The last things my parents read

As I slowly make progress-that-doesn’t-feel-like-progress in selling my parents’ house, one of my tasks last weekend was to take copious photos of my father’s book store inventory, which, for complicated legal reasons, we are required to at least make an effort to sell. When he was alive, it was so impressive that he kept the entire catalogue — thousands upon thousands of books — entirely in his head, and could instantly go and pluck them off the shelf when someone ordered one. This is less impressive now that he is dead, and a book dealer wants to know if there is a catalogue of titles anywhere. Well, yes and no. Well, no.

Anyway, my parents did leave behind not only all the books my dad was selling, but all the books they just had, which was a lot. “How I love them! How I need them! I only wish that I could eat them!” my father used to say. 

Feeling like a mega-creep, I stretched myself across my parents’ bed and fished out all the books that had fallen down on either side, and gathered them up, and stacked them along with the books stacked on their bedside tables. These are not for sale. I just wanted to know what were the last things they read before they died. My mother was on the left, by the window. My father was on the right, by the door. His glasses were still sitting on the little table. 

My mother, of course, had stopped reading several years previously, as Alzheimer’s took more and more of her cognitive ability. But when she had that ability, dang. Here are her bedside books:

The Catholic Living Bible; In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbin; a Holt Physics textbook, Gúenonian Esoterism & Christian Mytery by Jean Borella, The Iliad, The Aneid, The Genesis Flood by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, an Olive Sacks anthology, and The Story of Quantum Mechanics by Victor Guillemin. Also: 

Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard by Paul Borgman; Three Histories by Herodotus; The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor; and The New Testament translated by Ronald Knox, who, she was always ready to explain, did all his translations at the kitchen table while people were running around making noise; and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.

More books:

The Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner; The Best of the Best by Judith Merril (a science fiction anthology. My mother read TONS of science fiction); Introduction to the Philosophy of Being by George Peter Klubertanz; The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning by me (she was very proud); The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman; and two copies of Billy Budd by Herman Melville, for some reason. And something large and red and very dusty. The last book on the right is Classic Fairy Tales. 

My father lived at that house for several years after my mother moved into the nursing home, and some of those books on her side are definitely his. I think he must have strayed onto her side of the bed after she was moved out, and read some of her books, and left some of his. It makes sense that my dad had The Odyssey (the Fagles translation, which he requested I bring to the hospital after his final heart surgery. Very good for your heart, Fagles), but I don’t really see my mother reading the Iliad, or Melville, or Virgil for pleasure. I could be wrong. Definitely no Robert Penn Warren. That’s a very good book, but also right on the verge of bullshit, and my mother could not tolerate bullshit. Science fiction, yes. Fairy tales, definitely. She didn’t consume fiction in a neurotypical way. She was always recommending books that were good, just not well-written, and she couldn’t understand why that was such a barrier to everybody.

Anyway, here are my father’s books.

The Tablernacle of Moses by Kevin Connor; an issue of The Human Life Review; Freddy and the Ignormus by Walter R. Brooks; All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones; The Death of Evolution by Wallace Johnson; Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks; Introduction to the Metaphysics of Aquinas; Freddy Goes to Florida; Moby-Dick; The Possessed by Dostoevsky; The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman; Homeric Moments by Eva Brann; an Omnibus of Science Fiction ed. by Conklin;

1781: The Grand Convention by Clinton Rossiter; Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy (this was definitely both my parents. They actually travelled to Lost Cove, Tennessee); Theistic Evolution by Wolfgang Smith (with whom my mother carried on some kind of passionate intellectual exchange by mail for years until he abruptly got offended about something and cut off contact, wounding her horribly); The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins; Christian Gnosis by Wolfgang Smith; and an RSV Bible; and finally

Science & Myth by Wolfgang Smith; Dante’s Inferno translated by Anthony Esolen; Another Fagles Odyssey; another copy of Science & Myth, the Knox translation of the Bible; and something else, not sure what. It’s too thin to be more Freddy the Pig.

