Thursday, December 25, 2008

I Syng of a Mayden

I first read this Middle English lyric over thirty years ago when I was taking a class in Medieval literature. I've always loved it and thought I would share it with you today. Merry Christmas!

I syng of a mayden
That is makeles;
King of alle kynges
To here sone she ches.

He cam also stylle
Ther his moder was
As dew in aprylle,
That fallyt on the gras.

He cam also stylle
To his moderes bowr
As dew in aprille
That fallyt on the flour.

He cam also stylle
Ther his moder lay
As dew in aprille,
That fallyt on the spray.

Moder and mayden
Was never non but sche;
Wel may swych a lady
Godes moder be.

I sing of a maiden
Who is matchless/mate-less;
The king of all kings for her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother's bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray (branch or twig).

Maiden and mother
None was but she;
Well may such a lady
God's mother be.

[Original from A Middle English Anthology, edited by Ann S. Haskell. The modern English "translation" is mine. I read this poem over thirty years ago in a Medieval literature class I took in college.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Library Kid Lit: 2 of 3

The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter

Subtitled A True Story from Iraq, this picture book recounts the amazing story of one librarian's attempt to save her library's collection from the ravages of war.

Alia Muhammad Bake, the librarian of Basra, is worried because she fears that her library's collection will soon become a casualty of war. She begs the governor for permission to move the books to a safer place, but he refuses. So every night she secretly fills her car with books and takes them home for safekeeping. When war reaches the city she enlists the help of the restaurant owner next door. Together, with other local people, they sneak the library's books into the restaurant. The library burns to the ground, but the books remain safely hidden. When the war moves to another location, all thirty thousand books are secretly removed to private homes until some future day when peace will return and a new library can be built.

This story is very sparely written. We don't know who is fighting or what they're fighting about. Or why the governor refuses to let Alia move the books to safer place. War is portrayed merely as a force, a roaming "beast." Politics as such don't really come into the story.

The focus of the narrative is the preservation of the books, some new -- some very old, which as a collection is "more precious . . . than mountains of gold." Although The Librarian of Basra will not be noted for its literary style, the rescue of the Basra's Central Library by Alia Muhammad Baker will inspire every bibliophile.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Library Kid Lit: 1 of 3

Though only a lowly aide, I really enjoy my new job at the public library. My only duty is to shelve books, which probably strikes most people as incredibly boring. But one of my few innate talents is being able to effortlessly put Dewey decimal numbers in order, so this is an easy, stress free job for me. And I stumble across so many interesting titles I might not otherwise discover.

This is particularly true when shelving children's picture books. Since I no longer have young children of my own, I haven't kept up with new titles. Now I'm discovering lots that I might like to buy for my grandchildren. (Naturally, I don't flip though enticing picture books while I'm on the job. I just set them on the bottom shelf of my book cart and check them out when I go off duty. Just so you know.)

Recently I came across three titles which caught my eye because they had to do with libraries. The first one was The Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians by Carla Morris. Isn't that an evocative title? The opening words are, "Melvin lived in the Livingston Public Library. Well . . . he didn't really live there. He just spent lots and lots of time there."

The book follows Melvin's library adventures from the days when he was so small he was barely able to peep over the top of the check-out counter. Every day he stops on his way home from school to visit the library, and he always makes sure to visit the reference librarians whom he loves because, "Whatever he was interested in, they were interested in too." And honestly, they are the most wonderful librarians in the world.

Whether Melvin's interested in snakes, bugs, or baseball cards, his three librarian friends are ready and eager to help him track down and organize information because, "That's how librarians are. They just can't help it." (I particularly liked the segment in which the librarians help Melvin practice for his part in his second grade class play. He's been cast as the Enormous Eggplant. While two of the librarians teach Melvin to memorize his lines and project his voice, the third reads aloud to him from Organic Gardening magazine "to help him find his motivation.")

Through the years Melvin attends all of the library's special programs. When he's in high school he even gets a part time job there. All three librarians proudly attend his graduation and miss him when he goes away to college, though he keeps in touch with them by letter and email.

And then, many years later, a new little boy comes into the Livingston Public Library where he is greeted by the same three librarians -- plus Livingston's newest librarian: Melvin himself!

Although some of the Amazon reviewers criticized this book for being unrealistic (i.e. that you'd never find that level of staffing or service in the children's department of any public library), I liked the book and I thought that although the portrayal of the librarians may have been a bit idealized, it did in fact capture the spirit that animates good librarians -- not just an interest in books and reading, but in gathering, organizing, and using information. And in helping others to do so. As the three librarians explain, after helping Melvin retrieve, identify, classify and catalog the inhabitants of his bug collection which escaped while he was in the library:

"That's how we are," explained Leeola.
"When we see chaos...," began Betty.
"...we organize and catalog," finished Marge. "It's in our nature."
Agents in the fight against entropy and chaos -- what a noble calling! In a small way, I share in it as I put away books, read the shelves, and reshelve the many books which kids have helpfully shoved backwards into the wrong places.

Friday, December 19, 2008

7 Quick Takes Friday

Every Friday Jennifer at Conversion Diary has been posting "7 Quick Takes" in which she blogs about about seven topics too slight to support individual posts of their own. Though I seem to have trouble posting even one topic (however slight) per week, I thought I would give "7 Quick Takes" a try. (I'd planned to add to this blog post all week long, but actually it's taken me more than a week to compose it.)

1) You see all kinds of odd things in the library. A couple of days ago, at the end of my shift, I noticed a pair of false teeth on one of the library tables. I can only assume that the old fellow ambling towards the magazines had just slipped his teeth out in order to get more comfortable. He must certainly feel at home in our library.

2)And you hear all kinds of things in the children's section of the library. As I was shelving picture books I overheard two very small children chatting as they played with the toys in the game corner. "That lady is my babysitter," the little girl explained to her companion. "My real mommy is in jail because she does drugs." Okay.

3) Mysteries are a genre in which I am not very well read because I've never been able to fathom the appeal of a story which requires that someone be murdered as a precondition of the action. However, now that I'm shelving at the public library, and a wider variety of books is passing through my hands, I've checked out a couple of them just to try. (I'd like to like them. They usually have such interesting titles.) My most recent attempt was Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny, a "Father Dowling Mystery."

I pulled it off the shelf because I'd previously read an article by McInerny, "On Being a Catholic Writer," and I was curious to see how he'd handle Catholicism in one of his own novels. I was further intrigued because, according to the dust jacket, the story involved an ethical question concerning life support and euthanasia.

But I was distinctly underwhelmed. To be honest, I had trouble keeping the characters straight. And Father Dowling was off-screen most of the time, so I really never got a feel for him. But since this novel is one of a series, perhaps it was written for an audience who already knows all of the continuing characters and doesn't require much in the way of characterization. Personally, I felt the book was pretty thin.

4) Actually, I do enjoy some mysteries -- older stuff such as Sherlock Holmes or G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. And I also like Dorothy Sayers' books because they are actual novels which just happen to be mysteries. This past week I've also been enjoying a book of short stories, English Country House Murders edited by Thomas Godfrey. But again, the collection included a lot of older authors such as Wilkie Collins whose Woman in White I devoured a couple of years ago. And I really enjoyed the female protagonist in Baroness Orczy's "The Fordwych Castle Mystery." I'd never been able to get into her The Scarlet Pimpernel, so this delightful short story was a pleasant surprise.

5) I've just read Matilda by Roal Dahl. I'd recently seen the movie which I enjoyed very much. (Naturally -- since the young protagonist is a voracious reader! How often do you see that in a major motion picture?) So I decided to try the book. Ho-hum. The movie was better -- which is not my usual response to a movie vs. book comparison. I had the same reaction to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I much preferred the movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which was delightfully zany, magical and bizarre. The book seemed flat by comparison.

