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.

Wrapped in Love

“And at the same time that I saw this bodily sight, our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love.  I saw that for us he is everything that is good and comforting and helpful.  He is our clothing wrapping and enveloping us for love, embracing us and guiding us in all things, hanging about us in tender love, so that he can never leave us.  And so in this vision, as I understand it, I saw truly that he is everything that is good for us.”

-Julian of Norwich

The Good Times

This is why I like us all being home.

I’m making lunch and packing up to go visit Jacob this afternoon.

Lucy is practicing violin, working between piano, YouTube videos, and her metronome to get it “just right.”

I walked by the art room, and Samantha (who could not, would not read this time last year) is reading one of my childhood favorite books, Happy Birthday Moon, to Isaac (in Batman outfit) and Clare (caring for a baby bear).

These are the good times.  Lord, help me remember that!

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!

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)

And…we’re back

Re-opening the blog attempt #…

yeah, I don’t know either.

The whole keeping-up-frequent-posts-with-no-home-internet thing is a bit of a drag.  It requires discipline.  Which I sometimes lack.

But here goes again, anyway.

I went to my first writer’s conference this weekend.  The Louisiana-Mississippi region of SCBWI held its first ever KidLit conference Saturday at Sacred Heart Academy in New Orleans.  It was lovely.

The take-away:  Write for yourself, revise for your readers.  Thank you, Cheryl Klein.  

We also got to meet Angie Thomas, four days after her debut novel The Hate U Give hit #1 on the NY Times bestseller list.  Needless to say, she was glowing.  Though I suspect that is usual for her.  She was definitely an inspiration.  Yes, I bought the book.  No, I haven’t read it yet.  Really have to finish Octavian Nothing Part II before I take on anything else.  And that may be a while.  

I also got to meet Carrel Muller, who is the lower school librarian at Sacred Heart.  I want my girls to go to school there so she can be their librarian.  She is lovely!  She convinced me I need to go back and fill in all the holes in my folklore and mythology education.  And read do the same with my kids.  She also read a piece of mine (in the First Look part of the program where they read and critique the openings of several submissions), and it was exactly as I would dream of a children’s librarian reading it to little ones.  So that was a very cool moment.  Now if I can just convince someone out there to publish it…

Right.  So on that note, I could use prayers for persistence – to keep showing up at the page, and to keep sending things out, despite the piles of rejections.  Blah.

For those of you who are here less for the minutiae of my writing life, and more for cute baby stories, the lovely children are well.  I’ve picked up two Latin classes at JPG in the mornings, so they are spending the mornings with a friend and coming home for lunch, naps, etc. in the afternoons.

Just through May.  If the headmaster asks, you can assure him I still do not want to come on full time next year.  This experience has been a good reminder of where I want to be.  Home.  Period.  Which, of course, includes the library and the park.  But mostly home.

I thought our chickens had stopped laying, but it turns out they laid all their eggs in the bushes for a while.  Under the blackberry brambles, to be precise.  We found 24 one day, and 7 the next.  We have three chickens.  Three eggs a day, at best.  So it was a jubilee.  They seem to have figured out the purpose of the nesting boxes again, though.  Which is easier, but less exciting.  You can’t have everything, I guess.

We planted some vegetables and flowers last weekend.  (Thanks to Fr. Sam for the seeds!  The wildflower bed is well on it’s way!)  Hopefully there will be pictures…when I get better at technology.  Maybe next spring.  
Book of the week: This Is Not My Hat by John Klassen.  Hilarious.  It should be used in film classes as a study in dramatic irony, and in writers’ workshops as and example of how the pictures and text work together.  No redundancy – each does its own part towards a flawlessly integrated whole.  And it’s soooo funny.

I hope that there will be more posts soon.   And that is not intended as ironic, but whether it is or not remains to be seen.