Review: Coraline

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this book for years. YEARS. I don’t particularly like scary books, so I thought it wasn’t for me.
I’m ready to read it again tomorrow. Gaiman is a master story-teller, of course. I love that just when you think everything is over…there is one more challenge to conquer. Coraline is smart and brave, and almost unbelievably steadfast. Single-minded. If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that she never wavers in her purpose to save her parents and defeat her adversary.
A taste of the depths of the creepiness of Gaiman’s writing:

“Why does she want me?” Coraline asked the cat. “Why does she want me to stay here with her?”
“She wants something to love, I think,” said the cat. “Something that isn’t here. She might want something to eat as well. It’s hard to tell with creatures like that.”

And the gems:

“Coraline wondered why so few of the adults she met made any sense.”

Coraline is a scary book. And sooooo good.

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Trying to Say God – Reading List

It’s been quite a weekend.  I have had the privilege of visiting the University of Notre Dame (also known as “my old stomping grounds”) for three days.  By myself.  It was great.  

So before I gush about how excited I am to hug my kids again, you might want to know what on earth was so exciting it could get me on an airplane for the first time in 10 years?

A number of equally excited people joined me in South Bend this weekend for the “Trying to Say God” conference…basically a bunch of Catholics-who-happen-to-be-writers and writers-who-happen-to-be-Catholics (and people who consider themselves to be both with equal ferocity) trying to scratch out a vision for what “Catholic literature”* was, is, and will be.

*This is maddeningly hard to define, and I’m not going to try.  If it includes some component of “Catholic” and some component “writer,” for now, it counts.

I will not bore you with the details…yet.  First, the take away.

If you looked into any of the essays I posted here, you know the debate.  If you didn’t, here’s the jist:  Why isn’t anyone today being Flannery O’Connor???  (That means: writing literary, challenging fiction with Catholic sensibilities and themes which is published by the major publishing houses and read by the multitudes.  No pressure.)

There are myriad answers to the question, but I’d like to focus on a different angle of it.  What we found this weekend was that the writers are out there.  I think the readers are out there.  At least, I know a few in my own small friend group.  Why can’t the writers and readers find each other?

Well, here perhaps I can help.  For the eight or so of you who still read this on occasion, I will share some of the amazing authors I met or heard about this weekend.  I will make the effort to find the small Catholic presses, the literary journals, and yes, the chapbooks of whoever is working toward goodness, truth, and beauty in their writing.  

Will you join me?


So that’s my manifesto…and here is installment #1.  Probably the longest one I’ll ever do, since I have three days worth of awesome to lay out for you.  So here goes.

Novels

I was privileged to hear a reading by Randy Boyagoda from his forthcoming book Original Prin.  It included pickleball.  I was sold.  The bad news is, it doesn’t come out until Fall 2018.  I will be holding my breath.  He does have two previous books, Governor of the Northern Province and Beggar’s Feast.

After hearing Suzanne Wolfe speak, I’m also ready to pick up Confessions of X.  And get a subscription to Image, to which I arrive at shamefully late.

I am currently working on Valerie Sayers’ The Powers and loving it.  Be aware it is not as fast-paced as some novels, but I fell in love with the grandma at once, and was bowled over to read about the Catholic-worker wanna-be and his encounters with Dorothy Day.  Who writes about that?!?  Valerie Sayers does.  I’m only three chapters in…but I’m recommending it anyway.

David Russell Mosley’s On the Edges of Elfland sounds like a party to me.  Starting to realize I may have all my reading for the rest of the year planned out after this post…

A great surprise was to find that my friend from Baton Rouge, Karen Ullo, was not only at the conference, but on the panels and selling her book.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but Jennifer the Damned follows an orphan vampire raised by nuns.  “Why a vampire book?” I asked.  “Because no one deals with the importance (and implications) of the Church in these vampire stories.”  Karen does.  Be warned: it is scary.  I might let Craig read this one.  But if you want horror with depth, this might be the book for you.

