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Filtering by Tag: Book Reviews

On the Bookshelf-Jean De Brunhoff

alec vanderboom

If you haven't yet experienced De Brunhoff, "Babar and his Children" is a great place to start. I found this review to be on the money. "First published in 1938, this delightful tale chornicles the thrills and trials of new parenthood. from Babar's restlessness as he awaits the impending birth and the surprise of triplets to the shock of a runaway baby carriage and the treat of a hungry crocodile, parenting is an exhausting exercise-but well worth the effort."

My favorite quote comes at the end of a hard day. Queen Celeste is just "beginning to wonder where the children can be" when it turns out that son Alexander has stolen a boat and is currently being chased by a hungry crocodile. Babar, thinking quickly, grabs a boat anchor and "hurls it into the monster's jaws." After calming down from these exciting events, Babar muses:

"Truly it is not easy to bring up a family," signs Babar. "But how nice the babies are! I wouldn't know how to get along without them any more." (Well said!)

On the Bookshelf-Elizabeth Gilbert

alec vanderboom

For my birthday, my sister mailed me: “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.” I would never have picked out this book for myself. Gilbert’s decision not to have a baby breaks up her six year marriage, leaving her in a spiritual crisis which she claims to have healed through four months of eating pasta in Italy, four months of meditation in an Ashram in India and four months, um, making love? with a fifty-two year old divorcee in Indonesia. I watched Gilbert promote her book on Oprah. Her claim that she was seduced by the supremely romantic line “come into my bed, now” made me throw metaphysical shoes at my TV set. Gilbert’s guest appearance and “the Secret” debacle have made me swear off Oprah for life.

The one advantage of wasting yet another hour of my life arguing with Oprah, was that it upgrade the prayer status of my one true childhood friend. (I’ve moved three times in my childhood, losing all my friends at age six and then again at age fourteen. Emily, the amazing violinist, has stayed friends with me since we were both eighteen months old. At age 23, we both found ourselves in Madison, Wisconsin together and had several deep conversations about Christ. Emily’s grandfather was a Protestant minister & her father had died recently from cancer. The summer before she had help build a Buddhist stupa somewhere out West. Now she had serious doubts of whether Christ was the one road to salvation. Our conversations were mild, pleasant. She envied me for being so certain and comfortable in my faith. Two years later, Emily departed for a THREE year study of Buddhist meditation in India. At the time, I thought it was cool. I had left my Methodist roots to join the Catholic Church. My friend was also a serious seeker and engaged in Buddhism. Same search, all paths lead to union with God.) After watch Gilbert, however, I told my husband- “I think Emily might be in serious trouble.” The whole turning your back on Jesus thing isn’t a recipe for a clean, serene earthly experience.

So I actually read “Eat, Pray, Love” on my birthday because I was curious about my friend. What I found out was helpful. I wouldn’t recommend this read for someone with a shaky spiritual foundation, I would recommend book for to cradle Catholics. It’s R rated due to pre-martial sex. But what it does explain is the horrible “lostness” of this generation. There is a hunger, a loneliness, a spiritual void, and nothing, nothing to fill it. “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee.”

This problem is serious for Protestants, because they are fed a slanted version of the true faith. They have baptism, they have Holy Scripture. They don’t have “the church.” So when doubts come, there is no pillar of truth to stand on. So people go on amazing quests, come up with batty answers, work very hard (nothing seemed more difficult than life at the Ashram) all for a shred, A SHRED of the truth we take for granted as Catholics.

I found Gilbert's voice to be typical of those fuzzy spiritual questions launched by my college friends. Gilbert’s spiritual journey actually began long before she started dreaming of buying an airline ticket to Italy. At age 10, she has a full-blown crisis about her own mortality. She describes so clearly how her tenuous ties to a Protestant church did nothing to alleviate her anxiety or give her hope.

“The panic I was feeling at age ten was nothing less than a spontaneous and full-out realization of mortality’s inevitable march and I had no spiritual vocabulary with which to help myself manage it. We were Protestants, and not even devout ones, at that. We said grace only before Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner and went to church sporadically. My dad chose to stay home on Sunday mornings, finding his devotional practice in farming. I sang in the choir because I liked singing; my pretty sister was the angel in the Christmas pageant. My mother used the church as a headquarters from which to organize good works of volunteer service for the community. But even in the church, I don’t remember there being a lot of talking about god. This was New England, after all, and the word God tends to make Yankees nervous. My sense of helplessness was overwhelming. “ (page 152).

It’s hard to understand that someone can be in a Christian church and still not understand to whom their religion is named after. Yet, I can attest, this does happen. Gilbert describes her mixed up feelings and her isolations from practicing, believing, “Orthodox” Catholics who she nicknames “those who speak and think strictly.”

“Culturally, though not theologically, I’m a Christian. I was born a Protestant of the white Anglo-Saxon persuasion. And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then I cannot call myself a Christian. Most of the Christians I know accept my feelings on this with grace and open-mindedness. Then again, most of the Christians, I know, don’t’ speak very strictly. Those who do speak (and think) strictly, all I can do here is offer my regrets for any hurt feelings an now excuse myself from their business.” (page 14.)

Gilbert starts on a spiritual journey after praying for the first time in her life while crying in her bathroom floor over trouble in her marriage. What I found fascinating as a former divorce lawyer is that she refuses to give any reasons for the death of her marriage. She simply states “the many reasons I don’t want to be a wife anymore are too personal and too sad to share here.” (page 12.) Yet the overwhelming pain from her failed marriage is what forces her to start praying to God she doesn’t yet understand. In the midst of her divorce, she begins a new sexual relationship with a man named David. He was utterly wrong for her in every way. Yet post-break-up she inexplicitly retains contact with David's “spiritual teacher,” a female Guru from India. When her divorce if finalized, when her relationship with David is over, her self-imposed recipe for recovery is to give herself one year of world travel. She wants to eat pasta in Italy to learn the art of pleasure, attend an ashram in India “to learn the art of spirituality” and end in Bali “to find balance.”

