Friday, July 30, 2010

Upcoming New Feature for the First of Each Month: First, What are You Reading?

On the first of every month, I want to encourage all us readers and/or reader/bloggers out there to share a little about what you have been reading.  I love getting book suggestions from others.  My library hold list and Amazon wish list grow every time I visit someone’s blog who recommends a book.

This is not just for Catholic books or Catholic readers, but truly, catholic (as in universal/everyone) readers and books.  So get creative!

I named it as I did because this is my default question when getting to know someone or to find out what a friend is up to lately, mind-wise.  “What are you reading these days?”  To me, it’s the easiest way to spark a conversation or find out more about someone I think I might know well.

You’ll see in my first post that I’ve only focused on one book, although like many readers, I have quite a few books going.  Also, I read this book earlier this summer, but I found so many good take-away points from it.  You may want to focus on one too, but by all means write about several if that suits your writing style or purpose.

Also, for the first month, I’ve kept my answers relatively short.  You may want to write longer about a book you love, or just give some quick responses.  It’s all up to you.

Here are the questions that will be asked of you every "first" of the month:
First, what are you reading?
What do you like best about it?
What do you like least about it?
What is next on your list to read?

When you do decide to write on your blog about what you are reading, there will be a Mr. Linky to link back to this blog, so everyone can share together.  If you're not a blogger, you can leave a comment in the "First, What Are You Reading"post on August 1. 

I hope to see you there!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Screwtape-like Books--A Short List

As Mary Eberstadt said in this interview, C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters has inspired countless people, and quite a few authors, with its great humor in apologetics.  I've said before that I think Lewis founded a mini-genre in writing of this--what shall we call it? epistolary apologetics?  I'm not sure.

I wanted to share a mini-reviews of a few of these books here.

First, the original Screwtape Letters is really unparalleled.  One of my favorite quotes of all time is from the book's preface:  "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils.  One is to disbelieve in their existence.  The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them."

Screwtape does exactly that--not dwell on the diabolical, but as a means to understand the spiritual life.

The Snakebite Letters: Devilishly Devious Secrets for Subverting Society As Taught in Tempter's Training School is by prolific author Peter Kreeft. I've had this book on my shelf for quite a few years, and enjoyed reading it. The Snakebite Letters updates the Screwtape letters to recent times, touching on more current issues.   Kreeft is very easy to read and that makes this book fun and a quick read.

Even better is The Wormwood File: E-mail From Hell by Orthodox writer Jim Forest.  Forest imagines that Wormwood, Screwtape's nephew in the original and the recipient of the letters, has been promoted to a senior demon, and now even demons use e-mail, so the advice is in e-mails.  There is a bit more of a story line than in Kreeft's book, the subjects of the tempting being a young married man and his wife.

Perhaps someone now should consider writing the Facebook or Twitter version of The Screwtape Letters?  Maybe there is already something out there.

I've come across several references to The Gargoyle Code by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, but haven't read it. Has anyone read it or have a review?  It looks interesting.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Did you know the Wardrobe Into Narnia is in Illinois?

(Note:  I had intended to post today a compilation of other books along the lines of Mary Eberstadt's The Loser Letters, but this post will have to wait for later, so I can report about finding here in Illinois a great gem of a museum featuring C.S. Lewis, whose Screwtape Letters inspired this genre of epistolary fiction.)

Did you know the wardrobe into Narnia is in Illinois?

I didn't, until my husband took our family on a mid-summer trip to Chicagoland, one of his goals to show us a little-known center at Wheaton College.  A friend had told him that C.S. Lewis' desk and other article belonging to a group of English authors, and he thought this would be a good chance to see the Center.

Of course, we are a huge C.S. Lewis family, having read Narnia multiple times as a family and seen the movies.  We are anxiously awaiting the release of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader December 10, and hoping it will be more true to the book than was Prince Caspian.   My husband is a particular fan of G.K. Chesterton, and I have loved Tolkien since I was a teenager.  

But we weren't really sure what to expect at the  Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College.  

I am happy to report that it is really worth a visit for older children and adults, if just to see the famous wardrobe.

The photo is not the best, flash photography not being allowed.    The wardrobe was handmade and carved by C.S. Lewis' grandfather, and is the wardrobe that inspired him in portions of writing The Chronicles of Narnia.  It was bought by the Wade Center at auction in 1973 and has been there ever since.