 

Poetry

I have been trying to add poetry to my diet, but wasn’t sure where to look.  Problem solved!  The bookstore sold out of Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, so I am ordering it.  I was on the verge of tears three times listening to her insights from studying images of the Annunciation, and the poems which they inspired for her.

I skipped it, unfortunately, but many people were blown away by Natalie Diaz’s talk.  Check out When My Brother Was an Aztec.

 

Children’s/ Middle Grade/ YA

Amy Cattapan has written a highly-acclaimed book on teen suicide, Angelhood, which she hopes will succeed in opening up conversations about such a difficult topic between teens and their parents.  Again, haven’t read it (yet), but Amy is amazing.  Excited to get to this one.

 

Non-Fiction

Heather King delivered a beautiful, encouraging, kick-in-the-pants address for the conference.  I can recommend her post here unabashedly, and I can’t wait to read more of her gorgeous writing in Parched, Redeemed, or Shirt of Flame.  

Ken Garcia has a memoir coming out soon called Pilgrim River about finding God in the wilderness.  His reading at the conference included a geologist who cursed in geological terms…my favorite might have included the words “tiny precambrian brain.”  I was rolling.

The Strange Pilgrims blog duo, Jessica Mesman-Griffith and Jonathan Ryan are coming out with Strange Journey: How Two Homesick Pilgrims Stumbled Back into the Catholic Church.  Again, the reading was wonderful, and I’m looking forward to the rest.  This is not your grandmother’s come-to-Jesus story.  

 

Other Stuff worth checking out

Film: In Pursuit of Silence (forthcoming)

Commonweal (magazine)

Image (literary journal)

Dappled Things (literary journal)

Sick Pilgrims (blog thingy)

Wiseblood Books (publisher)


So.  I guess that’s a start.  Looks like I will be busy.  There are amazing, holy (well, mostly holy – like any of us!), engaging writers out there in the Catholic world.  Come, read their stories with me, and be transformed!

An Open Letter

Dear Recent College Graduate (and others seeking your way in life),

 

First, the disclaimer.  I am not a spiritual director.  I am not trained in the theology or methodology of discernment any more than any other semi-interested lay person.  I speak only from experience and reflection on that experience.  

Also, the hope is always that prayer is constant and earnest though it all.  We’re not perfect, but the more open we are with God (by means of giving him our time) the better chance we have of finding his will, whether we realize we have or not.

That said, I remember being in my last two years of college.  I remember the questioning: where is God calling me?  And more importantly(?), how can I know?

Shoot, I remember asking these questions in college, and after college, and when we had the opportunities to move our family or change jobs…we’re more or less there right now, as we consider finding a permanent place for our family to live.

So maybe that’s the bad news: discernment doesn’t go away when you decide on your career or who you will marry or which order to join.  If anything, the stakes just get higher.

So what is different about my discernment now and (gasp) 13 years ago?  How can I talk so glibly about such weighty matters?

Maybe it’s the good news: God is faithful.  With the benefit of hindsight, his faithfulness shows up all over our lives.  It’s just that often we had to be on the other side of the discernment to see it.

I think we (by which I mean Craig and I) always knew not to expect a booming voice from Heaven when we asked God to reveal his plans for our lives.  I expect most people are with us there.  That would have been nice, of course, but we weren’t quite that hopeful.

Still, I think we expected our options to be narrowed down.  Or some friend to come up with the perfect, unassailably flawless solution.  Or a scripture quote to appear in a retreat note which was exactly the same passage we were praying over when the email about this grad school came in.  

Basically, we wanted a sign.

And even now, a sign would be lovely.  I would love to be able to say, “Thanks, God!  Now that I know exactly what Your Holy Will is, I’ll do my best to follow your blueprint.”

Life just doesn’t seem to work like that. Not for us, at least.  We have found that the best way to find God’s will is to jump in and see what happens.  Peace?  Then we made a good guess based on the understanding we had.  Not peace?  Maybe we need pray (a lot) more and try again.  

