Is Catholic publishing sexist?

If women want to succeed in business, politics, or entertainment, they have to put out. The sexual revolution didn’t create this state of affairs; it only gave plausible deniability to predators who’ve been doing their thing since long before the 60’s.

It’s only now, in 2017, that society is listening to women’s age-old complaints of institutional sexism, and it’s only now that corporations are cracking down on the male predators they employ. Whether this response is a passing mood or a lasting change, it’s too soon to say.

Is the Catholic working world different?

I don’t know if I can bear to dig too deeply into this question. Certainly, countless Catholic men have discovered that a combination of authority and spirituality makes a fine snare for the vulnerable. The priest sex abuse scandal, especially the ongoing Legion of Christ debacle, illustrates that horror all too well. And, just as in the secular world, many Catholics will excuse and forgive predators and discredit their accusers, and will blame women and young people for tempting and seducing those who prey on them.

But what about in the Catholic working world that extends beyond the actual Church? Are women constrained more than men? If women want to succeed, are they expected to behave in a certain way? Or are Catholics better than the secular world?

It’s becoming more rare, in mainstream Catholicism, for women to be shamed and castigated for simply working outside the home, but sexist attitudes are still pervasive in more conservative circles. Even in online groups specifically dedicated to supporting Catholic working moms, the very members of that group will sometimes suggest that, if a working woman is struggling in any way, maybe the Holy Spirit is telling her to quit work (or to trade in her actual career for an MLM scam).

In some professional Catholic circles, if you do your work, meet your deadlines, and don’t cause scandal, your work is respected, whether you’re male or female. But in other circles, you’ll still hear that it’s actually wrong for women to go to college. I reject the tired notion that the Catholic male priesthood is evidence of systemic sexism, but it’s undeniable that Catholics use the male priesthood to justify that sexism.

You’ll hear that it’s just to pay women less than men, because men are supposed to be the breadwinners, and women who work are robbing men of opportunities (and their manhood). You’ll hear the word “feminine” used as a synonym for “shoddy, inferior, and trite.” You’ll hear that women are, as a species, too emotional and flighty to contribute much of intellectual value.

My personal experience is limited. I only know what I’ve seen and what I’ve read in Crisis and from the Catholic authors at The Federalist. But one thing I’ve actually lived is Catholic publishing, and here’s what I learned:

You can say whatever you want in your Catholic lady book, as long as it’s 90% uplifting, joyful, and encouraging, amen.

Did you ever wonder why I initially self-published my book about NFP? It’s because I approached several Catholic publishers (with the NFP book and with previous book pitches in the same vein), and they told me my book was too dark, too negative, too discouraging, too snarky, too problematic. It frankly acknowledged the struggles of living the faith, and that was unacceptable. It might possibly lead people astray. No one claimed it was was heterodox. It simply wasn’t joyful enough.

I thought they were wrong. So I published it myself, as an ebook. It was exceedingly popular, and then Catholic publishers — including more than one that had rejected my proposal for the very same manuscript — approached me, looking for printing rights. It seemed there was a market for my problematic negativity after all. (And yes, I cackled like Yosemite Sam as the offers poured in.)

Now, once upon a time, Catholic readers tolerated something less than joy-joy-joy from women writers. Dorothy Day, Maisie Ward, Caryll Housleander, and even the humorists Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck spring to mind as non-saints who acknowledged that Catholic woman could find Christ in other places besides kitchen sinks, nurseries, and fields of daisies. (Note that Kerr, Day, and Bombeck were published by secular presses, and Ward started her own company to publish her work, Houselander’s, and others’.)

Today, Heather King, Eve Tushnet, Leah Libresco, Emily Stimpson, Jennifer Fulwiler, Amy Wellborn, Sherry Weddell, Leah Perrault, and Elizabeth Scalia come to mind as Catholic female authors who don’t shy away from troubling questions. I’d be interested to know whether they felt constrained to uphold a certain image of Catholic womanhood, or if they felt free to speak their minds.

Whatever their answer, my own experience is undeniable, and it left a mark. Catholic women writers aren’t required to put out. Instead, they’re all too often required to stuff down. Stuff down anything ugly, anything problematic, anything risky, anything that doesn’t end up with an edifying bow on top.

I’m not naive. Catholic publishers bear a responsibility under which secular publishers do not labor. Catholic publishers must, like everyone else, know and please their audience; but there’s more. What if they publish something by an author who’s so gritty, authentic, and honest that, two weeks after the book debuts, it’s revealed that the author has slid past authenticity and straight into debauchery? A secular publisher doesn’t want to get caught out promoting an author who turns out to be a liar or a pervert, and a Catholic publisher doesn’t want to get stuck with six thousand copies of a Catholic book by someone who doesn’t act remotely like a Catholic.  What Catholic publisher in its right mind would take that risk?

Well, they might, if the author is a man.

In our conversation of several weeks ago, Jessica Mesman Griffith told me that several years ago, she pitched a memoir to Loyola Press. The name inspired by her daughter’s pretend game which involved the seasick pilgrims on the Mayflower. Together, they drew stick figure pilgrims with X’s for eyes, suffering through their strange journey.

