NFP Week 2016 – Humane Vitae: WWRW

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Another two-fer! A very late link up to the July Wednesday book reviews from fellow bloggers hosted by Carolyn Astfalk and Catholicmom.com.

I finally, FINALLY read the gem Humanae Vitae. This encyclical was “given” (how nice a turn of phrase! like a gift is given) on July 25, 1968 by Pope Paul VI. Annually, NFP Awareness Week is celebrated at this time to commemorate the anniversary of this life changing document. And yes, it is a gift.

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Though I’ve mentioned this encyclical before, I actually had never read it–not all the way through. And now that I have? My, what a beautiful meditation on marriage and humanity. I particularly liked the sections on God’s design for marriage and married love (8 & 9). Those paragraphs should be inserted into every wedding liturgy homily.

Also wonderful? How Paul VI clearly communicates the Church’s authentic mercy for families. He and the Magisterium got it–all the way back in 1968–got how the world has its trials, how couples may have a serious or reasonable rationale for delaying or spacing pregnancy, and how it is okay to use God’s wonderful design to do just that! Of course, true mercy does not involve flouting morals, for how can you be merciful if you care so little for the soul? Further, he calls upon everyone to essentially fix the world so that family life can be improved.

His proscriptions for politicians, doctors, scientists, etc., show that the Church doesn’t want to just leave us hanging. And in the case of Catholic doctors and scientists in particular, some people have taken this message to heart. We have incredible advances in fertility awareness methods, as well as NaProTechnology. Section 15 does address use of certain elements strictly for therapeutic means–I bet he’s smiling in Heaven to know that doctors are continually working to treat and cure bodily diseases with God’s own design of the human body.

However, I am sure he is displeased that his predictions (17) have come true. I’d read about them before, but seeing how precisely he laid it out was humbling. One that stuck out to me that’s not mentioned as much was this: “There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication.” (18) Facebook or Twitter fights, amirite? I really feel like if we as a society could just take time to fully listen, to fully engage with such documents as this (and Pope St. John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, whose philosophy on the human person can be traced to elements in HV), there’d be less clamor and less outcry. Another disappointment was in what solutions have not been fully realized. In particular, I feel that some priests have shirked their responsibility in answering the Vicar of Christ’s call to accompany couples as they live out these teachings. While some priests and bishops are quite vocal in their defense of the teachings of marriage, I’ve heard stories of others, who, especially when it comes to the beauty of the why of NFP, do not have “stamped in the heart and voice…the likeness of the voice and the love of our Redeemer.” (29).

But I am glad for Pope Paul VI’s message to the world, along with his calls to each of us sons and daughters of Christ. In particular, I  favored this mission, one I’ve adopted through my writing for teens: “the need to create an atmosphere favorable to the growth of chastity so that true liberty may prevail over license and the norms of the moral law may be fully safeguarded.” (22)

That about sums it up. May we leave this week to “go and do likewise.”

Don’t forget! If you want to use a sympto-hormonal form of acceptable spacing births, Simcha Fisher is giving away ClearBlue fertility monitors!

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What We’re Reading Wednesday

Happy Veteran’s Day! A special thank you to all our servicemen and servicewomen and their families for their sacrifices.

Today, I finally have some book reviews! But first, as promised, the announcement of the winners of the raffle! Congratulations to Laura Rene, a newlywed! In lieu of the prize packs, she’s getting Seven Saints for Seven Virtues by Jean M. Heiman, Blessed, Beautiful and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood by Pat Gohn, and Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching, edited by Erika Bachiochi. Do check out her blog, linked in her name.

I’m waiting on hearing back from the winner of the Singles Bundle before announcing her name publicly.

And the second piece of bookish business: I recently joined a Catholic YA Authors group, and am so happy to help out my fellow writers. Please take a moment to check out Cynthia Toney’s Goodreads Giveaway of her book 10 Steps to Girlfriend Status. Thank you!

On to the reviews! Today’s theme is “Catholic Marriage Guides!” If either spark your interest, you can learn more and purchase directly from the publisher (support Catholic businesses!) by clicking on the covers.