Perhaps I should try reading The Witches (and watching the movie) to see if the pattern holds.

Why is Dahl so popular?

6) We got a catalog in the mail which had many book-related gift items. One of them was a Christmas tree ornament with the inscription, "She is too fond of books, and it has addled her brain." The quotation was attributed to Louisa May Alcott, but I have my doubts. It doesn't much sound like her. I've read all of Alcott's novels many times* and probably all of her short stories (including obscure ones such as "A Free Bed" which was printed as a chapbook by Friends of the Brigham Young University Library in 1978). But I do not remember this quote at all. Can anyone tell me if it is indeed Alcott, and if so, where it appears? I will admit that I've only read her letters and journals once since I don't own copies. Might it be in there? Or is the company that sells this item just faking everyone out?

*Well, now that I think of it, I've only read Moods once because I don't actually own a copy of it.

7) A rather more charming, book related gift would be either the Bibliovore or Bibliophibian tee shirts. I'd be tempted to buy them were I not so cheap. But library aides aren't allowed to wear tee shirts with pictures, slogans or logos, so I can't even justify their purchase as work related.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Saint Nicholas: A Saint for Everyman

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas. All the children are now gone and grown, no little shoes were lined up at the front door last night waiting to be filled with chocolate coins and other traditional treats. However Fillius and I still maintain the family tradition of reading aloud from The Twenty Miracles of Saint Nicolas by Bernarda Bryson. Usually we skip around in the book, hitting all of our favorites during the octave of the feast. But this year I decided to start reading at the very beginning of the book and to work our way through to the end. So last night, the vigil of the feast, I began by reading the opening words of the book:

"Here is the story of Saint Nicolas, Bishop of Myra, patron saint of mariners, moneylenders, thieves and children; protector of travelers, turners, dyers, coopers, boatmen, bootmakers, sawyers, seedmen, mercers, merchants, Greeks, cities, Jews, packers, spinsters, pirates, Russians, pickpockets, haberdashers, children, fishermen, pilgrims, pilgrims, prisoners, parish clerks, sailors and unwedded maids; defender of the Faith and maker of many true miracles." He really is the patron saint of everybody! (I love illustrations in this book. The one on the facing page shows a crowd of little figures -- examples of all the many groups of which St. Nicolas is a patron. But what is a centaur doing among them? I haven't quite figured that one out.)

The first story tells about the birth of Saint Nicolas and how the nurses who sought to bathe the infant saint were completely freaked out when he stood upright in the bath and spoke to them in Greek. Convinced that he was possessed by the devil, they fled the house. Then he grieved his mother by refusing to nurse on Tuesday or Friday.

"Oh my dear child, what is this curse that has fallen upon us? Am I made of poison that you refuse to take my milk?"

To her great surprise the baby replied to her, speaking clearly, 'Oh Mother, ' he said, 'do you not know that today is Friday and is a fasting day, and that Tuesdays are fasting days also, when the good and pious take no food?" Then the mother was full of joy, for she saw that the child would grow up to be a holy man, perhaps even a Saint, and that he was in no way possessed by the devil.

If you were not around to read it last year, you might like to click here to read one of the later stories in the book, "How Saint Nicolas Met and Overcame the Goddess Diana."

Or you could read this Irish story about St. Nicolas from from another book: The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope From Around the World, by Louise Carus.

Nicolas certainly did get around!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Advent Calendar for Little Bibliophiles

One of the things I like about my parish is that every so often they'll permit Catholic booksellers to display their wares outside the church for people to browse through after Mass. This makes Catholic Bibliophagist very happy because no matter how many mail order catalogs she receives in the mail, there is nothing like flipping through an actual copy of a book to help her decide whether or not to buy it. (This is especially true for children's books. Sometimes a nicely illustrated picture book is spoiled by a really lame rhyming text.)

Here is a picture of an Advent calendar which I bought for my grandchildren who already show signs of becoming bibliophibians. Inside are twenty-four tiny books (1.5 " x 1.5" -- Ooo, so cute!), one for each day before Christmas starting on December 1st. Each features a Bible story, prayer or song and has a gold cord attached so that they can also serve as Christmas tree ornaments.

I didn't want to rip the shrink wrap off before mailing it, so I haven't actually read the text. (Please don't let it be lame!) But it's got an imprimatur, so there's a sporting chance that at least the content will be okay.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

B16: My Kind of Guy!

I was charmed to read this news story about the Vatican's new bookstore.They dedicated it to Pope Benedict XVI who is not only a prolific author, but a real book lover as well. He has a personal library of 20,000 books. 

When he was elected in 2005, a custom-fitted, private library was added to the papal apartments which was undergoing an extreme makeover to bring the plumbing and electrical systems up to code and to provide a more permanent solution to its leaky roof. (Large drums had been strategically placed above the false ceilings to catch drips.)
It was "Extreme Makeover: Vatican Edition." And while the pope didn't whoop or jump up and down at the unveiling, he made it clear he was pleased with the results.

"I can only admire the things you've done, like these beautiful floors," he told the more than 200 architects, engineers and workers involved in the remodeling project.

"I really like my new library, with that antique ceiling. For me it's like being surrounded by friends, now that there are books on the shelf," he said.
"Surrounded by friends. . . " That's how I feel as I sit in my own library. When I moved to this new house, I was so happy that I was able to dedicate one whole room as a library. I'm glad that Benedict didn't have to leave any of his books stored in boxes either.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Book Friends

"Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet gracious discourse of my book-friends."
--Helen Keller

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Library Books

Whenever I mention to my mom that Fillius and I plan to visit the local public library, she shakes her head in disbelief. Why, she wonders, should anyone owning as many books as we do, need to visit a public library? I suppose it's because I don't actually own every book in the world. (It just seems that way.) And because there are books I want to read that I don't necessarily want (or need) to own.

I'm going to visit my daughter on Friday, so I'm checking my stack of library books to see which ones need to go back before I leave. I thought it might be interesting to list the titles I've got checked out at the moment to see what a Catholic reader with catholic tastes has been reading.

Hearts and Hand: The Influence of Women & Quilts on American Society by Pat Ferrero et al. (The author's mildly feminist outlook kept bumping into things, but it was a generally good history of women, their quilts, and the political and reform movements that they supported.)

Where Books Fall Open: A Reader's Anthology of Wit and Passion edited and illustrated by Bascove. (Lovely paintings, but the selections were not as interesting as I'd hoped, thoughI did get a few good book-related quotes for my collection.)

Ramona's World by Beverly Cleary. (Published in 1999, and I'd somehow missed reading it. Wow! Cleary's still got it.)

Beverly Cleary by Jennifer Peltak. (In the "Who Wrote That?" series of biographies for young readers. Pretty good, though heavily based on Cleary's two volume autobiography.)

Healthy Crockery Cookery by Mable Hoffman.

When Babies Read: A Practical Guide to Help Young Children With Hyperlexia, Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism by Audra Jensen. (I checked out this book because I was curious about hyperlexia.)

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip -- Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by "The Waiter." (Based on the blog of the same name. I really enjoyed this one.)

Noche Buena: Hispanic American Christmas Stories edited by Nicolas Kanellos (Pretty good!)

The Illuminated Alphabet: An Inspirational Introduction to Creating Decorative Calligraphy by Patricia Seligman. Calligraphy by Timothy Noad. (This book is simply gorgeous! I wish this book had been around when I was young and struggling to do calligraphy and illumination on my own.)

Everyday Dress 1650 - 1900 by Elizabeth Ewing. (About ordinary clothing as opposed to "fashion." Lots of good pictures.)