Griffith told me:

I always wanted to do something with that title. It was so resonant with what my own spiritual life was like. I’d had this private dream to start a publishing house. I was really inspired by Sheed and Ward, loved reading about their philosophy of publishing and their approach.
I wanted something for Catholic writers where you didn’t have orthodoxy policing. I wanted a space where people would be Catholic, or cultural Catholics, or lapsed Catholics, where we could talk about beautiful things that inspired us.
Loyola declined the book, and the project was put on the back burner. Mesman then met Jonathan Ryan when he was acquisitions editor at Ave Maria Press. In December of 2015, she agreed to co-blog with him at Patheos, and they decided the name “Sick Pilgrim” (again drawing on her daughter’s game) would work well.  The blog, and the accompanying online discussion and support group, took off and developed a wildly devoted following.
Griffith says:
That’s when Loyola came back and said to pitch the book again, but with Jonathan as co-author. Even though it was the exact same book and same title. They said the male voice brings something special.
She emphasized that phrase several times. “The male voice brings something special.” Griffith said:
I recoiled. But, you’re a writer, you’re broke, someone offers you money . . . you do it. It was essays I had already written, about my spiritual life, my background, how I came back to the Church as an adult. I saw how [the blog and group] Sick Pilgrim was affecting people in a good way. I felt like it was its own kind of ministry for people who feel excluded. I saw people coming back to the Church, just from having another voice out there saying, “Whatever, I messed up, and I still go [to Mass].” The good outweighed the bad, even though I was reluctant. 
 And so Griffith agreed to co-author the book with Ryan. It was her idea, her essays, and her title, drawn from her life. But, Griffith says, Loyola didn’t want to publish it unless there was a man involved.
Then, in November of 2017, less than a month after the book debuted, it was spiked . . .  because that same man was involved.
This is just one example. And my own experience is just another example. And what I read in comment boxes is just what I read in comment boxes — those are all just more examples.

After a while, you have to wonder how many isolated examples there can be, before they form a pattern spelling out “Catholic publishing is still sexist.”

So you tell me. Is there a problem in Catholic publishing, or in the Catholic working world at large? Are women allowed to admit to being human beings with complex, untidy experiences? Are women expected to conform to ideals of womanhood, while men are given more latitude? If there’s a problem, is it getting better?  What do you think?

***

EDIT and clarification, 12/7/17: After some justifiable criticism, I have taken out a few sentences that referenced an essay by Jody Bottum. The essay wasn’t actually a good example of what I’m talking about, and bringing it up distracted from the point of this essay. I don’t blame Bottum for being annoyed to be dragged into it.

I did frame my essay as a question, and I wish I had made it more clear it was a sincere one, not a rhetorical one. Several people have answered by suggesting that the more prevalent problem is Catholic publishers being unwilling to publish anything that’s too risky (by way of being honest, not-altogether-tidy, etc.), whether it’s written by a man or a woman.

It happens that women are probably more likely than men to accommodate their editors by toning things down, trimming away the darker stuff, and adding a tidy bow. The result is that women authors get published plenty, but what they publish tends to be more facile and shallow than what men publish. But there can be reasonable argument as to whether that’s due to sexism or more complicated issues.

Image: Detail from photo by Andrew Toskin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

50+ gifts our ten kids loved: The 2017 list

It’s the fourth annual Fisher family Christmas gift recommendation list! These are all products our family owns and has enjoyed. You can find my 2014 list here, my 2015 list here, and my 2016 list here.

Many, but not all of these are from Amazon. I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

And now for the presents:

1.Turn table with built in speakers

Good little machine for the price, and has held up well.

2. Acoustic Yamaha guitar with case and accessories

 

 

3. Squier by Fender “Mini” Strat Beginner Electric Guitar with Rosewood Fingerboard

Great starter electric guitar. It’s . . . so loud.

4. Distortion pedal bundle

This, my daughter notes, is the same one Curt Cobain had. Ha cha cha!

5. Machete

Good for clearing brush, gathering kindling, or just choppa-choppa-choppa. Hey, they have ten fingers, plenty to spare.

6. Prismacolor double-ended manga markers

A nice set for sketching, drawing comics, etc. Good, rich colors.

7. Light saber screwdriver set

These are on the small side, so they are not for heavy duty jobs, but they are real screw drivers, and solid.

8. Fox hat with ear flaps

As advertised. Cute! Runs a tiny bit small, so not for kids with tons of hair or giant heads.

9. OceanPetal Art Studio flower jewelry (Etsy)

So many gorgeous designs. Flora in resin, bracelets, pendants, and more. We have a lovely flat pendant with yellow flowers.

10. Otamatone

This . . . is a little hard to explain. The stem is a touch-sensitive electronic music-maker, so if you press or slide your finger along it, you can make different tones. Then, with your other hand, you squeeze the flexible sides of the mouth to open or close it, to change the volume, to make the sound staccato or give it vibrato, etc. It. Is. Hilarious. It looks like the little guy is singing. It’s the cheesiest imaginable synthesizer sound.

11. Princess Leia Bun Hat

Warm and snug. And who might you be?

12. Hellboy Library Editions

The library editions are compilations of the comic books bound in heavy, oversized hardcover. My son rather heatedly explains: “Hellboy is Catholic. He fights monsters. He helps save babies. He gets help from priests a lot. It’s mythology based. The art is pretty gory, appropriate for age 13 and up.” And that is a direct quote.

