In praise of Mike Mulligan

My friends on social media often share excerpts from books they are reading: Illuminating passages from encyclicals, breathtaking ideas found in scholarly books about design and sociology.

I, on the other hand, post a little bit of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel:

I shared this after reading it aloud for maybe the eight thousandth time the other day. I was admiring once again the perfectly-crafted rhythm of the story. You would have to work really hard to read it wrong. In the page I shared, you can hear the building, busy excitement as more and more people get caught up in the action:

“Now the girl who answers the telephone called up the next towns of BANGerville and BOPperville and KIPperville and KOPperville and TOLD them what was HAPpening in POPperville.

“All the people came over to see if Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel could dig the cellar in . . . ”

and the sentence ends in three, flat, one-syllable words that land with incredulity:

“just. one. day.”

The author, Virgina Lee Burton, would read her books aloud to her own two sons and to neighbor children, to make sure they liked it. She said:

My first book, Jonnifer Lint, was about a piece of dust. I and my friends thought it was very clever but thirteen publishers disagreed with us and when I finally got the manuscript back and read it to Aris, age three and a half, he went to sleep before I could even finish it. That taught me a lesson and from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest . . . the same with the drawings. Children are very frank critics.

This is about the story, characters, and pictures, but also about the sound of the writing itself. When you’re reading aloud, a book is only as good as how well it can be read. An awful lot of modern children’s books have all the elements that people think kids want: zaniness, lots of frenetic action, lots of repetition; but they require the reader to make constant adjustments so the lines come out right. 

The execrable Skippyjon Jones books come to mind. They are hugely difficult to read aloud, because the words stutter and start and pile up, but rather than building excitement, they’re formless and aimless, littered with dreary puns that kids won’t get, lacking any purpose or arc. They always remind me of this clown, Cheryl, who used to turn up at children’s events. Her entire repertoire was screaming at the kids, because she heard kids like screaming, so here is some screaming. Cheryl was exhausting.

Anyway, about the story of Mike Mulligan. I was astonished to find that some people think it’s depressing. To paraphrase what several people said: He messes up one little job, and now he has to be a janitor forever! Mary Anne is interred in a basement for the rest of her life! I guess if I read the book for the first time as an adult — especially, perhaps, as a young housewife feeling overlooked and trapped — I might read it that way. 

But I did grow up loving the book, and so I’m predisposed to seeing more in it. It’s a John Henry story (“He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week but he had never been quite sure that this was true”);  except instead of a glorious death in the end, Mrs. McGillicuddy takes them nice hot apple pies. The end of the story is no dark tomb; sunlight pours into the basement, a sort of Elysian Fields for heroes who have earned their rest. 

Several of Burton’s books deal with the idea that progress is good, until it stops being good. (Her excellent The Little House is a more stark and melancholy story with the same theme.) Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne are a victim of their own success. In their prime, they did all the works of progress: They dug the great canals, they cut through the high mountains, they lowered the hills and straightened the curves.

They were literally on the cutting edge of industry and progress; and that means they were destined to be surpassed. 

What are they to do? In a briefly grim passage, Mike has a vision of Gehenna:

It’s intolerable. But where else can you go, when you’ve come to the end?

But in Virginia Lee Burton books, there is always a way out; always a little bit of paradise still reserved for the worthy. So the two heroes set off for greener pastures

and Mike finally has the chance to find out if he and Mary Anne can really dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week. 

The busy pressure of their past life of industry is recreated in one final, intense day of crisis: He and Mary Anne are fighting against time. The era is coming to an end; the sun is going down. The only way to survive is to do what they are made to do, faster and faster.

And they win! They beat the sun. But in their victory, they have literally dug a hole for themselves that they can’t get out of.

And here is the brilliance of the book. How are they going to get out? It’s not just about this specific job; it’s about retaining their dignity and identity in a changing world. They’ve come to the end. What can be next?

It would make no sense for them to find more and more digging to do. They’re no longer wanted in the city, but they also can’t despoil the green and sunny world that saved their lives. So instead, rather than finding a way out, they find a way to stay in . . . but without defeat.