The Center is devoted to the writings of seven English authors:   Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams.  I know and have read all the authors except for Barfield and Williams, and am very happy to discover a few new authors I hope to enjoy.

The center is a small one-room museum (and much larger reading center with much scholarship and papers of the authors).  The museum has information and artifacts from all seven authors.  Most prominent are books and a desk of J.R.R. Tolkein, where he wrote The Hobbit and parts of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy; C.S. Lewis' desk; and the famous wardrobe.

Here is the coolest thing about the wardrobe:  it opens.  My children, who are not particularly adventurous, could not resist trying to open the wardrobe (gently of course!), while my husband and I made jokes about, "Where are the parents of those children trying to get into the wardrobe?"

Inside the wardrobe, as you can see, are fur and other winter coats, and a small sign that reads something along the lines of, "The Wade Center is not responsible for any occurrences if you enter the wardrobe."  

We spent a nice hour or reading about the authors, seeing the displays, including several cases of extremely interesting props from the Disney Narnia movies.  We bought quite a few postcards, notecards and other items from the small giftshop.  All in all, a nice visit and a worthwhile excursion.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why I Spent Time Surfing the Internet and Checking Facebook Instead of Writing This...

I've been thinking about writing about Nicholas Carr's intriguing new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains for some time, especially after reading David Brooks' excellent column referencing the book, which nicely summed up my opinion, too, of the book and what it says about the future of human intelligence.  But, as described in the book about virtually every other connected citizen of the universe, I've been too easily distracted in recent days from the usual Internet distractions--e-mail, blogs, Facebook.

In defense of myself, I will say that I've had very few largish chunks of time recently for sustained writing or doing things that might take more of my intellectual energy.  And I will say even when I have had a little time, it's far easier to check in quickly with friends or plan ahead on my calendar.  But I will say that I have made time for plenty of offline reading, as I infinitely prefer real physical books to anything online.

As I mentioned when  I interviewed author Mary Eberstadt, I first read some of The Loser Letters at National Review online, where some were first published, but I found it much more satisfying to read as the physical book, both because of the story line, but also because I wouldn't be distracted as I am when online to click around.

I personally have resisted getting an e-reader like a Kindle or Nook, and after reading The Shallows, I think I will stick with my resolution for now.   I do have the free Kindle App on my iPhone, but I find it only useful for reading aloud (either to someone else or for someone, usually one of my children, to read to the rest of the family).

In The Shallows,  Carr argues persuasively that, "with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-alterning technology that has ever come into to general use.  At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.”

Carr writes, "In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us."

I somewhat disagree with the notion of books being “solitary” because usually the first thing I do when I am in the midst of, or recently finished a great book, whether fiction or non-fiction, is tell someone about it.  I’ll strike up a conversation with an acquaintance at church or in the grocery store, I’ll bring it to book groups (and even start book groups specifically to talk about a book).  I consider my role here at the Catholic Post Book Group an incredibly fortunate way for me to combine my love of reading (real, print books) and my love of technology and connecting with friends and others via the Internet.   But I was very troubled by the science Carr cites to show that the Internet is making our brains more distractable, and not in a good way.

In May, blogger Melissa Wiley started an interesting discussion about Carr's book (which prompted me to become the first at our library to reserve the book!), and asked the question, "Have you noticed a difference in your powers of concentration or memory?"

David Brooks' column, though, hits another important point, which is how the Internet's vast information does not help one have literacy about judging the worth of the information: 

"The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message," writes Brooks.  "But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom."

Brooks concludes,  "It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning."

Thoughts?  Do you prefer a real book or reading online?  I wonder if there is a generational difference here?   Share your thoughts (and your approximate generation, if you like!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Great Catholic Humor Blog: Interview with "The Ironic Catholic"

One of my favorite go-to sites for laugh-out-loud humor, is The Ironic Catholic.  I had the opportunity to e-interview Susan, aka "The Ironic Catholic," and I'm happy to share it and her great Catholic humor blog with everyone at the Catholic Post Book Group.

I hope you'll get a chance to check out Yesterday's post sounds like something I have considered on numerous occasions.

Here are some of my favorites, but there is a link on the sidebar of some of her best pieces:

Her occasional series, "Signs You've Studied Theology Too Long," pairing food dishes with saints and theologians. 

Her quotes of the day, about once a week, are great.  Here's one that makes you think, "Did he really say that?" (he did).

