writers

What’s On Your Nightstand?

Fast Food Nation  by Eric Schlosser is an amazing read. While I don’t agree with many of his solutions, the terrible and largely unforeseen consequences of Fast Food and Big agriculture are brought to light (and it’s not just about health concerns). Like it or not, the fast food industry has changed the way we farm, eat, advertise and shop. Throughout the book Scholosser seems to be pushing for unions and more government regulations to solve these problems  but in the end it’s about getting people to opt out on a large scale.  It’s informative, gripping, disturbing and yet he also maintains a sense of humor- Investigative journalism at it’s best.

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The Lost Traveller by Antonia White.

I’ve read her first book Frost in May last year and found her storytelling simple and completely engrossing. The second book, The Lost Traveller, is just as engaging and accessible as the first, the characters absorbing and writing clear. I am waiting for the heartbreak though. You sense a tragic tone from the onset.

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I’m also reading (thoroughly skimming?) Nourishing Traditions, rereading Woods Etc., avoiding journaling and in denial about my lack of interest in Theodore Roethke’s  poetry, despite my love for his poem the Root Cellar.

My husband’s nightstand, however, remains focused and avoids such disillusionments:

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What’s on your nightstand this month?

They Changed My Life

You’ve often heard books praised as life-changing. And every book we read must inevitably change our lives, for good or ill. We can’t measure the impact of a book and books that outwardly have no effect may be the ones that cause internal seismic shifts, unfelt.

However there is a handful of books I’ve read in the past few years that had a very definite effect on my daily life.

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The Lost Traveller by Antonia White. Reading Antonia White’s Clara quartet was a vindicating experience: just to see emotional and situational territory I’d felt alone in expressed so precisely in printed words. But one passage from The Lost Traveller gave me insight into my daughter, rather than consolation for myself. Clara never tells her mother how much she longed for siblings, especially brothers. I’d never been able to quite kill the hope that I might have another child or more children, a sibling for my daughter. Reading this passage, I was able to fully recognize my own maternal desire, for another child, yes, but also for the blessing a sibling could still be for my firstborn. This passage silenced the inner voice that was always droning “too late.”

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The Far Cry by Emma Smith. It was a quote from dialogue on the very last pages of this book that dried up my discouragement toward the beginning of this year. I won’t quote it because it gets its full impact from everything that comes before. But I was able to accept a failure that threatened to cripple me with remorse and instead use that dead body as a stepping stone into a new pattern of life. What was this new pattern? I will say that another book that helped me into it was The Art of the Handwritten Note by Margaret Shepherd.

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A truly life-changing read from several years ago was Our Lady of Kibeho by Immaculee Ilibagiza. This book was one of the catalysts of a new founding at a point of profound personal crisis. It helped me make, with painstaking care, a new synthesis of life directed by the Virgin Mary. The Seven Sorrows rosary was key in that reconstruction. And this book made me *want* to pray it.

-Mrs. Aldertree

Mrs. Renner

Mrs. Renner managed the classroom with authority,  humor and a pinch of sarcasm. She was probably the best teacher I ever had; for she introduced us to good books. We read: Where the Red Fern Grows, Number The Stars, The Phantom Tollbooth, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Bridge to Terabithia.

I didn’t realize at the time what an impact those books would make on me or how they would help me later in life. When Mrs. Renner read to us, we weren’t listening to improve our language skills, we were encountering life, it’s beauty and it’s pains. These books taught us how to live, how to cope with boredom, loss, how to think.

I don’t remember ever being tested on these readings, they were given without attachment to scores, or outcomes. Mrs. Renner did not come between the student and the book. This made all the difference; these books spoke and she simply let them.

I was not a big reader at the time, but I quickly became entranced by  Billy’s love for his two dogs Old Dan and Little Ann, Karana’s shrewdness, her grief at losing her brother,  Annemarie’s courage, Milo’s adventures, but Bridge to Terabithia was my favourite.

Initially, I was disappointed that Terabithia was not another Narnia. A new world did not unfold, rather a sad story of friendship. In it I encountered grief in a new way. In Island of the Blue Dolphins the struggles were of a far off land in circumstances beyond my little world but in this one, loss was confronted in everyday life. The book stayed with me as good books do.

Four years later, my younger brother fell from a tree in our backyard woods and died. Those woods were our romping grounds. We were children in those woods, warriors, pioneers, confederate soldiers, doctors, nurses and then we weren’t. Childhood ended with the shock of death, the sharp pain of loss, the dull ache of grief.

As a Catholic, I had hope in eternal life. As a young girl with no actual experience of death until then, books inadvertently became a guide to grief. Thankfully, good ones had been set in my path by a good and loving teacher. And when I had the courage to walk in those woods again,  Billy, Karana, Annemarie, Milo, Jess and Leslie all came back to me, their losses, their grief, their grit. I was not alone.

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 -Mrs. Cooper

Mark Helprin’s Swan Lake

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When I was about twelve, my mother checked an interesting book out of the library. She returned it unread but not before I’d opened it and read the magical first paragraphs about a god-like white horse wandering loose through the snowy streets of New York. I did not read the book all the way through until I was a graduate student but in the earliest hours of the morning, through the years, I’d find myself half-dreaming that opening scene. The book was Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin.

Long before I returned to Winter’s Tale however, I came across another Mark Helprin book at a house where I was babysitting. During the kid’s naptime, I lost myself in a lyrical, luminous retelling of Swan Lake illustrated by Chris van Allsburg. On a pad of paper in the kitchen, I copied my favorite passage, about places and how vastly they can differ from each other, about “charged landscapes that can put together broken hearts or at least keep them from shattering to pieces.”

