Guest Post: Fyodor Dosteovsky

My husband and I have started rereading The Brothers Karamazov, and are zipping through it  the blinding pace of nearly 2-3 chapters per week.  At this rate, we’ll have it finished before our kids borrow the book for college.  I thought you guys might appreciate this passage, as the monk Fr. Zosima 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.

I’m also reading Jurassic Park.  How about you?  What book is currently lulling you to sleep or keeping you awake all night?

Another quick book recommendation

Since my son left his math book at the dentist’s office, pretty much all we’ve done in home school is a little spelling, a craft or two (you can pretend I didn’t say that if it makes you feel inadequate.  You wouldn’t feel inadequate if you saw our crafts, though), and read The Odyssey retold for children by Geraldine McCaughrean.

Sometimes I read, and sometimes the kids read aloud.  Kids who read silently far above grade level often don’t know how to read aloud, so this is a good exercise; and it also lets you get something done (like making lunch) while home schooling.  It’s also a good way of finding out that your mostly-excellent reader has a few kinks to iron out, phonics-wise.  (Translation:  the kid wouldn’t know a schwa from a hole in the ground.)

Here’s a passage we just read from this very engaging retelling, to give you an idea of the style:

By the light of lightning bolts which rained down around him, Odysseus saw the frightened, colourless eyes of fishes, and the suckered arms of reaching squid.  The waves that folded over him were shot through with eels and peppered with sharp barnacles and razorshells.  The troughs that swallowed him were deeper and darker than Charybdis, and the currents beneath dragged him three times round the ocean like dead Hector was dragged three times round the walls of Troy.

Pretty good, eh?  Nice and rhythmic for reading aloud, but not too complicated.  At the end of one chapter, my six-year-old son asked his eight-year-old brother, “Do you think Odysseus will make it home?  Mama, CAN I LOOK AHEAD?” and his brother said, “No, no, don’t find out!  I don’t know either!”  They haven’t been this excited since there was a dead mole in the sandbox.

Oh, and the illustrations in this book are wild and satisfying, too.  There are a few naked women — Sirens and whatnot — so you will have to use your judgment.  I didn’t want my son to be exposed to the unclothed female form, so when we got to that part, I just hid the book behind the baby, who, um, was nursing.

One final note:  I love ancient Greece.  I mean, I really, really love it.  A few weeks ago, I asked the six-year-old if he wanted to read Bible stories or Greek myths.  He chose Bible stories.  And I tried to talk him out of it.  Yes, I did.  Obviously, I’m not warping him too badly — I mean, he did choose the Bible stories — but it looks like I have a few kinks of my own to iron out.

Seven Really Good Books for Young Adults

Sorry this is so long.  I didn’t have time to write anything shorter.

Seven Quick Takes:  Seven Really Good Books for Young Adults

When I was in high school, everything we read had to be about either the Holocaust, or suicide, or both.  An exception could be made for books about racism, provided several lynchings were described in technicolor.  Then, after we finished our assigned reading for the year, the school board would hold a workshop on what to do about rampant and debilitating depression in the student body.

Well, it’s too late for me, of course.  As soon as I’m done with this post, I’m going to go huff some wood glue, write a note blaming my parents, and OD on some Xanax I stole from the locker room while listening to Nevermind (to my younger readers:  check your oldies station if that reference puzzles you.  Oh, lord. . . )

But you still have a chance.  Here are seven books of fiction I recommend for your teenager or almost-teenager.  Kids that age do enjoy a good bout of angst, but these are books that don’t glorify teenage gloom, or teach that it’s the world’s job to learn to appreciate the delicate genius that is Teenage Me.  Not all of the books are about teenagers, and all of them could easily be enjoyed by adults.  Most of these books are about courage, and about something that teenagers really need to know:  how to discern true love from its flashier counterfit.  With the possible  exception of the Patterson novels, I don’t think this list is too girly.  The only other thing they have in common is that they are stuffed with good ideas that young people need to hear, and the writing is far above average.