The Ironic Catholic also links to some hilarious other blogs and sites for Christian humor. Our family couldn't stop laughing at this caption contest and this great Ash Wednesday video.

Here's my interview with The Ironic Catholic. Enjoy!

Why did you start the blog?

It really was a whim.  I was poking around a now defunct Catholic humor blog called and thought "I could do this."  We don't watch TV and my husband works evenings, so it seemed like a good way to relieve stress and have fun after my kids went to sleep.  What can I say--some people scrapbook, I do an Onion-style humor blog.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I like to be a woman of mystery on the blog and go by the "pen name"--The Ironic Catholic--but honestly, the mystery may be more fascinating than the reality.  I teach systematic theology at a small Catholic university in the upper midwest, and I am married to a great man, a stay at home dad and free lance writer, with whom I parent four kids 10 and under.  I'm involved in our local parish and the Catholic Worker community in our town, and training to be a spiritual director.  The other day I thought "I'm an academic theological wife and mother who moonlights as a humorist.  It sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke...A academic theological wife, mother and humorist walked into a bar...."

It's obvious you consider humor important in the life of Catholics.  Can you explain that a little bit?

Right, the motto of the blog for a while was "humor is our second greatest strength."  I think the ability to laugh at ourselves is huge in the Christian life.  There's a kind of laughter that is mean-spirited, taking others down, and I don't endorse that--but the ability to laugh at ourselves keeps us humble better than anything else.  I suppose that's the deep reason behind the humor blogging.

In my case, I'm trying to do a bit of cultural critique with some of the humor pieces as well, and as much as Catholics can do that well, I think it has the potential to open eyes and convert hearts  more than "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth"--people warm up to ideas presented in good cheer and humor; it's a powerful tool.  But frankly, a lot of the humor really is just for fun.  A humorist trying to educate and criticize all the time is like your Great uncle Louie buying the kids brussel sprouts instead of candy for Christmas.  It's OK to laugh.  I'm pretty sure Jesus must have.

Where do you get your material?  In particular, the quotes from saints and others are really fascinating.

I have no idea where the written satire pieces come from, besides the odd neighborhood of my head.  My friends in grad school used to say I had a sense of humor that was understood by about 25 people (usually after I made some subtle joke about Karl Rahner or some such).  With the wide reach of the internet, I now have an audience of 30.  (See, that was that self-deprecating humor there?)

The quotes from the saints and such--I love the saints and read them a lot, but google search has admittedly come in play!

You've got a new book out: Dear Communion of Saints (Readers can find out about getting the book here.  Tell us a little bit about it, and why you decided to write it.

Dear Communion of Saints is a small book, a compilation of pieces I wrote for the blog a while back with new material.  The idea is to take newspaper advice columns and turn them on their head--instead of Dear Abby, ask the saints instead.  And they respond to our foolish questions, with tough love, insight and humor.  And the advice questions are indeed foolish, but honestly, aren't we all foolish sometimes? Half the spiritual battle may be recognizing our own foolishness, and the saints can do that with clarity and love, because they are so much more our friends than Dear Abby is.  I love the saints, I love the faith, I love teaching, and I love good humor--and I got to address all those things with this book.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Interview with Mary Eberstadt, author of "The Loser Letters"

I had the opportunity to e-interview Mary Eberstadt, the author of The Loser Letters.  I hope you'll enjoy the conversation as much as I did, and it will inspire you to read the book even more.

Thanks, Mary, for your willingness to take the time and answer my questions.  

First of all, well done!  I consider The Loser Letters an instant classic, no easy feat.  How did The Screwtape Letters shape your writing of this book and your idea for it?

Thank you kindly for that! The Screwtape Letters obviously did inspire the book, though only loosely. Like millions of other admirers of C.S. Lewis, I was knocked out by his success in delivering orthodox apologetics under the cloak of humor. In writing The Loser Letters, I was aiming for a similarly unexpected combination of satire and religious seriousness -- especially for the newer generations of readers who may not have seen that combination before. That said, the influence ends there; they’re very different books from head to toe.

The humor in The Loser Letters is a key element. What was your goal in using humor the way you did, and was it difficult to get right?

The new atheism itself practically invites satire. After all, this movement has grown fat and happy by painting religious people as grim and humorless and self-righteous — all while exhibiting plenty of humorlessness and self-righteousness itself, as the book’s protagonist A. F. Christian enjoys pointing out.