The book was a storybook but it was also wisdom literature, not afraid to digress and effloresce, offering proverbs and asides that resonated among my own inner musings, making music there. To escape the cage without breaking it. Watchers of the sky and riders of horses. Love for all is love for none. Those who are pure. Those who suffer. Those who wait. Hippopotamuses and pins. The pictures were both crisp and misty, magnificent and simplified. Their unexpected perspectives set butterflies of delight dancing in my stomach, like pans in an IMAX theatre.

A sad tale’s best for winter. Helprin’s Swan Lake had a regal dignified sadness that I appreciated as I moved out of childhood. The indestructible love that can exist between parents and child against all odds was theme I was later to find repeated in his fiction for grown-ups. But I read Swan Lake at the perfect time for me to read it. It helped me understand the delicacy of escaping the cage that threatens to close around a child without breaking it. And so helped me to make that same so important escape.

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-Mrs. Aldertree

Small Bee

This evening I found myself looking at an old journal and reading the details of my own past life like a novel. I would never have remembered all this if I hadn’t written it down but, unlike with a novel, I didn’t just imagine the events I was reading about, I really did remember them.

On one of the pages, I’d copied out this poem.

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I must tell you how it happened,
Believe it or do not –
An episode to end housewarmings
In granaries of song.

I say, the drowsy blossom closing,
A bee was trapped within;
Moonlight passed through clouds and darkness
Till lawns lay diamonded.

Then spirits stalked to beg for baptism
In the open halls of night,
Their silent footfalls never troubled
The clovers’ sleep nor mine.

Astonishing – that one night’s hostel,
The thousand shimmered dreams –
Who knows sleep’s charm inside a blossom,
Except the captive bee?

Leonardas Andriekus was a Lithuanian poet and a Franciscan priest. He died in 2003, not so long ago. I loved this poem all over again when I rediscovered it tonight. The spirits begging for baptism bespeak a uniquely priestly nightmare.

Let’s pray this month for the souls of the dead still longing for heaven, for the souls of the living in desperate need of baptism.

-Mrs.Aldertree

Prayer of St. Gertrude to release 1000 souls from Purgatory: "Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.":

Recent Reads

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

Nothing like the classic Russian novels but still very Russian, Laurus was full of spiritual anecdote, paradox, lyric moments, quirky reflections on the nature of time, on the nature of healing and medicine. This story of a love that survives both death and (more miraculously) the passage of years surprises by being very very funny, with a dark but gentle humor.

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The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter

I’d never read any of her books before but now I want to read at least A Girl of the Limberlost. If you love books and honeybees, it’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t find yourself smiling over these pages. It does not meet the current literary standards for adult fiction but it has moments utterly refreshing in their freedom from today’s hypocritical taboos. Its moralism though was unsatisfying. There is something wrong with any moral vision that puts cleanliness so close to godliness. And I missed any recognition that there can be real forgiveness and redemption for real and serious sins.

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

This is only the second Barbara Pym book I’ve read. Bought and read it on a whim and, this time, completely caught onto her zany, delightfully deprecating tone. A human laughs joyously at the ridiculous in being human. It is full of zest and compassion. Also, as a Catholic, I loved the way the female characters daydream and murmur about “going over to Rome.” Both this and Laurus were just *beautifully* funny.

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

It reminded me a lot of Mark Helprin, more than Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society books do. Stewart, like Helprin, puts the love between parents and children at, or close to, the heart of his fiction. Here, as in the MBS, we have a story about teamwork, which values personal independence while recognizing its limits. A real close-knit team of little people defeats a powerful, fear-controlled mafia. Read it aloud to my enthusiastic 4th grader over the course of a month.

 

-Mrs. Aldertree

The Bat-Poet

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Since reading Stellaluna a few weeks ago, my girls have been on a bat frenzy. Thankfully, I found The Bat-Poet and it seems to have satisfied their longings for bat stories- They loved it.

The Bat-Poet is a  wonderful little tale about a bat who, inspired by the Mockingbird’s songs, becomes a poet (a rather good one). Randall Jarrell, who was best known for his literary criticism but was also a poet himself, subtly explores the nature of poetry through the bat’s endeavors. It’s a thoughtful story and reads aloud nicely.

Of course, one can’t fail to mention Maurice Sendak’s contributions. His illustrations capture Jarrell’s tone perfectly and bring the story to life in the way only Maurice Sendak can. Their talented alliance created the perfect addition to our fall reading list. 

-Mrs. Cooper

A Review: Marie Kondo’s Master Class

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I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Marie Kondo’s  second book, “Spark Joy an illustrated class to the art of decluttering and organizing.” After consuming her first book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying and setting forth on my tidying festival almost two years ago, I was ready to be disappointed by this book, what advice could she possibly have left to give?  But I loved it.

The principles remain unchanged and there’s a lot of overlapping material. She even recommends skipping over parts if you feel the need. But what makes this book work so well are her stories about her clients, family, and marriage. They bring her method to life and are sure to bring a smile to your face.

Though her focus has always been on surrounding yourself with things that spark joy she also talks about appreciating things that you don’t love but others in your household do, as well as creating a joyful place with the things you wish to keep. For example she gives you permission to go ahead and keep those useless things that spark joy but recommends finding other uses for them if only decorative. There is also a wonderful section dedicated to the kitchen which I found helpful.

The book  has some very cute illustrations that are useful. My children took to them immediately and the folding diagrams inspired them to fold their clothes. Magical?  Joyful? you bet!

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Do you need this book in order to complete her tidying method? No, the first book will do just fine. But if you enjoyed her first book not just for her practical advice but for her humor, her light and yet fierce spirit, you’ll love this one.