13. Jewelry and rosaries from IronLace Design

We don’t have this particular piece ($45), but we have several necklaces, bracelets, and a rosary from Kyra Matsui’s studio, and they are all fantastic. Beautiful, original, strong, and striking. Chainmail and vintage watch parts.
COUPON! Get 30% off storewide with coupon code: NARKNON  Good until Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017.

14. Samsung Chromebook 3, 11.6″, 4GB RAM, 16GB eMMC

We have two of these (one for a college kid, one for a reporter). A good option for all-purpose computering, fine for movies and streaming. We used to buy refurbished, but now we get cheaper new machines so we can get the warranty. You have to get used to storing everything on Google Drive or saving it on a disk, rather than on your machine. A solid choice that doesn’t cost a million dollars.

15. Canvas Messenger Bag 

Amazingly sturdy at a great price. Nice and roomy and attractive, and the strap is comfortable. It’s bigger than it looks in the picture, believe it or not.

16. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

A good introduction to Terry Pratchett and Discworld. Sergeant Vimes is the best. This one has a lot of dragons in it.

17. 10 x 50 Binoculars 

Good and heavy, smooth and easy to use. Comes with decent case, strap, cloth, and lens caps. Birds! The moon! Neighbors!

18. Pandemic Board Game

Lots of strategy and cooperative play, or you all die. My teenagers play it with the younger kids (age 7 and up). Suspenseful and lots of pressure.

19. 5th Element Panther XT Inline Skates

Son skates around town after school every day. These took some breaking in, but now he loves them, and says they are comfortable and easy to maneuver.

20. Mysterium Board Game

Help a dead murder victim remember details about his grisly demise, using clues from arty and deliberately confusing “vision cards.” Lavish and complex cooperative game. Comes with an app to play spooky music to add to the atmosphere. (Full review here.)

21. Funko Pop Eleven

Aw, wookit the widdle blood coming out of her nose. I don’t really understand Funko Pops.

22. Panda surprise mug

Helloooo! (There are also cats, monkeys, ducks, Santas, etc.)

23. Cow Cow Dresses

These come in hundreds and hundreds of amazing, unexpected, sometimes inexplicable patterns. The material is clingy but not thin, and has a bit of a sheen and stretch, like a bathing suit. Gathers fall nicely, and flares way out when you spin. On the short side, as you can see.

24. Die Hard: The Authorized Coloring and Activity Book

Sighhh. She loved it.

25. “Fools! I’ll destroy you all” Button

For that one kid.

***
Now we’ll move on to some gifts for kids in middle school. These are not hard and fast lines, as you will see.

26. Magic sequin pillowcase

Every single person in my household loves these pillows. (NOTE: The link above is just the pillowcase! You have to buy the pillow insert separately.) We have a blue-green-purple/black one and a few silver/gold ones, but there are many color combos. Draw with your finger to flip the sequins over, and reveal another color. Endlessly fascinating and soothing to play with, and they have held up remarkably well. Remarkably!

27. Mighty Jack and the Goblin King

The much-anticipated sequel to Hatke’s graphic novel Mighty Jack, which follows a boy who has to spend his summer helping his single mom care for his sister, who has autism, and who doesn’t speak — until she does. Good stuff, with an exciting twist at the end for fans of Hatke’s other work.

28. Minecraft stop motion animation set

This is the set that got my son started on stop-motion animation. It comes with a little stage, backgrounds, many props, a little stand for your camera, and an app to animate the photos and share.

My son has branched off on his own and now uses the free version of the app called Stop Motion Studio by CATEATER, but he says this set gave him the confidence to get going.

29. Godzilla 7″ Vinyl Figure from Destroy All Monsters

One of the many Godzillas my son uses for his stop motion videos. Nicely detailed and sturdy.

30. “Deal With It” Glasses

It’s possible my son is the only one in the world who wants these, but he sure does like them. I can’t explain it more than that.

31. Bricky Blocks Black Snapback

Bring your Legos with you! Put your Legos on your head! What a time to be alive!

32. Air hockey table

We got this with great reluctance, thinking it would be flimsy for the price, and that the kids would get tired of it soon. Nope! They use it a lot and have a lot of fun. It’s great for parties, and fun for the little kids to play with their big brothers. Kinda loud, but it’s air hockey. They just stand it up on its end to keep it out of the way.

33. Pikachu hoodie

Please tell me my kids aren’t the last ones in the world who like Pokemon. Good fit. Rather charming.

34. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

Works as a standalone for kids who are not yet familiar with Squirrel Girl.

35. LCD Writing Tablet

For the kid who can’t stop doodling. Also great for car rides. Write with the stylus on the black screen, press the button to erase. That’s it. Surprisingly durable for the price. We have a couple of these in different colors.

***

And gifts for younger kids and toddlers:

36. Crocodile Toddler RC Car with Music and Lights

Toddlers really can control this simple RC croc. It does play manically cheerful music, flash lights, and chomp its mouth while it runs, but darn it, this thing does not break. It’s been in constant use for a year and is still going strong. Lots of fun to watch the little guys use it and baffle the cat with it. Good battery life, too.