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Just Married: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Five Years of Marriage by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak

When PJ and I were at the World Meeting of Families, we came across Dr. Greg at a booth, and I told him that their book was hands down, the best marriage prep we had done–so, so much better than what our diocese offered. And I meant every word. While I do have one nit to pick with it, this book encapsulates most of the big-picture issues a couple entering marriage or just starting out should look at. Chapters cover the spiritual life couples should develop together, practical topics like dealing with conflict, money, relatives, sex, and what they call “marriage enemy #1” (spoiler: refusing to leave your comfort zone).* Nearly every section includes an activity to do with your spouse. Though PJ and I weren’t married when we worked through this book, the exercises prompted great conversations about expectations we were bringing and maybe how they might need to be managed, about how we were actively loving each other and ways we could love better, and about our hoped-for visions for our new family. The lists we wrote each other of the various ways we loved the other and ways we could feel even more loved sit our nightstands to this day. Also included in each chapter are Dr. Greg and Lisa’s “story” regarding their personal experience with the topic, written like a dialogue. These sections, as well as the example conversations of actual couples with similar problems, were my favorite. They reminded me of the “Can This Marriage Be Saved” columns in magazines that featured a couple, each discussing their view of a problem, and the therapist’s turn. To me, there’s something in seeing concrete, specific issues and how people dealt with it, as well as qualified assistance–it’s like free counseling–as opposed to just generic “here’s how you communicate effectively” bullet points.

  • The BEST takeaway: the concept of not “negotiating the what.” I wished WordPress let me underline. Oh to emphasize how eye-opening this tidbit was. Essentially, “negotiating the what,” is described in this book as the biggest, unnecessary source of conflict. The thesis is that little and big fights happen because one spouse tries to only negotiate the actual thing. To use a small example from the book: a wife buys new decorative pillows for the couch; husband is frustrated that money was spent on what he calls a frivolous item; they get trapped in arguing about the pillows themselves, the “what.” Instead, Dr. Greg advocates for negotiating the when, the how, anything but the darn pillows. So that might mean in this situation, the couple discusses the potential purchase–maybe they wait until an expected bonus comes in; maybe they move the throw pillows from the bed in the bag downstairs (what we actually did!); maybe they agree to see if someone will get them for a birthday or Christmas present.

I judge advice books by how practically, effectively, and successfully the guidance can be used in a real relationship. Now that we’ve been married four months (exactly today!), this concept, along with many other pieces of counsel are working. For example, we had a discussion about a matter in which we initially disagreed, and it was looking like there was no way around it–perhaps sometimes you have to negotiate the “what.” In our example, I’ll call the “what” ‘bananas.’ I really believed that there shouldn’t be a question that I could have bananas without reservation, and PJ believed that before having bananas, it should be discussed, and under certain circumstances. We could’ve ended the conversation and day in an unhappy stalemate, but we pushed through and came to the conclusion that instead of one person getting their way about the bananas, we could negotiate the when and how. The whole conversation also reflected the ways the authors suggested we handle conflict “gracefully.”

  • The one thing I didn’t like: This book is about the first five years of a Catholic marriage. One chapter deals with the “when do we have kids?” question. This bothered me particularly, though PJ not so much. So this critique is just a personal reader response. No book can be everything and encompass everything, so perhaps I am asking too much. But…Let’s be real. If you’re a Catholic couple, following Church teaching, children can very likely not be a decision you make some months or years in, but are right in your face three weeks after the honeymoon with that positive pregnancy. I personally believe this dramatic change in both the woman’s hormones and your identity as a couple–no more just husband and wife, but mother and father, too–deserves some consideration, especially given how it can affect a couple. Some couples may do great, but I just wish this Catholic book had more examples of newly minted couples that had to deal with pregnancy or a baby in addition to figuring out how to live and work as husband and wife. Yes, at the core, dealing with conflict and money and in-laws are general areas and the advice in the book could be applied in those situations, I just wish there were more specific examples–especially if leading up to the marriage, any of those areas had only recently been resolved, and the arrival of a new person will add a layer or new dimension, or worse, open up old wounds. That’s just my take.

