if David Sedaris actually knows what he is talking about and has an overarching theme for each essay, or if he’s just very, very good at putting everything into a bag and selling it as a lot, but it works, and you always end up thinking, “Oh, I see! Ohhh, man.” Tenderness and hope dressed up as cruelty, and despair desperately grabbing onto a joke to keep afloat. But in the fun way! Above all else, he’s wickedly, wickedly funny, and never stops working for the reader (except for the very last essay on living in Japan and giving up smoking, which I suspect some editor insisted he include before it was really finished).

 

Summer book swap redux!

Last year, I had a pretty good idea that we followed through on in an okayish manner. The idea was to swap book recommendations with my kids over the summer: I’d give them a good book I think they’d enjoy, and they give me a book they like and that they think I’d enjoy. I said:

I like this approach for several reasons. They will read at least some good books, of course; but also, I’ll know more about what captivates them, and we’ll have more to talk about together. They’ll know I care about what interests them. And we’ll be doing something as part of a relationship, rather than just because I’m in power and I can make them do what I want.

As you will see, it was a less-than-howling success; but some of the kids still want to do it this summer, so I’m assembling a list. Here’s what I have so far, starting with the oldest kids:

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Beowulf: A New Telling by Robert Nye
The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

How did it go last summer? Here’s what I optimistically called the “first” summer book swap list:

I was supposed to read:

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham
The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

And my kids were supposed to read:

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
The Space Merchants by C.M. Kornbluth and Frederick Pohl
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Arthur M. Miller
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Patterson
The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald
The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

Here are my thoughts on the books I was supposed to read:

 The Wee Free Men: I either read part of it and then lost it, or else read it all and forgot most of it. I do love Terry Pratchett, but vastly prefer the Discworld books. He’s a great writer for people who love alternate universes which are disturbingly like our own; bizarre, strangely compelling characters; and very witty, sardonic turns of phrase, but who have started to notice the Douglas Adams’ world is awfully dreary after a while. I wrote a bit about Pratchett here.

The Joy Luck Club I did a quick review of this book and the next one here:

Here’s a book I avoided my whole life, because something something Oprah something, bestseller ptui ptui. You know: Lit major reasons. Well, my older girls assigned it to me, and it’s great. It’s great! It’s miraculously light on agenda and heavy on well-conceived characters, searingly memorable scenes, and a beautiful melancholy that stays with you (because you needed that). Each chapter could stand alone as a well-crafted short story. It’s not Dostoevsky, but it’s worth your time.

I recently re-read this, and it was as good as I remembered.

The House of the Scorpion 
It’s a dystopian YA novel (I know. WHERE DID I EVER FIND SUCH A THING?). The author’s vocabulary has an oddly stunted, juvenile quality to it, but the way the story unfolds is pretty skillful, and the plot is a pretty good adventure. The action takes place in Opium, a country that runs between the US and the former Mexico, where super-wealthy drug lords control the lives of everyone else, even putting brain implants on some, to make them pliant, witless slaves, and making clones of themselves to use as ever-ready organ donors. But . . . dun dun dun . . . one clone is different. Not bad at all, and unexpectedly Catholic in its ideas and also explicitly in the plot, in places.

The scene in the whale graveyard is pretty pretty good. 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I . . . never even checked this one out of the library. Sorry, Elijah.

The Luck Uglies: 
It’s written by someone who enjoys reading quirky, fascinating, fantastical story about scrappy kids solving mysteries and not even realizing that you can have anachronisms, but you have to earn them. There were pieces of good stories and good characters in there, like bits of good salami in a mushy, underseasoned pasta salad to which someone has added, for some reason, marshmallows. Still, the salami was there.

The Unwanteds: Also never got around to reading it. Sorry, Sophia.

The One and Only Ivan: It was okay. It’s a first person narrative by a captive gorilla in a very crummy zoo. It’s done skillfully, and I don’t have any actual problems with it, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. You wants a sad animal story, you reads Charlotte’s Web. The characters had enough depth to save it from being truly emotionally manipulative, but it sure waltzed right up close to that line.

Here’s the scoop on the books I gave to the kids to read last year. The number is the age of the kid when he or she read the book.