Mary Anne’s engine keeps working, but now she warms up the meetings at the new town hall. It’s the end of an era, and this is inescapable; but that doesn’t mean anyone is consigned to the netherworld. They lay down their hammer, but they do not die.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mike and Mary Anne’s virtues are transformed into warmth, rather than mere industry. (They always worked better and faster when people are watching, after all.)

And through their ordeal, Henry B. Swap, with small town scheming ways, is also transformed; and after Mike triumphs, “he spends most of his time in the cellar of the new town hall listening to the stories that Mike Mulligan has to tell and smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all.” So it turns out it’s all about people, in the end.

There are other children’s books that look back fondly on the past, but I’ve never found another book that deals with inevitable change in such a satisfying way.

But it’s not a lesson book, a wholesome moral disguised as a story; and that’s another of Burton’s virtues. My four-year-old doesn’t hear a Fin de siècle rumination on identity, mortality, and the mixed blessing of productivity. She hears an exciting story about digging, and billowing clouds of dust, and hurry hurry hurry, and Kipperville and Kopperville and Bangerville and Bopperville, and hot apple pies, and that’s what makes it a good book. 

So I guess I’m okay with being the one who gets all excited about children’s books, enough to share passages that I find illuminating. I know full well that some people see my kind of life as interred in a basement, endlessly changing diapers and wiping up crumbs instead of using my mind and my college degree and making constant progress. What can I say? I’m using the engine I have, and I feel like I’m making some warmth.

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.

A reading list for Catholic teens and young adults

A frequent question: What books are good for Catholic teenagers and young adults looking to deepen their faith? I have some suggestions!

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Cave Pictures is an intriguing new comic publisher with plenty on its mind

Like many parents, I have mixed feelings about comics and graphic novels, especially adaptations. I want my kids (and the rest of civilization) to be able to read through a block of text without pictures to help them along; and I want them to read “the real thing,” not a watered-down version of a classic. But more and more, I see that, while many comics are still lurid and vapid, many are not. We’re firmly in an age of comics with something on their mind. They’re not just colorful, easy-to-digest substitutions for books; they’re something different — or at least they can be. Ben Hatke‘s and Mike Mignola’s work spring to mind.

The other week, I stumbled across an ad for a serialized comic adaptation of The Light Princess. Although I adore the original illustrations by Maurice Sendak, I have always wished someone less wordy than George MacDonald had written his wonderful stories, especially for reading out loud. So I dug around to see what else the publisher, Cave Pictures Publishing, is up to.

It turns out they’re new, and The Light Princess is one of five comic titles debuting this year

— and holy cow, it’s a diverse line-up, to say the least. There’s also “Appalachian Apocalypse” by Billy Tucci (Shi), Ethan Nicolle (Axe Cop), and Ben Gilbert:

and “The Blessed Machine,” a dystopian sci fi series by Jesse Hamm (Batman ’66) and Mark Rodgers

Locked in a city deep within the earth, a courageous few struggle to reach the surface, fighting not only against the minds and flesh of men but against their man-made minders.

Other titles:

THE NO ONES by Jim Krueger with art by Well-Bee

A team of superheroes, blinded by their fame and self-promotion, are forced to reckon with their destructive choices when a twist of fate erases them from both history and present memory.

WYLDE by Daniel Bradford

When a mysterious masked lawman partners with a suspicious sheriff to save his frontier town from an invasion of the undead, the sheriff will learn ancient secrets of the lawman’s past and the power of self-sacrifice. In saving his town, he will save himself.

Okay, sure!

Cave Pictures (tagline: “Great comics for the spiritually inclined”) says it intends to deliver more than mindless, two-dimensional entertainment. They’re not religious, but they hope to engage readers who thirst after spiritual meaning.

My take? I’m intrigued. The artwork and storytelling is skillful and lively, and they do seem dedicated to presenting work that’s layered, but driven primarily by story and art, not message.