Reading about the start of her journey in Italy got me hooked into her story. Gilbert writes in clear prose. I felt kinship with her urge to travel. I enjoyed how she kept backing up her Hindi conversion with dramatic quotes from Catholic writers or Italian paintings. Around page 45, I told Jon “my head hurts from reading this.” Reading all the swirling thoughts in Gilbert’s lost head made my own head throb. After reading to the start of her journey to an ashram in India, I put down the book. I said my Te Duce for the end of year indulgence. I got ready to take my family to Midnight Mass on the Holy Day of Obligation. I was so grateful for the safety and security of living inside the Catholic Church at a time of such cultural confusion.

After service, I felt better. I picked up the book and was rewarded for my labor of the ashram with Gilbert happiness over her reunion with an 85 year old palm reader in Bali. Her journey ends in “love” with the auspicious beginning quoted below. (This is R rated, and you may want to skip this quote. I’m including it because you simply cannot make this stuff up. If anything convinces you to keep away from palm-readers and avoid trading the Pope for an Indian Guru is this next passage where Elizabeth happily reports she’s finally found “love” with a fifty-two year old Brazilian.)

“Should we have an affair together, Liz. What do you think?”

“I showed him my hesitation. Which was this-that as much as I might enjoy to have my body and heart folded and unfolded for a while in the expert hands of an expat lover, something else inside me has put in a serious request that I donate the entirety of this year of traveling all to myself. That some vital transformation is happening into my life, and this transformation needs time and room in order to finish this process undisturbed. That basically, I’m the cake that just came out of the oven, and it still needs some more time to cool before it can be frosted. I don’t want to cheat myself out of this precious time, I don’t want to lose control of my life again.” (page 243).

(For us Catholics the whole chastity mandate is utterly clear without the cute cake metaphor. Unfortunately, Liz’s opinions are based on the flimsy insights gained by therapy and meditation. Her thoughts do not stand up to the utterly non-convincing arguments of her future lover.)

“Of course, Felipe said that he understood, and that I should do whatever’s best for me…
Don’t worry-I’m not going to chase you back to New York when you leave here in September. And as for all those reasons you told me a few weeks ago that you didn’t want to take a lover, Well, think of it this way. I don’t care if you shave your legs every day, I already love your body, you’ve already told me your entire life story and you don’t have to worry about birth control-I’ve had a vasectomy.”

Felipe, I said “that’s the most appealing and romantic offer any man has ever made to me!” (page 243).

AHHH! The most appealing, romantic offer ever made to her is from a guy who floats his vasectomy? But what else can you expect as a conclusion to this intense, yet misdirected spiritual quest?

Reading this book clarified some important points for me.

Number one, the whole frantic issue of my generation “should I, or should I not have kids” is completely misdirected. The real problem is that my generation has terrible intimacy issues that prevent women & men from coming together in Holy Matrimony. If you want marriage, the Catholic Church, wisely insists, you must be open to having children. If you don’t want to have children with someone, then you aren’t validly married. Call it “a true spiritual partnership”, flout it on Oprah, it doesn’t matter. Reading Gilbert’s book gave me the insight that all my “kids are great arguments” that I share with on the fence female friends is totally misdirected. Instead, I’m working hard on taming my temper issues and making my marriage of shiny, sterling quality.

Number two; I have nothing in common with people who specialize in “spirituality.” We talk about similar things: meditation, truth, virtues, etc. But we are using similar tools to climb totally different mountains. The truth of Gilbert’s quest is laid out in plain English. She ends up having a lot of non-life-giving sex with a fifty-two year old man and calls it “finding love.” And she self-imposes amazing efforts- she scrubs temple steps, she eats all vegetarian food, she memorizes 182 versus of Sanskrit. Yet all this spiritual accomplishment falls apart as soon as she hits a rough patch. In the end, Gilbert tells a major lie to her closest friend in Bali. Her ethical framework falls apart. Her house is built on sand. “Tell the truth” quotes in the opening pages of her story “except when attempting to solve emergency Balinese real estate transactions, such as described in Book 3.”

Reading Gilbert made me tired. And then it made me run out and buy a shiny New Revised Standard Bible and the complete works of our Holy Father. I’m so grateful that have access to the truth each week at Mass and even at my neighborhood Barnes and Noble.

To conclude, I wish to share one more quote. This sums up the intense effort that non-Christians can put into the spiritual quest, which the rest of us freely have handed to us through religion.

While on a bicycle ride in Bali, Gilbert states the following: “I keep remembering one of my Guru’s teachings about happiness. She says that people universally tend to thing that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay a float on top of it.” (Page 260).

“A mighty effort,” "happiness is the consequence of personal effort," "participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings." Those words dovetail seemlessly into ideas of Yankee ingenuity, the Protestant reformation, individual spiritual quests. Our words as Catholic are subtly different. "Grace rather than individaul merit." Joy. Hope. Love. Chastity. Obedience to Authority. These words, along with the indescribable, mystical union with Jesus happen during the Mass everyday. Let us not take the gift of our faith lightly. Let us pray fervently for the union of all humanity like chicks gathered for protection under Christ’s hen-like wings from the approaching storm.

Whatever Challenges I Face As A Mother, At Least There is No Angry Bull Attempting to Gore My Children

alec vanderboom

“There’s this passage about Dolly that reminds me of you, let me read it out loud to you,” Jon called out to me on Sunday afternoon. Anna Karenin is not usually a novel a wife wants her husband to she her in, but this passage about Dolly (Kitty’s sister & the mother of six children) made me laugh so hard my tummy ripples woke our baby. The season is summer rather than winter, but Dolly's experiences are similar to mine this Advent. If, like me, you are finding Christmas a shock now that you are responsible for creating the warm religious memories for your family that you were simply handed as a girl, this passage is for you!

“The first days Dolly found life in the country very difficult. She used to stay in the country as a child and the impression she had retained was of the country as a place of refuge from all the trials of town; that life there, if not luxurious (and Dolly was easily reconciled to that), was cheap and comfortable; that there was plenty of everything, everything was cheap and easy to get, and children were happy. But now, coming to the country as mistress of the house, she was that it was all utterly unlike what she had fancied.