Sister Anne's Hands by Marybeth Lorbiecki, illustrated by K. Wendy Popp. (This is a lovely picture book. Set in the very early 1960s, the narrator is a seven year old girl describing an incident that took place the year her class was taught by Sister Anne, the first black teacher at the local parochial school. The illustrations are lovely and have a very period feel to them. The only quibble I have is that the text opens, "The summer I turned seven, flowers had power, peace signs were in, and we watched the Ed Sulivan Show every Sunday night." But "flower power" was a slogan from the late 60s and early 70s and the illustrations and story situation seem to be of the early 60s. But what do I know? I was there, but I had my nose in a book.)

The Thought That Counts: A First Hand Account of One Teenager's Experience With Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder by Jared Douglas Kant. (Besides speaking to young people with OCD, I think this book would be helpful for anyone trying to understand and live with a family member who has this disorder.)

California Demon by Julie Kenner. (Billed as "the secret life of a demon-hunting soccer mom," this was a fun read which I previously wrote about here.)

The Corporal Works of Murder by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie. (I seldom read mysteries, but this one caught my eye as I was shelving at the library. I wondered how the author was going to handle her protagonist, an middle-aged modern nun in San Francisco. Not bad, though I guessed the identity of the murderer early on.)

Well, I'll return some of these when I go to work today. Then I have to find some good books to take with me on the plane. If I traveled a lot (and had big bucks) I would certainly be tempted to buy a Kindle. I always worry about running out of things to read when I'm away from home. But now that I'm getting older, it's getting harder to lug around a big stack of books.

Monday, November 3, 2008

My Election Post

One of the things I found most difficult about coming of age during the '60s and '70s was the political intensity of everyone around me. Not to mention, the political righteousness. I don't mean the righteousness felt by a partisan for his particular cause, but the righteous belief that politics was man's highest endeavor and would bring about the millennium and an end to all social ills. Had my own thought been a little more coherent in those days, I probably would have been muttering "Put not your faith in princes," and "If you'd put that much energy into being excellent to one another, you wouldn't need politics." This passage from Little Women about Meg's response to politics pretty much summed up my feelings about it when I was in high school, and it still resonates with me today.

When John came down at last . . . he was agreeably surprised to find Meg placidly trimming a bonnet, and to be greeted with the request to read something about the election, if he was not too tired. . . . He read a long debate with the most amiable readiness and then explained in his most lucid manner, while Meg tried to look interested, to ask intelligent questions, and keep her thoughts from wandering from the state of the nation to the state of her bonnet. In her secret soul, however, she decided that politics were as bad as mathematics, and that the mission of politicians seemed to be calling each other names; but she kept these feminine ideas to herself, and when John paused shook her head, and said with what she thought diplomatic ambiguity:

"Well I really don't see what we are coming to."
I myself am one of the most apolitical persons on the planet which is why you'll never find an explicitly political post on Catholic Bibliophagist. In fact, I'm not registered for either political party. Like Treebeard, "I am not altogether on anybody's side because no one is altogether on my side, if you understand me . . ." Treebeard meant that no one cared about the forest the way he did. In my own case, neither political party entirely represents my position as a Catholic. (I think that's what frustrated journalists about JPII. They want to peg everyone as a either member of the left or the right, but they couldn't fit him into either box.)

I vote conscientiously in every election, but unless there's a moral issue involved, I find it hard to get excited or even interested in politics. However, most people don't share my impassivity as evidenced by this amusing story told by Jennifer at Conversion Diary:
. . . I heard about the most clever [Halloween] costume ever: a friend's nephew dressed in a t-shirt that said POLLSTER, and then carried an Obama bag and a McCain bag, and people could choose which one they put candy in. He evidently got a really impressive haul of candy from people who expressed their emotions about this election by dumping handfuls of goodies into their candidate's bag.
Smart kid!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

All Souls Day

A soul, a soul, a soul cake
Please, good missus, a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all

God Bless the master of this house, the mistress also
And all the little children who 'round your table grow
Likewise your men and maidens, your cattle and your store
And all that dwells within your gates
we wish you ten times more

A soul, a soul, a soul cake...

The lanes are very dirty and my shoes are very thin
I've got a little pocket to put a penny in
If you haven't got a penny, a ha' penny will do
If you haven't got a ha' penny, then God bless you

A soul, a soul, a soul cake
Please, good missus, a soul cake
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry
Any good thing to make us all merry
One for Peter, two for Paul
Three for Him who made us all

(A traditional song by that prolific chap, Annon.)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All Saints Day

Here is a seasonal video which was brought to my attention by Jennifer's Favorite Links.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Reading

At left is one of Fillius's Halloween pumpkins. This is actually last year's vegetal creation. This year's is currently in progress and probably won't be ready for a photo until evening -- because you just can't rush good art. Fillius does not restrict himself to pumpkins; last year his Jack-o-Lanterns were made out of potatoes in honor of the Irish side of the family.

Today I'm wearing my WWAKD tee shirt, so I'm officially in costume. The tee shirt and my skirt are both black, so we're all very seasonal around here.

This morning I was reading a post written by Fr. Dwight Longenecker (former Anglican clergyman, now a Catholic priest) after one of his children asked him if witches were real.

In my experience witches are very real indeed. I've never met one with green skin, a pointed nose with a wart on the end, nor have I seen them fly on a broom or heard them cackle like a demented crow. However, when I was an Anglican priest in England I served in a parish that was home to a witches coven, and not just any witches coven . . .

There was a negative feeling in the town and a string of unexplained tragedies and scandals within the church community. As a priest I was called out to a surprising number of low level hauntings, psychic disturbances and disturbed personalities. Once I learned who actually lived in the parish I was concerned. I was also concerned that the other clergy in the town simply laughed at the King of the Witches and dismissed the whole thing as so much nonsense.
Read Witches and Wizards to find out which weapon he and his friends decided to employ and how the conflict was resolved.

On a lighter note, while shelving books at the library this week, I chanced upon California Demon by Julie Kenner. I was in the mood for a frivolous book, so I checked it out. (That's one of the interesting things about being a library aide -- I get a chance to have look at how the other half reads. For instance, I had no idea that Danielle Steele wrote so many books!) California Demon is one in a series of novels about Kate Connor, retired demon hunter who's spent the last 14 years in the equally demanding profession of suburban housewife and stay at home mother.

However, as she explains at the beginning of the novel, "I'd been drawn back into active duty after a demon attacked me in my kitchen, setting off a whole chain of events which (as you can probably guess) pitted the forces of good against the forces of evil in one final, cataclysmic battle." (That's a reference to the previous novel, I presume.) After the dust settled, she found herself back on active duty as a Level Four Demon Hunter unbeknownst to anyone except her best friend, Laura who has her own amazing super powers. (". . . she's the woman who'd successfully returned outfits to Nordstrom despite the huge 75-percent Off, No-Return, Clearance-Final Sale signs plastered all over the store.")

So far, it's been a fun read, and I'm hoping that the light, humorous tone is an indication that it won't get too icky for me. As you may have guessed,
I don't read books (or watch movies) in the horror genre. My life has had enough scariness in the past ten years that I've never felt the need to go in search of more as a form of amusement. So I don't really know whether or not some of Kenner's story elements are showing her individual creativity or just her ability to make good use of the genre's conventions.

For instance, in Kate Connor's world incorporeal demons usually can't do much except enviously watch human beings. They long to be human, and occasionally a demon will manage to hijack the body of a living person. But possession is pretty rare. Usually the best a demon can do is to reanimate the body of a person who's just died. So all those amazing stories you hear about people who die on the operating table and then come back to life; people who are trapped underwater for ten minutes but live to tell the tale; and those who walk away from a horrendous auto accident despite a massive blow to the head are not tales of miraculous survival, but the result of very determined demons.

I found that an interesting bit because I'd just read something similar in an entirely different sort of book, The Darkness Did Not by William Biersach. It's the second in a series of novels about Father John Baptist, a former cop turned Catholic priest in a Los Angeles very much like the real one. Father Baptist is on the outs with his bishop because he kept a low profile while in the seminary and only showed his true colors after ordination. He's an orthodox, traditional Catholic who, now that he is a priest, is committed to offering only the traditional Latin Mass.