37. Mama Kangaroo and Joey Plush, 13″

Sweet and sturdy. Good for the kid who likes to make sure the baby is always where he belongs. Stands up by itself.

38. I Got This! Game

Exciting, frustrating, some teamwork required, but lots of competition. Very entertaining to watch. Kids have to decide if they should push themselves a little further to do more and more challenging, silly tasks.

39. Tempera Paints Set, 16 oz, Pack of 6 .

Great price for this much paint.

40. Rubie’s Wonder Woman Costume

Runs a little small. I like the star pants. Makes a kid feel super without sliding into “sexy tot” territory.

41. Lots of things from Door Number 9. Here’s the wonderful St. Michael prayer Pillow, featuring a prayer very obviously written by a real kid:

So much geeky fun here, some of it Catholic, much of it for adults or older kids. We have several of Elisa’s lovingly handmade products and we adore them.

42. LYRA Ferby Triangular Colored Pencils

Our beloved kindergarten teacher introduced us to these lovely colored pencils. I balked at the price at first, but they are quite good. Vivid colors, nice and smooth, and easy to grip, even for lefties, and the tips don’t snap off.

43. Fleece lined koala hat

Cute and goofy, and very warm. Holds up great. My daughter wears this nine months out of the year.

44. Boomwhackers Whack Pack

Bright plastic tubes you whack to make different booming tones. You can arrange them in different orders on the mat and hit them with sticks, hit them with each other, or use them to hit other things. Music and hitting things! Sounds like a happy childhood. Longest tube is about two feet. These have been stepped on and mangled without any ill effects.

45. Chicken Soup with Rice Board Book: A Book of Months

Possibly the greatest poem ever written. I’m always happy to read this one. This is a sturdy board book. Here’s to you, Mrs. Ida Perles!

46. Miracle Man: The Story of Jesus by John Hendrix

A fresh and exhilarating style that incorporates the words of the text into the illustrations. Quite powerful.

47. Little Tikes Shopping Cart

We looked at many, many shopping carts, and settled on this one because it has a little seat for your little friend to ride along. Irresistible. This gets constant use. The bigger kids have managed to take it apart, and then put it back together again, with no ill effects.

48. My Little Pony Monopoly Board Game

Uhhm, check the price on this one. The price currently listed is insane, but it seems to fluctuate. The game itself is nice for MLP fans and gets lots of play. Pony game pieces are heavy and well made, not flimsy.

49. Melissa & Doug 20 Animal Magnets in a Box

Bright and pleasant. Magnets have stayed on, animals have not peeled off, despite occasionally getting wet.

50. Dreamy Dress-Up Butterfly Wings

We keep buying these. Found some lovely bright ones this time. The material is strong, but thin enough that you don’t have to take it off to strap your little butterfly into its car seat.

51. Color Paddles, Set of 18

A slightly odd present, but I knew my five-year-old would love it. These are just transparent colored paddles to play with, mix together, and look through. Despite they way they are arranged in the photo, they are not attached together. I strung six of them on a chain and put the rest away so I could replace them as needed. Kids love peering through them and seeing Purpleworld or Everythingisgreenville. It’s just cool! Good for car trips. There are also slightly raised different patterns on each.

51. Tinkerbell’s Learn Ballet Step by Step DVD

I previewed tons of ballet videos, and this one is by far the best. It teaches the girls actual ballet positions, but is simple and easy to follow and has pleasant piano music. The teacher is cheerful and seems to enjoy children. It’s not manic or cutesy and has no unsettling mascots or animated characters (“Tinkerbell” appears to be some generic name; there’s no Disney fairy involved). Kids can use a chair back as a barre.

52. Kitty Cat Riding A Unicorn T-Shirt

For the child who, for reasons of her own, is slowly building a collection of strange, oversized cat shirts. This is actually a men’s size, but that’s just not right, so I’m putting it in the kid present section.

***
Whew, that’s all for this year! Hope you find something good.

Why this non-lover of animals is a great James Herriot fan

Today’s the birthday of James “Alf” Wight, better known by his pen name, James Herriot, author of the deservedly popular series that begins with All Creatures Great and Small. Last year on this day would have been his one hundredth birthday, and although I’m not especially interested in animals, I’ll never get tired of trying to get people to read his books.

He didn’t start writing until he was fifty years old, after much urging from his wife Joan (“Helen” in his books); and he continued working as a vet long after his books became bestsellers.

Most of his semi-autobiographical books tell stories from his career as a country vet and surgeon in rural England, beginning just before the advent of modern drugs, and continuing past the era of subsistence farms and into the day when he was called upon mainly to work with pets, rather than working animals. His stories betray a great tenderness toward animals, but even more so toward people, even as he delicately exposes their ridiculous and occasionally cruel sides.

I’m fascinated by his ability to write cozy, nostalgic, charming stories that somehow rarely even approach sentimentality. It was more evident in some chapters than in others that he was fictionalizing his experience (a more-fictional one that springs to mind is the chapter where he describes a wealthy man whose indolent wife and daughter despise him, and then contrasts it to a visit to an impoverished farm, where the father works his fingers to the bone and his bonny, smiling daughter cheerfully bikes down the mountain with a few precious coins to buy her beloved Da a bottle of beer); but you will forgive his blurring of fact when as you meet his enormous cast of brilliantly-drawn characters, some startlingly universal, some fascinatingly unique.

