Friday, May 27, 2016

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (Part 3)

Yup. Still Flannery. I am not big on emotionalism, especially in regard to faith. Apparently, neither is she.

From a letter to Maryat Lee                                19 May 57 My prayers are unfeeling but habitual, not to say dogged, and I do include you in them. -pg. 220

On writing about "unpleasant" people:
From a letter to Cecil Dawkins                                30 January 56
 Of course I hear the complaint over and over that there is no sense in writing about people who disgust you. I think there is; but the fact is that the people I write about certainly don't disgust me entirely though I see them from a standard of judgment from which they fall short. Your freshmen who said there was something religious here was correct. I take the Dogmas of the Church literally and this, I think is what created what you call the "missing link." The only concern, so far as I see it, is what Tillich calls the "ultimate concern." It is what makes the stories spare and what gives them any permanent quality they may have.  There is really only one answer to the people who complain about one's writing about "unpleasant" people--and that is that one writes what one can. Vocation implies limitation but few people realize it who don't actually practice an art.  -pg. 221

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (Part 2)

Here's a fun little snippet about her childhood home.  The fishbowl camera effect is annoying, but I loved that she was a critic from an early age, as evidenced by the marginalia in her childhood books.

From a letter to "A."                                30 January 56 
I have a good many books that you might be interested in but I haven't put them forth because I thought they were "too Catholic" and I did not want you to think I was trying to stuff the Church down your throat. This is a peculiar thing - I have the one-fold one-Shepherd instinct as strong as any, to see somebody I know out of the Church is a grief to me, it's to want him in with great urgency. At the same time, the Church can't be put forward by anybody but God and one is apt to do great damage by trying; consequently Catholics may seem very remiss, almost lethargic, about coming forward in the Faith. -pg. 134 

I doubt if your interest get less intellectual as you become more deeply involved in the Church, but what will happen is that the intellect will take its place in a larger context and will cease to by tyrannical, if it has been--and when there is nothing over the intellect it usually is tyrannical. Anyway, the mind serves best when it's anchored in the word of God. There is no danger then of becoming an intellectual without integrity. . .  -pg. 134

From a letter to "A."                                6 October 56

The Communion of Saints has something to do with the fact that the burdens we bear because of someone else, we can also bear for someone else. -pg. 178

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor (Part 1)

Hello blog.  Well, I see that you're still here. (I have Willie Nelson's "Hello Walls" running through my head right now.)  Let's dust you off a bit so that you can hold my notes about Flannery O'Connor.

I was going to type up my favorite quotes and authors/works to explore further in one post.  But, there is so much depth and richness to be mined in The Habit of Being that I am going to break this up into multiple posts.  Here's something for today:

From a letter to "A."*                                6 September 55
 . . . .I can't concede that I'm a fascist. The thought is probably more repugnant to me than to you, as I see it as an offense against the body of Christ. I am wondering why you convict me of believing in the use of force? It must be because you connect the Church with a belief in the use of force; but the Church is a mystical body which cannot, does not, believe in the use of force (in the sense of forcing conscience, denying the rights of conscience, etc.). I know all her hair-raising history, of course, but principle must be separated from policy. Policy and politics generally go contrary to principle. . . .                                                                                                                                -pg. 99

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.  -pg. 100
There is a question whether faith can or is supposed to be emotionally satisfying. I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion.  -pg. 100

(*You can read more about "A." here.  Her identity was disclosed after her death in 1998.)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

I just gave this book five stars on Goodreads and it wanted me to recommend it to people "because they like sports"--wha?  Just because this book takes place on one day during a Cowboys football game does not mean it has anything to do with sports.

Bravo squad is on a "Victory Tour" after a firefight that an embedded FOX news team has caught on tape.  The men from Bravo squad are immediately sensations and are brought home to be paraded around the country for two weeks to drum up support for an unpopular war.  The blurb on the front cover of this novel has Karl Marlantes (of Matterhorn fame) raving that this is the "Catch-22 of the Iraq War."  And I think I could get on board with that.  There are definite echoes of Heller and Vonnegut running throughout.  In fact, the main character is named "Billy" which makes me wonder if it is a nod to Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim.