In retaliation, his superiors put him on extended leave. But Father Baptist cashes in his pension from the police department and buys a tiny run down church, St. Philomena's, which the diocese had decided to close down and sell off. As it's his private property, he is free to offer the Latin Mass there and he's soon ministering to an unofficial parish of "rad-trad" Catholics including the arthritic Martin Feeny who plays Watson to Father Baptist's Holmes.

As in Biersach's previous book, the police department asks for Father Baptist's help in solving a murder case which has occult overtones. This time a serial killer is preying on beautiful young women who had previously shown an interest in the subject of vampires. The police are skittish because each murder victim was almost completely drained of blood, and there were no marks on the bodies except a curious neck wound. Is the murderer really a vampire?

For that matter, what is a vampire? In Biersach's novel, vampirism is the lowest form of demon possession because the demon merely takes possession of a corpse. But it's a hellish thing for all that.

As Father Baptist explains, "The vampire is an unholy amalgam of demon and dead flesh -- evil spirit and coarse matter, if you will -- which is the satanic mockery of the Incarnation in which the Son of God took on human flesh." The demon's reanimation of dead flesh is also a mockery of Christ's resurrection. And isn't that the jealous sort of thing that demons would do? Because Satan himself can't come up with anything original; he can only imitate and distort. Suddenly, because the author began to show a way in which the topic might fit into a Catholic worldview, vampirism became a story element I could take more seriously, and for the characters (in my mind at least) the stakes suddenly became higher. At this point, if it had been a movie, I probably would have been shouting, "Hey, guys! Don't go anywhere without your scapulars!" And I would have been serious, not sarcastic, because the universe of this novel is the same universe I live in -- one in which sacramentals are an incredible conduit of grace.

It's only fair for me to mention that Biersach has a writing style that will annoy many readers. The narrator, Martin Feeny, has a florid style of writing which doesn't bother me as much as it ought to, probably because I'm such a big fan of Victorian novels and children's books. But he also has other stylistic quirks that drive me up the wall. One, which was more frequent in the first novel, is his tendency to attribute volumes of meaning to Father Baptist's glance, followed by a terse remark. An example:
He stared upon us with penetrating eyes that seemed to whisper determined but fearfully, "Considering all that has happened, gentlemen, and is soon to transpire, do you really expect me to offer any comfort other than the same sufferings for which I admonished you to prepare?" But all he said was, "Nearly there."
In the previous novel he did this sort of thing over and over and over. It's not as frequent in this book, but I still shudder each time I encounter it. And accents are not his forte. He has an Eastern Rite bishop who talks just like Yoda! And the ethnic accents of other minor characters are just embarrassing.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book despite its limitations. For one thing, I enjoyed the Catholic geekery,
though the author does get a little too self-indulgent at times. After all those segments with Monsignor Havermeyer practicing the rubrics for the Latin Mass (he's a former modernist priest who has seen the error of his ways), he should have had an important, Latin speaking role to play in the final confrontation. But no. As much as the author may have enjoyed writing some of the geekier segments, they ought to have been pruned if they were not significant to the plot.

Unlike some reviewers, I didn't mind the long liturgical descriptions. In fact, I loved the author's description of Benediction -- especially the part where Martin, despite the sublimity of the liturgy, finds himself becoming hopelessly distracted. The way his mind was jumping from subject to subject, despite his best efforts, was all too familiar. And I loved the Knights Tumblar, a Chestertonian group of men in evening dress, who gad about town drinking champagne when they're not kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in all night prayer vigils. They are Father Baptist's back-up troops and true knights.

Well, I started this post early in the morning, and now it's so late that it will soon be All Saints Day. So while I still can, I will wish you a Happy Halloween and will close with one of the quotations which C.S. Lewis placed just before the preface of The Screwtape Letters:

"The devill . . . the prowde spirite . . . cannot endure to be mocked." -- Thomas More

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ah, so that's the problem . . .

"Sir, he hath not fed of the dainties that are bred of a book; he hath not eat paper as it were; he hath not drunk ink: his intellect is not replenished; he is only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts."

--William Shakespeare, Love's Labor's Lost

Monday, October 27, 2008

Moving Day -- Moving Books

It's been almost two years since I moved into my current house, and there are still boxes I've yet to unpack. Fortunately, none of them contain books. (Moving tip: always unpack the most important items first.) So why can't I find my copy of A Girl From Yamhill? I know I have a hardcover copy. Somewhere.

If you ever decide to move yourself and your library to a new house, here is some essential advice.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Beverly Cleary -- Who Knew?

I've been reading Beverly Cleary ever since I was a kid, so I thought I was well acquainted with her oeuvre. But I never knew that she had written Leave it to Beaver tie-in novels.

But Peter D. Sieruta of Collecting Children's Books spilled the beans in his post, Leave it to Beverly which is written in the form of a dialog between Wally and Beaver Cleaver. I'd never heard of these three novelizations, Leave it to Beaver, Here's Beaver, and Beaver and Wally. Apparently Cleary didn't talk about them much, and Sieruta says that the only reference to them that he's found was in Beverly Cleary by Pat Pflieger, published in 1991.

"These books...have little of Cleary in them: they lack her air of easy confidence, and she seems uncomfortable with Beaver's 'gee-whiz' style of thinking and speaking that is so different from her own Henry Huggins. In novels that are almost collections of short stories, television episodes are expanded or altered or combined to emphasize family and growing up."

Sieruta currently works as a cataloger of children's books for a university (what a dream job!) and writes about my favorite genre in a way that is both personal and personable. I've put him on my list of Blogs to Check Every Day.

The first of his posts I stumbled across was this one which has pictures of his Newberry collection. As you know, I'm a sucker for photos of other peoples' libraries. But then I began to nose around his archives and discovered so many favorite posts that I'll have to limit myself to just three links.

Colorblind Writing is about making assumptions about an author's ethnicity based on the protagonists in his books, something which was probably more likely to happen before the appearance of the Internet where information about an author is just a click or two away.

Hornbooks and Battledores is a fun post about these forerunners of the primer, though I was surprised that the author hadn't previously known that hornbooks were actually covered by a thin layer of horn.

Library Lesson, one of my favorite posts, captures the school culture I remember from my own childhood, particularly the experience of being accused by an adult in authority of a misdeed of which one was innocent.

Which sort of brings me back to Beverly Cleary. One of the things she does so well is to portray her characters' experiences from a child's point of view. When you read her books, you really do see things through a child's eyes. They rang true when I first read them in the '50s; they rang true when I read her later books to my own children in the '80s. And they still ring true today as I discovered last week when I read Ramona's World which was published in 1999. That title, which had previously escaped me, was brought to my attention in Beverly Cleary by Jennifer Peltak, a title in the "Who Wrote That" series. It was heavily based on Cleary's two memoirs, A Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet. I discovered it when I was emptying the bookdrop at the public library where I now work and checked it out because I was curious how the author would present Cleary's life to present day children. On the whole, she did a pretty good job of telling her audience what I would have most wanted to know about Beverly Cleary when I was a child: how did she come to write all those books? Because when I was a little girl, Beverly Cleary was the person I wanted to be when I grew up.

And I still remember the light bulb moment of my childhood when I realized that my other favorite author, Louisa May Alcott, was the Beverly Cleary of the 19th century. Like Cleary, Alcott's characters spoke a life-like idiom which her readers identified with.* In the books of both authors, universal themes were clothed in the characters' ordinary experiences and seasoned with a good deal of humor.

Alas, I never did grow up to write stories about ordinary boys and girls. And eventually fantasy became my favorite subgenre both for reading and writing. But even in fantasy, I still feel that the most successful books are grounded in the ordinary and have at least a dash of humor.