Although many of his anecdotes end in self-deprecating lessons learned (“Dinna meddle wi’ thing ye ken nuthin’ aboot!” shouts an angry coalman after he gets his comeuppance after taking liberties with a strange horse), not all of his stories have pat, tidy morals. He describes with real sorrow and helplessness the sensation of leaving a lonely pensioner alone with the body of a beloved dog he was forced to euthanize, and his awe is sincere when he remembers the time he met a farmer who worked so hard, his only luxury in life is waking up in the night and realizing he can go back to sleep.

A good many of his stories are of him trying to impress someone, and being utterly crushed with humiliation — a theme for which, I confess, I have an endless appetite.  I almost swallowed my own tongue laughing over the chapter where he and his boss Siegfried had high hopes of breaking into the upper crust by judging some purebred horses at a fair. They happen to meet an old school friend from years ago, and they happened to head over to the beer tent, and one thing lead to another until his high toned guests are tired of being ignored, and decide to leave. The pickled Siegfried tries to salvage the situation with gallantry, offering:

“The windscreen is very dirty. I’ll give it a rub for you.” The ladies watched him silently as he weaved round to the back of the car and began to rummage in the boot. The love light had died from their eyes. I don’t know why he took the trouble; possibly it was because, through the whisky mists, he felt he must re-establish himself as a competent and helpful member of the party. But the effort fell flat; the effect was entirely spoiled. He was polishing the glass with a dead hen.

Maybe the thing that defines Herriot’s writing and makes his stories so appealing is that, just as in his veterinary practice, he never gets bored. He describes the fascination of watching, perhaps for the hundredth time, a mother cow instinctively licking her newborn calf. He and the hard-bitten farmer stop for a moment, amazed once again at how she knows what to do. There’s a freshness and sincerity there that keep me coming back to these stories over and over.

He’s likewise endlessly fascinated by people, their folly, their resilience, and their unpredictability. Reading Herriot’s books is a restorative exercise. He has a rare gift for describing the world in a way that makes it look familiar, but also better than you remembered.

 

Immediate book meme: Old Adult edition

Time for another round of Darwin’s Immediate Book Meme! The Darwins (who are not responsible for the terrible image at the top. I’m responsible for it. I alone) say:

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let’s focus on something more revealing: the books you’re actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let’s call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.

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

I’m also in the middle — well, “middle,” but really about 3/4 of an inch in, and the thing is about seven inches thick — of War and Peace.

As far as I can remember, I’m reading the Constance Garnett translation.

In a reverse from last time I read this book, I’m finding the “war” part much more compelling than the “peace” part; and I’m finding Tolstoy much snippier than I may be able to handle for the whole seven inches.

1a. Readaloud

Nothing at the moment, sadly. We’re still adjusting to the school schedule, and we’re doing well if we get to bed half an hour later than we meant to, so read-alouds aren’t happening now. I’d like to read Out Of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

to the middle and older kids, and probably a Narnia book to the younger kids.

2. What book did you just finish?

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

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

3. What do you plan to read next?

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.

Boy, did I overestimate how many books I could easily read over the summer. My kids have been begging me to read this slim volume apparently about a gorilla, so I guess I will.
4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?
Another Summer Reading Swap assignment, and what a slog. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read, but, on the other hand, it stinks.It’s written by someone who enjoys reading quirky, fascinating, fantastical story about scrappy kids solving mysteries. There’s a good story in there, but it needs to be edited, and then that editor needs to quit because she wanted to be with her boyfriend in Scottsdale, and then another editor needs to take over, rename the publishing house, cut about 40% out of this particular novel and replace it with something that makes some sense, and then buy everyone new office chairs.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander

Everyone tells me this is so good, so I just now finally ordered it–
Shut up, Amazon! I’ve been busy! You don’t know me!
6. What is your current reading trend?
YA, I guess. I could really go for something Old Adult for a change. But not too hard, because I am tired.

New book: A Pope Francis Lexicon (including my chapter!)

Now ready for pre-order: A Pope Francis Lexicon — and guess what? I somehow have a chapter in it!

My chapter deals with the word “embrace,” and while I did regretfully excise the passage where I compare Francis to the Sta Puft Marshmallow Man, I attempt to answer the thorny question: Does our pope really think huggy togetherness is an adequate substitute for orthodoxy? I try to answer the question sincerely, based on his writing and his actions, and from the perspective of someone who is sometimes frustrated by his approach.

This book has an impressive line-up of fifty illustrious contributors who each

explore the Pope’s use of words like joyclericalismmoneyfamily, and tears. Together, they reveal what Francis’s use of these words says about him, his ministry and priorities, and their significance to the church, the world, and the lives of individual Christians. The entire collection is introduced by a foreword by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide, and a preface by one of Francis’s closest advisors, Cardinal Seán O’Malley.  