The first issue of The Light Princess (the only title I previewed) is a little unsettling. For reasons that are not yet clear, they’ve invented some odd backstory for the princess’ parents

but I’m suspending judgment until future issues. The artwork leans fairy-tale-ish, and so far lacks some of the weird, jarring edge inherent in the story; but this may change as the plot progresses (the first issue ends just as the baby first loses her gravity). The overall look is professional and effective, sometimes quite lovely. The lettering occasionally gets overly pictorial and almost too ornate to read in a few places, but not disastrously so;

and the story moves along briskly and keeps the reader’s attention. In short: Not perfect, but intriguing, and definitely a publisher to watch. I’ll be asking my librarian to look into carrying these titles, and I’m more curious now to look into the other stories, which are all original, not adaptations.

Here’s a page from their free comic that frames their mission, retelling Plato’s allegory of the cave:

Earlier this week, I chatted with the president, Mandi Hart, who “manages all the moving parts of Cave.” Hart has a background in filmmaking, but got a law degree to help her manage the legal and logistical aspects of running a creative business. She soon came to realize that investors would be willing to finance a company that published what their children and grandchildren loved, and that meant comics.

Here’s our conversation:
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You quote David Foster Wallace saying “Everybody worships. The only chance we get is what to worship. ” What do you think people worship? 
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It could be any number of things. In our culture today, there’s a lot of self-worship, influenced by entertainment media and also by advertising. It can be very toxic to make yourself the center of the universe. Across all of our titles, we’re trying to incorporate themes like: Is there more to life than yourself, than the material world?
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The key theme in the The Blessed Machine is about whether there is more to the world than the characters inhabit, than what they can see — and more than what the machines they depend on for life are telling them exist.
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Is it possible to live without faith in anything? We all have to exercise faith in something. It’s a question of where: Where are we going to invest that faith?
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The Light Princess
is actually a little more overtly Christian than the even book itself is. Is there some particular faith background from which you’re approaching these titles?
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Across all our titles, we’re not coming from any particular faith background. We like to think of our titles as “faith-acceptable” or “faith-aligned,” not promoting any particular perspective. We’re raising universal questions about meaning and moral responsibility.
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As a Catholic, I often come across creative people of faith who say they want to do just that, but they end up producing preachy, heavy-handed stuff. Does that worry you?
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We definitely try to avoid using the art form a tool. We are really going for stories that have a lot of layers of meaning. One of the primary gatekeepers is the artists we work with. They all have extensive experience and a great reputation; they’ve won awards, and they have developed their own creative content. So that, for us, has been one of the primary mechanisms to use: That we’re hiring writers and illustrators who do really solid work and have been recognized in the industry.
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For The Light Princess, it being an adaptation, George MacDonald already imbued it with so many layers of meaning, so that helped us avoid the least common denominator. For the other stories, on the whole, it’s wholly original content. The creators that came up with those titles originated the ideas, and came at their stories as storytellers, not with a message or an agenda.
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One of our illustrators was talking about his universal approach to his own art. He said it’s much more about raising questions than about providing answers. That’s emblematic of the work we do. We want to start conversations, not feed anyone a particular message.
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The Light Princess is an adaptation, but the rest of the first round of titles are all original stories. Will you do other adaptations of books in the future?
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I can’t disclose which one yet, but we will be doing another George MacDonald adaptation. George MacDonald is in the public domain, but we are open to exploring doing other copyrighted work.
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Of all the titles coming out, which is your personal favorite? 
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They’re all so different. I have a favorite aspect of each of the different titles. In our sci fi title, The Blessed Machine, it’s about a dystopian future, but it’s also a lot of fun. In Appalachian Apocalypse, certain moments in the dialogue and artwork are such a great laugh release, but at the same time, there’s a serious subject matter to be tackled. What are the implications of an army of undead attacking us? In The Light Princess, one of my favorite things is that the artwork is just stunning. It’s been such a pleasure to see how they’ve rendered this story. The use of color, light, and texture has been really beautiful. In the superhero series, what I love most is the setup. Without giving too much away, the six superheroes have been part of a team, but there’s a twist of fate, and they become pitted against each other. They all face a very stark moral choice, kind of a fork in the road, and half go one way, and half go the other. I love the way the author, Jim Krueger, has developed the story and characters for the quandary they find themselves in.
***
Each series is on a monthly release. The first issues of Appalachian Apocalypse will be out in late January, The Light Princess in February, and The Blessed Machine in March.