*Did you know that some of the grammar and slang in Little Women was cleaned up between the first and second editions?

Update: Here's the link to the first edition republished by Norton Critical Editions.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Perelandra: The Opera

The Oxford C.S. Lewis Society and the Donald Swann Estate are planning a production of the opera Perelandra by Donald Swann . The libretto was written by David Marsh. This opera was originally presented in 1964.

Although most people probably remember Swann for the comic and satirical songs which he and his partner Michael Flanders wrote in the 1950s and '60s, it should not be forgotten that he also composed The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle in which he set seven poems of J.R.R. Tolkien to music.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

With His Usual Extravagance . . .

On His Books

When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'

--Hilaire Belloc, Epigrams

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Sucked Into a Book

I guess this is what you'd call a music video? I sort of missed out on this whole concept since I've never been into popular music and had dropped out of popular culture by the time they appeared on the scene.

But I saw this on somebody's blog and its image of being pulled into a book was one which evoked instant sympathy.

When I was young I had a poster with an image from Ballentine's paperback edition of The Fellowship of Ring and the caption, "Come to Middle-Earth!" Although Tolkien never never liked those illustrations (especially the emu), I always thought them evocative. The poster hung on a closet door, and there were times when I quite believed that someday I'd open that door and find myself in Hobbiton.

(By the way, apparently this video is someone's altered version of the original. I looked up the original and it's not as enjoyable. Disclaimer: I know nothing about the original song or the group which produced the video. Though I watched the original, I suffer from an inability to distinguish most sung lyrics, so I'm not even sure what that song was about.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Working Out at the Library

Hooray! I just got a part time job at one of the local public libraries. I don't mind that I'm just a lowly aide whose only duties consist of shelving books. Giving me a job in a library is like inviting a kid to run a candy store. But my librarian muscles are out of shape. My upper thighs are sore from squatting down to put books on the lowest shelves and then standing back up again. But I'm only working three days a week, so my legs will have a few days to recover before their next workout. (Now if only turning pages could somehow tighten the tummy muscles.)

Truth & Fiction

All good books have one thing in common -- they are truer than if they had really happened, and after you have read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and then it belongs to you forever.

--Ernest Hemingway

(I don't like Hemingway's books, but I think he got this bit right.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reading and Memory

Katherine Langrish has an interesting post on how rereading certain books transports her back into her own past:

“The Tale of Mr Tod”. . . . I’m about six years old, sitting on a hard-wearing blue hall carpet, leaning against a polished cedarwood chest which my father brought back from Burma before I was born. Sunlight slants across the hall. My two dolls, the one with curly fair hair, the one with long brown hair, and my panda bear are lined up on the floor beside me. I am teaching school, and reading aloud to them this most exciting story, full of natural violence and terror.
I've had that experience too. Rereading Little House in the Big Woods triggers memories of the school library at Holy Trinity School in Virginia. I'm a new student, and this is the first school library I can remember ever having seen. The room seems enormous. The faint autumn sunlight slants down through tall windows. I feel shy and almost paralyzed -- so many books! Am I really allowed to choose one? Can I actually take it home with me? I can still see the shelf with the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. What riches! There are so many of them.

Interestingly, I sometimes find myself transported back to the age I was when I first read a book. That certainly happens with the Little House books unless I consciously rear my adult head in order to admire the transparency of the author's style.

What's even odder is the way that the certain actions will bring back the memory of certain books which I happened to be reading while performing similar actions in the past. For instance, I was reading through The Science Fiction Hall of Fame last year when I was also taking a clothing construction class. While sewing in the class room one day, I was idly thinking about a particularly tedious short story in that volume which I had just read. So now, every time I set in a sleeve, that particular story pops back into my head. Last week, as I was sewing down some bias tape around the armholes of the summer dresses I was making for my granddaughters, I could not shut out the memory of Jerry's Charge Account, a book I read in junior high. Why that particular book? I have no idea.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Madeline and the Cats of Rome

What do I like about this new Madeline book written and illustrated by John Bemelmans Marciano? (Marciano is the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the original Madeline books.)

Well, I like the title; it's evocative and promises a good story. I like the cover. It is the most successful of Marciano's attempts to reproduce his grandfather's artistic style. And I have to give him points for his meticulous preparation. According to an AP article,

Marciano meticulously practiced Ludwig's line techniques, tracking down which pen nibs he preferred. First, Marciano blew up drawings from some of Ludwig's originals and sketched them in pencil, then placed clear velum on top and worked in pen and ink over and over again.

'I went over his lines less for the style than actually wanting to learn what his literal strokes were," he said. "How long they were. I was almost meditating over what he did. When I was ready to actually do the book I threw all that stuff away and just kind of went with it."

But however well Marciano has captured the mechanics of his predecessor's style, I think that there is still a tad less life in his artwork, perhaps because it is so studied.

Where the book really fails is in the text. Rhymed narrative is extremely hard to do, and Marciano's is just lame. The original Madeline books were never very easy to read aloud because of the way the text scans, but a skilled reader, with care, can pull off a smooth reading. I would never want to read aloud Madeline and the Cats of Rome. Marciano's syntax is annoying, his rhythm limps, and many of his rhymes are a real stretch. I am definitely not buying this for the granddaughters even though they are big fans of the original Madeline.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Great Mystery

"I see scores of people every day, and most of what makes them who they are remains a mystery. And I love a good mystery. Like Philip Marlowe, I love figuring out people's stories.

". . . I understood early that there was something magical in the power of words. To me, words were like incantations that could conjure fantastic worlds in the mind and take me to places I had never been. I devoured books, hunted words in dictionaries, and was a library junkie by the time I was eight. I read Star Wars before I saw it in the movies and devoured all of Ian Fleming's books by the time I was thirteen. I picked up most of what I know about grammar and usage by osmosis. I also had two great English teachers in high school. They taught me that reading literature could teach you about the 'universal human experience.' Maybe you'll never hunt another man through the jungle, my teachers told me. Maybe you won't climb Mount Kilimanjaro or watch a bullfight in the afternoon -- you don't have to. The word's a big place. You can't do or be everything, nor should you. Life is bigger than any one man. But when you read about other people's lives, when you read their stories, you catch a glimpse of a world bigger than your own. You may never travel a hundred miles from where you were born, but if you read stories, you'll get to see the entire world. You'll enter into the Great Mystery." (p. 188-189.)

-- "The Waiter" in Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip -- Confessions of a Cynical Waiter

Sunday, September 28, 2008


This weekend I traveled to Texas to visit Fillius Major, Perfect Daughter-in-Law, and all the grandchildren. Fillius Minor and I stayed in a nearby hotel which had a computer in the lobby for the use of guests. So I decided to quickly log on to my blog. Imagine my surprise when a warning window popped up to inform me that Catholic Bibliophagist was a site with adult or mature content! So now I am racking my brains to figure out what could have triggered their filter.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Did I Expect Angels?

Did I Expect Angels? by Kathryn Maughan, iUniverse, Inc., 2007, 172 p. (ISBN: 978-0595402595)

Don't let the weird cover put you off. Had I originally seen it in a bookstore, the vehemence of those scratch-out lines would have aroused such a negative reaction that I never would have picked up this novel. Fortunately, I first met it online. And after sampling some excerpts on the author's website, I knew I'd want to read the rest of book.

The story of Did I Expect Angels? is told by two protagonists, Jennifer and Henry. Though widely disparate in age, background, and economic status, both have experienced loss and crushing grief. Unexpectedly, their lives and stories intersect.