Billy is still trying to get his head around the fact that his buddy and mentor, Shroom, died on the field as Billy was trying to save him during the aforementioned firefight. You really get the sense of the camaraderie,  especially in scenes like this where Shroom would:

say "I love you" to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone's soul.  -pg. 61
So, Bravo is whipped back home (but they have to go back to Iraq soon--which is the elephant in the room that no one on this media blitz tour seems to address) and shoved in the spotlight to make a grateful nation all weepy and pumped for more war.  In the background during the entire day, an agent who has been assigned to them is busily calling and texting his Hollywood contacts to see about getting a movie made about the ordeal.  Meanwhile, people keep coming up and pawing at the squad and issuing their heartfelt thanks which Fountain portrays in a poetic way, highlighting the buzzwords while tuning out the rest of the monotonous blathering:

                              nina leven
                                                nina leven

And so we reach the culmination of this tour, the Thanksgiving Day football game.  Fountain sets it deep in the heart of Cowboys nation and does an amazing job of using football and the whole retail economy it engenders, and even the sheer magnitude of the players as a metaphor for America.  There is a scene in the equipment room where the Bravo squad is shown a whole wall of shoes, fifteen different styles of face masks, "twenty twenty-five hundred-count boxes" of chewing gum in five flavors for the players.  Every possible thing necessary to sustain these elite athletes and the entire ecosystem that rests on them.  Billy notes that where else, other than America, could someone have access to such nutritive diets as to even raise these behemoths. Just trying to comprehend the level of science that goes into creating the perfect helmet, the amount of money that goes into advertising at the games, the number of people on the payroll at the stadium--is overwhelming. It is all so huge and based on something that is not real. A game that is this all-consuming machine.  Buy. Buy. Buy.

The climax of the story (sexual innuendo intended) is at half-time when no less than three marching bands take the field with drumming like a primal heartbeat that backs up what Billy's mother would term a "hoochie-coochie" show put on by Destiny's Child.  It is this bizarre, ritualistic orgy that lacks only a virgin sacrifice.  Or maybe that's what Billy is--since they make him and the rest of Bravo squad stand in the middle of the confusion in order to "honor" these heroes.  And what is Billy, but a nineteen-year-old virgin who really didn't intend to be a hero?

The action, the dialogue, the whole book is pretty darn near perfect.  Except for one thing that still has me stewing.  There's this really interesting thread on Goodreads (  It's basically an Iraq war veteran's thoughts on the novel.  I didn't give it a whole lot of credence when I was skimming it because he starts out bashing the novel without having read it and kind of cherry picks dialogue and scenes out of context and without acknowledging that it's satire. So, I just kind of rolled my eyes at the time.  But, the more I think about some of his key points, the more I'm wondering if this vet was right.  This is not Ben Fountain's story to tell.  He did not serve.  Does he get to do this?  Or is he no better than the movie producers and politicians that he skewers in the novel?  Is he being equally unfair in using Billy for his own devices and political statements?  I'm not saying the things he uncovers in the book are not true or should not be said.  I'm just wondering if Fountain just doesn't get to have this story, as a civilian.  Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were there.  They put in their time.  They earned their stories, in other words.

Just something to consider while reading it.  I'm still giving it five stars. I still loved it.  And maybe a civilian writing a veteran's story is no different than a female author writing a male character (or vice versa).  Maybe empathy is enough. Whatever the case, I always carry around my college English professor's adage, "Trust the art, not the artist."  And this was some pretty fine art.

<I checked this book out of my library, but plan on purchasing it.>

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman

Did I mention it won the
Newbery Award for
Excellence in Children's
Literature in 1996?
Do you have a daughter?  If so, go get this book and shove it into her hands immediately.  We just finished reading it at bedtime and loved it. If you want your daughter to be:

  • Persistant
  • Confident
  • Self-determining
  • Wise
  • Literate
  • Compassionate
  • Kind to animals
  • Powerful within her sphere
Then this is THE book for her.

We start with a little orphan waif who nestles into a dung pile every night just to keep warm, thus earning her the moniker "Dung Beetle."  Eventually, she makes herself useful enough to the village's midwife to earn some bread and a warm, dry place to sleep.  From there, things just get better.

At one point, she decides she's had enough of being called "Beetle" and christens herself Alyce.  She starts caring for a little cat, giving him bits of her own scarce meals and decides he needs a name, too (Purr).  I love how there is power in naming. With that seemingly small act of self-determinism she has set the course for her life.

Alyce is self-taught.  She watches silently all the midwife does and she remembers.  But, she's open to other avenues of knowledge, too.  She watches her friend Will (the origination of their friendship is another good story) as he coos and soothes Tansy the cow as she gives birth, even repositioning the calves at one point.  She learns how just being a comfort to another can sometimes be enough.

She is cocky, but eventually learns from her mistakes.  After successfully helping a mother give birth, she gets the next call (instead of the midwife); but she soon discovers she is out of her league and the midwife must come to her aid.  Completely humiliated, she runs away and become an innkeeper's maid.  But even there, she makes smart decisions and works hard.