Bottom line: if you’re engaged or recently married and looking for guidance or enrichment, I heartily recommend this book. (And yes, I know, it has a sex chapter and some of you aren’t married yet, but you really have to talk about this stuff appropriately, and in my *unqualified, but reasonable* opinion, this treatment is okay.)

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Catholic and Married: Leaning Into Love, edited by Art and Laraine Bennett.

At least two years or so ago, both Hallie Lord and Simcha Fisher, two incredible bloggers, teased their chapters for an upcoming book of essays on marriage through Our Sunday Visitor. I was so excited. It finally released in late 2014. Both of the mentioned women’s chapters were great. Most of the chapters were good; one I didn’t especially care for the presentation of the content–snippets of moments from the marriage that go from high to low and back again without transitions or application to the topic (marrying young). Perhaps just the scenes were meant to reveal a larger point with takeaways for all couples, but for me, this one just didn’t quite “hang together,” and that’s my overall personal feeling about the book. As a whole, the individually good chapters on a variety of subjects form marrying young to children to challenges to marriage and divorce, it just didn’t quite hang together. I greatly respect each of the contributors and the editors, being familiar in some way with nearly all of their work from my publishing days. But from that background, I couldn’t help but think about if I had received this manuscript how my reader’s report would have yes, personal, suggestions for how to make it more cohesive. So yes, this critique is tempered mostly by my own views, but I believe it somewhat useful, as this form of evaluation is useful, for if a book doesn’t turn on my inner editor but inspires me, then I feel that the book is particularly successful in achieving what it intended.

While I felt this book lacked a flow–it appears to jump from one topic to another, held together loosely that these chapters are “about marriage”–the personal stories are illuminating, and as you’ve seen above, I do like those. Best moment: the writer who tells us about the time her husband got up in the middle of the night and slept in front of the children’s bedroom door, so they wouldn’t come out and bug mommy who was very ill. #Husbandgoals, amirite? Because it tackles topics like entering into marriage as a child of divorce, pornography, and cohabitation with those areas’ general effect on the institution, this book could actually be good for engaged couples, of course, but also Catholics dating and Catholic singles.

Bottom line: For those who are married, about to be married, or are interested in the subject of Catholic marriage, this book features some good essays on the various aspects of the sacrament, along with some examples of living it out. Though it lacks a focus like the above title, it offers some takeaways for couples. And while it was not my personal utmost favorite treatment of marriage and married life, it is still a good entry in the Catholic couples’ book realm.

—Given my publishing history, I’ll add this disclaimer: I probably won’t review books that I first saw as manuscripts. So I have never seen the above books before purchasing them for my own personal collection.

*Edinburgh Housewife, aka Auntie Seraphic, says it’s contempt, and both sins are incredibly destructive to a relationship.

WWRW: The Adult Edition

Linking up with Housewifespice again!

91lUeBR2G1LThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Adult). This book is billed as a gripping thriller, great for fans of Gone Girl (presumably the book, and not the horrid movie). For one, this book has a much more empathetic primary narrator in Rachel, who while flawed, is definitely not as acerbic or deranged as Amy of GG. And for another, it’s in reality much less creepy and chilling. Rachel, an unemployed woman distraught from a nasty divorce (kicked out of the house so her ex could move his mistress in, marry her, and give her a child–the one thing Rachel can never have but desperately wanted), rides the commuter rail every day and drinks her sorrows away…every day. Her one delight in this sad existence is making up a story about the couple who now resides in a home on her old street, the backyards of which the train passes and slows down by along its route. But when one day she sees the woman kissing a man who is not her husband, it sets into motion an engrossing mystery about the woman’s eventual disappearance. Though you’re with Rachel for most of the narration, you do get insights into the lives of the other women of the story in their own specifically chosen chapters: Anna, the ex’s new wife, and Megan (the woman on the patio whom Rachel called Jess). As I said in the beginning of this review, Rachel is quite a sad sack, but despite this, I felt for her and rooted for her because Ms. Hawkins drew her to have some inner quality that makes you want to believe her. What’s particularly delicious is that Rachel is intended to be an unreliable narrator, but the big twist is what she’s actually unreliable about. Some readers may see some of the smaller twists coming, and astute readers the really big one at the climax. An excellently constructed book and great read. Catholic codicil: Do characters make poor decisions and face mild (if any) repercussions? Of course. This isn’t from a religious press. But it does portray terrible things as the horrors they are, as well as make you feel how awful adultery is. And even though the characters you like or come to like commit sin, you’re not rooting for them or made to feel as though it’s justified; rather you feel more sympathy for the wronged parties. Oh, and there’s a “devil,” who is quite clearly the bad person…no moral relativisim there. Recommendation: In my unprofessional opinion, adults (maybe mature college seniors) can read it, especially if they like character-driven mystery/thriller.