Jennifer is a young, grief-stricken widow who cannot seem to recover from the unexpected death of her husband Jack. Despite the help of her loving mother-in-law and the support of her friends and colleagues, Jennifer cannot stop her downwards spiral into clinical depression, a condition for which she had been treated in an earlier period of her life. But now she refuses treatment -- refuses even to acknowledge her condition. So when she finally recognizes the extent to which her self-absorption has blinded her to her daughter's needs, her anguish becomes unbearable, and she makes a grim decision which she intends to be an unalterable. But she didn't take Henry into account.

Henry, a slight acquaintance, is an elderly greeter at the local discount mega-store. He emigrated from Costa Rica forty years ago. He has known poverty, hardship, betrayal, and loss. But with the help of his own unexpected "angel," he has passed through them to a serenity which Jennifer can scarcely grasp. He recognizes the depths of her devastation and decides that the time has come to tell Jennifer his story.

Their stories intertwine in a series of flashbacks inter cut with the immediate present until . . . Well, it's hard for me to write as much as I'd like to about this novel without lapsing into spoilers. I'll only say that this is a story of faith that will not repulse a secular readership.

This is not a Catholic novel, nor even an explicitly Christian one. (If I had to guess the religious affiliation of Jennifer and Jack, I’d have to peg them as some plain-vanilla, nondenominational, Protestants. Or perhaps Unitarians. ) Yet the author has placed them in a universe that is compatible with a Catholic worldview which, to me at least, gives a stronger sense of reality to the novel.

For each of us, as a member of the mystical body of Christ, is linked to every other member, lifting them up or pulling them down by our actions. In that sense, we are all angels at one time or another to those whose lives we touch or who touch ours. And the more I thought about this novel, the more "angels" I began to see in it -- including characters who are unaware of their angelic roles. Even Jennifer herself might be said to have briefly been an angel, when she finally says some things that really need to be said to her sister.

Yet this novel also has a subtle supernatural aspect. At least I think so. Who is that mysterious, yet strangely familiar, man whom Jennifer glimpses in the prologue -- an incident which is reprised near the end of the book? Yes, there is an active human angel who intervenes in Jennifer's affairs, but without the man in the green sweater, would he have made contact with her in time?

Unlike many self-published books, Did I Expect Angels? is very well written, having benefited from a long gestation and multiple rewrites. The story of how it came to be written and published is itself an interesting story which can be found here,

One of the things that I most enjoyed about the novel is that the stories of the two protagonists are recounted in their own distinctive voices. I particularly liked Henry's segments. In the novel he's described as having "a strong Spanish accent . . . untouched by forty years of speaking English." The author does not write his narration in dialect, but she captures the cadence of a native Spanish speaker who would naturally be mixing little Spanish phrases into his English, an English which would be unconsciously superimposed onto his native Spanish grammar.

Maughan described her technique to me:

I initially wrote much of Henry's part in Spanish, and then had my mother (a Spanish professor) correct it. She noted a few things, like false conditional: in English, we can say "I would go to the store a lot when I was young," but in Spanish they don't do that. This made me realize that he would have problems with "would" and "could" and "should" and the related tenses. So after the corrections I translated it very literally. I didn't do this with his entire portion, just about 15 pages of it. Once I had done that, I was into the rhythm enough myself that I could "hear" him speaking and compose in his voice.
This process gives an incredible feeling of authenticity to Henry's segments. Though Hispanic, I am not myself a native Spanish speaker. But I have studied the language, and I have enough experience of the sort of English spoken by some of my older relatives to realize that Maughan did a very good job. (Okay, so I'm a language and writing geek! Yes, I got excited when I realized that bits of Henry's English phrasing indicate that he is thinking in the subjunctive, a tense that is common in Spanish but almost extinct in English.)

You can sample the voices of the two main characters by reading the excerpts posted here and here. Then perhaps, like me, you too will be eager to read the rest of this book which is conveniently available from

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Coming Attractions

I'll be posting a review of Did I Expect Angels? by Kathryn Maughan on Saturday, September 27 as part of her book tour.

Other reviews in the pipeline are The Word Made Fresh by Meredith Gould and Danny Gospel by David Athey.

(Why am I telling you this? Accountability!)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reading About Alzheimer's Disease

As may have been apparent, my previous post was cut and pasted from my other blog, Quilting Bibliophagist. Just to get things back on topic, I thought I'd briefly write about the books I've been reading on the topic of Alzheimer's disease and memory loss.

The first one is The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for Persons with Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementing Illnesses, and Memory Loss in Later Life by Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins. As might be gathered from its lengthy title, this is the comprehensive book that covers everything you might possibly need to know about caring for a person with dementia. Whether you need general information about getting medical help or specific information about particular problems relating to the daily care of the patient or the the varied behavior problems he may present, this is the book to go to. It's clearly and competently written and I strongly recommend it.

The second is Alzheimer's Early Stages by Daniel Kuhn. The first part of the book focuses on the possible causes of Alzheimer's, its early symptoms, and the most recent progress in its treatment. Parts 2 and 3, which deal with caring for the patient and caring for yourself, have a less clinical and more human tone than The 36-Hour Day. For instance, one chapter deals with the different ways that patients with Alzheimer's experience the disease. (Would you believe that there are actually five books written by people who had Alzheimer's?) This chapter has helped me to both sympathize and empathize with my aunt.

Despite being a voracious reader, I found it difficult to read either of these books for very long at a stretch. It wasn't the writing; it was the subject matter. However, I devoured Carved In Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife by Cathryn Jakobson Ramin.

The author is a journalist who began to wonder what was happening to her mind. She felt vague and foggy. She'd barely crossed thethreshold into middle age, but she was losing her edge. She could no longer mentally keep track of her busy calendar. And as a journalist, she was more than a little disconcerted when the precise words she needed for a story began to elude her, and her thoughts became so evanescent that they evaporated even as she picked up a pencil to record them. Then she became aware that many of her friends andcolleagues were suffering from the same problem . Some of them were scared. (One woman, a person whom the author had always considered one of the sharpest people she knew, even quit her job because she could no longer bear the strain of trying to appear as mentally alert as hertwenty-something colleagues.)

The author decided to focus her journalistic skills on the problem. Was middle-aged memory loss normal? Could it be reversed?

(I myself am 56, and I've seriously considered having a T-shirt made with, "Brain Like A Sieve" lettered on the front of it. So I have a personal interest in the author's quest.)

What she discovered is that what we experience in middle age is not simply loss of memory. There is also a change in the speed and manner with which we process information. Yes, menopause really does make you stupider. And (in her case) blows to the head earlier in life will affect your memory years many later. Poor diet can starve your brain; an improved diet and sophisticated supplements may improve your mental abilities but will require an awful lot of prep time. She also tested the effect of both physical and mental exercises. She even tried out a number of drugs reputed to enhance memory, but with varied levels of success. (That part was kind of scary.) Her conclusions are more personal than scientific, but I found her book to be a fascinating read. (I just hope I can remember where I put the book before it's due back at the library!)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

World Alzheimer's Day, September 21

The phone rang while I was cooking dinner tonight.

"How do I get Helen's phone number?" The abrupt inquiry was not prefaced by any greeting or introduction, but I recognized my aunt's voice.

"You want to call your sister?" I asked, stalling for time.

"How do I get her number?" Her voice is insistent, but not yet angry.

Well, I don't have it, Aunty. But my Mom does. I can get it for you." Then I casually add, "Why do you want to call her?" Meanwhile my mind is racing. Aunt Helen is a long distance call. Can we afford the expense? Would talking with her sister cheer my aunt, or is Aunt Dora likely to spout angry abuse today, leaving poor Aunt Helen in tears?

"I want her to bring back my car! I'm leaving tomorrow and I need my car."

My aunt has Alzheimer's Disease. The hours between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m. are her personal witching hour. She's been living in a guest home for the past four years, and has been unable to drive for even longer. But every afternoon she gets restless and decides to go home. Sometimes she packs her belongings and strips the linen from her bed. She demands her car -- which she no longer owns. When it isn't forthcoming, she assumes that the attendants at the guest home have stolen it.