Eventually, she realizes that she has to go back. She is meant to be a midwife. She can't just give up. However, because of her hard work and aptitude, she has options.  Before returning to her apprentice job, she is offered a job as a child's nurse, as a caregiver for the magistrate's mother, or she could have even kept on as the innkeeper's help. I love the scene where she goes out to the meadow to contemplate her choices.

This book really drives home that you are never stuck in your circumstances (but not at all in a preachy way).  Interestingly, even though there are plenty of adults who "help" Alyce, they are never looking out for her best interest.  They take advantage of her and only treat her in a way that benefits them.  But, Alyce is never a victim.  What others think of her or require of her never defines how she thinks of herself nor does it inform her decisions. I think this is a great point.  Many children's books have strong adult role models (which is GREAT and I want my daughter to experience that in real life and in art).  However, if we're honest, that is not always a very realistic portrayal of what life is actually like.  I love that kids who are lucky enough to find this book can see that they can make their own way, regardless of whether they have a grown-up who is mature and responsible enough to guide them.

Can I just say again how much I loved the heck out of this book?

There was a lot that went over my six-year-old's head.  The medieval superstitions really baffled her.  And she and I definitely had a lot of discussion about anatomy and the mechanics of childbirth (not conception, thankfully--not quite ready for that talk yet).  But this is how we ended the book:

Daughter: Are midwives still real? Or are they just in the olden days?
Me: They're still real.
Daughter: Then I can be one when I grow up???
Me: Yep.
Daughter:  I AM GOING TO BE A MIDWIFE JUST LIKE ALYCE!!!  <bounces up and down on the couch and hugs book>

I am not kidding.  That kind of hallmark moment actually happened last night. Go. Read. This. Book.

<We bought this book from a "Friends of the Library" book sale.>

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

I'm working with another librarian to put together a program for young adults called "Books + Burritos."  It's going to be a ton of fun.  We lure the teens in with promise of food and then we book talk upcoming books.  My colleague has been able to acquire a bunch of ARCs and we'll be giving away books that night, too!  So, we've  been reading books like crazy to prepare.

They're saying that Samantha Shannon is the next J. K. Rowling.  At least, that's what her publisher is really hoping.  The Bone Season is supposed to be the first in a seven-book series that follows nineteen-year-old dreamwalker Paige Mahoney, as she learns to utilize her gift against the puppet government, Scion. It's already being optioned for a movie by Andy Serkis' studio. I made the mistake of reading this Forbes article before finishing the book and found out that Shannon is a 21-year-old student at Oxford who interned at a publishing house going through the "slush" pile and so she has a basic idea of what is selling and why.  Which kind of explained my ambivalence toward this book, I think.

Basically, Shannon took a strong heroine like Katniss from The Hunger Games, a supernatural love interest (think Edward from Twilight), engaged them in a slightly icky (though definitely PG) power dynamic a la Fifty Shades of Grey, then threw in a few White Walkers from Game of Thrones (although, here they're the "Buzzers") for an element of danger, oh and don't forget a band of ragtag refugees ready to overthrow "the man."  Need I even mention that this is set in a dystopian future? (It seems that trope is a given these days.)

It's more complicated than that of course. Which is exactly the problem.  Its waaaaay more complicated than that.  The world building is massive and info-dumpy.  I want to be able to recommend this to teens (and probably will--it was fun), but I'm afraid the kind of kids to whom it would appeal would be put off by the crazy amount of world building.  And the ones that can handle the world building will see how poorly it's done.

Hopefully, this will find a market and make billions of dollars so that Bloomsbury will then be able to afford to publish the kind of books I like to read.  It will be interesting to see how it does over the next few months.  And like I kind of mentioned earlier--it was fun. Definitely a page-turner.  I probably won't see the series through to the end, but I would have been so upset if the NetGalley copy had expired before I finished it.

<I received this as an ARC from NetGalley and read it on my *shocking, I know* Kindle.>

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Little Party on the Prairie

Maybe I can get them to start
washing all the clothes.
My oldest daughter and I started reading the Little House on the Prairie series at bedtime several years ago.  She fell in love with Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary, to the point where she would constantly entreat her grandpa to play "Laura and Mary" whenever she visited.  Now that her little sister is bigger, she pulls her into the game as Carrie and even makes our poor little dog be Jack.

When we were talking about what to do for her 6th birthday this year, she immediately thought of a Little House party.  Now, I work full-time and since my husband stays home with three little ones, we are budgeted down to the penny.  I immediately started researching how we could do this frugally.  There are some beautiful parties out there, but we needed to stick with something we could afford.

