Month: June 2016

How To Style Your Bookshelves


Step 1. Empty bookshelf.

Step 2. Dust books and shelf.

Step 3. Put books back on shelf.

Step 4. Do you have  lonely, empty space on the shelf?  An easy solution to this problem (it never fails) –  a trip to the bookstore!*

Step 4. Fill in empty slots with new books.*

Step 5.  Let your wolfish eyes select the perfect title from your now stunning bookshelf. Sit back and read.

*one may also buy a cat, which also fills in gaps quite nicely (as pictured above) but most people find more books to be an easier solution.

*or new cat.




Book Club June/July: High Wages

This month (and next) join us as we read Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages:  


I have not read any of Dorothy Whipple’s works yet but am looking forward to reading this one. English novelist J.B. Priestly called her the, “Jane Austen of the 20th Century.”   Her novels were well received between the wars. Two of which were made into films: They Were Sisters and They Knew Mr. Knight.   In the 1950’s her popularity declined  but recently Persephone Books  have republished nine of her novels. Perhaps a revival is afoot  (Wiki).





Sigrid Undset: Kristin Lavransdatter (Catholic Chick Lit)

I was halfway through high school when I first heard about Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. No list of Catholic “chick lit” that did not mention her would be complete. Undset wrote the Kristin trilogy in the years leading up to her 1924 conversion to Catholicism. And she won the Nobel Prize for it in 1928. I still remember the thrill when the paperback book (Archer’s translation, the only one then available) slipped into my hands from the bookstore shelf and I looked at and read the cover, front and back. It was the same excitement you feel when you know that you’ve found a friend.

It was the perfect time for me to find this book. I still had many of my childhood reading habits and after I read the trilogy through once, I read it again and again. On a free afternoon, I’d find myself picking up one of the volumes, either looking for a specific passage or opening it at random, and then reading from wherever I’d opened the book all the way to the end again. It was that kind of love. It may have been the last book that I re-read so frequently, so absorbedly.

Men can certainly love this book as women can love the classics written by men. But this a women’s book written by a woman. I believe I’ve seen it called a saga; it is written with a completely different mindset from a Medieval saga. It is a novel, bristling with the particular genius of a novelist. Relationships, conversations, domestic details, descriptions, drama, the ambiguous touch of magic: the story of a woman’s life in Medieval Norway from her early childhood to her death as an old woman. (One particularly powerful scene brings to life a spring night when the ice breaks and the waters flow. Kristin and her father have been in a deadlock about an important decision concerning her future. On this night, neither of them can sleep and her father at last gives in, releasing her into adulthood.) It is a book about “sinful love” (Undset’s declared specialty) that takes both sin and penance seriously. It is a book, maybe most of all, about marriage. And though the trilogy could (like the Odyssey more than the Iliad) be called epic, Kristin and Erlend fail tragically in their marriage. It is mysterious that nonetheless the book ends in such uplift, bittersweet but definite uplift. That “strange upward draft of the novel”!

This is the book that finally ruined me for most historical fiction. Though she writes with the best technique of a “modern” novelist, Undset gives us characters with the inner life of Medievals, very like us in their deep complex humanity, very different from us in the forms of their lives and thoughts. These are people a mere generation from the pagan past, slowly, painfully, imperfectly assimilating Catholicism. Some of the priests have children, still lacking the dispositions for the grace of celibacy. Others are lonely, having a light they long to share with people who have varying degrees of readiness to accept it. Undset studied Medieval Norway consumingly and the research and understanding behind this book give it a “thick beauty.” It goes down layer after layer.

Undset also wrote two earlier shorter novels that I’ve read: Jenny (begins with art students in Rome) and Gunnar’s Daughter (pre-Christian Norway this time). I could not get through her Master of Hestviken series; it was too unremittingly grim. (Kristin Lavransdatter interleaves sorrow and trials with joy and glows with beauty — from the glory of a cathedral at the end of a penitential pilgrimage to the delight of feeding berries to a toddler.) Her biography of St. Catherine of Siena is also truly excellent!

-Mrs. Aldertree


Summer Reading: Children’s Edition


If you haven’t read The Little Prince by Antonie de Saint-Exupery to your children, now is the time. Originally written in French, it is now the most translated French book. It is both philosophical and poetic – a children’s Odyssey.  You will find yourself pulled into the Prince’s little world as Exupery softly unfolds the story. It is hard to grasp what makes this book, its elusive magic is so closely woven into its story line I am tempted to quote it in its entirety to convey its luster!