As for the particular humor of A.F., I actually found it pretty easy to enter into her voice. Like many young adults in the electronic age, she bubbles constantly with an indiscriminate brew of the high and the low, the sublime and the ridiculous, the irreverent and the deadly serious — everything from the Bravo Channel to rehab patter to St. Augustine all rolled into one. Once I got used to her particular mix, the story pretty much wrote itself.

Another question regarding humor:   In my review of your book, I write about how my previous reactions to hearing atheists interviewed would go one of two unhelpful ways: either eye-rolling annoyance (not exactly charitable), or a profound sadness for the person and the state of the world.

But after reading The Loser Letters, I now laugh; not in a mocking way, but in a human way, and with a protective kindness that I felt for the fictional Letters protagonist.  I’m so grateful for that, and I also wonder if writing the book changed you.  Did writing the book change your views of those who are influenced by or even lead the atheist charge?

It hasn’t changed my view of the movement’s celebrity leaders, because my main impression of their work remains the same as it was before. It’s a view based not on anything personal, but rather just on close inspection of their books. Those books almost without exception are astonishingly angry, belligerent – and contemptuous of religious believers. Even by the debased standards of publishing today, their genre stands out for those negative characteristics. In quoting so liberally from their work, I’m trying to make readers think along with A.F. about where all that anger comes from and what it says about the new atheist movement.

That said, I’m taking aim at those leaders and their arguments – not at ordinary unbelievers or other secular folk. I think our modern world is a rough world for some of them, too, including in ways they don’t always understand. It certainly was hard on A.F. Christian – and of course I adore A.F.!

Have you met or had any response from the atheists you write about?   What would you say to them if you could?

No response as yet from the celebrities – though I did receive a gratifying e-mail, my favorite so far, from a man saying he’s been an atheist all his adult life, and that he’s now re-thinking that because of The Loser Letters. As for the leaders of the atheist movement, I think A.F. Christian has already said plenty to them in her letters! I don’t really have anything more to add.

I read a few of the “letters” online, but I found the physical book a much more satisfying way to read the story.  What are you hearing from readers?  Is there a generational difference?

This seems to be a case where the book form has certain advantages over online installments (before Ignatius Press put them out in printed form, the letters were serialized weekly at National Review Online). The Loser Letters is in part a mystery story – the slowly revealed tale of what happens to a particular girl – and the plot details and clues are definitely easier to follow if you can flip back and forth for them in a book. Also, believe it or not, that book cover Ignatius gave it seems to have acquired a cult following of its own! So while it’s great to have the book out in both forms, I think there was and always will be something special about a book, especially one with a plot.

How do you think The Loser Letters would be helpful for college students or young adults in facing classes or professors or fellow students who are atheists?

I think it will help college students to know that the atheist movement doesn’t have the market cornered on confidence. Believers can be pro-active too, including in ways that are fun, as I hope this book is. Beyond that, I do hope that college students especially will find in this book some useful refutations of certain atheist arguments making the rounds these days, especially on campus. In a way, this book is intended as a gift to those students— some fighting words about religion for the Facebook generation, delivered by a character they can feel for.

I gave the book to one of our teenage babysitters, and she was astounded by how much she “heard” other young people she knows in the narrator’s voice.  How did you accomplish that?

I’m privileged to spend a lot of time around teenagers and young adults, both our own and others. Their cadences, their stories and dramas, and the way they live now are all part of what inspired A. F. Christian.

Do you think The Loser Letters can serve as a platform for dialogue between and atheist and a believer?  How?

Definitely – if you can get any atheists actually to read the book! I can tell by the few atheist reviews I’ve seen that most either aren’t finishing it, or aren’t understanding what they’ve read. Even so, I hope what they do read of it percolates down somewhere.

In recent weeks Christopher Hitchens has been in the news because he announced he is suffering from cancer, and commentators and others are reflecting on his legacy. Do you have any thoughts on this?

I’m a great admirer of Christopher Hitchens’ prose. He’s preternaturally gifted, one of the best essayists in the English language. He’s also inadvertently done religious believers a favor, I think, because his particularly sharp writing has forced many take a closer look at their own arguments. I wish him well.

Friday, July 16, 2010


(We'll return to book discussion tomorrow.  Please excuse this digression, but I hope you'll agree it was for a good reason)

Who knew sandals could have such an effect on people?