I don’t know why I’m writing all this down, what for. So there will be a memory. So there will be a record. You can see, anyway, that they were both very interested in how the world came to be, and why. I imagine they’re still gathering information on that. 

My father used to say that, after so many decades of marriage, he could almost always predict what my mother was going to do, but he still had no idea why. She was a strange person, and I think only a few people knew her well. Not me. I did find, when prowling about the house, a scrap of paper in my mother’s handwriting. It was a moderately cute kid story, wherein Simmy (that’s me) asked for one of those fuzzy rabbits for a birthday present, and then promised to try to forget it, so it would be a surprise. My mother thought that was worth writing down to remember, and it survived for forty years or more, and now we’re cleaning everything out, deciding what to save and what to let go. 

She was always trying to get me to print out my entire website, all my archives, thousands and thousands of pages, just in case, so it wouldn’t be lost.  There are so many things she took the trouble to write down, and now look. Just all floating around in a dusty house, waiting for the auction. I have decided to hire someone to clean out the rest of the house. There are a lot of things in there I would just as soon forget, and never be surprised by again. And maybe I will read some Freddy the Pig. Poor stupid daughter of my crazy, brilliant parents. It’s hard to know what to save and what to let go. 

 

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, and listening to this week: In which Woody Allen and Insane Clown Posse have redeeming qualities

How’s everybody doing? Okay? Remember the thing about …something something real talk, ladies, you are enough, etc. Don’t be cry. Me encourage you. Okay, here’s what we’ve been watching, reading, and listening to lately. I guess this should be Christmas or Advent stuff, but, it’s not. I put up a bunch of lights, we do candle things, and we’re going to confession, and I’m enough, dammit. 

If there’s a theme to these books, movies, and music, it’s “hey, there’s something to you, after all.” 

WATCHING

Hannah and Her Sisters (Where to watch. We rented it on Amazon Prime for $3.99)

We boycotted Woody Allen movies for a while – not because we thought it would be immoral to watch them, but because, ew. If you’re still in that place, I get it. But after a while I got a hankering to see if the good movies were as good as I remembered (and those are the ones he made before he became an open degenerate, anyway). 

Broadway Danny Rose was hilarious and sweet, and I liked it a lot, but Hannah and Her Sisters is terrific. It kept reminding me of a Tolstoy novel, where he just plunges you right in the midst of the lives of these fully-developed personalities in such a way that you understanding their pasts and their likely futures, and how they relate to each other.

I saw this many years ago and thought it was well crafted, but now, having gotten over two decades of marriage under my belt, I think it is a truly great movie about love. You want there to be good guys and bad guys, and there are, but there’s also regret, and recovery from passing madnesses, and redemption. Fantastic dialogue and acting, absolutely captivating setting and soundtrack, and a happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, it has people behaving very badly, indeed, but it shifts very deftly from wretched nihilism to a sort of tender, hopeful agnosticism that makes human life beautiful. Really kind of a masterpiece. 

Wait, I take it back. That architect is a bad guy.

We’ve also been watching Malcolm In the Middle (where to watch) with the kids ages 11 and up, and it’s still a very funny show, but I guess I didn’t notice the first time around how hard they leaned into the whole “everyone’s laughing, but if this were real, it would actually be abuse” thing, especially as the series went on (we are currently on season 5, which is a very funny season. We just watched the one where Reese joins the army and Hal is under house arrest). I think the target audience is people my age, among whom it is actually very common to have discussions about our childhoods that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect were actually. . . . yeesh.

READING

Read aloud: The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. The second in The Chronicles of Prydain.

I’m reading this aloud to kids ages 9 and 5, and they are enthralled. This one is more exciting and cohesive than the first. Lots of tests of character. I pause often to ask the kids, “Wow, what would you do in this situation?” and I am never gratified by their answers, but at least I can tell they’re paying attention. 

I won’t mind taking a break from Lloyd Alexander for our next read-aloud, though.He is a good, vivid storyteller, but he can be a bit clunky to read aloud. We started on Prydain when we lost our copy of Wind in the Willows just after Toad’s friend’s stage an intervention about the motorcar. It will be a nice change of pace to get back to Kenneth Grahame’s prose, which is so lushly, lovingly written. 

