Mount Majestic

“There is a very good possibility that you will not believe a word I say. Alas, it is the risk all historians take. The truest things are often the most unbelievable.”

Thus begins one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton, and illustrated by Brett Helquist (whose work you’ll recognize if you are familiar with A Series of Unfortunate Events), is a romp. The language alone is magical, not to mention the flute, the pots, the Leaf-eaters’ tears…

Why, for example, has no one before thought of a “Lyre-That-Never-Lies”? Brilliant. And the whole book is full to the brim and overflowing with this kind of word play.

“And so I invite you to take off your cloak of doubt, empty your pockets of all suspicions and jests, sit down before the roaring fire of my tale, and believe.”

Trafton weaves a tale of mythic proportions. Giants? Check. Rumblebumps? Check. Poison-tongued jumping tortoises? Check.

Tell me you’re not intrigued.

Mount Majestic is one of the few novels I can remember my kids asking to read again…the morning after we finished it. That probably has something to do with all the laughing out loud we did while reading it. (Full disclosure: it is best if someone reads it aloud, especially if the someone uses different voices for the characters, and if several of the voices sound suspiciously like disgruntled Irish washer women.)

Mount Majestic gets 5+ stars from our family. That includes the parents, the 12-year-old, the 10-year-old, the 8-year-old, and the 5-year-old. They are all now in full quoting-during-mundane-conversations mode.

And besides being hilarious and wickedly clever, Persimmony Smudge, our heroine, realizes in the end that as wonderful as adventures may be, there is something wonderful about plain-old, everyday existence, too.

After all,

“Life is a mess and a miracle. So pick up a broom and dance.”

A Beautiful Baby Book

I’m so happy to share this beautiful book about a new baby joining the family! Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born, by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Caldecott Honor Artist Jason Chin uses lively, rhyming text and colorful, touching illustrations to show both the baby’s growth before birth and the joy of her family as they prepare for her arrival.

There is so much to love about this book…where to start?? On the left page of every spread is a month-by-month depiction of the baby’s growth in utero. The images are realistic, but also touchingly beautiful. On the right side we see the baby’s family – mom, dad, and big sister – going about their lives: planting a garden, constructing a crib, leaving for the hospital. Excitement about this new life shines on all their faces. (My favorite illustration might actually be the one where the big sister meets her new sibling – she has the most perfect serious, pondering face.)

Miranda Paul’s text is lyrical and simple. It gives just enough detail to be exciting and intriguing, and yet is short enough that my 18-month-old will happily sit through it. I call that a win.

The “month six” spread, for example, shows mother and big sister sitting and talking to a bulging belly, with this precious text:

“Glasp.

Clasp.

Ears that can hear.

Sing as she listens.

Tell her you’re near.”

Beautiful.

After the story are four more pages of information, not counting the bibliography. The first two explain the hints Miranda Paul’s sweet text give about the wonders of this tiny person, lines like “Arms, legs..tail, too?” The next two pages include fun baby facts, baby animals, and a “What if…?” section which deals with twins, premies, and miscarriages, all with gentle grace.

Paul and Chin have treated this subject with such compassion and love. Honestly, this is a book I wish had been around for me to share with my kids as they became big brothers and sisters.

Book Review: Marcelo in the Real World

I am totally smitten with this book.

First, I have to tell the story of how I came to read it. The book and its author, Francisco X. Stork, were in no way on my radar, until someone suggested I read Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words, which is a how-to on writing middle grade and young adult novels. (It is infuriatingly detailed – if there is a problem in your text, there is probably a solution in The Magic Words. It’s very helpful, and completely exhausting.)

Anyway, Cheryl edited Marcelo, and uses it repeatedly in the examples in her book. I enjoyed the excerpts, learned from her description of its revision process, and was generally interested in reading the book.

Two years later, I finally did. And I am so glad I did.

First, the disclaimer: this is a YA novel. As in many YA novels these days (though this one is already 10 years old), there is foul language, and some pretty crude descriptions of various male-female interactions. Consider yourself warned.

Marcelo in the Real World is about a young man entering his last summer of high school. He is on the Autism Spectrum, though he doesn’t fit into any of the more specific diagnoses, and he hears “internal music” in his mind. He has always gone to a special school, and plans to spend his summer helping train some of the horses that the school uses for therapy. His father, however, has other plans.

Marcelo’s father is a powerful lawyer, and wants his son to be able to function in the “real world,” not just the protected world his school creates for its students. He offers Marcelo a deal: if Marcelo can work in the “real world” – at his father’s law firm – for the summer, he can go back to his beloved school. If not, he will transfer to the local public high school for his senior year. Marcelo gives up his summer plans and takes the deal.

At the law firm, Marcelo encounters a whole new realm of challenges. He works in the mail room, and his supervisor, Jasmine, has to find ways to help him do his job as well as he is able. Marcelo is faced with questions he has never faced before – how does he know who is his friend? How can he choose one friend over another? One good over another? How can he know what is the right thing to do?

Marcelo finds a picture of a girl whose face has been scarred by a shattering windshield – a windshield made by a company represented by his father – and this raises the most desperate questions of all.

As Marcelo puts it, “How do we go about living when there is so much suffering?”

Will Marcelo try to find a way to help the girl in the picture, even if it means hurting his own family?

No spoilers here. You’ll have to read it and find out.

Now, as to why I loved this book. It’s the first one in a very long time that I’ve stayed up at night to finish. There really is a lot to love.