I have found, for myself, that it is usually my gut that listens to God the best.  (This is rather Hebrew of me – the seat of the person being not in the heart but the innards.)  Anyway, it’s almost always a gut check that points me in the right direction.  

Watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from 2,000 miles away was my first indication that I wasn’t meant to spend my life in the hallowed halls of academia – I needed the real world too badly.

I knew for a while that I would rather be home with my kids than teaching Latin, but it took a drive across the Huey P. Long Bridge, my first day back to work after having Samantha, with her two-year-old sister in the back seat, with SNOW fluttering around the car – what on earth was I doing?  I was going to drop my kids at day care when it was snowing in New Orleans so I could teach Latin.  To mostly uninterested high school girls.  Gut check.

You get the idea.  Sometimes the scholarship comes through (or doesn’t) and the decision is made.  Sometimes the path is clear…but sometimes you just throw caution to the wind, close your eyes, and jump.

God will catch you.  

And where ever he puts you down, he will cause you to grow.  There may be a transplanting in your future, but by then you’ll have grown strong enough to survive it, and to blossom.

Summer Planshttps://www.tryingtosaygod.com/

I fear this blog is digressing into writing conference memoranda and book reviews.  

I guess it could be worse.

On that note, my summer plans include a visit to South Bend for a Catholic Writer’s Conference:

Trying to Say God

So it turns out that I’m not just lacking in talent for finding Catholic publishers…there are very few of them out there.  And few reviewers.  And few “Catholic” writers who claim the title and write with a “Catholic” worldview.

Why the “quotes”?  I’ve been doing the suggested reading to prep for the conference (see below), and this is one of the big questions: what does a “Catholic” writer look like and write about in 2017?  It’s easy to look back (Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Tolkein, and friends are mentioned constantly) but that’s not particularly helpful when faced with the challenge of how to address our current challenges and a church, as writers, and as readers.  So what’s a budding children’s author to do?

Thus the conference…maybe I’ll have some answers afterwards.  But if you need some reading (including lists of the American Catholics authors you may or may not have missed in your public high school American lit class), check out the links below, courtesy of Kenneth Garcia, who is hosting the conference.

And seats were still available last I heard…come join me!

 

Dana Gioia,  “The Catholic Writer Today,” Dec. 2013, First Things (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today)

 

Paul Elie, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith?”  New York Times, Dec. 19, 2012  (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/books/review/has-fiction-lost-its-faith.html)

 

Kaya Oakes, “Writers Blocked: The State of Catholic Writing Today,” America, April 28, 2014 (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/writers-blocked)

 

Randy Boyagoda, “Faith in Fiction,” First Things, August 2013 (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/faith-in-fiction)

 

Francis Spufford, “Spiritual Literature for Atheists,” First Things, November 2015 (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/11/spiritual-literature-for-atheists)

Review: Kristin Lavransdatter

Kristin Lavransdatter
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel silly trying to review this book. Maybe not silly, maybe more like out of my league. This was my second time through (and if you haven’t read it, look at the page count and be impressed). It was good to read it again…the first time I kept waiting and hoping for the Disney fairy tale ending. But it’s about Norway in the Middle Ages. So there are things like war, and snow, and the plague. The first time through I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a “happy ending.”
However, on the second read, minus the edge-of-your-seat quality of wondering what could possibly happen next, I was able to appreciate the beauty, struggle, and joy of life. A hard life, a complicated life, and a sinful life, but life tied to the church and the saints, tied to family, driven by love. Kristen and her father make the same point, which I think sums up my take-away the second time through the book: as hard as life is, in the end they both found themselves grateful for both the joys and the sorrows, and reluctant to imagine existing without the full measure of both.
Kristen Lavransdatter is gripping, immersive, and full of thanksgiving for the stuff of life. You should read it…preferably at least twice.

