Friday, November 29, 2013

Book Review: Story of a Soul

translated from the original manuscripts by John Clarke, O.C.D.

This book hardly needs another review, but of the books I've read this year, it is one of my favorites, so I didn't want to neglect posting a little about it. St. Therese is First Daughter's favorite saints. I've always encouraged the children to be more like her, because her "little way" of seeking out opportunities to serve and sacrifice for those around her allows little ones to truly imitate a saint in their own daily lives. They can't sail off to foreign lands to be missionaries (yet), but they can run to bring a spoon to Mama or a baby brother. So I was interested in learning more about this young saint.
At the beginning of my spiritual life when I was thirteen or fourteen, I used to ask myself what I would have to strive for later on because I believed it was quite impossible for me to understand perfection better. I learned very quickly since then that the more one advances, the more one sees the goal is still far off. And now I am simply resigned to see myself always imperfect and in this I find my joy.
St. Therese was very young when she entered Carmel, and still relatively young when she died. Her autobiography is written like a love story of a young woman. She is so full of joy it is hard not to be joyful along with her. She even composed an invitation to her wedding with Jesus (in imitation of her cousin's wedding invitation) that made me smile with its language describing the groom's parents: "God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, and the Most Glorious Virgin Mary, Queen of the Heavenly Court, announce to you..."
Well, I am the Child of the Church and the Church is a Queen since she is Your Spouse, O divine King of kings. The heart of a child does not seek riches and glory (even the glory of heaven). She understands that this glory belongs by right to her brothers, the angels and saints....Astounding works are forbidden to her; she cannot preach the Gospel, shed her blood; but what does it matter since her brothers work in her stead and she, a little child, stays very close to the throne of the King and Queen...But how will she prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers, she will perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents, and she will sing in her silvery tones the canticle of Love.
I found by reading the autobiography, all I've read about St. Therese made more sense. Her Little Way, that of doing small acts that could be strewn about Jesus like flowers spread before a king, became much clearer and more beautiful.
Ah! Lord, I know you don't command the impossible. You know better than I do my weakness and imperfection; You know very well that never would I be able to love my Sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me.
To show perfect love to all we encounter, and especially these little ones that swarm our houses, is really impossible. Those who want to love as a saint loves must do as St. Therese did: allow Jesus's love to flow through us to all of those around us. So I don't need to serve my children perfectly at each moment. Instead, I can merely open myself up to Jesus's love and He will take care of it. (I know, it's not easy, but it seems easier to me than trying to do it myself.)
To be heard it is not necessary to read from a book some beautiful formula composed for the occasion...I do not have the courage to force myself to search out beautiful prayers in books...I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.
And, as much as she seems to have sought out opportunities for sacrifice, she was so serene about any mistake or stumble:
It often happens that I allow these little sacrifices which give such peace to the soul to slip by; this does not discourage me, for I put up with having a little less peace and I try to be more vigilant on another occasion.
She also admits to often falling asleep during prayer and failing to complete a Rosary, but is again undeterred because the One who loves so much is still pleased with the desires of a little child who falls asleep at her tasks.

This book is available free online, but I read in many places that this edition, the Third Edition, was the best. I didn't actually look through any other versions, but this one was thorough, easy to read, and clear it the editor's notes. It also includes a few nice appendices and a reproduction of St. Therese's coat of arms in the beginning of the book.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

Kansas Dad has been recommending Wendell Berry for years and I regret it took me so long to pick one up. Hannah Coulter may very well be one of my two favorite novels of all time (along with Anna Karenina). It is heartbreakingly beautiful from beginning to end and I wanted to start reading it again as soon as I had finished.

This is one of Berry's Port William "membership" books. Hannah Coulter, a widow with a baby after World War II, marries Nathan Coulter. This book is her story, and their story.