Here’s a full list of the chapter themes and contributors:

Volume foreword   Patriarch Bartholomew
Volume preface    Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap
Baptism              Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Benedict XVI        David Gibson
Capitalism           Bishop Robert McElroy
Careerism           Cardinal Joseph Tobin, C.Ss.R.
Church                Elizabeth Bruenig
Clerical abuse      Francis Sullivan
Clericalism          Archbishop Paul-André Durocher
Collegiality          Archbishop Mark Coleridge
Conscience         Austen Ivereigh
Creation              Orthodox Fr. John Chryssavgis
Curia                  Massimo Faggioli
Dialogue             Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, OFM
Dignity                Tina Beattie
Discernment        Fr. James Martin, SJ
Devil/Satan          Greg Hillis
Ecumenism         Nontando Hadebe
Embrace             Simcha Fisher
Encounter/Encuentro      Archbishop Victor Fernández
Episcopal Accountability  Katie Grimes
Family                Julie Hanlon Rubio
Field Hospital      Cardinal Blase Cupich
Flesh                  Msgr. Dario Viganò
Gossip                Kaya Oakes
Grandparents       Bill Dodds
Hacer lio             Fr. Manuel Dorantes
Hope                  Natalia Imperatori-Lee
Immigrant           Sr. Norma Seni Pimentel, MJ
Indifference         Sr. Carmen Sammut, MSOLA
Jesus                 Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, SJ
Joy                    Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP
Judgment           Michael O’Loughlin
Justice               Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS
Leadership          Kerry Robinson
Legalism            Sr. Teresa Forcades i Vila, OSB
Martyrdom          Bishop Borys Gudziak
Mercy                Archbishop Donald Bolen
Miracles             John Thavis
Money                Andrea Tornielli
Periphery            Carolyn Woo
Prayer                Bishop Daniel Flores
Reform               Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, SDB
Refugee              Rhonda Miska
Second Vatican Council   Archbishop Diarmuid Martin
Service               Phyllis Zagano
Sheep                Archbishop Justin Welby
Sourpuss            Fr James Corkery, SJ
St. Francis          Fr. Michael Perry, OFM
Tears                  Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle
Throwaway culture Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF
Worldliness         Mollie Wilson O’Reilly
Women               Astrid Gajiwala
Youth                 Jordan Denari Duffner

Speaking of books, have I mentioned lately that I have a book of my own, and that I’ve contributed chapters to two other books besides A Pope Francis Lexicon? Here they are:

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The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning

The chapters are divided into three groups:

  • NFP and Your Spiritual Life
  • NFP and the Rest of the World
  • NFP in the Trenches.

Some of the most popular chapters have proven to be “The Golden Box,” which deals with how our decisions work with God’s will, in matters of family planning and in general; and “Groping Toward Chastity,” a title which, if there were any justice in the world, would have won me a Nobel Prize in literature.

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Style, Sex, and Substance: 10 Catholic Women Consider the Things That Really Matter

My chapter is “Receiving, Creating, and Letting Go: Motherhood in Body and Soul.”

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Catholic and Married: Leaning Into Love

My chapter, “Mirrors Around a Flame,” explores the idea that children are a gift. This book kind of got lost in the shuffle while there were some logistical issues, but it includes many excellent essays, including Jenny Uebbing’s great chapter on NFP.

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As always, the links above are Amazon Associate links. If you buy these books using the links I provide (or if you buy anything on Amazon after getting to the site through one of my links), I earn a small percentage of each sale. Anytime you shop on Amazon, please consider using my link!

Simcha’s Amazon Link!

Sometimes people tell me they’re not sure if it’s “working” or not. Thanks for asking! It should look like a normal Amazon page when you click through. If you look up in the URL or address box at the top of the screen, it should have a long string of letters and symbols after Amazon.com, including “ihavtositdo03-20” somewhere in there. That’s me! Here’s a sample of what it will look like when you shop on Amazon using my link:

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I also now have accounts with Amazon Canada and Amazon UK, hooray! Thanks so much. I know it’s one more thing to think about.

Summer Book Swap: The First List!

Last week, I wrote about my idea to get everyone reading more and better books by doing a reading swap with my kids. It’s a simple plan: They read a book I think they’ll like, and I’ll read a book they think I’ll like.

Here’s what we have so far. (Note: All links are Amazon Associate links, meaning I earn a small percentage of every sale. If you click through and end up buying something else, I still earn! Thank you!)

My 19-year-old daughter has me reading The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett,

and I gave her The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.

My 18-year-old daughter is still mulling over my assignment, but I’m probably giving her The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth.

My 16-year-old daughter got me started on The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan,

and I’m giving her The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.

My 15-year-old son gave me The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

and I’m giving him A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

My 13-year-old son assigned me Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

and I’m giving him Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

(if you order this book, beware of abridged editions!).

My 11-year-old daughter got me started on The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham,

and I gave her The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson (terrible, off-putting cover):

My 10-year-old daughter gave me The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (here’s hoping the cover is misleading)

and I’m giving her The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald (the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin.)

My 8-year-old daughter gave me The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

and I’m giving her The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White.

My five-year-old is just learning how to read, so she’s not playing, but I did order a copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne for us to read together.

If your family is only familiar with the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, do yourself a tremendous favor and get ahold of the original. The stories are so weird and hilarious, highly entertaining for parents without being condescending for kids.

And we’re off! I’ll probably follow up with a bunch of quick reviews by me and the kids, and then we’ll get a second list going. So far, so good.

Are you interested in doing a book swap with your kids this summer? What books will you give them, and which books are they giving you? Please include their ages and maybe a little bit about why the books are on the list.

