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.

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

***

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

HOW TO BE A HERO: TRAIN WITH THE SAINTS is fresh, clear, and useful

When Julia Harrell’s new book, How To Be a Hero: Train With the Saints (Pauline Kids, 2017) arrived in the mail, my shoulders slumped for a minute. I just didn’t expect much from it, based on the cover.

Happily, my first impressions were way off!

It’s a manual on the virtues for kids age 9-11 (although I think older kids would benefit from it, as well). In each chapter, Harrell defines a cardinal, theological, or little virtue, gives a short biography of a saint who exemplified that virtue, and ends with a short prayer and a list of questions to elicit further thought about how to apply the virtue to our own lives.

The language is plain and frank, and the ideas are much more challenging than you normally see in a religion book for kids. The saints included are:

Pope Saint John Paul II (prudence)
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati (justice)
Saints Peter Yu Tae-chol and Agatha Yi (fortitude)
Ven. Matt Talbot (fortitude)

The Children of Fatima (faith)
St. Josephine Bakhita (hope)
B. Chiara Badano (love)

St. Joan of Arc (humility)
Bl. Dina Belanger (obedience)
St. Monica (patience)
St. Charbel Makhlouf (gentleness)

Nice list, right? And not the most obvious match-ups, either (maybe you’d expect to see St. Joan with fortitude, for instance.)

I think the book could have done just as well without the premise that virtues are superpowers that we must master to become heroes, or saints; and the drawn illustrations are lackluster. It does include plenty of black-and-white photographs of the saints, though, and overall, the presentation is brisk and accessible. Here, you can leaf through the book page by page and get an idea of how the content is presented.

We’re taking a break from The How-To Book of the Mass, which we’ve been working our way through verrrrry slowly, and reading a section of How To Be a Hero in the evening now. (I firmly believe it’s better to do even five minutes of reading very often, than to work harder and burn out faster.) I’m dragging in all the kids, including the five teenagers, because the subject matter is presented simply, but it’s not childish.

Very pleased with this book so far. It would make a good Easter gift.

 

I got the displaced person blues

What are you watching, reading, and listening to these days? Here’s mine for the week. Apparently I have the blues of some kind or other, what do you know about that.

***

Watching:
Peter Gunn,
a jazz-powered, noir, private eye TV show from the late 50’s.

I’m only watching with half an eyeball, if that, but every time I do look up, the framing of every single shot is gor-ge-ous. Worth watching just for that. All the flossy mists, lurid lips, hard streets, velvet shadows, sinister dimples, lonely lampposts, glossy fenders, and echoing gunshots your noirish little heart desires; and you certainly don’t care about any of the characters, so there’s no emotional cost. Although I kind of like Mother.

Also, this show is where this music comes from (by Henry Mancini):

Now you know something! Peter Gunn is now streaming on Amazon.

***

Reading:
“The Displaced Person” by Flannery O’Connor.

I came across this long short story in an anthology (originally part of the collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find, 1955) and I’m scratching my head over why this story is not getting more play right now among Catholics who welcome refugees. It’s just as well, because, despite the obvious parallels to current concerns, literal refugees is not really what the story is about. (The Paris Review notes that O’Connor herself was highly allergic to “topical” stories.)

Fleeing Hitler’s onslaught and ending up in a rural Southern dairy farm, the displaced Polish family are not only foreign, but their foreignness threatens the right order of things — even though the familiar order wasn’t satisfactory.

This passage is killer: Mrs. McIntyre, the self-righteous wife of a barely adequate but firmly established tenant farmer, waits for the displaced persons to arrive and recalls seeing a newsreel showing

a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing.

She wonders whether anyone coming from such disorderly barbarity can even be fully human — and never mind that the Guizacs were the victims, not the aggressors:

Watching from her vantage point, Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks [her best guess at how to pronounce “Guizacs”], like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others? The width and breadth of this question nearly shook her. Her stomach trembled as if there had been a slight quake in the heart of the mountain and automatically she moved down from her elevation and went forward to be introduced to them, as if she meant to find out at once what they were capable of.

That’s the question. What might these displaced people be capable of? Mrs. McIntyre ends up being displaced herself, fully engaged in a cataclysmic body heap of her own, as she flees the farm in outrage; and the Guizacs become a door for upheaval of everyone’s idea of order, ushering in terrifying change.

O’Connor is a hair heavy handed with the Christ imagery — Christ as Displaced Person, but also as the ultimate displacer of persons — but it’s still a fascinating read with many threads.I don’t know why this story doesn’t get anthologized more.