Today in Peoria, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s relics were part of a beautiful Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria.  You can read about the Mass and veneration here.  The relics are traveling the country as part of the centennial celebration of the birth of Blessed Teresa.

After the Mass, there was the opportunity for veneration of the relics.  There were two small reliquaries with first-class relics (meaning a part of her body).  There were also several second-class relics (meaning something that belonged to the Blessed).  It was remarkable to see the crucifix and rosary that Mother Teresa wore.  Most of the people took the opportunity to kiss or touch the relics.

What seemed to capture the imagination of most, however, were Mother’s well-worn sandals.   The sandals were patched and had clearly seen a lot of miles, yet sturdy.  It was just amazing to see something Mother Teresa had worn throughout the world spreading the Gospel of Love.

Nearby the relics was a montage of photos of Mother at different times in her life.  My oldest daughter pointed out one of the photos showed Mother wearing the sandals.  Remarkable!

Relics can be a daunting prospect for some Catholics—a piece of the saint’s bones? Her blood?   For some reason, the sandals seemed very approachable, very Mother Teresa-like.   It seemed appropriate.

"I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world."-- Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. 

I actually didn't know Mother had said that quote, but while searching around for one of her more "famous" quotes, I found this and I immediately thought of the song by Popple, "Pencil in the Hand," that must have been taken from her writings.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Great Catholic Humor Blogs: Ask Sister Mary Martha

I had intended to publish an interview with a great Catholic humor blogger, but I notice her blog is "on vacation" for a few more days (how ironic! as you shall see next week), so today I'm going to highlight a different one.

I suspect, but I have no way of knowing, if it is a nun or not who writes Ask Sister Mary Martha, but it apparently is someone with a fairly deep knowledge of Catholic doctrine and a great sense of humor.  The blog's tagline: "Life is tough. Nuns are tougher" says it all, as this "tough nun" serves up information and advice about all manner of problems, saints and questions about Catholic doctrine. 

Some of my favorite posts are about how she recommends different patron saints for different needs, from Blessed Andre of Montreal for protection of property, to the patron saints of twins.

She answers a funny but not unusual question about going to confession here.

Along with the humor, there's lots of good information on this site about saints, Catholic history and Catholic doctrine.

I've just spent way too much time searching around (and chuckling) for good posts to share with you, but really, they are all good.  So just go there and enjoy!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Book of Plane Prayers

I noticed in this week's print edition that someone in our diocesan family has a new book out.  It's called "A Book of Plane Prayers" by Sister Agnes Cunningham, SSCM, of Champaign.

Jennifer Willems writes about the book here.

I had the chance to pick up this slim volume when I was at Lagron-Miller the other day picking up a Catechism of the Catholic Church for a book group (surprise! another book group for me).

It's a really nice book of prayers, and since we like traveling in our family, some more than others, I'm sure we'll be getting some use out of it.

Check it out!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Meet a Reader: Sebastian Von Zerneck

Here is my interview with Sebastian Von Zerneck, a high school student and the featured "reader" in this month's "What Are You Reading?" column.  A shorter version of this will appear in today's print Catholic Post.  I'm grateful to Sebastian for his willingness to participate here, as well as his remarkable work with Project Bright Bookcases.

Who: Sebastian Von Zerneck, a 17-year-old rising senior at Peoria Notre Dame. 

Last summer I started Project Bright Bookcases to provide good books to kids in places where kids might not encounter books.   I was at the Peoria courthouse and noticed a room where children go when their parents are in court. My mother was with me, and we had a conversation about how essential quality reading material is at a young age. We also talked about how a lot of teenagers, as they grow up, have no use for the children’s books they’ve accumulated over the years.  I solicited and got donations of more than 2,000 books and several bookcases.  I fixed up the bookcases, and organized the books.  Finally last spring, I sent out letters to various locations organizations in the Peoria area who I heard could use the bookcases. We still have donations coming in and bookcases going out.

Why I Love Reading:. Until I was 11, I lived in Brooklyn, New York, very close to what I consider the best public library in the world: Brooklyn Public Library. A lot of homeless people hung out or lived nearby, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t a terrible place to be homeless.

I guess you could say I’ve been surrounded by literature since birth. We've always had a lot of books at our house, including several hundred stacked in shelves in the room my brother and I shared.  My grandfather Tom Klise wrote The Last Western; my aunts Kate and Sarah Klise are children's book authors.