–1–

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

 

This one is often included in YA lists, but not for the right reasons, I think.  Teenagers won’t fully appreciate the themes of love and fidelity in this  fleshing-out of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, but there is plenty else in this gorgeous and searing novel to grab them by the scruff of the neck and shake the stupid ideas out of them.  Heartrending and intense.  For grades 9 and up.

–2 and 3–

Two novels by Katherine Patterson:

 

Jacob Have I Loved is a coming-of-age novel about twin girls living on a crabbing island in the Chesapeake Bay in the 1940′s.  One sister is lovely, talented, fragile, and secretly vicious — the other, the narrator, is plain, strong, and full of rage.  The character of the horrible old grandmother is unforgettable.  The book achieves something I always look for in a novel:  honesty about the flaws of the main character, with flashes of sympathy for even the worst characters.  Flawless in structure, characterization, and style.  For grades 7 and up.

Another excellent novel by Patterson, suitable for grades 5 and up, is The Great Gilly Hopkins.

It’s like Flannery O’Connor, Jr.  Great portrayals of hypocrisy, great portrayals of genuine love by a genuine Christian, who happens to be a fat, trashy, semi-literate foster mother named Trotter.  It could easily have dissolved into melodrama, but resists.  My only quibble is with the character of the black teacher, Miss Harris — she seems a bit too glibly drawn as the hard-as-nails and smart-as-a-whip black teacher with a heart of gold, etc.  All the rest of the characters, though, are thoroughly believable, from Trotter, to her pathetic ward William Ernest Teague (W.E.T.), to the greasy-haired would-be sidekick, Agnes Stokes.  (See, I remember all their names, and I haven’t read this book for years.  It sticks with you!)  I believe it’s sold as a novel about racism, but it’s really just about love.

–4–

The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter

 

I know, I know.  The guy passed it off as an autobiography, and it wasn’t.  Pretty awful — but darn it, I still like the book.  It is beautiful and funny, and I feel happy while reading it.  I wish I knew the characters in real life, which is more than you can say for most novels or autobiographies.  If you’ve heard that this book is just a piece of anti-white propaganda, you’ll be surprised.  I suppose there’s a message in it, but it’s not the main point — the story is, and it’s a wonderful story about a boy growing up with his Cherokee grandmother and half-Cherokee grandfather in the mountains during Prohibition.   Also, it makes descriptions of scenery interesting.  Apparently it’s been criticized as perpetuating the “noble savage” stereotype of the American Indian, but, again, I just don’t see that.  What I read was an ancient story of happiness, broken by a terrible grief and darkness of separation, and then a return to happiness, until Eden is outgrown.  To read more into it than that is to deprive yourself of a good story.  For grades 6 and up.

–5–

A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

 

This one is for older teens, for sure.  The story is complicated and demands a lot of the reader.  To be honest, I’m too tired to explain the plot to you.  It’s about Catholic monks and Jews and miracles and nuclear war and space travel and mutants.  It’s a crazy, grotesque, hilarious, fascinating epic with lots and lots of ideas.  There is a disturbing theme of the cyclic nature of history that seems to imply a “new” Immaculate Conception, but a teenager with a good grounding in the faith won’t be troubled by it.  I like how the priests are real men.  It will appeal to lovers of science fiction, but is so much more than that.

–6–

The Don Camillo stories by Giovanni Guareschi

 

 

Three collections of short, sweet, funny and poignant stories from post-WWII Italy about a large and rash village priest and his rival, the equally large and rash communist mayor Peppone.  If you don’t enjoy these stories, there is something wrong with you.  I could do without the cartoonish illustrations by the author, but the stories are hugely entertaining, and touch on all kinds of interesting theological ideas.  Don Camillo’s conversations with the crucified Christ in his church are authentic and moving.  For grades 7 and up.