Benny also got a copy of Time Cat, also by Lloyd Alexander, for her birthday, but she hasn’t started it yet.  A talking, time-traveling cat who goes on adventures with a kid. Seems promising. 

I’m also reading Dragonwings by Lawrence Yep to myself (it’s a children’s book suitable for kids about grade 5 and up). Yep has a good, plain style and doesn’t flinch away from the awful realities of life for Chinese immigrants in California at the turn of the century, so it may not be great for especially sensitive readers. The protagonist is an eight-year-old boy who leaves his mother in China to live with his father, a former master kite-maker who now works in a laundry. It does a nice job of showing how myth makes its way into a family’s understanding of the world, a theme that fascinates me. 

I’ve also been picking up Notes From Underground by Doestoevsky and reading passages at random before bed, which may not be great for my mental health, but I don’t think it’s doing any harm to the book. 

And I ordered a paper copy of Cat Hodge’s Unstable Felicity, which is currently on sale for $8.99, because I will scroll through Facebook and Twitter for three hours straight, but I simply cannot read a book on a screen. Can’t do it. And I do want to read this book. (An audio version is also now available.)

LISTENING TO

Uh, Miracles by Insane Clown Posse

Damien made a reference to “fucking magnets, how do they work?” and I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he showed me this:

Okay, so this is objectively terrible work by some powerfully rotten entertainers, but I kind of love it. My mother would have loved it. Three cheers for the divine spark in every human, that makes even no-talent creeps in stupid face paint want to make a video encouraging people to think about how cool it is that there are mountains and rivers, and that children look like their parents, and there are stars and pelicans and shit. This is not good art, but it is real art, and even Juggalos need real art. Me gusta.

If you’re looking for something you can actually enjoy, you could do worse than the Hannah and Her Sisters soundtrack

How about you? Watching, reading, or listening to anything that’s good – maybe better than you expected? 

 

 

 

I’m giving away FOUR books by Tomie dePaola!

Tomie dePaola is a beloved author and illustrator for good reason, and in addition to his dozens of charming and lovely books about Strega Nona and Big Anthony, he published many Catholic books, including books on the saints, Bible stories, and other religious works. Ignatius Press with Magnificat has recently been reprinting some of these in hardcover. I got to review four of them, and they’ve given me four to give away to you! The titles:

Queen Esther
Brother Francis of Assisi
Noah and the Ark
Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Enter by using the form at the end of the post. 

If you don’t win, or if you just want to order some or all of the books, I also have a 25% off code for these four books.

Use the coupon code STOMIE25 when you order any of these four books from Ignatius and get a 25% discount starting today and ending Saturday, Nov. 21 at midnight. 

And now for the books! 

Queen Esther (first published 1986) A simple and dignified telling of the story of Esther, the Jewish woman who was chosen for her beauty by the Persian king, and who risked her own life to protect her people.

Esther is rendered in blues and grays, very elegant but rather severe and sad, which seems right to me. She didn’t ask to be put in that position, but she did what had to be done once she was there. 

A good true “princess” story about a girl chosen for her beauty, who musters up courage and strength for her people. 

The story is somewhat simplified, good for young kids, and is nicely dramatic

The final page notes that her story is commemorated on the Jewish feast Purim. “On Purim, Jews give gifts to the poor and one another. This spring holiday often falls during Lent, when Catholics recall the courageous faith of Queen Esther.” I didn’t realize this was so, but he’s right! The Mass readings during Lent tell her story, paired with an exhortation to ask God for what we want and trust he will give it to us. 

****

Brother Francis of Assisi (first published 1982) 
I had this one when it was first published, and as a result, I’ve always been a little afraid of St. Francis, as is appropriate. He is most certainly not the fuzzy wuzzy pal to our furry friends that pop culture has turned him into, but was an intense, passionate, singleminded man.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a scary or graphic book, but it doesn’t shy away from how hard Francis was on himself.

I had a hard time getting through the Pope’s dream where Francis holds up the crumbling walls of the Church. Oh boy. Give yourself time to compose yourself if you’re reading this one aloud.