The Loved One. She (19) said it was “pretty good, kinda grim.” Can’t argue with that. Hoping she will read more Waugh.

The Space Merchants. She (18) claims I never told her to read it, and anyway, I made her read it several years ago when it was above her reading level, and she didn’t like it. She didn’t like the chicken. So there you are.

The Great Divorce. She (17) liked it! She said it was weird. She didn’t quite finish it, since we didn’t order it until near the end of summer, but she would like to get back to it. This is an accessible and entertaining but Very Important Book, and I’d really like all the kids to have it in their imaginations.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (15). He read the first part but got bogged down in the second part, which is definitely the boggiest part. I encouraged him to try again, because the third part will knock his socks off; and he says he will.

Tom Sawyer (13). He got up to the part where he got the other kid to paint the fence for him, and then he got bored and dropped it. Bum.

The Great Gilly Hopkins (11). She says she couldn’t find it. Another kid said, “I know where there’s a copy!” and the first kid said “Shut up.”

The Princess and Curdie (9). She says I actually told her to read Nightbirds on Nantucket by Joan Aikin, instead, but she didn’t actually read that, either.

The Trumpet of the Swan (8). She didn’t like it. It wasn’t exciting enough. Humph! I thought it was a very exciting book, what with all the flying around, but I guess it missed the mark. At least she read it.

So it looks like either I did a better job of choosing suitable books for the older kids, or else the older kids are just better people, and the younger ones are jerks. You have to admit, I did a fantastic job of finding an image to illustrate this post, though.

Happy summer! And wish me luck as the kids assemble their list.

 

Theology for Beginners is blowing my mind

This past Trinity Sunday, also known as Casual Heresy Sunday, I thought I’d dig up Theology for Beginners by Frank Sheed (affiliate link) and read the kids a few passages of Real Theology™  to correct some of the dumb things we heard that day.

We had tried reading it several years ago and got terribly bogged down. The kids were just angry and baffled, and we couldn’t make any headway, so we quit.

I remember thinking, last week, that I knew a lot more about what the Trinity isn’t than about what it is, and this is certainly still true. But after reading only a few chapters of this book, I discovered we also can know a lot more about the Trinity than I ever imagined, and it’s blowing my mind.

So we’re making this our new project, and keeping on reading, a chapter or part of a chapter at night several times a week. We often stop and re-read a paragraph, sometimes more than once; and we keep looking up the beginning of the Gospel of John. It would not be unreasonable to read each chapter two or three times before going on to the next, but I want to keep moving, because we have such a poor record of finishing books.

I’ve been so desperate for something like this — not just for the kids, but for myself. Sometimes your spiritual life is flat and uninspired, and you just have to keep the faith and power through; but sometimes there really is something you can do about it. There may be things you didn’t know about God that you will be very glad to know! Going to Mass, making the sign of the cross, praying a Hail Mary . . . it all feels new and exciting, almost perilous! In a good way. There’s just so much there, and I’ve been so casual about it all.

Are the kids getting much from the book? I’m not sure. Their various responses seem to be more about personality and type of intellect than age. My nine-year-old is completely on fire about it. Damien and I are agog. Even some of the more jaded can’t-we-just-get-back-to-Mario-Kart kids have questions. And I do think that there’s value in seeing that other people are excited about the Faith, even if you aren’t feeling it yourself right then.

At very least, this book puts to rest for good the idea that you can plow through the Baltimore Catechism for First Communion prep and then you know all there is to know. Not by a long shot, hot stuff.

This book is a tremendous gift. Some people think that, when we call some article of faith a mystery, we mean that it’s just too huge and weird, and our brains can’t even handle it, so we just need to let it be. Instead, mysteries are, as my husband says, a deep, deep pool. You can dive in and never get to the bottom, but that doesn’t mean you should just linger on the shore, feeling thirsty and hot like a dummy. Sheed says we have an obligation to try to understand more about the God we worship. Why would we not? What are our brains for, if not that?

I bought the paperback and then the Kindle edition, too, because we managed to lose the physical copy but we need to keep reading. The concepts are incredibly dense but the language is crystal clear, and it doesn’t come across as dated. If you feel that your faith is stuck at an elementary level, I cannot recommend this book enough.