–7–

Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra by C. S. Lewis

 

 

The first two books of the space trilogy are great stories and provide so many memorable scenes (the third in the series, That Hideous Strength, takes a different turn and is not for the kiddies).  It was from Perelandra that I learned that evil isn’t interesting and the devil isn’t clever or charming — as Ransom learns one night as keeps watch on the beach with the Un-Man, and they have the following dialogue all night long  “Ransom.” –  “What?” – ” . . .Nothing.”

For more mature teenagers — there are ideas about sexuality which are entirely Catholic (yes, I know Lewis wasn’t), but which less mature kids won’t be able to manage.  The only part that might strike readers as dated is the fact that the villain wants to conquer worlds and force humankind on the universe, whereas today’s humanist villains are more interested in shrinking and curtailing the human race.  It might be an interesting conversation to discuss what the current evil ideas have in common with the ones in the books.

There are many, many wonderful scenes in both books.  I was especially affected, as a teenager, by the passage in Perelandra where Ransom protests to God that there is a representative of Evil in the world, fighting for the soul of the unfallen Lady — and why is there no champion of Good?  And the silent and terrifying  answer comes booming back at him:  you.  There is also the memorable phrase, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, here goes!  I mean, Amen!”  Lewis’ descriptions of scenery are the only drawback to these books — he does go on and on, and you have to read really carefully to understand what he is describing.  I think these passages could simply be excised without any damage to the books.  For grades 10 and up.

————–

You’ll notice there is no Madeleine L’Engle in this list.  I read her books several times as a Young Adult, and I’m sure they influenced me, but I just don’t like her.  I don’t like her smarmy characters, I don’t like how her ideals of family life are utterly saturated in six kinds of snobbery.  I don’t like the loosey goosey games she plays with comparative religion, and her stories leave me cold,  irritated and unsatisfied.  I’m always astonished that she’s described as some kind of genius — her prose always strikes me as hokey and stilted.  She is very original, I’ll admit, but I have very little patience with her “Oh-the-aching-wonder-of-it-all” genre.  I wouldn’t say “don’t read her stuff,” but I think you’ll do just fine if you never do read her.

Okay, so, yay, I wrote a blog post!  Thanks to the gracious and prolific (in every way)Jen Fulwiler for hosting Seven Quick Takes every Friday.

UPDATE:  Several readers mentioned Patterson’s Bridge to Terebithia and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  My take:  yes, Bridge to Terebithia is just awful.  As reader Suburban Correspondent put it,  “It was everything that was wrong with YA books in my youth – all the hopelessly messed-up adults, the characters manipulated by the author to send some sort of message.”  Yup, pretty much a blight on Patterson’s career.  Her books that I recommended are totally different.  I also remember that her novel The Master Puppeteer was quite good, and is about a boy.  She has written many  historical novels for young adults.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is fantastic — good call, folks.  I can’t imagine a boy really enjoying it, but it really is a wonderful book.  It’s about a girl growing up in the slums in Brooklyn before and during World War II.  Betty Smith’s other books, unfortunately, are dreadful!  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is fiction, but obviously semi-autobiographical, and is very moving and full of insight into a young girl’s mind.  Some of her notions about sex could be a little damaging to susceptible girls, though, so you should probably read this one first, and discuss it with your daughter.

So tell me: What are you reading?

It’s November, it’s dark, I have to scrape the effing windshield to drive to the dump, and life is only just barely worth living until March.  So let’s talk about books.

I’m just coming off of a long, ugly stint with Taylor Caldwell’s ridiculous novel Answer As a Man.  Oh, that woman is embarrassing.  What a waste of plot!  I think she took a writing class called “Show, don’t tell,” but someone told her it was Opposite Day.  I’d show you a passage of what she tries to pass off as character development, but not only did I already throw the book away, I dumped coffee grounds on top so no one would fish it out of the garbage.