The day after their arrival it poured in torrents, and in the night the rain came through in the corridor and the nursery, so that the children’s beds had to be carried into the drawing room. There was no kitchen-maid to be found. Of the nine cows, according to the dairymaid, some were about to calve, others had just calved for the first time, some were old, and the rest hard-uddered, so there was scarcely enough butter or milk even for the children. There were no eggs. It was impossible to get any fowls and they were obliged to boil and roast tough, old, purplish roosters. No women to scrub the floors- they were all out in the potato-fields. Driving was out of the question because one of the horses was restive and bolted in the shafts. There was no place where they could bathe; the whole of the river-bank was trampled by the cattle and open to the road; even walks were impossible, for the cattle strayed into the garden through a gap in the hedge, and there was one terrible bull who bellowed and might therefore be expected to gore somebody. There were no proper cupboards for their clothes; such as there were would not shut at all, or else burst open when anyone passed. There were no pots or pans, no copper in wash-house, and not even an ironing board in the maids’ room.

At first, instead of finding peace and rest, Dolly was driven to despair by what, from here point of view, were dreadful calamities. She bustled about and did her utmost, but, feeling the hopelessness of the situation, had every minute to struggle with the tears that kept starting to her eyes.. .

The position seemed hopeless. But in the Oblonskys’ household, just as in all families, there was one inconspicuous yet most important and useful person- Matriona Filimonvovna. She soothed her mistress, assured her that it would “right itself” and set to work herself without hurry or fuss.

She had immediately made friends with the bailiff’s wife, and one the very first day she drank tea with her and the bailiff under the acacias, and talked things over. Soon a sort of club was established under the acacias, consisting of the bailiff’s wife, the village elder, and a clerk from the office; and there it was that the difficulties of existence were gradually smoothed away, so that within a week everything had in fact righted itself. The roof was mended, a kitchen-maid-a crony of the village elder’s- was found, the cows began to give milk, the garden hedge was stopped up with stakes, the carpenter made a mangle, hooks were put into the cupboards, and they ceased to burst open when not meant to, and an ironing-board covered with army cloth lay across the arm of a chair and the chest of drawers, and a smell of flat-irons soon pervaded the maids’ room.

“There, you see! And you were quite in despair”, said Matriona Filimonovna, pointing to the ironing-board.” (pg 281-282).

May whatever minor domestic crisis your family is currently experiencing this Advent "right itself" and leave you free to experience the full Peace of Christ during Christ's Mass.

On the Book Shelf- John Howard Griffin

alec vanderboom

When our Australian house guest first described the plot of the 1960 "Black Like Me," by John Howard Griffin, it sounded like a bad Saturday Night Live Skit. A white novelist & civil rights activist darkens his skin through medical treatments, shaves his head, and then explores life as an African-American in the Deep South for seven weeks. I was totally repulsed by the idea that a white male could attempt to capture "the black experience." A series of coincidences brought this book into my hands. When I started reading it during a nursing session with my finicky, not quite so newborn, I found I couldn't put it down. I have no idea if this book is still in print or widely available, but if you do find it- it's well worth a read.

The book is a nuanced, anguished cry against segregation by a white, Southern Catholic. I didn't find the book an insight into the totality of "the black experience." How is that even possible? What I did find was a first-hand account of the daily indignities of being African-American during the period of segregation. Once Griffin skin color changes, he can no longer easily find a rest-room or a drink of water. The African-American restroom facilities and cafes are spread out New Orleans. Any trip, requires detailed planning to avoid being left in dangerous, uncomfortable situations.

The precariousness of life is always evident. A bus driver refuses to let Griffith off the bus. When he rings for his stop, the driver slams the door in his face. He's forced to go an extra eight blocks until a group of white riders wish to depart. Griffith can't find a store willing to cash his $20 travelers check during a bank holiday. He goes from store to store receiving rude treatment until he happens into a Catholic book store. Because "of the Catholic stand on racism" the store keeper warmly receives him and cashes his check.(page 51)

Again and again, the Catholic faith provides an oasis of calm during the fury of race relations in the South. I was surprised by this, having studied how terrible the race riots were between Irish and African-American in Boston during the 1970s when the federal courts ordered desegregation of the public schools through busing. At least in New Orleans, however, the large presence of Catholics seems to have helped ease racial tensions.

For example, the author find sanctuary after a particularly bad trip to Mississippi after an African-American lynching case (this is 1960!) by resting in a Trappist Monastery. Here is Griffith's account

"I arrived at the Trappist monastery. . , the contrast was almost too great to be borne. It was a shock, like walking from the dismal swamps into sudden brilliant sunlight. Here all was peace, all silence except for the chanted prayers. here men know nothing of hatred. They sought to make themselves conform ever more perfectly to God's will, whereas outside I had seen mostly men who sought to make God's will conform to their wretched prejudices. Here men sought their center in God, whereas outside they sought it in themselves. The difference was transforming."

Griffith is so shocked by the difference, that he asks one of the monks to talk to him about his experiences.

"we discussed the religiosity of the racists. I told him how often I had heard them invoke God, and then some passage from the Bible, and urge all who might be faltering in their racial prejudice to "Pray brother with all your hear before you decide to let them ... into our schools and cafes."

The monk laughed. Didn't Shakespeare say something about 'every fool in error can find a passage of Scripture to back him up?' He knew his religious bigots."

"Is there any place in the Bible that justifies it-even by a stretch of the imagination, Father?"

"Biblical scholars don't stretch their imaginations-at least reputable ones don't," he said. "Wait a moment, I have something you must read." The monk then brings Griffith the book Scholasticism & Politics by Jacques Maritain.

Maritain describes the religiosity of the racists in this way

"God is invoked . . . and He is invoked against the God of the spirit, of intelligence, and love-excluding and hating this God. What an extraordinary spiritual phenomenon this is: people believe in God yet do not know God. The idea of God is affirmed and at the same time it is disfigured and perverted."(page 89-91).

I don't pretend that all who call themselves Catholic are free of the taint of racism. Still it is affirming to read in a contemporary account of the early days of the freedom rides, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the birth of the civil rights movement, so many examples of ordinary Catholics acting with charity towards African-Americans. It's reassuring to know that the "official position" of the Catholic religion has always been unity, equality and the urging of humanity to uplift itself from the social sins of the times.

May the Holy Spirit inspire all of us walk in greater love and dignity.