I've already posted some of my favorite quotes. As I read, I thought a lot about my own childhood and now my life as a mother, comparing it to that of Hannah. I was struck by her thoughts on education.
The way of education leads away from home. That is what we learned form our children's education.
The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. in order to move up, you have got to move on. I didn't see this at first. And for a while after I knew it, I pretended I didn't. I didn't want it to be true.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it.

Monday, November 25, 2013

An Advent Activity Chain for 2013

Are you ready for Advent? I've planned our picture books for the season (though I haven't wrapped them yet). Our Jesse Tree is ready and I've got a new "branch" on which to hang the ornaments. Much I planned last year will work just fine for this year.

I did decide to make our own Advent activity chain this year. Last year's was fine, but I wanted to include activities for all our birthdays, parties, and baptismal anniversaries. It was so easy! I made an Excel document with spaces for each day, printed it, cut them out, and taped them onto pink and purple strips of paper. I easily could have asked my older two to cut and tape everything, but I was having too much fun with my new adhesive dispensers.

I can't share our personal activity chain, because I included names and birthdays on it, but I also printed out a few for some friends. I tried to choose activities that would be really easy for any family with young children without a lot of preparation. If you have ten minutes between now and the first Sunday of Advent (this coming Sunday!), you can make your own with this file.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Catholic Company Book Review: A Donkey's Tale

A Donkey's Tale by Stefano Gorla, illustrated by Angela Marchetti

This sweetly illustrated book tells the story of Jesus' life, beginning with the Nativity, and continuing through the Resurrection and Ascension, from the point of view of the fictional donkey, Ladan.

The book retells many familiar Gospel stories. Some of the quotations seem to be directly from a Bible, but others are obvious (and sometimes jarring) paraphrases. Overall, the stories are faithful to the meanings and I would willingly share them with my children.

Each story, however, ends with the phrase "...I was there." The description of the book says:
The phrase "…because I was there" is repeated by the donkey at the end of each story, emphasizing the importance of being a witness of and to the faith. Sensitively expressed and colorfully illustrated, A Donkey's Tale encourages children to also be witnesses to the faith by sharing what they have seen and heard about Jesus with others.
I guess I can understand the author's goal, but I found myself frustrated that the truth of the Gospel was contrasted with the obviously fictional viewpoint of the donkey with words that indicated we should believe the Gospel story because the donkey was telling it and he was a witness to the events. We do not believe these stories because of the witness of a donkey and I felt like those repeated words detracted from the book.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an objective review. This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on A Donkey's Tale. The Catholic Company is the best resource for all your seasonal needs such as First Communion gifts as well as ideas and gifts for the special papal Year of Faith.

Friday, November 22, 2013

First Son and His Imagination

First Son and I have started using Stories with a View: Narrative Inspirations by Margot Davidson for creative writing this year. (I have an older version I bought used on Cathswap.) We've never done creative writing before and I'm approaching it more as a way to see into my son's mind than with a need to produce some great stories or poems.

It certainly is interesting! Today we read "The Hens" by Elizabeth Madox Roberts (which you can find here) and discussed it a little. The assignment, then, was to "Describe the morning when the hens awake." We have chickens, so I expected a description of what our chickens do in the morning, but this is what I heard instead (which I typed into a Google doc as he talked).

I really don't know what to think about it.

First Son (fourth grade) on "the morning when hens awake"

In the morning, the hens woke up, laid their daily eggs, took care of the chicks, and in the house, the father was just ready to get the eggs when the Fed Ex guy came. When he finally was able to get past the Fed Ex truck and get into the chicken coop, all the hens were already sitting on the eggs. The father slapped his head and said, “If only the Fed Ex guy did not come.”

When he came back, his family was all ready to start cooking eggs. “Where are all the eggs, dear?” the mother said.

He said, “That Fed Ex guy made me go too late. The hens were already on their nests.”

“Never mind, dear,” the mother said. “Go and butcher the pig and we will have bacon.”

Just then the UPS guy came and made it too late again for the pig had run away. “Where is the bacon, dear?”