13538873Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan (mature teen/adult). A delightfully nerdy, if at times slow-paced literary mystery. Clay is the unemployed version of the Everyman. He takes a job working the midnight shift at a quirky bookstore, run by an eccentric owner and funded by some sort of secret society. Full of references to real and fantastical technological developments, as well as an ancient-ish printer and the legacy he may have let behind, the novel amusingly explores the intersection of tech and books. The mystery of the patrons of this store and the secret they wish to uncover (which is even less obvious to astute readers than the secret of the above book) unfolds gradually…almost too gradually. Normally I am able to push myself to finish books, but with this plot, there was no rush. Additionally, the technobabble got to be a leetle much. if you’re easily annoyed at smartphones and the way tech overtakes the current world, this book may not be for you. But it was mildly pleasing entertainment in a book landscape that seems to think you need to be shocked or titillated for it to be “good.”  Catholic codicil: The relationship between Clay and Kat is nearly Whovian (maybe not Rose and Ten) in its companionability as they try to solve the puzzle, with only light, references to their actions within. Also, Clay’s best friend character earns a (generous) living designing software that makes a certain female anatomy more optimized. But this is only a tangential plotline. The character and his employees aren’t in it for lust, but you may see it as problematic that they’re profiting off of it. Recommendation: If you can get past those two things, it’s a good enough book if the themes interest you. I would even say sophisticated high school juniors and seniors may appreciate the book, just be sure they’re up on the “rules” about relationships, and why Neel’s business is wrong, not funny.

WWRW: The YA Edition

Linking up with Housewifespice!

I’m so thrilled to be joining in again…so thrilled, I have SEVERAL reviews to post. A perk of job as a bookseller is that I get access to advance reader copies (or ARCs or galleys) of books and the freedom to check out hardcovers. And as a library assistant, have access to a statewide circulation system. So I’ve been taking advantage of this power the past few months! Especially with all the snow and lack of work time. This post is about the teen/YA books I read. A separate post has the grown-up books, coming shortly.

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Falling into Place by Amy Zhang (YA/Teen). Despondent Liz Emerson tries to commit suicide by driving her car into a tree. Employing the device of an intimately involved, but unseen narrator (a la Death in The Book Thief), Ms. Zhang captures the life of a high school junior and the effect her wreck has on her friends and family. The prose is quite good, especially when you think about Ms. Zhang being a teen herself (18 at time of publication). For me, the biggest hook was the near poetic voice of the narrator and trying to figure out who she is and her relation to Liz. The surrounding cast of characters are aptly drawn, but also just so typical of what today’s authors, reviewers, etc. think high schoolers are. They drink, go to crazy parties, have absent (literally or figuratively) parents, and are sexually involved. Though the story is about Liz, it’s also about the people she’s tried to leave behind, and unfortunately, I liked the other characters better. While the intent may have been to get the reader to eventually care that Liz ultimately lives, she is so unlikable a person in her backstory, that her crash became for me more the vehicle (if you will) for how her possible death affects the characters you really care about (especially Liam). Catholic codicil: The teens make some very poor decisions, and though by the end there’s a couple turnarounds or hint that behavior will change, and while I don’t think this should exclude this book from reading, I ought to tell you that one character mentions having had an abortion. She’s a little sad, but that’s about it. My philosophy for teen reading is that if your kid is spiritually mature, the book is careful enough when portraying sin, and the story has an overall goodness (writing, theme, redeeming actions), then go for it. However, I don’t think this book is quality enough to merit that. Recommendation: If your teen wants it, have a conversation and maybe come to a different pick; if she already has it and is reading it, check in about those elements mentioned above.