On the Book Shelf- Edward Ball Part II

alec vanderboom

In the final chapter, a descendant of an American slave buying family confronts the current chief and descendant of an African slave selling family. Ball goes nose to nose and asks the hard questions. (Surprising the oral history tradition of Africa is even more reliable than our own written version. The tribal historian relates details from the beginning of the slave trade with Portugal in the 15th century.) Here's a taste of Ball's tense dialogue with a chief of Sierra Leone.

"Why did the chiefs allow people to be sold from here?" I asked.

There was a chuckle from Chief Modu, but it was not clear whether it came from nervousness or amusement.

"It was a business which everybody was doing," said Deen Kanu [tribal historian]. "one can't say why a businessman does business." Smiles around the room.

"if the chief of Maforki wanted to protect his people," i said, "why would he allow them to be sold?" This time laughter rolled from one end of the room to the other. "is that a stupid question?" I asked. . .

There were looks exchanged, and the moments passed until finally Deen Kanu said flatly, "they wanted money."

And with this rather small, grotesque admission the feeling in the room changed completely. The prevailing mood of nervous denial seemed broken. . ." pg. 440

Ball establishes that in Sierra Leone, one of the main countries that his relatives in the slave trade used to buy slaves, the slave sellers came from two families, the Kamaras and Kanus. The tribal historian relates "The paramount chiefs knew that by getting a lot of slaves, they would become very powerful. Slavery was encouraged by the chiefs, with their warriors. If you are powerful, you can conquer people, then you have slaves. if you went to any town, it was to conquer the town and take some captives. These people become slaves. you could sell them, or you could use them to farm for you." The chief further explains that they things the British gave to the African chiefs in exchange for a slave weren't unusual. Tobacco, rum, and a gun. What mattered was that these things were "expensive." In the end, the reason for the slaver traders in Africa was the same for the slave traders in America- greed.

The conclusion where both Ball and the Chief have a special forgiveness ceremony to ask forgiveness for their families 250 year old mistake is extremely touching.

One more thing I wanted to remember about this book. There are several examples of when the slave owners come face to face with the immorality of their choices. During one trip to the North, the slave owners start buying better clothes for their black slaves. The cook first receives better shoes. Then the valet is given new breeches. They buy the slaves ice-cream and give them pocket money of their own to spend. They even start to refer to slaves as "servants." All of this occurred because in the North, where slavery was virtually non-existent by 1820, the slave owners are made uncomfortably by the poor treatment they are extending to their slaves. For the five months of their New York tour, their treatment radically changes.

I want to share this incident to my kids when they get older as an example of how our moral consciousness is not based on "relativism." At the time, Southern culture virtually brainwashed it's citizens into thinking that slavery was a morally acceptable. There were even Christian churches which said that slavery was sanctioned by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Despite all their justifications, however, even the most hardened slave owner came face to face with the obvious evil which was slavery. Our job as Catholics, is not to follow the crowd in the areas of socially acceptable morality. Instead, we are called to form our consciousness and moral convictions on the eternal truths of the Church. Studying the politics of slavery which seems so obviously "wrong" today, can help my kids be more discerning about the modern day acceptable sins of contraception & euthanasia.

On the Book Shelf- Edward Ball

alec vanderboom

I'm halfway through an insightful read called "Slaves in the Family." The distant grandson of South Carolinian Plantation owners recounts the 300 year history of his own family (the Balls) and also the descendants of the slaves they owned. I've had a lot of thoughts while reading this book and want to share a few.

First, tracing the story of how one English immigrant family found themselves suddenly slave owners in 1680 says a lot out the seemingly benign "slippery slope" of sin. The first step never seems that bad. The Comings were sailors and had an opportunity to buy land in the new colony of America. At first they hired indentured servants to work their farm. After seven years, the indentured servants time was up. The choice was hire more indentured servants at a cost of 25 pounds for 7 years, or "buy" one of captured Indians from war party raids, or "buy" an African slave at 30 pounds from the new fangled Royal Slave Trading Company and have his labor for life. At this early stage in the colonies most of the "servants" were equally divided 1/3 Irish indentured servants, 1/3 captured Indians and 1/3 slaves.

The Comings decide that slavery is a "better" economic decision. Instead of signing contracts for new servants, the Comings "buy" 2 African slaves. The Comings die childless and give their estate to their nephews. The oldest Ball brother is 30, has a family, and has just started out his career as a tailor. His younger brother, Elias Ball, decides to sail to the colonies to claim his inheritance. In 1698, at the ripe age of 22, he walks into the plantation system and suddenly finds himself a slave owner. The Ball family runs this plantation, and many others, for the next 229 years. Slavery is only removed from the farm after the end of the Civil War.

I'm struck by how closely economic gain is tied to sin in the case of slavery. It was simply more efficient-- is an argument for why it spread. It was simply to costly was an argument for why slavery wasn't abolished before the bloody conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. Everyone else is doing it so why should I- was an argument for the Southern slave owners by 1800. Slavery seem like such an obvious injustice in 2007, yet these same insidious arguments apply to the modern social sins of abortion, IVF & contraception. Reading history helps me to be more objective about the sins in my own time.

A second beautiful thing about this book is that Ball succinctly describes complex ideas in clear prose. Here's a brief quote on his explanation of why slavery, as it existed in colonial America, was such a unique phenomenon.

"Chattel slavery, as opposed to freehold slavery, was an English spin on the old system. A freehold slave was a worker, bound to a piece of land, who could not be transferred or sold away from an estate. The master of a freehold slave claimed possession of the individual's labor, not his or her person. Freehold slaves included those in bondage to the Spanish in South American and in some parts of Africa.

The English developed a different and ore thorough form of bondage. A chattel slave was the equivalent of movable property and could be sold away like a horse. Also, the children of chattel slaves automatically assumed the slave identity of their mother, not always the case among freehold workers." pg. 38

This invention of a new legal definition is one of the major reasons that slavery was so pernicious in America. Slavery had existed in Roman times, and was practiced contemporaneously with serfdom in Russia. Those where terrible states contrary to the laws of justice. Only the English, however, invented this awful process where a person was completely "owned" and could be transferred about at the master's whim. The effect was devastating to African-American families. At any moment, at any age, your spouse, your children, your relatives, or your neighbors could be sold to a distant plantation. The threat of that division on the auction block loomed always in sight.