Hart welcomes questions from readers. You can follow Cave Pictures Publications on social media:

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.

 

What does Pope Francis mean by “embrace?”

The new book A Pope Francis Lexicon (Liturgical Press, 2018) includes a chapter by me, titled, “Embrace.” A version of this essay is now in Parable, the NH diocesan magazine for which I am a columnist. Here’s an excerpt:

Pope Francis is often chastised for what some see as a folksy, imprecise, emotional brand of faith that winks at the law. All those hugs! Who was ever saved because of a hug? Our savior redeemed us by fulfilling the law on a cross, not by giving us a big hug!

Indeed. Francis knows as well as anyone that an embrace is not a miracle. When he tenderly embraced the tumor-ridden head of the unfortunate pilgrim Vinicio Riva, he did not expect the man to be instantly healed. When we enter into an embrace—either a physical one offered by our fellow Catholics or a spiritual one offered by the Church—we are not automatically reconciled to each other or to God, nor do we automatically understand and accept our obligations.

And yet Pope Francis continues to insist on coming together, accompanying, seeking union, and—yes—embracing each other. Is this just naiveté? Does he really think huggy togetherness is an adequate substitute for orthodoxy? Let’s look at how he uses that word “embrace.”

Read the rest of “Embracing His People” here.

Image by Long Thiên via Flickr (public domain)

THE KING OF THE SHATTERED GLASS is a great exploration of confession for kids

Like a dummy, I misplaced our copy of The King of the Shattered Glass (Marian Press, 2017; affiliate link), but I want to tell you about it now anyway. It would be a great book to read during Lent, and would make a nice Easter present, too.

It’s a picture book appropriate for ages six and up, written by Susan Joy Bellavance and illustrated by Sarah Tang. Basic story: An orphan girl named Marguerite works in the scullery of a medieval king’s castle, when glass is an astonishing novelty. It’s so valuable that the king insists that anyone who breaks his glass must gather up the pieces and bring them to him personally.

Marguerite, an orphan, is a pretty good kid, but on three occasions, she breaks the precious glass — as the blurb says, “through temper, the pride of a dare, and selfishness.” Each time, she has to gather her courage and own up to what she did. It’s not easy, because she’s ashamed, and because she’s afraid of punishment; and eventually, once she comes to actually know the king, and just feels bad that she broke his stuff.

Catholics, you can see where this is headed! The book is a thoughtful allegory for confession; but it works well as a satisfying little story, too.

Marguerite has some penance and growth to do, and eventually the king reveals that he is using all the glass she has shattered to make a gorgeous stained glass window showing himself putting a crown on Marguerite’s head. He then adopts her as his own daughter, and there is rejoicing.

The king, to my great relief, is truly appealing, gentle but strong, and the illustrations successfully suggest divinity (especially Christ as the source of Divine Mercy) without being too heavy-handed. Some of the pictures are more skillful than others, but all are lively and bright, some in black and white, some with deep, saturated colors.

You can download a free pdf of a teacher’s guide, which takes you through the book’s themes:

1. Relationship with God as Father, King and Friend
2. Conscience, a gift to be developed
3. Penance, which brings healing to ourselves and others
4. Jesus, who carries our burdens
5. Adoption and family life; Baptism and Reconciliation.

The King of the Shattered Glass is not the most polished book you will ever encounter in your life, but it works very well, and it’s full of heart and theologically tight as a drum.  Kids will find it memorable and appealing. Recommended!

Bellavance and Tang are collaborating on a second book, to be titled Will You Come to Mass?

 

Suggested Lenten reading: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

This year for Lent, we’re reading aloud Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (affiliate link) by Brant Pitre.  I’m hoping to finish before Easter, so we’ll have plenty to think about over the Triduum. The high school kids are following it fine, and the younger kids are listening in and picking up some, if not all. I LOVE THIS BOOK. Pitre is a teacher, so the book is a pleasure to read out loud.