18460392All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (Ya/Teen). Okay, who wants to cry? This story of Finch and Violet, two sad teens who find a happiness in each other, features gorgeous writing, characters you can empathize with, a romance (of course), and heartbreaking path to still find light amid the darkness. When comparing this book to the one above purely on a gut reaction, Ms. Niven’s was clearly superior. The two do share a mild similarity: issue of suicide. In this case, both main characters want to leave the world, but theirs is less a narrative of cause and effect, but one of what happens when you decide to live. Told in alternating perspectives between Finch and Violet, you get two strong voices and a compelling insight into their individual psyches. I greatly enjoyed it, but….Catholic codicil: If you are the sort of parent who disallows books in which teens make poor choices and face little to no consequences or moralistic diatribes, then this book is not for you. Desire to commit suicide is the sin of despair, it’s teens in love with a backseat of a car, and of course, typical of the genre, no one goes to church or has any language for how faith can lead you to the true light in a darkness. The book does have a quality factor, especially with its depiction of mental illness–the kind of portrayal that makes you really get a person’s experience with it and want to do something, anything, to make it better for the suffering–including becoming less harsh in armchair judgments and understanding why treatment may be necessary. Recommendation: Mature teens (at least high school) and discussion with a parent.

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Afterworlds by Scott Westerfield (upper YA/teen): [Given that this book is 600 pages, two novels in one–literally–it gets a longer review.] Not a suicide book! Seriously–at my store the other day I grabbed the most appealing covers, read the flap copy, and disgruntedly set it back. There are only maybe a couple of themes floating around the secular YA/Teen contemporary realism publishing circuit, and it’s getting harder to be both objective but also respectful of Catholic parents’ wishes that their teens only read books based in Catholic values. So it’s getting harder for me to write reviews. In a literary sense, these books are “good,” but from a moral sense, I get the impression you all may think them not good because of a plot element or two. So I almost didn’t want to write this particular review. Because the book “was good,” like stay up half the night and finish it the next day “good.” But it has something more traditional, conservative parents would say is not good.

So. Here goes. Mr. Westerfield does something ambitious with this novel. About half the book is told in third person, narrating the life of 18-year-old wunderkid writer Darcy Patel (three cheers for a diverse character that is not “look how diverse I am!”), who moves to New York to work on her two-book deal that’s worth $300 grand. (THIS IS NOT AT ALL TYPICAL OF ANY PUBLISHING DEAL UNLESS YOU ARE SUZANNE COLLINS OR JOHN GREEN. Politely steps off soapbox). Alternating these chapters of her dream life of lit parties (complete with fake ID), whirlwind cross-country book tours, and  a “that yearly rent is more than I made in a year working full time” Manhattan apartment, are the chapters of her completed novel, meta-ly called “Afterworlds.” This book within a book is definitely a fantasy (not a fantasy painted as real life) in which a teen girl slips to the afterlife during a terrorist attack, falls in love with a hottie Indian death god, and the complications that ensue from being able to cross over between that world and this one, and what to do with the ghosts–literal and proverbial–that haunt you. This made up “Afterworlds” was actually thoroughly engrossing, and had it been published separately and reviewed, the Catholic codicil would have been just about the making out, the murder (yes, I am afraid), and hell.

But there’s another story: Darcy’s. If you are in the book publishing circuit, you will both appreciate the meta-ness of a YA author writing about the dream scenario of “being a writer in New York” and also snark on it, for Darcy’s experience is so very, very atypical. Darcy herself is also a bit of a Mary Sue.  I liked her annoying-called “protag” Lizzie immensely better. That girl at least made some decisions (even if they were bad), had some spunk, and a compassion for others that won you over. Darcy just has everything handed to her–especially compliments about her writing (look, it’s good, but not devastatingly brilliant)–and I’m not sure why I should like her. Perhaps Mr. Westerfield was trying to give the reader their dream experience by letting Darcy be so flat that the reader could relate to her, make it like she was the one in “YA heaven.”