As Americans, we are all caught up in the lingering effects of the social sin of slavery. It's such an ugly issue. Just like studying the Holocaust, however, it's important to look these things squarely in the eye -to stretch our empathy for the victims, and to root out the sin that still clings to our imperfect natures. I think sometimes it's easier to just say "all this happened way before my time and has nothing to do with me." I appreciate the tenderness and candor that Ball brings to this explosive topic.

In the National Basilica, an alter space is dedicated to the lives of African Americans. A large relief shows the march of a people from slavery into freedom. To get into the chapel, you have to step over a model of a coffin ship placed on one of the floor stones. There are so many bodies chained together in a cramped space. It's painful to see and think about. It's painful to know that most slave masters considered themselves to be faithful Christians. I'll be saying some rosaries in that alter space, reflecting on all of the stories contained in this book for a long time to come.

On the Book Shelf- Russell Baker

alec vanderboom

“Growing Up” is a light, enjoyable autobiography by a local writer who grew up in the nearby Virginia Mountains and later moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Baker’s life was a journey from the Victorian Era into the Modern Age. He was born in the 1920s to poor tenant farmers. His early childhood was similar to life in the pre-Civil War South. After his father’s early death, his mother spends time with various relatives and finally moves into a home of her own in Baltimore, Maryland.

Baker’s wife Mimi grows up in an orphanage. (I’ll leave it to you to find out her surprising relationship with the Catholic Church.) Mimi has a tense relationship with her mother-in-law that begins at their initial meeting at an extended family Sunday dinner. Mimi’s off to a bad start with the five things that signal to Mama Baker that she is not a “good girl”—Mimi lives alone, she has no family, she wears a lot of make-up, she bleaches her hair and she entertains men in her room. Forty-five years later Russell asks his wife this question while outside his mother’s nursing home room.

“Remember the first time you came over here for Sunday dinner?” I asked Mimi.
“What I remember about your mother’s house is how clean and happy it felt, and what a warm feeling there was with all those people there who were related to each other.” (pg. 343)

What a lovely quote about the importance of mothering straight from the mouth of an orphan. She notices immediately that the home is clean, happy & has warm family relationships. This is my inspiring goal for the week as I attempt to set this in order after a week of house guests.

This book is also a remarkable chronicle of life during the Great Depression. The Depression alters life for the Barker family profoundly. As a widow of less than forty-eight hours, Mrs. Baker faces the agonizing choice of giving away her youngest, ten month old daughter to her childless brother-in-law to raise. Her pain in that section of the book was so profound, I had to walk away from the story for a while. (Jon’s Dad was an identical twin who was “given away” at age one to his paternal grandparents to be raised after his father’s death. My father-in-law’s pain at being sent away while his brother was “kept” made Jon & I think for a long time that the twin brothers were raised many miles apart instead of less than 100 yards away.)

Mrs. Baker moves her two remaining children age 5 and age 3 into her brother’s home in New Jersey. She moves in thinking that she’ll need to stay only three months until she finds a job and can afford an apartment on her own. Instead, since this is 1931, there are no jobs to be found, even for a woman who has some college education. She ends up staying with her family for the next six years. The family doesn’t actually start to head out of poverty until she marries a railroad brakemen nearly ten years later.

Even after the marriage, college seems an impossible dream for Barker as a bookish, high school senior.

“The idea of becoming a railroad brakeman entertained me for a while that winter. Any job prospect would have interested me then. I was becoming embarrassed about being one of the few boys in the class with no plans for the future. The editors of the high-school yearbook circulated a questionnaire among the members of the senior class asking each student to reveal his career ambition. I could hardly put down “To be a writer.” That would have made me look silly. Boys of the Depression generation were expected to have their hearts set on money-making work. To reply: “Ambition: None” was unthinkable. You were supposed to have had your eye on a high goal from the day you left knee pants. Boy’s who hadn’t yet decided on a specific career usually replied that their ambition was “to be a success.” That was alright. The Depression had made materialists of us all; almost everybody wanted “to be a success.” (pg. 241)

This quote helped me to understand my maternal grandfather better who started college in 1933. We’ve had many clashes about career goals during my many years of post-secondary school. I pursued fun topics like “Modern Greek Literature,” while he wanted me to study something more practical. My decision to pursue a $30,000 job after incurring $90,000 in graduate school debt left him so infuriated that refused to co-sign for my Sallie-Mae educational loans for the first time in seven years. I spent the first eight weeks of my last year in law school with no money for tuition or living expense until my Dad was able to track down another co-signer.

So we’ve had bad blood in the past about my belief that the fundamental purpose of education is far beyond finding “money-making work.” This quote helped me find more empathy towards him. The Depression era was unique and left a lasting mark on my grandfather. It should be no surprise then that he is still clashing over career goals with his granddaughter seventy years later.

A Wrinkle in Theology

alec vanderboom

Madeline L'Engle recently passed away. She graduated from my college, so I thought that I'd reread her classic book, A Wrinkle in Time, in honor of her passing. When I read her work at age 14, I didn't like her protagonist Meg or the book's ending. This time I objected to her work on entirely different grounds.(L'Engle had always been described as a Christian sci-fi writer to me, do to her frequent mention of God in her work and her devout Anglicanism.)

Here's the passage that first alerted me to trouble. Read carefully, there is a quiz at the end.

"And we're not alone, you know children [in the fight against evil], came Mrs. Whatsit, the comforter. "All through the universe it's being fought. . . You think about that, and maybe it won't seem strange to you that some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it's a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it's done so well.

"Who have our fighters been?" Calvin asked.

"Oh, you must know them dear," Mrs. Whatsit said. . .

"Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus."

Of course Mrs. Whatsit said, "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by."

"Leonardo da Vinci," Calvin suggested tentatively, "And Michelangelo?"

"And Shakespeare," Charles Wallace called out "And Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!" pg. 88-89

The problem with the passage displayed above is

a) Jesus did not come from earth
b) There were no "others" like Jesus
c) A Guardian Angel would never stoop to the nickname "Mrs. Whatsit"
d) all of the above

The Strange Choices Made by Artists

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I've gotten some tender sympathy about the state of our shoe closet after posting


While each of the lines in that post are true, it also obscures the larger issue that my husband and I "chose" to pursue this current life, even with all of its hardships. We started out with a pretty stable life as a non-profit lawyer and an art professor. After having Hannah, however, we elected to drop out of our planned future to pursue a vague vision of an integral life tied to Catholicism, art, and parenthood. At first we tried to do this as entrepreneurs. Then we thought the answer was a move to New York City. When both those dreams failed- we didn't move back to Southern Ohio where comfortable jobs awaited. Instead, we came to start living a new slate of dreams founded in the nation's capital.

