With God Under the Bed: Darwin’s immediate book meme

Speaking of books, let’s do this thing about what we’re reading! (I can’t remember why I wrote “speaking of books,” but apparently I was when I started writing this. Well, there are worse things to speak of.)

1. What book are you reading right now?

Meh. I’m in the middle of a bunch of books and not happy about any of them. 

Whisper My Name by Ernest Hebert

is a sequel to a book I loved, The Dogs of March. The series takes place in Darby, a fictional version of the exact spot in NH where I live, and boy does he understand what it’s like here. Dogs of Winter was like Faulkner meets Hemingway. Whisper My Name is veering a little bit into Walker Percy-style “man meets troubled girl, and va va voom” territory and it’s making me itchy, but I guess I’ll keep going. 

Also re-reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, about terrible people in Academia,

which is making me laugh out loud but feel bad about it. I just finished scene where he makes several choices about how to deal with the fact that he set his boss’ wife’s guest bed on fire and it just about murdered me. The protagonist has a habit of swiftly and privately making grotesque faces that express how he feels about people he encounters, and that reminds me, it may be okay that we’re supposed to start wearing masks again. 

Also re-reading Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler.

If you haven’t read an Anne Tyler novel (and there are about 700 of them), I would recommend Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant, where I think she was at her full powers — the least prone to precious quirky self-indulgence, and the most fearless and tender toward people doing dreadful things for understandable reasons. (Homesick Restaurant has scenes of child abuse.) Morgan’s Passing is pretty good, but I think she’s a little too patient with Morgan and his midlife problems. I just want to kick his ass.

1a. Readaloud

Just finished The Princess and Curdie.

The kids had a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, as is appropriate for George MacDonald. I know I’ve complained before about the profoundly Victorian unreadability of some of his sentences, and I’ll do it again. Just say it, man! 

But the Curdie books are probably the most accessible of his, except for The Light Princess, which is the easiest to read and also the most coherent and straightforward story. The Princess and Curdie is a sequel that’s better than the first book (The Princess and the Goblin), which we also read aloud. It has such good images in it: Young Curdie and his aged father meeting each other halfway up a hill, and if you saw them from a distance, you wouldn’t immediately know who was climbing and who was descending. This idea is carried forward when Curdie is given the power to identify what it is that people are becoming by touching their hands. Some hands feel human, but others feel like the paws or hooves or tentacles of animals. And the reverse is also true: There are fabulous avenging monsters in the story, who are apparently working out their salvation and becoming human again.

You can see how MacDonald’s great admirer C.S. Lewis was influenced by (or at least agreed with) this idea that, by the way we live, we carry heaven or hell within us even before we die. This idea is in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle and probably several others. 

Anyway, between that and the imagery of the great princess purifying her beloved children by heaping burning roses on them, and weeping as she does it, I’m glad we read it. BUT THE ENDING. If I had remembered it ended that way, I would simply have skipped the final page. I was reading the book to the six-year-old and the ten-year-old, and some of the teens were listening in. The ending is basically: The young princess grows up and marries the hero and the kingdom is wonderful. But they don’t have children and then die, and then there’s a bad king, and things get worse and worse until he literally undermines the kingdom and it all crashes down and everyone dies, and then no one even remembers it existed. Well, goodbye!  Generally, I respect authors to do what they want with their stories but there was no preparation for this happening, other than a general feeling that the story was a broad analogy for humanity in general. Truly unnecessary and the kids were rightly horrified. Boo.

Up next: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Tolkein.

The Green Knight movie comes out soon and it looks absolutely swell.

I read the Sir Gawain by Marie Borroff to the kids many years ago (that’s the one we read in college), in our last year of homeschooling, and they were spellbound. I remember skipping all the other lessons for the day because they wanted me to keep reading to the end.  But [sighs until dead] it was a lot easier to spellbind them in those days.

Here’s how the Tolkein begins:

When the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
and the fortress fell in flame to firebrands and ashes,
the traitor who the contrivance of treason there fashioned
was tried for his treachery, and the most true upon earth–
it was Aeneas the noble and his renowned kindred
who then laid under them lands, and lords became
of well-nigh all the wealth in the Western Isles. 

More fun to read aloud than ol’ George MacD, anyway! Heck, maybe I’ll pay the kids to give the first few chapters a fair shot. And then buy them movie tickets. Those poor children, how they suffer. 

2. What book did you just finish?

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

At first this struck me as a rather heavy handed “Have you ever seen such cruelty” kind of book, ala Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea or Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue, but it grew on me, and I was impressed at how the author brought two stories together. It follows the lives of two girls in Afghanistan, one born in the late sixties and one in the late seventies. The prose is a bit movie storyboard-y at times, but it’s very sincere and creates a strong mental image of the setting. A painful and beautiful read. As far as I know, it’s a faithful rendition of the history, and fleshed out my skimpy understanding of the era before 9/11 (but it definitely reads like a novel, not a sneaky history lesson). The reading level seems aimed at smart middle school or high school age, but it includes fairly graphic scenes of rape and violence, so reader beware. 

I also recently finished The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken.

This one is a YA book, but Joan Aiken always uses her whole butt and doesn’t talk down to younger readers. Really never read a dud by her. The Shadow Guests is a weird, compelling story about Cosmo, a teenage boy who’s sent to live in the countryside with his great aunt after his mother and older brother apparently killed themselves to avoid succumbing to a family curse. But the past isn’t done with his family, and Cosmo becomes entangled with previous generations. It sounds dark and awful, but it’s very entertaining and funny in parts, and the dialogue and characters are so skillfully and realistically done even as the plot itself is outrageous. We recently read Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase out loud, and it was just as good as I remember. Aiken’s male teenage characters are the most appealing people you’ll ever meet. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I started it several years ago and didn’t get very far, but I hope to keep going this time. Damien’s been recommending it for years.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

ANY BOOK. I have almost completely ruined my brain with social media, so if I could finish anything at all, I’ll be pleased. 

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

With God In Russia by Walter Ciszek

I’m a bad Catholic reader and I should feel bad. I have now officially lost this book under the bed twice, once under the old bed and now once under the new bed. With God under the bed, I guess. 

6. What is your current reading trend? 

See (4.) 

That’s about it! Check out Darwin Catholic for the source of this meme, and let me know if you have any recommendations or dire warnings!

I threw out half my books and I’m okay

It’s trendy to talk about your hopelessly neurotic relationship with books. People love to share memes about how they just can’t stop buying more books even though they haven’t read the last books they have. It’s not my favorite schtick, but at least it’s better than the people who, to prove their love of books, share photos of the intricate diorama they made by cutting an actual book into little bits. They just love books soooooo much, that’s what they did to a book!

If that’s how you show love, remind me not to let you babysit.

Anyway, I could tell you a thing or two about what it looks like when book collecting gets truly neurotic. I grew up in that kind of house. My parents weren’t hoarders, but they accumulated books in a way that can’t be completely explained by their love of reading and their thirst for knowledge (which were considerable). My father once bought an entire dumpster full of books, which the seller delivered to our house at an excellent price. The only catch with these particular books was that they had been on fire, and most of them were blackened and crumbling, and wet and moldy. But books! For such a good price, that would otherwise get dumped! And it was such a deal . . . . and it would be such a waste to let books get thrown out.

That’s the thing that catches me up now: It would be such a waste to let them go. You can’t just let books go. Collecting books isn’t like collecting anything else, because they’re not just things. Books are especially important. They hold a special place in our minds and command a certain category of respect. You can’t just let them go!

Maybe you see where this is headed… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

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