***

Listening to:

Chris Thomas King. We showed O Brother, Where Art Thou to the kids the other day, and they ate it up. So good. Here’s one of the quieter numbers, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” with some heartbreaking guitar

Here’s King’s “Come on in my kitchen” from The Red Mud Sessions album.

Hey, anyone can shout into a can for ten bucks. Great singers can put it across quietly. In a different vein, here’s “Death Letter Blues”

I guess I have a soft spot in my heart for someone who’s always complaining. I got the displaced person’s blues.

***
Flannery O’Connor photo by Will via Flickr (Creative Commons)

But then, one summer, everything changed! 5 offbeat books from my childhood

Friday is usually “What’s for Supper?” day, but this week we had hamburgers, tacos, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, spaghetti, tuna noodle, and pepperoncini beef sandwiches for supper, and no end of chips and carrot sticks. We had good reasons for eating cheap and easy all week, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write 900 words about it.

Instead, just for fun, let’s talk about odd books we read as kids. Anybody remember these?

The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken (1980)

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Joan Aiken’s more popular books are the funny and thrilling Wolves Chronicles (a loosely-connected historical fiction adventure series set mostly in an alternate London where James II was not deposed), many featuring the wonderful Dido Twite; and the hilarious Arabel and Mortimer series, about a sensible little girl and her almost-coherent pet raven; but Aiken also wrote several novels about the supernatural. One of these, The Shadow Guests is creepy, and fairly sad, but with a satisfying finish. An Australian teenage boy is sent off to live with a distant relative after his mother and her more-favored son apparently commit suicide together. Already lonely and upset, he begins to see ghosts — and they may have a particular message for him. Very dramatic and captivating. Aiken’s characters are always so well conceived and fleshed out and sympathetic. For middle school and up.

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Miss Osborne-the-Mop by Wilson Gage, illustrated by Paul Galdone. (1963, so not technically from my childhood, but I did read it then)

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Wilson Gage is the pen name of the prolific Mary Q. Steele, which sounds like even more of a pen name. A glum and shy girl has to spend the summer with a cousin she doesn’t like. They accidentally magically bring a mop to life — a mop who looks and acts disconcertingly like a bossy former teacher. The mop takes over their life, and their summer gets much harder, and much more fun, than they expected. Here’s a bunch of people who also remember this strange and charming book with fondness.  It’s one of those books where something ridiculous and unlikely happens, and the characters know it’s ridiculous and unlikely, and they have to figure out how to deal with it like real people. For grade 3 and up.

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Peter Graves by William Pène du Bois (1950)

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The author is much better known for the offbeat fantasy The Twenty-One Balloons, but I think Peter Graves is the better book. A rowdy teenager, while showing off for his friends, accidentally destroys the home of an eccentric old inventor who lives on the outskirts of town. To help repay him, the boy goes on a mission to help him market an amazing but volatile substance he has invented. It turns out to be harder than it looks. The way I remember it, this story doesn’t really have a theme or a point; it’s just super interesting and funny and weird, and very much in tune with a real child’s imagination. For grade 4 and up.

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Singularity by William Sleator (1985)

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I honestly can’t remember if this book is any good or not. It centers on twin boys who are not alike and who do not get along. One summer, the smaller, less confident twin discovers something that may finally give him a leg up, but he’ll have to pay a horrible price. There was more to the plot — I think there was a monster? — but the unforgettable part is the scene where he’s deciding whether or not to go through with it. Anyone remember this book? Was it any good, or just weird? For middle school and up.

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Banana Twist by Florence Parry Heide (1982)

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Heide is best known for The Shrinking of Treehorn, illustrated by Edward Gorey, which I don’t think I’ve ever read. I’m only mentioning this book because I read it five billion times, hating it every time. Why do kids do this to themselves? I don’t know. The hero is an irritable TV- and candy-obsessed kid named Jonah B. Krock who is trying to finagle his way into a boarding school so as to escape his health-obsessed parents. His life becomes intertwined with his repulsive neighbor, who falls under the illusion that Jonah has an obsession with bananas. But at the end, there is a twist! This is such an 80’s book. It’s basically a lame and pointless joke spun out to book length for no reason at all. Naturally, there is a sequel.

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Finally, a book that doesn’t fit in with the rest of these books at all, but maybe you can help me find it! It’s a picture book, with no words at all. The pages are cut into three or four horizontal strips. By opening the cut-up pages into different combinations, you can make all kinds of odd scenes. They were very cleverly drawn so that every combination worked. I remember it being in a hyper realistic style, or maybe sort of surrealist, like Chris Van Allsburg or David Wiesner. I feel like there were lots of umbrellas involved, and also factories and maybe giant lollipops. Anybody have any clue?

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Happy Friday!