Catholic codicil: The making out in the “fake” book, I wouldn’t be so worried about. Maybe just a talk about the sharing beds with boys (it helps Lizzie sleep). Then there’s a murder committed. Even though it speaks to that part of us that would feel it justified, it’s quite clear no one in the book thinks it’s a good thing to have done…in fact it costs the murderer nearly everything. So a good point for sin and consequences. The hell parts: definitely a conversation with the teen reader about what we believe–maybe some compare and contrast, why are such notions attractive, and how the Heaven we have is so much better than haunting the world. Now here comes the other part. I will just tell you what I feel you all may like to know, and you make the call yourselves. Darcy has a girlfriend. Aside from kissing, there’s no description of anything else, just insinuation, like so many other teen novels.

Recommendation: On their own, the Darcy chapters are not especially compelling, but the Lizzie story is definitely a page turner, and there’s some method to the madness of teasing them out with the parallel real world. Definitely an upper teen book. But again. You’re the parent (or the adult); you know your kid (or yourself); so you know if they should only read the black-bordered pages (Lizzie’s) or the whole thing. I don’t believe in chucking out entire books because of one element; I do believe in conversations, and this one could spark some good ones. This is your children’s world and their friends, and they have thoughts and opinions; you have yours and your values. Open up to one another.

NFP Week: What We’re Reading Wednesday–The Sinner’s Guide to NFP

*Disclaimer: I am away on a cruise and may not have access to update/edit this post or moderate comments. Please be charitable!*

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Hilarious. Frank. Encouraging. Blunt. Wish there was more. TMI. This book is all of these things and more. What it is is a collection of essays by Mrs. Fisher. You might recognize some of the content from her blog “I Have to Sit Down” and columns for the National Catholic Register online. Those selections have been edited and incorporated into this book to form a cohesive point, which you get to by the end. Meaning, you essentially have to read the entire thing to see the big picture. But that’s okay–one chapter builds off another. And they’re an engaging read. The brilliance of this book is that you can also get the same great reading experience a la carte if reading one chapter at a time. You may find yourself wanting to go back again and again to the one on discerning God’s will—even when you’re discerning something other than a pregnancy.

What I loved most about Mrs. Fisher’s tone is how non-judgmental she is. I am a bit of a weirdo in that I read family life forums, worked on materials that edified readers on NFP, and write about it myself, so I know there’s a whole lotta judgment—too many kids; too few kids; just reasons; selfish reasons. In one chapter,  Mrs. Fisher lays out (like I tried to do the past few days) different scenarios in which concrete human beings anonymously lay out their thoughts for wanting/not wanting another baby at a particular point in time. She presents the very human face of NFP.

So you may think that if I’m in love with how human her approach is and how pastoral that feels, why, when I sometimes beg for no “cross” language in responses to young people on this issue, do I rate this book so highly when the ultimate point is about the cross? Because the cross is a very human thing too. What Mrs. Fisher’s writing did for me is to realize that. Jesus went on the cross because he was human—if we didn’t tap into that and relied only on his divinity, he could’ve ascended to Heaven from the Garden of Gethsemane. But no. He needed to die a very human death for us very humans. Jesus was on the cross for us humans. In embracing the cross, he procured our salvation. We humans are called to be like Jesus. And to do that, we must take up that very cross to procure our salvation.

The easiest answer to give to the proverbial girlfriends regarding NFP and birth control is the hardest one for them to take: like it or not, we have a cross, and there is a purpose to that cross. Crosses are hard, and the side effects uncertain. And even if maybe someday there will be a magic device that takes one reading one time a day and gives us as much ease and clarity in predicting fertility, NFP will always be a cross. Because the cross is not in the method, but the decision to give of one’s self or not. In that light, the Pill seems to be the greater cross: a daily decision to not give your all—the weight of that burden—and to what purpose?

What We’re Reading Wednesday

bookLinking up with Jessica at Housewifespice!

Full Disclosure: I first learned of this novel when it won the PEN New England Susan p. Bloom Discovery Award; the author was an intern for a former roommate of mine; and I believe she is possibly the wife of a former lector at my parish.