Caldwell seems to have heavily consulted The Comprehensive Thesaurus of Tedious Irish Stereotypes.  For openers, she turned to the  entry for “bitter old man who loves and hates with equal ferocity,” and proceeded to copy out all the adjectives she thought the reader would understand.  And that, thought Caldwell, made chapter one.   I read the whole thing because — I don’t know, I guess it’s like getting on the merry-go-round.  It’s not as if you’re going to end up somewhere unexpected, but you already paid for your ticket, so you might as well sit there until the ride is over.

Then I picked up Watership Down, and promptly fell asleep.  I don’t know if it was that boring, or I was just too tired, but it fell behind the bed and I can’t reach it now, so that’s that.

Then I picked up Clockers by Richard Price. Okay, now we have a novel.    The narrator understands his characters, and they are real people, who might do anything.  They might be angry at themselves, or feel ashamed, or feel unwarranted pride, or not understand why they do what they do — but it all feels like real life, down to the last detail.

Here’s an early example:  Strike, a 19-year-old low level drug dealer, drinks vanilla Yoo-Hoo throughout the book.  He has a stomach ulcer, and the vanilla cools the pain a little.  This kind of detail tells you so much about the guy:  that he’s a child, that he suffers like a man, that he tries to heal himself, that real medicine (for the body and for the soul) is just not available to him. At one point, he finds himself in a bar, and not knowing what else to order, he asks for vanilla Yoo-Hoo.  The bartender offers him a glass of non-dairy creamer.  This is how the world treats Strike and his ulcer.

This book just bleeds sympathy.  For everyone, even the evildoers.  That’s what a great novel does:  it understands.  That’s what separates Dostoevsky from Tolstoy:  Tolstoy understood, all right, but as I get older, I see his contempt for his characters more and more, and it kind of takes the edge off.  Dostoevsky, though, the reader feels, is on his knees the whole time he is writing.

Richard Price (okay, I’m not saying he’s Dostoevsky or even Tolstoy.  He has really got something, though) doesn’t gush or manipulate or wallow, but the prose cleanly and steadily offers up real people for us to see.   This author is so confident of his skill, he doesn’t need to tell us everything we need to know up front — because when does that happen in real life?  We learn what the characters are capable of little by little, at the same pace as they learn about themselves.  I’m sorry I’m just too darn lazy to pick out passages to quote, but take my word for it, this guy knows what he is doing.

Lots of profanities, obscenities, and violence in this book.  But I don’t think it’s disgusting, and so far, it’s not depressing.   The tone isn’t marinating in that inexplicable, sadistic animus against the reader, like so many modern novels (The Corrections, Geek Love – -why do I read these things??).  I’m about halfway through, and have high hopes (if you’ve read it, please don’t give anything away!).  I have a hard time putting this book down.  Great plot, incredible dialogue, twists and turns, and the author never takes the easy way out — but it’s all so natural.  Really amazing skill.

So what are you reading?  Do you plan to finish it?  Is it a book to be tossed aside lightly?  Or should it be thrown with great force?

7 books you will enjoy reading to your kids

Boy, this list was much harder to make than I expected!  Too many subcategories.  I’ll just have to be satisfied with a general theme of “sevenness,” but I’d like to do more reading lists later.  Or is that boring?

These are just seven books which I enjoyed as a child, which my kids read or wanted to hear over and over again, and, most importantly, which I didn’t mind reading to my kids over and over again.

There are so many books which have good stories, but aren’t told well – they’re clunky, wordy, repetitive in the wrong way, or just aren’t crafted with any understanding of how kids listen or think.  But these seven are books that got it right, and have fantastic illustrations, too.

Check out Conversion Diary for more links to everyone else’s 7 Quick Takes!

Seven Books You Will Enjoy Reading to Your Kids

 

–1–

 

Half Magic by Edward Eager.