“We’ll just have to have cold cereal for the pig has run away. Oh, my, I forgot that we don’t have any cereal.”

“Oh dear, you are such a fool!” said she. “Why didn’t you buy cereal when I asked you to one morning?”

“Because I didn’t hear you. You should have called.”

“Oh my dear, you are such a fool!” said she again.

“I will try never to be a fool again.”

“You’d better, or I will hit you upside the head with a skillet.”

“I’ll go and do Xtramath.”

“No, you must go and get us some cereal.”


“At the store.” Then she hit him upside the head with a skillet. He passed out and then woke up at the hospital.

Then the mother said, “The children are waiting for their cereal, dear.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t get some.”

“Why can’t you?”

“You made me go to the hospital, remember?”

“Oh that’s right. Try not to be a fool again.”

The End

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Twelve Books of Christmas

Memoria Press has compiled a package deal on the Twelve Books of Christmas that looks awesome if you're looking for a gift for a young family that hasn't started building their picture book library. (Updated in 2015: This package is no longer available.)

Looking at this list, I started to wonder what I would choose for twelve books of Christmas. So I set myself a challenge: if we were going off into the wilderness (like moving to a remote cabin in Alaska without electricity), what would be the twelve Christmas and Advent books I would choose for our library?

12. The Little Drummer Boy illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, because it's beautiful, and I remember my grandmother reading it to me.

11. Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend by Julie Stiegmeyer, because no Catholic Advent with children would be complete without this wonderful saint. I like this book, which I purchased a few years ago. I've also always wanted to read The Legend of Saint Nicholas by Demi, but have never found a copy.

10. The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore, because it's an American Christmas tradition. There are many illustrated version available. We have one by Anita Lobel and will be reading one by Matt Tavares this year. The Robert Sabuda version would probably be worth the money if I were really only choosing twelve Christmas books to take into the wilderness.

9. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, because Advent is a time of healing and hope.

8. Marta and the Manger Straw by Virginia Kroll, illustrated by Robyn Belton, because when we sacrifice to share what we have, we receive the graces of God. This is a new book for us this year and I think the children will love it.

7. Why the Chimes Rang by Raymond Macdonald Alden, often found in collections like this one, because our sacrifices please God and comfort others.

6. Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck, because the best gift we can give to those we love is ourself.

5. The Last Straw by Fredrick H. Thury, because Christmas is a time to worship the Lord, and because laughter is pleasing to the Lord.

4. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story by Gloria Houston and illustrated by Barbara Cooney, because it is the perfect combination of the story of a mother's ingenuity and sacrifice and delightful illustrations.

3. A Small Miracle by Peter Collington, because those who do right are rewarded and comforted by God.

2. The Little Juggler by Barbara Cooney, because God has blessed us with talents and asks only that we give those talents back to him.

1. The Story of Christmas by Pamela Dalton, because we would need an exquisitely beautiful illustrated version of the Nativity story.

So what are the twelve picture books you would choose?

If you're looking for more books to read this Advent, here's a post I wrote earlier this year of the new and noteworthy picture books we read last year. It includes links to all the other Advent picture book posts I've written.

I don't receive anything if you order from Memoria Press, but I do receive a small commission if you follow one of the links to Amazon, add something to your cart, and make a purchase.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Review: Canadian Summer

Canadian Summer, book two of the Mitchells series, by Hilda van Stockum

I've just finished reading Canadian Summer aloud to the children. They were so delighted with The Mitchells: Five for Victory, that they convinced me to read this sequel immediately. In this book, the Mitchell family summers at a small rustic ski cabin in Canada, hoping their father finds an appropriate home to rent in Montreal near his job after World War II ended. They make friends everywhere they go, find adventure at every turn, and delight young and old alike.

It is a perfect summer of romping in the woods, swimming in the lake, and working together. There's no electricity and no running water, but the wide world is right outside the door. I doubt my own ability to survive such a summer (and Mother Mitchell was concerned as well), but I can only imagine how much my children would learn and grow.