It does include favorite stories, like Francis preaching to the birds, and dealing with the wolf of Gubbio,

and also has some lesser known stories, like Francis allowing himself to indulge in some honey almond cakes made for him by a patroness,

and a story about Francis recreating a manger scene and being visited by a real holy child who smiles at Francis and strokes his beard.

And here — get ready — here is Francis receiving the stigmata

This is one of de Paola’s longer books at 47 pages, and it includes the Canticle of the Sun and a timeline of Francis’ life, including his and Clare’s feast days. Good stories about Clare and her sisters, as well. The illustrations were painstakingly researched on site, and you get a real sense of place, as well as a sense of who Francis really was. Excellent. 

*****

Noah and the Ark (first published 1983) I struggle with children’s books about Noah’s ark! I know it has animals and a rainbow, but it’s not really a children’s story, and it bothers me when it’s portrayed as cutesy or rollicking. DePaola’s version avoids this, and is told very simply and has a sort of mythical air to it, which works well.

God is shown as a powerful, bright hand emerging mystically from the heavens, and the animals are animals, not cartoonish sidekicks

DePaola’s mastery of color is on full display here. There are two pages with no text, just the flood waters:

and then the next page pulls back a bit and shows the ark still being tossed on the waves, but with the threatening clouds receding. 

A solid rendition, bright and dignified. 32 pages, for children ages 5 and up. 

*****

And now for the crown jewel of these new editions!

Mary, the Mother of Jesus (first published 1995) 33 pages, and there is a LOT in here. An astonishing book, luminous, illuminating. If you’re looking for a religious book to give a child for Christmas, this is the one.

It covers the whole life of Mary, from before her conception to her assumption and coronation, and it draws on scripture and also on pious legend, including things like the child Mary climbing the steps to the temple by herself,

and the staff of Joseph miraculously flowering. It also, to my surprise, describes Mary as gently dying and being laid in a tomb, with Thomas meeting an angel who has him roll the stone away and find her winding sheets left behind. My kids were a little dismayed, having been taught (by me!) that Mary didn’t die, but was assumed into heaven body and soul without dying first. It turns out there’s no actual dogma definitively saying whether she died or not. In any case, the illustration of her assumption got me right in the kishkes:

Reading the whole thing from start to finish helped me remember what a straight up good story it is, and how many angels came to this family. 

All the illustrations are striking, and the expressions on the (clearly middle eastern) faces are subtle and thought-provoking.  Here is Mary proud but protective as the wise men appear to visit her little son

Here are the parents angry, dismayed, and confused to find Jesus in the temple:

Here is Mary calmly and knowingly, with a glimmer of a smile, telling the stewards at Cana to do whatever Jesus tells them

and look at this angel, busting through into the room of this young girl with her long braid

Extraordinary. It says ages 7 and up, and honestly I would give this book to an adult convert to introduce him to Mary. It’s so lovely and heartfelt. Each section is introduced with a short excerpt from the liturgy of the hours. So good. 

That’s it! Good luck! You have until Friday the 20th to enter. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you can’t see the Rafflecopter form, click this link and it will take you there. 

***

P.S., Did I ever tell you my Tomie dePaola story? It’s not a very good story, but it’s what I’ve got. In second grade, I won a Young Author’s contest (The Day It Rained Piano Keys, by Simmy Prever. No copies extant) and dePaola presented the awards, and each winner got a kiss on the cheek. I’d been reading his books steadily my whole life, and almost forty years later, I finally got up my nerve to ask him for an interview, because he lived in NH. I wanted to know what his favorite book was, and what his relationship was with the Church, and how hard it was to paint the face of Jesus. And if he knew someone like Bambalona. So I put in my request and I waited with bated breath for his response, and then two weeks later, he died.

That’s my story. I don’t think I actually killed him, but if you want to talk to someone, my advice is to do it now, not later. SIGH. 

What we’re reading, watching, and listening to, Sept. 2020

It’s been a while! I’m trying to make a point of keeping my oar in with stuff that has nothing to do with [gestures vaguely toward steaming heap of current events]. Here’s what I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to that I can recommend to you. 