First, Marcelo is wonderful. His voice is totally unique. It’s a little jarring at first, because his speech, and even his thoughts, are so formal. But I found I got over the awkwardness very quickly, and was delighted to hear his frank descriptions of life. For example,

“You said that if I follow the rules of the real world this summer, I will get to decide where I go next year. Who will decide whether I followed the rules? I am not aware of all the rules of the real world. They are innumerable, as far as I have been able to determine.”

I feel that way all the time. Marcelo offers a different perspective on the “real world,” and I am grateful for it.

Second, there are some wonderful supporting characters. The scene where Marcelo meets Jasmine’s dad in his barn would be laugh-out-loud funny, if not for the fact that it is Alzheimer’s which makes her dad so ornery and foul-mouthed. With that knowledge, it comes off as bittersweet. Marcelo’s friend and confidant Rabbi Heschel is also larger-than-life. I’d want to sit and discuss the great questions of the universe with her, too.

Finally, the thing I liked best about this book was that it attacks heavy questions head-on. Marcelo’s “special interest” is in religion. His family background is Catholic, and he talks about praying the Rosary with his grandmother and the picture of the Sacred Heart that hung in her room. He is interested in other religions as well. His dog is named Namu, after the beginning of a Buddhist prayer. He often visits Rabbi Heschel for long talks about God and about life.

These talks are some of the gems of the text. In one, Marcelo tries to understand a co-worker’s desire to go to bed with Jasmine. The rabbi’s explanation, going back to the Garden of Eden, encompassing how everything, including sex, was created good, and how the Fall disrupted the goodness, is thoughtful, insightful, and beautiful.

Marcelo cares deeply about good and evil. His time in the “real world” forces him to decide how much he is willing to sacrifice for what is right. In a bookscape (is that a word?) where 90% of protagonists show no sign of faith or religion whatsoever,* a book that discusses faith, goodness, and conscience so eloquently is a treat indeed.

My inclination is to add this book to my list of “Great Catholic Novels.” Despite the fact that the author may or may not be Catholic (he doesn’t mention his own religion anywhere that I could find), and despite the fact that Marcelo himself has a crisis of faith by the end of the novel, and seems to subscribe to bits of various religions all along…the spirit of the story fits what I would want to see in a “Catholic” novel. (And we can discuss if Catholic Novels must be written by Catholics, or about Catholics, or doctrinally sound, and all the rest of it, another time.)

However you might decide to label it, to my ears, Marcelo in the Real World sounds all the right notes.

*A necessary footnote: Angie Thomas’ best-selling The Hate You Give falls in the other 10%. Starr’s family is Christian, and they pray together at the beginning of the day. It’s simple and real, and was one of my favorite parts of that wonderful book.
In Middle Grade, The Inquisitor’s Tale also takes kids and their faith seriously, and is highly recommended.

Close to Home

I guess that title could also refer to our renewed search for a permanent dwelling place (prayers for that, please!)…

but this poem hit close to home, considering what we’ve been through during the last six months.  So I thought I’d share it.  Thanks to poets.org and their poem-a-day project for bringing it to my attention.

The Things That Count

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Now, dear, it isn’t the bold things,
Great deeds of valour and might,
That count the most in the summing up of life at the end of the day.
But it is the doing of old things,
Small acts that are just and right;
And doing them over and over again, no matter what others say;
In smiling at fate, when you want to cry, and in keeping at work when

          you want to play—
Dear, those are the things that count.

And, dear, it isn’t the new ways
Where the wonder-seekers crowd
That lead us into the land of content, or help us to find our own.
But it is keeping to true ways,
Though the music is not so loud,
And there may be many a shadowed spot where we journey along

          alone;
In flinging a prayer at the face of fear, and in changing into a song a

          groan—
Dear, these are the things that count.

My dear, it isn’t the loud part
Of creeds that are pleasing to God,
Not the chant of a prayer, or the hum of a hymn, or a jubilant shout or

          song.
But it is the beautiful proud part
Of walking with feet faith-shod;
And in loving, loving, loving through all, no matter how things go

          wrong;
In trusting ever, though dark the day, and in keeping your hope when

          the way seems long—

Dear, these are the things that count.

A Poem for Mother’s Day

The Lanyard – by Billy Collins

“The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly-
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-clothes on my forehead,
and then led me out into the air light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift – not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-toned lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

I don’t recall ever giving my mother a lanyard, but I fear there may have been more than one macaroni necklace.
Thank you for everything, Mom, and I love you!

Resonance. Yes.

“It’s been crazy but also strangely wonderful to have the arrival of my daughter and the release of this book coincide. I’ve spent the last few months in this wintry baby cave—spending all hours of day and night with this tiny creature, learning the exquisite rhythms of her being, her milk breath and shuddering sighs and fluttering eyelids when she dreams about… what? What are her dreams? I am so close to her in these bodily ways, so swollen with love, and yet so much of her is a mystery—and language doesn’t quite summon much of what we are experiencing. That said, I have been so hungry for other peoples’ stories of childbirth and early motherhood, in a way that only deepens my faith in how much narratives matter—which is so much of what this book is about, and so much of what my desire to be a writer is about. Of course, the world is full of narratives about motherhood and writing as antagonistic forces, hell bent on destroying each other—I want so much to believe in all the other ways they can intersect.”

-Leslie Jamison

You can read more of the interview I snatched this from (not G rated but so thoughtful) on LitHub.  And thanks to Image for bringing it to my attention.

The Family: School of Mercy

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“The family is the hospital closest to us: when someone is sick, they are cared for there, where possible.  The family is the first school for children, it is the unwavering reference point for the young, it is the best home for the elderly.  It is the first school of mercy, because it is there that we have been loved and learned to love, have been forgiven and learned to forgive.”

-Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy

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.

View all my reviews

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!