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.

***

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.

10 gorgeous Easter books for kids

Easter is April 14th 16th. I know, because I have Googled it eleven times in the last week people on Facebook told me so after I got it wrong after Googling it eleven times. That means if you have Amazon Prime, you can still order a nice Easter book for your kids, and it will get here in time.

Most of these books are linked through Amazon. (I’m an Amazon Associate and earn a small percentage of all sales made after getting to Amazon through my links. Please bookmark my link!) Note: Most but not all of these books are available with Prime. Please check shipping dates if you’re shopping for Easter! If you can’t find a good price on Amazon, I recommend checking Booksprice, which gives you a side-by-side price comparison of many booksellers. 

And now the books! I own some of these, and some have been recommended by folks I trust.

1. MIRACLE MAN: THE STORY OF JESUS by John Hendrix 

Top of my wish list.

The illustrations are fresh and exciting, with the text incorporated into the images

and the reviews promise a new and captivating take on a very familiar story.

2. THE MIRACLE OF THE RED EGG by Elizabeth Crispina Johnson, illustrated by Daria Fisher

A traditional Orthodox story telling how Mary Magdalene goes to a feast with the Emperor Tiberius. She spreads the thrilling news that Jesus has risen from the dead.

 

When it reaches the Emperor’s ears, he says, “Do you see this egg? I declare that Jesus can no more have risen from the dead, than this egg could turn blood red.” Which it does.

3.THE TALE OF THE THREE TREES: A traditional folktale told by Angela Elwell Hunt, illustrated by Tim Jonke

This looks very moving.

From the customer reviews:

“The story opens with three trees on a hilltop; one longs to be made into a dazzling treasure chest for diamonds and gold, the second wants to be a mighty sailing ship that would carry kings across the ocean, and the third simply wants to remain on the hilltop to grow so tall that when people see her, they will think of heaven. As woodcutters fell each tree, we find that although at first they cannot understand why their dreams weren’t fulfilled in the way they wanted, God used them for much greater purposes than they could ever dream.”

4. THE EASTER STORY by Brian Wildsmith 

 

 

Wildsmith’s own passion for the story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection is unmistakable in his glorious, metallic-gold-hued illustrations, which tell the story more vividly than words ever could. In fact, to his credit, Wildsmith adapts the story of Jesus’s last days in as simple and straightforward a manner as possible, allowing young readers to glean the substance from the paintings, symbolism, and, most likely, discussion with grownups who may be reading along.

The donkey’s-eye-view of the events allows a slightly different perspective from the standard, without being overly intrusive as a literary device. Lush jewel tones capture the richness of the narrative, and mesh in a strangely beautiful way with the simple paintings of Jesus, the angels, Mary Magdalene, and others in the biblical cast of characters. The Easter Story will make a gorgeous addition to any Easter basket. (Ages 5 and older)

5. THE MIRACLES OF JESUS by Tomie dePaola

Twelve miracles explained plainly and with dignity, and illustrated in dePaola’s unmistakable, luminous style.

We have this book and the kids love it.
6. and 7. LOTS OF BOOKS BY Maïte Roche

So difficult to choose just one or two by Maïte Roche. I can’t find a reasonably priced edition of My First Pictures of Easter, which I recommend heartily, so keep an eye out! It’s a treasure.

You will also love
MY FIRST PICTURES OF JESUS, a sturdy little board book with captivating illustrations for little ones to pore over. This book is arranged with lots of pictures and only a few words, to inspire your own conversations with kids.


Another lovely offering from Roche:
MY FIRST PRAYERS WITH MARY.
Here’s one of my favorite illustrations from this book: Mary teaching baby Jesus to walk

It includes several short, simple prayers to Mary, with large, bright pictures of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, accompanied by smaller pictures of modern children on the facing pages. The faces are very inviting.

8. LET THE WHOLE EARTH SING PRAISE by Tomie dePaola

A departure from dePaola’s familiar Renaissance-inspired, style:

From the reviews:

“This joyous book sings thanks and praise for everything in land, sea, and sky-from the sun and moon to plants and animals to all people, young and old. Beloved author-illustrator Tomie dePaola captures the beauty of God’s creation in his folk art-style illustrations. With text inspired by Old Testament Scripture and artwork fashioned after the beautiful embroideries and designs of the Otomi people from the mountain villages around San Pablito, in Puebla, Mexico, this is a wonderful celebration for all to share.”