My dress isn't authentic, but my mom did make me a
bonnet and apron (the girls, too). You'll notice the
screen room in back--it rained!  In July! In SoCal! ??!?
There were some great ideas at Oh Amanda's blog that I used, namely the button/bead necklaces and the clothes washing game.  But here's everything in a nutshell:

 When the girls arrived, they had the opportunity to decorate a bonnet:

I got the directions for bonnet making from Skip to My Lou's blog.  I found the 12" x 18" paper at Michael's for $3 or $4 and we already had the yarn.  I pre-made the bonnets and let the girls color them.

Yes, you're right, there
were most likely not
fluorescent beads
back in the day. But,
when they're on
clearance, you take
what you can get.
Once they made a bonnet (if they wanted to), they visited the necklace-making station.  I told them all about Ma's button collection and how the girls would string them.  I added beads to the pile, too, and told them about Laura visiting the abandoned Indian village with Pa. The girls loved stringing beads.  I put scotch tape around the yarn at one end (so they could poke it through the holes easier) and tied a bead to the other end so they wouldn't fall off.
As the girls finished their necklaces, they had the opportunity to come and "fish" in the creek.  I have to admit, this a filler game we added as a "just in case" at the last minute.  It's actually from when I was a kid--my dad constructed it for our birthday parties growing up.  Basically, he just painted a box and slit some holes on top, then made cardboard fish with a hole punched through the top (well, several hole punches together to make the hole big enough).  I am sure with a little effort, you can make it look much more "Little House"-esque.  The kids love trying to catch fish, though.  The fishing pole you see here is a wire hanger connected to a dowel by twine.  We had an "easier" fishing pole that was a stretched out wire hanger connected to a dowel.

When everyone had finished their necklaces, we played our clothes washing game.  Oh. My. Gosh.  They LOVED this game.  I separated them into two teams.  We had cut up 40 pieces of fabric.  They had to grab a piece out of the basket, put it on the washboard, soap it up with bar soap, scrub it, rinse it, wring it and then hang it on the clothesline, then run to the back of the line.  I thought they would get tired of it after the first or second run-through, but they would have kept going all afternoon!  In fact, I probably didn't even have to make it a race--could have added a few more washtubs and boards and let them go to town!
The basket in the foreground holds all the clothespins.
We strung two different colors of yarns from easy-up to
easy-up for the clotheslines.
I'm sure you can get more authentic clothespins at Michael's.
I had these already and free is good.

After this game, we had a relay race to make butter. I had bought 4 Mason jars on sale at Michael's for $1.50 each.  I explained to the girls about where milk comes from and what cream is.  We then poured 1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream in each jar.  I divided the girls up into four teams and had them shake until I yelled PASS and they would hand it to their neighbor.  I put some fast fiddle music on the CD player and even led a march around the back yard (twice).  It takes about ten minutes, but then suddenly there is BUTTER!  They were amazed!  My husband had baked up two batches of corn muffins and blueberry muffins and they were able to spread the butter on top and enjoy!
My husband showed them how to create the dolls, while
my sister, my mom, plus another grandma helped.  The
8 and 9 year-olds totally got it, but the 6 and 7 year-olds
needed help.
Last, but definitely not least, we made corn husk dolls.  My girls had made them at the San Jose Children's Museum last November when I was up there for a library conference.  They are super easy and corn husks are pretty inexpensive (at least where I'm from--people buy them to make tamales).  I know Laura's doll was a corn cob doll, but we figured this was of the era (as well as fun, cheap and easy). Martha Stewart's version is pretty close to what we made.

Finally, we served a homemade chocolate cake (yum!) and decorated it with Lincoln Logs. I wanted to find some trees to make it the Little House in the Big Woods, but alas, the trees my husband has for his model trains all had snow on them.  Just didn't seem right for a summer party. 
My daughter decided we definitely need M&Ms lining the
path, as well as an M&M footbridge over the creek.
As for the goodie bags, I found small, brown paper bags at Michael's and added Laura-related items from the Dollar Tree which I made sure to explain to them before they left: an orange, peppermint candies (couldn't find peppermint sticks this time of year), some extra buttons, three small plastic horses (Pet, Patty, & Bunny).  Plus, a few fun things like horse stickers and pencils, just to round it out.

I had planned to make ice cream in a bag and do the clothespin drop game, but two hours fly by faster than you would think.

Can't wait until next year's party.  My daughter has already put an order in for a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory party, but she's been known to change her mind umpteen times, so we'll see.