 I love reading because it allows me to experience times, locations, and situations that I otherwise couldn’t. I’ve also learned a lot from reading, probably more than I’ve learned in school. In fiction, what happens is shown to you, rather than told to you. This makes the information much more engaging than that presented in a textbook or class lecture. A teacher can talk all day about a certain time period, say, the Stalin era, but by reading Animal Farm I can honestly say that I have a solid understanding of all the various motives and ideologies that are crucial to knowing why things happened the way they did. Reading is, to me, a way to gain first-hand insight into a situation, which is difficult to gain just from hearing about it through an outside source.  

What I’m Reading Now: The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, follows a young French nobleman and his three friends in the King’s musketeers trying to protect their King and Queen from the sinister machinations of Cardinal Richelieu. This book is incredible. It’s one thing to hear about the harshness of this time period, the far-reaching influence of certain key political figures, and the chess game that they played across Europe. But to read this book is to experience 17th century France first-hand. The characters are hilarious and memorable, the plot is fast and entertaining, and the politics are totally intriguing. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes a good adventure, or is interested in French history.

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, was written in the 6th century BC China. It’s hard to believe this work was written so long ago because the strategies it presents are still very applicable to modern thinking. Ideas on how to divide your army and how to use spies may seem of no practical use to someone who is not in the military, but if you think about it the tactics that Sun Tzu discusses are universal. A good example is card games. I know a lot of people who buy books about how to win at poker, or whatever. This book trumps all, no pun intended. Things like getting into the mind of your enemy by bluffing or underplaying are masterfully dissected in The Art of War. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has need to think strategically:  In other words, everyone.

My Favorite Books: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell, is a dark, dystopian novel about a totalitarian government that watches people even to the point of thought surveillance. Two civil servants become fed up with the regime and rebel in secret. To me, the politics were not even the most interesting part of the story. What really made an impact on me was the effect of the government’s mind-washing techniques on the protagonists. I won’t give anything away, but the conclusion was haunting. I thought about this book for a long time after I finished it, and that’s why I count it as one of my favorites.

Shogun, by James Clavell, is an epic story about Tokugawa’s rise to power in 17th century Japan.  Japan was isolated from Europe for many centuries, and, because of that, Japanese ideas on philosophy and religion bore almost no resemblance to those of the first European visitors. After reading this almost 1200-page book, however, I really began to understand what motivated Japanese society during that era. Excuse the cliché, but it’s one of those stories that I literally could not put down once I became engrossed in the complex plot. The characters become so sympathetic that many of the events in the story become almost as emotional as those of real life. For those reasons, I recommend this book to anyone who can read.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Loser Letters is an Instant Classic

Here is my review of The Loser Letters that will appear in tomorrow's print Catholic Post.  As you will discover, I highly recommend this book!

Never underestimate the potential and power of humor.  Those who can make us laugh can change hearts and minds. Unfortunately, too much modern humor is at the service of sarcasm or flippancy or denigrating the good.   We might laugh at what we see or read, but it isn’t necessarily ennobling or good for us.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to discover The Loser Letters, Mary Eberstadt’s darkly funny book of fictional letters from an “atheist convert” to the spokesmen of the New Atheism.

I first read The Loser Letters while ensconced on our back porch one Saturday, laughing out loud almost every page, startling neighbors and passersby, and shooing away children and husband when they came outside and tried to interrupt me.

Some weeks later, I was on a run, listening to a podcast news program that happened to feature spokesperson for an atheist group.  I confess here my usual reactions to these kind of interviews would have gone one of two unhelpful ways: either eye-rolling annoyance (not exactly charitable), or a profound sadness for the person and the state of the world—does anyone believe anything anymore? 

But that day, I laughed, so hard I had to stop running.  And it wasn’t mocking laughter, but a laugh at our human foibles.  I felt for the person as I did for the fictional protagonist of The Loser Letters: a protective kindness and hope for the future.  Thank you, Mary Eberstadt.

The Loser Letters is written in the satirical style of The Screwtape Letters--imaginary letters from an elder demon to his demon-in-training on ways to tempt a human.  Screwtape is one of my favorite C.S. Lewis works, one I re-read every couple of years. I’ve eagerly read and enjoyed in recent years any number of books inspired by Screwtape, such as The Snakebite Letters by Peter Kreeft and The Wormwood File:  Emails from Hell by Jim Forest.  Still, Lewis is such a master of this mini-genre he created that those who have attempted a direct retelling haven’t been able to capture “it.”