It becomes plain in this book that the Mitchell family is Catholic, but only in a few instances. Though faith at all is only mentioned a few times, my favorite part of the book illuminates the hopes of many a family.
"What would you like me to be, Mother?" asked Peter...
Mother thought for a moment, looking at the fire.
"I don't care," she said slowly, "as long as you are happy and at home in your work." 
"Don't you have any special wish for us?" asked Joan.
"Yes, I do," said Mother. "I want you to become men and women who are easily moved by God's inspiration. I think there is nothing more beautiful in the world than a soul who is sensitive to the language of God, whether He speaks in nature, or in art, or through people, or whispers directly into our hearts. I think we are happy and alive just so much as our ears are open to His voice and our eyes to His handiwork. That is what I wish for you and that alone. Then I know you will choose the right way of life for yourselves." 
She says it better than I.

We are beginning the third book, Friendly Gables, today, and I hope it will be as wonderful as the first two.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Quotes: Hannah Coulter

Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter:
You could say that Port William has never been the same place two minutes together. But I think any way it has ever been it will always be. It is an immortal place. Some day there will be a new heaven and a new earth and a new Port William coming down from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband, and whoever has known her before will know her then.
On home, on earth and in heaven:
Most people now are looking for "a better place," which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. I think this is what Nathan learned from his time in the army and the war. He saw a lot of places, and he came home. I think he gave up the idea that there is a better place somewhere else. There is no "better place" than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we've got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.
On work:
As I went about my work then as a young woman, and still now when I am old, Grandmam has been often close to me in my thoughts. And again I come to the difficulty of finding words. It is hard to say what it means to be at work and thinking of a person you loved and love still who did that same work before you and who taught you to do it. It is a comfort ever and always, like hearing the rhyme come when you are singing a song. 
On love:
But I knew too that he was thinking of me. My steadfast comfort for fifty years and more had been to know that I was on his mind. Whatever was happening between us, I knew I was on his mind, and that was where I wanted to be.
On love and suffering:
You can't give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering. You can't give yourself to love for a soldier without giving yourself to his suffering in war. It is this body of our suffering that Christ was born into, to suffer it Himself and to fill it with light, so that beyond the suffering we can imagine Easter morning and the peace of God on little earthly homelands such as Port William and the farming villages of Okinawa.
But Christ's living unto death in this body of our suffering did not end the suffering. He asked us to end it, but we have not ended it. We suffer the old suffering over and over again. Eventually, in loving, you see that you have given yourself over to the knowledge of suffering in a state of war that is always going on. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

October 2013 Book Reports

The Scourge of Muirwood by Jeff Wheeler is the third and final book in the Legends of Muirwood series for young adults. I enjoyed them quite a lot, just as something to read for fun. (Kindle edition borrowed for free from the Kindle Owners' Lending Library)

Half Upon a Time by James Riley is the first book in a trilogy for middle grade readers set in an enchanted land easily recognizable to fairy tale readers and yet full of surprises. I also read Twice Upon a Time, the second book, and Once Upon the End, the final book of the trilogy, this month. They were really enjoyable. I'll share them with First Son next summer. (library copy)

Father Damien and the Bells by Arthur and Elizabeth Sheehan is the story of St. Damien of Molokai, who left Europe to serve the mission field of Hawai'i and then dedicated his life to the leper colony. His life is a great example to us and highly recommended. First Son will be reading this book as one of his saint biographies in fourth grade, probably in the next few weeks. (copy purchased from Sacred Heart Books and Gifts)

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is a classic I've always avoided because every film version I saw bothered me; it just didn't make sense. Honestly, the book doesn't make much sense, either, but it's delightful in a way the movies never were. I immediately added it to our read-aloud list for this year and hope we have time to read it soon. Now I need to read the sequel. (library copy; there are plenty of beautifully illustrated versions available)

Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian (library copy)