"Oh, Aunt Helen doesn't have your car, Aunty."

"Then who does?"

"You asked your cousin Peter to take care of it because you can't drive right now."

"Well, I hope he's being careful with it!"

"Oh, I'm sure he is."

Actually, Peter owns the car. He took over the payments for us when my Aunt had to enter the home. But my aunt has forgotten about that, and it comforts her to think that her beloved car is being carefully maintained for her until she's well enough to drive again.

Because she really doesn't know where she is or why she's there. Sometimes she thinks she's in a hotel. Other times she believes she's in a hospital recovering from an illness, and that soon she'll be able to do without the walker or wheel chair.

"I'm going to be leaving tomorrow," she reminds me.

"Oh, really?" I say respectfully. "I was planning to visit you tomorrow. I hope you'll still be there when I come." (Actually, I visit her most days, usually during her restless period. It calms her and distracts her from her plans to escape. But I wasn't able to make it today.)

"Well, that's nice."

"I'll see you tomorrow then."

"All right," she says graciously. She hangs up, and I wonder how long she'll remain mollified. I hope that she hasn't given the caregivers too hard a time today. I regret not having squeezed in a visit.

In a recent blog post, Ami Simms wrote,

This Sunday, September 21, 2008, is World Alzheimer’s Day. It is a day to remember the 26.6 million people worldwide who have this vile disease that will eventually rob them of the ability to remember and to reason. It will take from them every skill they ever learned and every relationship they ever held dear.
Having a relative with Alzheimer's is like watching a beloved quilt deteriorate. It's as if the connecting threads which hold the quilt together have begun to unravel. The seams begin to come apart. A lifetime's worth of elaborate quilting begins to disappear as the threads snap and small bits begin to work loose from the body of the quilt.

We've all seen antique quilts where certain bits of fabric have simply rotted away, usually as a result of corrosive dyes. For an Alzheimer's patient, patches of one's mental landscape are also disintegrating as a result of this corrosive disease.

Ami Simms, who also founded the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative, designed a Virtual Quilt Patch in honor of her mother who has been battling Alzheimer's for seven years. She's invited all of us quilting bloggers to make a similar patch in honor of our afflicted friends and relatives, and has asked us to share how this disease has touched our lives. She's also asked that we link to her Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative which raises money for Alzheimer's research. (Since January 2006 they have raised more than $157,000, one quilt at a time.)

I never know what to expect when I go to visit my Aunt Dora. Most of the time she knows who I am, though sometimes she thinks I'm one of her sisters. During one unsettling visit to the hospital, she lost all sense of time and place. She thought I was one of the nurses, that her father was still alive, and that the hospital was located in her old childhood neighborhood.

We chat together during our afternoon visits. I try to calm her anger or sooth her paranoia, depending on what mood is uppermost that day. I bring her little treats or take her out for coffee in an effort to cheer or distract her. As the threads of her mind continue to unravel, I know that someday even these efforts will be unavailing. I try not to look too far into the future because if Altzheimer's has taught me anything, it's to live in the present -- just one day at a time.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Woopa, Woopa!

Mythcon 40 will be held on July 17 - 20, 2009 at UCLA! That means it's local and I can attend! For me driving into Westwood is about as scary as marching to Mordor, but I have a whole year to get up my courage up and as long as I don't have to make the drive at night, I think I can do it.

About a year ago I attended my first Mythcon in over 20 years and found it to be as much fun in late middle age as it was in the days of my youth.

This year's Author Guest of Honor is James A. Owen who wrote Here There Be Dragons and The Search for the Red Dragon. The Scholar Guest of Honor is Dianna Pavlac Glyer who won the 2008 Scholarship Award for The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. (I've been meaning to read the latter for over a year!)

You can register for Mythcon here. Price for Mythopoeic Society members is currently $55.00; $65.00 for nonmembers. It will increase on September 15 and again in February.

Sartorius has a nice description of Mythcon past and present here.

And with curiously appropriate timing, Sheldon has a Christopher Tolkien related strip here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dickens and a Digression

I love library book sales. You never know what you'll find. When our kids were young, we all looked forward to the annual book sale at the Santa Monica public library. To a certain extent, I always felt bad when I discovered great finds among the children's books which the library had discarded. I didn't hesitate to snap them up, but I was sorry that future borrowers would miss out on them. Ah, well! The library's loss was our gain. And of course, books donated to the library booksale by the community were guilt-free.

One year we found a complete set of an old edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. We didn't need it ourselves, since my husband had bought a new set in the 1970s when he was still a bachelor with discretionary income to fling about. (He was also working at a bookstore in those days and was allowed an employee discount even on special orders. Hence, nearly all of our gorgeous art books were bought during that period.) But we bought this older set on the grounds that it needed a good home. And as it turned out, we were scheduled to attend a Catholic homeschooling event shortly afterwards where we found a family that was happy to adopt it. (The fact that it was an older edition was a plus in their eyes.)

At that same sale we found this copy of The Life of Our Lord by Charles Dickens. I'd been a Dickens fan ever since the sixth grade when I first read A Christmas Carol, but I'd never heard of this work before. That was not, perhaps, surprising. Dickens wrote this little book for his own children and refused to allow it to be published while he lived. The introduction to this edition quotes a letter written by Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law:

I am sorry to say it is never to be published . . . He wrote it years ago, when his elder children were quite little. It is about sixteen short chapters, chiefly adapted from St. Luke's Gospel, most beautiful, most touching, most simple as such a narrative should be. He never would have it printed, and I used to read it to the little boys in MS. before they were old enough to read writing themselves . . . I asked Charles if he did not think it would be well for him to have it printed, at all events for private circulation . . . . He said he would look over the MS. and take a week or two to consider. At the end of the time he gave it back to me and said he had decided never to publish it, or even to have it privately printed. He said I might make a copy of it for ... any one of his children, but for no one else, and he also begged that we would never even hand the MS., or a copy of it, to any one to take out of the house, so there is no doubt about his strong feeling on the subject, and we must obey it. . . .
The book remained a family secret for 85 years until the last of Dickens' children, Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, bequeathed permission for its publication should his family so desire. It was published, first serially and then in book form, in the mid 1930s. My copy has illustrations by Rachel Taft-Dixon.

There are plenty of copies to be found online these days including editions that have been published since I bought my used copy so many years ago. You can also read it online or download it as a PDF.

So how is it as a book? Believe it or not, I hadn't sat down and read all the way through it until quite recently. My kids were not the right age for it when I bought it, so I shelved it with the rest of Dickens, and it sat there until just the other day when I was between novels and needed something to read with my lunch.

Well, it was interesting to read such a private work. It has a familial charm which is endearing. "You never saw a locust," Dickens writes as an aside to his description of John the Baptist, "because they belong to that country near Jerusalem, which is a great way off. So do camels, but I think you have seen a camel. At all events, they are brought over here, sometimes; and if you would like to see one, I will show you one." (I like to imagine Dickens and his children watching camels together.)

Dickens' interest in social issues relating to the poor are apparent here in his reminders to his young readers that heaven was made for the poor as well for the rich, and that "God makes no difference between those who wear good clothes and those who go barefoot and in rags. . . Never be proud or unkind, my dears to any poor man, woman, or child."

The homeschoolers to whom we'd given the encyclopedia rather envied us our possession of The Life of Our Lord. They belonged to that class of homeschoolers who assume that an old book, published before the current moral rot had set in, is automatically a safer choice for their children's instruction. But every age has pockets of rot.

Personally, I would not have read this book to my children as part of their religious formation. It's not the Victorian language. Rather, it's Dickens' de-emphasis of the divinity of Christ.