(You may recall that we were reading Bendict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. Well, I really dug it, and so did Damien, but the kids were just not into it. So after a few chapters, we gave up. I still heartily recommend it, for high school-aged kids and up. If you’re looking for Lenten reading, you could go with the Holy Week volume of this three-book series.)

Here’s my review of Brant Pitre’s book, which was originally published on Patheos in 2011.

***

Having celebrated more than forty Passover Seders with my Hebrew Catholic family, I anticipated already knowing most of what Brant Pitre has to say in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper I already knew that Moses prefigured the Messiah to come; that the Last Supper was a Passover meal; that Jesus is both the paschal lamb and the unleavened bread eaten by the Jews, and that we celebrate this same mystery at Mass.

But, the details!

Did you know that the Jews’ Passover lamb was commonly nailed to a cross-shaped board? Did you know that the manna which sustained the Hebrews in the desert was thought to have been created before the Fall, and “had existed ‘on high’ in heaven” until God gave it to the people to eat? Did you know that the Bread of the Presence, which was consecrated and reserved in the tabernacle of the Temple, constituted both meal and unbloody sacrifice, and was offered with wine each Sabbath?

Did you know that temporarily-celibate Jewish priests would elevate this bread on feast days, and proclaim, “Behold, God’s love for you!”

All astonishing and illuminating facts. But this book is no mere collection of obscure coincidences and historical novelties related to Christ. Pitre sweeps the reader up in his enthusiastic rediscovery of the glorious symmetry of salvation history. It is a gorgeous, persuasive, and enthralling story that you’ve heard bits of here and there, but never with this cohesion. Pitre puts it all together.

The overwhelming sensation I had on reading this book was one of relief. I had fallen into thinking of the New Testament as the half of the Bible that is bright, hopeful, and fresh; whereas the Old Testament is blood and thunder, irrationality and murkiness, with flashes of half-understood prophecies whose fulfillment could only be appreciated in retrospect. As I read Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, I imagined Pitre’s research and exegesis rescuing generations of pre-Christian believers from that terrifying squalor of the half-life of prefigurement. He shows how all the world always has been, and always will be, loved and guided, and nourished most tenderly by the one true God.

A minor quibble—and I offer it mostly to show some balance to my enthusiasm; in his zeal to illustrate how Jesus’ contemporaries would have perceived his words and actions, Pitre occasionally strays into slightly jarring language. He speaks of Christ “expecting” and “hoping for” future events in His own life to fulfill the prophecies and traditions of the Jews. Although Pitre by no means implies that Jesus was not omniscient, this vocabulary sat oddly with me. It is, perhaps, the natural way to speak about the life of Christ in a book about the fulfillment of promises; but I wish he had made it more clear that the Exodus, the manna, the Bread of Presence, the Passover meal and its fourth and final cup of wine were all ordained expressly for, and in anticipation of, the things to come. Pitre does say this, to be sure (and the evangelist John says the same thing: that Jesus did things “to fulfill scripture”); but his tone occasionally implies that Christ’s actions were cannily calculated to persuade the Jews.

This is, as I say, a very minor and debatable quibble, which is overwhelmed by the true brilliance of the rest of the book.

Although this book is rigorously researched, Pitre’s tone is conversational and appealing. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist began as a lecture, and reading it is like sitting in class with a gentle and intelligent teacher who anticipates questions, reminds us of what he told us before, and even suggests that we mark certain pages for future reference. The book is highly accessible, but by no means light reading. It is insightful, original, and frequently profound. Pitre shows his sources, and he warns the reader when his ideas are speculative.

This is, above all joyful book. And who may appreciate it? Curious Jews who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Protestants who think of the Eucharist as mere symbol. Casual scholars who sanction the mundane dumbing-down of miracles. Indifferent Confirmation students, whose eyes glaze over when they hear the words “sacrifice” and “covenant.”

And most of all, Catholics who desperately want to be more attentive, more engaged in the mystery of the Eucharist, because every time they go to Mass they know it’s really, really important, but it’s so hard to pay attention after all these years.

Pitre’s book will get your attention. With his strange and beautiful story of how God brings us the gift we receive every week, Pitre’s book will make you rejoice again—or maybe for the very first time—for what you have.