Chloe Baker, 17, is your average high schooler—at least, that’s what she presents herself to be. But in reality, Chloe is Bonnie™ Baker, one of the eldest daughters of the family that charmed America for 13 seasons as they grew to have 13 kids. Once production shut down after the divorce, Bonnie™’s suicide attempt, the family relocated across the country; mom married the house contractor, and Bonnie and her mix of biological and adopted siblings get four years of anonymity, and Bonnie™ a new, untrademarked name. The perfect, untelevised life Chloe builds for herself comes crashing down when Mom and Stepdad decide to start a new batch of seasons (primarily to earn more money), against the two eldest kids’ wishes.

Literary Critique:

Over the couple of years it’s been since hearing the first ten pages at the PEN Award Ceremony, I’ve been hooked by Ms. Demeterios’s story. And now that the whole book is available; it’s reeled me in. The writing is taut, engaging, funny, and every now and then profound. Chloe and brother Benton™ generate immediate empathy. Chloe’s budding romance is swoon-worthy. The ending is not what you would expect but still satisfactory for the characters you like. The design and structure of the book is very clever—there are no chapters, but episodes within a “season,” as well as clippings from various media to highlight important parts.

Because the ending is not what you expect, the comeuppance you hope for for Mom and the Producer is—spoiler alert—not present. While very well drawn as the antagonist, Mom does not actually have any redemption. There are inklings that Mom might come around, but she ultimately chooses to be entrapped by this circus. Even more disappointing is Stepdad, who provides the straw that breaks Benton and Chloe’s back, and does not face the consequences. Well, having two members of your family leave is a consequence, but it is not received as such on part of the adults. And the more I think on it, Chloe’s choice is also in a way selfish—it’s not clear how what’s left in motion (possibly for a sequel?) will aid her brothers and sisters or rectify the damaged relationship with her Mom.

Catholic Critique: I cannot recommend Catholic parents, relatives, or guardians buy this for the teens in their lives. While the Catholic faith is not really present, aside from a quick line from Chloe that she would like confession, there is a glaring omission of how faith can positively inform lives. In fact, the only treatment of faith is to portray a conservative evangelical-sounding denomination in a poor light (fundamentalist parents want to send their gay son to conversion camp).

The matter of Mom’s choices with regard to her family planning are also not scrutinized: Benton™ and twin Lexie™ are from a surrogate; the other 9 kids are adopted from various countries. Unfortunately, you begin to wonder what ultimately drives Mom—genuine call to this kind of generosity or selfish fulfillment of a cutesy wish (a baker’s dozen of kids!). And aside from the occasional moments of Chloe defending her family and valuing her brothers and sisters, you don’t really get a healthy portrayal of big families. For some Catholics, this is a big deal. Many families with many kids are happy and self-sustaining without the financial aid of a destructive reality show following them around.

Now, if an older teen or young adult is a free range reader and picks this book up, then I would say, there are a couple things to remember:

–          Morality is meant to be in totality. Just because a character holds some values does not mean a reader should excuse the flaunting of others, the neutralizing of some, and the celebrating of those our faith guides us away from.

–          Sympathy can be a tool of manipulation. Sometimes writers, musicians, and artists can draw readers away from their own notions by creating feelings of empathy and sympathy. In some instances, this can be a good thing, as readers will learn to recognize dignity for all types of people. But when your favorite character stars championing something you know is objectively wrong—either you might be swayed into rejecting your point of view or put down as being in the “wrong” because you don’t celebrate the same cause.

Bottom line: Just like a high quality reality TV show—engaging storyline with a sympathetic character dealing with selfish, destructive choices that can be good entertainment, so long as you know Truth from fiction, Light from dark, and are able to switch off if necessary.

What We’re Reading Wednesday

floraLinking up with Housewifespice!