What sets The Loser Letters apart is taking the genre and truly updating it for the 21st century.  The letters’ “author” is an unnamed 20something woman, an enthusiastic convert to atheism, who writes letters to leading atheist apologists like Christopher Hitchens and “alpha Atheist” Richard Dawkins to point out weak areas so they can correct them and get more converts.

The “Loser” is God, and believers become Loserholics and Loserphiles.  Atheists are Brights, and believers are Dulls. Understand the twisted logic?

Some of my favorite parts:

*the humor, which is dark, even edgy—necessarily so because of the context-- but hilarious, and not mean.  That is a hard balance, but one skilled writer Eberstadt makes easy.

*the frequent reference to why all the leading atheist evangelists are male (why is that?), and why the effects of the sexual revolution actually support the “Loser” side:

“I’ll confess a terrible weakness here and say that even now, after I’ve evolved so far, I still want to reach for the Xanax just thinking about an Atheist like any of you dating my hypothetical daughter—as opposed to say, a nice, antiabortion, save-sex-for-marriage Christian.  I know it’s terribly unfit; but is that just me?”

*the mini-education in not only modern atheism and atheists, and their more outrageous statements, but also in famous converts away from Atheism to belief.

*the letter that points out how so much of the world’s art, architecture and beauty is because of religious belief:

“The obvious fact that we Atheists have yet to wrap our heads around is that most of the world’s greatest buildings, and I mean  ‘greatest’ aesthetically, not literally, have been dedicated in one way or another to Loser, by whatever name he’s called in any given spot.

“Don’t get me wrong, guys—I’m not saying Frank Gehry and Le Corbusier and downtown Pyongyang aren’t all that!  But still.”

*the human story.  The genius of Screwtape is that while the letters instruct in the spiritual life (in reverse, from the perspective of the demons), it is over all a story of one man and his struggles to live as a believer.  The Loser Letters, is the story of a young woman and what her journey to atheism really means.

The Loser Letters is by turns laugh-out-loud funny, touching and extremely well done.  This book is absolutely an instant classic, in so many ways, and should be required reading, especially for college-bound students and young adults.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Hell Burns" on Humor

On Tuesdays this month, I want to share blogs that are either Catholic humor blogs, or reflect on the nature of humor to help us live out our faith.

Today, I want to feature Sister Helena Burns, a Daughter of St. Paul nun who writes the blog "Hell Burns" (get it?).  Her blog is more about one of my big passions--media literacy--than humor per se.  Still, if you've ever had the good fortune to meet her in person, you'll know immediately how funny she is and how she radiates joy.  And how could a person who named her blog "Hell Burns" not be funny?

Recently, she wrote a commentary on the television show "The Family Guy" that really became an essay on the value and importance of humor in the world.  In fact, I borrowed concepts from her conclusion to really focus on humor this month:  

"Never underestimate the bewitching potential and power of humor. He/she who gets you to laugh last, laughs best. All the way to the zeitgeist bank. And what do you and your children get?"

Please consider reading Sister Helena Burns' essay here

 And do visit her blog--Sister Helena does write the occasional laugh-out-loud post, like this account of her first and last ski trip.

Also, Sister Helena is a great source of detailed and skilled movie reviews in the context of our Catholic faith.  Her review of Toy Story 3 shows, for example, touches on both John Paul II's Theology of the Body and Lotso's nihilism.  You must read her reviews to fully experience these kind of great connections.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Do You Have a Good Sense of Humor?

 I consider a good sense of humor as indispensable as dark chocolate.  If you know me at all, that is saying a lot, because seldom does a day go by outside of Lent or Advent that I don't eat some dark chocolate, whether my mainstay dark chocolate M&Ms or some wonderful single-origin dark chocolate from Trader Joe's.  Many is the time when a good sense of humor has defused a tense situation in our house, distracting young ones from their evil deeds or helping spouses see the love instead of the frustration of a disagreement.  Of course, many of those things can be accomplished through dark chocolate, but that's a topic for another day.

I personally am not very good at telling a joke, as my husband and friends can well attest.  I would fail miserably as a stand-up comic.  But I find that the older I get, the more I need to laugh, and, paradoxically, the more discerning I am about what makes me laugh.  There is a lot of sadness in life--death, brokenness in ourselves and others, the state of the world--that it's easy to get and stay down.  So lots of laughter--and the right sort of it-- becomes even more important.