9. EASTER by Fiona French

Brilliant stained glass-inspired illustrations paired with passages from scripture

to tell the story of Easter, starting with Palm Sunday and ending with the ascension.
10. THE DONKEY AND THE GOLDEN LIGHT by John and Gill Speirs 

Illustrations in the style of my man Bruegel! This is on my wish list. From the reviews:
“[A] young donkey named Bethlehem and the interaction he has with Jesus beginning the Messiah’s birth and proceeding through the flight into Egypt, the baptism by John, the wedding feast at Cana, the events of the Last Supper, and finally with the Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities.” Christ appears somewhere on each page.

BONUS:
If you are looking for a DVD, I recommend The Miracle Maker: The Story of Jesus

Pretty intense, as you can see from this clip:

I was skeptical, and boy do I want to be careful showing my kids any moving, speaking representation of Christ. This is not perfect, but it’s good, and powerful. Hope to rewatch soon and provide a more detailed review.

Valhalla Rising, cavemen farting, Terry Pratchett giving it a shot, and me running(!)

 

I’m watching . . .

Originalos (and Valhalla Rising)

Let’s say you’ve picked out a swell movie to watch, and everyone’s ready and snuggled up on the couch, except that one kid is still washing the dishes. Still. So what do you do? You watch a few episodes of Originalos. Here’s a representative sample:

Look, I’m not proud of it. In my defense, if you saw Irene laughing that long and hard at a farting caveman, you’d probably let her watch more, too. These 3-minute episodes are streaming on Amazon Prime.

We also watched Valhalla Rising (2009, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed Drive, which we loved) last night, and we’ll have a lot to say about it on this week’s podcast! (To join my super secret, super fun podcast club, see my Patreon page.) Here’s the trailer for Valhalla Rising:

Reading . . . 

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Behind the curve as ever, I’m just now getting into Terry Pratchett, who played with words, and with ideas of futility, heroism, absurdity and hope, throughout 41 novels about Discworld. He died in 2015.

I did read Going Postal a few years ago, and was charmed and moved by the characters and dialogue but very confused by the plot. Guards! Guards! was much easier to follow, and very winsome and entertaining, as well as touching in parts. Looking forward to hanging around with Captain Vimes more, as well as that very, very interesting Patrician.

Guards! Guards! summary: In the human-all-too-human city of Ankh-Morpork, the canny leader of a secret society realizes that he’ll have the citizens in the palm of his hand if only he can find a champion to conquer the terrible dragon. Only there is no dragon, except for small, mostly-harmless pets. So he summons a big one. Things do not go as planned! The focus of the story is on The Watch, the ones you call when things go wrong, but you don’t really expect them to do anything. In fact, you count on them having no intention of doing something. Well, this time, they do something.

As far as I can see, this is a typical Pratchett theme: Everything has gone to hell, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. Still, for whatever reason, the one guy who knows better decides to give it a shot anyway, and make a stand for what he decides to believe is the right thing to do. (Pratchett fans, do I have that right?)

Listening to . . .

The Black Keys

Also not a new find, but I’ve rediscovered the Black Keys as excellent running music. Yarr, my husband and I are doing Couch to 5K. We’re on week three, when you have to run for three minutes at a time. This is only possible if I hide the fact that I’m running from as many of my senses as possible (especially since we’re celebrating spring with hail and slippery freezing rain; and, not wanting to die, we are running inside).

Here are a few Black Keys songs with a good beat for a slow, steady run:

“Gold On the Ceiling”:

“Tighten Up”:

“Fever” is a little brisker:

“Howlin’ For You” (which comes along with a satirical sexploitation revenge fantasy movie trailer that made me laugh so hard, I almost fell off the treadmill) (warning: stupid, but R-rated):

I welcome other suggestions for running music! I’m putting together a list, because I hear there is more running coming up in this fershlugginer program.

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Now your turn! What are you watching, reading, and listening to?

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Pratchett graffiti image by David Skinner via Flickr (Creative Commons)