Although he based his retelling mostly on the Gospel of Luke, Dickens skipped the Annunciation, and therefore the whole Son of God bit, along with the Virgin Birth and Joseph's position as foster father of Christ. Perhaps he simply felt a Victorian reticence towards bringing up birth and paternity with very young children. If so, I'll forgive him the omission. Sorta.

But in his account, when the angels appear to the shepherds, they say, "There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love Him as His own Son; [Emphasis mine.] and He will teach men to love one another, and not to quarrel and hurt one another; and His name will be Jesus Christ; and people will put that name in their prayers, because they will know God loves it, and will know that they should love it too."

Eeek! Isn't this Adoptionism, the heresy teaching that Jesus was born a mere human being and only became divine later in life after being adopted as God's son as a sort of reward for his goodness and niceness? Beep! Beep! Danger, Will Robinson!

I was also a bit concerned that when the wise men show up, they are not seeking "a newborn king of the Jews," as in Matthew's gospel, but "a child . . . who will live to be a man whom all people will love." Eeeuuuw! This is a Jesus who sounds too much like a Hallmark greeting card to me. And I think a sure way to kill any young child's interest in the story of Christ is to wimpify it -- pulling out all of the mythic elements or the hard, weird, and edgy bits. (Oddly enough, Dickens does retain the slaughter of the Innocents, though it is unclear why Herod would have perceived this sort of Jesus as a threat.)

However, the book becomes less iffy as it gos on, and I will give Dickens points for including the Crucifixion -- unlike the DRE* at one of our former parishes who chose "The Metamorphosis of Caterpillars into Butterflies" as the Palm Sunday lesson for the children who were attending her religious ed class while their parents were at the 9:00 Mass.

Why, butterflies, you might ask? Her theory was that someday, somewhere, these children would hear the story of Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection.** And then, a light bulb would go off in their heads, and they'd remember the story of the butterfly! And it would be such a meaningful experience. (This was also the woman who, in a staff meeting, spoke glowingly about the profound religious experience to be had while peeling the paper off crayons. Where do parishes find these people?)

All I could say was, "Not with my kid, lady! They're attending the Palm Sunday liturgy with me, and assimilating the story of Christ's Passion up close and personal."
*Director of Religious Education

**On the History Channel perhaps?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bless me, Father...

I laughed out loud when I read D.G. Davidson's post, Making a Good Confession (Sci Fi Catholic Style). Selecting a Sci Fi priest as your regular confessor can make confessing your Sci Fi sins so much simpler.

Monday, August 11, 2008

On a Tear With Charlotte, or One Book Leads To Another

I've been reading a lot of Charlotte Bronte lately.

It all started in April when I had to drive my mother to the emergency room. The previous day she had attended a birthday picnic, hosted by one of my cousins, where most of the attendees contracted food poisoning. My mother, who is 78 years old, was so ill she had to go to the hospital. I drove her there, and since one never knows how long a visit to the emergency room will take, I made sure to bring a book.

I wanted something dependable and small, so I grabbed my Oxford World's Classics edition of Jane Eyre. At 3.5" x 6", it's smaller than most paperbacks and fits nicely in my skirt pocket. I've read Jane Eyre many times before, but it never fails to engross me. Judy Abbot, the protagonist of Daddy-Long-Legs, summed it up for me when she described her first reading of this novel, ". . . as for the mad woman who laughs like a hyena and sets fire to bed curtains and tears up wedding veils and bites -- it's melodrama of the purest, but just the same, you read and read and read." And so I did.

My mother was in the hospital for several days, so I spent a good deal of time there too. And whenever she was dozing or undergoing tests, I buried myself in Jane because, as we all know, time moves slowly in a hospital, but reading is a hyperspatial by-pass through tedium.

Frequently, when I read a novel like Jane Eyre, I'm so wrapped up in the story that I pay scant attention to the author's technique. But this time I was more aware of how Bronte achieves her effects. I was particularly struck by her use of present tense narrative when the heroine is facing an important turning point. It gives the reader a sense of immediacy, but also conveys the character's feeling of mental distance or dislocation -- that numbing daze when Everything Has Just Become Too Much and one feels cut off from both the future and the past. When Jane narrates in the traditional past tense, you have in the back of your mind the assurance that she has survived her adventures and is looking back on them. But when she switches to present tense you are with her right at that moment, dazed and uncertain.

Well, my mom recovered and returned home. So did I, still reading Jane Eyre. And when I finished I was in the mood for more Bronte. So I checked out Villette from the public library (which I had never read before) and then reread The Professor as a chaser.

I decided I'd like to know a bit more about Bronte so I looked her up in the Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia. According to the latter, "her novels are marked by anti-Catholicism." Jane Eyre doesn't really show any signs of it. (Just the bit about her creepy, selfish cousin becoming a nun.) I originally read The Professor many, many years ago and didn't recall much anti-Catholic sentiment -- no more than you'd expect from any British author of that time period. As a bit of a lark, I decided to mark the most egregious anti-Catholic sentiments with Post-it notes.

I think that the examples in The Professor simply reflect the English dislike and distrust of foreigners and foreign ways. Of course the natives of Belgium are dull and stupid. Of course the French are sly and devious. So what else can you expect from Catholics? They haven't had the moral advantages of being upright English Protestants. (As I read the book, the refrain Song of Patriotic Prejudice by Flanders & Swann rang through my mind: "The English, the English, the English are best: I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest!"

But the anti-Catholicism in Villette is downright virulent.

Religous issues aside, Villette is a real downer that should not be read by anyone having even the slightest tendency to depression. The heroine is lonely, hopeless, starved for affection, suffers from apparent visitations of the spectre of a murdered nun, has the meanest, most devious boss in the world, and teaches horrid school girls. During the summer vacation she goes through a period of clinical depression that is almost psychotic. The author allows her a brief moment of happiness when she is finally allowed to fall in love with a professor who teaches at her school. But no sooner has she accepted his proposal than his scheming (Catholic) relatives who oppose the marriage, have finagled him into traveling overseas to take care of business concerns, separating the lovers for several years. And then the author whips up an ocean storm to drown him on his return. Actually, at the request of her father, Bronte rewrote the ending to make it just slightly more ambiguous than her original version. If Pollyanna read this revised version she might, just possibly, come away with the impression that the hero could have survived the waves and would yet turn up. But I doubt it. In Villette Bronte has drawn a heroine who has schooled herself to reject hope, and has placed her in circumstances which vindicate that rejection.

By contrast, The Professor was a light hearted romp -- though it is a sedate novel compared to Jane Eyre. It was interesting to discover that Bronte wrote it before Jane Eyre. She wanted to portray a realistic hero in a novel that did not indulge in romantic excess. Alas, no publisher would take it, having instead "a passionate preference for the wild, wonderful, and thrilling -- the strange, startling, and harrowing . . . ."* So she went off and wrote Jane Eyre, and it was commercial success.

One thing which the two novels have in common is that the hero is first attracted to and falls in love with the heroine's mind. Both heroines are intelligent, and captivate their beloveds with their pert wit. Both are described at times as a vexing fairy or elf. And both preserve a special companionship with their husbands after marriage. In The Professor, Frances teaches in her own school. And she requires her husband to also teach there an hour a day because, as she says, "people who are only in each other's company for amusement, never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together." Jane also works with her husband. She becomes Mr. Rochester's eyes, seeing for him, reading for him, and generally being his right hand. And talking with each other all day long -- ah, what bliss! And how I miss it -- since my late husband and I, like the Rochesters, could say that "to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking."

As a girl I loved the descriptions of these two marriages. Perhaps they gave me hope that I too would someday find romance -- I was certain no one would ever marry me for my looks!

Instead of reading Shirley, I detoured into Mrs. Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Fascinating. (But I won't talk about it now. This post is already too long.) And then I felt the need to read one of Gaskell's novels. Mary Barton is the only one in our public library, so I'm working my way through that right now.

*from Bronte's introduction to The Professor.