It's hard to explain that even with bill collectors calling and a newborn with infant reflux who constantly squirts up on my shoulder, I still wouldn't trade places with any of my law school friends who started out making $100,000+ at age 25. I wish my family's financial troubles would end. I wish the baby could find a better drug for her stomach acid. But I don't wish that I was sitting in a more conventional life spending my day shopping for window treatments.

This divide has lead to some odd conversations with my former classmates. Friends tell me of their office troubles and then wonder why I'm not there too. Meanwhile, I stand there, conscious of the purple circles of sleeplessness under my eyes, faking my active listening skills and thanking my lucky stars that I'm now a stay-at-home mom.

This passage I found today in Maugham's "The Moon and The Sixpence" seemed to speak about this gulf and the futility of using words to breach it.(The Moon and The Sixpence is a fictional account of artist Paul Gauguin. The title comes from a critique of the protagonist "Of Human Bondage" who it was said "like so many young men he was so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.")

"I told Tiare the story of a man I had known at St. Thomas's Hospital. He was a Jew named Abraham, a blond, rather stout young man, shy and very unassuming;but he had remarkable gifts. He entered the hospital with a scholarship, and during the five years of the curriculum gained every prize that was open to him. He was made house-physician and house-surgeon. His brilliance was allowed by all. Finally he was elected to a position on the staff, and his career was assured. so far as human things can be predicted, it was certain that he would rise to the greatest heights of his profession. Honors and wealth awaited him. Before he entered upon his new duties he wished to take a holiday, and, having no private means, he went as surgeon on a tramp steamer to the Levant. It did not generally carry a doctor, but one of the senior surgeons at the hospital knew a director of the line, and Abraham was taken as a favor.

In a few weeks the authorities received his resignation of the coveted position on the staff. It created profound astonishment, and wild rumors were current. Whenever a man does anything unexpected, his fellows ascribe it to the most discreditable motives. But there was a man ready to step into Abraham's shoes, and Abraham was forgotten. Nothing more was heard of him. He vanished.

It was perhaps ten years later that one morning on board ship, about to land at Alexandria, I was bidden to line up with the other passengers for the doctor's examination. The doctor was a stout man in shabby clothes, and when he took off his hat I noticed that he was very bald. I had an idea that I had seen him before. Suddenly, I remembered:
"Abraham," I said.
He turned to me with a puzzled look, and then, recognizing me, seized my hand. After expressions of surprise on either side, hearing that I meant to spend the night in Alexandria, he asked me to dine with him at the English Club. When we met again I declared my astonishment at finding him there.It was a very modest position that he occupied, and there was about him an air of staitened circumstance. Then he told me his story. when he set out on his holiday in the Mediterranean he had every intention of returning to London and his appointment at St. Thomas's. One morning the tramp docked at Alexandria, and from the deck he looked at the city, white in the sunlight, and the crowd on the wharf; he saw the natives in their shabby gabardines, the blacks from the Sudan the noisy throng of Greeks and Italians, the grave Turks in tarbooshes, the sunshine and the blue sky and something happened to him. He could not describe it. It was like a thunder-clap he said, and then, dissatisfied with this, he said it was like a revelation. Something seemed to twist his heart, and suddenly he felt an exultation, a sense of wonderful freedom. He felt himself at home, and he made up his mind there and then, in a minute, that he would life the rest of his life in Alexandria. He had no great difficulty in leaving the ship, and in twenty-four hours, with all his belongings, he was on shore. . .
"Have you never regretted it?"
"Never, not for a minute. I earn just enough to live upon, and I'm satisfied. I ask nothing more than to remain as I am till I die. I've had a wonderful life."

I left Alexandria next day, and I forgot about Abraham till a little while ago, when I was dining with another old friend in the profession, Alec Carmichael, who was in English on short leave. I ran across him in the street and congratulated him on the kinghthood with which his eminent serves during the war had been rewarded. We arranged to spend an evening together for old time's sake, and when I agreed to dine with him, he proposed that he should ask nobody else, so that we could chat without interruption. He had a beautiful old house in Queen Anne Street, and being a man of taste he had furnished it admirably. on the walls of the ding-room I saw a charming Bellotto, and there was a pair of Zoffanys that I envied. When his wife, a tall, lovely creature in cloth of gold, had left us, I remarked laughingly on the change in his present circumstances from those when we had both been medical students. We had looked upon it then as an extravagance to dine in a shabby Italian restaurant in the Westminster Bridge Road. Now Alec Carmichael was on the staff of half a dozen hospitals. I should think that he earned ten thousand a year, and his knighthood was but the first of the hors which must inevitably fall to his lot.
"I've done pretty well," he said, "but the strange thing is that I owe it all to one piece of luck."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, do you remember Abraham? He was the man who had the future. When we were students he beat me all along the line. He got prizes and scholarships that I went in for. I always played second fiddle to him. If he'd kept on he'd be in the position I'm in now. That man had a genius for surgery. No one had a look in with him. When he was appointed Registrar at St. Thomas's I hadn't the chance of getting on the staff. I should have had to become a G.P., and you know what likelihood there is for a G.P. ever to get out of the common rut. But Abraham fell out, and I got the job. That gave me my opportunity."

"I dare say that is true."

"It was just luck. I suppose there was some kink in Abraham. Poor devil, he's gone to the dogs altogether. He's got some twopenny-halfpenny job in medical at Alexandria-sanitary officer of something like that. . . The fact is, I supposed, that it's not enough to have brains. The thing that counts is character. Abraham hadn't got character."

Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of character to throw up a career after half an hour's meditation, because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance. And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.

But I said nothing, and Alex Carmichael proceeded reflectively:
"Of course, it would be hypocritical for me to pretend that I regret what Abraham did. After all, I've scored by it." He puffed luxuriously at the long Corona he was smoking. "But if I weren't personally concerned I should be sorry at the waste. It seems a rotten thing that a man should make such a hash of life."