Getting kids to read more and better books

I really hate the mantra that it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading. Of course it matters. I know we can do better than that, and I know how important it is to lay a deep, strong foundation of good ideas, powerful words and images, and memorable scenes and characters. Unfortunately, most of the books that are popular in my kids’ social circles don’t have any of these things.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Boy and Book via PublicDomainPictures.net

Well-behaved characters rarely make books (but here are some that do)

You know that irritating bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, poo. First, it’s not everyone’s job to make history. The world functions better for everyone when most people go to work, act decently, are thoughtful of others, and save the rebellion for emergencies.

Second, and more importantly, it depends what you mean by “well-behaved.” If you mean “The only possible way to change the world is to take your top off and scream at people,” then I’d have to demur (and so would the Virgin Mary).

It’s true, though, that well-behaved characters rarely carry books, and it’s hard to write a book full of people who are kind — by which I mean disposed toward helping and being generous toward others, preferably gently and good-naturedly. It’s possible to write such a book, but it’s rare.

Authors of children’s books, especially, tend to want to give their characters authenticity and appeal by making them sassy, prickly, bratty, rebellious, morose, or dysfunctional — or good at heart, but with a tremendous flaw to overcome. Kindness is often portrayed as weakness or naïveté, and not desirable as a dominant virtue.

Here are a few of my favorite characters who are not only basically virtuous, but who always, or almost always, show kindness to other people in the story.

First I’ll get the two wild cards out of the way: Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking. You can argue with me if you like!

Dido just barely qualifies, because she learns kindness gradually — but it’s a trait that anchors her character. I’m rereading Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds On Nantucket and am just in love with Dido, who wants so badly to get back to London, but realizes that drippy old motherless Dutiful Penitence is more than just her ticket home.

Dido gradually takes responsibility for patiently teaching Pen to enjoy life, to become less fearful, to stand up for herself, and to practice loyalty. Dido and Pen’s characters both develop, and they ultimately escape their predicament, as Dido deliberately cultivates kindness and gentleness toward the fragile Pen.

(Joan Aiken is great at portraying kind but interesting, well-realized characters: see cheerful Nate in the stories with Dido, and also the resourceful and protective Simon (in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts In Battersea). To a lesser extent, Arabel of the Arabel and Mortimer series is also a kind and responsible kid, although she’s also just naturally mellow.)

Pippi Longstocking is outrageously kind, a trait is just as much a part of her character as her outrageous recklessness.

She spends her time alone cooking and packing picnics for her friends, hiding treasures, and organizing all sorts of surprises and adventures. She’s enraged only by bullies who prey on the weak; and she uses her own incredible strength only for good (and some showing off). When her teasing and storytelling confuse or upset someone, she is usually contrite. Without her kindness, her outsized personality and habits would be monstrous.

The Pippi Longstocking books aren’t about character development, anyway — partly because they’re episodic, and partly because they’re sort of mythical, with Pippi as a preternatural figure whose inexplicable strength, cleverness, generosity, and radical independence are entirely self-sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Pippi growing into adulthood or marrying, because she is already a complete person. She’s not depthless, though. She does weep, briefly, over a dead bird; and once, Tommy and Annika see her alone in her kitchen at night and it occurs to them, for the first time, that it’s possible for someone so strong and cheerful to be lonely. These glimpses into her private life make her kindness more believable.

Which other books portray characters who are thoroughly kind, without reducing them to dull foils for naughty kids with more spirit?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett plays fairly close to the line, as Sara Crewe is almost overwhelmingly virtuous in every way.

But the scene where she struggles mightily with herself to turn her long-coveted bun over to an even hungrier child is very moving, and the book is saved from absolute melodrama by the strength and suspense of the plot and by the writing itself.

Burnett’s The Secret Garden, published six years after A Little Princess, is the better book and has more complex character development. The main character and her foil are both selfish, immature, and self-pitying early on, and their conversion and development are gradual and believable. But Dickon, the outdoorsman, is gloriously kind and open-hearted, as is his whole family.

Most people would include Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web in a list of kind protagonists, but I have always struggled with this book. It includes too many hard truths and not enough comfort for my tastes; and I always thought Charlotte was much too hard on little Wilbur emotionally, even though her actions saved him in practice. Of E.B. White’s books, my very favorite is The Trumpet of the Swan,

which includes the watchful, helpful, and loyal Sam Beaver.

She’s not in a chapter book, but I can’t neglect the lovely Nyasha, the good daughter in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe.

The unforgettable illustrations go a long way to filling out her character, but her words and actions also demonstrate unflagging kindness, patience, and civility toward every single creature she meets, from her nasty, scheming sister, to the apparently needy folks she meets in the woods, even to the snake she encounters on the throne at the end.

(In the category of fairy tales, the 2015 live action movie of Cinderella explicitly praises kindness as a virtue to be pursued. Recommended!)

Mrs. Trotter of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Peterson?

Oh, my heart. Her kindness is a little complex. She acknowledges that poor William Ernest Teague’s education need a harder edge than she can provide, and so her kindness perhaps shades into weakness; but in a throwaway line, she stands by her basic character, acknowledging dryly to the social worker that she’s well aware the world doesn’t consider her a real mother. Oh, Trotter. The truest portrayal of a good Christian I’ve ever seen in literature, period, for kids or for adults.

