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. 

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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. 

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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.

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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).