I never understood why this book isn’t more widely-read (and I think it would make a great movie, too).  One summer, four children find a magic talisman which grants half wishes, which leads not only to complications and surprises, but ethical dilemmas (they accidentally made an iron dog half-alive.  Should they make it turn back into iron, or bring it fully to life?).  The story is incredibly original, it moves along so nicely, and the children and their relationships with each other are so funny and real–it’s a perfect read-aloud book.  The illustrations by N. M. Bodecker are also charming and really add something to the story.  The author wrote six other books in the same vein, and all are worth reading, but Half Magic is by far the best.

–2–

The entire Frog and Toad series, Owl at Home, Fables, and Mouse Tales and Mouse Soup written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel.

Lobel also wrote several other books, but these are the best.  So simple and deft, so gentle and witty and full of affection.  Frog and Toad are imbued with more personality than any character in a modern novel that I can name — but Lobel does it in five pages of easy-reader words.  The vocabulary is simple, but it’s no Go, Dog, Gophonics slog– his prose is a delight to read, never a chore.  You never have to go back and reread, because you said some dialogue with the wrong expression–it’s all there.  Arnold Lobel ought to be studied in writing classes, and “The Dream” ought to be required reading for first confession classes.

–3–

Tales From Grimm told and illustrated by Wanda G’ag.

All the unvarnished truth about fairy tale characters, bloody feet, gouged out eyes, and all.  These aren’t just stories, they’re little masterworks of rhythm.     The illustrations are otherworldly and unforgettable, and the book includes many less familiar stories, too.  Snip, snap, snout, my tale’s told out!  (Also by this author, and recommended:  The Funny Thing, Millions of Cats, Snippy and Snappy)

–4–

Granfa’ Grig Had a Pig and Other Rhymes without Reason from Mother Gooseselected and illustrated by Wallace Tripp.

I feel like my kids should know Mother Goose, but in most editions, the illustrations are creepy, sappy, or bland.  This is because the subject matter of nursery rhymes is often bizarre, and no one is sure how to handle the weirdness.  Wallace Tripp, one of my favorite illustrators, lets the lunacy and hilarity come through (often providing sly commentary on the rhyme).  They are full of detail to fascinate kids, and they’re just funny and refreshing.  He also has inluded lots of lesser-known rhymes that you will be glad to know (“Slug abed, slug abed barley butt, / Your bum is so heavy, you can’t get up” comes to mind).

–5–

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths

Demeter and Persephone

All of the books written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire (I just like saying those names!) are wonderful, but Greek Myths is the one I liked the best as a kid.  The illustrations always make me think of William Blake on summer vacation:  the same primitive feel, the same slightly over-determined composition, and the same naked emotionalism of the faces — but more color, more flesh, more fun.  And the stories are just right:  they have lots of action, lots of humor and pathos, but manage to be decorous–no easy feat.  Those gods were weird.

–6–

Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories.

“The Mixed-Up Feet and the Silly Bridegroom”

For a wonderful introduction to Jewish storytelling, here is a collection of seven sweet, strange, and funny stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, unforgettably illustrated by the master, Maurice Sendak.  I’ve read other books written and illustrated by this pair, but this one shows them both at their best.

–7–

Homer Price, More Homer Price, and Centerburg Tales.

Another undeservedly neglected collection.  A young boy in a rural town (where, without explanation, several of the inhabitants are named after classical heroes and authors) gets into peculiar adventures with skunks, superheroes, balls of yarn, giant ragweed, mysterious mousecatchers, and disastrously catchy rhymes.  Just satisfying and entertaining, and, again, lively and funny illustrations by the author, another favorite of mine, Robert McCloskey.

links to image sources:

Homer Price

Zlateh the Goat

Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Half Magic

Greek Myths

Wallace Tripp

Frog and Toad

Happy weekend, everyone!  I’ve been in a fog all week, and can’t get ahold of my syntax.  Sorry if anything above doesn’t make sense.