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Review: The Bear Who Wasn’t There

The Bear Who Wasn't There
The Bear Who Wasn’t There by LeUyen Pham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit, I have a weak spot for books that are self-aware. It cracks me up when a book calls itself a book and laughs about it. Like The Bear Who Wasn’t There. You spend the whole book searching for the bear the book is supposed to be about (including hunting down the author to see what she has to say about the situation) and hilarity ensues. I found the art clever, and while it’s one of those books that’s a little clunky to read aloud (word bubbles and such), it’s well worth it. My kids were laughing out loud. As was I, actually. And I think the octopus gets the best line in the book. Now you’re curious, aren’t you?

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Review: The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles
The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So beautiful. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This book illustrates the quote perfectly. My family loved it. Now if we could just get the courage to act on it…

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Review: March: Book One

March: Book One
March: Book One by John Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished this series, and I feel like it gave me an understanding of the Civil Rights movement that I missed in my US history classes. John Lewis’ story makes the struggle for equal rights personal, and the graphic novel format is engaging and so well done. It is a little more graphic than I’m ready to give my ten-year-old, but I think it’s necessary to bring home just how how much violence African-Americans and those who stood with them endured.
A few highlights:
-The explanation of the different groups working for civil rights. SNCC, SCLC, NAACP…this was all lost on me before. March functions as an introduction to the groups, but it was interesting to see their different priorities and philosophies, as well as how they worked alongside each other.
-The focus of Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on only nonviolent action. This was so refreshing, especially in that they don’t gloss over the challenges of not reacting to violence with violence.
-March also functions as a timeline – putting all the events I’ve always heard about all jumbled up into a cohesive, orderly narrative, but not so long and detailed that I lose track of it all over months of reading.
Overall, I highly recommend March, both for personal growth and as a supplement to a middle school or high school US history curriculum. It stands alone as an excellent introduction, but also sets the stage and raises interest for deeper study into the time period.

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Review: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Angie Thomas was one of the guest speakers at the Louisiana/Mississippi SCBWI KidLit conference this February, so I heard about her book in emails for weeks. I looked at the title, and the jacket, and thought, “This is probably a good book, but I don’t think I’m the target audience.” And I left it at that.
After hearing Angie describe her book, and why she wrote it, and what she hoped the book would say to the world (and the fact that it had just hit #1 on the NY Times list didn’t hurt), I changed my mind. Clearly, I was very much her target audience. I bought the book. I read the book. I passed on the book.
I highly, highly recommend The Hate U Give. The synopses are out there already, and I just have to echo so many other reviews in saying that this book is both timely and extremely well done. There are moments when I thought, “Yeah, I guess this is a first novel,” or “She is really driving home this point,” but it is all done so well within the world of the characters that it is totally believable. It is painfully enjoyable, in fact. Angie Thomas allows her characters to preach her truth through their lives, and her truth is beautiful.
What I loved about the characters in this book is the love they have for each other. Especially within Starr’s family. They are not perfect people, and they are not caricatures; they are ready to walk off the page, and I wanted to hug them all in their pain. But I realized I didn’t need to – Starr’s family is strong enough to support each other through anything. I especially appreciated Angie Thomas’ treatment of Starr’s parents: they are thoroughly real, not just a foil to create conflict or advance the plot. Honestly, Starr’s dad, Maverick, is my favorite character. For me, the fierce love and loyalty of Starr and her family is what makes this book shine.
Bonus: as intense as parts of the book get, the comic relief is perfect. It’s been awhile since I laughed out loud at a book, and this one had my kids running to see what I thought was sooo funny.
Angie Thomas took me to a world that white, suburban-born me had never encountered. And she welcomed me into it with open arms. I can only thank her for helping me see the world from that vantage point for a little while.
My concern is always, “Can I give this book to my daughter?” She’s 10, so for now, the answer is no. The language is strong, and while it’s not overdone, there are a couple of romantic scenes that would definitely be way too much for her. But when she’s older, I will expect her to read it. And I imagine she will love it as much as I have.

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Review: The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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