That's one of the reasons why I love Mary Eberstadt's The Loser Letters, July's book selection here at the Catholic Post Book Group.  You'll see in my review on Thursday that one of my favorite things about the book is that it makes me laugh in the right way.

But what do I mean by the "right kind" of laughter?  I don't mean that I'm a snob about it, like I can only laugh at intellectually high-brow jokes.  I'm a big fan of silly puns and slapstick humor.   For instance, we love Charlie Chaplin films at our house.  And we laughed through Toy Story 3 recently (when this mom wasn't weeping openly at the poignant parts).  

C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters  in preparation for  has an entire letter on the "danger" of humor to lead people closer to God.  For those who have not read The Screwtape Letters, let me fill you in because we'll be talking a lot this month about the mini-genre Lewis created with the book.

C.S. Lewis wrote the book as a series of fictional letters from a demon, Screwtape, to his apprentice nephew demon Wormwood.  Everything is twisted in the book, so "the Enemy" is God and the advice is all backwards from what would make people happy.

C.S. Lewis' tempter in The Screwtape Letters divides the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun the Joke Proper and Flippancy.

"You will see (joy) among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday.  Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause.  What the real cause is we do not know... Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged.  Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity and austerity of Hell."

I know many people can relate to this exact description.  I was a younger sibling in a family of six kids, and when my older brother and sisters would return from college for a holiday, the kitchen table was always full of laughter as we sat and caught up with each other.   But were we telling jokes?  Not exactly; there was that kind of gentle ribbing that goes on in families, but we were laughing and smiling so much out of proportion to the jokes that it was clearly Joy.

What concerns me when I say the "right kind of laughter" is there is an awful lot of humor recently that really has nothing to do with Joy or Fun is being promoted as humorous.

I can think of certain modern authors, television shows and movies that really do nothing but sneer and ridicule the good, all under the pretext of "humor."  And if someone accuses them of that very thing, that person is ridiculed (more with an attitude than exact words) of "I'm just joking.  Can't you take a joke? Don't you have a sense of humor?"

Yes, I do have a sense of humor.  A good sense of humor.

Lewis writes about this very thing beautifully in Screwtape's letter on humor:

"But flippancy is the best of all.  In the first place it is very economical.  Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny.  Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made.  No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.  If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.  It is a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excited no affection between those who practise it."

What do you think is meant by a "good sense of humor"?   Do you think humor is important in living out a faith-filled life?

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Month of Humor--LOL!

Now that I'm a couple of months into this Catholic Post Book Group blog,  I see that each month not only has a book, but really a theme that the book highlights and invites discussion.

April's book was Treasure in Clay, the autobiography of Fulton Sheen, and the discussion centered on two things: the priesthood, and media.  Fulton Sheen lived out his priesthood in such a vibrant way, and did so through his media apostolate, that the discussion centered on those two topics.

May was The Handbook for Catholic Moms by Lisa Hendey, and that book is so well-ordered that our discussion of mom-hood and its challenges was a breeze.  Thanks, Lisa, for writing such a great book that fostered a month-long online discussion.

June was "summer fiction" month.  Once the schedule with specific topics for days, such as "Family-Friendly Friday," was up and running, June became a great month to discuss and learn from each other on Catholic and catholic fiction.  I plan to do summer fiction each June, and I've already got a great list of classic books for next year.  Suggestions are always welcome!

July's book is Mary Eberstadt's The Loser Letters, fictional letters of an atheist "convert" written in the style of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.  Initially, I thought I would spend the month inviting discussion of this mini-genre created by Lewis.  But as I wrote my review (that will appear in next week's print Catholic Post and here online, I realized that its just-right humor is what makes the book so enjoyable to me.

For July, humor it is.  I am a big fan of Catholic humor blogs and humor in general, and I will love to share them and find out your favorites.   I also plan to share some thoughts from the saints and others--about about what makes humor not just good but ennobling, something to lift up our human spirit, not demean us.

When it comes to humor, the expression "de gustibus non disputandum est," (there's no accounting for taste) will definitely apply.  Everyone will have a different view on what he or she thinks is funny.  Let's plan to agree to disagree when we have different humor types.

Those who know me know how much I enjoy using the internet expression LOL in e-mail, texting, and even occasionally real life.  So let's plan on some LOL this month.