I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do what you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in peace with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be an eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual. But again, I held my tongue, for who am I to argue with a knight?"pg. 165-168

Interesting food for thought. Has anyone ever accused you of making "a hash of your life?"

On the Book Shelf: Somerset Maugham

alec vanderboom

If you've only got an hour to peruse the 700 page masterpiece called "Of Human Bondage" you must first read the most arresting death scene where a mother, dying of childbirth complications, says goodbye to her nine year old son.

Then you must skip to the most fascinating, witty recount of a young art student's life in Paris at the turn of the century. These students are obsessed with that dashing new group of bohemians who called themselves "The Impressionists." If you've ever had a Monet watercolor reproduction hanging on your wall in college, you'll relish this historic insight into the lives of their contemporary "wannabees."

But, during the course of your reading as painters names are flung around as thickly as absinthe orders, and you're secretly gratified that the hours you spent in a darken lecture halls of Art 100 were not in vain, you may stumble into this passage. It will cause you to sit up and wonder if you've ever really studied the history of painting at all:

"A good painter had two chief objects to paint, namely man and the intention of his soul. The impressionists had been occupied with other problems, they had painted man admirably, but they had troubled themselves as little as the English portrait painters of the eighteenth century with the intention of his soul. . .

The greatest portrait painters have painted both man and the intention of his soul; Rembrandt and El Greco; it's only the second-raters who've only painted man... Correctness is all very well: El Greco made his people eight feet high because he wanted to express something he couldn't get any other way."

An arresting thought which makes reading Maugham's novels so addictive! Impressionists as simply the inventors of a new technique to record light. The painters put as little thought into the meaning behind their compositions as a camera does for a simple family photograph.

Now you think, for all your talk & Paris museum visits, have you ever really like the Impressionists? Did Monet with his lovely colored shadows ever paint his mistress so that you could see the contents of her soul? Or was did her face always remain inscrutable? Where the dabs of paint just a fad of technique like Jackson Pollack? Something cool to know about but never so absorbing as to force you to stand again and again in front of them probing for deeper meaning. In fact, the obvious popularity of the Impressionist makes them sort of an embarrassment. Rather like discovering at age 32 that you do not in fact like the lyrics of "Imagine"?

Is Maugham's criticism of the Impressionists valid? I leave it for you to debate, gentle readers. I know that I for one, will be seeking out more Rembrandts and El Grecos, to ponder at the National Galleries in the near future.

El Greco, Holy Trinity

On the Book Shelf- Buchi Emecheta

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"The Joys of Motherhood" is hideously misnamed since the entire plot explores how motherhood has become devalued in Nigeria by the changes under colonial rule. The main character ends up dying alone in a ditch "without any child to hold her hand, or any friend to talk to," despite being the dedicated mother of nine children. Not exactly an uplifting read today, especially in a house full of tiny allergy suffers.

Still there was a humorous passage which I wanted to share. Nnu Ego, the protagonist has just become pregnant with her second child and realizes that she can't continue her market trading days to buy this baby an expensive naming day ceremony such as she had for her first child.

"She had reminded herself of the old saying that money and children don't go together: if you spent all your time making money and getting rich, the gods wouldn't give you any children; if you wanted children, you had to forget money, and be content to be poor. She did not remember how this saying had originated among her people, perhaps it was because a nursing mother in Ibuza could not go to the market to sell for long, before she had to rush home to feed her baby. And of course babies were always ill, which meant that the mother would lose many market days. Nnu Ego realized that part of the pride of motherhood was to look a little unfashionable and be able to draw with joy: "I can't afford another outfit, because I am nursing him, so you see I can't go anywhere to sell anything."

One usually received the answer, "Never mind, he will grow soon and clothe you and farm for you, so that your old age will be sweet." pg.80

Exploring the virtues of poverty, content with unfashionable old clothes, and persevering through current hardships with the promise of a sweet old age filled with family, who knew my life could so closely resemble that of a mother in 1930s Nigeria?

On the Book Shelf- James Agee

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"A Death in the Family" is so good, I can't figure out where author Agee was hiding all of these years. This novel has to be the best account anyone can write about the painfulness of a "mixed" marriage. In the novel, the father dies in an 1915 auto accident. The wife is Catholic & her loving husband isn't baptized. The shock of the six year old son about the sudden loss of his father just on the day that he is eager to show off his "big boy" baseball cap is heartbreaking. The last scene where the six year old struggles to understand his maternal uncle's anger about the priest's refusal to recite the full burial service for the unbaptized father is a call to arms.

Here's the part I especially loved about mixed marriage:

"That a thing which meant so much to her, so much more, all the time should be a thing that they could not share, or could not be open about.. She felt sure that he [her husband] felt none of Andrew's anger and contempt, and none of her father's irony, but it was very clear by his special quietness, when instances of it came up, that he was very far away from it and from her, that he did not like it. He kept his distance, that was it. His distance, and some kind of dignity, which she respected in him, much as it hurt her, by this silence and withdrawal. And it would widen, oh, inevitably, because quiet and gentle as she would certainly try to be about it, they were going to be brought up as she knew she must bring them up, as Christian, Catholic children. And this was bound to come into the home, quite as much as in church. It was bound in some ways, unless he changed; it was bound in some important ways, try as hard and be as good about it as she was sure they both would, to set his children apart form him, to set his own wife apart from him. And not by any action or wish of his, but by her own deliberate will. Lord God, she prayed, in anguish. Am I wrong? Show me if I am wrong, I beseech Thee. Show me what I am to do?

But God showed her only what she knew already; that come what might she must, as a Christian woman, as a Catholic, bring up her children thoroughly and devoutly in the Faith, and that it was also her task, more than her husband's, that the family remain one, that the gulf be closed." pg 51-52.

I don't think I've ever heard as clearly, the painful division that religious faith can cause in families. It reminds me of the verse where Jesus says "I come not to bring peace, but to put father against son." I feel this so much as the only Catholic within my Protestant extended family. It's so bad that I prayed the Divine Mercy chaplet for my aunt in an abandoned room in the funeral parlor, afraid someone would be offended by my rosary beads. Yet, rereading this passage makes me so grateful that I did convert to my husband's Roman Catholic religion. I can't imagine trying to raise children with being on the same page as my husband. Praying the rosary with him at night, going to confession at the same time, being open to life --these are all the tangible acts which make it possible for me to believe that our marriage will last our whole lives.