This Summer memorize some poetry with your children. It really isn’t as arduous as it sounds. What joy it is to memorize your favorites, to have such treasures always with you!  Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses is a Classic.  Children love their short, lyrical and literal quality. This book is filled with well composed, musical, accessible, romping and whimsical verses.

The Big Alfie And Annie Rose Storybook by Shirley Hughes. Paperback. 1994.

Shirley Hughes inspired by observing her own little family (she had three children) began writing and illustrating children’s books. She is well known for her endearing Alfie series. Hughes captures the adventures of everyday life and her illustrations reveal her deep knowledge of children and family life. In an interview she stated: “I want the children looking at my books to feel that they want to see round the corner; I want them to feel they are in the picture they are looking at…. I would like to think I draw with sentiment but never with sentimentality. Family life is a high drama, not a sweet idyll.” Anyone in the throes of raising children knows that childhood is dramatic with only occasional idyllic  reprieves. It is vindicating and encouraging to encounter this truth in children’s books.

Five Catholic Chick Lit Writers (That You May Not Know And May Be Happy To)

1. Rumer Godden. She did not convert to Catholicism until the year she turned 61 but she continued to publish novels for almost 30 years after that. Included in her post-conversion writings are two famous novels about women’s religious communities: In This House of Brede (Benedictines) and Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy (Dominicans). Both are beautiful stories, both provide a glimpse of traditional communities touched by the first tremors of the cataclysmic changes that followed Vatican II in large sections of the Church. Earlier novels with significant Catholic themes include: The Lady and the Unicorn (about a struggling Anglo-Indian Catholic family), The River (the wise nanny is a Catholic), A Candle for St. Jude (mostly about ballet), and An Episode of Sparrows. Among her wonderful-to-read-aloud children’s books, The Kitchen Madonna has a Marian icon as its centerpiece.

2. Isobel English. Her novel Every Eye was reprinted by Persephone, an intricate little labyrinth of a book, in which alternations between memory and present experience lead at last to understanding and acceptance of the past — though the novel’s climax, in a weird and holy place, is approached only with trepidation. The beautiful prose sets a slow, attentive pace for what turns out to be a pilgrimage. Of her other novels, I have not been able to locate The Key That Rusts but I look forward to reading Four Voices someday soon.

3. Antonia White. Her quartet of autobiographical novels holds a special place in my heart. Nanda/Clara, the central character, deals with being a convert’s daughter, convent school (a world in itself and a lost world today), becoming a writer and the trauma of having her early work grossly misunderstood, tense and complex relationships with her parents, growing up an only child, the pull of the old pagan religion, catastrophe, violence, Bohemian life, invalid marriage and annulment, mental illness/madness and hospitalization. This is not St. Paul’s list of trials. However, I found it powerful to see, amid challenges in large part specifically modern and characters thoroughly, humanly, weak, a vision of the unchanging Faith. And Clara, by being nearly completely broken, in the end is more than conqueror.



4. Alice Thomas Ellis. She died in 2005. Her style combines delightfully sharp satire with equally delightful lyric moments and the most exquisite hint of Welsh magic. Her lampooning of the modern world is balanced by a shrewd and ultimately loving insight into human nature. My favorites are The Inn at the Edge of the World, Fairy Tale, and The Summer House. The Inn at the Edge of the World and Fairy Tale I love for their juxtaposition of the discontents of today’s world with the world of ancient (sometimes benign, sometimes threatening) magic. The Summer House I love for the voices of the women who tell it and for its courageous and beautiful treatment of the sensitive topic of sexual abuse.

5. Caroline Gordon. So it may not be fair to call Caroline Gordon’s books (or any of the above, really) “chick lit.” We read her stories in grad school alongside Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty and the most famous of American Catholic writers, Flannery O’Connor. I recently read The Strange Children. Here we have an almost uninterpreted story, near raw experience, with the advantages and disadvantages of a child’s viewpoint, in which the lives of skeptical intellectuals contrast with the “lower” culture of Protestant Christians who pray by the river, theatrically seek miracles for the sick, and handle deadly serpents. Into this world, the lone Catholic comes as a sign of contradiction. The South appears with a truth that only fiction can utter. I’ll want to be reading The Women on the Porch next.

-Mrs. Aldertree