A little while ago, Housewifespice reviewed Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo. Being one of the biggest (and probably oldest) DiCamillo fangirls around, I’d had her latest Newbery Award-winning novel (she’s got more than one!) on my shelf just calling out to be read. Stupidly, I read Housewifespice’s review before I’d even smoothed open the first page and risked letting those opinions affect my own. Now that  some time has elapsed, I think I can let my impressions out:

Being in the KidLit Professional World, I get why it won the Newbery. The Newbery is awarded by librarians in the American Library Association, which is,  in my personal perception, primarily liberal and progressive in comportment. Flora and Ulysses is the type of plot with the type of writing with the particular blend of heart and humor that suits their palate—not necessarily everyone else’s. Flora is a quirky character. Ulysses the Squirrel is a funny little guy, whose antics are very well illustrated in comic form as part of the narrative. Some of the precocious sentences are Exhibit A of “good writing.” But it’s not just a silly story for the sake of being silly—there’s some darkness and depth to the exquisite pain Flora endures throughout her parents’ separation and contentious relationship with a mother who doesn’t get her. The end wraps up on a light, positive note.

I don’t heartily recommend this one book for every person, like I would when I clutch my heart and gush about Tale of Despereaux (the other Newbery Award) or vociferously defend The Adventure of Edward Tulane and Tiger Rising as just as good as Because of Winn Dixie (the Newbery Honor). [Ed. Note: Ms. DiCamillo wrote also wrote The Magician’s Nephew, which I remember liking, but I guess not enough to have any strong opinion years later.] My lack of unbridled enthusiasm stems from the thought that on the whole, this book lacks a certain something. I would feel comfortable saying to a fellow Kate DiCamillo fan, yes, “read this book, you’ll like it.” To a parent, I would say, if your kid’s been assigned it or wants to read it, I’d recommend a conversation with the book. In all her work, there’s something Mrs. DiCamillo has about mothers (they’re either absent, dead, or like this one, not terribly good at it), and with Flora’s mom and the way she deals with her husband and Flora is just…I feel like it’s portrayed as too normal and acceptable; that the resolution not as satisfying for a kid reader who also feels unloved or misunderstood by his own parent.

While there are some literary virtues to this book, it’s hard to find any place it models Catholic virtues. As far as I know, Ms. DiCamillo doesn’t profess any particular creed, and so won’t purposefully infuse them into her work. But there is the matter of secular authors unwittingly imbuing the universal truths and beauty into their fiction, because the Law is written on our hearts, and we are designed to seek relationship with God. But a month later, I’m hard-pressed to recall where that might have been in Flora and Ulysses. Flora’s Dad is not a model for fatherhood or even manhood. The successful relationships are tangential—the neighbors who suck up the squirrel in the vacuum aren’t around enough to influence anyone; Dad’s apartment complex neighbor has been widowed (and though kids may love her; she’s kinda nutty). Flora is quick to forgive her mother, even though it isn’t necessarily “earned” (okay, forgiveness isn’t earned, but a gift given and received), but there is no real sense on the adults’ part that even in admitting faults and giving apologies that they are going to “sin no more.” I remember feeling like I couldn’t believe Flora’s mom was really going to stop being the flighty authoress who would learn to communicate better with her husband and child.

And now for my response about the possession element Housewifespice referred to. About halfway through the book, I thought she was referring to the squirrel and was all ready with rebuttals of how it was kind of Franciscan the way Flora interacted with the squirrel, and he could change his behavior like Gubbio the wolf. But no. The possession did refer to a person—specifically, Flora’s mom. Now, Ms. DiCamillo is on the record explaining that in her work, she does deliberately include a touch of sadness or darkness because she didn’t like it when books talked down to kids or told them they couldn’t handle the real things of life (that they actually sadly do handle in their own). It is one thing to acknowledge their pain and then show kids the light out of the darkness, to bring them healing or authentic happiness. But it is quite another to show them the darkness and improperly guide them through it.

I might have felt better if Ms. DiCamillo had Flora only think that possession was a possibility for her mom and have it clearly proven wrong. But what happens is that she leaves it ambiguous as to why Flora’s mother really did seem to go crazy and decidedly unmotherish and then not satisfactorily address her change in behavior and return to normalcy. Not having personal experience with possession myself, I was not terribly perturbed, but I do see how for Catholic children such a casual treatment of an actual spiritual danger is problematic. So for Catholic families, I wouldn’t endorse this book; but if they did decide to read it, I’d just temper the good points with this critique.