For Lissa Wiley!

alec vanderboom

Jon & I trade off watching the kids when we visit all the fun museums in our fair city. When it was my turn to hang out in "The Building Zone", Jon told me I found an interesting book that you should read. It turned out to be "Sod Houses on The Great Plains" by Glen Pounds.

Everyone remembers Laura Ingells' dugout home in Plum Creek. Who knew how amazing these humble dirt homes really were? The indigenous building material was cheap and readily available on the treeless plains. The two feet thick sod walls saved the settlers from being "burned out" during the huge grass fires that were common on the prairie. Housekeeping in a sod home was a bit of a challenge. Ma Ingells had contend with puddles on the floor from a soaked roof every time the rain lasted over an hour and snakes "occassionally" fell through the ceiling while chasing the many field mice which inhabited the roof.

My favorite quote however related to the appeared of a well, loved sod house.

"It was possible to judge how long a sod house had stood from the height of grass and sunflowers growing on the dirt roof. The older the house was, the more it came to look like some kind of unusual florist's shop."

Something to think about the next time I pick up sunflowers at Safeway.

On the Bookshelf: Shelby Foote

alec vanderboom

The beloved commentator on Ken Burn's PBS saga "The Civil War" and Walker Percy's best friend, Shelby Foote, is also an amazing writer. I'm reading his 3,000 + page "Civil War: A Narrative." I've never been one for war history, but this is an inside look at all of the bizarre personalities of generals and fighting men who made up the armies of both sides.

The thing that strikes me most, is how flawed and human each of the mythic men are from that era. Stonewall Jackson hides out with all of his men, cross and tired, during the entire week of the Seven Day battle to save Richmond. General Lee has these brilliant battle plans which require such complicated maneuvers by a green army that things get inevitably muddled by mud, by lost generals, by tired soldiers who want to stop and read the letters in the tents of Union soldiers to "discover what Northern girls are like" rather than press on to victory as in the battle of Shiloh. (That's something that I could identify with-stopping to read a stranger's mail while artillery shells burst around me!)

The most surprising thing was how many, many people hated Lincoln. Not just in the South, but almost all of the North was united by thinking that he was a bumbling idiot who was not directing the course of the war successfully. Unionists called him "a baboon", "a gaunt hick" and worse names. I'm a history major, but this fact continues to be surprising to me. I mean, this is LINCOLN. One of the best presidents of all times, so wise, so beloved at his passing. Yet contemporaries had such mean, mean things to say about him during the time at the helm of state.

Somehow learning that people took cheap potshots at President Lincoln makes me feel better. During the midst of battle the way is rarely clear and definitely not popular. One of the flaws in my personality is that I always want to be "liked". Disapproval makes me sick to my stomach. Learning more about Lincoln has inspired me to put on a thicker shell-- to look at how things will turn out in the end rather than focus on "the current unpleasantness" which was a timely euphemism for the Civil War.

PS- For a quicker Shelby read, pick up "Shiloh" --A fictional look at the civil war battle from multiple perspectives.

On the Book Shelf-Ford Maddox Ford

alec vanderboom

During my JYA (Junior-Year-Abroad)-- which because I fell fantastically in love with courses in my American Studies Major and proved hopeless at learning languages, really became my "semester abroad" in London--I had a wonderful Modern British Literature Professor named Max Something-or-Other. Max was so shy that he kept backing into the chalk board during lectures and ended up with chalk dust smears on his leather elbow patches. Max was a expert at Ford Maddox Ford- so I naturally shared the same high opinion of the author without having read a single novel.

Last month I found "the Parade's End" in a used bookstore during my frantic dash to buy more brain food books. Good literature is my antidote to the brain melt of breastfeeding sessions.
During that awkward newbie stage, I bribe myself with good books. For Hannah, I read the 800 page history of Henry the VIII's wives in one week and then got hooked on studying the history of the reformation. Alexander got his nickname "Alexei" because he kicked at a specific place during my husband's narration of "the History of the Russian Tsars." Now with Maria, obsessing about reading "the art of the novel." Mostly English writers, some French thrown in for variety. So I was happy to pick up Ford Maddox Ford, thinking there is nothing like finding a new author to add to my mental bookshelf.

UGH! The first scene opens with such promise. A freshly varnished railway car with those fussy straps the British are so fond of having. Two friends on an adventure together. Then, yuck, pages and pages of pointless railing against Roman Catholics (the main character's wife is an adulterous Catholic) -which I'd stomach since it is such a favorite tangent for Anglicans -but then the rest of the novel became obsessed with unhappy upper-class marriages and glorified affairs with Roman Catholic women. Such talent wasted on such a stupid plot!

I so dislike it when artists glorify affairs as a source of "true love" a la The English Patient. It is impossible for an affair to blossom into true love- the kind that lasts, the kind that forgives you for all your shortcomings and simultaneously challenges you to do better. That type of love takes grace and only comes from a marriage- not cohabitation, not sneaking around when you're married to someone else. So all of this "she really was the love of my life, even though I never made an honest women of her" strikes me as false. Ford Maddox Ford had great writing talent but used on such shoddy subject matter.

Surprisingly, "the Painted Veil" by Somerset Maugham and the Woody Allen's movie "Husband's and Wives" also had affairs as subject matters, but struck me as so much more "true." Here the affairs weren't perfect nor were the original marriages. But the affair part ends up striking the protagonists as a poor way out, beneath their inherent dignity as humans.

I worried that becoming a serious Catholic would mean that there would be certain books and subject matter forever "banned" from my reading list. I'm pleased to realize that my faith hasn't limited my tastes. Instead, it has given me another criteria by which to judge fiction: how much do they reflect the truth. Woody Allen's films are really funny. While I'm not signing him up to be a babysitter to my girls, his films strike me as "true." There's an honesty and tenderness about their lack of understanding about what makes up a successful marriage. That's why I can watch his films and come away thinking "wow, we live in a cynical age so it's really important that I get this marriage thing right." Not a take-away message I got from Ford Maddox Ford. Instead, it was "when can I put this book down because it's fake sentiments are really driving me crazy."