Strangely enough, the wild, anti-authority, sometimes brutal Roald Dahl books often have central characters who are very kind. Some of them are kind to most, but vengeful toward their parents and enemies, and this response is portrayed as delightful and just; but some wish even their enemies well, and are willing to risk their own safety for their friends. Charlie of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is like this, and so is James of James and the Giant Peach;

and the vengeance is wrought by fate, rather than the protagonist. I haven’t read The BFG in many years, but I recall that the BFG’s main trait was kindness. In Danny the Champion of the World, the father is meant to be a kind man, but the reader of conscience can’t ignore than he is a criminal and a vengeful man.

Honorable mention goes to the very helpful Elmer Elevator of My Father’s Dragon,

who takes everyone he meets at face value, never uses more force than necessary, and even remembers to bring a birthday present home for his father.

Likewise Freddy the Pig throughout Walter R. Brooks’ extensive series of books,

who sometimes gets irritated or falls into self-pity, but is ultimately the friend everyone needs to have. The trio of cows, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurtzburger are also kind sorts, and tremendously appealing.

Finally, a recommendation from Rebecca Salazar: John Carter from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I haven’t read this series, but I trust Rebecca (although she warns that the series is 100 years old, and contains references to “red men” and savage Apaches and the like, and that the first three are the best).
She says: It is a cheesy pulp novel, but one of the overarching differences between John Carter and the martians is that he treats subordinates and defeated enemies with kindness, and he doesn’t just automatically kill someone because they’re an enemy.

One example of kindness in it is that the green Martian tribe Carter becomes a chieftain in have horse analogue animals that they basically subdue through force, and this they’re dangerous to their riders, but Carter treats his with kindness and tames them and the rest of the warriors are shocked by how superior his mounts are because of this.
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As you can see, my reading list needs some updating! I stand by all my recommendations, and hope that my kids will love these characters as much as I do; but I’d be happy to add to the list, especially to include newer books.
Who else in children’s literature is predominantly kind without being dull, two-dimensional, or drippy?

Fr. Zosima on active love

Time to re-read The Brothers Karamazov again, don’t you think? Any time someone asks me to name a book that changed my life, Brothers K is top of the list.

I linked to the Constance Garnett translation, since that’s the one I first encountered in college. I’m open to suggestions! See The Translation Wars for a fascinating essay on various translators and how they came to approach Dostoevsky in the way they did.

And now for the passage I wanted to share, where the holy Fr. Zosima counsels a woman in despair over her lack of spiritual progress. He recounts a conversation with a famous doctor:

‘I love mankind,’ [the doctor] said, ‘but I marvel at myself:  the more  I love mankind in general, the less I love human beings in particular, separately, that is, as individual persons.  In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I would often arrive at fervent plans of devotion to mankind and might very possibly have gone to the Cross for human beings, had that been suddenly required of me, and yet I am unable to spend two days in the same room with someone else, and this I know from experience.  No sooner is that someone else close to me than her personality crushes my self-esteem and hampers my freedom.  In the space of a day and a night I am capable of coming to hate even the best of human beings:  one because he takes too long over dinner, another because he has a cold and is perpetually blowing his nose.  I become the enemy of others,’ he said, ‘very nearly as soon as they come into contact with me.  To compensate for this, however, it has always happened that the more I have hated human beings in particular, the more ardent has become my love for mankind in general.’

‘But then what is to be done?  What is to be done in such a case?  Is one to give oneself up to despair?’

[and Fr. Zosima responds:]  No, for it sufficient that you grieve over it.  Do what you are able, and it will be taken into consideration.  In your case, much of the work has already been done, for you have been able to understand yourself so deeply and sincerely!  If, however, you have spoken so sincerely to me now only in order to receive the kind of praise I have just given you for your truthfulness, then you will, of course, get nowhere in your heroic attempts at active love; it will all merely remain in your dreams, and the whole of your life will flit by like a wraith.  You will also, of course, forget about the life to come, and you will end by somehow acquiring a kind of calm.

[…]

Never be daunted by your own lack of courage in the attainment of love, nor be over-daunted even by your bad actions in this regard. I regret I can say nothing more cheerful to you, for in comparison to fanciful love, active love is a cruel and frightening thing. Fanciful love thirsts for the quick deed, swiftly accomplished, and that everyone should gaze upon it. In such cases the point really is reached where people are even willing to give their lives just as long as the whole thing does not last an eternity but is swiftly achieved, as on the stage, and as long as everyone is watching and praising. Active love, on the other hand, involves work and self-mastery, and for some it may even becomes a whole science. But I prophesy to you that at the very moment you behold with horror that in spite of all your efforts, not only have you failed to move towards your goal, but even seem to have grown more remote from it – at that very moment, I prophesy to you, you will suddenly reach that goal and discern clearly above you the miracle-working power of the Lord, who has loved you all along and has all along been mysteriously guiding you.

 

We can’t just decide to stop being afraid, but we can manage it

Most of us realise we’re not supposed to live in a state of constant fear. It isn’t any fun, for one thing; and we can see it leads us to make bad decisions. Jesus came right out and told us, “Be not afraid!”

How, though? Much as we’d like to, we can’t just decide to stop being afraid.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.