The Queen and the Cross by Cornelia Mary Bilinksy (a review for The Catholic Company)

The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos is a heady book of a young priest at his first parish. I enjoyed parts of it but am pretty sure I missed some of its depth. (Kansas Dad's copy)

Books in Progress (and date started)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: The Wonder Clock

The Wonder Clock by Howard Pyle

This book of stories in the tradition of fairy tales is absolutely wonderful! The voice of the book is sophisticated and yet it is easy to believe it's a neighbor settling down in front of the fire to tell some tall tales. I intend to share it with First Son for independent reading the summer after fourth grade. Last summer he read The Jack Tales and I think he'll enjoy this one just as much.

The illustrations are very much an integral part of the delight of the book and I would encourage you to find a copy that includes them. I know First Son will pore over them.

I almost like this book more than the Andrew Lang fairy books. There are fewer grim endings and the good always clearly triumphs over the bad. It's still a collection of sophisticated tales, though, so I plan to continue reading the Lang books out loud to the children and let each of them delight in this book independently.

It's such a shame the only library copy is kept in storage so no one can wander the aisles and discover it.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Quote: The Mitchells: Five for Victory

Hilda van Stockum in The Mitchells: Five for Victory when Joan is contemplating the birthday requests of her dear friend who, as a European orphan of World War II, missed out on many birthdays and is anticipating her first party in years:
"I'm afraid she'll be disappointed," she told Eunice's grandfather in confidence. "You know how it is. People want and want things and then, when they get them, they're not really happy, because they thought it would be quite different."
"They're fun all the same," she admitted. " people ever get what they want, Mr. Spencer?" Mr. Spencer looked at her, his blue eyes serene.
"Not until they're in Heaven," he said. 
I've just finished reading this book to the children and it was a tremendous success. They worried over the Mitchells, laughed with them, and cheered with them. We often read multiple chapters a day and they all begged that I immediately start on the next book. I'm so glad I decided to read it aloud rather than giving it to First Son as independent reading.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Range Saints for All Saints

Our parish All Saints party was last weekend and the children were excited! Two hours of games, candy, snacks, and more candy with all our parish friends...that's just about a perfect afternoon.

First Son kindly agreed to be Blessed John Paul II again, which allowed him to wear the wonderful costume my mother put together for him last year. First Daughter wanted to be her favorite saint, St. Therese, and Second Daughter wanted to be St. Clare.

Bl. John Paul II, St. Therese, St. Clare
Second Son didn't get much choice in the matter. I informed him he'd be St. Bruno. Right up until we left he insisted he wasn't going to dress up, but when I pouted (after spending hours making that Sculpey skull), Kansas Dad convinced him to participate.

St. Bruno with his skull
If only there were as saintly as they look!

For those that may be searching for ideas on making All Saints Day costumes, we scoured Goodwill for the girls and Second Son. I bought women's skirts in brown and used safety pins to hold them up. (All the girls' skirts were too sparkly or too short or both.) These skirts will fit for years to come. We bought plain brown shirts for them. The wimples are white shirts pulled only around the face with brown and black pillowcases for the veils (also from Goodwill) held on with safety pins. I bought one white curtain at Goodwill, cut it to make two cloaks, and used safety pins to hold them on (no hems or anything).

St. Bruno is wearing one of his dad's white t-shirts with a turtleneck. I found a black hoodie sweatshirt at Goodwill (they didn't have any white ones), pulled the sleeves inside out and pinned them up so it would look more like a cloak.

The accessories are the most important part of any All Saints costume. You can dress in almost anything if you carry the right items. St. Therese is holding a basket of fake roses we bought years ago for saying the Rosary. They're a great All Saints feature. I made the monstrance for St. Clare out of Sculpey, but Kansas Dad found a big snowflake in the holiday section we were going to use if the Sculpey one failed.

Bl. John Paul II, St. Therese, St. Clare, and St. Bruno, pray for us!