READING

Moby Dick

If you’ve never read it before, but have filed it away under “classics that people get forced to read because good literature means suffering,” then you are wrong-o. It’s a long book, yes, and some passages are insanely dense. And yeah, one of the overall themes is encountering the ineffability of God. But it’s far more accessible than you may expect, and it’s also hilarious. In the first few chapters, there’s this passage where he just goes off about how much he likes eating chicken. And it’s so exciting! And you will love Queequeg. I really, really want you to read this book, because I don’t want you to die without having met Queequeg. The chapters are fairly short, and I’m giving you permission to skim the prologue and just dive in. Read it aloud with someone!

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

Here’s another book you may have been avoiding because you expect it to be stodgy and stuffy. It is not. Wharton is a luminous writer, and frequently comes up with descriptions or turns of phrase that make you stop with a gasp and go back to have the pleasure of reading it again. She is absolutely merciless not only to the society she is critiquing and exposing, but also toward her characters — all of them — because she understands them so well. This one is about a poor but lovely young woman who is running out of time to capture a rich husband so she can settle into a comfortable life of glittering wealth at the end of the 18th century in New York. It’s not exactly a pick-me-up — none of Wharton’s work is — but it’s a joy to read and a fascinating look into a very different world full of strangely familiar people. 

Here’s a passage that gives you a little taste of Wharton’s skill:

Lily had abundant energy of her own, but it was restricted by the necessity of adapting herself to her aunt’s habits. She saw that at all costs she must keep Mrs. Peniston’s favour till, as Mrs. Bart would have phrased it, she could stand on her own legs. Lily had no mind for the vagabond life of the poor relation, and to adapt herself to Mrs. Peniston she had, to some degree, to assume that lady’s passive attitude. She had fancied at first that it would be easy to draw her aunt into the whirl of her own activities, but there was a static force in Mrs. Peniston against which her niece’s efforts spent themselves in vain. To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor. She did not, indeed, expect Lily to remain equally immovable: she had all the American guardian’s indulgence for the volatility of youth.

She had indulgence also for certain other habits of her niece’s. It seemed to her natural that Lily should spend all her money on dress, and she supplemented the girl’s scanty income by occasional “handsome presents” meant to be applied to the same purpose. Lily, who was intensely practical, would have preferred a fixed allowance; but Mrs. Peniston liked the periodical recurrence of gratitude evoked by unexpected cheques, and was perhaps shrewd enough to perceive that such a method of giving kept alive in her niece a salutary sense of dependence.

Bonus book: I’m reading The Book of Three aloud to the little kids (ages 8 and 5) (with older kids pretending they’re not listening in). It’s a bit above the 5-year-old’s head, but she is more or less following along. The eight-year-old is really digging it. The story moves right along, and something exciting happens in each chapter. Taran is exactly as whiny as I remember him (it takes several books for him to move past the “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” stage, as I recall); and the style is a little bit earnestly overwrought and corny. We don’t really need eleven different reminders that Gwydion has green-flecked eyes and that his shaggy head is wolf-like. I guess it’s supposed to echo a kind of repetitive epithets in epic poems, but it doesn’t quite come off. However, the lack of subtlety make these books very appealing for the right audience, and are about salutary things like courage, patience, and loyalty, and not being deceived by appearances. If your child likes fairy tales or adventures, this is a good step up to the next level of complexity, with some magic and humor thrown in. Based loosely on Welsh mythology and ancient culture.

WATCHING:

Medium

We watched this show when it was on TV, and it’s held up pretty well so far on the re-watch (currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Hulu). The hook is that a young mom who was interning to be a lawyer discovers that her real talent is as a psychic, so she works as a consultant to the DA, helping solve crimes by talking to the dead and seeing the invisible. Creepy and fairly intense sometimes, so probably good for high school age and up. I like Patricia Arquette’s character so much, and for some reason her sometimes appallingly wooden acting just makes her more endearing. Her husband is kind of awful, but there is a persuasive chemistry between them, and the depiction of the chaos in family life is pretty good. Good characters in general, good pacing, original stories, and a solidly entertaining show, often funny and very clever. I remember there were one or two episodes that I thought crossed a line of decency, but I forget why, so, beware.

 

My Name Is Earl

Also a show that’s holding up well since we last saw it when it was originally broadcast. (I think we’re watching it on Hulu right now.) The conceit is that a good-for-nothing trailer park dude wins the lottery, loses the winning ticket, and then against all odds finds it again, so he decides to pay back karma by making amends for all the bad things he’s done in his life. Here’s another show where the main character is one of the weaker actors, but that doesn’t really harm the show. We are showing it to high school age and up. They caught on right away that it doesn’t really matter if karma exists, because Earl’s quest to do good deeds for the people around him is good both for him and for them, and they often have a ripple effect (and he sometimes discovers that his bad deeds hurt more people than he realized). I especially enjoy Joy and Darnell (Jaime Pressly as Joy doesn’t hold back and keep herself halfway cute, the way so many American actresses will do), and his feeble-minded brother Randy is wonderful. The little motel bed scenes at the end are priceless. It’s a very funny show in general. It can be a bit raunchy and of course tasteless and occasionally a bit dark, so not for the easily offended, but contains much more sweetness and mercy than you’re used to seeing on TV.

LISTENING:

Bach’s Brandenburg concertos

When I feel bad, which is always, I will often go to Bach for some of what I suppose you’d call “centering.” Going back to the well so you remember that life is worth living and humans beings really do have a divine spark in them. Bach reminds me of Josef Ratzinger: A thoroughly civilized man, by which I mean he has used all of his strength to develop the talents God gave him and to bend what could be flaws into something in service of virtue. Or so it seems to me. But at the same time they are also men’s men, with a kind of unbending ardor that’s almost alarming when you realize the kind of blindingly brilliant force that’s being held in check. Ahem! Anyway, that’s what I hear when I listen to Bach sometimes. I usually go for the more passionate and moody solo pieces for piano or cello, but lately I’m returning to the Brandenburg concertos, which are just a pure feast. You’ll come out feeling like life is good and makes sense. 

On the other hand if you do want to feel terrible, but only for good old fashioned reasons of love and betrayal and impending death and gorgeously exhausted disgust, may I recommend Lucinda Williams’ new album, Good Souls Better Angels?

Williams is 67 years old and sounds . . . .1,067. She sounds like a star that’s starting to collapse, or a misshapen deep sea creature glowing steadily away down in the midnight zone, or a campfire that’s been smothered and doused with water and stirred with a stick, but in the morning there’s still a pale tendril of smoke coming up. Somebody get this lady a hassock so she can put up her feet, and maybe a lozenge so she can put up her larynx. Really jagged, gritty, gnarly stuff, maybe not profound but it really delivers.

Here’s “Big Black Train”

Okay, that’s it for now! How are you spending your days, that you can recommend? 

All these kids, and nowhere to go

How are you holding up? Are you okay?

As for us, we’re doing surprisingly well as we head into another of who-knows-how-many-weeks of being stuck at home together. I feel like our family has spent the past 20 years training for an extended period of social distancing such as this.

Working from home, buying in bulk, going long periods without seeing friends, and living our lives with a constant sense of impending doom? These are already our routine, so the past several weeks have just been an intensification of our normal lives, plus the luxury of not having to drive kids into town and back eleven times a day. I told my therapist (via hygienic telemedicine video chat, of course) that we’re actually kind of living my ideal life, minus the obligatory medical panic.

As you Australians head into your enforced staycations, allow me to share some of the things our family is enjoying or planning to enjoy as we find ourselves alone together:

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 

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

Five Catholic books for littlest kids (and also for their parents)

The books we read as young kids stay with us for a lifetime, so I’m always on the lookout for books that not only have attractive and engaging illustrations, but convey powerful and lasting truths.

I’m especially careful when those books are explicitly about our Faith. Here are a few of my current favorites in that category. They not only tell my kids things I want them to know about God, but I’ve found them moving and engaging myself.

Read my list at The Catholic Weekly

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.